I had the good fortune to go to Japan many years ago. I was teaching at culinary schools and didn’t have time to see much, but I ate very, very well when I managed to go to a restaurant in the evenings. The Japanese people I ate with seemed surprised at how much I liked – and wanted to eat – Japanese food. One night we went to a restaurant that set bowls of soy milk on a heater in the center of our table and as a skin formed, we carefully peeled it off with chopsticks and slid the thin slippery skins in our mouths. Another night at a simple sashimi restaurant, one of the courses was set down in front of me, a few pieces of raw seafood in an elaborate, and enormous bowl made of shimmering pieces of glass attached together. Except when I touched it, the whole thing shattered and I realized it was made of ice chips, each one somehow magically attached to each other.
But best of all was the wagyu beef restaurant: a bib was tied around my neck, slender rectangles of meat were brought out, and each piece of beef was singed for perhaps one-half of a second on each side then placed on my plate. And for a moment, everything around me stopped and I sighed as this rich, incredibly tender and juicy morsel of warm beef literally dissolved in my mouth. It was nearly eight years ago, yet I remember every bite I had in Japan.
On the last day of my classes, since I had some free time, the people I was working with assigned me two young women to spend the day with me, to help me navigate Tokyo and interpret. When they arrived, they had a list of places they were sure I would enjoy – “First we will go to Giorgio Armani, then Ralph Lauren. And then we will take you to Dolce & Gabbana, and then…”
I didn’t want to be impolite but I also didn’t want to spend my only free day in Tokyo looking at $3800 suits. (Unless they were Comme des Garçons, and someone else was going to buy one for me.) And we ended up poking around in Japanese housewares stores, eating on the street and in noodle bars, and taking pictures of ourselves in the various arcades filled with outrageously dressed Japanese teenagers in the Harajuku district.
I wasn’t really planning to write anything about the current tragedy in Japan. But this is really the first time I can think of that I’ve watched a natural catastrophe unfold right in front of my eyes, in almost slow-motion. The other morning I was still in bed, watching on the news footage of water rushing forth and indiscriminately washing away everything in its path. The waves encircled boats, houses, buildings, people, and trucks, and simply washed them all away in seconds.
The continuing aftermath is equally compelling and emotionally draining, and that morning was one of the few times in my life when after a few minutes, I realized that my jaw had dropped and hadn’t moved as I witnessed entire towns – entire communities – get swept out to sea. Watching the unbelievable grace in the aftermath, and subsequent problems that these people are dealing with just seems like a bad dream, even as an observer. I can’t even imagine how one makes it through anything like that.
A few weeks ago I stopped into Aki Boulanger on the rue Saint-Anne in Paris, which is a street lined with Japanese eateries as well as a smattering of Korean restaurants and markets. This corner bakery has some lovely pastries, including matcha éclairs and the most gorgeous marbled bread, swirled with green tea and red beans, imaginable. They also have standard French breads which I haven’t tried, but they look like something a French baker would be proud of. Unlike a lot of desserts that look pretty, this bread is great; it’s not too sweet and makes a great afternoon snack and the salty green tea and sweet bean paste balance each other and it’s perfect served sliced, just as it is.
What strikes me each time I go into Aki is how nice they are, and how welcome they make the customer feel. It’s like they are truly happy to see me, as well as other customers, and aren’t just greeting us perfunctorily. Perhaps I’m used to a more forlorn attitude and the contrast is so jarring that I almost don’t know what to make of it. But I was thinking about the lovely young people who run this bakery, how helpful they are, and the spirit of the Japanese people during this particular difficult time.
If you come to Paris, I recommend a stop in their bakery. There’s a small cluster of tall tables if you want to stay for a quick sandwich or dessert with a warm cup of Japanese tea. And although the pastries and breads are lovely, the grace and exquisite perfection are representative of the Japanese spirit. One that needs our support right now.
16, rue Saint-Anne (1st)
Tél: 09 51 84 17 04