How (Not) to Choose an Italian Restaurant.

Oct 29,2012

Did I mention I went to the annual JALT Conference in Shizuoka in the interim between this and other random outpourings? Well, I went, and I got a bit of good use from it. In particular David Paul had an excellent lecture in which he shared several very helpful teaching suggestions and activities.

On the way, I had a chance to take my wife to the best Italian restaurant I know of in Japan--blogging through a government NPO precludes me from actually plugging any specific for-profit businesses, but suffice it to say it's in Shizuoka City--something I'd been meaning to do for quite some time, and which predictably ruined her for the local fare that passes for Italian (or any European, for that matter) where we live. Come her birthday, she insisted on seeking out a place of like quality just a tad closer to home, and decided to try Kobe--which, as luck would have it, is to be the location of next year's JALT Conference. But that's neither here nor there.

At any rate, she spent a day poring over the Internets and selected one particular place primarily for its photographs, because there wasn't much other information available. She made a reservation, and when we entered the place at the appointed time, the place was so small that the waitress knew who we were before we even said anything. We sat down and looked at the wine list.

The first consideration is that my wife is a light eater, and I don't eat enough at one sitting to order a whole bottle, which limits us to glasses or half-bottles. This place listed half-bottles for only three varieties, and knowing the markup restaurants place on wine, let's just say they were several orders of magnitude below the 'fine wine' category. I asked myself, famously, 'How bad could it be?'

The last time I asked myself that question was in my younger days when, not having my Japan legs yet, was amused that they sold wine in convenience stores, and decided to give it a try. I thought I had learnt my lesson.

I didn't know anything about wine then, and I don't know that much now, but on asking the waitress which of the three would have gone best with the multi-cheese-laden entrees we were thinking of ordering, she gave us little more than 'it depends', and we were left completely to our own devices. Bad sign.

One was a Chianti, which might have gone with a tomato-based sauce; another was a Cabernet Sauvignon, which I usually like with basil pesto more than anything else; so by process of elimination and a daring spirit, we settled on the third type, which neither of us had ever heard of.

It came, predictably several degrees too cold ('Japanese service'), and we swilled it around in our glasses for a bit, and gave it a try. It was the second-worst wine I'd ever tasted in my life. Red flag.

The next thing that came out, after the wine, was the salad. Red flag #2. I served myself some and kept it to the side, waiting for the first course to arrive. It took a long time, and I foolishly decided that must be because it's worth the wait.

The first course that came out was the four-cheese pizza--accompanied by a bottle of tobasco sauce. Red flag #3.

Actually, the pizza wasn't bad, as pizzas go; in fact, it was probably better than most things bearing that name here in town, but that's why we don't eat out much. The arriabiata pasta, which was the next thing that found its way to the table, was suitably spicy, but far from suitably cheesy. We had to request parmesan specially after the pasta was served, because we thought that if it weren't suitably delicious as it was, they would have brought us cheese without our having to ask for it. (Another bad sign, but not a red flag.)

There's no real moral here, and I can only say that choosing an Italian restaurant in Japan is tricky business, and I only know about the other one by a stroke of amazing luck (and a well-connected friend), and trying to find a good one by pictures alone and the dearth of information available on the web is probably not a good strategy. This may seem glaringly obvious, but it tends to be a good sign if the chef is a native of the country from which the type of cuisine comes--or has studied in that country, as is the case with the two best European-style restaurants I know in Tottori City, and which, again, unfortunately, I can't actually name specifically. But this is why the top restaurants in town, consistently rated in the top ten for quality by those-in-the-know, are all traditional Japanese.

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