After three weeks of pretty intense traveling together, a time in which both of us had been sick (and Pam's asthma had been acting up), and frequently too little sleep, a couple can get mighty cranky with one another. In the past I've referred to this phenomenon as "travellers' spats." The Friday afternoon we arrived in Kurashiki, we had a big one. In fairness, Pam's done the vast majority (really almost all) of the detailed planning for this trip -- both the basic itinerary and the details like hotels, ryokans, house and apartment rentals, and special restaurants and cuisines. That said, my strength is scouting -- a strength for which I am not always given quite the credit I believe this skill set warrants.
Anyway, we were walking around in the evening, not yet well oriented in Kurashiki, a brand new town for us, getting hungry and hungrier, and had no plan. When I'm hungry I can become what Pam would describe as "very mean to me." She had had it. We traded not niceties, we cried, I apologized; it wasn't the best of times. Finally, a terminally frustrated Pam issued an ultimatum: "You, Dick, will get on the internet, read from TripAdvisor and from our travel guide, and find us some good restaurants for breakfast and dinner tomorrow." Of course I capitulated, reflexively, assuring her that it was as good as done. But . . . I'm a bit of a dyslexic, have never been entirely comfortable with TripAdvisor nor carefully studied Japan guidebooks.
In theis already bad moment we stumbled into some sort of Italian-ish restaurant near our hotel, Cafe Ballade, where we encountered a memorably bad meal. Definitely not Italian, though the bright green can of Kraft parmesan presented to me to dust my "little neck clam pasta" suggested intent; and, equally definitely not too very Japanese. So bad that it will go down in our annals as among the worst ever.
After dinner I left a sad, moody, and grim Pam in our lovely hotel room. I diligently, compulsively scouted the neighborhood, wandering every lane and roadway in my quest for redemption, or at least tomorrow's provisions. Cigarette smoke stench signaled the approach of countless drinking establishments, inebriated salarymen stumbling into cool Friday night, and the occasional foodless neighborhood wine bar but, in a country featuring loads of incredibly good food, nothing that could begin to address this real crisis. I pushed on through the night, through Kurashiki's back streets, fatigue, worry and doubt growing. Finally I resolved to search for maybe a half hour more, and then return to the hotel, and to Pam'a wrath. There I would hunker down for a long evening with TripAdvisor, guide book, and maps. By morning, dadgummit, I'd have a clue.
Nearing 10 p.m. I passed a small, darkened, cafe, with a small sign hanging on the door: Le Bon. A menu, all in kanji, was clipped to the wall. Inside I saw some movement towards the back, and pressed my face against the window. I saw a man, maybe wearing a toque, and sensed perhaps he'd glimpsed me as well. I backed away, then peered in once more. Again, he appeared to see me. So I opened the door, asked if I could come in, and he beckoned me to enter. He was a young man, and the chef was a young woman. Their English was better than my Japanese, their French worse than mine, but they communicated that their's was a French-Japanese fusion restaurant, that they both came from Kyoto, and that they'd been in Kurashiki for three years. Laboriously we worked through their menu, though by the end of the effort I still wasn't entirely sure what they served, or whether it would be any good. But the place felt and smelled right; the "vibes," if you will, were promising. The two were incredibly cute, gracious, and enthusiastic, so I began to negotiate a reservation for the next evening. We agreed that I would call the next afternoon, after three, to confirm.
After leaving Le Bon I still chased down a handful of other streets, hoping to find some magic sure thing. It didn't happen. More smokey joints serving beer, sake, whisky and dubious food -- nothing that shouted out a message of my salvation. On my dejected walk back to our hotel I struggled to convince myself that Le Bon would be as good as my instincts suggested. There was also the question of how to communicate my unfounded enthusiasm for a completely unknown quantity to a justifiably skeptical Pamela -- on the one hand I had to raise her confidence that I'd found a quality restaurant, but, on the other, what had I got myself into?
The next day was better. We'd slept well, had eaten an okay bowl of ramen at Okayama Station en route to Korakuen Garden, had some yummy sakura ice cream while at the Garden, then headed back to Kurashiki for an early, 5:30 dinner at Le Bon. Here's Pam's TripAdvisor Review for our meal:
We had a GREAT meal at this tiny French/Japanese restaurant, staffed solely by a young couple from Kyoto. He does the baking (except for the French bread, which is brought up daily by train from Onomichi) and side dishes; she does the main courses and the most amazing coffee we've ever had. Dinner started out with an oyster flavored creamy broth and beets vinaigrette. Delicious! We then split a salad of lentils, apples, Japanese oranges, with dabs of yummy yogurt, all flavored with coriander. The taste grew on us as we ate it. My main dish was the most amazing salmon preparation I'd ever had. Two thin half steaks of presumably Hokkaido sashimi grade salmon had been refrigerated wrapped in konbu--we were told this was a sushi chef's treatment for flavor, texture, and preservation. The chef sauteed the skin till crispy, but barely cooked the meat itself, which retained its buttery texture. This was served in a light but flavorful anchovy/lemon/caper sauce. Pure bliss! A preparation I will remember for the rest of my life! My partner had pork (possibly a loin cut) that had been cured in salt, leaving the fat as yummy as the lean, and then sauteed briefly in with a few whole cumin seeds, and served with a lightly orange flavored mashed sweet potato. Very tasty. The house red was French and delicious. Dessert was vanilla ice cream flavored with cardamon and pink peppercorns, served with a house-baked almond meringue cookie. My partner then ordered a coffee, which was simply amazing. The chef ground the coffee, then used a Melitta filter, a tall silver coffee pot, and a small pan, to make the coffee by hand--it probably took about 10 minutes, as she made sure that the temperature was properly maintained below boiling and meticulously saturated the ground coffee first before allowing anything to filter out. The result was the richest, smoothest coffee we've ever had. If you served this in the States, it would cost at least $10. Here it was 500 yen. Entire cost of dinner, around 7700 yen, or the equivalent of about $63 US, for a meal we probably would have paid at least 50% more for in the US. The chefs were wonderful to us, explaining what they were doing as they cooked (we sat at a counter right next to the kitchen).