Eating Alone in Tokyo

The Nevada City Wine Diaries, Abroad

Image: Jason Wesley Upton

Last week I went to a restaurant in Tokyo called eatrip. I should add that I ate my dinner there in a fog of misery and grief because the day before a childhood friend of mine, still a part of my life, had been brutally murdered.

eatrip is a great restaurant. It is as good a place to be as any if you do not want to exist anymore but still do.

eatrip is in Harajuku, the neighborhood in Tokyo that’s famous for people dressing like cartoon characters and wearing furry shoes. It’s tucked away from the crazy heart of it all though, up a sweet little street and then a stone pathway. If it weren’t for two gay dudes from Houston who walked me to the front door I would still be wandering around looking for it. I went there because two separate friends who are both “into food” told me to. They have a set menu, 5000 yen if you want one main dish, 8000 yen if you want two. I have no idea what would possess someone to eat more than the 5000 yen option but it does exist. Also I might be totally wrong about how the options work, basically I just spent ten days never having any idea what is really happening.

There were four courses, each served with wine, 3000 yen extra. I ate the meal in a bewildered trance, sitting alone by myself in a dark corner. I had a view of the cooks, a young man and young woman. I never watched what they were doing. They registered mostly as benign human presences. I alternated between sobbing quietly into my napkin and eating the delicious food. I didn’t take any pictures. Eating felt stupid enough.

The first dish was tiny, one sliced fig with fromage blanc and honey and olive oil. There were also salt crystals — the “you again?” of ingredients. Does that about wrap it up? Everything was at the height of ripeness and quality, one could not overstate how pink the fig looked next to the white cheese, etc. The olive oil drizzle felt like a hug.

My waitress was young and pretty, with a face by Glossier or some other subtle brand. She brought me a small glass of Jean Louis Denois sparkling wine, and when I held it on the back of my tongue my whole mouth watered. It smelled of pears. Anyone would like this wine whether they had good taste or not. It is made from chardonnay and comes from the Languedoc region of France, which used to make totally average wine and is now getting more fancy — in other words, the story of pretty much everywhere rural that’s not in the middle of America.

For some reason, I felt like my waitress knew I was a mess, but that’s probably ridiculous. I had a notebook and stayed bent over it the whole time I was there. I thought about how my friend and I used to lie in her attic bedroom and read. She read Cujo 100 times and always told me to read it. But I read the The Catcher in the Rye over and over, or the Austin family series by Madeleine L’Engle. I would never read anything scary.

The second dish was a whole bunch of things all on one plate. It was so good that I kind of forgot how miserable I was. There were just so many things on it, and they were all different: a white scoop of soybean hummus, several slices of yellowtail, a palm-sized slab of homemade ham, and a little bit of Tête De Moine cheese, which is sharp and rich and a great thing to serve alongside the softer, mellower homemade mozzarella. It was a little buffet, all for me. I was already stoked, but when the waitress set down a thick piece of homemade white bread I was like, okay, now we are cooking with gas.

The wine was Le Vendangeur Masqué Esquisse 2015, a clean, light chardonnay from near Chablis. I have talked about this before and it can’t be overstated: When snotty wine people are bummed out with not snotty wine people one of the things that annoys them the most is how much shitty Chardonnay they drink when France has such good Chardonnay. I don’t know if you can find this particular wine, but it was $11 a glass which means it’s probably less than $20 a bottle. Go to a wine store and tell someone that you want to try something like it. It’s just good stuff, just a little bit lush and fruity, but not over the top, not gross, not the least bit gomi. Gomi means trash in Japanese. It is the only word I learned while I was there, and it was all I needed.

The Beatles were playing. I don’t know if it was Spotify. It wasn’t a record because the songs skipped around. “In My Life” came on. The last place I remembered hearing this song was a funeral. But I was okay. At the beginning of grief, two small drinks is a sweet spot.

I remembered being with my friend on a dock in Maine when were eleven or so. It was summer and it was cold and foggy and raining as usual. Everyone on the dock was straining for a glimpse of something, a dolphin or a seal or a boat. A tourist wearing a lobster t-shirt and a big canvas hat was very interested in seeing whatever it was and kept trying to get in front of people and looking out at the horizon and getting very agitated, and finally, he turned around and growled in a southern accent at no one in particular “I can’t see SHIT, can you?” We fucking died laughing. We clutched at each other and repeated “I can’t see SHIT, can you?” for the whole day and then for the whole summer and then once every two years or so, when we saw each other.

I actually kind of laughed my way through the next course, big silky sheets of black pasta and squid bolognese served with the 2009 Cala Cala Bianca grillo, which is just some Italian wine that is fine, not super exciting but good, dryer, sharper, less fruity than the chardonnay, I think. I don’t know that squid needs to be minced into tiny pieces and served in a tomato sauce but maybe I am wrong. I’m not complaining.

The last dish was the lamb. It was perfect, perfectly cooked, perfect sauce, and I have nothing to say about it other than I know that eating lamb is terrible and sad but I can’t stop. The wine, a 2014 La Souteronne, a red made from gamay, was very light and acidic and a beautiful color. Gamay is always a little sharp to me and this was no different. I drank it like I was reading a report, sip by sip, trying to figure out why I didn’t like it that much, and as I tried to figure it out liking it more and more and wondering when my mind would work right again.

I thought about this American guy I met in Japan who is an expert at this very specific sector of the food and beverage industry. After I’d talked to him for a while, I said something like, “Everyone thinks you’re so serious, but you don’t give a shit about your discipline per se. You just know life sucks so you’ve thrown yourself wholeheartedly into this incredibly exacting rare and kind of ridiculous thing so that you can engage in this lifelong performance of absurdity.”

I was a little worried he’d get mad but instead he said, “Wow. You totally get me.”

The night my friend was murdered I was in Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan, walking in the rain with a large group of people next to an older Japanese man who spoke good English and had lived in California for a while. We talked about books. He told me Cujo was one of his favorites. He was embarrassed, but I said he shouldn’t be because Stephen King was good at telling stories and that was the only thing that really mattered. “Any asshole can write a sentence,” I said.

I told him Stephen King was from Maine, and that probably was good for his writing. “Why?” he asked. “Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just a weird place.”