June 26, 2011

Passeggiata Italian Bar

I am a consummate explorer. Drop me in a new town and the first thing I do is go for a walk in order to get a feel for the terrain. Then I start poking my head into every shop, restaurant, cafe, bar, pub, and corner alcove that looks like it might be hiding something interesting. Most of the time my initial exploration of a city comes up completely dry. Most of the time there is nothing new, interesting, or exciting to find. If I have time, on subsequent days I'll head down different streets, pick my way through a few alleys, and so on. Quite frankly, most cities in the world have three things in great overabundance: fast food, convenience stores, loud rock bars, and filthy cafes. Humanity is woefully predictable sometimes.

But then there are days like yesterday. I arrived in Yonago City, Japan yesterday afternoon. I am here because an old college friend that I haven't seen since the mid-eighties is here teaching at a local elementary school. She is Japanese with a French father who she hasn't seen since she was a small child. Her mother won't talk about him and she can't reach him, so she's not certain why he walked out of her life when she was six or seven years old. Back at the university that emptiness weighed on her heavily, but she had learned to live with it. She took the position here in this backwater country town partly as a way of escaping Tokyo and partly as a way of reconnecting with her fantasy memories of her father because she thinks back in France he was some kind of farmer.

Well, there aren't many farms here, nor factories, not much of anything really. I'm having dinner with her tonight, so I suppose I'll find out if the years have mellowed her sense of loss and what role living in this tiny community has had in that healing, if any.

But that's just background to let you know how I wound up here in the first place! The important thing is yesterday I arrived in the middle of the afternoon and since I had nothing better to do, I went for a nice long walk. I found an ordinary shopping district, far too few banks even for a city as small as this one, a McDonalds, a Takashimaya department store, lots of dirty coffee shops, the usual assortment of dingy Japanese restaurants, and a delightful Italian restaurant/bar/cafe named "Passeggiata".

I was strolling down the main street after I'd done most of my exploring. It was getting on toward dinner time, I was hungry, and up to that point the only place I'd found worth considering was the overpriced restaurant in my hotel (which was inaccessible because they had booked a wedding party) and the McDonalds. I was thinking this would be a good day to stick to convenience store onigiri when out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a European gas lamp. Well, I knew right away it was probably electric, but it did look like a 19th Century gas lamp of the kind that were prevalent in London, Paris, Amsterdam, and any other European city that was striving to create an air of sophistication and nobility. It was even the right size (most of the modern replicas are far too large).

I stopped, did a double take, turned the corner and went to investigate.

I found a decently painted front with a faded awning that read, "Passeggiata". There was an Italian flag drapped in the front window, so I knew it was probably an Italian eatery of some kind. The lights were on and it was late on a Sunday, so it was unlikely to be a cafe, but it might turn out to be an ordinary bar. I walked up to the door and in the dim light the first thing I noticed was the door itself. It was brand new, handcrafted walnut with a natural stain that allowed the deep purple heart and blonde outer wood both to shine through clearly. I have not seen a handcrafted door in years, maybe in decades, and never in Japan!

Inside the entrance was more handcrafted walnut furnishings. A shadow box/bookcase type cabinet on the right and a smaller bookcase on the left displaying a variety of postcards and pamphlets for local florists, tabacco shops, bakeries, and so on. On the top shelf of the shadowbox was an eight-string lyre. Not a replica either. A real medieval lyre.

So I went in and sat down. The table was more handcrafted walnut, in fact all of the tables were, four of the sofa-style chairs were, and so were a wide variety of accent pieces, lamps, corner tables, and so on. The extensive use of walnut with natural finish gave the entire place a warm, cozy, right at home kind of feel that was neither too fancy nor too plain. This little eatery would be right at home in a Tuscany back alley somewhere.

The waitress, a Japanese woman of course, brought me a menu along with a wine bottle filled with chilled water just as one would find in any family restaurant in France, Italy, or Venice. She left me with the menu and the amazing table. The closer I examined it the more impressed I was. Leaning close I could still smell the dry kiln heat coming off the wood. I haven't encountered that smell since I was in high school wood shop!

When the waitress came back to take my order I asked about the table and the other walnut pieces. She brought me one of the post cards from the little bookcase that had been on my left when I came through the door. Every piece, including the front door, was made locally by a company called "Greeniche". The place was very empty, so I asked more questions. I learned that they had reopened after an extensive remodeling only a few days earlier, even though the bar itself has been in business for three years. There are two sections, a back bar with a few tables and the front restaurant/cafe area where I was siting. The back bar was smoking and the front restaurant was non-smoking. I could not even see the back bar from where I sat and naturally I could not smell tabacco, both of which delighted me to no end.

The real test of any eatery, however, is the food. I ordered garlic bread, a salad, and a Four-cheese pizza. The garlic bread was seasoned with butter, garlic, rosemary, and parsley. The herbs were fresh and aromatic and the garlic was rich and flavorful without being overpowering. It had a hint of olive oil as well, so I assume they add the olive oil and herbs after they toast it, probably together. The salad was fresh and crispy with just a hint of olive oil and lemon juice for dressing. The four-cheese pizza was made with fresh, natural cheeses so all four flavors came through clear and distinct. All in all, a delicious dinner that was far better than anything my afternoon walk had led me to expect was possible!

I don't know what my friend has planned for dinner tonight, or even if she has chosen a place. If not, I think I'm going to convince her we should go to Passeggiata. It is definitely worth a second visit and I have no idea when, or even if, I will ever be in Yonago City again.