Archive | March, 2015

Thoughts on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list

15 Mar

Another year, another Asia’s 50 Best list.  Last week marked the release of the Asia’s 50 Best list, with Gaggan of Bangkok clinching top spot in Asia. Superficially, this would be an impressive achievement, but the 50 Best list in general (which comes in 3 flavors: World, Asia, and Latin America) is beset with major problems. The first is that voters don’t actually need to visit the restaurant to vote for it, and the second is that each geographical area (e.g. Southeast Asia North, Southeast Asia South) has an assigned bloc of voters. The first problem is obviously a breach of basic integrity, and the second problem has led to perennial conundrums, as V. Milor mentions, where Scandinavian judges will all cast their votes for Noma and French restaurant critics will split their vote amongst at least 15 different restaurants. In the first year of Latin America’s 50 Best, a surfeit of Argentina voters led to a puzzling amount of Argentinian restaurants on that list, the highest ranked of which, Tegui, served me the worst fine-dining meal I can remember, and a good but not special parrilla (La Cabrera) being promoted to the top 20.

Fundamentally, the flawed methodology of these 50 Best lists make them of limited value, and I would only use them if I had little prior information on a city’s dining scene. I’ve spent some time in Bangkok and Singapore, and have also eaten in a handful of HK and Tokyo restaurants. I think the first 10 or 15 of the Asia’s 50 Best are reasonable enough, but the rest of the Asia’s 50 Best are merely decent restaurants that lack a spark. For example, I would pick Candlenut or Wild Rocket over any of Burnt Ends, Tippling Club, or Osteria Mozza, just since they represent something unique to Singapore, whereas you could imagine any of latter 3 restaurants opening anywhere in the world. In Bangkok, how Bo Lan and Issaya Siamese Club rank ahead of the Water Library or Supanniga mystifies me.

Taking a detailed look at the restaurants I’ve been to:

  • #1 Gaggan: Proof you can apply cookie-cutter techniques from the Modernist cookbook and be praised as an innovator. Below Michelin star standard.
  • #4 Ryugin: Yes, absolutely deserves its position.
  • #5 Restaurant Andre: Deserves its position.
  • #6 Amber: Good French. Deserves a high position.
  • #7 Nahm: Deserves its position.
  • #11 JAAN: Refined French cooking. No fireworks, strong 1 star.
  • #25 Eat Me: Nice bistro, but nothing special.
  • #28 Bo Innovation: Something quite unique and could only exist in HK.
  • #30 Burnt Ends: Okay.
  • #36 Tippling Club: Lacklustre. Below Michelin star standard.
  • #37 Bo Lan: Terrible.
  • #39 Issaya Siamese Club: Nope. There are two very good things on the menu: the rum baba and the coconut crepes, the rest is blah.
  • #45 Osteria Mozza: Quite good pastas, and decent antipasti and has a terrible atmosphere (looking out into the MBS mall). It’s a fairly good but cookie-cutter Italian restaurant. One of Asia’s 50 best restaurants? Really?

To be honest, revelatory fine-dining experiences in Asia are rare. High-end restaurants are still a nascent market especially in Southeast Asia. In Singapore I’ve only had a 3-Michelin level experience once – my second Restaurant Andre meal in 2013. I’ve not had it in Bangkok or Hong Kong, and as much as I enjoy kaiseki, in Japan only Ryugin (twice) and Kojyu (and Noma, but that’s not a typical experience) have blown me away.  That means I’ve only had a truly impressive fine-dining meal from start to finish only five times in Asia.*

Because these revelatory dining experiences are rare, a useful 50 Best list should be geared towards exploration – perhaps like a 1970s Gault-Millau, which championed nouvelle-cuisine specifically as a counterpoint to Michelin’s championing of haute-cuisine. It needs editorial focus to provide something valuably different from a Michelin guide, perhaps to champion chefs in second-tier cities, or modern local food that isn’t a lazy molecular remix of indigenous ingredients. Right now, the Asia’s 50 Best list functions like an unprofessional and hype-driven Michelin guide in the absence of an actual Michelin guide covering Asia ex-HK and Japan. As a consequence of the flawed rating system, the first 10-15 restaurants approximate a pan-Asian Michelin ranking (due to a general agreement on merit), and the rest are wildly unreliable. (probably due to PR horse-trading and I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine-ism).

Other links

* = of-course, there are your amazing/very good non fine-dining places: Rakuichi Soba in Niseko, Butagumi in Tokyo etc.

Seizan | Tokyo | Jan ’15

15 Mar
  • Rating: 17.5/20
  • Address: 2 Chome-17-29 Mita, Minato, Tokyo 108-0073, Japan
  • Phone: +81 3 3451 8320
  • Price: JPY15,000 (124 USD at 1 USD = 121.39 JPY)
  • Value: 3.5/5
  • Chef: Haruhiko Yamamoto
  • Michelin Stars: 2


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Seizan  (日本料理 晴山) is helmed by a young 34 year-old chef, Haruhiko Yamamoto. The food is elegant, and relies on the high quality of its ingredients, rather than on sauces. It is in the same vein of harmonious great-ingredient cooking as Ginza Kojyu, though I felt the harmonies at Kojyu were slightly better (the dishes at Kojyu have also been on the menu longer). I visited this place because Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa of DEN mentioned Seizan was one of his favorite restaurants. It was well-worth the visit, and I believe Seizan has an even chance of being the next Kojyu.

Other reviews:


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福井 黒龍 特選吟醸 (Fukui Kokuryu Tokusen Ginjo). Sweet and dry. Good. (4/5)

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Shirako (cod milt) based soup with scallops and mochi, placed in a hollowed-out mikan (satsuma mandarin). The hollowed-out Mikan was set on a very hot stone, and the heat liberated a wonderful burnt citrus smell, probably due to volatile oils escaping. The citrus taste did not penetrate the soup, which had a creaminess reminiscent of Chinese shark-bone soups. Seared pieces of scallop and browned mochi within the soup. (4.5/5)

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Ankimo (monkfish liver) with negi scallions. What appeared to be bok choy (xiao bai cai), and a well-balanced soy sauce which I think had yuzu inside. There were jellied white bits of fat, that are of unknown-animal origin. The ankimo was a bit cloying as a paste around those jellied bits, and the well-balanced soy sauce (not too salty) cut the cloying feeling somewhat, though not completely. Perhaps it could have been drizzled onto the ankimo instead of remaining at the bottom (4.25/5)

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Matsubagani dumpling – where we were invited to feast on the remarkable sweet natural taste of crab. (Sweetness is meant literally, not metaphorically). A twist in the dish – an ineffable smokiness – was it in the crab or dashi? (4.75/5)

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Meiji maguro (young tuna, by-catch), seared. Smoky, smooth, sourness in the maguro from a bit of vinegar. Delicious. Sweet wasabi. Iodine taste from seaweed (4.5/5)

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Kobe beef, no salt. Barley boiled in syrup (a caramel taste), on top of a ball of daikon. An onion. We were asked to roll it up and eat it. This reminded me of an inverse, inside-out Peking duck roll. (1) The Kobe beef tasted like duck on the outside. (2) The barley boiled in syrup reminded me of Peking duck sauce. (3) The onion provides a touch of astringency. (4.5/5)

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Sawara (Spanish mackerel) with very late-season gingko nuts and ebi-imo yam (so called because it is curved like a prawn, and has shrimp-like stripes). The sawara was tender inside. Visually arresting plate of a Japanese crane (4.5/5)

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Anago (whitespotted conger). Good broth. Green stems were from the kabu white turnip. (3.75/5)

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静岡 磯自慢 純米吟醸 (Shizuoka Isojiman Junmai Ginjo). Dry. (3.5/5)

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Kamu (Japanese duck) rice, soy sauce-style, with scallions. Scallions were sweet. Not bad, though the rice was a bit much in proportion to the duck (3.5/5). In terms of duck rice preparation, I thought the duck fried rice I had earlier that January at Asia Grand in Singapore (the by-product of Peking duck) was much better.

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Strawberry mousse, strawberries, wine jelly (3.75/5). A refreshing end to the meal, though probably mostly pre-prepared. Desserts at kaiseki restaurants may be either proportionate and elegant, or underwhelming, according to your taste. This one felt underwhelming.