Archive | August, 2015

Sushi Saito in Tokyo (Aug ’15)

2 Aug
  • Price: ~$250 USD (two carafes of sake)

“2-3 years ago it used to be so easy to get into Saito. Sometimes you could just go in for lunch without any reservations.”

I heard this lament more than once from my friend, an old Saito regular. The rules have, of course, changed permanently. Saito is now canonized as one of the top 2-3 sushi places in Tokyo, if not as the very best of them all. Reservations are made 4 months out even for erstwhile regulars, and it is almost impossible to get a reservation if you are not a regular. It started perhaps with the Michelin guide’s seal of approval, and was exacerbated in the last couple of years with a weak yen luring more gastro-tourists into the country.

In the midst of this media attention, Saito seems to remain fairly normal. He plans to focus on his Tokyo branch, but will open a branch in Malaysia early next year, at the new St Regis hotel in Kuala Lumpur Sentral.

Does the sushi live up to its reputation? I can say Saito’s sushi is the best I’ve tried in Tokyo so far:

  • He makes incredible rice. What will stick with me above all is Saito’s sense of balance – his rice has the perfect temperature (warm), texture (soft but distintegrates unobstrusively in the first two bites) and taste (perfect conveyance for a salty vinegar). I found it comforting to eat each piece – the rice just ever-so-warm and perfectly vinegary, providing a foil for the topping.
  • He elevates not just the luxury cuts but the common cuts too – Several specimens were brought to a level of perfection I had not experienced before. The luxury cuts (tuna, nodoguro, kinmedai) were all top-class, but these are ingredients which can be bought by any chef. The test of skill is to elevate the more difficult cuts. I thought I had many eye-opening morsels. The iwashi (sardine) was one of many highlights – a cheap and common fish raised to a sublime level of melting perfection. The octopus had a magical contrast of textures. And Saito’s hand-dexterity was evident when he made an uni nigiri, which I have never seen before.

I also enjoyed that the atmosphere was relaxed and easy, without any of the tiresome hushed reverence. Reverence is suited for a pilgrimage, but a pilgrimage is a one-off. Hopefully I’ll be back at Saito before long.

Evaluating sushi. I came skeptical of high-end sushi because the possibilities for composition seem limited. I was disappointed by experiences at Mizutani and Hashiguchi because I expected more creativity and intense flavors. But I think I had the wrong critical lenses. Sushi is a parade of perfect morsels, and when you eat it a thousand times you become familiar with a thousand references and appreciate sterling examples of the craft. For me, it seems enjoying a sushi meal is about paying attention the micro-factors of balance, seasoning, preparation, and ignoring the macro-factors of dish composition where a sushi chef’s hands are tied.

Standout cuts: Octopus, Nodoguro, Tuna (akami, chutoro, otoro), Iwashi (sardine) nigiri, Anago (sea eel) nigiri, Murasaki uni nigiri


Pictures of a meal at Sushi Saito

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Shiro ebi

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Chiba abalone, octopus

(5/5 for octopus)

  • What I found amazing was the texture of octopus – the outer “skin” was soft and jelly-like, where the inner core of the tentacle was meaty – like two different materials had come together. It takes so much ingenuity to make octopus delicious, this octopus was one of the best-examples I’ve had

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Bonito-zuke (cured in soy)

  • Nice balance between scallions and ginger, a good contrast of jelly and sear

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Kokuryu Daiginjo

(5/5)

  • Ultra-rare, and with a dry minerality. A perfect complement to Saito’s sushi, and possibly the best pairing sake on the menu

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Kare no engawa
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Kani (crab) miso
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Seared nodoburo

(5/5)

  • The meat had little resistance, the skin had a delicious seared taste.

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Kare (flatfish)

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Kinmedai (splendid alfonsino)

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Kohada (Gizzard shad)

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Akami (lean tuna)

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Chutoro (medium-fat tuna)

(5/5)

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Otoro (tuna belly)

(5/5)

  • There can be no faulting perfection. From a 200kg tuna caught from the cold waters of Oma

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Ika (squid)

  • A squeeze of sudachi lime and salt

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Hiroki sake

  • Fruity and assertive (4.5/5)

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Iwashi (sardine)

(5/5)

  • The strong taste of sardine was evident in the first bite, but how smooth the fish was! It was like silk, going down the mouth, paired with a little dab of ginger. The freshness was unparalleled. The rice, a vinegary ephemeral cloud, a kiss of love towards the star of the show, the unheralded sardine – usually so tough when canned, but here with the grace of the best cuts. The standout piece from today’s meal.

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Kuruma ebi (tiger prawn)

  • One thing special about Saito is that he folds the prawn-head innards just under the rice.

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Aji (horsemackerel)

(4.5/5)

  • Fatty and unctuous

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Hamaguri (clam)

(4/5)

  • Sweet sauce

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Murasaki uni (sea urchin)

(4.5/5)

  1. This marks a first – I had never seen uni used as nigiri. The tongues are soft and liable to fall apart, and testament to Saito’s dexterity. Cold, and a good contrast with the rice.

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Anago (5/5)

  • Typically paired with sweet sauce, here Saito applied dabs of salt (and sudachi lime?) which was equally delicious.

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Temaki

(4.25/5)

  • Made by Saito’s assistant chef –

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Tamago

(4.25/5)

  • Soft, custardy, sweet, a nice end to the meal

Quintessence in Tokyo (Aug ’15): infinite variety

2 Aug
  • Rating: 19/20
  • Price: ~$300 USD with 3 glasses of wine
  • Chef: Shuzo Kishida
  • Style: Modern French in the Japanese Style
  • Michelin stars: 3

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where most she satisfies…”  – Antony and Cleopatra

There are two kinds of fine-dining restaurants – one which serves a fixed repertoire and one that improvises and comes up with new dishes at a frantic pace. The restaurant Quintessence is of the second kind, a restaurant that rewards multiple visits because Chef Shuzo Kishida will not serve the same dish to a diner twice (outside of a handful of signature dishes or special requests for repeated dishes). The usual result of such a philosophy is half-baked chaos, but Quintessence pulls it together because of impeccable attention to the cooking process (and a handful of trademark obsessive cooking techniques, such as putting meat in and out of the oven 30 times). With no mistakes in execution, we could judge the ideas by what was on the plate. I am already looking forward to a second visit to Quintessence to see what dishes I will be served next time.

Previously sous-chef (and in charge of meat) under Pascal Barbot at L’Astrance, Chef Shuzo Kishida has held three Michelin stars for about a decade now. The restaurant focuses on what’s called three processes – good products, light and understated seasoning, and attention to the cooking process. Sounds obvious – until you understand what lengths these tenets are taken to. Ingredients like goat’s milk are procured fresh from Kyoto everyday. Sauces are custom-made for each main ingredient. Fish and meat cooked according to multi-stage processes, involving multiple ovens or multiple times in-and-out of an oven.

Nouvelle-cuisine was formulated in the 1960s and 1970s as a reaction against old-school French cuisine, and focused on cooking out the best of ingredients instead of smothering them in sauces. Today, people say that nouvelle cuisine has gone out of vogue because its tenets are mainstream. That is true – step into any modern kitchen and you will find focus on fresh ingredients and light sauces. Quintessence’s version of modern French is the essence of nouvelle cuisine – light, ingredient focused, obsessed with the minutest details of the cooking process.

I don’t have a full photo collection from this meal, since there is a no-photo policy (spottily-enforced). I managed to take a few photos from my iPhone but no high-quality pictures.


  • Sable Bottarga
    • Sable biscuit, with a thick slice of Sardinian bottarga glued together with seaweed butter, chipolette chives sprinkled
    • (4/5)
  • Soupe de Moules Mont St-Michel
    • A cold tomato soup with warm creamy mussels from Mt St Michel served in a small glass and sprinkled with saffron – the mussels were perfect in everyway, I think the skirt had been removed, and thus only the creamy innards remained for a hearty and satisfying contrast.
    • (4.75/5)

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  • Assaisonement
    • Quintessence’s signature dish – a goat’s milk bavarois, made with goat’s milk everyday transported fresh from Kyoto, fleur de sel from Brittany (high minerality), lily bulbs, shaved macadamia, a fruity olive oil from the south of france.
    • The intensity of flavor from the goat’s milk was amazing. Every spoonful had a perfect proportion of salt, milkiness and green fruity olive oil, with sweetness and textural contrast from lily bulbs and macadamia. A perfect combination of ingredients.
    • While Quintessence strives never to repeat a dish, this dish is the one constant in the menu. It is not to see why.
    • containing specks of salt, the fruitiness of olive oil, and the sweetness of lily bulbs and starchy contrast o
    • (5/5)

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  • Taboulet de St Jacques
    • A weird dish, tabbouleh (herbs with bulgur wheat [I think basil + shiso?]) were added with lemon cream and grilled St Jacques scallop. It was served just warm.
    • (3.5/5)

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  • Salade Aubergine et Oursin
    • Sauteed aubergine with nuts and herbs. Very tasty, the sauce a sour pesto
    • Ozayu herb
    • Topped with Murasaki sea urchin from Hokkaido (a more watery kind than Bafun)
    • Impeccably cooked
    • I didn’t think the combination of pesto and sea urchin was synergistic, but they didn’t detract from each other.
    • (4/5)
  • Ormeaux et Noix
    • Abalone with abalone liver sauce, vegetable bouillon, young edamame
    • The abalone liver sauce was strong, with a salty mineral taste. The abalone was impeccably cooked, and the young edamame added good texture contrast
    • What was interesting was an almost harsh char on the surface of the abalone – despite this the abalone was highly tender.
    • Coincidentally, my friend and I were reminded by this Quintessence dish of another dish half the world away: a roasted abalone with abalone liver sauce served at Saison in Spring 2014. The similarities were striking – a roasted abalone, an abalone liver sauce. Of the two abalone dishes I still prefer Saison’s, as it was highly aggressive with saucing (pairing the liver sauce with capers), whereas Quintessence’s version was more subtle.
    • However the subtlety has great merit – you do not leave Quintessence feeling bloated, but instead full of energy and willing to return for another round.
    • (4.25/5)

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  • Nodoguro
    • Blackthroat seaperch, a red fish with white meat, is incredibly fatty.
    • Accompaniments; Vegetacle sauce,  quinoa with seaweed
    • The flesh was falling apart smooth, with an amazing crisp on the skin. The pairing of the two was uncanny, since I expected the crispness of the skin to be accompanied with some toughness to the flesh. But the rosy-hued flesh were parted easily with fork tines.
    • It was a highly labor-intensive process to bring a perfect piece of nodoguro to the table. At the same time, I wondered if I was able to tell if the fish had been sous-vide and the skin flash-seared.
    • The fish was pan seared, then put in a 320 deg C oven, then a 90 deg C oven, and then researed afterwards with the skin
    • (5/5)

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  • Veau Roti
    • Languedoc milk veal, put in-and-out of a 300 deg C oven for 3 hours [1 minute inside, 5 minutes outside, repeat 30 times]
    • Sauce of chopped mushroom, orange zest, and grand marnier
    • Fried beetroot beignets (beetroot from Hokkaido), grilled dragonfruit bud
    • The veal was perfectly cooked, but needed a bit more salt. The beetroot beignets were perfect, crisp on the outside, no sogginess, a wonderful sweet pliable crunch.
    • (4.25/5)
  • Bleu de Laqueuille
    • Pineapple jam, walnut toast, blue cheese
  • Glace de Sougen Lie et Melon
    • Melon sherbet and Japanese sake ice cream.
    • Good combination – sake ice cream had a vanilla base
    • (4.5/5)

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  • Mascarpone Mousse
    • Knafeh (shredded phyllo dough) covering a puck of mascarpone, a syrup made of Glengoyne whisky. Interesting combination
    • (4/5)

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  • Tarte Rhubarbe
    • Chickpea powder in the feuilletine, rhubarb, blueberry and grapes
    • (3.5/5)

2015-08-01 21.04.10

  • Glace Meringue
    • Ending off the meal on a high was a Quintessence signature: Meringue ice cream. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, you’re right – what looked like ice cream was not ice cream at all, but crushed meringues, mixed with dry ice to make it cold and creamy, with ginger confit and lychee liqueur poured on top.
    • The taste was uncanny – the egg-white taste of meringue with the cold texture of ice cream. Fruity lychee, sweet ginger, meringue – these combined for a perfect bite.
    • The origin story: Chef Kishida noticed that Japanese people loved the taste of meringues, but found them too sweet otherwise. He also noticed that cold temperatures suppressed the perception of sweetness. Combining these two ideas, he came up with his signature meringue ice cream.
    • Tokyo spoils you.
    • (5/5)
  • Champagne: Chinchilla Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs
    • Delicious lightness, a savory note (4.75/5)
  • Vin Blanc: Cotes de Provence Inspiration 2012/ Gavaisson
    • Sweet (4.25/5)
  • Vin Rouge: Fixin Fondemans 2007/ Mongeard Mugneret