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Sushi Hashiguchi in Tokyo (Jan ’15): “one-man operation imposes stylistic constraints”

15 Dec
  • Rating: 16/20
  • One-line review: About 11 months ago, I found myself at the counter of husband-and-wife operation, Sushi Hashiguchi. The rain was pouring, and we weaved our way through a mix of low-intensity work buildings and 3-4 storey residential buildings. It seemed we had lost our way, because there were no storefronts or nearby restaurants. After turning on Google maps, we finally caught a glimpse of a lantern, and made our way up the steps into an elegant room.Sushi Hashiguchi, at that time, was the second-rated sushi house on Tabelog, the Japanese restaurant review site. It is especially famous for the “dancing” sushi, where the chef folds an air pocket between neta (topping) and shari (rice). The topping collapses slightly into the rice and thus provides an impression of dancing. In reality, this motion is microscopic and almost unnoticeable, unless you pay a lot of attention. If I was not looking out for it, I might have missed it completelyThe sushi at Hashiguchi is comforting food. The rice is lightly vinegared, warm and disintegrates easily into the mouth. The pristine flavors can either be a drawback or a blessing, depending on whether you think it is boring or enlightened that Hashiguchi does not heavily modify or touch up his ingredients (a necessity of his working practices, I might add, because Hashiguchi has no apprentices – all the prep work is done by himself, while his wife tends front of house). I found it boring, but your mileage will vary. Certainly there is room to apply a religious sensibility and delight in the joy of simple sushi.

    A sumi-ika dish mixed the best starchy textures of spear-squid with broken uni, and was probably the most distinctive dish here. We probably committed a bit of a mistake by sequencing three consecutive big meals together – this was the last of a 1.5 days sequence beginning with Seizan, Noma in Tokyo, and finally this restaurant. As they say in Osaka, “kuidaore”!

  • Best dishes: Mirugai sashimi,, sumi ika and uni, kohada, otoro, anago sushi from Kyush

(no photography)

Sashimi

  1. Hirame or sole. The texture was softer than Mizutani’s (3.75/5). I find pure hirame (not engawa, which is the outer part of the fin and delicious either by itself or torched aburi-style) an acquired taste. At its best it is somewhat tasteless, similar to kawahagi (filefish) in being a filler fish.
  2. Mirugai or geoduck. (4.75/5) Texture was crunchy yet soft past the first chew. The best piece probably here
  3. Hotate (a big scallop) brushed with soy, wrapped in crisp nori (hotate shoyuyaki). Sweet and moist (4.5/5)
  4. Sayori with shreeded shiso leaves (4.25/5). Fantastic and firm texture, though taste was a little flat
  5. Shreeded radish and shiso, salty seaweed
  6. Boiled kuruma ebi (tiger prawn), with head and guts. (4/5) The sweetness is telling of a first-class specimen, but the starchy texture of kuruma ebi is something I don’t like. It is I believe unavoidable, I have had first class examples from Saito and Hashiguchi – but there is no eliminating the feeling of eating an oversized piece of sea-insect. The problem is that Kuruma ebi prawn flesh may be sweet, but anodyne and one-dimensional. I believe the Chinese way of cooking is preferable, since it introduces variation by aromatic accompaniments
  7. Sumi ika and uni with wasabi (4.5/5) A specialty here, this was an extremely rich broth of Hokkaido bafun uni (broken with chopsticks), soy, wasabi and creamy sumi ika.
  8. Kaibashira (small scallops with mustard greens) (3.75/5)
  9. Seaweed

Sushi

  1. Whitefish (Hirame) (3.75/5)
  2. Redfish “Izuki” (sic) (4/5)
  3. Sumi ika – smooth, strong wasabi, firm rice (4/5)
  4. Kohada – what we needed, a smooth fish with strong vinegar taste (4.75/5)
  5. Akagai (4.5/5) sweet
  6. Chutoro (4.75/5)
  7. Otoro (5/5)
  8. Mackerel (“himesa” sic) (4.5/5)
  9. Aoyagi 4/5
  10. Kaibashira
  11. Hamaguri (4/5)
  12. Bafun uni 4.5/5
  13. Sumi-ika. Cooked squid (4.5/5)
  14. Anago from Kyushu (5/5)
  15. Tamago. Cold custard

Kawamura in Tokyo (Nov ’15): “where your food fantasies come true”

29 Nov

Kawamura in Ginza is a Western-cooking “yoshoku” restaurant, specializing in steak. It was brought to the attention of the English-speaking blogosphere in 2009 when Mikael Jonsson blogged about it on popular food blog Gastroville. It is one of the hardest reservations to get (one of the hardest in Tokyo along with Sushi Saito and Kyo Aji), and must be booked several months in advance and the diner accompanied by a regular on his/her first visit. The restaurant serves some of the best wagyu steak in the world – Chef Kawamura will source the beef from wherever he feels is best in Japan. Chef Kawamura is also a dedicated pursuer of the best ingredients worldwide – his caviar is sourced straight from Kazakhstan, and according to the grapevine, half of the best white truffle in Tokyo go to his restaurant.

With a formidable reputation, when I had the opportunity to go there with an invitation from a friend who’d been, I jumped at it. We planned an entire menu of Kawamura’s specialties. Although Kawamura’s is best-known as a steak restaurant, the excellence of his cooking and ingredients goes across the board – the onion rings there were the best I’ve tasted, a ethereally light negligee of panko batter around sweet and soft onions; a beef consommé had remarkable sweetness even though it was made of 100% beef; and of course the wagyu steak there had some of the most flavorful fat, the fat being marrow-esque (very pleasant) in texture, and the steak easily cut with a butter knife*.

There are some stories that have popped up about Kawamura, some of which are more fanciful than others.

  1. He only uses female virgin cows. False. Chef Kawamura will take the beef from wherever he feels is best. On our day, it was Ibaraki wagyu. The origin of the story is this blog (http://tokyofood.blog128.fc2.com/blog-entry-57.html).
  2. Chef Kawamura doesn’t age his beef. True. He believes that Japanese wagyu fat already has a strong flavor profile, that doesn’t need enhancement from aging. Source
  3. Chef Kawamura can make orders on special request. Probably true, though fried chicken, as far as I know, has not yet been served at his restaurant. However, there are many other dishes available to his regulars , from risotto to truffle ice cream to sashimi.
  4. A meal there is eye-wateringly expensive.Status: True. The damage can easily go above 100,000 yen, and was the most expensive meal I’ve had by some distance.. Kawamura isn’t a restaurant to approach on a budget. However, corkage charges are fairly low, so bringing your own wine is a good idea.

Highly recommended. If you have the opportunity, go there at least once, to acquire an idea of what the best of “Japanese wagyu”, “consomme”, “onion rings”, etc can be. Kawamura-san strikes me as one of a few elite chefs who has the capability and willingness to realize the ideal versions of what you’ve always wanted to try.

Rating: 20/20

Other interesting write-ups:

* = One passing coincidence I find interesting is that both Kawamura and Asador Etxebarri, the great barbecue restaurant, have as their signature dishes, steak and creme caramel. These two dishes are common reference points, but where Victor Arguinzoniz of Etxebarri’s twist is infusing them with smoky flavors, Kawamura has refined the textures of his dishes – his steak soft, fatty, and profound in taste; his flan textbook, soft, and silky to the tongue.


 

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  1. Steak tartare with shaved white truffles. (4.75/5) – Aromatic and crisp white truffles, evenly sliced, hid a mountain of deliciously fatty Ibaraki wagyu, in a caper and onion base sauce. Decadent and unbelievably fatty beefenhanced by the smell of truffle. It gave us a taste of what is to come, with the marrow-fat texture of steak tartare.

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  1. Beef consomme made with 100% beef (5/5) – Kawamura’s most unbelievable dish. The consomme was made with 100% beef. However I simply could not believe it, for the sweetness of the consomme was perfect.I would have expected mirepoix (carrot, onion, celery) to achieve that sweetness. I have no idea which part of the cow or which techniques would enable this sweetness, and other chefs have been puzzled by this. A true masterpiece.

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  1. Croquette of cream with white truffle slices; Croquette of white truffle slab with beef trimmings. (4.5/5). A moment of total indulgence. We ordered the white truffle supplement, and it came in two forms, one with cream and white truffle slices (excellent), and one with a slab of white truffle with beef trimmings (very good). The high heat diminished the truffle fragrance somewhat, and the truffle slab began to go (10-20%) vegetal, cardboard-y. It had been protected from heat of frying by the beef trimmings. A “meat and potato” croquette, in its most luxurious form, but to be honest, not my preferred preparation. For sheer outrageousness though, this takes some beating.

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  1. Salad with a piquant sour cream sauce. Refreshing interlude before the steak.

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  1. Ibaraki wagyu steak, sweated onions (5/5) – this was the steak I had travelled all the way to Tokyo for. It was as if marrow fat had seeped into every pore of the beef, with the fat just warmed to body temperature. The fat was beefy in scent, unlike the scentless fat in other types of over-fattened beef, and gently coated the butter knife as it slid through the steak. The steak crust (where the steak faces the heat and undergoes Maillard reactions) was not prominent in texture. It seemed like we were eating something delicate, a steak that had been subject to minimal violence. It is hard to imagine wagyu steak being any better than this.Chef Kawamura cooks the beef over low heat, such that the fat is of body temperature and meat is gently cooked to medium-rare. There is no seasoning, for Chef Kawamura believes it is best to taste the beef unadulterated, and served with dips of salt and soy. I personally found a little salt highlighted and heightened the beef flavors.

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  1. Wagyu rice (5/5). Fatty wagyu slices released their fat over the rice. Delicious.

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  1. Onion rings (5/5). The best form of onion rings I’ve had. A light panko batter around first-class sweet onion. The batter was a sheer negligee, forming a thin wisp of crust that lent the onion crisp textures without being oily.

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  1. Spiny lobster rice (5/5). Incomparable. Fragrant lobster curry over rice. Fantastic. Remarkable fragrance. The smell and taste of lobster was profound, as if it was a bisque.

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  1. Creme caramel with lime ice cream (icy) and vanilla ice cream. (5/5 for creme caramel, 4.75/5 for the ice creams) A textbook creme caramel, a smooth and satisfying end to the meal. The ice creams were a bit icy, but had great flavor. This was comfort food brought to a high level.

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  1. Beef sandwich for taking home – toast, with tomato schmear and slices of fatty wagyu. For me, having them the next morning was a treasured memory of the excellent dinner at Kawamura the previous night.

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

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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Raining.

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)

http://www.urbansake.com/sake/kokuryu-tokusen-ginjo

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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)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citrus_unshiu

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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)

http://ajw.asahi.com/article/cool_japan/cooking/AJ201212180010

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

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitespotted_conger

http://japanese-kitchen.net/white-turnip-kabu/

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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.

Noma in Tokyo: an unforgettable triumph

7 Feb

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Noma in Tokyo was a fantastic experience. Was it worth it to fly to Tokyo for a short weekend just to eat at Noma? Absolutely. It was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life. A meal that was meticulously thought out, philosophy on a plate.

I’ve been trying to reserve a table at Noma since at least two years ago. More seriously, I had tried to get a table in time for my European trip the previous year, but after oversleeping my 4am alarm by 20 minutes, I quickly found I had fallen about 2,000 persons behind on the waitlist for June and July. When I heard that Noma was going to be in Tokyo, I tried to register for the ballot but the Mandarin Oriental website crashed for about 30 minutes when the reservations opened. So I put my name on the waitlist – and to my fortune, someone cancelled. It was a stroke of amazingly good luck, since there are about 58,000 people on the waitlist for the meal.

Food. On every benchmark, I thought this meal was of the highest quality. Ingredients were impeccable and sourced from all over Japan – Hokkaido, Kyushu, Okinawa, and many places in Honshu. (Nagano being a particularly fertile foraging ground). The Noma cooking style was preserved – humble vegetables (e.g. turnip, pumpkin) cooked as lovingly as a top-grade piece of meat, emphasis on crispy and dehydrated textures, unusual plant oils, foraged flavors, aging and fermenting to create umami. There were as well a number of riffs on sushi and kaiseki – the masterful rice course managed to evoke both sushi and kaiseki, the “dashi” of yeast, parsley and lemon poured into the turnip course. As well, for returning Noma diners, there were multiple throwbacks to their famous dishes in Copenhagen – ice shrimp, beef tartare with ants, shaved ankimo, cep mushroom cookies, pumpkin and caviar… (for a rundown of the differences between Noma in Tokyo and Noma in Copenhagen, the blogger kayoubidesu has two sets of photos for comparison). Some of the most interesting dishes to me were Noma’s takes on Japanese ingredients which as far as I know they have not used in Copenhagen – citrus, tofu, black garlic, etc.

If the Noma team came to Tokyo to create something entirely unique, they have succeeded. If they aimed to create a menu which will be savored for a long time in the memories of those fortunate enough to have been there, they have succeeded. And if they have been gunning for those three Michelin stars in Tokyo, I think they have achieved it. Simply put, an unforgettable triumph.

Tokyo after Noma. I see Noma’s influence as having introduced more possibilities into the Japanese food repertoire – Nagano ants, raw shijimi, wild kiwi, matsubasa berries, playing fast and loose with kaiseki tropes. Perhaps we can see more of these ingredients in Tokyo after Noma leaves? And perhaps a couple more restaurants will adopt a more irreverent attitude to kaiseki.

Noma after Tokyo. The confines of Danish locavorism (constraints Rene Redzepi has adopted to allow creativity) has led to a certain style of food at Noma. Can we expect some Japanese ingredients at Noma when they return to Copenhagen? Will their Japan experience loosen the geographical limits they have set themselves? This meal has after all proved that the kitchen can turn out neo-Japanese cuisine of the highest standard. It will be interesting to see if after this Tokyo stint Rene Redzepi believes that the Nordic geographical restriction is an existential condition of his creativity, or if he believes he has instituted enough systems in place to maintain the kitchen’s creativity such that the geographical restriction can be loosened.

The move of all 77 staff to Tokyo is only one in a long line of Noma innovations.  Rene Redzepi is an innovator not merely in the kitchen, but also in the food media – launching the MAD conference in Copenhagen, hiring Mr Altinsoy, formerly a food blogger to curate the conferences for the first few years. Regardless of whether he is the best chef in the world from a technical standpoint, he is surely one of the most important chefs in our day and age. His influence reaches across the media – the restaurant, his cookbooks, the MAD conference, the MADfeed, and now transplanting a entire restaurant halfway across the globe and committing it to radically reinterpreting the menu in a new country.

But it would be remiss to think it was all down to the sole genius of Rene Redzepi. In fact, it seems a huge part of Noma’s success comes down to Redzepi being a humble and inspiring leader and manager of his staff, who are highly devoted to him. His approach to creativity is a collaborative affair –  each member of the cooking staff is able to contribute via Noma’s “Saturday Night Projects“, where they cook a dish for the entire kitchen team to try.

This Tokyo sojourn is no doubt going to create an even more special spirit for the entire Noma team.

He says: “It is more than worth it because of what it has done for us as a team. We are closer, we know each other better. This is a team-building exercise like no other. We feel joy when we come back from a day off.”

He adds: “Some have never travelled outside Europe. It’s a big thing for them. We become in the West so focused to the point where we don’t know what’s going on in Asia.” – [The Straits Times]

Two of the biggest food events this year are Noma moving to Tokyo, and the Fat Duck shifting to Melbourne for 6 months. But I don’t think we should look forward to a spate of transplanted restaurants anytime soon. Noma has a unique and adventurous philosophy of cooking.  – humble vegetables cooked as lovingly as a top-grade piece of meat, emphasis on crispy and dehydrated textures, unusual plant oils, foraged flavors (such as sourness from the formic acid of ants) borne of the limits he has set himself. To take the example of ants, serving them requires curious eyes to see the possibilities in the ingredient, the skill of the chef in composing the dish, and finally the courage to exhibit the dish to the public, not all of whom will be as open-minded as the kitchen team. Diners come to sample this adventurousness, to have their ideas of a dinner tested as only Noma can test them.

Bravo!


Notable links

*I’ve supplemented some of my dish descriptions with descriptions from the blogs of Robbie Swinnerton, Mesubim, and kayoubidesu, where they go into more detail.


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Mt Fuji just visible… (you need to squint for this one)

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1. Botanebi with flavors of Nagano forest

  • Botan ebi from Hokkaido, with ants from the forests of Nagano. Sour bursts of formic acid. I believe it was served with a bit of sea salt or a dash of soy sauce for saltiness.
  • With forelegs still twitching, the prawns were recently killed (and I believe had been spiked in the spine to immobilize the hind parts)
  • The sweet crunchy jelly of top class botan ebi looked like glass, and I could not imagine it being any sweeter or better.
  • Each of the ants were frozen to death, and then chopped in half
  • To me this was a shock and awe course, a statement of intent – the ants encapsulated Noma’s philosophy, all over the best ingredients Japan had to offer (symbolized by Hokkaido botan ebi). The ants, now a signature, were originally an expedient ingredient to provide sourness, since Noma chose to cook with only Scandinavian ingredients, ruling out lemons and other citrus. In fact the ants on prawns were a perfect pair with…
  • 4.5/5

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2. Citrus and long pepper

  • The two dishes seemed a couplet. If the first dish of botanebi with ants was a celebration of the inventive powers of necessity in the absence of citrus, the second dish of citrus reminded us of that original ingredient. I believe the Noma team rarely, if ever, cooks with citrus nowadays. (Though they have lemons in their test lab). This was a perfect dish of 4 types of citrus – pomelo (bampeiyu), mikan (mandarin orange), two types of buntan from Kochi [one named Pompeii buntan].
  • With roasted Rishiri kombu oil for a umami, nutty flavor. Pine salt and ground kinome (AKA sansho), whole kinome, Okinawa longpepper.
  • The nuttiness of seaweed oil contrasted beautifully with the sweetnesses of the four citrus, and the longpepper provided the bite of spiciness, the kinome provided both sourness and a light menthol taste.
  • 5/5

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3. Shaved monkfish liver

  • Smoked, frozen, and then shaved. On a salted crisp of toast. The ankimo was a bit icy, and we were warned to eat it quickly. This felt like eating generous shavings of sea foie on an undersized toast. The richness on ankimo was somewhat tempered by the cold temperature and the small pieces it was shaved into, when it came into contact with the warmth of the tongue it melted into a savory butter, thus the second and third bites were somewhat better than the first.
  • 4/5

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4. Koika cuttlefish “soba”

  • An homage to udon. Cuttlefish that had been cut into noodle strips with roasted kelp on top, it was at first very salty eaten on its own. But dipped vigorously into the accompanying pine broth with rose petals, the floral scent washed off the excess sauce on the soba, and it became a delight to eat
  • 4/5

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5. Æbleskiver

  • This was my first encounter with this traditional Danish bread served during Christmas. It is usually served dipped in marmalada and sugar
  • It was bread with the texture of a pancake, with wasabi on top, and steamed mustard greens inside for freshness. A simple but heartwarming dish
  • 4.25/5

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6. Sea urchin and wild kiwi

  • This dish was the one that had changed the most since Noma started, as multiple conversations with the staff informed me. Originally the tart was made with freshwater shijimi clam from Aomori prefecture – and Rene Redzepi wanted to showcase its raw qualities, since shijimi is usually served cooked. This was a labor intensive dish that required the team to wake up at 5am to start cleaning the clams. However, diner feedback was not positive enough to continue such a back-breaking dish. So they have instead created – a roasted seaweed based shell, with a sour puree sauce of kiwi and coriander, and wasabi. A load of creamy tongues of Hokkaido uni was lavished upon the tart. This was seafood pizza of the highest order – the tart sauce of kiwi-coriander-wasabi was the highlight.
  • Kiwi ended up being used again later as a dipping sauce for a simmered sweet potato dessert
  • 5/5

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7. Tofu, just steamed with wild walnuts

  • A soft and sweet tofu, with crunchy walnuts and a miso & yuzu & parsley sauce. This dish was primarily textural in contrast
  • 4.25/5

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8. Scallop dried for two days; beech nuts and kelp

  • One of the most polarizing dishes – for me this was one of the weaker dishes in the meal, but others loved it. Scallop dried for two days into fudge, cooked into caramel, with beeswax and a little butter, aerated. This was like a sponge composed out of scallop sand, with every grain of sand a punch of umami. Served with beech nuts and Raus/roasted rausu kelp. I did not like it as much due to overwhelming onslaught of scallop tastes – which made me question the balance of the dish
  • 3.5/5

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9. Hokkori pumpkin; cherry wood oil and salted cherry blossoms

  • Perhaps my favorite dish of the meal – Hokkori pumpkin cooked in katsuobushi, with cherry tree oil, sakura blossoms that were dried and salted, with roasted kelp sticks, and a sauce made of fermented barley koji and butter. The sauce was sour in a rustic way, but the pumpkin it surrounded was very mellow – not starchy, sweet, fragrant from the cherry tree oil, and very balanced. You bit into pumpkin and smelt cherrywood. An intelligent homage to sakura.
  • 5/5

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10. Garlic flower

  • A visual stunner, origami black garlic flowers, which had been cooked down at 60 degrees after a 30 day fermentation period. Rose oil, Nagano ants underneath. This tasted like a sticky jelly, with a fruity taste. I felt the dish was a bit one-dimensional, the entire effect being the emphasis on the fruitiness, sweet-tart flavor of the black garlic.
  • 4.25/5

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11. Roots and starches with ginger

  • All vegetables from below the ground – chorogi (a small gourd-like root), mukago (tiny mountain potatoes), burdock root, water chestnut, lily bulbs, egg yolk cured in beef “garum” (I have no idea what beef garum is – if we go by the Roman “garum”, I guess beef guts?) Peanut based sauce.
  • All of the roots were from underground. This dish was very starch heavy, and overall was only pleasant.
  • (3.75/5)

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12. Wild duck and matsubasa berries

  • A Japanese duck from Akita prefecture, surprised by a hunter into a net, and then strangled to ensure no blood is lost. Hung and dry-aged for 3 weeks, smeared with a sauce made like soy sauce, but from rye, and then roasted on a yakitori grill.
  • It was served in multiple pieces – Filet, breast, thigh, drumstick. The breast was soft, the thigh flavorful, but the drumstick extremely tough and nigh inedible. The matsubasa berries (Schisandra repanda) formed a tart dipping sauce.
  • I felt this was one of the weaker dishes – while all the meats were flavorful, there was nothing stunning about the duck. It was also the only dish where there was an outright flaw – an extremely tough leg drumstick.
  • 4/5

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13. Yeast and turnip cooked in shiitake

  • Turnip, cooked in a shiitake mushroom broth. A sauce of toasted yeast, parsley oil, and lemon verbena.
  • When I was at Shigeyoshi, there was a beautifully lacquered bowl – and when I opened it (half expecting some treasure from the sea) – I found a turnip, simply cooked and resting in a light dashi. This Japanese reverence for the humblest root vegetable is mirrored by Redzepi’s own.
  • The broth of yeast, parsley and lemon poured into the turnip course mimicked a soup course.

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14. Rice

  • In a traditional kaiseki meal the mains end with rice. Rene Redzepi upended that expectation. Rice was served, but instead as the first dessert. And even then, it was not served kaiseki style but sushi style. A vinegared mound of rice was at the bottom of the bowl; on top, sake sorbet on top, and rice crisps. A sorrel juice was poured in
  • The cucumber notes of sorrel, the cold of sake, the crisp textures (a Redzepi signature), and the vinegared rice came together deliciously. I thought this was the spiritual heart of the meal – a meeting of philosophies from Denmark and Japan. (Sorrel from Fukuoka?)
  • Masterpiece (5/5)

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15. Sweet potato simmered in raw sugar all day

  • Sweet potato from kochi, bubbling in sugar. This brought to mind the old carrot from Noma, slow simmered in butter. A reverential treatment of the humble sweet potato, highly caramelized. A tart and fragrant green dipping sauce, made from wild kiwis from Nagano, geranium and elderflower
  • (4.25/5)

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16. Wild cinnamon and fermented mushroom

  • Wild cinnamon sticks, covered in sugar – peripheral sucking sticks.
  • Fermented cep mushrooms in chocolate, with a sour-ish taste

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Drinks (juice pairing)

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  • turnip / yuzu / black currant shoots
    • despite being labelled, I did not detect any hint of black currant shoots

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  • cucumber / fresh nori

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  • pumpkin / green gooseberry

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  • mushroom

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  • sweet koji water / juniper berries

 

Drinks (wine pairing)

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  • 2010 Les Béguines / Jérome Prévost / Gueux – Champagne

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  • Daigo no Shizuku / Terada Honke / Kozaki – Chiba (5/5)
    • A truly complex and masterful unfiltered sake. This smelt and tasted uncannily like roasted sunflower seeds. It was so good, we bought a bottle for ourselves to savour.

When the baton was passed to Terada, the new chief hoped to make his own mark by pushing the brewery’s methods even further back, to the Edo Period (1603-1868). The “kimoto” method, which relies on just three ingredients–rice, water and the bacteria living on the walls of the brewery, is far more time-consuming because workers have to mash the rice by paddles until it reaches the right consistency.

Although the brewery now can’t brew enough sake in the winter to sell through the autumn, Terada says the moves at first nearly destroyed the company.

“A lot of orders stopped coming in once we changed. People said the sake tasted too different, too strange,” he says. “Most sake drinkers prefer a refined, clean taste. In their estimation, sake is good if it has almost no flavor. But you can taste a lot of things in ours.

“We lost several old customers at the start, but we also discovered that there were quite a few people looking for an alternative to mainstream sake. People tell me that they can really taste the rice in ours, and that they don’t get hangovers–that’s because we use no additives. But it also makes their stomachs happy because it delivers lots of bacteria friends to the ones already there.”

Inside a hall at Terada Honke, workers in down vests and traditional waist aprons sing in unison as they churn steamed rice that will become “Gonin-musume”and Terada’s even cloudier invention, “Daigo no Shizuku,” which is unpasteurized and unfiltered. – Asahi Shimbun

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  • 2012 Le Mont / Alexandre Jouveaux / Uchizy- Bourgogne

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  • 2011 Bianco R / Le Coste / Gradoli – Lazio (3/5)
    • Not great – this one tasted really natural – I could pick out the faint hay notes that uncomfortably brought to mind manure.

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  • Yamahai Junmai Nama-Genshu / Hanatomoe / Yoshino Nara (4.5/5)
    • Overripe banana to the nose, sweet and dry. Aged in the bottle for two years

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  • 2011 Racines / Claude Courtois / Soings en Sologne – Loire

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  • 2013 Les Mirabelles / Mark Angeli / Anjou – Loire
    • A pleasant and uncomplicated dessert wine to finish

A sunday night in Tokyo (Dec ’14)

10 Jan

1. Honmura An

  • Address: 7 Chome-14-18 Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo 106-0032, Japan
  • Telephone: +81 3-5772-6657

 

While reading Ruth Reichl’s memoir of her days as the NYT food critic, Garlic and SapphiresI was intrigued in particular by two reviews. One was her famous 1993 take-down of Le Cirque, written as two personas – the food critic who was fawned over and led to the best seat in the house, and the dowdy Molly who was banished to the nether regions of the restaurant. The other was her 1993 NYT 3-star review of Honmura An. It was unconventional to award a soba house 3 stars 20 years ago, and that review captured some of her determination to be on the side of the consumer, and a bit of her California laissez-faire-ism

While the New York branch has closed, Honmura An remains open in Tokyo, and served us excellent cold soba – with a meditative flavor, drawing on simplicity.

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Yuzu soba

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Karami Oroshi soba: cold soba with Karami Daikon radish topping

It was advertised as a seasonal soba, Karami daikon being a very spicy variant available in winter. But the daikon was not really spicy; it possessed the earthiness of longan fruit, with al dente soba noodles. This was eye-opening.

2014-12-21 19.50.10Curry flavored oysters from hiroshima, in a curry tempura.

Alright. Curry flavored, but unsalted otherwise (the oysters were not a bit salty) (3.25/5)

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Uni soba

 

2. The Peak at Park Hyatt

At the Park Hyatt, a little lower than the New York bar (setting of Lost in Translation), we sampled the Juyondai Honmaru Gohyakumangoku. I had no idea that Juyondai was such a cult brand. But I can see why. It was fruity and very smooth, reminding me of my late lamented Glenturret 16 distiller’s edition – seeming to float down your throat – it was so light and smooth.

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