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Jimbocho Den | Tokyo | Dec ’14

2 Jan
  • Meal Rating: 16.5/20
  • Address: 2 Chome-2-32 Kanda Jinbocho, Chiyoda, Tokyo 101-0051, Japan
  • Telephone: +81 3-3222-3978
  • Price (all-in including alcohol pairing): 19,500 Yen ($163 at 100 yen = 0.83USD)
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining Time: 180 minutes
  • Chef: Zaiyu Hasegawa
  • Style: Creative Kaiseki
  • Michelin Stars: 1

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Jimbocho Den is a great experience. From the moment you step foot inside the restaurant, it feels like you are in the home of Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa and team. There is a relative youth to the restaurant, and I felt at home as a non-Japanese speaking foreigner. I would return without hesitation. I was served a great menu, but I also noticed that the regulars (and they were many) were served a different menu. Apparently, diners here rarely ever receive the same dish- which speaks to the creativity of the chef and the kitchen.

Chef Zaiyu-san is good friends with many chefs from overseas, and it shows in both his cooking (the signature DEN salad came with an ant from Nagano) and his ingredients (top-class porcini mushrooms, in the most memorable rice course of this trip).

It would be remiss not to mention that the DEN team work extremely hard. Apparently, 3am-4am nights are de rigueur.

I look forward to returning at the next available opportunity.


 

Other Notable Links:

  • Skinny Bib – “The magic of “Den Kaiseki” is, by no means, limited to what’s edible. Rather, it represents formless inventiveness behind Hasegawa’s mind. The chef combines – subconsciously but with great executional fluidity – the “traditional” face of Japanese gastronomic art and cultural identities with his own “contemporary” face, which is fun-filled and personable.”
  • Luxeat

 

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  • Japanese waffles: Foie gras marinated with white miso, chestnuts and pickled cucumber (4.25/5)

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  • Supon. (Snapping Turtle Soup). Turnip. Strong tastes of scallion. Sweet, very umami (3.75/5)

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  • With Asahi beer, DENtucky fried chicken. Glutinous rice, pinenuts, gooseberry. (4.25/5) It was a pleasant surprise to find the Singapore flag inside

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  • Buri, 4 day aged. Cooked outside like shabu shabu, sour nori sauce [comprised of tobiko, nori, vinegar, dashi]. Buri is the name of fully-grown yellowtail (only applied when they reach 5kg, hamachi is a lower weight standard at 3kg]. I enjoyed the enchanting tobiko (flying fish roe) sauce with nori – sour and cut with wasabi, a good bite with unctuous buri. (4.5/5)

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  • Takenoko, bamboo from Okinawa (Amami Oshima island). A young bamboo that tasted like sweet corn. Ebimo (a kind of taro) was soaked in dashi for 10 days, deep fried, and then grilled. Black cabbage, made by chips. Very good (4.25/5)

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  • The signature DEN salad, significantly upgraded by the presence of ants from Nagano (boiled and frozen to kill). The acidity was rather subtle, and only in its hindparts. (The “ant acid” is a trend that started with Noma not using lemons due to their philosophy of getting ingredients from around Copenhagen, and thus choosing ants with formic acid in their bellies to provide sourness) Served on plum jelly on rice paper. Vegetables from Chef Zaiyu’s sisters and friends. Gobo was purple with dashi and pepper. Tomato was bewitchingly cooked with vinegar and vanilla, a true winner. Rocket, tomato, turnip, beetroot and sharp tastes of begonia (4/5)

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  • Duck meat, kuzu, shimonitanegi (shimonita leeks, also see Kojyu 2014) from Gunma preferecture. (4.5/5) I thought the duck was soft and had a nice texture for highly-cooked duck – it was a good palate cleanser for the decadence to follow…

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That’s right, two kinds of rice!

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  • Porcini, both grilled and dried. Half fresh (grilled), and half dried. A profound mushroom smell and taste to rival any truffle. (5/5) I could not help myself, I asked for seconds of this.

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  • Sakura ebi in December. Sakura ebi has two seasons, and Zaiyu-san believes it has more umami in December. This was also fantastic (4.5/5).
  • In my future fried rice experiments I will combine both these prawns and mushrooms to recapture the fragrant aromas

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Pickles: Turnip, myoga, ginger

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Lime jelly, coconut soup, strawberries, rice pops and rum (4.25/5)

We ended it off with some very sweet strawberries, in an fragrant coconut soup enhanced with rum and lime jelly.

 

Alcohol:

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  • Pairing: Berlucchi 61 Brut. Creamy, barely any acidity. Light fruit. (4.5/5) Lovely.

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  • Sanjurokuninshu (literally, 36 old people)
  • Very smooth and dry sake (4.5/5). Junio glass.

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  • Water from Niigata

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  • Asahi beer

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  • Haneya sake from Toyama in Niigata prefecture.

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  • A very fresh unfiltered sparkling sake called Jikon Tokubetsu Junmai (5/5)

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Rakuichi | Niseko | Dec ’14

1 Jan
  • Address: 431 Niseko, Abuta District, Hokkaido Prefecture 048-1511, Japan
  • Rating: 5/5

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A great bowl of cold duck soba.

2014-12-20 10.23.21First, you put the mountain yam in the duck soup.

And then, you slowly dip your soba noodles mouthful by mouthful into the broth, all the while sipping buckwheat tea.

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At the end, when there are no more noodles to dunk, put the soba water into the duck soup from the soba-yu, and drink it up.

(The buckwheat is from the nearby town of Lankoshi, everything is local here.)

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The sweet scallions, caramelized, and then tempura-ed, were irresistible. This convinced me to order a plate of tempura vegetables. It did not disappoint – I thought the tempura technique at least as good as Michelin-starred tempura restaurant Asagi in Tokyo…

Great hospitality:

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Tatsuru Rai (he opened noma’s conference MAD)

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Midori Rai (our gracious hostess)

Kagurazaka Ishikawa | Tokyo | Dec ’14 | “mixing”

1 Jan
  • Rating: 16/20
  • Address: Japan, 〒162-0825 東京都新宿区 神楽坂5−37 高村ビル1F
  • Phone: +81 3-5225-0173
  • Price per pax (including two rounds of sake split among 5): 23,000 Yen ($193 at 100 Yen = 0.83 USD)
  • Value: 2.5/5
  • Dining Time: 150 minutes
  • Chef: Hideki Ishikawa
  • Michelin stars: 3

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Our December meal at Ishikawa seemed to be based on the idea of a “delicious mix”. We mixed our appetizers, our 2 sashimi courses, and our rice course. The taste results were very good, but clearly less “pre-meditated” than other high-end restaurants.

Truth be told, I personally felt it was an underwhelming meal. But many Japanese food connoisseurs, such as Robbie Swinnerton and Melinda Joe and Mesubim, seem to like it, so I would like to form a second opinion.

Hospitality, as is the case in Japan, was exceptional. Chef Ishikawa is an easy-going personality, and it was touching (and appreciated) that the kitchen crew sent us off in our taxis.


 

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  • Appetizer: Blanched Blowfish Tossed with Japanese Herbs and Grated White Radish Sauce
    • Fugu with ponzu. Good (4/5)

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  • Deep-fried: “Kakiage’ Wagu Tongue, Lotus Root and Mitsuba Greens Topped with Turnip
    • Wagyu Tongue was a bit tough and overcooked, and the thick sauce was just for texture, with little taste. A bit puzzling to me. It was impressive that the batter maintained its crunch for quite a while after being immersed in sauce (3.5/5)

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  • Soup: White Miso Soup with Blowfish Milt; Thinly Sliced Whale Skin
    • Fugu Milt – great, an unending creamy texture that is nothing but cream. Milt provided the luxurious feeling. (Zatokujira AKA Humpback) whale skin was added for flavor, but I could have done without it (4.25/5)

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  • Sashimi: Sea Bream Garnished with Fresh Seaweed and Japanese Herbs
    • Genkai nada (Genkai sea, on the Northern coast of Fukuoka in Kyushu) Tai (sea bream), in a tough roiling sea “makes the tai more chewy”
    • served with shizuoka wasabi, a naturally sweet and hot wasabi.
    • The tai was chewy as intended. It was pleasant to eat with seaweed, but the structure of the dish puzzled me. Was the point to emphasise a single point of produce? (chewiness of rose-colored sea bream?) (3.25/5)

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  • Sashimi: Seared Ise Lobster with Vinegared Soy Sauce
    • Seared lobster. The barest kiss of smoke. Served with its moorish lobster guts, flavored with vinegared soy sauce. Very good (4.5/5)
    • Served in a lacquered gourd. Surprisingly light. Elegant

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  • Charcoal-grilled: Horsehead Snapper Flavored with Salted Bonito Innards Sauce; Gluten Bread with Walnut
    • Amadai (tilefish AKA horsehead snapper) was served this time without its scale. The skin was slathered with shuto, salted bonito innards (fermented for more than 6 months!). Banana walnut bread. The sake brought out a wonderful nutty flavor. (4/5)
    • Fresh and firm, salty outside.

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  • Delicacy: Fresh Water Eel, Gingko Nuts and Mashed Taro
    • Usually eel is boiled before it is grilled. Ishikawa directly grilled the eel to get a very fluffy texture, and had a very good taste of charcoal (4.5/5)

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  • Hot Pot: Snow Crab, Tofu and Seasonal Vegetables
    • Tofu, perhaps the softest it could get while still able to be grasped by chopsticks – from a Kagurazaka tofu shop called katsuno-shop.
    • Crab, no sugar was mixed with its innards

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  • Steamed Rice: Freshly Harvested Rice Served with Sea Bream Paste and Pickled Vegetables
    • Koshihikari rice, Niigata, sweet and nutty – harvested in October
    • The sea bream paste tasted like canned tuna, to be very honest.
    • Pouring the broth after we were half done with the rice transformed it into a savory soup. Wasabi almost entirely faded to a ghostly spiciness in the broth (4/5)

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  • Dessert: Sweet Red Beans, Yuzu Citrus Agar and Cream Cheese with Toasted Wafer
    • A most toasty wafer. I liked the red beans (4/5)

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Namazake Honmaru sake served: 4.25/5. Fruity

Ginza Kojyu | Tokyo | Dec ’14 | “harmony”

25 Dec
  • Rating: 19.5/20
  • Address: Carioca Bldg. 4fl., 5 Chome-4-8 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo, Japan
  • Telephone: +81 3-6215-9544
  • Price (all-in): 23,600 Yen ($197 at 100 yen = 0.83USD)
  • Value: 4.5/5
  • Dining Time: 120 minutes
  • Chef: Toru Okuda
  • Style: Kaiseki
  • Michelin Stars: 2

 

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Harmony – ingredients perfectly chosen for each other. Ginza Kojyu (with Mr Okuda at the helm) is a restaurant on the upper-end of the 3-star spectrum.

Kojyu, the jewel of a fledging empire from Chef Toru Okuda, was recently downgraded from three to two stars in the 2015 guide. While Chef Okuda has three other Michelin stars and several other restaurants (including Ginza Okuda in Tokyo (2*), Okuda in Paris (1*), and Sushi Kakutou in Tokyo among others), Kojyu forms the basis of his fame. Prior to the 2015 Michelin guide, Okuda-san had always been awarded 3 Michelin stars for Kojyu every year since 2007 (the year of the inaugural Tokyo Michelin guide). Yet despite the drop in quality a downgrade signifies, Kojyu was one of my favorite kaiseki meals in Tokyo (along with Ryugin).

The reason may be that Okuda is now back to personally cooking at Kojyu. Prior to this, I had heard through the Chowhound grapevine that Okuda cooked lunch at Ginza Okuda, and dinner at Ginza Kojyu. His ambitious restaurant empire (which in early 2014 included plans for a New York restaurant in 2015) is built on the fame of Kojyu, so it is no surprise to see him hard at work to regain the lost star.

There were two points of atmosphere at Kojyu I especially appreciated:

  • At every service, ice with flower petals is poured into the sink. As service progresses, the ice pile gradually shrinks down to nothing. Quite a romantic setting.
  • At the counter that seats 8, classical music is played which lends an air of refinement to the meal. Classical music can be schmaltzy, but it works at Kojyu.

At Kojyu I feel there are dishes (e.g. scallop dumpling soup, simmered vegetables with wrapped anago) where there is one central element that is just perfect. It does not have to be the largest part of the dish, but all other ingredients serve it. I have tried to annotate what I felt to be the core of each dish.


 

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  • Codfish milt / thick turnip soup / shimonita scallion / yuzu (4.5/5)
    • Luxurious tastes of creamy sperm explosion. (there is no real way to describe milt without sounding porn-y). Shimonita scallion was sweet and mild, the best exemplar of leek. (it occupies top place on the onion hierarchy along with Cevennes onion)
    • Core: Milt explosion, earthy turnip (surf and turf)

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  • Giant prawn / ankimo / chilli-vinegar jelly (5/5)
    • Slightly spicy jelly, with seaweed.The jelly was a almost-liquid agar. The crunchy gelatin of prawn was precisely offset by a creamy-chunky ankimo. Perfectly balanced, harmony.
    • Core: Gelatin of prawn meets creaminess of ankimo

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  • Scallop dumpling, maitake mushroom, pepper, turnip, radish (5/5).
    • So simple, but perfect. Scallop, lightly seared. Chopped, and then bound with egg-yolk and whitefish binding – perfect uniform consistency, no chunks. Simplicity itself, but the taste was perfection.
    • Core: Scallop dumpling

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  • Tuna with soy and wasabi, hirame (halibut) with salt and sudachi lime, squid
    • The squid was (5/5) creamy and starchy, dissolving in your mouth. Hirame was perfect with salt and sudachi lime (4.5/5). Tuna was decent.

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  • Sawara (Spanish Mackerel); Ozaki beef (5/5)
    • The fish was charcoal grilled with pickle turnip, and was good (clean, though grainy – perhaps the graininess is the essence of cooked mackerel). Ozaki beef was full of clean fat, bursting with flavor. It was fantastic. Served with salt and pepper, or with grated daikon and wasabi…

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  • Simmered vegetables – anago wrapped in turnip(?), tofu, spinach, shitake, daikon radish (5/5)
    • The hazy moon of daikon radish, draped over a medley of vegetables. Each element was good – but the anago (wrapped in something sweet) was sensational – a touch of class – the protein that swept the dish from pedestrian to classy.
    • Core: Anago wrapped in a sweet root vegetable

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  • Rice steamed with parrotfish (3/5)
    • (Way) overcooked fish. If it didn’t undergo rigor mortis when it was iki-jime-d, it definitely went through rigor mortis in the clayware.

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  • Persimmon-apple blancmange (5/5)
    • A delicate milky flavor from the blancmange (thickened milk pudding). Sensational. The creamy milk tastes blended well with apple. Persimmon disguised tartness from the apple.

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Other Notable Links:

  • Gastromondiale“I would call this gem, which consists of six seats at the counter and  a few tables, the L’Ambroisie of Tokyo.  That is to say, Okuda-san, not unlike the great Pacaud of L’Ambroisie, is a true perfectionist who selects the best seasonal ingredients and calibrates complementary and contrasting elements to create incredible harmony.”
  • David Kinch (chef-owner of Manresa)“Chef Okuda is an immense talent who is working within a very codified tradition. His is a personal cuisine with a sense of place, a reflection of who he is and where he’s from. His ingredients are seasonal and top quality. His enthusiasm shows in the generous staff and overall happiness of the space. Unlike a lot of his countrymen he has embraced Michelin. He says foreigners are requesting spots in large numbers to visit the restaurant and he loves it. He says he is exposed to new ideas and can interact with different cultures. “How can I not benefit from that?” he asks.Koju deserves high rankings. It is also on the upper level of the three star strata. Warmth, passion, a quiet confidence in their own abilities make we want to return again as soon as possible even if i have to hope on a plane halfway around the world.Worth a special journey, they say and without a doubt, one of the great culinary experiences of my life.”

 

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Ryugin | Tokyo | Dec ’14 | “the fragrance of strawberries…”

25 Dec
  • Rating: 19/20
  • Address: Side Roppongi Bldg, 1st Floor, 7-17-24 Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo 106-0032
  • Telephone: +81-3-3423-8006
  • Price (all-in, including sake): 38,000 Yen ($316 at 100 yen = 0.83USD)
  • Value: 3.5/5
  • Dining Time: 160 minutes
  • Chef: Seiji Yamamoto
  • Style: Kaiseki
  • Michelin Stars: 3

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It is funny how your culinary memory works. When you have some dishes at the table, you remember them as good but not mindblowing. But then you reflect on it again, and you crave a dish more and more. A bun with strawberry, custard and red bean, brings out the fragrance of strawberries, the sweetness of each ingredient well-thought out, none overpowering the other two. A porridge with fugu and black truffles brings to mind both winter gruel and understated luxury. The dishes at Ryugin are some of the most memorable I have ever tried – wildly creative, the food some of the best in Tokyo.
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But the kitchen is overstretched. The RyuGin empire spans Tokyo to Hong Kong to Taipei. During my second visit, all tables had at least two seatings, some had three. This was due to guest demand to dine there. At such scale, service becomes more impersonal. The whole operation has a military precision to it, an example being smartly-attired front-of-house having earpieces to communicate efficiently with the kitchen. The meal here lacked a bit of personal touch. This is no fault of the front-of-house, who were very friendly, but rather of the strict timetable necessary to serve more customers.
Chef Seiji Yamamoto is one of the truly great chefs, but his RyuGin HQ feels like a commodified operation, which is frustrating because RyuGin is one of the places you go for truly innovative food. I would cut back on the number of seatings – leave the quantity business (if you must, which you shouldn’t) to your foreign branches, but the main Tokyo branch should be in the business of all-round quality.

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  • koro sake

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  • Sea Urchins Small Egg Custard
    • thin layer of chawanmushi, hard cod roe. Bafun Uni from Hakodate. (4.25/5)

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  • Grilled Cod Fish Milt and Turnip Puree
    • Turnip puree, grilled codfish milt. Turnip and milt seem a theme, I had it also at Kojyu . Cod milt is a luxurious, creamy pleasure, a sploosh of pure protein.(4.5/5)

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  • Lightly Boiled Vegetables with Premium Dried Mullet Roe and Dried Sea Cucumber
    • Red shiso, a similar taste to kinome (4.25/5)

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  • “Zouni” one step early… Matsuba Crab from San’in
    • The soup containing mochi rice cakes for new year’s (AKA zouni).
    • Ichiban dashi made two minutes before serving
    • Crab leg was skillfully “de-boned” of the hard plates, from San’in Bay – available from Nov to Feb. Thin layer of mochi covered a pillow of sweet crab meat. I loved the mochi pairing here

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    • Gold leaf has no taste (I’ve had it here and in the sake at Sushi Mizutani). I would be quite happy if it was just dispensed with. Apparently, gold leaf is a signifier of luxury that dates back from Japan’s go-go era in the 1980s – “Stories from that era [mid 1980s to end 1980s] are legendary […] Businessmen would think nothing of giving thousand of dollars in tips to a favourite hostess, asking little in return that she laugh coquetttishly at their jokes. They tell of people sprinkling gold leaf on their food like salt and pepper, a practice that – if truth be told – persists in some of Japan’s more upmarket restaurants to this day.” David Pilling, Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival.
    • (4.75/5)

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  • Winter’s Ocean Delicacy Displayed in 3 Plates
    • Hirame (turbot), ankimo, oroshi ponzu (4/5)
    • Abalone simmered with liver sauce, apple vinegar jelly, turnip (3.5/5)
    • Akagai (ark shell clam), hokkigai (surf clam), spiny lobster, squid, herring roe. Different textures of jelly, tied with very strong wasabi (4/5)

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  • RyuGin’s Christmas Chicken
    • Second stuffed chicken wing of the trip (after DENTUCKY at DEN) – shark’s fin and beef tendon.
    • The wing was super crisp, and it was impressive the filling was moist (4.25/5)

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  • Sea Perch from Nagasaki with grilled Eggplant; Fuki sprout with soy sauce and simmered mashed Taro Potato
    • Sea Perch impaled with grilled eggplant; Erringi mushroom chip, taro place
    • Delicious charcoal grill smell (4.5/5)

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  • Sanuki Olive Beef on Stoneware in Sukiyaki style combined with Foie Gras
    • I don’t think this dish was a success. But it was ambitious in a RyuGin way. It redefined sukiyaki by serving the beef and foie on an extremely hot plate, and then pouring the sukiyaki sauce on. We were to cut the egg to release the yolk over the beef.
    • The “buffer” was some simmered vegetables underneath the beef and foie, to prevent the stone from overcooking them immediately
    • The problem is that the dish is very time sensitive. Wait a minute, and the beef and foie became slightly overcooked (as mine did). The fattiness of the beef made overcooking less of a problem.
    • Sukiyaki sauce, nothing special. The dish sort of works, but the extreme high heat is a bit of a waste of ingredients, I feel. I applaud the ambition but this particular high-heat version I don’t think worked. (3.5/5)

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  • Luxurious Winter’s Rice Porridge with Blow Fish
    • Warm rice porridge, the heat activating the fragrance of shaved black truffle, fugu, egg
    • Really good rice dish  – it was my first encounter with warm porridge and truffles. This was a winner for me. (5/5)

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  • 2014 Winter Tale, Roppongi Pudding
    • Bottom: mango custard, Middle: citrus jelly (grapefruit, lime) and apricot liqueur, Top: Chantilly cream
    • Really good and refreshing (4.5/5) The normal Roppongi pudding (made with caramel) is apparently on sale a RyuGin for 800Yen each normally.

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  • Strawberry Special Sweet (5/5)
    • Toraya, two soft (pillowy would not begin to describe it) buns with strawberry and red bean paste, custard.
    • So simple, but the tartness of the strawberries (they were sweet too) was perfectly calibrated NOT to standout from the custard and red bean paste. They harmonized – and the entire bite was a magical taste of strawberries, fragrance et al…

2014-12-22 23.24.00

 

Stag-gering to a watering hole…

Sushi Mizutani | Tokyo | Dec ’14

25 Dec
  • Rating: Disappointing
  • Address: 8-7-7 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0061, Japan
  • Price I paid: 34,000 Yen ($283 at 100 yen = 0.83 USD)
  • Chef: Hachiro Mizutani
  • Michelin stars: 2

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Sushi Mizutani today was my first high-end sushi experience. The chef seems to an extremely like-able person (he noticed very quickly I was a lefty), and my dining companions (Americans and Singaporeans on either side) were generous with conversation.

I liked Mizutani’s rice, which has been called “mushy” by some. It was just warmer than body temperature, lightly vinegared, and dispersed like a cloud after one or two chews  – allowing me to focus on the seafood. The meal was generally of high quality, but rarely mindblowing.

The most recent news is of Sushi Mizutani’s recent downgrade in the 2015 Tokyo Michelin guide from 3 stars to 2 stars. The blogger Mesubim hypothesizes that this was because Michelin wanted to canonize Jiro as a living god, and felt it was unduly harsh on Mizutani-san. While I agree that it is very harsh to downgrade a chef who stands at his counter day in and day out, I feel my meal there did not blow my mind – outside of 3 perfect pieces – engawa sashimi, mirugai sushi, and sayori sushi – the rest of the seafood was very good but nothing I felt you could not get at a top-end kaiseki or Japanese influenced restaurant.

But Mizutani is a craftsman who has been doing this for more than 50 years. If his sushi was ever worth three stars, it probably still is around as good as when he got his stars. Mesubim is probably right in that there is something political behind the decision to demote both Kojyu and Mizutani in the same year – but it seems to be aimed at correcting a prior exuberance in handing out stars – and aligning it to recent diner experiences. In Japan, the rank of master may be seen as something you get for life – for example, the sumo rank of yokozuna is a lifelong rank. But Michelin is a foreign guide. Is the downgrade harsh? Yes. Is it deserved? From my visit, yes.

Rating: Disappointing (between 13/20 and 16/20)


Other People’s Reaction:

Liked it:

  • Mesubim – “I tried it Mizutani a second time to confirm my feelings and, I think he has what it takes to be a three star. The bridge is made up of many, serving, preparing and the ambiance is calm, over decorated and a little nouveau riche. I cannot say I wouldn’t go back because I liked him, he is respectful, diligent and careful how he works. His helper is immaculate.”
  • Luxeat – “Everything, from hirame (yellowtail), kohada( gizzard shad) and to “die for” sayori (needle fish,which was topped with sweet shrimp paste), to explosive awabi ( abalone) and uni  sea urchin) from Hokkaido, that was sooo sweet and tasted like saffron, was the summum bonum of sushi. I don’t think it can get any better.

Didn’t like it

  • Kayoubidesu – “This was by far the most disappointing of the “high-end” sushi-yas that I have visited. The quality of fish was generally good, but the rice was very poor. It was soft, mushy, and lacking seasoning. Particularly disappointing was the kuruma ebi – it was served almost cold, and lacked the juiciness and flavour that you would expect at a high-end sushi-ya. Perhaps this was a one-off, but I was not inclined to return. Mizutani-san comes across initially as reserved, but is happy to engage in conversation (although he speaks very little English).”

Best pieces: Hirame (engawa) sashimi, saba sashimi, akagai sashimi, mirugai sushi, sayori sushi, bafun uni sushi wrap

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Sashimi

  1. Hirame (Engawa) – Flounder, outside edge –  Two pieces. Vibrant pink. Crunchy, firm, and sweet. 5/5
  2. Hirame – Flounder – Two pieces. Muscular. 4.25/5
  3. Awabi – Abalone – Three pieces. very tender, though somewhat lacking in taste. Needed soy and wasabi. 3.75/5
  4. Saba – Mackerel – Sliced with an intermediate cut in. Lightly vinegared, erfect swell of sourness, but never overpowering. Lightly cooked on the outside. Eaten with ginger and soy 4.75/5
  5. Ika – Squid – I find Japanese squid to have a magical starchy texture, that melts in your mouth. I have not found this elsewhere. Here, it had the starchy magic, but was a bit more jelly-like and less starchy than Kojyu’s squid, which has become my benchmark for squid. 4.25/5
  6. Akagai – Ark shell – served in strips – a clean, crunchy opaque jelly. 4.5/5
  7. Tako – Octopus – slightly chewy. Served with salt 3/5
  8. Hotate – scallop wrapped in nori – mediocre. While I appreciate the nori wrapping was piping hot, the scallop wrapped inside (like an onigiri) was slightly seared, but too dry 3.25/5.

Sushi

  1. Kohada – Gizzard shad – a salted vinegar taste 4.5/5
  2. Chutoro – Somehow I don’t find tuna as mindblowing as people claim. Sure, it’s a good fatty fish, but not something I’d compose paeans to. Chutoro, barely perceptible sauce. Good. 4.5/5
  3. Kamichutoro – Between chutoro and otoro. No impression, besides it was fatty and I’m sure a flash of good fishy flavor.
  4. Otoro – Wet and fatty 4.25/5
  5. Akagai – sweet and crunchy 4.5/5
  6. Mirugai – geoduck – Crunchy, with a subtle but insistent subterranean taste of clam in the aftertaste. Very very good. A star piece. 5/5
  7. Sayori – halfbeak/needlefish – an amazing fish, dressed in a good soy blend with ginger. Mizutani-san sliced the sayori in half and deposited a tiny mound of ginger in the cavity of the slice. 5/5
  8. Ebi – cooked prawn – very sweet – 4.25/5
  9. Bafun Uni – very creamy, a wrap – 4.75/5
  10. Anago – sea eel – Mizutani prefers not to douse the anago in sweet sauce. The falling apart texture of anago (minimally dressed) completely became a sweet powder in 1 or 2 chews. 4.5/5
  11. Tamago – _really_ sweet custard, a bit rough, a sweeter version of the dissolving anago 4.25/5

2014-12-22 13.29.12 2014-12-22 13.44.55

Asagi | Tokyo | Jun ’13 | “Michelin-starred tempura”

25 Dec

Address: Asagi Building 1F, 6-4-13, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, 104-0061

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One more from the vaults. As I’m writing this in December 2013, the big news of the Michelin-starred tempura world is that 3-star 7chome Kyoboshi has been downgraded to 2-stars for the 2014 Guide. 

After two great meals at RyuGin and Tapas Molecular Bar, I decided to try a good tempura place. I had first walked into Asagi the day before, but the counter was completely full with businessmen during the lunch service, and Asagi-san told me to come back the next day. Asagi, his name-sake restaurant, is located in a narrow alley behind Ginza that I would have had a hard time finding without Google Maps. Asagi-san has been frying tempura for more than 40-years, and evidently the restaurant has flourished, because Asagi-san owns the entire building in which his restaurant is located. The small counter seats 8, and Asagi-san’s amiable wife serves as waitress.

When I arrived on Thursday, in stark contrast to the day before, I was the only diner there for lunch service. Throughout the meal, Asagi-san prepared all the ingredients in front of me, and he explained that since I was visiting in summer, it was a uniquely difficult time for tempura. Summer’s high humidity makes it difficult for the batter to stick, therefore he changes the batter composition with each season. When my spoken Japanglish failed, I used Google translate on my phone to translate my queries. For a very reasonable price (around 8,000 yen), I could pick the mind of the tempura master for the duration of my entire meal.

While it was a very high quality tempura meal, I learnt gradually through the meal that tempura as a category of food leaves me cold. I did not react to the food viscerally, nor did the virtuosity of frying Asagi-san demonstrated translate into something that I would crave and remember long in the memory. I’m not entirely sure I could differentiate properly between the high-end tempura of Asagi-san, and some of the cookie-cutter tempura I’ve enjoyed in Singapore and the States. Asagi-san’s was notably not greasy, but the rest of the differences were so subtle I might be imagining them.

Notable write-ups:

Rating: 15/20

Memory: Tendon with Rice, a simple cold Dessert

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The narrow Ginza alleyway in which Asagi is found

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Asagi’s nondescript entrance

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____________

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Lunch service

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Interior

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Asagi-san prepares the batter. (tempura starts with a cold batter)

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… and the oil

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Prawn (4/5)

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Ika (Squid) (3.75/5)

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Whitefish (4/5)

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“Mise-en-scene”

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Prawn heads (5/5)

The previous dishes had lacked a savory element, the prawn heads here tasted like the South-east Asian anchovies, ikan bilis.

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Ayu (4.5/5)

The slightly-bitter melon taste of the ayu head was again evident. I first had ayu at RyuGin a couple of days ago.

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Beans (3.5/5)

To stick the two beans together, Asagi-san used a toothpick, and laconically swirled them around in his tempura vat of oil for about 20-30 seconds.

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Virtuosity comes from sticking two discrete objects together

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Eggplant (3.5/5)

Young and green

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Sweet potato (4/5)

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Underside of sweet potato

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Asparagus (3.5/5)

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In preparation for the anago, I had a sour-salty prawn paste, and salt.

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Anago (4.5/5)

Very good, with prawn paste and salt. Anago became my favorite seafood in Tokyo, having had a revelatory sweet-sauce on it at Sushi Bun at Tsukiji.

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Tendon with Rice (5/5)

One of perhaps two dishes which stuck with me in the memory. This tendon was fried as a single agglomerate, which takes a lot of skill on the chef’s part. Drizzled with a sweet-savory sauce, this was absolutely addictive. I could have had three to five bowls of this without question.

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Miso

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Dessert (5/5)

A most perfect and composed ending to a fried meal. A delicious single scoop of matcha ice cream, with red beans, brown sugar, and jelly.

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The remains of the day

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Me and Asagi-san

 

Suntory Distillery | Yamazaki | Jun ’13 | “the glorious Hibiki 30”

14 Sep

Address: 5-2-1, Yamazaki, Shimamoto-cho, Mishima-gun, Osaka

During my 10 day trip to Japan, I had travel from Kyoto to Osaka (a ~1 hour journey, close enough that Kyoto is served by Osaka’s 2 airports), and decided to take a daytrip to Yamazaki. Anyone who knows my tastes in alcohol knows that I hold the Hibiki blended whisky, produced right here in the Yamazaki distillery, in very high regard. The 12 year old “standard expression” is a drinkable floral blend, recipient of multiple awards from the whisky industry, and the 21 year old premium expression is even more delicate. It being impossible to taste the top-of-the-range 30 year old blend anywhere else, I decided to hoof it to Suntory’s distillery.

[A XX-year standard expression is defined as a blend of whiskies from _allowed casks_ that are all at least XX years old. For a single-malt, the only allowed casks must come from ONE distillery itself; for a blended whisky, the allowed casks can range from all over Scotland (Johnny Walker Blue) to a certain hand-picked set of distilleries (Hibiki)]

The Hibiki is a blended mix of the Yamazaki and Hakushu whiskies, both of which are wholly owned by Suntory. Now, the Japanese blended whisky industry differs quite substantially from the Scottish blended whisky industry. In Scotland, most distilleries are owned by the conglomerates – e.g. Diageo (owner of the Johnny Walker brand), and Pernod Ricard, among others. They are quite laissez-faire about inter-conglomerate trading. Often, if a master blender in the Diageo stable believes that a Pernod Ricard (PR) owned distillery produces a good set of casks to maintain the Johnny Walker taste for this year, they can buy the casks from PR. This is emphatically not the case in Japan, where whisky conglomerate lines indicate no-man’s lands of commercial trading.

What this means is that much of the variation required to blend an interesting whisky must be produced in house in a Suntory distillery.

Japanese whiskies are made exactly the same way as Scottish single malt is made. The only difference is that one is not legally able to call these whiskies “scotch” (that label is reserved for 100% made in Scotland whisky). This is not a coincidence. Japanese whisky started as conscientious imitators of Scottish whisky.

A brief history of Suntory: In 1923, Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory and the father of Japanese whisky, built Japan’s first malt whisky distillery in the Vale of Yamazaki.

The distillery’s location on the outskirts of Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto offered pure waters, diversity of climate and high humidity—the ideal environment for the maturation of good whisky.

Wikipedia

Tips. Don’t actually buy the standard to premium whiskies here: It can be found for much cheaper (40% cheaper) when you fly out of Tokyo/Osaka, due to high domestic taxes I believe. The only whiskies you want to buy at the distillery are the limited edition ones, like the Yamazaki 25 (very expensive) or the Hibiki 30 (individually labelled bottles, each costing USD1000).

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Distillery Tour

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Mash tun for fermenting germinated barley.

(Not pictured) Fermentation vats.

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The stills: For reflux. It is often claimed the shape of the stills affects the taste of the whisky. I am skeptical.

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The run-off, where the distillery master tastes the alcohol.

Traditionally (Scottish tradition) kept under lock-and-key, who historically wanted to prevent unauthorised drinking by their employees. 

The purest part of the run-off is the middle third of a distillation cycle, the first third and end third are usually re-refluxed.

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Cask Storage

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The pristine waters outside Kyoto, which we all drink when we toast a Yamazaki.

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highball (hai-boru)

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The Bar at Suntory HQ

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Review

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Hibiki 30年 (5/5)

Yamazaki 25年 (3/5)

Yamazaki 25年: The Yamazaki series takes its best probably at its 12-17 year mark, and rapidly declines through bitterness after that.  The Yamazaki 25 I had was over-oaked (spending too much time in the oak casket). This is a common complaint about old whiskies, which is probably why we haven’t heard any sterling reviews of the gimmicky Mortlach 70 years old, the oldest whisky in the world released in 2008, designed for completionist tycoons and showroom display cases.

  1. First taste: Expanding vanilla, smooth caramel, like the Glenturret 16
  2. After taste: Bitter oak

It is a conundrum: on the one hand, do you want to keep the smooth caramel that comes with the oak? How do you balance that with the inevitable seep of tannins into your whisky? Your tolerance for tannins may vary, but I see the Yamazaki 25 as stuck in the no man’s land between taste and tannins. I have heard that the oak breaks down after a few years, so I would be curious to try a Yamazaki 35 or 40. But for now, if I had to choose a Yamazaki, I would go with the younger ones.

Hibiki 30年: The Hibiki 30 is truly the best blended whisky I have ever tasted. This was intensely fruity in a way that surprised me, being more used to the floral notes of the Hibiki 12 and 21. It was as if the flowers in the younger Hibikis had finally bloomed by the 30 year mark.

  1. First taste: A great concentrated front nose of raisin.
  2. Mid taste: Strong orange and fruit.
  3. After taste: Fading into small bitterness

The only reason I didn’t get a bottle this trip was due to its very high prices. It certainly is not an everyday whisky, but is a special occasion whisky. It occupies the very top of my top 3 whiskies, which, as of this moment, are:

  1. Hibiki 30
  2. Glenturret 16, Distillery Edition
  3. Bruichladdich 36, Legacy Series 1

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To me, this trip to Yamazaki was special, as many of my great whisky memories have involved the Hibiki.

  1. I discover the Hibiki 12 at Jazz@Southbridge in Singapore 2009, with a highly interesting fellow.
  2. I rediscover the Hibiki 12 in Providence 2011, sitting dusty behind the counter of a small shop Spiritus Fermenti.
  3. I take a week’s tour in Scotland’s major whisky producing regions, to explore the range of Scotch whisky. I taste incredible single malts, but none of the blends were as drinkable as the Hibiki.
  4. I get the Hibiki 21 in Singapore (2012) and it becomes my travelling companion in the Northeast US.

Memory: Hibiki 30年

Tapas Molecular Bar | Tokyo | Jun ’13 | “pure whimsy and fun”

8 Sep

Address: 2-1-1, Nihonbashimuromachi | 38F, Mandarin Oriental Tokyo, Chuo, Tokyo Prefecture 103-8328, Japan

Telephone: +81 3-3270-8188

Back in June, when I was traveling for 2 weeks in Japan, I had a very pleasant tour through some of Tokyo’s finer restaurants. The previous night played host to a traditional yet arch-modern meal in RyuGin, and now I was swinging  to the other end of the spectrum with pure molecular wizardry on display at Tapas Molecular Bar. I found out about Tapas Molecular Bar thanks to Adam Goldberg, who highlighted this as one of his favorite places in the city.

The restaurant: My understanding is that Tapas Molecular Bar (TMB) was set up by Jeff Ramsey, originally sous-chef under Jose Andres at Washington DC molecular restaurant Minibar. However, as of 2012, Jeff Ramsey has left the kitchen, and it is now being helmed by Chef Koichi Hashimoto. Hashimoto-san was in the kitchen when I was there, and there was nothing but a glass box, containing the ingredients to be used in our dinner (dramatic foreshadowing) separating us 7 diners and Hashimoto and his British assistant chef Aaron Cardwell. The mise-en-scene (prior preparation) had already been assembled before our arrival.

Pre-meal, I was treated to a fantastic view over Tokyo in the bar area.

TMB is not an original act. It was highlighted in Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine as one of the prime offenders in copying ideas wholesale. Many of the dishes from reports in 2010 seem to have been copied from Minibar by Jose Andres in Washington DC, and I counted at least one dish on the night that was recognisably another restaurant’s (Mugaritz’s stone potato). My impression thus is that the chefs are skilled executors rather than creative forces in their own right.

The people: Two international East Asian yuppie bankers to my left, and a well-heeled Houston family of 4 to my right.

The environs: Nihombashi is a very upscale area, with swanky hotels and glitz restaurants, right north of the Ginza district. Right on the ground floor is the Tokyo HQ of fine-fruit purveyors Sembikiya. In Japan, fruit is considered a gift item. I have heard it speculated that it is because in Europe, the hard water led to fruit becoming a necessity as a vessel for clean water content, and Japan’s soft water made fruit unnecessary as a water vessel, and thus fruit acquired a luxury position. This reasoning sounds like fruitcake to me (luxury fruit in Japan is an at most two centuries old phenomenon, see this BBC article on Sembikiya, which traces back its history only to the 19th century, and soft water would be a fact of Japanese agriculture for millennia.)

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“dear me, if that isn’t a gold durian…”
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Spectacular views over Tokyo

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the menu

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Cherry Bonbon

Cherry with a bonbon liquid bomb of liqueur inside, coated with jello on the outside.

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Stone Potato (5/5)

Four stones, but only one is a potato. Chorizo sauce in a industrial-looking tube, and salt on a rock plate.

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I picked the right one!

This is a very labour-intensive carnival piece. Each potato is baked with flour water brushed on top, 3-4 times each to get the desired stoney effect. For pure whimsy this dish was a home-run. This dish is the infamous stone potato of Mugaritz restaurant in Spain.

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Chefs and their alginate.

2013-06-05 05.18.24Green Pea Mint (4.5/5)

The alginate beads are used to form a pea risotto, with a bit of ham mixed in. It was a decent combination, and the value of the dish lay primarily in its theatrical creation. Green-pea with sodium(?) alginate  is dropped into calcium chloride(?),  which causes spherification to happen. I was expecting a skin to form on the pea, but the alginate forms the beads without any membrane whatsover.

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Fromage Blanc, Flower and Butterfly (4.25/5)

A very pretty plating, but somewhat lacking in cohesion of tastes: the butterflies were made of sugar, the vinaigrette made of raspberry, and the foam a honey rosewater concoction, on top of some fromage blanc.

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Spring Landscape (4.75/5)

Lightly tempura-battered veggies, made to look like an enchanted forest, crumble of black garlic (which has a natural taste of wolfsberry, as I later found out) and onion, naturally fermented. A delicious combination

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Green Laver, Razor Clam, and Yuzu (3.75/5)

I did not have a strong impression of this dish; the yuzu was in the foam.

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foreshadowing with a syringe2013-06-05 05.45.00

Smoked Egg (4.5/5)

Liquid smoke piped into a jar, with an onsen cooked egg (low temperatures). This dish was quite nice, and smoked eggs was something I would later have in two forms in Singapore, at Jaan (the best onsen-style smoked confection, Julien Royer’s 62 degree, 55 minutes smoked egg), and David Pynt’s smoked quail eggs. This dish was naked and unadorned, and I felt it missed something that would make it perfect [I would later be enlightened by Julien Royer that what was missing was charred Jamon Iberico and potatoes]. The biscotti spoon to eat with added a touch of whimsy, but little tastewise.

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(off-menu) Prawn Bisque (4.5/5)

Blowtorched bisque (made of crab shell), and prawn. A sherry jelly for palate cleansing. An interesting take on the skin that forms on thick soups like bisques, I have never had a blowtorched soup before!

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Baby Pork Hazelnut (5/5)

This was an inverted xiaolongbao (soup dumpling). Here the pork (topped with shaved hazelnut), would form the outer covering for a soup within. How did they do it? I asked Aaron, the assistant chef. It turns out that they bake the chop, after they stuff a gelatin cube into the pork, and then cover it up with meat glue. The pork tasted superb, and the mechanics of the dish were sublime.

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the magic levitating spoons with their ingredients foreshadowing the different courses

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Warm Sizzling Beef (5/5)

Wagyu, already tender, is tenderised above and beyond, by being cooped up in a pressurised container with nitrous oxide for 6 hours. This also gives it a sizzling effect on the plate. It is not because it is red hot, but because of the gaseous behaviour of nitrous oxide.

The Edible Art on my plate is silkscreen printed mayonnaise, coloured with bamboo charcoal. Superb execution, bravo, bravo, bravo!

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(off-menu) Vegetable Soup

A rather-forgettable bland vegetable combination, but perhaps a good palate cleanser after the excitement of Warm, Sizzling Beef.

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Osuimono (4.75/5)

Osuimono is the other basic Japanese soup: the main alternative to miso soup when you’re making 1 soup-1 dish. At its best, osuimono is a very light broth: it should never be weighed down with too many ingredients, too much salt or – and this is a common mistake – too much soy sauce.

The basic ingredients are water, dashi, soy sauce and sake, but there’s a lot of room for variation with what you put into it. Dropping a beaten egg in it, for instance, works wonderfully. For this recipe, however, I used a filet of sole, some spring onion and lime rinds.

Kanoko’s Kitchen.

The threads of the meal come back to weave a narrative. Earlier, Chef Hashimoto syringed green stuff into an alginated soup. We now find out that the soup is osuimono, a classic Japanese clear fish-soup, with syringed kombu inside. This round spoonful of osuimono, perhaps best captures what is classic and modern about Tokyo cooking in one picture.

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Green Tea Puff (5/5)

Our friend liquid nitrogen makes its first appearance on the Tapas stage. But why is this little green tea macaron-shaped pastry, doused in liquid nitrogen for about 5-10 seconds, called a “puff”?

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the answer: because you keep it in your mouth and it starts puffing out of your nose!

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Egg (5/5)

Mango gelatin, and sweet white stuff in a white chocolate egg. A nest made of pastry. An incredibly plated dessert, it well-satisfied my sweet tooth.

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The array

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Japanese Paper (4/5)

Flattened candy floss, with flowers in between.

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Strawberry Milk (3.75/5)

The photo smells (faintly) of milk, and the crumpled paper display is made of strawberry. Taken together, this dish smells like strawberries & cream. The smell was a bit too faint on the photo to really make that association, however.

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Choco-banana (4/5)

Now with pop-rocks inside! Everyone is doing pop-rocks now, it seems to be an in-thing. I’ve had it variously, besides in Tokyo, in Singapore’s Jaan, Singapore’s Andre, and Singapore’s Saveur.

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Cherry Blossom

Can’t really remember what this tasted like. Underneath the cherry-blossom….

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The real Choco-Banana? (3.5/5)

Banana-“rice” krispies, bound with chocolate. Quite ordinary.

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Fruits (5/5)

Miracle Fruit, on the right, contains miraculin, which makes sour things taste sweet for 2 hours. We were promptly given lemons and limes.

____________

Tapas Molecular Bar is an incredibly fun restaurant (some would say amusement park). I would not hesitate to go back when I am next in Tokyo. It was deeply impressive that the pair of Chef Hashimoto and Aaron Cardwell were able to create all the dishes for 7 people without any help during the 2+ hours I was there, which speaks to a very disciplined mise-en-scene preparation process that preceded us diners coming in.

Memory: Stone Potato, Baby Pork Hazelnut (inverted xiaolongbao), Warm Sizzling Beef (Nitrous Oxide), spherified Osuimono, Green Tea Puff (the magic dragon), Egg (white chocolate and mango gelatin), Miracle Berry and Fruits.

Verdict: 18/20

Other great write-ups of Tapas:

  1. http://tomostyle.wordpress.com/2010/04/07/tapas-molecular-bar-tokyo-japan/
  2. http://www.alifewortheating.com/tokyo/tapas-molecular-bar-revisited
  3. http://www.alifewortheating.com/tokyo/tapas-molecular-bar

Nihonryori Ryugin | Tokyo | 04/06/13 | “molecular kaiseki”

19 Aug
  • Address: Side Roppongi Bldg, 1st Floor, 7-17-24 Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo 106-0032
  • Number: +81-3-3423-8006
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $260
  • Courses: (12 main/14 total) 10 savory / 2 palate cleanser / 2 dessert /
  • Price/Main Course: $22
  • Rating: 20/20
  • Value: 4/5
  • Dining Time: 133 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 9.5 minutes
  • Chef: Seiji Yamamoto (Aoyagi, Tokushima)
  • Style: Kaiseki
  • Michelin Stars: 3

Reservation available time : 11:30am-6:00pm

Ryugin popped on my radar when Chef Michael Cimarusti (Providence, Los Angeles) mailed me a DVD of Yamamoto performing cooking tricks that resembled a hybrid of Homaro Cantu’s (Moto, Chicago) high-tech-ery and Adoni Aduriz’s (Mugartiz, a favorite of mine) more organic approach. Indeed, as I did more research, I learned that Yamamoto and Aduriz were great friends, citing each other as influences and inspiration. The food at Mugaritz has an underlying Asian twist and it is possible to see how the two could find common ground to push each other further.3 A few inquiries found that, while experimental, Ryugin still had the Japanese attention to ingredient quality. The restaurant seemed to be at the forefront of an Eastern response to the largely Spanish molecular gastronomy “movement.” – ChuckEats on Ryugin.

Recently, I was staying in Tokyo for 6 days, and came in without a single booking for any restaurant. On a lazy Tuesday night, I managed to get a same-night table at the kaiseki (Japanese multi-course) specialists Ryugin. Weeknight tables are easier to get, since a great deal of fine dining is consumed by the professional class, which makes Friday-Sunday the busy days.

Ryugin is the brainchild of chef Seiji Yamamoto, who specialises in updating the traditional Japanese set-meal “kaiseki” with the latest molecular techniques, in what might be dubbed “molecular kaiseki”. Chef Yamamoto has been known to make burdock root corks for faux-wine, and his famous 196 degree series of fruit desserts involve some molecular trickery. The restaurant is located in gaijin work-and-play area, Roppongi Hills, and Chef Yamamoto has in the mean-time opened a branch serving the same innovative “molecular kaiseki” cuisine in Hong Kong.

Fiercely colourful crockery line the tables, in an intimate 26-seater restaurant, which is done is an classic black Japanese style, (similar to the l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon colour-scheme.)  It is ranked #2 in Asia for 2013 by San Pellegrino, just behind The Creations of Narisawa.

(In spite of the tongue-in-cheek title, liquid nitrogen was only used once, for one of the desserts. The meal was still focused on (and achievable with) traditional cooking techniques, with premium ingredients)

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Summer Menu 2013

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(cold) Grilled Corn Small Egg Custard with Fresh Sea Urchin and Fragrance of 3 varieties of Onions (5/5)

A simple pairing of egg custard and uni (sweet). 3 types of onions refer to green onion flowers (pictured), fried onion (brown bits pictured), diced onion (the white cubes). Showcased delicate raw sweet smell of spring onions without the bitterness.

2013-06-04 08.25.212013-06-04 08.25.00 (hot) Seasonal Vegetables with Pine Nuts dressing. Array of Flavors and Textures in one plate. (4.75/5)

“30 kinds of vegetables”. The salad, with crunchy vinegared bamboo shoots, pine-nuts, cucumber, savory green paste, mushrooms, was an upscale of an form of Asian vegetable medley. The salad tasted intensely of mushrooms and bamboo, and clearly labour-intensive. (as with Michel Bras’s gargouillou, and Alain Passard’s one-leaf-at-a-time approach to salads)

In Singapore, a similar dish called  盆菜 “pen cai” is made with tons of fungus and beehoon.

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(cold) Simmered Summer Vegetables and Cold Shabu-Shabu Beef with Kinome flavor (5/5)

The shabu-shabu tasted delicate and beefy, and falling-off tender. The jelly is made from boiling bonito fish, and lended a umami flavor to the dish. Blue Eggplant underneath the shabu-shabu, was from the Yokohama region. The star of the dish was kinome, leaves of the Japanese Ash (AKA Szechuan Peppercorn). Imagine lemongrass, but without the acrid lime taste. If lemongrass’s sourness can be a sawtooth wave, kinome resembles more a gentle sine wave. This was one of my favourite courses. Harmoniously composed.

(By comparison, the next night, at Tapas Molecular Bar, the beef was tender by virtue of pounding into submission wagyu beef with nitrous oxide for 6 hours.)

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(hot) Ichiban Dashi Soup. Pike Eel with Egg Plant stuffed inside in Summer Presentation (3.5/5)

The eggplant is folded within the pike eel. The pike eel was largely tasteless and flaky (so I guess I was to focus on its texture), the eggplant sweet; together they went well. I was told to eat before it disintegrates, since the geometric folding would not last long in the soup.

Alas! Given my inexpert chopstick handling, as well as the size of the morsel (two normal chopsticks full), they went together for 2 bites at most. This is a cutlery conundrum, calling for a new variant – gentle spatula tongs.

But a more experienced epicure educates:

There is no ingredient that tests the knife skills of a chef more than hamo, pike conger eel, which has rows of tiny coarse bones that are impossible to remove. Only an experienced chef with superior knife skills can perform honegiri (which means ‘bone cutting’ in Japanese), a process of making precise incisions into the bones without cutting through the skin or destroying the flesh. When a properly incised piece of hamo is blanched in hot water, it should blossom like a chrysanthemum flower with perfectly even sections, and create a light and fluffy texture. The hamo by Chef Yamamoto at Ryugin was the most perfect demonstration of hamo workmanship that I have seen to date. It was stuffed with sweet caramelized kamo-nasu eggplant and served in a wonderful bonito ichiban dashi. – Tomostyle

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The revelation of the dish was the water shield, or mugwortfrom the soup. This gelatinous herb is called “gin sai” or water shield. It’s crunchy inside and jello outside, like a natural red ruby (Thai dessert), which has a crunchy chestnut core surrounded by flour.2013-06-04 08.54.322013-06-04 08.54.48

(cold) Today’s Array of Ocean’s Delicacy. RyuGin style (5/5)

Clockwise from 8 o’clock:
1. Squid and prawn in Japanese soy sauce.
2. Lightly smoked bonito with Japanese mustard.
3. Flatfish with lemon juice.
4. Roasted potato stems with seaweed [texture of bai cai, seaweed umami]
5. Squid and seaweed.

Center:
6. Abalone and Crab Salad

Excellent.

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(hot) RyuGin’s famous Summer Dish: Swimming Ayu fish Grilled over Charcoal with Bamboo Aroma (5/5)

Ayu is a Japanese river fish; they were grilled in swimming position. Sauce is watermelon-pepper. (Ayu has a bittersweet part in its head, which I am told is the source of a watermelon flavour in the head). Advised to eat from crunchy head (w/o sauce) to crunchy tail (w/ sauce). Fantastic in conception and the fish were expertly grilled. The watermelon flavour in the ayu is a sort of bitter-sweet.

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Cherry pickled with ginger

Palate refresher. I am quite full at this point.

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Simmered preparation in Luxurious presentation – Soft Simmered Octopus – Simmered Abalone – Shrimp Ball and Green Peas (4.75/5)

Technically expert simmering with a winter melon piece draped over it.

The deviation from Chinese simmering technique came from the green peas! Crunchy like slightly simmered water chestnut. (“wakamame” peas?)

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Pork Neck Grilled on Charcoal and Straw Smoked with Wild Honey Soy Sauce and Mustard (5/5)

Pork neck was fatty and delicious.
Young corn had its thinking cap on.

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(hot) Pike Eel Scramble Eggs over the Rice Cooked from the Pike Eel Broth. Miso Soup and Pickles. (3.5/5)

Rice was unspectacular, but the pickled sardines were very good.

2013-06-04 09.47.12Refresher

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(off-menu) Chicken Rice Ball

Very fragrant. You can see the many herbs that went into it.

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Refresher2013-06-04 10.10.29

hmm…

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I broke it with a tap of my spoon… (on instructions) 2013-06-04 10.10.56

(cold) (hot) Roppongi’s special. Small piece of Ripe Mango. (5/5) !!!

oh!

A delicate bijou (of mild-tasting sugar?) coloured and shaped to look like a mango, containing freeze-dried mango powder, is broken by the diner and afterwards mixed with warm mango poured into the diner’s plate. This is the signature minus-196 degree dessert from RyuGin, which has been used for apples and peaches too, among others. (minus 196 is the boiling point of liquid nitrogen).

spectacular.

EDIT: here’s a video that goes into the complicated process of making one of these: http://en.rocketnews24.com/2013/07/05/watch-how-to-make-one-of-japans-elite-restaurants-desserts/

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(hot) (cold) Baked Ginjou Sake Oyuki Souffle, and Feathery Soft Served Ice Cream (5/5)

The premium sake souffle tasted like premium sake, which is the highest compliment I can give this dish. (and it goes all the way down into the base of the box).

Ryugin keeps getting better and better, living up to its promotion to 3 Michelin stars. Chef Seiji Yamamoto runs a tight ship at his Roppongi restaurant where the service and the courses seem to flow effortlessly. A recent revisit was right up there as one of the best meals of my life, and the highlight for me was their autumn harvest sake dessert. I went back and forth with my spoon, enjoying both the silkiness of the cold amazake soft serve and the warm fluffiness (and such enticing aromas!) of the sake soufflé. The juxtaposition of temperatures and textures was both pure genius and pure pleasure. – Tomostyle

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Matcha

Very bitter Japanese green tea, palate cleansing and bracing. The sequence of dishes is brought full circle; I am again ejected into the starry Tokyo night.

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My general thoughts on Ryugin:

  • Very theatrical. Most theatrical being the roasted swimming Ayu (river fish), and the Minus-196 Mango.
  • Their eggplants are very good.
  • Water shield, and kinome are herbs that should be used more often.
  • Bonito, which formed the base of the shabu-shabu jelly, is very versatile (dried bonito flakes are often used in Japanese home-cooking).

What I was impressed with was the high standard of imagination in every dish. Seiji Yamamoto has a perfectionist streak, and it shows in the plating and presentation of every dish. A beautiful dinner.

Verdict: 20/20

Memory: Uni Custard, Shabu-Shabu in Bonito Jelly, Swimming Ayu, Grilled Pork Neck, Minus-196 Mango, and Sake Souffle.