Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Fat Duck Heston Blumenthal

There will hardly be any doubt if the Fat Duck has become United Kingdom's most legendary restaurant since the last decade. The chef proprietor Heston Blumenthal, the molecular gastronomy genius, is the main reason for all of this. A self-taught chef, Heston is capable of executing immaculate old school technique and combining it with modern cooking using scientific or experimental approach resulting in plenty of spectacular and memorable dishes. Currently, Chef Blumenthal is at the height of his popularity; as a celebrity chef, he has his own TV show and his empire has been growing year after year. In order to keep the top notch quality at the Fat Duck, Heston appointed Jonathan Lake, a native of Ontario as the head chef. Jonny leads a brigade of about 40 chefs who relentlessly work and produce excellent dishes regularly. Chef Lake's curious mind always tries to find different ways to do things, invent new dishes and sometimes even improve the signature items. The term perfection seems to be a work in progress here; the pursue of excellence just never stops.

It was actually my first trip to England. During this visit, we only had one full day that happened to be on Tuesday in which my wife and I had the opportunity to dine at the Fat Duck. Honestly, I did not expect to be able to secure a table here. On one sunny afternoon day in Asia, exactly 2 months prior to our lunch, I was trying my luck in front of my laptop. Surprisingly I was able to get a table for two at lunch despite having an average internet connection speed. I then hurriedly filled in the necessary info, including the CC for guarantee ... voila, we received our lunch confirmation a few minutes later - sort of a dream come true. The restaurant is located in the small village called Bray. We quickly recognize the simple cottage house building to be the famous restaurant when we saw its famous logo hanging above the High Street board. Inside, the dining room's decor was quite simple and 'humble' when compared to other Michelin 3-star places particularly the ones in Europe. The ceiling is not high in both floors, the space is not that spacious (its capacity is around 42 guests only), the wooden beams look old; I also noticed a few abstract paintings on clean white walls. Nevertheless, the restaurant is well maintained with high quality of cutlery, glassware and linen. Anyway, the star of the show in any restaurant visit has to be the food and the Fat Duck performed spectacularly. Only one menu available: the 14-course tasting menu. Without any further delay, here what we had during lunch:

Nitro poached aperitifs - An aerated mixture made of some infused egg white, poached in freezing liquid nitrogen to produce 'meringue'. I opted for Vodka and lime sour flavor; it was fresh with tangy lime fragrance and flavor. My wife chose Tequila and grapefruit; an awesome way to awaken our senses and clean the palate. It's not a new experience for me as I had similar experience even with more unique flavor (earthly wild herbs - taste and smell like grass in rainy days) from Maison Marc Veyrat

Red cabbage gazpacho served with Pommery grain mustard ice cream - An interesting and savory 'cold soup'. It was kind of creamy with clear flavor and clean after taste. Good and refreshing

Jelly of Quail and Crayfish cream served with Chicken liver parfait, oak moss and truffle toast - The dish is a tribute to Alain Chapel. Initially, there was 'smoke from cold liquid' with oak fragrance; to accompany it, we ate a thin film strip flavored with oak and moss. Then come, the real deal: the quail jelly & crayfish cream (+ liver & peas) was simply ethereal; it's smooth and intense, every layer was consistent and delicious. The truffle toast was crisp and earthy; a perfect way to balance the cream. One of the best dishes for this lunch

Snail porridge served with Iberico bellota ham and shaved fennel - Heston's famous dish. The porridge (made with long oats grain) was in the right temperature and texture, more importantly flavorful. Everything was just right; from the succulent snails & rich parsley + garlic butter ('green broth') to the zesty & crunchy fennel as well as salty Spanish ham - gorgeous! 

Accompanied by wine: Matosevic Alba Antiqua (fresh and rather 'powerful'; this white wine worked well with intensive fish/seafood)

Roast foie gras served with Barberry, confit kombu and crab biscuit - The foie gras was creamy and its richness was just perfect for my palate. It worked well with the 'tart/sour' taste from the barberry puree; the flavor from the thin crab biscuit was surprisingly quite strong, but the kombu didn't really enhance anything for me. A well-executed and satisfying dish with some unusual combination

Mad hatter's tea party: Mock turtle soup, pocket watch and toast sandwich - A good presentation and interesting interaction with the staff at the beginning. However, I was not impressed with the dish; better to see than to taste. The broth (beef stock), 'egg' (turnip jelly) and other things were just Ok. Contrary to popular belief, I sort of like the sandwich (a mixture of bone marrow, butter, truffle, egg & mayo). A nice theater that lacks substance

"Sound of the sea" - Another Heston's legendary dish. I liked the 'sound' from the iPod shuffle (sound of waves, wind, sea birds etc.) but felt 'interrupted' whenever I consumed the food. The sashimi, consisted of octopus, yellow tail & mackerel, would've been impressive had I had limited experience of consuming top quality raw fishes in Japan. The edible sand was tapioca while the salty foam was made of seaweed & vegetable stock. Good presentation and ideas, but the food flavor was just alright

Salmon poached in a liquorice gel served with Artichoke, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe - An amazing dish! The 'buttery' salmon in its natural flavor was perfectly cooked; it collided in harmony with the bittersweet liquorice, enhanced by delicately sweet trout roe & vanilla mayo and acidic/bitter grape fruit. The artichoke was of good quality. Try to savor the burst of many flavors from the Scottish salmon and its supporting elements as long as possible in the mouth - exceptional! This kind of stuff made my long journey and effort felt paid off

Umble pie: Red deer, pie fluid gel and truffled spelt - By itself, the venison (probably cooked sous-vide) was divine, moist and importantly delicious. The chervil root and star anise/fennel sauce enhanced the already fantastic meat. Unexpectedly and possibly even better was the spelt risotto (sorry Chef Robuchon, yours was not on par with this) served separately. The risotto, topped with puffed spelt & having aromatic truffle aroma, contained the flavorful deer's 'sweet bread'; this gave rich and creamy spelt even a more stunning taste. Incredible! I would spend good money for this kind of food and obviously, the Fat Duck didn't offer UK's most expensive tasting menu for nothing

Accompanied by wine: Bernard Dugat-Py Bourgogne Cuvee Halinard (a good red Burgundy with strong tannin; it has complex flavor, intensive aroma and long finish)

Hot & iced tea - Drink straight at the position the waiter put this tea. As the name suggests, when I drank this palate cleanser, I could taste distinctly the hot and cold tea at the same time side by side. A cool sensation with good taste. The difference in viscosity was sufficient to twist the supposedly "simple" (lemon) tea

Eggs in verjus, Verjus in egg - The egg shell (made of white chocolate) was placed on top of biscuit & jelly. Inside the shell was some kind of ice cream/yoghurt. The yolk and biscuit/jelly should acted as verjus (unrefined green 'grapes') producing bitter sour flavor to balance the sweet and crunchy 'shell + egg white'

Botrytis cinerea - In short, this dessert was about wine grapes in several forms; they're served with cinnamon, 'snow' and raisin. The presentation was marvelous with great attention to details. The kitchen showcased different flavors of wines in different textures, shapes and colors. It's fun and witty but not that delicious

Whisk(e)y wine gums - Gums with strong whisky flavor. I don't drink whisky so I could not really comment much on the taste authenticity. Again, another well presented dessert ..

"Like a kid in a sweet shop" - There were 3 things here: Aerated chocolate mandarin jelly (airy with intense taste), Apple pie caramel (sticky, chewy & tasty) and the Queen of hearts (white chocolate with sweet tart and strawberry jam - the most interesting one) - an incredible dining adventure has come to an end.

It has been a while that I have not experienced any meal like this: the dining experience provided more than just incredible food - it's also fun, entertaining, and creative. Heston Blumenthal managed to 'bring' guests out to the forest, beach, wonderland etc. There were a few dishes that's more of a show, but overall the it's been a memorable culinary journey with plenty of delicious things to eat. From crayfish cream & snail porridge to liquorice salmon & umble pie, Heston showed his amazing talent in delivering complex dishes by applying both modern and classical technique. My spouse decided to abstain from alcohol that day, so she opted for a juice made of romano pepper, strawberry and ginger. Even, she said it was sensational and ingenuous. The service was professional and performed with high precision. The staffs were clearly passionate and knowledgeable; given the restaurant setting, they were also charming and made guests feel relax and comfortable throughout the entire meal. The Fat Duck did not offer the most expensive menu in England (prior to the arrival of the Araki at Mayfair) for no reason. The experience is nothing short of remarkable. It was really up to the hype, and at some moment it exceeded our expectation. Note that both Heston and Jonny were not in the kitchen during our lunch, yet the sous chef and his team were able to producing complicated dishes after dishes that were flavorful and balanced most of the time. A meal to remember indeed. For pictures, please click the following link: The Fat Duck in Nov '14  
Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 96/100

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Restaurant Andre Singapore

Andre, along with Iggy's, is arguably the most internationally well-known and talked-about among restaurants in Singapore. However, unlike Iggy's owner, Andre Chiang acts as the chef-patron. This Taiwan-born chef already had a spectacular reputation when he was the main driver of Jaan. Many foodies and critics alike have admired his cooking skills. It should not be a surprise when Chef Andre finally ran his own restaurant near the end of 2010, the expectation skyrocketed. Only in a few years, San Pellegrino recognized Andre as the best restaurant in Singapore for 2 years in a row and this further propels the restaurant's fame. Reservation was not easy, but I was quite fortunate to secure a seat in less than a week just a few days after the F-1 party subsided. Talking about Restaurant Andre, one cannot help but to notice about Octaphilosophy - a philosophy that's clearly defined and explained at the restaurant's website. Having been informed by Andre's front staffs a few times during the dinner, I believe this philosophy, in short, is about 8 elements that almost always appear in Andre's creations. That's how Andre Chiang would define his cooking style. This Octaphilosphy principle consistently guides Andre and his kitchen team when they receive new ingredients daily. In my case, the Octaphilosphy translates to the following dishes (I also ordered 'juice-pairing' for my meal):


Pure: Stone crab raviolis served with Pear snow and Leek water - A dish without any seasoning does not mean hardly any taste. The leek water & 'burnt' onion were quite dominant compared to the light pear snow and stone crab. A decent and refreshing dish

Salt: Gillardeau oyster served with Sea corals granny smith and Seawater emulsion - Chef Andre displays different produces generating various natural salty flavors and how they interact with each other. It was not easy to recognize all of the ingredients. I have to admit this complex dish works better than I initially thought

Accompanied by: kombu seaweed juice

Artisan: Charcoal grilled baby corn served with Corn mousse and Sesame salt - The 're-creation' of corn kernels has sweet taste with some smoky flavor and crunchiness; while I sensed some 'nutty-like' flavor for the pleasant sweet mousse. The sesame salt purpose I think is to give some contrast flavor. A good dish though nothing spectacular

South: Blue lobster served with orange-yellow rutabaga marmalade - The small portion of lobster is well executed; tender and delicious (reminded me of Pacaud's langoustine). The rest of the side dishes, such as marmalede with tapioca or mashed carrot/pumpkin, allow you to have some combination that should enhance the dish overall experience

Accompanied by: rice milk with cardamom 

Texture: Charcoaled squid served with Fennel smoked piquillos - A fun and creative stuff from the kitchen. Only 2 "charcoals" are actually edible deep-fried dough sticks. Mixed this dough with the flavorful chewy grilled squid in olive oil to enjoy this dish to the 'fullest'

Unique: Grilled topinambour served with Truffle, Wild mushroom and Malt vinegar ice cream - Creating a dish with numerous ingredients are very challenging. The artichoke's subtle flavor is mixed with earthy trompette mushroom; the stronger taste is coming from garlic soil and onion compote. The malt added a hint of sweetness. Complex and quite good ..

Accompanied by: toasted cacao juice 

Memory: Warm foie gras jelly served with Black truffle coulis and Olive oil - Chef Andre's timeless dish. The rich duck liver has a smooth texture like a chawanmushi; the (frozen) truffle intensifies the dish in terms of aroma and flavor. Finally a nice & comforting 'simple' creation 

Accompanied by: potato skin juice

Terroir: Pork belly served with Black garlic tapenade, Mixed heirloom beets and berries - The pork belly, from Australia, is tender & flavorful with a crisp skin and its juice; some small part of the meat is not that juicy unfortunately. The pork sausage was just ok. The side dishes showcase different flavor combination 

Accompanied by: black malt mixed with sparkling water 

In addition to the items above, the restaurant provided plenty of small dishes (snacking) at the beginning. For instance scallop/chard, pineapple/olive, onion, potato bravas and so on. After the Octaphilosophy comes to an end, then comes some desserts and sweets such as melon/grapes, "snickers", chestnut madeleine, churros/nutella etc. Dining at Restaurant Andre, which seats only 30 people, seems as if guests dine at the chef's house. The setting is intimate and quite modern dominated by grey, black and white colors. The staffs, led by Stepan Marhoul, are rather diverse in background, yet most of them are professional, warmth and knowledgeable. Moreover, Chef Chiang himself is such a humble and kind host. To be honest, I don't really have any favorite dish, in fact nothing stands out, but I somehow truly enjoy the overall experience. Essentially, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.The ingredients are interesting and abundant; they're generally well-executed by the kitchen lead by Andre's main helper, Johnny Jiang. I just hope that in the near future, the many creative dishes here will be more delicious. Click the following link to see the dishes' pictures: https://picasaweb.google.com/118237905546308956881/RestaurantAndreSingapore

Food (and Wine): 94 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 94/100


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Joel Robuchon Singapore - 2nd visit

A few years has passed ... having dined in several different places in Singapore, I find there is (still) no better place to savor French haute (nouveau) cuisine at the island than Joel Robuchon restaurant. After my first visit in late 2011, I tried to come here once every two years; it didn't happen last year since I had a chance to have lunch at Robuchon au Dome. The Macau establishment was nice but I still prefer my experience at RWS. Similar to my previous visit, I designed my own menu a couple of weeks prior to my dinner. Jasmine, the restaurant's hostess since the opening, efficiently assisted my communication with Executive Chef Tomonori Danzaki. I noticed that the usual degustation menu's price had been decreased by about SGD 50 - Robuchon is known to be adaptable to the global economy and domestic market situation. On paper, I was very pleased with the arrangement but I miscalculated small things. Unlike my first visit, this time my menu contained some "trio" dishes, to be exact 3 of them - I counted them as 3 courses instead of 9 as I thought they would come in small size requiring 1-2 bites each. Actually, this time the portions were larger than my experience at the other Robuchon's restaurants (of course, I did not complain) in particular the salmon tartar with caviar as well as the black truffle tart with onion confit. Therefore, in total I ate 19 courses (4-5 more items than the 'normal' long tasting menu) during dinner that lasted until near midnight. Honestly, this is probably the "biggest" meal I've ever had in my life. However, the quality didn't disappoint at all. As a matter of fact, it unexpectedly went down to be my best dining experience in the whole Asia (& America) excluding Japan.

Degustation Menu

Pour Commencer arlette croustillante au beurre salé et aux lamelles de truffe (Crispy arlette with salted butter and truffle shavings) - The warm arlette (more like waffle here) on the left was crunchy and flaky with a piece of black truffle sandwiched in between. An even better amuse was the one on the right side: it consisted of a layer of light parmesan on top, aromatic black truffle and tasty foie gras at the bottom - enjoy it by 'fishing' the glass

Le Caviar Impérial sur un velouté de chou-fleur glacé tremblotant (Imperial caviar on a shivering cauliflower velouté with golden croutons) - The velvety cauliflower was mixed well with the fresh shellfish jelly and the burst of caviar's saltiness. The airy cheese stick was nice by itself 

Le Caviar Impérial en jubilé de crabe royal dans une onctuosité de fenouil (Imperial caviar on duo of king crab with fennel lightness and sea urchin) - The crab was a combination of delicate Kamchatka/Royal crab and fine French spider crab (displaying texture and flavor contrast). The crab's succulent taste matched perfectly with caviar's brininess as well as the sweet and creamy flavor coming from Hokkaido uni. A luxurious and delicious dish!

Le Caviar Impérial avec le saumon en tartare agrémenté de jeunes pousses de shiso (Salmon tartar flavored with shiso sprouts served with Imperial caviar) - This beautifully presented dish was incredibly exquisite. The luscious salmon tartare was fresh, tasty and perfectly seasoned; it's enhanced by top quality of shiny caviar (having sumptuous taste) and runny egg yolk wrapped in gold leaf. Every element here was just right; I truly enjoyed every single bite of this dish. My favorite one among the Imperial caviar trio 
L’OEuf de Poule mollet friand, légèreté au fin comté et “Iberico de Bellota’’ (Crispy soft boiled egg with black truffle, comté cheese mousseline and ‛‛Iberico de Bellota’’) - The crispy crust was pleasant, but the black truffle and Spanish ham, prepared in shredded form, were a bit muted compared to the harmony taste produced by wonderful egg yolk core with flavorful parmesan and truffle mousseline 'sauce'; nevertheless it's still awesome, nearly as amazing as Robuchon's famous poached egg dish with salmon and caviar 

Accompanied by wine: Champagne Veuve Clicquot Yellow Brut Label (Bubbles with full body flavors, intense aromas and fine acidity)

Truffe Noire en fine tarte croustillante aux oignons grelots et lard fume (Black truffle tart with onion confit and smoked bacon) - A strong candidate for the best dish in this meal; pleasing both to the eye and the palate. The pungent and earthy truffle was in perfect harmony with the salty bacon, crispy tart and sweet onion confit. Different flavors and textures but balanced; they're happily dancing in my mouth as I slowly savored this exceptional dish - in leaps and bounds, it was just way better than a similar dish created by lepinoy at les amis

Truffe Noire avec le foie gras en millefeuille croustillant d'anguille (Crusty eel mille-feuille layered with smoked duck liver and black truffle) - The caramelized Japanese unagi was sweet and slightly firm while the foie gras was delicate and rich, then the pungent truffle added an extra 'punch'. A very intense dish; the "millefeuille" held together nicely. Each bite was a revelation of extraordinary "fattiness". To balance any excessive flavor, there was bland whipped cream with black pepper as well as salad containing radish and onion

Langoustine truffée et cuite en raviolis, étuvée de chou vert (Scampi raviolis with black truffle, chopped cabbage and foie gras sauce) - The meaty Alaskan langoustine wrapped & cooked briefly in ravioli was tender and tasty. The truffle gave a pungent flavor and (thankfully) the buttery and creamy foie gras sauce was somewhat lighter than usual. Perhaps Danzaki-san did it on purpose as the other 2 dishes in the truffle symphony were very luscious

La Noix de Saint-Jacques en timbale de macaroni, aux courgettes et jus émulsionné truffée (Sea scallops in macaroni with zucchini and truffled jus) - A pretty presentation. The scallop in the middle was delightful, but I wish they didn't cut it into smaller pieces. The most interesting part was the other 'side items' such as citrusy shiso, truffle and its juice, asparagus, macaroni etc. They complemented each other; a fine dish but not memorable 

La langoustine en fricassée aux courgettes et amandes (Langoustine fricassee with zucchini and almonds) - A very fresh, succulent and sweet Alaskan big prawn was the best among the seafood trio. The sauce from langoustine own juice was tasty. There were contrast in texture and color as displayed by orecchiette pasta, almond,  zucchini, and some 'chips'. Excellent dish! 

Le homard sur une royale crémeuse au “château chalon” (Lobster on a “chateau chalon” royale) - The tasty lobster (in small portion) was nicely firm in flavorful & rich foam; the asparagus and other vegetables were alright. I didn't really like the lobster flan at the bottom ...

Le king crabe kadaïf en fritto au curry vert (King crab kadaif, green curry sauce) - A uncomplicated dish focusing on the good crab's quality (inherently sweet); they're nicely wrap in cheesy and crisp kadaif. The curry sauce was light, hence hardly brought any effect to the overall flavor of the dish  

Accompanied by wine: 2008 Domaine Alain Voge Saint-Peray Fleur de Crussol (Smooth texture with some minerality; deep, creamy with lingering aftertaste) 

Les Champignons variés mitonnés dans un bouillon au jarret de veau à la truffe noire (Mushrooms simmered in a veal broth with black truffle) - The veal broth was very pleasant, flavorful and not cloying at all. The fragrant & 'clear' broth was enhanced with the coveted truffle shavings, meaty button and shiitake mushroom as well as salty bacon ravioli

L’Amadai en duo d’artichauts sautés aux saveurs épicées (Amadai with sauteed artichoke and saffron ginger sauce) - The pan-seared Sea bream was great with its crispy scale still intact and delicate flesh underneath. I loved the light saffron sauce with some sour notes in it. After plenty of highly flavored & 'heavy' dishes in the first half of tasting menu, this kind of refreshing course could not arrive at a better time

Le Turbot rôti une étuvée de champignons des bois, oignons grelot au jus truffé (Roasted turbot with wild mushrooms, pearl onions and black truffle jus) - Turbot was usually my favorite fish in French cuisine. It's precisely executed producing flesh that was firm yet supple; the light seasoning and pungent truffle brought more flavor. Additionally, the application of late Autumn mushrooms and truffle juice added interesting complexity but still balanced

Le Canard et son foie gras à l’aigre doux de cerises et aux amandes fraîches (Duck and seared foie gras with cherries and fresh almond) - For the first time that my main course at Robuchon's gastronomy places was not Japanese beef. The Challans duck breast was tender but a bit too dry to my likeness; the duck liver was, as expected, creamy and delicious. My favorite part happened to be the seasonal and fresh cherries that brought harmony to the dish. There was rich and buttery mashed potato on the side   

Accompanied by wine: 2007 Chateau de Cazeneuve Pic Saint-Loup Le Roc des Mates (Sweet nose with plenty of dark ripe fruits, full body and vibrant due to high acidity)

Les Fromages frais et affinés (Your choice from the cheese trolley) - As far as I know, this place has the best cheese selection available in Singapore. I chose 4 kinds: goat cheese, 24-month old comte, camembert (smooth & buttery) and roquefort (sharp and tangy). It's been ages since the last time I consumed excellent French cheese

Le Mojito créme madame à la menthe, ganité au rhum ambré et nuage de citron vert (Mint lightness with dark rum granite and lime emulsion) - Robuchon's take on classic cocktail. It rarely happened I enjoyed the first dessert (often work as palate cleanser) more than the second one. It's bright and acidic with a good minty; sweet and sour flavor were noticeable but not overwhelming. Well done!

Le Dôme sur un lit de fruits noirs, chocolat coulant au Dulcey (Berries on a delicate chocolate fondant and dulcey smoothness) - Another beautiful presentation dish. Not a small portion for dessert. I found the chocolate fondant plus 'caramel' really sweet; fortunately sour & tart (acai) berries at the bottom helped to 'cancel out' the extreme sweetness. Another good chocolate dessert created by the French master chef  

Le Moka – Le Thé escortés de mignardises (Coffee or tea served with seductive sweets) - This time I had raspberry fruit tart, canele, opera and dragee/sugar coated almonds. In addition, I savored 4 different crisp macarons flavors, named black currant, orange blossom, mint and chocolate; they're very good. I drank tea created from a mixture of thyme and mint

Accompanied by wine: 2011 Charles Hours Jurançon Uroulat (Clear in gold color, refreshing, fragrance and complex - would taste better in 3 years time)

I know I would eat very well at any Joel Robuchon fine dining restaurants, but I never imagined it could reach such high points. Every course, using the finest ingredients available, was very well executed; even some of them was near perfection. It's one thing to be creative, but another thing to have flawlessly implement it. Salute to Chef Tomonori Danzaki and his brigade for meticulously and consistently preparing delicious dishes after dishes. I was not afraid to declare that Danzaki-san was Robuchon's most capable chef; it means that he's better than Verzeroli, Le Tohic and Semblat (in order of abilities based on my visits to their restaurants). Every small detail mattered and we could see it from both the food as well as the decor. On top of the black lacquer table with dark linen, there were several well-arranged crystals. Black and beige color dominated the dining room's lavish ambiance. Grand opulent chandeliers, huge vases for flower arrangements, and several antiques/paintings etc.; all of the elements were in harmony. A memorable haute cuisine experience in luxurious setting.

The service was impeccable throughout although the fine dining restaurant was understaffed, there were only 7-8 people served more than 30 diners (Possibly one of its busiest night ever). The sommelier Duboueix was sick and the restaurant manager Raguzzi was busy helping the l'Atelier. This time the wonderful service was delivered by Asian staffs: Sherika, a Filipina maitre d' who used to work at Robuchon Macau for a couple of years, and Kohmalan, an easy going Indian gentleman. They were not only sincere and helpful, but also able to engage in meaningful conversations since both of them possessed good knowledge about the food, the restaurant and the chefs. When I finished my black truffle symphony courses, Chef Danzaki inquired whether the food had not been 'too much'. To be honest, I was half full already but the kitchen was willing to adjust/reduce my initial tasting menu - a nice gesture that I politely declined. Near 11 PM (around the cheese course), Chef Danzaki visited me to make sure that everything was fine. He was gracious and seemed happy & curious that I managed to finish up everything. We were chatting for about 15 minutes; his English has improved tremendously. He explained that his favorite food was still Japanese cuisine and sometimes still went to Tokyo for working purposes. The staffs were proud of their jobs and committed to keep getting better. More than one occasion they asked me about the food, the service, how they do (compared to their competitors or among Robuchon places) and how they could improve. I hardly remember the last time a top gastronomy restaurant brought such questions.

Please check out the link below for the dishes' pictures, https://picasaweb.google.com/118237905546308956881/JoelRobuchonSingapore2ndVisit 

Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 96 pts

Overall: 96.5/100  

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Kyo Aji Kenichiro Nishi

Kyo Aji may not be a kind of restaurant that many people are familiar with except for serious Japanese gourmands. As a matter of fact, it was not in my radar initially when I did my 'homework'. Kyo Aji, located in the Shinbashi neighborhood, literally means "Taste of Kyoto". Master Chef-Owner Kenichiro Nishi is originally from Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital, before moving and settling in Tokyo. The establishment has been around for more than 40 years and consistently occupying Tabelog's top spot. There is a couple of reasons why this restaurant is not that 'popular'. Firstly, Chef Kenichiro Nishi refused the 3-star Michelin awards, hence you will not see it anywhere in the Red Guide. Like Matsukawa, Nishi-san disliked or didn't care about any awards or publication. Secondly, Kyo Aji is strictly an "introduction-only" restaurant. Sometimes in July, I called and talked with a few Chief Concierges from Tokyo's elite hotels such as Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula, Park Hyatt etc.; all of them informed me that they were unable to secure seats for me and my wife at Kyo Aji. Honestly, I didn't have much hope. I was simply trying my luck and told some chefs and friends about my desire to dine there. 1-2 months before we're leaving Tokyo, my friend's friend suddenly informed me that s(he) knew someone who could and was willing to help us introduce and reserve a meal at Kyo Aji as a gift for our "2nd (delayed) honeymoon".  Moreover, it's a dinner! I would be very ecstatic even with lunch ... Voila, that's how we ultimately could eat here.

Kyo Aji, as the name suggests, serves top quality Japanese traditional food (in kappo-kaiseki style) focusing on Kyoto cuisine. The restaurant only offered one menu - omakase, serving only the best dishes using stunning seasonal ingredients and depending upon diners' food allergy (if any). Since it's a golden opportunity, we made sure that would not be late for our dinner. With a clear map and a picture of the restaurant's entrance, my wife and I managed to reach Kyo Aji 15 min. earlier. As we took pictures around the restaurant's premises, I saw a senior gentleman in white coming out of a side door bid farewell to 3 middle-aged local executives. Then, (in Japanese) I greeted him and asked if he was Kenichiro Nishi-san. Chef Kenichiro said yes and looked a bit puzzled; he might be thinking: "how in the world this foreign stranger knew my name". I told him I got a reservation at his restaurant, after that he called someone from inside and soon a friendly lady in kimono appeared. As we came before our appointment time and it was cold outside, the Okami Makiko Nishi kindly let us waiting inside the private dining room. About 5 min. later, we were escorted to our seats at the counter. Allora, another good fortune - we're seated in the 6th & 7th row from the entrance, in which I could clearly see the legendary chef himself in action. All the 9 spots at the counter were occupied. A memorable gastronomy journey just began; in total the restaurant served us sixteen courses including 2 rice dishes and 2 desserts.

'Amuse-bouche': Anago served with steamed sticky rice and wasabi - The conger eel was light and pure (exploiting the anago's natural flavor), worked well with the 'translucent' mochi rice and pleasant horseradish
Hassun: It consisted of dried & cured mullet roe, 'salad' of cucumber with persimmon sauce & sesame paste, and water chestnut chip - Good quality karasumi; refreshing vegetables; crunchy & slightly bitter chip

Yaki Matsutake: Broiled Matsutake mushroom seasoned with lemon and served with spinach - Along with French morels, this is my favorite mushroom in the world. The matsutake was clean & aromatic with pleasant meaty texture. The chef managed to fully bring out its flavor in this dish. The lemon and spinach provided nice variation
Shirako - A generous serving of plump Cod's milt/fish sperm that's initially boiled with salt only. This winter delicacy showcased different textures: dry & chewy on the surface and creamy/milky inside with subtle sweet sensation   

Taiza Kani - Top notch snow crab from Kyoto is Japan's best crab (possibly also the world's best). It contained plenty of succulent egg sacs. The crab meat, served chilled with the kani miso, was pristine and delicious. Easily the best crab dish I've ever eaten in my life until the ones I had at Matsukawa ..
Deep fried Ebi imo - The shrimp-like taro with curved shape was not greasy at all. It's very delightful, fragrant and tasty. Deceptively simple but required an expert to produce this kind of age-imo, which was crispy outside and still soft inside

Sashimi: Maguro and Tai - High quality of Bluefin tuna without any trace of imperfection; the Sea bream was elegant and delicate with the right amount of chewiness
Hamo Matsutake Nabe: Hot pot containing sliced conger pike eels and Pine mushrooms in dashi and served with sauce (shio & sudachi) - A beautiful marriage of delicious Summer and Autumn ingredients. The flavorful broth was extracted from hamo bones and perfumed by matsutake. The fluffy & full body "king" eel looked like a flower (thanks to many fine slits cut into it). The matsutake offered entrancing aroma while retaining its firm texture; it's very oishii when cooked in hamo dashi. An amazing and unique delicacy, simply perfect!

Moroko-fish and Sole served with Shimeji mushroom and sweet vinegar sauce - The lightly grilled moroko from lake Biwa was savory with sweet/salty taste. The sole fish, dried overnight, was more intense. Enhance both fishes with the pleasant vinegar; the shimeji was nutty with some umami flavor
Kabu cooked in dashi served with shrimp, matsutake and kikuna/shungiku - The round turnip was mild and soft drawing the taste from the mushroom and shrimp while the (edible) chrysanthemum leaves tasted slightly bitter - a nice flavor contrast 

Age Matsutake: Deep fried Matsutake mushroom - Chef Nishi did fabulous job. The matsutake inside was still firm and meaty; the bread crumbs outside was of great quality. The dish was not greasy/soggy at all and I could still taste the pine mushroom subtle flavor. In addition, it revealed an interesting contrast of 'chewy' matsutake and crisp crust. Excellent!
Nimono: Simmered chestnut served with Sea bream - The boiled chestnuts was soft and had a hearty taste that's comforting when the weather was cold. There was a good portion of Tai at the bottom; the white fish flesh was delicate and tasty. A good combination

Matsutake Gohan: Rice cooked in matsutake-based 'dashi' - The Japanese rice, served with radish & pickles, was cooked with broth made of wild pine mushroom. The rice well absorbed the earthy matsutake. Nishi-san didn't do much with it; he simply let the natural smell & taste of Matsutake to shine itself
Sake Harasu Gohan: Grilled Salmon belly with white rice - Kyo Aji's famous rice dish. The gohan had very good texture that went well over carefully broiled salmon. The salmon belly was salty and a bit juicy; it's even better than the matsutake gohan

Kuzu-kiri served with kuromitsu - Kyoto style sweets, the restaurant's signature dessert. Kuzu-kiri was the translucent "noddle" strips (sitting in ice water) that's made of boiled kuzuko while kuromitsu was the brown sugar syrup. It's simple and elegant. The kuzukiri, silky with amazing texture and minimal taste, was dipped into fragrant & liquid kuromizu that had the right amount of sweetness. Together, they're producing an ethereal experience. My best dessert in Japan
Warabi mochi - Jelly-like mochi, served chilled, was freshly made from bracken starch and covered in toasted soybean flour. This Kansai specialty was my wife's most favorite dessert. It's very delicate and quickly dissolved in the mouth; you could hardly chew it. The nutty kinako was flavorful. We ate a couple more warabi mochi during the trip, but nothing came close to this   

Kyo Aji just provided me a fantastic (meal) experience that I would remember and cherish for a long time. The cooking here is all about deep respect to Japan's amazing produces. Master Chef Kenichiro Nishi, often labeled as "God of Japanese Cuisine", consistently brought out the natural and best taste of every ingredient and their beautiful combination . He would not mask/manipulate flavor or do too much with his food; less is more. The result was dishes that were clean, soothing as well as delicious. His cooking method essentially epitomized maturity and simplicity of kaiseki perfection. Everything was in harmony; you hardly find any dish that was not balanced or too rich. I could not agree more when many have said that in order to fully appreciate what Kyo Aji has to offer, it would've been better if you already had (extensive kaiseki) meals elsewhere. It's especially true with my wife's case. She got used more to very flavorful stuffs from South East Asia and could not really differentiate great products at times. Even for me, my understanding and respect towards Nishi-san's dishes grew after having meals at Kyoto Kitcho and Ishikawa. We were told that this year, Matsutake mushroom season appeared later than usual. Hence, we're blessed to still be able to enjoy this delicacy (in fact, lots of them) in the middle of November.

Kyo Aji's service, led by Kenichiro Nishi's eldest daughter, was impeccable. Makiko-san was exemplary and spoke fluent English; she was assisted by 2 other staffs and all of them was courteous, helpful and sincere. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised. As an exclusive restaurant, I expected to receive formal and rigid treatment at Kyo Aji, perhaps similar to my experience at l'Ambroisie. It's totally the opposite. We felt very comfortable and had a wonderful time. Nishi-san was really welcoming, caring and easy going. With the assistance for his daughter, he initiated plenty of conversation. For instance: whether our home/family was not affected by typhoon haiyan, what we would do during our stay in Japan, how we found out about his restaurant etc. When my wife asked for a 2nd help of the warabi mochi, he was curious if it's that tasty. Thus he tasted a couple pieces of his own creation (except for the dashi, I didn't really notice that he often sampled the restaurant's dishes). Furthermore, Chef Nishi asked when we intend to come back again because he's already old and can be 'gone anytime - though he still looked healthy. I thought it was both funny and a bit sad. Toward the end, I requested to take a picture with him and Chef Nishi immediately agreed. He suggested that it would be better to do it outside, in front of his beloved restaurant. Even in his mid/late 70's, Nishi-san was still energetic - you should see his lively spirit and radiant face in the picture from the link below. He's so passionate that he not only supervised his staffs in the kitchen, but also cooked several dishes. Unbelievable! As we bid farewell, he told his daughter to make sure the taxi driver knew our hotel address. I was very touched by his kind gestures, after all he's a "kaiseki God". What a gracious host, humble person and superb chef.  

Kyo Aji has become my 2nd favorite restaurant in the world, very close to Alain Passard's l'Arpege. Everything worked well together; I was not sure if we were lucky or it was a destiny. The Matsutake mushroom, usually finished by end of October, was still available in mid November this year. Due to the unusual cold weather, people could eat Taiza crab in early Nov; also how in the world Kyo Aji still had high quality Hamo in the Autumn. Any dishes with these ingredients as the main stars were my favorite. It might sound weird, but I felt that we found favor in the eyes of the Nishi family (Kenichiro Nishi and Makiko Nishi) in many ways. First, without being accompanied by the regular, we had a dinner meal; normally, newcomer could reserve lunch only. Next, it's Kenichiro-san's act of kindness and generosity as described in the previous paragraph. Then, as if we've known each other for years, Makiko-san shared lots of interesting stories, many of them happened to be personal, ranging from the younger days of his father, the building's story, the future of Kyo Aji, what they often do together as a family, some his dad's characters & personalities and many more. While doing that, she never failed to explain every dish, patiently answer any questions we had and continuously delivered immaculate service. She really made us feel "at home". We're surprised at how Makiko-san openly shared many "private" things including her own family since she barely knew me and my wife. With that kind of trust, I decided not to spill the beans. Lastly, some of you may have pondered this but I would to apologize in advance that I could not help any of you make a reservation here. Visited this place once does not make me a regular (yet).

Kyo Aji prepared a kaiseki meal that was truly a celebration of senses and life; it embodied the equilibrium permeating through nature as well as the heart of the altering seasons. I could see that Kenichiro Nishi-san cooked with every element of his life: head, heart and even his soul. The result was delightful and flavorful dishes. It has been privileged and great pleasure to dine at Kyo Aji. In a rather ordinary dining room lies an extra ordinary meal and people. Please click the following link to see the pictures of what I ate: Kyo Aji Fall 2013

Food: 99 pts

Service: 97 pts

Overall: 98.5/100


Friday, January 3, 2014

Kyoto Kitcho Kunio Tokuoka

Talking about traditional kaiseki restaurant in Japan, one cannot help but to mention the name Kitcho (literally means Good Omen). It was founded by a legendary chef Teichi Yuki in 1930 with the oldest branch located in Koraibashi, Osaka. However, among all of Kitcho establishments, the most famous and arguably the current best one is Kyoto Kitcho, in the Arashiyama district near the gorgeous Ooigawa river. Kunio Tokuoka, the grandson of Kitcho founder, is a very capable and talented chef who currently owns and runs the flagship restaurant of Arashiyama Kitcho as well as the other Kitcho restaurants in Toyako and Nagoya. In the middle of November this year, my wife and I were fortunate to have the opportunity to have lunch at Kyoto Kitcho honten. Prior to our meal, we came early to enjoy the beautiful scenery of Arashiyama in the Fall with its red, orange and yellow color momiji (Japanese maples). It was a busy weekend with a nice sunny weather. After more than 20 min. walk from Keifuku Arashiyama station, we eventually reached the rustic gate with gravel path entrance of the luxury Kitcho restaurant.

As my wife and I entered the restaurant, we were greeted by a young man who watered the front garden (later we learned that he's actually Chef Tokuoka's son). Then, a friendly kimono-clad lady led us to our private room in the 2nd floor without any private garden. We're given a welcome drink and hot towel. A few minutes later, a lady came and apologized that our tatami room was supposedly at the first floor. I don't mind this "mistake" since the new room was actually a lot bigger (can comfortably sit 6 guests altogether) and it has an attractive Japanese garden. The room was spacious with a calm and peaceful atmosphere. Having a meal at Kitcho was designed in such a way that we would not see or hear other guests' presence; as if we're the only diners in the entire ryotei. After taking off our coats and receiving another towel, our room attendant soon brought and put the 1st course of our meal on the black lacquer table. The lunch journey at this fine Japanese restaurant just started and below is the full menu.

The Appetizer (Shiizakana): Steamed chicken served with persimmon and vegetables with vinegar jelly; Salted and dried mollet roe with turnip - The yasai (carrot, cucumber) was refreshing and crunchy, more dominant than the chicken; whereas the karasumi was of high quality as expected

The Soup (Suimono): Clear soup of Snow crab - The soup was clean and delicate; the Zuwai-gani was tender and sweet; the grilled tofu was silky and smooth. Half way savoring this owan, it's recommended to enjoy it altogether with the nori. A tasty dish though not in the level of Matsukawa's soup (crab + matsutake)

The 1st Sashimi (Mukouzuke): Kelp grouper - The sakana was served with Iwatake mushroom, ponzu (light & pleasant) and liver (rich & intense) sauce. The first time I eat this kind of white fish. The Kue has high quality flesh with sophisticated flavor. It worked well with either sauce 

The 2nd Sashimi (Mukouzuke): Seared Japanese lobster and squid - The seafood was served with shio, sesame and dashi soy sauce. The Ise ebi was perfectly cooked and succulent while the Ika was tender (not rubbery at all). Another great sashimi dish

The Side Dish (Kuchitori): Snow crab - The Zuwai-gani's meat and kani miso was umami and of excellent quality. We had the option to heat up the crab on top of a ceramic cooking pot (containing burning charcoal) to make the crab's flesh tasted sweeter. The strong flavor of kani's 'brain' was nicely balanced out with the yuzu sauce

The Assorted Delicacies (Hassun) presentation - An appetizer platter commemorating and celebrating the (Autumn) season. It consists of: Boiled Cod's milt with vinegar jelly, Filed caviar mixed with abalone, Shrimp with moromi miso, Stewed tongue of beef, Egg and fish cake, Deep-fried gingko nuts and Salmon roe
There were 7 different kinds of food from the mountains and the sea: The Ikura was of stunning quality, Shirako with jelly and veggie was very good, The beef tongue was smooth and delicious, gingko mochi was crunchy and bitter, the prawn was firm. The rests (fish cake & abalone) were just fine. An elegant display of the season's diversity in color, texture, flavor and smell

The Grilled food (Yakimono): Grilled Butterfish served with chestnut and deep-fried turnip - The flavorful and top quality Mana Katsuo was expertly seasoned and carefully grilled. The kabu tempura, gari, and prawn head provided interesting variation

The Steamed food (Mushimono): Simmered taro, carrot, Shiitake mushroom and kujyo leek - The leek and shiitake were my favorites. The carrot and taro were rich & coarse but they well absorbed the acidic 'soup'

The Rice (Gohan) and Pickled vegetables (Tsukemono): Cooked rice (Koshihikari from Niigata) with Matsutake and grilled beef. The pickles, having different colors and textures, were turnip mixed with bonito flakes, Mibuna leaves mixed with sesame and Hinona turnip - The "matsutake broth rice" with glazed Kyoto beef was very impressive. I had a 2nd helping. In addition, we were also served a bowl of pure white rice; each grain was tasty. One of the best rice dish in kaiseki
The Dessert (Kudamono): Assorted fruit before plating served with "orange" sauce (a mixture of egg, sugar, milk and cream) - The ripeness of each fruit was amazing. I love all of them: a big and flavorful peeled grape, the musk melon was moist and sweet, the pear was crisp and sweet; the kaki was watery and tender. An awesome fruit dessert, each kind was probably the best I've ever encountered

The Sweet (Wagashi): Rice cake with adzuki bean jam in the shape of a boar - Soft and sweet 'mochi' to accompany the bitter and hot matcha

The classic cha-kaiseki meal at Kyoto Kitcho was indeed excellent. The dishes were faithfully following the rhythm of a season; they're perfectly executed based on high quality ingredients that were carefully sourced all over Japan. Kunio Tokuoka, the recipient of Japanese Medal of Honor with purple ribbon, believes that every dish coming from the kitchen has to have the following elements: artistic & elegant, smells good, representing Japanese tradition & culture, as well as delicious. Chef Tokuoka's food is dynamic and keeps evolving; sometimes he's not afraid to mix it with modern technique or even using non-Japanese ingredients. One thing worth mentioning was that a few of our dishes were presented on antique (several hundred years old) and expensive ceramics. I was very impressed later upon knowing that the amazing food had been prepared while Tokuoka-san himself was not present in the restaurant that day. Kudos to the restaurant's Chef de Cuisine.

Throughout our meal, we were served by a young lady, in kimodo-clad, who was incredibly courteous, professional, warm and helpful. She's also very knowledgeable about the dishes and quite entertaining; she shared plenty of things from stuffs in Kyoto to her own family. Despite Kitcho's luxurious atmosphere and 'formal' setting, she wanted to make sure that we would feel extremely comfortable all the time. The service was (pretty much) immaculate. If I had to be picky, one small issue would be the fact that the hostesses (Madame Tokuoka) did not visit our room during the meal. In the tradition of dining at refined ryotei, it's known that the Okami (either the Chef's wife or daughter) is required to greet her guests especially when the Chef-owner is not around. When I ate at Genyana Hamadaya a few years ago, we were served by the Okami's daughter most of the time. In the middle of the meal, Keiko Mita (the lady owner) visited and talked to us for several minutes as part of  Japanese tradition in any ryotei/ryokan. Anyway, I would not penalize our waitress' impeccable service due to such trivial matter. At the end, our room attendant, along with Madame Tokuoka and her son, escorted us out until we're out of the main gate. 

Kyoto Kitcho somewhat reminded me of Le Louis XV. I found Kunio Tokuoka-san and Monsieur Alain Ducasse have similar dining concept/philosophy. Both of them created restaurants that are THE place to experience "over-the-top spare-no-expense" gastronomy with respect to its own unique cuisine: the setting is luxurious, the tableware is the best money can buy, the service is faultless, the ingredients are top notch, and every dish is thoughtful, perfectly executed and extremely tasty. Additionally, both Tokuoka and Ducasse own multiple high end restaurants in different cities and countries respectively; they also hardly stay put in any single place for a long time - not even in their own flag ship restaurant. In short, Kitcho Arashiyama honten is exclusive and refined. It came with a (steep) price tag, but one would certainly experience fantastic and memorable culinary journey in his/her lifetime - at least my wife and I did. If the time and financial situation permit, I will love to return here in the future. For the pictures, please check the following link: Kitcho Arashiyama Autumn 2013
Food: 97 pts

Service: 95 pts

Overall: 96.5/100

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Matsukawa Tokyo

As you may have noticed, this blog has focused on reviewing restaurants with 3-star Michelin given the guide is available in the city in which the restaurant is located. My Japan's vacation this Fall, however, was a bit different. After having done comprehensive research prior to my trip, I actually decided to visit a few places which actually got no star at all with the sole reason: the proprietary Chef refused to have anything to do with the famous little red book. Some of these dining places are Kyo Aji, Morikawa, Sushi Shou and Matsukawa, a relatively new kaiseki restaurant established in early 2011. I also found out earlier that Matsukawa was a kind of restaurant that followed "introduction-only" policy, meaning first timer is required to dine in with regulars or being introduced by the restaurant's so-called VIPs. Thankfully, Matsukawa does not adhere strictly to this rule. I asked my hotel concierge to book for me and my wife 3 months earlier, and we secured the seats without any issue. Either, we are lucky or the hotel in which we're staying is very close to the restaurant that we could be considered as serious and credible customers. 

Restaurant Matsukawa, located very close to US Embassy and legendary Hotel Okura in Akasaka area, serves high-end kaiseki kappo-style. Tadayoshi Matsukawa, the owner, used to be the Chef de Cuisine at Seisoka, a 2-star place offering traditional Kyoto cuisine. The dining room was simple and elegant. It has a counter seated 6 guests plus 3 private rooms in which one of them was in tatami style accommodating up to 4 customers. At Matsukawa, only 1 menu was available that's Chef's omakase normally serving 10 courses excluding the desserts. Unlike French fine dining, Japanese gastronomy does not usually serve "extra" items such as amuse-bouche or petit four - it goes straight to the serious appetizers. We actually dine here twice within a week - it's the 3rd restaurant where I visited more than once in the same trip, the other two places with this kind of 'honor' were L'Arpege and Le Louis XV. I reserved my 2nd meal for lunch even before having tried the 1st dinner; I was very pleased that my instinct was proven correct. Both our meals at Matsukawa were extraordinary, not only arguably the best food we ate during this trip, but also they ranked highly among the greatest food I've ever had. This should speak loudly about the quality of Matsukawa. Here are the details of the dishes I ate: 

1st meal - Dinner (seated at the counter)

Taiza-gani served with special sauce - A rare and deluxe snow crab, found only in Tango Peninsula of Northern Kyoto, was fresh and exquisite (both the meat and the egg). Eating the delicious crab by itself was fine or to make it more interesting, enhance it with a sauce made of dashi, rice vinegar, shoyu and ginger. I could not imagine a better way to start my meal
Hamaguri no iimushi - (Orient) Clam served with steamed rice ball and Kyoto '(spring) onion'. It's like a sushi dish on plate - the simmered clam was a bit sweet with a good texture while the onion would reduce any oiliness

Kawahagi served with its liver & soy sauce - An excellent sashimi dish. The splendid Filefish was crunchy and light; the fish's liver with green onion was foie gras-like taste, rich and creamy. To get the most out of this dish, dip the kawahagi into its kimo
Red Zuwai kani served with Matsutake mushroom and green yuzu - Not only the best owan I've ever had, it's probably the best dish during my entire Japan trip. Inside a clean dashi, the crab "dumpling" was both generous and umami, mixed well with the earthy Matsutake and the mild citrus aroma. We requested to repeat this dish on our 2nd visit

Akagai with wasabi - The sashimi of fresh ark shell was really good in the Spring and Fall. The flavor was deep, it's crunchy but soft enough to bite through; the horseradish gave a nice kick to this red clam 
Karasumi ("Silver" mullet roe) served with daikon and mochi - Bottarga, cured in its original sac, was a famous Japanese delicacy; 1st time eating it. It's robust and salty with distinct smell that were balanced out by white radish mild flavor as well as plain mochi at the bottom 

Grilled Tai served with Iwatake mushroom - The Sea bream was delicate, fragrant and sweet. Chef Matsukawa chose to pair this Tai with the highly-sought after Rock mushroom. Iwatake is rare with jelly-like texture and unique smell while taste wise, it's rather plain. In the past (maybe even now), Iwatake was often associated with longevity 
Grilled Awabi served with Matsutake mushroom - The grilled abalone was chewy and not oily; I always love Matsutake for its aroma, texture and even flavor. Some lime squeeze would add citrus aroma and subtle acidity. It's good, but I thought steamed abalone would've been better 

Chilled Soba in Sudachi broth served with Nameko mushroom - The handmade soba was excellent - it's "sticky and chewy" with clear buckwheat flavor. The citrus-based broth, served cold, was very refreshing. The mushroom enhanced the dish; the daikon's affect was mild
Konoko served with Kabu and its dashi - Another item I ate for the 1st time. Konoko/hoshiko is a (dried) ovary of Sea cucumber - prized delicacy. By itself, it could be too salty/a bit 'smelly'. I learned that to appreciate this dish, I had to chew the konoko slowly for quite a long time in order to extract its intense brininess, then eat the turnip and drink the watery dashi altogether. After sometimes, I could also feel the hoshiko ocean aromas throughout my palate

Gohan served with Tomewan and Kounomono - Well cooked rice served with delicious yuba miso soup and decent Japanese pickles.  
Side dishes for the Gohan - Chirimenjako, nori, Ikura and karasumi. I always love Salmon roe for its explosiveness (small 'pop' producing amazing and immense flavor); the seaweed was nicely cut and crunchy; mullet roe paste was just the right amount and lastly the small anchovies were fine (my least favorite item here) 

Dessert 1: Azuki paste with ginkgo nuts - The red bean paste was smooth and sweet in contrast to the gingko that provided some bitterness and harder texture. The white color paste was supposed to be some mild sweet flower roots (I forgot the name). A decent wagashi ..
Dessert 2: Kaki with pomegranate seeds - This Autumn special fruit, persimmon was sweet and tender combined with the tart and bursting taste of pomegranate  
Dessert 3: Mizu-yokan - Matsukawa's signature dessert. Chilled red bean jelly (made with azuki, sugar and kanten) was very delicate/light, not overly sweet with fine texture. This "water jelly" became semi transparent when the light falls on it. An ethereal dessert as well as a piece of art.

2nd meal - Lunch (seated at the normal private room)

Awabi served with Okahijiki and special sauce - Sliced abalones served cold were pristine, nicely combined with the delightfully crunchy land seaweed. The light and acidic sauce, I believe, was a mixture of awabi's liver, okahijiki and 'watery' dashi. A nice and clean dish to kick of our lunch meal
Fugu Shirako served with Uni - A beautifully presented dish. This soft roe of the Blowfish, was better (soft and creamy without being cloying) than the more common Cod's milt. Slightly contrast to sea urchin's richness, but with rather similar texture. To balance it, the sticky dashi 'sauce' was more acidic with a hint of bitterness at the bottom from the yuzu peel. Bravo!

Fugu sashimi served with young chives, daikon and ponzu sauce - The thinly sliced of raw pufferfish (& its skins) was excellent, producing refreshing and crunchy flavor in my mouth. Somewhat similar to Ishikawa's dish but with higher quality ingredients
Taiza kani and Matsutake mushroom served in a soup - As promised, we truly enjoyed this awesome dish for the 2nd time. Juicy and sweet snow crab with deep taste; distinctive fragrant of Matsutake mushroom with its complex flavor; yuzu aroma with delicate bitterness; clear and excellent soup stock. What a perfect dish!
Ise Ebi sashimi - Spiny lobster flesh was beautiful and spectacular. Its taste was inherently sweet and tasty even without shoyu/wasabi. The Ebi's brain was even more delicious without any hint of bitter flavor. Simple but incredible
Bottarga served with white radish and mochi - the same dish I had from my 1st meal. Please see above for the description 

Grilled Mana-Katsuo served with Iwatake mushroom - The meat of the Star Butter fish was indeed buttery and rich. Minimal marination was applied to let this katsuo's flavor shine. Once again, the precious Rock mushroom appear to elevate the overall dish higher
Cooked Snow Crab served with kani miso - Wow! The highlight was the greenish paste, which was the king crab's brain. The aroma was a little intoxicating; the kani miso was creamy and quite intense. A perfect sauce for the already umami crab meat. Matsukawa-san is Japan's "Ichiban" chef for preparing/cooking Zuwai-gani

Ohmi wagyu served with fried shredded onion - The Omi beef, from Shiga prefecture, was marbled and more 'meaty' (perhaps due to higher viscosity in its fat) than the 'sliced' version I ate at Waku Ghin. It's tender and very delicious as expected, nicely complemented by fried 'red' onions
Buckwheat noddle served with nametake and citrus-based dashi - the same soba I ate a week earlier. A cold and sour dish to rest our palate; the soba was consistently chewy and pleasant

Ebimo served with sliced yuzu - The shrimp-shaped taro was soft and not too intense. The plain ebimo was enhanced by lightly sweet 'dashi' and citrusy aroma and sour taste. With light & easy dish, it meant the shokuji was soon coming  
Rice dish and its condiments - The Fall quality rice was nice; the miso with tofu skin was flavorful As in the 1st meal, the dishes complementing the gohan were dried Shirasu, nama Karasumi, seaweed and Salmon roe (I consumed more than half bowl of Ikura)

Dessert 1: Red bean paste with ginkgo - Again, the same dessert as I had in the 1st meal
Dessert 2: Azuki bean jelly - Still smooth with natural sweetness, an ethereal jelly. I was happy to have this dessert again in my 2nd meal
Dessert 3: Grapefruit jelly - Finally, we're served a new dessert. The jelly was incredibly light/soft, but it had strong 'watery' grapefruit flavor. A great way to end our fabulous meal

Tea is possibly the most important element for any kaiseki; during dinner and lunch, we were also served brewed (powdered) matcha and hojicha. The meals in both occasions were outstanding. Matsukawa-san's cooking was "pure and simple". It's all about showcasing the fresh and high quality ingredients and transforming them into pristine and refined dishes that are incredibly delicious. He generally uses only 1-2 (main) ingredients and let all of them shine by itself as well as complement each other well.  Chef Tadayoshi Matsukawa was modest, gentle and kind. He even served a couple of dishes himself to our private room during lunch. Despite his limited English, he sincerely cared and tried to communicate with us using simple Japanese which I might understand some of them. He wanted to make sure that we enjoyed the food and had good experiences. It would not be that easy to find somebody better than him in terms of preparing Japanese traditional cuisine (washoku). As far as the food is concerned, I only wish Matsukawa-san would be more 'creative' for the shokuji part. I heard his rice dish is the same throughout the whole season.    

The restaurant was nearly full house (including all 3 private rooms were used) during our first dinner. I was glad to be seated at the counter. I believe Chef's interaction was an essential part of kappo-kaiseki. For our 2nd meal, we had our food in the normal private room since all of the counter seats were occupied. The staffs were generally friendly and helpful. There was one lady, perhaps working part-time, who spoke fluent English. She usually explained our dishes during dinner and became the 'bridge' for our communication with Chef Matsukawa. However, room for improvement was still possible. For instance, the staffs should be more pro-active such as more consistently re-fill our drinks or anticipated our needs without us having to raise our hands several times. During our lunch, we had less issue as one waiter was assigned exclusively taking care of our room. Another incident: at the end of our 1st meal, I requested for Matsukawa's signature dessert, Azuki yokan, to one of the cooks, but she politely declined our request. Then, we tried one more time conveying this intention to the Chef. He simply smiled and immediately prepared the red bean jelly that we liked very much - that's why he gave us this dessert again at lunch. It might be no big deal, but this small matter could make a big difference for guests experience. Before we left the restaurant, the kaiseki Master and charming Chef personally thanked us, then escorted us to the door. After expressing my appreciation and exchanging a few bows, Matsukawa-san bid us farewell.      

Matsukawa is probably one of Tokyo's best kept secret. I had 2 fantastic and memorable meals. I just hope I will be able to secure seats here should I come to Tokyo again in the future. Matsukawa is the kind of restaurant that I have no problem to put it in the same stature with Europe's best tables such as Le Calandre, Oud Sluis and Ledoyen. For pictures, please check the following link: Matsukawa Fall 2013

Food: 98 pts

Service: 93 pts

Overall: 96.5/100

Monday, December 2, 2013

Sushi Shou Keiji Nakazawa

There are literally more than a hundred sushi-ya in Tokyo alone and more than 30 of them can be considered very good. Hence, choosing a couple of sushi places is not actually that easy. Michelin guide and Tabelog website are good ways to begin the research. As I was doing my "homework", Sushi Shou attracted my attention. The idea of aging fishes and seasoned them to optimize their flavors was very new and intriguing. Later, I learned that Keiji Nakazawa, the chef-owner of Sushi Shou, is one of several chefs in Japan who rejected the red guide book but loved by many sushi mavens and recommended by Alain Ducasse. Early reservation was necessary and by September we managed to secure seats for dinner's 2nd seating at 8:45 PM. Sushi Shou is hidden on a side street behind (junior) high school building, near Yotsuya metro station. We reached there about 20 min. earlier than scheduled and escorted to the small private room while waiting. I was happy when I knew that we're seated near the entrance of the counter - it meant that we would be in front of Nakazawa-san himself and he, not his assistance, would create and serve the nigiri sushi for us. In order to fully taste and appreciate the flavors, I don't usually order any alcohol when eating sushi even though I regretted when I know later that Chef Nakazawa is a qualified sake sommelier. Below is the list of stuffs in my omakase meal. I didn't notice any particular order or pattern (white fish, red fish, shell fishes etc.) on when certain dishes were served.        

Wakame and Umi budo - the seaweed is subtly sweet while the sea grapes gave tiny splash
Hamaguri with wasabi and yuzu - decent clam, a good way to tease one's palate
Kinme with konbu and Ara - Snapper (soft) and ara (pure and fresh) sashimi
Ika stuffed with rice - Pretty squid that's barely warm; a traditional dish with balance flavor. 

Saba duo - Tender and a bit 'oily' Mackerel sashimi: left one with ginger wagarashi (hot mustard) and right one with chives
Sawara - The creamy and a bit sweet of young Spanish Mackerel is served with vinegared warm rice
Katsuo with tamanegi - The meaty but tender Bonito fish is garnished with onions
Keiji - One of the best nigiri sushi of the night. This infant salmon (clean and elegant flavor) from Rausu is more oily but lighter in texture than the regular salmon. Like Toro, it's 'melt in your mouth'; I felt lucky to have tried this scarce delicacy    

Tako with wasabi and shio - The boiled octopus is succulent and somewhat chewy
Kisu - The Kiss fish/Japanese Whiting is soft and pretty interesting. It's commonly used in tempura.
Ebi with Oboro and red rice - The cooked prawn is sweet with firmer texture while the vinegared eggs (smart addition) enhance the prawn's umami flavor. Here, the red rice worked well with this 'full body' crustacean; a great piece of nigiri sushi
Shirako with shichimi togarashi - The grilled Cod milt (fish sperm sacs) is creamy & delicate with a slight sweetness. For me, the seven spices is necessary to tone down the milt's acquired taste

Chutoro - A delicious medium fatty tuna. The red vinegared rice balance the toro's rich flavor
Tsubukaki - I may get the name wrong. After a successive of flavorful sushi, it's nice to have something clean for the palate such as this baby oyster
1-week aged Buri - This adult and fatty Yellowtail is tender and a bit oily; it's almost taste like a toro
Grilled Sawara with its skin and daikon - The Mackerel skin is fragrant and delightful.   

Botan Ebi aburi - The Hokkaido botan prawn is seasoned with ground 'salt' and Japanese citrus. The perfectly torched prawn is sweet, succulent and oishii. Another favorite piece ..
Grilled botan ebi head - The prawn's head is crunchy, smokey and even more flavorful than its tail
10-day aged Chutoro - The aging process would allow the flavor of this Tuna belly to mature. Not as fatty as the Chutoro I ate earlier, but more complex. A new and wonderful experience
Chopped Toro Ohagi - One of Nakazawa-san's specialty. The chopped tuna is mixed with onion, sesame and scallion; it's integrated with the sweet glutinous rice - oishii indeed

Shime-Iwashi - Marinated Sardine, quite beautifully presented, served with gari, cucumber and nori. A little intense and rich 'maki'
Aburi Kama Toro - The seared tuna cheek is soft with deep umami flavor
Bafun Uni Ikura gunkan sushi - Sweet and creamy Sea urchin is mixed with salty Salmon roe. I always love uni and ikura; the vinegar in the shari is unusually strong here
Ankimo with suika narazuke - Monkfish liver served with 'pickled (baby)' watermelon. An amazing morsel, truly a sheer of delight. The buttery & rich liver is contrasted to the fresh & crunchy watermelon   
Kinmedai with its skin and ginger - The lightly grilled golden eye Snapper is surprisingly creamy and matched well together with warm rice
Anago - A must have in any traditional Edomae sushi-ya. The edge is crispy while the center is tender. The sauce is relatively light, focusing on the Conger Eel's natural taste
Clam soup - A sign that the omakase was about to finish .. A clear & rather sweet broth

Otoro - The fattiest part of Tuna belly with perfect pink and white marbling. As expected, it's very yummy and fabulous!
Kohada with roe 'powder' - The Gizzard Shad, cured with shio, is carefully scored resulting in a smooth fish having nice textures and balanced flavors with its rather acidic shari
Hokkigai - The tip of the Surf Clam turns red after it's lightly simmered. The flesh is still tender with a slight rubbery and it's naturally sweet

Ezo Awabi - A distinct Abalone variety. It's lightly steamed so that this 'baby' awabi texture become gentle and slightly chewy producing deep & unique flavor. The meal was about to end, yet Nakazawa-san kept serving incredible morsel
Iwashi - The 'shiny' Sardine is marinated in vinegar. The fish had no fishy smell, a sign that it's really fresh. The flesh is not too firm and oily in general
Tamago - There are 2 kinds: based on shrimp broth and the other one made with scallop soup    

There seemed to be a lot of food to eat, but the size of the sashimi and non-sushi piece was often smaller than what you will get at other places. According to the menu, I only had 14 nigiri morsels - it literally ended at Anago. However, as I saw my note, there wasn't any Otoro! No way I would leave this place without trying its fatty bluefin tuna belly, that's why I ordered extra pieces. I also requested for Kohada and Tamago, the 2 items that test the sushi master's skills (of course, Keiji-san passed with flying color) and I let Chef Nakazawa decided the other 3 additional nigiri. When the bill came, I was surprised and happy to find out that Sushi Shou did not charge me extra. We're the last diners left when clock showed almost 11:30 PM; my wife felt pity for the sushi-ya's chefs and staffs to stay very late so we skipped the ice cream and returned to our hotel immediately by taxi. Sushi Shou, seated only about 10 people at the counter, offered a fun and informal atmosphere. I encountered interesting scenes: at the first seating, literally all of the seats were filled Japanese who excitedly chatted among themselves as well as with the chefs. Then, come the 2nd seating, all but one customer were actually "gaikokujin": us and a large group coming from Singapore. I felt bad for the Japanese dude sitting next to me as he looked a bit uncomfortable. I had a banter with him using my limited Japanese, his average English and the assistance of a lady waiter who spoke some English. Who would have thought a sushi restaurant that's hardly mentioned in the guide book was actually having many foreigners dining here. Nakazawa-san explained that in the past 3 years, more and more non-Japanese people especially from Asia had been coming to eat at his restaurant.               

Keiji Nakazawa has become a legendary sushi master in Japan. More than a dozen of his former apprentices run their own sushi shop in Tokyo. Chef Nakazawa is a fundamentalist who diligently has followed the classic technique of Edomae style (an era in the 19th century period when refrigeration  still did not exist) and combine it with modern ideas and his unique style. He believes that entirely fresh fish is tasteless. He would age most of his fishes to entice more umami flavor from them. Each seafood morsel will be treated differently with precise aging time. Nakazawa-san's creative skills also come when pairing the fish and rice. The simpler and shorter summary will be (actually it's more complex than this, but due to language barrier the Chef could not completely explain his reasoning): red rice is paired with flavorful seafood/aging fish while white rice is used for delicate and plain (shell) fish. To draw out the most flavor, Keiji-san would control the shari temperature and apply specific vinegar and its intensity. Then, he would cook (grilled/seared/torched) some of the seafood. It's truly a fascinating and eye-opening experience. When I expressed my admiration, he said that he simply did what had been done long time ago; not really something new or innovative. From this, I can conclude that Keiji Nakazawa-san is indeed a fantastic, passionate and (very) knowledgeable sushi chef who remains humble and gracious. It's always memorable whenever I eat dishes with new technique or approach and they happened to be very delicious. By small margin, Sushi Shou is the best sushi-ya I've ever eaten thus far - the comparison would be against Sushi Mizutani, Jiro Ginza and Yoshitake HK.  

For pictures, please click the following: Sushi Shou Autumn 2013

Food: 96 pts

Service: 93 pts

Overall: 95/100