Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Pavillon Ledoyen Yannick Alleno

Pavillon Ledoyen, a legendary Parisian dining institution, has been identical with high quality French gastronomy. Since the beginning of 21st century, Ledoyen has become one of 3-star Michelin restaurants at the city of light - thanks to the uber chef Christian Le Squer. In 2014, there was an interesting "swap" involving this establishment: Le Squer left Ledoyen to become the executive chef of Four Seasons George V whose main purpose was to carry Le Cinq to re-gain Michelin's highest honor (as expected, he did it this year); Yannick Alleno, a French top chef who felt burnt out having to run a major hotel Le Meurice for a decade, came to the rescue as well as proved himself that he still "had it" when he had reclaimed the 3-star awards last year. Personally, I am very happy that Chef Alleno and Chef Le Squer to be around again in Paris. Both of them also successfully run fine dining restaurants. In light of the recent trend of bistronomy, I found it would be "wasteful" if these elite chefs do not defend the dignity of French cuisine at the highest level.

The 2 main reasons why I re-visited Pavillon Ledoyen were: Yannick Alleno and my parents. I had a very good meal during Chef Alleno's tenure at Le Meurice nearly 8 years ago and felt disappointed when knowing he no longer led any gastronomy restaurant after leaving the hotel. Now that the "Prince of the Palaces" has returned to Paris, albeit not in a hotel's palace, I was convinced that I had another chance to savor Alleno's creations. For my parents' case, they do not come to Paris as often as I do. They prefer going to new places whereas my trip is often dictated by food. Based on that, my parents were inclined to dine at restaurants they've never been before. Moreover, my mother loves European historical building with its classical interior design. Therefore, Ledoyen seemed to be a logical choice and it certainly did not disappoint. This Europe trip was part of my treat for their 40th wedding anniversary, so I should select the 'best' dishes. Our meal was for lunch and since my father and mother would be in Paris for a couple of days only, they strongly would rather the meal lasted 2-3 hours max. As I observed the lunch menu, the dishes did not look that appetizing. It meant a la carte was the way to go because the degustation menu would take at least 3 hours.

Our meal began with satisfying amuse-bouche:
-Cabbage jelly and mushroom served inside cabbage leaves: the cabbage's flavor was quite strong
-Onion consomme and cracker with comte chip: another rather intense item displaying texture and temperature contrast
-Chestnut marshmallow: for balance, this one was light & smooth
-Roll of cream cheese and smoked eel: decent; crunchy outside and soft inside

Tarte friande de Langoustine au Caviar: Langoustine tart topped with Oscietra caviar and gold leaves - I share this appetizer with my mother and it was outstanding! The tart was crisp & light enclosing the Dublin bay prawn in 'pate' form that was buttery and very tasty yet not overwhelming. The sauce was creamy with some crustacean clean flavor; it was elevated by the luxurious and briny top quality caviar. The leaves provided pretty decor but not so much on the palate. In short, it's simply perfect! Stunning and balanced ...

Accompanied by wine: 2009 Domaine Trimbach Riesling Cuvee "Frederic Emile", Alsace - Excellent Riesling especially to be consumed this year onwards. It was compact, full-bodied with mineral flavors and lime/zesty finish. It also had the flavor of apple and honeycomb. This white wine paired well with our caviar langoustine appetizer 

Blue lobster fricassee served with Safi capers, cabbage leaves and coral sauce - It's my mother's main course. I tried a bit of it. The lobster was tender and tasty while the sauce was lighter but still flavorful. In this dish, Chef Alleno drew inspiration from the east + south of France. I kinda like it, but not blown away. My mom had no problem to finish it all up though

Wagyu beef Gunma grade 4 "en aiguillettes" iodized "onigiris"; served with sea urchin and confit smoked eel, celery cooked in a clay crust served "à la cuillère" - It's my father's main course. My dad shared a little portion of this dish with us. I was impressed with the kitchen's ability to produce a wonderful well-done meat (he's unable to eat pink or 'bloody' steak); it's also nicely seasoned and cooked. The wagyu was still very tender and a bit oily - the amount of meat vs fat was balanced. The uni and smoked unagi would make the overall flavor even richer; to bring it down, you can savor the 'mashed' celery. A very good dish ... For my father, it's probably one of the best things he ate during this Europe trip.

Roasted milk-fed lamb served with home-made truffle pasta and nutmeg cream, tangy apple and slow cooked lamb shoulder - It's my main course. While my parents' main courseswere sublime, still I liked mine the most. Every elements here were simply awesome. The Limousin lamb was perfectly executed resulting in juicy meat and some crisp skin. The pasta was al-dente; it would nicely absorbed the cream as well as interacted with the truffle to elevate the already great roasted lamb. There's hardly any trace of unpleasant lamb's smell instead the black truffle aroma had stronger presence. It's a scrumptious dish: delicious lamb with flavorful sauce and not cloying at all

Accompanied by wine: 2013 Vacqueyras Domaine Le Sang des Cailloux, "Cuvee de Lopy" - This red wine had a mixture of Grenache and Syrah. The color was opaque black ruby; it offered the flavor combinations of black raspberries & licorice with gentle tannin. I think it needs more time to mature but it went quite well with the lamb dish

When it comes to the sweet tooth indulgence, except for the last items, I found Alleno's desserts were not on par with his entree + plat principal. For the pre-desserts, we had:
-Pear and vanilla sorbet as palate cleanser
-A glass of Tonka bean liquid: bitter and 'unusual'
-Jelly-like & sweet baked pineapple covered with almond
-Chocolate 'rolls': crispy  

Crystallized chocolate leaf served with milk flavored and hazelnut extraction - This was 65% of (dark) Caribbean chocolate. The leaf and the base was pure (crunchy) chocolate and somewhat bitter & strong. It's 'necessary' as the milk, mousse and the sorbet were more on the sweet sides with some fruity flavor coming of the lemon gel. Alright but nothing memorable

Roasted mango meringue served with pepper vinegar - In addition to chocolate-based dessert, it's ideal to also have a fruit-based sweets. The mango had a mixture of sweet and sour flavor while the 'sauce' was more intensely sour. The sugary meringue was, as expected, (really) sweet. A good dessert was a pleasure in and of itself. However, at Ledoyen, they acted more as palate cleanser with some pleasant flavors ... at least for me

Lastly, the petit-fours (the finest part from the pastry kitchen):
Beer creme brulee: Sublime and really delicious! The buttery crust was superb; the caramelized cream was even better and not cloying. I ate about half of them
Chocolate truffles: Soft and pure chocolate flavor in cube forms. It's bitter in a good way and hardly any hint of milk. Cocoa lovers should like this a lot

The food was superb overall in particular I really love the langoustine tart with caviar although during our lunch, Yannick Alleno himself was not present. Most credit that day probably should go to the gifted chef de cuisine, Nicolas Le Tirrand. The kitchen team was capable of creating innovative, interesting, and intricate dishes that were also delicious. From our meal, I can say that Yannick's prime talent lies in redefining traditional cooking: examining and understanding the French culinary tradition and at the same time giving new interpretation by pushing its boundaries to a new level that's unique to his own style.  As his own boss and someone who's very passionate about food, the current situation at Ledoyen is ideal; it gives Chef Alleno (along with his proficient team) plenty of liberty to create and play with different produce to generate surprising arts on the plate. It seemed to be his goal as well - to bring back French cuisine to the fore front of world gastronomy. This was the kind of opportunity he hardly had when working at a huge palace hotel. For the dessert part, I had to admit that Camille Lesecq (Alleno's pastry chef at Le Meurice) was arguably better than Ledoyen's Damien Cassart, who used to work at Le Louis XV.

The service was generally attentive, friendly and not obtrusive. Water was consistently refilled, napkin was replaced whenever you left to the restroom and staffs tried to put guests at ease despite the rather formal ambiance. Like the chef patron, the restaurant director Frederic Pedrono was not supervising his team but it did not lower the Ledoyen's hospitality standard. Perhaps this happened because the restaurant was relatively quiet - only half full and most guests were local business people. The assistant's sommelier recommendation for my wine by the glasses was spot on. We drank no champagne and the staffs never pushed it either, professional! Last but not least, the main dining room's decor was less formal under Yannick Alleno but still graceful and looked opulent. The big tables covered with white linen were accompanied by comfortable willow green chairs. For the fans of the old style, Ledoyen still keeps the old paintings and stone carvings intact at the first level and around the stair case on the way to the upper level. During the lunch and on a sunny day, the natural light was very pleasant and guests could also enjoy the trees/garden from the quiet dining room as this temple of haute cuisine was hidden behind a museum. The whole dining experience was uniquely Parisian indeed and I was glad that my parents also liked it. For picture, please check this link: Ledoyen Mar '16

Just incase anybody is interested in the pictures of my meal with Chef Alleno at Le Meurice and see some differences: Le Meurice Sep '08  

Food (and Wine): 96 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 95.5/100


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Geranium Rasmus Kofoed

In the past 5-7 years, the popularity of Nordic cuisine has skyrocketed to an unprecedented level especially thanks to Noma which has become the new El Bulli. Not only in Denmark, but also in most of Scandinavian regions; suddenly, they became the "hottest" destinations for foodies who are looking for new adventures. I'm more of an old-school person who usually goes to Western Europe countries, in particular France/Paris, for my dining destinations. However, for this trip, I accompanied my parents to places they would like to visit such as a couple of Eastern Europe places as well as Scandinavian countries. They're not a big fan of fine dining in which dinner often lasts more than 3 hours. However, I managed to persuade them to visit some top restaurants during this holiday. One of those places was Geranium that along with Maaemo was the only recipient of Michelin's highest honors in its 2016 Nordic guide. To avoid lukewarm guests, Geranium applied a ticketing system for the reservation. In this method, guests had to pay about 30% of the degustation menu price to have their bookings confirmed (after the meal, we would pay only the difference plus the beverages). It might not be pleasant but I thought it's fair since it would discourage people who're not willing to commit in advance.     

Geranium was established by Rasmus Kofoed and Søren Ledet (a former cook himself and the current head sommelier). Note that: both owners were not around during our meal. Chef Kofoed is famous mainly due to his impressive accomplishments in Bocuse d'Ors competition, the equivalent of Olympic for culinary talents. He's the only person who ever won all 3 different medals, including the elusive gold in 2011. Within 2 years of running Geranium at the current location, Rasmus managed to collect 2 Michelin star. He received the 3rd one four years later. With such remarkable backgrounds, preparing classical 'French-style' cuisine was probably never a problem for Rasmus. For his own beloved restaurant, he opted to prepare and cook contemporary Nordic cuisine whose emphasize was the use of local, seasonal & fresh ingredients particularly vegetables and fish/seafood. As far as the food was concerned, the delicious taste of the dishes was as essential as their aesthetic presentation in order to create unforgettable experiences for (all) our senses. There were plenty of playful and unusual variations, so please come with an open mind. Geranium only offered 1 kind of tasting menu consisted of 17 (relatively small) courses. Guests were encouraged to state their allergy and diet when confirming their reservations; these would be discussed one more time upon seated at the table. For the drinks, I decided to try the restaurant's unique juice pairing.   

The Geranium Spring Universe

Appetizers

Cep mushroom soup - A strong, focused in flavor and clean soup; it's delicious though it might be 'out of season' in the early Spring. The kitchen preserved this Autumn mushroom
Jerusalem Artichoke leaves served with Walnut oil and Rye vinegar - The artichoke chips were alright but the walnut mayo made the overall taste better; the rye provided mild acidity
Tomato water served with Ham fat and Aromatic herbs - A sophisticated dish with texture and flavor contrast. The 'water' had jelly-like texture; it was refreshing and balanced (between the taste of 'lard' and tomato)
Accompanied by juice: Sea Buckthorn (citrus and a bit sweet, like cranberry)

King Crab served with Milk & Juice from fermented Carrots and Sea Buckthorn - It was interesting. The plain crab was covered by tart flavors of the berry and carrot; generally, it's quite palatable
Charred Potato served in aroma from Bark and Sheep's butter - The appearance was fascinating. The "black" potato was smoky and pleasant outside but soft & refine on the inside. It went really well with the creamy & 'sweet' butter; the potato's taste would linger for some times ...
Accompanied by juice: Green Apple and Elder flower 

"Dillstone" horseradish served with Frozen juice from Dill and pickled cucumber - My favorite item from the appetizers selection. It had everything: playful presentation, smart interplay and some positive surprised elements. The 'stone' was actually a Trout (sashimi) covered by mildly sweet & aromatic dill. To enhance the experience, it's recommended to combine it with the sour granite as well as the horseradish sauce. Interesting and delicious at the same time
"Razor Clam" served with Sour cream and Parsley - Another witty presentation from the Geranium kitchen. The shell (painted with squid ink) was edible. Inside the shell was a mixture of razor clam, sour cream and (small amount of) parsley - it was surprisingly rich; more parsley to 'tone down' the flavors would be better for my taste
Accompanied by juice: Gooseberry, Tarragon and Sunflower seeds

Dishes ("Main Courses")

Oyster and Lumpfish roe plus Dried Oyster soup served with local smoked cheese - It was better than I expected. The fresh oyster was precisely cooked: creamy despite distinct sea flavor. The smoky cheese smartly covered this issue. Together, they made a tasty dish whereas the "red caviar" was rather smooth and not too salty. It's more fascinating than being delicious
Salted Hake served with Parsley stems and Finnish caviar in buttermilk - A magnificent dish! Arguably, the best thing I ate during this dinner. Everything was pretty much perfect. The Hake (before the sauce was poured) was meticulously cut into circular shape, simply beautiful! The succulent fish was not only looked good, but also tasted amazing. Everything (the buttermilk, caviar and even the scales) worked harmoniously - crunchy, creamy, not too salty etc. I could easily have another round of this dish - a masterpiece art by Rasmus Kofoed
Accompanied by juice: Elderberries and Apple

Old grains and Gluten free bread served warm with Crispy grains and Seeds - There was also butter with sorrel. The portions were small and delivered as part of the middle-course. My favorite was the one with with crispy grain (emmer & spelt) - moist and delightful. I ate 3-4 breads in total; oh the butter was very good too - flavorful and light
Quail egg and Melted Pork fat served with Leeks, Salted Ramson and Melted "Vesterhavs" cheese - The most distinguished flavors were the lards and the cheese. There were plenty of local veggies while some flowers tasted like garlic. Detailed preparations and decent
Scallop served with Söl (Icelandic seaweed) and Sour Berries - Another stunning dish! The plump Norwegian scallop's quality was superb and it was also flawlessly cooked resulting in a truly delicious morsel. The sol brought an 'extra' dimension to the dish while the berry sauce nicely balanced the sweet & juicy scallop. Bravo!
Accompanied by juice: Black Currant and Juniper

Grilled Duck hearts served with Jerusalem Artichoke, Sunflower seeds and Truffle - The rustic & relatively modest duck heart was actually tender and quite meaty without any trace of strong offal characteristic. It's not bad ... The clear 'soup' (made of duck's feet jus) was richer than I initially thought while the rests gave some crunchy textures in contrast to the grilled heart
Pork served with Pear and Pickled pine - Additionally, to enrich the experience, there were cucumber, garlic confit and lemon thyme. The pork neck was executed perfectly; its meat was indeed tender but not too flavorful. The sauce would improve the pork's flavor and it's made of the pork jus + pine. The poached pear was a good element to tone down any strong flavor. It was satisfying and I liked it more than the grilled heart from the previous dish  
Accompanied by juice: Cloud berry and Pine

Desserts and Sweets

Ice Cream made from Beeswax, Pollen and Honey with cloud berries - It was sweet and creamy. To fully experience it (to taste some acidic flavor), you should dig the berries at the bottom
Dried Apples served with Elderberries, Beetroot, Apple cider and Sheep's yogurt - It was pretty with minimal sweetness (from the white chocolate cream) - pleasant
"Naked Tree" served with Dark beer, Prune and Smoked Beech wood cream - Another artistic presentation - a reflection of its surrounding nature. The cream was rather sweet while the beer ice cream had some bitter flavor - working along well together. Overall, it's a fine dessert
Accompanied by juice: Prune and Pilsner malt

Sweets: Caramel served with Aromatic seeds and Rose hip tea; Cake with Pumpkin seed oil; Chocolate with Oats and Sea buckthorn; Green egg with Pine

For a fine dining establishment, Geranium's location is indeed unusual. It is situated on the 8th floor of a building that's part of a football stadium. However, the restaurant is beautifully designed featuring Danish characteristics such as: minimalist decor, modern furniture made from local wood, and plenty of white & neutral colors. There are lots of windows through which guests could see natural greenery. The view should be much better during lunch; I imagine we could also enjoy the forest and blue sky in a sunny day. Geranium applied an open kitchen concept (though I observed most of the cooking done behind it; they're more like stations for final plating) where diners could see many chefs in action live! It seemed to be a policy of the chef-patron Rasmus Kofoed that 2-3 chefs had to visit each table to present and explain some dishes to their guests. A nice gesture that elevated the unique experience at Geranium. The service was efficient, courteous and rather relaxed; our main 'assigned waitress' delivered the finest hospitality despite having worked at this restaurants only for a few weeks. By the way, she's French. Any questions were welcomed and she did everything she could to properly answer any of our inquiries. The rests of the dining room staffs did decent jobs as well but not as refined as her.  

Overall, it was a wonderful meal and unforgettable experience. I might be blown away by at most 1/4 of the presented dishes, however, in the bigger picture I could see the passion of the Chef Kofoed and his team to always try to create something different including breaking boundaries to reach to the next level, the way skilled artist's aim for his/her next masterpiece. Anybody who wants to have a superb Nordic cuisine meal, Geranium is certainly among the top place that will be able to deliver such fabulous experience. Picture of the dishes: Geranium Mar '16

Food: 95 pts

Service: 94 pts

Overall: 94.5/100
  

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Morikawa Tokyo

There are plenty of introduction-only restaurants in Japan, but probably none is as 'mysterious' as the one named Morikawa. The establishment information in the tabelog does not mention its address or telephone number. After having searched and asked here and there, miraculously the chief concierge of hotel Okura Tokyo managed to secure two seats for us at dinner. Morikawa is located in the Akasaka area; its surroundings are pretty crowded. There are many small restaurants & shops as well as a multi-story bic camera store. The outer entrance of the restaurant was wide and sturdy. Although we're seated at the counter, all diners upon entering the restaurants were required to take off their shoes. Nearly all of the floor area in the dining room was covered by thick tatami mat. We arrived about 7:30 PM and there was another couple on half way enjoying their meals at the counter. Besides 4 of us, there were a few people occupying the private room. Unlike the crammed seating at Kadowaki, the long counter, made of refined hinoki wood, and chairs at Morikawa were spacious and comfortable. For the restaurant decoration, there were some beautiful Calligraphy behind us. Outside a restaurant with ryotei, this happened to be the most luxurious (kappo) kaiseki institution I've ever been. Even, the rest room was expansive and above the toilet bowl, an AC was hanged on the wall (assuming it would be turned on during the hot summer days).

At the beginning, after being seated, we saw a tall gentleman (Mr. Morikawa) behind a counter with serious face. There was hardly any smile and he presented the first dish to us. It was lavish and beautiful; we're excited to eat it. Then, I took a courage (and perhaps shamelessly also) to ask his permission whether it's fine to take a picture of the dishes. At first, he seemed unhappy and then called someone. The phone was passed on to me and the lady concierge on the line explained to me that normally pictures were not allowed here but this time would be an exception - my guess because it was a relatively quiet evening. I was grateful and glad that we're allowed to take pictures "legally". The intense atmosphere began to melt when I could correctly described most of the ingredients in the multiple sashimi courses. Even, the middle-aged couple next to us was a bit 'impressed' when I could recognize Iwatake mushroom. From that moment onward, everything went a lot smoothly. I felt that we sort of passed the 'test' from the host. Additionally, the friendly and pretty Okami, Mrs. Morikawa became more active in assisting the service throughout the night. By 9 PM, we were the only diners left so we got the undivided attention from the staffs and the experience looked like we had a private dining at someone's luxurious house. Similar to other elite kaiseki places, there was only one menu available - omakase. Without further delay, here were the dishes that we had:

Hokkaido hairy crab served with vinegar sauce - It's like Shanghai's hairy crab but better. The chef prepared it so that we could easily enjoy this delicacy. The steamed meat had clean flavor while the kani miso was tasty & rich; eat them together for some balance. For non-purist, you're welcome to dip the gani in the slightly sour but light sauce (a mixture of vinegar and a bit of dashi + shoyu). An excellent and extravagant way to begin a meal
Tilefish served with chestnut - A bowl serving this dish was beautiful! Both the Amadai and kuri were served in its 'modest' forms for its 'unadulterated' flavor. The Amadai was meaty and of high quality though a bit tasteless for my taste; to complement it, the kuri was also not strong. Fortunately, the clear dashi was aromatic with some umami flavor to enrich the fish and the chestnut. A heartwarming soup

Spiny lobster sashimi served with wasabi - It was superb; arguably the best raw Ise ebi I've ever had. The clear flesh was plump, firm and a bit sweet; the cooked head/brain was delicate, delicious with some meat in it - a perfect combination with pleasant aroma and distinct flavor
Tai and Shima Aji sashimi with Iwatake - The sea bream was magnificent; a bit chewy but flavorful. The striped jack, due to its 'crunchy' texture, was cut differently; it was fresh and tasty. The 'rock' mushroom (only the 2nd time I ate this rare mushroom) had jelly-like texture and unique aroma. Another wonderful sashimi course

Broiled Matsutake - The Matsutake was perfectly cooked as shown in beautiful color. For this, the chef chose the ones with close cap (taste delicious). We're served this stuff 4 times in which the next one was bigger and more delectable than the previous one. For some variation, we're provided with komatsu, suidachi and light dipping sauce. Possibly my best yaki matsutake
Grilled Eel with its liver and rice - It was really stunning, better than I had expected. This unagi kimo kabayaki was not only delicious, but also nutritious. The unagi meat was rich & tender yet not too soft; the kimo was also tasty yet neither greasy nor fishy. It went well with the rice and the portion was just right

Hot pot of Pine mushroom with Pike conger - In front of us, Morikawa-san sliced and served generous amount of Matsutake. The hamo was also plenty. He showed us how to cook this course and explained a few ways to enjoy this classic Japanese dish - a staple item during Autumn. Outstanding!
Without the mushroom, the broth (it had some flavor from the Conger eel's bone) was already tasty. The Matsutake enhanced it by giving a very pleasant aroma. I also enjoy its 'meaty' texture. If you want a more acidic flavor, the lime and light sauce containing little salt were available. With some vegetables and Matsutake, the soup was remarkable ... Adding the hamo, make it a 'perfect' dish  
Another plentiful and pristine Conger eel that would bloom beautifully like a "flower" inside the hot pot. Minimal preparation was required and I could fully experience the Hamo's natural flavor. Consuming this creature, interchangeably with Matsutake and drank the rich dashi was one the 'greatest' pleasure I've had in my foodie adventure. Totemo umai!

Matsutake 'tempura' served with German Osetra caviar - A very luxurious dish resulting an explosive flavor in the mouth. Certainly the best byte I've ever had in 2015. Chef Morikawa himself slowly and carefully deep-fried the mushroom (crisp, firm and delicious). The caviar was smooth, rich and creamy with some hazelnut taste. The combination was heavenly; I was excited and kinda speechless at that time. A mother of pearl spoon was provided to scoop any left over caviar
Homemade Buckwheat noodles served with duck soup - To wind down, the kitchen provided al dente/chewy soba. The 'tsuyu' was warm and rather intense soup containing succulent and tender duck meat (without any trace of foul smell). The overall taste was clean and not heavy; surprisingly a good pairing

Matsutake gohan served with pickles - The slices of Pine mushrooms were rather subtle in flavor this time. Instead, the rice has richer flavor and aroma of the matsutake. It was still very nice though not the finest I've ever eaten. That being said, I still managed to finish 2 bowls of this rice
Mandarin orange - On top was watery, sweet & slightly sour mikan jelly. In contrast to the smooth jelly texture, there was some seedless orange 'flesh' underneath. It was simple and refreshing 

Morikawa did not hold back in using the finest, freshest and most luxurious seasonal ingredients available. We ate during the period when Matsutake was at its peak - very abundant and of high quality. Having been working at Kyo Aji for more than a decade, Morikawa-san displayed the high technique in executing Japanese cuisine and was capable of sourcing and selecting top produce. All of the dishes that utilized Pine mushrooms were not inferior to the ones prepared by the legendary Kenichiro Nishi. My meal here truly satisfied my hunger for Matsutake mushrooms. Normally, I ate good Matsutake dishes in tasting portion, but here some of them was prepared in a la carte-like size such as the nabe with Hamo and Matsutake. The only thing in which Morikawa was a bit lacking compared to Kyo Aji was probably at rice dishes and desserts; in these 2 'departments', Nishi-san was simply too superior. However, I admired Morikawa-san's boldness & confidence to use caviar with Matsutake tempura and let the diners cook their own hot pot. Not only for food, but also for drink, Mr. Morikawa served very fine sake - the imperial's family 'favorite' one called Kokuryu Junmai Ginjo. The one we had was, of course, not the best kind of Kokuryu yet still awesome. The aroma was mild with some hint of fruit and nuts; the flavor was rich & explosive yet really smooth. An exceptional sake with plenty of umami flavor and slightly dry finish.

Although at the early stage of our meal the situation was a bit intense, Morikawa and his staffs could turn it around and delivered an impeccable service since then. In my home country there was a proverb if translated in English more or less is as follow: "You can't love what you don't know". Initially, I thought I would receive an arrogant and unfriendly service like the one I had at Jiro Ginza for the whole meal. I was pleased that it did not happen and both Mr. and Mrs. Morikawa stepped up their game as they're also getting more comfortable with us. A special note for Mrs. Morikawa; she was naturally very kind and caring so her hospitality was effortless. As we're talking more about many different things including family, Mr. Morikawa took out his iPad and showed us his family picture collections including their 2 children. On the one hand, I agree that an immaculate service should be given consistently; on the other hand, some Japanese people, due to its culture, could be quite rigid at times. I suspected that Morikawa hardly had any foreigners dining there, hence might explain the odd situation at the beginning. The food here was on par with my meals at Matsukawa, Morikawa-san's close friend but for the overall experience I like Morikawa better probably because we could communicate a lot more here. At this moment, after my meal at Kyo Aji, this one was the 2nd best gastronomy experience I've experienced in Japan. Have a deep pocket and 'thick skinned' as well as be open minded, you will be rewarded with a fantastic meal at Morikawa. Please see here for the pictures: Morikawa Sep '15

Food: 98 pts

Service: 96 pts

Overall: 97.5/100

 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Wakuden Kodaiji Kyoto

Besides the famous Kitcho and Kikunoi, Kyoto actually has another less well-known (to foreigners) but equally as reputable as these 2 kaiseki institutions named Wakuden. The establishment, dated back in the late 19th century, began as a hotel in the north of Kyoto. Even then, this country inn already had focus on preparing great seasonal Japanese cuisine. Its hard work has been paid off as currently Wakuden group, focusing only on restaurant business, has 3 branches in Kyoto. In early October last year, we had to opportunity to savor the creations of this famous group at its flagship restaurant - Kodaiji Wakuden, located in the Higashiyama area and as the name suggest, it was not too far from the Kodaiji temple.

Kodaiji Wakuden is an esteemed traditional ryotei whose building had a beautiful architecture and elegant setting. We were greeted by a few staffs around noon as we entered the restaurant and immediately escorted to our private room overlooking a narrow road. We opted to open a bit of the window in order to have more natural lights and fresh air; fortunately the outside street was relatively quiet too. Our private room was spacious with minimal & zen-like interior design. Little did we know that the extra space would be used by the kitchen staff (chef) to prepare and cook some but important dishes during our meal. We started with a cup of Shiso tea as well as in-house sake specialty (Aotake-shu) served in a bamboo bottle and cup. Following this, we had our kaiseki meal:  

Starter: A mixture of tofu and tamago in chilled dashi - The white 'creatures' of bean curd and egg custard was rather plain, but elevated by the tastier broth; a clean dish
Assorted appetizers: Tempura of Hamo, Maitake and Kamasu sushi - The barracuda sushi was well prepared and 'surprisingly' delicious (the rice's vinegar was rather strong); the mushroom and eel (somewhat taste like salmon) were quite good

Ise ebi served with Komatsuna (mustard spinach) and Namakono (sea cucumber) - All ingredients (including the jelly-like sauce) were fresh, tasty and complemented each other; very refreshing
Suimono containing meaty duck, assorted mushrooms, mitsuba (honewort/parsley), chestnut, taro, and yuzu - It tasted liked a 'healthy' soup but tasty with some hints of bitter flavor. There are too many stuffs that I thought overshadow the clear dashi's flavor

Raw fish: Karei sashimi with Autumn flower, spinach, lime and ponzu sauce - The perfectly sliced raw & fresh righteye flounder had translucent meat; it was slightly sweet with pleasant texture
Grilled item: Abalone with its liver sauce - An outstanding yaki awabi (tender texture and inherently sweet) with its thick and rich but smooth liver was truly delicious. "Simple" dish with perfect execution

Barely seared (medium rare) Tamba beef served with grilled figs & light sauce - Another superb dish with minimal preparation; simply let the ingredients and their combination to shine. The rich & marbled beef was nicely balanced/countered by sweet figs; truly umami. It's recommended to wrap the beef around the fruit
Soba served with daikon and 'caviar' - This palate cleanser was served chilled to ease our appetite. It was refreshing and a bit sour as expected. A good intermezzo

Chargrilled dish: Matsutake rolled in pike conger with lime - A moist, fragrant & tasty Hamo beautifully wrapped the aromatic, meaty & delicious Pine mushroom with some twist from the sudachi. The portion was right, the execution was meticulous; a terrific dish. I like it slightly better here than the one I had at Yukimura 
Vegetable dish: Nasu (aubergine), Myouga (ginger) and Tougan (winter melon/cucurbit) with 'soup' - The Japanese version of these forms of vegetables were generally more superior in flavor and texture than what I usually have at other places 

Claypot rice with mushrooms served with pickles and clam miso soup - Good quality rice served with generous mushrooms. It was tasty and nourishing 
Dessert 1: Peeled muscats served with wine jelly - Sweet and watery grapes with lightly flavored jelly; decent combination
Dessert 2: Yokan with kuri and mochigome - Soft red bean 'jelly' went well with the intense chestnut and contrasted in texture by the more 'robust' glutinous rice. Not as perfect as Matsukawa's yokan but still pretty awesome 

I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of my lunch here. It was not cheap, but really good. There were plenty of outstanding dishes in particular the chargrilled items such as the abalone with its liver sauce and Tamba beef with figs. Moreover, the ingredients were fresh and top notch with (often) flawless execution. The kitchen was able to showcase the natural and inherent flavor of the seasonal produce, display some texture contrast and present the food beautifully. While it might not reach the level of Mizai and Arashiyama Kitcho yet, I would rate this meal above the kaiseki I had at Chihana and Nakamura - despite the fact that these 2 places holding 3-star michelin. The hospitality here was impeccable. Although, most of the time we were served by a junior lady who hardly spoke any english (hence, our communication was somewhat limited), she was sincere, diligent and helpful - get the job done properly. Any questions or requests we had, she would go the distance to ensure that they're fulfilled. Sometimes, the more senior waitresses coming to assist her as well. Shinya Matsumoto-san, the Wakuden's head chef, appeared at the end of the meal to check whether everything was fine, thank us for having a meal with them as well as bid as farewell. Delicious food combined with excellent service and gorgeous setting would guarantee a memorable meal.  One of the places you can find such meal would be at Wakuden Kodaiji. Here are the picture of the dishes: Wakuden Kodaiji Oct '15

Food: 96 pts

Service: 95 pts

Overall: 95.5/100
 


 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Mizai Hitoshi Ishihara

Mizai was one of the main reasons for our visit to Japan in early October last year. It was notorious to be one of the most difficult seats to secure among Kyoto's restaurants but it was fair. Mizai is not one of those introduction-only dining places and it would allow diners to reserve even as far as 6 months in advance (that's what I did although my schedule had not been set in stone at that time). Thankfully, many things went as planned and finally we managed to dine and savor Hitoshi Ishihara's creations. Had we failed to book a table here, we would not have visited the Kansai region a few months ago.

Mizai's new location is still in the Maruyama park area and not too far from the road. Since the hotel concierge informed us that we had to be punctual, we reached the restaurant at 5:30 PM by taxi. It was chill outside; we were among the first guests arrived at the restaurant and only 15 min later, one of the junior chefs opened the main gate and allowed us to enter the restaurant. He served hot tea and hot towel to four guests at the waiting area while the rests had to wait outside until the party inside had been escorted to their seats. By 6 PM, all guests had arrived and been seated. Owner-chef Hitoshi Ishihara emphasized the significance of cha-kaiseki tradition (chanoyu); one of them was he would serve each course together to all diners at the same time and describe the dishes once they're in front of us. It's almost like a professor explain some materials to his students. We happened to be the only non-Japanese guests and neither Ishihara-san nor his helpers spoke English. Thus, communicating and understanding the stuffs we ate were very challenging especially since taking pictures were not allowed in the premises (except to take a photo together with the master chef at the end of the meal).

Meal at Mizai began by Chef Ishihara himself poured an aperitif sake to every guest. Following this, we had the real kaiseki feast ... 

1st course: "Mukozuke". To open up our appetite, Mizai prepared a small amount of top quality white rice, soup, salad and pickles. The shiru was a clear miso served with freshly grated wasabi, ginkgo, and chestnut while the salad consisted of some kinoko (mushroom), edamame and light goma dressing. A 'humble' dish that was mild, a little bit spicy. sweet and bitter altogether

2nd course: Sashimi; the presentation was impressive and each fish was masterfully cut. Mizai served this course on a couple of big and artistic china with precise plating. We had Sumi-ika (smooth & tasty squid), O-toro (marbled & melting tuna belly), Maguro (tender & bright lean tuna), Tai (fresh sea bream with excellent texture), Shima aji (clean striped horse mackerel), Engawa (delicate fluke fin) and Aji (tasty jack mackerel). Note that: each person was served 2 slices of every kind, so it implied that each of us supposedly consumed 14 pieces of exceptional fish :-)
The sashimi was served a few 'dressings' with ponzu sauce, salt, Tai liver (very rich) and shoyu+nori in cube form. For garnishes to enhance the overall enjoyment, the kitchen served grated ginger, radish, wasabi, naga imo (mountain yam) as well as shira negi (leeks). I thoroughly loved it. The abundant quantity did not compromise the fish's quality but I could understand if some people, in particular with small appetite, might have been overwhelmed given it's only a second course

3rd course: Shinjo Wan; fish dumpling in clear broth. Inside the soup, there were earthy matsutake, kuri (sweet chestnut) and Guji shinjo (delicate and mildly flavored Amadai). The dashi was superb with the addition of lime to balance the dish - very good

4th course: Yakimono. Lightly grilled local wagyu beef served with green pepper and some kind of sweet dressing (like a mixture of apple & honey sauce). The rich but rather lean beef was cut into smaller pieces and it was delicious. I found the sauce was bold and unusual

5th course: Chawanmushi; savory steamed egg custard was a conceptually simple dish but often complex to be properly executed. Chef Ishihara was on different level as his luxurious version of chawanmushi was silky, light and umami. It was served with hamo, matsutake and gingko - they provided some nice textural contrast. A common dish was elevated to fine dining level

6th course: Hassun; a tray showcasing several kinds of seasonal delicacies from the mountain and the sea - the presentation was extravagant and decorative, I wish I had the pictures of this dish. The hassun was amazing - both in the eye and in the palate.
Some items were: Chestnut soup, broiled Iwashi (sardine) with sauce, creamy Uni with sesame cream, tasty Ikura rice, decent Kohada, cooked Lotus root, Edamame, crisp Maitake tempura, tender braised tako with sweet sauce, Hokkaido roast duck with mustard etc. I might have forgotten 1-2 other things. Many of these were served with some kind of light and quite acidic 'jelly' sauce
Each 'dish' was meticulously prepared and executed, such as the salmon roe and baby octopus were about as good as the ones I ate at Sushi Yoshitake. Again, many of the items served was multiple pieces. The bigger enjoyment was the ability to take a small byte here and there to experience different kinds of flavor, texture, and temperature. Though it may look cliche, but for me, the whole pleasant experience here was simply greater than the sum of its parts

7th course: Nimono. For the simmered dish, we had delicious & sweet Nishin (herring fish) served with stewed Satoimo (taro root) and yuzu. Satisfying

8th course: Cooked seafood. They're dazzling - fresh, high quality and flawlessly prepared. Hokkaido Kegani (hairy crab), Kuro Awabi (abalone) and Salmon. Looked ordinary but flavorful

9th course: Yuto accompanied by Konomono. At first, we're given a small portion of top quality rice then we would serve for ourselves a big bowl containing clear broth and crunchy browned rice/cereal to be shared with a few other guests. The pickles were crunchy and rich. It was quite interesting and the 'common' ingredients were superior. You're welcome to eat as much rice/soup as you want

10th course: Mizumono. The dessert was Japanese sweets made with chestnut and bean paste. They were alright. Then following cha-kaiseki ritual, the assistant chef passed a bowl of (foamy and bitter) matcha, each was carefully prepared by Chef Ishihara himself. I loved this powdered green tea; probably the best I've had for this trip      

11th course: Kudamono; it's no secret that Japan is blessed with numerous top quality fruits. Mizai mixed possibly more than a dozen of different local fruits and they're superb in particular figs, grapes, pawpaw, melon and pear. In addition, we also ate raspberries, dragon fruit, orange, peach, apple, papaya, and blueberries. The assorted fruit was served with champagne jelly. My spouse was full at this point, and I had no problem finishing 1/4 of her 'fruit salad'   

Mizai has been constantly leading the Kyoto tabelog for several years now. It should not come as a surprise because Hitoshi Ishihara is a capable, talented and respectable chef in Japan. In his younger years, Ishihara-san was already a well-known prodigy in cooking washoku. Before opening his own restaurant, Chef Ishihara honed his skills for more than 20 years, mainly at Arashiyama Kitcho in which he became the ryotei's youngest head chef. After this meal, I could confidently say that Mizai provided generous food and impeccable dishes that utilized fresh and outstanding ingredients mainly sourced from Kyoto area and its surroundings. It has been the commitment and the passion of Ishihara-san to introduce as many local produce as possible and prepared them skillfully. He 'warned' us not to be surprised if for subsequent visits in the future, he would serve even more items than what we had that night.  He was indeed a confident chef with a unique style; Ishihara-san effortlessly composed dishes using various ingredients and carefully adjust them to reach a perfect balance with deep flavor. Not only in cooking, he was also a genius in pottery and literature. When not busy, he would design and create lidded bowls to be used for his own restaurant. Additionally, he wrote a cooking book that according to my Japanese friend (Ki-sho head chef) was very philosophical and sometimes not easy to understand even among Japan's chefs.

Mizai is not a big kappo-kaiseki restaurant. The main counter could accommodate about 12 people; it also has a single private room. It has one seating only every night, this should explain why getting a seat here would often require tenacity, patience and perhaps luck. The dining room was fresh & clean with sufficient light. The beautiful counter was made of an exotic and gorgeous lacquered wood. At Mizai, sometimes for the same dishes, Hitoshi Ishihara would use different plates and china for his guests - this make a special experience by itself. The hospitality was wonderful with friendly and helpful staffs. Following a traditional root/culture of Japanese kaiseki, only males work here. Except Ishihara-san and his sous chef, it seems that the waiters were 'discouraged' to speak to guests especially about food and beverages. Overall, it was a very memorable dinner. The progress of the meal was well-structured and the kitchen was more than able to consistently produce good quality dishes that were outstanding in both presentation and flavor. Along with Kunio Tokuoka's flagship restaurant, Mizai stood as the best and my favorite dining place in Kyoto & Osaka areas.  

Food: 97 pts

Service: 93 pts

Overall: 96/100

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Kyo Aji Kenichiro Nishi - 2nd visit

2 years ago, I was very excited to be able to have dinner at Kyo Aji, an introduction-only (kappo) kaiseki establishment in Japan. That dinner immediately ranked in the top 3 as the finest meal I've ever had. Since I cannot (yet) be considered as 'regular' at Kyo Aji, I was not very sure whether I would be able to return here particularly as Autumn is generally the favorite season among the restaurant's regular guests. Furthermore, the restaurant can only accommodate 15 people, including the private room. A couple of months prior to my visit, I was thrilled knowing that once again my wife and I would have the opportunity to savor the creations of the legendary Kenichiro Nishi. This time was for lunch and it was special because I was celebrating my 35th birthday at my favorite restaurant in the Land of the Rising Sun. In fact, Kyo Aji was the only restaurant that I re-visit in Japan during 2 separate years.

Our initial reservation time was at 1 PM, but Makiko Nishi, the restaurant's okami, suggested us coming earlier at around noon time so that we would not be rush and the kitchen would be able to prepare more dishes for us - what a kind gesture! From the original booking, my concierge at hotel Okura informed me that we would be seated at the private room. I was really glad when we arrived at Kyo Aji and knowing that the counter seating was still available. Of course, I decided to seat there instead of the private room. It was always fun to see the live action of Master Chef Kenichiro Nishi and his kitchen staffs. It seems that I have a good luck in terms of eating Matsutake, Japan's highly sought-after mushroom. 2 years ago, the Matsutake harvest was late so we still could eat this Pine mushroom in the middle of November. On the contrary, this year, the harvest was a bit early (coming out in September) hence our lunch at Kyo Aji in early Oct coincidentally was the 'peak' period for Matsutake season. Consequently, our meal was quite similar to what we had a couple of years ago except this time we still had a chance to eat Kamo nasu often known as Kyoto's queen of eggplants. However, I love that this happened since I just cannot have enough of Matsutake - officially, my favorite mushroom in the world.  

Sekihan aka Azuki-meshi: Rice with red adzuki beans served with Shiro miso soup - The rice, a mixture of normal rice + mochigome + a little salt, had minimal taste & a good texture. On the contrary, the white miso soup was earthy, more intense with concentrated flavor but not so salty. A beginning for a celebration ...
Zensai (Starters): Lightly grilled Kamasu (Barracuda) with char skin + meaty and juicy pink flesh; Ginkgo nuts had slight bitter taste; Quail egg with uni had interesting flavor; cooked Shimeji mushroom was alright; and Tamago with kani was a bit sweet 

Shirako: Sacs of Cod's milt served with Sudachi (Citrus) - Shirako season came pretty early this time and Kyo Aji gave us even a more generous portion than the one we had in our previous visit. The surface was a bit crisp while the interior was creamy with custard-like texture. The overall taste was naturally sweet but light and heavenly, seriously! Obviously, the shirako was of top produce and perfectly executed - slowly enjoying it in my mouth. I might not be comfortable yet eating 'random' Cod's milt - only the one of high quality such as this one
Grilled Matsutake served with spinach and ponzu sauce - Kyo Aji is arguably the best place to savor this "Pine mushroom" that had distinct aroma and unique flavor. It was also meaty, slightly salty and a little acidic from the dressing (a combination of soy sauce and citrus juice). Truly a delightful dish and delicious since this Matsutake's cap was still relatively 'closed' 

Kamo Nasu Dengaku: Baked/slow roasted Kyoto Eggplant served with sweet miso + Aka uni - The eggplant was sublime with delicate texture; it surprisingly tasted even better than the creamy red sea urchin but both ingredients complemented each other. The dish was enhanced by the sweet but light miso paste. A classic & unpretentious Kyoto-style dish that was executed meticulously
Tai (Japanese Sea Bream/Natural Snapper) Sashimi served with shio and 'sour sauce' - The Japan's king of fish was really good though we consumed it in Autumn, probably since the tai was caught off the coastal city of Akashi. The white fish had wonderful natural flavor and firm flesh. It will not be easy to find a better Tai sashimi

Hamo Nabe Matsutake: "Shabu2" of Pike conger and Pine mushroom - My favorite soup dish in the world and having it during the peak season of Matsutake was truly special. The dashi, made of hamo's bone, was very savory with deep flavor; it was scrumptious and pretty much 'perfect' that I did not really bother to utilize the lime and ponzu this time. The broth was perfumed by thick & clean Matsutake as well. The Hyogo's pike conger beautifully bloomed into fluffy 'white flower'. Both the flavors and fragrant of the sea and forest were simply ethereal - also showcasing the soft and meaty texture contrast. Oishii
Simmered and then grilled Tai head - It was served with 'green' sauce containing vinegar and herbs to improve the sea bream's meat flavor. We were encouraged to eat using our hands since it was not easy to consume all the meats by using only the chopsticks. The most delicious element was the part near/below the fish's eye (eye muscle?). It was not big, but very divine - just one byte. The white flesh, mainly near the cheek, was generally delicate and slightly sweet whereas around the jaws was tender. It was an enjoyable dish except it had plenty of bones 
 
Nishin to Nasu: Herring fish and Eggplant served with snow peas - This was a hearty dish often eaten by common people in Kyoto. A good example of humble and rustic dish that was phenomenal, perfectly executed and full of umami flavor. The nishin was tender and somewhat salty; it helped bring out the optimal flavor of the juicy nasu. In contrast to the soft eggplant was the fresh and firm snow peas. Don't forget to finish up the umami 'soup' below that predominantly having autumn eggplant taste
Matsutake "Furai": Deep fried Pine mushroom - This dish was served with shio, shoyu and sudachi; choose your own way to eat! It was done by Nishi-san himself and of course flawless. The matsutake was not greasy and still had its meaty texture, fragrant aroma and unique flavor (here, it's a bit sweeter than usual - love it). The kitchen did not usually serve this dish during lunch as we got it because we requested in the beginning. I've never got enough of Matsutake at Kyo Aji ;)
Kuri to Amadai: Steamed Japanese Chestnut with Tilefish - They thought I was full; I said no when Makiko-san offered me this dish. I had it a couple of years ago, liked it a lot then and still loved it this time. This simmered dish might look unpleasant, but it was very delectable. The fried and firm Amadai was dried a few days to develop its rich flavor; the chopped chestnut was sweet and soft. A nice display of contrast texture while the flavorful elements enhanced one another. The non-cloying thick sauce had wasabi and some arrowroot elevated this 'ugly' dish even more. It would take a genius to create such dish ..
 
Matsutake Gohan: Matsutake Rice served with Fall pickles - The rice looked beautiful, didn't it? You could see the grain clearly - flawlessly cooked. I had plenty of Matsutake gohan during this trip, thus I only had a bowl of it. The one served here was among the finest (top 3) - I liked it when the rice had more intense matsutake's flavor and aroma. The tsukemono was also very good
Sake Harasu Gohan: Salmon belly rice - The timeless dish of Chef Nishi. A great transition from aromatic matsutake gohan into a more flavorful with stronger texture salmon rice. The 'sake' was well seasoned and carefully grilled above binchotan; resulting in delicious crispy skin and juicy meat yet not overly salty. Consuming it with Japanese rice was heartwarming indeed. It would be a big mistake not to have a second bowl of this - somehow, I never get tired of repeating the same dishes at Kyo Aji - perhaps they're simply marvelous!
 
Kuzukiri to kuromitsu: Kudzu starch in noodle-like strips served with brown sugar syrup - Another dessert specialty at Kyo Aji that's probably more unusual for foreigners than the warabi mochi. The hot & translucent 'noddles' (put into ice water) was silky, thin but didn't easily break. You dip the kuzukiri inside the sweet but balanced syrup, then slurp it slowly to savor its tasty flavor and very decent texture. Again, Nishi-san himself precisely prepared this signature dish. It was so outstanding that I doubt I would ever eat a better kuzukiri than the one served here
Warabi mochi to kinako: Japanese 'rice cake' made of bracken starch and covered with roasted soybean flour - The desserts at Kyo Aji also never changes, but they're classic and you would want to keep them actually. We usually began with this soft and sticky mochi served together with the kinako that had an acquired sweet taste & delicate texture. These were a joy in the mouth. I consumed 2 portions on my own. The key to this 'great' sweet was to have lots of kinako to go along combined with the top quality and gooey (hand-made) warabi
 
The food at Kyo Aji has been excellent. Kenichiro Nishi is more than able to perform at high level all the times. The 2nd visit made me appreciate the food even more. I noticed that most dishes (whether the dashi, seasoning and 'sauce') were more flavorful while still maintaining Nishi-san's style to prepare light & clean items with complex taste. Because they're very delicious, in more than one occasion, I decided to skip the condiments such as shoyu or sudachi when enjoying the dishes during this visit. The trio of Matsutake were still incredible and flawlessly executed, so were the rice as well as the desserts. Another thing that truly stood out was Chef Nishi's skills to elevate simple ingredients and homey dishes to the perfection of fine dining level such as the ones with eggplants and chestnuts. Essentially, every dish has been carefully prepared; when you tasted them, they're not only delicious and comforting but also deep and balanced. Even after doing this for more than 50 years, we could see that Nishi-san was still passionate in the kitchen. He's always there and leading by example - hands on whenever possible despite being in advanced age. 

What was as memorable as the food at Kyo Aji was its hospitality. Once again, the chef-owner Kenichiro Nishi led the way. When we arrived at the restaurant, there were 4 other guests already seated inside. Yet, upon knowing other guests arrived, Chef Nishi, wearing his Geta, came out and greeted us. Then, the "Kaiseki God" himself escorted us to the dining room. Not only that, he even voluntarily pulled and pushed our chairs! Ladies and gentlemen, he's nearly 80 years old and given his stature, we were truly humbled and became a bit 'uncomfortable' receiving his sincere kindness ... after all, we're not the restaurant's VIPs but very grateful to be treated as such. As soon as we're seated, the sous chef told the waitress to inform Makiko Nishi that we had arrived. In less than 5 minutes, the okami welcomed us and this time she's not wearing the kimono. It's likely that day or during our lunch was her off-day but we indirectly "made" her return to the restaurant. As expected, she declined our conjecture and told us not to worry about it. The service went smoothly. Ms. Makiko clearly explained the dish especially the one we didn't have before. He also acted as a translator and mediator between us and her father. This time she also shared that Nishi-san was actually a very approachable person. Her father like many different kind of cuisine and even simpler food - he would be satisfied even with rice, egg & pickles. At around 2 PM during our lunch, her dad already asked her what he would have for lunch that day - he could choose only when Makiko was the one preparing the food, but not when here mother was around. Moreover, according to Makiko-san, her dad never complained & criticized his wife cooking at home even though when even she thought it had not been good. An interesting short story and perspective about the life of probably the most respectable chef in Japan.    

On this special occasion, Kyo Aji kindly shared Kenichiro Nishi's private collection of Kokuryu Junmai Ginjo. If not mistaken, we drank the "black dragon" version - there was a more exclusive and exotic type of the Kokuryu sake. Our sake was balanced, a bit sweet and rich, smooth with a quick finish. We were the last guests to leave the restaurant for this lunch. Following the tradition of omotenashi,  Chef Nishi, supported by his cane and accompanied by his daughter, bid us farewell on the street. He patiently entertained our request to take other pictures with him. As we were walking and leaving the restaurant, we could not help but look back and gave another bow to show our respect and grateful feeling to Nishi-san for being such a grateful host and giving us another meal to remember. He would smile, waived back towards us and kept standing as long as we're in his sight. I told my wife to take the first turn available after this so that we would not 'bother' them although going straight was a more appropriate to our next destination. Another positive note - I was pleased to see that Nishi-san still looked healthy and energetic with radiant face. Cannot wait for another opportunity to return to this temple of haute Japanese cuisine. Readers can find the pictures of the meal here: Kyo Aji Oct '15

Food: 99 pts

Service: 97 pts

Overall: 98.5/100


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Ginza Harutaka

Talking about Ginza Harutaka, one way or another, people would mention the fact that Harutaka Takahashi was an apprentice of Japan's notorious sushi master - Jiro Ono. Along with Hachiro Mizutani, Harutaka-san was known to be the most talented students of Jiro and both of them already made names for themselves: Mizutani was a 3-star sushi-ya whereas Harutaka consistently ranked favorably according to tabelog and became the favorite place among elite chefs in Tokyo. Unlike Sushi Mizutani whose shari was more sticky (less al dente), the shari at Harutaka was more similar to Jiro's especially in terms of texture (firm but smooth) and temperature (warm). However, to distinguish himself from his master, Chef Harutaka's rice was more balanced - less acidic with mild salt that blended really well. It's very suitable to my palate.  

We only managed to have a reservation at 9 PM albeit it's only a weekday; similar to our experience at Sushi Sho, we had a 2nd seating. Reaching the Kawabata building around 8:30 PM, my wife and I decided to try our luck to get in earlier since we were quite hungry. Fortunately, the earlier diners were already left. There were 4 empty seats available at the counter throughout the night and we took advantage of those by putting some of our stuffs there. The dining room was relatively small and bright with simple design dominated by the natural color of hinoki. The atmosphere was relaxed and we felt very welcome by the friendly staffs - a sharp contrast to the rigid and stern experience I had at Ginza Jiro several years ago. The sous chef ensured us once again that our omakase would consist of sashimi/appetizers and sushi. We nodded and the adventure began      

Appetizers

Ise Ebi (in sashimi and jelly form) served with clam of miso - Starting a meal with something refreshing is generally safe. The spiny lobster was tender but a bit plain, combined with pleasant jelly and more flavorful clam miso - quite good
Grilled Sanma with its liver sauce - The Pacific Saury was tasty with some smoky flavor. The sauce would solidify/intensify the Sanma's flavor

The soup of Hamo in Matsutake broth - The soup, scented and flavored with the Pine mushroom, was delicious and clean. It went well to support the delicate/tender Pike Conger. One of the better tsumami (appetizer) dishes at Harutaka
Sashimi: Hirame (Olive Flounder) and Botan Ebi (Large Shrimp) with nori and wasabi - Both items were fresh. In Autumn, hirame began to develop its fat; the wasabi and shoyu would bring its natural flavor whereas the botan ebi was smooth and inherently sweet. Good sashimi selection

Abalone soup - The (kuro) awabi served with its dashi. The awabi, carefully cooked for several hours, was tender and delicious in its core flavor. The 'white' soup stock, served warmed, was slightly thick and light; kindly enhanced the overall enjoyment of the dish
Seared Bonito - The Katsuo, cut in medium thickness, had 'full body' flavor. The middle was red (barely cooked/almost raw) and its smoky skin was properly seared leaving the tasty fat in between. The top quality bonito was accompanied by a slightly bitter 'side dish - garlic, ginger & a little oil'. They tasted better when consumed together with the bonito  

Sushi

Sumi Ika (Spineless Cuttlefish) - A fantastic ika will set the positive tone of Edo mae sushi experience. It was silky, naturally sweet, and tender with a good amount of wasabi
Kisu (Sillago) - A low fat fish with clean taste and tender texture. First time eating this
Shima Aji (Striped Jack) - Nice 'milky' white fish with sweet tone at the end

Akami (Lean Tuna) - It's a lightly marinated and tasty akami. The shari was a bit too much when compared to the neta size .. still good nevertheless
Chu Toro (Medium fatty Tuna) - Aged for 5 days and you got the 'best' of Akami and O-Toro (balanced between fat and flesh). It was delicious, rich and almost melt in the mouth
O-Toro (Fatty Tuna) - Very velvety and oily yet we could still taste its flavorful flesh. An excellent otoro, perhaps the best one I ate this year    

Kohada (Gizzard Shad) - Beautifully cut. Harutaka-san expertly put the right ratio of vinegar & salt on this briny silver fish. This complex fish also had a hint of sweetness - very pleasant
Ikura (Salmon Roe) - Glistening and fresh orange roes with cool texture, distinct saltiness and burst of natural oily flavor. Love it!
Aji (Horse Mackerel) - A lovely fish; fresh, a bit oily, and good texture

Kasugo (Young crimson Sea bream) - Well seasoned, pleasant texture and refreshing
Broiled Kuruma Ebi (Large Tiger Prawn) - Tender and juicy; sweet and high quality. Possibly, it's one of the best kuruma ebi I've ever eaten
Aka Uni (Red Sea Urchin) - Excellent uni with crispy nori in generous portion. The sea urchin was briny, creamy and sweet
   
Buri (Amberjack) - This Japanese yellow tail was tender and flavorful
Akagai (Ark Shell) - The 'blood' clam was chewy (in a nice way) but not as 'sweet' as the one I had at Tokyo's elite sushi-ya
Anago (Salt water Eel) - Creamy, sweet and melting in the mouth
Tamago (Egg) - Moist, spongy and sweet with great egg flavor 

The tsumami at Ginza Harutaka was good even though not (yet) at the level of appetizers prepared by Yoshitake. But the sushi was truly outstanding.  As we enjoyed piece by piece, it was clear that the neta was really fresh and of high quality. Harutaka Takahashi diligently visit Tsukiji market every morning; he personally & carefully selected the fish and sea food. Harutaka-san would let most of them alive as long as possible before serving the morsel to his guests in the evening. He might look young but as he showed his knife art work, we could observe his precision and elegant movement of a sushi expert. The result was a consistently excellent sushi piece(s). Chef Harutaka applied the right amount of sauce and wasabi in which both the neta and shari worked together in harmony to produce a delicious sushi. Every sushi master has his own unique style and the edomae sushi served at Ginza Harutaka was arguably my personal favorite in Japan, if not in the whole world. Somehow, I believe that the best of Sushi Harutaka is yet to come; Harutaka-san would still evolve and refine his already high skills. I will expect a better meal or at least as great as this one when I return here again in the future. Here are the pictures: Harutaka Sep '15

Food: 96 pts

Service: 93 pts

Overall: 95/100

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sushi Yoshitake Tokyo

There are many good sushi-ya(s) in Tokyo and to choose one where we want to eat may not be that easy. At first, I would like to try the less 'well-known' places among non-Japanese such as Mitani or Miyako. However, these places were already fully booked even more than one month before my selection date. In the end, I picked Sushi Yoshitake. I visited the Hong Kong branch a couple of years ago and had a great meal there especially the octopus and the abalone with liver sauce. Knowing my wife's palate, I know she would love those dishes too. If the branch was good, then the flagship restaurant overseen by the sushi master himself, Masahiro Yoshitake-san, naturally should be better right? Furthermore, Yoshitake Tokyo offering the same omakase menu at substantially cheaper price than at its Hong Kong counterpart. In Ginza, the sushi-ya provided an extra appetizer as well as 2 more sushi.  

Prior to this meal, I only knew that Sushi Yoshitake, located in the normal office building with ordinary entrance of Ginza area, only had one main counter that seats 7 people. As we entered the dining room, we're stopped by a junior staff. A few minutes later, Yoshitake-san came out, greeted and instead escorted both of us to a small door with a narrow passageway that could easily be mistaken as a closet for keeping guests' outer coats. Apparently, this narrow door would lead us into a smaller dining room seated 4 people at most. The sous chef introduced himself as "Dai" (a short of Daisuke) and he would serve our dinner since the main dining room was busy with Yoshitake's regular clients. My positive experience at Sushi Shikon helped me handle the situation calmly. I thought Dai-san could not be 'worse' than Chef "Kaki". Moreover, I already know that most of the dishes especially the tsumami (appetizers/snacks) have been prepared in advance from the main kitchen. So, I saw no point to make a fuss or felt cheated of not being served by Yoshitake-san himself. In addition, there were a few other pros as well: first, we had a private dinner since we're the only diners in this small room. Secondly, we were allowed to take pictures of the dishes with our cameras (not strictly from the camera phone). 

Appetizers

Salmon caviar served with smoked salmon, grated radish and okra - The ikura was excellent, the salmon was tender & smooth while the daikon & okra added interesting combination especially texture-wise. I generally love any dish with plenty of top quality ikura
(Lightly seared) red Snapper sashimi with special sauce (a mixture of fish bone, shoyu, & yuzu) and wasabi - A wonderful slices especially the contrast of the fish's crispy/charred skin and its clean/pure taste. The sauce enhanced the sashimi's flavor

Tender octopus with 'sweet' sauce - The tako was slowly braised for a long time (plus some 'massage') resulting in a tender piece that's enjoyable to chew in my mouth. It was really delicious because in addition to its 'soft' texture, the tako thoroughly absorbed the sweet sauce (a combination of some bonito broth + sake + kelp). A great dish
Steamed (black) Abalone served with its liver sauce - Yoshitake-san's best signature item and deservedly so. At this level of cooking, we can expect the mushi kuro awabi to be tender (a little bouncy in a nice way). The sauce was phenomenal; it was creamy, rich, & deep - simply out of this world. It worked perfectly with the awabi. After that, the itamae gave a dollop of sushi rice to be mixed with kimo sauce to create a wonderful "green risotto". An excellent dish: complex but in harmony!

Seared Bonito with horse radish, ginger and scallion - Similar to the sashimi dish, the katsuo's skin was seared to be smoky and crispy. The cooked bonito flesh has a deep flavor; nice
Mozuku seaweed (natural) and Sea urchin with chopped mountain yam and chia seeds (for slight crispy texture) - It serves as a transition dish before the sushi course began. The yama imo was 'starchy' and it rather dominated the overall flavor along with the nori. The uni acted as a good distraction 

Sushi

Shin Ika (Baby squid) - It was pretty, clean and tender; awesome!
Grilled shin ika 'tail/leg' - The baby cuttlefish in this form was aromatic and delicious with a very good texture
Tai (Sea bream) - It's quite versatile with a balance of sweet & sour flavor 
Chu-Toro (Marinated and lightly boiled medium fatty Tuna) - It was well aged with gorgeous color; really flavorful. A splendid morsel

O-Toro (Fatty Tuna; also aged fabulously) - It's very difficult to go wrong with this especially when the Itamae served 2 layers of Otoro ;-) As you imagine, it was heavenly (creamy & oily yet not greasy) and umami!
Kohada (Gizzard shad) - Similar to my O-toro, "Dai-san" applied a double portion of kohada to create this piece. It has a balanced of strong flavor - could taste some variations of vinegar, salt and a bit of sweetness derived from the dried ebi powder    

Sanma (Mackerel pike with its liver & chopped shiso) - The cured sanma was quite tasty; its liver was very intense. I hardly ate this morsel in sushi, nevertheless interesting though not my favorite .. 
Akagai (Ark shell) from Miyagi perfecture - Firm & crunchy texture with enjoyable oceanic flavor and inherently sweet. Eating "kai" in Japan is always a huge pleasure 
Uni (Sea urchin) - It was a combination of aka (Autumn is usually the peak period for Aka uni) + bafun uni. In this case, the red sea urchin was indeed a bit sweeter and creamier than the green one. Both were still excellent and served in generous portion

Kuruma-Ebi (Japanese tiger prawn was accentuated with shrimp miso) - Another great piece. The prawn was delicious, juicy and of top quality (freshly prepared and immediately served). I like the addition of the 'green brain' below the ebi   
Anago (Sea eel) - The anago itself was soft, light and 'melting'. With the addition of the glaze, it became delightfully sweet and rich but not cloying

Temaki (Tuna hand roll) - The tuna was akami tsuke (equal portion of akami vs shari) and served with crunchy nori, shiso & ginger. The sign that the end was near ...
Tamago (Egg custard) - Sweet, a bit creamy and flavorful 'sponge cake'
Miso-shiru - Miso soup to conclude the wonderful meal  

Our meal was accompanied by cold sake - Hakurakusei junmai ginjo from Miyagi. It was a very satisfying meal - possibly my spouse favorite sushi-ya during this trip. Carrying the restaurant's top reputation, Daisuke-san delivered and executed each dish consistently well. Yoshitake uses two types of akuzu (red vinegar) for the sushi rice. The addictive shari looked beautiful in red/brown; it's 'al dente', served at (almost) body temperature/faintly warm that's in harmony with the prepared neta. Yoshitake-san was truly an expert at combining flavors, textures and temperatures. Our meal was well paced and also entertaining. Dai was talkative, amiable and shared plenty of stories from his life and cooking experience - so there's hardly a dull moment. He used to be the chef de cuisine of Japanese embassy in Washington DC for several years before returning to Tokyo. With his characters and personality (skill wise, they're on par), I would choose Dai-san over Kaki-san anytime as my sushi chef at Yoshitake (of course, I would still be curious what it's like to be served by the Yoshitake-san himself one day).

The decor was minimal and simple; the small-size room created an intimate ambiance.  For me, Sushi Yoshitake to sushi is like Ishikawa to kaiseki in terms of the top places that deliver non-intimidating experience for foreigners (with 'zero' Japanese language) who want to savor authentic Japanese cuisine. With fresh and impeccable ingredients, delicious food, and sincere hospitality, Yoshitake at Ginza should be the right 'entry spot' to those who want to savor high end sushi in Japan for the first time. For the pictures of the above food, you're welcome to follow the link below: Yoshitake Sep '15

Food: 95 pts

Service: 94 pts

Overall: 94.5/100