Friday, January 30, 2009

Genyana Hamadaya Nihonbashi

In December 2007, Michelin - the prestigious gastronomic guidebook that some say could make or break a restaurant - released its first Asian edition, Tokyo. The most surprising news is that Tokyo officially dethroned Paris as the world’s culinary capital (191 restaurants stars were awarded compared to 65 stars at Paris). Long before the Michelin guide was released, I already had a plan to go to Tokyo for the first time in more than 20 years. So, I found that the guide is useful to assist my dining adventure during my Christmas holiday. The restaurant that caught my main attention is a Japanese ryotei (authentic and traditional) restaurant, Genyana Hamadaya. Hamadaya is a 95-year-old restaurant located in Nihonbashi Ningyo-cho (the birthplace of Edo Kabuki) where guests can be entertained by Geishas during their dining. As much as my desire to visit this place, I was a little bit intimidated at first since some told me that many Japanese (classic) restaurants do not welcome foreigners period. Fortunately, my hotel’s concierge, Ms. Ikuyo Takeuchi did a fantastic job to secure a lunch reservation at the main branch (there is another Hamadaya at Akasaka, Tokyo midtown) for me and my father.

Hamadaya, as far as I’m concerned, only offers degustation menu known as Kaiseki. Kaiseki (some call it tea ceremony) is a formal banquet cuisine served in Japanese-style and is nothing like most Japanese food that we know such as: tempura, teppanyaki or even sushi. After eating at several European fine dining restaurants, I thought I know “what and how to eat”, however, this experience taught me that there are still many things I can learn and explore about the Japanese haute cuisine. Similar to the tasting menu in the French gastronomy, a kaiseki banquet is a feast for the senses consisting of multiple elaborate small courses prepared with rare, fine and seasonal local ingredients (mostly unavailable outside Japan). As we entered Hamadaya’s main entrance, the restaurant’s staffs, dressed in traditional kimonos and sitting in seiza (the traditional Japanese sitting posture) position, politely greet us by bowing until their head touch the floor. Wow … I thought it was unnecessary, but I guess it is part of their culture to show respect towards the guests. As soon as we took off our shoes, one of the staffs escort us to the private tatami room – it is very spacious, the size is about 4×10 m2 and with such a large table, this room would be able to accommodate 8-10 people comfortably. At first, we were seated at the waiting room and served a cup of ocha (green tea) as well as warm towel. Once it’s all said and done, the adventure begins.

Hassun: Hors-d’oeuvre. The appetizer consists of: Roasted squid with sea urchin roe, deep fried prawn rolled in dried laver (edible seaweeds) and crab meat with eggyolk - The squid and crab are fine while the prawn is good. Additionally, there is a mixture of carrots, cucumbers and mushrooms served with some peanut sauce - nice and refreshing

Wanmori: Clear Soup. The soup consists of: Taro potato, spiny lobster tofu skin and daikon radish - I like the soup’s broth; the lobster is tender but rather tasteless while the tofu and potato are not too bad

Mukozuke: Sashimi. The sashimi in the winter season consists of: Maguro (Bluefin Tuna), Sayori (Halfbeak) and Hirame (Flatfish) served with wasabi Japanese horseradish - They’re all fresh with good texture, but the taste is very light. Sashimi is served early in traditional kaiseki before our palate sated with cooked foods

Yakimono: Grilled Dish. The dish consists of: Amadai Wakasa-yaki (Grilled Red Tilefish) - dense, tasty and juicy; Kaki (Oyster) in miso paste with sweet-dark sauce; Saba (Mackerel) sushi - in generous portion and chesnut dumpling. I love this dish very much

Nimono: Assorted Simmered Dish. Simmered Ohmi Kabura (giant turnip), quail and Japanese vegetables rolled with fried tofu - I like the soft texture and light taste of the tofu along with fresh spinach. The "meat ball"-like thing is OK

Aburamono: Deep Fried Plate. Deep fried prawn (with fries attached to it) and brocoli - The prawn is prepared in "tempura" style, and somehow it’s not oily at all. An excellent dish - sweet and crunchy, even better than Robuchon’s crispy langoustine

Shokuji: Rice and Soup. Steamed rice with peas, crab omelet, red miso soup (Akadashi) and Japanese pickles (Konomono) - Japanese’s rice is arguably one of the world’s best, and this one is without exception, the omelet is nice and sweet while the soup containing some "seaweeds"

Mizumono: A Seasonal Dessert. Assorted fresh fruits (Honey Dew and Strawberry) and hot sweet red bean soup - The red bean soup is pleasantly delicious - rich in taste without being cloying). In, L’Arpege I ate the best tomato and carrot in my life. Here, I never think that a honey dew could taste this good - sweet, fresh and very watery, the strawberry is also memorable

The savory menu above is accompanied by hot sakeKiku-Masamune tokusenn from Kobe (This dry sake has mild and refined aroma with delicate and smooth taste. It is the kind of sake which would intensify the foods’ flavor) and cold sakeAramasa tokubetuhonnzyouzou from Akita (A flavorful rice sake with gentle grain-like aroma and smooth round taste with a slight bitter finish). I don’t know much about their sake lists since I asked them to choose for me, but given the caliber of the establishment, sake-experts and lovers would not be disappointed. As we enjoyed ourselves or admired the small garden nearby, the Okami-san (female proprietor), Ms. Keiko Mita came a couple of times to keep us company during our meal. Her warmth immediately turned the formal ambiance into a more intimate one. In addition, our beautiful maitre d’hôtel which happens to be the owner’s daughter became the translator during our conversation (Ms. Keiko Mita actually speaks some English). I congratulated her for the 3-star Michelin awarded to Hamadaya. She explained that since receiving the award, the restaurant began to receive many reservations and at the same time adding her more pressure.

Essentially, the service at Hamadaya is indeed impeccable – both the owner and the staffs (all of them are female) are very courteous and cordial. In any authentic kaiseki meal, it is important for the staffs to adopt seiza position since it means not only showing courtesy and sincerity toward guests, but also having significance related to one’s field of vision and the direction of one’s eyes. Furthermore, the tea ceremony is cooperation between the host and the guest – while the host will do her best to make us feel welcome and take care of every details, we also need to perform our part by being appreciative clients. Kaiseki meal is like a symphony; while the feast would follow one particular seasonal theme, yet each course features distinct cooking techniques and above all, everything must work in harmony and be of the best quality. I could not imagine if there is a substitution for kaiseki meal outside Japan. It is true that the food here is not the best I have ever had; nevertheless the experience is unique and unforgettable especially the hospitality. After we finished our meal, Ms. Keiko Mita and her daughter gratefully accompanied and sent us out. The owner said she hoped to see us again. I would be more than happy to return here should I stop by in Tokyo again; hopefully next time will be in different season. Hamadaya is truly a temple of authentic Japanese cuisine. Please visit the website below for the pictures,

Food (and Wine): 94 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 96 pts

Overall: 94.5/100

Friday, January 23, 2009

Pierre Gagnaire Paris - 2nd visit

Like many foodies have said, there is hardly (if any) many fine dining restaurant that could surprise, amaze and at the same time frustrate its clients other than the one and only - Pierre Gagnaire Paris. In the extreme case, some would claim that having a meal here is like a culinary gambling ... it may not be completely wrong since you will spend a few hundred Euros and there is a likelihood that you will be disappointed at the end. But hey ... millions of people still go gambling despite knowing for sure that the odd to win is really small. So, near the end of October 2008, about 2 weeks after Lehman Brothers went bust, I returned to this legendary place, but this time for dinner and no more renovation work happening at Hotel Balzac. It was a chill Sunday and there were plenty of people enjoying themselves around L'avenue des Champs Elysees. I reached the restaurant at 1930 and it was relatively quiet, this time I was seated at the mezzanine level.

As described in my previous meal here, Pierre Gagnaire's cuisine is perhaps like a roller coaster, but it is not completely random. His cooking truly reflects his personality and passion. He's really an extraordinary artist in the kitchen who execute his dishes with high precision though the result is not always perfect, but when it does ... it's simply amazing! I have always been curious about trying the a la carte menu at Gagnaire Paris, but so far have no guts to do so. However, after the 1st visit, I had the courage to do so this time. The a la carte here is unique -there is usually one main ingredient/theme and it's prepared in 4-5 different ways - no other 3-star establishments doing such things, not even Pierre's Tokyo or Hong Kong. The risk for my feast this time was even higher after learning that both Chef Proprietaire as well as Chef de Cuisine were not present in the kitchen, but if not now I was not sure when I would have another chance. In addition, Gagnaire would not simply leave his beloved restaurant in the hand of some incapable staffs. Being an adventurous person, I did not order any conventional dishes to increase the excitement and the risk. Anyway, here what I had (nothing too memorable from my Amuse-bouche).

Les Entrees

Raviole de roquette à l’estragon, soupe de poireau grille aux baies de sureau (Arugula ravioli with tarragon served in grilled leek soup and elderberries) - A unique one and it's the best among "Parfums de Terre" dishes. There's a little taste of foie gras, the soup is also good. Overall, a very earthy dish indeed!

Quenelle Ranavalo; minestrone insoliete; bisque forestière (Thick cream soup of wild mushrooms served with puree of vegetables) - The mushroom cream is very strong and dominant; I hardly taste the vegetables
Coeurs de celtuce, sorbet d’endive au vinaigre de coquelicot (The thick part of stem lettuce served with chicory salad green sorbet and poppy vinegar) - This sorbet with sake is OK

Le veau de lait: poitrine longuement braisée, enrobée d’un caramel de framboise à l’oseille (Braised of milk-fed veal breast meat coated with caramel of raspberry and sorrel) - A small piece of tasty veal balanced with raspberries, so that it will not be cloying
Feuilles sauvages du jardin d’Annie Bertin, bouillon d’artichaut brûlant (Wild leaves from Annie Bertin’s garden served with hot broth of artichoke) - I like this herbs soup. It may taste like Chinese medicine at first, but the more you drink, the better. It's a bit hot and spicy, suitable for cold weather

La Terre

Paleron de boeuf poêlé au laurier; tranché devant vous, la viande est posée sur une crème de rave au saké (Pan-fried shoulder of beef in bay leaf, sliced in front of me and placed on sake cream) - This is the best piece of beef/steak I've ever eaten - forget Morton or Ruth Christ, even slightly better than Akagegyu beef. The French beef (surprisingly is not at all inferior to Japanese Wagyu), with some layers of fat, is truly delicious and it's enhanced with cream of sake. A genius work on the palate, even though the master himself was absent

Moelle au caviar osciètre, pointe de persil fume (Beef bone marrow served with osetra caviar and tip of smoked parsley) - The bone marrow is somewhat dull, the caviar's saltiness brings out the flavor. The herbs below gave some distinct aroma ...
Carotte d’epaule en pot-au-feu; sauce daube et chantilly Hermès (Simmered beef shoulder stew served in sweetened carrot whipped cream sauce) - The beef stew is not bad at all except the mousse is a bit too sweet for my taste

Poire traitée comme un carpaccio, vinaigre liqueur (Thinly sliced raw beef served with liquor vinaigrette and pear puree) - The beef is of high quality, but the flavor is slightly overtaken by the puree
Friselli, cantal frais et oignons crus piquants (Thin potato chips prepared with fresh Auvergne cheese and spicy raw onions) - Nice and decent chips
Jus froids, museau au sesame noir (Vinegared beef muzzle served with cold aspic and black sesame) - My least favorite in the "Boeuf a la Francaise" dishes. It's normal, the gelee below is just fine

Les Desserts

Biscuit soufflé gingembre fraise et pur Vénézuela (Sponge cake soufflé served with fresh ginger and undiluted Venezuelan chocolate) - The intense chocolate souffle served untraditionally on the plate. The top part is a bit crispy, below it's smooth intensified with pure chocolate
Ganache onctueuse au Trinité; tranche de cassate à la pistache de Sicile et chocolat lacté (Rich mixture of chocolate and smooth cream sliced in 3 ways, Sicilian pistachio in left & right and milk chocolate in the middle) - The ganache is very smooth, while the pistachio one is particularly good. But, overall it's just too small

Eau de fraise au kirsch, glace blanche au gingembre noir du Vietnam (Water of strawberry and eau-de-vie of wild black cherries served with white ice of black ginger from Vietnam) - This "cherry water" is hardly sweet and served cold. To me, this side dish of the dessert acts more as palate cleanser to tone down the strong chocolate souffle
Mikado de chocolat au lait saupoudré de thé vert (Powder of Mikado chocolate milk sprinkled with green tea) - The powder beautifully add the presentation of the souffle, but it's swallowed by the strong chocolate taste of the souffle

The wine in Pierre Gagnaire is pretty solid, but often overshadowed by the food. I had a glass of wine for each course. Firstly, I drank 2006 Chateau Revelette Le Grand Blanc and it was alright. To accompany the beef, I had 2004 Domaine Gauby Cotes du Roussillon. The wine is simple, but good; the fruit is clean and pure. It's quite acidic with rapid finishing. Lastly, included in the dessert, I enjoyed a glass of Bodegas Hidalgo Pedro Ximenez Triana. With some raisins aroma, I find it was opulently sweet yet matched well with any chocolate dessert generally. The hospitality here is professional as usual; staffs are attentive and friendly without being obstrusive. I had a little chat with one Spanish waiter regarding the first F-1 night race where his hero, Fernando Alonso won the first race this year. Unlike my first visit, I did not have to submit my Credit Card number to guarantee for my reservation. Nothing has changed in terms of the restaurant decor. The atmosphere is a bit more formal in the evening. Almost half of the diners were foreigners, so it should not be a surprise that there are already 3 Gagnaire's restaurants in Asia. Nowadays, a top restaurant should be able to consistently perform regardless when the head chef is around or not. My dinner here is a little bit short compared to my lunch a year ago, nevertheless I still had a wonderful meal. Perhaps, it would be equally as good had I chosen a more conservative approach by ordering the famous Les Langoustines or Le Turbot. For the pictures of what I ate, please click the following link

Food (and Wine): 96 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 95.5/100