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

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Kagurazaka Ishikawa

April this year, after a very satisfying meal at Tenku Ryugin - it's almost a lock that for the upcoming Japan trip, dining at Nihonryori Ryugin (perhaps Japan's most famous restaurant recently) is a must. However, after further research - about a few months before the actual trip, I decided that I would only eat at restaurants that are exclusively available in Japan. So, this leaves out not only Ryugin, but also Sushi Yoshitake and Kojyu. As a fan of Japanese kaiseki, Kagurazaka Ishikawa is like the next logical step of where I should eat. The decision to dine at Ishikawa was not a difficult one to make: 3-star Michelin, plenty of positive reviews from bloggers and critics alike, plus quite high score at tabelog. Like many other Tokyo restaurants, Ishikawa's location (in the geisha district of Kagurazaka) is not very straight forward; the establishment is in black wood at the ground floor of Takamura building, just behind the Bishamonten shrine. The discreet and 'dark' entrance only has kanji; one can see a little garden towards the end of a short corridor. Upon greeted by waitresses in kimono and checked our coats, we were seated at the counter. Then, the main show of the evening began: 9-course set menu

Appetizer (Zensai): Snow Crab served with Garland chrysanthemum and Petals - The kani is fresh and a bit sweet while the "jelly sauce", made of rice vinegar & dashi, further wet our appetite

Deep-fried (Agemono): Rice cake sandwich serve with Simmered soft-shelled Turtle - Perfectly fried rice cake (not oily at all) with good texture and right amount of 'chewiness'. The shoyu and lime added tempura-style flavor; the simmered turtle is not overwhelmed. A nice dish ..

Soup (Owan): Conger Eel with its minced meat served with Turnip and Mitsuba green with a hint of Yuzu citrus - The soup has a nice aroma (thanks to the Japanese parsley and yuzu). The tender kabu and anago are contrast to firmer minced meat below. The dashi will bring the natural umami flavor of soup's ingredients

Part 1: Sea Bream garnished with fresh seaweed and Japanese herbs (wasabi, shiso and ginger) - Standard fresh Tai sashimi with a nice texture. More than half of the "kaiseki" places we visited serving this fish in the Tsukuri part
Part 2: Seared Blowfish served with grated white radish sauce - Both high-quality of Fugu's flesh and skin are served here; Fugu is generally quite plain but it has an interesting and enjoyable texture. The grated radish on top as well as Sudachi ponzu below bring extra dimension of flavor to this dish

Charcoal-grilled (Yakimono): Black-throat Sea Perch served with Maitake mushrooms - The Nodoguro and its crispy skin are slightly sweet and delicious; The grilled Maitake is also tasty and earthy. If you find them too intense, the daikon and lime are there to help. A great dish 

Specialty: Horsehead Snapper and Cod Milt served with Soy milk and Tofu skin - Packed but (very) umami. The tara shirako is excellent and not too much, the amadai is perfectly cooked. The heavy sauce is made of kuzu, sugar and salt; its intensity is toned down by the wasabi, yuba and tonyu. Another great dish

Hot Pot (Nabemono): Fresh Sea Urchin and Thinly sliced Wagyu Beef served with Tofu and Komatsuna green - As expected, the Murasaki Uni and Kagoshima Beef are oishii. The tofu and mustard spinach are alright. The hot soup itself is wonderful especially to be savored during the cold weather  

Steamed Rice (Shokuji): Freshly harvested rice served with Sea Bream paste and pickled vegetables - I expected more for rice dish at Ishikawa (such as rice with Matsutake/Kani). It was a decent dish nevertheless; the top quality rice went well with nori, furikake and tsukemono. Halfway, the Chef poured bonito dashi to the rice to be enjoyed particularly with plenty of Tai paste

Dessert (Mizumono): Fresh Persimmon and Caramel ice cream with Monaka wafer - During Fall, kaki (a bit crunchy and rich in nutrients) is abundant and at its best. The lime jelly provides flavor and texture contrast; the ice cream is unfortunately a bit too cold with thin ice on the surface, hence unpleasant to eat. The wafer is light and quite airy - an OK dessert  

A very well-rounded and delicious degustation menu indeed. The dishes have been executed in high precision. Nothing is too much (sweet/salty) or overstated here, everything is in balanced while Hideki Ishikawa-san would let the ingredients shine on their own. When asked about his cooking style, Ishikawa was hesitated to consider his cuisine as kappo or cha kaiseki; he simply stated it's "Nihon ryori" - creative kaiseki is probably a good way to describe his cooking, a mixture of traditional style with some innovative technique focusing on ingredients' special characteristics. The chef-owner is a humble and simple man. He's very observant and cared about this customers; at least once or twice he would initiate some conversation with his guests. This small gesture actually made a tremendous difference to the overall dining experience. He is among the most easy going chefs I've ever encountered in Japan.     

Kagurazaka Ishikawa can be considered more pleasant and relaxed among top dining restaurants in Japan, but the service is top notch and nearly flawless. The restaurant manager, Chihiro-san spoke good English so don't worry about losing in translation. As a matter of fact, Ishikawa himself could understand and converse reasonably well in English - He explained that he's been learning the language 1-2 hours per week by himself; what an effort and commitment for a busy chef like him who owns 3 restaurants in Tokyo! On that day, the restaurant was busy but not fully booked. Throughout dinner, there was one empty spot at the seven-seat counter (we arrived and ate in between the 1st and 2nd seating), but at least 3 of the private rooms were utilized. Ishikawa is indeed a very popular restaurant, even Chef Tadayoshi Matsukawa had dined here a week before. On separate occasions, I've also encountered 2 groups, from Singapore and Hong Kong/Canada, dining in Tokyo had Ishikawa in their schedules. Overall, my wife and I felt very content and pleased with the wonderful meal as well as warm hospitality delivered by Ishikawa and his team. We truly love the convivial ambiance and enthusiasm shown by both the front and back staffs. Well done Ishikawa-san ... 

Please visit here for the pictures: Ishikawa Fall 2013
Food: 95 pts

Service: 95 pts

Overall: 95/100



Thursday, June 20, 2013

Robuchon au Dome

At the end of 2006, I had my first meal at Joel Robuchon's establishment and this happened to take place at his fine dining restaurant in Macau called Robuchon a Galera. Actually I was not too impressed with the meal even though I was still at the early stage of gastronomy experience. The food was alright with the only spectacular dish was oscetra caviar with smooth cauliflower in gelee. The service was average; I was rushed even when the time just passed 10 PM (I was the only diner left at that time and the restaurant was only filled about 1/3 of its capacity). The decor, predominantly in blue with thick carpet, was aged and 'gloomy'; the worst part to me was the live music that kinda cheapened the fine dining experience (Gaddi's at Peninsula was even worse with loud live band). With all these, actually I might not have any reason to return to Macau. However, in the past few years, I read plenty of positive reviews about the restaurants in particular after Robuchon a Galera has been shifted to Robuchon au Dome, located at the top floor of Grand Lisboa hotel. Some even said that both the food and the ambiance were even better than before. Thus, during my Hong Kong visit in early Spring this year, I made an effort to take a ferry to Macau with the sole purpose to re-visit Robuchon Macau.    

To make sure that I will optimize my lunch meal at Robuchon au Dome, I contacted the restaurant as early as February with the intention to devise my own menu derived from the Menu Degustation. After having exchanged a few emails, the menu was eventually confirmed only a couple of days prior to my reservation date. Unlike my first meal at the Galera, this time guest had to submit a form and gave the restaurant his Credit Card number to guarantee the reservation - I didn't have to do this when I ate at several 3-star establishments in Paris. In addition, I also requested for 4 glasses of wine to accompany my tasting menu. Everything looked good on paper and I really looked forward to having a wonderful meal in Macau. Theoretically, this had to be my ultimate meal during this Hong Kong trip that included dinners at Tenku Ryugin and Sushi Yoshitake. Let's find out what I had in my multi courses meal below,  

L’Asperge blanche en blanc-manger aux copeaux d’amandes et coulis vegetal (White asparagus served with shredded almonds and tomato coulis) - The amuse bouche; you could taste some combination of acidic tomato, crunchy almond, subtle olive oil and delicate asparagus to tease one's palate

Le Caviar 
part 1: en fine gelee de corail au parfum anise servi en surprise (Caviar in fine coral jelly served with aniseed cream) - Generous serving of briny caviar, that's necessary to tone down the dominance of coral flavor, with plenty of sweet crab meat and some hint of anise cream underneath. This was ranked among the top 3 of Robuchon's caviar dishes
part 2: Legerete de chou-fleur rafraichi d’une infusion iodee aux croutons dores (Caviar on cauliflower mousse served with croutons and shiso flower) - The cauliflower was a bit too dominant that it diminished the caviar's role in this dish. The rather bland mousse was balanced by the saltiness of caviar and croutons. It's alright but not as good as the legendary Oscietra caviar with smooth cauliflower in gelee 
part 3: lamelles de noix de Saint Jacques tiedies a la citronnelle (Caviar with warm and fine slices of scallops served with perfumed lemon grass cream) - The scallop was fresh and pleasant; I wish it had been bigger. It's enhanced with fragrant lemon grass and delicately fishy and salty caviar - interesting

Le King Crabe en duo d’avocat en mozzarella dans un coeur de romaine relevee a l’huile d’olive vierge (Duo of king crab and mozzarella in the heart of romaine seasoning served with virgin olive oil) - The big and succulent crab was imported from Azerbaijan. Both dishes (one prepared with avocado and another with mozzarella) were well seasoned and delicious including the refreshing romaine and parmesan cheese, love it!

Accompanied by wine: 2007 Domaine de Chevalier Blanc, Pessac Leognan - Bordeaux (well balanced with some acidity and moderate finish)

Le Homard 
part 1: en royale fleurie d’une emulsion aux aromates, pinces en tempura (Lobster royal served with aromatic and claw tempura) - I've had high expectation for this dish. The claw tempura (top) was unfortunately rather cold and greasy, however the lobster royal (bottom) in its juice, butter and roes was excellent
part 2: dans une coque de pate enrobee de beurre lie au corail avec des cebettes, en soupe parfum de fenouil (Stuffed pasta with Boston lobster and coral butter & lobster bisque perfumed with fennel) - The lobster bisque was not hot and light flavor while the pasta was Ok; there was hardly any crustacean below the pasta

Les Spaghetti a notre facon a l’oeuf mollet aux langues d’oursins (Spaghetti served with a poached egg and sea urchins) - After eating excellent uni at Hong Kong's Ryugin and Yoshitake, the sea urchin here was a bit pale in comparison. The runny yolk was good with nearly al dente pasta. To my likeness, they should've put more cheese in the dish and salted butter when cooking the spaghetti. It's not bad at all, but I prefer the execution and the flavor of Robuchon Singapore's homemade spaghetti served with soft poached eggs and shaved Alba white truffle

La Morille en raviole mitonnee aux asperges de pertuis et fleuri d’une brume vegetable au jus (Morel mushroom in ravioli served with green asparagus and vegetable foam) - After the truffle, morels are probably the most precious and delicious mushroom in French cuisine. The morels were fresh, earthy and a bit sweet - an elegant type of mushroom, seriously. The asparagus on the sides was ordinary  

Le Foie Gras poele aux aromates, puree de kumquat et nectar de grenade reduit (Seared duck liver served with aromatic condiments, kumquat puree and pomegranate reduction) - The seared foie gras was alright (not as refined as I expected), but it was helped by the kumquat sauce that's a bit spicy with some hint of citrus 

Accompanied by wine: 2007 Louis Latour Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Caillerets (easy to drink wine with some minerality and a hint of butter on the nose)

L’Amadai en cocotte aux artichauts epineux et un jus barigoule (Pan-fried Tilefish fillet with its crispy skin served with baby artichoke and barigoule jus) - The amadai was delicate in both taste and texture; the flavorful taste would come from the barigoule jus with some combination of tomato confit and small bacons. The crisp scales provided textural contrast to the fish soft flesh - good

Le Boeuf “Kagoshima” piece grille avec une fondue d’echalotes grises confites au vieux vin et pommes soufflees (Grilled Kagoshima beef with slow-simmered shallot in red wine served with potatoes souffles) - The A4 beef was delicious and rich, but the one I had at Amber was 'more marbled and tenderer'. The shallot puree could intensify the beef while the parsley puree eaten to reduce some cloying taste (if any). The potato puffs on the sides were average, not as good as the usual mashed potato  

L’Epeautre du pays de Sault en risotto a la feuille d’or fin (Sault spelt prepared in risotto style served with gold leaf) - I surprisingly kinda liked this 'risotto' dish - mixture of some salty and acidic flavor. I could clearly chew the distinguished farro grain texture 

Accompanied by wine: 2000 Bond Matriarch Napa Valley (cabernet sauvignon - good wine with vivid black cherry and wild berry that are focused; the tannins are ripe and smooth) 

La Sphere en sucre souffle, mousse lactee aux fraises, gelee a la liqueur de citron et sorbet au basilic (Blow sugar sphere served with mascarpone mousse, strawberry limoncello jelly and basil sorbet) - Finally, I got a chance to savor Robuchon's famous dessert. The sugar ball was as good as it looks; inside there were mousse, cream and strawberry. All elements worked together producing well balanced flavors

Les Choux Princesse a la vanille de Tahiti glacee, gelee de cacao et laques d’un onctueux lait chocolate (Princess puff stuffed with Tahiti vanilla ice-cream, cacao jelly and topped with hot chocolate coulis) - The ice cream between the puffs were average while the vanilla cream on the sides was tasty. The chocolate coulis was a bit cold by the time this dessert reached my table; it's more pleasing to the eye than at the palate

Some other desserts - At the last minutes, I decided to switch my cheese course with the restaurant's lunch dessert trolleys. Here what I got: millefuille (light & flaky texture with sweet & creamy savors - very good), chocolate cake with pistachio (smooth and nice) and wild strawberry rolls (spongy and a bit acidic). These were better than my chocolate dessert above 

Accompanied by wine: 1991 Domaine Touchais Coteaux du Layon - Loire Valley (lovely and smooth in honey color, also not too sweet)  

Food-wise in general was almost as good as my experiences at the other Joel Robuchon's fine dining establishments; as expected there were plenty of very good dishes and a few ordinary ones (a bit coarse sadly). Francky Semblat, the head chef, produced typical Robuchon cooking that combined classical and modern French cuisine with some (Asian) twist. I find the flavor and the 'sauce' here were a bit milder compared to the French cooking I've had in Europe. So, if I had to choose which one is the best among Robuchon's four gastronomy places, I would give a slight edge to Robuchon Tokyo followed closely by Robuchon Singapore surprisingly. Alain Verzeroli, Robuchon Tokyo director de cuisine, is more creative and executes most of the dishes with high precision; probably it's due to his diverse background (having worked at Taillevent and becoming Alain Passard's main sous chef at l'Arpege) as well as excellent support from his Japan's team lead by the gifted executive chef,  Watanabe-san. Tomonori Danzaki, mainly responsible for the success of Robuchon Vegas, was allowed to bring the top sous chefs from MGM to support him in Singapore and generated dishes without compromise - a typical among Japanese chefs. 

I was not sure who mainly assisted chef Semblat, but I suspected that his team is not as strong as the other Robuchon restaurants. This was also reflected in the dining room service. The majority of the waiters were from mainland China; they worked hard to serve their guests but many of them was not that fluent in English and often lacked knowledge about the food. The good things they're smile most of the time, but when you asked them about the dishes, they looked timid somehow. Only a handful of staffs understood the dishes and did not simply describe them through memorization. Lukas Song, the restaurant manager, got plenty of homework to improve the overall restaurant's hospitality although he himself delivered excellent service during a few visits to my table. I enjoyed my 'wine pairings' prepared by the assistant sommelier; the price was also reasonable. The wine collection was fantastic, but the mark-up was a lot higher compared to my first visit. People have talked about the extravagant dining room here with the most outstanding part of the restaurant decor got to be the Austrian-made suspended (Swarovski) crystal chandelier hanging down at the entrance. There were also some European paintings and Chinese arts. Essentially, money is no object to the owner however I felt that these expensive stuffs were not integrated that well to the overall ambiance. I liked Robuchon's dining rooms that were designed by Pierre-Yves Rochon better; all elements are in harmony. Morever, the distance between tables in Macau was not as spacious as the one in Singapore; the chair was nowhere as convenient as the sofa booth I sit on at Tokyo and Singapore restaurants. Don't get me wrong, it's still a fabulous dining room compared to many other gastronomy restaurants. Overall, it's a pleasant lunch meal and I intend to return here only if I happen to be in Macau area. Readers may see the pictures of the dishes here,

Food (and Wine): 95 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 92 pts

Overall: 94/100


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Sushi Yoshitake Hong Kong

Currently, there are only 4 sushi restaurants in Tokyo that received the Red guide highest accolade and one of them is Sushi Yoshitake. It must have been a big deal in Hong Kong (HK) when Masahiro Yoshitake-san decided to open his first and only overseas establishment on the ground floor of Sheung Wan's Mercer hotel. The "humble" location is a bit surprising to some people as it's very contrast to his Tokyo's sushi bar at the elite Ginza. The new restaurant is lead by a veteran sous chef, Yoshiharu Kakinuma who used to work in Atlanta for 10 years, with the help of Masa-san from Tokyo. Finest ingredients, especially seafood, are brought almost daily from seaports all over Japan. Like many other top sushi places, the sushi counter, created from one slab of wood, can only accommodate eight guests daily. With comfortable lighting and atmosphere, dining here will be an intimate and pleasant experience that diners will remember for months to come. Yoshitake-san is very committed to his HK's branch as he usually comes nearly every month. There are 3 menu we can choose from and I opted the one below that's supposed to mimic the experience at Tokyo.  

Miyabi Dinner Menu


Baby squid served with Miso vinaigrette sauce and spring vegetable - The squid had fine flavor and good texture; I liked a little spicy kick coming from rich miso mustard
(Braised & marinated) Octopus - This Japanese tako had fantastic texture - not chewy at all; it was burst with flavor enhanced by the 'sweet' sauce. I didn't know that octopus can be this good ..

Kinmedai (Golden eye snapper) served with soy sauce made from the snapper’s bone - Good texture and clean taste
(Steamed) Abalone served with its liver sauce - The restaurant's signature dish and deservedly so. The thick cut of Chiba abalone, served cold, was succulent, naturally sweet and briny; it's perfectly complemented with the intense abalone's liver reduction. Then, the chef would give you sushi rice to mop up all the 'sauce' - an amazing dish!

(Lightly seared) Skipjack tuna served with grapefruit jelly sauce and mashed ginger scallions - The chef wanted to display a combination of Bonito's smoky & crispy skin and its oily raw flesh. The refreshing 'orange/citrus jelly', scallions and light soy sauce added a nice complexity to the dish   


Ika (Squid) - firm and chewy but flavorful
Amadai (Tile fish) - tender and tasty
Sakura masu (Small sea Trout) - beautiful, striking and yummy; has similar texture and taste like arctic char

Chu-toro (Medium fatty tuna) - wonderful color with silky texture and of course, delicious
O-toro (Fatty tuna) - Very tender, oily and melting in the mouth; paired well with the warm sushi rice. Note that the shari at Sushi Yoshitake is prepared with red vinegar, which is more acidic but supposed to be healthier

Kohada (Gizzard shad) 'roll' - served with shiso leave and kampyo that nicely contrasted with the fish. An interesting presentation and it made the kohada firmer and more 'complex'
Murasaki Uni (Sea urchin) - Probably the most generous and creamiest (Hokkaido) uni I've ever had. Its sweetness swallowed the wasabi's flavor. Superb!

Kuruma ebi (Imperial prawn) - A lovely boiled morsel (marinated before wrapping the shari); it's sweet & succulent with wonderful texture though I was doubtful at first since the prawn had been cooked when I arrived
Torigai (Cockle clam) - A very fresh shellfish, meaty with mild flavor. I gotta pay extra for this clam

Anago (Saltwater conger eel) - the delicate eel, glazed with sweet sauce reduction, was slowly grilled with shiso leaves. The outcome was fragrant soft anago that's melting in my mouth. Well done
Tamago (Egg) - Sweet and spongy, it tasted more like a 'cake'. There was also miso soup made using wheat

Dessert: Japanese strawberry - with condensed milk. Sweet, light and refreshing  

The meal is really delicious. The Awabi with its liver sauce stood as the best abalone creation I've ever eaten - even better than the Crown brand Yoshihama dried abalone served at Sun Tung Lok. Additionally, the Tako with 'sweet' sauce was simply fabulous; perhaps the octopus was massaged before being cooked to produce this kind of texture. For the sushi part, it's been more than five years that I finally eat sushi that's almost as good as the one I had at Sukiyabashi Jiro Ginza. Sushi Yoshitake served generous portion of fish slices. My usual top 3 nigiri pieces: Otoro, Kuruma ebi and Uni are all excellent! The best surprised is probably the Sakura masu; I don't expect salmon-like fish at Edomae style zushi can be this good.   

The frequently asked question for the meal here: is it worth it? A very tough question indeed. It's easier to answer this question when you pay this kind of price complemented by impeccable service and dining ambiance like the ones at Robuchon luxurious restaurants or Ducasse palaces. Over a year ago, I thought that Omakase Shin at Shinji Singapore was insanely expensive; well, Yoshitake Hong Kong exceeds it. The same omakase menu at Yoshitake HK cost almost twice as expensive as the one served in Ginza; this makes my meal at Urasawa Beverly Hills looked very reasonably priced. Anyway, I don't regret dining here - possibly once in a lifetime experience. However, I don't intend to return here in the near future. Pictures are located at below link, 

Food (and Wine): 95 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 91 pts

Overall: 93.5/100


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Tenku Ryugin Hong Kong

Ever since the Michelin was introduced in Tokyo at the end of 2007, the name (Nihonryori) Ryugin was instantly becoming the talk among serious foodies. Seiji Yamamoto, the perfectionist chef owner, has pushed the boundary of contemporary Japanese cuisine with precision cooking while still respecting its tradition. Unfortunately, I have not had a chance to savor Yamamoto-san's cooking at his famous restaurant located in Roppongi district. However, I was glad when I found out that Chef Yamamoto opened Ryugin's first overseas outlet in Hong Kong. Nothing was spared; Chef Yamamoto sent five experienced chefs from his original outlet lead by his protege, Hideaki Sato. Almost all of the finest ingredients and the kitchen tools are imported directly from Japan. The restaurant's location was at ICC Sky Dining on the 101st floor offering spectacular views of HK's skyline across the Kowloon's harbor. The decor, dominated by light-colored wood, is minimalist by fine dining standard, but distinctly Japanese. Like the Tokyo restaurant, Tenku Ryugin only offered one menu, 10-course kaiseki meal and below was my degustation menu in April 2013

Tasting Menu (Presenting Seasonality of Japanese Produce)  

Lightly simmered spring vegetables with ice fish in "Okaki (rice crackers)" on a boat of sasa bamboo - A nice opening to tease one's palate. The fish was not oily, the veggies had light flavor and showed texture contrast - I enjoyed the crunchy bamboo  

Hot egg custard topped with yuba and sea urchin - The chawanmushi (the organic egg was brought from Kyushu) was smooth and tasty with heavenly uni. The clean tofu skin added some complexity to the overall dish while the wasabi would reduce any cloying taste (if any)

Quickly simmered "Iidako" (seasoned baby) octopus and refreshing wasabi cucumber salad - The octopus was surprisingly lovely, not simply chewy. It worked well together with the seaweed and the crunchy salad

Soup of simmered abalone and scallop dumpling with fragrance of "Fukinoto (butterbur buds)" - The ichiban dashi was flavorful; the spring butterbur was delicate and a bit bitter as expected. The slow-cook abalone was tender and delicious; the scallop dumpling (with green soy beans) was a bit sweet - wonderful dish!

Sashimi of "Yokowa" baby tuna served with spring onions, fragrance of shiso leaf and lime - A lean and fresh tuna that melted in my mouth; about as good as chu toro, delicious! This young bluefin tuna was around 35 cm in length and usually only available during spring season

"Amadai" tile fish wrapped in kadaif with aroma of binchotan salad of five green colors - A perfect piece of tender and well-cooked amadai (1st deep fried, then grilled on white charcoal); very flavorful. The refreshing salad (green apple, mint etc.) would 'remove' the fish's grease - another great dish

Sukiyaki "Kuroge Wagyu beef sirloin" served with white asparagus, morel mushroom and onsen tamago - The barely cooked beef was succulent with sweet sukiyaki 'sauce' that worked well with soft-boiled egg. The French morels were fragrant and delicious while the asparagus was Ok. I liked this a lot ..

Rice simmered in "Sakura tea" with deep fried "Sakura shrimp" from Surugawan Bay - The Japanese rice with gummy kernels and covered in briny sweet shrimp is very comforting. Chef Sato did a great job to bring out the small shrimps flavor; the miso soup was light and sweet 

Fruit tomato poached with "Umeshu" encased in a fragile glass - The 'glass candy' and granite at the bottom were to add some dimension to the fresh and sweet Shizuoka tomato. The tomato quality was comparable to the one from Passard's garden

Meringue of Sakura flowers served with almond flavored ice cream and fresh strawberries - Put together the sweet meringue, strawberries, light flavor almond ice cream as well as azuki bean to get the best out of this dessert. Overall, not too bad  

A very well done and thoughtful kaiseki menu; it's not often that I easily loved more than half of the dishes offered in any tasting menu. My meal was accompanied by half bottle of dry and cold sake - Suwa no Ryugin (Junmai Karakuti) from Nagano. I enjoyed the exceptional service at Ryugin HK; perhaps because I was lucky enough to be attended most of the time by Ms. Hiromi Takano, the assistant manager who displayed impeccable Japanese hospitality. The locals waiters, while had quite good knowledge of the dishes and spoke decent English, generally could not really connect to their foreign guests. Towards the end, Chef Hideaki Sato also greeted diners as well as explained some of the dishes to guests - a nice gesture. Sato-san was very passionate about cooking and he was pleased that he had chances to create new dishes on his own here, of course only with the approval of his master, Chef Yamamoto. If the "branch" restaurant can be this good, I could only imagine Nihonryori Ryugin will be fabulous! Please visit the website below for the pictures,

Food (and Wine): 94 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 94/100