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