Monday, November 2, 2009

Restaurant # 14: Ishikawa

Our final dinner in Tokyo was at Ishikawa. Rated 3 Michelin stars, we were surprised by being able to reserve on such short notice (on the same day).

We had some difficulty in finding the restaurant, since it had recently moved to a new location and the Taxi driver was not familiar with the current location.
Luckily for us the owner and head chef Mr. Ishikawa was taking a walk outside when he stumbled on four seemingly lost gaijin in the vicinity of his restaurant, and he graciously welcomed us in.
The hostess led the way to our private room. The place was modern looking and the private room had western style tables, as opposed to the sunken tables which we had grown accustomed to at the other high end Kaiseki restaurants.

Here was the menu for the night.

The first course was "White sesame tofu with tomato and corn". The ingredients were all of very high quality and the tofu was delightfully creamy. Much to Maya's dismay she found a hair in her tofu (she has quite an eye for such unfortunate happenings). The head chef himself came to our room and apologized, needless to say he replaced the plate.

Our second course was supposedly "not ready" so we were presented with the soup course. The soup was "upgraded" to abalone in order to compensate us for the loss of the second course. This seemed like lousy preparation on behalf of the 3 star rated restaurant.
The Okura and Abalone soup was interesting. The Okura was sliced very thinly in order to make the broth as mucus-like as possible, in order to satisfy the Japanese love of unconventional food textures. The abalone was tender, seemingly skillfully prepared.

Next course was sea bass sashimi, it was fresh but nothing out of the ordinary.

Ayu was pretty good, but this is a standard Japanese summer plate that was ubiquitously served throughout Japan, and its simple preparation left little room for innovation by the chef. The sauce was well made, chives with yuzu soy sauce if i recall correctly.

Now this was the star of the show, Sea Urchin, Prawn, Green Soy Bean Mousse, Fresh Peach in Yuzu Jelly. When you have all of these fresh ingredients and mix them together you cant go wrong, although hats off to the chef for coming up with the delicious combination.

Another of my favorites, beef! Can never get enough of the sweet flavor of Japanese beef. This plate consisted of Beef, Chinese watermelon, Ginger, Corn, Egg and Leek.

Excuse the absence of the rice plate, can't find the pictures unfortunately.

Papaya, coconut mousse and almond jelly, another refreshing, summery combination here.

Ishikawa was a nice experience, the food was for the most part innovative and really reflected the chef's character. Definitely a good find.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Restaurant # 13: Tofuya Ukai Shiba

On our list of places to try in Japan was a Tofuya (restaurant specializing in Tofu).
As both our concierge, and the Michelin guide suggested (featured with 1 star in 2009 Michelin guide), Tofuya Ukai Shiba was the place to try.
Located right underneath Tokyo tower, it was a complex of traditional 1 storey Japanese buildings, astounding in both area and opulent decoration and design, quite a restaurant to behold. The real estate that this restaurant was built on must cost in the tens of millions of dollars.
We were led to our private room, past beautiful gardens and ponds.

In this shot you can quite see what I was talking about. Beautiful rooms and gardens!

Here was the lunch set menu.

First course was black sesame Tofu in soy-dashi broth. Tofu was creamy and the black sesame flavor complemented in quite well.

This was deep fried Tofu with a sweet miso suace, and an omelete. Fried Tofu was great, crispy and not too oily, excellently complemented with the sweet miso. It was served with chopped spring onions.

The Sashimi course was very fresh, but limited in variety. The Hamo (Pike Conger) Sashimi was
seared on the skin side, and was a little tough in texture.

The next course was Wheat noodles with grilled eggplant and boiled shrimp. Nothing memorable here.

The above was tomato in a vinegared jelly, corn tempura, sweet fish sushi, boiled octupus with cucumber in a vinegar dressing. The tomato was refreshing, but besides that, nothing spectacular here.

This was the house specialty; Tofu cooked in thick soy milk in a clay pot, over charcoal. The waitress brought in the charcoal and placed the pot on top of it, served us the tofu, then removed the charcoal, the pot was placed on top of the charcoal for a mere minute, so it was probably more for show than for actual flavor enhancement.

This dish was very bland in flavor. I enjoy Tofu, and prefer Soy milk to regular milk, but this was just too bland! The waitress advised us to add soy sauce for flavor but it did little to redeem this dish.

This was grilled yellow striped butter fish. This dish was nothing special, in fact, I can barely even remember having it.

As for the final plate, boiled rice with ginger, some pickles and miso soup. The best part of this course was the pickles, which i clearly remember enjoying. The celery pickles were exceptional.

The setting was far grander than the food itself. The course was around 9000 JPY (98 USD) per person, quite a steep price, especially for a lunch course.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Restaurant # 12: Ukai Tei Omotesando

We were back in Tokyo, with 4 days left, and more than a couple restaurants that we still wanted to try. Maya, my fiancee, had been asking for "Teppan Yaki" since we arrived. Teppan Yaki was a Japanese inspired cuisine, however, it was regarded as a sort of foreign Japanese food, akin to California rolls. Being a purist with regard to sampling Japanese cuisine, I was a little reluctant, but went ahead and reserved nonetheless.
Ukai Tei had a couple restaurants in Tokyo, however we chose the Omotesando branch due to its proximity to the Park Hyatt hotel in which we were staying. It was on the Michelin 2009 guide, having been awarded one star, so we were naturally excited to try it out.

Here was the first course, some Uni (Sea Urchin) with pond seaweed in ponzu sauce. Quite the summer favorite it would seem, but im not complaining, I couldn't get enough Uni.

Next was lobster in a creamy sauce, it was glorious! Among the best lobster that I have ever had quite honestly.

Now it was time for the chef to demonstrate his prowess on the Teppan! And what better way to do so than prepare some Awabi (Abalone). The chef placed the live abalone on the teppan, then removed its liver, and coverred the liver with the shell to be served to us later, while he finished the abalone on the teppan.

The abalone was served in a seaweed sauce. The seaweed sauce was a little overwhealming for the abalone as it covered up its delicate taste. It was also a little too salty, not up to our expectations. Unfortunately i dont have any pictures of the Abalone liver.

Now was time for what we had actually come for... The steaks, both tenderloin and sirloin were to be split up among us.

Chef started by preparing beautiful golden garlic crisps, delicately prepared and tossed in oil and butter in order to achieve optimum golden colour.

Next the chef that prepared the garlic tosses a mixed green salad, while the other chef is still working on the beef.

The chef sears the meat on both sides, then covers it up with this copper lid, after splashing a little sparkling water onto the meat, to create steam inside the lid.

The finished product was tremendously flavorful and tender. The steak literally melt in my mouth. Fantastic flavor and texture to the meat. As you can see the presentation was on par with the flavor!

For dessert we were taken to the lounge section of Ukai Tei and led outside to a beautiful terrace with a spectacular view of the Omotesando area, where we enjoyed the dessert along with some whisky! The dessert I ordered was fruit salad with a dollop of fresh cream.

This restaurant is very highly recommended. Spectacular food, great setting and, of course, first class service. The set menu was 25,000 JPY (272 USD) per person. Next time i go to Tokyo, i'll visit them again hopefully.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Restaurant # 11: Matsuzakaya Honten Ryokan in Hakone

After leaving Kyoto, we headed to the very scenic, mountainous, Onsen (Hotspring) retreat of Hakone.
Being our first trip to Japan, we wanted to sample a little bit of everything on offer. The metropolis of Tokyo, and Osaka, ancient cities like Kyoto and Nara, still very deeply rooted in tradition, and finally Hakone, a mountain retreat famous for hotsprings, a great Japanese pastime.
Much of the journey from Kyoto to Hakone was abourd the Shinkansen (bullet train) after which we took a local line for the last section of the journey. Only after you begin the mountainous ascent towards Hakone, do you realize how impressive the mountains and forests that make up some 80% of Japan's land area really are. Very lush greenery and extremely tall trees make up the flora of the region. I was surprised to see such a pristine landscape in the world's second industrial nation, so close to Tokyo.

This is an example of the terrain in the Hakone area.

We soonafter arrived to our Ryokan (Japanese Guesthouse). It has been in operation since the 17th century. Another striking aspect of Japan was the number of restaurants, shops, specialists, and ryokans with extremely impressive pedigrees, often going back 500 years. Many of these commercial establishments were in business during Tokugowa era (1600 AD), which just goes to show that Japanese commercialism is so well established in the past and is nothing new.

The ryokan was in very traditional Japanese style, and was indeed quite large, catering mostly to wealthier, and older, Japanese clientele. We were sort of the odd ones out and we did get quite a bit of stares from the other clients, mostly out of curiosity rather than rudeness.

The ryokan had a large, and extremely elegant dining area. It was clear that the food was one of the major attractions at this ryokan.
As you can see above, the chef took utmost care in the presentation of this first course.
The above plate consisted of: sweet potato, a form of kamaboko (fishcake, incidentally a specialty of the Kanagawa region), a shrimp, rolled eel, and baked scallop in a large snail shell. Strangely enough, the snail itself was not removed from the shell, but we were advised not to eat it. The very first thing that the we were advised not to eat in Japan. Prior to that, i thought that nothing on the table was off limits!

The next course was simply a boiled shrimp and scallop on a slice of orange.

Followed by some Tofu, decorated exquisitely with a slice of okra, some fish roe, and a star shaped slice of yellow caspicum.

Next came two successive courses of sashimi, the first of which was very fresh local fish, elegantly presented. I think the varieties were Tai (seabream), and Red Snapper.

The second course was more interesting... I am not sure what the fish was. As for the orange stuff on the leaf.. At first I thought that it was Uni (Sea Urchin) of lower quality perhaps, however I later learned that it was "Konowata" or fermented Sea Cucumber intestines!
The leaf was "Shiso" leaf, very popular in the cuisine of this region, and very aromatic.
The Konowata was not too bad, bud i guess it did help that I thought it was Uni before I actually ate it.

Next course was beautifuly marbled beef sirloin, topped with some butter and Miso, accompanied by various vegies, placed on waxpaper.
A candle was lit under the pot and it was covered for some time, before being unveiled to us, ready to eat.
It was not quite as good as the beef that we had before on our trip (Okahan and Mishima Tei) but the places we tried before were renowned beef specialists serving top quality Japanese beef, so it would not be fair of me to compare this to the previous beef that we had.
It still was good in its own right, although not as tender as i would have expected, owing to the preparation method where the beef was simmered under very low heat.

Next course was Kyoto Eggplant, topped with Shrimp, asparagus, and mushrooms, and a starch based sauce. I did not enjoy the sauce quite frankly, it was rather weak in taste, and ruined the eggplant.

Finally, Seabass with grilled sweet corn, and asparagus. Nothing out of the ordinary here. Nothing particularly Japanese on this plate either for that matter. A rather dissapointing final plate.

On to the breakfast. Top left we have Kamaboko (fishcakes) and freshly grated wasabi, clockwise we have Chawan Mushi (egg custard), bottom right dried tiny little fish and grated radish, in the elongated central plate pickled kelp and "Ika no Shiokara" or fermented squid intestines. Finally on the left rolled spinach with bonito shaves. The squid intestines were wey too fishy for my taste, especially so early in the morning (7:00 AM).

Top left, a potato like root vegetable, slightly sweet in flavor. To its right is some very high quality Tofu, very freshly made, top right is a glass of "Yuzu" juice (Japanese citrus).
Bottom plate is some pickled radish.

Not shown here (could'nt find a picture on my camera unfortunately) was 1 day dried and salted fish, grilled on a griddle. We could choose among barracuda, mackerel and yet another type of fish. Here shown are the condiments of salad, rice, and some Otoro Tartare (fatty tuna tartare).
The breakfast was very colorful, carefully prepared and large in terms of portions. Excellent way to start the day!

We were terribly unfortunate in that the weather was cloudy, windy and rainy on our only full day in Hakone. Nt only did we not get to see mount Fuji, we could'nt take the boat trip on the lake. We did still manage to take some pictures! We spent the afternoon in the hot spring facilities of the Ryokan, so it was not a total waste...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Restaurant # 10: Mishima Tei

For our last night in Kyoto, we headed to Mishima Tei, renowned as the best sukiyaki-shabu shabu restaurant in the city. I also had a craving for Matsuzaka beef, after spending several beef-less days in Kyoto.
As we arrived, we were led to the second floor, into a private room. The setting wasnt lavish at all, just a simple little table with a gas burner in the middle. The room was a little cramped as well.

We ordered four servings of Sukiyaki. At Mishima Tei, you can only select one method of cooking , owing to the single gas burner per room. The above image is the sirloin cut. You can see how richly marbled it is, I would say the fat percentage is 60-80% of the total weight of the meat.

Here you can see the ribeye cut. The marbling seems to look finer than at Okahan Honten, the third restaurant featured in this blog.

The hostess began by preparing the meat. The method of preparation she used was slightly different to that used at Okahan. The sugar was applied to the pot before placing the meat at Mishima Tei, as opposed to the sugar being placed onto the meat as in Okahan. No fat was melted into the pot at Mishima Tei, another difference to the method used at Okahan. Soy sauce was later drizzled onto the beef as it cooked.

After the beef was done it was placed directly into a bowl with a beaten egg in it, so as it was totally immersed in the beaten egg. Heavenly as you would imagine. ;)

Here the hostess was preparing some Tofu, Leeks, rice noodles, and miscellaneous greens. They were prepared in the fat, sugar and soysauce residue remaining from the sukiyaki preparation. The sugar was caramelized at this point and lended the vegetables a delicious sweet greasyness.
Beef in Japan, at least A5 grade Matsuzaka is something every beef lover absolutely has to try!
Not pictured is a simple dessert of peeled orange slices.
Service was top notch here as well, but that was the norm rather than the exception at restaurants of this level in Japan.
My only complaint was that the serving size was really small, I could have had at least couple servings before feeling full. Despite that, it was truly delicious!
The bill came up to 60,000 JPY (652 USD) for four people.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Restaurant # 9: Ujigawa Ryokan

This was our last day in Kyoto, the ladies were scheduled to dress up as tourist Maiko, and me and Walid had a free day to explore Uji at our leisure without the ladies weighing us down (sorry Dala and Maya!)
We took the train to Uji and the first thing we did was try a soft Matcha icecream cone.

This picture does it little justice as it tasted magnificent!! Matcha flavored soft icecream with matcha powder sprinkled on top. The ice cream cone was from a tea shop a few meters from the entrance of the Byodo-in, Uji's most famous attraction.

Here you can see the central building dubbed the pheonoix hall. It was converted to a "Pure land" buddhist temple in 1052 after being a villa of a leading Fujiwara courtier. (excuse my history babbling, I know this is a food blog, but history is my other passion! Along with sports and travel ;) )

Back to the subject of food. Ujigawa Ryokan was in the street leading to the Byodo-in and was right by the river. An ideal place to rest and have a meal.
The above meal was a Bento style, compartmentalized and beautifuly organized meal.
Its compartments, clockwise from top left, Sushi and rice stuffed sweet tasting deep fried tofu skin (delicious), Prawn and vegetable Tempura, Sashimi, and some various specialties including crac, rolled eel, sweet potato, fish cakes, egg omlette, little skewered matcha flavored rice balls, among a few others.

Some green tea soba with dried, salted mackerel.
The meal was filling and allowed us to sample quite a few local delicacies. The price was 2,100 JPY (23 USD) per person.

After this meal it was time for dessert, and the actual reason that I could not pass up on visiting Uji was not the beautiful Byodo-in, rather it was the dessert at Nakamura Tokichi cafe that I had seen in Paul's travel blog before visiting Japan.
This dessert seemed spectacular, and I wasn't ready to pass up on it!
The actual link to Nakamura Tokichi Cafe is:

We ordered the above, which was Matcha milk, with delicious rice flour balls, azuki bean paste, and gelatinous cubes, apparently made from the root of a local plant. Curiously, some salty pickles accompanied this dessert as a side-dish.

Now don't let the simple appearance of this dessert mislead you. I can not say enough good things about how awesome it was, you will savour every moment eating this! Now this dessert is in no way unique to Tokichi cafe, in fact the trio of bean paste, matcha ice cream, and rice flour balls is ubiquitous in the Kyoto area, there are a few subtle differences however. First is the Matcha jelly, as mentioned before, made from the extract of a certain local plant's roots, and second is the Matcha ice cream itself, this dessert is usually served as crushed ice with Matcha syrup rather than western style icecream.
If ever you pass by Uji don't pass this dessert up!