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!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Restaurant # 8: Kitcho Arashiyama

While researching our trip back in March, I came across mention of Kitcho Arashiyama on several english language websites. The descriptions were vague and only described it as high end Kyo-Kaiseki. (Kyoto style banquet feast) By chance i suppose, we decided to reserve there, hoping for the best, with little concrete info on what to expect.
Here is it's website:
We took a taxi from our ryokan in gion, and after going north west through the suburbs of Kyoto, we finally got to the Arashiyama district. It was a beautiful area, heavily wooded and characterised by a large river flowing from the mountains.
There was a row of townhouses by the banks of the river. The taxi approached one of them, that looked like a hotel quite frankly, with a large steel gate, and drove inside.
As the car parked on the walkway outside a very traditional Japanese style townhouse, three male attendants ran to the car and proceeded to open the doors for us. At this point, it was clear to us as to the level of service that we were to expect.

After being greeted by our hostess we were led to our room, on the second floor of the townhouse. It was situated in the corner of the building, both sides of which had windows, which when opened revealed on one side, the river and on the other, some lush greenery. The room was airconditioned, as July is a very hot month in Kyoto. It was very large and exquisitely furnished, with an antique chest not shown in the above image.

As is customary the meal begins with some green tea.
We were served by tow hostesses, one of which was fluent in english. The hostesses were extremely friendly, humble, helpful and courteous. While one of them was pouring my fiancee Maya Sake, some condensation from the outside of the bottle (a single drop) had dropped onto her handbag. I can not describe how much the poor lady appologised for that and how she hastily sprung up and got a towel to wipe the bag, even though we were trying to calm her down, insisting that she not worry about it at all.
This only went to confirm in our minds that Japanese service was in a different league altogether.

I really regret not writing down what the individual plates was. I will have to rely on my memory in trying to recall what these many elaborate plates were.

The first course was lightly seared sweet shrimp, steamed abalone, pond seaweed (described earlier under my Okahan entry), okra and some Japanese squash in a ponzu-soy sauce.
This dish was spectacular, it was a combination very fresh, delicate ingredients and had a summery mood.

Next course was another summer favorite, Hamo (Pink conger) in a clear soup.
Hamo is extremely fluffy, owing to its method of preparation where the flesh is sliced cross-sectionally so that it fluffs and twirls around the skin when cooked.
As you can see, our Sake also arrived around this time. :)

This dish was Awabi (Abalone) sashimi with some cubes of steamed Awabi liver (the dark brown cubes).
The method of preparation was paper thin cross sectional slices.
Not shown above was the sauce. The sauce was made from abalone liver and was dark green, with a muddy texture.
I had tried this dish before at Kanetanaka (The first restaurant to appear in this blog) and did not particularly enjoy it back then, so i approached this plate with a certain caution.
I only lightly dipped the first slice of Awabi in the sauce, fearing its strong fishy taste, however, much to my delight, the sauce tasted nothing at all like I expected. Its flavor was strongly nutty, as if it contained almonds. In fact, the taste closely resembled that of fine Fois Gras. Even the steamed Awabi liver was ridiculously nutty in flavor. It seems strange that both the liver of the Abalone, a sea slug, and Goose Liver would taste so similar. After I drenched the remaining slices in the sauce, I even took a few sips out of the sauce because it tasted so good.

This was the second sashimi course. On the right , you have some red snapper sashimi, served with soy sauce and pickled ginger. On the left was clam sashimi, "bakagai" if i am not mistaken, served with a light Dashi-Soy dip and roasted sesame seeds.
The shellfish was very sweet. There was also Jellied seaweed on the plate, presumably to be eaten alone.

This course was Uni (Sea Urchin) in tofu with Wasabi mousse and chopped seaweed, in a light dashi-soy sauce.
Uni was both a summer favorite as well as my own personal favorite. Needless to say I enjoyed this plate very much as well.
At this point I was becoming overwhelmed by how amazing all these dishes were.
After my fiancee Maya inquired to the hostess about the plates, she revealed that they were 3-4 hundred years old, and came from the owner's own personal collection. I couldn't help but to think that each of these antique plates was probably worth hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.

Next was this elaborately decorated, truly beautiful, edible, work of art...

Opening the red flower reveals very little fish, presumably sardines, deef fried with a strong, sweet black miso flavor. Going right, we have steamed green beans, a steamed shrimp, a slice of sweet potato, and on the bottom was a sweet tasting brown paste which i could not identify!
The picture of the plate at large, shown above shows two smaller bowls not pictured in detail. One of which contained a form of pickled seaweed whereas the other had some broiled Hamo (pike conger) and spinach in a sweet tasting sauce.

Next was some Ayu (sweetfish) from the arashiyama river Broiled on a stick, in most traditional Japanese fashion.
The Ayu was medium in size, and still contained its inerts. Apparently, that is the proper way which the Ayu is supposed to be eaten. Being a somewhat adventurous eater, and perhaps emboldened by Walid eating the Ayu whole before me, I proceeded to bite its head off, along with the intestines, and they did not taste pleasant. In fact they were quite bitter. Unknown to me at the time was that the primary source of food for sweetfish was little river insects, so one can only imagine the sort of little buggers which I ingested with the Ayu! Fortunately, the remaining flesh of the Ayu was sweet tasting (as the name sweetfish suggests) and quite enjoyable. The Ayu was served with a vinegary dip, presumably made with rice-wine vinegar.
The ladies decided to have the fish with head, bones and inerts removed, whith the help of the hostesses ofcourse.

This course consisted of simmered vegetables, all local products of Kyoto. These included clockwise from top, two slices of eggplant, okra, green pepper, pumpkin, and lotus root.
The Kyoto eggplant was as sweet as we had come to expect.

The final course was some "Japanese risotto" with some slices of really creamy, broiled Unagi (fresh water eel). This was an excellent variant to the plain steamed rice usually served to signify the end of a meal.
The bones of the Ayu, expelled before they were eaten by the ladies, were presented to us as "crackers" to be eaten with our Sake, a form of fish chips! They were very soft and actually quite pleasant to eat.

This plate of Japanese fruits was pure heavenly bliss. None of the varieties was imported, all were local produce. Even the Mangos were from Kyushu.
The varieties were Melon, Watermelon, PEELED grapes, PEELED peaches and mangoes.
They were utterly spoiling us with this level of indulgence.
The fruits were really unexplicably good. The peeled grapes were absolutely huge, the peaches were so moist, watery, sweet and almost perfume like with regards to strength of flavor, the musk melon was just as good as expected, it really blows my mind how these fruits could be so much better than what we were accustomed to, mind you most of the fruits we get in Dubai are either imported from the United States or from various european countries.

The fruits were only the first of our two course dessert. For the second we had a choice of either Matcha with Jellied Azuki bean paste...
(The Matcha was very rich and was obviously of exceptional quality.)

Or crushed ice with Matcha syrup over mochi riceballs and azuki bean paste. Very refreshing!

Here we were with, to the left of the picture our gracious hostess, and to the right of the picture, Kitcho's Madame...
Kitcho was an amazing experience, hands down the best food, the best service, and the best setting that i have ever experienced. Truly exceptional.
The pricetag was very steep though, at 240,000 JPY (2,604 USD) for four people, nothing short of the very best ever would have sufficed!