Monthly Archives: November 2010

Our gastronomic trip to Japan – final stop Tokyo…once more with feeling

Serenity around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo

Our trip to Japan ended back in Tokyo from Kyoto via shinkansen, and straight into the middle of Tokyo to enjoy some after-work drinks with friends in the W.W Wine Bar at the Shin-Marunouchi Building, which we discovered was owned and run by Australian Luke Mangan, who also ran Salt restaurant next door.

After a lengthy discussion as to what we fancied for dinner, we thought we’d keep it simple and nearby and we went down one to level to Katsukitchi – a tonkatsu restaurant.  Yes, that’s right.  A place that specialises in crumbing and deep frying food, primarily pork.  And in true Japanese fashion, they do it well.  We were served a finely shredded cabbage salad and some pickles when we sat down (along with the now staple lemon sours) which were a refreshing way to cut through and lighten up our deep-fried dinner.  You were offered a choice of fillet or loin tonkatsu, with the fillet being the less fatty cut of meat.  We chose the fillet (to try to be healthier ??) and were not disappointed as the meat was tender and juicy, the crumbing of panko – essentially large bread crumbs, light and crunchy with no trace of greasiness.

Tempura chef at work frying our lunch at Tenmasa

Favourite tempura

The next day we went back to Shin-Marunouchi to the 35th floor for lunch at Ozashiki Tenpura Tenmasa.  There, we were treated to watching the tempura master mix his batter with iced water, flour and egg yolks, dip freshly bought seafood and vegetables in, and fry them in oil that was changed four times over the duration of our lunch to avoid over-saturating the oil which would affect the taste.  Tempura is served at many places, but this was tempura that I have never tasted before.  The batter was just so light and crispy without scratching the top of your mouth – it was delicate and almost melted on your tongue after the initial crunch. My favourite was the conga eel and the prawn head.  The eel because I think the batter was the perfect accompaniment to the delicate eel flesh, and the prawn head, well because it’s where all the flavour is and it had the most surface area to be the most crispy 🙂

Yellowfin tuna and mackerel sashimi at Sushi Yuu

That night we started the evening with drinks at Roppongi Hills and then headed around the corner back to Nishi Azabu to Sushi-Yu, a sushi restaurant where my friend once worked for three months.  Knowing the chef and owner of the establishment where you are eating is just such an advantage.  And in a place as intimate as this where the sushi is prepared behind the counter in front of you as you order it, the chef essentially came and sat with us, telling us about the yellowfin tuna that he bought that morning at 4m at the Tsujiki markets, making smaller pieces of sushi for me because I was getting full but still wanted to taste everything.  Yellowfin tuna is much fattier than the more popular bluefin tuna and I finally began to see what all the fuss was about with toro which is the belly part of the tuna, prized for its relative scarcity as a proportion of the fish, and for it’s high fat content, sometimes so fatty that it literally melts in your mouth.

Sushi Yu
1-4-15 Nishiazabu Minato-ku Tokyo
#106-0031
+81 3 3403 6467

Mon Cher Ton Ton

Kobe beef teppanyaki

Our final meal in Japan was back to teppanyaki.  Our friend had asked us what we fancied and D had mentioned that, thinking we’d go somewhere close and easy.  A short taxi ride away we arrived in Roppongi to Mon Cher Ton Ton, part of the Seryna group of restaurants, all specialising in Kobe beef.  My friend mentioned that he had been there with his parents years ago and they hadn’t changed since.  The 70s decor certainly stood out – like walking into the belly of an alien species (and if said alien species cooked Kobe beef on a hot teppan) and the ambiance is low-key.  Definitely a place for a quiet business dinner.  We were seated around the teppan and ordered the set with tuna sashimi/kobe beef sashimi for starters, foie gras for seconds and kobe beef (what else?) for mains.  We weren’t disappointed.  The kobe beef in particular was melt-in-your-mouth tender and the flavour exploded in your mouth.  The meal ended with the most simple dish – garlic rice.  All the dishes were stellar and was the complete opposite of what we had expected (to our delight) and the perfect way to end our gastronomic trip to Japan.

Mon Cher Ton Ton
3-12-2,Roppongi,Minatoku,Tokyo,Japan 106-0032
Tel:  03-3402-1055
Open weekdays 17.00 – 23.00
Sat, Sun & Holidays 17.00 – 22.30

It’s not just their obsession with food, it’s their obsession of perfection around everything remotely related about it, from the sourcing of the raw ingredients, to specialising in just one type of cuisine, to the presentation.  Add to that an incredibly polite and considerate society and a strange sense of calm amidst the hustle and bustle of a big city, and you feel like you are always in a five star establishment.  All the time.  Man I miss that place.

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Sunday brunch at Raffles Bar and Billiard Room

Cream of asparagus soup with soft boiled eggs and freshly shaved black truffles

I think that today D, my brother in-law and I broke a record for continuous eating at brunch.  Four hours.  FOUR HOURS.  The food was just so well done and there were so many choices that it almost didn’t seem like enough time.  Add free flow Billecart-Salmon champagne, and those four hours became even more pleasurable.

The Sunday brunch is something that seems to be quite uniquely Singaporean (I am not entirely sure of this and happy to stand corrected as I think Sunday brunches should be enjoyed all over the world).  Essentially it is a buffet spread, usually in five star hotels, where there is free flow alcohol – usually champagne.

D and I have been to many over the years, with our previous staple the Mezza9 Sunday brunch at the Hyatt Hotel.  We’d been to the Bar and Billiard Room at the Raffles Hotel a few times now and it has clearly evolved to become our firm favourite.  It’s not cheap in comparison to other brunches (although as an FYI, we found out to our delight that Platinum AMEX card holders get a 25% discount, making it about the same price as others, so no excuses now), but the selection of food that is presented to you is just of a different class to anything we’ve experienced anywhere else.  And where we used to like the buzzy ambiance at Mezza9, today the penny finally dropped and we agreed that the much, much more relaxed atmosphere at the Bar & Billiard brunch means that you are able to take your time and really enjoy all the truly gourmet food that surrounds you.

You have the usual suspects – cold seafood to start with oysters and prawns and Maine lobster – all of which were good, but nothing you cannot find anywhere else.  For cold appetisers, there was an array of marinaded vegetables – antipasto-style, along with a caprese salad, duck rilette, smoked salmon, seared tuna nicoise, beef carpaccio (so thin you could barely pick up a slice from the plate without tearing it) – the list went on, but that’s what ended up on my plate.

Scraping the risotto from the parmesan wheel

From here our table split up and I went for what was my clearly my favourite station, where they were serving cream of asparagus soup, a parmesan risotto, and smoked salmon on potato rosti (served on top of a thin layer of crip potato rosti, with a swirl of creme fraiche and caviar atop blini).  The asparagus soup replaced what I remembered to be my favourite dish at the brunch, a rich lobster bisque, but chef Gagan Bhatnagar explained that he put asparagus on the menu as he was taking advantage of them while they were in season.  The soup starts with the chef slicing the top and bottom off a perfectly soft boiled egg, placing it on a dollop of creamy potato, carefully ladling the rich green soup around it, arranging two spears of asparagus on top, and then drizzling truffle oil and shaving fresh black truffles on top.  Just remembering it is making me smile !  D even used the asparagus as soldiers for dipping into the soft boiled egg yolk.

Parmesan risotto with freshly shaved black truffles

The risotto is freshly made – stock is added to pre-cooked risotto rice in a pan, cooked for a few minutes until the grains absorb the stock, to which is added a cube of butter, double cream, then at the last minute “acidic butter” and finely chopped chives are added (the chef explained to me that acid butter is butter that has had white wine vinegar mixed into it, and which, when added at the end of the risotto cooking process, helps to “lift” the dish).  The molten mix is then poured into a large wheel of parmesan cheese, from where the chef scrapes it and onto your plate.  They were also kind enough to shave fresh black truffles over my dish and presto – one of my favourite (and repeated) dishes.

Grilled scallop with Iberico ham

There was also a cured meat station, where they serve thinly sliced Iberico ham (which paired perfectly with seared scallops from the cold appetiser station), Serrano ham, Parma ham and bresaola with pickled onions and gherkins.

For warm meats there was a foie gras station – where they pan-fried the foie gras to order and then serve it on top of thin ribbons of apple, with a drizzle of passionfruit coulis, lamb – leg and herb crusted rack, pork knuckle, roasted duck breast, roasted Bresse chicken and two types of beef.  One was a tenderloin, which was lovely and tender but the winner for me was the beef rib – a much less lean piece of meat, but roasted so perfectly that the meat was meltingly tender and flavoursome, even without the Bordelaise sauce that was meant to accompany it.

Five textured chocolate

Desserts were many, varied, and interesting.  Not all of them were loved at our table (we pretty much tried everything between the three of us), but complete respect goes to the dessert chef who took a few risks and also designed delicate treats like five textured chocolate, panna cotta with fresh strawberry coulis with a sherberty meringue stick, creme brulee, a “modern twist” on blackforest cake, which was essentially a large rectangular log of rich chocolate mousse with marshmallow inside, a perfect sphere of chocolate filled with honeycomb froth and the winner at our table, a simple but superbly done bread and butter pudding with creme anglaise.

There was also a huge selection of pastas and cooked vegetables, as well as an impressive spread of cheeses.

Need I remind you that we got there when the brunch started, and left four hours later ?  Just do it.

Bar and Billiard Room and the Raffles Hotel Singapore
1 Beach Road
Tel: (65) 6412 1816
Brunch on Sundays 11.30am – 3.00pm


Our gastronomic trip to Japan – second stop Kyoto…

First course at Kikunoi

After a precisely 2 hour 20 minute shinkansen train ride from Tokyo (all trains in Japan are super punctual with a margin for error of only 1 minute), we arrived in picturesque Kyoto.  Having only ten days in Japan we decided to focus our trip on two cities, and we picked Kyoto because it seemed to be the polar opposite to Tokyo in terms of modern vs traditional.

We had arrived just as the sun was beginning to set – around 5pm so we decided to take a walk to Gion by the Kamo River. The weather was really showing off Kyoto in all its glory – we actually only had one day of rain in the entire ten days (the rest of our time in both Tokyo and Kyoto the sky was a brilliant shade of azure, with a slightly chilly wind – our absolute dream weather). The willow trees lining the banks of the river along with the cool late afternoon breeze certainly set the scene for a very romantic city.

Although we had a map, we thought we’d just walk in the general direction of the main street in Gion and just see where that took us. We ended up finding ourselves at the gorgeous Shirakawa canal where we could admire the restaurants by the canal, with their shopfronts on Shijo Ave.

Takuma restaurant from the inside, facing the canal

As a consequence of the legacy of taxes in Kyoto, that used to be based upon street frontage, houses were built with narrow facades only five to six meters wide, but extend up to twenty meters in from the street, and it took us a while to find the restaurant we had chosen from the canal view.

Sashimi with whipped soya sauce with duck liver pate

A few false entries into neighbouring restaurants later, we found Takuma – a kaiseki restaurant which basically consisted of one long counter. Kaiseki ryori is a traditional multi-course dinner that is a Kyoto specialty and type of art form that balances the taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food.  The idea is that only fresh seasonal and preferably local ingredients are used and are prepared in ways that aim to enhance their flavor.

Grilled shishamo

Dishes included a range of bite-sized appetisers (sushi, tofu, omelette) fresh sashimi with whipped soya sauce and fresh wasabi, a fresh and light fish broth, grilled shishamo, a seasonal vegetable hotpot, a rich sliced beef sukiyaki, peanut and mushroom rice and dessert.

Fresh fruit dessert plate with passionfruit icecream fruit compote and date cake

There was a bit of a language barrier as the chef tried to explain what he was serving, I hope our photos provide a good indication of the presentation, I can only vouch for the wonderful flavours of each dish.

Takuma
Hyakumanben kosaten seihokukado, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto, 606-8225.
Tel: +8175 781 3486

For dinner that night we treated ourselves to dinner at the recently awarded three Michelin-starred Kikunoi.  Yoshihiro Murata is the third-generation chef-owner and his restaurant is situated near Maruyama Park in the heart of Gion.  Once you enter the gardens around the restaurant, you are transported into another world.  You begin your journey with your own private room (be warned you need to be comfortable sitting on the floor for a few hours at low tables, so if you are not very flexible or have knee injuries like D, it might detract from your enjoyment of the evening.  And you don’t want to rush this dinner) where your 8 courses are served.

Each course is a feast for the eyes as well as the palette.  Food is served in simple tableware, and I read that chef Murata is involved in preserving Kyoto’s traditional crafts and is a champion of struggling shokunin (craftspeople), both young and old.  He works directly with artisans when ordering his tableware, to ensure they complement the restaurant and of course, the food.

First course at Kikunoi

The menu changes monthly.  We were served the menu for the month of frost (November) and we started with some chilled sake as an aperitif while the first course was served.  Presented to us intriguingly wrapped in paper held together by a leaf clip, which, once opened, revealed an assortment of autumnal appetisers.  We ate our way around poached anglerfish liver, mibuna (Kyoto arugula) and shumeki mushrooms, karasumi (dried mullet roe), chestnut and arrowhead root chips, duck liver pate with white poppy seeds, maple leaf-shaped cuttlefish coated with egg yolk and sea urchin, pine needle-shaped tea noodles, sake glazed gingko nuts and an edible konbu basket.

Sashimi of red sea bream and prawns

bluefin tuna sashimi with soy-marinaded egg yolk sauce

The next course was sashimi of red sea bream and prawns, followed by young bluefin tuna sashimi with a soy-marinated egg yolk sauce.  Hamo (conga eel) was next, served in an light mitsuba herb infused fish broth where you are encouraged to “refresh” the broth with just a few drops of sudachi lime. This was followed by salt-grilled roe-bearing ayu with potatoes,  then a salad of persimmon, daikon radish, carrot, chrysanthemum petals and mutsuba herb with vinegared mackerel, ginko leaf-shaped ginger and yuzu.  Next course was a simmered Densuke anago eel with poached turnip and baby field greens.  Final dish was Matsutake mushroom rice with turnip soup and seven-spice powder, picked raddish and kombu seaweed.

Grilled roe-bearing ayu

Grilled roe bearing ayu

The evening ended with Hojicha (roasted green tea) ice-cream with a chestnut rum-raisin fig cake.

The food was exquisite.  The flavours and textures all complemented each other perfectly and the experience unique and utterly enjoyable.  We only wished that the food wasn’t served quite as quickly at the start so that we could leisurely savour and enjoy each course.

We left full, content and happy, and enjoyed our stroll back to our hotel through Gion.

Kikunoi (main restaurant)
459 Shimokawara-cho, Yasakatoriimae-sagaru, Shimokawara-dori, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto
Tel: +81-75 561-0015 (reservations highly recommended as there are only ten private rooms)
Lunch: 12:00pm to 2:00pm (last entry)
Dinner: 5:00pm to 8:00pm (last entry)

kamaage udon at Honke Orawiya

The next day we lunched at Honke Orawiya, the oldest Japanese noodle shop in Kyoto, that has been around since 1465.  In a quiet street just south of the Imperial Palace, they hand make udon and soba noodles and I tried both – the kamaage udon where the udon is served in a communal hot-pot with hot water, and accompanied by a hot dipping sauce of dashi and soy sauce, and zaru soba where the cooked soba is served chilled and accompanied by a cold dipping sauce.  Both were delicious and it’s no wonder Owariya has served emperors and shoguns as well as the monks of many of the temples of Kyoto.  The shop started by selling soba confectioneries, which they still also sell.

Honke Owariya
322 Kurumayacho, Nijo-Sagaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto
Tel: 075-231-3446
Hours: 11:00 – 19:00
Closed Wednesdays

We had decided earlier on that our final dinner in Kyoto was going to be teppanyaki.  We had walked past a steak house in the heart of Gion – Yoshida Steak House – that weirdly displayed the papers of the cow that they had bought (and we assumed would be serving in the restaurant).  Right down to the name of the cow (Matsuka)…and its noseprint.  It seemed to be the only teppanyaki restaurant that at least said it served food on the teppan – although we probably walked past many, just that we didn’t recognise the Japanese signage.

We were a little apprehensive when we entered the restaurant and there was just two other people in there, but we also didn’t realise that it was a public holiday that day (we should have realised this when we found the Imperial Palace closed for the day).  Our worries were completely unfounded and this turned out to be another mindblowing meal.

Omi wagyu steak

The menu is limited – basically your choices were grade A5 Omi wagyu steak – in three sizes.  The only other choice you had was your sides.  I ordered the 100g steak, D the 150g.

Omi wagyu cows come from the neighbouring Shiga prefecture, and rank amongst the top three types of wagyu – the other two being the famous Kobe wagyu and Matsuzaka.

Omi wagyu steak

We were shown our steaks before they were cooked, and I have never seen wagyu so beautifully marbled.  Unlike the tacky teppanyaki restaurants in the West, the chefs in Japan do not “perform” by throwing food around and at you (which I admit also requires skill).  The chef came and showed us our steaks, asked how we would like them done, then proceeded to almost solemnly cook the vegetables and the steak before presenting it to us, bowing and then disappearing.  This was serious stuff.  We only got a smile out of him at the end of the meal when we chatted with him about the meat he served.  We even got a copy of Matsuka’s papers !

Yoshida Steak House
1F, Minami Grand Kaikan 2-5-19 Higashi Shinsaibashi, Chuo-ku, Osaka 542-0083
Tel:06-6212-0054
Hours:  Mon~Sat 17:00~24:30(L.O.23:00), Holidays 17:00~23:30(L.O.22:00)

We dined in Kyoto based on recommendations from research, but also we took a few chances, and maybe we just got lucky, but I truly think that it’s the Japanese obsession with perfection in everything they do, especially food, that led us to leave Kyoto with the fondest memories of absolutely amazing food.


Otto Ristorante

Veal ravioli with freshly shaved white truffles

Wanting to catch up with our friends who had lived in Japan and recommended many of the places we visited while we were there on our recent trip, we organised dinner with them at Otto Ristorante at the Red Dot Museum on Maxwell Road.

In the mood for simple pasta, we were wowed into selecting the gourmet degustation menu for three and one at our table selected three dishes from the white truffle menu.  I was in a very indecisive mood and wanted the benefit of small portions of more dishes.

The menu actually draws a lot of inspiration from Japanese ingredients, including sea urchin and scallops – and I started with the carpaccio of Hokkaido scallops.  The scallop itself was wonderfully fresh and paper thin, but the flavours for me left me a little flat.  I didn’t know what the black substance was that was sprinkled over the scallops, first thinking it was caviar, and later finding out it was dehydrated olives.  I think I would have preferred it to be caviar, the flavours were all a bit too delicate for me.

Pan fried foie gras with caramelised onion jam and brioche

Next course was an excellent pan-fried foie gras with delicious onion jam and brioche.  Classic flavours.  Classic dish.  Superb.

I’ve heard that the pastas at Otto are great and I have to agree with everyone on this.  I had a veal ravioli, which was my clear favourite for the night – over the foie gras, suckling pig and a sneaky forkful of my mate’s truffle risotto, which are some of favourite dishes ever.  The veal was melt-in-the-mouth tender, the pasta wafer thin and perfectly al dente, and we had the additional extravagance of having freshly shaved white truffles over them.  YUM.

My friend who didn’t want veal asked to change the pasta for the spaghetti with sea urchin and grey mullet battarga, which is grey mullet roe that has been cured and dried with sea salt and then waxed to prevent further drying.  This dish tasted to me like the essence of Japan – the stronger battarga hit your palette with an explosion followed by the delicate but unique uni flavour that seemed to silkily coat your tongue.

Next dish was steamed sea bass with basil infused fava beans in a white wine emulsion.  This seemed a little flat for me, but only because the previous dish (and my forkfulls from my friends’ dishes) were so strongly flavoured.  The fish was cooked to perfection and I think the three flavours worked very well together.

Final dish was the signature crispy suckling pig, with black locust honey and aged balsamic vinegar.  Perhaps it was because I was already full but for some reason this dish didn’t work for me.  The suckling pug was very well done – tender meat with crispy skin, not too much fat, but the balsamic vinegar seemed almost too strong and tangy, yet I know you need something to cut through the fattiness of the suckling pig.  It was served on top of a bed of baby spinach leaves, which I also didn’t think worked with the slow cooked meat.  Perhaps something more peppery like rocket ?  I’m not sure.

Dessert was a warm chocolate cake / fondant with a vanilla bean ice-cream.  Always a favourite, lots of molten fondant inside.  Can’t go wrong 🙂

It certainly wasn’t a cheap night, but the service was excellent, the wine list solid (although we weren’t told that the bottle of ripassa we started with was the last one they had … until we ordered a second bottle) and the food really very well done.  I would happily go to Otto next time I have a simple craving for pasta.

My only complaint is their atrociously over-designed website.

Otto Ristorante
28 Maxwell Road, #01-02
Red Dot Traffic Building
Tel: 6227 6819

Open lunch and dinner Mon-Fri
Dinner only Sat
Closed Sundays


Zenato Wine Dinner

When we were in Amalfi, we picked up a few bottles of Sergio Zenato Riserva Amarone Classico DOC 2001.  It was the best wine we had ever tasted, and remains our favourite to this day.  D found a few bottles of the 2004 and they are ageing nicely in our wine chiller for a few years before we decide to indulge ourselves.

We were invited recently by Ponti Wines to a Zenato Wine Dinner at the Imperial Treasure Super Peking Duck Restaurant last Thursday.  Four Zenato wines were to be paired with a Chinese menu – something they said they’d tried before and felt worked.  Call me old fashioned but I’m still not convinced this is the case.  However, we were eager to try more Zenato wines, and also got to meet the daughter of the late Sergio Zenato who handles the marketing for the small, family-run company.

The dinner was an intimate affair in a private room, with just D and I and two other guests, along with the Ponti Wine representative, and Nadia Zenato, a beautiful Italian woman, who exuded the famed Italian style.  The dinner itself was good – unremarkable and for that type of establishment, I would say even disappointing, but it was for the wine that we attended, and it was the wines that we got.

We started with Zenato San Benedetto Lugana DOC 2009.  For such a young wine, this wine, made with 100% Trebbiano di Lugana  grapes, was a light, refreshing way to begin the evening.

It was followed by the Zenato Pinot Grigio IGT delle Venezie 2008.  100% Pinot Grigio grapes, fermented for just 15-20 days before aging in stainless steel tanks for 6 months, this was crisp and fresh and a perfect accompaniment to the Four Treasures Platter we were served – cold starters.

The food and wine pairing attempt fell apart at this point and for food we were served prawn ball with egg white and hairy crab roe, where the prawn was suspiciously ridiculously crunchy, making us cringe at the soda bicarbonate trick to “freshen seafood”, and sauteed pea’s leaf with bamboo shoot.  This was paired with Zenato Ripassa Valpolicella Superiore DOC 2006.  80% Corvina, 10% Sangiovese and 10% Rondinella, the wine is “passed over” the semi=dried skins from the amorone.  This makes for a more intense flavour but the wine would have been perfectly acceptable if it weren’t put side by side with the next two wines.

Pan-fried sea perch with asparagus, roasted Beijing Duck and braised pork with brown sauce and vegetable rice followed with the last two wines of the evening.  The Zenato Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2006 – a full bodied, liquorice and berry flavoured wine with little tannins, was a gorgeous wine.  The Zenato Sergio Zenato Riserva Amarone Classico DOC 2004 though, was the clear winner of the night.  Zenato only make the reserva from their best years – 80% Corvina, 10% Rondinella, 5% Molinara and 5% Sangiovese it’s a big, ricjly textured wine – spicy and oaky.  To be paired with big meats – a good steak, rich pastas or even chocolate – this is the ultimate wine for us.

This evening reminded us that amarone is, while not to everyone’s taste, certainly is to our palettes and we look forward to meeting Nadia again in Venetto next year when we plan to visit the Zenato vineyard.  Ah bliss.


Our gastronomic trip to Japan – first stop, Tokyo

Gonpachi

OK it’s been just under a week since we got back from Japan and I finally have some time to save and savour the sights and smells and TASTE of our recent trip to Japan to preserve them in more than just my memory.  It’s been a long time coming, and D and I finally made our first trip to Japan.  Tokyo for the first weekend, Kyoto mid-week, followed by a final weekend in Tokyo again.

I’ve read and heard and watched that the relationship that the Japanese have with their food is as it should be.  Passionate, ritualistic, if you’re going to do anything with it – be it cook, fry, slice, dice, toss, serve – you name it, you’d better do it well.  I read that there is one eating establishment in Tokyo for every sixteen people.  That’s a LOT of restaurants.  And with that sort of competition, they all need to be good – from the most humble bowl of ramen, to the most lavish dinner.

D and I managed to eat pretty much every type of Japanese cuisine while we were there and the common theme was centred around wonderfully fresh produce, prepared simply and with no fanfare, presented beautifully.

We were fortunate enough to be shown around a lot of the food by a friend of ours who spent his youth growing up in Tokyo and most recently has spent five years there, and is engaged to a Japanese girl – so language was no barrier to what were specials for the day in all the places at which we were fortunate enough to visit.

tamagoyaki

The first night we arrived we went to a local “noodle house” near I-Sarago, Takanawa, where the specials for the day were fresh blue-fin tuna, scallops and kingfish sashimi, which were bought from the Tsijuki markets that morning.  Smelling like the sea and wonderfully firm and sweet, this was the simply the basic standard for seafood served in this country.  We also ate small servings of tamagoyaki – a rolled omelette mostly served in Bento boxes, but this one was the salty (not sweet) version where the layers of the egg, when rolled made what was a solid piece of egg seem light and airy.  Tempura followed and the meal ended with the chef coming and serving us the house speciality, soba noodles, hand-made that day on the premises, chilled and to be dipped in a sauce of soya sauce, mirin and dashi, to which is added finely shredded scallions and if desired, some freshly grated wasabi.  When eating noodles, we were taught to slurp.  Forget all the etiquette lessons you have been taught – for the Japanese, slurping your noodles (sometimes surprisingly loudly) allows you to “aerate” the noodles, like a fine wine.  This accomplishes two things.  One is that you get to smell and savour the flavour of the sauce as well as taste it, allowing for a more robust and complete flavour, and, in the instance of eating hot noodles, allows you to enjoy the noodles as freshly as they are made, without burning your mouth, as the slurping simply cools the noodles.

The next day we wandered around Akihabara – techno-central for the geek in you.  All that electronic drooling built up an appetite for ramen – which we found in a food court on the top floor of one of the giant complexes.  Chabuton ramen is a chain which has hit the shores of Thailand and the US.  It serves simple tonkotsu ramen, and lots of it.  Small and cramped like most ramen places, the idea is to buy the ticket for your meal in a vending machine outside the restaurant, give this to your waitress when you are seated, eat, leave.  The broth is complex and rich, warming us up from the inside, perfect for the cold rainy weather outside.

Knife shopping in Kappashi Dougugai-Dori

We then went to Kappabashi Dougugai-Dori – also knows as Kitchenware Town, which is a street solely devoted to wholesale kitchenware.  There are general stores, and stores that specialise in only one thing – like chopsticks, and for what we were looking for – knives.  We found a specialty knife store about halfway down the long stretch of road, and with the help of our Japanese-speaking friend, I found my perfect knife.  It was a general purpose or sontoku hocho kasumo knife for cutting meat and vegetables.  Kasumi knives are made from two materials, like samurai swords: high-carbon steel and soft iron forged together (known as san mai blades), with the steel forming the blade’s edge and the iron forming the blade’s body and spine. Mine was made for a right-hander (Japanese knives, unlike European knives are sharpened so that only one side holds the cutting edge) and I chose one with a dimples on the blade to stop food from sticking to it when cutting.  Once the design and size were selected, five knives that looked exactly the same were presented to me – the purpose being that as each knife was hand made, each would have slight variations and so I could select the one which I felt most comfortable with.  Once this was done, the owner chiseled “happiness Carol-San” into the blade for me.  What an incredible experience.  (I have since used the knife back in Singapore and it is assuringly, terrifyingly sharp – where resting the blade on a ripe tomato and with the slightest touch, the blade slices cleanly and quickly through the tomato.  I am in heaven).

Robotakaki tskune

After a few hours of not eating and drinking, we decided to try to find a place to rest our tired legs and warm up with some sake.  We chanced upon a robotayaki restaurant where we found respite from the cold rain outside, as well as some finely prepared pickles, ginko nuts and tsukune were ordered, along with many, many rounds of sake, beer and lemon sours (Japanese soju with soda and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice).  The Japanese never rush you, never make you feel like you are anything but welcome in to their restaurant, their house.  We were not the only people there who had the same idea – three other tables of locals simply sat there, slowly talking and drinking.  It was just lovely.

Steak tartare at Juju

That night, our friend was intent on showing us just how much meat a South African can order and eat.  We went to Jujus Yaki Niku at the awesome Nishi-Azabu crossing. Apparently an institution, this Korean restaurant sells just about every cut of meat known, from the more well known short rib, to the more unusual outside skirt.   We succumbed to our meat coma from the non-stop meat dishes that arrived at our table, from a steak tartare with finely sliced wagyu, to salted beef tongue and beef short rib, to be cooked over charcoal until crispy.  All the meat was marinaded and served so that each course was increasingly meltingly tender, it’s almost impossible to believe.  We even tried the beef intestine and tripe.  I’m a fan of tripe, but never have tried intestine, and I definitely prefer it cooked for a little longer over the charcoals than was recommended, but at that way, we could experience the almost explosion of the collagen rich fat when you bit into the crispy exterior.

Ju-Ju
3-24-20-1F Nishi-Azabu Minato-ku Tokyo
Open: 17:00 – 05:00 on Mon-Sat, 17:00-24:00 on Sundays and holidays
Tel: 03-3405-9911

Asparagus wrapped in kurubota pork

The next night D and I braved Tokyo dining alone – visiting Gonpachi restaurant back at Nishi Azabu – where Kill Bill was famously shot. “Gaijin-friendly” (read: English-speaking), it was the first dining experience since we arrived where there was any other non-Japanese diners.  Gonpachi has a sushi restaurant upstairs but the recommendations from our friends was to eat on the ground floor where you can eat yakitori.  We sat at the counter, as always, enjoying a preview of other diners’ orders and practising our basic Japanese on the very patient staff.  The vibe is fun and friendly, the food wonderfully done, the sake list extensive – what more could you ask for ?

Gonpachi
1F, 1-13-11 Nishiazabu, Minato-Ku, Tokyo 106-0031
Tel: 03-5771-0170

Our final eating was on the shinkansen en route to Tokyo – apparently a very “Tokyo-thing” to do is to buy your Bento at the train station, to be eaten on the bullet train.  With the excitement of boarding the shinkansen to experience speeds of up to 300km/h, from Tokyo to Kyoto in 2 hours 20 minutes, the experience was indeed fun, but fast-food bento boxes leave me, well a little cold.  But never mind, onwards to Kyoto for round 2…

And we even saw Mount Fuji, meant to be a good omen if you see it on your first trip to Japan.  Superstitious ?  Maybe, but I’m happy to take on that old wives’ tale.