Tag Archives: soba

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.


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.