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A chronicle of all things fun - eating, drinking, traveling... plus the occasional ranting

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    Day 2 in Tokyo takes me to my first kaiseki dinner, and the first of four meals at a restaurant with three Michelin stars.  Ishikawa (石かわ) is hidden behind a temple just off Kagurazaka (神楽坂), and we managed to secure a late seating for dinner.  Just a day after catching up with him over dinner, I have the pleasure of H-man's company again tonight.  I'm also happy that the Great One has been able to clear her schedule and join us in Tokyo for a few days, although she did have a little trouble getting here...

    We were seated in one of the private rooms, and had pre-chosen to take the more expensive of the two set menus.  I was really looking forward to this, because it's been a long time since I've had the pleasure of having kaiseki at a restaurant with 3 stars.  I was also curious to see what being number 16 on Asia's 50 Best means...

    Appetizer: snow crab topped with crab innards covered with broth jelly (先付:津合蟹 菜の花 土佐酢掛け) - a great start with snow crab (ずわい蟹) from Hyogo Prefecture (兵庫県), which I just learned tonight was a type of Matsuba crab (松葉蟹). The crab meat was wonderfully sweet and came with the flavors of the sea. That it was topped with crab tomalley (蟹味噌) just made it even better, and the Tosazu (土佐酢)gelée brought along a nice bit of acidity to help whet the appetite. Served with rapeseed flowers (菜の花) and a dab of sweet, white miso.

    Deep-fried: horsehead snapper, monkfish liver and oba herb, lotus root, butterbur bud (揚物:甘鯛と鮟肝の蓮根挟み揚げ) - deep-fried “sandwich” with layered flavors from premium ingredients like amadai (甘鯛) and monkfish liver - both of which are beautiful and tender.  A wrapping of perilla leaves (大葉) provides additional fragrance. There was also a deep-fried butterbur bud (蕗の薹) with its mild bitter flavors, signifying that Spring is approaching.

    A closer look at the cross-section of the "sandwich"...  We were meant to dip these into the ponzu (ポン酢), but I was happy to enjoy them as is.

    Soup: hard clam and 'Shogoin' turnip from Kyoto (椀物:地蛤 かぶら) - I looooove the soup course in kaiseki meals, because they often come with a clean and simple broth which warms the stomach and instantly relaxes the body – pure comfort food. Tonight we’ve got a simple hard clam (地蛤) from Chiba Prefecture (千葉県) whose meat was sweet and pure. A piece of turnip (蕪菁) from Shogoin (聖護院) in Kyoto, together with a few sprigs of coriander and fine shreds of leek. I could drink 5 bowls of this and not get tired of it.

    Sashimi: sea bream and sea urchin garnished with fresh seaweed and Japanese herbs (造り:鯛 雲丹) - the first part of our sashimi course arrives, and I take in the simple and clean flavors of the sea bream (鯛) from Kyushu (九州玄海) first, with a wonderfully chewy texture that can only come from the freshest catch. Then the rich and smooth sea urchin, like a sweet milkshake with a touch of the ocean. The beautiful pile of seaweed (若布) in the back was delicious, as was the mountain of finely-diced leeks next to it.

    Seared Ise lobster with 'ponzu' sauce (伊勢海老の焼霜) - the second part arrives in a hollowed half of gourd, bearing Japanese lobster (伊勢海老) together with its tomalley. The lobster’s been lightly torched and comes with a beautifully delicate smokiness. The tomalley? I’d spoon whole jars of it if given the chance.

    Charcoal-grilled: conger eel and freshly harvested bamboo shoot (焼物:早掘り筍 穴子酒盜焼) - the conger eel came grilled shuto (酒盜焼)-style – bringing out the natural flavors of the ingredient – with lovely smoky flavors from charring. The young bamboo shoot from Kagoshima Prefecture (鹿児島県) was incredibly tender and sweet. I peeled a couple of the inner layers off since I was by no means satiated with just the core.

    Delicacy: Spanish mackerel, broad beans and mashed taro (中皿:鰆 蚕豆 里芋) - the small piece of grilled Spanish mackerel (鰆) came with a broad bean (蚕豆) that was almost as big and some taro mash. Three bites. Delicate indeed.

    Hot pot: thinly sliced Japanese beef with seasonal vegetables (煮物:牛鍋 椎茸 筍) - gyu-nabe (牛鍋) is very traditional and hearty, but this is the dainty version. The little clay pot came with a very hot soup, and thin slices of raw beef from Kumamoto Prefecture (熊本県) was simply placed on top so that it gets cooked by the residual heat. Garnished with sansho leaves (木の芽).

    I’m generally pretty quick with taking pictures of my food, but this must have been one of the few instances when I took too long… as the beef was a little overcooked when I started eating. Underneath the beef was a mix of onions, leeks, bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms.

    When the pickles come, you know that rice is about to be served. Tonight we’ve got marinated mountain yam (山芋), cucumber, and seaweed (若布).

    Steamed rice: steamed rice with black-throat sea perch, miso soup and pickled vegetables (食事:のど黒の釜炊きご飯 味噌椀 香の物) - Ishikawa-san comes in with the big clay pot of rice, which was topped with black-throat sea perch (のど黒). For the second tonight I asked Ishikawa-san to clarify something for me, and he confirmed that のど黒 is indeed the same as 赤むつ, and that the different nomenclature simply depends on where the fish is caught.

    Anyway, the rice was delicious, with shredded fish meat mixed in with finely diced ginger. Ishikawa-san insisted on giving me a big bowl, despite my protests.

    Naturally we couldn’t possibly finish the entire bowl, so they made the leftovers into little rice balls (おにぎり) for us to take away.

    I thought even the miso soup was outstanding, with a good amount of seasonal nameko (なめこ) mushrooms and tofu puffs.

    Dessert: sweet red beans, caramel mousse, yuzu citrus ager and green tea sherbet (デザート:小豆 柚子寒天 焦がし砂糖のムース 抹茶のシャーベット) - this was an interesting dessert, as it combines a number of classic Japanese flavors. The green tea ice cream was unlike any I have ever tasted. The deep green color was an indication of the depth of flavors there, as well. The yuzu (柚子) gelée was naturally light and refreshing, while the caramel mousse was as delicious as I could hope for.

    Despite the fact that both H-man and I had consumed a decent amount of wine last night – and I was perfectly fine with not having to drink tonight – my friends decided to order a bottle of sake anyway.

    Kokuryu Daiginjo Ryu (黒龍 大吟醸 龍)– with a seimaibuai (精米歩合) of 40%. Kokuryu is one of my absolute favorites, and one can never go wrong with this particular offering. Classic nose of banana and tropical fruits. Full-bodied on the palate – or as the Japanese would say, コクが有る – with a long finish.

    This was a delicious dinner. Just about every single dish was a hit with me, and we've got a couple of pretty jaded palates tonight. This is much more on the classical side of things, and very, very well executed.  I'm so glad I made it here.

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    After having not one but two breakfasts at Tsukiji Market this morning, it was time to gather the troops together again for a nice lunch.  We are in one of the epicenters of Japanese cuisine, but Tokyo is also cosmopolitan enough to offer some of the world's finest French cuisine.  Quintessence is one such gem, and it has had three coveted Michelin stars for the last few years.

    The six of us were lucky to have gotten the private room, because it meant that I was free to take pictures - as the restaurant does not allow photography in the main dining room.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I found out...

    We were presented with the menu, appropriately entitled "menu carte blanche" since there's nothing but a (nearly) blank page on the right side.  Well, if you look at the right side hard enough, you may realize that you're staring at yourself... just like looking at the Dragon Scroll in Kung Fu Panda.  (say it with me: "There is no secret ingredient"...)  On the left side is an explanation about the Japanese tradition of omakase (おまかせ), which is, in essence, carte blanche...

    We start with an amuse bouche, a shot with beef tendon, chanterelles and tartivo.  Warms the stomach on a cold winter day.

    Goat milk bavarois with olive oil - the bavarois is made with fresh goat milk flown daily from Kyoto, which was just incredibly light and fluffy - the Japanese would call it フワフワ.  Comes with a blend of 4 different olive oils - from France, Italy, Spain, and Australia.  Sprinkled with fleur de sel from Brittany, and garnished with Macadamia nuts and lily bulb.  Very interesting balance between the saltiness and acidity, and also between the oiliness and creaminess.

    I think we got off to a great start, because there were numerous yelps of ecstasy going around the table...

    Gâteau salé - Parmigiano Reggiano cake, topped with raw brown mushrooms marinated in vinegar and herbs, and raw Hokkaido sea urchin.  The presentation was absolutely stunning.  The savory cake was interesting, but the mushrooms were more interesting because they were still a little firm, yet softened by the vinegar marinade.  The sharp acidity from the vinegar was tempered by sweetness from the creamy sea urchin.  In short, everything came together like a charm.

    Pan-seared Spanish mackerel - the Spanish mackerel from the Naruto Straits (鳴門海峡) in Tokushima Prefecture (徳島県) was pan-seared on the skin side for 1 minute at 320° C, then put in the oven for 15 minutes at 100° C.  Garnished with hiroko (ひろこ) shoots from Akita Prefecture (秋田県) done in a Chartreuse sauce, along with red turnip from Aichi Prefecture (愛知県) and some cashew nuts.

    The fish was beautiful, and absolutely perfection.  Our server made sure to point out that the center was still pink.  Tender. Succulent. Perfect.

    "Katashita" pork - this is a cut known as katashita (肩下) - literally, "below the shoulder" - which is between the rib and the sirloin.  The pork from Gunma Prefecture (群馬県) is known as imobuta (いも豚) because they are fed a diet consisting primarily of sweet potatoes (さつまいも), which leads to a sweet taste in the meat.  Basically, this looks like a nice slab of prime rib, except it's pork and not beef...  The pork is pan-seared first, then put in an oven at 220° C for 1 minute, then taken out to cool down for 5 minutes.  This process is then repeated for 3 hours...

    And the result speaks for itself.  Just look at that beautiful piece of meat... soooo tender, perfectly cooked, and all that flavor from the fat...  I swear it's better than the best piece of prime rib I've ever tasted.  Served with eringi mushroom (鮑茸) and chijimi spinach (ちぢみほうれん草) in an aged rum sauce.

    I was really, really full by this point, and just couldn't possibly finish the pork.  I wish my stomach was just a little bigger...

    Baked cheesecake - yup, this is a Japanese-style cheesecake, and I don't like them soft, fluffy, light and tasteless Japanese cheesecakes... except this ain't your typical version.  This is made with apricot liqueur that has had the alcohol taken out... and will you just look at that beautiful brûlée?!

    Yes, it's still fluffy inside and not dense like the New York cheesecakes I like.  But this tasted goooooood!

    Meringue ice cream - this was made with almond, milk, and meringue that's been ground into powder.  The texture was just soooooo smooth...  Served with a couple of spritz of sea water reduction.

    I took my spoon and slowly, lovingly ran it over to top of the quenelle... removing with each stroke only the very outer edge that had softened, and making sure that I get a little bit of the sea water reduction which had collected at the bottom of the bowl.  Salty milk ice cream seem to be the thing in Tokyo right now, based on my limited experience in the last 3 days...  This was just beautiful.

    If it hadn't hit me until now, I realized today that Fergie is the little devil that perches on your shoulder and eggs you on about doing things that you shouldn't do.  I wasn't thinking about drinking at lunch at all, but he ordered a couple of bottles and kept telling me to drink...  So I sipped a little.

    1998 Collin-Guillaume Brut - pretty yeasty nose, a little savory mineral, and later on the nose was pretty caramelized, like Chinese salty plum (話梅).

    2002 Faiveley Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru Clos de la Maréchale - forest notes, not too sweet, surprisingly not too fruity from a ripe year like 2002.  More tannin here, more bitter on the palate than I expected.  Also animal notes, and later, finally a little more fruit.

    Interesting to drink a bottle from a vintage when the land was still leased to Faiveley, as I've only had wines made after Mugnier took it back and made the wines under his own label.  I think the sommelier was suitably impressed when I told him that I had actually tasted the white version of Maréchale when I visited Frédéric Mugnier at his domaine, because that wine has only been made in the last few years and production is incredibly small.

    What an absolutely incredible lunch!  Every single course was amazing, and some were mind-blowing.  There was simply no question that this was 3-star quality, and I certainly understand why the restaurant had been included as part of Asia's 50 Best.  Several of my friends had raved about lunch here, saying that it is incredibly good value for money, and I definitely agree that the price/performance ratio is off the charts.  If only I lived in Tokyo... I'd probably come here once a month.

    And now I've got less than 4 hours till my next meal at another Michelin 3-star restaurant...

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    A few hours after that very big and delicious lunch, it was time to eat again... at another restaurant with 3 Michelin stars.  At our dinner together a couple of months ago, Chef Uwe Opocensky extended a very kind invitation for me to join him and his wife for dinner at Kanda (かんだ).  As Uwe already knows Kanda-san, the opportunity seemed too good to pass up.  Uwe was also kind enough to be able to secure seats for both the Great One and My Very Very Very Very Taken Friend, too.

    The restaurant seemed to be within a reasonable walking distance from the train station... and it was.  Except that it started to rain once we emerged from underground, and the rain went from a very light drizzle to something a little more serious.  And then I made a wrong turn... and had to double back a little.  By the time we arrived at the restaurant a few minutes late, my hair was pretty wet.

    We took our seats at the counter after a round of introductions, and I waited for the magic to come my way.

    Steamed egg custard with blowfish milt and seaweed - this may look like just any chawanmushi (茶碗蒸し) with seaweed (若布) on top, but...

    ...digging the spoon in reveal hidden treasures - blowfish milt (read: sperm sacs), or shirako (白子) in Japanese.  Unfortunately, it's one of the few things I don't eat, but I'm in luck.  I'm sitting next to someone who has a habit of stealing food from her neighbors, and she loves shirako.  So she very kindly relieves me of them... leaving me with just the egg and seaweed.

    Monkfish liver with radish and Sichuan green pepper - we loooove monkfish liver (鮟肝), and this was just really rich and creamy.  The shredded radish on the side provided relief from the richness, and the sprinkle of sansho (山椒) powder delivered a nice kick.

    Deep-fried oysters - from Okurokami Island (大黒神島) in Hiroshima Prefecture (広島県).  The batter was really thin, and the oysters were just really delicious.

    Needlefish with broad bean - needlefish is one of my favorites, and I got my first hit at breakfast this morning.  Served with broad beans and a sprinkle of vinegar and egg powder.  Loved the needlefish as it was a little sweet.

    Olive flounder with liver - the olive flounder (鮃) has been lightly torched on the skin side, served with its own liver, wakame seaweed and chives.  This was really beautiful, with a nice, crunchy texture and lovely smoky flavors.

    Snow crab with bamboo shoot - the soup bowl is one of my favorite courses in Japanese kaiseki because it usually features very clean flavors.  Tonight our bowl came with a "dumpling" made of shredded snow crab (松葉蟹) meat, along with some rapeseed flowers (菜の花) and a very young and tender bamboo shoot.  Purity of flavors.  Simple.  Beautiful.

    In place of the usual course of sashimi (お造り), we have two pieces of nigiri sushi (握り寿司).  And when I'm dining at the best restaurants in Japan, I will tend to relax my normal rule of not having any bluefin tuna, as I don't wish to show any disrespect to the chef.

    The first piece of fatty tuna (大トロ) sushi arrived, and it looked beautiful.  The sprinkle on top wasn't salt, but essence of salty seaweed which has been ground into a powder.  Needless to say the tuna melted in my mouth.

    The second piece was the chu-toro (中トロ) which was less fatty.  This was brushed with sauce on top, and also very soft and tender.

    It's interesting to hear Kanda-san explain that during this season, the tuna migration starts from the seas around Taiwan and goes up to Hokkaido, eating horse mackerel (鯵) along the way.  They then pass by Oma (大間) as they cross the Tsugaru Strait (津軽海峡), where there is no longer any horse mackerel, so they start eating squid.  This changes the flavor of the tuna.  And that's the tuna we were eating tonight.

    Grilled amadai - the amadai (甘鯛) was marinated in miso and sake lees (酒粕), giving it both sweet and savory flavors simultaneously.  Very, very delicious.  Served with some pickled radish, deep-fried arrowhead (慈姑) chips - which Uwe served us at Krug Room last month - and a vegetable bud called tsubomina (蕾菜).

    Straw-grilled beef - from Kyushu.  The exterior is nice and dark, and obviously a little crunchy.  This little slice is the "end cut".

    This was definitely some delicious beef!  Just look at the color of the interior.  This wasn't the over-marbled type, but it was still tender and flavorful.  Perfectly cooked.  Lovely fragrance and flavors from the straw.  Served with a salad of watercress and seaweed (海苔).

    Taro, gluten and mushroom - this little vegetarian bowl had four different ingredients, and they were all delicious.  The shrimp taro (海老芋) from Kyoto is so named because its curvature resembles that of a shrimp, and it was one of the smoothest taros I have ever put in my mouth... and I'm a guy who doesn't like taro.  The gluten (麩) was deep-fried and then braised, delivering an incredibly soft and bouncy texture.  Absolutely delicious.

    Icefish with egg on rice - we were all pretty full, but this looked delicious!  And it was!  Icefish (白魚) is one of my favorites, and I love it that they've made a runny omelet with it, added some peas and put it over rice.  Sooooo good... and the seaweed on the side didn't hurt, either.

    Oh and at top Japanese restaurants, they are serious about their pickles, too...

    Soy milk pudding with black beans - I looooove the texture of Japanese puddings, and when you add muscovado (黒蜜) and sweetened black beans (黒豆) to the equation, what's not to love?!  I could have had three of these...

    Strawberry milk mousse cream - very, very strawberry.  Yum!

    When I sat down tonight, there was already a bottle of Krug Grande Cuvée out on the counter.  No prizes for guessing who was responsible for bringing that...  I always think Champagne goes very well with Japanese food.  And when we ran out of Champagne, it was time to take on some sake...

    Juyondai Nakatori Junmai Muroka Namatsume (十四代 中取り純米 無濾過 生詰) - with a seimaibuai (精米歩合) of 55%. Very, very sweet and smooth on the front palate, then a little dry and spicy (辛口) at the back.  Unfiltered and unpasteurized.

    This was a very, very delicious dinner.  While the presentation of the dishes seemed less "classical" and elaborate compared to my dinner last night at Ishikawa (石かわ), the flavors were just as pure.  How lucky I was to have had the opportunity to taste Kanda-san's creations tonight!

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    In the middle of planning my Tokyo itinerary with friends, I came across a post on Food Sake Tokyo sharing the news that Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, whose Michelin 2-star restaurant Narisawa is one place I recommend to a lot of friends visiting Tokyo, had just launched his food truck.

    FOOD TRUCK?!  In Tokyo?!  From a chef with Michelin stars?!

    This I gotta check out.

    A couple of friends saw the PSA I made on Facebook, and reported back positively on their experience.  My friends who were going on this trip with me were all very excited to find a real food truck in Asia, and were eagerly waiting for the chance to check it out.  I had some free slots during the early part of my trip, and I was determined to check it out before the rest of my friends arrived - especially since the food truck has been known to close due to poor weather.

    So on day 2 of my trip, as the sun was out and the sky was blue, I suggested to Cow and Chicken that we hit the truck.  They very kindly obliged and drove me over to Tokyo Midtown.  The food truck was parked next to the Diners Club Ice Rink, and looked like it was also sponsored by Diners Club.  I was giddy with anticipation as I approached it...

    Funnily enough, I ran into my colleague and his friends while at the food truck.  We happened to take the same redeye flight up, and I had told him about this... so it was a funny coincidence that we'd show up at the same time.

    You can order a bowl of stew/soup or a sandwich separately, but I decided to take them as a set.  Just a regular "soup and sandwich" from a food truck...  Only he's not serving his usual creative French food here.  Chef Narisawa's decided to feature traditional dishes from different regions of Japan.

    Hakata spicy "motsu" giblets stew (博多のピリ辛モツ煮) - there was never any question about which bowl of stew I would get... Once I saw the word "giblets" it was a done deal.  The bowl was full of pig intestines... and the fact that big chunks of fat/lining were still attached to the intestine walls made it even better.  This came with veggies like leeks and burdock (牛蒡), with a wonderfully spicy soup that would definitely warm you up.  So. freakin'. good.

    For the sandwich, the bread was the special blessings of rice with 18 mixed grains (十八穀米の惠み), while for filling I chose special pork "Yongenton" soaked in "Kan Kouji" rice malt (四元豚の寒麹漬け).  The specialty from Akita Prefecture (秋田県).  The bread was amazing... crispy on the outside, light and airy on the inside.  The filling came with a good mix of veggies like carrots and burdock, along with a sesame dressing that is instantly recognizable as Japanese.  Delicious pork, too.

    A really, really good meal for a reasonable price.  When I first finished my lunch - which we ate while standing outside in the cold by the truck - I didn't think I had enough food.  I was no longer hungry, but didn't quite get that "OMG I'm so full" feeling.  After we stepped indoors and walked around Tokyo Midtown, gradually it hit me that this was indeed enough food for me.  I was so happy that we had done this.

    On day 4, it was time to take the gang from Hong Kong to the truck.  Unfortunately the weather had turned and it started to rain a little.  We were afraid that the truck would be closed, as the ice rink might not be opened for business when it rains.  Thankfully the truck was still operating when we got there, and we ducked under the awning of the truck to stay dry.

    This time I ate the sandwich first, and the filling I chose today was teriyaki chicken leg (鶏もも肉の照り焼き), which comes from Ibaraki Prefecture (茨城県).  Very nice.  Can't go wrong with chicken teriyaki, can ya?

    Kiritanpo (きりたんぽ) - a regional specialty from Akita Prefecture, this seemed much lighter than the other choice that I hadn't tried.  The traditional tube-shaped rice cake, with some chicken, shirataki (白滝), and plenty of spring onions and coriander - all in a relatively clear soup.

    Deep-fried oysters (カキフライ) - nice and thin batter.

    Yet another satisfying lunch, and I was happy to have shared it with the gang.  Too bad we couldn't have sat comfortably at the many outdoor tables, as it was raining a little hard.  I'm glad I made it to the food truck twice, and glad that a chef of Narisawa's caliber has taken the initiative to do this.

    I wonder if he got the idea after watching the movie Chef...

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    I normally don't put up blogs about meals at places at yakiniku (焼肉) restaurants, because we are doing the cooking ourselves and the restaurant is only providing us with the ingredients and the means of cooking.  However, the restaurant tonight deserves a special mention on this here blog, because as Fergie found out from his dinner last night, Yoroniku (よろにく) is the place chosen by the staff from L'Effervescence to celebrate getting their second Michelin star recently.  Now that's saying something!

    We chose not to take the set menus, and instead cherry-picked our cuts of meat in order to take advantage of the more interesting offerings.

    Seasonal selection of vegetables (旬のお野菜 盛り合せ) - this was actually very delicious, and we definitely needed some greens to balance out all the beef we'd be having tonight...

    Korean pancake with Kyoto vegetables (京野菜のチジミ) - pretty yummy, actually.

    Thick-cut tongue (厚切りタン) - thick cut is the best way to go.

    Kalbi without equals (並じゃないカルビ) - that's pretty arrogant... to say that what you're offering is the best on the market.  It was pretty damn good, though...

    Togarashi (トガラシ) - apparently each head of cattle yields only about 2kg of this... coming from the front legs.  Very thin slices so we're told to cook for 8 seconds on each side.  Fairly lean but pretty soft and tender, yet chewy at the same time.

    Premium hangar steak (上ハラミ) - so much flavor here, nice and chewy.

    Shoulder triangle (カタサンカク) - nice and chewy with sinews.  Eight seconds on each side.

    Shoulder blade (ミスジ) - really tender and fatty.  Eight seconds on each side.

    Silkroast (シルクロース) - so fatty and melt-in-your-mouth.

    Premium select sirloin (特選サーロイン) - will you just look at that marbling!

    We ordered ourselves one little bowl of rice so that we could have the beef fat drip onto something... Yum.

    The great thing about this place is that for dessert, they offer Japanese shaved ice (かき氷).  I think that's pure genius, because after a meal of heavy grilled meat, which for us Chinese is very "heaty (熱氣)", having something icy and cold would be perfect to balance things out.

    Houjicha shaved ice (ほうじ茶のかき氷) - the shaved ice is incredibly fluffy and fine, so this is mostly air.  The houjicha (ほうじ茶) syrup was a lot stronger than I expected, which was great.

    Shirokuma shaved ice (しろくまのかき氷) - shirokuma means polar bear, and here the ice is flavored with condensed milk.

    A very, very satisfying meal... and a surprisingly reasonable price, too.  Now with our bellies full, we could hit our next stop, which is one of my most anticipated stops on this trip...

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    These days, I can't come to Tokyo and not pay Tamanegiya (酒たまねぎや) a visit.  And ever since I introduced Fergie to this place on our trip together last year, it seems that he can't do without a visit, either.  But we were having serious trouble juggling all the meals we had already planned, and the only free night seemed to be tonight.  Which was unfortunate, because this place doesn't open on Sundays and Mondays.  We were so screwed.

    Then I was checking Tamanegiya's website, and discovered that they've actually been open on Sundays once in a while.  That got me kinda worked up, and I had Fergie call them up and check.  Yes, they were doing some trial runs of opening on alternate Sundays, but weren't sure whether they would be open tonight.

    When the website showed a couple of weeks ago that they would be open tonight, I got so excited that I called up Master myself and made a reservation.  We would not leave Tokyo without drinking some yummy sake!

    So... after a delicious yakiniku (焼肉) dinner, we found ourselves sitting in familiar surroundings.  Master only had one other customer tonight, so we pretty had his attention the whole time.  Even better, the wife's not in the house!  Yay!

    First some welcome snacks, which includes some fish braised in soy sauce, along with some tomatoes and a cape gooseberry.  Served in a little kintsugi (金継ぎ) bowl that is just a thing of beauty.

    Juyondai Junmai Ginjo Funatare Genshu Origarami (十四代 純米吟醸 槽垂れ おりがらみ) - released in January 2015, with a seimaibuai (精米歩合) of 50%.  This comes with some sediment (おり).  Nose was very fresh, with banana notes.  Smooth on the palate, a little sweet at first but balanced and a little lean on the finish.

    Hatsukame Daiginjo Yuzuki (初亀 大吟醸 遊月), 25BY - a 24-month koshu (古酒) with a seimaibuai of 35%, and a limited production of 100 bottles.  Very mild, not sweet on the palate, a bit more acidic and lean but not spicy (辛口).  Second sip became more spicy, with a longer finish.  A little one dimensional...  Released December 2013.

    Hatsukame Daiginjo Yuzuki (初亀 大吟醸 遊月), 26BY - also limited to 100 bottles.  Fresher on the nose and on the palate compared to BY25.  Leaner and even more one dimensional...  Later the nose became sweeter and more tropical.  Released December 2014.

    Isojiman Nakatori Junmai Daiginjo 35 (磯自慢 中取り 純米大吟醸 35), 25BY - fruity and sweet nose.  Sooooo smooth on the palate...  I could drink this all day.

    I know Master has tons of treasures in this seemingly little place, so once again I asked him for "something old".  The first thing he came up with was this:

    Suigei Junmai Daiginjo Tobintori Nama (酔鯨 純米大吟醸 斗瓶取り 生), 14BY - this is a 12-year old koshu made in June 2003 and aged in-house, with a seimaibuai of 30%.  Nose was very savory, very much like Chinese Huadiao (花雕) wine with salty plum (話梅) soaking in it, but really smooth, light, and soft on the palate.

    Not quite satisfied, I asked him for something else that was old.  He then pulled out this little gem from one of the fridges, and my eyes lit up when I saw the writing on the box...  Showa 38?!  Holy cow!  This is from 1963!!!

    Manrei Daiginjo Daikoshu (万齢 大吟醸大古酒) - Master poured a a little bit from the 300ml bottle and told us it was his treat to us.  Nose was really savory, like salty plum.  Really soft and mild on the palate, with a pretty short finish.  But the incredible fragrance of the sake stayed in my mouth forever.  Wow!  So grateful Master shared this with us! With a seimaibuai of 50%.

    Isojiman Junmai Daiginjo Nakatori 35 Adagio (磯自慢 純米大吟醸 中取り 35 アダージョ), 2014 - this is a 3-year koshu.  Sweet on the nose, a little floral.  Really smooth and mild, but actually simpler on the palate compared to the regular Nakatori 35.

    Next we tried to continue the tradition of doing verticals, and Master brought out a trio of Isojiman Junmai Daiginjo 40% Tojo Akitsu Tsuneda (磯自慢 純米大吟醸40 東条秋津常田).  This comes from a particular plot of land for rice, and therefore expresses the terrior the same way it would for wine.  Even though one of the vintages already has a bottle open (25BY I believe), Master insisted on opening a fresh bottle so that we can taste all three vintages the same way - fresh.

    Isojiman Junmai Daiginjo 40% Tojo Akitsu Tsuneda (磯自慢 純米大吟醸40 東条秋津常田), 26BY - very smooth, a little fruity, a little dry on the finish.

    Isojiman Junmai Daiginjo 40% Tojo Akitsu Tsuneda (磯自慢 純米大吟醸40 東条秋津常田), 25BY - softer and a little drier on the palate

    Isojiman Junmai Daiginjo 40% Tojo Akitsu Tsuneda (磯自慢 純米大吟醸40 東条秋津常田), 24BY - softest of the three.  Delicious.

    Bijofu Yuzu Liqueur (美丈夫ゆずリキュール) - I can't come to Tamanegiya without drinking this at the end.  Five years ago Master introduced me to this wonderful yuzu liqueur, and I immediately bought a whole case and shipped it back to Hong Kong.  Drinking this on ice is sooooo refreshing... and just what I needed at the end of a long night of drinking.

    As we thanked Master on the way out, past his appointed closing time - and very thankful that the wife isn't around to kick us out earlier - I mentioned to Fergie that Master has a sake specially made for him, with Master himself on the label.  This is made by Bijofu (美丈夫) and the label is drawn by one of Master's customers.  Seeing that we've been pretty good customers, Master reached into his fridge and pulled out a couple of bottles and gave them to us as gifts.   Wow!  Definitely something very special!

    Another drunken evening spent here, but this time, thanks to a decision to share each pour of sake (90ml!) between Fergie and I, in the end I wasn't as drunk as I was last year...

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    It's my fifth day in Tokyo, and time for us to move hotels.  We have to stay at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo tonight, because that was the only way for us to get reservations for dinner.  Since we are just across the street from my old favorite tempura (天ぷら) restaurant in Tokyo, and I always need a good tempura meal when I'm in Japan, I thought it would only make sense to take the gang there for lunch.

    Hayashi (はやし) is a tiny place with only about 8 seats at the counter.  It's not on Michelin's radar, nor does it rank particularly highly on Tabelog.  But I was blown away on my first visit 8 years ago, and I've been wanting to go back since then.

    We were the only customers for lunch today, and the boss gave us a warm welcome and enthusiastically showed us all the ingredients he had prepared for us.  He only uses the freshest ingredients, and lamented that it has become harder and harder to find live seafood that hasn't been chilled.

    Mozuku (水雲) - the noodle-like seaweed from Okinawa (沖縄) was marinated in ponzu (ポン酢) and served with a little ginger.

    The boss tells us that he uses sunflower oil instead of the sesame oil more common in Edomae (江戸前) style of tempura.  Of course everything is done at low heat.

    String beans (隠元豆)

    The boss then starts on the Japanese tiger prawns (車海老) from Amakusa (天草) in Kyushu (九州).  They were still alive and moving, before being stripped of their shells.  We would each get three prawns during the meal.

    Japanese tiger prawns (車海老), rare - the first prawn we got was meant to be done "rare", meaning it wasn't fully cooked as is normally done.

    And it really was "mi cuit"!

    Mugwort gluten (蓬の生麩) - from Kyoto.  This was very nice.

    Scallop (帆立貝) - these were pretty big scallops wrapped in a strip of nori (のり) seaweed.

    This, too, was done mi-cuit.  So soft, and the sweetness of the scallop was just amazing.

    Japanese tiger prawns (車海老), well-done - our second prawn.

    This was clearly well-done, with a bouncy texture.

    Next came Japanese sillago (鱚), which were some of the largest I remember seeing.

    The boss proudly showed us both sides of the fish to let us see the quality of the ingredients he uses.

    And the result was stunning.  A beautiful piece of fish, and very sweet in flavor.  We were asked to take half the fish with salt, and the other half with the grated radish (大根おろし) in sauce.

    Shiitake mushroom (椎茸) - just delicious.

    Japanese tiger prawns (車海老), rare - our third prawn, and back to mi-cuit.

    Conger eel (穴子) - the pièce de résistance, and these were pretty big pieces.

    Really, really delicious.  Once again we were asked to take half the fish with salt, and the other half with the grated radish.

    We were meant to get some shishito peppers (獅子唐辛子), but the boss made a switch and gave us these beautiful butterbur buds (蕗の薹), and actually unfurled the petals.

    Butterbur buds (蕗の薹) - light bitter taste as expected, and signifies the coming of spring.

    It was time to get some rice in our bellies, and I asked for a small serving.  I was eagerly waiting for this, because of the flakes (ふりかけ) that would be sprinkled on top.  These were first invented by the boss' father, who loved mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐) so much that it inspired him to create this.

    Azuki bean dumpling (小豆饅頭) - something sweet for us to finish with, along with a cup of houjicha (ほうじ茶).

    Another delicious meal.  It was very clear that they take great care to use the freshest ingredients, and deliver them to their customers in the best way possible.  When I realized that we were not getting the squid that I was blown away by 8 years ago, I asked the boss about it.  He lamented that he's having difficulty finding good squid that is still alive, and so he no longer serves squid.  I was more than a little disappointed to hear this...

    At the end of the day, the bill was slightly higher than on my last visit 8 years ago, and remains the most expensive tempura meal I have ever had in terms of the absolute figure.  However, given the quality of the food I've had, I certainly would say it was well worth the price I paid for it.  Rather than the factory production line lunch that I had at Kondo (近藤) - a place with two Michelin stars to boot - I would much rather come here and pay double the price, but enjoy my lunch at a leisurely pace.

    I will most certainly be back, and hopefully it won't be another 8 years until my next visit...

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    So the big moment has finally arrived.  Dinner at Noma Tokyo.  The raison d'être for this particular trip, and certainly the one with the highest expectations.

    I knew about the Noma pop-up at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo in the middle of last year, before they opened up the reservations for it.  I never had any strong desire to travel to Copenhagen for a meal at Noma.  Virtually everyone I know who's dined there came away unimpressed, and the food just didn't seem very appealing.  Ants?!  Moss?!  Plates of cold, raw fish that look like stuff I could get at any decent restaurant in Japan?  One of my friends summed up his experience at Noma, saying that he felt like a reindeer.  No, he didn't eat reindeer at Noma.  He meant that he was the reindeer because he was eating reindeer moss, berries, ants...etc.  So I didn't even bother trying to book.  And it got booked up within hours, anyway.

    But late last year, word spread that they were extending the 4-week pop-up by another two weeks.  Fergie asked if I wanted to try booking it.  I figured it couldn't hurt to try, and so we did.  We were lucky enough to secure one of the coveted dinner reservations, which were offered as a package with the hotel rooms.

    The next task was for me to find a roommate, because it was assumed that each room would have two diners.  I immediately thought of my Very Very Very Very Single Friend (who became my Very Very Very Very Taken Friend recently), whom I strong-armed into coming with me.  It was obviously easier finding a guy sharing the room with me than getting someone from the fairer sex...

    Anyway.  Once the pop-up started, I made the mistake of reading the first few reports and looking at all the pictures of the dishes, since they were all over social media.  So there were no longer any surprises... not like my dinner at elBulli where I had no expectations whatsoever.  It would be interesting to see how this would impact my experience tonight.

    So we showed up at the reception, and were led to our table which, as it turned out, had the best view of the kitchen.  We were asked about any food allergies or preferences, and of course I don't have any.  Or do I??

    We were advised in advance that there were wine and juice pairings available.  Initially Fergie and I laughed about the juice pairing option, but as time went on I decided that since Noma was famous for these juice pairings, it would be much more interesting.  So that's what I went for.

    Pickled cucumber and cod milk - FUUUUUUCK ME!!!  One of the few things that I do not eat in this world is sperm, so what do they serve me as a first course?  Cod milt, of course!  Translate - cod sperm sacs.  Not raw, thankfully, but not exactly fully cooked, either.  I didn't want to return the dish as it would be somewhat disrespectful, so I forced myself to swallow fish sperm.  Yuck.

    The cucumber pickled in koji (麹) was beautiful both in terms of texture and flavors.  The shirako (白子) was garnished with basil flowers.

    Apple / sour kabosu / pine - nice and acidic to prep our palates...

    Botanebi with flavors of Nagano forest - the one dish that EVERYONE talked about.  For the last few years, Noma has been known to serve ants, and this would be the first time that many of us have ever had the opportunity to eat ants off a plate.  Add to that the drama created by the Japanese penchant for serving prawns so fresh that they are still moving around - called "dancing prawns (踊り海老)" - and you can imagine the reaction of some of the diners.  One of the prawns at a neighboring table twitched and jumped around in the bowl even before being touched, which led the female diner to emit cries of surprise.

    To be honest, I didn't find the botan shrimp (牡丹海老) itself to be anything special.  Yes, it was very fresh... as evidenced by the texture that was crunchier than usual.  But it wasn't mind-blowingly better than what I can get at top Japanese restaurants.  The ants from Nagano, though, were indeed acidic as reported.

    I love destroying the heads of prawns, but for some reason I don't care to go through them if they're raw, so I was pretty reserved when it came to this.

    Citrus and long pepper - here we've got 4 kinds of citrus fruits - a bunpeiyu pomelo (晩白柚), Hassaku orange (八朔), buntan pomelo (文旦), and mikan (蜜柑).  Served with a sauce made from Rishiri konbu (利尻昆布) and garnished with sansho leaves (木の芽) and slices of red peppercorn.

    The sauce was incredibly complex, because it came loaded with lots of oil that just tasted really rich in flavors, and very nutty.  At the same time it was just soooo heavy, as if it was meant to counter-balance the acidity and freshness coming from the citrus fruits.  Still conflicted about whether I like this dish or not.

    Shaved monkfish liver - O-M-F-G!!!  If I were feeling nonplussed about the first 3 dishes, with this one the kitchen hit it out of the park.  Frozen monkfish liver, shaved into thin strips and lightly seasoned with salt.  Literally melts in your mouth.  The piece of melba toast on the bottom has so much delicious butter that I wanted 3 more of these.  INHALED.

    Koika cuttlefish "soba" - Noma's take on traditional Japanese shiokara (塩辛), with raw squid cut into long, thin strips of "noodles" and brushed with fermented squid.

    Served with a "dashi (出汁)" of rose oil and rose petals.  I'm not quite getting this part... Maybe this is meant to balance out or dilute the strong, salty, umami, and slightly nutty flavors of the fermented squid, since the act of dipping the squid in the dashi meant some of the fermented sauce is washed off?  The dashi itself was pretty weak, and one really needed to chew on the rose petals to get something out of them.

    Fresh water clam and wild kiwi - another dish made famous by Instagram and social media.  I had already heard about the "45 clams per tart", but the server clarified that it was 45 clams per whole tart, and we were each only getting part of the tart.  The shijimi (しじみ) clams - which are just the most ordinary clams used in Japanese cuisine - were chopped up and laid on top of a layer of parsley and kiwi purée that was spread on top of a tart dough made with Rausu konbu (羅臼昆布).  This was just an incredible slice of heaven, as the clean flavors of the clams worked really well with the nutty and buttery flavors from the tart dough, and the acidity from the kiwi induced a tingling sensation on the tongue.  I wouldn't mind taking the WHOLE tart and having all 45 clams...

    Turnip / yuzu / black currant shoots - greenish nose from the turnip.  Savory on the palate but acidic at the same time.  Looks very oily.  Surprisingly this was my least favorite of the juices.

    Tofu, just steamed with wild walnuts - we were advised to dig our spoons all the way to the bottom...

    ...because buried under the top layer of shaved walnuts was a thick layer of tofu, with parsley and yuzu sauce.

    Cucumber / fresh nori - probably my favorite juice tonight.  Soooo light and refreshing as it's supposed to be.
    Sea urchin and cabbage - seemingly such a simple dish.  One cooked cabbage leaf.  Raw sea urchin inside.  Brushed with mushroom paste.  Topped with shavings of wild kiwi.

    The sweetness of the sea urchin was just accented by the umami from the mushroom sauce.  Beautiful.

    Scallop dried for two days, beech nuts and kelp - so this was scallops that had been in deep-freeze, then dried for 2 days, and blended with oil, then pumped with air to create this texture which was so much like a sponge... except that it was no longer bouncy and just sort of melted under the heat inside the mouth.  Salty and definitely tasted of dried scallops, and a little nutty.  Kinda interesting.  Served with the same kelp sauce as the citrus dish earlier.  The toasted beech nuts were very, very delish.

    Pumpkin / green gooseberry - is there a little bit of sansho leaves (木の芽), or a little bit of pine, perhaps?  Fragrant and lovely in the mouth, and actually much lighter than I expected.

    Hokkori pumpkin, cherry wood oil and salted cherry blossoms - beautiful slices of Hokkori (ほっこり) pumpkin, in a butter and fermented barley sauce.  Served with salted cherry blossoms and strips of kelp.  The sauce was actually acidic at the same time as being toasty and nutty.

    Garlic flower - black garlic, puréed and pressed into shape.  Sticks to the teeth as you chew on them.  The underside of these have... yes, MORE ANTS!  Definitely tasted the acidity from the ants, along with something akin to shiso flowers.

    Roots and starches with ginger - oh look!  A WARM DISH!!!  With water chestnuts, mountain yam buds (むかご), arrowhead (慈姑), crosnes, and lotus roots surrounding an egg yolk which was cured in fermented beef juice, and peanut sauce.  A nice, hearty dish with the taste of winter.  Not such a fan of the yolk as I don't care for the sticky, pasty consistency, but happy to get some warmth into my stomach.

    This came with some pickled ginger to cleanse the palate.  More acidity.

    Wild duck and mastubusa berries - duck from Akita Prefecture (秋田県), marinated in fermented rye.  Served with matsubusa (松房) berry sauce.


    At the very beginning when we were asked about our preferences, I told our server that I didn't want our duck to be overcooked, because there had been whispers of Asian diners not liking their ducks too raw - and subsequently the kitchen supposedly started to cook the ducks a little more to cater to the local palates.  Fergie asked for the duck to be more rare, while I said that I liked my birds to be more pink.

    So imagine our surprise when we started to pick up slices of duck breast and found them to be rare.  But even though it was more rare than I normally take it, I was absolutely fine with this.  The center was tender while the skin was nicely charred and the outer rim of the meat was just cooked.  Looooved the smoky flavors on the skin.  I preferred the duck on its own, without the sauce.

    Mushroom - well, this glass of liquid basically tasted like what happens when you try to rehydrate dried mushrooms by soaking them in hot water... Very mushroomy, of course...

    Yeast and turnip cooked in shiitake - nice fresh and green flavors from the turnip.  Once again the sauce had a little bit of acidity.

    When we were done with all the duck breast earlier, the carcass was taken away to be chopped up, and it came back to us like this.  I was pretty full by now, so I only took a small section of the neck, and called shotgun on half the head so I could pick out the brain... I then realized that the tongue (or half of it) was still attached, and proceeded to yank it out and eat it.  This prompted someone to post pictures of me "Frenching the duck"...

    Rice - sake rice ice cream with crispy rice and milk crackers, with sorrel sauce.

    The milk crackers stuck to the teeth, and were a little annoying.  I could definitely taste the alcohol in the ice cream, and it was tasty.  At the bottom was a pile of sake lees (粕) mixed in with rice crispies, which had gotten soggy after a while.  The sorrel sauce provided some acidity here.

    Sweet koji water / juniper berries - obviously sweet from the koji (麴), but also fragrant from the juniper berries.

    Sweet potato simmered in raw sugar all day - I looooove sweet potatoes.  'Nuff said.

    This came with a dip made from wild Japanese kiwi, but I didn't need the acidity.

    Wild cinnamon and fermented mushroom - we were asked to first lick the syrup off the cinnamon roots, then chomp on the "magic mushrooms" which were fermented mushrooms coated in chocolate and sprinkled with salt.  Very, very yum.

    I finished with a pot of Duromina coffee from Ethiopia, which seemed to have been one of the few ingredients they brought with them from Copenhagen.  Pretty mild, almost a little too bland.

    So… what did I think of the dinner? Well, I gotta say that it kinda started on the wrong foot, when I forced myself to swallow something that, psychologically, I had never come to terms with as food. I probably should have just given all the shirako (白子) to the others at the table, like I did the other night at Kanda (かんだ). But I made the mistake of not doing so, and as a result this set the tone for the rest of the meal.

    But the reality is that, quite possibly, Nordic cuisine just ain’t for me. There was acidity just about everywhere – in a majority of the dishes, and of course in the juice pairings. If there’s one thing that I can't have too much of in my food, it's acidity.  To be honest, my stomach wasn't very happy during much of the dinner, as it just wasn't accustomed to the acidity level.

    So there it is.  The cuisine is no doubt very innovative, interesting, and well-executed, but unfortunately it's just not my cup of tea - despite hitting a few homers out of the park.

    After dinner we waited our turn to talk to Chef Rene Redzepi, and as the conversation went on, I gained more and more respect for him.  Before this dinner my only impression of him was formed as a result of watching the documentary Noma at Boiling Point, and to this day I Love Lubutin (who has been to Noma in Copenhagen) and I trade jokes about Rene and his "fuck finger".  But this was a very different Rene I saw tonight.

    It's been a few years since the documentary was made, and he's clearly mellowed and matured a lot more during this time - and much wiser, it would seem... although admittedly he is still not as shrewd a businessman as he perhaps would like to be.

    A few interesting tidbits:

    - they wanted to come and do a pop-up in Tokyo, and approached three hotels about the possibility of working together.  Mandarin Oriental Tokyo was the only one of the three to have responded to them.

    - they had to incorporate a company locally in order to do the pop-up.  It wasn't simply a matter of the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo cutting them a check on the side.  Not surprising, really, when you think about it... This is Japan, after all...

    - when they struck an agreement with Mandarin Oriental, which was quite some time ago, the exchange rate for Japanese Yen was certainly not where it is today.  Being chefs focused on delivering the best cuisine for their customers, effects of exchange rate movements were clearly not at the forefront of their minds.  So whatever they had agreed to in Japanese Yen terms is worth a lot less today...

    - Rene was clearly impressed by Japan, where he sees many things that he wishes Europe and the rest of the world could learn from.  He spoke of suppliers who sell to customers based on relationship, and how things are much more relationship-driven instead of being purely transactional-driven.

    - Rene was also impressed by the long-term horizons that restaurant investors have in this part of the world, where younger chefs can come out to start a new venture, without the expectation or pressure to immediately turn a profit.  This is clearly not the situation in the West.

    P.S. We adjourned to the bar just next door after dinner, where the Mandarin Oriental was serving a selection of Japanese delicacies such as marinated crickets, bees, and silkworm larvae.  I decided that I'd already had enough of insects for the night and declined to partake.  The pictures we took of the others who dared to try... are priceless.

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    On my trip to Tokyo last year, I had an epiphany when I had the privilege of dining at Sukiyabashi Jiro (すきやばし 次郎) for the first time.  At the time I said it was the "best fucking sushi I've ever had", and I knew then that everything would be downhill from there.  A few days later I was totally unimpressed with my lunch at Sushi Mizutani (鮨 水谷), and sure enough, it was downgraded by Michelin from three stars to two at the end of last year.

    Naturally I wanted to go back to Jiro on this trip, but somehow we just had a lot of trouble getting a reservation through our usual (yup, Amex is pretty useless) channels.  Finally I asked a friend with connections to help out, and in the end he managed to get me just one seat at lunch, for myself.

    I can't even begin to describe the comments I got from my jealous friends, who were clearly miffed that they were left out in the cold.  I would have gladly offered my seat to the Great One so that she could have a chance to try it, except that I was told that this reservation came about as a favor from the restaurant...

    So I checked out of the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo and moved myself to the Peninsula Tokyo, because the reservation came about thanks to the concierge team there.  It was in the middle of my discussions with the concierge when I made a horrible realization...

    In addition to having a dress code, Sukiyabashi Jiro also requests that guests refrain from wearing strong perfume.  Normally this wouldn't be a problem for me, as I'd stopped wearing any fragrances when I started drinking wine more than a decade ago.  But while at the Mandarin Oriental this morning, I had applied some Bottega Veneta lotion provided by the hotel to my face.  The scent was very, very strong.  I was horrified at the thought of offending Jiro-san, so I scurried to the restroom to wash the lotion off my face.  Alas, the Bottega Veneta shampoo and shower gel all carried the strong scent, so I was kinda screwed...  Damn you, MO Tokyo!

    I walked the short distance to the restaurant's location in Ginza, and arrived about twenty-some minutes before noon.  The familiar sign was out front, informing customers that they were still getting ready and for people not to take any pictures.  I go to the restroom again to try to wash the remnants of lotion off my face...

    I finally decided to walk in about a quarter to twelve.  After checking my jacket and bag, I was led to my seat at the counter.  I set my white balance quickly using the warm, white hand-towel, and I was ready to eat.

    Yoshikazu (禎一), Jiro's eldest son who has been groomed to succeed him, came out.  I was the only customer at this point, and he quickly put the first piece of sushi in front of me.

    So I guess Jiro-san isn't in the house today.  I had heard that he wasn't in the restaurant several days ago, and that usually only happens when he's not feeling well.  Maybe he hasn't recovered.

    Flounder (ひらめ)

    Golden cuttlefish (すみいか) - wasabi was a little strong.

    Yellowtail (ぶり)

    Lean bluefin tuna (あかみ)

    It's now 12 noon, and at this point Jiro-san walks out to behind the counter.  Maybe he doesn't come out any earlier?  I am relieved to see that he is well, and look forward to having him take over from Yoshikazu.

    But he doesn't.  He immediately starts to serve the other customers, who arrived after I did, but my sushi is still made by Yoshikazu.

    At first I felt a little upset.  Why was I the only one not getting served by Jiro?!  Yes, I was a gaijin customer with a big camera, but I was quiet, polite, spoke Japanese, and followed the dress code of the restaurant.  There were four other gaijins at the other end who were wearing jeans and T-shirts.  Why did they get better treatment?!

    Medium fatty bluefin tuna (ちゅうとろ)

    Fatty bluefin tuna (おおとろ)

    Gizzard shad (こはだ) - acidity of the neta is higher than usual, and also a little more chewy than usual.

    By this point I had come to terms with not being served by Jiro-san.  What I saw in front of me was father and son working side-by-side.  Of course they had been working side-by-side for years, with Yoshikazu preparing the neta (ねた), then handing them to Jiro-san for the final touches of putting it on top of the shari (しゃり).  But now Yoshikazu was doing everything - prepping the neta both for his father and for himself, and also molding the shari for my sushi.  I was witnessing Jiro passing the baton to Yoshikazu, and that gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling.

    Octopus (たこ) - sprinkled with salt on top, still warm, and very chewy.

    Red clam (あかがい) - beautiful, but Yoshikazu brushed too much sauce on top... so that when I put it in my mouth, the excess sauce dripped onto my chin.

    Japanese horse mackerel (あじ)

    Clam (はまぐり) - once again this is the best clam I've ever had anywhere... but again this came with a little too much sauce...

    Mackerel (さば) - love the acidity.  Texture was a little more firm than I expected.

    Japanese tiger prawn (くるまえび) - loved it just as much as I did on my last visit...

    ...except there wasn't the same innards (みそ) as last time...

    Halfbeak (さより) - I don't think I've ever seen needlefish cut this way...

    Sea urchin (うに) - Jiro serves the creamiest sea urchin...

    Mactra abductor muscles (こばしら)

    Salmon roe (いくら)

    Conger eel (あなご) - a little too much sauce... again.

    Grilled egg (たまご) - I loooove this style of grilled egg, where the texture is like a sponge cake.  Even though there is Japanese yam (山芋) and shrimp added to the mixture, this is served like a dessert.

    I glanced at my watch as I bit into this, my 20th and final piece of sushi.  Twenty-five minutes had elapsed since I picked up my first piece.  As I was dining solo and had no one to chat with, I was eating at the "regular" Jiro speed today... especially since I didn't take as many pictures as I did on my first visit.  A visit to Sukiyabashi Jiro is basically speed-eating...

    I debated about whether or not I wanted to order more pieces (追加), because I was really pretty full.  But in the end I couldn't resist...

    Clam (はまぐり) - OK, this was just swimming in sauce... ridiculous.  But delicious.

    Sea urchin (うに)

    I was ushered to one of the side booths to take my Japanese musk melon (マスクメロン).  Not that I needed to shove anything of that size into my stomach at that particular moment...

    I looked around on the wall next to me, and I was bummed that on this second visit, I still could not see the famous drawing that the President of Disney Japan presented to Jiro-san - featuring Mickey, Donald, and friends sitting at the counter being served by Jiro-san.  Maybe one day I'll see it with my own eyes...

    I gotta be honest here... my lunch today wasn't as good as my dinner last year.  It is clear that Yoshikazu isn't at the same level as his father, but then again, nobody else is.  I don't think anyone expected that he would become as good as his father - it's the unfortunate fact of being the son of a legend and forever living in his shadow.

    However, I was observing Jiro-san today and thought that even the man himself might be slipping a little... perhaps as a result of his health.  After all, he is 89 pushing 90.  I noticed that once in a while, he would leave stray grains of rice on the cutting board after molding the shari, which the assistant would clean up.  I also wondered whether he still had his strength, as he seemed to require a few more presses with his fingers to put the neta and shari together.

    In spite of all this, I felt privileged to have been able to pay father and son a second visit, and perhaps witness the baton being passed down to Yoshikazu.  I hope I will have the good fortune of paying them more visits and watch father and son working side-by-side.

    P.S.  While I was paying the bill, I noticed that they are now selling copies of the new book Jiro Gastronomy, which had just been published last year.  What's more, the copies in the restaurant are signed by Jiro-san himself, and some copies are also signed by Masuhiro Yamamoto (山本益博) - the co-author of the book.  Of course I bought a few more copies...

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    Most of the gang from Hong Kong and Taipei went home today, so I found myself kinda alone in Tokyo for the last 2 days of the trip.  It just happened, though, that one of my cousins from New York is in town for a few months on secondment, so I took the opportunity to catch up with him over dinner.

    I'm down to my last couple of meals in town, and I desperately needed to check out specific types of Japanese cuisine.  I haven't had tonkatsu (とんかつ) in Japan for... donkey years, it must be... so it was time to hit that.  Being that shallow tourist that I am, the first place I turned to was not Tabelog but the Michelin Guide.  Lo and behold, I found a place serving tonkatsu with a Michelin star!  And it was within walking distance from my hotel!  Katsuzen (かつぜん) it is, then...

    It was interesting to see the restaurant offering full-fledged, multi-course set menus in addition to just the standard breaded and deep-fried stuff, and the two of us both decided to take on the kurobuta tonkatsu set (黒豚とんかつコース).  Kurobuta, of course, is the Japanese term for Berkshire pigs.

    Appetizer (先付) - a piece of abalone, served with a sauce made with abalone liver, plus slices of green turnip, red carrot, orange carrot, and a spear of white asparagus.  The carrots were incredibly sweet, especially the red one.

    Seasonal salad (季節のサラダ) - surprisingly with romanesco broccoli.

    Selection from Tsukiji Market (築地市場からの一品) - spear squid (槍烏賊) cooked in tomato sauce, with mushroom, perilla (紫蘇) chiffonade, chervil, and slices of deep-fried garlic.  VERY yum.

    Daily special (本日のおすすめ) - chunks of raw tuna (鮪) with avocado and wasabi (山葵), topped with strips of nori (のり) seaweed.

    Kurobuta pork loin cutlet from Kyushu (九州産黒豚ロースかつ) - finally, the main event!  I generally choose the loin because I'm looking for that wonderful strip of fat down one side of the cut.
    And sure enough, this was a beautiful-looking piece of meat!  I just love it when I apply enough pressure with my teeth, and start to squeeze the fat out and it oozes onto my tongue...  What a beautiful sensation!  The lean part of the pork was ever-so-slightly on the dry side, although it was still pretty tender.  It definitely needed the fat!

    They've got the usual "tonkatsu sauce (とんかつソース)", but their house garlic and sesame sauce was seriously good!  A little sweet, a little sour, and beautiful, bold garlic flavors.  I couldn't stop drowning my pork in that sauce!

    Rice (食事) - a nice bowl of rice, which came with homemade pickles like turnip.

    Dessert (デザート) - besides the few pieces of fruit, the standout here was that giant scarlet runner bean (花豆).  It was HUGE!  Soooo delish and satisfying.  Can I have 10 more of these, please?

    This was a delicious, satisfying, and very filling meal.  I dunno if the tonkatsu was star-worthy - I'm certainly not an expert on that - but it was certainly an enjoyable piece of fatty pork.  Every other dish was delicious, too.

    Glad I was able to catch up with my cousin tonight, and I look forward to seeing him at his wedding later this year!

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    So I've come to the end of my trip, and I have one last lunch in the city before heading off to the airport.  I've saved this meal for another very specific type of Japanese cuisine - eel (うなぎ).  And once again I turned to the touristy Michelin Guide for help.  Nodaiwa (野田岩) is a chain with several locations in the city, and even has a branch in Paris!  Although the Ginza (銀座) branch is within walking distance from my hotel, it was closed today due to the national holiday.  Fortunately the honten (本店) - a stone's throw away from Tokyo Tower and with a Michelin star to its name - was open today.

    I wasn't able to make a reservation as a solo diner, so I showed up at the door of the traditional gassho-zukuri (合掌造り) house - which was transplanted from Hida Takayama (飛騨高山) and rebuilt on this spot - as a walk-in.  I put my name down on the waiting list, and patiently waited inside next to the hibachi (火鉢).  Thankfully I only waited for about 15 minutes before my name was called, and I was led around the corner to the annex (別館).

    In spite of its history dating back more than 200 years, and being taken over by the sixth generation (六代目), Nodaiwa is actually pretty modern in terms of the menu.  They've created wine pairings for their eel, and they've also incorporated caviar into some of the dishes.  But today I decided to take the middle road and just have something straightforward - and took one of the sets that gave me a good "overview" of what they do here - the "three delights of eel set (鰻三楽コース)".  Unfortunately I came during the wrong season, so they're not serving wild-caught eels today, and I'm getting farmed eel instead.

    Eel jelly (鰻の煮こごり) - my set only comes with one type of appetizer (お通し), and these cubes of jelly were very delicious.

    Shirayaki (志ら焼) - this is Nodaiwa's signature way of serving eel.  The eel is steamed and grilled without being drenched in sauce, and the eel is taken with a pinch of wasabi and a pinch of salt.  This allows the natural flavors of the eel to shine.

    Next came the unaju (鰻重), along with the usual accompaniments such as pickles and grated radish.

    For this part, the eel was grilled with the traditional sauce.  Very, very delish.  What's even better is that Nodaiwa uses the same sansho (山椒) pepper from Hida (飛騨) that I absolutely love.  I've already bought a few little tins from another shop, and I decided to buy a couple more bags of it since it's on sale here.  Just loooove that kick and that citrus, almost lemongrass-like flavor.

    Finally, there's also a bowl of clear soup with eel liver (肝吸).

    I love grilled eel, and this was definitely the best eel I remember having in Japan.  There are, of course, plenty of old shops with long histories of serving eel, and I'll just have to slowly make my way around to more of them... For today, I'm just thankful that I had the opportunity to try this historical restaurant.

    Time to pick up my luggage and head to the airport...

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    OK, so my week in Tokyo was filled with visits to high-end establishments with Michelin stars, but the real pleasure of going back to Japan is the discovery of little hidden gems.  Thankfully I had some time to hit a few this week...

    For my first meal in Tokyo on day 1, Chicken took a break from geeking out and treated me to lunch at Biffi Teatro, an Italian restaurant just a short walk from their home.  We sat at the counter facing the open kitchen, and I took the simple pasta lunch menu.

    First came the bread, which was not only warm but apparently made-to-order.  Very nice.

    My daily antipasto selection was a slice of Hokkaido deer pâté, made in-house and wrapped with a layer of caul fat.  This was really delicious.  Served simply with a sprinkle of salt and a little mustard on the side.

    Tagliolini with raw Hokkaido sea urchin - the pasta here is homemade, too, and you can definitely feel the bouncy texture of fresh pasta.  Comes with a light cream sauce made with fresh tomatoes, along with Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings and topped with raw sea urchin.  A beautiful dish with simple and fresh ingredients.

    Two scoops of homemade gelato came: strawberry and milk with sea salt.  I wasn't a real big fan of the milky gelato, but I inhaled the scoop of strawberry gelato because it was so good.  A little espresso helped perk me up from lack of sleep.

    Even with the 500-yen surcharge for choosing the sea urchin pasta over the regular bolognese, my lunch came to a grand total of 2,400 yen, tax included.  Try finding something of similar quality in Hong Kong, and the price point would probably have to move 50% higher, if not more.

    Fergie arrived in Tokyo on day 2, and quickly complained about his starving tummy.  So a couple hours before our respective dinners, we strolled around Ginza and Shinbashi looking for a "snack".  After failing to lead us to a proper yakitori joint, we found ourselves down in the basement at Ogura (おぐ羅).

    This place is known for, among other goodies, oden (おでん) - those fishcakes, turnips...etc. simmered in broth that's usually found as street food.  These have been childhood favorites from my time growing up in Tokyo.

    I picked out a few items - including Japanese royal fern (ぜんまい), tofu pocket stuffed with mochi, and a trio of fishcakes stuffed with squid, burdock (ごぼう), and shrimp.  Delicious.  The broth (出汁) was especially light and delicate.

    We also shared a poached young bamboo shoot (若筍煮), which was pretty tender and sweet.

    I must admit that the food was delicious, but when the bill came we woke up to the reality that we were, after all, dining in Ginza and not on the street...

    I woke up early on day 3 to take the Great One on a brief tour of Tsukiji Market (築地市場), since she has never been.  It was of course too late to go on the "official tour" of the interior, and we just stuck to walking around the Outer Market (場外市場), and ended up with not one but two sushi breakfasts... although neither was particular memorable in a good way.

    In between, though, I went to grab a cup of coffee at Coffee Amikane (コーヒー網兼) - which was the real reason I wanted to go back to Tsukiji.  Why, you ask?  I was there to pay a visit to Hatsue ba-chan, the cutest grandma of them all.

    Grandma is in her late eighties, is hard of hearing (there is an English sign in the shop asking customers to "please speak loudly"), yet still opens her coffee shop twice (or has it been reduced to only once?) a week in the mornings.  Saturdays are one of those days, so I was glad to have made it there.  Fergie and I discovered her shop accidentally last year, and since then I had my heart set on going back to see her.

    The Great One and I sat down at the small and crowded counter, ordered our coffees, and watched her work.  She still uses the same old fashioned enamel pots, which is kept over the stove to make sure the coffee stays warm.  She still dunks the cups and saucers into a hot water bath before serving coffee - again, to keep the coffee warm for as long as possible.

    That 250-yen won't get you the best coffee available at the market.  Not even close.  But I don't care.  I'd pay that money again and again to spend a few minutes with this grandma, to be in her company.  I'm glad she seemed well today.

    I'll be back.

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  • 02/14/15--01:16: A rich and relaxing lunch
  • I'm back in Hong Kong and trying hard to cut back on my food intake, but a friend wanted to meet up for lunch at her new favorite restaurant, so I grudgingly obliged... and dragged my fat ass up to ON Dining Kitchen and Lounge.

    Philippe came over to say hello and thanked me for the preview I wrote for the South China Morning Post.  Apparently they got a lot of calls after it got published, and he joked that there are no more pigeons in Brittany...  Well, many of my friends have enjoyed that dish as much as I did, and I'm glad they are doing well.

    I'm taking it easy today, so I tried to pick a two-course set lunch.  While there were certainly choices which appeared more healthy, I guess I'm still just a pig at heart because... guess what?  All the dishes which sounded more appetizing were the ones which were rich and fatty!

    Poached egg, crab meat, Parma ham, mushrooms, baby spinach - this sounds relatively healthy... no?  One could never go wrong with a poached egg here, and all the other ingredients worked very well together.

    Iberico pork cheek, French beans and chorizo jus - I just couldn't resist... This was very, very tender... and a little less rich than your average beef cheek.  Wonderful sauce forestière with the French beans, mushrooms, chorizo, and flavored with cumin.

    I didn't need any dessert, but with Jeremy in the house, how do we refuse any cheese?  He suggested that we take the simple selection of 3 cheeses from the set lunch menu.

    Tomme de l'Ariège - the taste of goat's milk was definitely familiar, and it seemed like a more solid version of my favorite Cabri d'Ariègeois... Creamy and rich, salty, a little strong and stinky, but not quite ammonia.  Soft on the tongue.

    Comté, aged 4 years - as good as it ever was.  Jeremy gave us a little bit of the passion fruit jam from Christine Ferber.

    Époisses de Bourgogne - soooooo ripe and runny.  Wonderful.

    Well, I guess if I had to break my fast, this would be the place to do it!  Such a relaxing afternoon...

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    It's movie night and I needed to grab a quick bite before the show, so I took the opportunity to go back to Yat Lok (一樂燒鵝).  I haven't been back for almost 2 months, and it was about time I got my roast goose fix.

    Roast goose with rice (燒鵝飯) - you know, it's hard for me to find a roast goose I love more than what I get here.  The dark roasted, crispy skin.  The deep, layered flavors which are dominated by five spice (五香).  That wonderful layer of fat just beneath the crispy skin.  Love it.  And for the first time in a long time, I'm having it over steamed rice and not over a bowl of rice flour noodles in soup (瀨粉).

    Kailan (芥藍) - simply blanched.  No added oil or sauces so that the sweetness in the veg can shine through.

    A quick in-and-out, but no less satisfying than a long, drawn-out multi-course feast.

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  • 02/23/15--22:45: Hearty and bland
  • I got a call from Tigger this morning, asking me whether I'd like to lunch with him at 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana.  I know what day it is and why there's a table booked, so I happily accepted his invitation.  When he ended the call by telling me that "it's just you and me", I immediately realized that I was just acting as filler...  althoughI was relieved to find out just before lunch that Mrs. Tigger would grace us with her presence.

    I debated about doing my usual thing of just having one course of pasta at lunch, but decided I should try out the dishes on their current set lunch menu.

    Black truffle organic egg, "melanosporum" black truffle whipped potato and topinambur - very very yum.  Beneath the layer of shaved black truffle was a soft-boiled organic egg, along with a quenelle of whipped potato embedded with bits of truffle, as well as some mushrooms and cubes of pan-fried topinambour - otherwise known as sunchoke or Jerusalem artichoke.  Perfect combination of hearty flavors that just naturally go together.  I would have loved to have three of these...

    Roast amberjack, citrus and beetroot dressing, zucchini salad - I decided to pick the healthy-looking choice, somewhat intrigued by the citrus and beetroot dressing.  Mrs. Tigger is suffering from dulled tastebuds today due to illness, and remarked that she couldn't taste the amberjack at all.  Well, I don't think the problem lies with her tongue... since I couldn't taste much myself, either...  While the cooking was well-executed, it was almost completely bland in taste.  One would need to dab the fish with some of that dressing in order to get much flavor... and I have to say that the dressing itself was a little disappointing - as the citrus flavors weren't very obvious at all.  The bed of zucchinibrunoise was much more interesting.

    Having already exceeded my allotted quota for calories, I passed on dessert and just nibbled on the petits fours.  As usual the citrus fruit jelly was good, and the hazelnut milk chocolate was a lot sweeter than expected.

    It was good to catch up with the Tiggers, but the food today... fell far short of expectations for a restaurant with three macarons.

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  • 02/25/15--07:53: Le pigeon
  • It all started with happy hour.  Meeting the Specialist and a few uncles for a few bottles of wine at Watson's Wine Cellar.  We either brought our own bottles, or bought the bottles from the shop and drank them on the spot.  Something I've participated in a number of times over the years...

    2001 Musar - smoky, earthy, with a little bit of fruit.

    2001 Pontet-Canet - ripe and fruity, a little oaky, with that exotic, tropical, coconut butter.

    2002 Pichon-Lalande - sweet fruit, coffee, a little smoky.

    1999 Gazin - smoky, a little more green, very fragrant, almost floral like violet, cedar.  Drinking very well.

    2010 Le Saint Estephe de Montrose - minty, a little metallic, kinda sweet, with soft tannins.

    I didn't have any dinner plans, so I got dragged / arm-twisted / decided to join the Specialist and BFF. Her new favorite venue is ON Dining Kitchen and Lounge, which is of course just a few steps away.  We walked into without a reservation, and ended up sitting on the lounge level just inside the outdoor terrace.  This would normally be fine, but we ended up inhaling some of the cigar and cigarette smoke from people on the terrace while trying to finish up the wines... Oh well.

    Spicy beef and tuna tartare - just a little spicy, and not bad at all.

    Ham and cheese pancake, black truffle, green salad - look at those slices of black truffle on top.  What's not to like?!  No-brainer.

    Braised pork cheek, French beans, mushrooms, BBQ sauce - I had another version of this earlier, and apparently they've been tweaking the dish.  It did seem a little less dry and a bit richer than before, and with this sauce it seemed a little heavier, too.

    Roasted pigeon, artichokes, baby spinach and lemon chutney - we made sure to reserve these pigeons as soon as we sat down, due to their popularity.  Last month I wrote a preview of this place for the South China Morning Post, in which I claimed that this was the best pigeon I've ever had in Hong Kong.  Last night my friend Susan Jung - the Senior Food and Wine Editor of the South China Morning Post - came for a full review and ordered the pigeon.  She sent me text messages in the middle of her meal declaring her love for said pigeon.

    What I had tonight was very, very good - although it wasn't quite as good as what I had the first time.  The edges were slightly more done than I prefer, although when you get to the middle of the breast, it was just as pink, soft and silky smooth as I remembered.  Wonderful and delicious.  That lemon chutney - with what seemed to be mustard seeds - really elevated this dish.  Now, why am I not having this pigeon every week?!

    I was pretty sure I'd already taken in enough calories tonight between the food and the wines, so I passed on the cheese - to the amazement of Jeremy and others...

    Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Sainte Anne - yeasty nose.

    A pretty good evening overall, and I must come back soon.  Like next week.

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  • 02/26/15--07:03: The touring chef
  • Tonight was one of those rare occasions when I accepted an invitation from a PR to attend a tasting.  Most of the handful of invites that come my way really aren't all that interesting, but this was different.  Chef Alain Devahive Tolosa - whose cuisine I first came across at my dinner with Ferran Adria - is embarking on an Asian tour with Ritz-Carlton Hotels, and for the next few days he's at Ozone in the Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong.  This guy's one of Ferran's disciples, and I wanted to see what he's up to after parting ways with the guys at Catalunya.

    We started the evening with a couple of cocktails at the bar...

    This melon cocktail - done as a spherification - was served on melon cubes topped with bits of jamón serrano.

    The sangria was served with a layer of fruit foam, along with thin slices of strawberries and kumquat.

    We moved to our private dining area just outside the kitchen, and the chef proceeded to give us a demonstration of spherification - which naturally led to the first in a series of snacks...

    Spherical olive - very true to the original at elBulli, which was no surprise...

    Peanuts with crystallized honey - pretty nice, although these would be better as petits fours, no?

    2009 Parés Baltà Cava Blanca Cuisiné - rounded on the palate with a slight bitter finish.  Not a fan.

    The next two definitely reminded me of the deep-fried seafood snacks I had at elBulli.

    Nori seaweed with sesame

    Calamari with saffron and kimchi salt - nice little kick.

    Ibérico ham croquette - more spherification, and this time it's a new take on jamön croquetas.  Very nice.

    Mollete bun with hare royale - I was sooo looking forward to this, but alas, this was disappointing.  I absolutely love lièvre à la royale, especially all the rich, heavy flavors from blood, liver...etc.  This, however, was a very, very toned-down version.

    2012 Belondrade y Lurton - fresh, fruity, and tropical nose, with a little minerals.  Completely unoaked, which may account for the very bland palate and zero finish.  Almost like a Pinot Grigio... which makes it a great food wine since it can't interfere with anything...

    Oyster with white gazpacho and impregnated cucumber - this was really nice... especially the gazpacho and the cucumber.  Wonderful acidity along with salty flavors - as well as cold and refreshing.

    Avocado and king crab wrap with caviar - a dish that I've had at Catalunya before, and tonight it was simply beautiful.  The king crab in the middle, the salmon roe, caviar... and that amazing shellfish sauce.  Wow!  Almost my favorite dish of the evening.  Almost.

    Mushroom infusion with tofu, Parmesan cheese and truffle air - very delish, with all the mushroom and truffle flavors coming together.  The little enoki mushrooms were a nice touch.

    Mediterranean red prawn carpaccio - O-M-F-G!!!  By far the best dish of the evening, this was so awesome I would happily give up just about everything else for another serving of this.  Very, very thin slices of gambas de Palamós, with deep-fried garlic chips to deliver that feel of gambas al ajillo.  The taste of it was just amazing.  To make it even better, this was served with a pool of foam made from the prawn heads... and some of the prawn legs which have been deep-fried.

    Every part of this amazing prawn was put to good use, and I kept licking my lips after everything was gone.  In fact, I wanted to lick my plate.

    2012 Vizcarra Ramos Venta las Vacas - nose of ripe fruit, forest, and vanilla.  Still pretty young, but the tannins weren't too harsh.

    Crispy suckling pig belly with scallop and artichoke - we didn't ask about the origin of the suckling pig, but g4gary suspects it to be cochinillo from Segovia - since that's what is served at Catalunya.  Pretty tasty for sure, with very strong pork flavors that I like.  They weren't kidding about "scallop"... since there was just one, but it was cooked mi-cuit.  The artichoke chips were nice.

    Popcorn with lactic caramel - this was done as a "sandwich", with delicious popcorn ice cream and caramelized Marscapone.  Very nice hazelnut crunch at the bottom.

    Kumquat crystals, miso and bitter almonds - I gotta be honest... I wasn't a big fan of the layer of miso cream at the bottom.  At least, not on its own... because I don't like desserts that are savory.  But once you started mixing it with the kumquat jelly dots, the sweetness and savory flavors neutralized each other to create beautiful harmony on the tongue.  Those toasted white sesame seeds also add a nice little touch.  I've never been a fan of the sponge cakes that pastry chefs seem to love these days, so the black sesame sponge cake didn't do anything for me.  But that quenelle of kumquat sorbet?  SUBLIME.  No, fucking kick-ass!  Once you put all the elements together in the mouth... a little slice of heaven.

    A very delicious meal from start to finish, with quite a few home runs.  The menu was also priced fairly, although a few of us were left somewhat unsatiated thanks to the small portion sizes.  The PR asked us whether we were still hungry... Well, the truth was that we weren't left hungry, but we just wanted a few more bites...

    So after bidding farewell to our hosts, g4gary and I decided to hit a place supposedly famous for steamed rice flour rolls (腸粉).  Apparently Tong Kee (堂記腸粉) had lost its lease but had moved into Tong Shui Po (糖水舖), a neighboring shop selling desserts.  Unfortunately, the cook responsible for the rice flour rolls was still on holiday, so we couldn't order the good stuff...

    Rice flour rolls with dried shrimp (蝦米腸)

    Stir-fried rice vermicelli (炒米粉) - ordered this because it's less common on menus, but this wasn't anything special.  But hey, the price was right...

    A little too much cheap food at the end of the evening... which I kinda regret.  I'll just have to go back another night for the real rice flour rolls...

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  • 02/27/15--07:45: No more snake (for now)
  • It's been almost a year since I last saw Felix, and I was really looking forward to having him in town again.  He has read my previous posts about the private dining facility, and requested that as the venue for our gathering.  I dutifully rounded up a group of friends for the occasion.

    It's been almost exactly 6 months since I was first introduced to this place, and I've already been here 7 times before tonight, so it's fair to say that I've gone through a number of dishes multiple times.  While the menu tonight featured many dishes I've had before, I was glad to see two items which were new to me...

    Deep-fried crab claws (椒鹽肉蟹鉗) - this is probably the third or fourth time for me to have this, and I finally felt that this was an amazing crab claw.  Not that the previous ones haven't been delicious, but this particular one - which was bigger than the previous claws I've gotten - was particular satisfying thanks to both the size and the flavors.

    Stir-fried soft-shell turtle shell (鳳城炒水魚裙) - I've had the mountain turtle here a couple of times, but this was the first time having soft-shell turtle.  Very old school and delicious, with bean sprouts, pickles, spring onions, yellowed chives, red chilis, Indian almonds, and deep-fried rice vermicelli in addition to the wonderful shredded "skirt" of the turtle shell.  What really made the dish, though, was the presence of some incredibly fragrant preserved mandarin rind (陳皮).

    Braised goose web and pork tendon with mushroom (花菇鵝掌豬腳筋) - this was really, really good... Actually better than any other version I remember having in town.  The pork tendons were really, really soft, and the goose web was softer, too.  And that mushroom?  Wow!  The sauce was incredibly viscous and sticky with collagen, and I did actually pick up the plate to lick it... Thankfully nobody managed to snap a picture!  I did notice that a certain famous finger was put to good use...

    Double-boiled chicken soup with whelk (淮杞響螺燉雞湯) - something that some of us are used to having a lot at places like Fook Lam Moon (福臨門), and my friends thought this was better.

    Steamed sole (清蒸海方利) - not a fan tonight.  I definitely got that muddy taste with my first bite, although some of us wondered how a fish supposedly caught fresh from the ocean could smell of mud.  As usual the back was a little overdone, but the wings were still wonderful.

    Braised hundred-treasure duck (百寶炆大鴨) - it's been a few months since I last had this here, and I still love it.

    Stuffed inside the bag of skin were lotus seeds, Job's tears, egg yolk, plenty of shiitake mushrooms, and also the duck meat itself.

    Four-treasure vegetables with superior broth (上湯四寶蔬) - still as delicious as ever, especially the radish!  That superior broth is just magical...

    Fried glutinous rice with preserved meats (生炒糯米飯) - I think a few of us were happy that I asked the chef to put this on the menu.  Not as magical as the first plate we had here a few months ago, but still very, very good... and would stack up well against any other in town.  Wonderfully dry on the outside, with enough bite in each rice grain.

    Almond cream with lotus seeds and egg white (蓮子蛋白杏仁茶) - very good as usual.

    We brought a hodgepodge of wines, and thankfully we didn't drink as much as I thought we would...

    2012 Roses de Jeanne Côte de Val Vilaine Blanc de Noirs, dégorgée à Avril 2014 - delicious, smooth and round on the palate.

    2011 Keller Westhofen Brunnenhäuschen Absterde Riesling trocken - classic nose of minerals, white flowers and plastic.  Definitely dry on the palate.

    1952 Borgogno Barolo Riserva - initial nose of sweet fruit, followed by tea, salty plum, minerals, and smoke.  Still alive and kicking.

    2010 Vincent Paris Cornas Granit 30 - ripe nose with wonderful notes of forest and potpourri.  So fragrant and beautiful.

    1995 Jos. Joh. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese - classic notes of minerals and plastic, with good amount of sweetness on the palate.  Very round and smooth.

    Valdespino Solera 1842 Medium Sweet Very Old Oloroso Blend VOS - classic, with nose that's like Shaoxing wine after soaking some salty plum in it.  Wonderful.

    Another very enjoyable evening of good food and wine, and it was nice to gather the troops and see Felix again.  A bunch of us are totally in love with this place, and I feel very privileged to have access to the chef.  

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  • 03/10/15--06:44: Still not Samsung
  • The boss is in town again and decided to take us out for dinner.  We are lucky that the boss likes to eat, and isn't averse to spending a little bit of money on us.  He's been wanting to try out a few Michelin 2- and 3-star places in town, but in the past he's always suggested them at the last minute - which made it near impossible to secure a table.  At least we had a few days' advance warning this time...

    Of the three choices the boss mentioned, I couldn't help uttering a sarcastic snicker when I saw the name Lung King Heen (龍景軒)... again.  This place has been on the boss' hit list for the longest time, and it's always been a real pain-in-the-ass to book.  I was halfway through typing my email reply when I thought to myself that... I really should have at least called the restaurant and gotten rejected for real, before asking the boss to forget the idea.  So I picked up the phone and called.  To my surprise, I got ourselves a table with less than a week's notice.

    It's been four years since my last dinner here, so I made sure to do a little homework and went over the menu - picking out a few dishes that looked interesting (at least to me...).  The boss and the crew all had their requests, and I was ask to fill out the rest of the blanks.

    Gluten with lemongrass - our amuse bouche.  None of us could detect any hint of lemongrass, but our server definitely mentioned 香茅...

    Barbecued suckling pig (片皮乳豬件) - the crackling was pretty good, but somehow I wasn't as big a fan of the meat... I thought it was a little too lean.

    Crispy eel with sweet wasabi sauce (甜芥辣燒鱔) - the boss asked whether I thought the wasabi was freshly ground, but I highly doubt it...  I normally find the taste of these eels a little "muddy" and "fishy", but the sinus-clearing wasabi in the sauce kinda took care of that...

    Baked crab shell stuffed with onion and fresh crab meat (焗釀鮮蟹蓋) - I almost vetoed the boss' request because of my experience with another variation of this, but fortunately they no longer douse lobster sauce on it.  So now it was pretty much just the taste of crab meat, and I really didn't taste much of the onion...  Not bad at all, but not cheap.

    Sautéed Australian beef tenderloin with assorted mushrooms (干燒珍菌爆澳洲牛柳粒) - the beef cubes seem to have been tenderized by baking soda or something... and the texture really was very soft and fluffy.  The flavors were a little sour along with a spicy kick.  This was OK, but I was hoping for better.

    Stir-fried minced Racan pigeon in lettuce wrap (法國乳鴿崧生菜包) - I'm always happy to eat minced pigeon, and this was pretty good.  To be fair, though, I thought using Racan pigeon and mincing it up was a total waste of an awesome ingredient.

    Assorted vegetable casserole with tofu sheets and vermicelli (鮮支竹粉絲雜菜煲) - pretty decent.

    Fried puntalette with minced beef in X.O. chilli sauce (非同“飯”響) - very, very tasty.  How interesting for the kitchen to use puntalette to make a "fried rice"...  Nicely done at high heat, with plenty of yummy oil for flavor - especially the kick from X.O. sauce.  I wouldn't mind another bowl of this.

    Crispy marinated pork loin and fermented red bean curd with pancakes (南乳香酥黑豚肉伴薄餅) - I really liked the crispy batter with the fermented soy bean paste.  Pretty yum, but also a little heavy...

    Crispy shrimp toast (窩貼蝦多士) - gotta say that these were pretty good... The toasts were really crispy but also very heavy.

    We couldn't handle any dessert, but Simpson arranged some petits fours for us:

    Osmanthus jelly (桂花凍)

    Baked cream custard puffs (楓葉奶皇酥)

    A pretty good meal, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to come back for dinner after such a long absence.  But... let's be honest here.  This isn't three stars by a long shot.  With the exception of the last two deep-fried items - which I added as extras after we were done with the first round of food - every other dish was a "chef's recommendation".  While most, if not all, of the dishes tasted fine, the only dish that I thought had any magic tonight was the fried puntalette...

    But then again, what the hell do I know?!  The 2015 list of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants was announced last night, and Lung King Heen took the No. 20 spot in Asia...

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  • 03/11/15--08:37: Hisashiburi Imamura, part 2
  • Tonight was supposed to something really exciting to a few of us - a special dinner to revisit some of the favorite dishes from a restaurant that no longer is.  But it didn't work out as originally planned, and as a backup, I suggested that we do Japanese instead - so I could open a particular bottle of sake.

    Today, after all, is the 4th anniversary of the Tohoku disaster.  I still remember watching the events unfold on TV like I was witnessing a nightmare, and I had organized a couple of dinners in the months that followed in support of Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong - including one whose chef had lost his brother in the disaster.  At those dinners we opened bottles of sake from different prefectures in the Tohoku region, as a way to support business in the region.  I would be doing the same tonight.

    As our favorite izakaya was no more, my friend suggested having sushi at Imamura (今村).  This place used to be one of the only high-end sushi restaurants that I would go to, but I haven't been here in a while.  In fact, my last visit over 5 years ago was itself a refresher after a long absence.  There are now many alternatives for high-end sushi in town.  How will this place stack up?

    I guess the understanding is that when you sit down at the counter, you are automatically asking for omakase (御任せ)... because we were never asked, other than checking for allergies and preferences.  Omakase it is, then... even though I would have preferred a smaller dinner.

    A trio of starters came:

    This was a fish that was supposedly called メルゲ - although I couldn't figure out what exactly it was - on top of a bed of raw onions, with sesame dressing.

    Mozuku (水雲) - marinated in ponzu (ポン酢) and served with a little ginger.

    Monkfish liver (鮟肝) with cockle shell (とりがい) - always love the creamy texture of the monkfish liver, and the diced onions are a natural accompaniment.  The cockle shell wasn't bad, either.

    Then we started with the sashimi...

    Wild red snapper (天然鯛) - nicely scored.

    Great amberjack (間八) - wonderful thick cut, and very buttery and silky.  Very satisfying to bite into.

    Green tiger prawn kobujime (赤足海老の昆布締め) - for some reason I decided to take this all in one mouthful, since there were a few strands of kelp (昆布) in between the two layers of tiger prawn.  Very nice and chewy, and I could taste the delicate flavors from being marinated in help.  But the mouthful was really too big...

    Ark shell (赤貝) - I'm usually not a big fan, but this was tasty.

    Surf clam (北寄貝) - lightly torched and dabbed with a little sudachi (酢橘), and served with a spicy paste on the side made with paprika and fish.

    Octopus (鮹) - marinated and torched.  Very soft texture.

    Japanese geoduck (本海松貝) - Hong Kong just imposed a ban on the import of Canadian geoduck, so the restaurant made sure to let us know that this was Japanese.

    Firefly squid (蛍烏賊) - marinated as is typical, which means it was pretty salty.

    Abalone (鮑) - served with sauce that was made with the abalone's liver.  Very, very tender... and pretty tasty.  We got an extra ball of rice, which was used to soak up the leftover liver sauce.  Yum!

    Now we move on to the sushi section:

    Squid (烏賊) - nicely scored, and the sauce was flavored with citrus like yuzu (柚子) or sudachi.

    Grilled firefly squid (蛍烏賊)

    Splendid alfonsino (金目鯛) - really nice and melted in the mouth thanks to the fat, but for some reason the finish wasn't so tasty.

    Gizzard shad (小鰭) - wonderful acidity thanks to the vinegar marinade.  Always one of my favorites, and can't wait for the babies later in the year.  Sprinkled with bits of shiba shrimp (芝海老).

    Filefish (皮剥) - as is common nowadays, served with a sauce made with the fish's own liver.

    Round clam (青柳)

    Sea urchin (雲丹) - the best of the best, sourced from Hadate Suisan (羽立水産) in Hokkaido.  Pretty much exactly what I was invited to sample at Rozan (魯山).  The others decided to have a second piece, while I refrained...

    Aged sweet shrimp (熟成甘海老) - slightly different texture thanks to the aging.  A little salty, but nice and fragrant thanks to the yuzu rind.  This was my replacement for the fatty tuna that I declined.

    Conger eel (穴子) - very nice.

    Calabash roll (干瓢巻き)

    Egg (卵) - nice to see that the egg here was done in the higher-end sponge cake style, but the texture was a little too hard for my liking.  I was also surprised that this was a lot less sweet compared to what I'm used to.

    Green tea panna cotta - this wasn't bad at all... Just a regular panna cotta with a layer of green tea sauce on top.

    The sake I brought tonight was made by Dewazakura (出羽桜) in Iwate Prefecture (岩手県), which is part of the Tohoku region.  I picked up this bottle a few months after the disaster in 2011, as I consciously wished to support businesses from that region.  It's been sitting in my wine cellar for more than 3 years, waiting for a chance to be drunk.  Tonight seemed the perfect occasion for it.

    Dewazakura Junmai Daiginjo Aiyama (出羽桜 純米大吟醸 愛山), released Jan 2011 - aged for four years and now showing a light, yellowish color.  Nose was a little oxidized, and showing similarity to Chinese yellow wine or a French vin jaune.  Slightly mineral and savory on the nose.  Medium palate with a slightly dry finish, with complexity and depth of flavors.  Seemed a little more viscous than expected.  Seimaibuai (精米歩合) of 45%.  Made from Aiyama (愛山), a very special strain of rice which is a cross between Yamada Nishiki (山田錦) and Omachi (雄町).

    It was a good evening.  I'm glad I got a chance to revisit Imamura-san, and it was also good to catch up with the Great One and pick up some gossip from the Asia's 50 Best Awards...

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