Japan, Part 3: Tokyo

My self-guided food trip around Japan led me to my final destination, and capital of Japan; Tokyo.

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Tokyo is an eclectic city, filled with a mix of old and new, high tech gadgets and cartoon mascots. It was even more crowded than Osaka and Kyoto (probably combined) and it’s wackyness never leaves you bored.

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A side-track on eating a snack (if your stomach finds space) is red bean cake. I’ve mentioned them before, but they are amazing. The red bean paste, mixed with whole red beans (sweetened) are folded in between what seems to be to light pieces of dough that get stuck together through…magic!

The incredible red bean cake: imagawa-yaki (the sweet griddle cake filled with a sweet red bean paste (or custard)

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The foods’ preparation can also keep you entertained for hours, especially  the imagawa-yaki — watch the chef work, for reasons perhaps only he knows, with his eyes half closed.

The two things I loved when I was in Tokyo: the fabulous food and the unparalleled metro system. Sure, you can see traces of traditional monuments, shrines and lanterns but they are scattered and hidden in the shadows of the skyscrapers, crossings, shopping malls and hole-in-the-wall noodle shops.

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I couldn’t believe I arrived in Japan many days beforehand and hadn’t eaten sushi yet.

A quick note before describing un unforgettable and sad experience about my first sushi encounter on this trip…

Sushi (寿司 or 鮨) seem very simple but in fact are very hard to prepare properly. The fish must be extremely fresh and many apprentices take years mastering the technique of just learning how to make the vinegared rice for sushi correctly before knowing how to clean fish.

The list goes on, on the types of sushi, but to name a few:

nigiri (握り) – the canonical sushi form consisting of rice with fish pressed on top

maki (巻き) – fish and rice rolled up in nori seaweed and cut into bite-size chunks

temaki (手巻き) – fish and rice rolled up in a big cone of nori

gunkan (軍艦) – “battleship” sushi, like nigiri but with nori wrapped around the edge to contain the contents

chirashi (ちらし) – a large bowl of vinegared rice with seafood scattered on top

A few species more or less guaranteed to feature in every restaurant are maguro (tuna), sake (salmon), ika (squid), tako (octopus), and tamago (egg). More exotic options include uni (sea urchin roe), toro (fatty tuna belly, very expensive) and shirako (fish sperm). Tuna belly comes in two different grades: ō-toro (大とろ), which is very fatty and very expensive, and chū-toro (中とろ), which is slightly cheaper and less fatty.

Anyways, let me describe my experience at what is supposedly one of the best sushis in town, at Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi. I’d like to keep it short and sweet, I am still thinking about it.

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I had intended to dine at Honten, but unfortunately the hotel concierge informed me that Jiro refused to take our reservation as I did not speak Japanese, hence we were referred to Roppongi where they were more flexible. I was extremely annoyed by this as I have eaten countless times in Japan and elsewhere where I have not been able to communicate with the restaurant chef or staff but never had any problems. After all, I would eat whatever was placed in front of me and then at the end of it they present me with a bill with figures on it which I could read, so I couldn’t understand why Jiro would make an issue of it. It is supposedly the best sushi experience in the world. Anyways, they opened this branch, with the youngest son as the chef for foreigners like myself. The branch in Roppongi is located opposite Roppongi Hills in an apartment complex, at a quiet corner.

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I arrived to an empty dining room (perhaps because it was a public holiday that day?), the chef stood there waiting. It should be awesome though when you’re alone because you get to experience it all to yourself.

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The fish was of great quality from start to finish but the young chef (the assistant) lacked the precision and the perfection of what I was expecting.

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Some highlights:

Needle Fish

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Lean Tuna

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Fatty tuna

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Akagai clam

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Salmon Roe

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Mackerel (Shime Saba: pickled in vinegar and salt)

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Tamago Egg

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Little details like forgetting to wipe the plate clean at every time, adding ginger that was missing, cutting the perfect tamago egg (seen above, it’s not a perfect square – even the chef noticed and screamed at his disciple of 10 years) made it seem not the best experience you would expect at a 2-Michelin start selling 1 thing, sushi. It was a very quick meal, probably the fastest meal at a Michelin star restaurant I had but I would recommend to go something that doesn’t burn your wallet, or perhaps even at Mizutani (a disciple of the original Jiro, who also has 3 -stars, he is also featured in the Jiro documentary) (and my second choice, which was also closed for public holidays) for a more quintessential Tokyo experience.

For me the billing was the biggest issue, I found it overpriced (around 20,000 YEN), you can definitely find something cheaper (and equally as good) – which is why I redeemed myself at Tsukiji!

I thought I’d make myself feel better to go early the next morning to the must-see Tsukiji market. Perhaps I would find better Sushi there?

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It is the world’s largest and busiest fish market, and a great place to start your Tokyo tour (especially if you’re jetlagged and up at 5 am).

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Unfortunately though, during my visit, Tsujiki’s tuna auction was closed to public viewing until after I left due to the high holidays and I’m guessing a lot of auctioning and selling going on. The zone then was restricted to the outer parts but I wasn’t too worried about it, I knew I would see some good things anyways.

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So before you go, be sure to check this website to see if public access is permitted that day. If so, it will be on a first-come, first-serve basis, and limited to 120 people, admitted in two shifts of 60. You can register starting at 4:30 a.m. at the fish information center inside the Kachidoki Gate off Harumi Street.

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If you prefer to do your exploring at a more reasonable hour, keep in mind that by 9 a.m., business will have already started to wind down. You’ll still see fishmongers filleting the day’s catch, but you won’t have to dodge so many trucks and trolleys.

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Apart from the seeing the Tuna auction live, no visit to Tsukiji is complete without a sushi breakfast, and I felt like I needed to redeem myself for my choice, somehow. There are plenty of sushi counters there but you need to wind your way through to the restaurant area, near the wholesale fruit and vegetable market, off Shinohashi Street, to get the best of the best.

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You’ll find the line of people (at all times, there’s no ‘down’ time) in front of Sushi Dai (rain, shine, freezing cold snow, wind…there will always be people there) (Address: Part 6 Bldg. 5-2-1 Tsukiji-shijo, Chuo-ku). Expect to pay between 300 and 800 yen per generously cut, amazingly fresh piece. Order chu toro (fatty tuna). To help get your bearings, click on this map. A MUST.

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Finally inside…

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Some highlights:

Starting with a bang! Toro (as fresh as you can get it)

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Horse mackerel (Aji)

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Snapper

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Eel

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Abalone

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If you can’t wait 2 hours along, there are alternatives:

1. Daiwa Sushi (Tsukiji Market Part 6 Bldg. 5-2-1 Tsukiji)

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2. Sushizanmai (4-11-9 Tsukiji)

But Sushi Dai is THE BEST and the FRESHEST you will get. Worth the wait. It was way better than the sushi I had the previous night, and for a very good price 3,675 YEN including tax (10 nigiri and 1 roll as well as 1 nigiri chosen by the diner), definitely won’t break the bank. Get your sushi on!

If you’re not in the mood for the freshest fish in the world, there are also other cheap eats that are worth the wait in the cold. One of them is for ramen noodles. I don’t recall what the shop was called, but here’s their logo, so be on the lookout.

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The picture above was shio rāmen (塩ラーメン) – salty pork broth. Yummmmm

A quick note about ramen.

Ramen can be considered to be the defining dish of each city, and practically every sizable city in Japan will have its own unique style of ramen. Some major styles of ramen are:

shio rāmen (塩ラーメン) – salty pork (or chicken) broth

shōyu rāmen (醤油ラーメン) – soy broth, popular in Tokyo

Slurping your noodles is acceptable and even expected. According to the Japanese it both cools them down and makes them taste better.

If the wholesale market smells too fishy for you, a less pungent alternative is Tsukiji’s outer market, a warren of narrow streets packed with stalls selling fresh seafood and other specialty items, such as real wasabi.

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You can buy bowls and sashimi knives there too (I recommend Masamoto, on your way to Sushi Dai, before the gate).

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Engravement of knives

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One other major shopping district is  the famous intersection outside Shibuya station.

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The surrounding area is packed with a mix of people, from shoppers to students, commuters and business people. When the lights turn red at this busy junction, they all turn red at the same time in every direction.

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Traffic stops completely and pedestrians surge into the intersection from all sides, like marbles spilling out of a box. If you’re not going to make it to Shibuya, you could also do Ginza/Hibiya crossing.

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Underneath Shibuya station is the bustling Tokyu Food Show (B1 Flo, 2-24-1 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku (Shibuya Station East exit) with a variety of gourmet eats and local foods such as grilled eel, fried pork, octopus, seafood and rice seaweed wraps among others.

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Like I said in my earlier post on Osaka, around the end of the day, when people are rushing to buy what’s left at a discounted price, you’ll hear screams and shouts coming from all corners of the basement department store: “Irashaimasen” (Welcome) the vendors say. Get ready to bump elbows for the last roast kobe beef at the depachika (basement food hall).

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Speaking about food, must welcome talk about drinks. Coming to Tokyo, you cannot miss rubbing your elbows (again) with salarymen at a standing bar or drink some local cheap liquor at a small izakaya.

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An izakaya (居酒屋, Japanese-style pub) is easily identified by red lanterns with the character “酒” (alcohol) hanging out front. Very convenient, an izakaya will usually have a lively, convivial atmosphere, as it often acts as a living room of sorts for office workers, students and seniors. Food is invariably good and reasonably priced, and in all, they are an experience not to be missed. Ebisu, a trendy neighborhood in Shibuya-ku, is full of these establishments, which specialize in grilled meat and vegetables, sashimi and other casual fare, cooked in tiny kitchens and served on petite plates.

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Or how about sampling Chinese noodles, Japanese-style? Tonkatsu (pork-based) ramen is a regional specialty from Kyushu, and nobody does it better than the cooks at Ippudo (1-3-13 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku).

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Unlike soy and miso-based ramen dishes, the broth is creamy with pork fat and is absolutely delicious. Don’t forget the bean sprouts and pickled ginger. It’s open from 11 a.m. until 4 a.m. daily, and if you’ve had too many sakes, a bowl of noodles will most likely prevent tomorrow’s hangover.

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 Another favorite is in foreigner-friendly Roppongi Hills (Hibiya Line) and is called Uoshin.

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If you’re not sick of fish and seafood just yet, this is good to beat the crowd in Shibuya and Ebisu (they have shops there too). A lot of offices are surrounding the area so you will see many workers getting a bite to eat and a drink before heading home. It’s a tight place so be ready to squeeze in. Uoshin’s menu is basically made up of various types of fish and seafood, cooked (or not) in various ways. Grilled fish, sashimi, fish eggs, crustaceans of all stripes … the specialty here is the bounty of the sea.

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Lunch is also good but offers solely set menus for office workers.

If you’re not in the mood for neither though, you can hop on the train (Hibiya line) one stop to a local and residential favorite, Nakameguro. The restaurant right by the small canal is called Hashidaya Nakameguro (東京都目黒区上目黒1-15-8) and serves up great yakitori and everything else chicken (raw, you say? Why, yes they have it!). You can choose to either sit on tatami or on the bar in front of the kitchen. I chose the bar.

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The kitchen is rather long in size and you get to see the action live; from grilling to deep-frying.

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Luckily, the menu was also available in English, so I chose a couple of things they recommended.

First, Chicken Sashimi Salad. Yes, that’s right, sashimi = raw…chicken sashimi salad…raw chicken slices? Yes. And damn, was it good. And no, I did not get salmonella.

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Chicken wing tips

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Medium-rare chicken hearts..almost raw

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They are also famous for their hotpot. I ordered the house specialty with beef, pork bone and of course chicken thighs with chicken gelatine. It came all gooey but melted once the fire came on. No MSG or powdered chicken, the real deal. It was recommended to order a side of Udon noodles with Shiso, but couldn’t even have one more bite.
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Food unrelated but equally interesting is Sumo season. If you happen to be in Tokyo during one of the three grand tournaments — 15-day events in January, May and September — you can catch some of the action at Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo’s National Sumo Hall.

If you’re not willing to trek to Nakameguro (though it wouldn’t really be much of a trek), you can try Birdland Ginza, right off Ginza station. Supposedly it was awarded 1-Michelin star, I only found out after I ate…I am still a bit surprised since they only serve chicken and most is grilled.

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It was a bit hard to find since there are many exits at Ginza station and felt like I was running around in circles until I found it in a basement floor next to this Michelin giant, Sukiyabashi Jiro (father of the son who owns Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi)…awarded 3-Michelin star and supposedly high quality sushi. Check out a recent documentary made about the chef here; an inspiring documentary but can the food match? For now, I do not know.

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You may choose an omakase menu or a la carte, so did a bit of both.

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A busy kitchen surrounded by the U-shape bar counter.

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Chicken liver, again cooked medium-rare

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Chicken hearts

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Guinea hen – the best of the dishes

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Chicken thighs

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Nothing mind-blowing but fun place, nevertheless.

I was really pleased with all the local/street food I was eating in Tokyo; it is very famous for it and you can find anything you want at anytime of the hour (kind of like New York) but everything is great quality. I don’t really think you could manage to open a Japanese restaurant that’s not any good. The Japanese are vigilant but quality and taste and if you EVER see them line up for a restaurant, be sure to bet it’s really really really really really GOOD. Most of all the restaurants are packed, some at all hours of the day because, let’s be honest, Japanese people only go to have really good food. Point taken.

One of these REALLY good places which is hard to get a reservation at is at Mikawa Zezankyo (1-3-1 Fukuzumi, Koto-ku). It’s hidden on a side-street in east Sumida but well worth the trek.

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Chef Tetsuya Saotome produces flawless tempura, the freshest seafood and vegetables that he serves from his deep-frying wok to your plate – all right in front of you. He follows the classic Edomae style, using only ingredients that (with a couple of exceptions) would have been available 150 years ago. Everything he puts in front of you is from a species that could have been (or still are) hauled out of Tokyo Bay. He works solo, which is why he can only seat nine at his counter. It is, to many, a reference point for tempura and one of the great food experiences I had in Tokyo. For 3 decades, the chef was been wowing people with his work (and eventually the Michelin guide who awarded him 1-star), and I can see why.

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The configuration may be traditional but the decor is eclectic with a wide counter, comfortable seats surrounded by European antiques and an extractor hood in the shape of a fedora hat (apparently the kind of hat that chef Saotome likes to wear when he steps out in style)

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What’s set in front of you once you sit. Grated daikon radish (right) with rice vinegar/soya sauce. At the centre, pickled vegetable and tofu. At the back is a carton paper where Saotome will place his cooked food for you to pick.

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When I arrived, he was being interviewed and filmed for an upcoming show on Japan TV. I was filmed eating, hope I didn’t get any crust all over my face!

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The master at work…always looking serious while at work

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The menu, personally drawn by Chef Saotome…he proved to be quite the artist, having found it he did the artwork of the restaurant and even made the plates in his pottery studio!

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Some highlights:

Shrimp (I was given 2 servings)

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Shrimp Head (the bestttt)

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Kisu fish

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Squid

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Left: Gingko nuts, Right: Sea urchin wrapped in Perilla leaf…It was crunchy on the outside but melted in your mouth due to the warm sear urchin – heaven

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Towards the end: Sea eel. Wow

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A choice of vegetables, one of them I chose was eggplant

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Another mind-blower: cod milt, creamy on the inside as well. I was being filmed eating this one.

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A present from the Chef. He took his calligraphy pen and drew shrimps at the front cover of the menu. Very cool.

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For dessert, very simple but very tasty…Fresh sweet red beans (and yes, they were gigantic). I am confident to say that’s scaled to size.

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Everything was hot, well-seasoned, not greasy and cooked perfectly. The dough wasn’t thick or flakey, just right. I wasn’t even very full that I couldn’t move. Sure, you can find other contenders for the best Tempura in town but none have the artist’s heart and mind like Saotome. Deserves more than 1-Michelin star.

Having eaten solely Japanese food since I got here, I tried to change it up a bit and try something Western done by a Japanese chef. The first restaurant to come to mind was Les Creations de Narisawa (Address: 〒107-0062 東京都港区南青山2−6−15), awarded 2-Michelin stars)

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The chef at the helm of the restaurant is Yoshihiro Narisawa who creates nature conservation related-dishes through his signature theme of  “Sustainability and Gastronomy”. The chef presents dishes to show nature’s offerings of its environment which include dishes with titles such as “Soil” soup, “Water” salad and “Forest” dish. For 3 consecutive years, he has won the Best of Asia award and in 2012, was voted as the World’s 27th Best restaurant (following the San Pellegrino rankings)

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I was lucky to get in on a lunch booking which is half the price of the dinner (serving the same menu). That day was the first day of major snow in Tokyo and as I walked out of the station, I found myself in front of a sea of snow. It continued to snow while I tried to find the restaurant and I arrived almost completely covered in snow. I think the hostess was a bit shocked…Ah well.

The room was complete with locals and foreigners and all clients had a clear view of the kitchen through a window. Most of the staff was Japanese but I glanced at 2 foreigners working in the hot stations.

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In Tokyo’s sea of Michelin-starred French restaurants, Les Creations de Narisawa stands out as Yoshihiro Narisawa infuses Japanese elements into classic French cuisine. 

Gift from the Forest: Forest 2010 Bread, Sumi, Essence of forest

Ferminting bread while you eat the first part of your meal

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And then cooking it covered in an extremely scorching hot bowl for 12 minutes

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Essence of the forest, to drink

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Gift from “Satoumi”:

Black tempura – very cool

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Shirako, Cod roe, Noto, Ishikawa

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Crab, Hashidate Bay, Ishikawa

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The brioche did not have to be there.

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Very fresh and beautiful in color and presentation. The gelee was perfect.

Moss butter, Chlorophyll and Olive 

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And..more bread! (the one on the right has rice)

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Charcoal grilled squid, Squid jus, Paprika sauce, Black sesame frozen ash

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With compliments of the chef and My favorite of the meal. Beautiful presentation and great combination of hot/cold

Sawara, Spanish Mackerel, Hagi, Yamaguchi and Onion essence, Amanohashidate, Kyoto

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Crispy skin and moist meat. Not that memorable.

Buri, Yellowtail, Hagi, Yamaguchi and Duck essence

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Perhaps a bit overcooked. The duck essence was a great addition.

Langoustine, Odawara Bay, Bagna Cauda

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Served in its shell, it was half-raw-half cooked, just the way it should be

Fugu (Blowfish), Hagi, Yamaguchi, Sudachi

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Hot, well-cooked, not oily

Gift from “Satoyama”: Free range purebread pork, Kagoshima

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Pink, medium-rare pork with buckwheat risotto underneath

Everything was delicious and well presented. Though, I must say it becomes a double-edged sword at the end of meal because by dessert, you might want to throw yourself upon that sword. But don’t worry, Narisawa kills you with kindness – 13 courses including desserts. 

Chestnuts, Whisky

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I loved the plate. Definitely had a kick to it.

“La France”, Pear, Yamagata, Warabamochi. Not my favorite. 

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Take your pick….

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Mini macaroons. Not the greatest as they were quite chewy but a great variety.

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Let me take one more big breath before I end my blogpost with my last meal in Japan. Ok, I think I’m good.

As I was pleased with my ongoing eating, I thought I’d try out some of the big leagues on the Michelin guide, the 3 stars.

The only one I thought of was Nihonryori Ryugin (Address: サイド六本木 1F  7丁目-17-24 Roppongi, Minato).

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Voted as the World’s 28th best restaurant by San Pellegrino, Chef Seiji Yamamoto pushes culinary boundaries but still abides to the rules of traditional Japanese cuisine. The food is seasonal and many of the cooking methods stays true to the source material. He is called avant-guard but I would say his approach is steeped in tradition still.

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Not only is it Japanese, but Yamamoto blends Western influences with strong accolades from the West (though when I was there, I was the only foreigner). The service was up to par as a 3-star, with all of the servers wearing an earbud in one ear, staying in constant contact with the kitchen and rest of waitstaff. Timing and service was spotless.

Chef Seiji Yamamoto blends traditional Japanese kaiseki with modern Western influences. While an a la carte menu is available (after 9pm), diners are steered towards the tasting menu aka “Gastronomy Menu.” Priced at 23,000 YEN, it contains around 11 courses.

If you’re a foreigner, you will get a western menu with 2 changes from the original Japanese menu. From a recommendation of a friend who currently is staging there, I asked for the Japanese menu – with 2 notable changes in the meal.

Array of seasonal vegetables with “pine nuts” dressing and a sip of “burdock root” soup. A great start

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2 kinds of cod milt: cod milt egg flan, and deep-fried cod milt (only served on the Japanese menu, the Western menu served sweetbreads instead)

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Fried cod milt (shirako). In season, it had a creamy interior upon the first bite oozing out of the shell.

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“Matsuba Crab” from Sanin served in the ‘crab broth’ with grilled crab leg

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Assortment of Sashimi, Ryugin Style

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A close-up of each dish:

Sashimi of flounder

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Fresh abalone – wow

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Thinly marked squid

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Smoked spanish mackerel

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Squid stuffed with mullet roe – awesome

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“Kinki Fish” from Hokkaido grilled on charcoal, “grilled eggplant” stuffed inside, “Pickled green apple” with Ginger flavour

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A close-up:

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Tip of whale tongue, rich chicken essence and chopped winter vegetables (on the Japanese menu only; Western menu was serving chicken wing tip stuffed with shark fin)

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Wagyu Beef “filet” grilled on charcoal with assorted vegetables; Spring fragrance one step early

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This was the only restaurant which served me wagyu beef on an omakase/kaiseki menu. The over-the-top fattiness of the wagyu was in the form of relatively lean filet mignon; the opposites created a fantastic middle-ground. The result was something that was extremely tender, yet also very juicy and succulent. So good.

Winter vegetable’s rice topped with “chinese cabbage” and ‘sea bream simmered with sanshoo pepper scent of yuzu and miso soup with pickles (not pictured)

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 This rice bowl was sort of lesson in textures with an assortment of crispy diced vegetables, chewy rice, and tender chunks of both fresh and dried fish. It was a good but not memorable.

A tea to clear the throat

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Candy Tangerine

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Cold, airy yoghurt powder with pop rocks at the bottom was molded and shaped into a tangerine shell (blown sugar) and when cracked was topped with warm tangerine jam, served by the waiter. The opposing temperatures and textures was yummy but a little over-sweetened.

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The meal ended with: Baked Ginjour Sake “Oyaki Souffle” accented with Strawberry and Red Beans – very good and definitely had the sake kick

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Feathery Salt Soft served ice-cream

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Hot matcha was paired with the last dessert. Bitter and slightly thick,I enjoyed it.

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I had a nearly flawless meal here which lived up to the hype. There’s not so much molecular gastronomy or tricks as I though and I was pleased with the meal. Instead, preparations seemed simple and straightforward, focusing on the great ingredients which I loved. This was definitely a great way to end my trip in Tokyo and Japan. Easily one of my best meals of the season!

With that said, I generally had great food in Japan and appreciated the kindness and warmth of the people of Japan from all walks of life! Until next time! Sayonara!!

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Comments
7 Responses to “Japan, Part 3: Tokyo”
  1. Sakura japon says:

    Hi! Your choice is generally good.
    However, sushi has selection in others more.
    I think that Jiro’s sushi rice is too sour and too soft.
    SHIN(真) regards me as delicious.
    JIRO’s(次郎) high score is based on respect.
    And you should go also to KADOWAKI (門脇)

  2. boydn says:

    Wow! Thanks for your great post! Everything looks amazingly delicious, though I won’t be able to visit most of them for a financila reason 😦 I’m going to Tokyo this summer and will definaitely venture those izakaya and ramen restaurants. (BTW, did you eat this much everyday during your stay? You look so thin! How?)

  3. Yukio Itoh says:

    Hi! Welcome to Japan. Do you like Japanese foods? Thank you.

  4. Takashi Yamamoto says:

    Great photos! I enjoy it very much.
    I am farmer,so thank you to come in Japan and have many meals.

  5. Lynn says:

    Magic — that is exactly how I would describe red bean paste.
    Sushi is great too 😉

  6. visit says:

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