Sensational dishes of 2013- Japan

Instagram and the iPhone have killed my blog. In this digital ‘social media’ age of immediate upload and instant feedback, my intended goal of writing at least 1 post a month in 2013 has been completely demolished. How many of these 12 posts have I managed to write in 2013? Zero.
What has finally motivated me to emerge from my blog slumber is the incredible year that I had. The adventures, the inspirations, the creativity and growth that encompassed every day of 2013 was something I wanted to share.

Izumo Shrine

Izumo Shrine

2013 was a year of renewal. It was the year that I moved from Los Angeles to Tokyo. There was a window of opportunity that presented itself at exactly the right time in my life- a new career, a new environment, a new lifestyle, a new perspective- what would life be if I wasn’t willing to follow my heart? I got to explore the country that I grew up in, calling Kagurazaka, my favorite part of Tokyo, my new home. Living in Japan has given me more opportunities to experience the culture that defines who I am and learn its complexities, its depth and its history. I took countless trips, met a lot of people and enjoyed a ton of food. There were many life changing meals and meaningful friendships that blossomed through those meals. Food connected me to more people than I could have ever imagined, every person enriching my life with their unique splash of colors.

Consequently, it was a year of renewal for Japan too. The year began with a pilgrimage to Izumo Grand Shrine in Shimane Prefecture, known as ‘the realm of gods’. Then a visit to the most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan, Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture. 2013 was the year of the Shikinen Sengu, a rebirth and renewal ritual where the entire shrine is rebuilt from the ground up with new materials- cypress, copper and gold. The tradition, which goes back more than 1,200 years, occurs in 60 year cycles for Izumo Shrine and 20 year cycles for Ise Shrine. 2013 was just that year when the cycles overlapped for these two most sacred shrines in the country. It could not have been a coincidence that I decided to move to Japan at a time in my life and in Japan’s history that signified new beginnings.

Ise Shrine

The Isuzu River, at Ise Shrine

I explored many facets of Japanese cuisine. Street food in Osaka. Mountain vegetables of Nagano. Contemporary kaiseki in Tokyo. Japanese knives in Gifu. Traditional wagashi desserts in Kyoto. Seafood in Hokkaido.

I was introduced to new foods that I had never even heard of, and new flavors that excited my palate. I ate out almost every day, taking in with my eyes and my appetite the incredible range of delicious food available at my fingertips. I was taught by Japanese chefs both young and old on the history of Japanese cuisine and given an intimate glimpse into the magic that happens in their kitchens. The dedication, verging on obsession, with which the Japanese treat every aspect of gastronomy is simply fascinating. There is a sincere intention behind every step of food preparation- one that simultaneously pays respect to the product and coaxes out its pure flavors. Discipline builds perfection, and reverence fosters beauty. It is no wonder that Japanese ‘washoku’ cuisine has been declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Here are some of the gastronomic highlights of my incredible 2013 journey through Japan.

ITALIAN BLACK TRUFFLE RICE- KADOWAKI かどわき (TOKYO)

IMG_8335 IMG_2577Chef Toshiya Kadowaki works quietly behind the quaint 6 seat counter at his 2 Michelin star restaurant in Azabu Juban. His movements are also quiet- more like, precise. He moves through his kitchen with grace and ease, demonstrating not a millimeter of unnecessary superfluous movement. He is a master at incorporating Western ingredients into his cuisine which generally follows a traditional kaiseki sequence and style. The energy in the restaurant crescendoes when he prepares the grand finale of the meal- Italian black truffle rice. Kadowaki’s excitement for his signature dish is palpable in the way that he vigorously and unabashedly shaves copious amounts of black truffle over steamed white rice. That distinct truffle aroma fills the air and diners respond with oohs and aahs. It tastes just as one would imagine- like heaven.

SUPPON (SNAPPING TURTLE) LIVER AND SOUP- SAKUMA さくま (TOKYO)

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There are many places in Japan to enjoy suppon cuisine, where snapping soft-shelled turtles are prepared in a bubbling broth that is said to have incredible health benefits. Sakuma in Akasaka is perhaps the most exclusive of them all, using a 330 year old traditional method of turtle preparation for their famous suppon nabe, cooked in a special Shigarakiyaki clay pot. The seasoning is simple- soy, sake and a smidgen of ginger- for the turtle meat infuses its intense flavors into the hearty broth that is rich with amino acids. The meat, incredibly tender, falls off the bones, and the quivering skin, popular amongst the ladies for its high collagen content and beauty benefits, melts like butter. For me, the highlight is the light and airy turtle liver, a delicate piece of foie that easily succumbs to my bite like meringue.

FOIE GRAS SANDWICH- L’AS ラス (TOKYO)

IMG_2760 IMG_2775Chef Daisuke Kaneko’s 1-1/2 year old French restaurant in Aoyama was like a breath of fresh air in the Tokyo food scene. Diners immediately took to the casual vibe of L’As where the chef ditched the white tablecloths for simple sleek wooden tables, and offered affordable prix fixe menus that would be brought out from the beautiful open kitchen, course by course, by the chefs. The concept was simple but the flavors certainly were not. His signature foie gras sandwich, an ode to the famous Häagen-Dazs ice cream treat loved by all, was, for me, even better than the original. A thick block of rich foie gras sandwiched between crispy thin wafers and coated on the side with red wine and lemon cream still makes me scream for more.

MOROKO FISH- SHIGEYOSHI 重よし (TOKYO)

IMG_2817 IMG_2806Shigeyoshi is, quite simply, my favorite restaurant in the world. The food stays true to traditional Japanese ‘washoku’ and nobody else does it quite like Chef Kenzo Sato. He depicts the very soul of Japanese cuisine, never steering from what is in season and never tampering a second more with an ingredient that is already a perfect creation of nature. I have been eating at this 2 Michelin Star restaurant for about a decade or so, and every single meal teaches me something new about Japanese cuisine. This year I enjoyed moroko, fish the size of my finger, only found in Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. Moroko are hard to come by these days, as the growing colony of black bass that have overpopulated Lake Biwa love to eat these little delicacies as much as I do. There’s a distinct bitterness to moroko that I absolutely love, and eaten whole from head to tail, it makes for a most wonderful ‘sake no tsumami’.

DEEP FRIED FUGU- YUKICHO 有希銚 (TOKYO)

IMG_2947 IMG_2952January and February are the best months to enjoy fugu, pufferfish known for its lethal tetrodotoxin. One requires rigorous training and a special certificate to have the privilege of preparing this ocean delicacy. The flesh itself doesn’t have much flavor when prepared traditionally as sashimi, but it takes on a wonderful succulent texture and juiciness when battered and deep fried. Yukicho, an exclusive Japanese ryotei in the heart of Ginza with private ozashiki dining rooms, has been preparing fugu for more than 80 years. The current chef, Chef Ishii, carries on the restaurant’s tradition of unrivaled excellence in fugu cuisine. Better than fried chicken, a bite of this fried fugu will completely change your world. It changed mine.

ROASTED PIGEON WITH LIVER JUS- L’EFFERVESCENCE レフェルヴェソンス(TOKYO)

IMG_3975 IMG_3978Chef Shinobu Namae has trained with some of the world’s best- Michel Bras in both Hokkaido and Laguiole, and Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck. Now, in his Michelin-starred Azabu restaurant, he infuses his unique flair into beautiful dishes that marry classical French techniques with seasonal ingredients. Vendée pigeon roasted to perfection was served with an intense savory liver jus, with pea purée, broad beans, spring onions, Kiyomi mandarin marmalade and wood sorrel leaves. The icing on the cake when enjoying this memorable dish was the silver tray of Laguiole cutlery from which we could choose our knife du jour.

DENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN (DFC)-  DEN (TOKYO)

IMG_4020 IMG_4022Michelin starred Den quickly became one of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo for many reasons. First, the creativity. Dining out should be fun, interactive and memorable, and Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa makes sure that every guest that steps foot inside his Jimbocho restaurant enjoys the experience from beginning to end. He brainstorms daily with his staff about new ideas that could surprise and delight his diners, and loves to incorporate playful elements into all of his dishes. Dentucky Fried Chicken, aka DFC, is Den’s signature dish, presented in a specially designed ‘take-out’ box with a photo of Colonel Hasegawa. Out comes a mouthwatering deep fried chicken wing stuffed with seasonal ingredients- on a summer visit, my DFC wing was stuffed with almond, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric and raisins. On an autumn visit, my wing was stuffed with a variety of mushrooms. This succulent chicken wing sure is finger lickin’ good.

DRIED AYU WITH LIVER- DEN (TOKYO)

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Another reason for loving Den? The flavors. The overall vibe during a meal at Den may be playful and fun, but there is a reason why this popular restaurant maintains its Michelin stars. I still dream about this ayu course during a summer visit to Den, with ayu dried for 6 hours then grilled and eaten whole from head to tail. Tade (water pepper) leaves, which are usually paired with ayu, were incorporated into warm rice flour bread which I thoroughly enjoyed with the most delightful ayu liver pâté. To this day, I still talk about this dish and hope to experience it again next summer.

SANMA RICE WITH LIVER – DEN (TOKYO)

DSCF0686 DSCF0720Den gets 3 spots on this year’s list for all of the times that I made a visit, and for what I love most about this fantastic restaurant- the hospitality. The staff at Den takes Japanese hospitality to a whole new level, treating every diner like family and going way above and beyond. When I dined here in the fall with The Spanish Hipsters to celebrate their nuptials, it quickly became apparent that the staff had been planning a special celebration for weeks. A lot of thought went into every detail of the meal to personalize it for the Hipsters, and we had a night to remember. Our experience included this sanma gohan, steamed rice with saury pike at its autumn peak with a luscious rich liver paste. We laughed, we ate, we toasted and drank, and the house mascot Puchi even came to join the party.

ROASTED ABALONE WITH LIVER-  MILLE CARESSES ミルカレス (OSAKA)

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Mille Caresses. Where do I even begin. I stumbled upon this exclusive wine bar in Osaka by chance, and it felt like I hit the jackpot. There are tables in the back of the restaurant, but the action is at the bar counter where Sommelier Kibi works his magic. He wears special white gloves to handle truffles, keeps his wines cradled in padded baskets, and treats his customer with just as much respect- a true professional. I’ve had a lot of great abalone dishes in my life, but this one by Chef Youichi Kaito takes the prize. Roasted abalone from Shimane prefecture in abalone liver sauce was fantastic beyond belief. The abalone- tender, juicy and succulent with an ever so subtle char at the fringed edges- and that decadent liver sauce- buttery, rich and creamy with a depth of flavor too incredible for words- brought tears to my eyes.

WAGYU KATSU SANDWICH- MILLE CARESSES ミルカレス (OSAKA)

DSCF0057 DSCF0050The pure awesomeness that is Mille Caresses in Osaka was also felt in their signature dish, the wagyu katsu sandwich. Miyazaki wagyu tenderloin, breaded and deep fried to a perfect rare, then sandwiched between toast with a lovely sauce made from onions and fruits, was as tender as room temperature butter. The course even came with a certificate indicating that our cut of Miyazaki beef came from cow #13349653555. A dish to remember.

ATSUKAN (HOT SAKE) & REISHU (COLD SAKE)- RYUGIN 龍吟 (TOKYO)

IMG_5274 IMG_0141Ryugin keeps getting better and better, living up to its promotion to 3 Michelin stars. Chef Seiji Yamamoto runs a tight ship at his Roppongi restaurant where the service and the courses seem to flow effortlessly. A recent revisit was right up there as one of the best meals of my life, and the highlight for me was their autumn harvest sake dessert. I went back and forth with my spoon, enjoying both the silkiness of the cold amazake soft serve and the warm fluffiness (and such enticing aromas!) of the sake soufflé. The juxtaposition of temperatures and textures was both pure genius and pure pleasure.

HAMO IN ICHIBAN DASHI- RYUGIN 龍吟 (TOKYO)

IMG_5239 IMG_5235There is no ingredient that tests the knife skills of a chef more than hamo, pike conger eel, which has rows of tiny coarse bones that are impossible to remove. Only an experienced chef with superior knife skills can perform honegiri (which means ‘bone cutting’ in Japanese), a process of making precise incisions into the bones without cutting through the skin or destroying the flesh. When a properly incised piece of hamo is blanched in hot water, it should blossom like a chrysanthemum flower with perfectly even sections, and create a light and fluffy texture. The hamo by Chef Yamamoto at Ryugin was the most perfect demonstration of hamo workmanship that I have seen to date. It was stuffed with sweet caramelized kamo-nasu eggplant and served in a wonderful bonito ichiban dashi.

DEEP FRIED AYU, DAIKON, GINGKO- ISHIKAWA 石川 (TOKYO)

IMG_5329 IMG_5288Ishikawa, right in my neighborhood of Kagurazaka, has maintained its 3 Michelin star status for some time. Located on a quiet cobblestone side street behind the famous Bishamon Temple, the food here stays true to traditional Japanese kaiseki style, honoring seasonal ingredients and treating them with great care and utmost respect. Chef Hideki Ishikawa mesmerized me with this dish that symbolized the transition of summer to autumn- crispy deep fried ayu at the tail end of their season, mixed with grated daikon mizore ankake and plump lime green shin-ginkgo at the very start of their season. The overlap period of these 2 beautiful ingredients is very brief, and Chef Ishikawa created a successful and delicious mariage.

HARI HARI POTATOES WITH TOBIKO- TAKADA HASSHO たか田八祥 (GIFU)

DSCF0557 DSCF0603Many of Japan’s finest chefs have trained with Chef Haruyuki Takada at the legendary Takada Hassho in Gifu Prefecture. A trip to Gifu during the fall proved to be an incredible cultural experience for me, attending the knife festival in Seki, observing the ancient art of cormorant fishing on the river at dusk, and sharing a fabulous kaiseki dinner with friends at Takada Hassho. The signature dish is called ‘hari hari’, made with extremely thinly sliced potatoes (by hand, of course), lightly blanched, mixed with tobiko and rolled into a sphere like a ball of yarn. My tongue was absolutely delighted at the playful textures of this dish- the crisp sharp bite to the potatoes, interspersed with little pops of tobiko eggs. It was a perfect way to end a perfect weekend in Gifu.

TORO MILLE FEUILLES- SUSHISHO MASA すし匠まさ (TOKYO)

DSCF0870 DSCF0872Of the thousands of sushi restaurants in Tokyo (did you know that there are more then 200 sushi restaurants in Ginza alone?) Sushisho Masa has quickly become one of my favorites, and the place that I recommend the most for visitors to Japan. I love the intimacy of the small space and the friendliness of the staff, but most of all, the mind blowing diversity of sushi that one gets to experience in one sitting. Chef Masakatsu Oka whips out more than 40 to 50 perfect little bites, taking the time to explain where each slice of fish came from and how he prepared it. His signature nigiri is what he calls the ‘Masa-feuille’, 3 thin slices of pristine o-toro with a generous dab of wasabi in between, creating a triple layered mille-feuille that magically lightens the fattiness of the tuna while enhancing its exquisite flavors. The toro melts so quickly that it almost evaporates, leaving you begging for more.

GRILLED ABALONE WITH LIVER- GINZA MIYAMA 銀座みやま (TOKYO)

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DSCF0782Prize winning Miyazaki wagyu from Iki Island is the specialty at Ginza Miyama, a teppanyaki steakhouse in the heart of Higashi-Ginza. We even got to see the special trophy that our cow had won prior to its slaughter. The marbled beef was incredible. However, what took my breath away that evening was the meaty abalone from Iki Island, still very much alive and squirming as it hit the sizzling hot teppanyaki plate in front of us. We watched in awe as the chef showed us the plump abalone liver- a deep magical green color so intense and bright that it was practically turquoise. ‘It’s the color of the seaweed in the waters around Iki Island that the abalone feed on’, the chef told us, as he sliced the abalone with his sharp knife and made a sauce with the liver and butter. The warm sauce, infused with the essence of this rich seaweed, was slathered over the tender abalone and served in its shell. Perfection.

MATSUTAKE TEMPURA- MIKAWA ZEZANKYO みかわ是山居 (TOKYO)

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Chef Saotome has been perfecting tempura for as long as many of us have been alive, and he has been collecting art for as long as he has been alive. His restaurant, in a quiet residential neighborhood in Monzen-Nakacho, displays beautiful sake chokos, ceramic plates and calligraphy, of which he himself is a master. During the meal he stands under the cowboy hat vent, silently focused on frying each seasonal ingredient to just the perfect degree. Matsutake mushrooms bigger than my palm, with a spritz of sudachi and a dab of salt, were meaty, juicy and aromatic. Saotome is a man of few words but he speaks through his food, his calligraphy and his art- all of which convey his charisma and vivacity.

ROASTED BRETAGNE VEAL- ANIS アニス (TOKYO)

DSCF1051 DSCF1066Chef Susumu Shimizu just opened this quaint adorable restaurant in Hatsudai a few months ago. The U shaped counter surrounds the open kitchen where he demonstrates the classical French techniques that he honed at L’Arpege for many years. 6 month old veal from Bretagne cooked in hay was sweet, milky and superb. His cuisine and style are both still evolving and I can’t wait to see what happens when he really hits his stride in 2014. He is, for sure, a young talent to keep an eye out for.

ABALONE LIVER RICE- SUSHI YOSHITAKE 鮨よしたけ (TOKYO)

DSCF1085 DSCF1092The shari, the neta, the prep, the ambiance. Everything is flawless at 3 Michelin star Yoshitake in Ginza. I especially love Chef Masahiro Yoshitake’s shari, made with akazu vinegar that gives the rice a brown hue and a subtle unobtrusive flavor that harmonizes well with the seafood. It was highlighted in this course that came paired with a generous serving of tender steamed abalone from Karatsu. The abalone liver, with a vivid forest green hue, was made into a silky paste and served with a mini portion of shari. It was a joyous and delicious moment in my life.

GARGOUILLOU- MICHEL BRAS TOYA JAPON  ミシェルブラス トーヤジャポン(HOKKAIDO)

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I had been meaning to visit Michel Bras in Hokkaido for a long time, and the stars aligned when I found out, when finally making my reservation, that it was the exact week when Chef Michel Bras himself was to make his annual visit. Ah, serendipity. Michel Bras cooking with Hokkaido ingredients was a true match made in heaven, and a food lover’s dream. His signature gargouillou of young vegetables, a celebration of Michel’s love for vegetables and herbs, was simply a joy. The ‘Terre’ dinner menu, a celebration of Laguiole, featured gargouillou with acacia oil, while the ‘Mer’ lunch menu, highlighting the seafood from Hokkaido, presented it with sansho oil. Both renditions were equally inspiring and lovely, like the maestro himself.

ICE CREAM CART- MICHEL BRAS TOYA JAPON  ミシェルブラス トーヤジャポン(HOKKAIDO)

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DSCF1455 DSCF1270No matter who you are, what age you are, or how fancy of a restaurant you may be dining at, when an ice cream cart pulls up to your table, it has the same universal effect- our hearts flutter and we squeal with delight. At 3 Michelin starred Michel Bras in Hokkaido, the ice cream cart came with a killer view of Lake Toya and 5 different flavors- apple sorbet sprinkled with anise powder, walnut mousse with hazelnuts in a chocolate covered cone, herb sorbet with balsamic reduction, white chocolate mousse with crumbled pistachios in a chocolate covered cone, and mikan sorbet with crystallized mint. Needless to say, I had a moment.

KEIJI SALMON SUSHI- SUSHI HIDETAKA 鮨ひでたか (HOKKAIDO)

DSCF1601 DSCF1576Where to have my one sushi dinner on a recent winter trip to Hokkaido was possibly one of the biggest dilemmas of the year. Hokkaido is a treasure box of seafood, and many delicacies are at their peak during the cold winter season. Choosing the right sushi restaurant for this trip was crucial. Thankfully, I chose well. Sushi Hidetaka in Sapporo is only a year old, but already quite the popular place. I sat next to a diner who flew from Tokyo just to eat here. Chef Hidetaka Yamada pampered me with the most incredible keiji salmon nigiri, a rare delicacy. Keiji, which means ‘infant salmon’, is a sexually underdeveloped salmon with an extremely high fat content (20-30%) but a light sweet flavor and silky smooth texture. Only 1 per 10,000 salmon caught are considered keiji, and they are usually only available during the end of November. Did it live up to its hype? Oh yes, yes indeed. It was the best salmon I have ever tasted.

GRILLED GINPOU- SHUBO SHINSEN 酒房しんせん (HOKKAIDO)

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For my last dinner in Hokkaido, I chose this tiny old izakaya in the rowdy Susukino district run by Chef Shigeki Echigo. The darn cute smile of his greeted me as I walked through the front door, and I immediately knew that I was in for a treat. One would never guess, from the outdated decor and the down-to-earth casual vibe at the restaurant, that this place was awarded 2 Michelin stars in the 2012 Hokkaido special edition. I felt right at home with the Shinsen family who fed me with the best of Hokkaido’s bounties. He whipped out a beautiful piece of grilled ginpou for me; something, he said, he only does for special customers. Ginpou (which means silver treasure in Japanese) is an extremely rare fish, only found off the coast of Kushiro in southeastern Hokkaido, and only 200-300 are caught per year. The texture was light, airy and fluffy. The flavor, due to its extremely high fat content, was sweet yet delicate. I have never tasted fish like this before- it was phenomenal.

IMG_4306My culinary journey through Japan in 2013 was educational, inspiring and downright delicious. I got to really explore the complex maze of Tokyo- the nooks and crannies- and make new discoveries on every street corner. I saw the countryside, the lakes and oceans, and reveled in the stunning beauty of this country. I tasted, I learned and I absorbed a whole lot of new information, and I met some amazing people along the way. It was a year of renewal and personal growth for me, and I am thankful for all of the friends, both old and new, who shared these memorable meals with me. I look forward to continuing this adventure in 2014.

But first, I’ll be writing a post of my most memorable dishes of 2013 outside of Japan.

Kodama- Tokyo, Japan

Once in a while a miracle happens when you least expect it, and a full spectrum of magic and wonder graces an enchanting evening.  Such is the case on a cold winter Saturday evening when I walk into Kodama to find 3 place settings on the counter and the chef, Tsutomu Kodama, alone in his empty restaurant.  We are the only reservations for that evening- a rare occurrence at this highly acclaimed 2 Michelin star restaurant in Nishi Azabu- and the chef had sent all of his staff home.  It is just the 3 of us and Chef Kodama with nothing to disturb our private tête-à-tête, an intimate experience that melds earnest conversation, cooking demonstration and delicious meal into one unforgettable night.

There is a quiet confidence about Chef Kodama, one charged by passion and blanketed in humility, inspired by curiosity and illuminated with creativity.  Having never apprenticed in a restaurant before, this young self-taught talent carries himself with the maturity and discipline of one who had been put through his fair share of rigorous kitchen trials under Japan’s notoriously daunting hierarchy. Perhaps it is this independence that makes him stand out from any other chef I have encountered- an honest, pure and relaxed approach to cooking- an untainted innocence almost. Or is this the beautiful consequence of our very private affair that we are blessed with this evening?

‘Good food should not weigh you down’ he says, as he prepares the first zensai course- a sincere intention that he puts into planning his meals, wanting to nourish his customer’s palates with well balanced seasonal ingredients, vibrant flavors and easily digestible garnishes without fatiguing the body.  I appreciate his healthy purist approach to dining after experiencing one too many physically and mentally exhausting meals of gorging on thick sauces and extravagant fatty cuts of protein.  This meal is emphatically different.

A refreshing tossed salad of wild torafugu at its winter peak blossoms with bright stimulating flavors, its lacy black skin skillfully sliced into gelatinous slivers and its pearly white flesh prepared into tender paper-thin cuts.  A strong yuzu aroma wafts through each successive bite that introduces delightful layers of titillating textures- the wonderful crunch of fugu skin and little pops of masago juxtaposed against a moist cushion of grated daikon.

A vivid green fuki no tou (butterbur sprouts) gratin, still bubbling under the darkening crispy char on its surface, in a cast iron bowl- a calling of spring as forests and mountains awaken to the birth of a new season.  A bright delicate bitterness fills my palate, just bordering on the verge of sweetness, as I savor every tender cut of warm butterbur coated in a luscious sauce made with little more than puréed butterbur.  It is fantastic in its simplicity, a celebration of savory bitterness and a tribute to nature.

It is with finesse and tenderness that Kodama handles his food, and the respect that he holds for his seasonal ingredients comes through in his creations.  He does little to the flavors- such beautiful flavors are not to be tampered with- and instead plays with textures and form. Sashimi, in what would traditionally be served as the tsukuri course, is surprisingly difficult to digest, Kodama educates us. So he layers fresh slices of succulent sea bream on zakkoku rice mixed with black beans, sesame, barley and azuki. The grains, along with tobiko roe and a deep green seaweed sauce of a slimy consistency (in the most pleasurable manner) add a carnival of textures and flavors.  Even the karasumi, Japanese bottarga, made in-house, is palatably low in sodium and full of roe flavor.  I feel the nutrients permeate into my bloodstream and I sigh, ever so contently. This, I could eat every day.

Rich creamy sacs of fugu shirako float in a lacquered bowl, suspended in a thick hearty broth of grated Shogoin kabura (large Kyoto turnips) seasoned with a touch of yuzu and ginger.  The shirako bursts with its sweet milky sap, a tincture of heaven that elevates this comforting bowl of soup into a decadent and spectacular elixir.

I realize with the next course that it has taken Chef Kodama years to prepare this meal.  Days, of course, to prep each ravishing component of our meal- from the karasumi that at the very least requires 10 days, to the pickled vegetables that we will encounter in the finale- but decades to master precise skills for fugu butchering and soba making. It is the abalone soba that first piqued my interest in Kodama and prompted me to make a reservation.  It does not, unsurprisingly, disappoint.

Elegant soba noodles, a brilliant matcha green hue, are mixed with seaweed and kneaded, rolled and cut by hand.  Kodama’s soba, tossed with thin slices of tender abalone, glides effortlessly across my tongue, full of deep ocean aromas and a pleasant koshi texture.  The phenomenal sauce made with abalone flesh and green innards that coats the noodles remains in the shell, and as if reading my mind, he hands me a plate of freshly baked rice flour bread, soft, plush and steaming with rich warmth, for me to lap up the sauce with.

Marbled slices of tender wagyu rib eye cook slowly over a bubbling broth of earthy mushrooms and grated renkon loosely packed into airy fluffy manju.  The bitter tang of powdered sansho keeps the heartiness of this divine dish in check where Kodama presents the beef not as the main course but as an exquisite garnish to highlight the beautifully prepared lotus root.

Every course is an extension of Chef Kodama’s thought and intention, poignant haikus that paint the colors, flavors and aromas of the seasons- but it is the comfort and simplicity of the last savory course where his soul shines through.  Homemade shibazuke, pickled cucumbers and eggplants, are especially crisp in texture, exploding with the brightness of ume and shiso flavors without the unpleasant saltiness that often weighs down commercial brands.  It harmonizes with the tai-meshi, a warm serving of moist sea bream and crusts of burnt rice that have caramelized along the edges of the stone pot- the left overs of which he lovingly prepares into perfect little triangular onigiri for us to take home.

Dessert is a revelation- I cannot remember, in all honesty, the last time I was ambushed by such originality and creativity in a sweets dish.  Ice cream made with Junmai Daiginjo sake lees is creamy and rich with a waft of fruity aromatics unique to fermentation.  It is layered with an amazake gelée that lends a hint more of sweetness and on the very top, hoshigaki (dried persimmon) wrapped strawberry cream cheese that bursts with an intense honey sweetness, bringing it all to a climax.

Kodama successfully and seemingly effortlessly integrates elegance, beauty and flavor into one unforgettable meal, from each ingredient that is carefully prepared with the diner’s health and well being in mind, to the lacquerware and ceramics that are designed by the chef himself in collaboration with local artisans.  Thoughtfulness and attention to detail create a perfect balance- and on that night, I am given exclusive access to quietly coexist in that state of perfection.  It is a sincere washoku experience where character and peacefulness preside over pretension. I bow in deep respect to this exceptional chef who has pampered me with an unforgettable private feast and I leave, smiling, riding high from this meal that has nourished my body and my soul to its very core.

Kodama

1-10-6 2F                                  Nishi Azabu, Minato-ku                            Tokyo, Japan                                                                                                                   (03) 3408-8865

Random trivia: Sake lees, rich in amino acids, are highly praised by Japanese women for their beauty benefits. They are used in hand creams, facial packs and creams for their skin brightening and whitening effects.

Tsubaki 海石榴 – Okuyugawara, Japan

The mountains, a baby pink hue of blushing spring cherry blossoms, turns a vivid green in the summer to a lively chorus of shrilling cicadas, then transforms into a stunning background of reds and yellows as the autumn maple leaves take on their fiery colors.  In the dead of winter is when I find these majestic mountains in its most beautiful state, a steely landscape hushed by the deep snowfall and the valley below blanketed in pure white.

Every year I look forward to this serene view of the Okuyugawara mountains from my private outdoor onsen, a rotenburo bath made with hinoki cypress wood that gives off a refreshing forest aroma as I soak in the healing hot springs at Tsubaki ryokan. There is nothing quite like a ryokan experience in Japan where guests travel from afar to indulge and relax in the comfort of true Japanese hospitality.  Tsubaki, a traditional ryokan opened in 1978, is only an hour by express train from Tokyo and an additional 30 minutes by car along the coast line, straight past the mikan orchards that grow on the slopes of Atami and deep into the hidden mountains of Okuyugawara.

As I take that first step through the entrance of Tsubaki, I leave all of my stress and worries at the doorstep and enter into a haven of beauty and serenity.  Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns where people come to rejuvenate their body in the healing waters of the local natural hot springs, rest their weary feet in the comfortable tatami rooms and nourish their souls with traditional kaiseki meals.

It is quiet at Tsubaki, a good soothing silence save for the occasional soft rustle of leaves swaying in the cool wind and the gentle babble of the stream that runs below.  A faint aroma slithers through the hallways, a brew of incense and freshly whisked green tea, while guests shuffle along the cobblestone paths in their yukatas to the communal bath for their first soak of the day.

There are 15 rooms at Tsubaki, each tastefully decorated in wabi sabi aesthetics of simple and understated beauty with accents of ancient scrolls, beautiful ceramics and breathtaking ikebana flower arrangements.  Some, like my favorite room, have an unobstructed view of the forest and the snow capped mountains, while others look over the koi pond and the zen rock gardens.  The room smells like fresh straw, and I lay down on the floor, my body flat against the green tatami mats as I deeply inhale its aroma into my lungs for my first real moment of relaxation.

Since 1978 Tsubaki has been one of the most exclusive ryokans in the country, maintaining the same level of hospitality and quality of service since its opening.  There is a Japanese term called ‘ichigo ichie’ 一期一会, meaning ‘one time, one meeting’.  Each new encounter, each new meeting is a unique and special moment that will never recur in one’s lifetime, and therefore, must be treated with utmost sincerity.  The staff at Tsubaki live by these standards, and make every moment truly unforgettable and exceptional. For this reason, each room has an attendant, a nakai-san, that sees to your every need.  One of their many important duties is to work with the chef to ensure an enjoyable kaiseki meal.

A stay at a traditional ryokan is as much about the food as it is about the hot springs.  A full course kaiseki meal is part of the allure of this exquisite Japanese experience, and at Tsubaki, Chef Tadanori Igarashi has been creating tasting menus for its guests since its opening in 1978.  Kaiseki is a type of art form that paints edible murals of seasonal landscapes on canvases of beautiful ceramics and lacquerware.  It is a labor intensive process for the chefs, a precise craft that takes years to master, to be able to express such artistry and elegance.

Each plate is a study in balance and refinement, and there is a smooth flow of concepts and flavors from course to course.  It is important that this elaborate meal, a ritual that when properly done takes 3-5 hours, follows a traditional formal structure in order to observe an overall sense of harmony.  The menu, beautifully handwritten in Japanese calligraphy, presents the courses in its appropriate order.

Sakizuke (先付): an amuse bouche

A shot of plum wine commences our meal, followed by the sakizuke course of kelp wrapped sayori gently curled around green bouquets of brassica with a touch of Kamo rice vinegar from Kyoto.

Hassun (八寸): the second course, sometimes called the zensai course, sets the seasonal theme with one type of sushi and an assortment of smaller bites

This kaiseki meal at Tsubaki, enjoyed this past winter shortly after the New Year, is about celebrating new beginnings and prosperity.  Slices of flash seared sea cucumber with ponzu are presented in a crane shaped ceramic bowl to symbolize longevity, with ribbons of gold and silver mizuhiki strings expressing joy.  Komochikombu (herring egg coated seaweed), a caviar topped potato chip, cured karasumi bottarga made with mullet roe, a bitter orange syrup of salted cod ovaries in an aromatic bowl of carved yuzu and a cut of ayu with its roe simmered with sansho berries symbolize fertility and new life.  A green fukinotou butterbur stem, simmered with peppercorns, gives me a bitter bite that I love with my glass of cold sake, to which I follow with the delicious pieces of pressed salmon matsumae sushi.  This hassun course brings seasonal gifts of land and sea together on the plate for a picturesque arrangement of colors and shapes.

Futamono (蓋物): a “lidded dish”, also referred to as wanmono, which presents a warm soup

A floating leaf on the surface of a pond, a green kinome pepper leaf creates a beautiful scenario in this futamono course where a white fluffy hamaguri clam shinjo infuses its bold flavors into the suimono broth.  A green udo stem, crisp both in texture and in its fennel-like flavor, create a contrast against the delicately constructed temarifu, a pillowy ball of gluten with colorful decorations to resemble a traditional New Year toy called a temari.

Mukōzuke (向付): a seasonal sashimi plate

The mukozuke course presents the freshest offerings of the sea in a simple presentation so that the guests can enjoy the pure flavors of the fish.  Divine cuts of fatty bluefin toro are augmented with a hint of Japanese karashi mustard and soy sauce, and meaty akagai clams of a warm orange hue are perfect with freshly grated wasabi.  The final sashimi presented in the hamaguri shell-shaped ceramic, a symbol of love and harmony, is hirame wrapped in a rich coating of uni that woos with its sweetness.

Meshimushi (飯蒸し): a steamed rice course, a special dish that is not often included in a standard kaiseki

Kuri okowa, a steamed glutinous mochi rice dish with chestnuts and a sprinkling of black sesame salt, is another celebratory dish that the Japanese commonly prepare for festive occasions.  The red hue imparted by the azuki beans is what makes this dish a symbol of happiness and joy, a standard offering at birthdays and weddings.

Takiawase (焚合): simmered vegetables served with meat, fish or tofu

In keeping with the traditional Kyoto style of kaiseki, this takiawase course keeps the seasonings light and subdued to appreciate the true flavors of the vegetables at their peak. Horikawa gobo, a thick spongy burdock root that is a winter standard, is stuffed with minced chicken meat and simmered in a light dashi until the vegetable has been plumped full of umami.  Lightly sake braised abalone, tender and moist, is accompanied by boiled mibuna greens and a dash of yuzu rinds for aroma.

Yakimono (焼物): broiled seasonal fish

2 delicacies that pair beautifully with cold dry sake find its way onto my plate for the first of the yakimono courses.  Sweet luscious cream oozes from within the seared membranes of the fugu shirako, poisonous puffer fish sperm sacs that are particularly plump and lovely this time of year.  To contrast, there is a triangular wedge of lightly seared bachiko, dried sea cucumber ovaries with a salty briny flavor that intensifies with each successive bite.

We each get our own plate of ise ebi, a majestic Japanese spiny lobster that is arguably the most festive culinary symbol for New Year celebrations.  The sweet flesh is briefly tossed in shuto, salt marinated bonito innards, then baked on a hot stone to a dramatic orchestra of sputters and sizzles as we all wait, impatiently, for our moment to pounce.

Shiizakana (進肴、強肴): also called azukebachi, is a course designed to encourage the consumption and enjoyment of sake

As if the 2 yakimono courses aren’t enough to encourage happy sake drinking, we get a trio of delights representing cardinal Japanese winter delicacies that make the sake flow even more freely.  Suppon nikogori, a thick gelatinous soup of snapping turtle with enough collagen to equal a Botox treatment, is served in an aromatic yuzu bowl, and Matsuba crab competes with Kegani hairy crab for a stand off where both ultimately win.

Onmono (温物): a warm braised dish, sometimes presented as a hot pot

The onmono course, as it is one of the last courses of a kaiseki meal, is intended to aid digestion and be gentle on the nearly full stomach.  A mixture of madai (tile fish), grated turnips, gingko nuts and wild mountain vegetables are simmered in a dashi broth, the result a simple and mild flavored course infused with the chef’s love.

Gohan (御飯): a rice dish made with seasonal ingredients

Kō no mono (香の物): seasonal pickled vegetables

Tome-wan (止椀): a miso or vegetable soup

Rice, miso soup and pickled vegetables are how a kaiseki meal typically ends, a simple combination that echoes the roots of Japanese cuisine.  Chef Igarashi himself comes out to present this last course, a fuki gohan made with tangy butterbur stalks and an assortment of tsukemono (pickled vegetables) that includes yellow takuan, thinly sliced senmaizuke turnips, matsutake mushrooms infused with kombu, cucumber asazuke and red shiso calabash (hyoutan shibazuke).

In the winter, traditional Kyoto style kaiseki calls for a white miso base soup. In the summer, a more robust and intense dark red Hatcho miso. Spring and autumn incorporate both for a blended miso base.  For this winter tasting menu, we slurp a nameko mushroom white miso soup- comforting, warm and delicious.

Mizumono (水物): a seasonal dessert of fruits, confections, ice cream or cake

First a plate of sweet juicy fruits- strawberries, blueberries, papaya and melon with a sprinkling of clear kanten crystals, followed by a Japanese dessert of koshian azuki bean paste encased in a fluffy green tea shiroan icing.

Beautiful arrangements of seasonal ingredients with intricate garnishes, course after course, presented on attractive plates that enhance the appearance and theme of the food forms the basis of a multi-course Japanese kaiseki meal, and within the structured flow of the banquet, the chef expresses his sensitivity and style to delight his guests.  It is a special experience to enjoy this in between relaxing dips in the hot springs, and to have the staff pamper you with their kindness and hospitality.  For the ultimate kaiseki experience you can even have geisha accompany you for the meal.  Geisha, who are highly skilled female entertainers versed in traditional Japanese song and dance, will keep the conversation lively and most importantly, as your dinner hostesses, they will ensure that your sake cup is never empty.

Tsubaki ryokan                                                                                                              776 Miyakami, Yugawara machi                                                                    Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa prefecture            Japan                                                                                                                             TEL: 0465-63-3333

Random trivia: Did you know that there can never be a married geisha? If a geisha marries, she must retire.

Kohaku 虎白- Tokyo, Japan

Tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) expressed the four principles of chanoyu, the Japanese ‘Way of Tea’, with four characters: Wa Kei Sei Jaku (harmony, respect, purity, tranquility). They are the principles that practitioners of tea integrate into their craft and their daily lives, and what has now become synonymous with Japanese hospitality.  Peace, humility and selflessness are how the Japanese try to live (albeit with a hefty dose of shyness), and the service industry is also built on these teachings.  Such Japanese hospitality is taken to an entirely different level in a traditional ryotei where a diner can experience ultimate bliss through a kaiseki meal.

Japanese hospitality begins the moment one calls to make a reservation at a place like Kohaku, a quaint ryotei that opened last fall in Kagurazaka, a beautiful neighborhood in Tokyo where real geisha can still be seen walking along the cobblestone streets.  Through winding roads, narrow alleyways and mysterious staircases lit with lanterns, Kagurazaka seems like a maze, but it is one of the most charming areas of the city where one can time travel back to old Tokyo.  While many ryotei in Kagurazaka maintain a strict policy of ‘Ichigen sama okotowari’ (‘We respectfully decline first time customers. Reservations are only made with the introduction from a regular customer’) as a way to honor and respect their regular patrons, most, like Kohaku, have an open door policy.

‘Thank you very much for calling Kohaku. We will be awaiting your arrival on your reservation day,’ they said, promptly following the call with a fax of a map and directions to the restaurant.  On the evening of my dinner, they indeed were waiting for my arrival out in front of the restaurant entrance with beautiful Japanese umbrellas ready to protect me from the light drizzle of rain that the dark grey clouds were about to deliver. Welcome, they said with warm smiles, addressing me by my name as if they knew me, and I instantly felt like I was coming home to a familiar place.

Kohaku is the more casual sister restaurant to famed 3 Michelin star Ishikawa, a traditional ryotei in Kagurazaka run by Chef Hideki Ishikawa.  Kohaku’s chef and owner, Koji Koizumi, was at Ishikawa from the very beginning, serving as Ishikawa’s right hand man for years. When Ishikawa moved his Michelin feted establishment to a new location in 2008, it was an easy decision to trust Koizumi to make something special out of that space.  While Ishikawa stays true to traditional Japanese kaiseki flavors and concepts, Kohaku ventures into the modern, incorporating ingredients not usually associated with Japanese cuisine and giving kaiseki an avant garde twist.

The kaiseki begins with a delectable dish of uni in its own spiny receptacle, filled with layers of light refreshing flavors and crisp textures.  Diced cucumbers, crunchy and fresh, are followed by slippery junsai that slide across my tongue like water-striders on a pond.  Chilled yuzu gelée, perfectly sweet and tart, add bright summer notes to the buttery sea urchin for a memorable dish that starts the kaiseki off on a high note.

Chef Koizumi’s food at Kohaku can perhaps be classified as nouveau kaiseki, introducing a different way to enjoy this elegant style of Japanese cuisine.  His playfulness can be seen throughout his courses, enough to intrigue the diner’s curiosity but fortunately without compromising classic flavors and preparation.  There is nothing more important in Japanese cuisine than tradition, and he stays faithful to that concept while presenting his tasteful creativity.  The temari sushi course, for one, delightfully perfumed with the enticing aromas of roasted sesame seeds and green yuzu rinds, showcases that prized brininess unique to caviar while bringing a level of familiarity and comfort to this non-native roe.

Yet at the same time, he excels and ultimately impresses with simple seasonal dishes like deep fried ayu, sweet finger-sized river fish eaten whole from head to tail, the slight bitterness of its intestines and a smidgen of seaweed salt the perfect complements to the watermelon-like flavors of its succulent flesh.

As with any traditional kaiseki meal, great care is taken in choosing the correct vessels for food and beverage, for it forms the framework within which to showcase the art.  One can feel the sensibility of a chef through the ceramics and glasses that are used, and my moment of adoration for Chef Koizumi came when our sake arrived, perfectly chilled in a gorgeous hand hammered pewter cup, ready to pour into the most perfect little brown-glazed ochokos that made our sake taste unforgettable.

Tiny pinky crustaceans called sakura ebi, or cherry shrimp from Suruga Bay in Shizuoka prefecture, colorfully dot the surface of the warm somen noodle dish served in a white miso broth with shiitake mushrooms, mitsuba herbs and shaved white negi.  It’s a comforting dish, one that satisfies any craving, transporting its recipient to a full course of blissful slurping and a habit-forming shrimp high.

Sake steamed abalone, juicy and tender, excites with garnishes of shiso, myoga and seaweed ribbons for a simple yet satisfying tsukuri plate.

Early summer bounties unite in joyous celebration in a luscious creamy black truffle sauce brimming with beautiful earthy notes.  I bite into the thin stalk of himetake bamboo shoot and it reciprocates with a vigorous crunch and a delicate milky flavor.  Juicy mizu nasu eggplants from Senshu are as sweet as apples and the ainame fillet, a rock fish only found in Japan around this time of year, tastes as happy as it looks to be bathing in truffle sauce.

Chef Koizumi keeps the kegani hairy crab dish simple with a cut of asparagus and yuzu gelée, for the sweetness of the Hokkaido crab does not require much more than those little accents, and simplicity, after all, is one of the hallmarks of Japanese cuisine.

There is no summer ingredient that symbolizes the mastery of a Japanese chef better than hamo, or pike conger, a long powerful fish whose razor sharp teeth and vicious face are no indication of its delicate sweet white flesh.  Hamo are laden with rows of tiny coarse bones that are impossible to remove, and only a skillful chef with superior knife skills can perform honegiri, making precise incisions into the bones without cutting through the skin.  The result of Chef Koizumi’s workmanship is tender hamo, flesh and bones, tossed with myoga, shiso and hamo skin that has been blanched in hot water, proudly served on a bed of chilled pickled plum gelée that has been sieved to a fine texture.  Little dollops of grated ginger, wasabi and spicy daikon radish allow the diner to enjoy different flavors to augment the tartness of the ume sauce.

The high collagen content of suppon, or snapping turtle, naturally renders its hearty broth gelatinous and silky, and viscous enough for the little bits of sweet corn, winter melon, snap peas, scallops and tiger prawns to appear suspended in time and place.  The turtle soup is comforting, and like nutrient rich liquid gold it glides down my palate and invigorates me with its Midas touch.

The wanmono course (rice dish) of a kaiseki meal signifies the impending end to the culinary experience, and we are given 2 choices, of which we take both.  Wagyu beef, slow braised to exquisite tenderness and quickly pan seared with sweet corn and young onions, is served on a bed of warm white rice and nori.

The triumphant winner however, is a truffle zousui, a soft rice soup simmered in katsuo kombu dashi and garnished with corn and plentiful shavings of summer black truffle. Ocean and land gently embrace in a delicious collaboration of delicate aromas and flavors for an ultimate experience of pure goodness.

Sweet Yubari melons at its juiciest summer peak are highlighted in the dessert course as a bright orange melon soup with rum bavarois, sherry sorbet and a drizzle of kuromitsu (brown sugar syrup), all neatly presented in beautiful red lacquerware.

This beautiful kaiseki meal at Kohaku, course after delicious course, shows an honest and straight look into how Chef Koizumi sees the world.  It’s a world that joyously celebrates the seasons, that gracefully moves within the subtleties of Japanese art forms, that lovingly honours the harmony between man and nature, that cultivates mutual open-mindedness between traditional and modern, and flowing through it all like a gentle stream is a sense of comfort and peace, unperturbed.  It’s a world created on the principles of Wa Kei Sei Jaku (harmony, respect, purity, tranquility)- a world that I would love to visit again, perhaps on another drizzly summer evening where they will be waiting for me outside, welcoming me back under those majestic Japanese umbrellas.

Chef Koji Koizumi

Kohaku 虎白                                                                                                                    3-4 Kagurazaka                                                                                                         Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo                                                                                                        Japan                                                                                                             03-5225-0807

Update: Kohaku was awarded 2 Michelin stars for the 2012 Tokyo Michelin Guide- well deserved!

Random trivia:  Did you know that Yubari melons are the most expensive melons in the world? A pair of Yubaris sold for 2.5 million yen (~USD 23,800) in 2008’s first harvest auction in Sapporo, Hokkaido.  They usually sell for USD 50-100 in the market.

Shigeyoshi 重よし revisited – Tokyo, Japan

I have said this before and I will say it again.  Shigeyoshi, an elegant 40 year old restaurant in the heart of Tokyo, is my favorite restaurant in the world.  While I have been fortunate enough to experience numerous meals all over the world that have blown me away, this is the place that I always come back to, and look forward to returning to the most.  It’s not just the attentive yet unobtrusive service- that is almost a given in any restaurant in Japan.  It’s not just the highest quality ingredients that represent regional specialties and seasonal offerings.  It’s not just the consistency of astoundingly delicious meals, plate after plate, course after course.

It is Chef Kenzo Sato, the quintessence of the soul of traditional Japanese cuisine, that attracts me to this quaint 2 Michelin star haven.  He is humble and unassuming, doing it all for the simple and pure love of food and people.  He has kept the same loyal staff at his side for the majority of the 40 years (and they have happily remained by his side), knowing the importance of consistency, especially for his regulars who depend on it. He pours his heart and soul into each and every plate, and it comes through in his beautiful presentations and unforgettable flavors.

My first experience at Shigeyoshi was 6 years ago, and I will never forget the magical feeling that I had on that fateful night.  Sitting at the pristine wooden counter, directly in front of this chef who immediately drew me in with his bright smile and charisma, I remember watching his every move with wonder as he skillfully prepared each course.  It quickly became apparent to me that this man absolutely loved his restaurant and his craft, and I could taste it in every memorable bite.  His food is exciting, but also comforting, and always saturated with love and care.  At Shigeyoshi, there is no thinking, critiquing or analyzing.  One just feels, and that feeling is pure- ‘delicious’.

That extraordinary feeling has brought me back to Shigeyoshi every year since then, and through every successive meal I have fallen more in love with this amazing chef, the tranquil space that he has created and the exquisite food that has changed my life.

Every meal at Shigeyoshi is a testimony to the beauty of Japanese cuisine.  There is something so incredibly wonderful about the simplicity and sensitivity of Japanese aesthetics.  Sayori sushi, layered with a slice of perfectly pickled Kyoto turnip senmaizuke and neatly wrapped with a kombu seaweed ribbon, was served with a side of nanohana brassica lightly dressed with sesame paste- nothing more, nothing less, and it was perfect.

Coarsely chopped Japanese kuwai potatoes and arare rice crackers were made into a shinjyo, deep fried and served with warm dashi broth and spinach for a comforting earthy dish with just the right balance of moist and crunchy textures.

Matoya oysters from Mie prefecture, a staple on the Shigeyoshi menu, are famous for being sterile and bacteria-free through a special method of breeding and harvesting.  These oysters had a clean crisp cucumber finish, pairing especially well with the Dom Pérignon Vintage 2000 that we brought that evening to celebrate Chef Sato’s second Michelin star, a well deserved recognition.

The tempura course featured two delicious items- shirauo, little tiny ice fish that were still alive and kicking when they were tossed in the hot oil, and kansouimo, dried sweet potatoes from Ibaraki prefecture with a chewy and dense texture.  A smidgen of sea salt accentuated the freshness of the delicate fish and brought out the intense caramel-like sweetness of the satsumaimo potatoes.

One of my favorite courses at every Shigeyoshi dinner is the chinmi mori, an assortment of Japanese delicacies that serves as the ultimate complement to chilled sake.  This time it was sweet luscious Hokkaido uni, tender namako sea cucumbers with ponzu, sweet amaebi shrimp with its eggs, asari clams with bitter butterbur sprouts, and an unohana of shime saba, pickled mackerel coated with soy pulp.

The futamono course, a ‘lidded dish’ of warm soup and hearty seasonal offerings in ornate lacquer bowls, usually signals the halfway mark of a traditional kaiseki meal.  In stark contrast to the simplicity of his signature suppon turtle soup that he usually serves every year, this time Chef Sato presented a bold and dynamic dish of hongamo duck shinjyo topped with warm mochi and garnishes of baby turnip, thinly sliced daikon and carrot.  The shinjyo was like paté, rich, airy, buttery and divinely delicious, but Chef Sato insisted that it was only made from duck meat.

Tai sashimi (red snapper) from Naruto at its fattiest winter peak was served with thick seaweed and a rare vegetable called kanzou no me, a Chinese medicinal plant that tasted like licorice.  One of the charms of dining at the counter at Shigeyoshi is to be able to see all of the action in the kitchen, including Chef Sato’s swift and skillful hands breaking down the whole majestic tai into a beautiful sashimi plate.

Young tender bamboo shoots from Kyushu, the southern part of Japan, lightly seared and dusted with katsuobushi, were served with braised butterbur sprouts in a gorgeous black lacquer bowl for a simple aromatic mountain vegetable dish.  These fresh takenoko bamboo shoots, which don’t resemble their canned counterparts in the slightest bit, were crisp and vibrant with a slightly sweet milky flavor.

No part of a perfect red snapper goes to waste, especially when it’s a beautiful specimen from Naruto, Japan.  After we enjoyed the sashimi course, Chef Sato prepared a traditional tai no nitsuke dish with the fish head, briefly simmering it in a soy ginger sake broth.  While slurping up the gelatinous coating around the fish eye and nibbling every tender morsel of meat and skin off the bones, I realized that this is exactly what sets Shigeyoshi apart from all other restaurants for me.  Michelin star or not, it is not about complicated technical artistic plates with multiple components that aim to impress and ultimately overwhelm.  It’s about what sings to the soul, and this expertly seasoned and perfectly executed dish of braised fish head, while not sexy nor fancy, was one of the most delicious things that I have ever eaten.

Echizen gani, a type of crab that is often called the ‘king of winter food’, was served with a side of its tomalley, the savory creamy green innards that I personally find to be the best part of the crab.  These large snow crabs, whose season runs from November to March, are sold at auctions with special yellow tags on their right claw to distinguish their supreme brand.  Sweet, moist and light, this prized crab meat was particularly delicious paired with our cold sake.

For the final savory course at Shigeyoshi, the diner is always given multiple options to accompany rice, tsukemono pickles and miso soup.  In the past I have enjoyed traditional Japanese comfort dishes of kaki furai or breaded deep fried oysters, ebi ten don or shrimp tempura rice bowl, kaki age don or mixed tempura rice bowl, and oyako don which is simmered chicken and eggs over rice.  At Chef Sato’s recommendation (‘I got the most amazing toro this morning from Tsukiji!’), I ordered toro sashimi, thick tender marbled slices of buttery heaven that effortlessly melted in my mouth.

A simple dessert of intensely sweet grapefruit wedges was the most perfect way to cleanse our palates and end our wonderful kaiseki meal.

For the past 40 years Shigeyoshi has continued to maintain the same level of quality and service, staying immune from fickle trends and unnecessary pretentiousness despite its recognition as one of the best restaurants in Japan.  Shigeyoshi has it all- the finest seasonal ingredients, perfect execution, beautiful presentation, heartfelt service and memorable food.  The special added touch is the chef’s character, and the intimate experience that he has with each diner through his food, which is an extension of his soul.  His food satisfies my palate, and also conjures up tender memories from childhood and a strong sense of comfort and peace.  Dining at Shigeyoshi always reminds me of what food is ultimately about- to nourish.  I look forward to going back to Shigeyoshi on my next return home to Tokyo, where Chef Kenzo Sato will be waiting for me with that same warm welcoming smile.

Shigeyoshi 重よし                                                                                                             6-35-3 Corp Olympia 1st floor                                                                                 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku Tokyo                                                                                            Tel 03-3400-4044

Crab trivia- did you know that the Japanese Spider Crab, which is known to be the biggest crab in the world, is also the oldest, the most deep-living, and with the highest longevity (they can live for more than century)?

Les Créations de Narisawa- Tokyo, Japan

In the dead of winter, when all is dormant, a culinary shaman summons the elements of earth, fire and water, recreating vibrant landscapes of forest and sea on beautifully presented plates.  Tender green leaves sprout from moist edible dirt and pearly white shells resonate with the brilliant splash of ocean waves.  Mother earth’s energetic vibrations are translated into delicious stories through this spiritual guide, Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, whose elegant cuisine reflects the beauty of the seasons and the natural landscapes that nurture us.  He reminds us of where we came from through his edible interpretations where guests ‘should not only be eating a meal, they should absorb life itself- and there is no feeling that can exist beyond that experience, for one cannot perfect that which nature has created.’

His 2 Michelin star cuisine at Les Créations de Narisawa in Tokyo that was recently ranked 12th best restaurant in the world in the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants List has a message, and it is an important one of balance, harmony and beauty.  Through flavors that are European (having trained in Switzerland at Girardet’s, France at Robuchon and Italy at Antica Osteria del Ponte), aesthetics that are distinctly Japanese, techniques that are modern and concepts that are uniquely his own, he takes inspiration from our surroundings to create a culinary experience that awakens our senses.

In his Winter Collection 2011 menu, he guides me on a journey through ocean and land for a delicious celebration of life.  The experience begins with ‘Evolve with the Forest’, Narisawa’s edible tribute to how humans should symbiotically coexist in a forest ecosystem.  A bubbling tabletop concoction of fermenting bread, slowly rising from the gentle heat of candlelight, releases a waft of yeast aroma as our vegetable course arrives.  A fresh crimson colored radish, sprinkled with edible dirt made from deep fried mustard seeds, appears as if it was freshly pulled out of the earth.

Narisawa’s tasting menu is minimalist, listing only the main ingredient of each course and whether it is a ‘gift from the sea’ or a ‘gift from the forest’.  The first ocean treasure washes up on a plate of sea shells, Toba oysters from Mie prefecture prepared as thick fluffy fritters in a powdered charred leek batter.  While the fritters are not the most handsome looking players on the block, the intense smokiness of the charcoal black batter lends an intensity and depth of flavor that fares well with the bivalves.

Land and sea come together in beautiful union in the hirame carpaccio dish made with thinly sliced hirame from Awaji-shima, scallop cream sauce and domestic olive oil from Kagawa prefecture.  The clear plate creates an optical illusion of a vibrant garden sprouting from the ground with edible flowers, garden greens and herbs reaching tall and high up into the sky.

The spear squid dish, named ‘Wind of Basque’, undergoes a dramatic transformation in the blink of an eye, from a naked virgin to a seductress concealed in a veil of black mist.  Like a matador that whirls his red flag in one graceful arc, our server sweeps in with a spoonful of charcoal black liquid nitrogen ash made with burnt red peppers for a dramatic presentation. Burnt red pepper soup, Basque pimenton sauce and now a blanket of pepper ash create three layers of smoky pepper flavors to augment the tender squid.  2007 Domaine André Vatan Sancerre finishes all 3 of these seafood courses on a good note.

The fully risen bread, now ready for baking, is placed in a heated stone pot on a table adorned with twigs and dried citrus.  A smidgen of chestnut powder is lightly dusted onto the bread before it is covered with an oak tree lid to bake for 12 minutes.  A faint aroma of yuzu seeps through from under the lid to tantalize our appetites as we wait for what seems an eternity until our hot bread is ready to be served.

Chestnuts and roasted walnuts add a wonderful earthiness to the warm bread introduced on the menu as ‘Bread of the Forest’.  Tender young buds sprouting from the pot of soil that signify the return of spring are in fact red cabbage sprouts in a layer of dehydrated Taggiasca black olive tapenade and whipped butter.  To be able to experience the full evolution of this bread course is a unique Narisawa concept that certainly brings man and nature closer to eye level.

The Saint-Sever foie gras dish, scoring high on the pleasure factor, is my favorite dish of the evening.  The rich buttery foie with a perfectly seared exterior that is first poêléed in red wine vinegar and fond de veau, then finished with balsamic vinegar and strawberries, has the perfect balance of acidity, sweetness and savoriness that leaves me scraping the plate for every last remnant of sauce.  Our bottle of 2008 Domaine Prieuré Roch Nuits St Georges pairs especially well with this memorable course.

My expectations are heightened when they present this beautiful chemistry set-like display of soup-filled glass tubes for the next ‘gift from the sea’.  Chinese Jinhua ham soup releases an intoxicating perfume into my nares as it is poured onto our spiny lobster dish, but the end result is a disappointingly uninteresting plate of incongruous flavors.  Bitter nanohana brassica takes away from the finesse of lightly dusted spiny lobster fritto while the prominent acidity of sudachi shavings seem to compete with the savor of the prized ham broth.

The final ‘gift from the sea’ is a madai red seabream from Awaji-shima, a well prepared slice of fish with crispy skin that I also find difficulty enjoying with its diffuse and somewhat disjointed plating of components.  A scallop-esque cylinder of sesame tofu fritto, bright green wakegi onion sauce, Japanese putit vert greens, sudachi lecithin foam, and Kyoto white miso and scallop ribbon sauce are all individually delicious, but I struggle to grasp Narisawa’s philosophy of appreciating our natural landscapes through simple forms of beauty when I am too busy assembling each bite.

Chef Narisawa does, however, make up for it in his ‘gift from the forest’ dish of expertly prepared Hida wagyu rump roast where he manipulates the element of fire to express ‘rebirth’ and ‘transformation’ through another charcoal black presentation of carbonization, a recurrent theme throughout his tasting menu. Leeks are charred, allowed to mature and cure for 3 days to remove its bitterness, then coated onto the beef.  The meat is arroséed with olive oil on low heat in a frying pan, requiring 1 chef to continuously baste the meat by hand for 30 minutes on the stovetop.  The result is a tender moist cut of meat, evenly pink throughout as if temperature controlled sous vide, full of juiciness and the very flavor and essence of what beef is meant to taste like.  A red wine bordelaise, some sweet Japanese chijimi spinach, a palate cleanser of Japanese sake granité and a bottle of 1998 St. Emilion Denis Barraud ‘Lynsolence’ later, I find myself soaking up the energy of the natural elements through my satisfied taste buds.

The first dessert course, served in a dramatic glass sculpture of winter landscape, features Le Lectier pear smoked with magnolia chips, magnolia flower ice cream and a chocolate fondant made from 125% Valrhona chocolate.  A long overwhelming explanation of how chocolate can have a cacao percentage of 125% is kindly given to us by our server, but its technicality loses my attention and my brain fails to comprehend this concept.  It seems though, through swirling the thick creamy chocolate dessert in my mouth, that Valrhona has somehow devised a way to create one of the most intensely concentrated dark chocolates in a product called P125 Coeur de Guanaja chocolate, and I am happy to receive.

Warm and pleasantly bitter matcha green tea french toast is presented in a dessert duo with milk ice cream coated with sweet sugar cane powder, a contrast of temperatures and flavors.

The dessert cart at Les Créations de Narisawa is quite a spectacle, its multi-tiered trays of smoothly sanded tree barks offering an irresistible array of bite sized sweets, from tarts (pear, muscat, chestnut and Satsuma), macarons (chestnut, tea), chocolate truffles and kirsch cherries to galettes, meringues and choux cream puffs.

A signature Narisawa item, a colorful gradation of petit macarons completes the tasting menu, with flavors ranging from white chocolate to rose and cacao intensities ranging from 41% to 80%.  While a fun concept and a delight for the eyes, the macarons are dry, brittle and overly sweet.

Les Créations de Narisawa’s philosophy is an admirable one, one that honors nature, respects the elements and derives inspiration from our beautiful surroundings.  With unique concepts and new methods of preparation and cooking, my meal here proved to be a great learning experience, but somehow didn’t take my breath away as a memorable one.  With long introductions, lengthy explanations and technically elaborate dishes, I found this tasting menu to be more cerebral and less visceral, and one that I unfortunately don’t look back at and yearn to relive again.  With such passionate visions to pay tribute to the forest, the sea and the earth, one would hope that these inspirations would translate more easily, but its complexity and technicality had me distracted on more than one occasion, creating within me a sensory block to receive Narisawa’s art.

Nature, for me, is raw, bold and at times chaotic (and in that there is such beauty)- the very opposite of what I felt at Les Créations de Narisawa that night where the food, the service, the quiet dining room and the spotless kitchen (my utmost respect to the cleanest kitchen I have ever seen where they even wipe the light bulbs every day) were pristine, polite, sterile and almost too perfect.  Some day I hope to return to this restaurant during a different season and with a different mind set to be able to be more vulnerable to Chef Narisawa’s artistry and completely fall under his spell.

Les Créations de Narisawa

2-6-15 Minami Aoyama
Minato-ku, Tokyo
Japan
Phone:  +81 (3) 5785 0799

Random trivia: Oysters are considered aphrodisiacs.  According to Greek mythology, Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, sprang forth from the sea on an oyster shell and promptly gave birth to Eros, god of love.

さんだ Sanda- Tokyo, Japan

Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Chanel are arguably the top 3 powerhouse fashion brands that have been dressing, tressing and decorating beautiful women from head to toe for decades.  Their easily recognizable logos are splashed all over bags and clothes on international fashion runways and magazine covers.  Similarly, in the beef realm we have Kobe, Matsuzaka and Yonezawa, the 3 famous sandai wagyu brands that reign supreme in the bovine world with their unique method of breeding and exquisite marbled meat.  These respective haute couture and haute cuisine trios are international icons with A-list star status.

And then…there’s Hermès. Incomparable in craftsmanship, each carefully hand-constructed by dedicated artisans, ultra luxurious and a timeless classic.  The illustrious Birkin bag (a larger version of the Kelly), for one, is a fashion legend that is known to fetch up to $19K with a 6 year waiting list.  Such is the Sanda gyu in the wagyu world, a more exclusive beef brand in a league of its own with only a handful of farmers who raise less than 1000 cattle per year.  While Sanda gyu is served selectively at upscale steakhouses like Aragawa for a price that could buy an Hermès clutch, one can sample this highly prized beef at a more affordable restaurant in Tokyo called Sanda after its illustrious namesake.

The only catch is that you won’t be sinking your teeth into juicy cuts of sirloin and rib eye steak.  Sanda restaurant, tucked in a quiet neighborhood behind the Tokyo Midtown Complex in Roppongi, only serves Sanda wagyu offals.  Every part of the glorious specimen of Japanese cow is treated with utmost respect and served elegantly in kaiseki style, elevating beef organs to a 1 Michelin star status.  My first meal at Sanda 6 years ago, in the Akasaka location that has since closed, was a life-changing experience.  Luscious cuts of cow blood vessels, intestines and reproductive organs opened my eyes to a whole new world of innards and showed me the path to offal nirvana.  It was time for me to make my pilgrimage back to this holy shrine for an awakening of the senses and transcendence into offal enlightenment.

前菜:アキレス腱ポン酢

Due to the interesting selection of cuts, the chefs serve each course without an introduction.  ‘Try it first, then I will tell you’ is their motto, as they watch each diner’s reactions with mischievous smiles.  The restaurant blooms with conversation and laughter as playful exchanges between guests and chefs come naturally.  The first course, for one, had me stumped.  A dainty starter of soft semi-translucent strips with chopped scallions, spicy momiji oroshi grated daikon and ponzu sauce was all about texture- pliable with a subtle crunch, a pleasant elasticity and bounce against my teeth, all owing to the high collagen content of julienned Achilles tendon.

ハツモト中華風

Then came the hatsumoto, directly translating to ‘the root of the heart’, aka ascending aorta, the largest main artery that stems from the left ventricle of the heart to deliver oxygenated blood all throughout the body.  Thick batonnets of aorta with the texture of semi-firm cheese and a mellow buttery savor were exceptionally delicious tossed with sesame oil, shaved Tokyo negi and togarashi chile, one of my favorite bites of the evening.

ハチノス胡麻和え

Another sensational hit from the tasting menu was the hachinosu honeycomb tripe, the second stomach of the cow, with its firm chewy texture and ever so delicate hint of wonderful gaminess, balanced by the creamy white sesame dressing that made the sake flow easily.

フワ辛子醤油

Sanda is quite possibly one of the only restaurants in the world to serve beef lung and do it so elegantly, showcasing its bold minerality and iron flavor in a simple preparation with soy sauce and Japanese karashi mustard.  Referred to as fuwa by the chefs, taken from the onomatopoeia fuwa fuwa to describe something soft and fluffy, these pink cuts of pulmonary tissue were indeed spongy and light, juxtaposed against the delicate crunch of the cartilaginous bronchioles.

椀物:牛タン団子のスープ

The stand out course of the evening was the beef tongue and throat cartilage dango meatball soup, a densely packed yet soft flavorful meatball with finely chopped bits of crunchy cartilage for fun marvelous texture.  The enticing aromas that wafted through my nares and the warmth of the delicate broth that seemed to spread down my esophagus straight through to my toes left me sipping this bowl of comfort in silence with a long lingering sigh of content on the finish.

刺身:レバーの刺身

Glistening crimson red slices of liver sashimi adorned with white sesame seeds and chopped scallions were creamy and silky like crème fraîche, surprisingly sweet with absolutely no iron flavor characteristic of this organ.  A quick dip in salted sesame oil rendered these delightful segments even more slippery on the tongue, making for an intense session of culinary foreplay.

牛トロ寿司

Harami, commonly known as hanger steak from the cow’s diaphragm, was prepared as delectable sushi, one topped with wasabi and the other with Japanese karashi mustard for a side by side of eastern and western interpretations.

揚げ物:ミノの唐揚げ

As the chef placed this deep fried dish in front of me, I caught his look of challenge in eyes.  ‘Guess which part of the cow this is,’ he seemed to say with his smiling eyes, as my taste buds pondered over this elastic piece in deep thought.  Springy, pliable, but with added layers of juicy flavor through every successive bite, it was obvious that it was a part of the digestive tract.  It was mino, the first stomach, deep fried with shishito pepper and dipped in sea salt and curry powder, a delicious morsel to complement our sake.

煮物:ほほ肉のシチュー

It seemed unfair to be served only 2 bites of Sanda’s breathtakingly delicious beef cheek stew, tender cuts of richly flavored meat braised in red wine long enough to melt its connective tissue layers into liquid umami.  Having fallen under its hypnotic spell, I slurped the sauce down to its last drop with no shame, chasing this liquid gold down with a Japanese plum wine made from red wine infused plums.

焼き物:四種

For the grilled course, the chef presented the 4 beef selections of the evening.  Plates of coarsely chopped daikon radish and finely chopped cabbage were served to enjoy with the fattier cuts of grilled meat, while 3 types of soy sauce (wasabi, garlic and ginger) were presented to use as dipping sauces.

膵臓

Pancreas was surprisingly light, lean and tender, reminding me of grilled chicken thighs, going well with the wasabi soy sauce.

ほほ肉

Thinly sliced beef cheeks had a little more texture and robustness, augmented by the zing of ginger soy sauce.

やん

A first for me, the next grilled course was called yan, the thick knobby portion of connective tissue between the 2nd and 3rd stomach of the cow.  Definitely more chewy and dense, this morsel was all about flavor- the more one chews, the more flavors are extracted, until the jaw fatigues and cannot chew anymore.

ハラミ

Harami, the rear diaphragm, was unexpectedly fatty and juicy, turning into liquid fat at the first bite.  Dipped in wasabi soy sauce, these were intensely rich bites that went well with the crispness of coarsely chopped daikon radish.

鍋:牛タンのしゃぶしゃぶ

4 perfect thin slices of Sanda beef tongue were presented across the counter for the final wagyu course, a shabu shabu.

ギアラ、しびれ

Wrapped around crisp stems of mizuna greens, the delicate slices of tongue were tender and delicious, but the star players in the ponzu dish were the bite sized servings of savory giara, the 4th stomach of the cow, and shibire, buttery sweetbreads/thymus glands that simply melted in my mouth.

〆:中華麺                                                                                                                        デザート:黒胡麻アイスクリーム

Slurping ramen noodles in a light beef based broth, spiked with green onions and a generous sprinkling of coarse black pepper, followed by a simple dessert of dark black sesame ice cream, was the perfect way to end the inspirational meal of beef offals.

Only in Japan can such an experience be possible- a full course kaiseki of beef innards, expertly prepared and elegantly presented to be worthy of a Michelin star, for the quality of the Sanda wagyu brand naturally renders its innards at a similarly high quality.  Not once did I feel like I was having entrails, waste products normally thrown to the hounds, for the freshness of the ingredients, the delicacy of the flavors and the beauty of simple plating elevated the dining experience to one of luxury and finesse.  For a lavish adventure into organ meats, pay a visit to Sanda and allow the friendly welcoming staff to guide you into a whole new world of beef.

Sanda                                                                                                                            Wagyu Restaurant                                                                                                         4-5-9 Roppongi                                                                                                    Minato-ku, Tokyo Japan                                                                                 03-3423-2020

Random trivia:  Cows ‘moo’ in English, but they make other sounds around the world.

Afrikaans: moe-moe                                                                                                   Bengali: hamba                                                                                                              Dutch: boeh                                                                                                                   French: meuh                                                                                                          Hungarian: bú                                                                                                            Korean: um-muuu                                                                                                         Thai: maw maw