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.

Shigeyoshi 重よし- Tokyo, Japan

Takeshita-dori

Harajuku, a bustling district in the lively city of Tokyo, is the epicenter of cultural juxtapositions where the rich elite collide with eclectic punk fashionistas.  Where Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Christian Dior proudly line the grand shopping boulevard of Omotesando, which sees no paucity of young and old shoppers who are driven by their greed for expensive designer clothes.  Just behind omotesando is the famous Takeshita-dori, the narrow street just yards away which attracts grade school teenagers for cheap casual wear and knick knacks.   Omotesando literally means ‘the front road to the shrine’ in Japanese, and was originally constructed as the main path that led visitors to the grand Meiji shrine just behind Harajuku station.  It’s almost easy to forget that a peaceful and sacred shrine stands proudly at the periphery of this busy shopping district where people are consumed with superficiality.  In addition, the Jingu Bridge, which connects the Harajuku area to the shrine, has become the mecca for cosplay youngsters who don’t hold back in their lavish goth and lolita costumes, acting as a hub for unique and outrageous street fashion.  Do you recall Gwen Stefani giving a shout out to the Harajuku girls?  This is what she was talking about.  If you’re visiting Tokyo for the first time, a visit to Harajuku is a must- you can get a taste for many dimensions of the Japanese culture in a matter of an hour.

A stone’s throw away from the dynamic streets of Harajuku, on the 1st floor of an apartment building right on Omotesando Avenue, is a quiet unassuming restaurant with a wooden sliding door entrance.  In this peaceful haven lies Shigeyoshi, my favorite restaurant in the world.  Shigeyoshi is run by Chef Kenzo Sato, who at the tender young age of 27, opened this restaurant in 1971.  He trained at Taimeshirou in Nagoya, and named his restaurant Shigeyoshi after his mentor.  I have been coming here every year for the past 6 years or so, and it has quickly made its way into a very special place in my heart.  I go back to Tokyo every year over the Christmas and New Year holidays to visit my family, and a trip to Kyubei and Shigeyoshi are the activities which I look forward to the most.  I was proud and ecstatic to learn that Shigeyoshi was recently awarded 2 Michelin stars- these are 2 very well deserved stars, for I know first hand that the food, service and ambiance are exceptional.

The space is a comfortable size, fitting 3 tables and 12 seats at the pristine wooden counter.  There are 2 private rooms upstairs as well, but the golden seat is at the counter toward the right, in front of Chef Sato and the stovetop.  What I love about Shigeyoshi is that despite its Michelin status and its revered reputation in the culinary world, it always feels like I’m hanging out with Chef Sato in his own home.  It’s as if I dropped by his house on a weekend for a casual friendly chat as I sit on the bar stool and have him whip something up in the kitchen for me.  Especially now that he knows my likes and dislikes and even saves my favorite dish for me, I feel comfortable being with him and being in that space.  I almost forget that I’m in one of the best restaurants in Japan, as the place is warm, relaxed and serene.

There’s something to be said about this classic Japanese style of counter dining which is common in sushi restaurants.  When chef and diner are face to face, it naturally creates open dialogue and wonderful conversation.  For the diner, there is nothing more fascinating and wondrous as seeing your food be prepared right in front of you with artistic mastery and care.  For the chef, there is nothing more gratifying and humbling than watching the diner savor every bite of your creation with joy and contentment.  At Shigeyoshi, it’s always an honor and such a treasure to chat with Chef Sato and his trusted crew of 5 chefs as they prepare a meal of a lifetime. Especially with Sato, who has a great personality and calm demeanor, I never run out of interesting topics to talk about.

Chef Sato started our incredible tasting menu with an amuse bouche assortment of 黒豆 kuromame braised black beans with sprinkled gold powder, 唐墨 karasumi bottarga slice and 平目のこぶ締め hirame no kobujime kelp-infused fluke sushi.  It was such a treat to be able to commence my meal with the rich and salty flavors of bottarga.

Fresh raw oysters were quickly and skillfully shucked by Chef Sato and served with a garnish of chopped onions and his version of cocktail sauce.  We had 的矢 Matoya oysters from the Mie prefecture which claim to be 無菌 mukin or sterile and bacteria-free.  It was the first time that I had ever even heard of such a concept, and was very intrigued.  History has it that shortly after World War II, American soldiers and personnel at the American bases in Japan refused to eat oysters in Japan because they were thought to be contaminated and of bad quality.  This criticism angered and fueled scientist Tadao Sato’s quest to create safe bacteria-free oysters.  He eventually patented a process in which oysters are bred in sea water that has been sterilized by UV radiation.  These bivalves had a clean and sweet flavor with a crisp cucumber finish.

Next we had tempura of 白魚 shirauo white fish and 蕗の薹 fuki no tou.  I had a tough time researching the English translation for fuki no tou, but I finally found it: Japanese butterbur scape, or butterbur flower stalk.  They look like round plump flower buds with a light green color and a brown center.  Fuki no tou are one of the first wild mountain vegetables to sprout through the layers of melting snow as winter turns to spring.  The slight bitterness of these vegetables is addictive, and it is most popular as tempura although it can also be prepared in braised dishes and miso soup.  The warm crispy tempura was surprisingly light with very little oiliness.

Chef Sato knows my eclectic taste in food, and he was proud to present me with this assortment of Japanese delicacies.  You know when Bugs Bunny’s eyes turn into big red hearts that pop out of their sockets when he sees the sexy Lola Bunny walking by?  Well, that’s what my eyes were doing when I saw this orgasmic smorgasbord of lovely delights.  Top left was a mixture of ずわい蟹のミソと子の塩辛 salt marinated Zuwai crab digestive innards and ovaries with an intense caviar-like flavor.  This was my favorite.  Top middle was sliced sea cucumbers in a ponzu sauce garnished with yuzu zest.  I love the unique textures of fresh sea cucumbers- the outer layer is soft like a fresh mango, and the center layers are more firm, at times even crunchy.

Top right was a small serving of extremely sweet Hokkaido sea urchin which was so fresh that it had a marvelous plump texture.  Bottom right was a piece of コハダ kohada or shad that had been marinated in and mixed with おから okara, which is the dry crumbly soy by-product of tofu.  Shad, due to its fishy taste that spoils easily, is normally marinated in heavy vinegar and salt, so it was a pleasant surprise to enjoy this fish in a light and delicate preparation.  Bottom left was tofu no moromizuke 豆腐のもろみ漬け, tofu marinated in a moromi shoyu that was specially made for Chef Sato by a soy sauce maker in Hiroshima.  Moromi is the fermented mash of soybeans, whole wheat, salt and water from which soy sauce is eventually made.  Tofu was simply marinated in this special moromi for 30 minutes, which rendered it soft and creamy like cheese.  Simply amazing.

スッポンスープ Suppon soup- this is a Shigeyoshi standard in the winter season, and I always look forward to having this cup of snapping turtle soup that warms my entire body down to my very tippy toes.  It’s a common tradition to eat turtle in Japan, especially in the winter time, as it is said to have great medicinal and nutritional powers and is best enjoyed in a hot pot nabe dish.  Shigeyoshi’s soup tastes like refined beef consommé, except with a slightly thicker consistency that barely leaves a silky gelatinous veil on the tongue.

Turtle is high in collagen and can practically make any woman look 5 years younger overnight with its ability to plump up wrinkled skin.  It is also said to enhance virility and sexual stamina in men, especially when drinking its fresh blood.  I’ve tried fresh suppon turtle blood before, many years ago in my early 20′s.  The warm bright red blood was served in a shot glass mixed with sake.  It didn’t taste like anything other than the sake, but I remember feeling flushed and hot all over for a couple of hours, and wondering if that was what menopause was going to feel like.

Next was a fantastic dish of 平目 hirame flounder sashimi from Naruto city, served with a side garnish of flounder liver.  Both the regular meat and the エンガワ engawa, which is the meat from the dorsal fin, were fatty and succulent with a delicate satiny texture.

We had 2 different types of grilled fish, of which my favorite was the マナガツオの西京焼 managatsuo no saikyo-yaki,  Silver pomfret marinated in saikyo miso.  The pomfret fish, which is similar to butterfish in consistency, hailed from Naruto city in Tokushima prefecture where the previous flounder was also from.  I loved the buttery and rich texture of the fish coupled with the sweetness and lingering aroma of the white miso marinade.  Chef Sato told me that he marinates the fish in the saikyo miso marinade for anywhere from 1 to 2 days depending on the quality of the fish, and never more than that to prevent the miso from overpowering the inherent flavors of the fish.

The other grilled fish hailed from Takeoka of Chiba prefecture, a fatty and delicate piece of line-caught 甘鯛 amadai tilefish that was simply seasoned with sea salt. It was interesting that both fish dishes were plated with a small piece of pickled chorogi 長老木 which is a Japanese artichoke, aka Chinese artichoke, aka Crosnes du Japon.  These tiny bumpy vegetables are not artichokes like their name suggests, but actually a member of the mint family.  I love learning about new foods.

越前ガニ Echizen crab was at their peak during the winter season, and we enjoyed the incredible sweetness of the moist and juicy meat along with a small but tantalizing serving of its green innards.

The next dish exemplified the concept of understated beauty in Japanese art and cuisine.  A simmered 煮物 nimono dish of Kyoto turnips with fuki butterbur stems was prepared simply in a flavored broth and garnished with grated ginger.  The flavors and the presentation were both simple, yet in its simplicity and nakedness, it was beautiful.  These winter treasures were prepared to a perfect consistency in the way that would most respect its purity and essence.  The dish was warm, comforting and peaceful.

And finally, the dish that I had been waiting for.  This is my favorite dish at Shigeyoshi, and I have this every year.  河豚の唐揚げ deep fried fugu puffer fish is sure to convert even the most hardcore fried chicken fan.  Most of the pieces served this particular evening were from the fish’s head, and I thoroughly enjoyed nibbling on the moist tender meat that fell right off the bones and the big fat gelatinous lips.  This is the kind of dish that makes you so engrossed in the food that all conversation comes to a halt.  For those precious few minutes, it’s just me and the fugu, and nothing else matters.  I can honestly say that this is one of my most favorite dishes in the world.

We had some special pickled vegetables before our final rice course.  The 沢庵 takuan pickled daikon radish on the right was made at Shigeyoshi, but the 奈良漬け narazuke, pickled white melon, was made by one of my dining companion’s sisters.

At Shigeyoshi, you can choose any one of many rice dishes to end the meal.  Choices include rice with deep fried oysters kakifurai カキフライwhich I ordered.  Lovely.

Another option is rice with toro, or fatty tuna.  Scrumptious.

The kakiagedon, mixed vegetable tempura over rice, is a classic rice dish.  Delectable. Other choices include oyakodon chicken and eggs over rice, gyudon braised beef over rice, and really if there’s anything that you want, Chef Sato and crew will make it for you.

A warm and nourishing bowl of しじみ汁 shijimi jiru clam miso soup rounded out the savory portion of our incredible meal.

Delicious seasonal domestic fruits were sweet like honey and refreshing on my palate.

A traditional Japanese dessert of ぜんざい zenzai, a warm bowl of red azuki beans with mochi, was served in beautiful red lacquerware.

As if this extravagant meal wasn’t special enough, Chef Sato gifted me with a signed copy of the Shigeyoshi book that is no longer in circulation.  This beautiful book, which features Shigeyoshi’s seasonal specialties like turtle soup, doesn’t have many recipes but rather highlights the story behind each dish.  It talks about Chef Sato’s inspirations, memorable anecdotes and stories about the artisans who produce the high quality ingredients that are used in the dishes.  I especially love the essays that Chef Sato writes about certain regular customers with whom he has established a long lasting friendship, and their favorite dishes at Shigeyoshi.  It’s an amazing and touching book about the intention and the human spirit behind this wonderful restaurant.

As Chef Sato shed his chef’s jacket and joined us at the counter for an after dinner beer,  I got an even more personal look into the soul of this magnificent chef.  His gentle eyes, so full of life, lit up with each new conversation topic as his engaging exchanges revealed his genuine curiosity for life.  His calm yet uplifting sense of humor is one that I can only imagine comes from years of hardships and adversity.  It is impossible for this marvelous chef to not affect your spirit, for his vitality is infectious.  I mean, look at that smile.  If you could only have one meal in Japan, have it at Shigeyoshi.  Go with an empty stomach, and let the beauty of the chef, the restaurant and the food permeate your heart.

Shigeyoshi 重よし

6-35-3 Corp Olympia 1st floor

Jingumae, Shibuya-ku Tokyo

Tel 03-3400-4044

Random trivia:  Fugu, or puffer fish, is notorious for containing lethal amounts of the poison tetrodotoxin in its liver.  The poison acts as a paralytic and kills its victims in a slow and agonizing death from asphyxiation as it paralyzes the respiratory muscles.  To date, there is no antidote.  For this reason, only specially licensed chefs can prepare this potentially deadly fish.  A chef must undergo a 3 year apprenticeship before being allowed to take the licensing exam.  The examination process consists of a written test and a practical portion where the chef must prepare the fish and eat it.  The passing rate is only 35%, and some of the failed challenges result in death.

Aragawa 麤皮- Tokyo, Japan

When one thinks of good quality beef, the first thing that comes to mind is probably Kobe beef.  Kobe beef, which comes from cows that were born and raised in Hyogo prefecture, is highly prized for its exquisite flavor and marbled fat.  These days it’s virtually impossible to walk in to any good restaurant in any part of the world without seeing Kobe beef on the menu.  Kobe beef burgers are still all the rage at most gourmet burger joints and restaurants in the US.  However, it’s important to make the distinction of true Kobe beef and Kobe-style beef.  True Kobe beef comes from Japan, and the cows are raised in a very specific manner.  Every day they’re massaged by hand with an exorbitant sake rub, fed a bottle of beer, taken for regular walks, and lovingly brushed and caressed by their caretakers.  They’re treated better than the average human (until they’re slaughtered, of course).  Kobe-style beef comes from cows that are domestically raised in the US, and they don’t get nearly the same amount of love and attention as their genuine counterparts.

Courtesy of Orlando Calvos on Wikipedia

In Japan, Kobe beef is very popular and praised for its high quality, but it’s not the holy grail.  In Japan there are many more types of exquisite cattle that are even better than Kobe-gyu (gyu means beef in Japanese).  Perhaps you have heard of Matsuzaka-gyu and Yonezawa-gyu, which are just as popular and famous, and are similarly raised with great care and effort.  Classical music is sometimes played in these farms, as it is believed that happy relaxed cows make tastier beef.  Numerous other brands of beef exist in all prefectures of Japan, such as Ishigaki-gyu, Iga-gyu, Yamagata-gyu, Saga-gyu, Maezawa-gyu, Hida-gyu and Konoe-gyu just to name a few.  If you travel to any countryside in Japan, you’ll likely be able to find an exclusive and rare brand of beef, raised by a solo farmer, that’s worthy of competing against Kobe beef.  According to the Japanese beef quality grading system, only 3 types of beef make the top cut, and Kobe beef isn’t on the list.

If you want to see what these special cows taste like, you’ve got to travel to Japan.  There’s really no other country in the world where the unprecedented quality of the beef exceeds anything beyond your wildest imagination.  There’s one restaurant in Tokyo, a very noble and well respected establishment, that is debated to serve the best steak in the country.  43 years ago Aragawa took up a small restaurant space in the basement of a nondescript office building in Shimbashi.  Since then, it has established a reputation for being the best steak house in the country, as well as notoriety for being the most expensive.

The restaurant was opened by owner Akira Kazama, who spent numerous years studying and tasting all of the different brands of beef from Hyogo prefecture.  He decided to open Aragawa when he finally met his dream bovine, the Sanda-gyu 三田牛.  When I first visited this restaurant 5 years ago in its original location (and frankly shady location, as it was right next to a karaoke snack pub on an otherwise deserted basement hallway), I was blown away by the unmeasurable sweetness and juiciness of the steak.  I was excited to revisit Aragawa on my recent visit back home, especially after finding out that it won a Michelin star.

Thankfully, Aragawa has moved into a new location in Onarimon.  The restaurant is on the street level now, and has a more fitting beautiful exterior that reflects its distinguished reputation.  Once I opened the large wooden door, it was like stepping into a movie set from The Titanic.  The decor was still the same, in old world aristocratic style with velvet carpets, antique wooden chairs, plush silk embroidered sofas and fine bone china perfectly laid out on the crisp white linen tablecloths.  Chefs in the open kitchen wearing tall white hats greeted us with a smile, as the tuxedo clad maitre d’ with slicked back hair bowed down to waist level in an honoring Japanese welcome.  Like the previous space, there were only 6 tables here in this exclusive restaurant, and as always, it was a full night.

Aragawa offers one steak course.  There is no written menu, and the chef’s selections for the day are recited by the waitstaff.    You are allowed to select 2 seafood appetizers from a choice of 4 or 5, which is then followed by the house salad, the steak dish, and coffee or tea.  It’s a straightforward, simple no-fuss menu that flaunts supreme ingredients and flawless preparation.  We started with the house specialty, the Aragawa smoked salmon.   I had this on my previous visit, and it was the most exquisite and divine piece of smoked salmon that I have ever had in my life.  They always use domestic wild salmon, and its origins vary from season to season depending on where they can find the best quality for this dish.  This tender piece of king salmon from Laosu Hokkaido, was practically dripping in fatty juices and it had the perfect amount of smoky flavor.  Unlike traditional and commercial thinly sliced smoked salmon, this thick cut of salmon, in all its flesh and skin, was truly a magical and incomparable dish.

For the second seafood appetizer course, my dining companions had the poached Hokkaido sea scallop with beurre blanc.  It was around this time that our bottle of wine arrived at our table.  The wine list here at Aragawa was a compilation of the ‘Best of’.  Only the finest wines in the world would be appropriate to complement the finest cut of beef, and I was amazed at all of the distinguished pedigrees that I was seeing on the 5 page wine menu.  Haut Brion, St-Émilion and Lynch Bages stood out in the Bordeaux dominant line up, and we chose a 1995 Château Canon La Gaffelière Saint-Émilion.  This divine bottle of wine, with silky tannins and a hint of dark berry undertones, was a superb choice for our meal.

For my second seafood appetizer, I passed on the tiger prawns and hairy crab, and went for the fresh Hokkaido scallop that was quickly salt cured in its shell.  The moist white adductor muscle flesh, virtually raw and extremely tender, was still attached to the shell.  It was served with an assortment of pancultural condiments, which included lemon, wasabi, chopped scallions, soy sauce, red shiso leaves and cocktail sauce.  This fresh hunk of scallop was already delicious on its own, and I enjoyed it most with a simple squeeze of citrus.

Normally when you go to a chop house, they will ask you what cut of beef you want and how you would like it cooked- well done, medium or rare.  Here at Aragawa no such questions are asked.  They’ve already done the choosing for you, and they serve you their choice cut for the day with full confidence.  The cut of choice may change depending on the condition of the Sanda-gyu cows, but it’s usually a sirloin, cooked medium rare.  Given that they only raise a cattle of less than 1000 cows a year, this prized meat is a rare treasure.

The meat was grilled in a special brick oven heated with binchō-tan, a high quality Japanese charcoal made from oak in the Wakayama prefecture, and seasoned with only salt and pepper to enhance the natural flavors of the beef.  The sirloin was cooked to perfection, with a smoky sear on the surface and a glistening color of medium rare red in the center.  The knife simply fell through the tender meat fibers down to the porcelain plate, and it was like cutting through air.  With each bite, a squirt of warm savory juice filled my oral cavity with a luscious aromatic veil, while the marbled fat permeated my taste buds with a light and sweet flavor.  This fatty cut of meat wasn’t heavy at all, and I finished this 200 gram portion of Sanda-gyu without feeling its physical weight in my stomach.  Words cannot describe how incredible this steak was.

I was glad that I made this return trip to Aragawa for the Sanda-gyu steak.  I can honestly say that it’s the best steak that I’ve ever had in my life, and probably will ever have had in my life.  The best things in life don’t come for free though.  You’re probably wondering how much this decadent steak feast cost.  Let’s just say that it’s probably the most expensive piece of meat in the world…but it was worth every yen.

Aragawa

3-23-11 Onarimon Odakyu Building 1st floor

Nishi-shimbashi, Minato-ku Tokyo

Tel 03-3438-1867

Random trivia: Did you know that some Japanese brand name cows receive “happy endings” after their massages, which is believed to stimulate blood flow and improve marbling texture?  TMI (too much information)…

Ogasawara Hakushakutei 小笠原伯爵邸ー Tokyo, Japan

In case you haven’t heard me say this enough times in my blog already, Tokyo has surpassed Paris as the most gourmet city in the world, winning the most Michelin stars on the 2010 guide and boasting the most 3-starred Michelin restaurants of any city.   It was only a matter of time, as I know first hand that there is really no city quite like Tokyo where you can walk into any restaurant or hole in the wall and come out satisfied.  Even the 7-Eleven convenience stores serve gourmet rice balls and take away bentos that are to die for.  I’m proud to call this wonderful city my second home, and I was excited to explore more Michelin star restaurants on my annual trip home over the winter holidays.

Some important friends were in town, and I was given the responsibility of choosing the perfect place to celebrate the end of 2009.  As I perused the Michelin guide, a certain restaurant caught my eye.  Ogasawara Hakushakutei (which means Count Ogasawara’s residence) grabbed my attention for a few reasons.  First of all, it was housed in a historic mansion that used to be inhabited by a Japanese count.  Secondly, it offered creative Spanish cuisine by a Spanish chef.  Lastly, I couldn’t believe that it was practically around the corner from our house, the same house that I grew up in.  How did I not know about this place all these years?

Chef Gonzalo Armando Alvarez Melchor, who trained in Barcelona, took over as executive chef at Ogasawaratei in 2009.  They offer set course menus for both lunch and dinner, which reflect traditional Spanish concepts with a touch of contemporary mischief using imported Spanish delicacies and local Japanese vegetables.  I took one look at their sample menu online, and I knew that we were in for a real treat.  I was delighted to see that they also had a café and bar that served classic Spanish tapas like tortilla de patatas and pescaditos fritos.

The Grand Salon

As I walked up to the restaurant on the pebbled pathway, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  Here in the middle of Shinjuku district, the busiest district of the most densely populated city in the world, was a beautiful mansion built in 1927 that had been left protected and well preserved.  An old iron lamppost, the kind that you see on the cobblestone streets of Paris, cast a soft glow of light onto the tree that shielded the terracotta tiles on the roof of this Spanish style villa.  The grand entrance had a red carpet that led to the reception desk, after which the staff escorted us past the Grand Salon and the fountain courtyard to the waiting lounge.  Stained glass windows, a majestic chandelier and antique wooden furniture adorned the beautiful lounge where a female pianist played classical music all night long.  Creaky wooden floors and marbled pillars in numerous private dining rooms throughout this 2 story residence demonstrated old world charm and integrity.  I felt like a butler in coattails wearing a monocle would show up any minute, and in fact it practically happened.  Perfectly coiffed staff wearing crisp black tuxedos guided me every step of the way through my royal restaurant voyage, treating me like I was the mistress of the house.  The grand dining room, next to the Moorish influenced cigar room with a blue-gold ceiling and mosaic tiles, was pristine, clean and sharp.

The level of professionalism that I observed in the staff was first class, and it simply did not compare to any other restaurant that I have ever been to.  Swift, sharp, intelligent, courteous and calm, every person was at the top of their game.  I felt really comfortable here because I knew that I was in good hands.

La ligera crema de ajo blanco y bastón de Jamón Ibérico de Bellota crujiente con queso de Arzúa-Ulloa

We started our tasting menu with an ajo blanco mousse flavored with olive oil, ham and raw almonds, and garnished with fine bread crumbs and chopped chives.  The mousse had an incredibly light flavor that was enhanced by the subdued saltiness of a layer of tomatoes and anchovies that we were surprised to find at the bottom.   Although this dish had an overall rich velvety texture, there was still a hint of graininess from the ground raw almonds which I really enjoyed.  Our garlic cream mousse came with a crispy baton slathered with Arzua Ulloa cheese, black truffle powder and crusted jamón ibérico de Bellota .  Oh, if they would only package these tantalizing baton chips by the dozens and sell them in supermarkets, this world would be a better place.

Los guisantes bajo un velo de caldo de Ibéricos, erizos de mar y un aceite de piñones ahumados

A warm silky blanket of Iberico broth gelée tucked a family of tender young peas into their porcelain crib along with their jamón ibérico companions.  Each fresh pea burst with flavor in my mouth as it also released a veil of smoky aroma from the pine nut infused olive oil.  The salty bits of chopped ham, the crunchiness of the chopped pine nuts and the creamy ooze of the sea urchin all danced on my tongue in a textural dance off.

El calamar impregnado en Sanpoukan, hilos verdes, tallos de acelgas y canela cassia

I loved the playful presentation of the citrus flavored squid dish where the head and the legs engaged in a private tête-à-tête.  The squid was marinated for 30 minutes in Sanpoukan juice (a Japanese citrus) before it was grilled à la plancha.  The moment this plate was placed in front of me, I could smell the faint aroma of Sanpoukan tickling my olfactory cells as I admired the architecture of the presentation from all angles.  The swirls of sliced green beans had a great crunchy texture as well as the small dices of red and yellow swiss chard stalks that embellished its surface.  The alternating dots of squid ink and cinnamon paprika sauce were the perfect acccompaniment to the exquisite and tender cephalopods.

La Cigala, cubitos de Hino-Na aderezados con un aceite de ajos confitados y salsa de queso de Galicia

We all loved the delicate grilled scampi that lounged on a mattress of white Tetilla cheese sauce and a pillow of Hinona turnips that had been marinated in confited garlic oil.  5 dots of green parsley oil looked lovingly at the majestic piece of succulent and juicy shrimp as they tried to jump on to the swirly mattress of creamy Galician cheese.

El foie à la plancha, salsa de uvas, arena de azúcar moscabado y virutas de macademia

Grilled foie gras is always a crowd pleaser, especially with the crowd that I was dining with on this special evening.  The succulent foie gras was perfectly seared with a coat of dark brown muscovado cane sugar and topped with light snowflakes of shaved macadamia nuts.  Peeled naked grapes and figs escorted this noble monarch of Liverville down the royal carpet of rich red wine and green Swiss chard sauce.  This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.

The grilled foie gras went especially well with our bottle of house red wine that we ordered for our dinner.  Palacio del Conde de Ogasawara’s 2006 Ramón Bilbao limited edition Tempranillo was exquisite.  I was impressed that this restaurant had a special house wine made by the one of the most famous and reputable bodegas in Spain.  I was even more impressed by the startling high level of service here at Ogasawara.  I keep a collection of wine labels, and have a special wine label kit where I stick a clear adhesive sheet to the label, peel it off and store it in a special folder.  I forgot to bring a sticker, or étiquette de vin, and asked them if I could take the empty bottle home with me.  Within minutes, the sommelier returned with the wine label already placed on an étiquette sheet for me to take home.  I was speechless.

El arroz negro con sofrito de sobrasada, pimientos salteados y flores de nira

This was my other favorite dish of the night that simply blew me away.  The arroz negro, rice cooked with black squid ink, had a dazzling texture that was like mochi rice.  It had fantastic ‘koshi’, a dense texture that became richer and more elastic with each chew.  Small morsels of spear squid mixed in with the arroz negro also added an auxiliary level of ‘koshi’ texture to the dish.  Annular drizzles of yellow saffron sauce added an ethereal aroma that perfumed the dish, while a Majorcan sobrasada sausage sofrito added tang and smokiness.  Sautéed yellow, orange and red bell peppers contrasted the arroz with its crunchy texture while a Japanese garlic chive (nira) flower graced this heavenly plate like a star on a Christmas tree.

La lucerna escalfada en un caldo azafranado, puerros cocidos en las brasas y caviares de colores

I didn’t care much for the fish dish, made with an unusual fish called a gurnard or sea robin (and called houbou in Japanese).  The fish filet, served in a saffron sauce with hearty Incan potatoes, was a tad overcooked and didn’t have much flavor.  Shimonita leeks were prepared in a traditional Catalan style of cooking calçots, which are Spanish scallions.   At a calçotada, a calçot cookout celebration at the end of winter in Spain, the outer layer is charred over an open flame,  then wrapped in newspaper to keep them warm and tender.  Afterward, the blackened skin is carefully peeled off to enjoy the soft and tender flesh.  I loved the touch of  molecular gastronomy in the garnish, with dainty colorful paprika ‘caviar’, made by spherification, brightening up the dish.

La presa Ibérica, pure de navos de Kioto, romero y salsa de turron

The savory portion of our tasting menu ended with a bang with the tender and juicy cut of Iberian pork presa, which is a succulent cut of shoulder meat. The sweetness of the red wine sauce was in perfect balance with the richness of the luscious pork fat, and crunchy sprinkles of sweet turrón nougat rounded out all of these flavors.  I loved the hints of select Japanese vegetables used throughout the course, such as the Shogoin turnips from Kyoto which were puréed into a silky spoonful of delight.  Bright green leaves of sautéed spinach were curled back into a shoulder stand and awaited their turn to strut their stuff down the catwalk on my tongue.

La sopa de mandarina y espuma de vino tinto

Our pre-dessert palate cleanser was a refreshing soup of mandarin orange mikan capped with a baby pink foam made with Spanish red wine.  The fine miniscule espuma bubbles released a rapturous burst of wine and citrus bouquets as they dissolved and disappeared in my mouth.

El mousse de chocolate y café, trufa con sablé de queso y helado de haba tonka

The sleek and velvety coffee-flavored chocolate mousse gave way to a hidden center of Galician tetilla cheese filling that tasted like a firm version of Mascarpone.   Cinnamon cookie crumbles held their own and formed a crunchy foundation for the soft mound of chocolate mousse as a roll of cheese sablé dusted with chocolate powder saluted 2 succulent cherries marinated in eau de vie.  The most amazing scoop of tonka bean ice cream waited next in line on the dessert assembly line, imparting a wondrous flavor reminiscent of vanilla and almond. 

Dulces pequeños

Delightful petit fours of chocolate almond and green tea cookies finished our sensational meal at this historic mansion.

Was this restaurant worthy of 1 Michelin star?  For the spectacular and creative food, the spot-on attentive service and a rare opportunity to dine in an illustrious historic estate?  I say 2 stars.   After dinner we took a walk outside to their beautiful backyard.  As we strolled through the perfectly manicured garden and gazed up at the stars through the wrought iron gazebo, I tried to imagine what it was like here 70 years ago when the Count would have his lavish balls and afternoon tea parties.  I could almost hear the scratchy tunes of Duke Ellington playing through the phonograph as women in flapper dresses and cloche hats pranced about on the lawn while their husbands smoked cigars and talked about Al Capone’s latest misconducts.  Being on the grounds of Count Ogasawara’s mansion was a time trip to a special era, and it seemed far removed from the flashing neon signs and noisy pachinko parlors of Tokyo’s concrete jungle.

Ogasawara Hakushakutei

Palacio del Conde de Ogasawara

10-10 Kawada-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-0054

03-3359-5830

Random trivia: Did you know that tonka beans are illegal in the US?  These black wrinkled seeds have a magical aroma that is reminiscent of vanilla, almonds, cinnamon and cloves.  It’s frequently used in perfumes and tobacco.  The seed and its oils contain coumarin, which is a potent anticoagulant.  For this fact, its import and use in food has been strictly banned by the US Food and Drug Administration.  (Pssst… if you search online, there are places where you can order it on the black market)