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)?

The Tasting Kitchen

And on the 20th night, Lane created…..tajarin.

IMG_0452When AK Restaurant + Bar on Abbot Kinney Blvd in Venice abruptly closed its doors in June, they decided to make the most of this change and create a temporary transitional restaurant concept.  Chef Casey Lane of ClarkLewis restaurant drove down with devoted staff all the way from Portland Oregon to open what they call ‘a transparent culinary case study’.  For 8 weeks only, they will offer a constantly changing menu featuring bold flavors of Spanish, Moroccan and Italian influence using fresh seasonal ingredients.  The menu is comprised of a list of basic food items that are to be presented- oysters, farm egg, sausage, heirloom lettuce, cod, lamb, steak, pork, burger, etc.  The blank line following each item is then carefully handwritten each day by the staff, filled in with the evolving concept and preparation du jour.  The Italian wine and spirits list is also unique and unconventional, itself also changing to fit the menu concept.

IMG_0882Fortunately, I was lucky enough to score a table attended to by Maxwell, one of Lane’s trusted team members that he brought from Portland.  I have never met a server who was more knowledgable and passionate about the restaurant’s vision, food preparation and wines, than Maxwell.  The way he described each dish- the marinade, the length of time of preparation, the oils used, the spices and herbs, how coarsely something was ground, how firmly the potatoes were pressed onto the cast iron grill- and his incredible knowledge of each wine- which region of Italy it is from, how long the grapes were sweetened on the vine, how the subtle sweetness would complement the dishes we ordered- made mIMG_0456e just as excited and passionate about the experience.  Halfway through my dinner I started to wonder if he was actually the mastermind behind this project.  It was a pleasant reminder that it’s not just the food or restaurant decor that make a dining experience special- it’s the staff and their temperament.  If you can sense that they share the same passion, enthusiasm and philosophy as the chef, it elevates the meal to a whole new level.

We started off with the ‘Farm Egg’.  A whole fresh farm egg perfectly cooked in a small cast iron pan served with hand cut tajarin pasta in an italian sage brown butter sauce.  Tajarin pasta are egg yolk rich noodles from the Piedmont region of Italy which are cut into fine thin strands. This pasta was some of the best that I’ve had in a very long time.  Such incredible texture with the just the right firmness and density (what we call ‘koshi’ in Japanese), a robust and slightly chewy consistency reflective of fresh made pasta yet with a delicate finish.  These noodles were perfectly cut and seasoned, and it went exquisitely with the aptly paired Piedmont Cortese white, which had a nice rich muscat sweetness yet with a light finish.

The ‘Beans’ dish had yellow and green wax beans, quickly blanched and tossed with ground walnuts, hazelnuts and argan oil, served with burratta and jamon iberico pata negra.  Another dish that just blew me away and made me go on “Wow” repeat mode.   I never imagined that a simple bean salad dish would ever make me surrender like this.  The incredible textures of the crisp wax beans with the finely ground nuts and soft burratta cheese were incredibly pleasing.  The deep nuttiness of the argan oil coupled with the saltiness of the tender jamon iberico was amazing.  Every component of this dish played strongly in my mouth.  I could eat this every day.

Next we had the ‘Wings’, fried chicken wings in a flax seed and apple cider marinade with chopped spring onions. The wings were perfectly cooked with crispy flavorful skin on the outside and moist tender fall-off-the-bones meat on the inside.  The apple cider marinade was nicely sweet and tart.  These wings should come by the bucket.  They paired nicely with the Puglia primitivo red.

The ‘Mackerel’- marinated and grilled fresh mackerel served with cast iron grilled potatoes, sausage and piquillo peppers, with a maitake prosecco butter lemon sauce.  The mackerel was perfectly seasoned and blackened, and it was splendid with the intense smokey flavors of the sausage and peppers.  The sauce was not as memorable, but the overall dish was certainly packed with some powerful flavors.  It was beautiful with a glass of white Slovenian ribolla gialla that Maxwell again successfully paired for us.

The ‘Escarole’ salad had olive oil poached albacore tuna, dressed with fried capers and a viniagrette made from the tuna stock and lemon. The soft flavors of the poached albacore went well with the distinct sharp bitterness of the escarole, and I loved the crunchy texture and saltiness that the fried capers brought to the dish.

For dessert we had ‘Fruit’, the lemon semifreddo with pistachios and honey. The lemon gelato was nicely tart and smooth, though I was more intrigued by the complimentary glass of dessert wine that Maxwell generously served us (can you tell that I’m in love with this guy Maxwell?!).  The La Roncaia Picolit white, made from grapes sun dried on straw mats, was sweet like honey and smooth like silk.  Divine.

IMG_0488I wish I had more space in my stomach to try everything on the menu.  I’ll have to return soon before this temporary culinary experiment, more like a transitory art exhibit, closes and the new full fledged restaurant opens in that space.  Hurry and make your reservation soon before this magical experience disappears just as quickly as the wind.  They’re open for lunch and they have a walk-in communal table by the bar if you can’t score dinner reservations.

Update: The Tasting Kitchen, during its temporary run, has been so popular that it has continued on to remain as a permanent restaurant.  They’re now open for lunch too, and they still serve fantastic food and cocktails.

The Tasting Kitchen

1633 Abbot Kinney Boulevard
Venice, CA 90291-3744
(310) 392-6644

Random trivia: Cooking in a cast iron pan can really increase your daily iron intake, which is especially good for women who are at risk for iron deficiency anemia.  Researchers found that the iron in one serving of tomato sauce increased from under one milligram to almost 6 mg when cooked in an iron pan. The iron in scrambled eggs increased from 1.5 mg to 5 mg. Most surprising is applesauce. A 100-gram serving went from .35 mg of iron to over 7 mg when cooked in cast iron. Wow.