L’oasina- Tokyo, Japan

Hidden in the depths of the congested Tokyo concrete metropolis is a little known oasis.  A place of tranquility and purity where people come for rest and rejuvenation…L’oasina.

‘L’oasina’ is Italian for oasis, and this restaurant was born out of a deep respect for the gifts that mother nature intended for us to enjoy.  Its philosophy returns to the basics of how people used to live, growing fresh vegetables on untainted rich soil and raising free-range livestock on well tended land.  The introduction of pesticides, hormones and steroids have disrupted the natural balance of life on this planet, and it has been at the root of many diseases.  It is a sad reality that clean and healthy food has to be labeled ‘organic’ or ‘antibiotic-free’ for us to know that it’s safe for us to eat.  If it’s not labeled, then who knows what synthetic chemicals hide within the fibers and cells of the fruits of our earth.  Modern demand for year-long availability of produce wastes valuable land and resources by forcing vegetables to grow out of season under unnatural conditions.   There is no arguing that organic fruits at the peak of their true season are at their best and most delicious state, and that eggs from free-range healthy chickens are superior to those raised in dark tiny coops.

L’oasina is a quaint café/restaurant that honors the spirit of pure unprocessed delicious food.  They understand that the natural balance between nature and man can only be maintained through mutual respect and care.  They also know that organic food is the best form of medicine to sustain a healthy body, and the best nourishment to satisfy the palate.  One of my good friends, a floral designer, introduced me to this haven when we met up for lunch one afternoon in Tokyo.  Although we were in the middle of Gaien-mae, in a small street just off of the busy Aoyama-dori boulevard, the inside of the restaurant was quiet and peaceful.  She reserved the best table for our lunch, a small semi-private alcove framed with draping white curtains and decorated with a crystal chandelier and a Matisse-esque fresco.   The rest of the dining room in the back, with antique lamps, leatherbound books and a cabinet full of decorative cups, was reminiscent of a comfortable sitting area in a countryside English mansion.

The cozy space is run by Chef Mariko Nakayamada, who trained at the Professional Culinary Institute in California.  After gaining professional experience working in a restaurant in America, she returned to her native country to open a place where she could honor her farm-to-table philosophy.  She works closely with farmers and artisans who share the same philosophy, and she only incorporates ingredients that she feels are safe and healthy.  Every menu item is followed by a description of where it was grown and who farmed it.  Vegetables are delivered from Kudo-farms in Nagano, Eiza-farms in Nara, and Oowada-farms in Ibaraki.  Featured meats may include herb pork from Yabuta-farms in Hokkaido,  Date red pork from Izunuma-Nohsan, Jidori chicken from Miyazaki, or free-range Hokkaido beef.  Every product is guaranteed to be pure, natural, nutritious and delicious.

L’oasina is affiliated with Keizanso, a natural hot springs ryokan in Shiogawara-Onsen in Gunma prefecture.  Here, in addition to eating healthy organic food, one can also soak their bodies in the therapeutic mineral waters.   Keizanso promotes local agricultural projects in addition to growing their own vegetables.  They even serve unpasteurized milk, distributed by a local farmer, that is said to be healthy and safe.  At L’oasina in Tokyo, they sell vegetables and homemade miso that are made in Keizanso.  They also sell the savory Bolivian pink salt that they use in all of their cooking.

Organic vegetable salad  自然農法のサラダ, ボリビアの岩塩, アルメリア砂漠のエキストラバージンオリーブオイル

For lunch, you can choose 3 courses ranging from 1,500 yen to 3,800 yen, depending on how many entrées you want to have.  We opted for the mid-range 2,500 yen course with 2 entrées.  The salad, made with various leafy greens, red cabbage, apples, dates and carrots, was served with a bottle of Castillo de Tabernas olive oil and some pink Bolivian rock salt.  They wanted us to enjoy and savor the inherent sweetness of the organic vegetables, so a minimal drizzle of oil and a pinch of salt was all that was needed.

Home baked bread with olive oil  パン、アルメリア砂漠のエキストラバージンオリーブオイル

Freshly baked bread came out warm and toasty, and again we enjoyed this with a simple dip in the green olive oil that had an immense sweet and fruity flavor.  This olive oil is produced near the desert village of Tabernas in Spain, a region that is said to receive the most sunlight per year in Europe.  Ideal climates and stable temperatures produce a smooth oil that is rich in aroma and flavor.  I’ve been using this oil for many years in my kitchen after discovering it during a taste test at Surfas.

Kabocha gratin カボチャのグラタン

A small but filling serving of kabocha Japanese pumpkin gratin was creamy and luscious.  The dish was perfectly prepared- it was all about the naturally sweet flavors of the organic kabocha with only a hint of cream and cheese to enhance, not overpower, the vegetable.

Momotaro tomato juice 桃太郎トマトのジュース

Drink choices included this refreshing Momotaro tomato juice, Unshū mikan juice and apple juice from Keizanso.  Momotaro tomatoes are perhaps the most popular tomatoes in Japan for its subtle sugar and acid flavors.  Named after Momotaro, a popular hero from an ancient Japanese folklore, these medium sized pink tomatoes have a wonderful rich flavor that is best enjoyed raw.  I fell in love with my glass of fruity tomato juice, and for a second I contemplated moving back to Tokyo just to have this every day.

Lentil and vegetable soup レンズ豆と野菜のスープ

The soup was simple but comforting and warm.  It was packed with celery, onions and carrots and made with a simple bouillon.  I loved the simplicity of this dish- often times we think more is better.  More seasoning, more zest, more ingredients, more garnish and more color.  And what for?  A bigger price tag without added nutritional value.

Yabuta Farm roast pork with soy-based sauce やぶ田ファームのハーブ豚のロースト 和風醤油ソース

A succulent slice of Yabuta Farm roasted herb pork was dressed with a refreshing soy and grated daikon radish sauce.  It was served with simple roasted farm vegetables of sweet potato and swiss chard.  The chef let the superb quality of the products speak for themselves by preparing them in a simple and minimal fashion.

Assorted organic vegetable plate ベジタブルプレート

The remaining entrée choices for lunch that day were an assorted vegetable plate and a Japanese seabass with garlic cream sauce, but given the restaurant’s dedication and statement to serving fresh organic vegetables, I opted for the vegetable dish.  The colorful assortment included onions, purple potatoes, leeks, carrots, sweet potatoes, chard and maitake mushrooms.  These roasted vegetables were served naked but for a dash of Bolivian rock salt, and that was all that they needed.  Everything tasted fresh, sweet and vibrant.  I felt like I was discovering their true taste for the first time in my life. 

Apple tiramisu リンゴのティラミス

Desserts were an extra 500 yen each, and they were worth every extra bit that we paid.  The apple tiramisu was rich and decadent.

Goat cheese tiramisu 山羊のチーズのティラミス

I loved the contrast of the light and fluffy goat cheese zabaglione against the bitterness of the espresso soaked ladyfingers.  Other dessert choices that day included an apple and hazelnut pound cake and several flavors of home made gelato (orange, brown sugar, sweet potato, maple walnut, Dainagon azuki, rare cheesecake and strawberry).  I wish I could have tried them all.

I loved the way that L’oasina’s food made me feel both emotionally and physically.  I felt full from our wonderful lunch, but I didn’t feel heavy.  I felt happy that I was feeding my body with healthy natural food that tasted amazing.  Chef Nakayamada is so dedicated to her cause that she conducts cooking classes, lectures and seminars in both English and Japanese.  L’oasina is a true urban oasis- we felt so peaceful in our secret little alcove, sheltered and protected from the crowded streets, that before we realized it we had been there for 3 hours.  If your body and soul ever feel weighed down by the stress of city life, take a journey into this tiny oasis by Aoyama station and remove all of those free radicals and toxins with mother nature’s gifts.  Enter this place of rejuvenation where time seems to slow down to a perfect pace.

L’oasina

東京都港区南青山2-18-20 南青山コンパウンド1F
107-0062, Japan
Tel: 03-5785-2833

Minimi-Aoyama Compound 1st floor

2-18-20 Minami-Aoyama

Minato-ku, Tokyo, 107-0062

Random trivia: Did you know that purple potatoes get their purple color from the same antioxidants that are found in blueberries and açaí?  Anthocyanin is what gives these products their characteristic deep purple hue.

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Tapas Molecular Bar- Tokyo, Japan

His culinary Holiness Chef Ferran Adrià has revolutionized the world of gastronomy with his inventive and playful style of cooking.  Many of you have probably heard the sad news that the holy grail of all restaurants, El Bulli, will be temporarily closing its doors in 2012.  Initial rumors reported that Chef Adrià was going to open a culinary academy instead, but he later refuted these rumors and announced that he was going to reopen in 2014.  Whatever the case, nobody can argue that he was at the forefront of creating a whole new style of haute cuisine centered around the disciplines of molecular gastronomy.

Of all of the culinary trends that we have seen these past few years, this style of scientific gastronomy has had the greatest appeal to me.  I am a self proclaimed science geek who did a Chemistry thesis on the different chemical components of acid rain for my high school studies.  I was on the math team and competed as the science nerd on our BrainBowl team (our version of inter-scholastic Trivial Pursuit).  I was a Biochemistry major in college, and I chose the path of medicine for my career.  So when the high-energy particles of science and food collided, they broke the carbon chains of monotony and converted boredom into pleasure through a stable process called culinary fusion.  I love when spectacular food appeals to my 5 senses, but I love it even more when it stimulates my cerebral cortex.  You want to talk about how calcium chloride cross-links sodium alginate polymers to form jello?  Pull up a chair and let me pour you a glass of wine, sexy.  Purrrrr…..

Fortunately I live in Los Angeles where this culinary trend has taken off.  I had a few excellent meals at The Bazaar last year, run by one of Ferran Adrià’s disciples Chef José Andrés.  Chef Marcel Vigneron has incorporated similar techniques in his innovative cuisine, as demonstrated in his Hatchi dinner this past December.  Liquid nitrogen infused cocktails have been popping up in almost every bar around town.  On my recent pilgrimage to Tokyo, I had an opportunity to have a full-blown molecular cuisine orgy at the Tapas Molecular Bar.

Situated on the 38th floor of the majestic Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Nihombashi Tokyo, this exclusive restaurant has been raising a lot of buzz since it opened with the hotel in December 2005.  It feels more like an exclusive club than a restaurant, as it occupies only a tiny bar counter space in the middle of the Oriental Lounge adjacent to the hotel lobby.  The kitchen is run by head chef Jeff Ramsey, who used to work with none other than José Andrés at Minibar in Washington D.C.  Ramsey, who is a Japanese-American hapa, is the perfect fit for this title- with his experiences working with both types of cuisines in both countries, he can formulate innovative avant-garde menu concepts with traditional flavors which will still appeal to the Japanese palate.  The Tapas Molecular Bar has won 1 Michelin star for the second consecutive year.

There are only 2 seatings a night at 6pm and 8:30pm, and only 8 seats per seating.  The reservations attendant informed me that I had to be punctual for my reservation as the meal was going to start exactly on time.  Each item on the 20-25 course menu is introduced and described by the chef and subsequently served to all guests at the same time.  My dining partner and I arrived 30 minutes early to our 8:30pm reservations, and enjoyed a cocktail in the chic Oriental Lounge overlooking the breathtaking night view of Tokyo.  I ordered the Tapas Molecular Bar signature cocktail, the Fresh Pear Martini made with pear-infused Grey Goose vodka, La France pear espuma and Cointreau.  With the flickering warm lights from the fireplace reflecting on the V-shaped glass and the spectacular backdrop of gem colored city lights, this was one delicious and sexy martini.  The olives were also meaty, juicy and scrumptious.

Large silver metallic plates with the printed Winter menu greeted us at our seats.  Like traditional Japanese sushi restaurants, this was interactive counter dining where creator and eater came face to face.  Only this time, I felt more like a spectator at a theatrical chemistry lab watching the mad scientist and his docile assistant brew potions and create puffs of clouds over Bunsen burners.  The small kitchen behind the counter was like an experimental workshop, full of contraptions that could cryovac, sous vide, foam, spherify, liquify and gassify.  There were flasks, pipettes, test tubes and beakers abound, and all of us were mesmerized with the magical performance.  With every pop, sizzle and poof we all giggled like children at a puppet show and couldn’t hold back our oohs and aahs with each twist that came with the dishes.

Shattered Rose Martini 粉々のローズマティーニ

Liquid nitrogen was slowly poured into the martini glasses, creating a cool white layer of fog that brought mysticism and magic to the aperitif.  As the fog started to clear, it gave way to a cluster of flash frozen ‘shattered’ rose petals floating on a delicate thin top layer of ice.  Imagine a floating iceberg on a tranquil red sea in the cool arctic mist.

Puffed Barbequed Pork ふっくら焼豚

Triple Cooked Kuwai カリカリくわい

TMB’s version of chicharrones was a light and crispy piece of deep fried pork rind with a caramelized coat of dark sweetness and what I thought to be a hint of star anise.  It tasted like soy senbei rice crackers with a perfect addictive combination of sweet and salty.  Kuwai, a Japanese arrowhead vegetable that looks like an upside down apostrophe mark, was cooked to a golden crisp exterior while the bulb still maintained a warm and fluffy consistency.

Arctic Potato Chip 厳寒チップス

When I picked up this thin yellow ruffled sheet, I was surprised to find that it broke into pieces very easily between my fingers.  That was when I realized that it was a delicate piece of ice falling apart under the warmth of my fingerpads, and I’d better eat it fast before it all melted on my lap.  The water that remains after boiling potatoes was frozen into sheets and served as a chip.  I understood the intention of having this ice flake mimic the crispiness of a potato chip, and it was even salted very generously to taste like it came out of a bag; but it was too cold and too watery for me to appreciate the gustatory illusion.

Apple and Manchego アップルマンチェゴ

This was a TMB classic that has been served in other seasonal menus.  The exterior of this mini cigar was made of thinly sliced and baked apples which were rolled into tight cylinders.  A manchego cheese and apple juice sorbet was made with a Pacojet and piped into the apple tubes.  It made for a delightful sweet and creamy snack that I would love to have around the house for an afternoon tea session. 

Roast Pepper Caviar 焼きパプリカキャビア

A strange contraption of hanging syringes filled with alternating red and yellow liquid was brought out to center stage.  The chefs slowly pressed down on the plexiglass plate on top which evenly distributed pressure among the syringes filled with paprika essence and sodium alginate.  Upon contact with the receiving pool of calcium chloride, a chain reaction occurred where cross-linked polymers were configurated in the form of a thick gel, thus transforming liquid droplets into viscous pellets.  The bright colored ‘caviar’ was seasoned with olive oil, thyme and salt and served in a small porcelain spoon.  They didn’t have much flavor, but I loved the bouncy and slippery textures.

Tai Chazuke 鯛茶漬け

Ochazuke is a classic Japanese comfort dish where warm green tea is poured over a bowl of steaming white rice and condiments which typically include dried rice crackers and dried nori seaweed.  In this deconstructed version, a delicate slice of kelp-infused sea bream was garnished with strings of fresh kombu seaweed and crispy dried arare rice crackers, and served with an umekombucha (pickled plum and kelp flavored green tea)  liquid sphere.   When I closed my eyes and took this dainty spoonful into my mouth, the briny aroma of salty seaweed perfumed my sinuses, invoking a dynamic phantasm of a mighty sea bream swimming boldly against the strong currents of the winter Ohotsuku sea.

Bacalao Espuma バカラオのエスプーマ

Bacalao (salted dried cod) espuma was layered over a tomato cream base in a tall shot glass and decorated with a small garden of microgreens and red tomato caviar (seeds).  I loved the subtle flavors of the smooth bacalao cream and the overall playful art deco composition of the dish.  A thin baguette wafer topped with kalamata olive paste and semidried tomato bits added an extra layer of saltiness that complemented the sweet mellowness of the cream.

Scallop with Cultivated Pearl ホタテの真珠添え

Flash boiled scallops served on its shell with sweet papaya slices and paprika cubes were cooked to a perfect tender consistency, but the real beauty of the dish came from the glistening white pearl on the edge of the shell.  The gel foam made with honey, yogurt and lime juice, and painted with a gloss to make it shine like the real deal, was a bit too sweet for my taste but I appreciated the elegance and artistry of this aesthetically memorable dish.

Spider Crab and Jamón たらば蟹とハモン

A glorious red chunk of sweet spider crab lounged in the center of this playful dish, getting pampered with a deluxe facial spa treatment consisting of a moisturizing jamón iberico mask and an invigorating chardonnay vinegar cleansing foam.  The warmth of the crab meat slowly melted the paper thin sheet of jamón fat into a shiny coat of luscious savor, tucking all of the tasty crab essences into the plump meat.  Pink grapefruit jelly garnished with thin microgreens and coarse green pistachio crumbs added more texture and freshness to the crustacean, and for me personally the green ice plant stole the show.  With its dewy complexion and crisp crunchy texture, this vegetable was an absolute delight.  The fleshy and hearty green leaves were covered with small silver fibers which made them look like moist dew drops glistening in the early morning sun.

Black Truffle, Lily Bulb 黒トリュフ、百合根

A hearty yurine lily bulb cream soup was layered with truffle infused foam and topped with succulent wedges of lily bulb flesh, shaved black truffle, truffle oil and drizzles of concentrated bouillon caramel.  The savory flavors of all of the components came together in a successful melange of rich divinity, not to mention the seductive bouquets of rich earthiness wafting from the truffle slices.  This was one of my favorite dishes, and as a truffle enthusiast, I was very happy.

Secreto de Cerdo イベリコのヒミツ

Shhh….can you keep a secret?  Or two?

This dish named ‘secreto de cerdo’, or ‘the pork’s secret’, had more than one secret twist.  It was presented in a covered porcelain bowl that, when opened, released a puff of aromatic cherry wood smoke.  When the beautifully scented rich smoke cleared, voila!  It revealed perfectly cooked slices of Spanish Iberico pork on a bed of bok choy.  The other ‘secret’?    The section of pork meat served was actually called secreto, which is the highest quality marbled meat located under the arm beneath the layer of fat in the armpit.  It’s a special cut of pork that can only be harvested in small portions from each animal, and it’s practically like bacon.  The deep savory flavors of the secreto jus went wonderfully with these divine cuts of tender meat that were infused with the smokey perfumes of cherry wood.  This dish in particular paired perfectly with our Chilean Cabernet, a masculine bottle of 2007 Montes Alpha with hints of tobacco and black peppercorn.

Foie, Coffee, Potato フォアグラ、コーヒー、じゃがいも

My least favorite dish was a haphazardly plated array of roasted asparagus and thick potato discs which were garnished with frozen foie gras shavings and drizzles of espresso glaze.  The Hokkaido potatoes were starchy and bland, and were severely lacking in flavor despite being confited in foie gras fat.  The shaved slices of frozen foie gras melted quickly into a sad flesh-colored blob before I could salvage it with my knife.

Wagyu Ravioli, Kinome, Maitake 和牛のラビオリ、木の芽、舞茸

The translucent ravioli in this following dish was made with reduced wagyu beef consommé, brimming with rich meat flavors and bouncing with a firm gelatinous spring due to the high collagen content.    The ravioli was packed with savory morsels of beef shank and buttery bits of braised Achilles tendon. Sautéed maitake mushrooms added earthiness to the dish while a rosemary cream foam tempered the robust flavors of the meat.  The green kinome pepper leaves brought vibrant color and zest to this fantastic course. 

Xiao Long Bao 小龍包

Next came my other favorite dish of the evening, and the one that made me smile the most.  By this point in the meal, I knew that I couldn’t take the menu literally.  There was inevitably going to be a twist on ‘xiao long bao’, Chinese soup dumplings, and I toiled over what they were going to serve.  Was it going to be a deconstruted XLB?  An inside out XLB?  A liquid XLB sipped through a straw, or a puff of XLB scented smoke? The chef was busy torching away at something behind the counter and I couldn’t wait to see what was coming out.

What’s this, a lamb chop?  I was confused, as were all other guests.  This was TMB’s version of the popular XLB soup dumpling, where they took the same concept of having flavorful juice inside of a sealed package that bursts inside your mouth.  A pomegranate and meat jus gelatin cube was placed in the middle of the lamb chop through a center incision, sealed with meat glue, and cooked to perfection.  We were instructed to eat the whole thing in one bite so as not to waste any of the flavorful juices onto the plate, and boy was this one juicy and mind blowing dish.  I closed my eyes when I went for the kill and I felt my heart skip a beat as the hot mouthwatering juices burst inside of my mouth and filled every crevice with its intense richness.  I didn’t even bother with the sweet potato, pistachio, honey and ginger purée, as the lamb XLB was already perfect on its own.

Miso Soup 味噌汁

Another winning dish for the evening was the deconstructed miso soup.  A jiggly blob of miso soup ‘sphere’ garnished with white tofu ‘caviar’, a drop of green onion oil and dried wakame seaweed powder were all presented as separate entities on the porcelain spoon.  However, in that one swift bite, the miso sphere burst open like a water balloon under the slightest pressure of tongue on palate to mix with the other components to trick my taste buds into thinking that I was having a comforting sip of warm miso soup from the bowl.  This dish was fun, clever and playful.

Snow, Sel Guerande 雪ー冬のいぶき

The first dessert course was a winter dish that was made with nitro-frozen shavings of milk with sel guerande.  The liquid nitrogen formed that characteristic white mist that slowly and eerily spilled out of the bowl.  The crispy and crunchy flakes tasted sweet like condensed milk, and I loved the dragon’s breath effect that the liquid nitrogen created as diners munching on the dessert unwittingly snorted white smoke out of their nostrils.

Dessert plate デザート

An architectural display of various bite-sized sweets was presented to us as we started winding down from our extravagant meal.

Mont Blanc モンブラン

This delightful ball had a light whipped creamy interior with a dusting of brown chestnut powder.

Raspberry Soda 木いちごのソーダ

Olive oil gummy オリーブ油のグミ

The pink raspberry soda disc that fizzed with carbonation on my tongue tasted sweet and creamy at first, then changed to sour and tangy once the fizzing started.  The yellow olive oil gummy with sugar coating had a sweet yet rich and slightly nutty flavor.

Cappuccino cotton candy カプチーノ

Genuine chocolate truffle 正真正銘のトリュフチョコレート

I loved the cappuccino flavored cotton candy fluff ball whose fine soft fibers melted and collapsed in my tongue into a sweet coat of sugar.  The genuine chocolate truffle was genuine in both senses of the term- it was a silky black chocolate truffle that was generously coated with real black truffle powder.  The balance of sweet and savory, sugary and earthy were superb and divine.

Fruits フルーツ

The finale to our elaborate molecular cuisine extravaganza was a guided journey through the wacky world of miracle fruits.  First we were instructed to suck on a lemon wedge to confirm its almost painful sourness.  After we washed our mouths with a swig of cold water, we were told to suck on the small red oval miracle fruit for 1 minute.  After we spit the red seed out, we sucked on the same lemon wedge again.  Gasps, laughter and shrieks simultaneously erupted from the arena as all 7 diners were taken by surprise by how sweet the lemon tasted.  We sucked on the lime to find that this too was as sweet as honey.  The juicy navel oranges?  Practically like mango.  The miracle fruit changes sour flavors to sweet, and this effect lasts for up to 2 hours.  They told us that the reaction is stunted by heat, so hot liquids like coffee or tea can destroy the sweetening effect.  I unknowingly took my last sip of Cabernet and was jolted by the fact that it tasted like vintage port wine.  What an amazing fruit!

Some dishes lacked flavor and finesse, but all dishes surprised, fascinated and entertained.  Each dish had a creative interpretation and clever twist that kept us on our toes all evening.  I was disappointed that Chef Ramsey didn’t do our 8:30pm seating, and instead we had a rookie Japanese chef who seemed a bit nervous and diffident.  I still got to chat with Chef Ramsey after my meal and overall I was happy with the unique experience. For 14,000 yen it was worth every precious minute to be a VIP front row guest to this exclusive private show that would almost put Cirque de Soleil to shame.  Floating gadgets, morphing forms, disappearing objects and colorful illusions captivated all who were fortunate enough to participate in this once in a lifetime memorable meal at the Tapas Molecular Bar.

Tapas Molecular Bar

Mandarin Oriental Tokyo

2-1-1 Nihonbashi Muromachi

Chuo-ku, Tokyo, 103-8328 Japan

Telephone: +81 (3) 3270 8800

Random trivia: The miracle fruit, which is grown in West Africa (the one we had at TMB came from Ghana), contains an active glycoprotein called miraculin.  Although the exact mechanism is unknown, miraculin binds to taste buds to create an illusion of sour foods tasting sweet.  Research is being done to use this for cancer and diabetic patients.

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)

Ooyama Hanten 大山飯店- Tokyo, Japan

We all love Korean BBQ.  I’m truly blessed to be living in Los Angeles where I can go to Koreatown for real Korean BBQ anytime.  But I still salivate profusely over the thought of going to a Korean BBQ restaurant in Japan.  Why?  For the simple love of organ meats.

I love my kalbi, my sirloin, my filet mignon, my chateaubriand, and all the fine red meat cuts, but what I really love are organ meats- the parts that actually keep the animals alive, and the parts that often get tossed as waste.  Offals are incredibly fresh, well prepared and delicious at Korean BBQ restaurants in Japan.

On a recent visit back to my homeland, my friends took me out to Ooyama Hanten in Gotanda, Tokyo 五反田の大山飯店 for an evening of grilled organ meats.

We started off with a few wonderful cold appetizers:

Chanja

Chanja

Chanja, a staple Korean appetizer, is made of spicy marinated cod fish stomach.  It has a bit of a tough texture so it’s chopped up in small pieces, and absolutely great on warm white rice.

Senmai beef tripe

Senmai beef tripe

Nobody else seemed to appreciate the senmai beef tripe, one of my favorite delicacies.  The cow has 4 parts to its stomach, and technically tripe is the muscular lining of the beef stomach.  The third stomach, called ‘senmai’ in Japanese, means ‘1000 layers’ because of the appearance of the fine fringed villae that we see above.  Although prepared very fresh, it does has a slightly gamey aftertaste, though the consistency is soft, slightly chewy and tender like fresh mozzarella.  Sprinkled with lemon juice and dipped in a spicy red pepper miso paste, this was truly heaven in a bite.

In Japan, it’s somewhat of a tradition to start the BBQ portion of the meal with thinly sliced beef tongue as their first cut to grill.   Dipped in sesame oil with salt and pepper, these hearty and slightly chewy cuts are delectable.

Beef tongue

Beef tongue

Some more organ meats….

Beef liver sashimi

Beef liver sashimi

Raw beef liver, and only the finest, came with 3 dipping sauces: garlic soy sauce, ginger soy sauce, and a simple salted sesame oil.  I liked how the ginger balanced out the dense iron taste of the liver.  For liver though, I must say, this was light, easy on the palate, and did not leave much of an aftertaste.  It was slippery, cool, and quickly melted in my mouth.  I’m not usually a fan of beef liver (though I love foie gras, chicken liver, fish liver), but this was a delightful surprise dish for me.

After a quick palate cleanser of spicy marinated perilla leaves eaten with warm white rice:

Marinated perilla leaves

Marinated perilla leaves

Marinated perilla leaves with a bowl of warm white rice is a simple comfort food that hits the spot even when I don’t have much of an appetite.  These leaves can be purchased at almost any Korean supermarket in Koreatown.

Beef tripe

Beef tripe

The 4th stomach, in Japanese, is called ‘giara’ ギアラ.  It was derived from the word ‘guarantee’ ギャランテイー, for unclear reasons.  Guaranteed to please your palate?  Guarantees the cow to be able to digest its food?  Well, it guaranteed a good final dinner for me in Tokyo.  On the BBQ grill it started to shrink and become slightly firm and white, and the texture was slightly chewy though tender on the inside.  It was marinated with spicy soy sauce to counteract that gaminess.

We also had honeycomb tripe (second stomach) as a cold appetizer.  It was a popular dish and went fast.  Honeycomb tripe is what is commonly used in European dishes- like Italian trippa stew, Trippa a la Fiorentina, a wonderful Florentine dish of tripe stewed in a tomato sauce, that melts in your mouth like butter.

I wanted to continue ordering more cow innards, but since I was dining with 7 other friends who didn’t share my same enthusiasm, we finished off the evening with the standard red meat cuts, like kalbi (fatty juicy cuts of short rib with beautiful marbling and exquisite flavors.

Kalbi

Kalbi

 

Random trivia:  Did you know that the methane gas released by cows’ burping and farting is said to be one of the leading causes of holes in the ozone layer?  

Shirako and tarako- cod sperm sac and egg sac

One of my favorite winter delicacies of all times, is this….

Cod sperm sac in ponzu sauce

Cod sperm sac in ponzu sauce

When December comes around, it’s shirako season for me. Time to savor some harvested milt. Harvested what? Milt, sperm sac, fish seminal fluid…you know, ‘that’ part. No, not ‘THAT’ part, but ‘that’ part. It’s called shirako in Japanese, which literally translates to ‘white child(ren)’. Shirako can come from either cod or puffer fish (fugu), but most of the time it will be from cod.

Especially in the winter during high season, when removed in its entirety from the cod fish, shirako looks like a huge piece of melting human brain. It’s soft, squishy, white, hard to get a hold of, and slippery. But when cooked, it becomes slightly more firm around the membranes, and the individual sections blossom into chrysanthemum flower buds.

The most traditional dish is shirako-ponzu, where it is quickly heated through in hot or boiling water, then served in a ponzu sauce with all of the usual condiments of chopped green onions and grated daikon radish. It just melts in your mouth like smooth warm creamy butter. It’s sweet and light, and its taste is very subtle and delicate, with just enough fishiness to know that it is not made from dairy. It can also be sauteed with butter, or in a hot pot. I also enjoy this as a tempura, lightly dipped in salt seasoned with pickled plum (ume-shio).

I love initiating men into this ritual. Of course, I don’t initially tell them what it is, but just have them try it. So far, about 90% of the guys who have tried this said it was delicious, and went for a second or third bite. That’s when I finally reveal the truth. First comes the scowl. Then the wide eyes and dilated pupils. Then the quick look at the sushi chef to get confirmation (to which the chef responds with a smile). Then the quick look at me to get another confirmation (to which I respond with a slow silent nod). Then the quick look down at his pants (not sure what this step is trying to accomplish. Sympathy?) Then the tensing of the shoulder muscles as he cautiously lays down his chopsticks back onto the counter with a nervous laugh. That’s when I put my hand on his shoulder and tell him that everything is going to be okay. And as he stares into the distance looking defeated and puzzled, I quickly finish the dish to its last heavenly bite.

The female equivalent is eaten more commonly, the cod eggs or roe sac called tarako.

Cod roe

Cod roe

Tarako (which means ‘cod child’ in Japanese) can be eaten all year round and is usually salted for preservation. Many times one may see mentaiko, which is salted spicy cod roe sack marinated with red peppers. I personally prefer the purist tarako without the spices. The most common Japanese way of eating it is to slice it and eat it with white rice, while more popular modern versions involve removing all of the eggs from the roe sack and pasting it on buttered toast, or mixing it with pasta garnished with chopped shiso leaves.

Shirako, tarako….male, female……sperm, eggs…..white, red……masculine, feminine……

Ah, l’amour!

Random trivia:  Did you know that there are 5 calories in a teaspoon of semen?