All posts filed under “4.5

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Leandro @ One Leicester Street

The start of something (utterly) exciting..

Where do I begin? The word “supper club” has been a distant memory, and being subjected to a communal table in the middle of an unpopulated dining room daunted me. The glimmering kitchen was my hope. So was the name Leandro Carreira, a chef who held senior positions at two of the world’s most inspiring kitchens Mugaritz and Viajante.

Leandro or Leo is at One Leicester Street for 3 months (until mid-June, I guess), doing what seems an understatement, a “supper club”. This is an 8-course menu with beverage pairings (by Talented Mr Fox) at £88. Chefs are keen to exchange thoughts and diners are encouraged to nose around in the kitchen. The cuisine is innovative – an epiphany both of taste and of thought process.

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Kitchen Table at Bubbledogs&: Gastronomy behind the Curtain

Auto-correct “put of date!”

 

 

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My first meal at Kitchen Table dated back to its very first opening slots in October, but given a long meal and many returns, dishes had piled up; my taste memory was overwhelmed; and any effort to write had never been quite materialized.

Now 7 months after.. you have this post!!

Worthy of note(s)

Let’s start. Kitchen Table, by ex-Per Se, ex-Noma, ex-Ramsay, ex-Wareing chef James Knappett, is an inventive Anglo-American “restaurant” tucked away in the behind of London’s most unique champagne bar Bubbledogs&. From a diner’s perspective, there are a few points that you need to note. First, Kitchen Table only does one menu of 12-or-so courses (£68) dictated by the freshest produce that is delivered to the restaurant on a nearly daily basis. James’s cooking philosophy centers on his own carefully orchestrated impulsiveness and faiths in produce and his suppliers. Some herbs and vegetables are foraged by the young and energetic kitchen team at weekends (fingers crossed they get OT); some are acquired from very obscure growers; others are developed and tended in James’s own allotments. Dishes are frequently reworked to reflect this limited availability and micro-seasonality. Second, Kitchen Table isn’t a “restaurant” per se (pun badly intended) but a 19-seat counter in a meticulously polished, awesomely ventilated kitchen. Two sittings (currently at 6pm and 7.30pm) are operated. The meal can take some time between 3 and 4 hours. From my experience, the early sitting lasts longer and often finishes just half an hour or so before the second sitting. Once seated, you observe live kitchen action and get served at that counter. No glam. No sensationalism. Chefs may get frustrated (not with diners). Emotion may blaze up. (But, it is not guaranteed in the price). For the majority of the time, dialogue between chefs and diners are encouraged. This physical encounter means the barrier between diners, chefs and cuisine is eased, and if you are food/produce enthusiasts, you might find this new synergy between chefs, raw produce and diners enlightening.

 

Nude inventions

The cooking at Kitchen Table focuses on all things bare and naturally untampered. Say, there will be no more than 3-4 components going into one dish. The complexity of taste derives from premium quality produce and thoughtful inventiveness. James’s idea is to strip away gimmicky construction and serve food that is not only well-intentioned but also tastes like great food. The influence for flavor combination via James’s and Sandia’s Anglo-(Franco-)Asian-American roots are implicit and leans towards being playful comforts – popcorn puree or hot cross bun ice cream? – while James’s skill sets, especially in classical French training, are explicit.

From my multiple meals at Kitchen Table, due to the periodic and unexpected nature of produce availability, the menu is loosely formatted but consistently delivered. The meals, therefore, have ranged from good, very good, bl**dy good, to exceptionally good. Some day you’ll get more meat; another day, more fish. (And below was my most recent meal at KT. You can find other meals on Facebook here).

The meal began with raw iodine-rich “Oyster” under the tangy, herbal granita of Balfour Brut Rose. The iciness also naturally firmed up the flesh of the oyster, resulting in a minimally springy texture. “Ling” – a fish from a cod family and traditionally salted – was served as mayo made from its roe with a piece of rock-lookalike bread. The mayo itself was loose and studded with unbroken pearl-like roe. The voluptuous milky exterior from the warm, crusty bread that was buttered and fried mediated the delectable saltiness of the mayo nicely. There was also an extra smoky dimension from the grating of dehydrated scallop roe. “Chicken” has now been registered as the permanent staple of Kitchen Table’s tasting menu. This was a surrealistically flat piece of dehydrated chicken skin finished with a smear of rosemary-ed mascarpone and bacon jam. The skin, tasting completely fat-free and mildly chicken-y, became a medium for texture to carry forth the aromatic mellowness of mascarpone and the cubes of toothsome, onion-sweetened bacon. Just to die for. “Scallop” was among one of the freshest I’d eaten in London. Firm but crunchy – suggestive of its just being “put to sleep” – the scallop was seared in hot pan and simply seasoned with salt to bring out its natural sweetness. The garnish was that of bergamot puree – made from the skin and oozing a fragrant orange-y taste – and raw bok choi sprout. The puree had a good balance between acidity and fruity sweetness, which foiled well with the chlorophyll bitterness of crunchy bok choi. Personally, I would prefer less bergamot puree per serving as it had a tendency to overwhelm the scallop.

 

 

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Superbly fresh “Crab” – flaky white and creamy brown meat – was layered and dressed with lemon skin puree. The latter was exuberant, with a healthy dose of zesty acidity and aromatic bitterness. Generally, this was a good progression of taste from the bergamot puree in the scallop dish. The topping of multi-textured radish (raw and poached), deep fried spiky artichokes, coriander and chervil provided zingy, sweet and earthy dimension and cleansed the palate. I did not as much love “Haddock”, which had been slow-cooked and served with warm buttermilk sauce, poached mussels, grilled fennel and dill oil. While the sauce was very finely made – delicious yogurt-like acidity – and the aniseed-y note from the garnish was thoughtful, it took the limelight of taste away from the rather calm-tasting fish. The mussels were also too good they became distracting! “Truffle” was a pasta dish – homemade and appetizingly al dente – with wild garlic sauce, raw slices of wild mushrooms and (a lot of) Perigord truffle. Mind-blowing. A kind of taste that married the emerging joy of spring with sumptuous farewell of.. eh.. prime winter truffle! That said, I particularly loved the slight earthiness from raw mushroom slices which worked to sponge up the wild garlic goodness. “Beef” was British (in fact Welsh) and aged. The robustness, almost akin to cheese, was imminent in its untrimmed fat. The beef – pan-seared and roasted for a perfect darkish pink hue – had a good chewy texture, slowly releasing the depth of taste. The garnish was a quirky coupling of classic red wine jus and grit-like puree made from popcorn (!!). The maize-y sweetness from the puree contrasted and complemented the spiced acidity of the jus very well.

“Soureliette” – a semi-hard French sheep’s milk cheese – was boost with a taste skin to the Mediterranean (juicy red pepper, olive tapenade and balsamic-like reduction of Worcestershire sauce). Alfonso “Mango” granita with lime, young coconut and yogurt ice cream was a bomb. The young coconut had a mild fermented taste and addictive jelly-like texture. The intense velvety mango puree was quickly whipped with finely shaved ice and lime juice (and zest). The yogurt ice cream was smooth but possessed great lactic strength. The interplay between texture and temperature contrast of two icy elements – granita and ice cream – left my taste bud craving for more. Like “Chicken”, this “Mango” is a more permanent staple at Kitchen Table. It was followed by an additional festive dish of “Hot Cross Bun” ice cream. James tipped some mixed spices on top of a fragile crispy pastry and served it on a rather milky, bread-tasting ice cream. “Beetroot” forewent my stereotypical idea of sponge cake. Very moist, fluffy and red, the cake only retained a hint of beet muddiness. The natural aggression of beet taste was also diluted by the zingy, caramel-like liquorice ice cream and powder. The additional pairing of sour cream and beetroot sorbet was a clever way of re-constructing a dish and made me relate back to an experience of (savory) taste that wasn’t too alienating. The meal concluded with “Orange” – James’s twist on traditional English teacake with orange marmalade and frozen marshmallow.

So.. KT.. Go!!

 

 

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RATING: 4.5/5

KITCHEN TABLE @ BUBBLEDOGS&

70 Charlotte Street

London

W1T 4QG

Tel. 0207 637 7770

www.bubbledogs.co.uk

Bubbledogs& on Urbanspoon

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An Intermediate Guide to Fine-Dining in Japan (Tokyo/Autumn)

Why not for the beginners…

This is an “Intermediate” guide for aspiring fine diners visiting Japan. My “Intermediate” means something between knowing the basic (i.e. different types of Japanese cuisine, key produce+ingredients, dining etiquette) and not knowing all the cultural culinary anecdotes (i.e. meaning of signs on porcelain, food symbolism). This should be ideal, I hope, for non-Japanese gourmands who know bits and want to delve into the heart of Japanese cuisine a little deeper. The focus here is only on sushi, (some) tempura, and kaiseki. All the restaurants are in Tokyo, unless otherwise stated.

And why is this not suitable for the beginners? Fine dining in Japan can instigate bankruptcy. Some of the meals below can be culturally complex and challenging. It’s just not nice to pay dearly for something you might not get or enjoy!! (A post on cheap and more easily enjoyable experience is coming soon).

 

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Which lists, which restaurants!?

Japan is a very nice country but to do a fine-dining trip you need an awful lot of skills dealing with concierge. (Restaurant personalities are unlikely to speak amazing English, so bookings via concierge are preferred). Most restaurants will take reservations 1-2 months in advance. BUT, those in the know will be aware that reservation policies can be flexible and restaurants may book you in before that time frame if (1) you have dined with them before and they have taken a liking of you, (2) you are referred by their regulars and (3) you can liaise convincingly with your concierge that you aren’t too *foreign*. For the Japanese, it is also customary for diners/regulars to book their next meal at the end of the meal. This often results in the restaurants being booked up before their actual release dates for *public* reservation.

Choosing a restaurant is also tricky. There are two notable guides you can base your judgement from, namely Michelin and Tabelog. This depends on what you are looking for. The M Guide is less local and does not take certain types of Japanese cuisine into account. From my experience, the * starred aren’t that special; the ** starred are the more interesting (in my opinion); the *** starred have more to do with prestige and heritage. This rating, however, is not that relevant in Japan, where there exist a handful of more superior institutional or introduction-only restaurants that escape Michelin. This brings us to Tabelog, a local restaurant site. The rating here – also based on an ongoing numerical system from 1 to 5 – is done by local diners, and supposedly, suggestive of the *local* taste. That said, the *local* taste varies according to the preference of taste from different parts of Japan also. On a few occasions the *local* taste might also be too subtle, too pure or too bland for *foreigners*. The soon-to-be-announced Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants could also provide a perspective for choosing your restaurants. Also, on the one hand, you have a couple of non-Japanese blogs. The extraordinary Mr Hayler taste-tests the high-end establishments in Japan and represents the more western profile of taste; on the other, this blogger guy who is Asian but quite Japan-ified and has eaten quite thoroughly in Tokyo and stands for the more eastern profile of taste.

Whichever restaurants you choose, I have proved, dining without a Japanese speaker isn’t a problem. (Advanced technologies make this possible and communicating through the Google Translate app isn’t too hard). Dining without a basic knowledge of Japanese eating etiquette can be a big problem. As it is not unusual to have chefs preparing meals in front of you, you should also be wary of your body language. The Japanese (that I have come across) are both attentive and expressive. They notice you. So, if you genuinely like something, make sure that sentiment is expressed. Over-saying “Oishii” might not be so nice. Smiling or oouuu-ing and aaahhh-ing are good. The Japanese can be stubbornly passionate and take much pride in their vocation. Showing emotive appreciation and respect to what they do, when you genuinely feel so, is highly recommended.

Planning, produce and shun

If eating is your main reason for travel, knowing seasonal produce is key. The culinary ethos in Japan adheres strictly to seasons (and many sub-seasons). In Japanese, the term shun does not find a direct translation in English but it conveys roughly the meaning “10 days”. This suggests the celebration of seasonal produce at its peak, the particular time of the season when taste is most developed. They are not just talking juicy strawberries across the Wimbledon season but a specific week in the year that some fish will swim upstream in a particular river to spawn or a particular month when the translucent flesh of deadly puffer fish will be the host for the most intense of taste. (Yes, if I am eating something that *can* kill me, I will eat it when it tastes the best). Knowing shun isn’t geeky and philosophical but actually very practical because (1) you should choose to visit restaurants when things that you want to eat are in abundance and taste the most and (2) all these restaurants will have pretty much the same kinds of produce and as good and varied as they may taste you’ll get sick of them eventually (-__-”!!

These were the main seasonal ingredients I came across during my stay in Japan from mid to late November (Autumn).

Vegetable/Fruit – Mushrooms (Maitake + Shimeji + Matsutake). Ginko nuts. Chestnut (Kuri). Persimmon (Kaki). Chrysanthemum (Kiku) in full bloom. New crop of rice (Shinmai).

Fish/Seafood – Bonito (Katsuo). Salmon roe (Ikura). Tilefish (Amadai). Alfonsino (Kinmedai). Red sea bream (Tai). Filefish (Kawahagi). Abalone (Awabi). Snow crab (Zuwaigani). Bluefin tuna and blowfish were developing great taste, too.

Meat – Duck (Kamo).

The transition from autumn in winter also finds itself exhibited in presentation, from the polychrome of maple and ginko leaves to the spraying of water reminiscent of cooling showers.

The sushi ones..

While I can’t be bothered to bore you with the history of sushi, it might be worth spelling out that sushi-making isn’t just about slapping a bit of fish on rice. It is a skillful, meticulous synchronization of taste and temperature. The heart of sushi is rice. Sushi chefs adopt different techniques not only for sourcing, cooking and seasoning rice, but also for molding, shaping and ensuring the correct temperature for the rice. To my understanding, sushi chefs do not buy the *best* fish (toppings) but the fish (toppings) that work *best* for his rice. Accordingly, the taste of the fish may be enhanced or subdued to achieve the harmony with the rice. There are also other elements involved (of course!), such as making the *right* soy sauce, etc. (but I am not a sushi chef so I can’t really tell you everything about it).

(For more information on sushi etiquette, I find this link useful and relatively thorough).

Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten

Michelin: 3 stars Tabelog: 3.81

Chef Jiro Ono is the maestro of sushi making, and Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten offers, undoubtedly, the world’s speediest fine dining experience. During my 40-minute-or-so meal, across 20 pieces or so of sushi, I was exhilarated and worked out by quite a roller-coaster of taste. The rice here was very puffed, glossy, chewy and sweet; it was countered by the generous and bombastic seasoning of rice vinegar. This resulted in the mind-blowing, saliva-inducing sourness of the shari, for which Jiro is known. Diners with a certain background of taste and/or unfamiliar with high acidity will find Jiro’s rice too sour. For me, I bl**dy LOVED IT (and still crave until these days). That said, due to this bold taste of the rice, I found the stronger-tasting toppings to work better and much more memorable. Boiled-to-serve kuruma-ebi and hay-smoked katsuo were the most unforgettable pieces of sushi I’d eaten in this trip to Japan. Also, (though not necessarily a bad thing), because of the bold taste, I felt my taste bud became very overworked at the end of the meal.

The full album is here.

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Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi

Michelin: 2 stars Tabelog: 3.12

This is the other branch of Jiro run by his second son and chef Takashi Ono. While there is a reminiscence of taste to Jiro Honten (the notable vinegar-y seasoning), the approach to sushi-making is different. The fish were more thickly cut but did not permeate the same level of intensity as at Jiro. The rice seasoning was sour but did not enjoy the same original depth of taste from the rice. The pace was much more relaxed, and the sous-chef who had spent time in Australia spoke could speak very good English and was not reluctant to talk. (Jiro’s oldest son can speak good English, too, but didn’t speak a word in his dad’s presence).

The full album is here.

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Sushi Mizutani

Michelin: 3 stars Tabelog: 4.26

Chef Hachiro Mizutani has a prestigious sushi apprenticeship background and the word “perfection” is by no means an overstatement to his craft. Here the acidity in the rice was detectable but not intrusive. The grains were chewy but light. The fish, though not the strongest in taste, were flavoursome and of pristine quality. Together with the rice, they stipulated delicious harmony. It is also noteworthy that chef Mizutani has big hands and long fingers; accordingly his nigiri pieces are elongated and quite slender in shape. Like Jiro, he is also very fast, with only minimal touch applied onto his sushi. That said, despite a *perfect* meal, I found the experience of taste at Sushi Mizutani a little too calm. No roller-coaster, in other words. This made the experience somehow lacking in the excitement.

(No photography, I’m afraid).

Sushi Hashiguchi

Michelin: no star Tabelog: 4.39

Chef Hashiguchi is famous for his unique *dancing sushi*. That is, the chef applies very minimal pressure and very few touches to the making of nigiri in order that air sockets are trapped amidst the rice grains. The fish topping is also not firmly pressed against the rice but only left to rest above it. Once the nigiri is placed in front of the diner, the gravity takes control compressing not only the topping with the rice but also the rice grains against themselves (forcing the air sockets out). During these split seconds, you can notice the movement within the sushi as if it was *dancing*. (This sounds unreal but it happened to all the nigiri pieces that chef Hashiguchi made!!). The results, generally, are the lightness of the nigiri, the least bruised state of the fish topping, and the effective prevention of the human body heat to transfer into the rice.

I found the taste at Hashiguchi very pure. (Again for diners of a certain background of taste the taste here can be *bland*). The rice was pleasantly chewy and a little more sticky than all the above (and below). It was only seasoned to emulate a hint of salt and vinegar. The toppings were clean-tasting and natural. No enhancement of taste, so to speak. That said, this lightness in taste and texture made the sushi at Hashiguchi attractive and immensely revitalizing. After I finished my omakase, I ended up ordering a rather large second round. (It was large enough to make other diners giggle).

(No photography).

Sushi Yoshitake

Michelin: 3 stars Tabelog: 4.08

Chef Masahiro Yoshitake is the new generation of sushi chefs, and unlike the other sushi chefs above, he has worked outside Japan (in New York). The approach, though conforming to the edo-mae style, is significantly modern and with a focus on taste enhancement. Unlike the sushi restaurants above, I found the fish at Sushi Yoshitake to be more interesting, as opposed to the rice. For example, centuries-old techniques, such as kobujime (marinating of fish between kombu sheets), are re-interpreted (into flash marinating of fish with kombu-infused stock). White fish (bream, if I remember correctly) and kuruma-ebi were quickly marinated before being draped onto the shari.

(Now correct me if I’m wrong). The rice at Sushi Yoshitake was seasoned with red vinegar (stronger taste). The grains were a little longer than what I perceive as the traditional sushi rice. During my visit, there was a lack of moisture that would neatly bind the grains together. Personally, I not only found the rice too grainy but also a touch too tough for my liking. This, however, is not a matter of right or wrong. It is a personal preference and everyone likes their rice in their own way. I had previously come across much tougher rice, too. As a combination of rice and toppings, the taste at Sushi Yoshitake was racy and in favour of those with a preference for a strong taste. The place also seems popular with foreigners.

The full album is here.

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The tempura ones..

Tempura is most easily understood as battered and deep-fried things. The word itself is, in fact, of Portuguese origin. The “things” to be battered and fried are only traditionally limited to fish, shellfish and vegetables. The oil in which the “things” are fried is either sesame oil or tea seed oil. It is not only generally served with “tentsuyu” dipping sauce (mirin+shoyu+dashi) and grated daikon but also often with salt and lime. In my opinion, the *point* of eating tempura is to enjoy the natural taste and texture of the produce in supremely high heat. Tempera is prepared and served piece by piece at high-end restaurants.

7chome Kyoboshi

Michelin: 3 stars Tabelog: 3.55

Tempura by chef Shigeya Sakakibara finds its origin in Kyoto. The Kyoto-style tempura is much smaller than the Tokyo-style and can be eaten in one bite. The skills of the chef and the quality of the produce (with quite an emphasis on Kyoto veggies) are indisputable. The bite-sized morsels were to be dipped in fragrant lime juice and seasoned with powdery salt. The finely grated daikon was there to cleanse and cool my palate. By the end of the meal, there was no trace of oil whatsoever in the lime juice bowl. This is not to mention that sitting one foot away from the frying pan I could not detect any oily aroma. I doubt I would find a better tempura restaurant anywhere.

Taste aside, eating at 7chome Kyoboshi is like a riddle that I still don’t fully *get*. Chef Sakakibara hinted that tempura begins with a prawn and ends with a prawn. Nothing else matters. During my 20 pieces of fried items, small prawns (saimaki) made repetitive appearances (6 times). The visual was exactly the same but the prawns, one by one, accumulated much stronger taste. I also noticed items that were fried (prawn heads) but not served. Perhaps the sequence of frying vegetables and fish was the way of flavouring the oil to enhance the taste of the prawns step-by-step, and in the end the prawns of climactic taste were served as ten-cha – prawn kakiage on a bed of rice and submerging in an emerald pool of green tea – as if they became alive again.

The full album is here.

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Shimizu

Michelin: no star Tabelog: 4.17

This tempura corner amidst the wonder-floor of Japanese restaurants at the Ritz-Carlton is rated very highly on Tabelog. The style is Tokyo and inventive. It did not make a good first impression, however. As I entered, I was hit in the face by the smell of hot oil. (Compared to Kyoboshi above, Shimizu was pretty much your chip shop). Adding to the injury, the produce was lacking in quality and was not skilfully stored. The selection leaned towards being global and modern. (But, asparagus in November? Maybe it came from Australia). The six different kinds of salt – fleur de sel, plum salt, curry salt, etc. – had their taste and perfume muted by the oily ambiance, while the traditional dipping sauce was plagued by coarsely grated daikon. As much as I enjoy seeing an approach to tempura from a different point of view (and that a tempura meal at Shimizu costs 1/3 of Kyoboshi), I do not recommend this place on the basis of flawed executions.

The full album is here.

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The kaiseki ones..

Kaiseki = Japanese multi-course haute cuisine originating from Kyoto. This represents the finest of all the Japanese fine dining. In a kaiseki meal, chefs prepare each course using different techniques. Say, hassun – a beautified appetizer course setting the theme of the season and the meal – paves way for suimono – a course of clear soup – and agemono – a deep-fried course. The climax of a kaiseki meal is the rice course, prepared in the Japanese traditional rice cooker, which often makes it impractical for kaiseki restaurants in Japan to cater lone diners. (Convincing the restaurant that you can eat the portion for two isn’t an option here). Apart from the taste, the presentation is also key to enjoying a kaiseki meal. This *presentation* is not limited to the ways the edible items are displayed but also the consideration of colours and the porcelain/food containers. The porcelain, in particular, unfolds aesthetics of beauty or forms a philosophical narrative of sort. Say, if the lid of your soup bowl holds an illustration of mountain, a disc of amber yuzu peel in your soup may symbolize the reflection of the moon in the water. Some meals below were almost intellectual riddles.

The setting of a kaiseki meal is usually formal – be it in a private room or at a kitchen counter (kappo-kaiseki).

(Now if you don’t want more headache, skip to the part about restaurants)!

What we now understand as kaiseki is not developed from a singular tradition but blankets over two. The first is cha-kaiseki, which fuses the strict rules of shojin-ryori (veggie monk’s cuisine) with the feast-like yusoku-ryori of the Imperial Court from the Muromachi period (Kyoto as the capital city). There is an awful lot of philosophy and protocol for this string of kaiseki (i.e. when to use lacquered or un-lacquered or ceramic plates). The meal revolves around eating rice and delicacies and concludes in a tea ceremony. The other more globally recognized string of kaiseki is called ryori-ya kaiseki, which is the tradition from the Edo period (Tokyo as the capital city). As history has it, this ryori-ya kaiseki is without rules, while the meal prepared revolves around sake drinking. Speaking from my experience, these divergent philosophies can make such a huge difference in taste and enjoyment, and especially if you fine-dine in Kyoto, it is advisable to research just a little on the tradition and heritage of the restaurants.

Ichijunisai Ueno Mino

Michelin: 2 stars Tabelog: 3.31

(Private room)

This restaurant is situated on a quiet mountainous corner of Mino City, near Osaka, one of the best locations for autumn leaf viewing. Despite very limited language skills (us and them), the experience was absolutely charming. Dishes were of high quality, bold tasting, visually spectacular; the skills of the kitchen were adequately refined; and most interestingly were the cooking aesthetics that captured the rich autumnal beauty of the sea and the mountain. Hassun arrived on a stunning lacquered tray with mist (to represent the rains we had braved in order to reach the restaurant) and a polychrome of ginko and maple leaves. Whitebait-like fish leaped above the hill of deep-fried mountain vegetables. Gohan (rice) boast a wonderful earthy aroma of burdock roots and mitsuba leaves. Ichijunisai Ueno Mino is a lovable introduction to kaiseki (and at a reasonable price).

The full album is here.

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Kikunoi Honten

Michelin: 3 stars Tabelog: 3.55

(Private room)

Kikunoi Honten (in Kyoto) has a heritage that can be traced back to the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. My meal there was very pompous (and heavily pompously priced). Along with the menu translated into English and the dishes, the hostess also brought us a cookbook by chef Murata Kikunoi so we could learn more about the dishes ourselves as we ate. Given the time it takes for a cookbook to go into publication and circulation, I can’t help feeling I was being served *museum pieces* rather than hyber-seasonal creations that typify Japanese haute cuisine. Apart from the stunning shark fin and turtle hot pot and the perfectly ripened, brandy-splashed kaki fruit, I found the execution at Kikunoi Honten too coarse for a 3-starred restaurant.

The full album is here.

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Komuro

Michelin: 2 stars Tabelog: 2.93

(Kappo-kaiseki)

Komuro is described in the Michelin guide as cuisine developed from cha-kaiseki. My meal centered around tasting a few dishes and the highlight of a whole zuwai-gani prepared in multiple ways. The execution was exquisite and refined; the produce was of distinctive quality; the porcelain was remarkable. That said, there were two things that frustrated me. First, the cooking here did not result in the strongest of taste. In fact, it was as if the food was being cooked for a subdued Zen-like taste, a kind of taste that made you feel content rather than excited. Judging from how the slices of duck breasts that were grilled from a different height and then tilted to a precise angle for the fat to drip and perfume into the hot charcoal, chef Matsuhiro Komura was unbelievably skilled and precise. Second, I got really numbed by the taste of a whole crab. Meaty legs of snow crabs were prepared in so many ways unimaginable to me – grilled with shell on, grilled with shell off and glazed, broiled, simmered and dressed in cold dashi, miso-ed, cooked with rice. In the end, despite a gorgeous meal, I nearly walked side-way

………_….._
V__(“>_<”)__V
……//” “\\

The full album is here.

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Sojiki Nakahigashi

Michelin: 2 stars Tabelog: 4.31

(Kappo-kaiseki)

The name of this generational restaurant in Kyoto is translated into “eating grass”, and chef Hisao Nakahigashi both forages items from the mountains and uses obscure local produce to create the most humble but poetic meal I’ve ever encountered. I’d describe the approach as cha-kaiseki that leans strongly towards shojin-ryori and with the philosophical celebration of hardship in life. The rice here was served at multiple stages – ichimonji (boiled but not yet steamed), hanki (soft and just steamed), second hanki (steamed and rested), and crusty leftover. The highlight, however, was a clear soup of daikon millefeuille stuffed with unagi – as if a backbone – and finished with simmered chrysanthemum petals. Auspicious signs aside, the perfume was otherworldly.

Chef Nakahigashi was very fatherly and got frustrated with himself (in a very endearing way) that he couldn’t describe a few things to us in English. He did his best to point at clues on the porcelain and serving bowls and thanks to a lifetime of reading Japanese food (and non-food) manga I could understand quite a few of those symbols. Without this understanding, however, the meal would have been utterly incomplete.

The full album is here.

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Ishikawa

(Kappo-kaiseki + private room)

Michelin: 3 stars Tabelog: 4.43

Chef Hideki Ishikawa is unrestrained by the rigidity of tradition and cooks his own food. (I do mean within the boundary of kaiseki). During my visit, the quality of produce was distinguished; the cooking was inventive; the taste was big, comforting but complex; the porcelain was marvelously paired; the sake menu was exceptional; the chef was great fun for a banter. Bream with the mother-of-pearl effect was engulfed by chewy strands of somen; the exuberant salt-laced dashi expelled a heavenly citric aroma. Chilled zuwai-gani was served with vinegar jelly and mellow crab miso. I was also lucky enough to make it on time for shinmai (new rice crop), the best rice in the world. Chef Ishikawa also kindles interests in ancient porcelain and drawings. During my visit, as the effects of the sake sank in, I tried to convince him to give me his Jomon earthenware as a gift. (Sadly, I left empty-handed). Despite the absence of THE gift, I strongly believe that Ishikawa is the restaurant that will impress everyone.

The full album is here.

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Jimbocho Den

Michelin: 2 stars Tabelog: 4.56

(Kappo-kaiseki + private room)

Jimbocho Den by very playful and wildly talented chef Zaiyu Hasegawa is an out-of-this-world experience. Instead of looking retrospectively to the heritage of Japan, chef Hasegawa focuses on re-interpreting the contemporary influences of Japanese cultures as well as many things *kiddy* into his amazingly refined but highly informal *kaiseki* menu.

The meal commenced with Den’s own savoury monaka (traditionally a sweet azuki-bean-filled wafer sandwich) of foie gras parfait, chestnut and pickles. Chawanmushi was topped with fig jam. Then came a shishamo fish that was deep fried to stand up on its fin. The powdery kombu salt was doused in oceanic iodine that almost revived the fish. (The salt was also a great pairing for sake). The salad course (with most vegetables grown by the chef’s sister) was a careful construction of varying degrees of taste, techniques and temperature in one dish. It also came with crunchy, smiley beetroot discs!! The salmon rice finished with an avalanche of ikura was a lascivious treat and brought me back to the fact that amidst all the teary smiles and child-like vivaciousness of the meal lay a strength and consideration of cooking. To me, Jimbocho Den is the most thoughtful, fun and delicious meal of 2012. The restaurant also specializes in alcoholic pairings (from sake and shochu, to wine and champagne).

The full album is here.

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Matsukawa

Michelin: no star Tabelog: 4.45

(Kappo-kaiseki + private room)

Matsukawa is an introduction-only kaiseki restaurant that caters a very small number of diners at one time. Chef Matsukawa himself is a shy, humble but charming man, and this humility is clearly developed into the approach and strength of his cooking. The produce is out of this world; the refinement is unrivaled; the taste crosses the boundaries of the sublime. (I might also have a great preference for chef Matsukawa’s cooking because of the implicit acidic infusion). Snowcrab claimed a great depth and length of taste. I could feel the texture of each of its roe gliding and popping on my tongue. Lightly charred, the wobbly sperm sac of blowfish was a natural vehicle for Burrata-like cream and a purified scent of the sea. The loosely sticky soup in which the fugu-shirako submerged was coyly acidic and perfumed with daikon. Glossy Mizu-yokan was the most ethereal in the world. The texture evaporated in my mouth leaving a rich but light flavor of refined beans. To me, this is food that shows nothing but food itself.

The full album is here.

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Congrats for making it to the end of the post!!!

Please note that all the Tabelog scoring is as of 7th February 2013.

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HKK by Hakkasan: The Morsels of Modern Chinese Banquet in City

City, culture(s) and HKK

Despite my being harsh – you will see – I actually like HKK very much. I am talking a new concept modern Chinese restaurant in the City by Hakkasan Group that, contrary to Hakkasan, runs only a tasting menu. There is also no swanky bar featuring demure lighting. There is a

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bar, still, and with cascading medical-looking curtains to section the restaurant, the dining room seems temporary. There *is* also the crowd, during my two meals at the restaurant, the *City* crowd (or just some of .. ) that doesn’t seem to care much about exquisitely thought out food – let alone the fact that it is Chinese. On my second visit, in particular, they cared very much about their expensive wines/champagnes, a sentiment they were so keen to convey to the neighbouring diners. Last and definitely not least, as somebody brought up with a half-Chinese background, the tasting menu format at HKK is excruciatingly culturally frustrating. The Chinese that I know like to eat in abundance, or at least, they like seeing there is food in abundance that they may or may not choose to eat. One piece of roast duck, one piece of crispy skin and one roll cannot be explained away as keeping you wanting more to my parents at least. It is just wrong.

Rant over..

And despite all this – you will see – I love my two meals at HKK and will return for more.

Tasting the banquet

Chef Tong Chee Hwee isn’t the name most often mentioned but he has been instrumental in the success of Hakkasan since its inauguration. The 15-course tasting menu (£95), which marries the premium produce of the West with the jewels of the East, is not only a great testament to chef Tong’s talents but also that, after 10 years of Hakkasan, he still has a lot of tricks up his sleeves. HKK also offers a shorter 8-course menu (£48) at lunch. Also, the juice pairing (£25) is the most innovative and successful I’ve ever come across in the UK.

Let’s start. Four Treasure Iberico Ham Wrap was a bite-sized wrap of pickled mooli, cucumber, nameko mushroom, tofu and Jamon Iberico. The fillings were crunchy and refined in taste; the goji berry sauce carried acidity to complement; my only criticism was that the texture construction in this case made me think the Jamon, tasting mighty fine, became slightly chewy. Drunken Chicken, served cold, was far more superior. Here Poulet de Bresse replaced your ordinary chicken and boast a length and depth of taste. The gu-yue-long-shan rice wine lent an elegant perfume that transported me away from the quite dire surrounding. Peking Duck, carved by chef Tong at the island in the middle of the dining room, was insanely delicious. The meaty duck was roasted with lychee wood and oozed a sweet and fruity aroma. There was no lingering oily touch left in the skin and the meat. The skin, particularly, shattered, exploded on my tongue. Putting this in the context of London, HKK’s Peking Duck is superior to my Peking Duck haunt Min Jiang. (The latter can be inconsistent at times). That said, the pancake wrap, suffering from the transportation time from the island to my table, was dry. This was followed by a clear soup of Poulet de Bresse, with dried scallops, jelly fish, goji berries and chrysanthemum petals. A refined comfort.

Trio of Dim Sum was both thoughtful and successful. I was instructed to start with the wonderful steamed har-gau with black truffle. The casing was especially thin and erupted a bold infusion of truffle and prawns. Szechuan dumpling – prawns, chicken and mushroom – was steamed and pan-fried. Spicy. Mind-blowing. I finished off the selection with a very delicate mooli puff. The puff itself was unreal and powdered away in my mouth. The filling was appetizingly pickle-y. It also cleansed my palate in an instant. Stir Fried Gai Lan in XO Sauce sustained this momentum. The use of house-made XO sauce was minimal but precise, leaving a trace of musty spicy-ness to counter the crispy and sweet lilly bulbs and earthy shimeji mushrooms. The gai lan itself was fresh and had a gentle chlorophyll note. Wok Fried Lobster with Yellow Bean Sauce was indulgent. The lobster itself was distinctly fresh and well treated to emulate a depth of flavour. That said, the plate on which the dish was served make it really hard to hollow out the meat from the claw. Then came a Da-Hong-Pao tea break (a rare variation of oolong from Fujian), with osmanthus jelly (tangy and aromatic) and deep-fried water chestnut cake (sweet, delicate, biteful, greaseless – the best I’ve ever had!).

Fried Monkfish was served nestled in a fragrant concoction of Louis Roederer and rice wine sauce. I loved the contrasting acidity from the loose, mildly fermented rice with intense sun-dried (Italian?) tomatoes. There was also a successful departure of perfume from the disc of lotus leaf, on which the fish was served. Toban of Home-made Pumpkin Tofu was rich and also very good. The pumpkin tofu was skilfully made and in a perfect state between being silky and wobbly. The sauce – rice-wine infusion with chicken and root vegetables – was potent. Braised Australian Wagyu melted in my mouth. The sauce verged on being quite sweet and lacking the dimensions of preceding dishes. The water chestnut mediated this with its cleansing juicy-ness. The sweet potato crisp looked spectacular but was, in fact, soggy (on both visits). The last of the savoury was a rice course steamed with mui-choi and shitake. ‘Twas okay. Good fragrance. Not one of those rice dishes that, in my opinion, would make rice-eating nations proud. The steamed razor clam with vermicelli, garlic and chilli was nicely executed but somehow lacked vitality.

The desserts were weak. Lychee Tapioca with Passion Fruit Chiboust and Passion Fruit Jam lacked balance (on both visits). The former suffered from being too passion-fruit-y; the latter too lychee-fied. There was not enough clarity from the coconut milk. Pineapple Fritter fared better but still was nowhere near the success of the savoury dishes. Here it was served with salted lime jelly, morsels of fresh lime, vanilla ice cream and the alcohol in which the pineapple was poached. I found the citric sharpness to be too domineering. Interestingly enough, and contrary to the desserts, the petir fours – 5-spiced financier, Szechuan peppercorn truffle, pumpkin and ginger macaroon, and durian mochi ice cream – were brilliant. My favourite went straight to durian mochi, which was instructed to be eaten last (so the ice cream inside melted). Quite special. The taste of milk did not kill the deliciously rotten smell of durian but perfectly mellow it out. It also enjoyed the contrast of the liquid-y, milky essence and the gummy exterior.

And yes, despite all my criticisms, HKK is pristine, delicious and very exciting (and perhaps the second-best Asian opening of 2012 after you-know-where).

 

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RATING 4.5/5

HKK BY HAKKASAN

Broadgate West
88 Worship Street
EC2A 2BE

Tel. 020 3535 1888

www.hkklondon.com

Hkk on Urbanspoon