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Kaiseki (Japan) + Late Spring/Early Summer Produce

Kaiseki only..

This is a catching-up of my Intermediate Guide to Fine Dining in Japan, with a focus only on kaiseki (multi-course haute cuisine) and the availability of produce in (late) spring and (early) summer. Any more questions, do feel free to ask. Corrections are also welcomed   (>^_^)><(^o^<)

(There will be another post about sushi… when I have more time).

Ayu + Hamo + Late Spring/Early Summer Produce

I did two trips to Japan (Tokyo and Kyoto) in early May and early June. Season-wise, these two months are the transitional period between spring and summer. It is noteworthy that in late spring and early summer the weather in Japan (Tokyo/Kyoto) is becoming hot and humid. Also, from the second week of June (until mid-July), the rainy season settles itself in. It can be frustratingly wet. The cooking is tuned to this awareness of temperature. Say, the summer dashi is lighter than the winter dashi. There are more cold and refreshing elements.

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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

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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

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41° Experience, Barcelona

41° Experience

There is so much brilliance I can recall about this meal, but I have decided not to put all into writing. Lazy blogger, no. Necessity, yes. The “elements of surprise” are crucial, according to FAQ. When it was first launched, 41° Experience (or 41 Grados) by El Bulli-famed Ferran and Albert Adria was meant to be just a cocktail bar for the annexed Tickets. But it has morphed.. into a 16-seat, tasting-menu-only restaurant, most recently alleged as one of the most difficult to get reservations in the world.

Briefly. There is no reservation line. The booking is made via their website and partially requires payment. There are some drinks included in the €200-per-head tasting menu. You can order a separate alcoholic pairing at €45. Blah. Blah. The venue is a decent-sized bar space, dimmed and dark. There were more FOHs than diners. Above me was a nebula of eclectic images – a kind of modern pop art featuring disparate cultural items around the world – being played in slow motion. And soothing trance-like music..

Not so briefly. The fun at 41° Experience kicked off with a stubbornly square, neatly crafted “41°” ice cube which chilled a smoky liquid substance. Along came a jar containing drops of green olive, preserved in oil. Just your typical jar of olive – but the molecularised EL BULLI style. The liquid olive essence was entrapped in a gelatinous skin. Fragile, it rolled for an escape on the tongue and burst into a taste of what would have been like if I stuffed my mouth with 10 olives in one go. I have never made enough effort to be at El Bulli and I am – or was – never convinced by molecular gastronomy. BUT. That was some alchemy that I highly recommend.

Through my first 3-4 courses, I departed from Barcelona – the 41° latitude as the name of the restaurant portends- wandered through Italy, France, Russia, Asia and many more. Ferran and Albert Adria not only know so much about cuisines but also cultures, wherein lies humourous anecdotes and stereotypes. All these are re-interpreted into all the 41 dishes served at 41° Experience. Some were more successful than others. Some got me to physically interact and/or contemplate intellectually; others made me LAUGH OUT LOUD. (Something about France, of course. And Rene Redzepi might be on the menu). That said, as the concept of the menu relies very heavily on the elements of surprise, of not knowing what comes next and which country where you will end up, it is best not to do so much telling (or display any sharp and clear images). The cooking was exquisite but a complement to the concept. SO.. if you are a global character, know a lot about cuisines and cultures, you will be having a very good time at 41° Experience. If you are averse to internationalism, there is a high risk that you might not get the “jokes”, which are the best part of the meal.

Life-changing? No. But this meal reversed my eagerness in life and I felt happy, giggly.. as if I became a child again :-D

 

(Sorry. Can’t help not telling you of my most favourite dish – a re-constructed Peruvian “causa”. A thick slice of super fresh and

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firm yellowtail/hamachi marinated in lime, chilli and garlic was served nigiri-style on a velvety ball of spiced-infused mashed potatoes. The dish paid homage to the Japanese influences in Peruvian culinary tradition and taste-wise it was a bomb of citric umami).

PS Don’t hate me for doing this >_<

 

 

RATING: 5/5

41° EXPERIENCE

Avinguda Paral-lel, 164
08015, Barcelona
Spain

www.41grados.es


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Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, New York

Cat Food..

You know…Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare is a three-Michelin-starred, 18-seat restaurant appendixed to a supermarket. You know, chef Cesar Ramirez is Mexican but inspired by the Japanese impeccability.The chef’s table concept is developed from a sushi bar. But, chef Ramirez is a man with great toys – an impeccably modern kitchen centrepiece, an overwhelming collection of “bling” pots and pans, a world-exclusive selection of finest and most uniquely designed porcelain. Chef Ramirez flies in the best fish and shellfish from all over the world to his restaurant. There is no menu here. Just around 20 dishes. You know chef Ramirez specialises in fish and shellfish. His approach is both inspired and firmly grounded in Japanese ethos. No allergy is catered for. If you can’t eat fish, you go somewhere else, he says. And I agree, wholeheartedly.

What you may not know is that to dine at Brooklyn Fare you have to call precisely on Monday at 10.30am NYC time (or keep your phone on redial a few minutes before) 6 weeks in advance. You also may be in need of more than one phone to dial at the same time (I used three). You need to pay for the whole meal one week before your designated dining appointment. $250 per person (I think?). You will receive an email detailing the BF etiquette – a “business attire” dress code, no note-taking, no photography. You must be there on time, or else you will miss whatever that should have been served before you arrive. If you can handle this, go ahead..

Despite all that military rigidity, Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare was a thoroughly relaxed place to be and the meal a life-changing experience. The kitchen brigade led by zen-like-yet-gangster-like Ramirez was the most systematised. This was a foil to Michelle the most personable sommelier who brought joy to this reverent surrounding.

The cooking was not only highly innovative but a very candid showcase of world’s best ingredients. A shot of warm, liquidised squash toppled with yogurt foam got me into the mood. A pristine slice of raw red snapper arrived with tangy ponzu sauce and holy-crispy red snapper scales. A slice of white fish was served with pickled daikon and threads of ginger; trout with its own roe and mayo; hiramasa with borage; o-toro with crispy shredded leeks. Unctuous sea urchin was prepared two ways, one with yuba skin, soy, wasabi and dill (the most luscious and innovative I’ve ever eaten and the best dish of the evening), the other on a toasted brioche disc with black truffle foliage. There was also smoked caviar with potato. Then came a chawanmushi with truffled dashi and perfectly cooked crayfish. The sweetness from the egg and the crayfish was pure and accentuated by a hint of ginger. A large turbot fillet for 8 guests was pan-fried whole and sliced to form an individual portion with peas, broad beans and pea shoots. The flavour got heavier with red mullet that came with a Thai-influenced bouillabaise. A note of red-curried heat. I moved on to veal ravioli garnished luxuriously with dainty lobster, foie gras, abalone and berry jus. Not at all a show-off dish but a well-balanced luxurious complexity. The texture of the cooked abalone was the most notable, very skillfully tenderised. The main event of non-fish dish featured a roasted squab breast – quite French – with artichoke and scallions. Goat’s cheese and Brie were paired with pear, lettuce and balsamic. Both of the desserts – one with chocolate, tonka bean ice cream and orange; the other sour cream souffle – also hit a high note. And we are left to ponder that chef Ramirez and Brooklyn Fare is nowhere to be seen on the respected World’s 50 Best Restaurants.. something is not right with this “World”..

WE LOVED YOU CESAR!!!! ARGHH!!!!!

(I am sure you wonder.. “no note taking”.. how did I remember all this? Well. I might be making all this up. You will need to go there to find out.. )

 

 

GO FOR: Innovative seafood paradise. Meal of a lifetime.
RATING: 5/5

CHEF’S TABLE AT BROOKLYN FARE

200 Schermerhorn St
Brooklyn, NY
11201

Tel. 001 (718) 243 0050

www.brooklynfare.com/chefs-table

There are some photos on BF’s offical Facebook page. There is a confirmed expansion into Manhattan but “Brooklyn Fare” will be the only chef’s table..I heard ;)
Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare on Urbanspoon

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Faviken Magasinet, Jarpen

(Since the review below, I also returned to Faviken twice. You can graze through my August 2012 album and January 2013 album here)

Snow and a frozen lake

My first impression of Faviken was that it could be the PLACE good people want go to instead of heaven. Magnificently wooded, shrouded by snowy mountains and curbed by a frozen lake (I went in winter), Faviken Magasinet is a private estate north of Stockholm in an area called Jarpen. You may reach Faviken by a 1-hour flight to Are or Ostesund and a subsequent 1-hour car/taxi ride. Luckily, Faviken offers a B&B service. 8 not-so-large rooms dominate the left wing of the first floor of this sizable hunting lodge. Very cozy and equipped with Wi-Fi. Also on the first floor overlooking the snow-covered ground was a spacious sauna with (all-inclusive) beer and champagne for guests to indulge. On the ground floor are the kitchen, the common room and the lounge. The dining room is on the right wing of the first floor. You need to gain access via the lounge. The price for dinner+room+breakfast was 2250SEK per person (approx £207).

The service at Faviken used to be a one-man show. Youthful (and still is), Magnus Nilsson was Astrance-trained and helmed both the kitchen and FOH since 2008. Then, Faviken was pretty much a private dining space where Magnus cooked on request. Magnus would cook a fixed multi-course meal for one sitting only; and all diners were booked in at 7pm.

 

7pm sharp

7pm. All guests were led into the downstairs lounge for drinks and snacks. The space was dreamily lit, whilst the only signification of noise was the burning fireplace. The meal (I heard) conformed to a philosophy of rektún food (“real” food), paying respect to the raw beauty of the produce, the ways flavours should naturally be maximised, and the gastronomic timelessness as opposed to flashy and fashionable cooking. The produce were sourced locally – many raised and grown on the estate, some from Jamtland and Norway. Before other guests arrived I took an opportunity to speed eat cured pork sausage and pickled carrots. (Yes!!). It was porky and well-rendered with fat content. The carrots had mild acidity and a good crunch. No other diner would ever know of this. Five other diners joined my section (unaware of the existence of the pork sausage) and were straightaway entertained by light and fragile with flaxen and vinegar crisp. There was an element of risk picking the piece up. Fresh cheese in warm whey was silky and memorable. The incredible burst of aroma from the little lavender petal raised my expectation of the meal. Smoked trout roe arrived disconcertingly Japanese – like a gunkan maki of salmon roe – but the black cup-like base was immediately revealed as pig’s blood. Explosive. The smoky liquid from the roe contrasted with the musty crispy blood cup. It was very comforting, too, and not a dish that sounded quirky just for the sake of it. Crispy lichen and reindeer moss did not do it as much for me. They tasted like dried sponge-y crisps. I preferred the one with dried egg yolk. Cured goose slices rectified all this. Shiny and maturely cured, the goose reminded me of some very good Jamon Iberico with high fat content. Interestingly, the aftertaste seemed to linger a lot longer than when I have a good sliver of Jamon Iberico.

All amused, guests (me included) were led into the first floor dining room..

The upstairs room was bare. The only ornaments that graced the room were dried fish roe, dehydrated trout and cured pork chunks hanging from the ceiling. Scallop cooked over burning juniper branches was the first to mesmerise me. This was a simple construction at its best. Just scallop. Grilled alive in its shell. Over coal and burning juniper branches. Perfectly done, the scallop was firm, translucent and sweet. The iodine rich broth was a natural result of the cooking and captured the deep and soulful primitive-ness of the sea. The best of my life. My langoustine was a supreme 5-or-6incher immaculately presented. The seasoning of fermented mushroom juice – made with soy and vinegar I think – was distinctly minimal but yielded umami acidity to juxtapose with the sweet and succulent meat. Another best of my life. Cod “lightly brushed with honey and fried in a dry pan” also hit the highest note. I oouuu-and-aaaa-ed over the burnt sweet crust that immersed itself with the firm sea-sweet cod. The pairing of carrot cooked “almost burnt sour milk” (bitter) and spruce and alcoholic vinegar jelly was striking and effective. Trout barely cooked was another marvel. The oatmeal sauce helped douse the fish with caramelised robustness, while the grated carrots allowed the palate to refresh with zings.

 

I moved on to beetroot cooked to a burnt effect in the fire. The charred skin left smokey bitterness to contrast with the ruby red, mellow and sweet beetroot. Along with the pungent, precisely salted cod roe powder, the mead-infused whipped cream – smooth in texture and mediating in taste – provided another dimension of bittersweet contrast. Porridge served with steamed and pickled onions was dainty. Unique layers of texture – gummy porridge, soft and crunchy onions. The dressing of grain vinegar and kale juice tasted, bluntly speaking, of diluted chlorophyll with rice-y acidity. At this point, Magnus and his troop marched into the dining room with a bone bigger than my shoulder and began sawing it. This was to become my next course of marrow, dices of raw cow heart and grated turnips. I was struck by the pure taste of the heart – rich but sans smell – made pleasing by the warm, unctuous gelatin of the bone marrow. The grated turnip played a zingy, natural ‘slaw with kicks, while the green crystal of salt (I deducted as celery infused) lent a herbal note to the bleeding compilation. I forgot.. to take a picture of the next dish “Pork chop fried in a pan and then rested on the grill. Sour onions. Swede.”.. and (what’s worse) I even forgot what it looked like (!!). What I remember was a big chunk (again) was presented at the table and sliced per guest. The pork was moist and tender. There was a healthy ratio between fat and meat, which left a glistening after-texture on my lips. It was preceded by the mussel in consomme below.

 

Desserts looked understated but brought about joy. Fermented lingonberries with thick cream and a sprinkle of sugar had a good contrast of sourness and sweetness. Raspberry ice was an intense sorbet with tangy complexity. Sourmilk sorbet was prepared minutes before serving. It rested amid the sabayon-like foam of whisked duck eggs. To me, it felt a reincarnation of custard – aerated and freezing to the tongue. The surprise lay at the bottom in form of raspberry jam. Cheeky. I am sure this would bring about nostalgic memories for many. The multi courses concluded with pine bark cakes toppled with hyssop, creamed pudding and frozen buttermilk. The note from the pine bark was distinct but it melded into a vision of a pasture embraced by a scented forest. A little of dairy-sweetness and a sensation of snow. A metaphorical dish of the place itself..

 

I didn’t have much time to metaphorise or metamorphosise as I was shown the way back into the lounge, with the guests (who still did not know I had an extra pork sausage dish). There were nibbles of dried berries and meadowsweet candy, but I was taken by tar pastilles. Not the best way to describe it but it reminded me of liquorice gum. Slightly tougher and less fragrant. There were last shots of booze, too. Four bottles. Brought to the table by Magnus himself. My pick was the alcoholic eggnog (far right), which was sensuously creamy. The rest (I had a sip) was not so much to my liking. The red one (far left) made from berries was (with all due respect) very musty.

A good friend of mine often uses the term “life-changing” to judge or define a meal. And to me, my dinner at Faviken was life-changing to the point of no return. This is a world-class produce-focused restaurant, while the philosophy of rektún food is truly and skillfully materialised by Magnus and his (very small) kitchen brigade. Dishes are thoughtfully constructed. No fuss. No pretense. Real, raw, high quality and tasty food. The FOH team led by manager Johan was also knowledgeable and exceptional. (The only downside of my experience at Faviken is that ever since the meal I have been feeling disheartened by seafood anywhere else).

Interestingly, Faviken has so far been a restaurant of no recognition. It has fallen beyond the Michelin route and is not yet noted by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. (I am sure this will change)… and I’ll leave it here for you to reflect ^_^

 

AND OH!!!!!

Have I NOT shown you the fish!!?!?

RATING: 5/5
GO FOR: An unforgettable experience

FAVIKEN MAGASINET

Fäviken 216
830 05 Järpen
Sweden

Tel: +46 647 40177

www.favikenmagasinet.se