All posts filed under “5

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DEN “Kaiseki”

Humorous Message and Inventive Hospitality by Zaiyu Hasegawa

(Translated from my Wallpaper* Thailand article, originally published in Thai).

DEN is hidden in a small alley in Tokyo’s printing district Jimbōchō and with nothing but a tiny sticker for its sign. The restaurant was opened by chef Zaiyu Hasegawa when he was only 29 years old. A few years later, DEN was awarded stars by the Michelin Guide and constantly enjoys a top rank on Japan’s restaurant rating website Tabelog. The reputation of DEN gathers accordingly. Now many of world’s most respected chefs and food journalists fly across the globe to Japan to sample Hasegawa’s playful and edible visions “Den Kaiseki”.

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The Lockhart

Blogging again

The Lockhart isn’t a new restaurant but one that nobody talked about. It wasn’t until its recent acquisition of chef Bradford McDonald that The Lockhart got my attention. The fare here is Southern American with backflippingly cool and refined twists.

Before that. Bradford. He is American and Southern. He grew up in a farm and mobilised across the world’s best kitchens (including Per Se and Noma). His former restaurant Governor in Brooklyn, NY was lauded by chefs, critics and food enthusiasts. Sadly, it was swept away by Sandy. A year or so after, I feel privileged to have Brad cooking in London.

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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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Koya & Koya Bar: The Japanese Restaurant(s) That Will Re-Define Soho

A rather loyal customer.. ?

I love udon. I love delicious, honest cooking. And I spend at least 2 of my meals per week at Koya.

Koya – for those still unfamiliar with the concept – is a very traditional, walk-in only udon-ya (udon restaurant). The menu is dominated by one Japanese food category. Udon, that is. This type of thickly cut, white noodle is made from wheat flour, salt and water. It is, then, boiled, washed, and when needed, re-heated. The cooking is an interplay of simplicity. You need good noodle, good dashi and good toppings.

The udon dishes at Koya are served in many ways (i.e. “hot udon in hot broth”, “cold udon with hot broth”, “cold udon with cold sauce to dip” and “cold udon with cold sauce to pour”) and with a good range of toppings to choose from. The udon noodle is made fresh daily at the premise. There is also an inventive “Daily Special” blackboard that utilizes the best of ingredients at budget price, keeping me on edge.

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Andy Oliver & Thai Grill @ Bar Story

Andy Oliver

Andy Oliver is a chef with a substantive skill set and no PR boost. He was a semi-finalist of Masterchef when the show was far less a self-promoting bypass to UK restaurant industry. He spent years working, washing and wok-ing under David Thompson at Nahm London. He went on to travel in Southeast Asia and spent more than half a year in Thailand learning the language and continuing his training as a Thai cuisine chef at Bo.Lan Restaurant. (One of my most loved places in the world). Last year Andy returned to London and headed up the operation of Naamya Cafe with David Thompson and Alan Yau. Now he helps run the operation at The Begging Bowl (quite possibly the best Thai restaurant in London) and waits for the right opportunity to open his own restaurant.

According to my book, Andy’s name surfaced, during his time at Nahm, via the Loft Project, and I had the chance to try his cooking at a one-off pop-up in East London years ago. Then, for a *farang* cooking Thai food, he was promising. And it was that experience that brought me to Thai Grill @ Bar Story.

 

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Thai Grill @ Bar Story

Bar Story is housed at one of those railway arches behind Peckham Rye Station. The venue features an indoor cocktail bar and an outdoor drinking space. Very eclectic, with a lot buzz from cool South London crowd.

Thai Grill is a stall separate from the kitchen of Bar Story and stations at this venue on Mondays only. The menu scribbled across a few blackboards is concise and features what Thai blanket as Gai Yang + Som Tam (Grilled chicken + Papaya salad). Andy plays around with the Thai “Yang” category and extends the menu to encompass other favorite grilled items usually found at Som Tam carts in Thailand. There are grilled sea bass (£12), pork skewers (£4), chicken thighs and drumsticks (£5), prawns (£4), home-made fermented pork sausage (£5), and minced beef in betal leaf (£5). (If this isn’t easy to imagine, think Burnt Enz but Thai). £6 for a peanut-y Som Tam and £1 for a bag of sticky rice. You grab your drink from the bar.

 

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I ordered everything from the menu and it was SENSATIONAL. The perfectly steamed, sticky and fragrant Sticky Rice arrived, as it should in Thailand, in a flimsy plastic bag. I started off with salt-grilled seafood dishes. Goong Pao (Grilled prawns) was spot on. The prawns were marinated in a traditional concoction of coriander, garlic, pepper and turmeric and grilled at a controlled low heat for delicious springy-ness. I also enjoyed Plah Pao (Grilled fish) very much. The sea bass was gutted, cleaned and stuffed with a healthy dose of herbs (lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, etc.). It was first grilled at low heat and finished on higher heat for a crispy effect on the skin. The result was as I hoped for – soft and moist meat with peel-able, lightly crispy skin. (It could have been a little crispier). Both the prawns and the fish were served with freshly prepared seafood dipping sauce (garlic, coriander and green chilli). The latter boast great citric tang and herbal refreshment.

Som Tam (Papaya salad) was done peanut-y Central-style. (Thai call it Som Tam Thai, as opposed to Som Tam that are from the Northeastern and enjoy Laotian influences). The best way to get the Som Tam you want (anywhere in the world) is to tell the chef which flavors you prefer (one or two chilli? sour? salty?). I asked for sour and spicy and it tasted superbly authentic. Yum Taeng Kwa (Cucumber salad) appeared very much soft-core (food) porn. The dish featured a spicy salad of cucumber slivers with coriander, mint, shallot and ground dehydrated shrimps. The salad itself verged on being too spicy but the gooey soft-boiled egg was instrumental in balancing out the heat.

The eating continued with Nham Yang (Grilled fermented pork sausage). Andy has my respect for making his own sausage for Nham Yang. (Young generations of Thai rarely know what actually goes into it). The taste, however, was not spot on. That is, the taste of the sausage was saltiness leading to mild sourness from the fermentation process. It should have been the other way round, in my opinion. Correctness aside, the dish was yummy. The pork used for fermentation was much better in quality than you would find off a street cart in Thailand. The only non-Thai dish on the menu was Bo La Lot (Grilled minced beef in betal leaf). It was bigger and more protein-led than most Bo La Lot I have come across. I enjoyed the gradual release of herbal aroma in the minced beef. The home-made Nuoc Cham (Vietnamese dipping sauce) was elegant.

Moo Ping was sex pork on skewers. These were shoulders and loins marinated (coriander roots, pepper, garlic, fish sauce, palm sugar) and crisscrossed with fat pieces on skewers. When being grilled, the fat dripped into burning charcoal and created a burst of smokey perfume. And before finishing, they were brushed my coconut milk and left for the last sizzle. The taste – sweet, garlicky, porky, smokey – captured my nostalgia of Thailand. Eating with the sticky rice, I had my orgasm moment. Also peaking was Gai Yang (Grilled chicken), served with two kinds of home-made dipping sauce (sweet chilli sauce and “Jeaw” sauce). Here chicken thighs were grilled whole and then jointed. The turmeric based marinate was carefully applied only to the skin. Again, they were grilled at low heat for roughly 20 min (so be patient) and finished with a brushing of sweet and musty sauce. The result was another orgasm nostalgic moment. The chicken meat was juicy, had a good depth of taste and just fell off the bone. The special brushing sauce proved bloody special. (Andy has a special purveyor of organic and rare palm sugar from Thailand, and it makes his recipes quite extraordinary). My only criticism goes onto to the Jaew dipping sauce, which I found a little too sour. (You may see from the pile of paper dishes in the last photo. We had 3 portions for Moo Ping and 3 for Gai Yang).

Andy’s strength, from what I have tasted, lies not only in his cooking and understanding of Thai food, but also in knowing the limitation of cooking authentic Thai food in the UK. (Say, herbs suffer from jet lag and many other items aren’t allowed in according to Custom laws). Accordingly, he uses the very good produce that tastes and can be found in the UK to wisely construct his menu. Nothing is processed or comes from a tin. No MSG. The result is something simple but sublime, genuine and utterly zingy.

The team was also very helpful and friendly.

(Another criticism, though. If there is a bunch of Thai walking in, please provide spoons with forks).

Updates on menu and specials can be found here.

 

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RATING 5/5

THAI GRILL @ BAR STORY

213 Blenheim Grove
Peckham
London
SE15 4QL

www.barstory.co.uk

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