The most controversial yet?
2 stars – Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and Greenhouse.
One Leicester Street retains its star after the transition. Yeah!!!!
The most controversial yet?
2 stars – Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and Greenhouse.
One Leicester Street retains its star after the transition. Yeah!!!!
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.
..but I decided to write down thoughts on the elBulli exhibition instead.
Currently, Somerset House plays an amazing host to a mixed media exhibition elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food. The exhibition, occupying two floors of Embankment Gallery West, is an insight into the universe of once “world’s best restaurant” elBulli. There are, however, two parts to this story. The first is an emotional narrative about the German couple Dr Hans Schilling and his wife Marketta who settled at this little spot in Costa Brava in 1965 and opened a restaurant (and a golf course) that would become the world’s gastronomic destination a few decades later. The term “Bullis”, as the exhibition unfolds, is the nickname that Marketta gave to her troop of French bulldogs.
The second part belongs to Ferran Adrià. It commences from the start of his career as elBulli as head chef in 1984, his years of innovative sparks and consolidation of creativity, to the gratification in forms of Le Clé d’Or from Gault Millau and 3 Michelin stars. The exhibition does not end on 30 July 2011 when elBulli closed doors but continues with a sculptural brief on elBullifoundation.
This is neither an art exhibition nor a rigid and indoctrinating documentary about the restaurant or Ferran Adrià. It is a heart-felt piece of culinary history retold creatively through various platforms of media (e.g. moving images, audio recording, compilation of memorabilia and artifacts). The context of European gastronomy, especially on the inauguration of Gault Millau and “nouvelle cuisine”, is also provided but does not divert the attention away from the main story that is elBulli.
In short – yes – I enjoyed my time there very much.
Two irrelevant thoughts (or stupid questions?) – not directly related to elBulli – sprang from my head.
(1) the importance of having a concept in Western VS Eastern cuisine(s)
At the exhibition one striking analogy to explain the importance of conceptualizing cuisine is made through a comparison to the invention vis-à-via the popularization of miniskirts. (I don’t want to go into detail about this as it might spoil your excitement to the exhibition). Let’s say, in Ferran’s opinion, conceptualizing (or deconstruction and reconstruction of what that has already existed) is important. Gastronomic creation is as much a creation of new taste as a creation of the “concepts and techniques that would be capable of making diners ‘live’ an experience”. In other words, through concepts, cuisine will therefore become a new language that signifies more than just the act of and the pleasure that derives from eating. (Think “techno-emotional”, or using techs to boost emotional interaction). The exhibition seems to suggest that Ferran thought cuisine up to that point was void of a language. There was no vessel to contain it, and that’s what elBulli came right in and hit it bull’s eye (pun intended). This, if I construe it correctly, will posit Western gastronomy in direct opposition to Eastern gastronomy. (Eastern/Western = very bad generalization of cultures but never mind). I feel the cuisine(s) of the East, especially the Far East, already has a vessel that contains itself. This vessel is often led by philosophical or religious development. Say, Zen Buddhism that transpires wabi-sabi in Japanese cuisine and culture. (Check out an excellent piece of writing about Miyamasou in Fool #3, which tackles the Zen philosophy in Japanese haute cuisine). As I am not from the West, my biggest question is whether, in the West and before Ferran spoke of the importance of having a concept, did a concept (or a school of philosophy) that governs the act of eating exist as such? (If you know, please answer).
(2) the taste
The only thing left undiscussed at the exhibition is taste. Taste, to me, seems more temporal than concept/philosophy. Or, is it not? The techno-emotional school of cooking, which epitomizes contemporary Spanish gastronomy, puts concept ahead of taste. You’d leave, presumably, remembering the *experience* of dining rather than the actual construction of taste. This is not to say that the food doesn’t taste very good but it is played up and blitzed to become something memorable but not. This brings me to my own experience. I did not have a chance to eat at elBulli but when I ate at 41 Grados I remembered the laughter-filled experience of hopping around the world across 41 dishes to be bloody incredible. The taste was also bloody incredible. But, I couldn’t single out a taste that I can vividly recall. The same could be said about my thoughtfully orchestrated meals at Mugaritz and Arzak a couple of months back. (The experience was highly memorable). Or… the way we remember an experience is different from the way we remember a taste? Whatever that is, this techno-emotional approach makes Spain one of the most unique regions for dining.
That’s it X
elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food
5th July – 29th September 2013
Embankment Gallery West, South Wing
AMETSA WITH ARZAK INSTRUCTION
Replacing David Thompson’s Nahm at the Halkin Hotel is Ametsa, a spin-off restaurant by 3-Michelin-starred Arzak from San Sebastian, Spain. The team, comprised of Veuve Clicquot Best Female Chef Elena Arzak (2013), is in London on an “Instruction” basis – whatever that means. My lunch experience at Ametsa, however, was not indicative that it was a restaurant with good instructions.
I went for a la carte options (starters at £14.50-16; mains at £27-39; desserts at £12.50). The nibble of rockfish – salted, mousse-d and encased with crispy rice crackers – was finely seasoned but its fishy scent was just too intrusive for my liking. Goat’s cheese was infused with tumeric and turned into a “Puzzle”. The taste – of an ordinarily processed kind of cheese – and the texture – of an extraordinary processed kind of cheese – were both puzzling. Soup of “Quickly Changing Squid” (£16) contained four square parcels made from butternut squash and painted with squid ink. When the lukewarm broth of squid was poured over, the color of the soup *quickly changed*. Yeah (read with low voice). Theatrical attempts aside, the dish did not do much in term of taste. The soup itself lacked depth and once the squid ink paint was diluted into the broth, it created a texture combination that stole away some liquid smoothness. The filling of butternut squash parcel was gummy, sweet and nutty, a taste that was jarring, rather than complementary. Hake with Clams and Ham “Salt” (£27) did not go swimmingly. The fish itself was watery and had a taste that could be any white fish. The clams that leaped and remained on top of confit potatoes smelled. I found the modern twist on Spanish green sauce – parsley and olive oil here – daunting but not delicious. The grating of dried Jamon as “salt”, though a nice touch, did not make any impact to the dish. The desserts were a little more palatable. “French Toast” (£12.50) featured mangoes that had been re-textured into sheets. The sheets were then used as wrapping for something that was vaguely identifiable as “Toast”. The dish was then finished with milky coconut soup and a scattering of broken pistachio nuts, dried petals and lime zest. The taste did not translate into the joy of eating an actual Spanish “Torrija”. “Moon Rocks” (£12.50) was the most likeable of the bunch. These chocolate pebbles were filled with orange flavored Cointreau. One bite into my mouth. Popped liquid… Bill.. Please..
Overall, this was a meal that disappointed at many levels – unskilled execution, unsuccessful taste combination, poor quality produce. But it might just be me thinking this? You may, of course, opt for their tasting menus (£52 at lunch; £105 at dinner), which might promise a better result.. (or not).
Brasserie Chavot at the Westbury Hotel marks the return of 2-Michelin-starred chef Eric Chavot (formerly of The Capitol Hotel) to London. The fare here is not fine dining but a French brasserie with some very polished front of house. As typifying a French brasserie, you may expect a menu that is utterly uninspiring – snails, steak tartare, choucroute and something meaty from the grill. The price tag (starters at £8-15; mains at £16-24; sides at about £3.50; desserts at £6.50-7.50) fits and does not exaggerate its prime Mayfair location.
My lunch at Brasserie Chavot was a delight. Selection of Charcuterie (£9.50), (not all French as there was chorizo involved), was of very good quality. I particularly enjoyed the “Pate de Campagne” which oozed liver-y goodness. Steak Tartare (£9.50) was appetizing. The chopped steak was fresh and served pleasantly chilled; the concoction of chopped capers, shallots and gherkins with mustard dressing packed real zing but not intrusively acidic; the soft boiled quail egg was lush and precise. (In my opinion, for London, this version is only second to BBR’s Imperial Tartare). Ricotta and Parmesan Gnocchi (£16) was a vegetarian dish that I wouldn’t mind repeating on a regular basis. (Obviously not for a health benefit). The gnocchi were skillfully prepared – soft, fluffed but not too gummy – and the cheesy combination was distinct. (Think a kink of Parmesan followed by the smoothness of ricotta). The sauce – a refined white sauce and an exuberantly juicy tomato sauce – was reminiscent of lasagne and brought quite a smile to my face. The smile did not fade away with Baba au Rhum (£6.50). Though this was not the lightest baba I had eaten, it was perfectly synchronized in taste and price. There was a clarity between the spongy cake, the perfuming citric glazing and the coy dose of rum. The marinated and thinly shaved pineapple – neither too ripe nor too anemic – foiled well with the freshly whipped Chantilly.
I will be back.
OUTLAW’S AT THE CAPITAL HOTEL
Now resident of The Capital Hotel is British chef Nathan Outlaw, who has gathered loyal followers from his 2-Michelin-starred seafood restaurant in Rock, Cornwall. The outpost at the Capital Hotel also showcases the menu that is seafood led. The price (starters at £12-16; mains at £26-32; desserts at £10-12) verges on being high. The vibe is formal and quite Knightsbridge.
My lunch (I just don’t seem to go out for dinner!?) at Outlaw’s was nice. The nibble of mini salted cod croquette was tasty. The quality of the fish used was not skimped. That said, I found its garnish of herb mayo (mainly garlic and parsley) too strong. Scallops with Hazelnuts, Saffron and Jerusalem Artichokes (£16) was not life-changing. The herb and hazelnut crust was soggy; the puree of Jerusalem artichokes was sticky and sweet; the drizzling of saffron oil, despite its wonderful aromatic contribution, was excessive and intrusive for its glossy texture; the pickle-y dimension did not find itself much tasted. The identically formed medallions of scallops, however, were of decent quality, but their taste was not aggrandized enough amidst the garnish. Hake and Cuttlefish with Braised Lettuce, Red Pepper and Ink Sauce (£26) was more promising. The very fresh hake was excellently sourced and perfectly cooked. The garnish was individually lovable but disparate as a combination. I loved the sun-kissed richness of the red pepper but thought the cuttlefish ink cried for more depth. As a result, the ink failed to bind the whole dish. Equally nice was Lime and Chocolate Tart (£12). The construction, though deceptively minimal, was a successful maneuvering of different temperature and texture. The cocoa-infused tart crust and the silky chocolate mousse – both at room temperature – encased the sharp and zesty lime sorbet. The proportion of taste could be more finely tuned. I found the sugary content from the chocolate to undermine the sorbet.
SKETCH (THE LECTURE ROOM AND LIBRARY)
Brainchild of maverick French chef Pierre Gagnaire, Sketch The Lecture Room and Library is now a holder of 2 Michelin stars. The best way to *sum up* this restaurant is that you need to know how much a meal there can cost before walking in, otherwise you will feel f**ked. (It is also advisable that you tell your companion how much a meal there can be, otherwise he or she is also f**ked). In a more polite manner of phrasing, the 6-course tasting menu at SLRL is billed at £95. The price for a la carte dishes is dearer (starters at £33-42; mains at £43-55; desserts at £13-25).
If you wonder why THAT much money, the Sketch townhouse complex is laboriously designed and periodically revamped. Pretty much a club for *cool* and wealthy kids (and adults). The FOH was pristine and meticulous. Together with Gagnaire’s cuisine and serving style, this is the place that excessive pomp is stubbornly encouraged. (This means, you might need to spend extra ££££ for your outfit for the occasion so that you won’t feel *humbled* by the place).
Let’s talk food, and for the sake of food, I quite like Sketch. Japanese influences are implicit in Gagnaire’s cooking, and his thought process was a breath of fresh air for London. Also, Gagnaire’s style of serving is unique. Say, my starter of “Scallops” was accompanied by 4 other mini dishes. The taste of each dish did not jar but together they ascertained a luxurious procession rather than harmony. The highlight was Mediterranean sea urchin with oyster granita. The freezing snow of oyster-scented iodine amalgamated the taste of yolk-y sea urchin. The other dishes in my collection of “starters” faded a little in comparison. For example, the scallops – thinly sliced, assembled into a shape of flower and pan-seared – came with loose, jam-like persimmon fruit. While there were some fresh dices of persimmon to contrast, I found the dish too rich for my taste. Both persimmon and scallops were well matched in (excellent) quality. “Simmental Beef” as a main course was good but not exemplary. The beef lacked robustness; the peppercorn jus was moderately neat; the crisps were deliciously fragile. Vanilla Souffle was very capably risen. The texture was ethereal. The quality of the vanilla used was a statement in itself.
(Honestly speaking, I did not know the price of this meal (but it was within the guided price of what I mentioned above) because my friend took (not “took care of”) the bill.
Go, if you are curious and think you can handle it..
Over the last couple of years Jason Atherton has opened quite a handful of restaurants, in London, Singapore and soon, Shanghai to great acclaim. Little Social, a tiny restaurant right opposite his Michelin-starred flagship on Pollen Street, is one of them. The den-like design – of leather booth, brick walls and neon lights – is cozy and impeccable. The menu is a clever mismatch of comfort and inventiveness. The price tag (starters at £8.50-11.50; mains at £17-22; desserts at £7) is not wallet-blowing.
My meal at Little Social was acutely prepared and outstandingly delicious. Cauliflower and Crayfish Risotto (£9.50) was just GOOD. The correctly al dente risotto was doused in cauliflower cream and finished with robust crayfish essence. The aroma from beautifully roasted cauliflower was unmissable, while the shavings of raw cauliflower lent great taste, texture and temperature contrast. Halibut “BLT” with Portebello Mushroom and Sauce Bois Boudran (£22). The fish was brilliantly roasted; the “Bois Boudran” sauce – chopped tomatoes, mustard, balsamic, parsley and tarragon (I think) – was refreshing and accomplished; the lettuce (again I think) was braised with the chunk of bacon and absorbed its meaty goodness. The latter was the star – smoky, voluptuous and melting in my mouth – adding mature depth of saltiness to the delicate halibut. Personally I thought the mushroom, situated behind the bacon, was redundant. Eton Mess (£7) was upgraded with poached rhubarbs, rhubarb sorbet and velvety ginger ice cream. It was a joy to eat.
(Again) I have no doubt I will return.
AMETSA WITH ARZAK INSTRUCTION
The Halkin Hotel
Tel. 020 7333 1234
41 Conduit Street
(The Westbury Hotel)
Tel. 020 7078 9577
OUTLAW’S AT THE CAPITAL
The Capital Hotel
22-24 Basil Street
Tel. 020 7589 5171
SKETCH THE LECTURE ROOM AND LIBRARY
9 Conduit Street
Tel. 020 7659 4500
5 Pollen Street
Tel. 020 7870 3730
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).
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 旬
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 旬 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 旬 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.
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).
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).
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).
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 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.
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.
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 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
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).
Michelin: 3 stars Tabelog: 3.55
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.
Michelin: 2 stars Tabelog: 2.93
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
Michelin: 2 stars Tabelog: 4.31
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.
(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.
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).
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.
Congrats for making it to the end of the post!!!
Please note that all the Tabelog scoring is as of 7th February 2013.
In London restaurant scene, chef Ben Spalding has become synonymous with “young” and “talented” and holds an extensive CV that contains many internationally renowned kitchens. In 2011-2012 Ben won himself critical acclaims as head chef of Roganic and from stints at The Loft and Stripped Back, and his new 6-month residency project at Islington’s rechristened bar John Salt became an instant talk of town. Sadly, Ben has left the venue.
A flashback to my 12-course tasting menu (£85) at John Salt was a testament to Ben’s intuitive and playful cooking. “Salad” was a carefully orchestrated melange of 45 kinds of fruit and vegetables in various states – fresh, pickled, dried, etc. – with sour cream fermented naturally at 25 degrees. The taste – pretty much your breakfast muesli with great twists – was not disparate but came alive at every bite. “Scallop” was pan seared, sliced horizontally, filled with caramelised kiwi and culatello “as if a slider”, and completed with cider butter and truffle. Fun and reminiscent of a sweet-and-sour. The truffle, however, was only a spectacle to the eyes and lacked a distinct aroma. Equally a jolly dish was a reinterpretation of “Chicken on a Brick”, which was chicken liver pate with a garnish of crispy chicken skins, lingonberries and sweet corn. The sparkle of a genius was also apparent in Salmon poached in maple syrup and dressed with layers of acidity (kaffir-lime infused creme fraiche and rotten mango juice).
John Salt, in a short period of time, marked a creative progress away from Ben at Roganic. The restraint of British ingredients (which is the philosophy of Roganic) was lifted and therefore the sourcing and inventions of Ben at John Salt became much more global, notably in Scandinavian ingredients and influences. The taste remained bold, wild but still lent itself flavoursome comfort. The downsides were that some dishes could have done with more refinement and kick-ass developments (reflective of a brilliant restaurant-in-the-making) and that the venue itself – a mezzanine floor above a busy bar – was too noisy for me to indulge and contemplate on the food.
Apsleys is a handsome restaurant at The Lanesborough Hotel with 3-Michelin-starred Italian chef Heinz Beck at its helm. The glass-roofed room is magnificent; the plates are gilded with gold; the head chef Heros de Agostini holds a pristine CV; the menu comes, of course, with some really, really high costs (antipasti £18.50-29; primi £17-21; secondi £33-38).
The cooking was, correspondingly, accomplished. Fresh and deliciously lean Salmon Tartare (£24) with Black Olives and Shallot was complimented with bitter peppery salad and creme fraiche. The immaculate square of crispy potato spaghetti provided extra texture and salty sweetness to the dish. Smoked Capon Ravioli (£19.50) was neat and correctly boiled for a wonderful toothsome texture. The garnish of velvety parmesan emulsion and meaty jus was pleasant, but the puree of pumpkins was weak. Veal “Saltimbocca” with Sage and Jerusalme Artichoke (£36) was an inventive take on the Italian tradition. Here the veal – sliced paper-thin, rolled with sage and finished with toasted amaranth – was a marvel. I loved the finishing touches of hefty veal jus and the nutty sweetness from jerusalem artichoke puree.
The least impressive was the service. I (and my +1) opted for “orange juice” instead of wine, but instead of us being provided with two glasses of orange juice (common sense?) we were given a jug (who would drink a whole jug?). We were unaware of this as the glasses were constantly and unobtrusively topped up. In the end, we were billed around £20 for the orange juice. This, despite the competent cooking, made me feel that it was slightly a rip-off.
Tom Aikens is one of the biggest names in the UK’s chef-y scene and known for his innovative, yet uncompromisingly complex approach to French cooking. His formerly inventive French fine-dining restaurant in Chelsea underwent a major refurbishment and looked northward to trendy Scandinavia for inspirations. The results were not only Noma-esque plates, chairs and bare wood decor but also the aesthetics of New Nordic plating. The FOH was also dolled up in a more rustically fashionable attire. (Think Barbour but Chelsea). Currently, the 7-course tasting menu is priced at £85, while the dishes on the carte dishes are individually priced (£13-19.50 for starters; £25-31 for mains; £10-14 for desserts).
I visited the restaurant in spring 2012 and unfortunately did not have the time to write up but I can still recall many dishes from the meal. Celeriac was a masterful construction of the same root vegetable prepared using various techniques – raw, char-grilled, baked, consomme-ed. I loved the effect of the wonderful smoky aroma cutting across the chilled and clarified broth. The vinegary juicy-ness from the pickled raisins was a thoughtful foil to the curd-y truffled creme fraiche and the fragrant note of thyme. Pork and Black Pudding was also a bowl of explosive umami. The perfectly cooked multi-cuts of pork were intense and moreish with black pudding crumbles. The polychrome of garnish – celery branch, celery butter, crispy pig’s skins, almond flakes – elevated the meaty dish with a herbal boost. Pigeon Consomme was a clever *posh-it-up* of your regular pot noodle. The plate arrived with an orderly arrangement of dehydrated, powdered components – grains and vegetables – and a disc of truffle custard. The idea was that these components would blend with the hot consomme and create dimensions for the beautifully pink roasted pigeon. It certainly put a big grin on my face! There were also dishes that did not quite work. Raw Turnip Salad lacked some vital freshness from the leaves and was overpowered by the chestnut puree, while Carrot Granite was just too oddly savoury and carrot-y for a dessert.
THE GRILL @ THE DORCHESTER
The Grill at the Dorchester is a very interestingly dichotomous restaurant. First, there was the traditional look – tartan seats and wall embellishments of Scottish-attired lads. Second, there was the FOH, very prim, proper and courteously formal. Third, there was the roast beef trolley, a fixed staple of the restaurant along with other classics of grilled sole and roasted grouse with bread sauce. But, the menu that existed beyond those Great British traditions (£10-21 for starters; £21-45 for mains; £12.50 for desserts) was unmistakably modern.
Glazed Calves Sweetbread (£26) was paired with crispy chicken wings, lemon and cumin bread. Personally, I found the dish cloyingly sweet and also crying for some refreshing elements to balance the offal strength. Lobster with Falmouth Bay Prawns, Langoustines and Shellfish Cream (£45) was a feast of paramount ingredients. The spiced sauce was comforting and reminiscent of both a bisque and a bouillabaisse. This was served with a small pot of custard-y seafood royale, which verged on being too rich and too generously spiced. Pistachio Crumb with Passion Fruit Bavarois with Apricot Sorbet and Saffron Ice Cream (£12.50) suffered from over-complication. Many textures of both passion fruit and apricot – bavarois, puree, gel, jelly, ice cream – did not create a unison in taste but glued together with the (finely tasting) chalky pistachio. The saffron ice cream which, by itself, would be quite a stunning treat did not seem to fit in.
131 Upper Street
Tel. 020 7359 7501
The Lanesborough Hotel
Tel 020 7333 7254
43 Elystan Street
Tel. 020 7584 2003
THE GRILL @ THE DORCHESTER
The Dorchester Hotel
9 Tilney Street
Tel. 020 7629 8888