What I say:
Noryangjin Seafood Market is the “Tsukiji” of Seoul, South Korea, and a great attraction if.. well.. you are into fish. There are many endless rows of fish and shellfish. Some are live; some frozen; others fermented and kimchi-ed.
Fish and a bit of Japanese..
Yashin Ocean House is a new venture by the team behind Yashin Sushi (in High Street Kensington). This is a designed-to-be-trendy restaurant with brown leather banquettes, smashed-and-exposed brick walls, polychrome of tiled tables, an emerald green kitchen island and counter, and a statement glass-covered facility for dry-aging fish. Not trendy enough? The restaurant also puts up a black horse sculpture with a lamp shade on its head to delight customers’ eyes as they are walked to their tables. A bit Santa Monica. A bit Moscow. The setting, kind of, helped distract me from the fact that Yashin Ocean House isn’t really a Japanese restaurant but an inventive fish restaurant with few Japanese touches. No sushi (and still no soy sauce)..
Bragging and knowledge..
(I don’t know everything so any comment/correction/exchange of knowledge is mostly welcomed).
Last year I wrote a lengthy blog post about Japan (very) fine dining. And I’m keen to elaborate on that idea and how, as an informed foreigner traveling to Japan, you can make the most of your situation. Again this is not *basic* knowledge and you may Google for the basic elsewhere. (I’m not a snob but I feel the information above the *basic* doesn’t seem to exist on the Internet so much).
Knowledge – correct or not – is key as it could ignite curiosity of the Japanese, or even better, a conversation. This knowledge isn’t necessarily aimed at chefs but also to your diners next to you. To me, Japan is a country with a stubbornly exclusive mentality and the best you can do to become less excluded is to tease the chefs with what you know and do not know. Direct or indirect conversation that the chefs can hear can lead to an unfolding of a more-than-ordinary experience. (I can’t tell you how exactly to *do it* but you can surely find a way).
(Click the links for photos).
The knowledge I’d like to share today is that of seasons in sushi toppings (i.e. fish, shellfish, whatever). I divide the seasons into 4 (spring, summer, autumn, winter) and focus mainly on what’s available when. There are, of course, sub-seasons in Japan, which in the future I will have more knowledge of and can elaborate. It is also noteworthy that in Japan a few fish and shellfish are enjoyed at different stages in their life and these different stages in life are indicated by different names.
Kisu (Sand Whiting) – white fish, “shirogisu” prime in summer, bitter skin, low fat, prepared “kobujime”
Kazunoko (Herring Roe) – salt pickle, “spring kazunoko” in Hokkaido
Tairagai (Pen Shell) – similar to hotate/scallop but bigger, crunchy and not as sweet, inedible mantles
Torigai (Japanese cockle) – purple black leg like bird beck
Shako (Mantis Shrimp) – 15cm, half ebi half kani, “tsume” sauce, “katsubushi” roe, until summer
Katsuo (Bonito) – “first” or “spring” katsuo, lean
Karei (Flounder) – translucent, “engawa” fin sinew
Kawahagi (Filefish) – firm, rough skin, prepared “kobujime”, liver usage
Kochi – “fugu of summer”, tough, Kinkai area
Suzuki (Perch/Sea Bass) – not good in August due to spawning, stomach fattier than backbone area, 4yr old name (koppa – young; seigo – 1yr; fukko – 2-3yr)
Aji (Horse Mackerel) – “maaji”
Awabi (Abalone) – “kuroawabi” high price, “mushiawabi” simmered, “wata” intestines, until autumn
Anago (Sea Eel) – June and rainy season, “tsume” sauce, half as fatty as unagi
Ika (Big Fin Squid) – “aoriika” most popular but also “sumiika” thick and chewy “yariika” spring “hotaruika”, “geso” tentacles
Kurumaebi (Prawn) – 20cm long, “odori” prepares raw, age variations “saimaki” “maki” “kurumaebi” “ogurama”
Tako (Octopus) – 2-3kg, “madako” from Akashi, “yudedako” boiled in coarse tea, “namadako” raw, massaging, until autumn
Katsuo (Bonito) – “returning”, fatty, twice as big, hay-grilled
Hirame (Marbled Sole) – mature taste, “kanbirame” caught in mid winter, from Aomori
Kohada (Gizzard Shad) – salted and vinegared, 2nd stage of its age (shinko – spring and young; kohada; nakazumi; konoshiro)
Saba (Mackerel) – “shime-saba” prepared marinated, “sekisaba” in winter from Oita
Ikura (Salmon Roe) – thinner membrane in early season
Tai (Sea Bream) – high status, “matsukawa-zukuri” served with blanched skin, fat between skin and meat
Sayori (Half Beak) – “wazukuri” prepared with whole fish, until spring
Shirauo (Glassfish) – transparent, bay but swim upriver in spring
Uni (Sea Urchin) – white and red kinds, short or long spikes, “murasakiuni” “bafununi” “ezobafununi” from Hokkaido, “akauni” from western Japan, until summer
Aoyagi (Orange Clam) – “bakagai” parboiled, “kobashira the eye, “oboshi” big kobashira and “koboshi” small kobashira, shell similar to Hamaguri, until spring
Akagai (Bloody Clam) – “himo” mantle, until spring
Hamaguri (Hard Clam) – “sakamushi” steamed with sake, “nitsume” concentrated soy mirin infusion
Hokkigai (Surf Clam) – “ubagai” real name but “hokki” because of Hokkaido, greyish brown when raw and peachy red when cooked, until spring
Mirugai (Giant Clam) – “miru” seaweed growing on the shell, golden brown meat
Read more about Tsukiji Market if you want..
Tuna / Honmaguro
Maguro (Tuna) – over 3m, Oma coast in Aomori, highly priced, taste maturing in winter
Apart from Japan, tuna from Spain is also highly sought after. You can also find – yep get ya boat out! – tuna in Portugal, Greece, Croatia and Ireland. I’m not sure which route they swim just yet.. -__-”
These are the common categorization..
Akami (lean – near spine)
Chutoro (half fatty – near skin)
Otoro (fatty – belly)
You will also get the “half-half” kind of cut, such as Chu-o-toro and the Chu-toro that is close to the Akami.
Akami (lead, red meat) can taste quite bloody, depending how close to the blood vessel (the inner part closed to spine) that cut of Akami is. Some people prefer bloody taste; some don’t. One of the means to dilute the blood taste of the Akami part is “Zuke” (marinated/pickled in soy sauce). The Akami that is close to the tail is leaner and slightly paler.
To make things more complicated…
A tuna fish is generally divided into 3 parts, from head to tail.
Kami (near the head)
Naka (middle part)
Shimo (near the tail)
Se (back part)
Hara (belly part)
Both Se-toro and O-toro are fatty but Se-toro (found in the back part) is less fatty than O-toro. Also the O-toro that is close to the head (Kami) is fattier than the O-toro that is close to the tail (Shimo). The reputedly *best* part of O-toro is called Hara Kami Ichi Ban, which is the belly closer to the head. One of the rarest and fattiest parts of tuna and the oiliest is Kama-toro or tuna collar. It is also the most expensive.
The fattiest doesn’t necessarily mean the tastiest (in my opinion). Some very fatty cuts don’t have the complexity of blood taste. And the means to make the fat taste more complex is to sear it with charcoal (or blow torch). This method is called “Aburi”.
There is also a kind of sushi that combines the lean red meat with scraping of fat directly under the skin. (Generally cheaper than the fatty bits). This is called Maguro Kawagishi (red meat with oil under skin). It’s usually served as a Gunkan-maki. This only works with native tuna. The fat under the skin of farmed tuna is reportedly smelly.
Tuna belly generally contains a lot of sinews. Often they are unpleasant. There comes the ageing process to soften the sinews and enhance the taste of tuna is called “jyukusei” (“jyuku” reaching the peak; “sei” to become).
The bone marrow of tuna is also edible.
This interest of mine in tuna took me to a sushi restaurant called Irifune.
Irifune for tuna?
Irifune is a no-star sushi-ya in Tokyo’s suburban area of Okusawa. The itamae is known for buying the *best* of tuna (honmaguro) from Tsukiji Market.
Personally I think it is a good restaurant but it’s not life-changing. The care that goes into fine-tuning temperature, etc. is missing. The rice makes no impact. Quite glue-y and lacking in movement. It is also not true that if you go you’d necessarily experience (and learn by tasting) many obscure cuts of tuna. You need to be able to tell the difference and to order it by kind. (I chanced into a kama-toro (tuna collar) because I could identify it by look rather than being given).
The best way to eat a lot of tuna at Irifune, in my opinion, is to get the tuna donburi, rather than having an “omakase” sushi set. In your donburi, you’ll be served o-toro from various parts of tuna, chu-toro, maguro and aburi-toro.
What’s in the name..
Keith McNally. Balthazar. These are a couple of names that could give (some) restaurant scenesters a very sturdy erection. In NYC Balthazar has been one of the city’s *top* reservations, the partyground of the beautiful and the famous, and it’s the sort of place that you feel could transform you. When the ever jolly doorman leads way to the pale amber-shaded dining room, the bustle hits you in the face and makes your blood sizzle. When you sink your well-garbed buttocks onto the gleaming red leather banquette, seeing big trays of casually dressed lobsters flying past and peeping at the trendy universe that revolves around you over those oversize brass mirrors, you know this is sort of *it* – the place to be. And this is what exactly Keith McNally has created, a venue that makes you glow and indulge a little with sense of self-importance (nothing’s wrong with it, of course), and this is, to me, what’s in the name of Balthazar.
In London the transfer of such vibe couldn’t be more spot on. I had my handsome and cheerful doorman. I had my bustle (as well as an army of receptionists). I had my red banquette, my mirrors and then trays of lobsters (not mine) flying past. I had my pale yellow light (not ideal for iPhone photography). I even had the one and only Keith McNally inches away from me. This was, of course, not to mention that I had also spent a good 25 minutes or so over the phone re-dialing and queue-waiting to make this reservation. The eating experience – bear in mind this was their first public service – was just nice.
What’s on the menu..
The menu covers pretty much most of your well-known, humbly presented French brasserie dishes, from Onion Soup to Dover Sole Meuniere. The price for starters is between £6 and £15.25; for entrees/mains, between £13.50 and £35; for side dishes, £4.50; for desserts, around £7. The grillades and the fruit de mer platters are more dearly priced (forgot to note, sorry). Escargots (£10.50), containing six plump snails with your typical garlic and parsley butter, were good and not excessively greasy. Lobster and Black Truffle Risotto (£10.50) was finished with cauliflower cream and black truffle butter. While the risotto itself was adequately studded with lobster morsels, the truffle flavour was missing. The al dente texture here was, to me, quite soft and spoke of an American descent rather than European. Steak Tartare (£15.25/Main Size) was pleasant. I liked the careful mixture of both coarsely and finely chopped filet mignon, the rather chilled temperature and the slap of acidity. That said, it could have done with more salt and mustard-y boost. The toasted bread was also too thickly cut and rough on the hard palate, and the watercress salad too wetly dressed. Pithivier (£14.50) was a vegetarian dish at Balthazar. The pastry was nicely cooked and not heavy; the filling of spinach, squash and pine nut had iron-y bitterness and was not the most remarkable; the mushroom fricassee did not stand out. Steak Frites (£17.50) for my lovely dining companion fared better. The beef (I forgot to ask which butcher’s it was from) was requested medium rare and arrived accordingly. It was gently charred, though not to the point it formed a delicious crusty exterior. The fries, for which Balthazar NYC was famous, were nothing spectacular. I also didn’t think highly of the Bearnaise sauce, but that could be because I have a penchant for a thicker and more yolk-y version.
The desserts (both £7), sadly, were a leap below the savoury courses. Profiteroles were nice enough. I enjoyed the vanilla ice cream, which was half way between milky and icy (rather than being full-on creamy), and the warm chocolate sauce. The profiteroles cases, however, were a little dry and lifeless. Not so good was Rum Baba, served in an inglorious pool of pineapple and papaya fruit salad and topped with Chantilly cream. The baba itself was a heavy sponge soaked in inadequately boozed and over-sweetened syrup and the experience of eating this dish was akin to savouring a Gulab Jamun. (Being in England, we, of course, said it was “ok” when asked).
Worth a try, still?
4-6 Russell Street
Tel. 020 3301 1155
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.
Sushi of SHIORI
Sushi of Shiori on Drummond Street is closed down. The lovely, talented duo of husband-chef Takashi and wife-manager Hitomi has moved on and re-launched Shiori without the “Sushi” in a bigger site in roast-duck-dominating Bayswater as a kaiseki restaurant. Kaiseki, if you do not know, is the traditional and acutely prepared multi-course menu originating from Kyoto, the equivalence of which in the western world would be a haute cuisine tasting menu. However, in a kaiseki meal, the focus is poetic simplicity and the menu strictly reflects seasonal changes and produce. The chef will adopt one single method to prepare each dish in order to create a well-balanced meal. But, I don’t have much time to bore you with this, so I’ll let
the most reliable research tool in the world called Wikipedia do the job.
Owner-chef Takashi Takagi, formerly a sous-chef at Michelin-starred Umu, is a trained Kaiseki chef, and his craftsmanship has already reflected in the ever-changing Omakase Menu served at its original site. The Shiori is an elaboration of such menu. There are two options at dinner: the 9-course Kaiseki-Hana (£65) and the 12-course Kaiseki Kokoro (£105). The a la carte sushi and sashimi menus are available at lunch time. The sake-pairing option (£55 for the Kokoro) is of great value. The restaurant itself looks very much like a traditional Japanese house with some pseudo sunken seats. No private room. Quite relaxed.
The “Heart” of Kaiseki
I went for the Kokoro menu. It commenced with Black Sesame Tofu with Sea Urchin. The chilled tofu was wobbly and deliciously forceful in taste. The crystal clear dashi, also served chilled with fresh wasabi and shiso flower, gave a good citric and salty tang to stir my appetite. The uni, though fresh and mineral-y, was slightly lost in the construction. The simmered dish of Haddock Balls was neat, sweet and refreshing. The balls, made by mincing haddock with its roe, were quite light and gently coarse – a pleasant sensation on the tongue. The chilled dashi (I believe) was infused with onion and oozed perfuming sweetness to contrast with the salted balls. The sancho leaves provided extra aromatic boost. Marinated Salmon with Fermented Rice was my most favourite dish of the meal. This is the origin of sushi. In the old days, rice was fermented and wrapped around salted fish for preservation. This technique is more relevant in Kyoto where there is no direct access to the sea. Bluntly speaking, given the varying degree of fermentation, this “nare-zushi” can taste quite revolting. The version at Shiori, however, was appetisingly mellow. The marinated salmon strips were fatty and sweet. They mediated the mild fermented rice nicely. (Think yogurt)! The pearls of ikura/salmon roe added a depth of saltiness, with a subdued fragrance of pickled chrysanthemum petal in the background. The futamono (soup) course arrived a dobin-mushi (a soup served in teapot). The soup – pale and tea-like in colour – was first poured into the tea cup to be savoured by itself. A hearty infusion of crab, prawns and mushrooms. Once finished, I was instructed to open the lid and savour the “bits”. These “bits” aka the secrets of the infusion were chicken, prawns, crab, bamboo shoot, cloud ear mushrooms, shimeji mushrooms and herbs. A minimal squeeze of lime helped invigorate the taste.
The Shiori’s serving of sashimi was this luxurious assortment of seabass (with shiso flowers), chu-toro cubes (with grated daikon and chooped fresh wasabi), lobster (with avruga caviar and gold leaf), squid (with herring roe) and razor clam (with togarashi). The chu-toro melted in my mouth. I also loved the lobster sashimi, which had been blanched on one side for texture contrast. This was quickly followed by Oyster Yuzu-Miso Dengaku. In English… a gratin of huge oyster with caramel-like miso and yuzu orange paste. The miso was quite domineering at first but gave way to the coy aftertaste of oyster. The garnish of shaved, grilled chestnut (beautified with toasted millet) – chalky with a more subdued sweetness – and ebi-okara (prawn, kombu, sancho leaves, and vinegared soy fibre) – a bomb of acidity with a very light touch of sweetness – worked as a thoughtful procession of palate cleanser. Kyoto is known for its vegetables and the individual-sized Nabe with snow crab, home-made fish ball and vegetables allowed a glimpse to Kyoto delicateness. The pale, clear golden broth sparkled against silvery hot pot; the vegetables – napa cabbage, leek, enoki mushrooms and grilled yuba roll – were beautifully poached; the crab leg and the fish ball were meaty; the konnyaku noodles absorbed all the goodness from the broth. Steamed Vinegared Abalone was served chilled and equally pleasant. The texture was half way between being chewy and tender. The first taste was that of cleansing vinegar (with a hint of yuzu-ponzu jelly and a fresh kick of myoga); slowly the abalone released its flavour.
The “gohan” course at The Shiori was a return to the “signature” Nigiri Sushi creations available at its former Euston venue. The ingredients were carefully pimped. Turbot was served with fin morsel (engawa) and monkfish liver (ankimo); the yellowtail with grated ginger; and the otoro by its own. Then came the spotted prawn with herb salsa and the scallop with magnificent black truffle dressing. The sushi selection concluded with the robust wagyu sushi. All high grade. The rice was very calmly seasoned in order that it did not intrude the taste of the ornate toppings. The marvel, however, was Unagi Mushi-Zushi. The thin strips of gently poached freshwater eel formed a case for the sesame and ginger-studded rice. It was dressed with kabayaki sauce, wrapped in dried bamboo leaves and steamed right before serving. Heart-warming, the unagi rice disintegrated wonderfully in the mouth; the ginger fragrance married well with the nutty seeds; the eel was polite but potent. The “tomewan” of lobster head miso soup was spot on.
I wound down with one scoop of chestnut ice cream. Milky and nutty, with bits of the chestnuts for texture contrast. And, I couldn’t resist asking for another go at the ice cream. Black sesame. Strong. Very good.
The menu Kaiseki Kokoro did capture the heart of kaiseki. The cooking for the most part was accomplished. The service was jolly. And I appreciate the braveness The Shiori embraces to showcase the authentic Kyoto-style kaiseki in a country (or continent?) nearly void of such menu. (I could think Umu in Mayfair and Yamazato at The Okura Hotel in Amsterdam). There are, still, a few things I hope The Shiori could implement once they are more settled in the new location. Say, an inclusion of Hassun – a course which sets the pictorial seasonal theme of the season – and a seasonal ‘gohan’ course in place of nigiri sushi.
That said, for the time being, I can do with more salmon with fermented rice and more crab nabe (^o^)//
45 Moscow Road
Tel. 020 7221 9790