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Irifune + Tuna + Thoughts on Seasons of Sushi

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).

Seasons (roughly)

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
Hotategai (Scallop)
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

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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.

(Special thanks to this guy for some lecture on tuna).

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.

A full photo album is here :-)




3-31-7 Okusawa

Tel. +31337201212

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

Why not for the beginners…

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

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




Which lists, which restaurants!?

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

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

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

Planning, produce and shun

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

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

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

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

Meat – Duck (Kamo).

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

The sushi ones..

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

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

Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten

Michelin: 3 stars Tabelog: 3.81

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

The full album is here.



Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi

Michelin: 2 stars Tabelog: 3.12

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

The full album is here.



Sushi Mizutani

Michelin: 3 stars Tabelog: 4.26

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

(No photography, I’m afraid).

Sushi Hashiguchi

Michelin: no star Tabelog: 4.39

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

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

(No photography).

Sushi Yoshitake

Michelin: 3 stars Tabelog: 4.08

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

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

The full album is here.



The tempura ones..

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

7chome Kyoboshi

Michelin: 3 stars Tabelog: 3.55

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

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

The full album is here.




Michelin: no star Tabelog: 4.17

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

The full album is here.



The kaiseki ones..

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

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

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

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

Ichijunisai Ueno Mino

Michelin: 2 stars Tabelog: 3.31

(Private room)

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

The full album is here.



Kikunoi Honten

Michelin: 3 stars Tabelog: 3.55

(Private room)

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

The full album is here.




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

……//” “\\

The full album is here.



Sojiki Nakahigashi

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.

The full album is here.




(Kappo-kaiseki + private room)

Michelin: 3 stars Tabelog: 4.43

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

The full album is here.



Jimbocho Den

Michelin: 2 stars Tabelog: 4.56

(Kappo-kaiseki + private room)

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

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

The full album is here.




Michelin: no star Tabelog: 4.45

(Kappo-kaiseki + private room)

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

The full album is here.



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

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

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41° Experience, Barcelona

41° Experience

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

PS Don’t hate me for doing this >_<





Avinguda Paral-lel, 164
08015, Barcelona

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Sushi Tetsu: Dream Team Sushi in Clerkenwell

My dreams of sushi..

London has, in recent years, witnessed a few redemptive openings of independent sushi bars, from the elaborate Kyoto-style craftsmanship at Sushi of Shiori to the swanky flame-grill fusion at Yashin Sushi. Sushi Tetsu, tucked away in a narrow Clerkenwell alley, seems humbler and more firmly grounded in the tradition. But, from my experience, this intimate sushi bar, owned and run by the team of husband chef and wife front of house, will very soon become the tour de force of Japanese restaurants in London. Toru Takahashi – the sushi master – is the name to remember. He comes from the north of Japan, via Kobe (as an apprentice) and ended up as a sushi chef at Nobu. Luckily (as I am not a fan) I see nothing of Nobu at Sushi Tetsu. The menu here focuses only on sushi and sashimi. Premium quality. Sourced mainly from Billingsgate Market. There is no compromise for hot food, according to

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the chatty husband and wife (who provided us with a lively “9-year-marriage” banter throughout our meal), and the only item that meets half-way with the English demand is California Roll. No miso soup. This is exactly the place I have been dreaming of.

The menu promises some affordable “omakase” options with the price finishing at around £37. I went, instead, for individually priced sushi nigiri options (between £2.60-£5.80 per piece). (Admittedly I lost clue of pricing and my meal below came to £80 with unlimited tea).

The meal commenced with a hopeful sign of fresh bamboo leaf soaked, wiped and laid in front of me. This was to become the natural platform on which my sushi was to be presented one by one and in an order selected by the chef. The first was “Sea Bream” acutely brushed with soy sauce (made by the chef himself!). I noted the very fresh firmness from the bream that, as I was chewing, bounced and sprang in my mouth. The rice – a concoction of three kinds of rice grains – was lightly vinegar-ed, pleasantly and tightly formed. The shiso leaf hidden between the bream and the rice released an explosive minty aroma. “Turbot” had a more stringy texture compared to the bream and was vertically scorched. No soy sauce but a tangy dressing of yuzu-ponzu and finely sliced spring onion, enhancing the pure mildness of the turbot well. “Razor Clam” was rocking my world. Very minimally bruised with knife, the plump and snappy razor clam glistened with a light touch of soy sauce and a “secret” pale green dressing which tasted of diluted lime infusion, bringing out the sweetness in the clam. Also noteworthy was that the clam was not only ridiculously fresh and of premium quality but masterly prep-ed and stored. Toru-san talked of an effortless process of blanching the clams quickly before removing them from the shells, washing and rewashing with salt, draining them. “Not complicated”, according to him. This resulted in no clammy slime or irksome aroma. “Shu-Toro/Medium Fatty Tuna Belly” – again a very good quality piece – was not visibly laced with fat but noted, instead, for its moreish softness and served simply with a brushing of soy sauce. “Scallop” was bruised throughout with the knife for contrasting roughness against its natural velvety crunch. The piece ruptured wonderfully at the tip of my tongue. The dusting of sea salt and (if I did not mistake this) a touch of fresh lime juice deepened its natural sweetness.

This was followed by “Snow Crab”. Carefully poached and with salted watery sweetness, it would have fared better with slightly more crab ratio. Personally, I felt the limelight stolen by “O-Toro”. This dainty piece of fat-lined tuna belly was slashed, vehemently brushed with soy sauce and torched (aburi). Toru-san added some finishing touches – a flash brushing of soy sauce and a restrained smearing of another Japanese chilli paste – and ordered me not to take my time with photography (!!). Sensational. The flame-blasted belly was mother-f**kingly smoky at first bite; then came umami intensity from the soy glazing; the oily tuna itself dissolved pleasingly in my mouth, with a background hint of wasabi. Just. To. Die. For. The serving of pickle-y “Mackerel” – traditionally salt-cured and rinsed with rice vinegar – seemed brilliantly timed as it washed off the remaining lip-licking good grease from the aburi toro. The wowsers did not stop. I sighted “Botan Ebi” – massive and boasting some very superior translucence – being butterflied, torched and painted with soy sauce. The prawn remained half cooked and delicately fumed. The topside muscle skillfully contracted by the flame burst at first bite, leading way to a raw but firm, silky sweetness underneath. “Sea Urchin” was different. Traditionally it is served gunkun-style with a wrapping of toasted nori. Here the nori was replaced with a fragile sheet of lightly chilled cucumber flesh (no thicker than 2mm). The fresh cucumber was, astonishingly, a befitting partner to the unctuous sea urchin. The latter oozed custard-y sea saltiness and with nori it would have been too rich. The cucumber lightened it all up, so to speak, and provided a distinct texture contrast. I finished (sort of) with “Tamago”. At Sushi Tetsu, there were two options of “rolled” (typical to Japanese restaurants in England as easier to prepare) or “thick” (cake-like and very rare here/Yashin Sushi also does it) on the menu, depending on the “mood” of the chef. The “thick” option today was intriguing and thoroughly enjoyable. There was a beautifully brown and rough skin. The egg-y flesh was not chunky and claimed a distilled sweetness. (Very few times I came across this “thick” version it was very sugary and served at the end as a dessert). It reminded me of a Kasutera cake but with savoury firmness. The taste became complete with the puffy rice.



Round 2

“Enough!?” Toru-san asked us. Maybe he spotted me (us) reaching a euphoric state and wanted to tease. Maybe he was serious. We nodded for “5 more. Choose for us. And maybe with another of O-Toro?”. There it was, a piece of “Horse Mackerel” like no other, marked for its silvery glow on the skin and an alluringly faded shade of pink in the flesh. It was presented with a touch of soy sauce, ginger and spring onions. There was a marvellous contrast of gelatin springy-ness and tenderness in the fish and a clarity of oily-ness. One of the best of horse mackerel I’d ever come across. “Red Bream” did not come from Billingsgate like others but flown directly from Japan by Toru-san’s supplier. The preparation was interesting. The fish was slashed throughout (most violently compared to any other that preceded) and blazed, starting from the skin (long time) to the meat (briefly). The result was not just the eye-pleasingly charred effect but the texture of the fish that disintegrated into flakes on the tongue (juxtaposing, of course, with the more gelatinous, cooked skin). The citric acidity from the yuzu-ponzu jostled well with the smoky aroma. “Boiled Prawn” was equally a stunner. The prawn itself was butterflied (from the bottom), washed and torched (also from the bottom). As its shell was removed minutes after my order, the prawn retained briny moisture but was, at the same time, quite crispy. The coy warmth from the flame triggered a change in temperature of the meat and aggrandised the sweetness of the prawn. The second coming of “O-Toro” (no more photo) was A LOT more lascivious and taken from a different strip of belly (with a very dazzlingly marbled effect). It proved far more delicious as the fat broke down with flame and the flesh was lubricated more thoroughly. The meal concluded with a warm temaki of “Eel” to counter the English weather. Both elegant and comforting.


“Would you like some more?” Now it was Mrs Toru’s turn to ask.


I looked with a smile in my eyes..


“Maybe some more tamago. Sashimi, please”.


That’s it. (SO bl**dy going back next week).





Jerusalem Passage

Tel. 020 3217 0090

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