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In a state of hibernation. My backlog has long become unsustainable. Will probably tweet more and write less full-length stuff.

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Wednesday
Dec022009

Takaraya Ramen - 宝屋ラーメン

Well, it's been a busy fall. My company's biggest event (5700+ attendees plus 20,000 virtual attendees) is taking place this week, and my March event just opened on our new software platform today. It's been hectic over here at Arthur Hungry HQ. December will be better, I think, and it should at least be quiet during the holidays. I've got a couple more Japan photos to share, then a bunch from my fall trips to Chicago and New York. I've got a bit to get through.

 

Our last lunch in Kyoto was at Takaraya Ramen (note: Japanese website) on Ponto-cho near the river. Kyoto is not particularly famous for ramen, but this glowing review from Kyoto Foodie (with great Google map) plus my inability to go to Japan without at least one ramen stop made this trip inevitable. Takaraya is actually nicer inside than a typical ramen shop, with 2 little tables, a pleasant counter, and a boisterous crew in the back. It was pretty crowded when we went during the lunch hour, and we initially had to split up into 2 pairs. Eventually, the couple next to us left, and we got to take over most of the counter.

 

TORONIKU CHASHUMEN - fatty pork with green onion ramen - ¥880Ordering this was kind of a no-brainer for me. Their standard ramen, using a pork bone stock, topped with extra fatty thinly sliced chashu? I'll take 2 please! Toro here is a bit of a play on words in reference to the tuna version, aka my favorite food, and the concept of pork toro alone makes me salivate. This did not disappoint, as the pork was melt-in-your-mouth buttery, while the soup was hearty and flavorful. The noodles had a nice thickness to them with a little bit of chew.

 

SUMASHI RAMEN - flat noodles, chicken meatballs, chicken broth, veggies, mozzarella, crispy bacon - ¥850Kyoto Foodie adores this dish, proclaiming it symbolic of Kyoto style. I must say, it was one of the most interesting bowls of ramen I've ever seen. That's not a typo up there.. this ramen had a few cubes of mozzarella cheese! My dad volunteered and ordered it, since it was too interesting not to try. It had a lighter overall feeling than the pork ramen, and actually wasn't nearly as strange as it sounds. Once everything was mixed up, it turned into just a straight up good bowl of noodles.

I think that if I lived in Japan and ate quality ramen with more regularity, the sumashi ramen would be an exciting change of pace... but I preferred the regular style of the toroniku.

 

KYOTO DEMACHI - raw egg over rice with salted kelp and pickles - ¥380Another intriguing item at Takaraya was this egg/rice dish. The quality of eggs in Japan is very high, and the simplicity of this dish is what made it great. The rice is served very hot, and after being scrambled into the bowl, the egg became ever so slightly cooked (kind of like a carbonara). You can then mix in or eat with the kelp and pickles. This would be a great breakfast.

 

GYOZA - ¥280Of course, we were in a ramen shop, so we had to get some gyoza. Takaraya's was about par for the course for a Japanese ramen place. Pretty good, thin skin, and a nice char.

Like many of you out there, I'm an absolute ramen lover. I'm always looking for good versions here in SF - sadly, most good ramen requires a drive down to the South Bay. If I were to spend any extended amount of time in Japan, ramen would undoubtedly become a staple of my diet. It's way better than the stuff in college...

Thursday
Oct222009

Mishima-Tei - 三嶋亭

Been an extremely hectic week of work - sorry for the lack of posting. I leave tomorrow night for a quick trip to New York City, so good eats are forthcoming. In the meantime, I've got a few more meals from Japan to post.

Our next dinner was at Mishima-Tei, a famous sukiyaki house/meat market established in 1873. It's still in the original building, which is funny considering it's now under the bright lights of Teramachi Street. Inside, it's totally old school. You take off your shoes in a little entry area, then climb up and down a few little stairways to eventually to find one of several scattered private rooms. There, they set you up with everything required to cook at the table.

Sukiyaki is just one of many ways you can cook high-quality Japanese beef. This was my second visit here, so I knew what to expect. Though I still think teppanyaki is the best way to eat Japanese beef, sukiyaki is a nice change of pace, and Mishima-Tei is certainly a good place to check out the cooking style. They also offer shabu-shabu and what they call "oil-yaki," which seems to be a simple sear.

And hey, they even offer an Engrish menu for us gaijin! I love slised meat with soy source. Not surprisingly, we went with the Mishima-Tei "Grand class Meat" at ¥11,000, which basically comes with everything.

 

INGREDIENTS PRE-COOKINGA very polite Japanese lady came out with a huge tray of ingredients, containing our beef, a basket of veggies, and a bunch of sauce plus sugar.

 

GRAND CLASS MEATHere's a closer shot of our "Grand class Meat." The language barrier left a more detailed explanation of the beef's origins a mystery, but as you can see... it was very, very marbled.

 

EARLY COOKING ACTIONOur friendly Japanese waitress/chef started by dumping a ton of sugar into our little iron pot, then lining up a bunch of beef and pouring some soy sauce over the whole thing. They pretty much do all the cooking for you, so you don't have to worry about messing anything up.

 

JUST ABOUT DONEHere's the first batch of beef, well-dressed in sauce and just about ready to eat. Cooking does not take long at all.

 

COOKED BEEF WITH EGGThe other cool thing about sukiyaki is that you basically use a raw, beaten egg as your dipping sauce. It makes for a much gooeyer texture than teppanyaki, but an incredibly soft and tender texture. It requires minimal chewing and works amazingly well with rice. The flavor is very rich as you might expect, with a good amount of sweetness from the sugar.

 

BEEF WITH VEGGIESAfter an initial round of all beef, some veggies went into the pot too. Tofu, onions, mushrooms, scallions, a green called shungiku, and some chewy noodles made from konnyaku were used - all pretty standard sukiyaki sides. They all become delicious after soaking up the marbled juices seeping from the beef.

Here's some video action of the cooking in process. I guess I didn't pick the most exciting part to film, but you get the idea. I was busy eating immediately when it was cooked. Also included is some unedited bonus material that I call "Che family musings on sukiyaki sauce."

 

PEAR AND HONEY DEWA simple serving of fruit at the end was perfect and very refreshing after the richness of the meat.

Overall, a very good meal, and an important pit stop on the neverending path of Japanese cuisine. I'll admit sukiyaki doesn't excite me as much as sushi or teppanyaki, but it's still a fun and delicious experience. Check it out!

Wednesday
Oct142009

Ukiya Soba - 有喜屋

For our next lunch, we went to Ukiya Soba. Ukiya is a small mini-chain, with 9 locations (we went to this one on Teramachi Street; the website has no English, but it's easy to find). The Teramachi shop is tiny, with 4 tables and about 12 seats in total. Ukiya specializes in soba, a Japanese buckwheat noodle which can be served hot with soup or cold with dipping sauce. They are known to have some of the best in Japan.

Soba is a bit of a "checklist" item for me when going to Japan, because it is just so much better there than back home. Soba is a highly respected item, and though you can find many fast food versions of it, there are also many family-run soba joints that have passed on their secrets from generation to generation. To give you an idea, Ukiya has been in operation since 1929, which is actually quite young for a famous soba house - another famous place in Kyoto, Owariya, has been around for 540 years. In the US, you can pretty much only find the dried, pre-made, packaged wholesale version of these noodles; I don't know of a restaurant here that actually makes soba fresh. Ukiya makes it fresh every morning, and the difference is obvious. Check out Kyoto Foodie for some cool pics of the soba-making process (side note - KF highly recommends the ukiten soba, but as a non-Japanese, my hate of natto stops me from ordering it).

 

TENZARU COMBO - cold soba with dipping sauce, tempura, rice with pickled veggies, assorted pickles and tofu - ¥1,680Ukiya offers a bunch of different lunch sets. I opted for the tenzaru soba, a common pairing of cold soba with dipping sauce and a serving of tempura. The tempura of course wasn't quite as good as Yoshikawa from the night before, but the noodles were just wonderful. They're thin, feathery, and light, but still have a substantial, slight chew to them. I love cold soba because it so well highlights the "al dente-ness" in the noodle texture. It's a night and day difference from packaged soba, and I think fairly analogous to the difference between a freshly-made pasta and some Kraft macaroni.

 

OYAKO-DON - ¥1,000Another bonus of eating at a good soba house is that, for reasons completely unknown to me, they also tend to specialize in oyako don, a humble dish of rice topped with chicken and eggs. This is one of my dad's favorite things. I prefer katsu-don, but I will never turn down a smooth, almost creamy oyako-don like the one pictured. The key is the slight runniness of the eggs mixing with the (dark meat) chicken and the hot rice.

Either is enough for a quick lunch, but of course we had a bit of everything (for the 4 of us, we ended up with 4 sets of noodles and just 1 oyako don to try). If you're in Kyoto, definitely check out one of the Ukiya locations for lunch. You'll probably run into mostly solo diners stopping for a quick lunch break. But really, if you go anywhere in Japan, there should be a serviceable soba shop somewhere nearby. Any decent soba shop will be a vast improvement compared to what's served in the US.

Thursday
Oct082009

Tempura Yoshikawa - 天ぷら 吉川

A 2 hour Shinkansen ride later, and we were in Kyoto, the former capital of imperial Japan. Kyoto is a decidedly calmer and quieter place than Tokyo, and you can pretty much walk around town in peace and see everything on one easy map. Of course, there are still plenty of good eats to be had. Our first dinner in town was at Tempura Yoshikawa, a very famous inn and restaurant.

 

Kyoto is filled with little traditional inns called ryokan, many of which are family-run and hundreds of years old. They generally feature tatami rooms, kaiseki dinners, and elaborate tea ceremony services, and tend to look much like Yoshikawa above. Staying in one is definitely an experience worth trying in Kyoto. Once was enough for me back in the pre-Arthur Hungry days, and I prefer the modern comforts of newer hotels. We stayed at a tiny boutique called the Screen, which was very unique and worth checking out. Yoshikawa does have a bunch of tatami rooms that do full kaiseki, but they are most well known for their tempura.

 

The front room of Yoshikawa is this tiny tempura counter, with about 12 seats around the frying area. The scene is actually pretty casual, with most people drinking beer and enjoying some laid-back banter. Yoshikawa is quite well-known and mentioned in all the Kyoto guidebooks, so there's no lack of tourists. The night we were there, the crowd consisted of some regular Japanese folks, an Italian with a translator in the corner to our right, and, believe it or not, a couple from Walnut Creek sitting right next to me on our left. It was certainly one of the more diverse groups we ate with.

 

In real life, I always talk about what I feel is one of the key things that sets Japanese food in Japan so far apart from the US: specialization. In the US, you can find sushi places and some ramen places, but other than that, "Japanese" restaurants cover the entire gamut of Japanese cuisine. In Japan, there are so many places that specialize in a specific type of cuisine, be it sushi, soba, ramen, tonkatsu, or takoyaki. It's no wonder that each item, no matter how humble, has some place where it has been perfected. It's also totally understandable that the US can't support this level of distinction within Japanese cuisine - there just isn't the demand required for such specialized places to survive.

Nothing illustrates this phenomenon better than the Japanese tempura house. In the US, tempura is fried in a kitchen in the back, and served together as an assorted combo plate. In Japan, the entire process happens in front of you at the counter. An esteemed tempura master (like the gentleman pictured above) does everything fresh, from making the batter and cooking up the dipping sauce on the stove, to literally frying each piece and serving it as it comes out. It's served much like sushi. You have a little plate in front of you, Awesome Tempura Chef Guy puts food on it straight out of the fryer, and then you eat it before he serves you the next item. Talk about a foolproof formula.

Yoshikawa offers a few different levels of set menus which increase in price and quantity. We went with the top one available, at ¥10,000.

 

APPETIZERS - ebi sushi, chicken liver terrine, sweet fish with picklesThey started us off with these cold apps. Nothing mindblowing - sushi was definitely not as good as what we'd been eating. The chicken liver thing was pretty good though, and surprisingly similar to a Western preparation of it.

 

SASHIMI - toro, madaiNext came some sashimi. Again, it's a little unfair to compare to what we were eating that week, but the fish quality was certainly respectable.

 

TENTSUYU - tempura dipping sauceOne of the things that sets various tempura houses apart is their sauce. Each place has their own top secret family recipe that's been handed down for centuries, guarded like Fort Knox, and so on. All I know is that they are generally some combination of dashi, mirin, and soy, and are universally better than the bottled stuff served in most restaurants back home.

I'm not a big "sauce" person compared to some people I know (ahem, Dave, LC), but I'll say without hesitation that tempura dipping sauce is one of my favorite sauces in the world. I could pour this stuff over rice and eat it quite happily. The version at Yoshikawa is simply delicious, with a deep, brothy flavor that manages to remain subtle and never overwhelm the ingredient being dipped. I embarassingly had to ask for a sauce refill about halfway through; I went through it at about 2x the rate of my dining companions.

 

SHRIMPFirst up was the tempura staple, shrimp, served with extra crispy legs. The meat of the prawn was tender and searing hot, just the way I like it, while the batter was tremendously light. The crunchy bits are cut and fried so perfectly that you can basically eat them like chips, including the tails. Deeelish. Blake, the guy from Walnut Creek sitting next to me, couldn't handle the tails. I gave him a hard time about it. I'm still convinced he lost street cred with Awesome Tempura Chef Guy when he left his tails uneaten.

 

GREEN BEANSNext up were green beans, which were more like haricots verts than anything else. Crisp and refreshing on the inside, and again super-hot on the outside.

 

SHIITAKE MUSHROOMI generally don't like shiitakes a whole lot, but I find they work pleasantly in tempura. They had just the right balance of chewy and firm.

 

HAMOOf course, the other cool thing about tempura in Japan is you get a much more diverse set of ingredients. Hamo was moist and hearty. Great fish for frying.

 

BABY CORNBaby corn was sweet and a little crunchy.

 

BELL PEPPERSBell peppers were unspectacular. Admittedly, they're one of my least favorite veggies...

 

ANAGOAnago, on the other hand, is probably my favorite tempura ingredient other than shrimp. Yoshikawa's version did not disappoint. The eel was moist, flaky, and just delicious.

 

SALAD - cherry tomatoes, pine nuts, marinated fishFor some reason, they interrupted the fried goodness with a salad. Kidding, kidding... It had a decent vinaigrette, and the cold fish was pretty interesting. Kinda tasted like fish you'd find in Japanese breakfast.

 

LOTUS ROOTLotus root is another veggie I'm not too crazy about, but that I find pretty good in tempura. I generally don't like the texture, but at Yoshikawa it was hot and cooked but still very crunchy. It also does a great job soaking up tempura sauce.

 

ASPARAGUSAsparagus is kind of a tempura no-brainer. These were modest little spears, and tender but not amazing. I'd love to try some of our springtime California delta asparagus cooked here - it'd be yummy for sure.

 

SWEET POTATOSweet potato! The ubiquitous tempura throw-in you find all the time in the US. I never like it because it's always too bland and starchy, but at Yoshikawa they manage to retain a much more solid texture.

 

SCALLOPDeep-fried scallops, pretty much guaranteed delicious. These were perfect - barely cooked, as you can see in the middle, but still HOT and crispy on the outside. Love it.

 

SHRIMPAnother piece of shrimp, signaling that we were near the end. It was just as good as the first two.

 

KAKIAGE DONMost tempura houses finish of the meal with some version of kakiage with rice. It's essentially a few different ingredients mixed together in some batter and then fried in a giant chunk or cake. At Yoshikawa, you can get it either as a donburi (over rice) or ochazuke (with rice and hot tea poured over). Their kakiage consisted mainly of small shrimp and green onions. Very tasty, with just the right balance of batter and ingredients. They also give some pickles and miso soup, as usual.

You end up being pretty damn full after tempura, since they hit you with this huge bowl of rice + big chunks of kakiage, after having just consumed all the actual tempura before it. But it's so delicious that I always look forward to the end.

 

CHESTNUT MOUSSEThey finished us off with this very light, airy chestnut mousse. It wasn't overly sweet, and tasted a bit like the "almond tofu" desserts that always get served in Vancouver izakayas.

That's it for the long multi-course tempura meal. Yoshikawa is pretty famous, but I'll also have to try some of the top-rated tempura houses in Tokyo the next time I go. The batter and frying at Yoshikawa seem pretty much perfect to me; I would think other places have just stylistic differences. In any case, absolutely go to at least one tempura dinner if you visit Japan - it's such a different experience, and should not be missed.

Saturday
Oct032009

Ristorante Aso

For our last lunch in Tokyo, we wanted to mix it up a bit and try something Western. We decided on Ristorante Aso, the flagship Italian restaurant of Japanese chef Tatsuji Aso. We were looking in particular for a Western place run by someone Japanese, rather than a Japanese outpost of a European chef. Aso, with 2 Michelin stars and a reputation for the best Italian in Tokyo, fit the bill perfectly. The Japanese have been known to embrace Italian food and put their own little twist on it. Given my love for the very popular rustic Italian places in SF like Delfina and A16, I was excited to see what the Japanese were doing with Italian.

Ristorante Aso is on a pretty road in Daikanyama, hidden away behind a more casual cafe operation which occupies the streetfront. Walking through the cafe, we passed a small interior courtyard before getting to the main entrance of the restaurant. Aso is actually a big house, with 2 stories and multiple rooms of varying sizes. There's one main salon with the most tables. We sat upstairs, in a smaller room with 4 tables overlooking some trees in the back. The place has a very calm, country atmosphere, although I can also imagine it becoming more formal during dinner service.

Aso offers a 3 levels of set meals, ranging from ¥4,000 to ¥8,400 for lunch, and ¥10,500 to ¥21,000. One of the reasons we went was the relative value of the lunch sets compared to dinner, and we ultimately opted for the middle one at ¥5,250. It's hard to beat a multi-course Michelin 2-star meal for around $60!

 

BREAD PLATEAso started us off with this pretty awesome bread presentation. We got two of these for 4 people, which is a definitely lot of bread... and since they were all different, I had to eat everything. They were all freshly baked and quite good, with my favorites being the scallion roll at the far left and the flaky thing second to the right. They also served another hot country roll, not pictured, and gave us 3 different butters.

 

SANMA AFFUMICATO - marinated and smoked saury with lardo, chives, and olive oilOur first course was this beautiful sanma (Pacific saury), a fish rarely used in sushi. Reminiscent of my mom's cured salmon dish, this fish bursted with smoky flavor. The combination with lardo was genius, giving the entire thing a rich, luxurious mouthfeel. Simple, creative, and tasty.

 

BEEF CARPACCIO - tonnato sauceA very interesting spin on carpaccio. The beef was cut thicker than usual, giving it a more chewy, tartare-like texture. The tonnato sauce, more traditionally used with cooked veal, was bright and slightly tangy. Loved this.

 

DECONSTRUCTED AMATRICIANA - spaghettini, clam foam, guanciale, onion gelee, roasted tomato, parmesan crispAt the beginning of the meal, our waiter summed up the pasta course as "Amatriciana," to which I quickly thought "awesome, probably bucatini amatriciana, a classic pasta dish." Imagine our surprise when they brought out this plate of what looked like prosciutto. I was confused at first and thought maybe there was a course I had forgotten about. The plates were then followed with glasses filled with hot spaghettini in a foamy sauce. This dish was like nothing I'd ever seen. We were instructed to mix the whole thing together (you can see some action mixing in the background). I've decided to dub this officially as a "deconstructed Amatriciana" - a more accurate description than the humble standard I was expecting.

AMATRICIANA... UM... RECONSTRUCTEDAfter putting everything back together, and getting over the crazy/weird/awesome factor, I was happy to discover that this dish was in fact delicious. The spaghettini was perfectly cooked. The guanciale (to be honest, I couldn't tell if it was guanciale or pancetta - I've never been served either sliced so thinly before) had a little bit of crisp to it, and balanced beautifully with the clam foam sauce. I was simply blown away by this dish. It showed some extreme complexity and creativity, and yet the sum of all these parts was very hearty and comforting. I ate about half of my grandma's share in addition to my own...

 

MYSTERY MAIN DISHOur main dish came next, covered in a parchment puff pastry of some kind.

CHICKEN - spring onions, radicchio, mizuna, topped with puff pastryCutting open the paper revealed chicken with a variety of greenery. It tasted grilled, and was actually quite similar to the chicken we had the day before at Ukai Toriyama - tender, and juicy. The pastry wasn't your typical puff pastry. It tasted a lot more flour-based than usual, without the overwhelming buttery flavor. All in all, this dish was pretty good, but definitely not up to the level of the other courses. (Admittedly, the pasta would have been hard to top.)

 

CHEESE - camembert, hard orange, taleggioIn more French than Italian style, Aso has a proper cheese cart with about 10 available selections. I opted for this camembert, a hard, dry orange that I didn't catch the name of, and some taleggio. All very nice, especially with the provided fig.

 

PINEAPPLE SHERBERTSorry for the crappy photo on this one. Palate cleanser was this pineapple sherbert, which tasted like a foamy essence of pina colada. Not a bad thing.

 

TIRAMISUYou get to pick from a few choices for dessert, and I went with the simply-described tiramisu. Again, it was a presentation like I've never seen before. The plate just had the square of cream at first, and the waiter "freshly" grated the bits of coffee on top. Lady fingerish cake was hidden under the cream, and the whole thing actually tasted like a rich regular tiramisu, except with an added bit of crunch from the bits of coffee. Very interesting.

 

GELATO - caramel and coconutMy grandma opted for the gelato, which I thought was photo-worthy. I believe the flavors were caramel and coconut, and it was served with some grate-your-own fancy salts. The ice block presentation was pretty slick.

 

PETITFOURSWhen they first brought this out, I thought it was just some flowers. This not being a French restaurant, I wasn't really expecting petitfours, and it took me a few seconds to realize they were in there! It was definitely the most beautiful set of petitfours I've eaten, with a very Japanese aesthetic to it. All of them were quite good, especially the cake-based ones.

Overall, I was very pleased with the Aso meal, most notably for the pasta, the sanma, and the carpaccio. And while I didn't think the chicken was all that great, it was more because of the standard set by the other dishes. Tatsuji Aso is capable of some excellent cooking, and has a creative perspective that is quite different than what I've seen from Italian places in the US and Europe. And for ¥5,250, this meal was certainly a great value. I'm not sure what you get for the dinner courses, but it seems like the formality and length of the meal are both stepped up quite a bit at night.

Either way, I highly recommend a stop here. It's the perfect place for a little break from Japanese food. Italian with a Japanese twist!

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