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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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Thursday
Aug042011

La Pergola

It was with some definite excitement that I approached our highlight dinner at La Pergola. Highly acclaimed and universally loved, La Pergola is frequently heralded as Rome's best restaurant. Michelin considers it the only one in town worthy of 3 stars - amazing for what one would think should be a major European eating capital.

Strange as it may sound, Rome's most famous restaurant features a non-native chef. German-born Heinz Beck has been running the ship there since 1994. Despite that, Beck is well recognized for his contributions to Italian cuisine.

 

Nested atop Monte Mario, Rome's highest hill, La Pergola is on the 9th floor of the Roma Cavalieri hotel, about 15 minutes northwest from the city center. The setting certainly matches the restaurant's lofty reputation. Professional, bow-tied waiters roam the luxuriously decorated dining room. Classical art lines the walls, while panoramic glass windows overlook incredible views of Rome and the Vatican.

The vibe is pure old world power. One could imagine colluding billionnaire soccer club owners negotiating their fixture results over a pre-season dinner in a place like this. Nothing so sinister on the night we were there, though. We were seated next to a large table comprised of what seemed to be 3 generations of family casually celebrating multiple birthdays. It was interesting to see kids from around 7 to 15 behaving and enjoying steaks at a Michelin 3*. Although, based on the fancy gifts being distributed, it's entirely possible that they were heirs to a soccer team...

The menu options are fairly straightforward. They offer a 6-course tasting for €175, a 9-course tasting for €198, or an a la carte menu where courses mostly cost €40-€60 each (though some involving truffles went up to €95, quickly outpacing the cost of the tastings). There is plenty of opportunity for excess - in addition to a vast wine list, they also have a water list that tops out at €200 for a bottle of Filico, some kind of premium Japanese water from the sake-brewing mountains of Kobe. I think it comes in a fancy bottle. We declined on the uberwater and stuck with some Acqua Panna, but we did opt for the 9-course tasting.

 

TUNA WITH BLACK PEPPER AND TUNA SAUCEThe amuse was this barely-cooked tuna served with a tonatto-like sauce. The two versions of tuna each focused on different aspects of the fish, combining the focused flavor of the sauce with the delicate texture of the meat.

 

DUCK FOIE GRAS IN LEMON AND MINT GELATINEThis superb foie gras preparation was next. Rich and velvety, the liver was well balanced by the refreshing gelatin sandwiched in the middle.

 

INFUSION OF PARMIGIANO WITH AVOCADO, HERBS, AND POACHED QUAIL EGGQuite literally painted onto the bowl, the parmigiano in this demonstrated a true distillation of the cheese's flavor. Mixed with the creamy quail egg, the bits of quinoa and greens became a nice vehicle for the savoriness of the entire dish. A beautiful course to look at, and equally great to eat.

 

"CRESTE DI GALLO" PASTA FILLED WITH CELERIAC AND VEGETABLES IN SEAFOOD SAUCEThe only pasta dish of the meal, these stuffed "cockscombs" (named after the fleshy red crest of roosters) were impossibly light with a crisp, refreshing center. The seafood sauce, powered mostly by the tiniest yet tastiest clams, was briny and delicious.

 

GRILLED SCAMPI WITH SMOKED POTATO PUREE, FENNEL, AND PINK GRAPEFRUITQuite simply, these specimens were pristine in quality and perfectly cooked. The ingredient was clearly the highlight here, and Beck was sure to keep the focus on the gorgeous scampi, adding just subtle flavorings to brighten the dish.

 

WARM EMINCE OF SEA BASS WITH OLIVE OIL MARINATED VEGETABLESWhen originally researching La Pergola, I had come across this 2005 review from Gastroville, in which Vedat artfully describes the exceptionality of wild sea bass. I'd forgotten about it leading up to my trip, but when I took a bite of this that paragraph immediately came back to mind. It's not rare to find branzino done simple with some olive oil, but this rendition was the peak of that simple kind of preparation. A fantastic piece of fish.

At this point, it was also becoming clear how much Beck pays attention to color on the plate. On the restaurant's website, Beck is quoted as wanting "to transmit emotions through a balance of aromas, flavours and colours." I sadly didn't quite capture the brightness of the vegetables on this plate, but it was striking.

 

TERRINE OF RABBIT WITH ARTICHOKES AND BEETROOTSA good dish with subtle flavors, though not as memorable for me as the others. The variety of textures, from the smooth rabbit to the crisp beets and flaky artichokes, was nice.

 

LEG OF LAMB ON TOMATO SAUCE, SALTY RICOTTA AND BASILAn absolutely stunning lamb course to wrap up the savory dishes. I think you could say this was a fancified version of classic meatballs with marinara, but using perfectly-done leg of lamb with an electric, explosive, party-in-your-mouth tomato sauce. This was easily one of the most delicious meats I ate on the entire month-long trip.

 

CHEESE FROM THE TROLLEYI have no idea where I put my notes on the cheeses, so sadly I don't have the names. We asked for a good variety, and most of the popular Italian cheese categories were well represented - a soft cow's cheese, a couple of strong hard cheeses, a nice Taleggio, and a blue. The parmigiano was excellent, and we got to sample some of the wonderful balsamic vinegar they had on hand (I want to say it was 50-year, but I can't remember for certain).

 

RASPBERRY SORBET WITH ORANGE JUICEOur palate cleanser was this tart sorbet-juice combination. Very pure flavors and extremely refreshing.

 

RASPBERRY ON A BOAT, LICORICE SOUFFLE, CHOCOLATE AND COCONUTLa Pergola follows with a plethora of little dessert portions. I love eating this way, but they sure are hard to photograph. Each dessert was nice and light, and not overly sweet.

 

PINEAPPLE/RUM/COCONUT FOAM, WILD STRAWBERRIES AND CHAMPAGNE JELLY, CHOCOLATE CANNOLI WITH MANGO MOUSSE, TIRAMISUMore desserts - each carefully thought out with a nice balance of fruit flavors and chocolates, and on the whole presenting a wonderful variety of textures and forms.

 

PETITFOURS, COOKIES, TREATSFinally, we were presented with this miniature treasure box of drawers filled with cookies and treats. It was tough, but I managed to try one of each kind. As you would expect, the pastries are all top-class.

Service was superb. It was a little less personal than Pinchiorri, but absolutely smooth and professional throughout. The entire operation really evoked the synchronized, seemingly-effortless teamwork needed for an establishment at this level. The folks here know what they're doing. It's a true Michelin 3*, no doubt in my mind. I think that because Italian food as a whole can excel so beautifully in much more casual circumstances, it can be easy to overlook the fancier side of Italian cuisine. I'm guilty of it, especially when comparing to French fine dining or modern Spanish cooking. Heinz Beck proves that he can easily hang with the big boys, and his reputation is well deserved.

Plus, there's no setting grander than the La Pergola's decked out dining room... after dinner, you can step outside to the patio and see St. Peter's Basilica gleaming in the distance.

Thursday
Jan132011

Enoteca Pinchiorri

Enoteca Pinchiorri is, without a doubt, one of the highest-profile restaurants from my trip. It's the only Michelin 3-star in Florence. It's perennially listed in various guides as one of the best places for fine dining in all of Italy. Owner Giorgio Pinchiorri is well known for having quite possibly the largest and most expensive wine collection in the entire world. It is, by all accounts, a restaurant that the Medicis could go to for a family dinner. 

The restaurant itself certainly looks the part - it's a grand villa decorated with countless pieces of Expensive Old Art. It looks more like a home inside, with a few tables scattered through a variety of loosely connected dining rooms. An army of suited up waiters attends to a surprisingly small number of guests.

To be honest, despite Enoteca Pinchiorri's grand reputation, I wasn't quite as excited about this meal as one might think. It has fairly lukewarm reviews online despite its 3 stars, with many calling it a tourist trap that just rides on past glory. My dad went back in 2007, and said he had a good but not particularly memorable meal. Given that Pinchiorri is one of the most expensive restaurants in Italy, I braced myself to be a little underwhelmed.

Of course, I couldn't help but get excited after sitting down and looking at the menus. There are several dining options available. They have a full a la carte menu, divided into appetizers, pasta, and fish/meat main courses, with items generally ranging from €90-€110 each. They also offer a 6-course degustation menu plucked from a la carte dishes at €225, with the option to make it 8 courses for €275. Finally, they have a 6-course market menu for €250. We opted for the 8-course, as it had a very good selection of the a la carte dishes we were interested in. And it's hard to see the value of a la carte when you're easily going into €200 territory with just an appetizer and a main.

Many of you know I'm not much of a wine expert, but the wine program at Pinchiorri is definitely worth mentioning. Their wine list is, quite simply, epic. Like nothing I've ever seen before. Page after page of 4, 5, and even some 6-digit € wines. Click here to see the Lafite page (just a random sample). Now imagine a similar page for every French Premier Cru, every Italian Super Tuscan, and just about every big dog wine you can imagine. DRC, Yquem, Sassicaia, Screaming Eagle, Penfolds Grange - you name it from all over the world. We ended up getting a great bottle of 2000 Solaia at a discounted price, thanks to my dad's smooth negotiating tactics.

They also have a pretty unique by the glass program, where they offer some truly premier wines that would never be sold by the glass elsewhere. For example, one tasting was priced at €600 for 3 glasses, €800 for 4 glasses, or €1000 for 5 glasses, and offered a tasting of 2000 vintages of the world's best wines - ie. Petrus, Margaux, and other 4-5 digit bottles of wine. The price is outrageous, but at the same time these are wines that would normally only be sold by the bottle (and still at outrageous prices). Somehow, Pinchiorri is willing and able to open some of these and just sell a glass. I don't think there's another place in the world where one could sample varieties of elite wines like that. There were other theme options too, like a 1990 Super Tuscan tasting by the glass. That said, the by the glass stuff is still in "price is no object" territory. But it's an option.

Anyway - onto the food.

 

FRIED MOZZARELLA BITESThe first amuse was this little set of mozzarella lollipops. Very delicately fried, and a nice salty snack to start.

 

POLENTA CUBES AND MEATBALLSNext came bite-sized fried polenta cubes with mini veal meatballs. These were lighter than they look here, and the polenta had a nice smooth texture. A safe and solid combination.

 

LOBSTER SALADStill on amuses here - this was a nice, light lobster salad with what appeared to be baby escarole and a creamy dressing. The lobster was cooked through, but had a very gentle texture and no rubberiness.

 

ROLLS - HAM AND ONION, SUN-DRIED TOMATO, SPINACHI find that Italian bread generally pales in comparison to France, with most casual restaurants in Italy resorting to dry, lifeless loaves and packaged breadsticks. It's worth noting that Pinchiorri had a great selection of savory-flavored breads and rolls - no doubt a requirement for any kind of Michelin respect.

 

RAW AMBERJACK WITH CITRUS, AVOCADO PUREE, AND TOMATO COMPOTEThe first listed course of the menu was this raw amberjack... or, kanpachi tartare, as you'd call it in California. The combination was fairly standard, but ingredients and execution were of high quality.

 

BURRATA WITH STONE-PRESSED BREADThen came this off-menu freebie - a wedge of Italian burrata, some potent olive oil, and what they described as a special "stone-pressed" bread. The burrata was one of the best examples I've ever had, and the bread tasted excellent. It was a little crisp on the edges and chewy in the middle. Kind of like a flour version of an arepa, if that makes any sense.

 

GRILLED SOLE WITH STEWED RED ONIONS, ZUCCHINI, AND BOTTARGAThis long fillet of sole was simply grilled, and kicked up with a sprinkling of bottarga, a cured fish roe. Very nice, clean flavor. The side of veggies, hidden in this photo, was actually delicious and beautifully cut.

 

LOBSTER WITH PISTACHIO GRATIN, CECINA, AND YOGURTThings got more interesting with this pistachio-crusted lobster tail. Like the salad earlier, the lobster meat was delicate, almost like langoustine. The pistachio gave it a nice contrasting crunch. The cecina was explained as a traditional tart made with chickpea flour and rosemary, and had a smooth texture similar to "chickpea fries" preparations you can find sometimes here (think Frances). The yogurt and pistachio sauce moistened everything up. Delicious.

 

FUSILLI WITH PORCINI MUSHROOMS, NEPITELLA, AND PARMIGIANO REGGIANOOne thing I was pretty stoked about with Michelin restaurants in Italy was the inclusion of pasta in a grand tasting menu. As a pasta lover, this example hit the spot - toothsome, handmade fusilli with a rich porcini sauce. The sprinkling of nepitella, a minty herb, and a touch of strong parmigiano helped to smooth everything out. I love this fresh, rolled-up version of fusilli (as opposed to the regular dried kind with the deep ridgy rings), and I wish more restaurants here would make it.

 

TAGLIATELLE STUFFED WITH POTATO PUREE TOSSED WITH DUCK STEW, OREGANO, AND WHITE TRUFFLESA ragu on steroids. The long, narrow sheets of tagliatelle were stuffed with potato like a stretched out ravioli. It was an interesting texture mix and way of eating - you had to cut them into pieces like asparagus. The savory duck stew flavored the pasta and potato combo well. The white truffles were noticeable, but the sauce overpowered them a bit.

 

RACK OF LAMB STUFFED WITH BLACK OLIVES AND LARDO, MINTED BELL PEPPERS, SALAD WITH SESAMEJuicy, rich, and decadent. I think the picture speaks for itself on this dish - the lamb was beautifully tender, not too gamey, and perfectly blended with the black olive and lardo. The marinated pepper helped to cut the richness a bit. A wonderful meat course overall.

 

ROASTED SQUAB WITH HONEY AND SPICES, FRIED EGGPLANT STUFFED WITH MOZZARELLA AND THYMEOur last savory course was this roasted pigeon. Excellent caramelized skin and rare, tender meat, with a pleasant sweetness from the honey. Also, the fancy eggplant parm was delicious - delicately fried, with just a tiny layer of cheese, and no heavy greasiness at all.

 

MANGO SORBET, CHOCOLATEThe first sweet was this mango sorbet with little strips of chocolate, served in an ice cold EP goblet. Sort of a palate cleanser, I guess. I liked the mango-chocolate combo - the chocolate wasn't too sweet but also balanced the tartness of the sorbet.

 

KAKI CREAM WITH PISTACHIO TART AND PEAR SPIRIT ZABAGLIONEThis was the only listed dessert course on the menu. Kaki is a Japanese persimmon, a fruit I'm generally not too fond of. The cream was kind of like a thick soupy nectar with a very subtle persimmon flavor. The cakey chunks of pear tart and the creamy zabaglione went great together, although I think it would have been better with a non-persimmon fruit. I'll admit that's personal bias though...

 

HOT CHOCOLATEOf course, random little desserts kept coming out too. This was a hot chocolate served in a tall black ceramic martini glass. Very milky and relatively light, but a bit too sweet.

 

SWEET ARTICHOKE CREAM, MERINGUENext came this curious double shot glass with what was explained as an artichoke cream with a meringue cookie. Hard to describe the flavor - it was definitely artichokey, but also a little sweet. The meringue gave it a bit of crunch.

 

CHOCOLATESFinally, we each got a plate of fancy chocolates. I neglected to write down each flavor, but I remember a pecan one and a hazelnut one. The white one had a green tea filling and was pretty interesting.

And that was it for the food. By the end of the meal, we had developed a pretty good rapport with our main waiter and the sommelier. I must say that the service at Enoteca Pinchiorri was over-the-top good - superb and world class in every way. They rode the perfect balance between professionalism and friendliness. It's a subtle thing, but it makes for a truly memorable and pleasant experience.

The sommelier, after having detected an unusual amount of interest/knowledge from my dad regarding Italian wine over the course of the meal, enthusiastically asked us to come look at the wine cellar. Despite knowing how big the collection is, we weren't prepared for what we saw. The wine cellar at Pinchiorri is breathtaking. Not so much for its facilities - it's basically a dark, cavernous basement, with seemingly no end to its tunnels. It had none of the high-tech fancy storage cabinets or anything - just never-ending shelves and cases of wine. But boy were there wines. There were entire sections for every winemaker you could think of, sections for special large format wines, walls of winemaker flights dating back to pre-1900, and much more. Cases of 4-digit wines were piled up seemingly haphazardly on the floor. Click here to see a ton of photos. I can't really describe it other than saying that it's simply unbelievable, and I urge you to look at the pictures if you have any interest in wine whatsoever.

Despite my early doubts, dinner at Pinchiorri turned out to be one of the most remarkable of my trip. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone. The food is not the most groundbreaking compared to its peers, but everything was delicious and well executed. Yes, it's expensive - our final bill was €1,100 for 3, with some really good (though admittedly modest given what else was available) wine. It's cheaper than Paris, but more than Spain (Spain, as I'll describe later on the blog, is absolutely the best value in the world in terms of ultra fine dining). It's always difficult to justify if a meal this expensive is "worth it" - that will always be up to you. But this place is the total package when it comes to a grandiose, fancy dinner - good (if non-threatening) food, superlative service, and just a wonderful experience. I'll remember this meal fondly for years to come.

As we were leaving, they called us a taxi. At Enoteca Pinchiorri, "taxi" really means a hired brand new 5-series BMW that takes you back to your hotel for free. I was semi-joking in the intro, but seriously, they make you feel like Cosimo de'Medici for a night.

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!

Tuesday
Sep292009

Sushi Mizutani - 鮨水谷

For dinner after Ukai Toriyama, we had planned one of the main highlights of the entire trip – Sushi Mizutani. One of just two sushi places to receive 3 stars from Michelin, Mizutani carried the weight of some incredible expectations. The other place that received 3 stars, Sukibayashi Jiro, was far more renowned when the Tokyo guide came out, and Mizutani was a bit of a surprise choice for the top honor. After reading various reports (special thanks to Exile Kiss), I was more interested by Mizutani than Jiro. Mizutani has a reputation for its no-nonsense, intimate vibe, and a truly personal experience with the chef. Also, the flagship Ginza location of Jiro apparently does not accept non-Japanese speakers, who are sent instead to the gaijin-friendly outpost in Roppongi (supposedly not as good). So Mizutani it was.

After our stellar lunch the day before at Kanesaka, I was very curious as to what the difference would be between a 2 star and a 3 star. In my experiences in France, I did feel there was a subtle difference between the two, but top French restaurants have a little more room for differentiation in cooking than Japanese sushi houses. I was thus pretty resigned to the fact that the sushi could not possibly be much better than Kanesaka, and tried to temper my expectations accordingly.

Mizutani is even more tucked away in the basement of an office building than Kanesaka was, requiring you to navigate through a tiny elevator and hallway before you see any trace of its existence. The little sliding door reveals just  1 tiny room containing a 10-seat counter and a small table in the back used more for coat storage than anything else. The bar is so small that Mizutani just serves everyone himself, with only one assistant visible behind the counter helping to prep ingredients. His wife and a couple others help with service and more behind-the-scenes prep. It’s a well-oiled but absolutely tiny machine – a staggering contrast to the scale of Western 3 star operations like Guy Savoy or the French Laundry. Think new iPod Nano vs. Apple 30" LCD.

Unfortunately, the first thing to happen after I sat down was that one of the young servers came over and said “no cameras.” I don’t think I’ve ever really posted about any place without pictures, but I think Mizutani merits discussion, so I’ll still go through what we were served. The dinner we got was, to our surprise, just ¥18,000 (about $200) – but I get the distinct feeling that the final price vs. what you are served is probably at Mizutani-san’s whim.

KAREI (flatfish) – Another pristine experience of this very light fish.

SHINKO (baby kohada) – Very rich and oily, with a gleaming layer of skin.

After 2 pieces, my dad, aunt Agnes, and I were fully into comparison mode already. Mizutani’s rice uses a more traditional approach, with a slightly less vinegary flavor and a brighter white color. We all decided we preferred Kanesaka’s rice, because of the way the grains felt so individually separated in the mouth. Mizutani didn’t quite match that, but it’s more a stylistic difference than a qualitative one. I can see myself flip-flopping quickly based on which version I ate last.

IKA (squid) – Perfect, clean flavor. Yet again, I was reminded that the humble ika is completely different in Japan than in America, perhaps moreso than any other sushi fish.

AKAMI (lean tuna) – A beautiful, deep red, with a smooth but meaty texture. Tastier than your typical maguro.

CHUTORO (medium fatty bluefin tuna) – Leaner than Kanesaka’s version, still delicious.

OTORO (extra fatty bluefin tuna) – Kanesaka had better chutoro in my opinion, but Mizutani’s otoro was a step above. The marbling was more evenly balanced throughout the entire piece, and this bite blended together with the rice into buttery perfection.

I should mention that Mizutani speaks very little English, and doesn’t really have any employees that speak it well either, so communication was a little more difficult. That didn’t stop us from trying. At the beginning of the meal, Mizutani was a little stoic and reserved, but at this point of the meal we could tell he was opening up a bit. It probably helped that we were watching his every move and eating every bite with the excitement of 8 year-olds opening really awesome Christmas presents.

AKAGAI (ark shell clam) – Crisp, bouncy, wonderfully fresh. On this and many others, the difference from Kanesaka was marginal at best – both used absolutely prime ingredients.

TAIRAGAI (pen shell or razor clam) -  Another clam, slightly chewier than the akagai, just as delicious.

KOBASHIRA (bakagai muscle) - Delicate little pieces, very close to Kanesaka’s. I really have to give a shout out to Kanesaka-san here, because it was at this point of the meal that Mizutani-san accepted us as serious sushi eaters. I anxiously blurted out "kobashira" as I saw Mizutani-san whip out his stock, and he gave me a total WTF face, clearly thinking in his head "how the hell does this English-speaking Chinese-looking kid know what kobashira is?" And I really had no idea what it was... I just knew the word because Kanesaka-san had told it to me about 30 hours earlier. From this point on, we officially had street cred at Sushi Mizutani, and he seemed totally pumped about serving us.

MIRUGAI (geoduck) - Another victim of low quality in the US, mirugai is something I rarely order in the US. This was the best specimen I've had.

SAYORI (needlefish) - This was served in a way I've never seen before. A strip of the bright white flesh and silvery skin was coiled up into a little circle, and topped with some kind of slightly sweet paste. No dice on a translation, but it was delicious. Really wish I had a picture of this one.

EBI (cooked prawn) - Not normally a fan, but this was very good. Meaty and flavorful, as opposed to the usual rubbery nothingness of ebi.

SABA (mackerel) - Excellent rendition, with a very light vinegar touch.

AWABI (abalone) - Simply perfect texture. Amazingly tender, no rough chewiness at all.

UNI (sea urchin) - Top shelf from Hokkaido, as expected. Nothing reminds me of the sea quite like uni.

ANAGO (sea eel) - A little better than Kanesaka's, I think. Very nice balance on the flavor, with just the right amount of sweetness.

TAMAGO (egg) - Okay, now this one was an absolute showstopper. It's sometimes said that tamago is the ultimate test of a sushi chef, as it requires tremendous amounts of preparation for an item that is usually the cheapest on the entire menu, kind of like egg fried rice with Chinese chefs. If that's the barometer, then Mizutani-san must be the best freakin' sushi chef in the whole damn world. His tamago is absolutely leagues about any other that I have ever tried. Light, moist, fluffy... it was nearly custard-like, with a more solid composition. Tremendous "essence of egg" flavor. Mizutani is worth a visit for the tamago alone.

At this point, he was basically wrapping up. My dining companions were clearly getting full, and I had already been double eating on behalf of my grandma, who ducked out a few rounds ago and got the tamago early.

TORO MAKI (fatty bluefin tuna roll) - Interestingly, Mizutani-san chose not to put any negi into his toro maki. It was different but delicious, and the quality of the toro really stood out.

The funny thing here is that he cut this into 8 pieces and gave me 6 and my dad 2. Of course, my aunt Agnes motioned that she was DEFINITELY still in for a round like this. So he jokingly grabbed one of my dad's 2 and gave it to her, instead of grabbing mine. I guess I am the Che family glutton. Ultimately, I had to concede and spread the wealth.

AKAGAI HIMO MAKI (ark shell mantle roll) - Never tried it in this form before, and it was quite unique and tasty. It gave the maki a bit of a crunch inside.

OTORO x 2 (extra fatty bluefin tuna) - By now everyone was really done, but after everyone egged me on I admitted I wouldn't mind another bite of toro. He gave me 2. It was awesome.

KANPYO MAKI (dried gourd strip roll) - He had one little final bite for us, and at the time we had trouble identifying it. He showed us these little long brown strips which he rolled into a maki and cut up. He didn't know the word and was having some trouble describing it. After tasting it, none of us could figure it out... it tasted like some vague kind of Japanese pickle - refreshing and tasty but unidentifiable.

He asked the 2 Japanese businessmen next to us in hopes for an explanation, but they didn't know - all we knew was it WASN'T any kind of eggplant. He turned to one of his backroom assistants, and thought we finally got a translation, but it turned out his explanation was simply "vegetable," which caused a laugh around the room. A few minutes later, he finally whipped out an electronic Japanese-English dictionary, and our answer was found. Turns out it's pretty common even over here in the US... I just never order it.

By the end of the meal, Mizutani-san had seriously warmed up to us. I'm predicting that after 1 or 2 more visits, he'll hopefully recognize me and like me enough to let me bust out the camera. Cross your fingers! At the end of the meal, he did offer to take a group photo for us. So here you go - instead of delicious food pics, you'll have to settle for some sushi-filled happy people named Che: dad, aunt Agnes, Grandma Che, and yours truly. Sorry it's not as mouthwatering.

And there was our second epic sushi meal. As expected, I didn't find Mizutani to be "better" than Kanesaka. I preferred the rice at Kanesaka, and most of the fish was about equal, but Mizutani had the edge with otoro. I wish I'd tried Kanesaka's tamago, but I guess they didn't serve it as a normal part of lunch. Mizutani's tamago was out of this world. I think I'll start calling it Platonic.

Though we didn't go to Kyubey on this trip, my memory of it doesn't match the meals we had at Mizutani or Kanesaka. The intimacy and personal interaction of the smaller sushi bars put them over the top for me, and reports are that food quality at Kyubey has gone downhill. In any case, the final takeaway is that top-end sushi in Tokyo is simply an incredible experience. I encourage everyone to try it. The value is amazing, and it's pretty damn hard to go wrong.

Friday
Sep112009

RyuGin - 龍吟

We had slotted one meal in Tokyo to explore a restaurant that covered a broader Japanese spectrum, in some kind of tasting course fashion. Usually this means kaiseki, the old-school Japanese parallel of a dégustation, which in some ways is as much about tradition, presentation, and performance as it is about food itself. But during research, Michelin 2-star RyuGin caught my eye, supposedly presenting a modern take on Japanese cuisine that was simply intriguing. Superlative reviews fom Chuck (a very dependable source!) and Exile Kiss vaulted RyuGin to the top of my list.

Located down a side alley in Roppongi, RyuGin has a fairly unassuming entrance that leads down to a small dining room of maybe 20 seats. The theme throughout as indicated by the name is dragons - and the decor feels decidedly Chinese, with blue porcelain lining the tables and calligraphy up on the walls. Service and presentation were delicate, with custom plates, glassware, and cutlery throughout the meal. The feeling in the room is quite unlike any place I have been to, and a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Roppongi just a block or two away.

Chuck eloquently described RyuGin as an Eastern response to the Spanish molecular gastronomy movement. Exile Kiss dubbed it modern kaiseki. I'm not sure what I would call the place. It clearly has some Western influences in its contemporary style, but at the same time the cooking still seemed solidly grounded in Japanese technique and ingredients.

Chef Seiji Yamamoto, just 39 years old, opened RyuGin at the end of 2003. He's been quite the jetsetter, having participated in many culinary events throughout Japan and Europe. He's well entrenched in the modern cooking community, and based on the other reviews, has gone through some very experimental phases in his cooking. It seems that right now he's taken a step back and gone to some more traditional techniques. I'd say our meal reflected this - although we saw plenty of modern creativity, there wasn't any truly avant-garde molecular wizardry that I could detect.

The cost for the full dinner tasting at RyuGin was ¥23,100. The meal was impressive, eye-opening, and delicious, so here we go.

 

UNI - mashed fava beans, bamboo shoots, noriI get excited when I see a dish full of ingredients that I love and yet have never tried eating together. This one absolutely delivered, using the creaminess of the uni to bind the textures of mashed fava beans and soothing bamboo shoots. The uni and nori flavored the entire combination with the sea.

 

ABALONE AND KOBASHIRA - potato stems, gingko nuts, ginger sauceAbalone was perfectly tender, contrasting to the very slight chew of the kobashira. The mild, thick ginger sauce provided a delicate accompaniment. The waiter described the long flat green vegetables as potato stems - they had a texture somewhere between cooked onions and pickled bamboo shoots.

 

"CHAWANMUSHI" - sweet corn custard with shrimp geleeYamamoto's reputation for visual flair is not undeserved. At this point we started to wonder if our entire meal would use the same color palette. It was not to be, but we were impressed enough after 3 dishes with completely different ingredients, flavors, and textures. This play on chawanmushi actually contained no eggs, and was served slightly chilled. It had a beautifully delicate, pudding-like texture, and intense corn flavor. Somehow, this reminded me of the cauliflower panna cotta at the French Laundry, with its combination of veggie-flavored custard and briny topping. This was absolutely delicious, and I could have eaten an entire bowl of it.

 

FISH BONE SOUP - hamo, matsutake mushroomAn earthy, umami-laced broth with some meaty conger eel and a gorgeous matsutake. Fish soup for the soul!

 

RYUGIN SASHIMI - hamo with plum sauce, kinmedai, maguro, ise ebiA sashimi course is standard in every RyuGin meal. Fish quality was pristine. Hamo had a fluffier texture than the eel in the soup. Kinmedai (sea bream) was supremely clean in flavor. Maguro had a pure, smooth texture. Ise ebi (spiny lobster) was my favorite - a bouncier, more muscular lobster that still had some of the "gooeyness" of raw shrimp.

 

CRAB - okra, apple vinegar jelly, gingerCrab and apple vinegar provided an interesting, tangy flavor combination. I didn't like the addition of okra, which gave the dish a slimy texture. That's a bit of a personal taste issue though, I think. The Japanese have a place in their hearts for the slimy texture present in the inside of okra, or grated mountain yam (tororo). After years and years of trying, I've been unable to develop an appreciation for it. This was the only dish in the meal I wasn't too crazy about.

 

AKAMUTSU - sea perch crusted with fried rice and black vinegar, baby pea shoots, pickled vegetables with shisoThe meal bounced back in roaring fashion with this cooked fish preparation. The waiter called it sea perch - on Google, it also seems to go by "yellow stripe ruby snapper." In any case, this was by far one of the best fish dishes I've had in a very long time... it was like a twist on the ubiquitous miso-glazed black cod, stepped up 23 notches and pumped full of banned performance-enhancing BALCO steroids. The meat was moist, tender, and pretty much perfect, while the crunchy fried rice crust provided a textural contrast for each bite. Simply delicious.

 

NIKUJAGA - lightly cooked Wagyu beef with fried shoestring potatoes, spring onions, sweet soy, and sesame pasteThis was a spin on nikujaga, which according to Wikipedia is a humble winter stew of sliced beef and potatoes. I've never tried it, but this version seems to be a daring departure, eschewing boiled potatoes for shoestrings, and using beautifully marbled Wagyu. Mixing this whole thing together, the potatoes added crunch to the melt-in-your mouth beef. The beef seemed to be lightly stewed (or maybe, lightly sous-vided), but never grilled. Very tasty.

I should mention that the dish looks small in the photo, but actually contained 3 generous slices of beef.

 

UNAGI DON - rolled Japanese pickles, tamago, matsutake miso soupA fancier version of the traditional white rice + pickles end to the Japanese meal. The unagi don was more like unagi fried rice - the chunks of eel were fried crispy on the outside, and still very tender on the inside. The rice had the char of a hot wok.

 

ZARU SOBA - topped with minced sudachiWhen the waiter offered an extra noodle dish, I of course could not decline. This buckwheat soba was freshly made that day by Yamamoto's sous-chef. Sudachi is a small green Japanese citrus, which provided a zesty kick. The texture of the noodles was full of bounce and body, a stark contrast to the lifeless soba found in the US.

At this point, I had a brain fart and forgot to take a picture of the palate cleanser. It was a refreshing sudachi sorbet served with a few pieces of snow pear.

 

BAKED CHESTNUT CAKEThe baked chestnut cake seems to be another RyuGin standby. It was served on a glass plaque-style plate, backed with a decorative picture beneath it. Apparently the plate they use varies with the seasons, but always uses the chestnut cake as a visually-striking representation of the moon. The cake itself was pretty good, with a subtle but not overwhelming chestnut flavor.

 

MIZUYOKAN - red bean cakeThis gelatinous version of the traditional red bean cake was incredibly smooth and light. Red bean is not my favorite dessert ingredient, but this had none of the "sandyness" I often find with red beans.

In the end, I was very happy with our meal at RyuGin. It was truly an experience unlike any I've had before. Yamamoto-san created new, groundbreaking combinations of ingredients and flavors in some dishes while reaching back to and modernizing tradition in others. Most importantly, the food was all really, really good. The place is getting a ton of buzz, and deservedly so. As Chuck said in his review, I think we'll be hearing a lot more about RyuGin in the coming years as it pushes for a third Michelin star.

And while the style is decidedly contemporary, Yamamoto-san certainly paid attention to Japanese traditions. As we left the building, the chef and 2 staff members appeared to lead us out and say a final goodbye. They stayed in front of the doorway, all bowing and waving good bye as we walked down the alley. We kept turning back to look and they kept waving, until we got to the main street and could no longer see the restaurant. You've gotta love that kind of hospitality.