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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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Entries in Japanese (62)

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.

Tuesday
Sep222009

Ukai Toriyama - うかい鳥山

Sorry for the brief hiatus everybody. After arriving back in SF from Japan last week, I set myself up for exhaustion by going straight back to work and also buying tickets for back-to-back-to-back Giants games against the Rockies on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Then I got sick on Thursday night and spent the weekend recovering. I'm back now though, and reinvigorated - although the Giants season looks pretty much over with a loss to the Diamondbacks tonight, I'm ecstatic thanks to the 2-0 49ers start. I am after all just a bandwagon Giants fan... my heart lies truly with the Niners and the Warriors.


I'm going way too off topic now.... so back to food in Japan. The day after RyuGin, we took a culinary break of sorts to visit Ukai Toriyama, in the outskirts of western Tokyo (aka, the Tokyo boonies). Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of food to be eaten there, but the place is just as much about the scenery as the grub. We figured it would be good to have a light (well, relatively) lunch in the middle of our constant crazy meals. Nobrin was able to join us for this meal - always great to have a Japanese ally when eating in Japan!

 

Apparently, the Tokyo boonies are pretty damn nice. Ukai Toriyama sits in a foresty but developed area near Mount Takao, which for some reason has a high density of love hotels. It's fairly close to a train station, but as you can see, there is no lack of greenery. The place is more a huge compound than a restaurant, with a giant garden filled with trees, streams, and huts with private dining rooms. It's really quite a beautiful place, and apparently it's a popular nearby getaway for Tokyo residents who need a break from the hustle and bustle of the city. What follows is rather unprecented in Arthur Hungry history - 5 food-less pictures in a row of scenery, tracing the little adventure between Ukai Toriyama's front entrance above, and our own personal dining hut.

 

Pretty nice place to eat lunch, isn't it? Apparently, a bunch of the trees here are Japanese maples, and the leaves turn a fiery red in the fall (not coincidentally the restaurant's most busy season). Every party gets their own little hut like the one in the last picture, with a private dining room and a gorgeous view of the garden outside. You can choose from a few different lunch menus, and we went with a ¥4,800 option centered around grilled chicken. Now on to the food...

 

GRILLED TARO - sweet misoFirst up were these two big balls of taro. It had a nice smooth texture, and wasn't as overwhelmingly starchy as I expected. Still, 1 probably would have been plenty.

 

GROUND CHICKEN "MEATBALL" - grilled eggplant, okraThe meat in this meatball was so finely-minced that it's worth a special mention. It gave the whole thing a wonderfully delicate texture.

 

MUSHROOM SOUP - eggplant, chicken brothThis piping hot chicken broth with a variety of Japanese mushrooms and grilled eggplant had a smokey, earthy flavor to it. Very nice.

 

GRILLED AYUGrilled ayu, called "sweetfish" in English according to Wikipedia, is a bit of a delicacy. The meat has a slightly sweet taste, while some of the parts inside have a strong bitter flavor. The crispy skin provides a nice char. Still, I find it a little more work than I like to deal with in the fishbone department, and I'm not too fond of the bitter bites. My dad loves this stuff though.

 

JAPANESE PEOPLE USE CHARCOAL TOOAt this point, they brought the charcoal in for our built-in table grill.

 

WAGYU RIBEYE - ¥4,400Ukai Toriyama does offer Wagyu for grilling, and we couldn't help but order a serving for the table to share... just to check it out.

 

WAGYU ON THE GRILLThe beef was very good, but not quite at the level of a true teppanyaki place like what we'd eaten a couple nights before.

 

CHICKEN SKEWERSThe main part of the lunch is the chicken, served in skewer form.

 

A LITTLE MORE CRISPY...Ukai Toriyama's English website describes these as "Succulent Chicken Skewer" and I must say it's an apt choice of words. Our server showed us a grill, dip in sauce, grill more, dip in more sauce, grill more method of cooking. On this first batch, we charred and overcooked them just slightly. Batch two was perfectly tender and drippingly juicy. There's nothing like simple, grilled, dark-meat chicken!

 

RICE, PICKLES, SMALL FISH, MISO SOUPAs usual, we finished with a set of rice and pickles. Normally, this comes with some of grated Japanese mountain potato (tororo), also known as my most dreaded food item. We asked to sub out for something else (anything else). Thanks to Nobrin's negotiating skills, we were able to get it swapped out for these little dried salted fish, which were a great flavoring item for the rice. Still, even with Nobrin's excellent English, the best translation we could buy was "small fish." Oh well.

 

MOUNTAIN GRAPE SORBETThey finished us off with a simple sorbet flavored with some local grape juice. Intense, powerful grape flavor, and quite refreshing actually.

So there we go. It was most definitely the least extravagant meal of our Tokyo stay, but it was a great breath of fresh air. The idyllic setting is beautiful and relaxing, and worth a trip to see. Looking at their website photos, the fall is even more impressive. If nothing else, it'd be a great place to impress a girl... :)

Next up is dinner from this day, at 3 star Sushi Mizutani (no pics unfortunately, but worth a post anyway).

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.

Wednesday
Sep092009

Sushi Kanesaka - 鮨かねさか

One of my goals going into this Japan trip was to evaluate the newly-minted Michelin Tokyo guide. On my last trip, Michelin had not yet ventured into the Far East. When the Tokyo guide made its debut in 2008, there was controversy over the ratings (as usual for any new city that Michelin enters), and questions arose over whether French guys could actually evaluate Japanese food. Despite the fact that Tokyo collected the most total Michelin stars of any city in the world (including Paris), many questioned whether the Japanese needed or wanted Michelin around. In response to the critics, Michelin reportedly changed its Tokyo team from 3 French inspectors and 2 Japanese inspectors for the 2008 edition to 5 Japanese inspectors and 1 French inspector for the 2009 revision. The result was 9 three star restaurants (trailing only Paris' 10) and 227 total stars (still tops in the world).

We were most curious to see how this played out in terms of Japanese cuisine. Old school stalwarts like Kyubey and Sazanka are not mentioned in the guide at all.

 

Sushi is my favorite food, and so we decided it was most certainly worth spending 2 meals to check out Michelin's choices. Our first meal was a lunch at Sushi Kanesaka, one of six sushiya that earned 2 stars. (Two earned 3 stars - Sushi Mizutani and Sukibayashi Jiro. We ate at Mizutani the next night, which I'll report on though without pictures.) I chose Kanesaka based on a few pics and good reports I found online.

Tucked away in the basement level of a Ginza office building, Sushi Kanesaka is a tiny, 14-seat establishment with a startlingly clean wooden counter. You'd never find it without looking for it, which seems to be a trend with these quality sushi joints. Kanesaka-san, who appeared to be about 35-40, was welcoming and downright friendly. Although one of his young apprentices was cutting our fish for us, Kanesaka-san constantly came over to check up and practice his English as well as his limited Cantonese. The place had a surprisingly open and relaxed atmosphere - there was none of the rigidity or formality that one might expect in a traditional sushi place. I enjoyed the pressure-free environment.

Sashimi/sushi and sushi-only lunches are offered at various price points, starting at ¥5,000 and topping out at ¥20,000. Prices rise a bit during dinner. We opted for the top sushi-only lunch at ¥15,000, and off we were.

 

SEAWEED SALAD - onions, green onions, sesameThey started us off with this lightly-vinegared seaweed salad. The thinly-sliced onions were bright and refreshing.

 

KAREI - flatfishAll it takes is one bite to realize that sushi in Japan is on a different level. First, the fish quality is impeccable. Karei, a flounder related to hirame which you find more commonly in the US, was bouncy and fresh. Second, and just as important, the rice here is a whole different ballgame. Kanesaka judiciously uses salt and akazu (a red vinegar made from sake lees) for his rice, resulting in a very gentle taste of vinegar and perfect texture. Here, more than any other sushi establishment I have ever been to, I could feel the separation of individual grains of rice in my mouth. It was astonishing.

Also, it's worth mentioning that rice was made and brought out literally a handful at a time. Every 2 rounds of fish or so, a tiny batch was brought out from the back and put into the rice container at the counter. You just can't beat freshness.

 

SHIMA AJI - striped jackShima aji, also known as striped jack or yellow jack, was delicious. Sort of like a cross between aji and hamachi, this was like a firmer, leaner version of your typical yellowtail.

 

CHEF AT WORKHere's a shot of Kanesaka-san's young apprentice in action - he had to be younger than me! But he clearly knew what he was doing. He's prepping a trio of tuna here. Check out the beautiful wood on the counter, and the raised cutting board.

 

BLUEFIN TUNA TRIOI thought you might enjoy this closer shot of the tuna. Check out that slab of otoro - how could you not get excited?

 

CHUTORO #1 - bluefin tunaThis was the first piece, the leanest of the three. Beautiful, smooth texture.

 

CHUTORO #2 - medium fatty bluefin tunaThe second piece was quite a bit more marbled, as you can see. I liked this one the best out of the three, as it struck the perfect balance of flavor, body, and oilyness.

 

OTORO - extra fatty bluefin tunaOtoro was literally bursting at the seams with butteriness. Total luxury!

 

IKA - squidIka is one of the things I rarely order in the US, as it often suffers from a chewy texture and fishy taste. I've always maintained that the first thing a sushi-eater needs to realize is that good sushi should never be "fishy." When someone tells me they don't like sushi because of the fishiness, I get all heated about it. It's a quality problem, not a sushi problem. So all you sushi-haters out there, keep trying it! Ika is probably the best example of the bad fishy sushi phenomenon which scares people away. At Kanesaka, the squid was served with just a pinch of salt, and had a wonderfully tender texture with clean flavor.

 

SHIRA EBI - baby white shrimpShira ebi, which I first tried at Gari in NYC, is one of my favorites. It's like a more delicate version of ama-ebi, and unfortunately I don't see it much back home.

 

AJI - horse mackerelAji, a perennial favorite of my dad's, was rich and oily. Served with a pinch of ginger between the rice and fish, and a touch of seaweed on top.

 

SABA - mackerelSaba, another oily fish. Kanesaka's version had a light, delicate marination.

 

KOHADA - gizzard shadSometimes translating sushi is pretty useless. Gizzard shad? Does anyone actually know what that is? Why not just call it kohada? Anyway, it's a small, shiny, herring-like fish, served with skin on. A nice littly bit of tang and slightly chewy texture.

 

AKAGAI - ark shellAkagai, a beautiful red clam, is another item that often suffers horribly due to low quality in America. The akagai at Kanesaka was pristine, with a bouncy, almost crunchy texture to it, and a subtle clam flavor.

 

AKAGAI HIMO - ark shell "mantle"The most prized piece of akagai is the himo, a little piece that connects to the main body. Yeah, it looks pretty savage. It has a nice crisp/crunchy texture.

 

KATSUO - bonitoKatsuo, most often dried into flakes and used for dashi broth, is also delicious as sushi. Leaner than tuna but intensely flavorful, the katsuo here was cooked slightly at the edges and left to sit in a soy/ponzu marinade for a little bit before being served. The narrow portion was particularly tasty.

 

KOBASHIRA - adductor muscle of bakagaiKobashira, which looks like little bay scallops, is actually the muscle portion of bakagai, also known as a hen or round clam. They tasted like firm little scallops. They must be in season, because we would later see them used at both RyuGin and Sushi Mizutani. Funny enough, learning about kobashira at Kanesaka earned me a lot of street cred with Mizutani-san the next day, when I was able to quickly identify it as he was prepping it. He was probably surprised that a gaijin like me knew what it was. Thanks, Kanesaka-san.

 

IKURA - salmon roeIkura is, to be honest, not one of my favorites. I often find it has been sitting in vinegar for far too long, with a sour taste that overwhelms. This version was tremendously delicate. Probably the best ikura I have tried.

 

UNI - sea urchinUni is probably second only to toro among sushi delicacies in my book. This perfect specimen from Hokkaido was creamy, sweet, and slightly briny. Top-notch.

 

SHAKO - mantis shrimpShako seems to be fairly common in Japan. It's usually cooked and has a slightly chewier texture than ebi.

 

ANAGO - sea eelAnago, the saltwater cousin of unagi, is another Che family favorite. Kanesaka's version was soft and flaky.

 

MISO SOUP - baby clamsThe arrival of miso soup signalled that the meal was starting to wind down. This soup had the cutest, tiniest little clams in the world.

 

TEKKA - tuna rollThey finished us off with a couple of maki - first this simple tekka roll, which had a very clean flavor to balance out all the exotic stuff we'd just eaten.

 

MAKI ACTION SHOTHere's a maki action shot - nothing too fancy going on here, just some straight up negitoromaki.

 

NEGITORO - fatty bluefina tuna with green onionMy favorite thing of all, negitoro. Buttery and flavorful, this is truly the epitome of sushi.

And there you have it. The meal at Kanesaka was incredible, and it was hard to imagine the difference between a 2-star sushi joint and a 3-star one. It really doesn't get any better. A couple of things to point out:

1) Value. This meal was ¥15,000 per head - about $160, tax/tip included. For the level of quality, that's ridiculous. You can drop $160 easily at many sushi places across the U.S. and not even come close to what we had here. I've still not been to Urasawa in LA, but I can imagine a meal like this costing much more. It's amazing to me that you can get some of the best sushi in Tokyo (and thus, surely some of the best sushi in the world) at such a bargain price compared to LA/Vegas/NYC.

2) Modernity, in a few senses. The rice is a little bit different than the truly traditional - with more grain separation and less vinegar. The intimate setting is open and pleasant, and lacks the strictness and rigidity that one might expect of the most traditional Japanese institutions. For this, I highly recommend Kanesaka to visitors. Kanesaka-san is extremely welcoming to foreigners and genuinely excited to serve us non-Japanese folks. Sukibayashi Jiro allows only Japanese into their main shop, and diverts foreigners to a secondary (and supposedly inferior) place in Roppongi. You'll see nothing of the sort at Kanesaka.

That's about it. It was interesting to compare to 3-star Mizutani (as well as former champ Kyubey), but I'll write about that more in the Mizutani post coming up. Kanesaka was absolutely top-shelf, and surprisingly easy to get in to. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a proper sushi experience in Tokyo (and really, that should be the #1 thing on anyone's list of to-dos in Tokyo).

Monday
Sep072009

Omae XEX - 尾前

Hello again world. My test went pretty well... at least, well enough to not take it again. I'm now on vacation in Tokyo with my dad, my grandma, and my aunt Agnes. We are staying here for another night, then taking the bullet train to Kyoto for another 3 nights of fun vacation activities (aka eating). As you might imagine, we have an action-packed eating schedule - with a total of 3 nights in Tokyo and 3 nights in Kyoto, our number of available meals is limited. But we're making do. :)

 

We had our first meal on Sunday night just after arriving into Tokyo. We weren't sure we'd actually be able to make dinner that night, so we didn't have concrete plans. In the end, due to scheduling requirements for some of our other meals (mainly - we could only get in to Sushi Mizutani on Tuesday night), we embarked on a quest for teppanyaki as it would be our only chance to eat it.

We decided on Restaurant Omae XEX, a Michelin 1-star member of the Y's Table family of restaurants. Formerly called Morimoto XEX (and actually listed as such in the Michelin guide), the restaurant started as a joint venture between the iron chef and Y's Table. Morimoto left this year, and Takeshi Omae has taken over as executive chef. We chose it largely out of convenience - it's open on Sundays, and open late - but it also seemed like a nice modern teppanyaki house to compare to the ultra old-school experience at Sazanka that we've tried before. And we were pretty confident that Morimoto's departure was more a branding thing than anything - surely Omae takes his craft seriously.

Tucked away on a tiny side street in Roppongi, Omae XEX has a sleek, modern entryway. The ground floor seems like the lobby of a swanky club or boutique hotel. The main dining room is down a funky spiral staircase, past a small wine cellar, a display case of various large pieces of meat, and a glass-walled prep area containing a meat slicer reminiscent of the one on the counter at Boccalone.

The main dining room itself consists of 2 large, round teppanyaki grilling counters, each capable of holding maybe 12 people. A few regular tables on the side and a private room are also available. The whole interior is dark and modern, with a cool lit-up pattern decorating the circular hood around the grilling areas. The place bumps everything from techno to Lil' Wayne, although the young Japanese clientele seems oblivious to the meaning of the lyrics being spat by Weezy F. Baby.

But anyway, on to the food. Omae XEX offers a variety of tasting courses which range from ¥10,000 to ¥15,000, with supplements and a la carte options also available. We opted for the ¥15,000 tasting with abalone, plus Kobe sirloin for an extra ¥3,500. Not cheap, but still about half of what we paid for the ultimate meal at Sazanka 3 years ago.

 

BEEF TARTARE CONE - prosciutto, onion, cherry tomatoQuickly after sitting, we were brought this amuse of beef tartare. I'm not sure if it's intentional, but upon eating this I immediately thought "French Laundry salmon cone." The sesame tuile cone was almost identical, with a heartier mix of raw beef replacing the smooth salmon tartare in TFL's version. And if you can picture eating the FL salmon cone with beef instead of salmon, you can probably imagine how good this thing was. The prosciutto from previously-mentioned Boccalone slicer was top-notch, and went swimmingly with the mild white onions underneath it.

 

SEAFOOD PLATTER - hirame and tako sashimi, vegetable roll, chilled black cod, kumamoto oyster, tofu with crabmeatNext came this little seafood appetizer platter. Hirame and tako were both bouncy and clean. The little roll of root vegetables topped with gelee was refreshing, if not totally my cup of tea. The cod, glazed like the typical preparation, was actually served cold, and had a bit of a smoky flavor. Our teppanyaki chef admitted to us the oyster actually came from the Pacific Northwest, which isn't a bad thing considering the delicious kumamotos we have over on the left coast. The tofu was smooth but unspectacular.

 

ACTION SHOT - our chef prepping some simmered abalone liverWhile some Morimoto/Omae XEX reviews that I read mentioned a somewhat distant teppanyaki chef, our guy was jovial, friendly, and pretty good at English. He also stirred this abalone liver thing for literally 20 straight minutes before pouring them back into the shells, so I think that is worth an Arthur Hungry action shot.

 

ABALONE - grilled meat, sauteed liver with white vinegar sauceSorry for the exposure on this one. The manual labor mentioned above did result in the delicious, thick, stew-like concoction of abalone liver on the left. It had none of the bitterness that often comes with abalone liver, and instead had a rich foie flavor. The meat was tender and the white vinegar sauce cut both with a nice tang.

 

PLUM SORBETThey must take their beef seriously here, as they prepped us with this plum sorbet. This had zero sweetness and just a very subtle plum flavor. Hardcore palate cleanser status.

 

KOBE BEEF SIRLOINHere's a before shot of the Kobe beef - great marbling all around, as you can see.

 

ACTION SHOT - Kobe beef prepHere's another action shot of our grillmaster, slicing and dicing our Kobe sirloin. No Beninhana style over substance here - he was systemic in his deconstruction. There is no anticipation greater in this world than watching premium Wagyu being seared in front of you.

 

KOBE SIRLOIN - onion, lotus rootHere's the finished product. The meat was every bit as good as that pre-shot suggests. Tender, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The veggies on the side were nice too - the lotus root was very crispy and refreshing, and the onion, which seemed to have been roasted forever, had a deep, sweet flavor. Also not pictured is some chopped daikon in a vinegar sauce that served to cut the fattiness of the beef, and a rich horseradish-laced version of mashed potatoes. I can't say enough about Japanese teppanyaki - while I've had excellent Wagyu beef in various preparations in the US, I've still yet to have anything that can mirror the euphoric simplicity of the teppan-style grill.

 

ACTION SHOT - fried rice prepOmae XEX does veer off from the traditional a bit. The fried rice is garlic-based, and omits the use of eggs. Here's an action shot of the rice prep, one of my favorite parts to watch in a teppanyaki meal.

 

GARLIC FRIED RICE - topped with beef tartareThey had a whole new twist on the rice. No eggs, and instead of fat trimmings, they topped it with some finely chopped beef tartare, which subsequently cooked a little bit from the heat of the rice, pho-style. The result was this excellent, hearty fried rice. The texture and separation of each rice kernel was excellent, especially considering there was no egg to bind everything.

 

ICE CREAM - caramel salt, vanilla with condensed milkIn what appears to be teppanyaki tradition, we were then moved upstairs to a dessert lounge/bar area. I guess you're not supposed to ever eat dessert in front of the actual grill, as every teppanyaki place seems to do this. How the restaurant can support having a whole second room for all of its customers that doesn't get used until late into the night still baffles me. I always thought rent was one of the biggest costs in restaurant operation, but what do I know. Anyway, they had some pretty interesting ice cream flavors for dessert - the caramel was not sweet at all, and you could really taste the caramel itself. The vanilla/condensed milk was eggy, and tasted almost like a cake.

And so concludes the first post from Tokyo. Comparisons to Sazanka are inevitable, and while I will admit that Sazanka did seem to use a higher grade of beef and abalone, Omae XEX definitely held its own. The ingredient quality can be easily explained by the difference in price - Omae XEX was about half the cost! The Kobe was still definitely an extremely high level, and the result delicious. When you live in San Francisco, the beef tastes hella good anyway. :) Plus, it has a cool, hip vibe which is in stark contrast to the old-school tradition of Sazanka. It was a great meal all around and I recommend Omae XEX to anyone who is looking for a good teppanyaki stop in Tokyo.

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