27 June 2009

Kyoto Kaiseiki.. Not.

With the 7-day Japan Rail Pass, the world would truly be your oyster in Japan. At the drop of a hat, you could go to Kyoto, Kobe, Osaka, Hakone... the possibilities are endless. Wanting to try an authentic Kaiseiki meal, and having set aside a small fortune before even having left Singapore, my companion and I took the JR train to Kyoto before the dust had even settled on our luggage in Tokyo.


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Walking down the main shopping street in Kyoto, we were like kids in a candy store when we chanced upon a not-so-Japanese shop called Angers (we later found other outlets in Tokyo). Grabbed a whole bag of gifts for friends, family and self and was surprised by the paper-bag-within-plastic-bag-thing they had going. Slight drizzle apparently triggers this reaction from sales persons throughout Kyoto (and possibly Japan).

Admittedly, we didn't set aside enough time for Kyoto than she deserved. But it did not matter as long as we got to try a proper kaiseiki meal. We figured the main shopping street would have its fair share of restaurants serving kaiseiki meals and that we'd be able to kill 2 birds with a stone.

Alas, after much miscommunication (as should be expected since we didn't know their native language) we ended up waiting for an hour in a restaurant only to find out that their kaiseiki set meal in their menu wasn't available that day. I was utterly disappointed and on the verge of walking out.


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Thankfully, my very patient companion made the best of the situation and ordered a slew of dishes from the standard menu instead, because every bite redeemed our experience. With every new dish, my spirits calmed down and tastebuds tingled with joy. Sashimi was great, so great we ordered another round of it. It was also the first encounter with uni for both of us and while I quite enjoyed it, my companion could do without it. One small happy find was the side of fresh shreds of ginger flower served with sashimi (which we encountered in one or two other places in Japan), in addition to the usual shredded daikon.


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One of the most pleasant dishes in our meal was the beancurd dish. Famous for their soy products, the trio of beancurd was divine. Each was smooth and very... clean. For lack of a better word. Served in a small bamboo cup was a concoction of soft delicate sheets in pure soy milk. Other dishes we tried, all of which we enjoyed thoroughly, include grilled beef and ochazuke/bubuzuke (rice with green tea and fish broth).


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The dessert looked perhaps, the least impressive of all the dishes. Green tea ice cream with Tanda black beans. However, it inspired me the most. I wanted to teleport home and replicate the green tea ice cream's flawless and milky texture, served with the sweet plump black beans. I was so infatuated, I bought 1 kg worth of Tanda black beans from The Bean Guy at Tsukiji Market.

Despite the mix-up at the beginning of our meal, we left very pleased with the outcome of the meal even though it meant I never got to try a kaiseiki meal. The manager was evidently apologetic for the miscommunication and overcompensated when tallying our bill. I would certainly be glad to revisit the restaurant, whose name I can only guess is Saryo Mina from the weblink on the name card, again.

14 June 2009

Awesome Tokyo

On the flight back from Tokyo to Singapore, my travel companion and I marvelled at the amount we accomplished during our short 7 day break in Japan. The sheer amount we ate was enough to make us absolutely satisfied with the way the vacation went (and also fearful of the weighing machine of course), without even considering the sights along the way.

Very much has been written about Tokyo, and the places one just HAS to visit. In my preparation for this trip, I consulted Chubby Hubby's Tokyo Hot List, knowing that the places recommended would never disappoint. We would have tried all the recommendations if not for the limited time we had. Here's our little list of food/places we tried which includes those in CH's list:


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One) Yakitori - Gingko Nut

I have always been rather averse to Gingko Nuts. If I do eat them, it could only be for one of two reasons - health purposes (I treat it like medication) or sheer accident. Oh wait, add to that the pure curiosity I had when my companion ordered it. Grilled over high heat and lightly salted, these gingko nuts were incredible. Not in the least bit bitter, it was even a little sweet!

Two) Park Hyatt Hotel - Sunday brunch at New York Grill
3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku-Ku
Tel: +81 3 5322 1234

Located in the heart of Tokyo, the restaurant perched on the top of the hotel at the 52nd floor is encased in floor-to-ceiling glass windows allowing a fantastic view of the city below. The Sunday Brunch's appetisers and mains were decent, but do leave space for the dessert buffet or, like me, you'd be missing out on the best part of the meal. Reservations are highly encouraged - do request for window seats.

Three) Hida Beef
In my previous post, I mentioned briefly how I was unable to find Kobe beef in Tokyo (more specifically Ikebukuro) but was instead offered Hida beef. While it is not as rich or buttery as its counterpart in Kobe, Hida beef was also an excellent example of beef which I assume has similar breeding methods. The Hida beef sushi was sublime. It simply melted away and was well accentuated with a cube of tangy jelly among other things (we didn’t bother to ask what it was since the waitress, while helpful, was not in her element speaking English).

I can’t seem to find any information online on the breeding programme for cows from Hida. The search instead brought up a couple of other varieties of beef (some of which have apparently triumphed over the Kobe in some competitions) – Matsuzaka, Yonezawa, Lake Towada, Ishigaki, Yamagata.

Four) Cool Train Service
The novelty of beautifully packaged and very decent food on trains has not worn off despite having taken the Japan Rail train numerous times. The conscientious packaging, taking care of even your post-meal needs (wet towel and toothpick), made sure that neither function nor form was neglected. The styrofoam (my one gripe: not environmentally friendly) container that looked like wood was very hardy and very neatly separated the rice from the abundant side dishes. On a side note, it was rather amusing to see the service staff as well as train conductors bow before entering and after exiting every carriage.

Five) Sadaharu Aoki
A must-do we chose from Chubby Hubby’s Hot List, we fully agree with his judgement on the ├ęclairs. The chocolate ├ęclair we tried had a delectably smooth chocolate filling. We also had a bite-sized selection of cakes, our unanimous favourite being the-one-with-hazelnut (sorry, I was too engrossed to take down its name). Neatly wrapped cookies and financiers were also available and made great souvenirs for foodie-friends. We were not particularly pleased however with their compulsory drink order per person wishing to eat in, not especially since the drinks averaged an astounding SGD15.

Six) Hidemi Sugino
Kyobashi Daiei Building 3-6-17 Kyobashi, Chuo-ku
81-3-3538-6780
Thankfully, Hidemi Sugino’s cafe was more hospitable in that respect – no compulsory drink order. However, finding the shop was a challenge as it was in a small and non-descript alley. My companion and I had to resort to asking a passerby, who very patiently helped us by calling the shop and asking for directions. He seemed mighty amused that we were looking so desperately for a cake shop, and drew a very comprehensive map using a pink highlighter he took from his shirt pocket. When we arrived, I was slightly disappointed that they only had 4 varieties of cake left. We arrived only in the late morning, mind you. The cakes were supremely light, with a good balance of textures and flavours in each of them. All the walking (most of which was in the wrong direction) was well worth it.

Seven) La Bombance
Of the four gourmet experiences recommended by Chubby Hubby, we chose to try La Bombance because it sounded most exciting. Our dinner at La Bombance was fabulous. Though, it would have helped knowing exactly what we were eating. The menu was entirely in Japanese and the chef was only able to go so far as to say that what we were eating was a kind of vegetable or a kind of seafood. A friend later helped me decipher and menu and it seems that our first course was a soup with Tortoise(!!). Nonetheless, every item (except perhaps the curried aubergine mousse with tomato jelly which was a hit with my companion) was sublime. Service was pleasant, despite the language barrier, and presentation of food was elegantly simple. In fact, a pair of men sitting 2 seats away admired each course for a l.o.n.g t.i.m.e before tucking in. My companion and I, on the other hand, very unsophisticatedly lapped them and lapped up every morsel.

Eight) Tsukiji Market and Unforgettable Sashimi Place

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We forced ourselves to wake up at the most unearthly hour in order to reach there at 445am, in time to fumble our way towards the big warehouse - where the action was at. The tuna auction was an absolute entertainment. Potential bidders were examining each tuna with a hooked prong, by thwacking the exposed end to extract some flesh. I saw some mashing of the flesh between fingertips. I saw close examinations of the flesh under a torchlight. Furious ringing of a bell indicated that an auction was about to commence. I was baffled, trying to figure out how the auctioneer determined the winner of each bid, but enjoyed the 'performance' nevertheless.

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The rest of the market was full of yummy goodies that made us hungry even at 6am in the morning. It made me incredibly envious of the Japanese who have access to such fresh seafood. Some things made me cringe though - the battered and deep-fried crab that was still alive and frothing at the mouth (top left in photo above) - as well as the huge octopus eggs being hawked (bottom left).

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The highlight of our visit to the Tsukiji Market was our wonderful find in a small back alley that led to a passway for huge containers of seafood. It was serendipity. After buying some Tanda black beans from The Bean Guy, we decided to turn around and ask him for a recommendation for a place to eat sashimi. He first went to the alley behind his shop then peeked his head out from around the corner, and waved his hand beckoning us to follow him. What we were led to was a small, 9 seater sashimi restaurant where we had sashimi that blew us away. I'll never look at Hotate (scallop) the same way again. Even the tamago sushi impressed us to no end.

We were understandably grateful to The Bean Guy for this superb recommendation and would strongly recommend anyone to visit this sashimi place if they're in the vicinity. Unfortunately, they do not have an English namecard, and all I could get is pictured in the top right hand corner of the photo above. I would suggest printing the picture out and asking for directions to the address at the market itself. What would also be useful is the Tsukiji Market calendar that indicates when the market closes.

Converted

Yes, that's right. I'm a convert. While I've always been happy to eat Japanese cuisine, I now aim to eat Japanese at least once a week. Thankfully my new office (yes I've changed jobs) is right next to Central, where there is no lack of ramen, sashimi and even hambagaa.

In between jobs, my companion and I grabbed the unbelieveably cheap flights (SGD500, all inclusive!) to Japan and bounced around for 7 days. 7 fulfilling and incredible days were spread out among Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe, Hakone and Yokohama, though they were mostly short pitstops for a look-see. And of course some food.

One such pitstop was in Kobe - a last minute decision to go to the source of Kobe beef, made possible with the 7-day Japan Rail Pass that allowed unlimited access to any part of Japan. We probably wouldn't have chosen to do so if not for the fact that our virtually non-existent Japanese led us to a restaurant in Tokyo that specialised in what we thought was Kobe beef, that we eventually found was Hida beef. We were just unbelieveably unlucky in finding a restaurant that specialised in Kobe beef.

We travelled to the Shin-Kobe Station from Kyoto by a brief train ride and found ourselves in Kobe with no particular destination in mind. We headed to the tourist information centre and were fortunate to meet an English speaking staff who could understand our request for a recommendation for Kobe beef. Many tourists before us surely asked her too; her recommendation came quickly and for a cosy restaurant called Wakkoqu, in the Oriental hotel just across the road from the station!

We couldn't believe our luck and were able to leave our luggages with the concierge before heading to the third floor. The other restaurants on that floor would normally have distracted me, but I had my heart (and stomach) set for Kobe beef. I knew I wouldn't be able to leave Kobe without tasting it. It wasn't easy to find, but were brimming with excitement when we finally did.

We looked through the menu quickly and, with some help from the teppanyaki chef assigned to us, chose the standard lunch set (SGD75) and a CHAMPION COW lunch set (SGD200). I kid you not, it was a CHAMPION COW.



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First on the menu was the Beef Tataki Salad that only served to make us hungry for more. My appetite for the beef grew, slowly tormented by the sight of the raw slab of beef awaiting the chef's deft teppanyaki skills. Only after the chef slowly fried thin slices of garlic, ensuring each one was evenly browned, the Kobe beef was sliced into bit sized chunks and fried, one portion at a time.

The Kobe beef was as good as any review out there in the blogosphere made it out to be. No, it was even better. Its rich, melt-in-your-mouth texture was overwhelming and met my every expectation. Buttery. Soft. Mmmmm. The difference between the CHAMPION Cow and the non-champion cow was evident, though the latter was already positively delicious.



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The chef very thoughtfully portioned our beef, frying more only when the meat on our plate was running low. In the meantime, large slices of carrot, turnip, aubergine and cucumbers were fried. The finale involved pieces of fried fat and a large handful of skinny beansprouts, all of which were meant to be consumed. I usually shun from eating animal fat in such huge chunks but succumbed to curiosity, and then greed when I was into my fourth piece.



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In all, the experience at Wakkoqu was all we could ask for, and I would not hesitate to return if I do visit Japan again.


Wakkoqu
3rd Floor, Oriental Hotel
Opposite Shin-Kobe Station
Opening hours: 11.45 - 22.00
Reservations recommended: Call 078 262 2838
Website: http://www.wakkoqu.com/english/index.html