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Eating in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto

Eating in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto
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  • Post #31 - October 16th, 2013, 7:57 am
    Post #31 - October 16th, 2013, 7:57 am Post #31 - October 16th, 2013, 7:57 am
    Thanks for the compliments.

    There really was nothing unusual at all about eating the fugu. Had I not been told what I was eating, I might have even guessed swordfish, just a really delicious swordfish . . . meaty, moist. Here, it was served on the bone (I believe they said the collar) And to the extent you start feeling anything unusual after eating it, you better get yourself to a hospital immediately - probably a very, very bad sign! There was no tingling, numbness . . . just the the delicious flavor of karaage fugu.
  • Post #32 - October 16th, 2013, 10:31 am
    Post #32 - October 16th, 2013, 10:31 am Post #32 - October 16th, 2013, 10:31 am
    Very nice posts, BR. I get your point about the cost, but I've generally enjoyed my $300 sushi meals more than $300 haute cuisine meals. Different perspectives. It could have something to do with the fact that I have had many more pricey western meals for work. They become tiresome, particularly when the places aspire to be Alinea or Per Se but aren't. That's less of an issue with sushi: the place is as good as its fish, and the fish is as good as the proprietor/sushi chef demands. The fact that many sushi joints in Chicago don't properly season nigiri says more about the quality of the everage joint than anything peculiar to this city.

    Also, the better places, which are very few here, do finish the nigiri well enough in my experience, whether it's a bit of sweet onion, a brush of sauce, or shake of togarashi, in addition to some wasabi between the rice and fish. Even more rare than properly seasoned nigiri is properly seasoned rice, unfortunately. It's like bad crust on bad pizza.
  • Post #33 - October 16th, 2013, 12:44 pm
    Post #33 - October 16th, 2013, 12:44 pm Post #33 - October 16th, 2013, 12:44 pm
    Thanks Jeff! I completely understand your points on value, and to some extent I go back and forth on this. Not lost on me is the Japanese focus on seasonality which you simply do not experience in the US to the same extent as in Japan, and I find that really adds to the experience. I'm not saying there isn't a large focus on seasonality in the US, but nowhere close to the extent seen in Japan, to the point where a restaurant like Kanesaka can serve the same menu throughout the year, but will not because of seasonal quality differences in certain fish.

    JeffB wrote:Even more rare than properly seasoned nigiri is properly seasoned rice, unfortunately. It's like bad crust on bad pizza.

    This is so true, and with the texture of the rice perhaps the most noticeable difference between nigiri served in Japan and nigiri served at your typical sushi restaurant in Chicago.
  • Post #34 - October 16th, 2013, 2:38 pm
    Post #34 - October 16th, 2013, 2:38 pm Post #34 - October 16th, 2013, 2:38 pm
    I had fugu a couple times in Japan, steeped in sake and as sashimi. And yes, it does leave you're throat tingling.
    "In pursuit of joys untasted"
    from Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata
  • Post #35 - October 16th, 2013, 3:07 pm
    Post #35 - October 16th, 2013, 3:07 pm Post #35 - October 16th, 2013, 3:07 pm
    Jazzfood wrote:I had fugu a couple times in Japan, steeped in sake and as sashimi. And yes, it does leave you're throat tingling.

    Interesting - perhaps the method of preparation or the cut made the difference. But neither of us experienced even a hint of a tingling sensation. And since it was a hefty portion, I doubt it's something we would have missed.
  • Post #36 - October 16th, 2013, 3:12 pm
    Post #36 - October 16th, 2013, 3:12 pm Post #36 - October 16th, 2013, 3:12 pm
    It was more pronounced in the sake. A bit smokey (could have been the juice, not certain) but I remember feeling different sensations as it made its way down my esophagus en route to my gut.
    "In pursuit of joys untasted"
    from Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata
  • Post #37 - October 16th, 2013, 7:15 pm
    Post #37 - October 16th, 2013, 7:15 pm Post #37 - October 16th, 2013, 7:15 pm
    Really enjoyable trip report, BR. The photos and the comments are both great. Sometimes with long posts, I find myself starting to page down through the photos and skimming over the text, but I really enjoyed slowing down and reading all that you said about what you saw and ate and thought. This will be my primer if I ever get a chance to go to Japan!
    "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."
  • Post #38 - October 16th, 2013, 7:52 pm
    Post #38 - October 16th, 2013, 7:52 pm Post #38 - October 16th, 2013, 7:52 pm
    I appreciate the very kind words Katie and happy to hear you're enjoying . . . much more to come.

    Closing thoughts and pictures on Tokyo . . . before moving on to Osaka and Kyoto.

    We had universally terrific food in Tokyo, but I feel like I only touched the surface in terms of eating. One thing I haven't mentioned yet are Tokyo's department stores, specifically their basements. Imagine the State St. Marshall Fields, perhaps doubled in size, and not just with food on the basement level but only food - pastries, candies, sushi, bento boxes, prepared foods, fish, a butcher, groceries, etc. (including, don't forget, the prized melons!) I purchased a number of pastries, some French (including a terrific croissant), some Japanese, including some delicious mochi dusted in matcha. Here's a glimpse of what you may find in the basement of a Japanese department store, and I stress, only a small glimpse.

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    One area of Tokyo I found highly worth visiting was Kappabashi Street. This area was apparently once a street where only restaurants would shop for all of their supplies - knives, tables, chairs, cooking equipment and of course the ubiquitous plastic food models seen in nearly every restaurant's windows. Now everyone is welcome and there is block after block of shops selling everything the home or restaurant chef could imagine. You'll know you're closing in on Kappabashi Street when you see this:

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    Once on the street, you'll also see this:

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    Had I packed an extra suitcase, there were plenty of items I would have loved to bring home for the kitchen. Instead, the only item I brought home as a souvenir was a plastic replica of a bowl of udon from this store:

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    Interestingly, while in the store, I saw a gentleman with a tape measure measuring the width and depth of bowls of plastic food. I assume he operated a restaurant and was there to purchase a plastic food model but wanted to ensure that it very accurately reflected what the restaurant would be serving. I was fascinated watching this play out.

    If you are ever thirsty in Tokyo or seeking a quick ice cream snack, no worries. Japan (and Tokyo in particular) has got to be the vending machine capital of the world. They're on every street, in every train station . . . I recall seeing a beer vending machine on my last visit, but not on this trip. But I did manage to purchase a frozen red bean latte smoothie from a vending machine in a train station, and it was pretty good. I must say these machines came in very handy while we were running around from place to place, transferring from train to train. Here's an example of what you may find in the subway stations:

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    You should also know that there is definitely a street food culture of sorts in Tokyo. However, they consider it rude and highly unsophisticated to eat and walk (though I noticed plenty walking and drinking). Thus, though you may pick up an ice cream cone, doughnuts, a crepe, skewered fish or some other street food item from a vendor, they expect you to eat it right there. You'll likely see signs like the one below aimed at foreigners, though they'll likely also remind you.

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    And if you ever want a break from Japanese food, that's easily accomplished in Tokyo. In fact, the Japanese seem to love Garrett's Popcorn every bit as much as Chicagoans, as we noticed a line stretching more than a block at one of the two Tokyo Garrett's locations. And check out this line:

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    . . . for this:

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    We even spotted the Colonel on many occasions:

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    While on the run and with no time to eat, I decided to try a piece - not very good. Like regular KFC, but with an unpleasantly sweet sauce and some flaked nori I think:

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    Much better was my ebi fillet from McDonald's, not to mention the FRIED apple pie! But you can find almost anything to eat in Tokyo, a lot of it pretty wild . . . purple sweet potato or green tea & white chocolate bagels anyone???

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    We didn't have any of the conveyor belt sushi, but these places were everywhere:

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    And then there are those "Lost in Translation" moments . . .

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    I was relieved to find out these are wood ear mushrooms and that no one was coming after me. :lol:


    And while there were so many amazing things to eat in Tokyo, don't forget what a magnificent city this is, with so many things to see and do . . . probably my favorite city in the world, and one where I feel incredibly safe - unlocked bicycles parked everywhere, people leaving wallets/purses on tables when leaving their tables, etc. It's really a wonderful thing to see. I'm not saying it's some sort of Utopian society, but there are many things to love about Tokyo. Here are just a few more pics, non-food related:

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    View of Tokyo from the magnificent Tokyo Skytree


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    Crazy busy Shibuya Crossing, as seen from a second floor Starbuck's window, the perfect viewing spot


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    Emperor's Palace


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    Wedding at Meiji Shrine



    My thoughts on Tokyo dining though are not really any different than my thoughts on dining in Osaka and Kyoto so I'll save my overall impressions for the very end. Suffice it to see that we ate like kings in Tokyo, regardless of whether we spent $3 a skewer and $7 a pitcher of beer at an izakaya, $10 on a bowl of ramen or $200 a person at a high end restaurant.

    Up next, a very brief glimpse of Osaka (we were there for about 24 hours), followed by Kyoto.
  • Post #39 - October 16th, 2013, 9:28 pm
    Post #39 - October 16th, 2013, 9:28 pm Post #39 - October 16th, 2013, 9:28 pm
    Jazzfood wrote:It was more pronounced in the sake. A bit smokey (could have been the juice, not certain) but I remember feeling different sensations as it made its way down my esophagus en route to my gut.

    My understanding is that this may or may not be the case, depending on how it's butchered. Some chefs let a limited amount of the toxin get into the flesh (how they do this, I don't know) to give the sensation you're talking about. But it isn't necessarily the case. The couple of times I had it, I didn't get anything like that.
    Dominic Armato
    Dining Critic
    The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com
  • Post #40 - October 17th, 2013, 9:38 pm
    Post #40 - October 17th, 2013, 9:38 pm Post #40 - October 17th, 2013, 9:38 pm
    24+ hours in Osaka - the Chicago of Japan?

    When we originally planned this trip, we planned to take the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, and then do a day trip to Osaka, which is a quick train ride (less than 30 minutes) from Kyoto. But then we realized we (well, probably I) screwed up and had one night where we didn't book a hotel. No problem, we did a quick search, found a ridiculously low rate at the St. Regis in Osaka, and it worked out perfectly.

    In a lot of ways, Osaka reminded me a bit of Chicago - a big city of over 2 million people, seemingly far less respected and visited compared to the country's biggest city, and yet with so much to offer. In fact, everything I read is that Osaka is the foodie destination in Japan, and that Osaka's population is the most food-obsessed in all of Japan. I suppose in this regard Osaka is a more respected "Second City" of Japan, with 4 3-starred Michelin restaurants and more than a dozen 2-star restaurants. Sadly, with little advance planning and with so much to see in just 24 hours, we didn't get to test these claims and sufficiently explore Osaka's food scene. Yet we ate well, ran around without wasting a minute (almost squeezing 2 days of sightseeing into 1 day) and really enjoyed our time.

    Yes, there's plenty of history in and around Osaka, and mountains and hot springs beyond city to retreat to, but let me first show you what a beautiful downtown Osaka has:

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    The very last picture was taken from the roof of the Umeda Sky Building, a spectacular new building in an area with a lot of new construction (and a lot of shopping and eating). This would be a fantastic place to visit around sunset, take pictures, and then find a bite to eat.

    And then there's the beautiful Osaka Castle:

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    Good news if you find yourself hungry near Osaka Castle - plenty of street food to be had, including takoyoki (preview: I purchased the takoyaki, drinks and ice cream pictured below right outside the Castle).

    You may also choose to end up in the center of the city in Dotonbori, a big entertainment and restaurant district. You'll also find a huge street food culture here (but remember, no eating while walking). Some of the most common food items seen more commonly in Osaka than elsewhere are okonomiyaki (an egg-heavy pancake filled with pork and/or seafood, maybe cabbage and other vegetables, and then topped with some nori and bonito, a sauce that's similar to Worcestershire sauce but sweeter, and then an optional squirt of mayonnaise. We had this once, but sorry, no picture to offer.

    Somewhat similar is takoyaki - doughy fritters filled with octopus, topped with aonori and bonito, the same sauce as the okonomiyaki (as far as I could tell) and the optional mayonnaise. Here area couple of pictures of takoyaki cooking, always in this little ball-shaped molds that appeared to be cast iron:

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    The below picture is the one place where we purchased takoyaki. It's served blazing hot (wait a few minutes or you will burn your mouth - trust me!), with toothpicks to pick them up. In reality, the toothpick acts as your knife, fork, spoon, etc. as you will never let the damn thing cool off sufficiently to put a whole one in your mouth at one time. So you just dig bits at a time. I just loved the takoyaki, though in my perfect world the exteriors would pack a little crispness.

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    Takoyaki


    Thanks to vending machines seemingly every 20 feet, there's always an interesting beverage to try, and you needed something cold while burning your mouth on takoyaki. Ever since I got home, I've been missing the delicious cold tea beverages as well as this terrific grapefruit soda I tried:

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    And for dessert, green tea ice cream of course . . . is there anything that they don't make photogenic in Japan???

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    Nope, didn't get to try these soft shell turtles for sale, although I was reminded me of the softshell turtle essence I tried at Narisawa in Tokyo.

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    A couple of other hugely popular foods we saw in our short time in Osaka were kushikatsu (batter-dipped fried skewers, be it meat, seafood or vegetables) and doteyaki, beef tendon simmered in miso. We didn't get to sample these (we ended up at an izakaya for dinner because we were trying to save a few $$$ given some of our luxurious dinners, but of course it was outstanding). But if you'd like to try a lot of traditional Osaka food items, you can find them (kushikatsu, doteyaki, okonomiyaki, takoyaki) and more at Osaka's food theme park of sorts, Naniwa Kuishimbo Yokocho.

    Now some may refer to this theme park as a food court in a mall (by the way, it's very close to Osaka's renowned aquarium and the Ferris Wheel), but it's nothing like you would expect. If you look for Naniwa Kuishimbo Yokocho, you may be confused at first when you think you've found it - you'll see a very ordinary food court with a Subway and a KFC. But walk towards the back and the side of this most ordinary food court and you'll find a narrow, winding path with umpteen less polished fast food-type spots, each offering foods unique to Osaka, including the ones I mention above. You won't find fast food workers in uniforms, but instead individual proprietors hawking their specialties and many will smile and happily offer you a taste.

    While this was the only Japanese food theme park we visited, I wish we could have visited more. They give food courts a good name. My friend and I shared an okonomiyaki (and sampled some other items thanks to generous offers). I only wish I was hungrier when we visited this spot. Here's a look at one of the average booths in this food theme park:

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    In the picture, the proprietor of this stand was explaining doteyaki to my friend who had never tried it. If you visit Osaka, visit Naniwa Kuishimbo Yokocho hungry and leave your skepticism of food courts behind. And don't forget, it's off to the side of the more modern-seeming area that houses Subway and KFC.

    So that's all for Osaka - enough time to sample some of the local cuisine, a little guilt for not staying longer and finding out just how much Osaka has to offer. By visiting only for a day, I felt like I disrespected all second cities around the world. But now you know some of what Osaka has to offer. Off to Kyoto next.
    I find the pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted, cured meats. (Seinfeld)

    Twitter: brbinchicago
  • Post #41 - October 17th, 2013, 10:06 pm
    Post #41 - October 17th, 2013, 10:06 pm Post #41 - October 17th, 2013, 10:06 pm
    Thanks for the little visit to Japan. I love Japan -- and you've done such a great job covering one of the reasons I love it -- the most food crazed country on the planet -- and so many great dining options. I also love the history, scenery, art, and culture, but the food is such a big, in-your-face part of life in Japan, it's kind of inescapable. I look forward to tales of Kyoto -- imagining I'll get to revisit the Nishiki Market.
    "All great change in America begins at the dinner table." Ronald Reagan

    http://midwestmaize.wordpress.com
  • Post #42 - October 18th, 2013, 8:21 am
    Post #42 - October 18th, 2013, 8:21 am Post #42 - October 18th, 2013, 8:21 am
    Thank you very much for the fantastic documentation of your trip. It make me want to rush to Japan as soon as possible.
  • Post #43 - October 18th, 2013, 6:25 pm
    Post #43 - October 18th, 2013, 6:25 pm Post #43 - October 18th, 2013, 6:25 pm
    Kobe beef - in Kyoto

    When we arrived in Kyoto, we both had a huge appetite for beef, Kobe beef in particular. I'm a huge fan of great beef and I'm not even sure I had ever had real Kobe beef before, although I've had Wagyu beef on multiple occasions. Perhaps it was Kyoto and Osaka's proximity to Kobe or the fact that we kept seeing signs for Kobe while riding the bullet train, but we were on a mission. I was also in the mood for teppanyaki. But in my short research, I couldn't figure out where to go.

    We resorted to our concierge at our Hotel, Hotel Granvia, and told him we wanted very good Kobe beef, preferably teppanyaki, and preferably at a non-touristy spot. Well, he booked us at this restaurant Itoh. All seemed fine until we showed up and saw Nobu's name in the restaurant indicating that the restaurant is part of his group, and then we saw other tourists. Had our requests been ignored? Were we in the wrong place? I'm naturally suspicious when I see a lot of tourists, thinking that the restaurant is more English language-speaking friendly than it is great. And yet I was slightly calmed when I heard a group of four diners communicating in Japanese with the chef. I wished none of this mattered, but when you're eating Kobe beef for the first time and you want the finest, it's perhaps slightly disheartening when doubt enters your mind.

    In any event, Itoh proved to be an excellent meal, even if I didn't walk out doing cartwheels over the beef. The meal was a tasting menu of sorts and we were started with amberjack sashimi and sesame tofu. The tofu was delicious and fortunately not overdressed, and I really enjoyed the amberjack.

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    Sesame Tofu and Amberjack


    Our next course was an excellent onion soup. It was lighter in color than a French onion soup, and no cheese or bread, but what really stood out was the terrific caramelized onion flavor. A raw eggplant salad followed and was decent, but nothing special. If you've been to Ron of Japan or the like, I'm sure you're familiar with the sauteed vegetables. They're always tasty, but usually thanks to soy sauce and sesame oil, and they're all too often mushy. But I'll give the chef at Itoh credit for perfectly cooking the pea pods, mushrooms, potatoes and baby corn perfectly. In fact, this is probably the first time I've tasted baby corn the way it should be served. The vegetables were served with an anchovy sauce but they were well seasoned and delicious on their own.

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    Itoh chef diligently cooking each vegetable


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    Vegetables - baby corn, potatoes, pea pods, mushrooms


    For the Kobe beef portion of the meal, you could choose between tenderloin and sirloin. Maybe it's me, but if I'm eating Kobe beef, I'm not wasting my time with filet. We chose the sirloin:

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    Kobe sirloin


    Now I don't know how much marbling Kobe beef can or should have, but this looked very nicely marbled to me. The chef first cooked the slab of beef, flipping and also searing on every side, before slicing our individual pieces. Just below is the cooked and plated beef, served with fried garlic chips and a wasabi pepper sauce that I tasted on its own. It was fine but I had no intention of adulterating the beef.

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    Plated portion of Kobe sirloin


    I thought the beef was excellent - well seasoned, very flavorful, tender and a perfect medium rare as requested. It was not a very large portion and I wish I could have abandoned much of the menu and had an extra order of beef, but oh well. Was it the best beef I've ever tasted? Probably not - personally, the more extreme dry aged beef I've had at David Burke's suits my palate perfectly. But I think this is the first time I've had Kobe beef so I don't really want to make more generalized assertions or assumptions. It's probably sufficient to say that it was delicious beef, perfectly cooked. That being said, I highly doubt Itoh is the home of the best Kobe beef to be found in Kyoto. I just have my suspicions.

    Having been looking forward to the beef with the enthusiasm of a young kid waiting for Santa to arrive, the cheese and dessert courses that followed were major letdowns, though perhaps not as much as opening a beautifully wrapped box of socks. Truth be told, both courses were pretty decent, particularly the melon crepe with berries and vanilla ice cream, but they followed the beef, and I would have preferred more beef.

    A good meal, no doubt, but I look forward to recounting a couple of far more enjoyable meals that we enjoyed in Kyoto, including our one true Kaiseki dinner and our very favorite meal of the entire vacation (tempura). In the meantime, I'm told that Coalfire may be calling my name.
    I find the pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted, cured meats. (Seinfeld)

    Twitter: brbinchicago
  • Post #44 - October 19th, 2013, 6:36 pm
    Post #44 - October 19th, 2013, 6:36 pm Post #44 - October 19th, 2013, 6:36 pm
    When in Kyoto . . . Cha-Kaiseki at Kichisen

    If you find yourself in Kyoto, step back centuries in time and treat yourself to at least one traditional kaiseki meal. This is the elaborate feast that finds its origins in the elegant tea ceremony, and not to be confused with the concept omakase, which refers merely to "chef's choice," and is really just one small aspect of a kaiseki meal.

    Although this was my first visit to Kyoto, I had a kaiseki meal several years ago in Tokyo, one that I'll admit I didn't enjoy, but I'll blame a lot of that on the fact that I was in a suit, and sitting terribly uncomfortably on a tatami mat for 3+ hours. I suppose I can also count the Next Kyoto meal in Chicago, which was not only terrific but respected many of the traditions of Kyoto cuisine.

    Choosing which kaiseki restaurant to dine at may not be easy - there are countless possibilities in Kyoto - but we selected one which we understood was very traditional, which we preferred to some that apparently offered a more modern approach. We also booked about two months out, so keep that in mind, particularly because most of these restaurants serve a very small number of guests each night. And expect to pay at least $150, perhaps much more. One interesting note about Kichisen is that its chef appeared on the Japanese Iron Chef show in 1999 and defeated Iron Chef Morimoto in battle pike eel, a fish that appeared twice during our feast.

    Kichisen offers both counter seating and private room dining, with private rooms offering your choice of a table or tatami mats. I absolutely wanted the private room experience - it just seemed to be the right way to truly step back in time - but I wasn't willing to sit on the floor again . . . my joints are even worse than they were the last time I was in Japan, not to mention that we were averaging over 9 miles per day of walking on this trip.

    Entering Kichisen is unlike entering any other restaurant. The entry area is very quiet, nobody milling around except for the one person who greeted us. We removed our shoes as requested and were ushered to our private room (there are several). During this very brief and quiet stroll, we did not see anyone else. I suppose the counter seating is more towards the back of the restaurant, thus offering discretion and privacy to anyone who has chosen to dine in the private room.

    The private room is just that. You don't have numerous staff serving you, and in our case it was an older woman and a younger man. Here is a look at our small, private dining room:

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    Traditional warm, moist towels were presented. We were then served a hot apertif (below). Though our server referred to it as a "tea," it seemed more like a soup, clear and mild but with herbal and spice notes, and absolutely delicious.

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    Apertif



    We had also ordered sake and the sake service was perhaps the first indication that Kichisen would be anything but ordinary. Of course, at the heart of a kaiseki meal is seasonality. And though the weather outside suggested summer to me, the calendar said autumn. And there was our sake, served in a beautiful glass bowl, filled with shaved ice, the sake carafe elegantly wrapped, and with beautiful Japanese maple leaves resting on the shaved ice. You may also notice the polished silver water pitcher just behind the bowl. Kaiseki meals were traditionally enjoyed by royalty and and samurais and the exquisite attention to detail certainly helped paint the picture in my head of how this meal might have played out in earlier times.

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    Sake service



    The apertif is traditionally followed by sakizuke, an appetizer. A first glance is not revealing of the hidden wonders:

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    Sakizuke - appetizer



    Part of the appetizer was what I seem to recall as edamame, perhaps with fermented fish.

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    Part of the appetizer course pictured above



    The lid of the wood basket was then lifted, revealing an assortment of beauties - plum, octopus, fish, okra, sweet potato, mushrooms, etc. The star of the appetizer course though was the magnificent carved vegetable, which held some out of this world fish and caviar.

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    Appetizer course continued - interior of wood basket



    It is at this point that the kaiseki meal is thought to begin, and it begins with the o-wan, a clear soup. The bowl is served with droplets of water on the lid, to convey to the diner that the soup was prepared especially for him, and that no one else has touched the bowl.

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    O-wan, clear soup, the traditional first course



    The soup was a stunner - a fragrant dashi stock, pike eel, matsutake mushroom, and a garnish of what appeared to be green citron, which Kichisen apparently uses in the summer, whereas yellow citron is reserved for the fall. We were instructed to use our chopsticks to remove all of the items from the stock, and to alternate eating the mushroom and eel and sipping the dashi stock.

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    O-wan, clear soup



    The meal proceeds with the mukōzuke course, sashimi:

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    Mukōzuke, sashimi



    I can't recall much about the first item, but my favorite was definitely the very fatty tuna belly, otoro, garnished only with hefty dabs of wasabi. Interestingly, it was served atop shaved ice which normally drives me nuts, although here it was obviously very beautiful. In any event, I could tell the fish had just been placed upon the ice because it was not cold. Moreover, it was rich and fantastic.

    The sashimi course was followed by nakazara, the middle course. Although this course may consist of sushi or a steamed course, we were served one of each. First, radish-wrapped fish (taro on the side) which was fantastic. I can't recall what was in the porcelain persimmon.

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    There was also the steamed dish, which appears to be daikon-garnished tofu (or fish cake) in a sauce or broth, but I can't recall much about the dish.

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    At that point, we were delivered a cornucopia of treats, which comprised the hassun, a mixed platter of treats from the mountain and sea.

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    Hassun, platter of items from the mountain and the sea



    There was just so much going on with this platter - sweet potatoes, citrus (yuzu perhaps), matsutake mushrooms, wooden mats rolled and holding crab . . . I can't recall what was in the small dishes, but you'll see.

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    Let me say that the crab (which you removed and then mixed with a wasabi-based relish and vegetables) was just sensational, as perfect crab as I have ever tasted. And don't forget the matsutakes. Our server delivered two small charcoal-burning robata grills to the table, sliced the matsutakes, and instructed us to grill them but for no more than a couple of minutes. They were still a little too large and difficult to eat, but outstanding nonetheless.

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    Matsutakes on the robata grill



    I don't know whether the next dish was a continuation of the "mountain" theme or part of the next course, the boiled course (nimono), but it was the most amazing of the evening for me. Given what you've seen above, hopefully that says something. But it was a pumpkin soup served in this beautiful serving dish:

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    Despite what I knew of melons and pumpkins in Japan, it didn't even cross my mind for a second that I might be looking at a real pumpkin. I was convinced that the serving dish was ceramic. But in fact it was a real pumpkin, a most perfect appearing one at that, which I realized after removing the perfectly carved lid.

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    The pumpkin soup was terrific, but it was my favorite course more for appearances and the perfect pumpkin than it was for flavor. Unlike a more intensely flavored western-style pumpkin soup, this one was very lightly seasoned and tasted only of pumpkin, almost in its natural state. That is also how I would sum up the entire meal - natural flavors, unaided by rich butters, oils, creams and the like. But don't get me wrong, the pumpkin itself had terrific flavor that really came through in the soup.

    The next dish was undoubtedly part of the boiled portion of the meal, more pike eel in a dipping sauce I can't recall at the moment. I enjoyed it, but found the flavors quite subtle.

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    Boiled pike eel



    Tsukemono, pickles, followed:

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    Tsukemono - pickles



    I tried pickles on a number of occasions on this trip, and dare I say that I prefer what I'm finding in the US these days, including in Chicago. Though the pickles were all tasty, I find that I'm getting more varied and interesting pickling liquids in the US.

    The next course was supposed to be the grilled course (yakimono), and maybe it was. After all, it was cooked on a grill. But at the same time it seemed boiled. There were eggs, fish (can't recall the type) and a lot of both, and you mixed it in your bowl with rice. I enjoyed the dish but again the flavors were very subtle, as they were intended to be, and I can't say that I was excited by the dish. I will note however that the rice, interestingly, was far more flavorful than your typical white rice.

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    Finally, cooked eggplant with bonito. I liked the flavors and textures well enough, but I didn't think that the eggplant was cooked in such a way as to bring out its best flavor (it wasn't grilled).

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    Finally, there were sweets. Lightly jelled grapes and other fruit with a spun caramel dome with shaved ice was simple, yet elegant and delicious.

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    Fresh pears with pomegranate seeds were even more simple, yet again perfect in texture and flavor.

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    And a final couple of bites, a bean paste treat if I recall correctly, and a small mochi bite, were nice sweets to round out the meal.

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    But it was the very best cup of green tea, matcha to be exact, that really brought a smile to my face. I adore a perfect cup of green tea, and I had never had it until this moment, much thicker too than I would have anticipated.

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    Matcha


    There was a small cup of tea that followed, but the green tea is what I remember.

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    An outstanding meal, no question, and a lot of food, though as I mention above some of the flavors were quite subtle, more subtle than I typically enjoy. That's not to say that the food didn't really measure up. Several of the courses were sublime. But the experience of a very traditional kaiseki meal is what we desired and Kichisen delivered that experience and more. Service was very graceful and polished throughout the evening, though of course at times there were some anticipated language barriers - no problem.

    And the private room afforded us the opportunity to discuss the meal in detail, in more comfort than we might have enjoyed if we merely sat at the counter. I understand the desire to be close to the chef, to sit at the counter. I prefer that at many sushi places for example. But I wanted to experience true kaiseki and in my opinion the private room offered that experience. That being said, considering the meal was nearly three hours long, I'm happy that we had a table in our room . . . my legs would never have become friends with the tatami mats.

    More to come from Kyoto later.

    *** Some further thoughts: Aside from the graceful and ultra-professional service, the presentations were obviously stunning. In a day where so many fine dining restaurants have taken a more relaxed approach to fine dining (or perhaps that just says more about their hiring and training practices), there was something very special about taking this trip back in time and imagining how aristocrats and samurai warriors dined. Even if you are generally averse to fine dining, a kaiseki dinner in Kyoto is a must in my opinion. And as for flavors, although some were extremely subtle, i.e., presented in their most natural state and in many cases without flavor enhancements, that too was part of the experience, and significantly different from what most of us experience these days.

    Thank you all for indulging me and for your compliments - it's nice to see the interest in Japanese cuisine, which is so unique in so many respects.
    Last edited by BR on October 20th, 2013, 11:36 am, edited 1 time in total.
    I find the pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted, cured meats. (Seinfeld)

    Twitter: brbinchicago
  • Post #45 - October 19th, 2013, 8:14 pm
    Post #45 - October 19th, 2013, 8:14 pm Post #45 - October 19th, 2013, 8:14 pm
    Just stunning!
    You pictures are amazing.
  • Post #46 - October 21st, 2013, 10:10 pm
    Post #46 - October 21st, 2013, 10:10 pm Post #46 - October 21st, 2013, 10:10 pm
    Tonkatsu, not to be confused with tonkotsu

    In Kyoto, we stayed in a hotel connected to Kyoto Station, Kyoto's major transportation hub. The Station, which had 11 floors if I recall correctly, also hosts multiple food courts, including a more casual one with ramen shops and other casual eats on the 10th floor, and some slightly more upscale spots on the 11th floor. I knew Katsukura, a branch of a well respected Tokyo tonkatsu restaurant was there, and that's where we headed. There was a line and we had to wait about 20 minutes, but it was highly worth it.

    For tonkatsu (pork seasoned with salt and pepper, the dipped in egg and panko, and deep-fried), you have your choice of two cuts of pork, the leaner filet (hire) or the fattier sirloin (rosu), and in various sizes. I ordered the sirloin. Tonkatsu is not to be confused with tonkotsu, which is the bone-in pork used to make pork stock for ramen. Before you get your tonkatsu, however, you need to prepare your tonkatsu sauce. On the table, the base sauces for the tonkatsu sauce await you: a slightly sweet, slightly citrus tasting sauce (soy too I believe); a "spicy" sauce according to our server, which really tasted like a Worcestershire sauce and was, not surprisingly, not spicy (not much in the way of spicy Japanese food), and hot Japanese mustard:

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    They also provide you with a bowl of toasted sesame seeds and a pestle for pulverizing them:

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    After finely pulverizing the sesame seeds, you then mix the two sauces into the sesame seeds until you reach the flavor you desire. You can also add some of the mustard if you wish (I did), or just eat some of the pieces of pork with some mustard. Here's my mixed sauce:

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    Tonkatsu sauce


    Finally, your pork is delivered and you dip it into the sauce. A mound of freshly cut cabbage (with dressing) and tsukemono (pickles), not shown, are typical accompaniments. This pork was really outstanding, very flavorful and nicely fatty. I find tonkatsu to be such a comforting dish, not so unlike fried chicken, and this was as good a version as I've tried thanks to the crispy coating and fatty, flavorful pork.

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    Tonkatsu


    We also ordered a side of chawanmushi and this was a terrific version. It had mushrooms and some scallops I believe, but the real surprise was the hidden chunks of fatty pork within the silky, delicate custard.

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    Chawanmushi


    Just one more terrific food item crossed off the checklist, and a very reasonably priced one at that.
    I find the pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted, cured meats. (Seinfeld)

    Twitter: brbinchicago
  • Post #47 - October 22nd, 2013, 2:36 pm
    Post #47 - October 22nd, 2013, 2:36 pm Post #47 - October 22nd, 2013, 2:36 pm
    what a thread, thanks for sharing.
  • Post #48 - October 23rd, 2013, 10:21 pm
    Post #48 - October 23rd, 2013, 10:21 pm Post #48 - October 23rd, 2013, 10:21 pm
    Beautiful Kyoto, and a brief detour from food

    Food, kaiseki meals in particular, will certainly make Kyoto a must visit for LTHers. But much of Kyoto is really a step back in time, centuries indeed, and magical to take in. There's also a certain aura that overcomes you, pure tranquility really, and yet somewhat hard to describe. I promise I'll get back to food in my next couple or few posts - as Cynthia noted, I still have to talk about th wonderful Nishiki Market, although there are foodstuffs worth noting, and a magnificent tempura dinner. But I think I'd be doing a disservice if I didn't show you more of Kyoto because even if the only food to eat was ramen burgers, it would still be a must visit.

    Here's a terrific view of Kyoto from higher up, as seen from Kiyomizu-dera ("Pure Water Temple"):

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    As you can see, aside from the temples, pavillions and the like, Kyoto is a pretty big city, albeit without the skyscrapers seen in Tokyo and Kyoto.

    And here is Kiyomizu-dera:

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    Then there's Nijo Castle, where the Shogun resided centuries earlier:

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    I know this is a personal favorite of Jazzfood, and there's no way a picture can do it justice, but below is Ryoan-ji Temple, with its rock garden. There are 15 stones in the garden, but only 14 can be seen from any one vantage point. Peaceful, spectacular and thought-provoking:

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    Also at Ryoan-ji


    Kinkaku-ji Temple, the Temple of the Golden Pavillion, is certainly one of the most famous sites in Kyoto for obvious reasons:

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    The grounds of Kinkaku-ji are pretty special too:

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    Ginkaku-ji, the Temple of the Silver Pavillion:

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    And Ginkaku-ji's beautiful grounds:

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    Top: entrance to Ginkaku-ji; bottom: maple tree


    Fushimi Inari Shrine is famous for its gates and the challenging hike to see them all:

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    The hall of Sanjusangen-do Temple is more than 100 yards long, and houses 1001 statues of the goddess Kannon:

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    Another must visit is Gion, famous for its tea houses where geishas entertain the rich and famous. We walked around, but sadly did not spot any geisha. As you can imagine, with thousands of tourists strolling the streets trying to get a glimpse of a geisha, they try to enter and exit tea houses discretely. Immediately below is a picture of the main geisha district, and just below that a picture of Gion's oldest and most famous tea house:

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    But before you come away thinking everything in Kyoto is old and historic, there is some new too, with Kyoto Station perhaps the greatest example of new. Kyoto Station is a major transportation hub, housing the subway and bullet trains. But there's plenty of shopping too, with a department store and countless restaurants as I mentioned in my previous post. And as you can see, it's plenty modern:

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    Much of Kyoto Station is open air, and aside from great shopping and eating, one of the highlights of Kyoto Station is the multi-story stairs adorned with lights that changed every several seconds for a terrific light show, including action and not just still pictures . . . only in Japan!:

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    Kyoto is a magical place, and very different from Tokyo. On my prior visit to Tokyo, I just didn't have time to make it to Kyoto because I was also spending a week in Hong Kong. I'm thrilled I was able to make it this time.

    Anyway, back to food in my next posts . . . and perhaps one stray (and brief) Tokyo bar post that I forgot to post earlier.
    I find the pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted, cured meats. (Seinfeld)

    Twitter: brbinchicago
  • Post #49 - October 24th, 2013, 9:18 pm
    Post #49 - October 24th, 2013, 9:18 pm Post #49 - October 24th, 2013, 9:18 pm
    Ten you - tempura perfection in Kyoto

    We had some outstanding meals in Japan - Narisawa in Tokyo, sushi at Kanesaka in Tokyo, the kaiseki meal at Kichisen - but we agreed that our favorite meal was at Ten you, a tempura restaurant in Kyoto. I've always been a huge fan of tempura, though admittedly I'm often forced to accept very imperfect tempura, perhaps because the batter is too thick, or the oil is old, or the food is just not cooked right. None of these issues were at all present at Ten you. Ten you has merely 10 counter seats while the tempura chef cooks all of the food right in front of you (even if we didn't have the right angle to see most of the cooking). Here's the room:

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    I won't display all of my pics since most are not that good. Not only was it a little dark, but there was some glare from the steel counter that caused me some problems.

    The meal started with three non-tempura courses, a roasted beet with a sesame sauce, a terrific raw seafood dish and a delicate and delicious chawanmushi. All were outstanding (and I'm not a fan of cooked beets), but the beet was the most photogenic of the bunch (and the sesame sauce made me forget I was eating a cooked beet) so here you go:

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    Beet with sesame sauce


    We then moved on to 8 tempura courses. Each item is prepared to order in front of you, but unfortunately we couldn't see the tempura being cooked. But we did notice what appeared to be stone pots being used, and the tempura chef changed the oil at least two times while we were there. He told us that they used cottonseed oil to prepare the tempura.

    For the tempura, we were given soy sauce, daikon which was to be used to season the soy sauce to taste, salt and lemon. The idea was to alternate between the various seasonings as desired. The first course was a whole shrimp, but divided, prepared and served separately:

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    The shrimp was a terrific preview of what was in store for us. Crisp, lightly battered, perfectly cooked, drained just long enough to eliminate grease, and great shrimp flavor. We moved on to a couple great vegetables, a shishito pepper followed by taro:

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    Shishito pepper

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    Taro


    Again, what was so impressive here is that neither the shishito pepper nor the taro were even the slightest bit overcooked - both retained terrific texture and had great flavor. The next item was fantastic, uni enclosed within nori which was then dipped in the tempura batter and fried. The crisp, lightly battered and fried nori added a whole new dimension of flavor, almost a light toasted note, to the uni.

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    Uni wrapped in nori


    The uni was followed by a rich, woodsy maitake mushroom, and then anago, including the spine which was light and crisp. While I recall little of the spine itself other than its texture, the anago was spectacular, as delicious as I've had and buttery rich, making me wonder if every piece of anago nigiri should just be batter-dipped and fried. It really cannot get better than this.

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    Anago, including spine


    The anago was followed by sweet corn tempura, which delivered more corn flavor than any corn pancake I've ever tasted:

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    Corn


    Following the tempura, we were served what seemed to be a tempura chicken donburi, sans egg. The slightly crisp, fatty but tender chicken (no breast meat here) was dipped in a sauce (likely soy) and mixed with the rice. The chicken itself could hardly be described as battered but it had obviously been fried. What I can tell you is that it was better than any chicken donburi I had ever tasted, even without the egg, and I was very sad when I was done with this bowl. Chicken and rice has never tasted this good (I only wish I could hold a camera steady):

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    Tsukemono and a fantastic miso soup followed. And dessert was the ubiquitous thin jellied grapes, which I love, so I hardly care that I had it a few times. Finally, green tea rounded out the meal.

    You may look at the pictures and read my descriptions of the other meals and wonder how a meal consisting of largely tempura could have been our favorite meal of the trip. But Ten you found a way not only to perfectly fry each item, but did so with pristine ingredients cooked in a way to ensure the ideal texture and bring out perfect flavor. There was not so much as an average tasting course. Some items just blew me away (sad to just mention a few, but the eel, uni, maitake and chicken in particular). And the changing of the oil at least two times (and it also appeared that there were multiple frying vessels), the precision with which the chef dipped each item, and then his intensity as he fried, drained and delicately served each course was just another example of the great dedication to food that we kept witnessing on this trip. On top of that, the service and intimacy of Ten you made for a perfect tempura dinner and what we agreed was the best meal of our trip.



    A brief trip back to Tokyo, Shinjuku in particular, and the Albatross Bar

    If you are in Tokyo, you must find the bars in the Omoide Yokocho of Shinjuku (a/k/a "Piss Alley"), not far from Shinjuku Station. This is no ordinary bar area . . . an absolute maze of bars, on barely lit streets wide enough for a bicycle or two, and hundreds of bars probably, but occupying what might be at most a block or two of space. Most of the bars are incredibly tiny, some with only 4 or so stools, and really no signs to speak of. I was told many will absolutely not accommodate gaijin so enter this area with thick skin.

    But we headed to the three-story bar, the Albatross. That is, three stories with at most 10 stools on each floor. We ascended the stairs to the third floor, slanted as they were, and had a few cocktails, sweet potato shochu. Luckily, it wasn't very crowded for I feared I might fall down the stairs right to the first level. In any event, a truly unique bar area, like none I've ever encountered, and a must visit when in Tokyo (and open until 3am if I recall correctly).


    I should be able to wrap up food in Kyoto in one more post.
    I find the pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted, cured meats. (Seinfeld)

    Twitter: brbinchicago
  • Post #50 - October 24th, 2013, 9:47 pm
    Post #50 - October 24th, 2013, 9:47 pm Post #50 - October 24th, 2013, 9:47 pm
    BR wrote: I should be able to wrap up food in Kyoto in one more post.


    DON'T hurry on our account. I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing these posts won't end.

    And that beet looked like a fig to me :)

    I'm ready to get on a plane by myself with just your itinerary and travel notes (and someone else's credit card :twisted: )

    Thank you.
    "Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad." Miles Kington
  • Post #51 - October 24th, 2013, 10:27 pm
    Post #51 - October 24th, 2013, 10:27 pm Post #51 - October 24th, 2013, 10:27 pm
    boudreaulicious wrote:
    DON'T hurry on our account. I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing these posts won't end.

    And that beet looked like a fig to me :)

    I'm ready to get on a plane by myself with just your itinerary and travel notes (and someone else's credit card :twisted: )

    Thank you.

    Thanks Jen! You may be right about the fig, but our server said beet twice (after I said fig twice). But given the constant miscommunications, and because the sesame sauce dominated, I'm not willing to bet here. But the texture was more firm like a beet so I gave them the benefit of the doubt.
    I find the pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted, cured meats. (Seinfeld)

    Twitter: brbinchicago
  • Post #52 - October 27th, 2013, 7:43 pm
    Post #52 - October 27th, 2013, 7:43 pm Post #52 - October 27th, 2013, 7:43 pm
    Oh man BR, your posts make me wistful for Japan. After eating there (especially at Sushi Dai), I've had a very hard time eating sushi here in Chicago. It just seems like the freshness and preparation of the sushi I had there isn't available here unless you are going to pay way too much. Also the steak that I had in Kobe was one of the best I've had in my entire life, I was sad when I found out I couldn't bring any back with me and that they don't really export it.
  • Post #53 - October 28th, 2013, 7:58 am
    Post #53 - October 28th, 2013, 7:58 am Post #53 - October 28th, 2013, 7:58 am
    Suiname wrote:Oh man BR, your posts make me wistful for Japan. After eating there (especially at Sushi Dai), I've had a very hard time eating sushi here in Chicago. It just seems like the freshness and preparation of the sushi I had there isn't available here unless you are going to pay way too much. Also the steak that I had in Kobe was one of the best I've had in my entire life, I was sad when I found out I couldn't bring any back with me and that they don't really export it.

    I think the problem to some extent is what Chicago is willing to demand, or perhaps what restaurateurs are willing to deliver, but sure we're also somewhat limited in where we live. Even in Kyoto, sushi has traditionally been served preserved, in recognition of the fact that the fish could never be served as fresh as possible.

    But I've found a couple of places in Chicago that I believe serve very good quality fish and are far more careful about what they serve - Katsu and Juno. I know some have raved about Kai Zan but on both of my visits there were at least a couple of disappointing items that left me shaking my head.

    But at Juno, I was pleased to see them refuse to serve fish that the sushi chef determined wasn't up to par (on two different visits). Sure, pretty much everyone in Chicago is getting their sushi-quality fish from True World Foods, but that doesn't mean that every piece of fish is of the same quality or that everything should be served or that every sushi chef knows how to slice the fish perfectly. And Juno always has very interesting daily nigiri selections. I believe both places could survive even in Japan, and particularly because they season the fish (rice too) appropriately (without the need to dip every piece in soy) and shape the rice so that each kernel stands on its own but doesn't come apart too easily.

    By the way, Juno is serving Kobe beef (not sure if anyone else in Chicago is), ribeye at that, but I haven't tried it. If I recall correctly, it's about $80 for a 4 ounce portion. One payday I might be feeling up to trying it.
    I find the pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted, cured meats. (Seinfeld)

    Twitter: brbinchicago
  • Post #54 - October 31st, 2013, 8:38 pm
    Post #54 - October 31st, 2013, 8:38 pm Post #54 - October 31st, 2013, 8:38 pm
    Nishiki Market, other Kyoto Foodstuffs, a quick visit to Hiroshima and some closing thoughts on Japan

    Tsukiji Market in Tokyo is largely about fresh fish, very fresh fish. So fresh that for the most part, it doesn't smell fishy, and that's a great thing. But Kyoto is far inland and so you'll find considerably less fresh fish here. Keep that in mind when you visit the wonderful Nishiki Market, where you'll find far less in the way of fresh fish. But I'd still say it's a must visit spot in Kyoto. Nishiki Market is really one long corridor that is a few blocks long:

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    Throughout Kyoto, as you go from temple to temple, you'll find barrel after barrel of pickles on sticks. But that's nothing compared to what you'll find at Nishiki Market, where you'll find an amazing variety of pickled vegetables. Some are pickled in soy, others salt, miso, dried kelp, and a lot more.

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    At the market, you will find some fresh fish, but not a lot. There are also plenty of preserved and cooked fish items, fish cakes, etc. One of the most popular items were the baby octopus sticks pictured below. Unfortunately, I had eaten before arriving here so I didn't try them, though they looked delicious.

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    Here was a booth selling lots of preserved and dried fish, as well as bonito and skipjack tuna flakes:

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    The smell from this chestnut booth was intoxicating, with chestnuts overflowing:

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    The one item we did share as a dessert were these tofu doughnuts. They were good mini doughnuts, but nothing particularly remarkable.

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    There are plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables too, including matsutakes, squash, pumpkins, pears almost as big as your head. There's tea, rice, a knife store, a fugu restaurant, just to name a few. You can shop for cookware or grab a quick bite to eat. Nishiki is a fun and very worthwhile stroll, and with far less risk of getting knocked over.

    Elsewhere in Kyoto, we made our way to a couple of local grocery stores and these visits were very enlightening. These grocery stores were not the least bit upscale, but what they sold was very impressive. For example, more prized fruit including musk melons selling for over $20 a melon and beautiful apples, grapes and pears. These eggs mush be pretty damn fresh considering the lack of refrigeration:

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    And for a landlocked city, pretty impressive fish:

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    One of the fun parts of visiting both the grocery stores and convenience stores is the interesting array of potato chip flavors:

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    And if like me you're in Kyoto as much to visit the temples, you'll often find yourself wanting a quick snack. There are plenty of those to be found near the temples. These bao, some filled with pork, other chestnuts, were both photogenic and delicious:

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    Plenty of cream puffs too, usually filled with ice cream:

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    And look who's at Kyoto Station:

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    No beignets though, which you probably figured when you saw the Mr. Donuts portion of the sign.

    One last note concerning touristy stuff. We took a half day away from Kyoto to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum via the bullet train. If you just plan on visiting the memorial and museum (and I absolutely recommend a visit), you should cut about 8 hours out of your day. Of course, if you take a 7am train, you could be back in Kyoto by 3pm or so. Trains run very frequently so you don't need to plan this in advance. The Peace Memorial and Museum are very moving, more so than I ever would have imagined, and quite thought provoking. The message throughout is one of peace, not blame. Here's a look at a wristwatch that stopped at the precise moment the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima:

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    And here's a brief look at the beautiful city Hiroshima has become today, including the A-Bomb Dome on the far left, the only building in this area that was not reduced to sand when the bomb hit:

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    Back to the food we ate, in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, it would be hard to sum it all up with one word. If I did though, perhaps that word would be pride. That is, no matter whether it was the chef or the server, it was obvious that my reaction to and satisfaction with every item served was of paramount importance. And with seats next to the sushi chef, the tempura chef and the robatayaki chef, you could sense that importance of each moment of cooking and preparation. There was little in the way of idle chat when food was being prepared. After food was served, chatter, but minimal when being prepared. The word consistency might also seem apt, but I just don't think it sufficiently conveys the obvious and noteworthy obsession with quality.

    Speaking of quality, you can't help but be awed by the way the Japanese take seasonality far more seriously than we do. The number of restaurants I've encountered in the US claiming to be seasonal or farm-to-table yet selling items out of season is pretty remarkable. But there are many Japanese restaurants that will go the extra step of not even serving seafood when it's not the peak season for that fish.

    And do the Japanese even have the large factory farms we do, where the emphasis is getting the chicken to market fast, moist and larger than life, rather than on delivering the freshest and best tasting chicken? I ate rare chicken in Tokyo - I never would do that here.

    All of this pride, seasonality, quality, consistency - it all just sinks in. I returned home a little more inspired about cooking than usual, a little more demanding of myself and the restaurants where I eat. If it's not right, then don't serve it. Don't accept being merely acceptable - strive for perfection. We certainly ate at some fine and expensive restaurants. But this level of care and pride was just as common in the ramen shops and izakayas.

    Beyond that, there's little I can say other than go there and experience it all yourself. Tokyo is my favorite city in the world, but I had not been outside Tokyo before this trip and it too was fantastic, for the wonderful people, the breathtaking sights and the amazing food. I'll sit back now and look forward to the next LTHer's trip report here. I realize I barely scratched the surface of Japanese food so I'll happily pass the baton.
    Last edited by BR on November 1st, 2013, 5:37 pm, edited 1 time in total.
    I find the pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted, cured meats. (Seinfeld)

    Twitter: brbinchicago
  • Post #55 - November 1st, 2013, 10:00 am
    Post #55 - November 1st, 2013, 10:00 am Post #55 - November 1st, 2013, 10:00 am
    BR wrote:
    Suiname wrote:Oh man BR, your posts make me wistful for Japan. After eating there (especially at Sushi Dai), I've had a very hard time eating sushi here in Chicago. It just seems like the freshness and preparation of the sushi I had there isn't available here unless you are going to pay way too much. Also the steak that I had in Kobe was one of the best I've had in my entire life, I was sad when I found out I couldn't bring any back with me and that they don't really export it.

    I think the problem to some extent is what Chicago is willing to demand, or perhaps what restaurateurs are willing to deliver, but sure we're also somewhat limited in where we live. Even in Kyoto, sushi has traditionally been served preserved, in recognition of the fact that the fish could never be served as fresh as possible.

    But I've found a couple of places in Chicago that I believe serve very good quality fish and are far more careful about what they serve - Katsu and Juno.


    BR-

    First off, wonderful stuff. Japan is my single most obvious missing passport stamp and these posts are killing me.

    This quoted colloquy reminded me- I meant to post but don't think I ever did- that Juno has been a lifesaver on a few recent occasions when I was responsible for feeding a large group of homesick, no-English Japanese executives from Osaka who had never been outside of Japan until a trip last month. (They were rebelling against steaks and pizza by the time I was consulted.) They were pleased and surprised by Juno, loving that it is in a neighborhood and preferring the front room's bar vibe to the main dining room. The main dude, an oenophile, was equally happy about some of the wine choices available. I chose Juno over some more obvious spots nearer the Loop based on my own favorable experiences there. The ramen is (and was) wrong, but all of the fish and sushi basics (eg, tamago) were in the acceptable-plus to very good range by the crew's high and entirely unaffected standards. The range of mackerel was appreciated. This is to me a sure sign of seriousness in a sushi place, from Yasuda in NY to the ancient Maneki in Seattle. They were not looking to be critics, just looking for a taste of home and happy to be here. I know Juno has had some mixed reviews and some Alinea-jr. flourishes might not work, but the fish and rice are solid.

    For what it's worth, the one American based exec (who does speak English, obviously, but I was not seated near him and he did not speak English in the presence of his bosses) lives in central NJ and said he has to go into NYC to get sushi of that quality.

    I'd definitely add Masaki to this short list. Very different, much higher price point.

    (PS, I have a very good idea of what the Japanese guys actually thought, not just what they said, via my firm's Japanese interpreter who pulls no punches and adds "context" for our benefit.)
  • Post #56 - November 1st, 2013, 10:40 am
    Post #56 - November 1st, 2013, 10:40 am Post #56 - November 1st, 2013, 10:40 am
    Thanks Jeff - much appreciated! One comment on Masaki: I went there for dinner one night but hesitated to post on it because I had a slight cold and that might have affected my tastes a bit. All of the fish was presented just beautifully, more so than any Japanese restaurant in Chicago, except perhaps Katsu. But I found some of the seasoning lacking and thought that so much of the fish was served way too cold. Again, a slight cold might have affected my tastes (though my healthy dining partner, who also was with me in Japan, generally shared the same views).

    As for New York, there's just so much outstanding Japanese food to be had. I'll be there soon and I'm trying to see if I can get into Sushi Nakazawa, but I here it's not easy. It's been a long time since I've been to Yasuda, and I haven't been there since Chef Yasuda returned to Tokyo, so I don't know if it's still as great as ever or surviving on name.
    I find the pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted, cured meats. (Seinfeld)

    Twitter: brbinchicago
  • Post #57 - November 3rd, 2013, 4:44 am
    Post #57 - November 3rd, 2013, 4:44 am Post #57 - November 3rd, 2013, 4:44 am
    Four Days in Tokyo, Ten Bowls of Ramen

    Well, heck, this thread has been going so well lately, let me see if I can keep it rolling now that BR's reports are all in :-)

    I just got back from about 96 hours in Tokyo, and though I hit a bunch of other stuff too, one of my goals was to further my ramen education. Since I had such a blast hitting ramen joints last January, I decided to up the stakes and see how many I could cram in this trip, and I set my goal at ten. Totally doable, right?

    Day 1
    After arriving late in the afternoon, checking in, and running out to grab an outstanding dinner at Nakamenoteppen, an izakaya that I think has cemented its place as a regular stop for me, I figured I had enough time to have a bowl of ramen for dinner number two. Maybe even another, if I really hoofed it. One of the problems with late-night ramen adventures in Tokyo is that the subway system shuts down around 12:00 or 12:30, and cabs are super expensive. Like, get caught on the wrong side of town and you could easily spend $100 or more getting back to your hotel. That is a pricey bowl of ramen. And, incidentally, the reason I suspect capsule hotels exist.

    Anyway, on the way back from Nakameguro (the neighborhood where we had dinner #1), I jumped off the line in Ebisu, a hopping 'hood with a good late night scene and a lot of ramen options. Before I go any further, I need to give a huge, huge shout out and word of thanks to www.ramenadventures.com, which is such an amazing English-language resource for the Tokyo ramen scene that I owe nearly all of my tips and info to him. That's the guy who's doing the legwork... bravo.

    afuriexterior.jpg

    Anyway, Afuri, just a couple of short blocks from the Ebisu station, was my first bowl of the trip, and one of only three I finished completely (ate a lot of ramen, above). Afuri seemed like a great place to start. Their specialty is shio ramen, about as stripped-down and light as you get, and Afuri even has a reputation for producing an especially light ramen ("cafe style"). And yeah, light is the operating word here.

    afurimachine.jpg

    BR nails it on the machine. It's totally maddening. There wasn't English on the machines of any of the ramen joints I hit, and I know my kanas (hiragana and katakana), but because I don't know any kanji I was still 90% lost. One thing that's nice is that some of them will label "No. 1" and "No. 2" to indicate the bowls for which they're known. So that's a big help. And as BR says, some of the ones with photos are helpful, but even for those, it'll show you differences toppings, but not in the composition of the broth. And in a lot of cases, they do assari (lighter) and kotteri (heavier) versions, and you're just not going to see that in a photo. If somebody really wanted to compile a valuable resource, it would be to photograph and translate ramen shop machine all around Tokyo. So where I remembered to take on, I've included the photos below in the hopes that they'll be helpful to somebody at some point.

    That said, it's really kind of a genius system. Ramen bars are often, if not usually, seat-of-the-pants type operations, with a small handful of seats at a counter, minimal if any decoration, often crammed into any alley or basement that offers cheap rent, and frequently operated by just a pair of people. I imagine keeping ¥750-950 (about $7.50 - $9.50) bowls of ramen profitable in a city with sky-high rents means turnover, so I figure the last thing two guys running a tiny ramen shop want to be doing is slowing down their customers and handling money when they're trying to do everything else.

    afuriramen.jpg Yuzu Shio Ramen @ Afuri

    Back to ramen! Oh, my... Afuri's shio ramen (top row, second button, I believe) was a thing of complete beauty. My tastes generally tend towards the heavier, more aggressive bowls, but this was so, so, so wonderful. The broth seemed to be mostly chicken -- not sure if there was any pork involved -- but it was simultaneously light and incredibly flavorful, with a light salty lick and an intense fragrance, a noseful of bright aromatics, chief among them yuzu, which is their signature ingredient. I don't think much of the juice was used, but there were little bits of zest floating around, and that's what took an already outstanding broth and sent it way, way over the top. Noodles were thin and delicate but had a good chew, there was some sliced menma, a sheet of nori, and a little fresh greenery that I think was chrysanthemum leaves. The look of the egg tells you all you need to know about it. And even the pork was simultaneously light but full of flavor, tasting almost of lightly cured bacon, sliced thin and charred for a little bit of smoky complexity. I can't even imagine what they could do to make this better. I'd just finished a huge dinner, and I inhaled this. There were two vying for my favorite of the trip, and this was one of them. Go here.

    It's a good thing I started with the light broth, because my second bowl of the night was anything but. I had about 45 minutes until the last train, and there was another joint I'd read about in the neighborhood that piqued my curiosity. With the caveat that they've obviously mastered the basics before getting creative, truth is that as much as we harp on tradition, folks in Japan certainly aren't bound by it themselves. Enter: Cheese Ramen.

    Tsukomo in Ebisu is, I think, an outpost of a mini-chain, and it's a short walk from the station. Maybe five minutes. Their thing is cheese ramen, and you'll have no trouble ordering it, firstly because this was one of only two shops I stopped at that didn't have a machine, and secondly because it's the entire first page of the menu. Point and eat.

    tsukomoramen.jpg Cheese Ramen @ Tsukomo

    Whoa. It's a pork broth, but grated cheese has been melted into the broth -- a cheese they call "Hokkaido Tokachi Golden Gouda," lightly sharp and a touch sour -- and as each bowl comes out of the kitchen, there's one guy standing by the pass operating one of those industrial cheese graters in full view of the dining room. He pops a golf ball-sized hunk of cheese into the grater, bowl goes underneath, and you end up with a mountain of light, snow-like cheese on top as well. You eat some noodles -- thick and kinky -- and the cheese on top grabs the noodles as you slurp. Plus, that broth is hot and there's some moisture in the cheese, so as you go along, your noodles start getting wrapped up in these globs of hot, melty cheese. And I have to confess, this is kind of awesome. Part of the reason it works, I think, despite its absurd decadence, is because the underlying broth is really, really good. They're not just taking some middling pork water and throwing a ton of cheese into it to make it palatable. There's not a thing subtle about it, but it's extremely well-crafted. Cheese ramen. I'm on board. Who'da thunk?

    Day 2
    After my Rokurinsha mishap of the last trip (I didn't realize the breakfast ramen was different from the lunch ramen, and was leaving that day), I was bound and determined to have some full-strength fishy tsukemen. But I didn't want to just go back to Rokurinsha, and Ramen Adventures was hot on this place in Shinjuku called Fuunji. As luck would have it, work took us to Shinjuku for lunch on day two. Fuunji was the second-longest wait of the trip (there was none at Afuri or Tsukomo, though waits aren't uncommon).

    fuunjiinterior.jpg

    This is what so many of these ramen shops look like. This isn't unusually small. It's typical. A counter, a kitchen that would be small for an economy apartment, maybe a foot and a half of space between the stools and the back wall (occupied by the line when it's busy), and 6.5' ceilings. The line was just out the door -- right about where I was standing for this photo -- and we probably waited for about 20 minutes.

    To expound on BR's thoughts on tsukemen, when it comes to ramen, some people are broth people. And some people are noodle people. And the noodle people are known to get a bowl of ramen and immediately bolt the entire pile of noodles as quickly as possible before finishing the soup, reason being that a ton of work goes into producing these beautiful, fresh, strong alkaline noodles, and they're cooked to just the right texture... and then we plop them into a searing how bowl of broth so that they continue to cook, getting softer and less and less awesome with every slurp. So tsukemen is the noodle lover's answer to ramen. And I think it needs to be approached on that level -- it's about maximizing the quality of every bite of the noodles. Let the record show that I was on the fence about tsukemen going into this trip. And let the record show that Fuunji has made me a believer.

    fuunjimachine.jpg

    On this machine, the top row is the noodles. The two on the left are ramen, and the two on the right are tsukemen. And I think (somebody who reads Japanese please check me on this) that the second and forth options are essentially richer, more intense versions of the first and the third. I'm really not sure. But I went with number four -- the potentially richer and more intense tsukemen.

    fuunjinoodles.jpg Tsukemen Noodles @ Fuunji

    So you get two vessels -- a plate with the noodles, which are thick and chewy and delicious, and served lukewarm or even cool. And then you dip them in the soup.

    fuunjibroth.jpg Tsukemen Broth @ Fuunji

    Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Just... wow. This stuff is intense. It is the polar opposite of Afuri's yuzu shio, and it was my other favorite of the trip. It was really thick, more like a creamy sauce, but the thickness came from the natural stuff of chicken bones alone, fortified with all kinds of wonderfully fishy things that I couldn't even begin to pinpoint. It is a fishy broth, but what is shocking is how the flavor is simultaneously so strong and yet devoid of all of those negative things we think of when we think of the word "fishy." I mean, sometimes you go to France and you get a soup de poisson and man, they don't fear the funk. But this -- it was creamy, and thick, and rich, and just so unbelievably complex. And the more of that dried fish powder on the top you mix in, the more rich and fishy and complex it gets. And if I hadn't \read somewhere that there was no pork involved in the creation of the broth, I never, ever would have believed it. Hiding down beneath the surface, however, were thick batons of tender, fatty pork, blanched bean sprouts, menma, another perfect egg (this would be a theme) --- totally floored. Totally blown away. I even came to appreciate the slightly cooler temperature. I think it brought out more of the complexity in the broth. Done. Sold. Along with Afuri, this is as good as ramen/tsukemen gets for me.

    Later that night, after another regular dinner, I decided to go out for another one-two punch of late-night ramen. First stop was Kikanbou, known for their spicy/numbing ramen, and there's no missing this shop.

    kikanbouexterior.jpg

    It's kind of hilarious. And the demonic imagery doesn't stop there.

    kikanboutotems.jpg

    You get inside, and the walls are covered with all kinds of devilish masks and totems, while ominous drums play in the background. They've got their theme, all right.

    One way Kikanbou distinguishes themselves is by letting you set your level of hot and numbing. It's ma la. Chiles and Sichuan pepper. And they can each be set individually, on a scale of 1-5, by pointing at the chart one of the fellows holds out for you. I opted for four on both.

    kikanbouramen.jpg Spicy Ramen @ Kikanbou

    Oh, it's hot. And numbing. They're not kidding around. This isn't "hot." It's actually hot. I love some pretty damn spicy stuff, and I'd say the four was about as far as I like to go. I'm sure I could have handled the five, but I don't think I would have enjoyed it. And depending on my mood, I might even choose the "normal" level three. Anyway, yeah, it's a bowlful of ma la fire and lightning suspended in a pork broth with a touch of sweetening miso, and it kicks like a Sichuan mule. There are a ton of blanched sprouts, thick and fatty chunks of pork, scallions, a dark sauce I couldn't identify, a little extra chile and Sichuan pepper to boot, and a charred piece of mini corn to finish if off. It's like Sichuan meets Japan. Not quite either. A great example of fusion done well. There's a huge box of tissues at each seat. You will need them.

    domisoexterior.jpg

    The last stop for ramen on day two was Do Miso, what seems like a pretty widely-known place just off the main drag in Ginza. When I tweeted about this place, some smartass (you know who you are :-) ) asked if I'd also been to their sister restaurant, Re Fa. I replied yes, but it didn't strike a major chord with me.

    Thank you, thank you, try the veal.

    domisoramen.jpg Miso Ramen @ Do Miso

    Truth is, neither did Do Miso. It just felt -- flat, particularly for a style that's usually pretty intense. To be clear, anytime they decide to open a branch in Phoenix, I'll squeal with glee. But I'm thinking I either caught an off bowl, or this place is well-known because of its location. I resolved to try much better miso ramen before the trip was over. Thankfully, I succeeded.

    Day 3
    Dinner on day three was one of my favorites of the trip, and I briefly considered leaving well enough alone and skipping the ramen. But I really, really, really wanted to further my education. So I decided to cram in two more. And I did a lot of walking. A lot of walking.

    dokkanexterior.jpg

    Stop one was Dokkan, a rather popular joint that was spun off of another ramen joint that would change names and styles depending on the day of the week. Apparently Dokkan was the most popular, so it got its own shop.

    dokkanmachine.jpg

    I offer a photo of the machine, but I can't say this ramen was for me.

    dokkanramen.jpg Shoyu Ramen @ Dokkan

    First off, that chunky, opaque white stuff on top of the chashu? Grated daikon? Fried tempura batter doused in soup? Nope. Minced pork fat. Yup. And it was... kind of shockingly light. It lent surprisingly little in terms of flavor, and mostly just slightly enriched the broth, but much less than you'd think creamy curds of fat would. Anyway, it's a shoyu base, and it's piled with vegetables -- tons of blanched sprouts, menma, spinach, daikon (there was some in there as well), I think there was cabbage -- I don't recall all of it. And, I dunno... this felt more like a fill-you-up bowl, more utilitarian than artful. But there were also an unusual number of condiments out on the counter, so perhaps it's intended to be a baseline that you doctor up. And I suppose I can see the appeal. If you're really into that interplay of noodles and vegetables -- the noodles were great -- I can see this working for you. But for me, the broth was just kind of dull. And not because it was a basic shoyu (but we'll get to that later).

    So I went off in search of big flavor. I really wanted to keep trying new joints, but I had to return to my favorite from last year's trip.

    gogyoexterior.jpg

    Gogyo is situated in a residential neighborhood in Nishiazabu, a bit of a hike from the nearest stations (10-15, depending on your pace), and it's a full-service sit down restaurant rather than a little stand. A word of warning, there are multiple Gogyo locations around Tokyo, and they all have completely different menus. Further complicating this is that the closest station to the Nishiazabu Gogyo is Roppongi... and there's also a Roppongi Gogyo. But you want the one in Nishiazabu (address below).

    Anyway, the thing at Gogyo is their kagashi miso ramen, or burnt miso ramen. And when I say burnt, I mean burnt. I managed to get video this time:


    Sadly, I missed the initial explosion, but yeah. That happens every time somebody orders a bowl. They prep the broth, burn the tare (the tare is the seasoning that's mixed with the broth base -- shoyu, shio, miso, etc.), dump it in the bowl, add the noodles, toss on the toppings, and bring out this...

    gogyoramen.jpg Kagashi Miso Ramen @ Gogyo Nishiazabu

    ...kagashi miso ramen, black as night. Last trip, this was far and away my favorite. One of my favorite things I ate all year. It's crazy complex, and somehow manages to capture all of the charred, smoky essence of fire and brimstone without getting bitter or acrid. It's kind of genius. And it's potent, too, beefed up with garlic and (I'm pretty sure) Chinese fermented black bean, and the noodles are thin with a ton of chewy bite. Unfortunately, this bowl wasn't up to the one I had last time. It was just... too much. I think too much of the tare went into my broth, and it was just overpowering. Still delicious, still with all of the character I remembered, just taken to 14 instead of 11. But I know what this bowl can be, and I still list it among my favorites.

    Day 4
    Day four's post-dinner ramen adventure put me behind the eight ball, so to speak. I planned my usual one-two, forgetting that it was now Friday night. And I'm sure all will be shocked to discover that people are apparently more willing to wait for ramen on the weekends. I was on a really tight schedule, and I arrived at Kururi only to find a line about 15-20 deep. It's Japan, of course, so it's orderly and polite, and despite my fears that the machine would automatically shut down at the appointed hour, the shop was kind enough to accommodate everybody who was in line on the sidewalk at closing time. One of the two guys running the shop simply stepped outside, informed the fellow at the end that he'd be the last bowl for the evening, and took a quick head count to make sure there were no interlopers.

    Kururi is one that's gotten quite a lot of international press, and their thing is Sapporo-style miso ramen. I'm not exactly qualified to discuss the fine points of what typifies Sapporo miso ramen, I'm of the understanding that Kururi's is kind of a Tokyo spin on Sapporo style -- mostly the way they make it there, but not totally traditional. Anyway, though not by much, Kururi is officially the smallest ramen shop I hit, boasting a whole seven stools at an L-shaped counter. The fellow running the show was an affable gent, and he was even kind enough to notice my struggles with the kanji on the machine and he handed me a sheet with basic translations and descriptions of the bowls they have on offer. They do a couple of variants on miso ramen (I think the only difference was toppings), likewise on spicy miso tsukemen. The spicy miso tsukemen was really tempting, but I was on a mission to get a delicious, basic miso ramen in after the underwhelming Do Miso.

    kururiramen.jpg Miso Ramen @ Kururi

    Oh, man, am I glad I did. If I'm naming favorites for the trip (and I am), this was only a baby step behind Afuri and Fuunji. They use a blend of different miso pastes, in a pork and chicken base, and the thing here is balance. It's creamy but not too creamy, a little sweet but not to o sweet, a little salty but not too salty, and the mix of miso pastes gives it an awesome complexity when compared to a lot of one-note miso ramens. I really dug their little spins on the toppings, too. The obligatory egg was (thankfully) present, but the menma was cut into thick batons, the chashu had a fun shaved texture, and there was a pile of shredded Japanese leeks on top of blanched sprouts. This bowl totally rocked, and it served to illustrate how the inherent complexity and sweetness of miso makes it easy to make a passable miso ramen, but difficult to make an excellent miso ramen. Achieving this kind of balance with something as easily overpowering as miso is no small task, but man, they nailed it.

    Sadly, the 45-minute wait at Kururi combined with some bad info I found online conspired to ensure that I arrived at my second stop for evening ten minutes after last order. This would have been crushing had I not made up for it on the last morning.

    Day 5
    The last morning is always a sprint. I swear, I always get on the bus to the airport a sweaty mess. It's the last chance to find that cool game, check out that neighborhood you didn't get to, or slam one last bowl of ramen. Or... um... maybe two more (got a goal to reach, you know.)

    After getting up at 3:30 to hit the Tsukiji fish market before it became a zoo and some last-minute morning shopping, I rolled into Tokyo Station to hit up Ramen Street, which BR detailed above. Incidentally, don't plan on just walking into Tokyo station if you're on a tight schedule. Tokyo Station is FREAKING ENORMOUS, and the first time I went looking for Ramen Street, it took more than 20 minutes for me to find it once I'd set foot inside the station. Anyway, I wanted another crack at shoyu ramen, and I got it at Honda.

    hondaramen.jpg Shoyu Ramen @ Honda

    Now THAT'S what I was looking for. Textbook bowl. Almost completely sans frills and completely killer. The only reason this wasn't among my absolute favorites is a matter of personal preferences. This broth had the strongest chicken flavor of any I tasted, punched up with just a touch of shoyu for salt and richness. These guys could put on a clinic in chicken broth. Clean, light, bursting with flavor, little shimmering pools of fat glistening on the surface -- absolutely perfect. And the hook was little tiny, tiny bits of caramelized leek, giving just the faintest hint of allium sweetness and char to the broth. Most of the standard toppings were present, plus a medium-thickness slab of pork that was very lightly seasoned and roasted to a beautiful medium rare. Long, straight noodles, not the type you have to fight (though I do enjoy fighting my noodles), and... well, I gush. If straight-up shoyu ramen is your thing, bam... this is it.

    I didn't get any other photos because at this point I basically had to sprint to get to the shop I'd missed the previous night, my one pure, unadulterated tonkotsu ramen on the hit list, to be found at Ikaruga.

    ikarugainterior.jpg

    Ikaruga is one of the larger shops, modern design, large kitchen for a ramen shop, and it was still two guys tag-teaming all of the prep.

    ikarugaramen.jpg Tonkotsu Ramen @ Ikaruga

    See, this is precisely why tonkotsu broth is disappointing 95% of the time. I mean, just look at that stuff. It's freaking thick. It's like cream of pork soup, except there's no cream involved. Just pork bones (possibly lightened with a touch of chicken), and all of the flavor, fat, and gelatin therein. And Ikaruga's is smooooooth. It's basically liquid meat, topped with solid meat, an egg, and a token amount of a couple of vegetables. It was only 11:30, I was already on my third meal of the day after two weeks of heavy eating, and there was no way I was getting all the way through this bowl. But man, I really, really wanted to.

    So there it is. Four days, ten bowls of ramen. This was a lot of fun. Part of what I love about ramen so much is that there's a template -- rigid enough that it has clear parameters, but flexible enough that different cooks have room to express themselves within the rim of that bowl. I love that it's a form that rewards patience and technique and detail -- building flavors in broths, crafting excellent noodles (though many places, even great ones, buy them in from local noodle specialists), balancing the flavors in the tare, getting all of the little flavor and textural elements of the toppings just so. And just when you think it's all been done, somebody comes up with Sichuan ma la ramen, or burnt miso ramen, or cheese ramen. I agree with what BR says about pride. It's a very different attitude -- mastering something like a craftsman and concerning yourself with making the best version of your specialty that you can, rather than trying to be everything to everybody. These shops are tiny, they don't cost a lot of money to set up, they're dirt cheap to eat at, they only offer a few items, usually small variations on a central theme, but the artistry happens because these guys (and a few gals) choose a very narrow scope, and then focus, and focus, and focus until a crystal clear vision emerges. It's both delicious and instructive, and I hope chefs in the States take the right lessons from this particular cultural import.

    (Japanese addresses listed below in addition to English addresses. I find that Google Maps tends to be more accurate when you paste in the Japanese address.)

    Afuri
    Tokyo, Shibuya-ku, Ebisu 1-1-7
    東京都渋谷区恵比寿1-1-7
    03-5795-0750

    Tsukomo
    www.tukomo.com
    Tokyo, Shibuya-ku, Hiroo 1-1-36
    東京都渋谷区広尾1-1-36
    03-5466-9566

    Fuunji
    www.fu-unji.com
    Tokyo, Shinjuku-ku, Yoyogi 2-14-3
    東京都渋谷区代々木2-14-3
    03-6413-8480

    Kikanbou
    Tokyo, Chiyoda-ku, Kajicho 2-10-10
    東京都千代田区鍛冶町2-10-10
    03-3256-2960

    Do Miso
    blog.livedoor.jp/do_miso
    Tokyo, Chuo-ku, Kyobashi 3-4-3
    東京都中央区京橋3-4-3
    03-6904-3700

    Dokkan
    Tokyo, Shibuya-ku, Hattagaya 2-19-2
    東京都渋谷区幡ヶ谷2-19-2

    Gogyo Nishiazabu
    www.ramendining-gogyo.com
    Tokyo, Minato-ku, Nishi-Azabu 1-4-36
    東京都港区西麻布1-4-36
    03-5775-5566

    Kururi
    東京都新宿区市谷田町3-2
    Tokyo, Shinjuku-ku, Ichigayatamachi 3-2
    03-3269-0801

    Honda
    www.tokyoeki-1bangai.co.jp/en/ (Ramen Street website)
    B1F Yaesu South Exit, Tokyo Station

    Ikaruga
    Tokyo, Chiyoda-ku, Kudankita 1-9-12
    東京都千代田区九段北1-9-12
    03-3239-2622
    Dominic Armato
    Dining Critic
    The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com
  • Post #58 - November 3rd, 2013, 7:53 am
    Post #58 - November 3rd, 2013, 7:53 am Post #58 - November 3rd, 2013, 7:53 am
    What a reward for waking up early on a Sunday!!! Thanks for the wonderful report Dom!
    "Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad." Miles Kington
  • Post #59 - November 3rd, 2013, 12:55 pm
    Post #59 - November 3rd, 2013, 12:55 pm Post #59 - November 3rd, 2013, 12:55 pm
    Great report indeed Dom. Dare I say a more "Japanese" approach to eating in Tokyo, focusing on and perfecting one's expertise in one food, as opposed to my definite "American" approach. :D A couple of those styles, the charred and the cheese, are just so fascinating. I would love to try the cheese ramen - pork, cheese, broth, noodles - what could possibly be wrong there!

    I'm also happy to see you don't make the ticket machines out to be less complex than I found them to be. I was happy to to get some English assistance at both Shichisai and Rokurinsha. As for all of the options, well, I suppose beggars can't be choosers. I was just happy to get some great bowls of ramen. Speaking of which, though I really appreciate a great broth, I'm also very particular about ramen noodles, and I definitely prefer the chewier and thicker noodles when I can get my hands on them.

    As for Honda, that was our great debate for shoyu ramen - Honda or Shichisai, and we ultimately opted for Shichisai for shoyu ramen . . . I would have liked to compare the two as shoyu is my personal favorite style of ramen.

    And good tips on Google maps - we found that entering the US address (really all I could do) often had us spinning in circles, getting close to addresses but not quite there. Not necessarily a problem - we also found someone who spoke just enough English to get us where we wanted to be. But it might have been a little easier for us if we had better planned every step before we went out . . . something we definitely didn't do.
    I find the pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted, cured meats. (Seinfeld)

    Twitter: brbinchicago
  • Post #60 - November 3rd, 2013, 1:02 pm
    Post #60 - November 3rd, 2013, 1:02 pm Post #60 - November 3rd, 2013, 1:02 pm
    BR wrote:And good tips on Google maps - we found that entering the US address (really all I could do) often had us spinning in circles, getting close to addresses but not quite there. Not necessarily a problem - we also found someone who spoke just enough English to get us where we wanted to be. But it might have been a little easier for us if we had better planned every step before we went out . . . something we definitely didn't do.

    Yeah, I'd just search the name and find a site that listed the Japanese address, then cut and paste to a custom Google Map, which I read off a smartphone while tooling around. Google custom maps + smartphone + GPS + international data is a total gamechanger in Japan.
    Dominic Armato
    Dining Critic
    The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com

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