Review: SPQR

10 September 2016

I had a long and busy day running around on this final day of my final time in the Bay Area. Oh, counting the minutes… Went up and down the Peninsula thrice and was pretty knackered when I checked into a motel near the airport that I once stayed…when my father got us evicted for his drunken antics… Talking about memory lane, that was about 27 years ago…

Anyway, one last run into that hell that is San Francisco, and of course there’s traffic hell — even on a Saturday night. My dining destination was SPQR, a much-lauded Italian place near Japantown. I had to loop all the way around to avoid that crazy back-up…and of course there’s no parking nearby. Parked in a garage 6 blocks away — DOWNHILL (that means something in San Francisco). Legged it to the restaurant and was only 15 minutes late…

I was sweating as I was seated at the chef’s counter…I joked I’m the only person sweating in this city (it’s maybe 12c by then)… I relaxed and since I was driving I didn’t drink much, so just a small carafe of wine to get going. I ordered and chilled out, watching the kitchen at work. I find Michelin a bit misleading these days, but they have a star, so…

Anyway, I enjoyed the drink and soon the first item came, and it was the special wagyu starter… I should have known better…


Well, not quite what I expected. Not bad, but I think my server didn’t quite get the briefing right. Not much of a chilli bite from the description either… Okay, but pricey start. I chilled out and watched the actions in the kitchen as the second item arrived soon after.


The pasta dish, mezze maniche with ink and seafood. A nice selection of seafood and strong flavours in the broth, so not bad at all. Ink understated. I am losing patience with people happily using ink for colour but not for its intrinsic strong and awesome flavour. Not blown away, but enjoying this so far. Aside from the off description of the starter the service has been impeccable, smooth and quick. I can see the FoH plotting for that 2nd star…

I had a little more wine from my carafe, but nursed it as I was driving on a Saturday night. Last thing I needed was an extended stay in a city I hate with such a passion… So chilled out and soon my main course arrived.


A nice piece of sturgeon here, cooked well and nicely flavoured. But the star was the crispy skin, done absolutely perfectly — no sogginess, no droop, but still full of flavours. Textbook execution. Only thing was that the nutty crust was actually a distraction on the solid fish… The seafood sausage was a nice touch, and most of the veg worked well in this tasty dish. A nice close.

I was truly out of energy so I passed on the dessert — partly fuelled by the lack of a full liquor licence here. No grappa to end the meal? Odd. But that’s fine. I just had some coffee and headed out after thanking the kitchen.

I walked out and headed to the parking and drove as quickly as I could out of San Francisco — hopefully for the last time in my life. This was a nice dinner to ensure I never return here, so that’s far more than I could have asked for this evening’s dining experience.

Very much recommended — if you can put up with SF, that is…

1911 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, California

Review: Orchard City Kitchen

9 September 2016

I had a pretty long day trekking back from Sacramento. After that disastrous dinner last night at The Firehouse I needed a good meal. And frankly, a strip mall in Silicon Valley wasn’t my idea of fixing that. But I’ve read very good things about Orchard City Kitchen in the suburb of Campbell, so…

It was a strip mall-from-hell, with tons of chain restaurants and lack of parking. Friday night so it was already extremely busy. I eventually found parking and got to the restaurant, and was happily seated at a table. I chilled out after ordering a cocktail and ordered.

Ugh, trying to relax. It’s been a taxing end to this trip and I’m out of energy to be honest. So that cocktail was nice and refreshing, a good rec by the really cool waitress. Then the food began.


The first item was a white tuna (escolar) crudo dish. Looks very busy, but actually balanced out well. The fish was good, the accompanying items helped it along nicely, from cherry tomatoes to ginger. A good start. Soon the second item arrived.


A nice plate of nardello peppers. I was lucky enough to get 2 spicy ones, and they burned quite nicely. The last item came a minute after, which worked perfectly.


Some nice dumplings filled with corn and crab. Very tasty, it actually helped to cool the heat from the 2 aformentioned peppers. Very nice.

A good dinner, but for some reason I was just knackered, and since I had unexpected work to do, I decided to take some stuff to go and head out. An early night this Friday night, but I was also running out of energy from this trip. I thanked my excellent server and headed out.

Not bad, for a place in a suburban strip mall that’s full of chain restaurants. A little oasis in a sea of mediocrity. Not surprised to see it so busy on an early Friday night. Recommended certainly.

Orchard City Kitchen
1875 South Bascom Avenue
Campbell, California

Review: The Firehouse

8 September 2016

You’ll see a gap here from yesterday’s lunch at Dragon Beaux. I didn’t just go straight to Sacramento, but I had a nice dinner at 2-Michelin Commis in Oakland the previous night. I didn’t feel like writing a review because I jumbled up my notes and it wouldn’t have done the experience justice. But it’s a pretty good place that has a lot of promise, definitely worth a visit if you are in the Bay Area.

I got to Sacramento and we went back to summer-like conditions. I already miss the fog and wind of the Bay Area…can’t believe I’m saying that. But a long afternoon and I headed to my hotel in downtown. Dinner tonight is at The Firehouse, which is the only restaurant I see that gets much buzz in the area, so…

It was in the tourist trap area of town called Old Sacramento, which was an annoying walk under the freeway around a lot of aggressive homeless folks. Got to the restaurant and it was not very busy. Hmmm… I chilled with a drink and ordered my dinner. So far so good, solid service. Then the starter arrived, their lobster three-ways.


This was a nice start, some excellent flavours here. I can see why this is one of their signature dishes, from the custard with an excellent sauce to generous amount of meat. Nice start here! I was looking forward to the next item, which came after a bit…


And I was puzzed. This was supposed to be a root salad. A few pieces of carrots and beets? Huh? This was total misrepresentation or they made a mistake. I asked, and they said, “oh we can bring you more roots” — which meant it was not a mistake. I said no, and just stared at this thing. Not it was bad, but not what it should have been. I abandoned it…

At this point the service turned distinctly bad. It’s like they didn’t like people complaining, so from attentive service we morphed into nearly ignorance and borderline avoidance to the point I couldn’t get another drink. Wow, never seen this kind of pissy stuff before from a service staff. Very poor training here…

Eventually my main course arrived, though I had almost lost my appetite — not from the salad mess, but the attitude of the staff.


The duck wasn’t bad, a bit dry, but very limited flavours. After all the amazing duck I’ve had this year, this was very mediocre. Oh well, at this point I just wanted to finish and get out of here.

And at this point we’ve progressed from avoidance to borderline hostility, including the hard dropping of the bill folio onto my table. So I returned the favour with a low tip. From a guy who usually tips over 20%, this was a shitshow not to be rewarded.

I walked out in frustration at how I got stuck at this tourist trap that was half empty, with terrible FoH and a kitchen that was trying to cut corners left and right. Maybe that’s the whole thing, the morale of the place is so low from Sacramento’s poor economy and languishing tourism trade. Who knows.

But I know this was probably the shittiest dining experience of the year. Avoid at all costs.

The Firehouse
1112 2nd Street
Sacramento, California

Review: Dragon Beaux

7 September 2016

After a long trek out of Tokyo that took me first to LA and then Burbank, I made it to the San Francisco Bay Area. To be honest, I made this trip as a final trek to this place I truly hate, a place I spent several miserable years. Aside from the good weather (yes, I love the weather here), there is absolutely nothing here I like. But trudge through I must.

A busy morning after arriving, I made my way to lunch. I thought I was early headed to the much-hyped dim-sum joint Dragon Beaux on Geary, but of course there’s no parking. Thank goodness I know how to get around this awful city by car or else I’d be stuck trying to turn left. I found parking about 2 blocks away, I fed the ridiculously-priced meter and legged it to the restaurant.

Already packed, they put me in one of their “sharing” tables — basically they just crowd people into a big round table for larger parties. Who cares, I’m just eating quickly and heading off. Only got a bit over half hour for my meter anyway…so I wasn’t too thrilled when the stuff took ages to come out… Eventually the first item came, about 10 minutes later…


These crab roe shumai were very nice, generous sized too. This is starting pretty good, which calmed me from the initial chaos. Then sadly things started to drop off very quickly with the next item…


The squid ink dumplings were very disappointing. They had almost no flavour. I wouldn’t put it beyond them to have done this with food colouring rather than ink… Really poor, a total gimmick. Coming very soon after were more dumplings.


These were filled with pea shoots, or they were supposed to be… Not sure what happened here, but there was very little pea shoots here. You can just tell them with their distinct sweetness, but this tasted like any boring dumpling. Again, very disappointing.

After a little slowdown then the last two items arrived. First was the ordinary shumai, and then the last item was the beef shumai with spinach.


Not bad, very generous portions here. A good end to it all. I quickly finished and headed out and booked it to my car. I had about 2 minutes left on the parking, so good timing. I drove out for a busy afternoon that took me up to Sonoma County before getting back to the Oakland area. Oh, I took something out, that was a wonderful snack…


Mmmm, barbequed cheeks. Now this is a wonderful dish, the best item of lunch — which I had later that afternoon as a snack. These were awesome to say the least. I may forgive this place and its chaos for this one item, but still, this place is beyond overrated and overhyped. Plenty of places deliver better tasting food for less and quicker, and I’m only talking on Geary within a few blocks.

Usual, surly service as many dimsum joints, but it’s slow. Why have a hybrid system of ordering and having people bring stuff around? It’s not worth the wait to be honest.

Oh, typical San Francisco. All hype, no delivery.

Dragon Beaux
5700 Geary Boulevard
San Francisco, California

Review: Toyoda

5 September 2016

My last full day in Tokyo and it began badly with that utterly awful lunch at Kondo. Never have I had such a poor experience in Japan, and that’s not the memory I want to have leaving… In any case, I had a very busy afternoon running around town, doing some last-minute shopping, and so forth, all before dinner.

My final dinner for this trip was at another well-regarded kaiseki place in Ginza, Toyoda. I’ve read many good things about this 2-Michelin (again, does anyone care?) place so I was hoping it would rectify today’s anomaly. I chilled out after being seated at the counter and as the meal began, my heart fluttered once again when I saw the opener was a hot dish…


Much like at Okamoto when I had just arrived a few days earlier, we begin with hamo and matsutake. I have to say this is far better, with much stronger flavours. It tasted like it was cooked with much more attention, and the mushroom portion was generous to say the least. Compare it with Okamoto and this one is way, way ahead. Then the second dish came and I was very appreciative…


Ah, fresh ikura over rice. This was tasty, nice and fresh. Everyone is featuring this as it is so seasonal. Excellent simplicity. Then I started to sweat seeing the next dish…sigh, more hot soup…


Yep, another soft-shell turtle soup, just like Okamoto. But frankly this one is again far better, with far stronger flavours and way more meat. If we’re comparing the two kaiseki dinners, Okamoto and Toyoda with the similar dishes, tonight is way, way ahead. Then we got some sashimi.


After the crazy good sushi at Sawada, and the insanely amazing selection at Sushisho Masa the last 2 days, I’m a bit spoiled for these things. But the toro was excellent, as was the tai (bream). Nice. Then next up was grilled fish…


The English menu they gave me had a weird name so I asked before I tucked into the fish, and they said the magic word — nodoguro. My favourite fish! Excellent stuff, the oil of the fish gods here… Lovely stuff as always, and this was just pure bliss… Chef smiled seeing me in a form of pure joy here.

I enjoyed a bit more sake to really take in the last bits of oil for this fabulously oily fish before the next dish — something I usually don’t enjoy, fugu


This was pretty good, helped by the deep frying. Fugu is notoriously bony as a fish, and it took a bit of work to get at all the meat, but this was good. I enjoyed it, which was a surprise. If anything, I started to get annoyed as there was a drunk guy who was just seated next to me and he’s constantly cracking his knuckles and being just boorish…sigh, yes, it happens in Japan too…


The next dish was nishin, or herring, which was again surprising to see. No, I’m not back in the Baltics, I’m happily enjoying this with local eggplants. Very nice, though the guy next to me was getting more and more annoying, and it’s starting to wear on my enjoyment of this meal…


And at the end as in all kaiseki meals is the rice dish, and this was done with some excellent fish. Not as flavourful as the sanma rice that I had at the amazing Ichi a few nights ago, but far more interesting than the good-but-ordinary eel rice bowl at Okamoto. I would have had more of the rice, but the annoyance factor was catching up with me. I politely declined the rest, just waiting for the dessert…


And it’s a very modest warabimochi, which was nice but the consistency is just something I never enjoyed. I finished up and thanked them and quickly paid and headed out. On the way out Chef came out with me and I quickly explained why the quick departure from a relatively good dinner, and they understood. Too bad, it was pretty good.

Comparing tonight with the first night at Okamoto it’s clear this place won — and despite the dishes being similar (if not far more generous this evening), tonight was about half the price of Okamoto. Clearly Okamoto was overpriced and not worth it. Toyoda is pretty good, but with so many good kaiseki places in Tokyo, I’ll pass on a return trip. Too bad my last day in Tokyo was memorable for many wrong reasons…

Toyoda [とよだ]
2F, La Vialle Ginza Building
6-5-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Tokyo, Japan

Review: Kondo

5 September 2016

That was an amazing weekend, but Monday is here. My last full day in Tokyo…time really flies when you are in your favourite city in the world. Yes, it’s really become that. I feel so chill here. So hoping for a great close to this excellent trip! I was still full from last night’s amazing Sushisho Masa extravaganza, but eat again we must!

Today’s destination is the 2-Michelin tempura Kondo. Supposedly they dinged Abe and Obama when POTUS was visiting Japan last time due to lack of availability (they went to Jiro, who I’m sure would happily bump people for his ego). I always do at least one top tempura when I am in Japan; last time was the fantastic Uchitsu, which also had 2 stars that blew me away. Let’s see what this place does!

From the first moment I started to worry. The place was LOUSY with Chinese tourists — of which Ginza is home base. Apparently the chef here is well-known from TV (uh oh…) and is a magnet for tourists and locals alike. I was sat at the counter and chilled to enjoy this meal. Chef is at the frier doing all the stuff, though he has a team of assistents prepping. The restaurant is larger than you’d imagine…

Since nearly everyone at the counter was on the same schedule having come at the open, it was a bit of a wait for all the stuff to be distributed. We were given some seaweed to start things off before the fried goods arrived. First up, prawn heads.


Nice, crispy and good as usual. Only in Japan would I enjoy eating this, as they know how to cook this right. Then the prawn, followed by the other prawn…


I have to say the quality of these were not good. Stringy. I’m surprised, as you usually don’t get poor quality prawns for a top tempura. Cooked well enough with good batter, but the creatures themselves were not good. Sigh… Then next up, after a bit of a wait, were asparagus.


Really tasteless to be honest. Looks far better than it was. Then pepper…


Not bad, but the batter here was falling a part a bit. Then we get to the first whitefish, kisu.


Not bad again, fluffy and nice. But rather underseasoned. And when my salt plate was running low (already) no one added more. A bit odd…

Anyway, a slight slowdown here due to the volume of stuff chef is making, but then next up is eggplant.


This was not good. The batter was flaking off badly and the eggplant was actually seriously undercooked. This is probably as bad piece of tempura as I’ve ever had in Japan… I kept thinking about Uchitsu and even the excellent Tenko Honten in Hiroshima (which also had 2 Michelin stars) and this place is so far closer to a corner place on Sepulveda in LA or 8th Street in NYC. Not good.

I was starting to really worry as the beer was the best thing of this meal so far. Then the okra…


Really poor again. Then the next fish, magochi, a flat-head fish.


This was not bad, but the frying was inconsistent and too bad that made the tail inedible. Oh well… Then we got an onion…


Tasteless, sadly. The batter was just peeling off as the onion was soaked in oil. In fact, this was the oiliest tempura I’ve ever had in Japan. Then I got confused — every other diner got some seasonal squash, except me! Did they skip me? I kept giving the kitchen staff the look but they just ignored it. I asked the server and she didn’t know what I was talking about. Even other diners were looking and wondering why I didn’t get it…

Now I was just unhappy with this place. You can see it’s just a cash cow for them, using the reputation and formerly good name of this place to make money with shoddy stuff. The anago arrived and it was very mediocre, almost overcooked…


Suddenly when I had to choose the last item the same waitress that feigned lack of English during squash-gate was speaking very good English. Ugh… I chose the ten-don.


This was not bad, but again very ordinary. I quickly finished up and paid, pissed off at the bill being so high for such a crappy dining experience. And of course it was a total shitshow in the waiting area as it was full of people waiting. A total fire hazard. Couldn’t even navigate to the elevator.

This was truly awful, a place to totally avoid. There’s no love for food or ingredient here. The dour face of the chef all morning says plenty. This was just for profit. What a terrible mistake to choose this place…

Obama, you didn’t miss anything. Frankly if Abe had brought you here, we’d be in a trade war or worse by now… What an insult to good food…

Kondo [近藤]
9F, Sakaguchi Building
5-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Tokyo, Japan

Review: Sushisho Masa

4 September 2016

What usually is the slowest day of the week when I come to Tokyo is certainly not anymore. With more time spent here, I got used to how the weekly schedules work, and I make special plans for Sunday. It started well with the scrumptious lunch at Butagumi. For dinner I made the long walk to Nizhi-azabu once again for a place that had been on my radar, but not as high as until I saw some stuff on Instagram. So I pushed it up the list.

The place in question is Sushisho Masa. It’s constantly listed as one of the top places in Tokyo, but those reviews never really sold me. I was more intrigued by some of the postings I saw, showing a very interesting dining experience. But little did I know how interesting — and how voluminous this dinner was going to be.

I was soaked in sweat when I got to the sushi-ya and if there is one criticism of this place, it is the really poor AC. I sweated through the meal, though I’m sure part of it is due to the mythical “fish sweats”… This is gonna be a really long review, folks, so strap in and enjoy it with me…


One of the treats of Japan is to get some sea grapes, which I love to death. Like little packages from the ocean straight into your mouth. Then the experience commenced…


We started with some nice tako (octopus), which was very tasty. I like this consistency, a little chewy but comfortable to eat, not mushy. Nice start. Then next up is a seasonal isaki (grunt).


You only get isaki this time of year, so this is the first time I’m having a fresh one. Very nice.


Then we got a pair of torigai. I missed the description of the one of the right, but it had a far different texture. This would be one major part of the experience here — chef wants you to taste different parts of the same creature, sometimes with different prep, and get a better feel for the whole beast — and not just a simple slice of its muscle.


The food continued with some excellent raw amaebi, very tasty. Then another tasty morsel, this time of saba (mackerel).


One of my favourite items to eat, fabulous. Then a nice treat, hon-shishamo (horse smelt).



Wow, another of my favourite things to eat, this one was a meaty one filled with its own goodness. Lovely! But now we start to get the two-part services, the first being mirugai.


The first is of the raw item, the second is the same clam lightly grilled with a sauce made of its innards. Now this is awesome! This is such a cool way to experience each item. Next up, sumi-ika (cuttlefish).


The first is the sushi of the body, the second is the tentacles lightly grilled. The girl seated a few slots away squealed, “kawaii!” Again, excellent with the dual prep! This continues, this time is sawara (Spanish mackerel).


The first is the plain sushi, the second is a beautiful piece that was seared to bring out its oily goodness. Wow, this was pretty awesome! Next up I see Chef working on some awabe (abalone), and…


Wow. The first is a thin slice of the muscle, which was thin enough to make it not hard to eat. Then the lip, which was full of flavour. Then finally, a bowl of its innards…wow…that last one was memorable. I know Yoshitake is the place everyone talks about when it comes to that abalone liver sauce, but this is even more interesting…


Next up was the kohada (gizzard shad), which was nice. Then a generous portion of ankimo (monkfish liver)…


Mmm, this was really nice, lovely stuff. I almost like this more than foie… Then we go back to the split presentation with tsubugai, those big welks…


The first is the raw slice of the large whelk, but the second one is the star here. One piece lightly grilled, then with a huge ol’ piece of its liver. Wow. I’m continually blown away by the stuff here so far! Then the next treat…


Mmm, amaebi roe. Fabulous stuff, prawn/shrimp roe is too rarely used. I love these things, whether it’s on the shrimp themselves like in Stockholm at Oaxen Slip, or dried in a noodle like in Macau…lovely stuff! Then next up is sanma (Pacific saury).


The first was the very beautiful sushi, then a piece grilled — with a generous portion of its liver too. I love having to much fish offal! This is a dream place for a sushi and offal lover! Then back to a single piece next of kodai (tai bream).


A nice fresh taste here as we get another pair coming up that featured the shiro-ika — another species of squid sometimes called white squid.


Again, we combine the simple sushi with a grilled piece, to taste the contrast. I love this concept! Then a very nice piece of uni


Creamy good, wonderful stuff from Kyushu! Then we have another of the duo pieces, this time katsuo (bonito).


The first is again normal sushi, then second is a smoked version that’s become the preferred way to serve bonito. Not quite as good as that amazing one at Harutaka last year, but damn good…


Then we get a huge portion of tachiuo (scabbard fish), which was excellent. Lovely full flavours, it would have been an amazing dish to have anywhere else — but here, it’s just one of several dozen! Yes, we’re still going strong! Then we get a return to kohada (gizzard shad) but stuffed with its roe…


I love the way they think here! The we continue with the roe theme with a very generous bowl of ikura.


The great thing is that they are so fresh they taste nothing like the salty mess you get anywhere in the world. In season these things are little balls of treasure… And just like that, the next piece is of local king salmon…


You don’t get this often in Japan, but in season these are awesome… Then we move into the tuna series…


A very nice chu-toro. I am sorry but I was a little distracted and had forgotten to take photos of the next two items, the kama toro (neck) and the lean maguro. This meal has been so good I’ve stopped myself from eating a few times as I forgot to document it! That lunch yesterday at Sawada had relaxed me I’ve become less instinctive to grab the phone! Sorry! But we revisit salmon here with a generous grilled piece.


This was near the fin, so it’s tender — but a lot of bones. Thank goodness I’ve been dealing with bony fish since I was 5 years old, so this wasn’t a problem. Tasty stuff. Then we are back to the dual presentations, first up being kinmedai (golden eye snapper).


The first is the normal sushi, the second is lightly grilled. Excellent contrast! Then we have a very juicy item next…


Mmmm, kuruma-ebi, a big one. The piece was wonderful, the second was the head, which I love to eat. Excellent! Then next up, a beautiful presentation of iwashi (sardine).


You don’t often get this, and this was really nice. Love the flavours of this fish! Then a very generous bowl of uni, this time from Hokkaido.


Mmm… I was certainly getting full as we move into the eel segment…


Wow, anago wow. A grilled piece with daikon to start, then 2 pieces with different prep — one with eel sauce, another lightly smoked — then finally the liver… Wow, wow, wow… And we have a few more to go…


First was nishin (herring), again rarely seen in sushi form. Excellent stuff! Then my favourite fish comes at the very end, nodoguro (black-throat perch)…


Wow, what a way to move to the end with my favourite fish, the fish of such awesome oily goodness… I’m almost teary! Then Chef hands us another treat, grilled Hokkaido uni


Mmmm, what a nice way to finish the meal! Then the inevitable tamago


I was STUFFED. Rarely do I saw that after a meal, but I happily declined more pieces. This was huge. I was having some serious “fish sweats” now after this mind-blowing meal. I think I found my favourite 2 sushi-ya in the last few days. Sawada is amazing, but this is just mind-blowing stuff…

I just love the contrasting stuff they offer, showing that there’s more to the fish than a thin slice of it. I love how so much of the liver comes up, also for many of the oily fish they offer it raw and lightly grilled, to really get the essence of the oil. This is a real seafood lover’s feast, and you gotta come hungry!

Oh, this was a fabulous, fabulous Sunday… Now out into the humidity where I’ll add to this “fish sweat” inevitably going all the way uphill to Roppongi…

Sushisho Masa [すし匠 まさ]
B1F, 4-1-15 Nishi-azabu, Minato-ku
Tokyo, Japan

PS: After I made it up the hill I was sweaty but wanted to give myself a nitecap so I dropped into one of Tokyo’s best whisky bars, Cask Strength, and had an incredible nightcap. Cost almost as much as a full meal, but a perfect way to round off what was probably the best weekend I’ve had in many years…


Slàinte mhath!