Review #2: Hinaiya

27 (and 16 & 23) January 2015

Rather sad to be writing my last review (or is it “reviews”) of my Japan trip, but very happy it’s for what’s become my “regular” in Tokyo, the excellent chicken-specialist izakaya Hinaiya [比内や]. I found it during my trip last year as it is right next to the excellent Park Hotel Tokyo (highly recommended, with a top concierge team!) where I stayed (and will keep staying). That trip I was here twice; this trip, thrice.

They remembered me from last year as the guy that came in late for drinks and chicken treats, and I did that on 3 separate occasions this trip. The first was a quick stop supposedly only for a nightcap but I did succumb to a few skewers from heaven, after that amazing 2-Matsusaka dinner at Satou [サトウ] and the hot-as-hell craft beer night at Goodbeer Faucets. The second night was accidental as I had that fabulous eel dinner at Kabuto [かぶと] but was frustrated by a poor experience at Craft Beer Market. Lots of sake that night with some excellent skewers. And finally, the final night in Tokyo had to say my goodbyes after the somewhat frustrating dinner at Yukimura [幸村], and had plenty that night…last night, right?

Anyway, won’t do anything detailed as they repeat on each other, but these are my staples. They have a great selection of amazing Jidori free-range chicken as well as good vegetables, all grilled from behind the glass at the counter.

neck-skin-tail-gizzard

This is a pretty good picture of what my faves are here chicken-wise, the neck, skin, tail and gizzard. Amazing taste on these things! Ruin me for chicken back home!

asparagus_skin_skewer

Here is some asparagus with skin, which is crispy golden goodness!

neck_skewer

Here’s a close-up of the neck, which is just fabulous. Don’t see this in the US often!

peppers_tail_gingko_skewer

Here’s some peppers and awesome gingko nuts (love these things), as well as my favourite, the tail. A perfect blend of juicy and crispy, it’s like little morsels of heaven.

Aside from skewers they had a lot of stuff, and one day I will try their full chicken tasting course. Here are some other goodies I had.

fried_chicken

The fried chicken is excellent, golden juicy and delicious to the last bite. And look at that gorgeous skin next to it…mmm…

chicken_sashimi

And finally, this I only eat here, nowhere else. Chicken sashimi. I love this, but know it’s not something to have often. Just delicious, it tastes better than some bland fish sashimi…

I just love this place, from the sake to beer to local single malts I’ve had here. It’s all been good, and frankly it’s good to have a regular — even if it is half way across the world.

I’m gonna miss this place and Japan for the next 11.5 months I tells ya…

Hinaiya [比内や]
8-8-5, Ginza, Chuo-ku
Tokyo, Japan

Review: Yukimura

27 January 2015

After a fortnight of fantastic eating during my exploration of Japan, namely Tokyo and Hiroshima, the trip reached its inevitable conclusion. I had saved one of the best of Tokyo, the 3-Michelin kaiseki specialist Yukimura [幸村] for my final dinner. I was hoping this will be one of those places that blow me away, and end the “3-star curse” for me.

Yukimura is probably the hardest place to find out of my 2 weeks in Japan, partly because the Google Street View of this location is blocked by a car and there was no clear look at the front of this building. But thanks to my hotel (Park Hotel Tokyo, very highly recommended!) concierge who booked this for me, she printed out a photo of the front — with all the necessary info.

I got to the restaurant in Azabu-juban a little early so wandered around the hilly area for a little bit before heading to the dodgy lift to the 3rd floor to Yukimura. This is another small place, with counter seats for 10 people and a small table on the side. At this early hour there was only 6 people (me included) seated as this meal was starting to move.

Interestingly, it was just chef and 3 assistants working all night. One of his assistants was female, which again is a good thing for Japan’s overly-masculine top restaurant scene. The assistants, as well as chef, take part in all aspects of prep and service, including drinks and clearing dishes. Sounds good, but it became a little problematic later — and may be a cultural issue I alluded to. I will elaborate later.

I ordered some of their house sake (the female assistant spoke good English) and looked forward to a wonderful evening. A large abalone shell was presented, and chef opened it for us and wishes us a happy new year.

01b-abalone_roe_beans

Wow, this is beautiful. He explained (via the assistant) that these items were for the new year’s good luck, especially the black beans and the 3 different roes (mullet, cod, flying fish). The abalone was nice, as were the assortment of root vegetables and small whitefish. This was a very tasty selection, beautifully thought out and presented. If this was an example of what to come tonight, I will be extremely happy! Excellent!

The second course was presented in succession, almost as 3 mini-courses.

02a-chawanmuri_namako_innards

The first was a humble looking chawanmushi (egg custard), but was graced with the innards of namako (sea cucumber). Nice, added some depth to the egg.

02b-female_snow_crab

The second, brought out quickly as we worked on the egg custard, was a beautiful presentation of a female snow crab (matsubagani) — including the roe. This was utterly delicious and a perfect seasonal dish. I was told that the male crab is coming next, and I see chef already prepping it with some slick knife skills.

02c-vegetable_tempura

The third item of the second course was a tempura of seasonal vegetables, including bamboo and taranome (Angelica shoots), which I had at the excellent Tenko Honten [天甲 本店] in Hiroshima. Very nice.

We watched chef finish prepping the crabs and he showed us what was coming…

04a-snow_crab

Wow. This will be excellent. They start grilling the legs on the wood grill in front of me. In the meantime, the soup service was next.

03-miso_mochi

This is a miso soup with a touch of mustard and a giant mochi (rice cake) in the middle. I know it’s a new years thing, but I really dislike mochi in general. In this soup it was nearly inedible for me, like trying to eat something that reforms after every chew. I was so scared I was gonna choke to death on this (which, btw, happens often this time of year in Japan…). Sorry, traditional, but was a total miss for me.

At this point they brought out parts of the crab grilled whenever they are ready.

04b_snow_crab_leg_01

The leg was first to be presented, which was followed by another leg when we finished the first. Very nice though I have to say my right hand was getting sore from trying to get all the meat out with chopsticks.

04d-snow_crab_arm

Then the arm, then the claw. All very meaty and tasty. My hand was about to cramp at one point though…

04f-snow_crab_body

Then we got the body, which chef quickly cleans to make it easy to eat. Good, as my right hand was really fatigued from 2 weeks of constant chopstick use — which it was not in shape for…

04g-snow_crab_omelette

Then chef used the stock and insides of the crab, as well as additional meat, and cooked it like an omelette-ish thing within the shell. Very nice, lovely flavour in this item. I wish he had presented it in shell but he portioned each shell out to various diners for balance.

Mmm, enjoying this meal so far, especially with the seasonal snow crab. More sake! I was looking forward to the next course, the noodle course, as I’ve heard so much about some amazing stuff here.

05-daikon_soba

Well, this is soba in a nice deep broth with a lot of daikon. It was good, but I had hoped for something a bit more interesting. Broth was very good, a clinical definition of umami, but after all that crab this seemed a little pale.

At this point the rest of the counter filled up and some people were out of sequence, so the service got a little choked up. This is a problem when there’s no one dedicated to the front of the house service. And more annoying, I noticed the 2 male assistants basically not wanting to do any drink service unless absolutely forced to (as much as standing around staring at people), and didn’t want to clear plates. Basically all of that work came down to chef himself and the female assistant (who was also working on the food). Sexism right there, very sad to see…

06-kabocha_moroko

The next dish had been grilling for a bit, the kabocha or the Japanese winter squash, alongside honmoroko (willow shiner), coming from Lake Biwa. An interesting pair of delicacies, the kabocha sweet and the honmoroko deep. Kind of a “not bad” course though.

07-giant_daikon

Then next up was braised giant Sakurajima daikon, which was very tasty but still, it’s just daikon in dashi. I know it’s the whole new year theme and these are beloved Kyoto and Kansai-region ingredients, but it’s falling a bit flat for me. The service issues were noticeable thanks partly to the out-of-sequence guys, as well as the 2 male assistants that seemed to not want to do their fair share.

08-rice_red_bean_pickles

At this point then the rice course came, signalling the near conclusion of the meal. Hmmm…it’s been a little anticlimactic since the crab course ended. The rice was nice, with the new year-themed beans, but it’s just rich on symbolism. Nowhere near as good as the excellent rice course at Den [傳] at the very start of the trip, nor as good as the very humble rice course at Nakashima [なかしま] in Hiroshima.

It was nice for chef to top up my sake on the house before the dessert course. He seems like a genuinely nice guy with great skills, and he enjoys chatting with the diners. He tried to explain the courses with his limited English, though it was the female assistant that had the English to properly explain the items. The 2 male assistants didn’t even try; they seem utterly disinterested. Even other diners seemed put off by them…

09-strawberry_mascarpone

The dessert was strawberries with mascarpone. Very nice strawberries, as you’d expect.

10-candies

Then a little traditional candy service and we were done — to be presented with a very hefty bill. I think the subtlety of some of this meal is lost to me. I generally don’t like kaiseki places that are too traditional because of that exact reason, which is why Den [傳] appealed to me so much. I love daikon and I eat it all the time, and appreciate the giant variety as a delicacy, but it seems to have ruled too much of the post-crab part of this menu.

I thanked chef as I took my leave, and the female assistant walked me out and down the elevator to the street. We chatted a bit and I encouraged her to break the male-dominated barriers and wished her continual success in this field, and she seemed genuinely appreciative of my comments. The best thing for haute Japanese cuisine is to have female chefs rise to the top.

I was slightly deflated and honestly still a little hungry after this, so it precipitated a visit to my “local” in Tokyo — which I will write about in the next post. But as for Yukimura, it certainly did not break my “3-star curse” at all. I think I may just avoid 3 Michelin places from now on, anywhere in the world…

Yukimura [幸村]
1-5-5 Azabujuban, 3F, Minato-ku
Tokyo, Japan

Some Drankin’ in Japan…Gotta Feed the Liver

Now with all the food entries from Japan the last fortnight you must be wondering — Mel’s been pampering his stomach, but what about his liver? I assure you it’s not aching nor wanting; it was fed very well, with surprisingly only 1 night of seriously blotto stuff.

However, it’s right that I talk a bit about my drinking adventures in Japan. I will break this entry up into 4 categories — cocktails, rum, beer and sake. These were the four I really explored during this trip and you may be very surprised by some of it here.

A Taste of Cocktail — Japanese Natural Style

I found Gen Yamamoto [ゲン山本] by accident on the web one day during my research and found it intriguing — a tasting menu for cocktails. So I made a late booking and decided to go to the Azabu-juban speakeasy one night after dinner in nearby Roppongi. In fact it was the night of the amazing wagyu offal tasting menu at Sanda [さんだ].

An interesting bar, seating only about 8 people, somewhere serene almost, like a hybrid bar-temple. Stunning bartop. Gen Yamamoto was a veteran of NYC’s drinking scene and he’s trying to create something local that’s different. Instead of getting folks blotto on various well-known cocktails, he’s trying to use seasonal ingredients to create tasty drinks.

In other words, it’s almost like a juice bar for adults.

The course menu is either 4 or 6 items, and I went with the 6.

cocktails-1

This shows the first 3 items. The first drink was a slightly fizzy drink with fresh quince fortified by sake. He spends a lot of time freshly juicing, mashing and working ingredients, and each drink is freshly made. The second focuses on the yellow mandarin, again freshly juiced, with a touch of daikon and shochu. Very refreshing. The third is based on strawberries, again freshly muddied, with cloudy sake. Again, extremely refreshing.

The items are one-by-one, but I’m just consolidating space here. But the second and third were excellent. The alcohol is almost an afterthought here.

cocktails-2

The fourth item is a popular one, using freshly muddied locally-grown kiwi. There’s even some sake lees in this item, fortified by sake. Very refreshing again! Fifth on the list was the first to use a non-Japanese alcohol — Templeton rye — to bring out the ginger. Again, not focusing on the alcohol, the ginger is strong and soothing. Finally, the last of the course was a hot drink featuring the kumquat.

I found this service interesting, but I may have broken his concentration when I asked him (as I do all my bartenders) to make something off the menu. He gave it some thought and clearly he had some back-ups.

cocktails-3

The first was an utterly delicious drink using fresh local apples and Yamazaki single malt. Totally delicious. However, he seems to have been stymied when I asked for a second (and last) one, and he basically repeated the last from the course but switched the fruit — a hot yuzu-based treat. Nice.

Fantastic idea. Not a place to get blotto, as you barely taste the alcohol, but it’s like a really cool adult juice bar, with some fantastic juices. It’s very Japan.

Island People Like Island Stuff — Japan’s R(h)um Haven

One place I heard whispers about that I needed to check out was a little bar dedicated to the goodness of the Carribean, Tafia [タフィア]. A little place in the chic (and train-less) district of Nishi-azabu (near Roppongi), I headed there after an incredible sushi dinner at nearby Taku [拓]. It’s only 30 seconds away, and also about 30 seconds away from the temple of pork Butagumi [豚組] if you want to do a post-meal treat for yourself.

Easy to find as you see various Carribean flags in the window. I walked into this bar and was like, wow…

bar

I thought my dearly departed Elettaria had a good r(h)um selection, but this is just insane. This is truly a labour of love, as I spoke to the proprietor about her devotion to this tipple. I told her I’d leave my fate in her hands and love to try some of her favourites.

These all came one-by-one, mind you, but again I’m consolidating…

rum-1

The first was an excellent Rhum JR from Martinique. A very typical rum, delicious — perfect after all that sushi (and dry sake). Next up was unique, the Santa Maria — from Okinawa! Yes, a local rum, aged in whisky casks. I gotta say it’s wee rough, and almost tasted more whisky than rum. But interesting. The third was a mind-blowing beauty, the Rhum Bielle from Martinique. She told me this was her favourite, but it’s hot as hell at nearly 60%. Lovely clear stuff, deep rich flavours here despite the burn. Mmm…

Stupidly I kept going, knowing I am gonna be wasted after this. But was nice chatting with some folks enjoying a more tempered drinking experience. The proprietor also told me since there are quite many Central American embassies nearby, this is their favourite watering hole — no kidding! More!

rum-2

The fourth rum was a very limited bottled rum from Haiti. It’s quite interesting, with a kick that’s more than its already higher proofage. A 2004 vintage, very nice. Next up was the Rhum Agricole Extra Vieux that had been matured in sherry casks. Interesting flavours, not quite my thing though. We closed with the rich Matsusalem from the Dominican Republic (maybe one day Cuba again?).

I honestly don’t have much memory from this point of the night, as this was a LOT of booze. Too much, to be honest. It caused my only rough hangover for this trip…ugh… But it was damn worth it! A total place to check out, really! And it’s open until goodness knows what time!

Craft Beer Arrives — as well as Hipsterism…

Much like so many places around the world, Japan — a heavy beer-drinking country — has a growing industry in craft brewing. Albeit the numbers are much smaller, and often populated by ex-pats and travelling hipsters, they are nevertheless interesting.

One of the best places is called Goodbeer Faucets in Shibuya. I had finished 2 amazing Matsusaka steaks at the amazing Satou [サトウ] in Kichijoji and needed to change trains/subway at Shibuya anyway, so decided to stop off. It was the hottest room I’ve ever been…which is why I drank more than I usually would.

Goodbeer

A nice selection, I ended up drinking a few of the dark local brews. They were quite good, I failed to take down details as I was sweating profusely and worried the phone may short out… I do remember a nice dark ale that was rich, a stout that was the closest thing to coffee I drank all trip long, and a chocolate stout that they use for a special dessert drink (I didn’t do that). Snacking on some octopus-and-lotus root fritters, this was pretty cool.

But the heat, and the voices of annoying ex-pats, drove me out. But certainly worth a trip.

I also made a stop at Craft Beer Market closer to my hotel after that utterly amazing eel tasting at Kabuto [かぶと]. This place was packed out the door so I drank at one of the outside standing tables (perfect, to blow some of the eel and charcoal aroma off my clothes), but the damn group of expat workers and their hipster friends were so ridiculously annoying I could be in a hipster bar in Brooklyn if I closed my eyes. I left after 1 so-so dark ale.

Clearly craft brewing is on the rise in Japan, but finding places to drink them tend to subject you to the most annoying things you want to avoid — hipsters. And expats moaning about their lives don’t help either. FFS, if you’re so unhappy in Japan and can’t deal with things here, go the fuck home to Portland or Austin!

And Of Course, the Sake…

No drinking experience in Japan can be complete without sake. I enjoyed quite many over my fortnight in Japan. I can’t read the labels and some of the subtlety is lost with me, but they are quite good.

Iwa-sake

These are the ones I had at the amazing sushi experience at Iwa [いわ]. We went from dry to rich on this as the course progressed (choice of chef).

Nakashima-sake

These are the ones I had at the awesome kaiseki course at Nakashima [なかしま] in Hiroshima. Again, house’s choice. The first was a special local one that apparently was served to Obama during his Tokyo visit. The other two complemented the meal very well during different points. Kudos to the pairings.

Kabuto-Taku-sake

This first one here was from my eel night at the amazing Kabuto [かぶと] — this is the one they say complement the eel best. The next two came from Taku [拓], that amazing sushi experience. I had forgotten Taku has a specialty in wine pairings with its food, so these were my tipple that awesome night (before my rum adventure).

Plus so many more I had here and there, it’s a rich world. I need to learn more about it for sure, to prepare for my next visit!

As you can see, my liver enjoyed this fortnight in Japan very much! Maybe not as much as my stomach, but this trip was always about my stomach rather than liver. The liver’s won too many times over my 42 years, so…

Gen Yamamoto [ゲン山本]
1-6-4 Azabu-Juban

Tafia [タフィア]
2-15-14 Nishi-Azabu

Goodbeer Faucets
1-29-1 Shoto, 2F, Shibuya

Craft Beer Market
1-23-3 Nishi-Shimbashi
Tokyo, Japan

Review: Yoshitake

26 January 2015

Honestly I’m getting tired after nearly 2 weeks in Japan. My days are less active; no more hiking, now just relaxing, shopping and so forth. Plus an unseasonably warmth has covered Tokyo since my return so it’s also draining on me. Had a few covered-in-sweat afternoon walks already… After a few unremarkable dining experiences in the past 2 days I awaited my visit to the 3-Michelin sushi-ya in Ginza, Yoshitake [よしたけ].

After my excellent (and very long) session at Taku [拓] on Saturday night I was really looking forward to this feast at one of the very best sushi places in the world. My last sushi session in Japan on this trip. Not an easy place to find, but again with modern technology I found it pretty easily.

A small counter with half a dozen seats, chef and his assistant enjoys interacting with the diners as they come up with some fantastic smelling stuff. I enjoyed some sake before the feasting commenced. Very soon the first items arrived.

01-chawamushi_fugu_no_shirako

The opener was a chawamushi (egg custard) with a healthy portion of fugu-no-shirako (fugu milt). This may seem like a mind-blowing start, but considering I’ve had it several times in the past week it was not as special as it may sound. But it was good.

02-kinmedai

Next up was a slighly cooked kinmedai (golden eye snapper) with a nice crusty skin. Tasty, as I usually am not a big fan of snappers. For the next dish chef went into the big bowl at the back of the bar and took the marinated tentacles out.

03-tako

The tako (octopus) had been marinated for ages, and it was soft and the shoyu flavour soaked all the way through. Not sure if this has been sitting in there all day, but it was flavourful. This was one of the examples of how chef work with sauce and flavouring that I saw all night — especially in this next dish.

04a-awabi-liver_sauce

This is an excellent abalone — but that wasn’t the star. The sauce was made from abalone liver, and it is rich and just mesmirising…wow… I started to just eat the sauce afterwards before chef stepped in…

04b-liver_sauce-rice

And hucked a piece of sushi rice in the sauce for us to eat it easier. Wow, this was some sauce! This would kill in Paris! Mmm…wow, still thinking about this.

05-saba

Then next up was quick grilled saba (mackerel), with the skin nice and crispy. Very nice, a solid serving of one of my favourite fish.

06-snow_crab-seaweed

Next up was some seasonal snow crab (matsubagani) with marinated seaweed. Fresh and nice, they complemented each other very well. Cool! Chef then got the rice ready and the sushi service was coming. You can see quite a lot of prep work for the items far before they are served…

07-ika

First sushi was ika (squid). I wish I can show you when he sliced the squid. An already thin piece he just sliced it in half horizontally with no effort. Wow. Nice tasting too may I add.

08-madai

Next sushi was madai (red seabream). Very nice, but I was captivated by how they were prepping the next few items from the tuna service…

09-chutoro

The first was the chu-toro, which was fabulously aged so it was a deep brown on the brim. This was extremely deep tasting, even deeper than at Taku [拓] the other night. Amazingly fantastic, I am so sold on aged tuna!!!

10-otoro

Next up was the o-toro, which disappointed me. He had it soaking in a shoyu-based sauce for awhile and it overwhelmed the fatty tuna totally. Fish was of great quality but adulterated too extremely. Deflating… A huge gulp of sake with this to help de-salinise my mouth…

11-kohada

Following that was a nice piece of kohada (gizzard shad) that has a nice strong flavour. I had to eat a bit of ginger to kill the saltiness of the o-toro before this, and ginger mixes with kohada nicely, so…

12-akagai

Next up was akagai (red clam), which I like — but this was not that great. I think they over-tenderised it as it lost all texture. I eat shellfish for texture and taste, and this was a little too softened…

13-uni

The uni here was interesting as he layered 2 different ones on top of each other. I don’t quite like this approach as it seems unnecessary — should have been split like every other place. These two are different in taste and are not as good in complement; they conflict in detail. Good quality, but it got tangled up. Needed more sake after this…

14-kurumaebi

The kuruma-ebi (local tiger prawn) was peeled freshly and tasted extremely good. Then he told us that he used the sauce made from the head of the prawn to accentuate this. Wow, another sauce that Paris would die for. I was loving this, but quickly I got worried…

15-anago

Item 15 was anago, and that’s usually a sign that the meal is moving to a close. Huh? Not bad, but still, huh?

16-tuna_hand_roll

My heart sank when we were given a tuna handroll, and I knew the meal was coming to an end. So soon? I felt rushed and I even noticed how better pieces seemed to be given to his regulars on the far end. Understandable, but sad to see. I ordered another sake in defiance of the meal ending…

17-tamago

Then it was the tamago, and honestly it was the worst tamago I’ve had in Japan…sigh… A miso later and it was done. Chef told us course was done and I could have ordered more, but I was rather disappointed so decided not to. I was glad I didn’t order more when I saw the bill.

Chef and his assistant are wonderfully fun folks and the sauces are sometimes bordering on the mind-blowing, but some of the items fell flat. The o-toro was a huge saline mess, as his use of salty items was way too much at times — falling into the trap of salt-insensitive chefs around the world. The course was also short and that left me feeling deflated. Sure it was top quality at times, but it was higher quality elsewhere. Some amazing knife skills during the night, especially the ika, but still…

I headed out after a nice chat with the crew, but felt deflated after leaving. This was nowhere near as good as Taku [拓], nor Iwa [いわ]. This was my last sushi in Japan on this trip, so that was anticlimactic…

Oh well, you win some, you lose some. And again, 3-star places fail to live up to their hype and reputation…

Yoshitake [よしたけ]
8-7-19 Ginza, 3F, Suzuryu Bldg, Chuo-ku
Tokyo, Japan

Review: Taku

24 January 2015

I trekked back to Roppongi, that very odd (and annoying) district to reach my dining destination tonight, the much-raved-about sushi-ya Taku [拓]. It’s in the Nizhi-azabu area, which has no train station so it’s a bit annoying. This wouldn’t be one of the easier ones to find in the old days, but I had little trouble thanks to modern technology.

This was a pretty nice sushi bar, just about 8 seats around the counter and private table in back. I was in the corner seat and relaxed. I enjoyed some sake, having forgotten that this place was also a wine-pairing specialty place…oops!

Though I was served by the assistant chef, it also meant I had my own chef tonight — so it worked very well. Sometimes the assistant chef, as in Iwa [いわ], worked out even better. And I also noticed one of their apprentice chefs was female, another rarity in top sushi-ya — a slow but positive trend to bring more females into top sushi positions in Japan. I personally support that 101%!

The course began pretty quickly and started with two snacks.

01-nanohana

First was the nonohana, or rapeseed. These are in season now, and I had some excellent ones at Tenko Honten [天甲 本店] in Hiroshima a few days earlier. Very nice. I love these seasonal vegetables.

02-soramame

Second were some humble soramame, or fava beans. These were actually quite nice. Then I was offered one of the big surprises of the night, umibudo.

03-umibudo

These are known as “sea grapes” but are a type of seaweed. These “grapes” are full of briny goodness, like a vegetarian caviar really. Fabulous. I didn’t have time this trip to get to Okinawa where these are a specialty, but I am so glad I got some!

04-hirame_engawa

The service was rather quick at this point as then chef presented both the hirame (fluke) and its fin segment (engawa) from the same fish. Excellent, I like this way of serving fluke. The engawa was very tasty.

05-ebodai

Next up was ebodai, or butterfish, lightly grilled and rolled into a sushi. Very tasty, and I got a sense that this will be a rather unorthodox evening of feasting!

06a-tsubugai

Following this was a nice serving of tsubugai, or whelk. I know lots of people say it’s too chewy but these were also lightly grilled so had a very good texture. Nice!

07-sayori

The next was a surprise, sayori (halfbeak), cooked in these interesting thick leaves. Sayori is usually a spring fish from what I remember, so surprised it was so tasty here already in January. Good stuff!

08-kaki

We then had some kaki (oyster), raw and fresh with a daikon topping. I’ve really enjoyed the oysters on this trip, it being in season.

09-sawara

Another grilled fish next, the sawara (Spanish mackerel). This was a solid piece of good meat. So far it has been solid, with a lot to get the grill treatment. But I see the rice was being prepared so…

10-shiraebi

The first sushi item of the night was shira-ebi, baby white shrimp. These were nice and sweet today, excellent.

11-nasu

Next was another mild surprise as we were presented with some sliced nasu, or Japanese eggplant. These are so nice to eat raw like this, tasting of apples. So fresh…mmm…

12-buri

Then was one of the stars of the sushi, buri (yellowtail). Fabulous taste, with a little bit of aging on it. Chef firmly believes in aging fish here. I like it. Noticing the rice is excellent here too.

13-anago

Then a skewer of anago. Frankly it’s pretty ordinary considering how fabulous all the eel I’ve had in the last 2 weeks!!!

14-unis

Then we had an interesting uni tasting here. The hokkaido one from the left was creamy, while the mildly-brined one from Aomori was more sharp. A nice tasting!

15-ika

Following this was the humble ika (squid), which was not bad. The rice is really helping the weaker sushi items.

16-shirako (cod)

Then we had another interesting dish, shirako — from cod caught near Aomori. Having been fed so much fugu shirako recently it’s nice to get some good ol’ cod milt! Very tasty dish!

17-rice_cake

Then we have a little intermission almost, a puffed rice treat with dusted seaweed. Lol! Now with our palates cleansed we get a series of amazing fish.

18-akami

First was akami, the simple lean tuna. But this has been aged for over a week and it has a deep flavour that is intriguing. I find this very interesting and tasty!

19-chu_toro

Next is the chu-toro, also aged for a week. Fabulous, it really brings out the fattiness in a way I’ve never had before. Excellent!

20-kohada

Item number 20 is kohada, or gizzard shad. This was an excellent piece of the sharp tasting fish, and it’s a treat when it’s like this. Mmm.

21-chawanmushi_crab

Then the kitchen brings out a small pot of chawanmushi, or egg custard, with crab. A nice item, almost another palate cleanser for us.

22-kurumaebi

Up next was kuruma-ebi, a local tiger prawn. Nice tasting, it’s only lightly cooked so you taste some of the natural flavours too.

23-kaibashira

Following that was kaibashira, or the shellfish muscles. Pretty ordinary to be honest, especially with this tour-de-force of sushi. That just made the next item so much more special…

24-namako_roe

Wow…this is the roe of namako (sea cucumber). What a fabulous item, even tastier than crab! A nice treat, awesome!

25-tuna_soup

Then the soup came out, based of tuna. Another palate cleanser?

26-kinmedai

Yes, cuz then we got a beautiful piece of kinmedai, or golden snapper. One of the best pieces of kinmedai I’ve ever had, fabulous stuff!

27-clownfish_not_sure

Then we were presented with a grilled fish that I thought the chef said clownfish…this is too big to be clownfish. I took down the Japanese name and I can’t find anything close to it, so if anyone can help ID this I’d appreciate it!

28-daikon_shiso

Then we were treated to some crazy knife skills by chef as he sliced paper-thin daikon sheets and slapped a shiso leaf within for a quick item.

29-anago

Then we revisit the anago as I realised we’re near a close.

30-tamago

And item number 30 (!!) is the expected closer, tamago. Wow…this was a huge service!

This was one of the longest courses I’ve ever seen, and it went surprisingly quick and efficiently. For some reason I asked for 2 more. The first I forgot to take a picture but was hokigai. Then the second was pretty awesome.

32x-ankimo

This is actually ankimo, monkfish liver, with a piece of pickled radish on top. Fabulous way to serve this delicate item!

I was just chilling out with the last of my sake, chatting with chef — who spoke English reasonably well. Then my dessert came out and my mouth just dropped…

33-ice_cream

Wow, this is a tasting of 5 rather unique ice creams… Ginger, green tea, barley tea, soy sauce (!!!), and kinako (roasted soy flour). Fabulous taste, amazing contrasts! Oh this was fabulous!

I chatted a little more with chef before I took my leave. Wow, this was utterly fantastic, a very voluminous course and tasty. Lots of sushi, and some fabulous examples of aged tuna. Lovely place, highly recommended — but expect to have a 30+ item dinner!

And yet, it was (plus a lot of sake) still cheaper than that odd Mizutani lunch… Now off to Tafia to go enjoy one of the biggest rum selections in the world!

Taku [拓]
2-11-5 Nishi-azabu, Minato-ku
Tokyo, Japan

Review: Kabuto

23 January 2015

Was a bit of a rough morning after that eating-fest all around Hiroshima last night, but I caught up on some sleep on the flight back to Tokyo. Got checked into the same hotel again, the fabulous Park Hotel Tokyo (highly recommended, the concierge did ALL my bookings!), I chilled out a bit before heading out for tonight’s dinner.

I had to go north to the Ikebukuro district for my dinner tonight at Kabuto [かぶと]. This famous eel restaurant is nearly unique even in Japan, as it is indeed as close to a full nose-to-tail restaurant as you can imagine. Nearly every part of the eel is used.

Now you know space is a premium in Japan, but you’ve not seen anything like this until you visit Kabuto. It is so narrow inside you can barely walk behind the diners already squashed up against the counter. Forget your knees, it’s gonna ache like hell the way there’s no space at the counter for them… But when you see the grill as you enter and smell the aroma, you won’t worry about that or your soon-to-be ruined clothes.

grill

Wow, the master chef’s hands work at lightning speed both in gutting and grilling the eels. This is truly a man who loves his job, as he’s constantly bantering with the diners in a loud and boisterous voice, cracking jokes and so forth. Now this is a fun environment. And more interestingly, I think I’ve had a conversation with every other diner at the counter, from the local guy who just discovered this place to the FX analyst who rightly suggested this was a great time to be in Japan from the US, to a rather gorgeous looking lady who worked at a really well-known yakiniku near Aoyama — somewhere I definitely need to check out next time in Tokyo.

There was a little English from the chef’s wife, who ran everything else, and she kept my sake flowing all night. Then we began the course. Of course the aroma of smoke from the charcoal and the sauce has made it even a sheer pleasure to breathe…

01-neck

This first item was the neck area of the eel. Soft with some texture closer to the head, this is a fine meat that you almost never see. He had cleaned the eel so deftly that these parts are easily usable! Tasty! Very good sauce too. Next was one of the wow items…

02-head

This is actually the head. Yeah, you heard that right. A bit crunchy and some people may find it hard to eat, but if you’ve had other heads in Japan you’ll be used to it. Unique, not really my favourite, but interesting texture.

03-fin

Next up is one of the tastiest things, a skewer composed of the fin area of the eel. This was fantastic, soft and tender.

04-tail

The next skewer was the very end of the tail segment of the eel. Fabulous, again almost always discarded. Excellent meat once again!

I noticed then chef was gutting a few fresh eel and suddenly this appeared in front of me.

05a-heart

Yeah, it’s the heart, and it’s still beating…

05b-heart

Hope this does it some justice as it is just…oh my… They said do not chew it, so I just popped it into my mouth. Not much taste when you don’t chew, so… A big drink of sake at this point…

06-innards

Then another of the wow items arrived, the entrails. This was just amazing, something you never get. Brilliant taste of various viscera, going from sweet to slightly bitter. Unique in so many ways!!!

07-liver

I was loving this as the next item arrived, the liver. Soft and smooth, these were milky good. Such a brilliant dish, better grilled than used for soup as in many eel restaurants!

08-tail

Then the last of the skewers arrived, the tail (well, there are 2 eels for me). Again, excellent, this one even plumper than the previous.

This has been utterly fantastic. My knees were in pain but the sake was helping. Having fun chatting to other diners though knowing my shirt is ruined as possibly my coat. The air is so thick with this aroma every breath is like another tasting… Wow…

Chef remained on fine form yapping with customers and lecturing on things like why wasabi shouldn’t be used. He is a character, a treasure in the culinary underbelly of Tokyo. Then we moved to the main items.

09-shirayaki

First was the shirayaki, one of the eels plainly grilled, to be eaten with one of the two types of salt provided. Fantastic, I always prefer salted eel instead of sauce back in the US because the sauces tend to be too sickly sweet. The eel’s quality is fantastic and this was just excellent. Mmm!

I chilled a bit and enjoyed more sake as then the next item appeared, the other eel.

10-kabayaki

This was the more traditional kabayaki style with sauce. Again, fabulous. Sauce is not overwhelming at all, in fact just enough to complement the meat of the eel. They also asked me now if I wanted a small, medium or large bowl of rice. Medium worked well, and a small plate of pickles. A fabulous end of the meal, or was it?

intestine_soup

I forgot, soup. The soup is an eel-based soup, but complemented by more eel innards, this the intestine I think. Fabulous stuff.

I relaxed and thought wow, this is honestly nose-to-tail eating, as we did eat the nose to the tail and everything inside. Only thing I think we missed was the spine, which would have been such a treat if he had a frier — but he is a grill-only man, true and true.

This is a fun-as-hell restaurant with some amazingly unique food. If you are a devotee of eel, you must make a pilgrimage here. Prepare for knee pain and ruined clothes, but it is totally worth it. And the great part is that as you walk out towards Ikebukuro afterwards and you utterly smell like the restaurant, you get to enjoy the aroma for quite a bit more — maybe even sharing it with people on the Metro.

Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. A must.

Kabuto [かぶと]
2-53-2 Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku
Tokyo, Japan

Eating My Way Thru Hiroshima on the Last Night…

22 January 2015

It was my last night in Hiroshima. This city, despite the utterly hazardous public nuisance known as bicycle riders, was really growing on me — and tonight was the most demonstrative of that. I decided to go all out despite an early wake-up in the morning for the long ride to the airport.

I decided to go on a izakaya crawl of sorts. I researched a list of places I wanted to check out all over town and played it by ear. Went furthest out first and worked my way back towards my hotel as you would imagine would be practical when I’m rather blotto and bloated…

I headed out towards the busy Hiroshima Station just as the commute started to pick up. Walked north of the station and found the first of my destinations, a more traditional izakaya called Chamu [茶夢]. Patrons were drinking and watching the Hatsubasho sumo tournament (which, I have to admit has caught my interest too). It was a really old-style casual place with big communal table in the middle and tables on the side. Lots of old ladies in there having dinner too. And they had an English menu, thank goodness…

iwashi

I began with some exellent, grilled iwashi, or baby sardines. Excellent taste in these little things.

tako_tempura

Next was tako (octopus) tempura, something you rarely see. Good quality, not hard to eat at all. Much better than the just-awful octopus at Mizutani back in Tokyo…

satsumaimo

Finally I had to have some satsumaimo, or sweet potatoes, sizzling in butter. Mmm, very nice!

I enjoyed a bit of sake and decided to order a little more. Why not, enjoyed the convivial environment!

miso_oysters

The first to arrive was some miso-grilled oysters. Mmm, plump and juicy, this local seasonal delicacy did not disappoint!

iwashi tempura

Finally I had more iwashi, but this time in tempura form. As good as the grilled version, mmm!

I finished my second sake and thanked them profusedly, the bill extremely modest. Nice! I walked back to the station and hopped on the Hiroden (tram) back towards the centre and stopped half way back to the hotel. Partly because I was sweating up a storm from the crazy heat inside! I wandered around and decided on the second destination, Shizuku [雫].

I screwed up the research and this was a proper restaurant, but they seated me anyway — in my own private room. Cool. No English menu (unlike other places on this crawl) but we figured it out anyway. I chilled with more sake as I awaited food. This place is advertised as localvoric, so was hoping for something locally really special.

anago_sashimi

The first to arrive was a tour de force, anago sashimi. Now very rarely you get raw eel, and these were just fantastic. Hard to think how I can ever touch that eel sauce again! Awesome, I wish I can get this all the time!

oyster_tempura

The other dish was some oyster tempura, which were very juicy and plump. Nicely a few pieces of vegetables were included.

I was enjoying myself so much and loving this private room I ordered more sake, and one more dish. Drank on and then it arrived.

omlette

A humble omelette you say, but it’s actually from some specially-sourced eggs. Fertilized so the yolk is much richer, but not developed in any way (like balut). This was excellent, with eel as the inside ingredient! Wow!

I finished my drink and left the private room, thaking the staff (and my gorgeous server) profusedly as I headed out. Wandered a bit and found what would be the last of the stops, a modern izakaya called Kaika [かいか].

This was a modern place as I sat at the bar and watched them work. They brought me out a sake that they blended from a few bottles, this was new. Very interesting. Ordered food too, and it soon arrived.

mentaiko_tempura

First was the mentaiko, which was just excellent. I love this as a snack and here we got the tempura treatment nicely here.

tongue_steak

Next was tongue steak. Lightly grilled, this was tasty as anything. This place is a tongue specialty place and it was wonderful as a tongue lover. In fact I liked it so much I ordered more tongue and sake.

tongue_sashimi

The last dish was tongue sashimi. Wow, this was melt-in-your-mouth, almost as tasty as any fish. I love Japan for this very reason!

I ended the night with a glass of Yamazaki single malt and enjoyed it, a perfect way to finish my Hiroshima izakaya crawl. I stumbled back to my hotel, as predicted blotto and bloated, and set my alarm…may be a rough morning… But was totally worth it!

Chamu [茶夢]
1-11-24-107 Hikarimachi, Higashi-ku

Shizuku [雫]
3-13-3 Hatchobori, 4th floor, Naka-ku

Kaika [かいか]
1-25 Hondori, 2nd floor, Naka-ku
Hiroshima, Japan