Review: Gustav

23 September 2016

After an exhausing two days that took me to Frankfurt via New York, where in both cities my plans went up in smoke for different reasons, I was knackered, fed up and annoyed by the time I headed out to dinner through Frankfurt’s ever-slowing S-Bahn system. The scheduling of the trains is just brain-dead outside of the centre…

Anyway, I made it out to dinner at the well-regarded Gustav as it opened for this Friday evening service. A charming little place that graces fun pieces of art all over the place, including a whimsical orphaned water faucet on one wall. This is one of Frankfurt’s 1-Michelin places and I’ve read good things. But I was running on fumes here in every sense of the term, barely awake and trying to keep my frustrations from boiling over.

But I relaxed at this relaxing eatery and hoped for an excellent evening. I went with a 5-course version of their menu, alongside pairing. I chilled and hoped this trip gets off to a good start. Had such a crappy birthday over the weekend the last thing I needed was more crap on this extremely busy and hectic trip that will take me to 5 other countries after this.

Soon I was poured a nice white and the bread came in a bag…

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Cute, but the sourdough was way too sour for my taste. The amuse was a two-parter.

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There was a celery-based wrap on top which was pretty tasty, then a mushroom soup within. Strong flavours, but way, way overseasoned. Was almost too salty to finish to be honest. Then after a wine top-up, the courses commenced with the trout.

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Quite good, I really enjoyed the roe too. The skin was done very well, and the turnips were extremely tasty. The “ice” used, however, was a bit too salty again and actually ate a little too much into the fish. But a good start, and the wine worked very well.

Soon a pour of some nice Italian white and we were off onto the second dish, and I was actually a bit puzzled by this item.

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It’s called “green bacon” for some reason and I’m not sure if the green is for the colour or some nonsensical vegetarianism here, because I can’t say it’s describing the meat. But this was a complete mess, and I cannot tell what I am eating — aside from an array of good cabbage. The overall sauce on this was a gross, weird thing that I cannot describe, and what was beneath all this was something brown coloured that I cannot identify. If there ever was a dish called WTF this may be it…

If I wasn’t so hungry from having not eaten all day I would have abandoned this dish.

Sigh, I was getting disappointed here. Aside from the wine selection, things are falling far beneath a meh level here. Service is good though. Then an excellent rose was poured, and next was the lamb shoulder.

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Ah, now this brought things back a bit. The lamb was nice, although now a bit under seasoned (or perhaps the early over-seasoning has messed my taste buds up). Cooked well, good texture. However, I really wish there was a bit more greens here. This dish had no balance. In a tasting menu sure, but the lamb feels abandoned here. It really needed some roots or more greens, not just the decorative tiny bits here.

The place was getting a bit busier now, which is good. It’s not really affected service, as the kitchen was the slow agent this evening. Next up was the “cheese” course and it’s come close to being another WTF dish TBH…

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I stared at it for a second and wondered if I should have skipped this. It was again a tasting nightmare, termed Handkäs mit Musik. I’m not gonna say more, especially about the completely incongruent flavours, but for me this was nearly another disaster that really did no justice to the curd cheese. Unnecessary, a kitchen trying to be far too clever.

I gotta say the Apfelwein paired with this was excellent. Frankly the wine pairings have been top notch, and if there’s anything I’ll praise tonight it is the excellent pairings.

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We then moved to dessert and it was based around the parsley root. Not bad, but my tastebuds have been too messed up to really enjoy anything else at this point, so it’s sadly mediocre to be honest. Sigh. Anyway, this meal is over…

They ran out of my chosen after-dinner drink so I went with a grappa and a double espresso and headed out, somewhat disappointed overall. There were 2 completely WTF dishes but the wines were nice. This however worries me as I have a booking at its sister restaurant in 2 weeks on my way back through Frankfurt. The kitchen did not impress me at all.

I made my way back to my hotel at the airport with my 5am alarm set. I am barely conscious at this point, and this meal really did not help my mood. Sigh…what a crappy start to this trip…

Gustav
Reuterweg 57
Frankfurt am Main, Deutschland

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…

01-wagyu

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.

02-mezze-maniche

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.

03-sturgeon

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…

SPQR
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.

1-white-tuna-crudo

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.

2-nardello-peppers

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.

3-crab-and-corn-dumplings

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.

1-lobster

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…

2-root-salad

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.

3-duck

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…

1-roe-shumai

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…

2-squid-ink-dumpling

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.

3-pea-shoot-dumpling

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.

4-beef-shumai

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…

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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…

01-hamo

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…

02-ikura

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…

03-turtle

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.

04-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…

05a-nodoguro

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

06-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…

07-nishin

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…

08-rice

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…

09-mochi

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.

02a-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…

02b-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.

03-asparagus

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

04-pepper

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

05-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.

06-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…

07-okra

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

08-magochi

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

09-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…

10-anago

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.

11-tendon

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