Third Anniversary: Top 5 Meals of the Blog Year

11/28/12

Today marks the third year anniversary of this blog. Who knew it would last this long? Honestly, I had no expectations when I started this so I can’t say I did. Each year has brought something new and different, chronicling where I’ve been and much of what I’ve eaten.

As with all of my other anniversary posts, I’ll recount here the top 5 meals of the last 366 days.

This past third year brought about an unexpected international flavor, having spent almost two of the past twelve months abroad. This included short stays in India and England, with the most significant (6 weeks) being in Japan. This was definitely the highlight for me – I love Japanese food. The opportunity to pig out on bowls of udon, soba, and ramen, plates of  curry rice, tonkatsu, tempura, yakitori, and multiple sushi, kaiseki and French meals (adding up to a cumulative 32 Michelin stars) was something I’ll never forget. Not surprisingly, my stay in Japan is well-reflected in this list.

5. Joel Robuchon (Tokyo, Japan) – 11/18/12

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Foie Gras with Parmesan Risotto

This was the best Western meal I had in Japan and perhaps the best service I’d seen in Tokyo (and therefore, ever). The lunch was highlighted by perfect execution from a meltingly rich foie gras atop risotto to a really nicely textured amadai (tilefish), cooked with its scales on. The bread cart, just like at the Las Vegas outpost, never ceases to amaze me.

4. Umi (Tokyo, Japan) – 10/29/12

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Toro

I had a number of sushi meals in Tokyo but this one stood apart in its variety (of course, quality too). Trying 30-or-so different cuts of fish was by far the most of any single meal and it was amazing to be able to sample so much (most from the chef’s native region Hokkaido). Getting to dine here with a native Japanese speaker was a huge plus, too.

3. Sushi Yoshitake (Tokyo, Japan) – 11/12/12

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Kohada

The best all-around sushi I had in Japan and probably the best sushi meal I’ve ever had. The sashimi to start off with was exquisite, highlighted by tender abalone in its own liver sauce, monkfish liver with yuzu, and a smoked bonito. The sushi courses that followed maintained the high notes, yielding one of my best meals in Japan.

2. RyuGin (Tokyo, Japan) – 10/20/12

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Premium Sea Urchin from Hokkaido in Lace Wrapping Deep Fried Rare with Edamame Beans Paste

This was an excellent meal from start to finish. Chef Yamamoto presented a modern kaiseki menu highlighting the ingredients (and seasons) of Japan with flawless execution. Highlights for me included an awesome fried uni, excellent unagi and surprisingly the best soba I had during my stay. I still think about the crispy, juicy unagi; I’ve never had anything quite like it.

1. The Fat Duck (Bray, UK) – 5/25/12

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MAD HATTER’S TEA PARTY (c.1850) Mock Turtle Soup, Pocket Watch

This wasn’t a clear-cut decision, but there was something about the whimsical, playful nature of this meal that set it apart. There was a sense of anticipation and excitement that came with each dish, keeping us all on the edge of our seats for hours. Combined with the fact that the ‘entertainment’ value of the dishes did not outshine the flavors, this was a wildly successful meal…and a whole lot of fun.

I’d like to extend a big THANK YOU to those whom I’ve had the pleasure of dining with, and to all who have stopped by this blog in the past year (especially multiple times)!

Honorable mention (in chronological order):
Commonwealth (San Francisco, CA) – 11/26/11 Another previous year’s meal showed up on last year’s list and I had another great meal here. For me, it’s a ‘must’ on any extended dining visit to San Francisco.
The French Laundry (Yountville, CA) – 11/27/11 Celebrating my grandmother and aunt’s birthday in one of my favorite restaurants in California is a sure-fire way to make this list.
Saison (San Francisco, CA) – 12/17/11 Truly an excellent meal and one of the best I’ve ever had in San Francisco.
5×5 Chefs Collaborative @ Melisse (Santa Monica, CA) – 4/29/12 The lone entrant from LA was the best of the 5×5 dinners I attended. The all-star cast put together a very strong meal.
Pierre Gagnaire (Tokyo, Japan) – 11/11/12 Honestly I wasn’t sure what to expect at Gagnaire’s Tokyo outpost, but I was surprised (in a good way) and thoroughly satisfied with the creativity balanced with flavor.

Previous Anniversary Posts:
First Anniversary | Second Anniversary

Thanksgiving 2012

Dining date: 11/22/12

As expected, Thanksgiving is a food-filled holiday in this household. Technically though, none of the food is consumed in our own household; we do lunch at my aunt’s (mother’s side) and dinner at my grandmother’s side (father’s). Each year the food served remains largely the same with a few new entrants – just the way it should be, I suppose. The food is probably what I would call Chinese-American, a mixture of two different cultures coming together for one (or two!) big feast.

country potatoes

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yams with marshmallows

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green beans with sliced almonds

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chicken pot pie

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linguine pasta salad

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chow mein

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chinese sticky rice

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stir-fried shanghai noodles

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turkey

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egg rolls

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fried shrimp wontons

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shrimp toasts

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beef tri-tip

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BBQ pork ribs

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lumberjack cake and mango pudding

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ice cream cake (neapolitan & cookies and cream)

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coffee crunch cake

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My grandmother handles the majority of dinner duties, though my aunt prepared the turkey and turducken.

roasted new york strip

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lobster tails

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turducken

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turkey

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stuffing

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vegetables

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mashed potatoes

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gravy

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chinese sticky rice

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yams

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dream cake

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Another Thanksgiving is in the books. As always the food is good but the company is the most memorable part. Living in Los Angeles, there are limited times to spend with the extended family so each one of these holidays is special.

Sushi Yoshitake (Tokyo, Japan)

Sushi Yoshitake
Suzuryu Building 3F
8-7-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Dining date: 11/12/12

8191134828 9ca1256ed8 Sushi Yoshitake (Tokyo, Japan)

One of my food goals in Japan has been to find the best sushi I could possibly get my hands on. Sukiyabashi Jiro was initially what I had my sights on to satisfy this quest, but that didn’t work out; in hindsight, I think I would’ve been disappointed in that meal. I’ve had some great sushi at Sushi Kanesaka, Umi and the Roppongi branch of Sukiyabashi Jiro, but Sushi Yoshitake was the best of them all.

Chef Masahiro Yoshitake is the man behind the restaurant, a new entrant (and three-star awardee) to the 2012 Michelin Guide. His success has spawned another branch in Hong Kong, but this remains the flagship. Like all the rest of the sushiyas I’ve been to, the decor is spartan but intimate. The bar seats seven and the chef does much of the work including finishing all of the dishes and making the sushi. Of course, the view is a part of the experience and I was lucky enough to get a seat front and center!

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There is no menu; food is omakase-only at ¥21,000. As is typical for other sushiyas, the first few courses are small plates/sashimi with the rest all sushi.

crab with roe, dashi jelly

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Cool, sweet crab was complemented with additional umami from the dashi. I liked having the roe which added a little bit of texture and depth of crabby flavor.

hirame/fluke sashimi

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The hirame was served slightly warm, which I found kind of odd. The texture was tender and silky, and I thought the sudachi-soy dipping sauce was an ideal accompaniment.

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octopus sashimi

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I think this was braised for a long time since it was extremely tender. Or maybe it was just very good octopus? I loved the texture though I found the molasses-like sweet sauce to be a little too sweet.

abalone with liver sauce

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A couple of tender, sweet chunks of abalone arrived next. A separate dish contained a mysterious green sauce; turns out, it was made from the abalone liver. Awesome! The sauce lended an extra richness and depth of flavor that really set this dish apart.

sushi rice with liver sauce

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A refill of the abalone liver sauce came next with a dollop of sushi rice. I was excited to have another helping of the unique sauce and really liked how it coated the lightly seasoned rice.

monkfish liver with yuzu

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This was an exceptionally creamy example of monkfish with a hint of soy and citrusy yuzu. The flavor was clean and bright; I thought this was one of the best monkfish livers I’ve ever tasted.

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smoked bonito sashimi

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The last course before sushi was this one. I’ve been seeing smoked bonito sashimi/sushi quite a bit in Tokyo and wonder why I don’t see it that much in the US. The smoky perfume goes so well with the rich tuna that it’s hard to go wrong. In this example, the skin was seared gently, giving each bite a little bit of an added smoky charred flavor. Delish.

The sashimi courses were very strong, so I was excited for the next stage: sushi!

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Why do sushi bars seem to have the best green tea?

squid

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madai/red sea bream

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rockfish

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akami

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chutoro

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otoro

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kohada

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barracuda roll

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mirugai/geoduck

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uni

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kurumaebi/shrimp

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miso soup

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anago/sea eel

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tamago

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This was some of the best sushi I’ve ever had. There was a fine balance of fish to rice, and I found the rice seasoning to be present but not overbearing. Highlights for me included a squid with a very nice texture, as well as a trio of excellent tuna preparations. I really enjoyed the rich flavor of the kohada, as well as amazing uni and anago. While Sushi Yoshitake didn’t quite offer the impressive variety of Umi, this was bite-for-bite my best sushi experience of the trip (and one of the best overall).

Service was top-notch. Just as I got up to leave, the sushi chef walked out the back. I hesitated a moment since I wanted to say thank you one more time. Silly me – I should know by now. The chef ran out the back to get the elevator for me and say thank you one last time. Incredible.

Christmas-time in Japan starts in early November.

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Other Tokyo sushi:
Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi | Sushi Dai | Sushi Daiwa | Sushi Kanesaka | Umi

 

Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi (Tokyo, Japan)

Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi
6-12-2 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032
Dining date: 11/4/12

8185222226 ca493f92a1 Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi (Tokyo, Japan)

Jiro Ono and his restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro have achieved a sort of legendary status. The documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi added to the attention and seemed to really put him onto the radar of Westerners (particularly Americans). Having seen the film, I can see why; Ono’s relentless pursuit of the perfect sushi (and countless shots of food porn) sounds like any sushi lover’s dream destination. I was sold; Sukiyabashi Jiro became my #1 restaurant destination in Tokyo.

My perception of the restaurant has changed dramatically during my stay here. First, the restaurant is not nearly as well-known as I thought it would be. Sure it’s known among the ‘foodie’ culture, but I’ve gotten countless blank stares from others. Second, from what I’ve gathered from those who have heard of it, my general impression is that it’s known to have good sushi but not the best; if anything, it’s more well-known for being one of the most expensive sushiyas around. On Yelp-like restaurant rating site Tabelog, the main Sukiyabashi Jiro scores a very pedestrian 3.54 stars out of 5. His son’s outpost in Roppongi rates an even lower 3.14. Having said all that, Sukiyabashi Jiro remained my #1 destination to try (albeit less enthused); I was not able to score a seat at the Ginza location, but did manage a seat at the son’s outpost in Roppongi.

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Located in the foreigner-friendly Roppongi Hills complex, Ono’s younger son Takashi opened this location since his elder brother is in-line to take over the main branch. It’s supposed to have the same flavors and techniques as the main (since Takashi did train under his father for decades), so I guess this is the closest to dining at the Ginza Sukiyabashi Jiro without actually doing so.

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ginkgo nuts

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Lightly salted, warm ginkgo nuts were the first thing served before a number of sashimi courses.

flounder fin sashimi

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aji/horse mackerel sashimi

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kurumaebi sashimi

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akagai/ark shell clam sashimi

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shrimp head

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My favorite of the sashimi courses was probably the horse mackerel. Tender, yet fatty and rich in flavor, I really savored these bites. The sweet shrimp is usually one of my favorites too and this was no exception.

18 courses of sushi came next in quick succession.

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hirame/flounder

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ika/squid

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akami

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chutoro

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otoro

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kohada/gizzard shad

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steamed abalone

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ikura

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kurumaebi

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uni

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smoked bonito

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hamaguri/clam

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saba/mackerel

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mirugai/geoduck

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shako/mantis shrimp

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scallops

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anago/sea eel

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tamago

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The fish quality was, as expected, excellent. I loved the progression of tuna from akami to otoro and I thought they were all some of the best examples I’d had on the trip. The uni sushi was fantastic too, overflowing with cool, sweet sea urchin. The smoked bonito had a great balance of smokiness and rich meatiness, while the anago was amazingly creamy with just the right amount of sweet eel sauce. There was only one that I didn’t like which was probably more of a personal preference – the shako shrimp had a sort of dense and mealy texture I wasn’t expecting…nor acquired.

In terms of the overall sushi, the rice was seasoned with more vinegar than I would’ve liked. I think this is another personal preference thing, but it really got in the way on some pieces (kohada, abalone, mirugai). The meal lasted about 50 minutes from start-to-finish, which seems a bit longer than the main branch. Service was good but not in a noteworthy way.

With one beer, this meal came out to ¥35,700, by far the most expensive of the trip. From everything else I’ve heard/read, I expected the meal to be around ¥26-27,000 without the beer so I think there was a big mistake or I was simply ripped off (sushi at the main branch is ¥31,500). The diner next to me ordered a bunch of extras so it’s possible it was the former. There was no menu or bill itemization, just a number written on a piece of paper at the end of the meal. Needless to say, this left a bitter impression and I still regret not inquiring deeper about it.

Aside from the billing issue I think I’d have to side with a lot of what I’ve heard here. It was a good sushi meal, sure, but far from the best (this was borderline top 3 sushi of the trip) and definitely overpriced.  And even if it was at the mid-¥20,000 price level, it’s still more expensive than most sushiyas.

Other Tokyo sushi:
Sushi Dai | Sushi Daiwa | Sushi Kanesaka | Sushi YoshitakeUmi

Ginza Okuda (Tokyo, Japan)

Ginza Okuda
Carioca Building B1
5-4-8 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Dining date: 11/3/12

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Japanese kaiseki meals are akin to Western high-end dining in that there are typically a large number of small courses. Plating is thoughtful and intricate, and the food is highly seasonal. Like a sushi bar, counter-dining is prevalent, allowing the diner a front-row seat into the action. There aren’t too many restaurants in Los Angeles that serve a meal like this; the first half of Urasawa and n\naka are the only ones that come to mind (but I am sure there are others). However, these are more modern interpretations of a kaiseki meal – in Tokyo I sought out some of the more traditional ones.

Chef Toru Okuda has two restaurants in the Ginza area of Tokyo (in the same building actually), both highly acclaimed. He established his reputation at his first restaurant (Kojyu opened in 2003) and opened up Ginza Okuda last year. I had read that he cooks at the Michelin two-star Ginza Okuda during lunch service and heads to three-star Kojyu for dinner service.

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I opted go to Ginza Okuda for lunch since I figured Okuda-san would be there, and it was a relatively more reasonable way to go price-wise. Three set menus were available at ¥10,000, ¥15,000 and ¥20,000 – I went for the middle one. Okuda-san was not around this afternoon but I was placed in the capable hands of Shun Miyahara for the duration of the meal. Coincidentally, his English was quite good.

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crab, seaweed, vinegar jelly

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The first dish featured a generous portion of cool, sweet crab bathed in a vinegar jelly. Luckily, the jelly wasn’t too tart or acidic, balancing out the sweetness of the shellfish. Seaweed and okra provided the greens.

fried matsutake mushroom, sudachi, sea salt

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Fried matsutake mushrooms arrived next. It was fried to a crisp, leaving a tender earthy mushroom; sudachi citrus was an ideal accompaniment to brighten things up.

fish dumpling, katsuo dashi, mushrooms

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Next was a katsuo dashi soup with a fish and shrimp ball swimming in it. The fish and shrimp were pretty tasty, and I liked that there was a bit of citrus in the broth. More mushrooms helped to balance the flavors.

The sashimi course came next.

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chutoro & akami (medium-fatty and lean tuna), tai (red snapper), ika (squid)

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All three of these were solid. I loved the tuna and its luscious, mildly-fatty bites. The tai had a fresh, clean flavor with a bit of chew while the squid was very tender though a bit on the slimy side.

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grilled barracuda and unagi, sweet potato, mushrooms

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Next up was a duo of fishes, freshly grilled. The unagi had moist flesh and a crispy skin, though I found the skin a little chewy at times (paled in comparison to the unagi at RyuGin). The barracuda was cooked through; I wouldn’t say it was overcooked but I thought it could’ve been more moist. The ginkgo nuts, sweet potatoes and mushrooms were fine, but the focus was clearly the grilled fish…a bit disappointing.

fried root with mushrooms

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The next course was some kind of fried root with mushrooms. The root had a very creamy interior but the fried batter quickly became soggy in the earthy gravy.

ginger beef donburi, matsutake mushrooms, soybean curd miso, pickles

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The last savory course was this beef donburi with miso soup. Tender pieces of marinated beef topped the rice bowl as well as slivers of matsutake. Frankly I found it rather boring and not really better than the average beef donburi. Compared to the unagi at RyuGin and red snapper rice bowls at Ginza Toyoda, this one paled in comparison.

azuki bean ice cream, azuki paste, mochi
grapes and pears in jelly

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Dessert was a two-parter – the azuki bean ice cream was nice, while the “cone” gave each bite a little bit of crunch. Sweet grapes and slices of pears sat suspended in a cool clear jelly, providing a light ending to the meal.

I found Ginza Okuda to be a bit of a disappointment. Nothing was wrong or bad per se, but given its 2-star rating and $200 price tag I was expecting more from my lunch. Nothing really stood out, and I thought the kitchen relied too heavily on matsutake mushrooms. I get that they’re in season, but the mushrooms became repetitive.

Rikyu (Sendai, Japan)

Rikyu Gyutan
4-9-7 Chuo Aoba Ward, Sendai, Miyagi 980-0021‎
Dining date: 10/26/12

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Our team spent a weekend in the northern part of Japan (in the Tohoku region) doing a project in Ishinomaki, one of the cities most heavily hit in last year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. In short, much of the area has been cleaned up but there is much recovery still to go. While in the area, we spent the evening in the capital and main city of the region, Sendai. It just so happens that Sendai is known for its gyutan – beef tongue. Amazingly, there are shops everywhere specializing in the cut – I’ve never seen such specialization in America. Our hosts on the trip picked out a popular chain that specializes in tongue; not too surprisingly, some of my American team members were very apprehensive. However, I’ve had it on a number of occasions (though never a meal focused on it) and was excited to try it in Sendai.

The menu was definitely beef tongue-centric with a number of a la carte dishes and a few set menus. We were advised to go with the sets due to ease of ordering. With each course there were a few delicious options available.

seaweed, daikon, fish cake cooked with soy and sugar

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The first thing to come out of the kitchen was this starter. It was cool and refreshing, with a nice balance of sweet and savory.

beef tongue salad

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The parade of tongue began with this dish, cured duck tongue in a green salad. The tongue really tasted like pastrami with a nice smokiness and peppery bite, countered by the crisp green lettuce.

Two options were available for the next course – a stew and a soup.

beef tongue stew

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Another team member opted for the tender chunks of tongue in a warm and hearty stew.

oxtail and beef tongue soup

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I couldn’t resist going for the oxtail and tongue soup. It was a comforting and simple bowl of hot beefy broth with tender and delicious chunks of oxtail and tongue. A little bit of onions added some crunch and sweetness.

grilled beef tongue

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The main dish was this plate of grilled beef tongue served with Japanese pickles and rice. The tongue was chewy and meaty – loved the texture. I haven’t had a ton of beef tongue prepared like this in the States to compare, but this was pretty tasty. A couple of different pickles provided some heat and acidity to work in tandem with the fatty meat.

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A fattier cut of tongue was available called “extreme tongue” and we ordered a side to share. However there was a miscommunication with the kitchen…and we actually just received more of the same tongue. The other American diners had enough of the exotic cut, so I had most of this to myself. No complaints here!

This was a satisfying and enjoyable meal and I was glad to be able to try a specialty of the region. I think my team members that were initially apprehensive eventually came around to the tongue, though I’m not counting on them to order it back in the US.