Kaika (Tokyo, Japan)

Kaika
Kojun Building 4F
6-8-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Dining date: 11/13/12

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Teppanyaki is a style of Japanese cuisine centered around an iron griddle, where chefs prepare a number of courses right in front of the diner. It’s not exactly a style steeped in tradition (it began in the 20th century), often incorporating a number of Western ingredients into the cooking. The most famous teppanyaki restaurant in America has to be Benihana, which introduced the style; as a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve been to a teppanyaki meal outside of Benihana. Well, until now.

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Often nicknamed “Japanese steakhouses,” a teppanyaki restaurant was an ideal place for me to get my hands on some wagyu – Japanese beef. The super-marbled breed of beef has been almost impossible to get in America, given it was banned from U.S. imports almost three years ago (though the ban was recently lifted!). I’ve only had true Japanese wagyu a handful of times (the most memorable being at CUT on my college graduation day), and it’s unmistakable richness really differentiates it from high-grade USDA Prime or even cross-bred American wagyu beef.

Kaika was selected by a few Tokyo locals for a dinner in Ginza. Expectantly, a meal centered around this type of beef wasn’t cheap with set menus ranging from ¥12,600 to ¥25,200. I would’ve been content with some steaks and a bowl of rice, though the prix-fixe menus didn’t really allow that. I went on the low-end of the range and elected to upgrade my beef option to the highest one available – a sirloin from Kagoshima.

madai (red snapper) sashimi

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The first course was a sashimi course of red snapper marinated in kombu (kelp). It had a very mild flavor, complemented by seaweed and the earthiness and texture of small kernels of popcorn, still on the stem.

At this point, the raw beef came out to be displayed at the counter. It was quite a sight, displaying the rich veins of marbling characteristic of the breed. Even the filet (on the right) had fantastic marbling.

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sweet potato puree

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A sweet and creamy sweet potato soup arrived next, nicely displaying the in-season root vegetable.

A seafood course was next.

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tiger prawn in brain sauce; suzuki (sea bass) with tomato and couscous

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I enjoyed the prawn with the crunchy head, though found the brain sauce to not be as flavorful as expected. The dense, meaty sea bass was cooked pretty well, and I enjoyed the tomatoes and what I think was Israeli couscous that came along with it.

onion chawanmushi

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The delicate sweetness of the onion came through in the light custard.

Awaiting the next course, we could see the meat being cooked on the teppan.

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salad of cherry tomato, burdock root, lotus root

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Refreshing cherry tomatoes, romanesco and some root vegetables came with a sesame dressing, plain and simple.

wagyu sirloin with sauteed vegetables

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Finally, the pièce de résistance. The meat was as I remembered from years ago, exceedingly fatty and rich though still with a good beefy flavor. It was kind of ridiculous how rich it was; I could only eat this in relatively small portions and definitely not a big steak of it. Marbling-wise, it was truly a step up from New Zealand wagyu or any of the American wagyu found domestically. Texture-wise, it was similar to a seared foie gras in its succulent melt-in-your-mouth richness.

fried rice with fish; japanese pickles

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The final savory course was an under-seasoned fried rice with tiny dried fish served with miso soup.

azuki bean ice cream, black sesame chiffon cake

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Lastly, we enjoyed a pretty solid dessert with a subtle sesame flavor in a light and airy chiffon cake. The ice cream was a little overly icy, but had good red bean flavor. The fruits were pretty tasty too.

I’m glad I was able to experience the over-the-top fatty richness of the beef; food-wise this was one of the highlights of my trip in Japan. The rest of the courses were pretty decent though nothing special (not that I was expecting them to be). Similar to the sushi/kaiseki/tempura meals I had, the counter experience was exciting. It was fun to be able to watch everything in action, and the chef spoke pretty good English allowing us to have some dialogue.

Ginza Toyoda (Tokyo, Japan)

Ginza Toyoda
La Vialle Ginza Bldg 2F
7-5-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Dining date: 11/10/12

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I made it a point to try a few kaiseki meals while in Japan – Ginza Toyoda would be my third experience of the trip. The restaurant came to my attention via the Tokyo Michelin Guide (2 stars) and the fact that it has an English version of its website…often a good indication that some English was spoken.

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The restaurant is located on the second floor of the La Vialle Building on a small, narrow street in Ginza, It was walking distance from my apartment, making it an ideal spot for a lunch meal. Speaking of lunch,  three set menus were available at ¥5,000, ¥7,000 and ¥10,000. I went right in the middle.

Like Ginza Okuda (where I dined the previous week), Ginza Toyoda serves a pretty traditional, ever-changing kaiseki meal following a careful progression of dishes.

sea eel, sea urchin, greens, dashi jelly

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The first dish featured a tender, meaty piece of eel with a smooth and cold piece of uni. Slightly bitter greens contrasted the sweet seafood, while a cool dashi jelly added some tasty depth.

meatball, mochi, onion, dashi

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The texture of the meatball was interesting…kind of silky (fatty?) and soft in texture, but I liked the flavor. I think it was pork. I liked the sweetness of the onion to go along with it, but didn’t care for the chewy mochi.

red snapper, chutoro, mackerel sashimi

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A beautiful sashimi plate came next. The fish tasted as good as it looked, with the fatty chutoro being my favorite. The red snapper was dipped in ponzu, while the tuna and mackerel came with soy sauce.

baked cod with mayonnaise

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A meaty, dense cod was next – I thought it was cooked pretty well leaving pretty moist flesh. The baked on mayonnaise provided just a little more moisture and flavor.

bottarga

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While I was still working on the cod course, a random slice of cured fish roe found its way onto my plate. No complaints here with its sort of gelatinous texture and delicate salty, fishy flavor.

daikon, scallops, greens, dashi

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A tender chunk daikon and slices of scallops sat in a warm dashi broth. I thought one of the scallop pieces was overcooked (the other one was fine), and I’m not sure all of the flavors came together as hoped.

red snapper rice bowl; red miso

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Next, a large pot of rice with red snapper was brought to the counter. After being displayed, the contents were mixed and scooped into individual (ended up being three) servings. I thought this was pretty tasty, with tender chunks of the snapper perfuming the rice and thinly sliced scallions providing a little sweetness. A hearty, earthy red miso was a traditional accompaniment.

grape jelly

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Lastly, dessert was in the form of this in-season grape jelly. I really liked the texture – soft but yet almost chewy – and the grape was pretty tasty too.

I liked this kaiseki lunch moreso than the one at Ginza Okuda, especially considering it was half the price. However, similar to that meal, I wasn’t overly impressed here. We had some good dishes but nothing particularly memorable…and some just seemed overly simple (maybe I just didn’t understand them). While not quite as traditional, RyuGin remained a clear-cut favorite for kaiseki dining.

Some of the main streets in Ginza are closed to vehicular traffic on the weekend, making it an ideal place for an after-lunch stroll.

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Pierre Gagnaire (Tokyo, Japan)

Pierre Gagnaire
ANA InterContinental Hotel Tokyo
1-12-33 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-0052
Dining date: 11/11/12

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My third main foray into Western cuisine in Japan was my first time to a Pierre Gagnaire restaurant. I’ve heard some mixed reviews about Gagnaire’s lone U.S. restaurant Twist in Las Vegas, but still felt like I had to try his food for myself. A lot Japanese restaurants close on Sundays, especially for lunch, so a number of my French meals filled this gap.

The Michelin two-star restaurant is Pierre Gagnaire’s lone restaurant in Japan, situated on the 36th floor of the ANA InterContinental Hotel. Of course, great views are offered…just not so much on this cloudy, rainy day.

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I thought the lunch menu was reasonably-priced with a weekdays-only prix-fixe ¥4,500 menu and a longer ¥8,000 menu offered everyday. We ordered the “four-course” tasting menu, the only tasting offered on the weekend. A la carte was also available, but the pricing seemed to really favor the tasting. This menu was actually cheaper than dining at Gagnaire’s Twist in Las Vegas, which isn’t open for lunch.

The first thing out of the kitchen was the amuse bouche, a collection of 5 separate bites; the broad variety of just the amuse would foreshadow the courses to come.

(left to right)
Chestnut cream with truffle oil and hazelnut
Sesame chip
Dark beer glazed popcorn
Ginger cookie with almond
Cucumber with mascarpone cheese

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Overall, I thought these were fun bites to begin with. My favorite was the ginger cookie with almond; the texture and balance of ginger and almond tones won me over.

Country bread, milk bread, and a dried fruit bread were served with a very creamy butter imported from France.

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Just like the amuse bouche, the “first course” was a five-parter. Each one stood on its own with separate flavors so this really was kind of like five courses in one. The plates covered the table in a pretty impressive presentation.

Champagne sorbet with grapes

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The sorbet was cool and refreshing, while I thought the grapes provided a nice fresh, sweet flavor.

Chestnut soup, chantilly cream with rum and orange juice

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A warm and earthy chestnut soup was accompanied by a dollop of chantilly cream, which provided much of the richness. A hint of citrus balanced everything out.

Just sizzling sanma fish, red pepper pulp and mizuna leaves

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The fish was warm and crisp, cooked quite well, while a red pepper puree provided a very nice sweetness. Lightly dressed mizuna leaves lended some acidity to my favorite of the first courses.

Slices of smoked quail, sour lotus with saffron, gingerbread powder

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The quail was warm and smoky, countered by a crisp, tart lotus root. This dish didn’t have the same depth that I found in the others, though I really enjoyed the quail.

Sauerkraut salad, pig ears and seaweed flakes

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Tart sauerkraut and chewy pig ears were complemented by a bit of seaweed flavor. Not my favorite as the flavors didn’t really all come together for me.

Upon completion of the first course(s), the lone entree (appetizer) came next.

Taraba crab meat, wild mushrooms fricassee with autumn fruits, bouillon of sauternes

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The mushrooms were sautéed until tender, exuding an umami-packed earthiness. I’m not really sure how the broth was prepared but it was delicious…showing off a ton of depth. The cool, sweet crab was delicious as well, completing the sea-earth flavor combination. Really an excellent dish.

Challans duck cube roasted with cumin, slice of foie gras pan-fried and marmalade of cabbage with black olive, amaranth leaves

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For the main course, pieces of duck breast, leg and enlarged liver were all prepared pretty well with a strong cumin seasoning. I thought the duck was delicious, countered by the cabbage and greens. A rich pan sauce provided more savory depth to the dish.

For the first sweets course, we went back to the multi-component presentation.

(left to right) Egg white meringue and black bean lemon cake, banana apricot jelly, strawberry marshmallow, arugula cake, grapefruit almond tart, salted caramel ice cream (center)

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It was pretty simple, but I thought the salted caramel ice cream was pretty tasty. The arugula cake was another favorite, with a sweetness taking over the characteristic peppery notes.

The dessert “course” itself was a trio of dishes all presented at once:

Apple jelly with apple chocolate

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I loved the presentation of this dish with its chocolate mousse and jelly shaped into a green apple. It was actually rather light, with crisp apples providing texture and tartness to balance the creamy chocolate.

Cinnamon ice cream, green tea ice cream, fresh fruit rice cake

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The wrapper had an interesting sort of al dente texture with a fruit filling. Cinnamon ice cream went pretty well with the fruits inside, while a mini green tea ice cream cake was tasty though somewhat out of place.

Chocolate with berry sauce and hot chocolate

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A chocolate mousse was accompanied with tart berries and a rich warm chocolate sauce on top. The chocolate and berry flavors showcased in this dessert seemed kind of conservative given the previous desserts, though I can’t say there were any complaints with the execution of it.

As if we hadn’t reached a sugar-overload by this point in the meal, we were served brown sugar cookies and chocolate truffles to close out the meal.

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Not unlike Joel Robuchon and Paul Bocuse, Pierre Gagnaire also has his own bakery separate from his restaurant. I purchased breakfast for the next few days here.

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I thoroughly enjoyed this lunch. While presented as 4 courses on the menu, we had about 15 separately plated dishes outside of the mignardises. For less than half the price, I thought I got far more variety and depth of flavors here than at Beige Alain Ducasse. More importantly, I thought the creativity here was much stronger too…the most of all of the French meals I had in Tokyo. And that crab dish with the mushroom fricassee - that’ll be one of the dishes I remember most from all of the food I ate in Japan.