Ramen (Tokyo, Japan)

As everyone probably knows, there’s great ramen in Japan. It’s seriously everywhere, and the breadth and depth of options is impressive. I can’t think of a food in the US that is matched with such passion (obsession?) as ramen is in Japan. There are countless restaurants specializing in the dish, and it really seems hard to go wrong wherever one steps in.

I had my fair share of bowls…most everything I had was pretty good, summarized below.

Ippudo
Marunouchi Brick Square B1F
2-6-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-6990

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Ippudo was a must-visit for me; I mean, it’s now one of the most famous noodle houses in America. It’s very famous in Japan too, where the Fukuoka-based shop has expanded to 40+ locations around the country. The only location I tried (multiple times) was across the street from the office and in the same plaza as a La Boutique de Joel Robuchon (and San Francisco-based A16), in Marunouchi’s Brick Square.

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Laduree (Tokyo, Japan)

Ladurée Ginza Mitsukoshi
Ginza Mitsukoshi 2F
4-6-16 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-8212
Dining date: various

Ladurée Shinjuku
Shinjuku Lumine 2, 1F
3-38-2 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0022
Dining date: various

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I’ve posted before about the abundance and quality of sweet confections all around Japan; one of the places where I seemed to most consistently stop in was Laduree. Primarily famous for its macarons (and inventor of the standard double-decker macaron we know today), the French patisserie has 6 locations in Japan (3 in Tokyo). Two of them happened to be within a quick 10 minute walk from my apartment.

The store I stepped into most often was in the heart of Ginza, on the second floor of the Mitsukoshi department store. It’s a full service restaurant, with a counter filled with all the wonderful goods taken to-go, as well as table service with the same desserts, some savory options, and wines. The cafe offered excellent views of one of the main intersections in Ginza.

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Of course, the macarons are a top draw with a beautiful arrangement of colorful flavors. About 20 flavors are offered.

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I found the macarons to be very good, as expected. I loved the texture and the flavors popped. However, there are so many producers (both French and Japanese) of excellent macarons in Japan that I wouldn’t say these necessarily stood out. But they’re very good (and also some of the most expensive at ¥240 each), and were consistent among many visits. My favorite was probably this salted caramel variety.

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In addition to the macarons, there’s a host of small cakes and treats that look equally as decadent. I tried a number of them; they were solid, but I wasn’t blown away by anything.

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Ispahan

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Saint Honore

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Mont Blanc

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Chocolate-Hazelnut Cake

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However, if there was one thing I was really impressed with, it was the soft serve. The Shinjuku location was the lone spot that served it…but it was worth the trip out there. There were a few different flavors available, along with a variety of syrups, fresh fruit, and crumbled macaron shell toppings.

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chocolate soft serve, chocolate macaron shells, hazelnut, caramel

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ispahan rose soft serve, fresh raspberries, raspberry macaron shells

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The soft serve was delicious, sweet but not too sweet. Each of the toppings were excellent too, and I loved the chewy texture that the pieces of macaron shell provided. So simple really, but so good!

Given only one domestic location in the U.S. (NYC), it will be some time before I visit a Laduree again. It’s one of the things I’ll miss about Tokyo.

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RyuGin (Tokyo, Japan) (2)

RyuGin
Side Roppongi Bldg, 1st Floor
7-17-24 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032
Dining date: 11/20/12

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My first meal at RyuGin was one of the best meals in 2012. Towards the end of that meal, I was told that they store the menus of all of the diners they seat so that they can ensure a unique meal each time. The promise of a completely different meal towards the end of my trip lingered in the back of my mind until I decided to make it my final dinner in Japan.

The restaurant, a Michelin three-star ranked #28 on the 2012 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, is a ‘modern kaiseki’ establishment, where chef Seiji Yamamoto blends Western influences into a traditional Japanese meal. With strong accolades from the Western world, the customer base does seem to largely be foreign (English-friendly!), though it was mostly locals on this Tuesday evening.

The service was some of the best I had seen anywhere in Tokyo, with all of the servers wearing an earbud in one ear, staying in constant contact with the kitchen and rest of waitstaff. In both of my visits, the timing and service was impeccable.

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Sake service was awesome with no less than 20 glasses to choose from. Sweet!

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Hot Turtle Tofu with Green Onion Oil

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The meal began with my first (and only) taste of turtle during the entire trip. Slightly chewy yet tender pieces of turtle sat in a silky chawanmushi-like custard, topped with a brightness from the green onion oil.

Fried Shirako

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Shirako (cod milt) is in season; here it was delicately fried atop a bed of Rice Krispies. Dare I say it had a very creamy interior upon the first bite, oozing out of its crispy shell. It was kind of too hot, burning my mouth, so much of the flavor was lost.

Monkfish Liver in White Miso Sauce with Seasonal Vegetables

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This is a variation of a dish that has been prepared since the restaurant opened nine years ago. The sweet, creamy monkfish liver was delicious, complemented by the savory miso and slight heat of Japanese mustard. Crispy scallion and veggies countered some of the heat and richness of the dish.

Matsuba Crab Served in Crab Broth

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This was a special kind of crab, sold individually tagged to ensure authenticity. Commonly known as snow crab in America, it had a very subtle sweetness and flavor, sitting in a shellfish broth made of its own shell. Wilted cabbage completed each warm and comforting bite.

Assorted Sashimi

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The duo of sashimi this evening was a seared Spanish mackerel with ponzu and a lobster with sea urchin sauce. The rich, luscious still-raw mackerel was pretty tasty, while the seared skin provided a little smokiness and texture. Sweet, spongy lobster was even better with a pureed uni sauce and a touch of wasabi – a perfect combination of flavors.

Thorn Head Fish Grilled on Charcoal then Simmered with Eggplant

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The thorn head fish, stuffed with eggplant then grilled and simmered, was rich in flavor and cooked pretty well. A sauce made of fish broth and ginger was a nice complement, while finely sliced gobo (burdock root) provided a fresh crunch.

Soft Sea Eel and Tofu Bowl

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A tofu ‘meatball,’ cod roe and sea eel were the focal points of this dish. I thought the textures were interesting, but found the flavors to be too subtle to really distinguish. Some mizuna (Japanese greens) provided a little bit of brightness, but couldn’t lift up this dish.

Wagyu Beef Filet Grilled on Charcoal with Assorted Vegetables

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Next was this extraordinary dish, which made it to my Top Dishes of 2012 post. Here, the over-the-top fattiness of Japanese wagyu was in the form of relatively lean filet mignon; the opposites created a fantastic middle-ground. The result was something that was extremely tender, yet also very juicy and succulent. Crisp veggies provided just a little bit of textural crunch to lighten things up a bit. So good!

Rice Topped with Chinese Cabbage and Sea Bream Simmered with Sansho Pepper

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This rice bowl was sort of lesson in textures with an assortment of crispy diced vegetables, chewy rice, and tender chunks of both fresh and dried fish. It was a good one, though not nearly as memorable as the unagi-don of the previous visit.

Rice with Red Bean and Sea Bream over Charcoal

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The final savory course was an ‘extra’ from the kitchen. I was kind of disappointed to find this pretty similar to the previous dish, and also happened to be lacking in as much flavor. Add to it the fact that the sea bream had some bones, and this was a disappointment.

With the savory courses completed, a couple of desserts came next.

Candy Tangerine

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This first sweet course was similar to the grape dish I had in my last visit. A cold, airy yogurt powder with a pop rocks texture was molded and shaped inside a tangerine shell; when cracked, it was topped with a warm tangerine jam. The opposing temperatures and textures contrasted in a pretty yummy sweet, tangerine flavor.

Roppongi Pudding

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I really liked this one, a jar of steamed pudding with a rich, caramel bottom. Pretty simple I guess, but delicious. Even better with a bowl of bitter matcha tea.

Matcha

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While my first meal was a tale of highs after highs, I found this one to have more ups-and-downs. Maybe my taste buds had gotten spoiled during my trip, but my expectations had also increased given the success of the first meal. Still, the food at RyuGin was yummy, interesting and executed pretty well. Highlights included the wagyu beef filet (so good!), crab, lobster-uni sashimi, and both desserts. I don’t hesitate in recommending RyuGin highly during any visit to Tokyo.

Tempura Kondo (Tokyo, Japan)

Tempura Kondo
Sakaguchi Building 9F
5-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Dining date: 11/7/12

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Tempura is easy to find in America, and it’s something I really enjoyed eating as a kid (especially the shrimp). In Japan, tempura is taken to another level, with restaurants solely focused on the style. Diners sit around a bar while a chef prepares seasonal vegetables and fish right in front of you. It’s similar to a sushi or kaiseki meal in that aspect, and the prices can be just as high. As far as I know, we don’t have anything quite like this in America.

Tempura Kondo is a Michelin two-star restaurant in Ginza, helmed by Fumio Kondo. It’s one of the most notable tempura restaurants in Tokyo, partially because Kondo-san is a bit of a chef celebrity, often seen on TV.

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Three fixed menus were available of differing lengths: ¥10,500, ¥12,600, and ¥17,850. I went with the middle choice, supplementing it with two a la carte tempura dishes: uni with shiso and sweet potato.

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Dining alone, I was lucky enough to be seated in the middle, right in front of Kondo-san himself! Preparing tempura appears fairly simple in concept, but the precision in execution was definitely on display with such a view of the action.

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whole baby shrimp marinated in soy

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I started with whole baby shrimp marinated in soy. Served raw, they were sweet with a little bit of a delightful crunch.

scallop, salmon roe, sea snail, mackerel sashimi

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A small sashimi plate was next: I enjoyed the scallop and sea snail most. The sea snail, pulled out of its shell, yielded a very sweet, tasty meat.

steamed tofu with yam, gingko nuts, and potato

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Creamy tofu and a duo of creamy starches from the nuts and potato combined for a rather savory, earthy mix.

With the first few dishes done, we moved on to tempura service.

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fried shrimp heads

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Light and crunchy, these were quite nice.

shrimp

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Next up was a pair of shrimp – one was eaten with a squirt of fresh sudachi juice while the other with the more traditional dashi-based dipping sauce. I liked them both, complementing the hot, sweet flesh of the shrimp. The batter was light, crisp, and not at all oily.

asparagus

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Huge spears of asparagus from Australia were fried then cut. These were quite flavorful, almost juicy, with a nice crunch.

shiitake mushroom

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The tender shiitake mushroom was next with its characteristic woody, earthy flavor.

kisu

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This flat white fish was cooked well, moist with a pretty light flavor.

chestnut

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This tasted kind of like a roasted chestnut on the inside, with a hearty creamy texture.

lotus root

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I found this lotus root to be a highlight. I thought it was perfectly cooked, with a crispy texture, and a sort of earthy sweetness.

megochi

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This white fish had a stronger flavor than the kisu, along with a denser flesh. Still tasty though.

eggplant

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Soft and juicy, almost mushy on the inside. Good flavor.

uni with shiso

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This was an extra order off the set menu, and a bit of the letdown. I thought it was cooked well with a creamy interior, but the clean flavor of the uni was somehow lost. Instead, it tasted kind of murky and just off.

onion

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Sweet and tender, this one tasted about as expected.

sea eel

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Rich in flavor and moist, I enjoyed this piece of sea eel.

sweet potato

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This is supposedly one of the specialties here, and another off-menu item. Seriously, this thing was huge…at this point in the meal, I could barely finish it. I don’t normally love sweet potatoes and this one didn’t particularly win me over either. The interior was sweet with a roasted flavor…almost creamy. Cooked well, but just not for me.

The next course (and final savory) was kakiage served in three different ways: tendon (atop rice with sauce), ten-cha (atop rice with tea) and separately with rice.

kakiage with tea

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I went with this choice since it seemed the most unique to me. The rice had a nice chew to it that held up in the roasted tea; parts of crispy and soggy kakiage made an interesting mix of textures, packed with small chunks of seafood.

strawberries and pear

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The last course of the evening was a simple plate of fruit. Very sweet, these were quite delicious.

I enjoyed my meal at Kondo and left completely stuffed; it was truly a unique type of meal. Having said that, I was far from being blown away; maybe my expectations were too high, but I found it slightly disappointing. Everything was pretty good but nothing really was great; overall, for 200 bucks I was looking for something a bit more.