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.

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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Sushi Yoshitake (Tokyo, Japan)

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

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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

 

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.

Beige Alain Ducasse (Tokyo, Japan)

Beige Alain Ducasse
Chanel Ginza Building 10F
3-5-3 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Dining date: 10/28/12

8141480153 7a8355500c Beige Alain Ducasse (Tokyo, Japan)

In between bowls of soba and ramen and countless plates of curry rice, tonkatsu, yakitori, sushi and sashimi, I’ve scattered a few French meals into my itinerary. This was the second (after L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon). Beige Alain Ducasse is a collaborative effort between the chef and Chanel, located on the top floor of the Chanel building in Ginza. The Michelin two-star restaurant is Ducasse’s only upscale venture in the country.

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Having been in Tokyo for just over three weeks now, I can confidently say it’s a fantastic food city (but we all knew that…).  While Japanese food is the obvious dominant player, French food plays a prominent role in the food scene from casual to high-end. Notable French restaurants and chefs have been coming to Japan for some time now (both to eat and to open restaurants); the legendary La Tour d’Argent opened a Tokyo outpost almost 30 years ago. Many notable French chefs have opened up outposts here including Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, Michel Troisgros and even Paul Bocuse. I don’t think any city in America has matched that (Las Vegas may come the closest); when considering the multitude of Japanese that have studied French cooking in France (and returned home to cook), it’s easy to see why it has become a significant presence in terms of Western flavors.

I originally intended to dine at Beige during lunch and sit on the rooftop terrace overlooking Ginza. However, the dinner menu looked much more interesting to me, so I ended up making a dinner reservation. Unfortunately, it was a rainy evening so the view of Ginza wasn’t nearly as good as it could’ve been. Staff at the restaurant apologized for the rain at least a half-dozen times throughout the evening, reflecting the culture and service standards in Japan.

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A tasting menu (¥22,000) was available, as well as 4- and 5-course prix fixe meals (¥12,000 and ¥17,000, respectively). I had my eye on some dishes in particular, so I went with the 5-course menu.

ham on focaccia

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The first thing to come out of the kitchen was this little bite. I suspect it was some kind of fancy European ham, but the type was lost in translation. Simply served atop a piece of soft focaccia, I found the overall bite to be on the dry side. The richness of the fatty ham did come through a bit, but the bite needed something more.

crab, celery, melon paste, consomme

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Progressing in portion size, the kitchen sent out another amuse bouche. Cool crab was paired with the textures of diced celery and carrot, topping what I think was a shellfish consomme gelee. Crisp flavors of the sea were complemented by the vegetables.

Bread service was fine, though it paled in comparison to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon.

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roasted hen pheasant, giblet crostini, baby salad leaves

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The first proper course was this roasted pheasant. The pheasant was cooked well, though I felt it was lacking a more flavorful sauce. It was kind of boring. However, the foie gras and giblet crostini was a highlight, with a delicious seared offal flavor coming through with the crispy toast. Excellent!

poached blue lobster, au gratin macaroni, cooking jus

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Next up was lobster, which I thought was perfectly cooked with tender, yielding flesh. The shellfish cooking sauce was pretty tasty too. I enjoyed the al dente macaroni gratin, while a little bit of spinach provided some balance. I thought the dish was everything it said it was going to be, but nothing more.

seared kyushu beef, oven-baked vegetables, bordelaise reduction

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The last savory course of the evening was maybe the one I was most anticipating. Japan has some of the best beef anywhere, and I’d been craving a good chunk of it for some time. The beef was cooked to a nice medium rare, exceedingly tender and pretty juicy. A great piece of meat, especially with the rich bordelaise sauce. The vegetables (onions, carrots, snap peas, and I think daikon) were simply prepared and tasty.

petits fours: dark chocolate biscuit, lemon tart, caramel macarons

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Some sweets came to the table to introduce the dessert part of the meal. All were solid, but I thought the caramel macarons were fantastic. They had a perfect chewy consistency and a rich caramel filling – I wish I could’ve taken a bunch home.

chocolate-praline CHANEL square, hazelnut ice cream

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Next was the main dessert and a signature item of the restaurant. Loved the presentation, with the golden-chocolate square at the bottom and sugar art rising up at least a foot into the air. Flavor-wise, it was a satisfying dessert with strong chocolate and nutty flavors; I thoroughly enjoyed the hazelnut ice cream with the chocolate.

CHANEL chocolates and madeleine

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Lastly, I was served a warm madeleine and some Chanel-branded chocolates (white and dark). It was almost sugar overload at this point, but I gobbled them down.

My meal at Beige Alain Ducasse was about as expected, though not as good as hoped. There was nothing wrong with anything; the meal was well-executed and delivered exactly what the menu stated. However, it was nothing more than that – I was hoping it would be more interesting, that the ingredients would be elevated more. It may have been due to what I ordered (reflecting what I was craving), but I’m not sure about that.

Restaurant service in Japan is better than America at every level. As expected, it was superb here. As for the Chanel side of the partnership, the soap in the bathroom was probably some of the best-smelling I’ve come across. Also, the seats were extremely comfortable with soft pillows to provide back support, fluffed every time someone got up to go to the bathroom.