Ishikawa (Tokyo, Japan)

Ishikawa
5-37 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku
Tokyo, Japan
Dining date: 11/1/16

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Ishikawa is one of the most highly regarded restaurants in Tokyo, known for its kaiseki dining. Here, diners are served a pre-fixed menu either at the counter or at a handful of private dining rooms. About a dozen small dishes are served in a careful progression featuring plenty of local seasonal ingredients for 22000 yen. I’ve dined at sister restaurant and fellow three-star restaurant Kohaku once before and had a great meal, so I was eagerly anticipating this one.

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Kikunoi (Kyoto, Japan)

Kikunoi Honten
Shimokawaracho, Higashiyama Ward
Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0825 Japan
Dining date: 10/29/16

Dining Room

One of the most notable dining styles in Kyoto is a kaiseki meal, a traditional dining experience featuring individual small plates using local and seasonal ingredients (not unlike a western tasting menu). The presentation are often as intricate as the foods – everything is thoughtfully presented and made to look beautiful. While in Kyoto, I visited one of the most well-known examples of kaiseki at Michelin three-star Kikunoi.

Each party that dines here sits in one of the 11 private dining rooms with a view of the grounds’ scenery, creating a very unique experience. It felt, at first,  kind of weird being in a private room as a party of 2 but I quickly got used to it.

Dining Room

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n/naka (Los Angeles, CA)

n/naka
3455 Overland Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Dining date: 7/15/14

exterior

n/naka opened three years ago in a quiet corner of Palms on the westside. The restaurant and its modern take on the Japanese kaiseki meal, has focused on creating a very precise multi-course meal with seasonal ingredients. Many of those ingredients are grown by chef Niki Nakayama herself in her own garden. I still feel the restaurant is somewhat under the radar; sure, Jonathan Gold has continually mentioned the restaurant in high regard (it was #18 in his 2014 best restaurants list), but I don’t feel like it’s consistently being considered with other high-end restaurants in LA.

While common in Japan, n/naka’s kaiseki-based menu is pretty unique in LA. It’s a carefully-scripted tasting menu often featuring 10+ small plates. Seasonal ingredients (usually simply prepared) are highlighted, and service and plating/decor are as much a part of a meal as the food. The thirteen course menu weighs in at $165 ($150 vegetarian) making n/naka one of the most expensive restaurants in the city (there used to be a slimmed down chefs’ tasting for $110).

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Yamakase (Los Angeles, CA)

Yamakase
10422 National Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Dining date: 4/8/14

yamakase

Yamakase has been on my radar since I first heard about it a couple of years ago. The restaurant is an invitation-only (request one here) “secret” Japanese spot serving high-end Japanese. The meal may be best described as kaiseki, but it’s not really; it’s moreso a progression of sushi/sashimi and small plates of whatever the chef wants to serve. The courses are definitely Japanese-centric but there are a handful with clear Western influences. As expected, the meal is omakase-only with around 20-25 courses; the price varies somewhere in the low $200s. It’s a BYOB only affair.

interior

The chef here is Kiyoshiro Yamamoto (Yama-san) formerly of Santa Monica’s The Hump which closed amidst a ton of controversy. Yama-san is a one-man show and the ten-seat bar curves around the kitchen giving everyone a full view of the preparation of the meal from start to finish. For the food-enthused, it’s as much a show as a meal. On this evening, Yama-san began by expertly breaking down a huge bluefin tuna loin, proceeded to prepare two Japanese hairy crabs for the steamer, then grated fresh wasabi root and shaved some truffles. It promised to be an exciting meal even before the first bite.

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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

ryugin

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!

sake glasses

sake

Hot Turtle Tofu with Green Onion Oil

Hot Turtle Tofu with Green Onion Oil

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

Fried Shirako

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

Monkfish Liver in White Miso Sauce with Seasonal Vegetables

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

Matsuba Crab Served in Crab Broth

crab tag

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

spanish mackerel

lobster

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

Thorn Head Fish Grilled on Charcoal and Simmered Grilled Eggplant

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

Soft Sea Eel and Tofu Bowl

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

Wagyu Beef Filet Grilled on Charcoal with Assortment of Vegetables

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

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

Rice with red bean and sea bream over charcoal

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

Candy Tangerine

Candy Tangerine

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

Roppongi Pudding

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

matcha

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.

Kohaku (Tokyo, Japan)

Kohaku
3-4 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-0825
Dining date: 11/15/12

kohaku exterior

Kohaku is the younger sibling restaurant to three-star kaiseki restaurant Ishikawa. Chef Koji Koizumi worked under Ishikawa for years, becoming his right-hand man. When Ishikawa decided to move his restaurant, it was time for Koizumi to take over the old space to create something of his own. Compared to Ishikawa, Kohaku is known for incorporating more modern Western ingredients into his dinners, something that has helped him garner two Michelin stars of his own.

The restaurant is located in the Kagurazaka part of Tokyo, a neighborhood filled with hilly streets, winding roads and dark alleys. The charming entrance of Kohaku was in one of these dark alleys; we actually had to backtrack a few times to find it.

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interior decor

Three fixed menus were available at ¥15,000, ¥17,000 and ¥20,000. The middle tier introduced fugu/blowfish into the mix, something I really wanted to try on this trip, so we went with that one.

As with all of the other kaiseki restaurants I’d been to, great care is demonstrated in sake service.

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Chawanmushi with Ginkgo Nuts, Shiitake Mushroom and Lotus Root

Chawanmushi with Ginkgo Nuts, Shiitake Mushroom and Lotus Root

The meal began with a warm, comforting light custard, perfumed with earthy notes from the nuts and mushrooms. The lotus root provided a little bit of textural contrast to the smooth custard.

Monkfish Liver and Eggplant with White Miso Sauce

Monkfish Liver and Eggplant with White Miso Sauce

I loved this ankimo, cool creamy and delicious. Lightly smoked eggplant and a subtly sweet miso complemented the liver nicely.

Steamed Rice topped with Scallop and Seaweed Sauce

Steamed Rice topped with Scallop and Seaweed Sauce

The rice, called ‘mochi rice,’ was very glutinous, topped with a pretty delicious seaweed sauce. The scallop was seared on one side, still mostly raw, and its sweetness really went well with the seaweed sauce.

Snow Crab Dumpling and Turnip

Snow Crab Dumpling and Turnip

As this was brought to the table, the server said the dumpling was made with very little binder, maximizing the crab flavor. I enjoyed the sweet chunks of crab, which sat in a lightly smoky dashi. The turnips were also pretty sweet and tender.

Spanish Mackerel Sashimi

Spanish Mackerel Sashimi

For the next course, the server explained that this sawara, a type of Spanish Mackerel, is a very fatty fish in the winter. It was served with bright shiso, a classic combination.

Oyster and Chestnut with Truffle Sauce

Oyster and Chestnut with Truffle Sauce

Oyster and Chestnut with Truffle Sauce

I love fried oysters so I was very excited for this one, especially since shaved truffles were on top. The oysters were perfect, with a delectable crunch and burst of juicy meat on the inside. The truffle sauce, made with grated truffle, dashi, and milk was exceptional having a great umami burst and truffle essence. So good.

Blowfish, Chinese Cabbage and Leek with Chili Sauce

Blowfish, Chinese Cabbage and Leek with Chili Sauce

This would be my first time ever having the potentially dangerous blowfish, or fugu. A mix of various parts of the fish, including the skin, was served with a citrusy ponzu and green onions. I found the fish itself to be rather light and mild in flavor, though with interesting textures, taking on the flavors of its accompaniments.

Kinme Snapper, Leek, Turnip and Garland Chrysanthemum

Kinme Snapper, Leek, Turnip and Garland Chrysanthemum

A light dashi soup filled with snapper, baby leeks and turnip was next. Warm and comforting, the soup had a subtle floral flavor and the fish was juicy and moist.

For the next course, two options were available for the rice bowl. We ordered one of each, both coming with red miso and Japanese pickles.

Steamed Rice topped with Fresh Salmon Roe

Steamed Rice topped with Fresh Salmon Roe

Steamed Rice topped with Broiled Duck

Steamed Rice topped with Broiled Duck

Red Miso

Both of these were executed well, though nothing special. Simply prepared, I thought the duck didn’t have quite as much flavor as there could’ve been, and I found it underseasoned as well.

Black Sugar Jelly, Black Soybean, Cream Cheese, and Rum Sherbet with Soup

Black Sugar Jelly, Black Soybean, Cream Cheese, and Rum Sherbet with Soup

Lastly, we were served this interesting dessert; looking at the ingredients, I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. I actually really enjoyed it between the creamy sweetness of the cheese and sugar jelly and slight bite of the rum sherbet. Creamy, sweet soybeans were a nice touch too.

I really enjoyed this meal at Kohaku. Some of the dishes were excellent (the fried oyster was outstanding) and the service was impeccable. While the meal had some modern/Western touches, it seemed to still be very steeped in traditional kaiseki dining. I easily enjoyed this meal more than other two-star kaiseki options like Ginza Okuda and Ginza Toyoda, but RyuGin is still the standard-bearer for me.