Sons & Daughters (San Francisco, CA)

Sons & Daughters
708 Bush St
San Francisco, CA 94108
Dining date: 11/24/12

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Sons & Daughters is a restaurant I’ve been wanting to try for some time. Since I spend a limited amount of time in San Francisco nowadays, it’s always been on my list of places to try but never high enough to the point where I’ve actually gone. Until now.

The restaurant opened up in the middle of 2010 and has garnered quite a few accolades in the ensuing couple of years. Some of the most notable have been its one Michelin star, a 3-star review from the S.F. Chronicle’s Michael Bauer, and chefs Teague Moriarty and Matt McNamara being named 2012 Rising Star Chefs.

A part of a trend in the S.F. fine dining world, Sons & Daughters has continually shrunk the dining room, added more courses, removed a la carte and gotten more expensive. I’m not particularly against that movement (and kind of wish more in LA attempted it), but the increases in price point need to reflect a higher standard of both food and service. Currently, it’s $135 service-inclusive for around 9 courses. Continue reading

Alexander’s Steakhouse (San Francisco, CA)

Alexander’s Steakhouse
448 Brannan St
San Francisco, CA 94107
Dining date: 11/25/12

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I’ve wanted to try Alexander’s Steakhouse for some time. I love a good steak and Alexander’s is one of the more highly regarded steakhouses on the West Coast (and perhaps country). The original location, in Cupertino, garnered a Michelin star in the inaugural Bay Area guide and has maintained it ever since. A San Francisco location opened up in 2010 serving up the same American steakhouse fare with a bunch of Japanese influences. I tend to think my favorite steakhouse is Beverly Hills’ CUT, but figured Alexander’s would be a strong competitor to that.

It took a couple of years, but my family and I finally dined at the restaurant for my grandmother’s (surprise!) birthday. Over the years, this birthday dinner has become a bit of a tradition with previous birthday dinners at The French Laundry, Masa’s, Quince, Murray Circle, Cyrus, and The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton. Alexander’s seemed to be the ideal choice for our carnivorous family, and the large restaurant was able to accommodate a private party for our extended family and friends.

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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.

Joel Robuchon (Tokyo, Japan)

Chateau Restaurant Joel Robuchon
Yebisu Garden Place 2F
1-13-1 Mita, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 153-0062
Dining date: 11/18/12

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I wasn’t initially planning to dine here. I went to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon at the beginning of my stay and was content on trying more of the Japanese food that I couldn’t get in America. At some point during my trip my thinking shifted and this place shot up my list. Was it all the Japanese food? Not sure; I don’t think so since I never actually got sick of it.

With 7 Michelin stars across 3 of his restaurants, Joel Robuchon has the most stars of any chef in Tokyo. The out-of-place-looking Chateau in Yebisu Garden Place houses two of the restaurants, the 2-star La Table (ground floor) and 3-star Le Chateau de Joel Robuchon (second floor).

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The three-star restaurant is very similar to his eponymous restaurant in Las Vegas with some similar signature menu items, kind of gaudy interior, and ridiculous breadcart. Dinner is downright expensive with set menus going up to ¥40,000. Lunch seemed to be a relatively reasonable visit with menus ranging from a weekday-only 5-course menu at ¥6,000 going up to ¥15,000. We went with the ¥15,000 menu, offering 8 courses.

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We began with a little bubbly.

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Sea urchin with a delicate crustacean jelly and cauliflower cream

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The first thing out of the kitchen was this dish, complete with a special plate. This was very similar to something I’d had in Las Vegas. The jelly had a strong crustacean flavor though it was clean and crisp. A cauliflower cream was an excellent accompanying flavor profile, having a creamy sort of earthiness to go along. Bright, fresh uni pieces sat at the bottom yielding a little bit of sweetness with each bite.

Not unlike the Las Vegas restaurant, the Tokyo outpost has the most impressive breadcart I’ve ever seen. Selections were taken back into the kitchen to be warmed through. My first set was a mini ham and cheese croissant (delish!) and milk bread (one of my favorites from the past).

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Potato salad served with tomato confit, parmesan shavings and autumn truffle

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This really wasn’t like a typical potato salad; instead, warm soft potatoes were beautifully plated with sweet tomato confit, parmesan, bitter greens and truffles. It was exceedingly simple but well-executed, with a careful balance of flavors full of umami.

Sauteed duck liver served with a parmesan cheese risotto

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I loved this dish. Maybe it was because I’ve been somewhat foie gras-deprived in California, but I found the liver to be seared perfectly with a rich, silky interior. An equally rich parmesan risotto was delicious as well with its al dente grains of rice; a drizzle of olive oil to finish provided a little bit of a fruity note to each bite.

Pan fried amadai cooked with its scales and served with a lily bulb yuzu scented broth

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Amadai was cooked with its scales intact, providing a natural texture, almost as if it had been breaded and fried. I really liked the crunch that each bite had, while the moist fish sat in a nice broth with floral and citrus accents.

This red wine seemed like an appropriate pairing for the next course.

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Grilled beef served with seasonal vegetables and a natural gravy

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I was eagerly anticipating this dish to see what the kitchen would do with some Japanese beef. I was slightly disappointed to see they used the relatively lean filet mignon; it was a very good piece of tenderloin but I thought another cut would stand out more. The vegetables were cooked until tender, each having its own disparate flavor. To pair with the course, I requested some of Robuchon’s signature mashed potatoes; the server said that they typically only serve them for dinner, but since I came all the way from America they obliged. Score! Reliably as ever, they were rich, buttery and delicious.

Pistachio mousse with pear sherbet and pistachio tuile

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The pre-dessert was in the form of this refreshing and cool pear sorbet. A pistachio mousse and crisp tuile provided nuttiness and contrasting textures, while diced pears brought fresh flavors and sweetness to each bite.

Praline mousse with a pistachio filling and an apricot compote, almond ice cream

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The last course was this pretty strong dessert. The apricot itself was delicious and sweet, and I thought the almond ice cream really went well with it. The duo of praline and pistachio on the left provided more earthy, nutty bites that also paired well with the fresh apricot.

Coffee or tea served with petit fours

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Lastly, coffee (or tea) service came along with a cassis macaron, chocolate truffle, and panna cotta with raspberry and chocolate sauces.

There was a fun take-home gift of a large loaf of bread; not unlike the Las Vegas restaurant, it’s only for female guests. No fair.

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Overall I thought the meal was excellent and the service even better. As expected, execution was on point and I found everything to pretty much be delicious. The cooking wasn’t particularly innovative I suppose, but for some reason I wasn’t looking for that at this point in the trip. Robuchon’s cooking around the world has a lot of Japanese accents, and it was fun to see much of the Japanese influences and ingredients incorporated here. I’d have to say this was easily the best Western meal of the trip.

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Kohaku (Tokyo, Japan)

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

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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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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Steamed Rice topped with Broiled Duck

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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

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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.