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.

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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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

 

RyuGin (Tokyo, Japan)

RyuGin
Side Roppongi Bldg, 1st Floor
7-17-24 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032
Dining date: 10/20/12

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RyuGin was close to the top of my list of restaurants to try in Tokyo. The modern kaiseki restaurant garnered three Michelin stars in the 2012 guide and is ranked #28 on the 2012 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (while I don’t really believe in this list, it’s hard to ignore). In addition, I feel like everything I’ve read about the restaurant has been nothing but positive.

Chef Seiji Yamamoto blends traditional Japanese kaiseki with modern Western influences. While an a la carte menu is available (after 9pm), diners are steered towards the tasting menu aka “Gastronomy Menu.” Priced at ¥23,000, it contains around 11 courses (though many of the courses have multiple components).

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Given its accolades from the Western world, the restaurant seemed well-equipped to accommodate customers from around the world. While there was Japanese spoken at some tables, English appeared to be the dominant language in the dining room. One neighboring table was even communicating seamlessly in French. While all of this often calls into question the authenticity of a meal in Japan, I’m confident that the food at RyuGin maintains its hold on its Japanese roots. As with any kaiseki menu, the food is highly seasonal and local, with a focus on the artistry of the whole plate (the Japanese have been doing it way before it became cool to do so in America).

Variation of Autumn Vegetables with Pine Nuts Dressing

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The server said there were 12 different vegetables in the dish from whatever was found at the market. I could detect various mushrooms, bean sprouts and mushrooms in the texturally-dynamic dish. To bring it all together, it was dressed with a tasty pureed pine nut vinaigrette. I thought it was a very well-balanced first course.

Soft Simmered Abalone and Blue Crab with Wakame Seaweed and Apple Vinegar Jelly
Abalone Broth Hot Soup

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Next was a duo of abalone, presented in-shell. The abalone, apparently simmered for 10 hours, was tender with just a little bit of chew – delish! Blue crab completed the shellfish tandem, while an apple vinegar jelly provided some bright acidity. To subsequently wash it down, the chef served a comforting soup made from the same abalone.

Premium Sea Urchin from Hokkaido in Lace Wrapping Deep Fried Rare with Edamame Beans Paste
Grilled Mushrooms Cold Soup

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Next, this was quite a sight. Uni and seaweed were fried rare in some type of light rice flour batter. It was as good as it looked, with a delicate crunch and warm, oozing uni on the inside. So good! A cool mushroom soup provided an earthy contrast which was also quite nice.

Ichiban Dashi Soup with Grilled Seaperch and Matsutake Mushrooms in Autumn Presentation

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A very moist, light piece of sea perch sat in a bowl of dashi. I was worried the fish would overcook in the soup, but that wasn’t the case at all. The fish was delicious, as were the tender slivers of matsutake, while a dashi broth brought a soul-satisfying warmth to the dish.

Today’s Assortment of Sashimi RyuGin Style

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The assortment included squid, spanish mackerel, two sea bream preparations, a type of shrimp (ebi), and a cup of ikura with autumn vegetables. These were all pretty good, with the most interesting being the spanish mackerel with a smoked hay condiment providing a ton of depth. My favorite was probably the salty ikura with earthy mushrooms and greens.

Autumn Colors on a Plate: Grilled Thorn Head Fish, Eggplant, Chestnuts, Ginkgo Nuts

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Next was this plate with a grilled white fish and thinly sliced fried mushroom. The fish was perfectly cooked, moist with a crispy skin. An accompanying mixture of chestnuts and chrysanthemum provided a cool and refreshing bite while a slice of peach, lightly pickled with ginger, was an interesting flavor combination.

Simmered Presentation: Soft Octopus and Lightly Fried Sea Scallops with Autumn Vegetables

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Here, octopus was paired with a still-raw fried scallop. I liked the texture between the crispy scallop and slightly chewy octopus, paired with simmered spinach and turnips.

Chef Yamamoto’s Specialty: Charbroiled Large Wild Eel with Kinome Leaves in Don Style
Shrimp Broth Red Miso Soup

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This was also one of the most memorable dishes of the meal. This was my first time having eel in Japan and I was thoroughly impressed. The eel was cooked in a way that it had a delightfully crispy skin, while keeping a juicy interior. Loved the texture and it was so delicious. It was served don-style, atop some brown rice. Lightly pickled egg, beans and a root vegetable sought to provide a slight acidity to counter the eel, while a shellfish-based miso soup was a wonderful finisher to the course.

Following the last savory course of the meal, I was asked if I was still hungry; if so, the chef could prepare an additional course of either fresh soba or chicken rice (inspired by his time in China). I sort of misunderstood and ordered both…given the success of the meal at this point, I wasn’t going to reject anything coming out of the kitchen.

Chef Yamamoto Remembering His Childhood with Chinese Chicken Rice

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The first “extra” was this one. This is similar to a rice dish I eat every Thanksgiving and Christmas, a Chinese sticky rice (nuomi fan) with tiny diced mushrooms, carrots and chicken.

RyuGin Original Homemade Cold Soba Noodle with Yuzu Flavor

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I was told one of the sous chefs was making this fresh in the back. Soba is everywhere in Tokyo and I haven’t had a bad bowl (except the hit soup ones!) but I was very curious if RyuGin could elevate it. This was easily the best soba I’ve had so far with a superior, addicting chewy texture. The yuzu zest was a nice touch, but I didn’t really need it.

Two Grapes

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The first dessert of the evening was this duo of grapes. The first was a grape imbued with CO2 (I think), which resembled champagne when it burst in the mouth. Pretty cool. The second was a concoction frozen quickly via liquid nitrogen, cracked and topped with a grape jam. The interior of the grape had something like pop-rocks, leaving that familiar sensation in the mouth. The flavors were good, though I’m not a huge fan of the whole pop rocks sensation.

Grilled Ginjou Sake Oyaki Souffle with Egg Soft Cream

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The final dish of the evening was this dessert, the chef’s take on a souffle-style oyaki. It was prepared with sake, which I could taste in each light and airy bite. A rich, eggy soft cream….kind of like a thick froyo, provided a sweet, creamy contrast.

Matcha

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To pair with dessert I had a bowl of hot matcha. Bitter and slightly thick, I really enjoy this with dessert or as an end-of-meal drink.

I had a nearly flawless meal at RyuGin, which lived up to the hype in my opinion. There wasn’t as much molecular gastronomy flair or “tricks” as I thought there would be, which I was actually pleased with. Instead, the preparations seemed to be relatively simple and straightforward, focusing on great ingredients and excellent execution. Service was impeccable, something almost always expected at a Michelin three-star, but it often fails to impress. Even though I still have a lot to eat in Tokyo, I think this will be close to (if not at) the top at the end – I may even drop in one more time before I go. Easily one of my best meals of 2012.

The Fat Duck (Bray, UK)

The Fat Duck
High Street
Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AQ
Dining date: 5/25/12

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I recently attended an extraordinary four-day wedding in India. On the way back, I wanted to capitalize on the fact that I was halfway around the world and stopover somewhere interesting to explore/eat. Options throughout Asia piqued my interest but my friend Shawn proposed that I visit him to spend a couple of days in London with the main reason being to dine at The Fat Duck. He’d been wanting to go but hadn’t had a chance to yet – I didn’t need much convincing.

Opened in 1995, The Fat Duck has become a world-renowned destination (~30 miles outside London), having been bestowed 3 Michelin stars each year since 2004 and being named the best restaurant in the world in 2005 in one particular survey (it consistently held a spot in the top 5 until dropping to #13 in 2012). The chef, Heston Blumenthal, is known for modernist cooking (and a lot of molecular gastronomy) and a wild sense of imagination when it comes to his cuisine. Needless to say, I was very excited for this one – this would be one of those rare meals where I walked in expecting a meal that I would remember for a lifetime. It wouldn’t disappoint.

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The Fat Duck is tasting menu only, around 14 courses for £180. The first thing that came to our table was this trolley filled with cold champagnes. Dining at the Fat Duck seemed like a festive occasion in itself, so we kicked off the meal with a glass.

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AERATED BEET ROOT Horseradish Cream

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The first dish to hit our table was this amuse bouche. Looking kind of like a macaron (and having a texture similar to one), the shell exhibited a strong beet flavor, while a subtle spiciness crept up in the cream.

NITRO POACHED APERITIFS Vodka and Lime Sour, Gin and Tonic, Campari Soda

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Three choices of cocktail aperitifs came next. Some type of powder was frozen tableside with liquid nitrogen, resulting in a light and airy shell that melted once it hit my mouth. I had the campari soda and, indeed, it did taste pretty darn similar to the real thing.

We decided to start with a lighter white and progress to something bolder later in the meal.

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RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream

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The mustard ice cream was the most pronounced flavor in this dish, which was both refreshing and mildly spicy. The red cabbage gazpacho itself was sweet, balancing out the ice cream nicely.

JELLY OF QUAIL, CRAYFISH CREAM Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast

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I had seen a picture of this dish ahead of the meal and was very curious how it all worked; it’s easily one of the most memorable presentations I’ve ever seen, resembling something like a foggy forest floor. Dry ice is hidden under the grass, and a dense fog billows out as water is poured over. Food-wise, we started with a film that we placed on our tongue – the film gave off a smoky/woody essence on the palate. The two main edible components were the truffle toast and layered quail jelly, crayfish cream and chicken liver parfait. An odd combination of ingredients, but they worked well together to make some delicious savory bites.

SNAIL PORRIDGE Iberico Bellota Ham, Shaved Fennel

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The porridge itself was tasty with a rich creaminess. Tender chunks of escargot were a nice pairing too, as were the thin slivers of fennel. I didn’t think the jamon iberico was too pronounced though.

For the next dish, we had the option of the foie gras from the tasting menu or a special scallop dish that day. Three out of the four of us decided to stick with the foie gras.

ROAST FOIE GRAS Barberry, Braised Kombu and Crab Biscuit

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The foie gras itself was cooked perfectly, topped with a sweet fruity topping. It was good, but I thought the flavor profiles were a bit “typical,” especially considering our previous dishes.

Our fourth did really enjoy his scallop, though.

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MAD HATTER’S TEA PARTY (c.1850) Mock Turtle Soup, Pocket Watch and Toast Sandwich

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Our next dish brought back the whimsy with its tower of sandwiches and a teapot. We were presented with gold pocket watches (presumably the Mad Hatter’s) which were placed into the teapot. We were instructed to stir gently and marveled at how the watch disintegrated and ended up turning the liquid into a sort of rich bouillon. Crazy. A quail egg and some caviar accompanied the delicious soup, which we ate with toast sandwiches….as in, crispy toast in between slices of bread. So cool, and tasty too.

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“SOUND OF THE SEA”

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The assault on our senses continued as a sea shell was brought to our table. A small iPod was in each shell and we listened to sounds of the sea/beach as the next course came. A selection of fresh sashimi including mackerel, halibut and cured abalone were accompanied by tapioca sand and a seawater foam. I can’t say for sure that the sounds elevated the flavors, but this was another fun dish. The fish was good, as was the strong sea flavor of the foam, and I found the texture of the tapioca sand to be addicting.

Given I had flown in from Mumbai this morning (the 7:30 dinner began at midnight Mumbai time), I needed a bit of a pick-me-up. Three espressos definitely did the trick.

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SALMON POACHED IN A LIQUORICE GEL Asparagus, Vanilla Mayonnaise and Golden Trout Roe

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The poached salmon was cooked rare with a surprisingly subtle liquorice flavor. The salty trout roe and excellent asparagus may have overshadowed the salmon itself.

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POWDERED DUCK (c.1860) Blood Pudding, Umbles and Apache Potato Puree

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Our last savory course involved the restaurant’s namesake ingredient (there had to be some kind of duck served in this meal right?). It was a tasty and succulent piece of duck breast, though the skin was disappointingly a bit limp. I enjoyed the potatoes and blood pudding though, and the duck spring roll was a fun way to present the duck, as well as provide texture.

HOT AND ICED TEA

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An intermezzo of sorts, I was very amused by this one. We were advised to drink this as soon as possible and were awarded with distinct warm and cold liquids. Aside from the playfulness, it was a good cup of tea too.

MACERATED STRAWBERRIES Olive Oil Biscuit, Chamomile, Coriander, Jelly and Ice Cream Cornet

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The first dessert was this creation – an earl grey ice cream cone followed by this macerated strawberry dish. The strawberries were very sweet, balanced by a sort of savory olive oil biscuit. Everything on the plate was edible, including the picnic tablecloth look-a-like.

THE “BFG” Kirsch Ice Cream and the smell of the Black Forest

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We progressed into the richest and final dessert of the evening. The server sprayed the aroma of “Black Forest” into the air just as we began to dig in. I can’t say the aroma consciously did much, but the gateau was a good one, with cherry and alcohol notes working in tandem with the chocolate. Chocolate crumble was crucial too in adding just a bit of crunch.

The cheese course supplement was a relatively reasonable £15 (given it was a generous portion); two in our party decided to partake.

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WHISK(E)Y WINE GUMS

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Next to arrive at the table were these gummies. SO cool! These were gummies of various whiskeys (reminded me of the Haribo happy-cola bottles) from around the world. They packed a punch too, having a strong whiskey flavor…as they should’ve. Maybe I was just pretty full or buzzed, but I had a difficult time distinguishing the nuances between the whiskeys.

“LIKE A KID IN A SWEET SHOP”
AERATED CHOCOLATE Mandarin Jelly
COCONUT BACCY Coconut Infused with an Aroma of Black Cavendish Tobacco
APPLE PIE CARAMEL with an Edible Wrapper
THE QUEEN OF HEARTS she made some tarts..

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Lastly, we were left with a bag of sweets. Of course, these were fun and whimsical too, particularly the pop tart-like Queen of Hearts.

I do not hesitate in saying that this was one of the most (if not the most) unique and imaginative meal I’ve ever had. The creativity, the whimsy and the execution of these plates combined to make something pretty extraordinary. Having said that, when people ask if it’s the best meal I’ve ever eaten I don’t think I can say yes to that. While there were a number of delicious dishes, none of them made me think “this is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.” Still, I thought the meal spanned a wide variety of ingredients and flavors, all of them working pretty well. This was an excellent all-around meal and easily one of the most memorable I’ve had; it’s surely a destination worth visiting when in London.

Full picture set can be found here.

The French Laundry (Yountville, CA)

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
Dining date: 11/27/11 

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Each year, my dad takes my grandmother and aunt out for their birthdays, usually in December. The food has always been good, with past years being at The Dining Room, Cyrus, Murray Circle, Quince and Masa’s. However, it’s never been this good. I scored a 6-person reservation on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, which turned out to be an ideal time for everyone to go. So, my grandmother, dad, mom, aunt, cousin and I took the short drive up to the Napa Valley. This would be the first trip for my cousin.

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve dined here, but everything felt very familiar. The restaurant has been one of my favorites for some time, and has a sort of sentimental value to me since first dining here seven and a half years ago (I still vividly remember parts of that meal). One thing that has definitely changed is the wine list – now via iPad!

Two 9-course tasting menus are offered daily, $270 each (inclusive of service) – the chef’s tasting menu and the tasting of vegetables. There are a number of options within the tasting menu, as well as various supplements, to tailor the meal to one’s desire. We all opted for the chef’s tasting menu, which can be found here.

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GOUGERES

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This was the first amuse bouche, and a constant among my four visits. Light and airy, they displayed a warm gruyere essence.

BLACK TRUFFLE CROQUETTE

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My mother claimed to be lactose intolerant so as to avoid the cheese course (she’s not). The thoughtful kitchen even substituted the gougere for this croquette. She seemed to be quite pleased with it.

SALMON CORNETS

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This was another staple amuse bouche – salmon tartare was complemented by a light creme fraiche and chives, while the cone added a delicate texture.

Bread service has typically been strong, featuring breads baked down the street at Bouchon Bakery. Two butters were available – an unsalted one from Andante Dairy in Petaluma, CA as well as a salted, extremely creamy butter from the Animal Farm in Orwell, Vermont (ha!).

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2007 Schramsberg, Blanc de Blancs “Cuvee French Laundry”

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“OYSTERS AND  PEARLS” “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar

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The classic; it was as good as ever. The creamy sabayon was rich and played well with the salty caviar. Loved the soft, delicate oysters too. So good.

ROYAL OSSETRA CAVIAR Dungeness Crab, Salsify and Garden Blossoms (50.00 supplement)

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My aunt opted for this supplement and enjoyed it.

VELOUTÉ OF ROASTED SUNCHOKES Royal Blenheim Apricot, French Laundry Garden Kale and Marcona Almonds

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MOULARD DUCK “FOIE GRAS AU TORCHON” Pickled Huckleberries, Candied Orange Zest, Belgian Endive and Chocolate Brioche (30.00 supplement)

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Instead of the sunchoke veloute, I opted for the foie gras supplement. I’m glad I did. The foie gras was rich, creamy and went well with the tart huckleberries. The chocolate brioche was wonderful too, served hot and just oozing chocolate. Three finishing salts were served alongside, which I thought was a bit of an overkill (but I liked it!).

SAUTÉED FILLET OF GULF COAST RED SNAPPER Hawaiian Hearts of Palm, Sultana Raisins, Young Ginger, Cilantro and “Sauce Japonaise”

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NANTUCKET BAY SCALLOPS Long of Naples Squash, Oyster Lettuce, Black Truffle and Pomegranate Reduction

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I went for the red snapper in this choice. It was a perfectly cooked, moist and flaky fish with a slight sweetness from the raisins. Japanese accents were a nice touch too. I tried one of the scallops and they were equally well-executed, with a sweetness from the squash and pomegranate reduction.

2009 Hirsch “San Andreas Fault,” Pinot Noir

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SWEET BUTTER-POACHED MAINE LOBSTER TAIL Bone Marrow, Roasted Romaine Lettuce, “Pommes Maxim’s” and Bordelaise Vinaigrette

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An excellent piece of lobster tail. Cooked gently to just a rare/medium-rare temperature, leaving it very spongy – really nice texture. A bone marrow sauce (!) added a hearty depth of flavor, while some potato puree added some creamy potato to each bite. Wonderful.

A special supplement was available given it was white truffle season. I think I recently read somewhere that Keller stated his truffles were $2,600 per pound this season. Not cheap. For $150, these truffles from Alba could be shaved atop a risotto, tagliatelle or gnocchi. My dad went for the risotto.

CARNAROLI RISOTTO WITH WHITE TRUFFLES (150.00 supplement)

A plate of risotto came out accompanied by a wooden box.

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Inside the box were five incredibly aromatic white truffles of varying size; one was picked up and shaved tableside. What a sight!

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This dish seriously seemed like equal portions rice and truffle. Crazy. Expectantly so, it was a fantastic dish with a perfectly cooked, creamy al dente rice. The white truffle flavor was clear and upfront, elevating the plate to memorable heights.

The rest of us were served an extra dish as well.

WHITE TRUFFLE INFUSED CUSTARD

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This was a very light custard with a subtle white truffle essence. A little bit of black truffle on top added more of the earthy flavor.

SALMON CREEK FARM PORK BELLY “Pain de Campagne,” Red Wine-Braised Cabbage, K&J Orchard Chestnut and Turnip “Mustarda”

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Rich and tender while not being overly fatty, this was a good piece of pork belly. There was a sweetness from the “mustarda” while the braised cabbage added a little body. A good dish, but it wasn’t quite as exciting as the previous few.

2007 Realm Cellars Farella Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon

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ELYSIAN FIELDS FARM “SELLE D’AGNEAU” Nantes Carrots, Cippolini Onions, Tardivo Radicchio and Black Walnut Purée

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BROKEN ARROW RANCH VENISON Garnet Yams, Candy Cap Mushrooms, Pecans, Arugula and Bourbon-Maple Jus

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In this choice, I went with the venison. Both the tenderloin and loin cuts were served, and the meat was cooked quite well. Not too gamey at all, it was complemented by some sweet yams and peppery arugula. I tried some of the lamb too, and thought it some of the best I’ve had. Exceedingly tender and succulent, there was a ton of flavor in the meat. I found something in the radicchio to be overly acidic, though.

“NOCTURNES” Medjool Dates, Sicilian Pistachios and Burgundy Truffle “Blini”

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A warm, creamy cheese was served with some blini, while Burgundy truffles were grated on tableside. This added a pretty subtle truffle essence to the grassy, funky cheese. Still, I’m really not a fan of the cheese course, this one included.

FRENCH LAUNDRY GARDEN SALAD

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My mother was served this salad and she loved it, particularly the tiny baby radishes (at center).

PUMPKIN SORBET Granola, Honey-Glazed Cranberries and White Truffle

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This intermezzo was perfect for the season. I liked the pumpkin sorbet, along with the tangy cranberry sauce. The granola added some texture, though I was missing any white truffle flavor.

CARAMELIZED WHITE CHOCOLATE “NAMELAKA” Piedmont Hazelnuts, Toasted Oats and Sour Cherry Sorbet

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“POMMES ANNA” Funnel Cake, “Pruneaux d’Agen,” Rum “Anglaise” and Salted Caramel Ice Cream

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Between these two dessert options, I went for the first. The sweet chocolate was complemented by the sour cherry sorbet and actual pieces of cherries, while some hazelnuts added texture.

COFFEE & DOUGHTNUTS
CHOCOLATE COVERED MACADAMIA NUTS

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I was slightly disappointed to see the doughnuts had become just doughnut holes – they weren’t as moist or impressive as the last time I had them. The coffee semifreddo was still very good though, displaying a rich coffee flavor that went well with the doughnut holes. The chocolate covered macadamia nuts were just as good too, with their addicting crunch and wonderful chocolate-nutty flavors.

MIGNARDISES

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My grandmother wasn’t feeling well, so we took these home. I can’t remember which flavors I tried, but I liked the ones I had.

We also took home a bag of shortbread cookies, dusted with sugar. Delicious too!

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Even after four visits now, The French Laundry continues to be an exciting and delicious meal. The restaurant isn’t quite as avant garde as it used to be, and there aren’t any molecular gastronomy tricks at play; instead, the focus is clearly on excellent ingredients and perfect execution. To that end, The French Laundry excels.  There were a number of standout plates (oysters & pearls, snapper, lobster, risotto, lamb) with few lows, mostly on a relative basis. Service was, as usual, excellent though not without flaws including some miscommunication and imperfect timing on wines. Overall though, this was probably my best meal of 2011 so far. For what it’s worth, five in our party have been to Noma (sadly, everyone but me) and they all preferred this meal.

I thought it worth noting that my grandmother started to feel very sick soon after the pork belly course (and for a couple days afterward). I’m not sure if it was related to any of the food or alcohol, but it will probably prove just as memorable as the rest of the meal.