L’Astrance (Paris, France)

L’Astrance
4 rue Beethoven
75016 Paris, France
Dining date: 10/28/14

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After lunch at l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, our last meal in Paris was dinner here at l’Astrance. A Michelin three star and currently #38 on the world’s best restaurant list, it was our toughest reservation too as the popular restaurant has 25 tables and is open only four days a week. Luckily, we scored a table through our hotel concierge.

Pascal Barbot trained under Alain Passard at l’Arpege and brings many of the same principles, using high quality seasonal ingredients and simple preparations to allow the ingredients to shine. Barbot does incorporate more meat into his dishes, though. Having spent a bit of time cooking in Asia, there are hints of Asian techniques and flavors throughout. There is no menu; the restaurant creates a surprise tasting each night (€210).

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L’Arpège (Paris, France)

L’Arpège
84 rue de Varenne
75007 Paris, France
Dining date: 10/27/14

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L’Arpege has been high on my list of restaurants to try for some time. When I first traveled to Paris seven years ago, I remember walking around the corner from the Rodin Museum just to see the restaurant from the outside. Having just graduated from college, I sorely lacked the funds to consider dining here and wondered if I ever would. On this next trip, this was my most anticipated meal in Paris.

L’Arpege has been around for almost 30 years and has become one of the most notable dining establishments in the city. Cheffed by Alain Passard, it’s a Michelin three star (and has been since 1996) and is currently ranked the #25 best restaurant in the world (the highest ranked Parisian establishment). Passard is known for being a visionary and pioneer particularly as it relates to vegetables. The restaurant maintains its own organic gardens to supply its produce and even removed meat from its menu for a period of time. Today, meat is back on the menu but the focus is still clearly on vegetables at l’Arpege.

As with many Michelin starred restaurants in Paris, it can get expensive. Very expensive. The restaurant’s current tasting menu runs at €370 with a vegetable tasting at €290. However, lunchtime brings one more option – a €140 lunch tasting. A relative bargain, we came for lunch and opted for this choice.

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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.

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.