Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (London, UK)

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
Mandarin Oriental Hotel
66 Knightsbridge
London SW1X 7LA
United Kingdom
Dining date: 10/16/14

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Heston Blumenthal is one of the most notable chefs in the world; his flagship The Fat Duck was once named the best restaurant in the world and has consistently garnered three Michelin stars. He has a number of restaurants in Bray (about an hour outside of London), but Dinner was his first restaurant in London proper. Opened in 2011, it’s achieved much praise of its own, currently holding two Michelin stars and standing at #5 on the 2014 S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants List. Having dined at The Fat Duck a couple of years ago, I was eager to try Dinner while in London.

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Melisse (Santa Monica, CA)

Melisse
1104 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Dining date: 1/24/14

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Melisse, like the restaurant of my last post Providence, is oft-considered one of the best restaurants in the city for its French-Californian cuisine. It’s truly one of the few refined fine dining destinations that has survived through all the food trends Los Angeles has seen since it’s opening in 1999. Like Providence, Melisse garnered 2 Michelin stars in the last guide; while I have been familiar with Providence ever since it opened, my first visit to Melisse didn’t come until a relatively late 2010. I’ve now had a few meals here (including a very memorable Farewell to Foie last year) and have thoroughly enjoyed them.

The impetus for this dinner was the restaurant’s participation in dineLA’s new $85 price level, an opportune time for 4 friends’ first visit. As with many dineLA options I wondered – what type of meal would Melisse provide at this lower price point? Would it still reflect a ‘regular’ Melisse experience? I was pleasantly surprised on both counts.

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Providence (Los Angeles, CA)

Providence
5955 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Dining date: 1/16/14

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I’ve generally considered Providence one of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles since it opened in 2005. I first had chef Michael Cimarusti’s food at downtown’s Water Grill in college and followed him here. This was my fifth visit overall, but my first in about 3.5 years. I’m not totally sure what took me so long to return, but part of it was the fact that my last two visits didn’t live up to the high expectations created by the first two. Providence is consistently in the conversation of top special occasion fine dining restaurants in the city, so it’s a place I like to stop in every so often.

Cimarusti has been a busy man since my last visit and has presumably spent progressively less time in this kitchen, especially with the opening of Connie & Ted’s last year.

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A number of menu options are available. A three course a la carte is $95, while 5-course and 9-course market tasting menus are $105 and $140, respectively. At the highest end, a chef’s tasting menu is available at $195 per person. We stuck to middle ground, ordering the 9 course market menu.

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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.

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.

Ginza Toyoda (Tokyo, Japan)

Ginza Toyoda
La Vialle Ginza Bldg 2F
7-5-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Dining date: 11/10/12

8243924738 22168b47fc Ginza Toyoda (Tokyo, Japan)

I made it a point to try a few kaiseki meals while in Japan – Ginza Toyoda would be my third experience of the trip. The restaurant came to my attention via the Tokyo Michelin Guide (2 stars) and the fact that it has an English version of its website…often a good indication that some English was spoken.

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The restaurant is located on the second floor of the La Vialle Building on a small, narrow street in Ginza, It was walking distance from my apartment, making it an ideal spot for a lunch meal. Speaking of lunch,  three set menus were available at ¥5,000, ¥7,000 and ¥10,000. I went right in the middle.

Like Ginza Okuda (where I dined the previous week), Ginza Toyoda serves a pretty traditional, ever-changing kaiseki meal following a careful progression of dishes.

sea eel, sea urchin, greens, dashi jelly

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The first dish featured a tender, meaty piece of eel with a smooth and cold piece of uni. Slightly bitter greens contrasted the sweet seafood, while a cool dashi jelly added some tasty depth.

meatball, mochi, onion, dashi

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The texture of the meatball was interesting…kind of silky (fatty?) and soft in texture, but I liked the flavor. I think it was pork. I liked the sweetness of the onion to go along with it, but didn’t care for the chewy mochi.

red snapper, chutoro, mackerel sashimi

8243919562 f299f991f9 Ginza Toyoda (Tokyo, Japan)

A beautiful sashimi plate came next. The fish tasted as good as it looked, with the fatty chutoro being my favorite. The red snapper was dipped in ponzu, while the tuna and mackerel came with soy sauce.

baked cod with mayonnaise

8243918730 a1887b6b10 Ginza Toyoda (Tokyo, Japan)

A meaty, dense cod was next – I thought it was cooked pretty well leaving pretty moist flesh. The baked on mayonnaise provided just a little more moisture and flavor.

bottarga

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While I was still working on the cod course, a random slice of cured fish roe found its way onto my plate. No complaints here with its sort of gelatinous texture and delicate salty, fishy flavor.

daikon, scallops, greens, dashi

8243935998 ac760c94a0 Ginza Toyoda (Tokyo, Japan)

A tender chunk daikon and slices of scallops sat in a warm dashi broth. I thought one of the scallop pieces was overcooked (the other one was fine), and I’m not sure all of the flavors came together as hoped.

red snapper rice bowl; red miso

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Next, a large pot of rice with red snapper was brought to the counter. After being displayed, the contents were mixed and scooped into individual (ended up being three) servings. I thought this was pretty tasty, with tender chunks of the snapper perfuming the rice and thinly sliced scallions providing a little sweetness. A hearty, earthy red miso was a traditional accompaniment.

grape jelly

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Lastly, dessert was in the form of this in-season grape jelly. I really liked the texture – soft but yet almost chewy – and the grape was pretty tasty too.

I liked this kaiseki lunch moreso than the one at Ginza Okuda, especially considering it was half the price. However, similar to that meal, I wasn’t overly impressed here. We had some good dishes but nothing particularly memorable…and some just seemed overly simple (maybe I just didn’t understand them). While not quite as traditional, RyuGin remained a clear-cut favorite for kaiseki dining.

Some of the main streets in Ginza are closed to vehicular traffic on the weekend, making it an ideal place for an after-lunch stroll.

8242857323 b74630b2ae Ginza Toyoda (Tokyo, Japan)