RyuGin (Tokyo, Japan) (2)

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.


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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.

Pierre Gagnaire (Tokyo, Japan)

Pierre Gagnaire
ANA InterContinental Hotel Tokyo
1-12-33 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-0052
Dining date: 11/11/12

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My third main foray into Western cuisine in Japan was my first time to a Pierre Gagnaire restaurant. I’ve heard some mixed reviews about Gagnaire’s lone U.S. restaurant Twist in Las Vegas, but still felt like I had to try his food for myself. A lot Japanese restaurants close on Sundays, especially for lunch, so a number of my French meals filled this gap.

The Michelin two-star restaurant is Pierre Gagnaire’s lone restaurant in Japan, situated on the 36th floor of the ANA InterContinental Hotel. Of course, great views are offered…just not so much on this cloudy, rainy day.

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I thought the lunch menu was reasonably-priced with a weekdays-only prix-fixe ¥4,500 menu and a longer ¥8,000 menu offered everyday. We ordered the “four-course” tasting menu, the only tasting offered on the weekend. A la carte was also available, but the pricing seemed to really favor the tasting. This menu was actually cheaper than dining at Gagnaire’s Twist in Las Vegas, which isn’t open for lunch.

The first thing out of the kitchen was the amuse bouche, a collection of 5 separate bites; the broad variety of just the amuse would foreshadow the courses to come.

(left to right)
Chestnut cream with truffle oil and hazelnut
Sesame chip
Dark beer glazed popcorn
Ginger cookie with almond
Cucumber with mascarpone cheese

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Overall, I thought these were fun bites to begin with. My favorite was the ginger cookie with almond; the texture and balance of ginger and almond tones won me over.

Country bread, milk bread, and a dried fruit bread were served with a very creamy butter imported from France.

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Just like the amuse bouche, the “first course” was a five-parter. Each one stood on its own with separate flavors so this really was kind of like five courses in one. The plates covered the table in a pretty impressive presentation.

Champagne sorbet with grapes

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The sorbet was cool and refreshing, while I thought the grapes provided a nice fresh, sweet flavor.

Chestnut soup, chantilly cream with rum and orange juice

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A warm and earthy chestnut soup was accompanied by a dollop of chantilly cream, which provided much of the richness. A hint of citrus balanced everything out.

Just sizzling sanma fish, red pepper pulp and mizuna leaves

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The fish was warm and crisp, cooked quite well, while a red pepper puree provided a very nice sweetness. Lightly dressed mizuna leaves lended some acidity to my favorite of the first courses.

Slices of smoked quail, sour lotus with saffron, gingerbread powder

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The quail was warm and smoky, countered by a crisp, tart lotus root. This dish didn’t have the same depth that I found in the others, though I really enjoyed the quail.

Sauerkraut salad, pig ears and seaweed flakes

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Tart sauerkraut and chewy pig ears were complemented by a bit of seaweed flavor. Not my favorite as the flavors didn’t really all come together for me.

Upon completion of the first course(s), the lone entree (appetizer) came next.

Taraba crab meat, wild mushrooms fricassee with autumn fruits, bouillon of sauternes

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The mushrooms were sautéed until tender, exuding an umami-packed earthiness. I’m not really sure how the broth was prepared but it was delicious…showing off a ton of depth. The cool, sweet crab was delicious as well, completing the sea-earth flavor combination. Really an excellent dish.

Challans duck cube roasted with cumin, slice of foie gras pan-fried and marmalade of cabbage with black olive, amaranth leaves

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For the main course, pieces of duck breast, leg and enlarged liver were all prepared pretty well with a strong cumin seasoning. I thought the duck was delicious, countered by the cabbage and greens. A rich pan sauce provided more savory depth to the dish.

For the first sweets course, we went back to the multi-component presentation.

(left to right) Egg white meringue and black bean lemon cake, banana apricot jelly, strawberry marshmallow, arugula cake, grapefruit almond tart, salted caramel ice cream (center)

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It was pretty simple, but I thought the salted caramel ice cream was pretty tasty. The arugula cake was another favorite, with a sweetness taking over the characteristic peppery notes.

The dessert “course” itself was a trio of dishes all presented at once:

Apple jelly with apple chocolate

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I loved the presentation of this dish with its chocolate mousse and jelly shaped into a green apple. It was actually rather light, with crisp apples providing texture and tartness to balance the creamy chocolate.

Cinnamon ice cream, green tea ice cream, fresh fruit rice cake

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The wrapper had an interesting sort of al dente texture with a fruit filling. Cinnamon ice cream went pretty well with the fruits inside, while a mini green tea ice cream cake was tasty though somewhat out of place.

Chocolate with berry sauce and hot chocolate

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A chocolate mousse was accompanied with tart berries and a rich warm chocolate sauce on top. The chocolate and berry flavors showcased in this dessert seemed kind of conservative given the previous desserts, though I can’t say there were any complaints with the execution of it.

As if we hadn’t reached a sugar-overload by this point in the meal, we were served brown sugar cookies and chocolate truffles to close out the meal.

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Not unlike Joel Robuchon and Paul Bocuse, Pierre Gagnaire also has his own bakery separate from his restaurant. I purchased breakfast for the next few days here.

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I thoroughly enjoyed this lunch. While presented as 4 courses on the menu, we had about 15 separately plated dishes outside of the mignardises. For less than half the price, I thought I got far more variety and depth of flavors here than at Beige Alain Ducasse. More importantly, I thought the creativity here was much stronger too…the most of all of the French meals I had in Tokyo. And that crab dish with the mushroom fricassee – that’ll be one of the dishes I remember most from all of the food I ate in Japan.

Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi (Tokyo, Japan)

Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi
6-12-2 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032
Dining date: 11/4/12

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Jiro Ono and his restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro have achieved a sort of legendary status. The documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi added to the attention and seemed to really put him onto the radar of Westerners (particularly Americans). Having seen the film, I can see why; Ono’s relentless pursuit of the perfect sushi (and countless shots of food porn) sounds like any sushi lover’s dream destination. I was sold; Sukiyabashi Jiro became my #1 restaurant destination in Tokyo.

My perception of the restaurant has changed dramatically during my stay here. First, the restaurant is not nearly as well-known as I thought it would be. Sure it’s known among the ‘foodie’ culture, but I’ve gotten countless blank stares from others. Second, from what I’ve gathered from those who have heard of it, my general impression is that it’s known to have good sushi but not the best; if anything, it’s more well-known for being one of the most expensive sushiyas around. On Yelp-like restaurant rating site Tabelog, the main Sukiyabashi Jiro scores a very pedestrian 3.54 stars out of 5. His son’s outpost in Roppongi rates an even lower 3.14. Having said all that, Sukiyabashi Jiro remained my #1 destination to try (albeit less enthused); I was not able to score a seat at the Ginza location, but did manage a seat at the son’s outpost in Roppongi.

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Located in the foreigner-friendly Roppongi Hills complex, Ono’s younger son Takashi opened this location since his elder brother is in-line to take over the main branch. It’s supposed to have the same flavors and techniques as the main (since Takashi did train under his father for decades), so I guess this is the closest to dining at the Ginza Sukiyabashi Jiro without actually doing so.

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ginkgo nuts

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Lightly salted, warm ginkgo nuts were the first thing served before a number of sashimi courses.

flounder fin sashimi

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aji/horse mackerel sashimi

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kurumaebi sashimi

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akagai/ark shell clam sashimi

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shrimp head

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My favorite of the sashimi courses was probably the horse mackerel. Tender, yet fatty and rich in flavor, I really savored these bites. The sweet shrimp is usually one of my favorites too and this was no exception.

18 courses of sushi came next in quick succession.

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kohada/gizzard shad

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steamed abalone

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smoked bonito

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shako/mantis shrimp

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anago/sea eel

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The fish quality was, as expected, excellent. I loved the progression of tuna from akami to otoro and I thought they were all some of the best examples I’d had on the trip. The uni sushi was fantastic too, overflowing with cool, sweet sea urchin. The smoked bonito had a great balance of smokiness and rich meatiness, while the anago was amazingly creamy with just the right amount of sweet eel sauce. There was only one that I didn’t like which was probably more of a personal preference – the shako shrimp had a sort of dense and mealy texture I wasn’t expecting…nor acquired.

In terms of the overall sushi, the rice was seasoned with more vinegar than I would’ve liked. I think this is another personal preference thing, but it really got in the way on some pieces (kohada, abalone, mirugai). The meal lasted about 50 minutes from start-to-finish, which seems a bit longer than the main branch. Service was good but not in a noteworthy way.

With one beer, this meal came out to ¥35,700, by far the most expensive of the trip. From everything else I’ve heard/read, I expected the meal to be around ¥26-27,000 without the beer so I think there was a big mistake or I was simply ripped off (sushi at the main branch is ¥31,500). The diner next to me ordered a bunch of extras so it’s possible it was the former. There was no menu or bill itemization, just a number written on a piece of paper at the end of the meal. Needless to say, this left a bitter impression and I still regret not inquiring deeper about it.

Aside from the billing issue I think I’d have to side with a lot of what I’ve heard here. It was a good sushi meal, sure, but far from the best (this was borderline top 3 sushi of the trip) and definitely overpriced.  And even if it was at the mid-¥20,000 price level, it’s still more expensive than most sushiyas.

Other Tokyo sushi:
Sushi Dai | Sushi Daiwa | Sushi Kanesaka | Sushi YoshitakeUmi

RyuGin (Tokyo, Japan)

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.


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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.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (Tokyo, Japan)

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032
Dining date: 10/15/12

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L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon was on my list of Tokyo restaurants early on, largely because I’ve had fairly consistently good meals here, but also because I think it’s been fun to compare them across the world (I’ve been to the Las Vegas, Paris, London and now Tokyo locations). For a sort of welcome dinner for our team in Tokyo, I was tasked to find a suitable restaurant. Ultimately this was the choice, given its English-friendliness (the Roppongi area is frequented by many foreigners) and approachability to Western tastebuds.

The restaurants present Robuchon’s refined cuisine in a more casual setting, full of counter seating. I think I read somewhere that Japan’s sushi bars were the inspiration behind the counter-centric nature of L’Atelier restaurants, so it was interesting to see it come together in Tokyo. Similar to the London and Paris locations, the Tokyo restaurant shares a Michelin two-star rating.

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A tasting menu and an a la carte are available, as well as a number of prix fixe menus with a variety of options. Most of us went with the latter; the below captures some of the other dishes but I’ll only comment on the ones I ate.

Pork Rillette on Crostini

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We started with an amuse from the kitchen. Even though the description was in English, we still couldn’t quite capture what this was. It was sort of a pork rillette simmered with white wine. Simple yet tasty.

I’ve always enjoyed pretty strong bread service at Robuchon establishments, and this was no exception.

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Next up were the first courses, including this impressive presentation.

Le Saumon tasmanian salmon tartare with shiso flower buds

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Le Crabe snow crab served with an avocado mousse and apple

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I went with this dish, a light starter with sweetness of the pear and crab mellowed by an avocado mousse. The shellfish gelee was a nice touch too, providing a lot of depth.

Next were the second courses.

Le Bulbe de Lys lily bulb cream soup with vanilla accompanied with a stuffed shrimp

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Les Ravioles foie gras ravioli in a warm chicken broth with herbs and spicy cream

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I couldn’t resist a foie gras ravioli, my first bites of the liver since the California ban. A rich chicken broth with herbal shiso accents provided the backdrop to the ravioli with its delicate chew and creamy unmistakable foie gras interior.

Next up were the main courses.

Le Boeuf sliced wagyu beef ribeye with wasabi flavored spinach and harlequin vegetables

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Le Boeuf wagyu ribeye with truffled mashed potatoes

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Le Caille caramelized foie gras stuffed free range quail served with mashed potatoes

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I opted for the quail, which the waiter said was a specialty across Robuchon restaurants. I’m glad I did, as this was an outstanding dish. The quail itself was moist and succulent, complemented by a subtly sweet glaze. The breasts were separated from the bone and stuffed with a creamy foie gras filling – so luscious. Delicious. Robuchon’s trademark uber-rich potatoes came along with it, while some herbal greens brightened things up a bit.

Lastly, we had the dessert courses.

Le Raisin fresh grape covered with a red wine jelly served on a light mint cream

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La Tendance Chocolat araguani chocolate ganache served with a cocoa sherbet covered with bitter biscuit powder

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I didn’t realize it when ordering, but I had something really similar to this at the London location earlier this year. My thoughts on the dessert remain unchanged; it’s a fine dessert, sure, but I found it rather one-note on the chocolate.

A plate of mignardises completed our meal, but we were too full to finish all of it.

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I found this to be a very good meal, highlighted by the quail stuffed with foie gras. In fact, I enjoyed the food here more than my London experience, though Paris remains the clear standard-bearer for me. I found service’s attentiveness to be rather inconsistent during this meal, with some courses brought to the table without a description and our server seemingly changing mid-meal without notice. Service-wise, I expected something more from a two-star. Still, this was an excellent starter meal for our stay in Tokyo.