The Very Very Hungry Caterpillar

YES, this is yet another Melbourne food blog!

Review: Kirin Ichiban Beer Garden (Tokyo, Japan)

3-7 Udagawa-Cho
Shibuya-Ku, Shibuya
Tokyo
Japan
+81 3 5456 5011

I knew the Japanese love celebrating Halloween but I had no idea just how INSANE they go over it until I experienced a Tokyo Halloween. The days leading up to the actual day involved countless strangers (mostly Tinder guys) asking me what I was doing on Halloween and when I gave my “I dunno, probably nothing” responses, they reacted like I voted for the LNP in the recent Queensland state election.

I had been planning to spend the night in my very nice hotel room but somehow I got talked into braving the streets of Shibuya by a Tinder match who, funnily enough, happened to be staying in the very same hotel as me. And so after a drink at the New York Bar, we braved the massive flock of people commuting from Shinjuku to Shibuya. The train ride was uncomfortable as hell but we still made it to Shibuya in one piece – and on time too. Take that, delayed NYE trains, Melbourne!

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It was cute to see most people go all out with their costumes. And although I’m not usually one for dressing up, I kinda did wish I made more of an effort.

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Even this gaijin got into it.

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Yup, this was Shibuya at 10PM on Halloween! It was extremely hard to get around.

Eventually, my companion and I decided to take a breather at the Kirin Ichiban Beer Garden where a decent size crowd had gathered in the spacious outdoor drinking area. As soon as we entered the bar, we were ushered into a little room where we were made to sit and watch a five-minute documentary about Kirin beer – how beer is made and what makes Kirin so awesome. Because it was entirely in Japanese, I can’t tell you exactly what makes Kirin awesome and neither could the rest of the room – we were all just anxious to get the hell out of there and drink beer, dammit!

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Finally, we were able to slam down some beers. Or more specifically, beer slushies. My companion went for the original Kirin beer slushie while I decided to go for the banana-flavoured version (yes, how fitting). It was an interesting way to drink beer – I liked the texture but all that water did dilute the beer’s taste significantly (both mine and my companion’s). I also wasn’t sure if I liked banana beer; it wasn’t as diluted as the original Kirin slushie but it had that really strong artificial banana flavour taste which I’m not a fan of. It tasted like they had a vat of Kirin and someone poured a shitload of banana flavoured syrup in it.

Regardless, the Kirin Ichiban Beer Garden had a great laidback and vibrant atmosphere making it the perfect spot to people-watch on Halloween night.

Review: L’Effervescence (Tokyo, Japan)

2 Chome-26-4 Nishiazabu
Minato Ward, Tokyo
Tokyo Prefecture 106-0031
Japan
+81 3 5766 9500
http://www.leffervescence.jp/

In a country where delicious AND TRADITIONAL food can literally be found in every second corner, why did I choose to book lunch for one at a French restaurant? And more specifically, a restaurant whose name I could barely pronounce?

Well, folks, L’Effervescence happens to be a Tokyo up-and-comer. Its head chef Shinobu Namae trained under culinary greats Michel Bras and Heston Blumenthal and it debuted at a very respectably #25 in San Pellegrino’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2015 list. Not a bad effort, hey. Given its accolades, getting a dinner booking at L’Effervescence can be difficult but I had no issues with getting a table for lunch.

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L’Effervescence is a bit of a walk from Roppongi station and it’s not on a main road. You’re required to meander along a few residential streets, which is actually a fun exercise in itself.

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Some of the houses on my little walk were all prepped up for Halloween. I’m not a big Halloween person but I did find it cute.

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You could be fooled into thinking that the restaurant was just another house on the street. It’s very nondescript, save for a neat tile installation in front as well as a sign displaying the day’s menu. As soon as you walk in though, its plush floors, team of smartly dressed waiters and very wealthy clientele is a sign that you’re, well, in the right place.

Sancerre Les Baronnes 2013

Sancerre Les Baronnes 2013

I was led by the English-speaking French maître-d to my table by the window, a lovely spot to enjoy a sip of wine and watch the calming light autumn rain.

L’Effervescence’s menu is all about modern French cuisine using native Japanese ingredients and a liberal dose of whimsical touches, which makes it stand out from Tokyo’s other French restaurants. There are a few options for those who want to do lunch at L’Effervescence. They start from the four-course ‘through the pathway’ menu at ¥5000 which is approximately AUD50, not a bad deal but then you also need to include taxes and service charges – and wine because as if you wouldn’t. The options then get a bit longer and as tempting as it was to go for the longer and more extravagant options, I decided to go (relatively) simple by ordering the ‘through the pathway’ menu. After all, I had dinner to go to that night.

Amuse bouche

Amuse bouche

The lunch began with an amuse bouche. The green thing on the left is an olive oil emulsion filled with kawahagi fish (liver and all) while the glass on the right holds little liquid nitrogen bits of Japanese apple and beer to cleanse one’s palate – after all, that metallic aftertaste you get after eating liver can be unpleasant.

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That’s a lovely buttered baguette and rye with a nice pat of French butter, embossed circles and all, yo.

Grilled sanma and its guts, pan-fried potato, garlic soup, chrysanthemum leaves, matsutake mushroom

Grilled sanma and its guts, pan-fried potato, garlic soup, chrysanthemum leaves, matsutake mushroom

My first course was the grilled sanma, a mackerel-like fish that was, as the menu so eloquently stated, served with ‘its guts.’ The guts were dried, then powdered and sprinkled on top of the potato cubes (underneath the fish) to give the dish a slightly bitter kick. I wasn’t sure if I like that kick, but whatever.

Meanwhile, the garlic soup was made with garlic cooked in cold water that was then brought to the boil. This process was repeated about four or five times, a labour intensive process to get rid of the pungent garlic smell and taste. The result was a lovely silky soup with a sweet, mild flavour accentuated by the slightly earthy matsutake mushrooms which the maître-d said were the most expensive (presumably non-drug) mushrooms you can find in Japan.

Vegetable plate

Vegetable plate

The next course was simply called ‘vegetable plate’. Today, I received a kabu turnip that had been cooked in low heat for four hours. It is the only dish at L’Effervescence that is served all year round, however the turnip’s taste changes according to the season. For example, the turnip I got was juicy and sweet thanks to the massive amount of rain the area gets during the autumn months. Other times, you may get a turnip that’s crunchier or even bitter (screw that, I thought).

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For the final savoury course, I was allowed to pick my own olive wood knife. I don’t normally care about the shade of my knife handle but I have to admit that being able to choose was pretty boss.

‘From the idea of apple pie’

‘From the idea of apple pie’

L’Effervescence’s famous apple pie dish features heavily on this menu, though the filling changes according to what’s in season. This rendition of the apple pie dish was the fourteenth one in Namae’s very impressive repertoire. Stuffed with a hearty filling of wild boar cheek, neck and sweetbread along with lotus root, foie gras langoustine, fig, confit onion and wild grape sauce, the pie was insanely rich as it was delicious. If I had any doubt that I’d walk away full after my subsequent courses, this dish flicked those doubts away. And what of the little garden surrounding the pie? Why, it was salad made with 47 different ingredients – and no, I’m not going to list them all for you.

Butternut squash, dandelion root angel food cake, peanuts and lime, maple syrup hailstone

Butternut squash, dandelion root angel food cake, peanuts and lime, maple syrup hailstone

Dessert was a deconstructed cake, a nod to Namae’s time as pastry chef at Fat Duck. There were alternating bits of Cognac-soaked butternut squash and dandelion root angel food cake with blobs of lime gel to balance out all the sweetness. The little bits on top are dehydrated maple syrup ‘hailstones,’ tying each element of the dish neatly.

At this point in time, the maître-d came and had a chat with me. He said that he did a Google search my name (which he got from when I emailed them to book), saw my LinkedIn profile (and that I worked in the food and travel industry) and had a quick look at my blog. Initially, I was a bit creeped out that a stranger would ADMIT TO looking me up on Google but that feeling didn’t last long – the next minute, the maître-d brought Chef Shinobu Namae to the table where we had a lovely chat about the direction of his restaurant and whether he’ll visit Australia one day (‘of course, and Melbourne is the first on my list!’).

Coffee and petit fours

Coffee and petit fours

A fairly mediocre coffee was served with a very impressive plate of petit fours featuring: a coiled up raspberry and lychee ‘Roll Up’, passionfruit caramel with edible rice paper wrapper and a ‘reverse chocolate ball’ where the chocolate was inside a crème anglaise coating. Leaning awkwardly in the glass was a ‘Chupa Cup’ – and the waiter refused to tell me what was inside.

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But holy wow, it was an explosion (literally) of popping candy, raisins, maize and chocolate. Yup, the ultimate party in my mouth (oi, get yer mind out of the gutter).

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I may have happily paid the bill shortly after (I don’t remember how much it was but after all the taxes, service charges and wine, it was still less than AUD100) but the party didn’t stop there. No, I was given a moist spiced pumpkin cake to take home with me – which I ate for supper later that night.

I guess the moral of this story is: sure, eat lots of Japanese food in Japan. That is a no-brainer. But it pays to steer away from Japanese food for one meal if you can afford to (time and cost-wise) because you may be pleasantly surprised.

Review: Sushizanmai @ Tsukiji Fish Market (Tokyo, Japan)

4-4-3 Tsukiji
Chuo Ward, Tokyo
Tokyo Prefecture 104-0045
Japan
+81 3 5565 3636

Screw cereal and Vegemite on toast. To me, the best breakfasts involve fish and rice (and the odd leftover steak and green vegies from the night before). And there was no way in hell I was going to visit Tokyo and not have breakfast at Tsukiji, the biggest wholesale fish market in the world.

If you’re a foodie like I am, rocking up before the crack of dawn to reserve your place in line for Tsukiji’s famous tuna auctions is a must. Unfortunately, Tokyo’s public transport system doesn’t run that early so eager visitors must either fork out a fortune for a cab to take them there or book a hotel within walking distance from the fish market – I chose the latter option.

But as luck (or stupidity, really) would have had it, I ended up having a big one the night before. And when I woke up three hours later – at 4AM – the next morning, I took one look in the mirror and thought to myself, ‘Yeah nah, no tuna action for me.’ And so I missed out on my one chance to watch the auction. Oh well, next time.

Regardless, I was still keen for some morning fish and when I finally woke up in a slightly better state a few hours later, off I went to the market.

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So the last two photos were my crappy attempts at playing around with layers and masks on Photoshop. And showing you the outskirts of the market.

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As Captain Obvious would like to point out, there is a motherload of fish at this market.

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Fish head soup, anyone?

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Crustaceans can also be found by the 10 dozen billion. In some stalls, they can be cooked right in front of you for a fresh and delicious breakfast.

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Also, plenty of fermented little fish and squid to sample.

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If Australian customs weren’t so strict, I would have probably taken half the store home with me.

Pretty soon, I worked up a bit of an appetite so I decided to find a place to perch my toosh down for some sushi. The internets recommended Sushi Dai for the best breakfast at Tsukiji but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find it (even with Google Maps and my normally decent sense of direction). Finally, I gave up because I was hangry and stallholders were looking at me curiously as I passed their stall for the fifth time in a row.

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Instead, I ended up at Sushizanmai. I later found out that this Sushizanmai is actually a popular franchise in Japan (think Sushi Sushi in Australia but obviously better and sans maggots). The popular Tsukiji branch is the first restaurant of the lot and given how packed it was, I knew that I couldn’t have a bad meal here My wait was only 10 minutes, which I thought was pretty good (it also helped that I was dining alone).

The extensive menu covers a range of sushi platters, chirashi bowls and nigiri topped with the usual suspects such as salmon, squid and prawn in addition to the less commonly found sardine and flounder. I decided to order one abalone nigiri to start.

Abalone nigiri ¥398/AUD$3.90

Abalone nigiri ¥398/AUD$3.90

I love a good abalone and it was great to enjoy it fresh. Unfortunately, abalone is by nature less flavoursome than a fresh piece of salmon or tuna so it wasn’t a very exciting nigiri for me to eat. I’ll stick to my Cantonese-style ginger and spring onion abalone, thanks.

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Complimentary miso soup was much appreciated, especially given how cold it was outside.

Deluxe chirashi-don ¥1480/AUD$14.50

Deluxe chirashi-don ¥1480/AUD$14.50

And here’s my sushi rice bowl, artfully topped with 13 kinds of raw seafood on top including two different kinds of tuna and squid respectively. There was also a piece of sweet tamago, slivers of ginger, wasabi and salmon roe to keep things happy. It was fresh and simple, yet so delicious and filling. I could not have asked for a better breakfast.

Review: New York Bar (Tokyo, Japan)

Park Hyatt Tokyo
3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku
Shinjuku-Ku, Tokyo 163-1055
Japan
+81 3 5322 1234
http://tokyo.park.hyatt.com/en/hotel/dining/NewYorkBar.html

As clichéd as it sounds, I had always wanted to make like Bill and Scarlett by having a drink or two at the New York Bar in Tokyo’s Park Hyatt hotel. So when I Tinder-matched with a guy staying not only in the same hotel as me (the other Hyatt just around the corner) but two floors away AND was also down for a drink at the Park Hyatt, I was on like Donkey Kong – for drinks, I meant, not for getting up to no good.

After meeting the guy at our hotel lobby, we walked across and took the lift up to the 52nd level where breathtaking Tokyo city views and soft live jazz music greeted us.

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My crappy iPhone photo cannot do this view justice. But it wasn’t like I could whip out my SLR – for one thing, I was on a Tinder meet-up (I refuse to call them dates) and secondly, the New York Bar has a strict rule against bringing in cameras and video recording devices.

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With a bowl of complimentary nuts on the side, we ordered some whiskies. I don’t remember what my buddy had but I had a lovely glass of Taketsuru 25 YO (¥5300(AUD55)). A rare edition of Nikka Taketsuru’s blended malt whisky (I haven’t seen it in Australia – no wonder, as only 120 bottles were made available in Europe), this beauty had strong floral notes with hints of cherries shining through, followed by a soft peaty finish.

Bar nibbles: smoked nuts, Iberico pork jerky, shrimp popcorn ¥1800(AUD19)

Bar nibbles: smoked nuts, Iberico pork jerky, shrimp popcorn ¥1800(AUD19)

We were looking to get a proper dinner elsewhere but I wasn’t going to leave without trying New York Bar’s nibbles. Not only was it the most interesting thing on the bar menu (it was pretty much pizzas, salads and all that stuff), I can never turn down jerky – especially IBERICO PORK JERK because who the hell does that?!

The smoked nuts were lovely and moreish (I dislike using that word but it’s very apt in this situation plus, cut me some slack – I’m still recovering from a four-day migraine). The shrimp popcorn was nice – think salted butter with the lovely umami-ness of dried shrimp – but the pork jerky was the star of the show. Deliciously fatty and buttery, it melted in my mouth. And got me excited about making jerky again, a thing I used to do back home quite a bit.

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We had another glass of whisky each – this time I had the Taketsuru 21 year old at ¥2100(AUD22), a more chocolatier and sweeter version than the older version.

I would have stayed here all night – the music was sublime and I was happy just to look at the views and people-watch. However, we were hungry so we got off our stools and walked out into the Tokyo night, vowing to return – without each other.

Review: Breakfast @ Senshinkan Matsuya (Nagano, Japan)

2222 Hirao, Shimotakai-gun
Yamanouchi-machi 381-0401
Nagano Prefecture
Japan
+81 269 33 3181
http://eihachi.com/english.html

The Nagano Prefecture is a beautiful part of Japan, especially during the cooler months. Don’t just stay in Nagano city – it’s worth exploring the countryside even just for a day. If you can’t get yourself out there during winter, where snow-capped mountains make for a pretty Instagram photo or two, then walks through the region’s forests and orchards in all their vibrant autumn foliage glory is the next best thing.

Unfortunately, rural Japan can be a bit of a black hole when it comes to finding places to eat. During my stay in Shibu Onsen, I spotted only one izakaya and a couple of gift stores selling Japanese snacks and confectionery (think red pepper and apple Kit Kats) – unfortunately, these were the only places where I could effectively grab a feed if hunger struck.

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Or I could grab a soft boiled egg that’s slowly been cooked using the hot spring water. I spotted a few of these on the streets of Shibu Onsen – they were found just outside the ryokans. You chuck in a 50 yen coin (equivalent to 50 Aussie cents) in the bowl and grab yourself an egg – yup, the honesty system was at play here.

Most ryokans (Japanese guest houses), however, provide some sort of meal option for guests. At Senshinkan Matsuya, the ryokan that I stayed at, breakfast is included in the room cost and if you wanted dinner, an extra charged applied.

Senshinkan Matsuya breakfast spread

Senshinkan Matsuya breakfast spread

Don’t get me wrong, I love soft boiled eggs but this was a much better option. Unlike last night’s dinner, Senshinkan Matsuya’s breakfast spread had an almost even east-west distribution. There was yoghurt with plum compote (as in most Asian countries, I did find the ‘plain’ yoghurt too sweet). There was a piece of red grapefruit. There was a lettuce salad as well as spinach, seaweed and miso soup with daikon. And then there was a piece of pan-fried salmon fillet and a ham omelette with steamed white rice on the side. To top things off, there was black coffee with a tub of creamer should you feel like white coffee.

It was a lovely breakfast; it was delicious and filling but without being too heavy. At the end of it, it was time for me to check out. My kind hosts then gave me a lift to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park where I would spend the rest of the morning. Tmomi and Keiko, thank you so much for your kind hospitality during my stay at Senshinkan Matsuya.

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I probably took about a hundred shots like these guys. Unfortunately, they’re still sitting in my SLR and I’m too lazy to upload them.

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Naw. *melts*

Review: Dinner @ Senshinkan Matsuya (Nagano, Japan)

2222 Hirao, Shimotakai-gun
Yamanouchi-machi 381-0401
Nagano Prefecture
Japan
+81 269 33 3181
http://eihachi.com/english.html

If you’re ever in Japan, you’d be silly just to limit yourself to the tourist hubs of Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo. Sure, those cities have plenty of things to keep you occupied but if you do have a night or two to spare it’s worth exploring the Japanese countryside.

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The Tokyo-Nagano dash was an overnight trip I did halfway through my holiday. I wanted to see the snow monkeys but to do that as a day trip from Tokyo would require some amazing time management skills, not to mention getting up super early in the morning. I wasn’t quite keen to make that sort of commitment.

However, I was cool with an overnight stay in nearby Shibu Onsen, a hot springs area that’s only a short drive from the snow monkey park. Plus, it would give me a great excuse to stay at a ryokan (Japanese guest house).

Senshinkan Matsuya was the place I stayed at. It’s a beautiful two-storey wooden guesthouse that’s been around for more than 200 years and is owned by a lovely couple, Tmomi and Keiko. Tmomi was kind enough to pick me up from Yudanaka Station (the closest public transport stop to the inn) which I was grateful for seeing as it was 5:30PM when I arrived and pitch black (I didn’t have the hindsight to know just how quickly it got dark in the Japanese countryside in the cooler months).

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This was my room for the night, complete with tatami mats and all. It was simple, yet beautiful and homely – the perfect place to have a quiet night in, away from the bright lights of Japan’s big cities. I paid the equivalent of AUD$100 for the night – this included dinner, breakfast and a key that granted access to nine hot spring baths in Shibu Onsen.

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Senshinkan Matsuya did have its quirks – my room had a VHS player! (despite the fact there were no video stores nearby and people stopped buying video tapes a long time ago)

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There were also Nagano 1998 stickers everywhere, because Winter Olympics pride.

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Once I dumped everything into my room, I popped on my yukata (Japanese robe) and went downstairs to the dining room basement area for dinner. Holy hell, this was the spread that greeted me. Yup, this was yet another kaiseki dinner but unlike the Michelin-starred spectacular at Roan Kikunoi, this was a much more casual and homely version. Same same but different.

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After taking a few sips of my plum wine and nibbling my way through the assorted sashimi, pickles and edamame, I got stuck into the herbal mushroom soup. Given how cold the autumn air was up in the Japanese countryside, this was a godsend. So earthy, so herby, so friggin’ delicious.

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I was delighted to see kishimen (flat udon noodles) in the mix. It came in a cute little bowl with a lid on it. See that hole in the lid? It was full of beautiful steaming hot dashi soup.

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Like the sashimi, I’d have to say that I didn’t particularly warm up to the tempura. The sashimi was nice enough but after getting used to insanely fresh sashimi in the larger cities, the kingfish and tuna here paled in comparison. Understandably though, we were up in the mountains where fresh seafood is harder to come by. The tempura batter was light but not as crispy as I had come to expect in Japan. I did like the green tea salt though – it injected a bit of flavour to the eggplant, zucchini and green tea salt tempura pieces.

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And who doesn’t like a bit of creamy cheesy chicken? I definitely wasn’t saying no. It went down well with a bit of steamed rice.

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Finally, some nice peppered salmon to get my Omega-3 fill for the day.

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It’s hard to believe that this entire spread was for one person. And yes, I did eat it all!

I felt like a bit of a loser sitting there in my yukata alone while couples and groups around me were chatting and eating away. I’m not sure whether it was because it was such a small and homely environment or whether it was because I was in a small country town. Nevertheless, the host (and chef) was lovely and came over every now and then to converse with me in what limited English she had and with what limited Japanese I had.

After such a feast, it was time for me to go for an evening walk around Shibu Onsen and visit its spas. Sorry, no spa photos – I wasn’t going to be the creep who took her iPhone to a spa to take photos while other spa users were around.

Review: Roan Kikunoi (Kyoto, Japan)

118 Saitocho Kiyamachidori 40-jo Sagaru
Shimogyu-ku, Kyoto 600-8012
Kyoto Prefecture
Japan
+81 75 361 5580
http://kikunoi.jp/english/store/roan/

A gorgeous kaiseki dining experience marked my final night in Kyoto, Japan’s cultural and historical capital. Kaiseki dining is essentially a traditional multi-course dinner comprising of a colourful array of dishes showcasing the chef’s skillset as well as the season’s freshest ingredients. These little dishes are artistically arranged in little portions and presented to the guest during the course of the meal – yup, meet the original degustation.

Kikunoi is probably the most famous and lauded kaiseki restaurant in Japan. It also happens to be one of Tetsuya Wakuda’s favourite restaurants so the man gave Kikunoi two thumbs up, then it must be decent. Unfortunately, I was unable to score a booking at Kikunoi most likely thanks to its three Michelin star status so I tried my luck at its little sister restaurant Roan Kikunoi instead.

When looking to dine at Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan, one knows that lunches are the way to go if you’re looking for the same top-notch food at lower prices. Unfortunately, Roan Kikunoi couldn’t squeeze me in for lunch but thankfully they had a spare seat for me at the bar for dinner.

Still, I’d definitely encourage you to try for lunch – lunches here are a steal from ¥4000 (AUD$43), whereas dinners start at ¥10000 (AUD$109). In this instance, I went for the ¥10000 dinner.

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Roan Kikunoi’s counter dining approach lends to a more casual atmosphere than its big sister. Sure, the restaurant is still refined enough for your typical Gold Coast bogan to look awkwardly out of place in but it was definitely less formal than Fujiya 1935. Plus, sitting at the counter meant that you get a more interactive (and hence, more fun) experience.

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Things were already off to a fantastic start when I was quickly seated and presented with a personalised menu. Okay, I lie. It wasn’t personalised per se – it was essentially just the set menu they gave to everyone who ordered the ¥10000 dinner. Still, it was a lovely touch – it’s amazing just how much better a dining experience can be when only the littlest time is invested in these sorts of things.

Sake; yuzu.

Sake; yuzu.

The first cab off the rank was a hollowed out fresh yuzu (Japanese citrus) filled with yuzu tofu topped with yuzu miso. The yuzu tofu had a very faint hint of citrus notes but was the perfect catalyst for soaking up the strong nutty and citrusy flavours of the miso on top. A lovely yuzu-infused sake also accompanied the starter.

Series of appetisers: arrowhead root chips, dried mullet roe, duck liver paté with white poppy seeds, maple leaf-shaped squid coated with egg yolk and sea urchin, anglerfish liver, Shimej mushroom, pine needle-shaped tea noodles, sake-glazed gingko nuts.

Series of appetisers: arrowhead root chips, dried mullet roe, duck liver paté with white poppy seeds, maple leaf-shaped squid coated with egg yolk and sea urchin, anglerfish liver, Shimej mushroom, pine needle-shaped tea noodles, sake-glazed gingko nuts.

I was then presented with a small tray of the season’s autumn and among them, an assortment of little nibbles to get my appetite going. I loved how the whole thing was presented in a nonchalant manner, yet I’m sure each little element would have taken a lot of time and skill to prepare – I mean, hello, pine needle-shaped tea noodles?!

Red sea bream, Spanish mackerel with ponzu jelly, chrysanthemum petals, wasabi.

Red sea bream, Spanish mackerel with ponzu jelly, chrysanthemum petals, wasabi.

Next, I had the sashimi course. Moments beforehand, the chef came over to show me the still-alive fish he was going to cut up and present to me. Talk about super fresh, hey. Each bit of fresh fish was covered by a thin layer of ponzu jelly for a bit of zest with fresh wasabi on hand for a kick. There was also a dab of chrysanthemum petals but to be honest, the flowers didn’t do anything for me.

Pike conger soup, matsutake mushroom, mitsuba herb.

Pike conger soup, matsutake mushroom, mitsuba herb.

My first warm dish of the night was a fragrant pike conger soup that came in a neat clay teapot. The soup was insanely herby with few Japanese pine mushrooms thrown in for a bit of woody sweetness; this soup was perfect for those cold Kyoto autumn nights.

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I was then presented with a little cup covered with a cute wooden lid. What was inside?

Yuzu and wasabi sorbet.

Yuzu and wasabi sorbet.

Oh, nice. More yuzu. More wasabi. I say it in a good way though – this sorbet not only tied the last few courses together neatly, it was also a refreshing palate cleanser. I loved the combination of icy texture and strong citrus flavours tainted by the slightest hint of heat.

Ayu with roe, shiitake mushroom.

Ayu with roe, shiitake mushroom.

The ayu seems to be the fish of the season here for it was the second time I’d seen it served at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The duo of fish was char-grilled along with a piece of shiitake mushroom and then presented on top of some reeds.

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I’m not sure why they decided to chop the fish heads off, especially since the Japanese lady next to me had her fish served with their heads intact. Perhaps they incorrectly assumed this gaijin couldn’t hack seeing fish heads. Nevertheless, the fishes’ intestines were still intact, giving them that really sharp bitter kick I’ve come to dislike. Not even the water pepper vinegar that accompanied this dish could get rid of the bitterness. Yeah nah, sorry, ayu isn’t for me.

Rice with matsutake mushrooms.

Rice with matsutake mushrooms.

The final savoury course was the mushroom rice cooked in a claypot. This chef had seen me take photos of all the food with my iPhone so he decided to be a good sport by holding up the rice pot. Naw.

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I was served half the rice, which was served with some Chinese cabbage soup and a trio of Japanese pickles (eggplant, daikon and seaweed). As simple as this dish may sound, it was probably my favourite. It may not have looked like a lot of rice but it did the job in making me full and I just loved how flavoursome the mushrooms were. Washed down with some tasty miso soup and the rest of my glass of white wine, the rice made me a happy camper.

Lemon ice cream, pear compote.

Lemon ice cream, pear compote.

Dessert was a simple yet perfect affair consisting of lemon ice cream and pear compote. Much like the yuzu and wasabi palate cleanser, this sorbet was equally refreshing and tasty – the perfect way to end a well-executed dinner.

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Where did the other half of my rice go? It was made into two pieces of onigiri and placed in a brown doggy bag…

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… for me to enjoy the next morning for breakfast.

Roan Kikunoi, you’re very clever. Kudos to you. Not only did you have me buzzing as soon as I left your warm and friendly establishment, you also had me thinking about you the very next morning as I hopped on the train to Nagoya.

Review: Issen-Yoshoku (Kyoto, Japan)

238 Giommachi Kitagawa
Higashiyama-Ku, Kyoto 605-0073
Kyoto Prefecture
Japan
+81 75 533 0001

Kyoto is a gorgeous city and what people say is the cultural and historical epicentre of Japan. If you like temples, old paved streets and centuries-old bridges, you will love Kyoto.

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A night walk took me through the famous (and amazingly beautiful) tea house-lined Gion district where geishas once roamed freely. These days, the sight of a geisha is quite rare – I didn’t see any during my stay in Kyoto – but it’s still worth the short commute up to Gion just for the stroll alone.

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You may also come across some strange things during your Kyoto post-dusk stroll. Like this dude dressed in a cake costume buying a drink from a street vending machine.

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Or this statue of a dog pulling a guy’s pants down from behind with his teeth. Strangely enough, this statue marked the entrance to Issen-Yoshoku, a popular eatery that specialises in Kyoto-stye okonomiyaki.

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The Kyoto-style okonomiyaki is also called issen-yoshoku. Like its traditional Osaka counterpart (the kind we all know and would get instant boners for), the Kyoto version contains egg, flour, shrimp, okonomiyaki sauce and dried bonito. On top of that, however, it also comes packed with spring onions, grilled fish paste, beef, ginger, tempura batter and konjak jelly. As a result, you’re getting a motherload of flavour in one little omelette/pizza/pancake/insert whatever other western equivalent you can think of.

Issen-yoshoku (¥680/AUD$7)

Issen-yoshoku (¥680/AUD$7)

Once you are seated in the bustling dining room, a waitress comes around and asks for upfront payment. As soon as you’ve paid, the freshly made banh xeo-looking issen-yoshoku is presented to you unceremoniously on a plastic white plate. At approximately seven Aussie dollars, it isn’t bad value.

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Given the amount of ingredients packed into the omelette, you won’t be complaining that it’s tasteless. In fact, I found that it was TOO tasty; there were so many things happening all at once that my poor tastebuds got confused. It wasn’t horrible though but I yearned for the relatively simplicity of a traditional Osaka okonomiyaki. I also found the dough of this Kyoto version to be a tad too soggy too.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the issen-yoshoku is worth trying at least once. Who knows, you might end up getting bigger boners for it yourself. As for me, I’m sticking to the classic okonomiyaki, thankyouverymuch.

Review: Fujiya 1935 (Osaka, Japan)

2-4-1 4 Yariyamachi
Chuo Ward, Osaka
Osaka Prefecture 540-0027
Japan
+81 6 6941 2483
http://fujiya1935.com/

You’d be completely insane if you thought I was going to visit Japan without sussing out some Michelin-starred restaurants – I ended up going to five. I visited three in Tokyo, one in Kyoto and one in Osaka, the latter of which I’ll talk about here.

I was only in Osaka for two nights and after I had my fill of takoyaki and okonomiyaki, it was time to venture into three Michelin star territory by dining at Chef Tetsuya Fujiwara’s modern Spanish restaurant, Fujiya 1935. Like most Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan, Fujiya 1935 offered reasonably priced lunches. Unfortunately, lunch sessions are always booked out well in advance and in this case, I missed out. I was lucky enough, however, to score a booking for their ¥15,000 (just under AUD$150 at the time) per head dinner which, mind you, does not include the compulsory 8% service charge they’ll chuck onto the bill at the end.

Fuijya 1935 is located on a main road but its door was so well hidden (read: poorly lit) that I ended up walking past it TWICE. It was dead quiet when I crept in and no one was around.

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I stood there awkwardly for what felt like forever, expecting someone to greet me. No one did. So I took a seat on the long timber bench against the wall and twiddled my thumbs like a loser.

Amuse bouche: mushroom soup

Amuse bouche: mushroom soup

At some point, the host appeared out of nowhere. She saw me, exclaimed ‘oh!’ and apologised profusely for not hearing me come in. She went away and returned immediately with a hot vessel of wonderfully silky and creamy mushroom soup before ushering me upstairs to the main dining room. It was the only slight hiccup in service; from that point on, everything was flawless and efficient.

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Fujiya 1935’s very small dining room is all about muted colour schemes and minimalist timber furnishings – think Swedish uber sophisticated injected by Tokyo cool (even though we were in Osaka). It was a very quiet restaurant and if I was dining with a friend, I would probably find dining here very awkward. But because I was dining alone (and so were three other guys there), I happily embraced the eerie yet soothing tranquillity of this place.

2008 Rueda Supeiror Belondra

2008 Rueda Supeiror Belondra

Fujiya 1935’s focus is on modern Spanish flavours using the best of Japanese seasonal produce so it made sense for them to have a neat and small selection of Spanish wines with one or two from Japan. The menu only had wines by the bottles but if you asked nicely like I did, the guys here are more than happy to pour you just one glass if that’s all you wanted to drink.

Radish, wasabi cream

Amuse bouche: radish, wasabi cream

My second amuse bouche was the fresh radish served on a slab of ice with real dirt. It came with a lovely wasabi cream that was super silky with the slightest kick. Although I was initially ‘err’ about being served a single raw radish at a restaurant, I understood what all the fuss was about – the radish was insanely crispy and fresh, nothing like any radish I’ve had before.

Having said that, I’d happily swap this course for something else if I returned to Fujiya 1935 because screw radishes.

Amuse bouche: cheese ball; chestnut bread

Amuse bouche: cheese ball; chestnut bread

My final amuse bouche was a sponge bread, a signature of Fujiya 1935 – but one that changes every now and then. Today, it was a chestnut sponge bread topped with whipped ricotta – it gloriously melted into nothingness as soon as I bit into it.

Roasted peanuts, Kuromoji leaf

Roasted peanuts, Kuromoji leaves

Next, I had the roasted peanuts served with the Kuromoji leaves they were cooked in. Like the radish course, it was a dish that was meant to showcase how wonderful the prime ingredient was. The peanuts themselves were sweeter than your average supermarket nuts and the leaves imparted a lovely herby and smoky flavour. Once again, I got what they were doing but c’mon, I wanted to see some actual cooking and taste combinations of wonderful flavours rather than attempt to appreciate the one ingredient, no matter how amazing it was! It almost felt like I was being jibbed. A three Michelin star restaurant should be lauded for its cooking, not how well they can forage for super amazing ingredients. (although the latter is important too, I get that)

Matsutake mushroom

Matsutake mushroom

They did it again with the mushroom. Yup, it just a single mushroom. I liked this one better than the radish and peanuts though – partly because I love mushrooms in general and partly because it was delicately fried so it came out beautifully crispy. The matsutake is a Japanese pine mushroom that is available during the cool autumn months and is a delicacy prized for its distinct spicy flavour. I could totally see that. Delicious.

Wild mushroom and shrimp from Nagano

Wild mushroom and shrimp from Nagano

The waitress simply introduced this dish as ‘wild mushroom and shrimp from Nagano’ that had been ‘cooked with no water.’ Due to the language barrier though, I couldn’t get her to elaborate but that was fine. It was essentially a light consommé with the liquid made using the natural juices of the shrimp, beef and mushrooms that appeared during the cooking process. Served with warm pumpkin bread and Japanese sesame butter, it was delicious to the very last bite. This was my favourite dish so far.

Ayu fish

Ayu fish

The ayu is a fish that I would see a lot during my Japan travels. Colloquially known as a ‘sweet fish,’ it is called so because of it apparently tastes like watermelon. I call BS on that – the small fish is cooked and served with its intestines so it was very bitter. As for the fish itself, it tasted like a delicate version of a mackerel but without the oiliness. I can’t say I’m a fan of the ayu, but I give mad props for the beautiful presentation of this dish, laver seaweed squares and cucumber balls and all.

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RARRRR!

Blue swimming crab linguine with black beans and mimolette cheese

Blue swimming crab linguine with black beans and mimolette cheese

We steered into heavy European territory with this mouth-watering pasta dish, surprisingly one of my favourite dishes of the night. The thin strands of pasta were are robust as the delicious cheese-flavoured sauce which was creamy without being too heavy. The fresh crabmeat injected a lovely natural sweetness while the beans added an earthy oomph.

White tilefish, potato, ground cherries

White tilefish, potato, ground cherries

This was another dish with very strong European influences. The soft white tilefish was cooked in a very delicate and light sauce made using the juices of the potatoes and ground cherries, both served with the fish. I also suspect that a bit of butter was added for cohesiveness too. Again, this was a delicious and well-balanced dish.

Figs

Figs

Intermission involved some figs, fresher and sweeter than any figs I’d ever eaten. My previous statements-slash-whinges about the bloody raw one ingredient dishes did not apply to the figs – they were insanely and eye-poppingly tasty.

Free range French chicken with mushroom sauce and taro root

Free range French chicken with mushroom sauce and taro root

The final dish was a well-cooked French chicken breast drizzled in a creamy mushroom sauce and served with shallots and what the waitress called ‘a Japanese potato’ (in other words, taro root). The chicken alone, covered in a neat layer of perfectly crispy skin, held so much flavour – it made me reassess my views on not ordering chicken at restaurants because I considered it to be boring (definitely not in this case!).

Texture of pear

Texture of pear

A lovely pear-themed palate cleanser put an end to the savoury courses. The pear came in three forms – sorbet, caramel and crisp – and was finished off with a couple of sliced grapes which you can’t really see in this photo. If this had been dessert, I would be a happy camper. It was light, refreshing and did not bog me down like a ghastly chocolate cake did.

Chestnut and coffee pudding with grass jelly

Chestnut and coffee pudding with grass jelly

Actually, none of the desserts did. They arrived one by one, in miniature form – enough so I could get a taste without getting that nasty feeling I normally get after eating a full-sized serving of ice cream or cake. The chestnut and coffee pudding was another fabulous dessert, served with a box of chestnuts.

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Okay, I lie. There was only one roasted chestnut – the rest of the box was filled with shavings and other sorts of stuff. But it was a good chestnut, obvs. So soft, so smoky and so sweet. Definitely not so-so.

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I did prefer the coffee pudding though. Topped with a delicate chestnut foam, the pudding itself was infused with a dash of rum to keep things interesting. And who could ever say no to grass jelly? (I can’t)

Passionfruit and dill icy pole

Passionfruit and dill icy pole

This passionfruit and dill icy pole was gorgeous – it was almost too cute to eat. It was another refreshing dessert, though it sucked that it was gone in a matter of seconds. It might have been small but looks were deceiving for this tiny thing was bursting with flavour with a slight hint of dill for balance. Though the whole time, I was wondering where the hell one grew passionfruit in Japan and how…

Honey cake (background)

Honey cake (background)

Oh yeah, the honey cake in the background was also pretty nice. Think Sri Lankan semolina love cake, but a slightly lighter version. Thumbs up.

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I don’t normally rave on about restaurants’ washroom facilities but I’d like to say that Fujiya 1935 had some of the best bathrooms I’d seen in my life. The ladies’ room was decked out like a Hollywood dressing room. Check out those mirrors!

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The toilet roll holder also had sanitary napkins just in case you ladies had your monthly visitor arrive during dinner service.

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There were also toothpicks in case you got ayu bone stuck between your teeth. They also had toothbrushes because you may as well go the whole nine yards.

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And while we’re at it, why not cotton buds in case you felt the need to clean your ears? And don’t forget the mouthwash. After all, there is a chance you might get a goodnight pash from your date at the end of the night. (though what kind of insane person would choose Fujiya 1935 as a first date venue?!)

As for the meal itself? Yeah, I can see why Fujiya 1935 got their Michelin stars. When they actually decided to combine more than two ingredients to make something that resembled an actual dish, the result was wonderful, cohesive and flawless. I also liked that they really embraced (worshipped, even) seasonal produce and did their best to showcase them beautifully. And although there weren’t many of them, the dishes that lacked in taste (okay fine, just that ayu dish) certainly covered their bases via presentation.

I would have preferred to see less radish and peanut-type ‘dishes’ but that’s just me. If it works for Fujiya 1935 and their customers, then it works and who am I to argue? Plus, their figs certainly shut me up. A meal at Fujiya 1935 isn’t for budget travellers but relative to other THREE Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan, ¥15,000 isn’t bad at all given the amount of dishes you get and the efficient and cheerful service I received on the night.

Review: Mentouan (Nara, Japan)

Hashimotocho 30-1
Nara City 630-8217
Nara Prefecture
Japan

During my Osaka stay, I made a day trip out to Nara. The good thing about Japan and its wonderful trains is that it doesn’t take long to go from one city to another – my trip to Nara only took 30 minutes.

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As some of you may know, Nara is famous for its thousands of deer that quietly roam Nara Park and surrounding areas. It’s also home to some beautiful temples, serene parks and probably a whole of other stuff that I didn’t quite get around to seeing because my Osaka hostel owner said Nara ‘wasn’t worth staying overnight for.’ Still, it’s definitely worth a day trip – or even half a day if you’re pressed for time. If I had my way, I could have happily spent an entire whole afternoon patting, feeding and chasing all the deer.

There are probably more selfie sticks in Nara than there are actual deer these days...

There are probably more selfie sticks in Nara than there are actual deer these days…

After I had my fill of deer and temples, it was time for a late lunch before heading back to Osaka. Not knowing where to go or what I wanted, I decided to walk around until I found a place that looked reasonably busy from the outside – because chances are the food would be, like,  totes amazeballs, right?

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I came across Mentouan, which is located just after Nara Park but before Nara Railway Station, heading back. There was a steady but not a terribly long line of people waiting outside as well as a sign with what looked like a bowl of dashi and a fried bean curd bag and ‘No 1’ next to it. Being a sucker for hyperbole (and bean curd, I suppose), I decided to give this dish a go.

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I was told that there would be a 10 minute wait for a seat which was fine with me – I didn’t have anywhere else to go. Plus, it was pissing down rain so the last thing I wanted to do was walk around the streets looking for another lunch venue. Once I got in though, I was greeted warmly by my waitress and presented with a warm towel and a cup of hot green tea.

Mystery bean curd pocket in soup ¥850 (so, just under AUD$9)

Mystery bean curd pocket in soup ¥850 (so, just under AUD$9)

My bowl of soupy goodness arrived within minutes. What was inside?

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Oh mein Gott! Udon! And lots of them too! You should have seen me squeal in delight when I broke open the beancurd skin pouch and a motherload of beautiful slippery noodles came tumbling out. It was a bit Walking Dead-like in a sense – think guts oozing out of bodies but without the blood.

As for the taste? Delicious, absolutely delicious. It was such a simple and effortless dish that hit all the right spots, especially in the cold. Best of all, you got to eat the bean curd and the little spring onion ‘tie’ once you were down with your noodles. So so good. In fact, I’m surprised that this bean curd-udon-soup thing hasn’t caught on outside of this little shop in Nara.

So while Nara is famous for its cute deer, I think it should also be known for this amazing noodle shop that serves up reliably good (and tasty) noodle dishes for less than an Aussie tenner. They are closed on Tuesdays though and be prepared to wait if you decide to come smack-bang during the lunch peak.