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Dec 2, 2012 12:00 AM

Tokyo report, part 1 - Sushi Yoshitake, Imamura, Mao, Hirosaku, Kagura, Ranjatai...

I'm about to complete another long gastronomic tour in Japan, mainly in Tokyo, so here is the first part of my report. Most places are probably not new to people in these boards, but anyway, it might be useful to others.

I've been to Japan a dozen times and, although I'm serious about the eating, it's not the number one reason why I travel to this country.

I'll rate the restaurants Tabelog-style, with individual scores for food flavour (FF), atmosphere (AT) and cost performance (CP), plus the overall score out of 5. I won't rate service since I don't remember experiencing bad service in Japan, so it's not important for me.

Kagura - 4.0

FF: 4.0 | AT: 5.0 | CP: 5.0

I didn't have a reservation for lunch this day so I picked this restaurant through the Michelin Guide (1 star), imagining I could just walk in and have their anago lunch. It was quite a surprise when I opened the door, leaving a busy street in Akasaka to enter a serene place. The restaurant is very pretty, with a large rustic table serving as a counter and an iron kettle hanging over an irori fireplace in the corner.

There're two lunch options: anago or karei (flounder). I chose anago and had 2/3 of the fish with wasabi, and then transformed it into delicious chazuke. There were also small appetisers of Katsuoo with some jelly and yuzu zest and an excellent chawan-mushi. The waitress, Momoko, spoke very good english and made me feel very welcome. I would go there for the atmosphere alone, but for only ¥ 1500 It's hard to eat better than the lunch set at Kagura.

Hirosaku - 4.0

FF: 4.0 | AT: 4.0 | CP: 4.0

This one was an interesting experience. Went for lunch, since their dinner course is one of the most expensive in Tokyo and this was not my top priority. I was impressed by how humble this place was. I wasn't expecting Alain Ducasse-levels of luxury (albeit the ¥ 30k+ dinner menu), but it was still shocking to see how tiny, cozy and simple this Michelin starred restaurant is. This is not a place where you sit at the counter and watch the chef putting the final touches to a dish in front of you. There's no hidden kitchen. You're actually seeing the whole thing (there's a private rooms downstairs, but…) and the chef will even wash the dishes and cookware after he finishes cooking! It felt like eating at his home. There was even an old TV on all the time. The lunch menu also tasted homely, like his tempura (excellent, but not high end tempura). There was also a good yuba and some raw fish, but the highlight for lunch is the soba, which was among the best I've had.

Torie - 4.5

FF: 4.5 | AT: 4.0 | CP: 4.5

An excellent high-end yakitori restaurant in Ueno. Juicy pieces of chicken, excellent liver and liver paté. The waitress spoke fluent english and was extremely kind.

Ranjatai - 5.0

FF: 5.0 | AT: 4.0 | CP: 5.0

Another upscale yakitori restaurant, with a Michelin star. The kind of yakitori people enjoy drinking wine with the skewers. Not only the chicken was very impressive, juicy and perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper, but they served an amazing, smoky piece of duck, garnished with... cheese. The amount of food was enough to explode, and the price was about ¥ 4.200 per person. A very good value. I have yet to try Torishiki, but so far this is the best yakitori I've had.

Les Enfants Gates - 3.0

FF: 3.5 | AT: 3.5 | CP: 3.0

Terrines are their speciality, and it's usually the main dish here. I tried 4 of them. First one was a mini-terrine of sanma, shitake and yam. This one was outstanding. I wished it was not so small as it would end up being the highlight of my meal. It was followed by a 10 vegetable soup, which was good enough. As a main dish I chose the terrine of scallops and crab with saffron sauce, on top of a potato puree. Served hot, it was quite good. I decided to order one more a la carte, a classic one, pate de campagne. Considering this was "Les Enfants Gate's speciality", I found it a little disappointing, as I've eaten better ones in Tokyo, at Joel Robuchon. The dessert was a pretty terrine of apple with sweet wine cream and cinnamon ice cream.

Ginza Okuda - 4.0

FF: 4.0 | AT: 4.0 | CP: 4.5

I still don't understand why chef Toru Okuda opened a second restaurant, now in the same building as Koju (the old Koju is now the new Sushi Iwa), as they serve exactly the same food as the 3 star restaurant. Maybe he wants to train his staff and expand Koju without risking the quality? Anyway, Okuda-san wasn't there at lunch. Instead, chef Miyahara, who speaks some english, was behind the counter and was very hospitable.

I chose the 10.000 yen menu, which is exactly half the price of the one I had last year at Koju. Some courses were the same, like crab with vinegar jelly (excellent), tai, tuna and squid sashimi (his squid was superb, just as I remembered) and grilled barracuda wrapped in matsutake (very good). As we were in autumn, the meal focused on matsutake and this ingredient appeared again in the soup with miyoga and shrimp dumpling (I've had similar soup in other restaurants, but this one was easily the best), as well as in a dish of grilled fish with dashi and the rice course, which included thin slices of wagyu. Dessert was a martini glass of several kinds of grapes in some gelatine. This is the kind of food I like a lot, though the emphasis on matsutake was bit too much. My meal at Koju last year was more well balanced.

Biodinamico - 3.5

FF: 3.5 | AT: 3.0 | CP: 4.0

This italian restaurant is highly regarded on Tabelog, where it's been in the top 3 for a while. I had the lunch menu, which involves 7 courses, starting with good antipasti (good scallop with bacon, foie gras eclair, meat croquette etc) and finishing with a simple spaghetti al pomodoro. I enjoyed the gnocchi with squid sauce and the carrot soup, but there wasn't any particularly remarkable dish. Maybe I was expecting too much after seeing the reviews on Tabelog. Their lunch menu is still a very good value, and the service, even by Tokyo standards, left an excellent impression. It's a small restaurant, with a strangely dressed maitre, one waiter and no wine list (just a couple of options of white, red, sparkling).

Tamawarai - 3.5

FF: 4.0 | AT: 3.0 | CP: 1.5

Nice soba restaurant (though you usually seat in front of a wall) in a quiet street of Jingumae, near "Cat Street". The soba was excellent, perhaps they best I've eaten, and I ordered nishin (herring) as a side dish, which was also delicious. But the portions are very small (couldn't believe how small was the dish of soba) and I left the restaurant hungry enough to eat 8 takoyaki balls (I'm normal sized person, btw, with normal appetite). For 2700 yen (with a beer), it's an awful value.

Yoshihashi - 3.5

FF: 4.0 | AT: 3.0 | CP: 3.5

The traditional sukiyaki restaurant with a Michelin star. I went for lunch, which is 10% of the price you would pay for it's luxurious dinner. I had the sukiyaki set, offered with tofu, negi, shimeji, onions, some greens I couldn't identify and a delicious sukiyaki sauce (and the usual rice, pickles, miso soup and tea). It was quite good, but nothing memorable. Not that I expected much more from a ¥ 2.100 lunch. Now the most important: I didn't feel uncomfortable at all. Service was cold, as it was for other japanese guests, but you can go there, sit down, ask for your sukiyaki and eat without bothering about speaking japanese or feeling like you shouldn't be there.

Ginza Shimada - 4.0

FF: 4.0 | AT: 4.0 | CP: 4.5

Chef Hiroshi Shimada worked at 3 Michelin star Azabu Yukimura before opening this interesting restaurant concept in Ginza. He serves many of the dishes that he used to prepare at Yukimura, like lobster gelee with uni and soba covered with karasumi, but charges a fraction of the price you would pay at the 3 star restaurant. However here there aren't seats, so you will probably eat standing up the whole time (there is one single small table for 4 that you can reserve, though). This way he expects a lot of customer rotation. I arrived at 5:30 expecting to be one of the first customers, but then I discovered that the restaurant opened at 5:00, and was already full. I had to wait for about 40 minutes outside before getting my place at the counter

The bill was ¥ 6000 with a glass of sake. I could taste six dishes, sharing two of these with people I just met there. It's a good place to chat with strangers, I believe. The atmosphere was very nice and friendly. The food was also very good and some dishes used ingredients common to the best restaurants, like matsutake, fugu (had it fried and was superb), shirako (also fried, excellent), duck (with persimmon, shimeji and miyoga), konoko (dried sea cucumber ovaries) and karasumi, so it's a good opportunity to eat this kind of delicacy without spending too much.

Kyorakutei - 4.0

FF: 4.0 | AT: 3.5 | CP: 4.0

This is a soba (and udon) restaurant with a Michelin star in Kagurazaka. Excellent soba as expected, good tempura and probably many other things that differentiates it from other soba restaurants, but I didn't have the opportunity to try.

Sushi Yoshitake - 3.5

FF: 3.5 | AT: 3.5 | CP: 2.0

As far as I remember, Sushi Yoshitake was the only bad experience I had in a restaurant in Japan, ever (and this is my 12th trip). Not exactly because of the food, which was good, but because they were a little dishonest, charging a lot more for the meal than the price they informed through the phone when my hotel concierge made the reservation one month before, even considering the 10% service fee. They also charged more than double the price for beer. As the waitress didn't speak english, there was not much I could do, and the atmosphere was so formal and silent that I didn't feel comfortable to complain and try to understand what happened.

When I arrived at my hotel, I confirmed the rip-off, did some research and found out that my omakase was missing one appetiser course, which should have been the abalone with liver sauce. I was 12 minutes late for this dinner because my GPS displayed the wrong street in Ginza (probably due to the fact that are many high buildings and narrow streets in that area, so the signal is not very precise), so instead of rushing some pieces to me, they probably decided to skip a course, I suppose. This really pissed me off and left a very bad impression of this restaurant. I definitely won't be returning to sushi Yoshitake.

Now the food. I loved the smoked bonito. Never had it as sashimi before, so it was really good to taste larger pieces of that smoky and delicious fish. The other tsumami, like ankimo, were also very good, but I was disappointed with the nigiris, which were clearly not in the same level of places like Mizutani or Saito. Even the tamago and miso soup were inferior to the ones I had in other restaurants.

If you want to spend ¥ 20k go to Sushi Sho or any other restaurant that does something different.

Sushi Imamura - 4.5

FF: 4.5 | AT: 4.5 | CP: 5.0

After a very disappointing dinner at Yoshitake, I had lunch at Imamura in Shirokane and was positively surprised. They only open for lunch in the weekends, saturday and sunday, btw.

I loved every piece of sushi served here, specially the kohada and kuruma ebi. Chef Imamura used riced seasoned with red vinegar for some pieces, and it really stood out. His rice is the firmer, al dente style, the kind I like a lot.

Oddly for a sushi restaurant, the meal concluded with a dessert: a lovely roasted tea ice-cream. The restaurant atmosphere was more relaxed than most high-end sushi places, and the value for money (for lunch at least) was superb. I highly recommend Sushi Imamura!

Kyubey - 4.0

FF: 4.0 | AT: 4.0 | CP: 4.5

Why Kyubey if there are so many -- and potentially better -- sushi restaurants in Tokyo? Because it's one of the few restaurants that I know where you can just walk in and have the higher end sushi.

This time I had the most basic omakase. The smoked katsuoo, which the chef seasoned with lemon, ginger and yuzu zest, was outstanding, but the tuna was not the best that day.

Sushiya Mao - 4.0

FF: 4.0 | AT: 3.0 | CP: 4.0

Picked this one on Tabelog, where it's ranked 11 for sushi in Tokyo today. I also had the most basic lunch omakase, which was good, but felt a bit soulless, like a generic Kanesaka. I liked the nigiris more than the ones at Kanesaka, though.

I'll post part 2 soon.

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  1. Hurrah! I subscribe to this board exactly for posts like this. Wonderful!

    3 Replies
    1. re: hblnk

      I enjoyed your post.. very natural reading, and on spot. Too bad you didn't say anything at sushi Yoshitake, I think that if you expressed it gentlly, it would have been ok ... and even, the chef may have given you some extra.
      I agree with you on Ginza Shimada, I also recommended it twice on the board. There, I enjoyed roast bamboo and karasumi soba for a stop before eating diner,.. 
      For soba, I prefer soba Hosokawa over the soba Kyorakutei. My last time at Kyorskutei was this summer, for the cold soba with tomato, a summer special !! You eat at first your cold soba with some tomato basil sauce, and then you add some 'soba tsuyu(soba sauce)', an original combination. Soba was served with flakes of bonito, and was well flavored, ...
      The first time I go to a soba place, I always order 'karaguchi daikon(grated radish)' or 'shibori daikon(radish spicy juice)'. 
      Sushi Imamura, i did also have the lunch. They are a lovely couple, they met in Brussels, in fact his wife is a patissier¨¨ Now, I don't know if it was an 'off' day, or chef just being a bit careless that day. The neta was not that great... in fact. the maguro' was getting a bit brown, I won't go again for that reason. Even without such incident on the quality, it seems that ingredients are remaining in the open for the evening, and put more that 2 hours at room temperature, your fish starts to change color... The red color of 'maguro' is an important sign of the management skills of the sushi chef. Sorry if i am a bit harsh on them, but that is how I felt.
      Right now, I am interested to go to the new one star sushi Ichikawa, the disciple of Araki-san. And oh, Kanesaka group lost a star, sushi Kanesaka was downgraded to one star, sushi Mao, well, I won't recommend it also, the chef is not that friendly.

      1. re: Ninisix

        Actually, I did ask the waitress how much was the omakase and said that my hotel was told another price. She replied in japanese. I was the first person to ask for the bill and there was too much silence... that moment I thought I could me mistaken about the price, so I didn't inquire further. Anyway, I might try calling them tomorrow.

        I was very curious about the tomato soba, but ended up ordering the less original tempura soba because of the anago tempura.

        Sad to hear about your lunch at Imamura. Maybe it was an off day indeed. I met a couple that even said it was their favorite sushi restaurant, and they were regulars there.

        Yeah, Kanesaka lost a star. I think it's fair. The chef at Mao seemed a little cold indeed.

        1. re: babreu

          I had lunch at sushi Imamura last year, in the end of summer. It is not so far from the French Embassy, so I might give them another chance at that occasion ...

    2. re: sushi yoshitake - that's not good, i'm going there in a couple of weeks, hopefully it was a one off experience

      1. btw do you have addresses for all these places? We have reservations at certain places already, but we're doing research to go do just some walk-in type of stuff

        8 Replies
        1. re: Lau

          Yes, I do, but it's gonna be a lot of work to type all the addresses. Is there an specific restaurant you need the address?

          1. re: babreu

            babreu - sorry just realized you replied and i hadn't replied back, so i was interested in ones where we're not going to need a res as i have some lunches that i need to fill up with places to eat:
            - Kagura
            - Torie
            - Ranjatai
            - Ginza Shimada

            also on tabelog, i can't read japanese, so how do you figure out what the address is on tabelog as that seems to be the website everyone uses?

                1. re: babreu

                  btw did you have a reservation at hirosaku?

                  1. re: Lau

                    I'm pretty sure a reservation is a must. They only have 5 counter seats and 1 table. The place is tiny.

                    1. re: killersmile

                      Re Hirosaku: there is also a private room on the 2md floor that can sit 4 persons. There is one time that I got rejected booking 3 weeks in advanced and I have been there a few times so they know me, so yes, I would say reservation is needed.

                    2. re: Lau

                      Yes, I think it's reservation only.

            1. I am sorry about your experience at Yoshitake. I recall the waitress spoke passable English, she was telling me its new shop in HK. For me, Yoshitake's appetizers (in particular the abalone that you missed) far outshine its sushi. The sushi rice is seasoned with too much red vinegar for my taste. I visited on a Saturday night, and I suspect because it closes on Sundays, Yoshitake san was eager to finish the ingredients: he give us extra freebies, I recalled having three shrimp sushi and two huge uni sushi.

              1 Reply
              1. re: CWFOODIE

                I also visited on a saturday night. I had 13 nigiris (including the tamago), 1 miso soup and 5 appetizers. No abalone or rice on abalone liver sauce.

              2. What a fantastic report! We are planning a trip to Japan in 3 weeks. We are travelling with our 9 month old son. Three questions: how appropriate (or inappropriate) would bringing our son to the above restaurants be? How accomodating would they be? Also, how far in advance would reservations be required?
                Thanks for any help!

                2 Replies
                1. re: mbemery

                  Thanks! Some restaurants like Kagura, Okuda and Yoshitake have private rooms, so it might be OK to bring children. But I'm not so sure about their rules for infants.

                  Yakitori restaurants definitely don't seem suited for young children (too much noise and smoke).

                  Maybe you should call the restaurants and inform them. Your hotel concierge might help.

                  1. re: babreu

                    im going to start writing my posts on tokyo soon, i tried to go to Ranjatai, but they were closed when i wanted to go, so i didnt end up going. I did go to sushi yoshitake and had a bad experience as well although different from yours and it was really my hotel's fault not the restaurant, i found yoshitake himself to be really nice (wonderful food). ill write that one first so you can read