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Nov 27, 2013 02:33 AM

Japan trip report in Nov '13

It’s been our dream to visit Japan. We’re supposed to be here 2 years ago for our honeymoon, but then a huge tsunami and Fukushima incident forced us to change our plan - too risky to go. And this month finally we had a chance to make our dream become reality. We arrived in the morning, and began our meal with lunch at Shima steakhouse.

Chef Manabu Oshima gained his experiences by working in Europe, mainly France, Germany and England. The restaurant is in the basement of Nihonbashi MM building and it’s not too far from Takashimaya. Oshima is helped mainly by his 2 sons and his place would fit at most 20 people. The steakhouse menu was quite simple (in fact he has not changed them for more than 10 years), but don’t be fooled by it – he has plenty of off-the-menu items. For us, it’s simple and easy: we come here for the steak. I ordered a sirloin and my wife E had a filet. Prior to that, we tried a home-made onion gratin soup (rich with thick cheese layer on top, the chopped onion was not too much) and salad (fresh with clean dressing, my wife loved it). Then come the steak. My sirloin was tender and flavorful, it’s not really melt-in-your-mouth kind of beef but very well prepared; the fat thankfully was not too rich. E’s filet was a bit saltier than mine, but about equally delicious. Both of us had no problem finishing nearly 200 gr of steak each. The dessert was home made vanilla ice cream, petit four and musk melon. Oshima-san spoke good English and very approachable. It was a quiet lunch, only 4 people including us. At the end, we’re given the copy of the beef certificate we consumed. A good way to kick off our meal in Tokyo

Having ramen for dinner at Solamachi was actually unplanned for. Initially, we’re supposed to dine at Toriki but the map we got from our hotel was not that clear: no info which exit to take, and it’s too “broad”. If you don’t have any GPS with you, ideally, you should have 2 maps: one showing the restaurant location with respect to the nearest train station and secondly, the zoom-in map of the restaurant neighborhood so that when you lost, the people there can easily put you back on the right track. In short, we’re late and Toriki staff did not allow us to dine there unless we’re willing to wait for 2 hours or so. It was a freezing night, and since I was not too desperate to eat there, well – let’s forget it. Another lesson learned: give yourself plenty of time for the next restaurants. Tokyo sky tree was not too far from Kinsicho area. It’s almost 9 PM and luckily there’s no queue at Rokurinsha. Only tsukemen was available here and we ordered Ajitaman tsukemen with egg, Tokusei tsukemen full toppings and shared an additional order of chashu. We were surprised by the huge portion of the cold noddles, but I liked these thick noddles chewy texture. They ‘absorbed’ the broth (I wish it had been hotter) depth flavor well. My favorite part was actually the 3/4-boiled egg that remains soft with gelatinous center; the chashu was a bit tough to my likeness. Apparently, neither of us managed to finish the noddles. A nice casual eating, my best tsukemen so far

Gora Kadan
On the third day, we left the hustle and bustle of Tokyo for a day retreat. For this trip, we really wanted to try onsen (hot springs). Late Autumn or Winter should be the best time to stay in the open-air and soak ourselves in the Japanese hot bath. Hakone is probably the closest destination for natural hot bath from Tokyo. We were staying at the famous ryokan named Gora Kadan (GR). I think I shall not talk much about our general experience there, so let’s jump directly to the food part. In many elite ryokan, having dinner is a must – well, without which your ryokan experience would not be complete. I read several reviews praising the food here. The dinner was actually quite solid, but clearly it’s not at the level of Tokyo’s 2 & 3 star restaurants serving kaiseki. The highlight of our meal were: ankimo wrapped in spinach, grilled sawara and roasted wagyu beef yet none of these dishes really wowed us. I would say at most GR’s cuisine is worth 1-star michelin. The breakfast, however, was awesome – a very extensive Japanese style. There were tofu, miso soup, tamago, nori, orange juice, hot ocha etc. For the main, I had grilled Cod with miso sauce while E had Salmon with chef’s special sweet sauce. It was arguably the best breakfast we had of the entire trip. You can see the pictures below,

To be continued ...
At the other topic, you should be able to find my Ishikawa’s dinner review

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  1. At Shima, what type of beef did both of you have? Its grade? Also: now that you are there, did you get to sample various types of beef. kobe beef Vs matsusaka beef or any other variety of wagyu? If Yes, what do you think in regard to their differences/nuances, etc. Did they impress you enough to turn your back to, say, Black Angus, or any other of your favourite red meats? Tokyo is also a dream for me. Had to postpone it for financial reasons, but it is a matter a months before I make it there. Thanks for sharing!

    5 Replies
    1. re: MichelinStarDinners

      Good question, we didn't actually ask specifically about that. We only remembered that Oshima-san generally got his beef either from Kobe or Kyoto only.

      We're not too crazy about trying different kind of beef specifically while in Japan. However, in some restaurant I got a chance to eat (as part of the set menu): Miyazaki beef (delicate taste; its texture is very smooth/velvety) and Omi beef (earthy and very rich, a refined version of grass-fed beef). In the past I also ate Kagoshima beef (flavorful with distinct texture). Honestly, sometimes they're not easy to distinguish. I don't think I ever had Matsuzaka beef - so cannot comment, sorry

      Oh if you compare Japanese Wagyu beef with the beef from the rest of the world? Hands down, the Japanese ones are head and shoulder above them given money is not an issue. Charcoal grill/steak style is probably my favorite way to eat these beef. It's also interesting if you eat them in shabu2 or sukiyaki.

      The good thing about going to Japan now is that the yen is relatively weak. The steak at Shima was actually quite reasonable; hence I may not yet try the best Japanese beef available. Aragawa, Kawamura or Dons de la Nature probably provide better steak quality. Well, good luck with your planning. Tokyo is truly a fantastic city for culinary trips

      1. re: Bu Pun Su

        Very helpful and informative answers. Thanks, Bu Pun Su.

        1. re: Bu Pun Su

          I'd like to visit Tokyo, Nara and Kyoto next Nov-Dec .. could you kindly tell me best time to go to see autumn leaves? What would be the best moderately priced place to sample steak?

          1. re: walker

            The best time is probably the 2nd half of Nov, depending on the weather. The temperature drop is needed to make the leaves change color - I hardly see beautiful momiji in Tokyo though; Kyoto is the place to be, and possibly Nara
            If you somehow miss the auturm leaves and get the snow, try to visit Nikko - I heard it's beautiful during winter

            Steak wise: in Tokyo, it would be Shima while in Kyoto, maybe Hafu. For the beef only, JPY 15K per pax should be enough. If I may recommend, with that budget, you should instead go to Osaka and having dinner at Koryu, a very good Osakan Kaiseki restaurant

            Good luck with your planning

            1. re: Bu Pun Su

              Thank you very much for your reply, advice.

              I look forward to visiting Japan, even tho I don't eat raw fish. I'm sure I can find noodles and tempura.

      2. Here comes the 2nd "installment" of my review. The main theme will be sushi, but I will begin with tonkatsu

        In addition to tsukemen, other Japanese casual food that we ate was tonkatsu. We heard that Butagumi was supposed to be the best place for breaded deep fried pork, but then they only open at proper lunch and dinner hours – I was unwilling to give those prime hours for katsu meal unfortunately. The alternative choice was Maisen, located in Shibuya area, which opened in the afternoon. We didn’t go to its honten though. The (branch) restaurant was actually huge by Japanese standard. My wife E loved tonkatsu more than I do, so as expected she would order the kurobota set menu whereas I only chose katsudon; of course both of us picked ‘rosu’, having more fat. Both of our pork was indeed tender, juicy, crispy with a slight hint of oiliness. Maisen served 3 sauces: the usual sauce, Japanese mustard as well as special sauce, which basicaly was tonkatsu sauce with shredded apple. The portion was big, yet we managed to sweep all of the pork cutlet. Since Matsukawa dinner was waiting a few hours later, we didn’t want to finish up the rice. A nice “heavy” snack and in less than an hour, we left the restaurant to explore Omotesando hills area

        Iwasa Sushi
        On my last visit to Tokyo, I could not make it to come to Tsukiji market, the biggest fish market in the world. I didn’t come for the Tuna auction – it’s too early for me; just see around the area and had a breakfast. Sushi Dai or Daiwa would be the usual suspects, but I didn’t think the food is worth our energy and time, especially when we have reservations at Sushi Mizutani and Shou. That being said, we decided to try Iwasa sushi. I had the uni don and sashimi while my wife ordered the Chef’s omakase in which the sushi was served on bamboo leaf. My sea urchin was decent; it had some ocean aroma. I finished the rest of the rice with sashimi consisting of katsuo, a couple white fish, chu toro etc. Again, having been to top sushi places, it would be unfair to compare their qualities with Iwasa. My wife was quite happy with the omakase. The chef served 3 nigiri at a time, the portion is quite generous and hence a filing breakfast for her. Possibly we should’ve ordered their shell fishes sushi to share since it’s what they’re really famous for. Anyway, it’s not a bad place at all – above average when compared to other sushi restaurants outside Japan generally. Besides us, there was a couple ordering uni don and a young man having one of the sushi sets

        Sushi Mizutani and Sushi Shou
        As my review will be longer, I somehow think these 2 elite sushi places deserve their own threads
        You can find my Mizutani review very soon; whereas for Shou - hopefully I have time to finish writing it in a couple of days

        4 Replies
        1. re: Bu Pun Su

          In the “third installment” of my Japan trip, we will begin to go beyond Tokyo and its vicinity. To be more precise, we also visited Kyoto, Japan’s old capital

          Okura French Toast
          I was supposed to include this in my last review. We don’t usually have breakfast in a hotel unless it’s included in the package or a must-have thing like when we’re staying in ryokans. Chef Oshima recommended us to try the French toast (FT) at hotel Okura for breakfast, we did comply and it did not dissapoint at all. As a matter of fact, it’s the best FT I’ve ever tasted along with the one from Taj Camption SF. The FT was thick and perfectly prepared – sweet but not too intense; it’s crispy and light outside with beautiful yellowish-brown color and creamy & soft inside, producing melt in your mouth effect. A great way to start your day in Tokyo

          Kitcho and Kikunoi are probably the most well-known (kaiseki) restaurants in Kyoto. Given their famous reputation, ideally we should try the full course kaiseki menu at both places. But, our budget was not unlimited. Furthermore, I read that the food at Kikunoi was sometimes inconsistent. Thus, I decided that I would still visit this place but it would be for their cheaper option – lunch bento box. Guests who ordered the bento box were seated together in the main dining room that could easily accommodate 30 people and no seat was empty on that day. Honestly, I didn’t quite remember everything I ate here – let me try: the lacquer box was divided into 6 partitions, and then there were a bowl of soup dish and rice. I ordered the extra sashimi option (I think the raw fish was the best part of my lunch; maguro and tai). Our box: The grilled fish taste was alright, but the texture was a bit rough; small amount of ikura with “salad” – average; fried sweet potato, got a hint of oiliness, served together with ginkgo; dried skin tofu with mushroom and veggie; hassun: this was possibly the worst part – soggy fish and some tastless items, the best thing was salmon wrapped with squid; and lastly kobu. The soup was tasty though; it had fried tofu shrimp with clean dashi and yuzu skin. The rice was unusual; it had egg yolk, peanut sauce (nattou perhaps?) and whity sticky cream. At first, it was not too bad but the rice didn’t really go well with the the rest of the items in the box ... at least for me. The bento lunch might be not a fair way to really judge this place. It’s definitely not 3-star; 1 star at most based on the lunch box. Don’t expect any personalized service during lunch. Kikunoi’s full kaiseki meal would definitely be a better way to tell how good the restaurant really is. I took a peek of restaurants open kitchen; some cooks actually prepared plenty of snow crab. It will be a long way to go before we return here – Mizai and/or Ogata are on higher priority than this place

          Gion Kinana
          The ice cream place that has become popular recently. The shop is around Kyoto’s Higashiyama district, hidden in the secluded narrow road that not many people around the area actually know this place. It was a cold and rather windy evening; after returning from the Kinkakuji, we decided to see around Gion plus having a short break at Gion Kinana. Despite the cold weather, the restaurant was actually very crowded. We had to wait for about 10 min. before escorted to our table – even then, we had to share our table with 2 other groups, otherwise we got to wait even longer. Actually it’s kinda cool; we had a few chats with mother & son from Hyogo as well as a young mother with her child and parents – another opportunity to practice my Japanese. Personally, I was curious about its Fall parfait (containing chesnut) but apparently they only make 20 per day – for dessert place at this calibre, as expected they’re all sold out. Gion Kinana is famous for its dekitate (non-frozen) ice cream and I ordered kinako (roasted soy bean) flavor; I like its soft texture. It’s also creamy and not overly sweet. Any order here will come with hot tea to reduce/neutralize any ice cream’s sweetness I suppose. My wife ordered and enjoyed his parfait that came with matcha and goma ice cream as well as plain mochi and azuki bean.

          Talking about the finest ryokan of all Japan (for sure in Kyoto), Hiiragiya and Tawaraya, its opposite neighbor, are definitely put into consideration. These two places are legendary for their old history and reputation – countless rich and famous plus some important government heads and retirees visited here. If someone would like to experience the traditional way of Japanese living style, nothing better than to do it in Kyoto. At the end, I picked Hiiragiya over Tawaraya for 2 main reasons: it seems to be more friendly with foreigners (you can book directly and they reply your inquiry fast even by e-mail in English) and the food is better (at least Michelin thinks so). The kaiseki dinner has 10-course including the dessert. Snow crab and fried wheat gluten began our meal nicely. During this trip, we pretty much enjoy good sashimi quality in both sushi and kaiseki restaurants – we ate maguro, tai and ika here. The hassun contained many ingredients I love but the execution was unfortunately a bit lacking; for instance the stir-fry awabi was too chewy, the ikura was hard and the boiled ebi with uni didn’t taste very fresh – not a disaster, but just average. Thankfully, the delicious grilled Sawara wrapped with leaf made me forget the previous feature dishes (hassun). The Kyoto beef, cooked medium-well (prepared medium should’ve been better), was oishii. The rice dish was cooked with Matsutake mushroom, but we hardly saw the mushroom on our rice. You cannot go wrong whenever you’re served with fresh and good quality Japanese fruits as the dessert – we enjoyed our persimmon, strawberry and musk melon. This dinner meal was for sure better than our kaiseki meal at Gora Kadan – the 1 star Michelin award was truly justified. But I was not impressed with the breakfast though; quality, quantity and variety wise, Gora beat Hiiragiya. However, the modern dining hall surrounded by garden was impressive. For more info and pictures about our meal, please check here:

          1. re: Bu Pun Su

            I've stayed at the Tawaraya and Hiiragiya and from both a food and room quality standpoint, they are not as nice as other ryokan we have stayed in. I'm not sure why they have the reputation they do unless it's based on the fact that they were somewhat accommodating to foreigners before Japan became a much more significant tourist destination.

            1. re: tigerjohn

              Interesting point of view. Where do you think is/are the "best" ryokan(s) in Japan? How about from omotenashi's perspective?

              Building wise, Gora Kadan is more grand for sure, but we had memorable service at Hiiragiya. After checking in, we had a friendly chat with the Okami, Ms. Nishimura as part of the welcome for 30 min. or so. Our room attendant, Ms. Chiho, delivered excellent service; as far as we're concerned, she never said no to any request and whatever question we had (about food, places etc.), she always returned with answers

              Regarding the reputation, I suppose it would relate to their rich, long and old history. It's pretty much the same thing of what makes Ritz Paris and some other Europe classical (& palatial) hotels what they're today

              1. re: Bu Pun Su

                I think it's impossible to identify the "best" ryokan. Many ryokan have a rich and old history, some have simply become better known to foreigners than others, particularly in a more touristed city like Kyoto. It's generally the same with restaurants with a somewhat heavy focus (on this board and others) on the michelin guide (see the endless discussion on a handful of high end sushi places).

                Service is never an issue at ryokans. Always top notch everywhere. At Hiiragiya/Tawaraya or elsewhere, whether English-speaking or not.

        2. In this “fourth installment”, I will exclude Tokyo’s places for the time being. One of the themes would be my tempura experience as well as reviews of my short Osaka visit

          Kyoboshi Kyoto
          We were ‘busy’ with sushi and kaiseki when we’re in Tokyo. We didn’t have a chance to eat tempura until we reached Kyoto. I picked Kyoboshi, Kyoto’s tempura restaurant ran by a small family: Chef Toshinori Sakakibara, his wife and his mother. This marked my first elite tempura meal in Japan (previously my best tempura was “only” at Shinjuku’s Tsunahachi). I’ve learned that there wouldn’t be any usual “tempura sauce” we ate outside Japan. We’re given salt (refined and not too salty), lemon and grated radish to accompany our meal. Overall, the food was delicious and we had a good time here. There were about 20 items served including the refreshing ice cream with coffee-flavored liquor. Some of my favorite pieces were: the crunchy lotus root, hamo, carrot and sweet potato, specifically using fine sugar and cognac as the ‘sauce’. Tempura meal always began with shrimp-cake. Then we also ate prawn (3x), whiting, squid, seaweed, ginkgo, sweet corn, and tencha etc. The tempura was lightly battered and not oily; the presentation was quite artistic.

          The dining room was simple. There were only 6 people eating during that night and we arrived last because it was not that easy to locate this place. Luckily, the chef’s wife was waiting outside on the street – just to make sure that we would not lost. The Chef seems to be very proud of his Michelin award; there was a picture of him in suit with Jean-Luc Naret, the guide director. From the name of the restaurant, I suspected that it would relate to Tokyo’s 7-chome Kyoboshi and apparently it’s true. Shigeya Sakakibara is Toshinori’s uncle. When we asked: why the Tokyo’s “kyoboshi” is very expensive? The Chef said he didn’t know. He also never visited his uncle restaurant. Probably, these two guys are not really in “good terms” with each other. Anyway, it’s a delightful meal even though I was not blown away by it. Some pictures:

          Yotaro Honten Osaka
          2 days after my dinner at Kyoboshi, we had another chance to eat a good tempura again during our short visit in Osaka. We went to Yotaro Honten, serving Kansai-style tempura, and were seated at the counter. This way we can see the chef Ohiro in action; there was a glass window shielded us from the tempura’s hot oil. We ordered the lunch set and Taimeshi, a signature rice dish of the restaurant. The only condiment available was salt having powdery texture. We ate about 12 different kinds of seafood and vegetables during lunch (sweet prawn 3x). Generally, the ingredients were quite common & humble such as onion, kisu, carrot, egg plant etc. but the chef could elevate them to higher level producing light and crunchy tempura. The Sea bream rice was served with pickles and clam soup. It’s a nice replacement for the ten-cha/kakiage rice. The Tai was not rich and quite pleasant, nothing flashy in it. Me and my wife managed to finish up all the fish and about ¾ of the rice.

          The tempura set lunch can be considered ‘cheap’ and very good – in fact, it has the best value of money of all the restaurants we visited in Tokyo/Kyoto/Osaka. Personally I would recommend the tempura more than the Sea bream rice. Probably in dinner, you can taste more unique and expensive ingredients plus some sashimi/appetizers. Despite using simpler produce, the quality and taste of the tempura were almost as good as our meal at Kyoboshi. However, I don’t see this restaurant will ever get 3-star Michelin. Some pictures:

          Osaka is proud to be the ‘heaven’ for Japan’s comfort food and snacks. As we strolled around Dotonbori areas, we’re recommended to go to Mizuno for a good place serving okonomiyaki. It was in the afternoon, yet we still had to wait to be seated. My wife and I shared yamaimoyaki (made with fresh taro) served with pork and squid – it’s nice, soft without being too overwhelmed; the normal one with extra noddles and egg was alright; the grilled chicken salad was quite disappointing. So, the next time you come here, don’t go for any side order. Don’t expect for any good service, all the male staffs hardly smile – they just cooked and got the job done. 1 hour before, we sampled takoyaki along the street, much better than anything we’ve eaten outside Japan. I was too full to get the gyoza since a couple of hours later, we will have dinner at Koryu

          I’ll try to complete the review sometimes before Christmas

          3 Replies
          1. re: Bu Pun Su

            This will be my last installment from my Japanese trip in the Fall ’13 – mainly will be about French food and pastry

            I tried hard to go all the way Japanese for all my meals, but I “failed”. My appetite for French food got the better of me, so I ate a lunch here (my choice: the head chef got to be Japanese). Except at Kitcho Arashiyama, (in Japan) most of the times we ate at a counter so it’s been a while we had a meal at such a spacious dining room with elegant atmosphere. My wife E and I ordered different “short” set lunch (6 courses including amuse and mignardises). I had ‘un detour’ and E had ‘a la montagne’. The only items that we could say very tasty were the main courses. I enjoyed my “apple pie idea”, the autumn version containing duck leg confit, foie gras, langoustine, chanterelle, leek etc. The result was a rich and balanced flavor, the pie was also well-made. I found the medley of salad with 60 different vegetables on the side was a bit too much – half of them would be just nice. Even better than mine was E’s succulent and ‘umai’ guinea fowl char grill roast served with its jus and burdock puree. The restaurant seemed to be proud of with its signature dish – whole cooked turnip. It was bitter, a bit crunchy and lacked any fragrance/appetizing smell. I think it’s over-done; they should’ve just cooked the turnip until it turned golden. It’s nowhere near as good as the turnip I had at L’Arpege such as in the turnip tart dish or as side dishes usually with lobster when Passard made the turnip translucent (I’m not sure if this would be a fair comparison)

            The desserts were beautiful and creatively presented. Mine was butter confit pear with roquefort cheese cake while my wife’s was apple, calpico mousse and yoghurt sorbet. But then, taste-wise they’re just alright – not particularly delicious. Generally that’s what I found about the food here. The main ingredient often did not shine while the side items hardly made any impact – even though every dish often looked pretty. Some people raved about the head chef’s talent, but I didn’t find it anything too special – at least from this meal. My feeling was that l'Effervescence could take up to 5 years or more to reach its 2nd michelin star. Chef Shinobu Namae and his team would have plenty of homework to improve. The good thing was that the restaurant was still quite young (3+ years old if not mistaken) and this means it has plenty of time & room to grow. Outside the food, many things went well. The service delivered by the helpful maitre d’ was excellent; the setting was very comfortable with plenty of natural light during lunch; and it’s very hard to beat the price – our set lunch cost slightly less than Usd 50 per person. It cost 2x more for dinner with plenty more courses. With such price, I don’t quite get it how the restaurant could manage to afford about 7 staffs in the kitchen and more than 11 people for the front team (the capacity was about 30 people) – at least it’s unusual in Japan unless if you’re Robuchon or L’Osier. The restaurant’s area was probably more than 3 times of Ishikawa. Yet, it could keep going and looked ‘profitable’. Well, it’s nearly full during our lunch

            Pierre Herme
            Generally, I enjoy Japanese sweets in this trip however they still could not ‘beat’ my passion for French pastry. Japan was special because many western famous pastry, bakery or chocolate shops all over the world – they decide to open their branches here. Some that I like was Pierre Herme and Sadaharu Aoki, both are available at Shinjuku Isetan basement. Let’s begin with the former one. I ordered Ispahan (macaron), millefeuille and a few macarons. Ispahan was one of Pierre Herme’s most popular pastry – these days there were plenty derivatives from it (in Paris) such as cake ispahan, croissant ispahan, cheesecake ispahan and so on. Between the two macaron shells in ispahan (think of it as ‘giant’ macaron), there were a mixture of rose buttercream, fresh raspberries and lychee. It’s awesome, about as good as the one I ate in Paris several years ago. All the ‘fillings’ flavors worked well together: the rose petal cream was aromatic and more dominant; the lychee within the rose cream was mild and non-obtrusive; raspberries was refreshing and pleasant. And of course, the shells’ texture was just perfect. Another delicious big macaron that I could think of was Passard’s “Macaron au topinambour” with right chewiness & innovative flavor plus an excellent dark chocolate sauce on the side.

            I also had the “old” edition of millefeuille as recommended by the staff. It’s essentially a creme caramel ‘napoleon’ and didn’t disappoint at all. It’s neither too heavy nor too sweet; the cream was balanced with flaky puff. It’s comparable to my millefeuille at Robuchon au dome, but not yet at the level of l’Arpege’s. Last but not least, the most famous of all: macarons. I sampled, as far as I could remember - citron, chocolate, strawberry and pistachio. They’re scrumptious with sweet and creamy filling. Herme’s shells were firmer than Laduree’s. Somehow, for me, the best macarons I’ve ever head was generally not from the pastry shop, but from the fine dining’s petit fours especially at l’Arpege (creative vegetable flavors), Ducasse flagship restaurants (coffee and pistachio) and Robuchon ebisu (yuzu)

            Sadaharu Aoki
            It’s not really new for me as I’ve been to Aoki’s shop in Paris before. I bought 2 kinds of pastry here (Tokyo): bamboo and eclairs (matcha and salted caramel flavor). The eclair was fine with balanced flavors for me, for some others might be slightly too sweet. Then came my favorite item: the Bamboo. It consisted of thin biscuit, matcha & ‘snow’ powder, a bit of alcohol as well as green tea-infused cream. It’s a sublime and aesthetic cake; I really loved the interplay of bitter and sweet flavors from the buttercream. Overall, it had subtle sweetness without any cloying after taste – delicious. The chocolate ganache was too weak however. Additionally, as expected, I bought a few macarons (not really airy though, more on the heavy side like in France). I enjoyed the tea and Japanese flavored macarons at Aoki such as macha, hojicha, earl grey, black sesame, yuzu and salt caramel. Truly a beautiful marriage of Japanese flavors with French technique

            1. re: Bu Pun Su

              Nearly every dish we had at l'Ef is a direct imitation of a dish from one famous restaurant or another, but their servers assume very few diners will know the hot and iced tea from Fat Duck, or about sous vide, or the origins of everything else... "it's magic", they say. And the execution lacks something to make it 2-3 michelin star food...

              1. re: Gargle

                Good points and I agree with them. They tend to make "looked-complicated and fancy" dishes but its substance and taste were not there. They should stay with same seasonal dishes in the next few years and perfect the execution instead of keep changing mediocre stuffs. Once chef Namae reached the pinnacle, only then he can apply 'dynamic' menu

          2. Observations:

            1. Loyal customers
            Different restaurant has different loyal customers and that’s normal. Each of them told me that “this restaurant” was either his favorite or even the best one in the nation. At Chihana, I met a Tokyo-based high level executive who often come down to Kyoto – for him, Chihana was not only Kyoto’s best kaiseki place but also the best place to eat in the entire Japan.

            2. Gifts
            I noticed that some of the loyal customers often brought gifts to the chefs in Japan. Is it a common thing? At Sushi Mizutani, the client brought sake; at Matsukawa, the guy bought matsutake mushroom to the Chef-owner. If you’re a regular, are you expected to do so? Perhaps as part of Japanese culture or custom

            3. Michelin effects
            The arrival of French’s famous red guide book to Tokyo in late ’07 attracted many international gourmands to visit the land of the Rising Sun. In addition to recognition, the star-rated chefs have enjoyed much improved business. While a few chefs went to the opposite direction (by refusing any of these awards), many chefs (Mizutani-san, the chefs of Kyoto’s kyoboshi and Osaka’s yotaro honten) I talked to said that the Michelin guide was arguably the most important guide for their business – a bit surprising they said that they didn’t find their restaurants’ performance at Tabelog too essential

            4. Chef interactions
            Unlike “western-style” restaurants we know of, I find the Chef-customer interaction was essential and enjoyable particularly when you eat over the counter. Though to be fair, some European chefs already began to often visit the dining room and have chats with their diners these days such Pascal Barbot, Alain Passard and Christian LeSquer. No matter how limited your Japanese is, the chefs would appreciate it. They would be even more in awe if you actually took the effort to learn/take Japanese classes prior to coming here. The “true” chefs love talking with customers who had some substantial understanding about food especially with regards to their own cooking style or methods. It’s also normal that most chefs would bid farewell and escort you out as you leave the restaurant

            5. Finding restaurants
            Someone may have mentioned it often. Mine would be – you need to have the following (whether printed out or on your mobile devices): have the address info in both English/your native language and Japanese; the restaurant’s entrance picture; a map showing metro station with respect to your dining destination at the same page; a zoom-in map revealing your restaurant’s neighborhood preferably in kanji, it’s very useful when you seek help from the locals. Lastly, to be safe – if you concierge were nice, inform him/her to tell the restaurant not too cancel the reservation just in case you’re coming late because finding a restaurant in Japan can be quite troublesome for first timer.

            8 Replies
            1. re: Bu Pun Su

              Bringing gifts to chefs is not so common. In cases when people do, they usually have been patronizing a place for, perhaps, many years. And their relationship with the chef, I would assume, would extend beyond just banter about the food that night. I'm not sure how many foreign visitors who are parachuting in are going to develop that kind of relationship. Japan is a heavy gift-giving culture for sure. But there is also a lot of room for awkwardness. (I see a lot of foreign visitors deep bowing to chefs as well as FOH people for example)

              On chef interactions, I think too much is made of this. It's nice sometimes and can enhance the experience and other times it's whatever. I'm not saying you are suggesting this is the case, but I don't think people should feel jilted or having suffered less of an experience if the chef doesn't engage with them. I speak decent Japanese and frankly find that some chefs would prefer to talk about baseball or travel or something beyond the minutiae of where their cucumbers come from, etc. And some chefs can be annoying blowhards. It's really a YMMV scenario. So I think it is good advice, but not essential. "True" chefs are great at cooking. They're not necessarily charming conversationalists.

              On finding restaurants, I recommend a smartphone with GPS, a customized Google map with a pushpin in your destinations, and some due diligence on the internet. Tabelog for example has a section that shows user submitted photos of the exterior of restaurants- usually from different angles.

              1. re: Silverjay

                We've given a gift once at a place we have been going to twice a year for over five years. The chef had been so kind to us on our first visit despite our complete lack of Japanese (somewhat better now). We felt we caused them trouble by showing up 30 minutes early and they had a difficult time explaining to us that we needed to come back in 30 minutes ( a mix up with our hotel concierge). After subsequent visits (and late at night after other guests had left), the chef and his wife started to ask us about our trips to Tokyo and other restaurants we were visiting in limited english (really just a few words from her). After several more visits, we wanted to thank them and brought maple syrup from a local family farm near our home that only makes bottles for friends (can't be bought). We thought it would be a nice gesture as a high quality product from our hometown and not easily available in Japan. We had our hotel concierge suggest a place to get it wrapped and they wrote out an explanation for us in Japanese. We think it was well received as our subsequent dining visits seem to have continued the relationship. I don't know if they feel this was awkward given the specific and elaborate gift giving culture but if it is we aren't able to tell.

                And a response to Bu Pun Su's post above:

                On finding restaurants, you only need 3 things:
                1. Google map of route from selected train station to the restaurant (on smartphone or even printed out)
                2. Detailed google map of the street immediately near the restaurant (with a view of individual blocks and buildings)
                3. View of exterior including name (from Tabelog)
                We've never been unable to find our restaurant within minutes after arriving in the area using this approach.

                On Michelin effects, of the few "less welcoming" dining experiences we have had in Japan, they all had one thing in common: a listing in the michelin guide. There are so many great places to try that there is really no need to rely on it to any extent. I've never been that confident of michelin to be very reliable as a measure of greatness beyond obvious places anywhere except for possibly France. Consequently, we typically avoid places which are listed.

                On loyal customers, this is absolutely true. It can be fun when you find yourself at some izakaya in a far flung suburb of Tokyo where a loyal customer happens to speak English. They can't stop wondering 1. how you found out about restaurant X and 2. how it's the best izakaya/kappo/yakitori etc. place in the city.

                1. re: tigerjohn

                  Oh, well that gift giving experience certainly sounds like a nice, well deserved gesture on your part. Not awkward at all. Great idea for a gift as well. Nice to hear you have a such a place you can rely on for food and service.

                  1. re: tigerjohn

                    On the Michelin part
                    True that it might not be very reliable, but I think it's still quite solid, when we include restaurants that rejected this guide, and easy to access for newbies (& non-Japanese speaker).
                    That being said, for my observation purpose was more to see it from the chef's/owners' point of views. Many seemed to be proud of it. I could not recall in which the chefs put non-michelin awards in front of or inside their restaurants

                2. re: Bu Pun Su

                  There are certain things that Japanese people say that are just things they say, like "this is the best sushi restaurant in Japan" "how did you find out about it" "the way you use chopsticks you almost seem human" "your Japanese is so good". Just think of them as an indication that they're drunk enough to strike a conversation rather than anything more.

                  1. re: Gargle

                    I don't know. There are plenty of people who are willing to say "if you think this place is good, let me recommend you somewhere much better" and who look disapprovingly when you try to handle your chopsticks for me to think that there is in fact some differentiation in what Japanese people say. But maybe it has nothing to do with what they are saying and more to do with their individual personalities.

                    1. re: tigerjohn

                      I can't imagine a situation, in Japan, where a fellow diner would say something like that in front of the chef, and usually they wouldn't say anything that direct when not in front of the chef either.

                      Speaking about awkwardness, we were having dinner recently at a well known multi michelin star place, when the woman next to us, clearly very rich, and very drunk, insisted on buying the chef a glass of sake. I just happen to know that he's given up drinking a while back, and in any event would not drink during service, but to make everyone happy, he pretended to take a sip from the cup, made sure her focus was moving elsewhere and then just hid the rest behind the counter :)

                      1. re: Gargle

                        When mentioning that there are better places, they are very careful, much like your sake sipping chef, to make such comments while the chef is not nearby and in a quiet voice. Also, they tend to be a bit drunk.