Sunday, September 18, 2016

Dining @ Arashiyama Benkei in Kyoto, Japan

While in Japan, my girlfriend wanted to go to a real nice hotspring.  A friend recommended Arashiyama Benkei and the booking also included a 12 course kaiseki meal ("half-board" if you're booking online, it's sort of confusing what it means).  Surprisingly, there was very little on the internet about the meal.  Not sure if foodie's just aren't interested in going here, or perhaps as a ryokan/hotel it's just not the primary focus and few get the meal.  Anyways, for all interested diners out there, here's an overview of the meal we had.  I'm not going to talk about the hotspring or ryokan/hotel as there are plenty of resources on the internet to talk about that.

The staff is quite English friendly and they provided an English menu, so it was much easier to decipher what I was eating compared to the two prior kaiseki meals I had in Japan.  Also, if you book the meal, as part of the experience they serve the meal to you in your room.  They bring out the dishes quite quickly, it's not the super slow pace that you may be accustomed to in finer dining establishments.  It sort of makes sense, since you're in your room.  I think we ended our meal in about 90 minutes.  It's also possible its timing of when we asked for dinner.  They ask the guests when they want to begin their meal.  Perhaps we told them a time that was super slow or something, or perhaps most of the guests didn't get the meal.  It's not a big deal either way.

So here's an overview of the meal we had.  I should mention that some items were brought out simultaneously (such as the soup & rice at the end, which is what happened at the other meals).  But since they were split out in the menu I'll list each separately.

1) hassun (appetizer) - skewered bran and egg, mackerel sushi, cooked eel with eggs, baked egg plant sesame soy sauce w/ sea urchin, boiled chestnuts with syrup

You can see the orange-ish egg yolk on the end of the skewer in the middle.  That was delicious.  The mackerel sushi was really delicious too.  It must have been cured or something because mackerel usually doesn't have that strong of flavor.

It's worth showing how the dish was originally presented.

My girlfriend and I both had a different picture, which was sort of cool.

2) saki-suimono (soup appetizer) - lotus root clear soup and boiled tilefish with matsutake, new zealand spinach, and yuzu

The tilefish was really good and the broth was light and delicious.  I think at the bottom of this dish was fishcake even though it wasn't listed.

3) muko-duke (raw fish) - yellowtail, amaebi, maguro, hamo

This dish looks ridiculous. There's yellowtail on the top that was served with some ponzu sauce. The amaebi shrimp, maguro, and hamo were on the bottom and served with some soy sauce. There was also some (I think) plum sauce on the hamo. I think it's interesting that we had maguro and hamo at Hirobun the other day. I guess when it's in season, you're likely to get this stuff at many restaurants. The hamo was a little softer than the one I had at Hirobun. Overall, all pretty delicious. I liked the amaebi I got at tsukiji more, but I'm nitpicking a bit at this point.

As an aside, I recall when we first got to the hotel, the staff asked us if we were ok with sashimi.  I guess there are western visitors that can't handle raw fish, so they can adjust this course if you really can't handle raw fish.

4) Taki-awase (cooked dish) - Fried tofu and adductor muscle, young taro boiled with soup stock, brassica pekinensis, boiled deep-fried tofu with soup stock

The English menu said "adductor muscle", which I assume is a translation error.  Possibly some type of "mussel"?  If it was ground into the tofu I don't recall tasting it.  Perhaps I'll never know what was meant. "Brassica pekinensis" brought up a Chinese cabbage on Google.  Overall a nice course.

5) yaki-mono (grilled food) - Grilled frost fish marinated salt with grated white radish ponzu vinegar, added to citrus sudachi and green onion

This dish also included a few edamame, which I thought was an interesting addition on the side.  I wasn't familiar with frost fish, but I enjoyed this dish and especially liked the radish/ponzu combination on top.  I'm also glad we didn't get grilled ayu again like the other two kaisekis :-)

6) shi-zakana (Hot pot cooking) - pot of eggplant and Japanese black beef with grated white radish, scallion, broiled tofu and seven flavor chili pepper

The dish originally came out with the beef raw.  The server told us to eat the dish after the pot started steaming with the flame below.  Hot pot isn't my favorite because I think the dish is a little light on flavor, but the chili pepper (which was on the side and you stirred in as you wish) kicked the dish up a couple of notches.  Overall, pretty good, although I preferred some sukiyaki we had earlier in the trip.

7) abura-mono (deep fried food) - Fried barracuda by flour of sesame with maitake mushroom, green chili, and cherry tomato

This was the third time in our trip that we encountered this sweet green chili and it's delicious.  I guess it was in season in Japan.   We both loved the cherry tomato, it was super sweet.  I honestly can't remember much about this fish.  It's possible I was "fished" out by this point in the meal.

8) mushi-mono (steamed food) - Boiled homebred chicken soft and steamed pumpkin with starchy sauce and wasabi

There was also some rice in this soup.  Overall, not my favorite combination of flavors.

9) suno-mono (vinegared food) - Botan shrimp marinated Japanese kiwi Vinegared with stem of taro and red shiso

I'm a bit allergic to tropical fruits and had them remove the green kiwi sauce you see on top.  I decided to try a dab of it off of my girlfriend's plate and it was sweet and delicious.  I'm sure it would have been delicious with the shrimp.  I thought the green "stem of taro" was really interesting.  It's the green thing you see at the bottom which I had initially assumed was green onion.

10) Extra Course - kobe/wagyu beef

The staff brought us this additional dish on the house. It was beef with green bean and baby corn. There's some red flakes and sauce that I tasted familiar, but couldn't determine the flavor. We had some A5 wagyu steak for lunch and could immediately tell this was wagyu, but it probably wasn't A5. I'm not complaining this it was on the house extra.

11) Tome-wan (soup) - Red miso soup with cow parsley and hackberry

At an earlier meal I had wondered why the miso soup tasted different than the typical ones in the states, and perhaps it's the fact it was red miso.  Overall tasty.

12) Gohan - Steamed rice with Japanese Pickles

The server brought a bucket of rice and served this to us for this course.   After serving the rice the server asked if we needed more rice.  We immediately said No! :-)

The pickles included pickled daikon, some vegetable that we couldn't identify, and a seaweed/konbu.  I especially liked the seaweed as it was much sweeter than the Chinese seaweed I've typically consumed.

13) Mizu-mono (dessert) - Seasonal Fruit

This is what I love about the dessert courses at more Asian themed tasting menus (see Benu and Narisawa as examples). It's really light compared to the somewhat heavier desserts at more western restaurants (see Blackbird and its goey butter cake as an extreme example). This is some type of sweetened gelatin/sauce with fruit. Not the most complex dish in the world, but light and wonderful after getting stuffed with food. Minimally there was green grapes (real sweet), red grape that I assume was a kyoho (also really sweet, not like American red grapes), blueberries, asian pear, watermelon, white peach, orange, and banana in this dish.

Overall, a nice kaiseki meal. I debate in my head if I enjoyed the one at Hirobun more (somewhat adjusting for the smaller number of courses and smaller portions because that was for lunch). They both had some courses I enjoyed more than other one.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Dining @ Hirobun in Kyoto, Japan

My girlfriend wanted to check out Hirobun in Kyoto because they are somewhat famous for their somen noodles that you "fish" out of water (here's a random link I found about it).  They (along with many restaurants in Kibune) are somewhat famous for the fact that you can eat on a river.  A platform is laid out on top of the river, and you can actually eat on it as the river flows under you.  Needless to say, there are beautiful mini-waterfalls and foliage all around.  Here's the view we had from our table.

That may look like an artificial waterfall in a restaurant, but it's not.  It's actual flowing water from a river.

Our initial plan was to hike to Kibune, eat a kaiseki lunch at Hirobun, then afterwards try their noodles.

Our plan was interrupted because we were stuffed by the kaiseki lunch.  So if any travelers wander to this blog post and you want to do the "fishing for noodles" and the kaiseki lunch, budget enough time.  We ate on the late-ish side and it interrupted things.

We didn't have any regrets as the kaiseki meal was wonderful.  Here's an overview of the lunch we had.  Just like my prior post I had to guess on a number of ingredients.   Some of the staff at Hirobun spoke a little English, so we were able to decipher the ingredients of the dishes better than before, but not all of them.

1) first course

These cute pouches had a rice cake w/ red bean paste in the middle.  Tasty.

2) second course

This second course had a lot of stuff.  We weren't aware of all of it, but here goes.  Upper left was a small piece of tofu with what I believe was nato on it.  It was really tasty with the contrasting flavors.  To the right in the bamboo leaf (or possibly banana leaf) was some type of starch, possibly rice cake with a citrus-like filling.  It was delicious.

Bottom row, the left was some type of cake with a meat like flavoring to it.  Also really good.  Then a starch-ish ball with what I believe was cured salmon.  Then some edamame, shrimp, and pile of what I assume was cooked shirauo (very tiny fish).  I liked the shirauo flavor.  While salty, it wasn't just "salty stuff to put on rice" like I've had before.  Then finally to the far right was tofu with what I assume was goji berry.

This course was really good.  Tons of items that were really tasty or interesting.

3) third course

This sashimi course had maguro, kampachi, and hamo with what I believe was a bit of plum sauce.   The maguro was especially delicious.  The hamo and plum sauce was tasty, but hard to compare since it's the first time I had eel sashimi.  There was a bit of crunchiness to it, which reminded me a bit of tripe.

4) fourth course

This was a warm dish with potato, duck, and what I believe was some bean curd with carrots & some other veggie as garnish.  Overall tasty and with a nice broth.

5) fifth course

This is my second grilled fish in a kaiseki on my trip.  Reading online, it appears grilled whole fish is a staple of kaiseki.  The waitress confirmed this fish to be ayu (which looks than the one yesterday, so maybe it wasn't ayu).  This was tastier than the one from last night and came with some vinegar which I didn't include in the picture.  I had trouble eating the bones and didn't eat the main "spine".  The fins were salted, which was interesting.  The presentation of this ayu was just awesome though, looking like it was still swimming.  If you zoom in you can still see the teeth of the fish.

6) sixth course

Served cold, there was eggplant and okra in a gelatin-ish broth.  The broth had a bit of fish flavoring.  Overall, I really enjoyed this course.  The eggplant and okra were delicious.  I wish I had a spoon to scoop it all up together but had to instead slurp up the soup/gelatin afterwards.

7) seventh course

This was a small collection of items.  Small fried fish (I assume smelt), a pepper (unsure of the variety, but very tasty), a mini-eggplant (tasty), some baby corn, and beneath it some fried pike eel, which appears to be in season as it's the 4th or so time I've come upon it on my trip.

8) eighth course

I assume this is the somen noodles this restaurant is famous for with their "noodle fishing".  Obviously you can tell its served with some eggs, shrimp, and some dipping sauce.  Overall, very tasty.  The flavor was a little lighter than the somen noodles I've familiar with from home, but that may be me just being used to the random store bought somen.

9) ninth course

Another filler course before dessert.  There are cucumber pickles, pickled red cabbage, and something else which I'm not sure.  The soup was a clear broth with some water shield and what I believe was a fish cake.  The broth was delicious and I'm becoming a big fan of water shield after having it for the second time this trip (previously at Narisawa).

10) tenth course

Finally the dessert course with some cantaloupe, watermelon, and some matcha jello.  Both my girlfriend and I loved the watermelon, I guess it's in season in Japan right now.  The cantaloupe not quite as sweet as what I'm used to in the states.  The jello was good too.

Overall, this meal was excellent and I enjoyed it more than meal at Nagamegawa Pontcho Hana.  I think the dishes were tastier, had more variety, and the presentation was better (especially the ayu).  On top of all that the meal was only 8600 yen, so only about $16 more in US dollars.  And they even gave us this cool fan as a souvenir.

Dining @ Nagamegawa Pontcho Hana in Kyoto, Japan

While wandering the streets of Kyoto, my girlfriend and I needed to get dinner.  The Gion region of Kyoto has tons of restaurants offering kaiseki meals.  I believe we saw kaiseki meals ranging from 3500 yen (approximately $35 US dollars) to 20,000 yen (approximately $200 US).  Some of the restaurants require reservations, so we just wandered down an alley and happened upon Nagamegawa Pontcho Hana that had space.  Atleast, I believe that's the name of this restaurant based on Googling afterwards.  They offered a 7000 or 10000 yen kaiseki meal and you can sit outside and look out on the river.  This was our view:

So we decided to grab the 7000 kaiseki menu, because we had no idea what to expect otherwise.  The restaurant's menu was in Japanese only and the staff predominantly spoke only Japanese.  So we didn't really know how many courses there were, what we were going to be served, and quite honestly, we didn't even know what we were served afterwards in some cases :-)  So we decided to be prudent and get the cheaper option.

I am by far not an expert in identifying ingredients so much of the below is guessed.

1) first course

There's some tofu, red pepper, beef, and I believe eel as a starter.  Overall a nice light start to the meal.

2) second course

This soup was a tasty broth. I have absolutely no idea what the item in this soup was.  It was a starchy paste kind of thing.  It definitely wasn't potato or taro.  I suppose it could have been yam or something of that nature, or possibly a Japanese potato I'm unfamiliar with.  It was interesting.

3) third course

This was the sashimi course.  With the exception of the bright red trout (atleast I think it was trout and not salmon, and it was delicious) I have no idea what the other two sashimis were.  I have mini confidence that the one on the bottom was in the snapper family, but the one towards the top I have pretty much no idea.  I have reasonable confidence the wasabi was real wasabi, as it wasn't as strong as the normal horseradish.

4) fourth course

I assumed this was ayu, and it came with some ginger and chestnut.  You're supposed to eat this fish, bones and all, but it was outside of my capability to, so I just picked off the meat the best I could.  The sauce to the right I assume was a citrus & vinegar mix.

The one interesting thing about this dish is that the tail fin was overly salted.  You can tell in the picture by how bright white the tail is.  I believe this is by intention, although I don't know why.  It's quite salty when I downed it.

5) fifth course

The waitress told us this is yuba and we were able to determine the uni in the middle pretty easily.  This was refreshing and good palate cleanser after the grilled ayu.  I particularly liked the uni.  Uni in Japan seems to be better than the uni in the states, I'm not sure why.

6) sixth course

This was a good light dish of veggies in a tasty broth.  There was pumpkin, green beans, tofu, and what I assume was taro.

7) seventh course

This was a cold course. I have no idea what the fish was.  It definitely wasn't tuna.  This dish had some lettuce and onions.  Overall I found it light and refreshing.

8) eighth course

Nothing too much to say about this course.  This is predominantly the filler course before the end with some miso soup, rice, and pickled items (daikon and something else).  I did like the miso soup.  It wasn't the same miso flavor that one typically sees at Japanese restaurants in the states, it was a little richer.  Perhaps it's the soup base or something.

9) ninth course

The green mochi on the left and sesame mochi on the top was immediately identifiable.  But we weren't really sure what the dessert on the lower right was, as it was not mochi.  More like a gelatin.  But it was really tasty.

Overall, a pretty good kaiseki meal.  I wouldn't consider the meal to be as good as Kusakabe in the states.  The inability to determine the ingredients put a damper on the meal, so for anyone wandering the Gion region of Kyoto, be aware.  In addition, I believe that the restaurant does charge a bit of a premium for their view and their location in the very popular Gion region.  I have little ability to judge value of kaiseki meals in this area to know if it's good or bad or a decent or bad price.  Perhaps I'll be able to judge better as the trip continues.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Dining @ Narisawa in Tokyo, Japan

I recently took a trip to Japan and had the opportunity to dine at Narisawa.  It's a two Michelin starred restaurant, currently #8 in the World's Top 50 restaurants, and #26 in Opinionated About Dining's top Japanese restaurants.

How did I snag reservations here?  To be honest, just dumb luck.  Months before my trip I was looking into restaurants in Japan and found out that Narisawa was one of the few restaurants that A) was English friendly and B) had online reservations in English.  I wasn't even aware of all the accolades listed above until afterwards.  Needless to say, reservations were difficult.  Reservations open up the first of the month before the month of the reservation (e.g. for a September reservation, check August 1st), but I was too late by the morning of August 1st when I woke up.  In addition, not all reservations slots are available on the website.  It appears only a few slots for foreign English travelers are available online.

But one day at work the power had gone out and all server & networking equipment were down.  So there was very little work getting done.  I began doing some random Japan trip research and decided to check out Narisawa's website to see if anything popped up.  Needless to say, a slot had opened up for lunch.  Thanks power outage and lost productivity at work!

I will admit that I had some concern dining here for lunch only about 18 hours after landing in Japan.  If I was jet lagged, my fatigued state could effect my ability to enjoy the meal (such as my fatigued state at the end of the meal at French Laundry).  Then again, it was potentially a once in a lifetime experience.  Luckily jet lag was not a problem thanks to some benadryl to knock me out.

So the meal at Narisawa is sort of a celebration of nature across Japan.  In all the dishes below, they mention the areas of Japan the ingredients came from.  I'm going to list dishes in the order we ate them and not in the order they were served.  You'll understand more as you read along.

1) Satoyama Scenery and Essence of the Forest

First up, this absolutely insane dish. The waiter said you can use your hands, but there's also a spoon to use. In the upper left is some spring water to drink first, then there's some root vegetable (possibly burdock but didn't verify) that's been fried to look like bark, various herbs, and the moss at the bottom is made with soy and bamboo. There's a yogurt sauce underneath. What was neat is that there was no salt or pepper used in the dish. Thus the title of the dish, "essence of the forest". Overall quite tasty.

2) Soft Shelled Turtle, Saga

These are deep fried "drumsticks" of soft shell turtle. The waiter said they were sort of like chicken. The texture was definitely very similar to chicken drumsticks, but the flavor was slightly different. No way to describe it since this is the first time I've had turtle :-)

3) Onion Bread

This item wasn't on the menu and was brought out extra.  I'm not sure how to describe it other than "onion bread".  There was a piece of onion in the middle and the blackened "bread" around it was delicious.  According to online, the "bread" around it was made with charcoaled leek powder.

4) Sea Snake, Okinawa

This was a soup/broth with some winter melon chunks floating in it.  When the dish arrived, my girlfriend said "yup, that's snake soup", because she'd had it before.  Overall, a very tasty broth.

5) Squid, Yamaguchi * Caviar, Miyazaki

The interesting thing about this dish is that instead of serving caviar on a crispy "cracker" (which is what I'm more familiar with), the "crackers" were more like soft wafers. More akin to a texture I've had more with desserts. Anyways, a delicious dish. There's more than just the caviar on top of the wafers but I can't remember what it was (I assume squid).

6) Sea Urchin, Hokkaido * Water Shield, Akita

I had to look up what "Water Shield" is, but it's a water plant of some sort. The consomme was made with some kelp & bonito. I'm actually not a huge fan of uni, I just don't enjoy the flavor compared to most people. However, I loved this dish. The uni was a tad sweeter than other times I've had it. Unsure if it was the uni or the combination of flavors that brought it out. Just delicious.

7) Sea Bream, Hyogo

I love the color in this dish. The sea bream was marinated in some kelp and there's also coriander and garlic and some herbs/veggies here. Delicious.

8) “Bread of the Forest 2010” Kinome and Kabosu

So this was the first item listed on the menu, but it'll take some time to explain how we ate it as the eighth course.  First they brought out this around the first course of the meal.

This was the bread dough rising.  Then later a waiter came and put it into a stone bowl.  He also sprinkled some "chestnut powder" on top of the dough.

Then put the stone bowl on the table to let the bread sit and cook.

Eventually, he took it out and served it to us with this "moss butter".

The "moss butter" is apparently made with olive & spinach powder to give it the moss look.

Needless to say, this whole dough rising, stone bowl baking thing on your table is awesome.  I can't think of anything I've ever seen like this.  This bread and butter was delicious.  The butter was a tad sweeter than most butters I recall having.

9) Rosy Seabass, Ishikawa * Asari Clam, Aichi

Really tasty dish. The seabass was grilled over charcoal and the broth included seaweed and clams. I really enjoyed the broth.

10) “Ash 2009” Scene of the Seashore

Ok, this dish is insane. First they carted out the bowl of liquid nitrogen, then they brought out the plate with squid on it. The liquid nitrogen had some paprika powder and some other stuff (sorry can't remember) and they poured it on top of the squid (it's that black ash-like stuff you see). The sauce beneath the squid was some mixture of chili and paprika which I can't remember the details.

This squid was the best squid I've ever had in my life. I would probably put this as my favorite dish of the night. I don't know if the squid was tenderized into oblivion, or if it's a particular Japanese squid, or if it's in season or what but it was so tender and the flavor just exploded with the sauce.

11) “Luxury essence 2007” Spiny Lobster, Aichi

First off the waiter brought the beaker set of chicken, pork, and ham broth to the table (one is missing because he began pouring it already) before pouring it into the spiny lobster dish. The broth was delicious. You could definitely taste the chicken and the pork flavor. It was overall very light. The lobster was delicious and I loved all the contrasting colors here with the vegetables.

12) “Gion Festival” Eggplant, Kyoto

This dish was absolutely ridiculous. I just stared at it for a minute or two before taking a bite. The eggplant used is the "kamo" eggplant and it's cooked three ways: sauteed, pureed, and fried and build into this tower. On top is a tomato agar sheet and obviously some flowers. The waiter said this is one of the chef's most signature dishes, no surprise.

13) Conger Pike, Aichi

My immediate reaction to taking the first bite was, "This tastes like fish." Perhaps its this particular eel and the texture, but I would not have guessed it to be eel. Perhaps I'm so used to unagi sushi that it just surprised me. The sauce on the left included some Japanese basil and wasabi. The dish also includes some white peace with sesame and a ginger foam.

14) “Sumi 2009” Omi Beef, Shiga

First off the waiter presented the leek powdered covered beef on the table. I believe he said this was beef round, although I could be mis-remembering. He actually was nice enough to ask if we should split the beef 50/50, and my girlfriend immediately asked him to give me more than her :-)

The bottom pic is of course the serving of the dish. It came with a sauce that was a mixture of beef juices and red wine reduction. Off to the left was gingko and something else (didn't get what the white was, perhaps a daikon of sorts).

It's worth noting that at the beginning of the meal the waiter gave us the option for pigeon or pork instead of beef for this course. So you have those options if you want.

15) Pickled Plum, Wakayama

If you've ever read my blog before, you know I love sorbet, and this sorbet was delicious. Red shiso was added into the "sauce" over the sorbet and the shiso leaf on top was carmelized in some way.

16) White Peach, Yamagata

This was a wonderful light dessert to finish off the meal. Much better than a heavy cake or creme brulee like some French Restaurants might serve. There are white peach chunks, with a white peach puree, some almond tofu, and the green grape-like chunks are actually gummi candy.

17) Matcha, Fukouoka

We finally got these rice matcha cookies at the end.  My girlfriend decided to open the cookie up and see what was inside.  Minimally there's matcha, but there appears to be some gelatins and red bean.  I couldn't remember everything the waiter said.

I would like to mention that Narisawa has a tea pairing option in addition to wine pairing.  This was wonderful for me, as I don't drink alcohol so I was finally able to do a drink pairing :-)  Unfortunately there's no listing of what teas were served to us, so here's a collage.

There was a wheat tea, ume tea, three green teas, black tea, oolong, and rice match tea, and one other one I forgot.

Overall the meal took a little under 3 hours.  We ate at what appeared to be an average pace.  We noticed other tables finishing before us (even though they arrived after us) and two tables finishing after us even though they were seated when we got there.

About half way through the meal, I began to think "Is this the best meal I've ever had?"  For the past few years, my favorite/best was Benu in San Francisco.

I've been debating which was better looking at each dish.  Needless to say, Narisawa won on presentation.  I've certainly been to a fair number of fancy places.  I've certainly eaten my fair share of gorgeously presented dishes.  However, I feel the dishes at Narisawa were just at another level.  The bread cooked at tableside and the liquid nitrogen were an entertaining way to present the food.  The presentation on the moss butter and "Gion Festival" eggplant dishes were just at another level.

Food wise, it's pretty close.  I think it's possible the "average" score on Benu was a tad higher than Narisawa, although the min to max range was higher at Benu than Narisawa (i.e. the lowest rated dishes at Benu were lower than the lowest at Narisawa, highest at Benu higher than best at Narisawa).

I'll have to think about this more :-)

One other comment to make is that the meal was only 20,000 yen (about $200 US) before tax and tip and not counting drinks.  That is a fabulous deal for such a meal.  You'll be hard pressed to find a similar meal in the US for a 2 or 3 Michelin Star restaurant.