Spain- Akelarre- ✪✪✪

 Pedro Subijana

Pedro Subijana

Pedro Subijana is a Spanish chef-celebrity, and Akelarre is his San Sebastián headquarters. The man has had his own cooking TV show since 1992, and a third Michelin star since 2007; going on almost a decade. He started at the restaurant in 1975, and has maintained an absolutely fantastic mustache throughout. 

Pedro has been instrumental in the re-discovery and re-invigoration of Basque cuisine- he and a group of friends began working a few decades ago to explore the lost art of Basque cuisine, and attempt the following (I'm paraphrasing):

  • learn why older dishes had been lost, and recover the recipes
  • learn to make those recipes in the most authentic way
  • contribute something to the Basque culinary legacy.
 Akelarre Entrance From The Coastal Highway

Akelarre Entrance From The Coastal Highway

The drive along the coast from San Sebastián to Akelarre is one of the most beautiful imaginable- you’re on a high mountainside that cascades all the way down to the Cantabrian Sea, and taking this route around sunset leads to some of the most gorgeous views I have ever witnessed. 

 Akelarre Exterior

Akelarre Exterior

SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN

SERVICE: 5.0/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $235 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 5.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 6.0/10

 Akelarre Main Entrance

Akelarre Main Entrance

 Akelarre Dining Room

Akelarre Dining Room

The restaurant itself has a simple, semi-circular format to emphasize its high clifftop perch and fantastic views. Lots of wood and glass; a gorgeous interior with smart lighting. The space is comfortable, warm, and welcoming.

 Akelarre Views

Akelarre Views

As we were seated at the table, the sun was still high enough to show off the ocean’s vastness. Totally stunning. 

 Akelarre Centerpiece

Akelarre Centerpiece

A few words on service. Our waiter seemed extremely put-upon in his role— he needed to be a quadrilingual waiter, server, table-clearer, water-pourer, and menu-explainer along with serving many more tables than would seem reasonable (maybe they were short-staffed that evening?) Stretched as he was to the limits, I wasn’t surprised to see him literally toss silverware in front of us, stack dishes that were headed back to the kitchen like an Applebee’s, and forget us for half-hour stretches. As I said, I get the feeling that the restaurant itself was understaffed rather than he himself was a poor performer, but service at Akelarre absolutely did not belong in the 3-star category. It really needs work. 

 Akelarre Place Setting

Akelarre Place Setting

 Akelarre Menu

Akelarre Menu

The restaurant offers three menus, all for the same price- “Aranori,” and “Bekarki,” which are forward-looking, experimental menus, and the Classics of Akelarre, designed to show off the traditional plates that made the restaurant famous. We chose the Classics menu, in order to (hopefully) best experience the restaurant on our very first visit. 

 First Bites: Vodka + Tomato + Mussels, 7/10

First Bites: Vodka + Tomato + Mussels, 7/10

Some lovely first bites are brought out almost immediately- first, a vodka-tomato-mussel combo. A very foamy dish, the tomato comes through well. The olive flavors buried within are very, very subtle. I would go so far as to say this dish is peppery. 7/10.

 First Bites: "Cucumber," 9/10

First Bites: "Cucumber," 9/10

 First Bites: "Black Beans," 9/10

First Bites: "Black Beans," 9/10

In what would turn out to be the first of several implementations of the idea that “looks can be deceiving,” from left to right- the cucumber-slice-shaped dish is actually potato and shrimp with basil on the outside to make the green skin. Totally excellent, 9/10. Next, black olives with anchovy that looks exactly like black beans. 9/10 super creative and really flavorful.

 First Bites: "Chocolate Truffles," 9/10

First Bites: "Chocolate Truffles," 9/10

Those chocolate truffles are actually stuffed mussels- rich, a bit spicy, and also excellent. 9/10. It’s nice to start with such a clear message; a reminder of how subjective our reality is. At least, that was my interpretation, and I'm sure it's open to many more besides that. 

 Bread, 7/10 

Bread, 7/10 

The bread was fresh, crunchy, and warm, but also quite plain. 7/10.

 Butter, 8/10

Butter, 8/10

Because we were in Spain, the condiment on offer for bread was olive oil. We requested some butter, and a mere three reminders later were presented with this clearly hand-scooped arrangement of butter flowers. I felt a bit like a whiner for having asked, to be honest. 8/10. 

 Course 1: Lobster + Mesclun, 8/10

Course 1: Lobster + Mesclun, 8/10

On to the first course- lobster salad with very quotidian mesclun salad plunked in the middle. It's made with San Sebastián classic cider, and the apple flavors come through quite nicely. As a quick sidenote- San Sebastián itself was formed hundreds of years ago as a plantation for growing apples for cider, so it's a Basque culinary touchpoint. The bitter mesclun leaves go well with the dish- they offset the sweetness of the apple and lobster very well. 8/10. 

 Course 2: "Ibérico Carpaccio," 9/10

Course 2: "Ibérico Carpaccio," 9/10

Next, another implementation of the looks-are-deceiving idea- a “carpaccio” of Ibérico ham with mushrooms and parmesan that is actually a pasta, and it both looks and tastes exactly like ham. A really incredible effect. The pasta even emulates jamón's characteristic bits of fat and marbling. The effect is playful and interesting, and the strong parmesan flavors balance the dish nicely. 9/10. 

 Course 3: "Foie Gras," 10/10

Course 3: "Foie Gras," 10/10

 Course 3, Post "Salt and Pepper"

Course 3, Post "Salt and Pepper"

The third course is foie gras, and in an oddly charming gesture of showmanship the server then pours an entire dish of “salt” and “pepper” directly onto the foie. On the surface, it appears that the server is intent on murdering the guest by way of heart attack. Turns out, it’s not real salt and it's not real pepper- the “salt” is sugar, and the pepper corns are puffed rice balls. The sugar has smooth apple flavors, an echo of the previous course's cider roots. Another really interesting course. Trickery abounds. 10/10.

 Course 4: Rice + Snails + Tomato + Basil, 8/10

Course 4: Rice + Snails + Tomato + Basil, 8/10

Next, white rice with snails in tomato and basil. Some very strong aromas going on here, but the flavors don't quite line up- the snail bit doesn't taste like snail, it tastes like a rubbery mild mushroom. The overall taste, if I had to label it, is like a bouillabaisse with a bunch of paprika. Hearty, savory, and interesting. 8/10.

 Course 5: Red Mullet, 4/10

Course 5: Red Mullet, 4/10

For reasons that aren’t clear to me, the chef chose to cook this red mullet (normally a mild, flavorful fish) with crushed-up heads and scales on the outside, I suppose to add texture. This leads to an extremely fishy flavor that tastes like it was sitting in the fridge for a day-and-a-half too long. We only ate a few bites, and I was quite surprised by the interaction that followed. The server asked us why we didn’t like it, heard our response that approximated the above, and seemed unsurprised, shrugging, “Yes, that’s because we cook it with the heads and scales…” and then just looked at us, as if the problem wasn't that the dish tasted poorly and more that we were too dense to appreciate it. He then made a decidedly half-hearted effort to offer us another course, and immediately dropped the issue when we politely declined. Another strike against service. Overall, truly not good; the fish wasn't fresh, and the fake fusilli doesn’t make sense. 4/10.

 Course 6: Beef + Tail Cake, 6/10

Course 6: Beef + Tail Cake, 6/10

 Foie Gras "Chocolate Cake"

Foie Gras "Chocolate Cake"

Next, a beef course with a “cake” of foie gras. The beef itself is firm and well-cooked, but nothing terribly special. Alongside, a powder-dry cake of chocolate and foie gras that desiccates the mouth on the first bite. It's yet another continuation of that oh-so-zany trickery formula that's actually getting pretty old by this point; the technique is less interesting when it doesn't taste good. 6/10.

 Course 7: "Gin and Tonic on a Plate," 6/10

Course 7: "Gin and Tonic on a Plate," 6/10

And now, on to the desserts. First up, a deconstructed gin and tonic on a plate. There's a super, super tart sorbet in the upper right corner and it's paired off with a jelly tastes like dehydrated gin. The flavors work pretty well together, but the only problem is that the proportions are off- there's way, way too much jelly. Like, a quart of jelly. 6/10.

 Course 8: "The Different Apple Tart," 8/10

Course 8: "The Different Apple Tart," 8/10

Next, an apple tart with edible paper that Akelarre has chosen to print their name upon. It's one of the first truly made-for-social-media dishes I have ever come across, and I really like the idea. The paper itself is actually quite flavorful, and underneath the paper is a buttery crust, like a croissant. Lots of apple sauces to round the dish out. 8/10. 

 Last Bites: Petit Fours, 8/10

Last Bites: Petit Fours, 8/10

Lastly, a charming group of petit fours. 8/10. 

Japan- Joël Robuchon Tokyo- ✪✪✪

I'm generally a huge fan of Robuchon's work globally; I had a great time at his Hong Kong and Macau locations, and I respect that the man has figured out how to caricature 3-star French cuisine across the world and still actually earn 3-star status in many of those cities. 

Set in what can only be described as a faux-chateau in the middle of Tokyo, Robuchon's eponymous restaurant goes beyond the bright colors and shiny surfaces of his Atelier sub-brand and simply explodes into a full-bore Disney version of French luxury ready for export. You'll see what I mean in the photos, but I have to say that this restaurant takes luxury into a weirdly overdone dimension that I hadn't experienced before.

If you come for lunch, consider a longer menu than I did, because the (many) dessert courses are all roughly the same length no matter what you get. So, having only a few actual lunch courses makes it feel like the dessert is more than 50% of the meal. Which, given the immense shitload of butter and bread I also consumed (my fault, I'll accept) the meal had a decidedly heart attack-y feel to it.

Another sidenote on service- it was actually terrible. Besides being way, way stick-up-one's-ass formal, it was absent for long periods of time (I clocked 42 minutes between two courses), and at one point straight-up rude. 

 Joël Robuchon Exterior

Joël Robuchon Exterior

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 3.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $235 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 6.0/10

 Joël Robuchon Dining Room

Joël Robuchon Dining Room

A super formal interior space; it felt like a nice place to go if you're interested in impressing someone, but not a very relaxed area. Beautiful, but cold. 

 Joël Robuchon Place Setting

Joël Robuchon Place Setting

The place settings had the look of a delicately-assembled gift. I can only imagine that there is an hours-long course taught on how, precisely, to fold Robuchon's napkins. That work is evident. 

 Bread Service

Bread Service

 Awesome butter

Awesome butter

Very similar to Robuchon's place in Macau, Tokyo does an awesome hot-fork-on-melted-butter routine that I find fascinating. 

 First Bites: Tomato + Quinoa, 8/10

First Bites: Tomato + Quinoa, 8/10

First out, an extremely pleasant and aggressively-plated amuse-bouche. Quinoa with tomato served on a bed of... quinoa. The edible parts were warm and crunchy, almost fruity, and beyond the overdone showmanship I quite liked it. 8/10.

 Yet More Bread

Yet More Bread

At no point in the meal did I ever look around and say to myself, "son of a bitch, I wish I had more bread," because I was foisted no less than approximately five full loaves during the course of my meal. An almost unimaginable array of bread shapes and styles. 

 Course 1: Crab + Lobster + Caviar, 10/10

Course 1: Crab + Lobster + Caviar, 10/10

Holy. Mother. Of. God. Look at this unbelievably intense opening dish. Caviar, crab meat, and lobster, all beautifully hand-dolloped in a precise geometric pattern. I could not stop looking at this dish and almost felt badly eating it. The flavors were intense and the ingredients were exceptionally fresh, making this a total all-star dish. 10/10.

 Even More Bread

Even More Bread

Oh look, here comes more bread. 

Joel Robuchon Tokyo (16 of 28).jpg

Next up, a soup with Botan shrimp (known for their sweetness) with lemongrass, mushroom, and a sweet warm broth. 

 Course 2: Shrimp + Mushroom + Lemongrass Soup, 9/10

Course 2: Shrimp + Mushroom + Lemongrass Soup, 9/10

You might safely call this one of the world's best Tom khar Gai soup. 9/10, I was impressed.

 Course 3: Wagyu Beef Pierogi, 8/10

Course 3: Wagyu Beef Pierogi, 8/10

Next up in my short lunch menu, the main dish- Wagyu beef pierogi with duck liver, black truffle, celeriac, and foam. I have to say that the protein part is perfectly cooked. The pierogi is a touch rich but I can live with that; the Pierogi pasta itself is too thin and not cooked perfectly- its a little al dente. There, I said it. 8/10.

 Course 4: Cheese, 8/10

Course 4: Cheese, 8/10

A cheese cart that rivals some of the best in the world, I went with some classic soft cheeses including my absolute favorite, Epoisse (the good stuff isn't available inside the USA). Some dried fruit and, unbelievably, even more bread accompanied. 8/10.

 Course 5: Dessert Course 1, 9/10

Course 5: Dessert Course 1, 9/10

In what I estimated was, most surely, the final salvo of this meal, an enormous glass-surfaced dessert cart was ceremoniously trucked up to our table (after the bread cart and the cheese cart, I was already getting a cart-intense feeling from this place). I selected what, I must say, is a damn-fine looking collection of ice cream, chocolate cake, and fruit. 9/10.

 Espresso, 9/10

Espresso, 9/10

Ah, espresso. A pleasant wrap-up to any decent European-style meal, and I must admit that after a few weeks of nothing but green tea I was really jonesing for some powerful caffeine. 9/10.

 Course 6: Dessert Cart 2, 8/10

Course 6: Dessert Cart 2, 8/10

Wait, what the hell? Yet a fourth cart, completely separate and with entirely different contents than any of the many carts that preceded it. I wasn't going to complain, but this was starting to feel silly. 

The theme here, I suppose, was that these desserts were slightly smaller and look as though they came from a candy store. 8/10. 

Japan- Kitcho Arashiyama Honten- ✪✪✪

Set against Kyoto's gorgeous Katsura river with the Arashiyama mountains beyond, Kitcho is a truly traditional private-dining Kaiseki restaurant executed in a strict formal tone and with a great deal of ceremony. If you're looking for an utterly traditional Japanese meal, this place is most certainly the bottom line. 

Named after a chant that bamboo-grass paint sellers used to hum to themselves during a certain January festival, Kitcho is a tea-ceremony style Kaiseki (called Cha Kaiseki), that requires the chef to go through deep cultural and artistic training alongside possessing massive culinary skill, and arose almost a thousand years ago as a meal style for aristocracy in the ancient capital, Kyoto. Kaiseki chefs are supposed to be food artisans who also appreciate poetry, art, and songs. The word itself means "breast stone," and is a reference to the warm rocks monks used to carry in their robes to fight hunger pangs between their two meager meals a day. A bit of a bougie reference, if you ask me. 

 Kitcho Private Dining Room

Kitcho Private Dining Room

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $470 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 3.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 6.0/10

We were led to a private room down soft, beautifully kept floors made of what felt like packed papyrus. The room had an aura of incense, not too much, just enough to feel exotic. Dominating the room's quiet space is a low slung table of faultless shiny black lacquered wood, with two small bright lamps suspended above.

 First Sip: Hot Rice Water, 8/10

First Sip: Hot Rice Water, 8/10

 Kitcho's Menu

Kitcho's Menu

As a welcome and palate-cleanser, we are brought cups of salted hot water with rice crackers. The taste is very subtly sweet- almost like Honey Smacks cereal. An understated, elegant cleanser/starter. 8/10.

 Course 1: Presentation with Ceramics

Course 1: Presentation with Ceramics

 Course 1: Snow Crab + Sea Cucumber + Apps, 8/10

Course 1: Snow Crab + Sea Cucumber + Apps, 8/10

Our visit was on the approach to Chinese lunar New Year, and the year of the Monkey, so monkey references abounded during not just this visit but during the trip overall. Quick side note: absolutely charmingly, the menu described this course as: "The Some Kinds of Appetizer." Perfect. 

Starting clockwise from the top right (the monkey sculpture, of course) is an exceptionally fresh concoction of snow crab with a vinegar sauce. Extremely fresh and zingy, with nice notes of ginger and densely-cooked green leaves at the base that brings the dish together almost perfectly.

The collection in the lower right of the photo includes a brightly-colored tiger shrimp with caviar, the yellow-colored piece covered with an obsequious leaf of gold is mullet roe, or karasumi. Popular around the New Year, karasumi is a side dish of condensed, dried fish eggs, and I'd have to search for a long time to find a food that disagrees more with my palate. With a flavor that precisely mimics dead fish coupled with the smells of dead fish and other rotting things, I am stunned at how much I dislike karasumi. I'll attribute a large part of this to my unexposed Western sensibilities and not give the course a terrible score, but I did not make too much progress on that piece.

The small cube of similar-yellow-color is egg and fish cake, which tastes indistinguishable from fish cake. 

Sea cucumber has a delightfully soft texture with floral, almost tropical notes. Lastly, a few large black beans that taste exactly like a cross between a normal black bean and a blueberry- sweet and almost fruity. 8/10.

 Course 2: Hand-Painted Ceramic, ~50 Years Old

Course 2: Hand-Painted Ceramic, ~50 Years Old

 Course 2: Rock Fish + Seaweed, 9/10

Course 2: Rock Fish + Seaweed, 9/10

I include the before-and-afters here to show the incredible level of dish/ceramic/presentation beauty in almost every single dish brought to us. The soup bowls- always presented covered and with flawless, glossy colors- were a delight to look at and enjoy separately for almost every course. Kaiseki is about emphasizing all of the aesthetic- touch, sound, smell, and obviously taste. 

The fish in this course was perfectly hot, fragrant, and the seaweed was a nice add-on. The fish itself (Kasago or rock fish) is very light. The advice from our server was to "try it with and without seaweed." Sure enough, the seaweed paper brings out very different flavors with each bite. 9/10. 

 Course 3: Sashimi, 10/10

Course 3: Sashimi, 10/10

The menu claims that the delicious white sashimi on the left is a Scorpion Fish, but a much more likely candidate is a squid (which our server referred to as devilfish, and is a common name for squids, octopi, and any other sinister-looking sea creature. But it tasted like really good squid). And on the right, fatty tuna (Otoro) sashimi. Ponzu sauce and soy sauce. Unreal good; the tuna has a melt-in-your-mouth consistency. 10/10.

With the benefit of hindsight, I'm comfortable saying that this was the freshest and most delicious bite of Otoro (fatty tuna) that I enjoyed during the almost two week-long experience in Japan. 

 Course 4: Eel Soup,, 6/10

Course 4: Eel Soup,, 6/10

Next, a heavier soup with conger eel, soy milk skin, ginger, and a leek ball. The soy milk is steamed, giving it an extremely soft and and sticky texture that isn't terribly pleasing. The included fish skin adds flavor, but the leek and ginger stand out way too much in an otherwise bland dish. 6/10.

 Course 5: Wrapped + With ... Plants? 

Course 5: Wrapped + With ... Plants? 

 Course 5: Yellowtail + Egg Yolk, 7/10

Course 5: Yellowtail + Egg Yolk, 7/10

This next course was super fun, even though I have to say I wasn't sure what the point of birthday-present-style wrapping the whole situation was. The dish was a healthy portion of Yellowtail with egg yolk. Tasty but kind of plain. The egg yolk is super sticky and difficult to manage. 7/10.

 Course 6: Hand-Painted Ceramic, ~80 Years Old

Course 6: Hand-Painted Ceramic, ~80 Years Old

 Course 6: Taro + Carrot + Mushroom + Spinach, 9/10

Course 6: Taro + Carrot + Mushroom + Spinach, 9/10

Check out the amazing colors in this dish- the red one is carrot, green one is spinach, taro is white, and the yuzu is the yellow. For being a simple preparation of vegetables, this is an insanely beautiful and enjoyable dish, with a wide variety of textures and extremely fresh ingredients. 9/10.

 Course 7: Steamed Rice + Ice Fish, 7/10

Course 7: Steamed Rice + Ice Fish, 7/10

 With the Fixins

With the Fixins

This course, I later learned, is supposed to be a hunger-killer that comes towards the end of every Kaiseki meal. Essentially, they bring out an enormous pot of rice with light protein, and will keep refilling your dish until you say Uncle. If you get through the whole bowl, they'll bring more. The idea is, no one leaves hungry. The rice fish tastes exactly like a deep-fried fish stick, which isn't a bad thing, but it's just fish with rice. 7/10.

 Course 8: "Award-Winning Rice." 7/10

Course 8: "Award-Winning Rice." 7/10

"This is some award-winning rice," we were enthusiastically told, as a large dollop of rice that, while attractive, is indistinguishable to me from most other rice I have experienced. Once again, I'll chalk this one up to my ignorance and lack of refinement, but to me it tasted like slightly buttery popcorn. And, overwhelmingly, of plain rice. 7/10.

 Course 9: Citrus + Strawberry, 9/10

Course 9: Citrus + Strawberry, 9/10

Though definitely in the understated, simple style that Japanese desserts are famous for (or, in Chihana's case, maybe too understated) this carved orange had a bright, delicious citrus sorbet along with white and red strawberries freshly picked in Southern Japan. 9/10

 Course 10: Sweet Bean Paste, 6/10

Course 10: Sweet Bean Paste, 6/10

This bean paste was a bridge too far. The flour on the outside was very slightly sweet, but the entire bite felt extremely bland. Almost like they were trying to let us down easy. 6/10.

 Course 11: Matcha Green Tea, 7/10

Course 11: Matcha Green Tea, 7/10

As is the tradition in a Cha-style Kaiseki restaurant, we end with a cup of hand-ground Matcha tea. This stuff always tastes exactly like a wheatgrass shot to me, but hey. 7/10. 

 Last Sip: Roasted Brown Tea, 8/10

Last Sip: Roasted Brown Tea, 8/10

The very last word is some delicious roasted brown tea with honey, which also tastes like Honey Smacks, and is refilled as many times as we relax on the large floor and ready ourselves for re-entry into the real world (or, at least, Kyoto). A lovely, relaxed finish to a very good meal. 8/10.

Hong Kong- Sushi Shikon- ✪✪✪

Tucked into a corner of the Mercer Hotel in downtown Hong Kong, Sushi Shikon has a small, intimate space for just 8 diners with the chefs standing just on the other side of the low counter. The benefits of this setup are total visibility into everything the chefs prepare, which is super cool. Every component of the meal, from the fish all the way down to the hay used to smoke the Bonito, is imported from Japan each day. If your goal is a super-authentic Japanese meal while visiting Hong Kong, this is the place to do it, and Holy Toledo will you end up paying for it. At more than $500 per person (list price) without alcohol for the privilege of such things as Japan-fresh hay, the price is not justified (especially with the perspective of, as I write this, wrapping up at some very fine sushi places in Japan). 

HONG KONG, CHINA

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $520 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 2.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 6.0/10

 First Bites: Kobako Crab, 9/10

First Bites: Kobako Crab, 9/10

 Kanazawa

Kanazawa

The first dish is a Kobako crab, a very special kind of female snow crab from the west coast district of Kanazawa. The name literally means "flavor box," and they've been prized in Japan for centuries. Serving it cold brings out the fruit flavors in the preserves/jam that adorns it, and the texture is just perfect. A strong start. 9/10. 

 Course 1: White Fish Sashimi, 8/10

Course 1: White Fish Sashimi, 8/10

A delicious cutlet of fresh whitefish, seared briefly and served warm with fresh, hand-ground wasabi. A small bite, but wonderful flavors and aromas. 8/10. 

 Course 2: Octopus, 7/10

Course 2: Octopus, 7/10

Rubbery, warm, and with a surprisingly neutral flavor that a sugary fruit sauce tries and partially succeeds to dance up. 7/10.

 Course 3: Steamed Abalone, 8/10

Course 3: Steamed Abalone, 8/10

Continuing the rubbery trend, this dish of seared abalone was a texture-driven dish, and by that I mean the most interesting thing about it was the odd combination of potato-like softness with rubbery firmness. Not terribly flavorful but engaging nonetheless. 8/10.

 Course 4: Abalone Liver Sauce, 9/10

Course 4: Abalone Liver Sauce, 9/10

In a classic sushi restaurant pairing, right after the abalone comes rice with abalone liver sauce that the chef hands over and encourages us to mix together on our own. The sauce is heavenly-rich, with strong foie gras-like flavors. A bit on the heavy side for an appetizer, but extremely flavorful. 9/10.

 Course 5: "Hay-Smoked Bonito," 10/10

Course 5: "Hay-Smoked Bonito," 10/10

So, I have to give credit where it's due- for all the fanfare associated with FedExing themselves hay from Japan each day, this Bonito was deliciously, exquisitely, perfectly smoked, seared, and cooked. This is in the running for most delicious piece of fish I have ever encountered. One is tempted to say that there's no way any other hay besides Japanese hay could possibly bring out such flavors in the fish, but that's totally absurd. Cut down your carbon footprint, fellas. 10/10.

 Course 6: Egg Custard + Snow Crab Soup, 8/10

Course 6: Egg Custard + Snow Crab Soup, 8/10

This final round of appetizers- steamed egg custard with snow crab- thick texture, wonderful flavors. 8/10.

 Course 7: Squid, 9/10

Course 7: Squid, 9/10

So, please excuse the weird photography for the next few courses- the chefs prepare sushi to be served at the perfect temperature for consumption, and the expectation is that you'll wolf it within a few seconds of the fish hitting your plate. Not wanting to piss anyone off, I scooped sushi with one hand and took a really fast photo with the other. 

The squid is firm, fresh, and very very good, but not as transcendent as other places. 9/10.

 Course 8: Whitefish 7/10

Course 8: Whitefish 7/10

This next fish, teasingly named "whitefish," is both firm and pairs perfectly with the light dabbing of soy sauce the chef adds with a brush in the final step before service. 

 Course 9: Chu-Toro (Medium-Fatty Tuna), 9/10

Course 9: Chu-Toro (Medium-Fatty Tuna), 9/10

A beautiful bouquet of flavors- rich greens, umami, and perfectly wasabi'd before serving. 9/10.

 Course 10: Otoro (Full-Fatty Tuna) 10/10

Course 10: Otoro (Full-Fatty Tuna) 10/10

This Otoro tasted like the purest, most delectable, most heavenly piece of fish ever created. Fatty but not so decadent that it overwhelms the palate, this slice of tuna stands up well against Masa, Yoshitake, and Jiro. 10/10, mostly because I can't award an 11. 

 Course 11: Spanish Mackerel, 8/10

Course 11: Spanish Mackerel, 8/10

Spanish mackerel is known for a full, smoky flavor that quickly becomes "fishy" if it's not extremely fresh. This does not suffer from any such issue, but the smokiness is a little underserved by the low temperature of the fish. I'm no expert, but it reaches my hand a bit cold. 8/10.

 Course 12: Ark Shell Clam, 7/10

Course 12: Ark Shell Clam, 7/10

Akagai, also known as Ark Shell or Red Clam, came next. I've never been the biggest fan of these bubble-gum-textured, chewy sea creatures but this is about as good as I've tasted. Rich, sea-floor flavors of kelp and salinity. 7/10.

 Course 13: Sea Urchin, 8/10

Course 13: Sea Urchin, 8/10

  Course 13: Sea Urchin, 8/10

Course 13: Sea Urchin, 8/10

Check out these immaculately- organized boxes of Sea Urchin (Uni) that were trotted out to prepare the next course- a Junior Whopper-sized seaweed roll of sea urchin. The flavors are earthy, almost like dirt, but a very creamy and rich texture- like eating soil-flavored cream cheese (in a really good way). 8/10. 

 Course 14: Tiger Prawn, 8/10

Course 14: Tiger Prawn, 8/10

Next, a beautifully-colored tiger prawn, served quite warm and freshly cooked, definitely took more than two bites to consume even though I realize that this is sushi heresy. 8/10. 

 Course 15: Sea Eel, 9/10

Course 15: Sea Eel, 9/10

This bite of warm, freshly-cooked sea eel practically falls apart and doesn't suffer from the usual eel issues of oiliness. Like a beautifully-baked whitefish, you wouldn't know this was eel unless someone told you. 9/10.

 Course 16: Egg Custard, 7/10

Course 16: Egg Custard, 7/10

Slightly sugary and sweet, I'll admit that I have never understood the appeal of egg custards, but this one is quite delicate and tasty as we get to the end of the savory courses. 7/10. 

 Course 17: Miso Soup, 8/10

Course 17: Miso Soup, 8/10

Lastly, one of the tastiest (and saltiest) miso soups I have ever consumed- clearly made by hand, with delicately-cut greens and extremely fresh soy. 

 Courser 18: Baked Pear, 9/10

Courser 18: Baked Pear, 9/10

Desserts in Japan are always a subtle affair, and this baked pear with fresh fruit preserves on top is delightfully refreshing without being heavy. A delightful meal overall! But like I said, ungodly expensive for what you get. 

Hong Kong- Lung King Heen- ✪✪✪

Though by no means a mediocre restaurant, I'll admit that Lung King Heen continued a trend I noticed in Hong Kong and Macau- I have no idea what makes this place special enough to deserve the third star. The space was pretty in a cold, corporate way, the service was attentive but not memorable, and the dishes were neither terribly inventive nor exceptionally executed. I can't bring myself to give them failing marks, but when I think about the pathologically amazing servers at Da Vittorio, the unbelievable colors and creativity in each dish at Gordon Ramsay, or the garden views at Hertog Jan I come away extremely confused as to how this place made any Michelin Inspector's heart sing. More to come on this topic, but my initial conclusion is that Michelin needs to do much more to level-set their grading format globally. 

 Lung King Heen Main Entrance

Lung King Heen Main Entrance

HONG KONG, CHINA

SERVICE: 7.0/10

FOOD: 5.0/10

PRICE PAID: $210 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 6.0/10

 Lung King Heen Exterior- Four Seasons Hotel

Lung King Heen Exterior- Four Seasons Hotel

Lung King Heen is one of several restaurants and bars inside the Four Seasons hotel in Hong Kong, which it itself connected by walkway to the largest and fanciest shopping mall I have ever experienced called IFC. If you are a person who likes premium goods, I can't say I've ever visited a place that has more of them. 

 Lung King Heen Interior

Lung King Heen Interior

The restaurant's interior was subtle and slightly understated compared to some of my other Hong Kong experiences- lots of red, a wavy metal ceiling, ambiance lighting. As I mentioned earlier, I can't really find fault here besides the fact that it feels a touch like I'm on a cruise ship.

 First Bites: Deep Fried Scallop + Pear + Yunnam Ham, 8/10

First Bites: Deep Fried Scallop + Pear + Yunnam Ham, 8/10

 Xuanwei, in Southwestern China

Xuanwei, in Southwestern China

The first bites are a delightful deep-fried ball of scallops, pears, and Yunnan ham. Yunnan ham is particularly prized - the small black pigs have the run of the steep river slopes, herb-filled meadows, and grassy valleys in this particularly pristine and gorgeous part of China. Other regions like Jinhua are similarly famous, but this more out-of-the way region is about as good as it gets. 8/10.

 Course 1: Pork + Goose + Duck, 8/10

Course 1: Pork + Goose + Duck, 8/10

Next came a very good pork, goose, duck app combo. The pork is extremely tender and good. Duck is also excellent. Good texture, rich flavor. 8/10.

 Course 2: Corn Soup + Lobster + Chicken, 6/10

Course 2: Corn Soup + Lobster + Chicken, 6/10

Next, a sweet corn soup with lobster and minced chicken, with a roasted tomato in the center. The minced chicken texture is a great idea with the soft, round flavors in the corn soup, but the lobster gets a bit lost. 6/10.

 Course 3: King Prawn, 4/10

Course 3: King Prawn, 4/10

This next course was enormous, and tough to approach- overwhelmingly yellow and fried. A King prawn simmered together with an underlayer of green leafy vegetables and bean sprout forms a pretty stout base. The seafood sauce was truly overwhelming and thick- and didn't add much beyond a ton of salt. Disappointing main dish. 4/10.

 Course 4: Braised Abalone + Broccoli + Star Grouper Rolls + Oyster Sauce, 7/10

Course 4: Braised Abalone + Broccoli + Star Grouper Rolls + Oyster Sauce, 7/10

An interestingly presented dish- two rolls of "Star Garoupa" with a rich oyster sauce and a very mildly steamed stalk of broccoli. Lots of different textures- the barely-cooked broccoli contrasts nicely with the soft, rubbery abalone and the even softer fish rolls. 7/10.

 Course 5: Wagyu Cubes + Mushroom, 8/10

Course 5: Wagyu Cubes + Mushroom, 8/10

Next up, some fantastic Australia-raised Wagyu beef cubes paired with fresh grilled vegetables, morel mushrooms and bell peppers. A big, hearty dish that felt a big like American comfort food- really rewarding dish but a bit big. 8/10.

 Course 6: Chicken + Vegetable Dumpling Soup, 6/10

Course 6: Chicken + Vegetable Dumpling Soup, 6/10

Warm, starchy, and a touch on the heavy side, the order of this dish didn't make a ton of sense after the massive, heavy Wagyu beef right before. I was expecting something lighter, refreshing, or perhaps even palate-cleansing, but this was basically another appetizer soup dish. Just fine as far as texture and flavor goes; a bit confusing. 6/10.

 Course 6: Ginger Soup + Sweet Potato/Rice Dumplings, 7/10

Course 6: Ginger Soup + Sweet Potato/Rice Dumplings, 7/10

This course definitely WAS on the more refreshing side of the spectrum, but with a big, hearty, starchy center to it. If the restaurant was concerned that I might leave hungry, they extinguished all possible concern with this last main dish. 7/10.

 Final Bites: Fruit Gelatin + Biscuit, 7/10

Final Bites: Fruit Gelatin + Biscuit, 7/10

What I'd call a hard stop for the end of the meal- a tiny dessert of fruit gelatin and a rice biscuit that was, at most, semi-sweet. Once again, I didn't really understand this transition, but it was an enjoyable plate. 7/10. 

USA- Masa- ✪✪✪

NEW YORK, NY, USA

SERVICE: 9.0/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $390 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

On a busy Saturday night, I visited Masayoshi Takayama's self-named restaurant, Masa. It has the dubious distinction of being the most expensive sushi restaurant in the US, and some call it the best. It is the only sushi restaurant stateside to have earned three Michelin stars, and Masa demonstrates the same traditional focus on ingredient quality and execution that earns the best rankings in Japan. 

Masa grew up working in his family's fish market stall in Tochigi Prefecture, delivering fresh sashimi to neighbors and customers on his bike. His lifetime of experience with seafood gives him a unique perspective to offer US customers a taste of the highest-quality sushi in the world. Masa began his life in the US with another highly traditional restaurant in Los Angeles that focused on providing an authentic experience for Japanese expats. He eventually got a zealous local following, including Marlon Brando.

Though he doesn't allow photos in his restaurant, I can do my best to describe the experience. Here's a pro tip: when making the reservation, request to be served by Masa himself. It doesn't cost any extra, and as long as you're polite and are making the reservation far enough in advance they'll usually accept. Requesting this honor gave me a seat front-and-center at the blond wood sushi bar. A huge yellow, blooming tree served as a backdrop to his work. The space is calm, relaxing, quiet, and focused. Watching the man himself work was a real treat- he is in complete control of the space and the kitchen. When he needed new ingredients- wasabi, let's say- he would mutter "wasabi" quietly under his breath and the whole kitchen would respond in an outdoor voice: "wasabi!" Within fifteen seconds, someone would bring him fresh ingredients. Subtle and impressive to watch.

The meal began with a few small amuse-bouche and appetizers served by the backup kitchen staff. First was a vegetable and mustard-y dish with a bright, spicy zing. Next was a small leafy green salad with fish, and of remarkable note was a whole cooked sea urchin served in its spiny shell that has the exact consistency and taste of cheddar mac and cheese (9/10). 

The night's menu depends on which fish the chef has flown in from Tsu-Jiki market or been able to find in New York, but on the night in question I enjoyed:

  • Japanese Mackerel- 9/10
  • Fluke- 9/10
  • Squid, with the skin delicately removed by hand- 10/10
  • Sweet Shrimp- 10/10
  • Cooked Sea Eel- 8/10
  • Uni (Sea Urchin) that tasted almost like liquid butter- 10/10
  • Cooked Shiitake Mushroom, fresh from the grill- 9/10
  • Red Clam- 8/10
  • Fatty Tuna- 10/10
  • Vegetable and Shiso- 9/10

For dessert, Masa served a fruit and ice mixture with some soothing tea. Overall an extremely traditional presentation, and the coolest part was- as soon as he was done serving my meal, Masa excused himself to go to his other restaurant across town. An incredibly special evening.