Japan

Japan- Kichisen- ✪✪✪

Near Kyoto's main river in a peaceful part of Kyoto is Kichisen, a gorgeous chef's counter kaiseki restaurant that's about as traditional as they get. True to kaiseki-chef tradition, the proprietor is not only trained in several styles of cuisine, but also: calligraphy, flower arrangement, tea ceremonies, and poetry. The belief is that "Renaissance-Man" style training helps the chef get more in touch with the creative. Here's a pretty awesome photo of him about to slice the living hell out of some fish. I want that hat. 

Quite famously, Yoshimi Tanigawa beat Chef Morimoto on the Iron Chef TV show. 

Kichisen Main Entrance

Kichisen Main Entrance

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $350 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

Kichisen Chef's Counter

Kichisen Chef's Counter

Somewhat obsequiously, awards and honors adorn most available surfaces. While most chefs with three Michelin stars display that accomplishment somewhere, few were as front-and-center about it as Kichisen. 

Orchid Arrangement

Orchid Arrangement

Exterior Views

Exterior Views

The counter itself is a small, intimate bar with four other patrons. Nice natural views just to my right. Blond wood everything. Echoes of laughter from the private rooms elsewhere in the building.

First Sip: Plum Tea, 8/10

First Sip: Plum Tea, 8/10

Plum tea with olives. You're not supposed to eat those; rookie move; crunch. 8/10, and close call but no missing teeth. 

Course 1: Appetizers Spread, 7/10

Course 1: Appetizers Spread, 7/10

First up, a small set of appetizers presented in gorgeous, hand-made ceramic dishes. Mushroom, broccoli, karasumi (compressed fish roe, salty as hell and not to my tastes per usual), dried fish, and black beans. The beans are good but actually a bit wilted... 7/10.

Quick close-up of the fish and veggies- a delightful little Japanese pepper leaf on top. Check out the incredibly precise knife-work on this veggie- it's been delicately cross-cut and dabbed with the perfect amount of sauce. A theme of extremely subtle work like this plays out throughout the meal. Another reviewer from TimeOut said it best: "whether you notice it or not, the food will be right down to the tiniest detail..."

Course 2: Soup + Yuzu, 7/10

Course 2: Soup + Yuzu, 7/10

This starchy soup is sweetened considerably with yuzu (the yellow at the center). But, texture is thick and feels almost slimy. 7/10. 

Course 3: Fish Soup, 8/10

Course 3: Fish Soup, 8/10

Next, I am brought a tea pot resting precariously on a bed of pine needles. This fish soup has really awesome, delicate lemon flavors in the broth. And man, they don't kid around on quantity- there's around 5-6 cupfuls... One of the downsides of dining out at places like this solo- many of these dishes are designed for two people. In the pot, spongy starch dumplings and light white fish. 8/10.

Course 4: Sashimi, 7/10

Course 4: Sashimi, 7/10

Course 4: Otoro

Course 4: Otoro

Next, a pretty awesome ceramic breadbasket of sashimi- sea bream, squid, and Japanese lobster. The lobster had the consistency of grapefruit and very fresh flavor. Unusual for otoro (fatty tuna) at Japanese three-star restaurants, this one wasn't that good- the texture was stringy, thought it was obviously fresh. Just a bad cut. 7/10.

Course 5: Rice + Chestnuts + Starch, 8/10

Course 5: Rice + Chestnuts + Starch, 8/10

A nice filling dish of "rice, chestnuts, and a starch similar to potato." Great description, and I can't argue with it. Black beans, flavorful and easy. 8/10.

Course 6: Crab Legs, 9/10

Course 6: Crab Legs, 9/10

Next up, legs like crab sticks stuck into ice in a ceramic tumbler. Especially fun to eat. 9/10

Course 7: Another Smorgasbord, 7/10

Course 7: Another Smorgasbord, 7/10

I'll describe each of these little dishes in turn: overall, 7/10.

Course 7A: Sea Cucumber + Poached Egg, 6/10

Course 7A: Sea Cucumber + Poached Egg, 6/10

If you like watery textures, this sea cucumber with poached egg is about as runny as it gets. The egg flavors weren't too strong, and sea cucumber is a delicate flavor to start with, so this wasn't my fave. 6/10. 

Course 7B: Bamboo Shoots + Beef Sauce, 8/10

Course 7B: Bamboo Shoots + Beef Sauce, 8/10

A lovely dish of bamboo shoots with a rich beef sauce. The richness of the beef brings out the bamboo's flavors, and accentuates the crunchy texture nicely. 8/10.

Course 7C: Fried Taro, 7/10

Course 7C: Fried Taro, 7/10

Some fried taro with a generous helping of shaved Japanese herbs. 7/10.

Course 7D: Karasumi + Kumquat + Tiger Prawn 8/10

Course 7D: Karasumi + Kumquat + Tiger Prawn 8/10

Karasumi roe, still not my favorite, with kumquat, tiger prawn, and why the hell not- a leaf of gold. Besides the karasumi, I'd give this little dish a 8/10. Let's go with that.

Course 7D: Pickled fish, 8/10

Course 7D: Pickled fish, 8/10

Pickled fish with Japanese pepper- served at room temp, alongside a pretty awesome-looking pine sprig. 8/10.

Course 8: Kobe Beef + Pineapple, 10/10

Course 8: Kobe Beef + Pineapple, 10/10

This was one of my favorite beef courses of all time- cooked on a lawsuit-hot stone through a pineapple slice, this chunk of Kobe beef was delightfully rich and dense. 10/10. 

Course 9: Rice + Prawns, 8/10

Course 9: Rice + Prawns, 8/10

As we get to the close of the meal, the infinitely-refillable dish is some hearty rice and prawns, small and tasty. 8/10. 

Course 10: Deep-Fried Dessert, 5/10

Course 10: Deep-Fried Dessert, 5/10

Layered with sugar, this was absolutely too fatty and greasy to eat. I got halfway through and decided it wasn't worth the heart attack. 5/10. 

Course 11: NO idea, 8/10

Course 11: NO idea, 8/10

I have no idea what this thing was, but it was totally delicious. 8/10. 

Course 12: Strawberries + Cream, 8/10

Course 12: Strawberries + Cream, 8/10

Some strawberries dipped in a light cream. 8/10. Simple, and really fresh berries.

Course 13: Matcha Green Tea

Course 13: Matcha Green Tea

Delightful Matcha green tea, this time presented over the counter with no ceremony at all, unlike at Mizai, where it was a whole thing. Just a handoff. Tastes exactly like wheatgrass. 7/10. 

Last Sip: Roasted Oat Tea, 8/10

Last Sip: Roasted Oat Tea, 8/10

And, finally, some roasted oat tea with the flavors of Cheerios more or less exactly. 8/10.

Japan- Aoyama Esaki- ✪✪✪

Situated below street level in a quiet office block of a tasteful, artisanal-store-heavy neighborhood not far from Tokyo's new Olympic stadium construction is Aoyama Esaki. I found the restaurant to be much like the neighborhood around it- interesting, understated, pretty. For less than $100 (with champagne!) this place also turned out to be one of the best deals of my whole trip. 

Aoyama Esaki Main Entrance

Aoyama Esaki Main Entrance

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $95 PP (INCLUDING CHAMPAGNE- LIST PRICE IS ~$55)

VALUE/MONEY: 9.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

Aoyama Esaki Seating

Aoyama Esaki Seating

Aoyama Esaki Interior

Aoyama Esaki Interior

The seating areas are separate from the two private dining rooms, and the tables and chairs are underwhelming but nicely spaced. 

Place Setting

Place Setting

Menu

Menu

Both the food and drink menu are (almost) entirely in Japanese, and language skills are, shall we say, highly goddamn mixed so make sure you bring your Google Translate app or someone with at least a Middle-Schooler-level understanding of Japanese.

Course 1: 10 kinds of Japanese Vegetables, 9/10

Course 1: 10 kinds of Japanese Vegetables, 9/10

First up, a delightful collection of 10 varieties of Japanese fruits and vegetables including rose hips, brussels sprouts, oranges, water chestnuts, deep fried flowers, radish, carrot, grilled onion, and black beans, all prepared differently. The flowers taste surprisingly rich, and overall this is a stunningly great and diverse set of flavors. 9/10.

Course 2: Sashimi, 8/10

Course 2: Sashimi, 8/10

The Fish Book

The Fish Book

Striped jack- or shima-agi- sashimi- had a soft and delicious texture. Paired with some delightfully briny seaweed. 7/10.

I thought this was incredibly sweet- rather than try to explain the fish's name and qualities to me, our server ran and got a Japanese fish reference book, which she offered for a photo or for casual perusal as we enjoyed our sashimi. Charming that they both have such a reference tool on hand and that they offer it so freely. 

Course 3: Clam Soup. 8/10

Course 3: Clam Soup. 8/10

This clam soup was almost perfect- a really enormous clam was served in its shell with a small garnishment of veggies on top. Rich and salty. 8/10.

Course 4: Sea Bass, 8/10

Course 4: Sea Bass, 8/10

Out comes the fish book again, this time without having to ask. We are told, once again quite charmingly, that the fish we are eating might be any of the handful depicted on a given page that we were directed to. Three or four fish were illustrated, and I must say that they looked pretty similar, so rather than ask for more detail I thanked her profusely.

Sea bass perch with "Orange Queen" Chinese cabbage - the fish is excellent and brought out nicely with a buttery sauce. Peas are bright and sweet. 8/10. 

Course 5: Rice + Mushroom Soup, 8/10

Course 5: Rice + Mushroom Soup, 8/10

Next, some delightful rice and mushroom soup. The soup had almost a peanut butter note on the nose, and tasted like forest floor in the best possible way. The rice was hearty and satisfying. 8/10. 

Coffee, 8/10

Coffee, 8/10

Mostly because I was so thrilled to have it (it was seldom on offer in Japan,) a lovely hand-brewed up of Brazilian coffee. 8/10. 

Course 6: Yam + Lychee Ice Cream, 8/10

Course 6: Yam + Lychee Ice Cream, 8/10

Though this wasn't my favorite dessert in Japan, the starchy yam paired really perfectly with the lychee ice cream to make this beautiful dessert. 8/10. 

Japan- Yukimura- ✪✪✪

In a quiet neighborhood on the third floor, you'll find one of the most bizarrely uncoordinated and unsure-how-they-got-it Three Stars on the planet. The journey began with an (even by Japanese standards) confusing juxtaposition of Google Maps' directions, advice from locals, and a sense of following one's nose going totally wrong. Up the third floor of what appears to be a concrete-blocked apartment complex is, in fact, Yukimura. Welcoming, eh?

Yukimura Main Entrance

Yukimura Main Entrance

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 5.5/10

FOOD: 5.0/10

PRICE PAID: $351 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 2.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 4.0/10

Service here was a complete disaster, full stop. At several points, the chef became so visibly frustrated with his own crew that he would banish certain kitchen staff members to the seating area and force them to watch his technique from afar, or bus tables. Several different staff members who appeared far from prepared took on some of the primary prep roles, and at one point the chef just straight up walked out for about thirty minutes. Best guess is that he wanted a cigarette. The whole place felt totally out-of-control, and at 4 hours for less than 10 courses, I was utterly unimpressed with how they managed the experience.

Yukimura Chef's Table

Yukimura Chef's Table

I have many nice things to say about the space- unique to Japan's Kappo Kaiseki restaurants I visited is a Yukimura's semi-circular physical layout that surrounds the chefs at work, giving full visibility to every step in their process and making the kitchen feel open, friendly, and engaging. This is probably the high point of the review. 

First Bites: Roe + Burdock + Minnow + Abalone + Licorice, 7/10

First Bites: Roe + Burdock + Minnow + Abalone + Licorice, 7/10

First Bites Opened up

First Bites Opened up

A group of different roe's (fish eggs), including herring, cod, and some dried ones from a mullet fish. Roe is almost never my fave, and today is no exception. Sweet black beans, a staple of most kaiseki restaurants on my trip, makes an early appearance. A handful of raw fish round the group out.

Though this is gamely presented in a full shell and I'm certain pushes a lot of Japanese culinary buttons, roe is really and truly not Not My Thing. The other ingredients are good to snack on, but I'm missing the initial story here (which, I'm sure, is 90% my fault). 7/10.

Course 1: Snow Crab + Honmaroko Minnow, 5/10

Course 1: Snow Crab + Honmaroko Minnow, 5/10

Some actually pretty decent snow crab, accompanied by Honmaroko minnows from Lake Biwa, one of the twenty oldest lakes in the world. The crab has fantastic texture and is super fresh, but the minnow tastes extremely salty and preserved. An odd pairing. 5/10. 

Course 2: Tempura Vegetables + Bamboo, 7/10

Course 2: Tempura Vegetables + Bamboo, 7/10

Next, some fairly plain but serviceably delicious tempura of vegetables and bamboo. Light and crispy, but no better or worse than something you could make at home with about ten minutes' prep. 7/10.

Course 3: White Miso Soup, 8/10

Course 3: White Miso Soup, 8/10

Full of soft rich mustard flavors, this prettily-presented soup had a pleasantly thick texture, and the vegetables added some crunch. 8/10.

Yukimura (10 of 23).jpg

And then, rather unexpectedly, came the portion of the meal that can only be described as almost two full hours of crab murder. 

From the back of the house, the chef produced an enormous spider crab, still very much alive and upset, and split the thing wide open right for all to see. He chopped off the legs, and, still alive, then took the head, flipped it over, and cooked it over the fire until its innards formed a broth. This was the cruelest thing I've ever seen happen in a restaurant. 

This was met, rather immorally, with a bunch of "oohs" and "aahs" from my dining compatriots.

He repeated this time-consuming process for every table, only ever cooking one crab at a time. It was absolutely. Fucking. Interminable.

Don't get me wrong- the crabs were pretty good- but two of the pieces I got were decidedly undercooked, and I'm fairly sure I got a light case of food poisoning afterwards. This is, for sure, the first time such a thing has happened to me at a 3-star restaurant anywhere in the world. Not a great first. 

Claws and body were served next. They were, if anything, overdone, most likely a factor of the head chef, the sous chef, and the young apprentice changing out the task of grilling the crab over the fire as their schedules saw fit. This course was a lengthy, uncomfortable, bad-tasting disaster. My first 0/10. 

Course 5: Buckwheat Soba Noodle + Spicy Radish, 5/10

Course 5: Buckwheat Soba Noodle + Spicy Radish, 5/10

An underwhelming, starchy dish of spicy soba buckwheat noodles with radish. The spice was overpowering and the soba texture felt very al dente. 5/10.

Course 6: The Rest Of The Crab, 5/10

Course 6: The Rest Of The Crab, 5/10

The coup de grace for the pool ol' crab was a final dish of crab innards mixed with rice and spices to create a boiled gelee of some kind. The flavors were fresh but I'm not sure that everything that ended up in this dish is normally meant to be eaten- strange muddy flavors and lots of flecks of hard shell throughout. 5/10.

Course 7: Japanese Onion + Radish Soup, 2/10

Course 7: Japanese Onion + Radish Soup, 2/10

An inexplicably bland soup, with what felt like a mix between an onion and a potato as the starch- turned out to be Japanese radish. I ate about half of it and didn't find any of it refreshing. 2/10. Getting exhausted by this meal at this point. 

Course 8: Rice + Aduki Beans, 7/10

Course 8: Rice + Aduki Beans, 7/10

A somewhat interesting Aduki bean and rice mix came next. It was mercifully bland and edible compared to some of the most recent work. 7/10. 

Course 9: Blancmange of Strawberry, 9/10

Course 9: Blancmange of Strawberry, 9/10

With extremely good fortune, we ended on a fairly high note. The chef, after a long smoke break I mentioned earlier, presented his interpretation of a blancmange with strawberry and coffee grounds. The vanilla, strawberry, and coffee flavors and textures worked together really well. 9/10.

Course 10: Sugar Candy, 8/10

Course 10: Sugar Candy, 8/10

I have no idea what these little sour candies were, but they felt handmade and they were extremely sugary (a rare treat in Japan) so I give them an 8/10.

Japan- Sushi Yoshitake- ✪✪✪

Located in the middle of Ginza in a totally nondescript building and up some stairs, Yoshitake was, hands-down, my favorite sushi experience in Japan. Better than Jiro by a long shot, with friendlier chefs and staff, fresher and more interesting fish, a more beautiful and compelling space, and a better atmosphere. If you only go to one sushi place in Japan, forget Jiro and the others- go here. 

Yoshitake Main Entrance

Yoshitake Main Entrance

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 9.5/10

PRICE PAID: $225 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

Yoshitake Chef's Counter

Yoshitake Chef's Counter

Unlike most other restaurants on my trip, I was warmly and enthusiastically greeted by both the chef and his staff as soon as I walked in. And I don't just mean the robotic greeting that every restaurant automatically belts out whenever a new customer walks in- that's par for the course- I mean he actually greeted me by name, thanked me for coming, asked me about my allergies and preferences, where I was from, and wished me a great meal. Such a small touch. but you'd be shocked how few restaurants in this country bother with such a gesture even if they only serve a dozen people in a night.

The menu was divided into two halves- the appetizer half, which consisted of a series of small plates, and then of course the sushi half. 

Course 1: Steamed Egg Custard + Pufferfish Roe, 9/10

Course 1: Steamed Egg Custard + Pufferfish Roe, 9/10

This delightful warm steamed egg custard was garnished with pufferfish roe and had soft pillowy textures throughout. Flavors of vanilla cake! What a great start. 9/10.

Course 2: Ruby Snapper, 10/10

Course 2: Ruby Snapper, 10/10

THIS IS IT. This is the one, best, most delightful piece of fish of my entire Japan trip. Seared ruby snapper, served warm. The searing brings out the sweetest, richest, most delicious flavors without getting oily or greasy. It seems hyperbolic to award an 11/10, but I really really want to. 10/10.

Course 3: Squid + Roe, 8/10

Course 3: Squid + Roe, 8/10

Anything would be kind of a disappointment after that last course, but this squid with roe from the coast closest to Kyoto is extremely good- fresh, firm, flavorful. Squid sauce a little sweet. 8/10. 

Course 4: Monkfish Liver, 8/10

Course 4: Monkfish Liver, 8/10

Next, two firm chunks of monkfish liver- I would describe the taste as like a lean foie pâté. 8/10. 

Course 5: Steamed Abalone, 8/10

Course 5: Steamed Abalone, 8/10

Next, some steamed abalone- the mollusk has a pleasing, if somewhat rubbery, texture. Great flavor and subtle floral/vegetable notes. 8/10. 

Course 6: Abalone Liver Sauce, 9/10

Course 6: Abalone Liver Sauce, 9/10

This next part was pretty cool- the chef had created a liver sauce from the very same abalone served moments earlier. I was instructed to mix the sauce with the rice- the end results is an incredibly rich ragout that tastes a lot like mayo. I mean that in the best way possible. 9/10. 

Course 7: Grilled Tilefish, 9/10

Course 7: Grilled Tilefish, 9/10

Next up, some grilled tilefish (a bottom-feeder commonly found in the North Atlantic). Firm, great texture, but a somewhat neutral flavor that serves as a nice walk-down from the heavy richness of the previous course. 9/10. 

Course 8: Steamed Clam Soup, 9/10

Course 8: Steamed Clam Soup, 9/10

For the final appetizer course, some steamed clam served with a small spritz of shaved lemon peel, sake, and canola flower. Refreshing, and the citrus brings out the best in the clam's flavors. 9/10. 

Preparing the Squid Sushi

Preparing the Squid Sushi

It was a real treat to sit at the chef's counter and get to watch the very fine knifework that went into the meal. In this step, the chef is cutting squid into slices as thin as paper- freehand. 

Course 9: Squid, 8/10

Course 9: Squid, 8/10

This squid- or Ika- has a perfect glassy appearance and a firm but yielding texture, but the flavor is just not 100% quite there. 8/10.

Course 10: Halfbeak, 8/10

Course 10: Halfbeak, 8/10

Next, some sayori, or halfbeak. These are small fish known to be difficult to prepare with with a mackerel flavor, and thick but yielding flesh. 8/10. 

Course 11: Medium-Fatty Tuna, 10/10

Course 11: Medium-Fatty Tuna, 10/10

Here come the big guns- the tuna courses. Chuotoro- medium-fatty tuna- is smooth, almost steak-like in texture and mouthfeel. Flavor isn't terribly rich but its deep and full of umami. You won't find a better piece of sushi anywhere in the world. 10/10.

Course 12: Fatty Tuna, 10/10

Course 12: Fatty Tuna, 10/10

Looking back on my notes from the meal itself, all I wrote was: "Mother of God." Can't disagree with that. Some of the best fatty tuna (otoro) ever created. 10/10.

Course 13: Gizzard Shad, 8/10

Course 13: Gizzard Shad, 8/10

Next, the bizarrely-named gizzard shad- has an almost a pepperoni flavor. The fish is definitely quite oily, and like most shiny fish is served with scales removed but skin still on. 8/10.

Course 14: Herring Roll, 8/10

Course 14: Herring Roll, 8/10

This herring roll crunches with veggies, and has a big, hearty flavor. 8/10.

Course 14: Ark Shell, 8/10

Course 14: Ark Shell, 8/10

Ark shell- also known as red clam- has some beautiful colors and a firm, salty flavor. 8/10.

Course 15- Sea Urchin, 9/10

Course 15- Sea Urchin, 9/10

Next, an enormous sea urchin (uni) hand roll, piled together from a box of sea urchin that is removed with great ceremony. The box itself is full or sea urchin lined up carefully like jewels. Strong earthy flavors, perfect temperature and slick texture. 9/10.

Course 16- Prawn, 8/10

Course 16- Prawn, 8/10

Japanese Imperial Prawn, or kuruma ebi, is a basically a completely delicious shrimp very recently cooked and served pleasantly warm. The flavor isn't very sweet- it's more savory- but has wonderful texture. Served with the tail and head off, unlike at Jiro's, which is a more Westerner-friendly presentation. 8/10.

Course 17- Sea Eel, 10/10

Course 17- Sea Eel, 10/10

Anago, or sea eel- is presented next. Cooked to perfection and with a beautiful baked flavor, the eel is bright and zingy-fresh. In what is becoming a string of victories for Yoshitake, this is easily the best sea eel I've had- 10/10.

Course 18: Tuna Hand Roll, 9/10

Course 18: Tuna Hand Roll, 9/10

As we get towards the end of the sushi menu, a tuna hand roll- literally held by hand and eaten like an ice cream cone. It takes me a few inelegant bites to consume the whole thing. 9/10. 

Course 19: Egg Cake, 9/10

Course 19: Egg Cake, 9/10

And, lastly, a slightly-sweet egg cake, served in a delightfully simple cube form. 9/10. 

Course 20: Miso Soup, 8/10

Course 20: Miso Soup, 8/10

And, the final word in what has been a very long and record-settingly-awesome meal- a cup of plain miso to unwind the palate. 8/10.

Japan- Kanda- ✪✪✪

Nestled in a beautiful Tokyo neighborhood known as an enclave for wealthy expats, Kanda is a gorgeous 8-counter-seat restaurant serving traditional Japanese fare with a French flourish. Most of that flourish is likely thanks to head chef Hiroyuki Kanda's 5-year stint as a chef in Paris when he moved there at the tender age of 23. 

Opened in 2004, Kanda is located in something that feels a lot like a residential apartment building, because that's exactly what it is. Though finding restaurants using Google Maps in Japan is always a struggle, this one was particularly vexing since the address on the restaurant's website takes you to what is, in fact, either a gas station or a bread factory several blocks away. Seriously couldn't tell which. Give yourself an extra few minutes if you visit. 

Kanda's Sign

Kanda's Sign

Kanda Main Entrance

Kanda Main Entrance

Kanda Interior Hallway

Kanda Interior Hallway

Kanda's interior style is what you get when you cross a Japanese restaurant with an Apple store. A huge amount of blond wood and bold lighting. Lots of plain surfaces with minimal decoration.

Kanda Chef's Counter

Kanda Chef's Counter

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $255 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

Kanda himself is warm and friendly- he offers an aperitif of champagne immediately upon seating, asks about any preferences or allergies, and inquires where we are from. This might seem like fairly common courtesy, but it's relatively rare for high-end Japanese restaurants. 

First Bites: Turnip + Yuzu + Vegetable Soup, 9/10

First Bites: Turnip + Yuzu + Vegetable Soup, 9/10

First out of the gate is a lovely, warm turnip-yuzu-vegetable soup. White fish at the base; the texture goes perfectly with the starchy dumpling. The green vegetables have been braised and are extremely crunchy, a nice play off the soft comfort food texture of the dumpling and fish. 9/10.

Course 1: Lobster + Sea Urchin, 8/10

Course 1: Lobster + Sea Urchin, 8/10

A lovely, small bite of lobster and sea urchin served cold. The sea urchin has that awesome earthy mouthfeel and rich taste. 8/10.

Course 2: Otoro Tuna, 9/10

Course 2: Otoro Tuna, 9/10

This fatty tuna - "otoro" - was literally as soft as a stick of melted butter, and almost as rich. Cut from the fattiest part of the tuna belly, this fish was exquisitely presented and incredibly delicious. 9/10.

Full-Salt Soy and Salt

Full-Salt Soy and Salt

In case the fish itself wasn't ungodly savory enough on its own, the restaurant served a pretty healthy helping of full-salt soy and, of course, a plate of just plain salt. Caveat emptor

Course 3: Monkfish Liver, 10/10

Course 3: Monkfish Liver, 10/10

Next, some monkfish liver- soft and delicate, almost like a pâté. Not at all fishy. Notes of strawberry at the very back. Outstanding. 10/10.

Course 4: Crab Meat Dumpling Soup, 8/10

Course 4: Crab Meat Dumpling Soup, 8/10

The chef then gave us a clear-broth soup with a large crab meat dumpling in a beautiful, black-lacquered ceramic dish. Great crab texture. The radish was painstakingly cut into a star shape; an extra but welcome touch, the flavors contrast the crab perfectly. 8/10.

Course 5: Sea Urchin, 8/10

Course 5: Sea Urchin, 8/10

Next, a few short courses of sushi. First, some sea urchin, which was a bit of a surprise since we had just enjoyed some a few courses ago, but a welcome difference with the strong notes of dried seaweed. 8/10.

Course 6: Prawn + Egg Powder, 8/10

Course 6: Prawn + Egg Powder, 8/10

Next, sushi of prawn with a heavy dose of egg powder on top, which added some fun color. 8/10.

Course 7: Blowfish + Black Turnip, 9/10

Course 7: Blowfish + Black Turnip, 9/10

And the last of the three sushi bites- blowfish with black turnip and pine nuts. The pine nuts were an awesome idea- they brought out a lot of flavors in the normally-neutral blowfish. 9/10.

Course 8: Miyazaki Beef, 10/10

Course 8: Miyazaki Beef, 10/10

Of the many sub-varieties of Japanese Wagyu beef, Miyazaki is my absolute favorite. They are regarded within the Japanese Black Cattle industry as the best of the best- for example, did you know that champion sumo wrestlers are presented with a Miyazaki cow when they win?

Anyways, the tenderloin is insanely soft and delicious. The taste is practically caramel on the outside, and the strong wasabi-based mustard on the right adds a lot. 10/10. 

Course 9: Sake Potage + Clam, 8/10

Course 9: Sake Potage + Clam, 8/10

Then, a sake potage with clam; hot and starchy. The dumpling is extremely stretchy, and the clam is fresh and delightful. 8/10.

Course 10: Pickled Vegetables, 8/10

Course 10: Pickled Vegetables, 8/10

Next, as a cool-down dish to begin relaxing the palate, some salty pickled vegetables. 8/10.

Course 11: Deep-Fried Prawns, 8/10

Course 11: Deep-Fried Prawns, 8/10

And the very last non-dessert; a cake of deep-fried prawns, more of a final snack than a real course. Salty and fun comfort food. 8/10. 

Course 12: Apricots, 8/10

Course 12: Apricots, 8/10

Japanese high-end restaurants are renowned for their simple desserts, and Kanda is no exception- a bowlful of sliced apricots. End of story. Fresh and refreshing, but it's just a bowl of apricots. 8/10. 

Course 13: Strawberry Sorbet, 9/10

Course 13: Strawberry Sorbet, 9/10

Lastly, a solitary scoop of strawberry sorbet. Also fresh, and quite sugary. 9/10. A great end to one of the better meals in Japan. 

Japan- Cá Sento- ✪✪✪

With its Spanish-influenced style and refined atmosphere, Cá Sento is a fascinatingly beautiful oasis in the hum-drum normalness of Kobe. Only a few blocks away from some pretty seedy red-light-ish districts and "all you can eat Kobe beef, $40" restaurants is this little beauty: 

Ca Sento Exterior

Ca Sento Exterior

KOBE, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.0/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $180 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

Ca Sento Interior

Ca Sento Interior

Ca Sento Dining Area

Ca Sento Dining Area

A 3-star since 2010, the head chef Shinya Fukumoto is an alumnus of Mugaritz, a famous San Sebástian-area restaurant that pioneers new preparation techniques. It's a much longer story, but San Sebástian itself is the center of Spanish "pinxto" culture- also commonly known as tapas. The heavy Spanish influence on this restaurant is most easily detected in their application of pinxto-like dishes.

The restaurant has a gorgeous, tasteful interior decor. Place settings are immaculate. Service is soft-spoken, sweet, attentive. There are only a handful of neatly-aligned tables.

Ca Sento Silverware

Ca Sento Silverware

Wall Decor

Wall Decor

Spanish/Quixotian/Whimsical touches abound. Northern Spain more or less has a lock on the bizarre as stylish - just ask Picasso - and this place fully cops said style, to the extent reasonable. 

First Bites: Karasumi + Radish, 8/10

First Bites: Karasumi + Radish, 8/10

First, my heart plummets into my stomach as I see that our first dish is karasumi with Kyoto radishes. The crunchy texture and the earthy flavors of the radish actually offsets the condensed egg texture and fishy flavor of the karasumi perfectly, and in a real accomplishment I can actually say that I really enjoy this karasumi. 8/10

Course 1: Green Vegetable Soup, 9/10

Course 1: Green Vegetable Soup, 9/10

Next, some Japanese green vegetable soup. Multiple textures going on here. Yellowish egg-like custard at the bottom, thick and creamy layers. Lots of different flavors to pick apart but still amazing. 9/10.

Course 2: The Smorgasbord

Course 2: The Smorgasbord

Japanese multi-plates are super fun- they're meant to bring together a wide variety of flavors and textures and start to tell a story. Many of these (especially the fish dishes) are pinxto imitations. I'll start in the lower right with that green dish and go clockwise. 

Course 2A: Snapper + White Bean + Pesto, 9/10

Course 2A: Snapper + White Bean + Pesto, 9/10

This first dish has a pasty look- snapper in a white bean sauce with parsley, cumin, a pesto-like sauce, and almond. It tastes like eating someone's garden that has been through a Vitamix- crisp high notes of vegetable, with a nice smooth texture from the snapper. 9/10.

Course 2B: River Fish, 8/10

Course 2B: River Fish, 8/10

A nice break from the earthiness of the pesto and vegetables- "river fish," in a red sauce is fresh and quite spicy. 8/10.

Course 2C: Squid + Bean Sprout, 9/10

Course 2C: Squid + Bean Sprout, 9/10

Next, some squid and bean sprout with a white miso sauce. The bean sprouts add a wonderful crunch to the squid's soft textures- strong flavors of vinegar and cayenne, which go together surprisingly well. 9/10.

Course 2D: Mackerel + Garlic, 8/10

Course 2D: Mackerel + Garlic, 8/10

Another strong-flavored pairing: mackerel with sliced garlic. The mackerel is slightly oily and very fresh- there's some olive oil layered on there to really drive the oily point home. The strength of the flavors match but they don't harmonize as well as the last fish combination. Mouthfeel is oil-soaked. 8/10. 

Course 2E: "Blood Sausage," 8/10

Course 2E: "Blood Sausage," 8/10

Next, a clever little dish of "blood sausage" made of duck from Osaka. Very soft and rich, tastes exactly like blood sausage as the name suggests, with a rich egg-yolk sauce on top. Some heavy hitters in this plating group. 8/10. 

Course 2F: Focaccia Bread, 8/10

Course 2F: Focaccia Bread, 8/10

Some focaccia bread- heavy with oil and rosemary- is a delicious snack bite. 8/10.

Course 2G: Anchovies + Radish, 9/10

Course 2G: Anchovies + Radish, 9/10

Lastly, a deliberate copy of the pinxto style found in San Sebastián- sliced anchovies with a circle of radish. Strong flavors from both- the anchovies have that briny, ocean-fresh taste that matches up perfectly with the earthiness of the radishes. 9/10. 

Course 3: Literally The World's Best Salad, 10/10

Course 3: Literally The World's Best Salad, 10/10

Behold: this is the best salad in the world. I found it. 

Let me start by saying that this salad was good enough to change my mind on the entire genre of salad, writ large. We start with a lovely base of farm-fresh vegetables like potatoes, taro, turnips, Brussels sprouts, red peppers, flowers, snap peas, carrots, red and white onion, butternut squash, radicchio (purple stuff), frisée, red chard, spinach, and arugula. Then, we add some magic:

A piping hot Emmental cheese sauce is poured over, and it is the best thing ever. As she poured, the server explained that this salad is totally unique to chef and is one of their signature dishes. 10/10. Go to Kobe expressly for this salad. I'm not joking. 

Course 4: Kobe Veal, 9/10

Course 4: Kobe Veal, 9/10

I would have been pretty sad if I had to leave Kobe without some Kobe beef... And thankfully, the next course was Kobe veal with black truffle, polenta, and broccoli. The veal is soft and decadent as all get out, and the black truffle is actually a bit over the top- the protein would have done just fine on its own. Texture is pliable and easy, 9/10.

Course 5: Fish + Tomato + Rice Soup, 8/10

Course 5: Fish + Tomato + Rice Soup, 8/10

As we get to the wrap-up courses, a lovely bouillabaisse fish soup with rice and a fresh tomato base. Rich and smoky, with very fresh fish. 8/10. 

Course 6: Mousse of Orange + Beer, 9/10

Course 6: Mousse of Orange + Beer, 9/10

Dessert is a mousse of orange and smoke flavor, made with orange beer. A delightful and creative finish. 9/10.

Last sip: Coffee, 9/10

Last sip: Coffee, 9/10

A rich and gorgeous serving of coffee- a really nice break from the roasted oat tea that finishes most fine dining meals in Japan. 9/10. 

Japan- Taian- ✪✪✪

Right off one of the main shopping districts in Osaka is the smallish, strip-mall-restaurant feeling Taian. I'll say right off the bat that although I enjoyed my time here and thought this was a pretty good restaurant, I was very confused about what made this worthy of the elite 3-star ranking. The dishes made sense together, were well-prepared with fresh ingredients, but many parts of the experience were totally uninspiring. The chefs rotely went about their tasks without much talk or interaction, servers dropped things off but didn't say much, diners stared at their phones or carried on in loud conversations with each other... The place felt plain, casual, and utterly underwhelming. It's been a 3-star since 2010, too, so it's not like this is some simple error on Michelin's part. 

Taian Interior

Taian Interior

OSAKA, JAPAN

SERVICE: 5.0/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $127 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10

Opening Smorgasbord Plate

Opening Smorgasbord Plate

We begin with a grab bag plate of extremely different appetizers. Clockwise from upper left- a clear-broth soup served medium-hot, a bit thin but strong seafood flavors, 8/10.

Leafy greens with beans and vegetables, along with mushroom- every element is firm and delicious, 9/10. 

Karasumi egg roe, still totally Not My Favorite As A Thing In General. 5/10. 

Condensed seaweed with strong ginger flavors but so slimy and stringy that I can barely eat it. Also Not My Thing. 4/10. 

Japanese tofu with Uni and wasabi: I'm told to mix the two constituents together, and the result is a delicious and creamy texture like melted cream cheese. It has some slight heat from the wasabi; this dish is totally excellent. 9/10. 

Course 1: Miso + Mustard + Oyster Soup, 9/10

Course 1: Miso + Mustard + Oyster Soup, 9/10

This miso soup dish is served with oyster and extremely strong flavors of mustard, which heightens the dish considerably. The oyster is huge- it doesn't show up well on the photo, but it was the size of a man's wallet- and the richness of the soup offsets the lean zestiness of the shellfish perfectly. 9/10. 

Course 2: Blowfish, 7/10

Course 2: Blowfish, 7/10

Next out were two fairly delicious courses of sashimi- blowfish and squid. The blowfish isn't quite as good as Yamadaya- it's a neutral-tasting fish to start with, and even with strong soy there isn't much flavor here. 7/10.

Course 3: Squid, 8/10

Course 3: Squid, 8/10

The squid has that extremely pleasant firm-yet-yielding texture, with subtle flavor notes of tropical fruits like papaya and mango. 8/10. 

Course 4: Chicken, 9/10

Course 4: Chicken, 9/10

Next came the real high point of the meal, and in a visit to Japan that included almost 20 three-star restaurants, this was my only encounter with chicken. "Native" chicken was soft and tender; it came with some salt to taste, along with pretty slices of vegetables. The grilling is perfectly done. 9/10. 

Course 5: Blowfish liver, 8/10

Course 5: Blowfish liver, 8/10

Imagine the world's richest, creamiest chicken nugget. Then, add a bunch of salt and lemon to taste. Then, serve it nuclear-hot. You've more or less got the notion behind this blowfish liver, which was deep fried and served solo. Fried foie gras of the deep, with a neat take on the presentation. 8/10.

Course 6: Crab Soup, 7/10

Course 6: Crab Soup, 7/10

Next, some crab soup with ginger and some lily bulbs thrown in for texture. Hot, and flavors that most resembled a fancy sweet and sour soup broth. A simple dish, but tasty. 7/10.

Course 7: Rice + Blowfish, 7/10

Course 7: Rice + Blowfish, 7/10

As we get to the never-ending dish, rice with blowfish along with some chives that really stand out. A pretty and filling dish, but once again there wasn't a ton going on here worth noting. 7/10. 

Course 8: Soup. 6/10

Course 8: Soup. 6/10

Next, another simple soup with some clear, crunchy vegetables for texture. I hate to sound like a dick, but I could have probably made this with a few minutes' instruction. 6/10.

Course 9: Stawberry + Black Bean + White Bean Jelly Dessert, 7/10

Course 9: Stawberry + Black Bean + White Bean Jelly Dessert, 7/10

Lastly, dessert served in a wine glass- strawberry with black bean, white bean, and a sugary jelly. A semi-satisfying end to the meal, but I must admit that the whole experience here left me wanting a bit. 7/10.

Japan- Koryu- ✪✪✪

On an unassuming street corner near central Osaka is the tiny, beautiful, friendly restaurant of Koryu. Shintaro Matsuo, the chef and owner, tweaks each dish to bring out the best in its flavors, and his staff are gracious, kind, and fun. The chefs, servers, and every other member of staff were happy and engaged; they made this a really memorable experience. This was, hands down, one of my favorite experiences in Japan. 

Koryu Building

Koryu Building

Koryu Main Entrance

Koryu Main Entrance

OSAKA, JAPAN

SERVICE: 9.5/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $160 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 9.0/10

We were greeted politely- you might even say effusively- at the red-linen-draped entrance. We were welcomed into the small but gorgeous space by everyone in the kitchen and on the small serving staff. 

Koryu Interior

Koryu Interior

Koryu's interior was set up almost like a stage- a long projecting table broke up the space while still acting as a direct connection to the kitchen. 

Koryu Kitchen

Koryu Kitchen

Unsurprisingly, every surface shone with good care, and the patterns and colors worked together flawlessly. A gorgeous jewel of a restaurant. 

First Bites: Bear + Daikon  + Yuzu, 8/10

First Bites: Bear + Daikon  + Yuzu, 8/10

So here's an experience I had previously never had before- BEAR. White miso soup with daikon, yuzu, and, I'd like to say again, BEAR. When I asked our server to confirm the source of the protein, he raised his hand like a claw, and, with a hilariously neutral expression, said, "Rawr." Brilliant. The meat itself is oily and a touch rubbery, but good. 8/10.

Course 1: Roe + Japanese Vegetables + Tofu Sauce, 6/10

Course 1: Roe + Japanese Vegetables + Tofu Sauce, 6/10

Next, a tofu sauce with Japanese vegetable and karasumi (compressed roe). The textures seemed to work together, but the flavors were really and truly Not My Speed. 6/10.

Course 2: Smorgasbord!

Course 2: Smorgasbord!

Ah, here comes the smorgasbord plate. An enormous carrying dish with several small sub-plates- clockwise from bottom left- soy sauce, flounder, octopus, mackerel, tuna, egg yolk soy sauce, ocean water, sake. I'll dive into each one in turn. 

Course 2D: Flounder + Tiger Prawn, 9/10

Course 2D: Flounder + Tiger Prawn, 9/10

Brightly-colored tiger prawn accentuated the (relatively) tame flavor and texture of the flounder fish, which was well-cooked and extremely fresh. 9/10.

Course 2A: Octopus + Broccoli, 

Course 2A: Octopus + Broccoli, 

Octopus is delicious, crunchy, and its so fresh that the individual suckers are as firm as plastic. Served alongside crispy-fresh broccolini. 9/10.

Course 2B: Mackerel + Plum Sauce, 9/10

Course 2B: Mackerel + Plum Sauce, 9/10

The mackerel is served with a nice bright plum sauce, which adds a nice touch of sweetness and gives the dish some depth. 8/10. 

Course 2C: Otoro + Egg Yolk, 10/10

Course 2C: Otoro + Egg Yolk, 10/10

As I mentioned at the top, the chef's specialty seems to be coaxing the strongest performance out of each dish- and what a brilliant idea: pair a rich yellow egg yolk "soy sauce" with Otoro (fatty tuna). The result is a quasi-religious experience where the richness of the two somehow combines in a way that enhances the tuna further without becoming overwhelming. 10/10.

Course 3: Pufferfish Liver, 7/10

Course 3: Pufferfish Liver, 7/10

Next, some cooked pufferfish liver on a gorgeous ceramic plate. I can only liken the flavor to a foie gras of the ocean. The texture is a touch on the greasy side. 7/10.

Course 4: Shiitake + Vegetables, 8/10

Course 4: Shiitake + Vegetables, 8/10

Next, some shiitake mushroom with Hukinoto (butterbur), all fried in tempura. There are some assorted Japanese vegetables, and eel which is both sweet and salty. The mushroom is awesome- its has been perfectly fried to accentuate the amazing texture. 8/10.

Course 5: Crab + Yellowtail, 7/10

Course 5: Crab + Yellowtail, 7/10

Next, a beautiful dish of crab and buri (yellowtail) in a crab sauce. Here is one of the few places I can level a legitimate criticism of the preparation- the temperature on the dish is too low when it reaches us because they waited too long to serve. The sauce has brilliant peanut butter flavors, and the vegetabes are crispy-fresh. 7/10.

Course 6: Sea Cucumber, 6/10

Course 6: Sea Cucumber, 6/10

Another case where my Western palate is a bit lost- sea cucumber, spicy and served in an icy-cold soup, with dill and assorted herbs. I would describe this dish as somewhat hairy and stringy, and thence not my fave. 6/10.

Course 7: Miyazaki Beef, 8/10

Course 7: Miyazaki Beef, 8/10

This next dish of Miyazaki beef was totally amazing- the flavors were salty-rich and totally out of this world- but once again the server waited a touch too long to serve, so it landed a bit cold, 8/10.

Course 8: Congee + Tea + Radish, 7/10

Course 8: Congee + Tea + Radish, 7/10

As we got into the wrap-up dishes, a really fun take on congee with Japanese tea and radish. The congee is satisfying and delicious, the tea has that roasted oats/honey nut Cheerios flavor. As the chef is walking our palates down from the rich heights, this dish makes perfect sense. 7/10.

Course 9: Strawberry + Kumquat + Lily Bulb Mochi, 9/10

Course 9: Strawberry + Kumquat + Lily Bulb Mochi, 9/10

For finishers, a small and understated dessert of strawberry, kumquat, and lily bulb mochi. The lily bulb has a neutral flavor which emphasizes the sweetness of the citrus and the berry- 9/10.

 A final note on service- we accidentally left something behind in the restaurant, and as we walked out into the cool early-Spring night we heard running footsteps of one of our servers chasing after us, holding said item aloft. A touching gesture of care. This place is truly one of a kind.

Japan- Ishikawa- ✪✪✪

Tucked away near a Bushido temple in Shinjuku, tiny Ishikawa has an understated exterior shielding one of the world's friendlist and most interesting three-stars. Hideki Ishikawa is featured in Lutz Hachmeister's food documentary Three Stars (worth a watch, by the way) and describes in detail the hard work he invests to create not just a special experience for his guests, but a fantastic place to work for his staff as well. This was an excellent experience worthy of another visit- exceptional service, stellar food with incredibly fresh ingredients, and delightfully creative presentations.

Ishikawa Main Entrance

Ishikawa Main Entrance

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $176 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

Ishikawa Main Hallway

Ishikawa Main Hallway

Ishikawa Interior

Ishikawa Interior

Upon entering, the scented air immediately fills the space around you- it is heavy with rice, cooked fish, and spices- in a completely welcome and homey kind of way. Not nearly as formal, aseptic, and strict as most of the other Kaiseki restaurants I have visited on this trip. 

Ishikawa Chef's Table

Ishikawa Chef's Table

I'm given a chair at the very small (7-seat) counter next to two nice couples. The space is clean, subtly lit, easy on the eyes. I'm immediately comfortable. 

First Bites: Blowfish + Radish Sauce, 9/10

First Bites: Blowfish + Radish Sauce, 9/10

First out is a delightful cold dish of blowfish tossed with Japanese herbs and a white radish sauce. Great textures and very, very fresh. Radish sauce is fruity, almost citrusy. 9/10.

Course 1: Turtle, 8/10

Course 1: Turtle, 8/10

This is my first experience with turtle of any kind, and it has a chewy, soft, mushroom-like texture. Two large chunks are served hot, and they're meant to be eaten in two big bites with kelp salt to taste. 8/10. 

Course 2: Scallop Dumpling Soup, 8/10

Course 2: Scallop Dumpling Soup, 8/10

Next, a clear-broth soup with scallop dumpling, bamboo shoots, and seaweed. The small green garnish on the dumpling is a Japanese Pepper bud. The bamboo tastes rich, almost smoky, and the seaweed is super fresh- feels like it was hauled off a boat that morning. 8/10.

Course 3A: Sea Bream + Sea Urchin Sashimi, 9/10

Course 3A: Sea Bream + Sea Urchin Sashimi, 9/10

3-Michelin Star sashimi courses rarely disappoint; this is no exception. Sea urchin as soft as ice cream, sea bream as bright and zingy-crispy-fresh as I've ever experienced. The texture is also soft and smooth- a very easy-to-down course. 9/10.

Course 3B: Lightly Seared Squid Sashimi, 9/10

Course 3B: Lightly Seared Squid Sashimi, 9/10

Next, a few elegant bites of squid with ginger. Lightly seared and warm. The increased temperature is a nice break from the sea bream and the urchin, but the squid is seared in such a way that it doesn't lose its outstanding texture. 9/10.

Course 4: Conger Eel, 9/10

Course 4: Conger Eel, 9/10

Next, some conger eel- pleasant and soft, perfectly cooked texture. This is normally a subtly-flavored fish, but the crispy presentation and the cooking oil bring out some delightful flavor. 9/10.

Course 5: Snow Crab + Turnip, 8/10

Course 5: Snow Crab + Turnip, 8/10

A delightful plate of snow crab; soft, with an almost sinewy texture. The turnip brings out stunningly bright flavors in the crab, which is served cold. The title of this dish was "Delicacy," and I couldn't agree more. 9/10.

Course 6: Duck Hot Pot, 10/10

Course 6: Duck Hot Pot, 10/10

Hot pot courses are super fun at Kaiseki restaurants, and this one was no exception. Super-fatty duck is served alongside some vegetables; the slick mouthfeel of the duck pairs perfectly with the lean, crisp vegetables and the tasty broth. One of my favorite courses of all time. 10/10.

Course 7: Steamed Rice + Perch, 8/10

Course 7: Steamed Rice + Perch, 8/10

As most Kaiseki restaurants do, Ishikawa offers a "bottomless" course that usually involves rice and a light protein. In this case, steamed rice and perch are served alongside some pickled vegetables, and will be refilled on demand until you're full. I like the idea that good restaurants don't want you to leave hungry. One round was all I needed, and the flavors were light and delicious- if anything, a touch on the bland side. 8/10. 

Course 8: Soybean Mousse, 9/10

Course 8: Soybean Mousse, 9/10

For dessert, a mousse of soybean in a soybean soup. I can very safely say I have never had anything remotely like this dish- the soybean mousse is almost chocolatey- and this is a perfect cool-down dish. A great finish to a great meal. 9/10. 

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- Kohaku- ✪✪✪

Right down the street from Ishikawa (the restaurant that actually owns this one), is Koji Koizumi's more informal (but just as excellent) kappo-kaiseki style eatery, Kohaku. Though a touch more experimental and informal than Hideki Ishikawa's place, both the interior look and feel as well as the ingredients and dishes felt extremely familiar. I will say that going to both restaurants within two days of each other was probably an error on my part. 

Kohaku Dining Counter

Kohaku Dining Counter

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $158 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

Over the course of my two-week trip, I encountered English-language skills that were all over the map; rather unfortunately, I'd have to place Kohaku in the bottom quintile overall. Not a single person could do much more than read the Google-translated menu they printed out for me (which is fine- I'm the traveller visiting another country, it should be on me to learn the language rather than force them to speak mine). I will admit, though, that this made the meal a touch more isolating than usual.

Service was extremely attentive- like many counter-style restaurants, the chefs and cooks were also the servers, table-bussers, water-pourers, etc. This leads to a very efficient and busy counterfront, but the downside is that when they were approaching their peak demand from the private dining rooms, they were often too busy to attend to things like tea, water, clearing, etc. Understandable, but my meal slowed way, way down around the middle of the menu to a glacial pace. 

Course 1: Turnip + Shiitake + Turtle, 9/10

Course 1: Turnip + Shiitake + Turtle, 9/10

First out, a delightful dish of Shogoin turnip that has almost cigar-y/tobacco-y notes (I'm not a smoker, but it was damn good). The mushrooms were perfect- there's a firm but oily protein that turns out to be turtle. 9/10.

Course 2: Leek + Burdock + Truffle, 8/10

Course 2: Leek + Burdock + Truffle, 8/10

A beautiful dish- the burdock root is very firm; almost potato-like. I will say that though it adds a lot visually, the truffle doesn't bring a ton of flavor- it feels a little too dry, like it has been in storage too long. 8/10.

Course 3: Pufferfish + Sticky Rice, 7/10

Course 3: Pufferfish + Sticky Rice, 7/10

I will admit that they even describe this dish as "Just Fired" on the menu, but this pufferfish liver was Uncomfortably Hot as Fuck. Like many other pufferfish livers I tried, it can best be described as a sea-salty, ocean version of foie gras- very rich, and very dense. 8/10. 

Course 4: Conger Eel Dumpling Soup, 8/10

Course 4: Conger Eel Dumpling Soup, 8/10

A lighter, extremely refreshing soup after the heavy liver- the eel dumpling is light and sweet, and the broth is almost sugary. A thoughtful next step. 8/10.

Course 5: Smoked Mackerel + Jelly, 9/10

Course 5: Smoked Mackerel + Jelly, 9/10

More consistently than most Japanese 3-stars, Kohaku really nailed their seafood presentations. This mackerel practically melted when touched with a utensil. The sauce was close to perfect, and the shaved veggies added a crunchy texture. 9/10.

Course 6: Snapper + Tofu, 10/10

Course 6: Snapper + Tofu, 10/10

I must once again say that, as far as preparation goes, this snapper is absurdly well-made; it just falls apart. Nice, bright flavors and the addition of tofu and wasabi goes a long way without overcomplicating the dish. 10/10.

Course 7: Perch + Eggplant, 9/10

Course 7: Perch + Eggplant, 9/10

Another interesting changeup- this dish is served quite cold, a nice break from the heat/spice of the previous dish. The eggplant itself has deep, smoky flavors. Which pairs nicely with the perch- notes of apple, smoke, salt; a really deep and balanced dish. 9/10.

Course 8: Bear + Bamboo Shoot Soup, 6/10

Course 8: Bear + Bamboo Shoot Soup, 6/10

This was the only spot in the meal where the chef lost me a bit (but only just a bit). Bear isn't something I'm accustomed to, but especially after all the lean/light seafood, a big, heavy, oily cut from a bear leg wasn't exactly a welcome diversion. The veggies are crunchy and squeaky. but the bear is fatty, greasy, and gamey. The bamboo shoot is cut a bit too large and it's a huge challenge to bite into. Just like at Koryu, I have learned that bear is not my favorite. 6/10.

Course 9A: Steamed Rice + Yellowtail, 7/10

Course 9A: Steamed Rice + Yellowtail, 7/10

Course 9B: Pickled Vegetables + Miso, 7./10

Course 9B: Pickled Vegetables + Miso, 7./10

As we get around to the final hunger-eliminator course, I must say that the rice and yellowtail fish are rich and filling but a touch dry, the miso overly seaweedy. 7/10.

Roasted Oat Tea, 8/10

Roasted Oat Tea, 8/10

As a nice wind-down to the meal, a cup of roasted-oat tea, which like always is pretty good and tastes a lot like Honey Smacks. 8/10.

Course 10: Strawberry Sherbet + Cream, 8/10

Course 10: Strawberry Sherbet + Cream, 8/10

A lovely, if small, dessert of fresh strawberries (in season at the time) with cream and crunchy fried tofu skin. A pleasant if non-spectacular conclusion to a really excellent meal. 8/10.

Last Sip: Green Tea, 8/10

Last Sip: Green Tea, 8/10

And, last but not least, a bottomless ceramic cup of green tea to warm me up before heading back out into the late-winter air. 8/10.

Japan- Komago- ✪✪✪

Komago is tucked in the lush, effectively gated community on top of a hill right between Osaka and Kobe called Koyoen. I had to kill a few minutes in a grocery store/coffee shop nearby that beats the living hell out of any Whole Foods back home, and had the chance to walk around a bit- something I highly recommend. A few quiet steps from the Koyoen train station is Komago, an older building that used to be a tea ceremony house. 

While the setting was gorgeous, the interior, service, and most of the dishes made almost no sense. Employees wandered around in oddly clueless fashion, and English skills were basically non-existent. Please avoid. 

Komago Main Entrance

Komago Main Entrance

KOBE, JAPAN

SERVICE: 5.5/10

FOOD: 4.5/10

PRICE PAID: $220 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 5.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 5.0/10

As is the tradition right before dinner service, the gorgeous ancient cobble-stoned entranceway was freshly washed, and, unlike other establishments that have asked us to remove our shoes, we are shown right into a rather sterile room without much decor looking out at a lovely small garden. We are seated on chairs with plain, flat tables that felt more dentist-waiting-room than 3-Michelin-Star restaurant. Odd.

Komago Dining Room

Komago Dining Room

Komago Garden

Komago Garden

First Sip: Tea + Seaweed, 8/10

First Sip: Tea + Seaweed, 8/10

Almost immediately, one of several traditional-dress-decked-out ladies comes by with a welcome tea- very salty and Ocean-y but refreshing; small flecks of seaweed visible throughout. 8/10

Course 1: Tofu + Broccoli, 6/10

Course 1: Tofu + Broccoli, 6/10

Next up, the big black plate that will serve as my base of operations for dinner along with a small and attractive-looking portion of fish/ginger tofu with cooked broccoli arrive. Very strong ginger flavors in the broth, and the overall texture is exceedingly soft; on the verge of slimy. Not bad, but not really my speed. 6/10.

Course 2: Shrimp Dumpling Soup, 9/10

Course 2: Shrimp Dumpling Soup, 9/10

Next, an excellent soup with bright pink crab dumplings, starchy vegetables, greens, lemon peel, and a clear broth. The crab is super fresh, and the soup is piping hot. Subtly different; I really like the dumpling and the nice colorful touch the lemon peel adds. 9/10.

Course 3: Crab, 5/10

Course 3: Crab, 5/10

While trying not to sound like a culturally imperialist asshole, I have to say that this crab dish looks indistinguishable from a pile of either crab guts or just plain crab shit. It took me a moment to get over the appearance, and found that the flavors overall were Not Bad, but quite earthy. 5/10.

Course 4: Sashimi, 7/10

Course 4: Sashimi, 7/10

Had some high hopes here- this tends to be the dish where 3-star Kaiseki restaurants shine; the sashimi. Grilled tuna is a nice touch, the squid has that soft but yielding texture that I’ve come to really appreciate, but it is about as good as everyone else's in the region. Maybe slightly less good. 7/10.

Course 5: Anago Eel, 6/10

Course 5: Anago Eel, 6/10

Anago. I really enjoyed the balled-up presentation, but honestly the eel is a bit dry and overcooked, which throws off the textural interplay with the rice. 6/10.

Course 6: Duck + Fish, 5/10

Course 6: Duck + Fish, 5/10

This next course was a disappointment. The duck is dry, cold. and a touch gamey- the taste was a little like horses smell. The entire-cooked anchovy stares back at me, and even on making a good-faith attempt to break the fish open, I’m faced with a razor-sharp line of fish bones that I dare not get too close to- and even after exercising caution, coughed up a tiny, hairlike, almost-transparent bone several hours later that felt a little like coughing up a tiny iron nail. Western visitors, unless you know what you’re doing, tread lightly here. The tied-in-a-knot fruit shape tastes like a subtle and pleasant fruit roll-up, which gives some diversity of flavors to the plate. Egg cube and fresh, wet greens diversify further. Have to be honest, I don’t always understand some of these textures, and the small flower-shaped marshmallow is neither sweet nor particularly pleasant to eat. 5/10.

Course 7: Cooked Fish, 4/10

Course 7: Cooked Fish, 4/10

This can safely be called the main dish- cooked fish- served almost blackened in oil. I must say that one part is tender and awesome, one part is overcooked, dry, and almost too tough to put my utensils through, which is both a surprise and a big disappointment. 4/10.

Course 8: Sea Urchin, 7/10

Course 8: Sea Urchin, 7/10

Uni (Sea Urchin). All extremely soft textures that work well together. A nice recovery from the previous course but it’s not a deeply moving dish. 7/10.

Course 9: Shrimp + Mushroom Soup, 7/10

Course 9: Shrimp + Mushroom Soup, 7/10

Arriving in a dumpling-like shape with a clear yellow/lemony broth, this quickly turns into shrimp/mushroom/rice mush. It’s pleasant and warm and filling, but it’s nothing that special. 7/10.

Course 10: Clam + Rice, 8/10

Course 10: Clam + Rice, 8/10

What, in Kaiseki, must surely have a name like the “are you full yet” course, an enormous ceramic pot full of rice and clams are brought the table, and I am served until, effectively, I say Uncle. The clams are fresh and delightful, and I like the idea that Kaiseki restaurants never want you to leave hungry. 8/10. 

Course 11: Fruit Gelatin, 7/10

Course 11: Fruit Gelatin, 7/10

The first dessert is a lovely, understated presentation of strawberry, gelatin, orange, and mango. Not bad, though the orange is quite bitter (perhaps intentional?) 7/10.

Course 12: No Idea, 4/10

Course 12: No Idea, 4/10

Still no clue.

Still no clue.

I have honestly no idea what is happening here, but it’s not particularly sweet nor delicious. 4/10. When I asked for more information, I was told that it was "dessert." Charmingly terse. 

Last sip: Matcha, 8/10

Last sip: Matcha, 8/10

Matcha. Exactly the same as every other cup of matcha I’ve had on this trip- strongly similar to a wheatgrass smoothie. 8/10.

Japan- Usuki Fugu Yamadaya- ✪✪✪

Certainly the restaurant I was most intimidated to visit, Yamadaya is the only 3-star restaurant in the world that exclusively focuses on the poisonous pufferfish, a renowned delicacy in Japan where almost 100,000 pounds a year are consumed. Several dozen people per year are poisoned, so overall not as risky as, say, high-speed motorcycling.

In Tokyo, fugu chefs must undergo multi-year apprenticeships and gain a license in preparing the extremely difficult fish- there isn't a ton of meat, and you have to cut carefully to avoid the poison glands/organs/etc. The final exam is: you eat what you prepare. High stakes stuff.

Usuki Fugu Yamadaya Chef's Counter

Usuki Fugu Yamadaya Chef's Counter

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $265 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

Usuki Fugu Yamadaya Exterior

Usuki Fugu Yamadaya Exterior

Usuki Fugu Yamadaya Main Entrance

Usuki Fugu Yamadaya Main Entrance

Google Maps brought me more or less to the right spot; up a hill off a quiet street, and the building immediately drops into a wide, attractive basement terrace. Usuki Fugu Yamadaya is to the left, and as I walk up a full 15 minutes early an immaculately-dressed woman emerges to usher me inside. She asks my name, but I get the feeling she already knew who I was. 

We walked down a short corridor with gorgeous blond wood and conservative decor, jackets removed, and then seated at a small chef's-table style counter with (just like Kichisen) only 5 seats. My dining partner and I are seated all the way to the right from our perspective (Chef's left). He is already hard at work preparing sashimi plates for the two large private rooms towards the back of the restaurant- we can occasionally hear uproarious laughter- and stays focused and friendly throughout the meal. A beautiful menu, in near-perfect English, is presented so we can follow along with our progress. A super nice touch, and remarkably rare during this trip.

First Bites: A Small Smorgasbord, 8/10

First Bites: A Small Smorgasbord, 8/10

To begin, the chef hands us over the transom a gorgeous ceramic dish with four separate compartments- he goes the extra step of spraying a gentle mist of water before serving. 

From upper left clockwise- Spinach rolled in a thin slice of deep-fried tofu, simmered soybean, and Red Konjac with vinegar bean paste. Firm texture and almost crunchy; delightful.

Next, scallop, carrot with sesame sauce, and dressed dropwort. A bit bland, but a great mixture of textures and flavors- I really liked the carrot's color. Some interesting peanut flavors in the dropwort.

The tuna is pretty to look at, and judging from the color is quite lean- texture is firm and perfect, with a sauce of canola flower and wasabi with nori sauce that doesn't add much. The tuna would have been slightly better on its own. 

Lastly, crab- with wasabi stem, grated radish, and apple vinegar. Has a soft, fruit infused, light flavor, very attractive. 8/10 overall.

Course 1: Simmered Cabbage Soup, 5/10

Course 1: Simmered Cabbage Soup, 5/10

Next, Simmered cabbage soup with chicken and seven-flavor chili pepper oil- the chicken is a touch dry, which actually kind of ruins it, even though the broth is excellent and rich. 5/10.

Course 2: Fugu Sashimi, 9/10

Course 2: Fugu Sashimi, 9/10

Next, we get into the main event- fugu sashimi, laid out out in a chrysanthemum shape that in Japanese culture symbolizes death. The flavor is light, almost chicken-like, and the thin translucent cuts have a firm, rubbery-in-a-good-way texture. Adding the green shoots and monkfish liver adds a lot of flavor, along with the ponzu vinegar sauce. 9/10.

Course 3: Grilled Fugu, 6/10

Course 3: Grilled Fugu, 6/10

So, grilled fugu turns out to be kind of an unremarkable white fish. Firm and flaky but not very flavorful; texture is kind of unremarkable. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be appreciating at this stage. 6/10. 

Course 4: Deep-Fried Fugu, 8/10

Course 4: Deep-Fried Fugu, 8/10

Next, deep fried fugu- tastes just like fried chicken and a fish/chips flavor combo, which is certainly delicious. It's interesting that we're exploring every possible preparation of one particular fish, but I'm getting over the flavor profile by this point. 8/10. 

Course 5: The Hotpot

Course 5: The Hotpot

Course 5: Hotpot Fish

Course 5: Hotpot Fish

Next, out trots an enormous hot pot onto the chef's portion of the table- painstakingly assembled with long chopsticks right before us. 

Course 5: Hotpot Vegetables

Course 5: Hotpot Vegetables

Course 5: Hotpot Sauce

Course 5: Hotpot Sauce

Course 5: Fugu Hot Pot, 8/10

Course 5: Fugu Hot Pot, 8/10

Course 5: Wrapped-up Veggies

Course 5: Wrapped-up Veggies

Beautifully presented, this dish is another high point that (once again, for those of us who are not fugu enthusiasts) is yet another angle on a by-now familiar idea. 8/10. Check out the extraordinarily detailed presentation work that went into each component of this dish- hand-tied vegetable...! 

Course 6: Fugu Rice Porridge, 9/10

Course 6: Fugu Rice Porridge, 9/10

Condensed Fugu! 

Condensed Fugu! 

With Japanese pickles and congealed rice broth, this fugu rice porridge had flavors much like an egg drop soup. On the side, we got several cubes of condensed Fugu essence with the pickles and veggies. Intensely savory flavors! 9/10.

Course 7: Warabimochi dessert, 6/10

Course 7: Warabimochi dessert, 6/10

Dessert... Truly wasn't my speed. Warabimochi, a floury and almost sandy-textured dish, was unattractive to my coarse Western palate. Very slightly sweet, like the responsible, low-sugar cereal your mom used to force you to default to, and exceptionally dry. 6/10.

Last Sip: Green Tea, 8/10

Last Sip: Green Tea, 8/10

At last, the never-empty cup of green tea. As good as all the rest, which is to say quite good. 8/10. 

Japan- Fujiya 1935- ✪✪✪

A vaguely Spanish-inspired restaurant in Osaka, Tetsuya Fujiwara's restaurant is outstanding for its interior decor and the creativity of its dishes.

Tetsuya Fujiwara comes from a long line of high-end chefs (he's fourth-generation, actually) and was classically trained in French cuisine and pastry in Japan. He got a stage at a Spanish restaurant called L'Esguard, which is run by a chef who is a neurosurgeon by day, chef by night. No, really

Fujiya 1935 Main Entrance

Fujiya 1935 Main Entrance

OSAKA, JAPAN

SERVICE: 6.0/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $138 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

Fujiya Waiting Room

Fujiya Waiting Room

Fujiya 1935's strong suit, almost certainly, is their interior decor. With a very refined, high-end hotel lobby look- blond, multi-hued wood sanded down to the smoothness of plastic, tiny understated candles, dramatic lighting- you get the feeling that the food might be an afterthought. An enormous log hulks in the corner for no apparent reason. 

This restaurant could belong equally in Osaka, Tokyo, Singapore, San Francisco, London... I'll leave it to you whether that's a good thing or not, but I was impressed. 

Place Setting

Place Setting

Serving Plate

Serving Plate

Some of the softest, most relaxing wood surfaces, easiest-to-hold cups, and beautifully measured space I've ever encountered- seriously high marks.

First Bites: "Air-Bubble Bread," 9/10

First Bites: "Air-Bubble Bread," 9/10

Inside the Air Bubble

Inside the Air Bubble

First out, an impressively-presented dish of black soybean bread served inside a hot stone, with cream cheese to the side. The bread is light and airy (it was baked in a manner than encourages the formation of air bubbles, we are told), which juxtaposes well against the heavy cream cheese. Four sweet black bean "seeds" are at the "root" of the bread, which is an interesting message. 9/10.

Course 1: Yellowtail + Turnip, 8/10

Course 1: Yellowtail + Turnip, 8/10

Check out the mother-of-pearl dish this next course was served upon- a gorgeous way to emphasize the somewhat muted colors of the kan-buri fish (yellowtail), traditional Kyoto vegetables, and turnip. There's also a base of sea salt, in case the just-from-the-ocean idea wasn't hitting you yet. 

The fish is soft and supple; warm mashed potato flavors are hearty and delicious. The turnip has the crunchy texture of an apple but almost no flavor. Interesting. 8/10.

Course 2: Fugu Roe + Burdock + Black Truffle, 9/10

Course 2: Fugu Roe + Burdock + Black Truffle, 9/10

Another clever dish- fugu roe with black truffle. Amazingly crunchy, and the truffle flavors really stand out. 9/10.

Rosemary Bread: 8/10

Rosemary Bread: 8/10

Butter + Lard: 8/10

Butter + Lard: 8/10

Beautiful spherical loaves of rosemary bread with a side box-full of butter and lard. Yes, lard; white with shaved green onions, and the texture of Crisco- it's way over-the-top decadent and delicious on the super-hot bread. Rosemary flavors punch through nicely. The sesame cream with soy milk (on the right) is delicious. I would describe this setup as delicious but just a goddam touch on the rich side. 8/10.

Course 3: Sea Urchin + Squid Ink Sauce + Linguine, 8/10

Course 3: Sea Urchin + Squid Ink Sauce + Linguine, 8/10

Linguine with Uni (Sea Urchin), squid ink sauce, and salted egg. The uni itself almost tastes like rich egg yolk, and the squid ink turns the pasta black as the dish is consumed, which is a super cool effect. 8/10.

Course 4: Spanish Pork + Asian Broccoli, 8/10

Course 4: Spanish Pork + Asian Broccoli, 8/10

A server gingerly adds sauce a spoonful at a time (check out the video) to this main dish of pork from Basque country with Asian broccoli and leek sauce from Kyoto. Hearty, big, extremely satisfying. Had to cut off excessive pork fat though. 8/10.

Course 5: Lily Root Ice Cream + Apple, 8/10

Course 5: Lily Root Ice Cream + Apple, 8/10

The first dessert- a somewhat crumpled-looking baked apple, lily roots, pine nuts, and gelato. A mixture of soft, crunchy, and creamy textures that really helps bring together the apple flavors- like a deconstructed apple pie. 8/10.

Course 6: Espresso, 8/10

Course 6: Espresso, 8/10

The espresso is rich and delicious, but nothing terribly different from, say, a really good Peet's Coffee product. 8/10.

Course 7: Snowman Dessert, 10/10

Course 7: Snowman Dessert, 10/10

Tokushima, Japan

Tokushima, Japan

All I can say about this last dessert is that it automatically gets 10 points for creativity, almost regardless of how it tastes. A panorama of a snowbank with an actual snowman is made of strawberries from Tokushima, Japan, an area known for producing amazingly fresh fruit. There was a huge amount of meringue and even more sugar; I can safely say that this dish brought joy. 10/10. 

Japan- Sukiyabashi Jiro Ginza- ✪✪✪

Made absurdly famous by the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Sukiyabashi Jiro Ginza is arguably one of the best-known Three-Stars in existence. The film, touching and artfully created, tells the story of a father (Jiro Ono), and his sons (primarily Yoshikazu Ono, the eldest who will one day fully take over this father's enterprise), and the lifetime of difficult work they've invested in creating a culinary temple. To be kind, I would say that my experience here did not fully live up to the ideals described in the film. 

Sushi Jiro Main Entrance

Sushi Jiro Main Entrance

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 2/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $275 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 3.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 4.0/10

To start, a few logistical issues really got in the way of a smooth meal. My reservation was confirmed by my hotel for February 4th at 12:00 noon. For some reason, whether the concierge's mistake or the restaurant's, they had me on the books for the following day, February 5th. I explained that I didn't have plans on the 5th, so I was happy to come back, but the junior staff member told me: "my boss says you can eat now if you like." In an attempt to be accommodating that apparently didn't come across the way I wanted, I offered to come back tomorrow if that made things easier for them. The gruff response I got: "Either eat today or eat tomorrow." I agreed to eat today. 

Jiro exterior- a very humble underground office/restaurant area near the subway

Jiro exterior- a very humble underground office/restaurant area near the subway

The whole meal felt a bit like sitting down to dinner with one of your parents angry at you for leaving your new bike out in the rain. Yoshikazu, taking the lead in Jiro Ono's absence, made no attempts to greet me or be polite in any way. Within thirty seconds of sitting, he was thrusting pieces of sushi onto my plate. In Edo-style sushi, there is a decidedly rushed tone- the art arose at seaside stands where buyers would quickly eat a few bites of fish with a brush of sauce, wipe their hands on a nearby curtain, and then vanish- but even by those brusque standards this was an unfriendly meal. Judging by the experiences of my Japanese neighbors- with whom he made eye contact, asked questions, asked for feedback, etc. - his attitude towards me was extremely cold. 

Course 1: Hirame, 9/10

Course 1: Hirame, 9/10

First, a delightful slice of flounder (Hirame) served just above room-temperature on a bed of rice, with a dab of wasabi. Hirame is seasonal from November-March in Japan, and is known as the “king of the Winter Whitefish,” alongside sea bream. With a soft, delicate flavor, this is an excellent starter as it helps ease into the experience with mild flavors and soft texture. 9/10.

Course 2: Sumi-Ika, 9/10

Course 2: Sumi-Ika, 9/10

Next, Sumi-Ika, also called golden cuttlefish, a type of squid. Like most squid I enjoyed during my trip, this is firm and with an extremely pleasant taste, slightly stronger than the Hirame. Cuttlefish are enjoyable mostly for their texture- very firm initially but then quite yielding as you bite down- and this was an outstanding example. 9/10.

Course 4: Inada, 8/10

Course 4: Inada, 8/10

Inada (Juvenile Yellowtail Tuna) followed. This course is meant to introduce strong colors, and the flavors are clean and bright. 8/10.

Course 5: Akami, 9/10

Course 5: Akami, 9/10

Next, Akami tuna (lean bluefin) is the lean version of Maguro. When Edo-style sushi originated hundreds of years ago, there wasn’t any refrigeration, so the fattier chunks of tuna had to either be thrown away or preserved in soy sauce in a process called zuke. Jiro prepares his Akamai in a similar way- a soy marinade- that contrast’s the fish’s acidity against the savory and salty soy sauce perfectly. Good bluefin tuna is what Edo style sushi is all about. 9/10.

Course 6: Chu-Toro, 9/10

Course 6: Chu-Toro, 9/10

Then, Chu-Toro (Medium-Fatty Tuna) was plated in front of me. Strong umami flavors. 9/10

Course 7: Otoro, 10/10

Course 7: Otoro, 10/10

Then, in what (in my mind, at least) is the crown jewel of Japanese sushi, the Otoro (fatty tuna) was served. Jiro’s best tuna comes from a Tsujiki market dealer named Fujita, who is known for his preference of excellent marbling as well as good fragrance in his fish. Most of their tuna comes from a fisher called Oma; basically the Mercedes-Benz of tuna fisheries in Japan. Even from the best fishery, Jiro claims that only 1 in 100 tuna fish meet his and Fujita’s exacting standards. Truthfully, this had an excellent aroma much stronger than the other otoro I had consumed during my trip, so I am inclined to agree that his high standards have a payoff. 10/10.

Course 8: Gizzard Shad, 

Course 8: Gizzard Shad, 

Next, Kohada (gizzard shad), which is well-known for being difficult to prepare. Normally, the fish is marinated for a very specific amount of time in vinegar to bring out its best flavor, but the problem is that if you marinade too long the flavor becomes oily. There’s only a small window when the flavors aren’t under-emphasized and are not yet oily that the sushi chef must time perfectly. Jiro is known for his unique preparation style for this fish as well- the slightly twisting style is meant to imitate the feminine sitting position. 9/10

Right around the mackerel course, for no reason I could ascertain, the chef announced "No photo." Not sure why he felt that way, since everyone around me was still taking them, and from the blogosphere it's quite clear that taking photos have been okay in the past, but I didn't feel like arguing with this asshole. They generously let me keep a copy of my menu, and I'll describe a few of the standouts below. 

The Menu

The Menu

The Aji (Jack Mackerel/ Japanese Horse Mackerel) had an incredible, almost chocolatey note in the meat of the fish that I found outstanding.   It has a rich, oily flesh that can quickly develop an odor if it isn’t prepared and consumed promptly. This is the first fish that Jiro’s place processes when it gets its seafood shipments- they wash it in ice water and quickly refrigerate. I was encouraged to eat this one fast, too, as soon as it landed on my plate. 9/10.

 

 

Akagai Ark Shell/Red Clam) are another difficult-to-serve dish, if only because you can’t tell how fresh they are until they’re shucked- and these are shucked just before service, so there’s some risk in serving this fish. Mine was perfectly fresh and not as rubbery as most red clam I have experienced- truly awesome. 9/10.

 

Sayori (Needlefish/Halfbeak) are in season November-March; quite fatty, slides easily on the tongue. 9/10.

 

Kuramaebi (Boiled Prawn) - With a delightful tiger color, this prawn was served with head and tail intact. Like an amateur, I bit off the middle and was quickly encouraged to eat the head as well- “that’s the best part,” said Yoshibashi, in what could be characterized as our only neutral-to-positive encounter. I didn’t agree, but I kept that to myself. 7/10.

 

Saba (Mackerel) is marinated in vinegar for about a week before serving- brings out very savory flavors in the fish. 9/10.

 

Hamaguri (Clam Shell)- briefly cooked over the fire and then seasoned with sugar, soy, and a special-recipe broth. 9/10.

 

Uni (Sea Urchin) - you may have seen the cup-shaped “warship rolls” of seaweed that these are served in before- the seaweed is roasted over a hay fire to bring out the subtle flavors, and this particular Uni tastes exactly like eating a bowl of whipped cream or cream cheese (let’s say halfway between the two). One of my favorite courses.

 

Kobashira (Baby Scallops) - these look like baby scallops, but they’re actually the open-and-close muscles from particularly large clams. Once again served in a warship roll made of roasted seaweed. It was earthy and decadent- the texture of bubble-tea-balls, with the richness of Uni. 8/10.

 

Ikura (Salmon Roe) this is the only dish that Jiro does not serve fresh- the eggs are frozen because salmon only produce eggs in the fall, and Jiro prefers to serve this dish year-round. The texture and flavor were very smooth- not quite like fresh chicken eggs, but close. For the first time ever, the salmon roe I tasted here didn't have the classically fishy taste that I normally associate with larger roes. Fresh and zingy, they tasted more like caviar than not. 8/10.

 

Anago (Sea Eel/Conger Eel)- Broiled and simmered, this eel had an exceptionally delicate texture that falls apart like paper once eaten. Heavily sauced; maybe too much? 6/10

 

Tamago (Egg) - the final sushi bite- egg cake- served by itself in what tastes like a block of sweet omelette. There’s clearly either honey or sugar added to give it sweetness, and it is a most subtle dessert.

 

After this last sushi bite, for some reason I am hustled over to a table to enjoy a small dessert. I have no idea why I am displaced- it’s either part of the program or they needed my seat at the bar for the next patron. It doesn’t contribute to my ability to enjoy the dessert, so I’ll just mark it down as yet another awkward moment in my meal at Jiro. 

Japan- Wa Yamamura- ✪✪✪

Nobuharu Yamamura's Wa Yamamura was a close-to-perfect chef's counter kaiseki experience in Nara, Japan. Nara is famous for tame deer who bow when you give them snacks, gorgeous temples with enormous buddhas that have pillars so big it's a rite of passage to crawl through them, and tons of other beautiful sights from Nara's days as the ancient capital city. Nara is off the beaten path a touch but it's worth a spending a day. Tucked back down some very plain-looking residential streets you'll find Wa Yamamura, a small oasis of simple beauty with a chef and staff who are working exceptionally hard. 

Wa Yamamura Interior

Wa Yamamura Interior

NARA, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $180 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 9.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

We were lucky enough to be seated right at the bar, which was a vital and busy display of chef, server, bartender, and other associates moving at great speed through their tiny space. The restaurant had a feeling of being overstaffed, but everyone moved fluidly around each other and there were few collisions (but definitely at least one).

A few quick words on service- our seat was absolutely prime for watching the head chef do his work, including assembling the sashimi dish into fully-iced-out bowls (video below). If you go, ask to be seated on the far left of the counter, since most of the interesting stuff happens there. Every single member of staff was pathologically friendly and helpful, and the menu was translated into English for us by hand. The chef, with an enormous flourish, signed said menu at the end of the meal with three different types of ink. 

First Bites: Crab + Abalone, 9/10

First Bites: Crab + Abalone, 9/10

Great Knifework on the Abalone!

Great Knifework on the Abalone!

For our first bites, a small bowl of crab with abalone. Clean, firm crab taste comes through perfectly. The abalone had tiny microcuts along the side for ease of consumption and tenderness, and I found that it massively improved the normally-rubbery texture of the fish. Amazing panoply of textures and flavors. A strong start. 9/10.

Course 1: Dashi Soup, 8/10

Course 1: Dashi Soup, 8/10

Course 1: Dashi Soup, 8/10

Course 1: Dashi Soup, 8/10

Check out the gorgeous ceramic bowl this dashi soup arrived in- like most of the pieces used in this restaurant, they felt to my amateurish eye to be close to museum-quality. The soup was thick, with the approximate texture of egg whites. The shrimp was extremely fresh and surrounded by cloudy, starchy dough. The broth had flavors of pine smoke, and the tiny turnip serves as a great visual set-piece as well as crunchy and tasty in its own right. Great soup. 8/10.

Preparing the Ice Bowls

Preparing the Ice Bowls

Hand-Assembling the Tuna

Hand-Assembling the Tuna

Next, we had the good fortune to get front-row seats to watch the chef assemble the sashimi into a custom-made ice-bowl. 

Course 2: Sashimi, 10/10

Course 2: Sashimi, 10/10

The shrimp's flavors are almost buttery it's so fresh. The flat fish is chewy, and the fatty tuna (otoro) is orgasmic good. Ground by hand right in front of us using a shark-skin grater, the wasabi is fiery-hot. 10/10

Course 3: The Smorgasbord, 8/10 Overall

Course 3: The Smorgasbord, 8/10 Overall

Next, an insane smorgasbord of different dishes with a riot of colors arrived. I'll describe each component in turn; overall the course was an 8/10.

Course 3A: Mackerel + Conger Fish Cake + Beans, 7/10

Course 3A: Mackerel + Conger Fish Cake + Beans, 7/10

The enormous green beans are surprisingly brittle; they break apart immediately, and have a flavor just like a fava bean; hearty and earthy. Beautifully hand-cut, the curls of radish and carrot helix have flavors that pair perfectly. The mackerel is oily and a touch fishy, it's probably been in the fridge a few hours too long. The cubes are conger eel with fish paste, which are super fun and taste a bit like not-sweet vanilla cake. 7/10.

Course 3B: Black Beans + Tiger Prawn + Karasumi, 7/10

Course 3B: Black Beans + Tiger Prawn + Karasumi, 7/10

These black beans are bigger than previous restaurants, with more smoky flavors and less blueberry. The pickled honeydew (on the left) has extremely interesting combinations of savory and sweet. The prawn is a touch dry, and the karasumi isn't my fave, per usual. 7/10.

Course 3C: Anchovy + Abalone, 8/10

Course 3C: Anchovy + Abalone, 8/10

The anchovies are crunchy and slightly sweet; they're dipped in a soy sauce of some kind. Abalone is unyielding but flavorful. 8/10.

Course 3D: Sesame Tofu, 9/10

Course 3D: Sesame Tofu, 9/10

This sesame tofu is slippery and spongy, and very satisfying to eat- soy and wasabi speaks nicely to the previous course. 9/10.

Course 3E: Cod Roe, 9/10

Course 3E: Cod Roe, 9/10

Last, a dish of soft cod roe in vinegar that looks like a slimy brain and is creamy, warm, and totally delicious 9/10. 

Course 4: Sea Urchin Soup, 9/10

Course 4: Sea Urchin Soup, 9/10

This sea urchin soup is made with eggs, lily bulbs, and ginkgo nuts that give it an extremely interesting texture contrast. The thick starchy soup goes great with creamy Uni texture; the lily bulbs are the approximate size and shape of garlic cloves, but with a mild potato-like flavor. 9/10.

Course 5: Butterfish, 9/10

Course 5: Butterfish, 9/10

The ceramic dish this course of Butterfish is served on is incredible- a soaring bird, complete with features. The flavors of the fish are, well, quite buttery and rich, and this makes for an excellent main course. Perfectly cooked and tender. 9/10. 

Course 6: Scallop + Lemon Vinegar Jelly, 7/10

Course 6: Scallop + Lemon Vinegar Jelly, 7/10

This fantastic scallop dish is interesting, because the flavors and textures of the scallop itself are unremarkable- the jelly is full of lemon and citrus flavors along with a savory note from the vinegar elements, and those strong flavors carry the dish. It's a little odd, I will admit, to have a dish that consists of jelly garnished by scallop as opposed to the other way around. 7/10.

Course 7: Vegetables, 8/10

Course 7: Vegetables, 8/10

Taro, tofu, carrot, burdock root and bamboo shoot showed up next with two small garnishments of Japanese Pepper leaf. The starches are crunchy-fresh and the flavors are soft and subtle- easing the transition towards dessert. 8/10. 

Course 8: Rice in Tofu Skin, 8/10

Course 8: Rice in Tofu Skin, 8/10

This next dish was really amazing- tofu skin (also known as Yuba, or bean curd sheet) is milky and cheesy and is full of rice, with a light dash of significantly-less-spicy wasabi on top. 8/10. 

Course 9: Strawberry Jelly + Pear + Orange Juice, 9/10

Course 9: Strawberry Jelly + Pear + Orange Juice, 9/10

Desserts in Japan are always a subtle affair- some places like Chihana just give you a glass of orange juice- but Wa Yamamura's was both understated and a total delight. Strawberries preserved in gelatin are delicious, but the Asian pears are particularly amazing- soft and sweet. A fantastic end to a fantastic meal!

Japan- Nakamura- ✪✪✪

With a history dating back to 1827 when a fish-peddler named Seibei decided to establish a kyo-ryori house, Nakamura has since been passed down to Seibei's great-great granddaughter, who now runs the show. Down a beautiful Gion sidestreet, Nakamura one of the more traditional implementations of tea ceremony-style Kaiseki (Cha Kaiseki).

Nakamura Main Entrance

Nakamura Main Entrance

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $280 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

Nakamura Private Room

Nakamura Private Room

For the ultra-traditional experience, guests would sit straight on the tatami mats with no padding or open space. Nakamura moves things a bit closer to the comfortable end of the spectrum by adding heated floors, comfy cushions, and plenty of space to sit upright.

We were given a gorgeous private room with a view of the beautiful garden, running brook, delicate lighting, and weird fake crab (you can make it out sitting on the stone in the background).

First Sip: Honey Smacks Tea, 8/10

First Sip: Honey Smacks Tea, 8/10

We're gonna be seeing a lot of this puffed rice tea going forward, so to save everyone time I'm just going to nickname it Honey Smacks tea and move on. This cup is exactly as good as every other cup I had on my journey, and just as refreshing. 8/10. 

Course 1: Crab + Fish Egg, 10/10

Course 1: Crab + Fish Egg, 10/10

Next, a transcendently delicious dish of crab, fish egg sauce, and fish eggs. This seafood dish has a creamy, almost dairy-like texture, with strong sea/saline flavors from the extremely fresh crab. Crisp, crunchy white vegetables set off the texture interplay. An incredible dish. 10/10.

Course 2: Miso, 9/10

Course 2: Miso, 9/10

Course 2: Miso, 9/10

Course 2: Miso, 9/10

Next, a dish that I can quite comfortably say I have never had anything remotely like. A white miso soup with an extremely stretchy, starchy dumpling, surrounded by a thick broth with deep wasabi and mustard flavors, but not spicy in the least. Almost tastes like the awesome milk at the bottom of the bowl of Frosted Flakes. Yes, I realize that is my second cereal reference. 9/10.

Course 3: Sashimi, 9/10

Course 3: Sashimi, 9/10

Next arrived the fish sashimi plate - shrimp, squid, and sea bream. The squid is firm and delicious with great texture and a super fresh taste- perhaps the best bite of squid on the whole trip. The other fish hold their own quite nicely, and the wasabi was obviously recently hand-ground. 9/10.

Course 4: Clam + Bamboo + Seaweed Soup, 7/10

Course 4: Clam + Bamboo + Seaweed Soup, 7/10

Soup with seaweed, bamboo shoots, and clam. The whole situation is a little bland but the seaweed is fresh and dense- like eating snap pea husks almost. The dumpling is a big dry and nondescript. It was around this point that the proprietress entered and had an extremely long, utterly entertaining, but ultimately one-sided conversation in Japanese with us non-Japanese speakers. She clapped when we tried the food, sang a short song, and made many sidebar comments. Honestly, I had no idea what to do for a solid 15 minutes. 7/10.

Course 5: Grab-bag Box, 8/10

Course 5: Grab-bag Box, 8/10

Briefly thereafter we were presented with a gorgeous multi-level box containing (clockwise from top right) skewers of fish and vegetables, mustard greens, karasumi, sweet potato rolls, and sweet black beans. The mustard greens have something close to a rich peanut butter flavor, and (once again) the black beans are quite sugary-sweet and kind of taste like blueberries. On the skewers, the fish was mostly unremarkable but the cucumber all the way on the rightmost end was smoky and sweet. 8/10.

Course 6: Vegetable + Uni Soup, 9/10

Course 6: Vegetable + Uni Soup, 9/10

Next up, some gloriously good vegetable soup with Japanese potato, daikon, and Uni (sea urchin). The potato is fried and has consistency of fried chicken, roughly. It goes perfectly with the uni's smooth, melted butter texture and flavors. 9/10.

Course 7: Cooked Sea Bream, 8/10

Course 7: Cooked Sea Bream, 8/10

The last main course - a deliciously cooked sea bream in a light broth. This was a shockingly simple dish, without much fanfare, spices, or accoutrements, showcasing just the fish itself, which was luckily quite good. 8/10.

Course 8: Rice, 8/10

Course 8: Rice, 8/10

Course 8: Pickled Vegetables, 8/10

Course 8: Pickled Vegetables, 8/10

As a final savory follow-up, a bowl of rice with homemade pickled vegetables. A nice smooth downshift from the rest of the main courses. 8/10.

Course 9: Citrus + Strawberry Dessert, 10/10

Course 9: Citrus + Strawberry Dessert, 10/10

Desserts in Japan are almost always a subtle affair, but this citrus and strawberry combination crushes it. A very fine, sugary jelly lain overtop brings it all together perfectly. 10/10.

Last Sip: Roasted Oat Tea, 8/10

Last Sip: Roasted Oat Tea, 8/10

And, once again per tradition, the final sip is a bottomless glass of roasted oat tea, consumed at one's leisure at the tail end of the meal. 8/10.

Japan- Kikunoi Honten- ✪✪✪

Friendlier, homier, more welcoming, and just plain more fun that any other Kaiseki restaurant I went to is Yoshihiro Murata's awesome Kikunoi Honten. Like most of our other visits, the space was immaculate, beautiful, and comfortable; the food was a spectacularly exotic journey... But what made this place special was the engaged, thoughtful, amazing service. The chef himself sets the tone with a warm, welcome message that everyone on the staff tries to take seriously- I've never seen a restaurant in Japan try to describe itself as an "amusement park for adults," but Kikunoi pulls it off. 

The restaurant has been around since 1912, and the company (which includes other restaurants and stores) considers their mission to be "communicating Japanese cuisine to the world," and "cooking for the public benefit." Yoshihiro himself was trained in France and has executive-chef'd for Singapore Airlines, among others.

Kikunoi Honten Main Entrance

Kikunoi Honten Main Entrance

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $140 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 9.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

Kikunoi Honten Private Room

Kikunoi Honten Private Room

A rainy day turned out to be the perfect backdrop for the private room- water gently cascaded down a rocky stream, and a stone wall-garden serves as a peaceful, gorgeous setting. The gentle drips and dabs of rain intermingled with a low, musical gurgle of the tiny creek nearby. Muted grey light from cloud and rock shone into the room intensely throughout this mid-afternoon meal. Every inch of space both indoors and out reflected a smooth, quiet, low, focused calm that I have never experienced before.

Kikunoi Honten Place Settings

Kikunoi Honten Place Settings

For the three of us (all relatively long-legged Westerners) the floor-pillow with TV-dinner stand (not really, but you get it) was somewhere between a little awkward and extremely awkward for those of us who struggle to sit cross-legged (yours truly). 

First Sip: Puffed Rice Tea, 8/10

First Sip: Puffed Rice Tea, 8/10

Per tradition, the place settings included a cupful of Puffed-Rice tea that, also per tradition, tastes exactly like Honey Smacks cereal. Not kidding. A super-light, mild opener and palate cleanser. 8/10.

First Bites: Sushi + Greens + Roe + Black Beans, 9/10

First Bites: Sushi + Greens + Roe + Black Beans, 9/10

First up: a delightful collection of hand-painted ceramics containing even more delightful appetizers. Clockwise from the bottom of the photo: horse-reins sushi (named for the beautiful, twisting pattern it is folded into), wasabi greens, sweet black beans (once again with the strong blueberry flavors), icefish with yuzu flavoring, rapini dressed with mustard, cod roe terrine, and a Michelin-Star shaped agar-agar jelly.

Amongst the greens are butterbur leaves ("fuki," in Japanese, which the menu mis-translates as the very similar coltsfoot, another herbal medical plant; butterbur is well-known for treating migraines), that add a subtly sweet note. 9/10.

Course 1: Steamed Prawn Soup, 9/10

Course 1: Steamed Prawn Soup, 9/10

Without Cover

Without Cover

Next up, an extremely hearty soup that felt more like a paste. Steamed prawn and red turnip with a healthy dollop of wasabi. The prawn has great texture, and the wasabi is bright and somewhat understated. 8/10.

 

Course 2: Sashimi of Sea Bream + Prawn + Udo + Vegetables + Wasabi, 9/10

Course 2: Sashimi of Sea Bream + Prawn + Udo + Vegetables + Wasabi, 9/10

Next up, some Botan Shrimp with green shrimp eggs (in season from November-March in Japan). The shrimp itself has a texture and flavor that are very rich - almost buttery- and it's served with the hottest fucking wasabi ever. Udo (a vegetable similar to ginseng that grows in the mountains), is earthy and sweet at the same time.  9/10.

Course 3: Sashimi of Bluefin Tuna, 10/10

Course 3: Sashimi of Bluefin Tuna, 10/10

The sea bream that comes next is fresh but doesn't possess a ton of flavor. Nice bright colors and a smooth, even mouthfeel. 7/10.

Course 4: Duck Soup, 8/10

Course 4: Duck Soup, 8/10

Course 4: Duck Soup, 8/10

Course 4: Duck Soup, 8/10

Next, a delightful duck soup- rich but not overstated. "Yomogi," or Japanese Mugwort- is infused in a dumpling that has an incredibly sticky, dense texture- I've never had anything like it. The star-shaped yuzu really jumps out- rich sweetness like a banana or a plantain. 8/10.

With the halibut-preparation for the subsequent course underway, we enjoyed some slices of bluefin tuna, which I felt iffy about eating due to its threatened extinction. We were assured that these stocks were sustainably acquired. The texture was as smooth as ice cream, and literally melts in your mouth- this is one of many entries into the Best Tuna of All Time category. 10/10.

Course 5: Grilled Halibut, 7/10

Course 5: Grilled Halibut, 7/10

For this very specially-served course of grilled halibut and shiitake mushroom, the daughter of the chef (and head of service) came out to serve us. The mushroom is surprisingly sweet; the halibut is a touch dry but the roe adds a great deal of sweetness. 7/10.

Course 6: Yuzu-Wasabi Sorbet, 8/10

Course 6: Yuzu-Wasabi Sorbet, 8/10

Next came further evidence of the Western influence on chef Murata's training- a late-meal palate cleanser. The sorbet has strong wasabi spicyness that tickles the back of your throat, and the yuzu is imbued with a plummy, orange-y taste. Extremely fresh and pleasant. 8/10. 

Course 7: Steamed Cod Tofu + Orange, 7/10

Course 7: Steamed Cod Tofu + Orange, 7/10

Next, cod milt tofu in an orange with red pepper and ponzu. The fruit and tofu flavors blend well with the cod, but it's off-putting to be eating a fish-soy dish out of an orange husk- the sweetness of the fruit doesn't translate. 7/10.

Course 8: Hotpot Ingredients

Course 8: Hotpot Ingredients

Course 8: Hotpot of Yellowtail + Tofu + Daikon Radish + Kintoki Carrot, etc. 9/10

Course 8: Hotpot of Yellowtail + Tofu + Daikon Radish + Kintoki Carrot, etc. 9/10

Next, like a stack of morning newspapers arrived the components of the hot pot preparation that we ourselves would be embarking upon. Yellowtail tuna, tofu, daikon radish, Kintoki carrot, Kujo onion, mibuna (a type of arugula from Kyoto), ponzu, and yuzu were all served. Like a huge fool I overcooked my fish, but overall this was an incredibly fun course. 9/10.

Course 9: Rice + Anago Eel + Vegetables, 8/10

Course 9: Rice + Anago Eel + Vegetables, 8/10

Next, anago eel with rice, kinome, burdock root, fiddlehead ferns, and pickled vegetables. A filling, fresh ending to the main courses. 8/10.

Course 10: Custard of Almond + Apricot + Strawberry Sauce + Kiwi Sauce, 9/10

Course 10: Custard of Almond + Apricot + Strawberry Sauce + Kiwi Sauce, 9/10

Lastly, a dessert of custard made from almond, apricot, strawberries, and kiwis. Like most Japanese desserts, it is both pleasant and understated. 9/10.

The Bagged Phone

The Bagged Phone

A handful of notes about our delightful surroundings. The phone, deemed too unsightly to be on open display (and available to call our server should we need anything) sat in a satin bag. Thank God. 

Exit Hallway

Exit Hallway

Second Floor Hallway

Second Floor Hallway

I had the opportunity to wander the halls at one point in the meal service, and the whole building does a wondrous job of transporting me back ten centuries. Every surface, step, wall, and panel is immaculate. A totally magical space appropriate for the incredible meal. 

Japan- Mizai- ✪✪✪

Set in a corner of the elegant Maruyama Park near Kyoto's historic Gion (geisha) district, Mizai is as fine an example of Kappo Kaiseki, or Kaiseki "in the kitchen," as it were. Diners sit directly across from chefs as they prepare dishes, enhancing the immediate freshness of the preparation, and allowing conversation and questions to flow naturally between the two groups. If you speak Japanese, that is. 

Mizai Exterior

Mizai Exterior

KYOTO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $380 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

Mizai Chef's Counter

Mizai Chef's Counter

Two big notes on decorum when it comes to your own visit: show up early, and bring cash.

My reservation was for 6PM; I arrived at 5:55PM and was definitely the very last person to be seated. In Kappo Kaiseki, everyone is served at the exact same time, and coordination is critical, so I learned the easy way not to be late. 

The room is taken up by a grand wooden bar with ten seats on the long end (I sat near the middle of the long side) and four on the short end- a total of 14 high chairs.

As I sat down, I was literally immediately served some green tea as a starter, and the chef greeted me. A short, serious man with an excellent mustache and precisely-rolled cuffs in his shirt. 

The space is just gorgeous- small wax candles burn on the countertop and off to my right is a view of a mossy, stone wall-garden. Small monkeys (for 2016- year of the monkey) adorn the set top to my left. The feeling is calm, quiet, peaceful, reflective. More temple than restaurant. 

First Bites: Soup + Vegetables + Rice 9/10

First Bites: Soup + Vegetables + Rice 9/10

First, they bring out the big black tray that will serve as my meal carrier/personal space-definer up until dessert. On the first platter is a small cup of soup, a tiny portion of perfectly-cooked rice, and an amuse-bouche of pickled vegetables, fish, and seaweed. The soup was milky and sweet, the rice was delicious, though I must admit that I'm not enough of a connoisseur to appreciate the rice at the level everyone else seemed to. The vegetable/fish combo had a silky, soft mouthfeel and was a lovely and colorful contrast to the two monotonal dishes that accompanied it. A tasty start, 9/10.

A note on service: the course was accompanied by a long, impassioned speech entirely in Japanese that probably lasted 10-12 minutes, during which the origins of the rice, the combination of ingredients, and the cooking techniques were discussed. At least, I'm fairly certain that's what was being discussed based on the impassioned "oohs," and "aahs" emanating from my impressed co-diners, along with many other emphatic expressions of understanding that I could not, in good faith, emulate, because I don't speak a word. At the end, one of the sous-chefs walked over to my place while everyone else stared at me intently, pointed, and said, "Rice. Soup. Vegetable and Fish." A long stare, as if to ask if I needed that epic description recapped. Mic drop.

I said, "Thanks, I think you nailed it." And luckily, everyone else at the restaurant (who all spoke fantastic English) was polite enough to laugh. 

Course 1: Bucket 'o'Sashimi, 10/10

Course 1: Bucket 'o'Sashimi, 10/10

The next course, sashimi, was about 25 full minutes in the making. Each type of fish was brought out from the kitchen and assembled by hand by the chef himself using only chopsticks. First the otoro, then the maguro, then the yellowtail, then squid, then sea bream, and then finally the vegetables (some extremely crunchy leaves meant to refresh the palate that were eaten last), the hand-ground wasabi and the two small soy sauce cubes were carefully and painstakingly placed on a bed of ice. It was real masterwork, and I had no problem with how long it took, given how clearly this dish was meant to be an opening high point. Every piece of fish was transcendently fresh and delicious- the otoro had the texture of cream cheese it was so soft and fatty. The squid was firm but extremely yielding- a unique texture unlike any I have ever experienced before. The yellowtail was fresh and had a sharper, more fragrant taste. The sea bream ("Tai" in Japanese), also called the King of Fish, was flavorful and delightful. 

One last note- the blue ceramic placed in front of me before the sashimi bowl came out is more than 100 years old, and a great deal of time and attention was spent by diners and restaurant staff alike describing and admiring the ceramics that were a part of the meal. 10/10.

Course 2: Dumpling + Turnip Soup, 9/10

Course 2: Dumpling + Turnip Soup, 9/10

Next, a small, flavorful soup with a tiny Japanese turnip with long, bright green leaves served on top of a very stretchy dumpling and a clear broth. 9/10.

Course 3: Wagyu, 10/10

Course 3: Wagyu, 10/10

One of my favorite courses of all time- a plate of fresh, perfectly cooked Wagyu beef, together with lightly grilled onions and green vegetables. Soft, luxurious, decadent, insanely good. 10/10.

Course 4: Seaweed + Vegetable Soup, 7/10

Course 4: Seaweed + Vegetable Soup, 7/10

Next, a clear broth with seaweed and hard vegetables (sorry for the insanely bad photo). The bamboo shoots were hard and almost crunchy, the Japanese Pepper (or shishito) adds a cirtrus-y note. 7/10.

Course 5: Sea Urchin, 8/10

Course 5: Sea Urchin, 8/10

Next, umi (sea urchin) karasumi, eel, and vegetables served in an orange husk, which are January's fruit of the season. I've already covered the fact that karasumi (dried, condensed fish eggs) are one of my least favorite things on the planet, but the eel and sea urchin are excellent- sea urchin tastes like earthy cream cheese at its best (a completely positive description by the way!) And this dish nails it. 8/10. 

Course 6: The Smorgasbord, 7/10

Course 6: The Smorgasbord, 7/10

Check out this super fun little teepee of pine-needles that adorn what can only be called a small smorgasbord plate. A huge diversity of flavors and colors; I was instructed to eat the deep-fried vegetables on very bottom first and work my way clockwise through the tiger shrimp and onwards. Inside the cut lime were many small, pale anchovies staring back at me. 7/10.

Course 7: Vegetable Soup, 8/10

Course 7: Vegetable Soup, 8/10

Another soup, this one with daikon carrot, tofu, and fish paste. The colors weren't as bright and vibrant as they were at Kitcho, but a refreshingly simple and hearty dish nonetheless. 8/10.

Course 8: Crab + Sashimi, 8/10

Course 8: Crab + Sashimi, 8/10

Another small fish plate, with crab in the center. The crab sauce was bright and fruity, and the sashimi almost outdid the earlier main fish plate's freshness. 8/10.

Course 9: Pickled Vegetables, 9/10

Course 9: Pickled Vegetables, 9/10

Pickled vegetables, which were totally remarkable for the huge variety of flavors they were able to achieve. Sweet, sour, and everything in between. 9/10.

Course 10: Puffed Rice Soup, 8/10

Course 10: Puffed Rice Soup, 8/10

Once again, I manage to take a horrifyingly awful picture, so apologies. Not much to say about this soup other than it tastes distinctly, once again, like Honey Smacks with puffed rice. 8/10.

Couse 11: Sticky Bun, 8/10

Couse 11: Sticky Bun, 8/10

A semi-sweet pastry with enormous leaf. The pastry has a very sticky consistency that makes the experience a bit like eating a delicious sponge. 8/10.

Course 12: Matcha, 8/10

Course 12: Matcha, 8/10

Matcha tea, once again grindingly handmade by the chef himself. A total work of art- he individually selected each cup. portioned out the matcha, added it to the cup, mixed it together with the matcha stirrer, and handed it to his assistant after uttering a small prayer before and after each completion. The server would then, with a very precise and practiced motion, turn the bowl to the front facing the guest, place the bowl in front of the guest with two hands, and give a deep, profound bow. I did my best to accept the gesture in kind, and I think I was given a C+. 

Course 11: Citrus + Strawberry, 8/10

Course 11: Citrus + Strawberry, 8/10

Lastly, two courses of dessert were served- the first was orange custard inside a carved-out orange peel with red and white strawberry- totally delicious, sweet, and for such a small and reasonably-sized portion felt almost decadent in the context of the meal. 8/10.

Course 12: Sliced Fruit, 10/10

Course 12: Sliced Fruit, 10/10

The very last, a beautifully colorful plate of precisely-chopped fruits topped wth gold leaf. This was one of the most beautiful and intensely colored desserts I have ever experienced. 10/10.

One final note- after service was completely over, every member of the kitchen staff emerged from the back, was given a beer by the chef himself, bowed, and we all clapped. An awesome, fun conclusion to the meal.

And, about that cash thing I mentioned earlier- each guest, separately, is ushered to what can only be called a small cash door where payment is requested. They don't take credit cards, so for goodness sake make sure you use the ATM beforehand. 

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.