Osaka

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- 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.