Tokyo

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- 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- 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- 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- Sushi Dai- No Stars

Though I do not wish to distract myself from my goal of visiting every Michelin 3-star restaurant, I was so moved by an experience I had in Tokyo that I felt I had to share. A very common tourist destination is the Tsu-jiki fish market, which opens at 5AM (perfect for jet-lagged travellers, who are up anyway). Right nearby is the tiny, family-owned Sushi Dai. As you can see, it gets crazy packed.

Sushi Dai Interior

Sushi Dai Interior

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 3.0/10

FOOD: 10.0/10

PRICE PAID: $35 PP 

VALUE/MONEY: 10.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

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The restaurant is literally just across the street from the fish market, and all of their supplies are brought in from said market the day-of. 

 

I give them such a low service rating not necessarily for the in-restaurant experience, but for the 3+ hour wait that everyone has to slog through at 4'o'clock in the morning. This isn't totally their fault, but it certainly makes for a rough start to your day. I got in line around 3:30AM and was served sushi around 6:30AM. Word to the wise- there's really no way around the long line since they open at 5 and the line starts forming at 3, so bring fun people. 

1st Round: Green Tea, 5/10

1st Round: Green Tea, 5/10

Some pretty mediocre green tea that appeared to originate from dry powder and a microwave. 5/10.

Course 1: Miso Soup, 8/10

Course 1: Miso Soup, 8/10

Next up was some clearly homemade and exceptionally hearty miso soup. This was one of the better miso soups I have ever had, and it was an especially welcome treat after the long, cold wait outside. 8/10.

Course 2: Egg Cake, 9/10

Course 2: Egg Cake, 9/10

Next was a slice of what can only be called egg cake. It was warm, rich, and extremely delicious. A bit like quiche. 9/10.

Course 3: Tuna, 10/10

Course 3: Tuna, 10/10

Woah. At this point, I was really getting excited, because while it wasn't artfully presented, this tuna was mind-blowingly good. A small cut of super-fresh tuna that was plucked from the market across the street that very morning, this was some of the freshest and best fish I've ever seen. 10/10.

Course 4: Red Snapper, 10/10

Course 4: Red Snapper, 10/10

The bright colors on this fish were incredible. The chef cautioned me not to use any sauce on this one, which was a great idea because it stood on its own perfectly. I was totally in awe of the rich freshness from this fish. 10/10.

Course 5: Sea Urchin, 8/10

Course 5: Sea Urchin, 8/10

With the totally excessive richness of ground-up caviar, this bite tasted like what I imagine eating a handful of pure, decadent fat tastes like. I'm always a fan of sea urchin, and this one was no disappointment. 8/10.

Course 6: Horse Mackerel, 8/10

Course 6: Horse Mackerel, 8/10

The colors on this fish were stunning- an interesting, flat cut with a small bundle of ginger and herbs on top. The ginger brought out the freshness in the fish, but it was a tad too strong. 8/10.

Course 7: Red Clam, 7/10

Course 7: Red Clam, 7/10

The clam was fresh and fibrous, and had an almost earthy taste. 7/10.

Course 8: Blue Fin Tuna

Course 8: Blue Fin Tuna

This blue fin tuna was marinated to bring out that unbelievable color, but the beautiful cross-striping gave this an amazing appearance to go with the amazing taste. 9/10.

Course 9: Sweet Shrimp, 10/10

Course 9: Sweet Shrimp, 10/10

I'm running out of hyperbole, but... this sweet shrimp was truly incredible; strong flavors of papaya and tropical fruit accentuated by a light dousing of soy sauce. 10/10.

Course 10: Saba, 8/10

Course 10: Saba, 8/10

With a topping of ginger and herbs, this fish (even though raw) exhibited a smoky, roasted flavor that I loved. 8/10.

Course 11: Maki Rolls, 8/10

Course 11: Maki Rolls, 8/10

These four small rolls include two veggie rolls- cucumber- and two tuna rolls. When I'm in the states, I normally eat rolls like this, and these shattered all expectations for how delicious vegetables, rice, and seaweed paper can be. 8/10.

Course 12: Squid, 7/10

Course 12: Squid, 7/10

Only in season for two or three months of the year around mid-Spring, the squid is prepared with squid eggs inside. Though not normally a big squid fan, it was rubbery and fun to eat. 7/10.

Course 13: Fatty Tuna, 10/10

Course 13: Fatty Tuna, 10/10

For your final course, you get to pick from anything off the Sushi Dai menu. My heartfelt recommendation is the Otoro- fatty tuna. If eating this fish won't convert you to sushi as an art form, then nothing will. This was the most amazing, fresh, rich fish I have ever had in my life, and it was really this individual course that inspired me to break rank from the 3-star restaurants to write about my experience. The extremely reasonable $35 Omakase (chef's choice) menu is worth it for this one bite alone. 10/10.

Japan- Mizutani- ✪✪

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

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

VALUE/MONEY: 6.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 7.0/10

Hachiro Mizutani is in his mid-60s, and by the looks of things seems to be entering his prime years. Finding his restaurant was no small feat (I had to ask an incredibly nice woman who worked in a store across the street, who vaguely pointed me at his building) and I'll issue the warning to anyone following in my footsteps- please use the elevator. The steps, especially slicked with rain, are essentially a tourist death trap, and I almost broke my neck in Ginza. 

You enter a tiny alcove space (not visible in the photo above, because in order to take this photo you have to occupy the entire space yourself) that is clean, neat, and ordered. The dining room occupies an impressive amount of the total overall space- you can catch glimpses of the stainless steel support equipment in the background (to the left and out of frame in the above), along with a sense of several invisible beings working hard behind the curtain.

Chef Mizutani himself and an understudy who appeared roughly 15 years old occupy the main sushi preparation area. As I sat and began my 35-minute lunch next to a few locals and tourists, a ballet of movements and orders began taking shape. The 15-year-old (we'll call him the sous chef, because I never caught his name) would begin washing the shrimp, and minutes later progress the shrimp into his boss' hands for final assembly. Wide-eyed and clearly excited about his job, the sous chef was extremely helpful with the English translations. "Needlefish," "Fatty tuna," etc. 

The meal was extremely traditional- roughly 15 courses of extremely fresh fish- anchovy, red clam, saba, and tuna with the signature hand-rolled rice, hand-dabbed wasabi, and minimalist plating.

What really struck me about the experience was the great deal of solemnity in the space. Mizutani would utter a word, just above a whisper- "wasabi," or, "drinks," and the appropriate team would give a hearty, "hai!" and fulfill the order. It wasn't quite militaristic- no one seemed marshaled or yoked- but combined with the musicless quiet of the 9th floor location, it was more a feeling of watching a master librarian at work. 

Mizutani seemed a very traditional man- at one point, he asked the two teenage girls sitting across from me to put their iPhones down and start paying attention to their experience- and was fully engrossed in his work. He would uncover and bring to his cutting board a massive rectangular slice of tuna as big as a nightstick, carefully cut a generous diagonal slice, and then leave it off to the side for the sous chef to return. Not particularly exceptional as an individual act, but he repeated almost precisely the same gesture every time he built that dish. 

You probably noticed I wasn't allowed to take photos- and to be quite honest, this definitely was not the best fish I had in Tokyo. While fresh and clearly bought from the Tsu-jiki market very recently, it lacked the powerful depth of flavors and colors I had seen elsewhere. This was certainly a good restaurant experience to chalk up, but I won't be back.

Japan- Ryugin- ✪✪✪

Ryugin Main Entrance

Ryugin Main Entrance

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 9.5/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $310 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 9.0/10

Ryugin was an incredibly special blend of European, Chinese, and Japanese styles into a harmony that I haven't seen done as well anywhere in the world. It was also eclectic and experimental- some of the dishes could compete with the most innovative techniques I've seen in the US, and the overall experience was a seamless blend of new and old approaches. Seiji Yamamoto is the head chef, and he is also clearly proud of his many accomplishments, including the third Michelin star. A visitors' room I stumbled into upstairs has a flat-screen TV playing a video from his Michelin acceptance celebration on a loop.

The Ryugin Owl

The Ryugin Owl

Also, there is an owl. The owl viewed the visitors' room as his space.

The Ryugin Menu

The Ryugin Menu

Start to finish, every aspect of this evening was polished, almost to a fault. The menu, for instance, came in a stamped and post-marked envelope, and a perfectly readable (though certainly full of interesting word choices) English.

1st Course: Sea Urchin, 8/10

1st Course: Sea Urchin, 8/10

First up was a delicious, fried bite of sea urchin. It was rolled up in the individual maki with ginger and green peas, giving it a cool mix of flavors and textures, along with the crunch of the shell. 8/10.

2nd Course: Firefly Squid, 9/10

2nd Course: Firefly Squid, 9/10

This was my "you're not in Kansas any more" moment on the first trip to Japan. A plate of warm, whole squid (eyes and all) was gamely placed in an egg custard, and all of it cooked over charcoal. The charcoal comes through incredibly strongly, and the squid (I must admit I've never eaten whole squids before) were a delightful blend of exotic flavors- a rich umami blend- and paired perfectly with the egg custard. A surprisingly welcome combination and dish. 9/10.

3rd Course: "Just-in-Time" Soup and Cherry Leaves, 9/10

3rd Course: "Just-in-Time" Soup and Cherry Leaves, 9/10

The egg in the middle of this soup had a hard, crunchy white vegetable inside that was imbued with a softly fruit taste from the cherry leaves. A simple but interesting soup dish. 9/10.

4th Course: Fish, 8/10

4th Course: Fish, 8/10

As you can see, this palate of gorgeous color and shapes included (clockwise, from the top): fugu (pufferfish), Salmon, Monkfish liver, squid, and octopus. The salmon was soft and fresh, the liver tasted like an excellent cheese, and the octopus was spicy and super fresh. An amazing diversity of textures and flavors. My only (tiny) complaint is that the octopus is tough but yielding enough to be pleasurable. 

5th Course: Grilled Kin-Ki Fish, 7/10

5th Course: Grilled Kin-Ki Fish, 7/10

The deep-sea Kin-ki fish from Hokkaido is stuffed with eggplant. Smoky and rich as hell, the eggplant is a nice but bland flavor that served as a nice base for the super-rich fish. The fish wasn't quite to my tastes, and the bamboo shoot vegetables were a little too plain for me. 7/10. 

6th Course: Cook-Your-Own Broth, 8/10

6th Course: Cook-Your-Own Broth, 8/10

This next dish wins huge points for originality- a gas-driven hot-pot is brought out pre-filled with chicken broth, herbs, and fresh peas. A plate of Spring vegetables, colorful and fresh, is brought for dipping/cooking in the broth (I was told no more than 10-20 seconds is best) and a warm peanut dipping sauce is provided. Super fun to cook your own food ("we're going to make you work!" said the waiter jokingly). 8/10.

7th Course: Wagyu Beef, 10/10

7th Course: Wagyu Beef, 10/10

I won't have to tell you much more than this was the best Wagyu beef I have ever had, hands down. The beef was covered in rich sauce, and the egg of a particularly prized hen sat underneath. 10/10. 

Course 8: Chicken + Rice, 9/10

Course 8: Chicken + Rice, 9/10

This chicken was unlike any poultry I have ever tasted- soft, almost to the consistency of clay, paired up nicely with the crunch of the seeds and the richness of the rice. The chef made this dish by memory from his favorite meal as a kid- one of several sentimental references to youth and memory that chef's Spring menu portrayed.

Course 9A: Hot + Frozen Strawberries

Course 9A: Hot + Frozen Strawberries

Course 9B: Hot + Frozen Strawberries

Course 9B: Hot + Frozen Strawberries

Another incredibly adventurous dish that resembled something I thought Alinea might try. A frozen strawberry, dipped in -150F frozen nitrogen, is paired up with a spoonful of hot strawberries cooked to +150F, yielding a 300 degree temperature difference. The effect was almost like pop rocks- it snapped and crackled on the tongue and was almost overwhelmingly sweet. An incredibly creative and fascinating dish. 10/10.

 

10th Course: Sake Ice Cream + Sake Soufflé

10th Course: Sake Ice Cream + Sake Soufflé

The sake glasses

The sake glasses

The second dessert was equally beautifully presented- a warm soufflé of sake, paired with sake ice cream, and all with an unfiltered house sake poured on top. The alcoholic tinge made the sake taste "real," and the effect was that of drinking the finest glass of sake I've ever had. Also worth noting- I got to pick my own sake glass for consumption, which came on a gloriously colorful tray. 

11th Course: Traditional Matcha Tea

11th Course: Traditional Matcha Tea

Made with a traditional Matcha brush, the tea was so rich that it almost tasted like a shot of wheatgrass. Flavors of pure cut grass, seaweed, and rich tea. A fantastic finish to a fantastic meal.