2016 Dining Recap

 

Having visited a handful of Michelin starred, World’s 50 Best and other top restaurants in Asia and Europe, 2016 was great dining year. My journey began at Hong Kong where I dined at Lung King Heen, the very first three Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant in the world. Needless to say, it had an extremely high quality Cantonese food. The restaurants location on the fourth floor of the Four Season hotel boasts a panoramic view of Victoria Harbor. The two Michelin-starred Amber at Landmark Mandarin Oriental offers a terrific weekend wine lunch which consists of five courses paired with four glasses of wine. This was one of the best deals out there at 928 HKD for a restaurant at this caliber. Dinner at the L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (the only of the L’Ateliers with three Michelin stars) was also quite superb.

I waited in queue for hours at Tim Ho Wan in Sham Shui Po, which at that time was the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world (until that distinction was awarded to Singapore’s Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken in the summer of last year). The dim sum was tasty and I enjoyed every single dish that I had. Frog legs and chicken congee at Tasty Congee & Wuntun Noodle Shop in the IFC was nothing short of delicious. Even better was the chicken and fish congee at the concierge recommended Sang Kee Congee Shop in Sheung Wan. 208 Ducento Otto serves up wonderful cocktails while Angel Share Whisky Bar & Restaurant and its expansive list of whisky is a must-visit for enthusiast while in Hong Kong.

That same journey through Asia led me to Tokyo, Japan. I had my very first meal in this sprawling metropolis at RyuGin, Chef Seiji Yamamoto’s flagship restaurant which has three Michelin stars and ranked number 31 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant. The modern kaiseki that it serves is a reflection of the agricultural bounty of Japan. With each dish skillfully prepared, this was one of the best meals I’ve had. In Ginza, the Omakase at the three Michelin-starred Sushi Yoshitake did not disappoint. The fish and other seafood used in every single piece of Nagiris were extremely fresh. Sushi might be star of the show at this restaurant, but the cooked dishes were equally sublime. It was highlighted by the abalone liver sauce mixed with sushi rice which was a mind-blowing dish that still resonates in my memory.

Hideki Ishikawa is Japan’s most decorated chef/restaurateur with three restaurants under his belt totaling eight Michelin stars. He also has the distinction shared by the likes of the Robuchon’s , the Keller’s and the Ducasse’s to have two restaurants at the same with the maximum rating from the Michelin guide. At his eponymous Ishikawa, I was served a wonderful contemporary style kaiseki that shows simplicity with plenty of subtle flavors. I also visited Kohaku the other three star restaurant of Chef Ishikawa, which is located in the same area and within walking distance from each other. The kitchen is under Koji Koizumi a disciple of Chef Ishikawa. There are many of similarities between them, but the two are distinctly different at the same time. Kohaku is a more modern prepared kaiseki that incorporate foreign ingredients, which are not usually use in Japanese cuisine.

Japan is surprisingly home to one of the finest French restaurant outside of France. Others can argue that it might better than its home country due to the high quality of ingredients it uses produced by Japan. Many of the top French chefs has an outpost sprinkled throughout country, but a large number of them are concentrated in Tokyo. I had a superb tasting menu at Chef Pierre Gaganaire, Two restaurant Peirre Gagnaire Au Tokyo on the 35floor of the ANA Intercontinental, which was awarded two Michelin stars. Each plate were carefully crafted, using only the finest local ingredients. As a bonus, guests enjoyed the scenic view of the whole city as the backdrop while dining. In Roppongi Hills, I dined at Chef of the Century Joel Robochon L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. Along with Paris, the Tokyo branch is one of the first L’Ateliers. Having previously gone to the Hong Kong location, these two Michelin starred restaurant are a lot more casual, yet the quality of food is equally top-notched.

Inside the train station in Ginza, resides a minuscule ramen shop called Kagari Echika, which has garnered a lot of following. They served me tasty bowl of ramen, with a broth that has a certain delightful creaminess. In Shinjuku, high above the mall of the train station is Tenichi, where I had some delicate fried tempura accompanied with fresh sashimi. While at Sushi Mamire, I was served with affordable yet enjoyable pieces of sushi and rolls. Pagliaccio Due in Shiba, is an Italian restaurant that serves pleasant dishes like the Seafood Rissotto, and the spaghetti with fish. Night caps in the New York Bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, were made lively with tunes from a funky jazz show. Soon after I feasted with the hotel famous weekend brunch. Finally, visiting Japan is not complete without trying the world famous Kobe beef. At Kobe Beef Kaiseki 511, I had a magical experience without breaking the bank. The beef was as good as advertised, and every bite was heavenly like cotton candy that melts in the mouth.

From Izakaya’s, to noodle shops, to high end kaiseki, sushi (as well as low end), and to fine French restaurants, I had the greatest time dining in Tokyo. The uncompromising use of quality ingredients in this city restaurant makes Tokyo the gastronomic capital of the world. The two weeks I spent there was simply not enough.

The next stop in my search and passion for fine dining was a short trip to Basel, Switzerland. I had the opportunity to dine at the three Michelin star, Cheval Blanc. The restaurant is located in one of Europe’s oldest hotel Le Trois Rois. Bavarian chef Pete Knogl, is in charge of the kitchen and under his leadership Cheval Blanc was elevated to culinary stardom. The tasting menu has global influences and shows the precision cooking technique of Chef Knogl. Each dish was light and has a fantastic complex combination of flavors and textures.

I couldn’t end 2016 without grazing the home front for some great eats. After all, no one can beat New York City in anything, (at least to a New Yorker that is). I had very good meals at the Upper East Side’s, The NUAA. This beautifully decorated restaurant serves refined Thai fare that’s geared towards the Western palate. Last year, I saw an onslaught of new eateries opening up in the Financial District improving the neighborhood’s restaurants scene. Among them is Eataly Downtown which opened to the public last summer. Much smaller than its older siblings in the Flatiron, this mega food market brought a slew of dining options that includes another outlet of the seafood haven, Il Pesce. The restaurant offers appetizing sustainable seafood prepared in the simplest form. As the last stop of my 2016 journey, West Village Carma Asian Tapas, served an unmatchable creative Far Eastern fare in small plate format. I enjoyed the way the kitchen recreated classic Chinese dishes, as well as using other Western ingredients that aren’t usually found in Asian cooking.

Though 2016 didn’t boast much of my hometown’s variety of eateries, it was a star studded year of dining in the international level. Overall, I would say it was great and successful year of eating. I’m looking forward to an even better 2017 where I plan to focus on New York City, its outer boroughs and state side. Hopefully, I can sprinkle few international trips here and there.

Kohaku ***

Counter

Kohaku
3-4 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku
Tokyo, Japan
+81 3-5225-0807

Paris, New York and Hong Kong, these three metropolis giants fall short to Tokyo when it comes to the largest concentration of restaurants with Michelin stars on the planet. Last year, when the guide elevated the Kohaku from two to three stars, it lifted the city’s record number of restaurants with three stars. It also made owner Chef Hideki Ishikawa the most Michelin starred Japanese chef with a total of eight. Running the kitchen at Kohaku, Chef Ishikawa tapped his disciple Koji Koizumi who had worked with him for many years at his namesake restaurant Ishikawa.

Dining Room

Kohaku resides along a small pedestrian only street in Kaguraza, Shinjuku-ku and within walking distance from its other sister restaurant Ishikawa and Ren. It has a modest exterior made from darkened bamboo sticks and a clean and simple interior adorned with natural wood. The restaurant is designed with a seven seat counter located by the entrance and a brightly lit dining room with uncovered tables, plain heavy padded chairs and floors covered in thick carpet.

Open only for dinner, Kohaku offers a single kaiseki for 19000 YEN. The meal started with Steamed Shrimp-Shaped Taro with White Miso Sauce. This was a bowl of white miso sauce with a floating ball of taro. The softened taro had plenty of starchiness infused with some nutty undertones. Deep-Fried Horse-head Fish and Ginkgo Nut, Home Blended Salt was next. With only three components this simple dish was perfectly executed. The fish scale and skin was extra crispy while the rest was kept firmed but also tender. Grilled Black-throat Sea Perch on a Sticky Rice was prepared nagiri-style like sushi. The sea perch was grilled impeccably with excellent texture and a pleasing burnt taste.

Snow Crab Dumpling in Clear Soup

Filefish and its Inner Covered with Chef’s Secret JellySnow Crab Dumpling in Clear Soup was the following course. Drenched in the subtleness of the clear soup, the dumplings distinct crab flavor shines brightly. The watery soup also provided moisture without mushing the dumpling. I was then served Filefish and its Inner Covered with Chef’s Secret Jelly. In Japan it was said that file fish is as good as fugu, but slightly cheaper and is often use as an alternative. This was definitely interesting and unique at the same time.

Charcoaled-grilled Spanish mackerel and Knead Lotus Root, Scattered Sliced Truffle.

Kinme Snapper Garnished Shitake Mushroom

The kaiseki continued with Charcoaled-grilled Spanish mackerel and Knead Lotus Root, Scattered Sliced Truffle. The mackerel had a nice charred outer layer as well as having a pleasant charcoal aroma. Shaving of black truffles (which was not commonly used in Japanese cooking) provided a touch of intense earthiness that worked perfectly with the mackerel. Kinme Snapper Garnished Shitake Mushroom came after. The snapper was served sashimi style and was incredibly fresh. Complementing the bright clean taste of the snapper was the smokiness of the shiitake mushroom.

Just Harvested Bamboo Shoot and Prawn, Soup of Ground Milt and SHOGOIN Turnip from Kyoto Just Harvested Bamboo Shoot and Prawn, Soup of Ground Milt and SHOGOIN Turnip from Kyoto was a bowl of thick lightly creamy soup filled with Japanese delicacy, and had plenty of fascinating subtle flavors. For the rice course Steamed Rice with Snow Crab and Queen Crab Roe, Pickled Vegetables and Miso Soup was served. Like my previous dinner at Ishikawa, Chef Kozuimi showed me a pot of rice with crab meat and covered in crab shell before mixing and presenting it in a smaller bowl. At this moment my appetite was satisfied from all the previous courses, and this filling blend of snow crab and rice erases any traces of hunger. Accompanying the rice were a side of pickled vegetables and miso.

Then finally, dessert came in the form of Caramel Ice Cream, Rum Mousse and Jelly with Fried Tofu Skin. This was not as sweet as I expected. It had some savory aspect with a tiny bite of alcohol that goes along with its cold element. Fried tofu skin was cleverly used for added textures.

Caramel Ice Cream, Rum Mousse and Jelly with Fried Tofu Skin

Though Kohaku has very good wine list it has a better sake collection. Prior to starting the meal I asked Chef Koizumi for a sake recommendation. He chose a bottle of cold sake that was on the dry side but wonderfully elevated each course.

This particular kaiseki focuses on fish, seafoods and vegetables. Red meat or any land proteins were nowhere to be found. The cooking was uncomplicated with modest flavors and only uses top notch seasonal ingredients. Chef Koizumi stayed within the boundaries of Japanese taste profile while also adding some of his own touch of modernity.

Sake

The Japanese is known for delivering incredible hospitality which I had experienced at Kohaku. When I was making the reservation I mentioned that I have a time constraint due to another engagement. What they did was simply unexpected. The restaurant opened half an hour early to allow me enough time to savor and enjoy my meal without being rushed. I made sure that I arrived on time and when I entered the restaurant, Chef Koji was waiting to welcome me at the counter.  For the next half an hour, the restaurant was all mine, and was one on one with the chef. The staff gave me their undivided attention, and even when it started to fill up the attentiveness did not falter.

Chef Hideki Ishikawa created Kohaku to be the casual version of Ishikawa. On my visit there was no indication of such. Though there are some small similarities between the two each have their own individual identity. Chef Koizumi and the staff at Kohaku are extremely capable in delivering a three star dining experience.

 

Sushi Yoshitake ***

 

Sushi Bar

Sushi Yoshitake
3F, Suzuryu Bldg
8-7-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Tokyo, Japan
104-0061
+81 3-6253-7331
Official Site

Reserving a top sushi restaurant in Tokyo is a task in itself and some are just nearly impossible to get in. A lot of them require a concierge from the hotel where you’re staying to make the reservation and most of the time, using the same service provided by a premium credit card is not acceptable. For the three Michelin starred, Sushi Yoshitake in Ginza, there were no exceptions and I had to go through the same concierge process. Sushi Yoshitake is one of the only three sushiya in Tokyo to receive the maximum rating from the guide, and is regarded amongst the top sushi restaurants in Tokyo.

Sushi Yoshitake

The restaurant received three stars in 2012 when it was first featured in the Michelin Guide. This was an incredible accomplishment by chef and owner Masahiro Yoshitake. Soon after, he opened a sister restaurant called Sushi Shikon in Hong Kong. Sushi Shikon debuted with two stars in 2013 and earned its third star just a year later. Having two restaurants dubbed with three Michelin stars simultaneously is a rare achievement for any chef. This is an honor that Chef Yoshitake shares with only a handful of other chefs in the world.

The restaurant

Sushi Yoshitake is on the third floor of a nondescript building on a side street. The place is small, clean and serene. It has a smooth natural finish counter made from a single slab of wood that only seats seven patrons. Behind the unique counter is where Chef Yoshitake does his magic along with his two other chefs. They wait patiently until all the guests on the reservation list arrive before they begin preparing for the meal. There is only one omakase choice for 24000 YEN. It is served daily for two evening seating; one at 6pm and the other at 9pm.

The omakase started with a series of appetizers that began with Steamed Egg Custard with Puffer Fish Soft Roe. A seasonal Japanese delicacy with its nice eggy and custard features combined to create an interesting unique taste. Next was Today’s Sashimi, fresh cuts of rockfish. With the skin side charred it added some nice textures and burnt taste to the fish natural flavors. The next dish was Tender Octopus, braised in sweet sauce, the octopus meat was firm yet tender that requires very minimal effort to breakdown. The sauce coated the octopus with color and some sweetness.

Steamed Abalone, Liver Sauce was the restaurant’s signature dish. The steamed abalone had several good textures, but the highlight of this dish was the sauce from the abalone liver. I could only describe the creaminess as heavenly as it takes your palette into this wonderful experience of flavors. Dipping the abalone in the sauces enhances it. After finishing the abalone, the chef added sushi rice to what’s left of the sauce and I was instructed to mix them together. The mixture produces another divine savory aspect to the sauce, not to mention a whole new dish in itself. 

I was then served Grilled Tilefish, perfectly grilled it was moist and tender while the skin was particularly crispy. Also on the plate was a half sliced Japanese lime, and by squeezing a few drops the mild taste of the tilefish is enhance. To follow was Steamed Clam with Sake and Canola Flower. Sliced clams soaked in sake and covered with green vegetables (similar to a broccoli stem) had a good subtle poise of bitterness and also a light floral oiliness. This was the last of the small dishes and marks the end of the first half of the omakase.

The sushi part of the omakase began with Ika – Squid, a fine piece of squid had smooth and chewy textures. Tai- Sea Bream followed after, its slightly sweet and delicate taste were well balanced. I was then served Yellow Tail which was completely off the menu. The flavors combined were absolutely delightful and just downright tantalizing.

Now the good stuff, Chu Toro-Medium Fatty Tuna, it had terrific equilibrium of delicious fattiness. O Toro-Fatty Tuna on the other hand just melts in your mouth. Tremendously soft and fatty that was sublime.

Kohada-Gizzard Shad, though also rich as the previous pieces, it has an oily content with a compress taste. Akgai-Ark Shell, had a clean ocean presence as well as having a tiny sourness in to it. Kuruma Ebi- Prawn came after, poached in a way that gave the shrimp a nice density that is tender at the same time. Uni-Sea Urchin was enormously buttery and amazingly delicious. Anago-Sea Eel, dashed with sweet soy sauces gives the eel’s grainy texture a wonderful sweetness.

Next was Tamaki- Tuna Hand Roll, crunchy seaweed stuffed with sushi rice and tuna. Chef Yoshitake used a lean tuna meat in this light and yet satisfying roll. Tamago-Egg Custard was perfectly done with cotton like softness and a delicate taste of sweet eggs. To end the omakase was Owan-Today Soup which was a miso soup. This was a cloudier version with strong seafood infused flavors. Enticed after seeing other guest ordered an additional Maki Roll I too requested for one which Chef Yoshitake pleasantly obliged. He used similar cut of tuna with the one used in the “Tamaki” to make six filling pieces.

This omakase was nothing short of outstanding. The hot and cold plates were terrific. The abalone liver sauce was exquisite and one the best dishes I’ve ever had. The sushi was on another level of excellence. Every fish and seafood was extremely fresh and clean. The rice held tightly together and renders a fabulous sour vinegar taste, providing an umami explosion in the palate. I let Chef Yoshitake choose the sake for me as the restaurant offers a range of reasonably price bottles as well as pricier wines. He picked three kind of sake in different temperatures and came in different type of carafes. All three were on point and went very well in the stages of the omakase.

With only seven guests at a time, the staff were able to give us their undivided attention. The service was friendly and authentic. A young Japanese man dressed immaculately in two piece suit assisted the guests while Chef Yoshitake and two of his assistant interact and prepare the meal behind the counter. Chef Yoshitake spent time living in New York with his wife explaining the western friendly attitude towards foreigners at the restaurant. As the night went on, and the omakase coming to a close, the atmosphere became more relax and engaging. The few local diners that were left started a conversation with me and soon Chef Yoshitake joined in.

Chef Yoshitake

Chef Yoshitake performs all dining phases at the restaurant. He does the slicing, rice cooking and the sushi making. He only uses the finest seasonal ingredients available that he procures directly from his distributor rather than from the market. He serves Edomae style sushi that is less traditional compare to other top sushiya in Tokyo. His sushi preparation and cuts are precisely made to be a perfect marriage with the flavor profile of his rice. His curing methods provide an extra depth of taste. Even with another world class restaurant Chef Yoshitake can be found behind the counter at Sushi Yoshitake at any day of the week. He consistently maintains the standard of the restaurants to stay on top in a city full of great suhiyas.

RyuGin ***

Dining Room

RyuGin
7-17-24 Roppongi, Minato
Tokyo, Japan
106 0032
+81 3-3423-8006
Official Site

It is the uncompromising standard of the Japanese culture of using only the finest ingredients in their culinary master pieces that has produced world renowned restaurants biggest names in the culinary world. Japan is booming with multitudes of up and coming places to wine and dine. Tokyo, the capital, is not only the gastronomic epicenter of the nation, but also in the world. The city has more Michelin stars than anywhere else on this planet, and holds the record with thirteen restaurants awarded the three-star status. One particular three star restaurant that piqued my interest was RyuGin in Roppongi.

RyuGin

The restaurant opened in 2003 by a very talented chef, Seiji Yamamoto, who previously spent eleven years at the ultra-traditional  Aoyagi in Tokyo. RyuGin received two stars in 2009 from the Tokyo’s Michelin guides inaugural edition and then the third star in 2010 which it has maintained since. Regarded among the top dining destination the restaurant is constantly included in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and in Asia’s 50 Best.

Tea Room

Japanese restaurants require guests to be on time when it comes to their reservation and many do not have a waiting area for those arriving early. RyuGin is different, when I arrived about ten minutes early I was escorted to a second floor waiting area, also known as their tea room. The cozy room had a live owl enclosed behind the bar. When my table was ready the hostess led me to a quiet dining room with no windows. The atmosphere was nothing short of serene. A thick black cloth covered the table and chairs with wooden backrests were surprisingly comfortable. The space is small, with only eighteen seats, and has a separate private room with its own sliding door. Like many Japanese three Michelin starred restaurants in Tokyo, this lacks the opulence interior that their western counterparts have. Only open during dinner service, RyuGin offers a keiseki menu at YEN 27000(a shorter version for YEN 21000 also available only after 9 pm).

Dining Room

“Beginning with a variety of Sensation. Seasonality, Aroma, Temperature, Texture and Assemblage” was the appetizer course which started the meal. It came in two parts, first was the Cod Milt, Turnip Yuzu. This bowl of Japanese delicacy had an interesting custard like texture. The milt’s richness was complemented well by the yuzu tea zest that serves as the broth. The second was a salad, Surf Clams, Assorted Vegetables and Dried Sea Cucumber. The mildness of the clams where fittingly mixed with wonderful vegetables. Dried sea cucumbers were added to give the dish some crunch.

The next course was “Longing for The Moment, Winter Story. Bathing Hotpot”Matsuba Crab and Seiko Crab. This was a flavorful hot pot with two delicious type of crab meat. Served on a separate plate was a crab claw with exposed meat, I was instructed by my server to dip it in the hot pot for the meat to absorb the crab infused broth. Extremely fresh bonito, red rock fish and squid sashimi makes up the “Sashimi: A Message from the Coast of Japan. Richness of the Sea, Tidal Current” Ocean Delicacy Displayed in 3 Plates. This seafood pleasure had an assortment of features, like the vibrant reddish meat of the bonito which has a unique taste while the red rock fish was full of beautiful fatty flavors. The squid on the other hand had a slight sweetness that went along with the rubbery textures.

Matsuba Crab and Seiko Crab Matsuba Crab and Seiko Crab Sashimi Grilled Sea Pech Seasoned with Assortment of Chilli Powder and Sprinkled Chestnut

That was followed by “Binchotan- A Powerful Scent of Charcoal grill” Grilled Sea Pech Seasoned with Assortment of Chilli Powder and Sprinkled Chestnut . The sea perch was grilled elegantly maintaining its delicateness. Chestnuts and other herbs not only gave the fish an additional crust, but also exuded an appealing fragrance. Giving this course a different aspect was shark fin fried tempura style with shiso leaf and uni, a terrific crispiness which had excellent flavors that included some slight herbal notes.

Goemon Tofu

Then came “What’s inside once you open the lid… A sense of relaxation” “Goemon Tofu” “Sprinkled Chestnut”. The attributes were very much akin to tofu, but more refined and of greater quality. Chestnuts added texture and also provided the tofu its distinct sweetness.

Famous Sanuki Olive Beef with small balls

The meal continued on with the “Grace of the Hometown as Ambassador of Kagawa’s Heritage” Famous Sanuki Olive Beef with small balls, a tribute to the prefecture of Kagawa, home to olives and high quality beef called sanuki that had been fed part of olives. This outstanding dish was prepared by smoking the beef in olives, giving the gorgeous meat an extra touch of smoky olive flavor. There was a side of olive salt which was interesting and quail eggs which was unexpectedly good when eaten with the beef.Sea urchin Rice. National Flower of Japan “Chrysanthemum” SoupA rice dish towards the end followed by a soup was the typical order in a keiseki meal. It was combined in “The land of Rice plant. Pleasure of eating off the same trencher “New Rice”.Sea urchin Rice. National Flower of Japan “Chrysanthemum” Soup. Served on a round wooden tray was a rice bowl topped with decadent Hokkaido sea urchin and a bowl of miso soup. The soup had a clear and clean taste. For visual appeal and aesthetic, in the soup was a piece of tofu that was methodically cut in a shape of chrysanthemum, homage to Japan’s national flower.

Mandarin Sanshou Hot Sake and Cold Sake Sweet Flavors

Moving on, the pre desert course was a mouthful to read off the menu, but did not disappoint. The “Lusciousness. Coolness, Warmth, Playful Spirits, Nostalgia and Temptation” Sunshine Filtering through Foliage, Mandarin Sanshou definitely lived up to its name. On the plate was a perfectly peeled mandarin with black tea ice cream and sprinkled with sanshou. It has a nice contrast of spiciness and sour sweet the small cubes of Japanese cheese were spread throughout balancing the sweetness of the sauce made from wasanbon. This was a simple dish but with a lot of complexity. For dessert, Oryzae “National Fungus” Pride of Japan. Hot Sake and Cold Sake Sweet Flavors . An inventive method in creating a soufflé made from sake. The soufflé had an airy texture was served warm where the sake could be profoundly recognized, the same can be said about the ice cream. There was a good sweetness in both while also having a slight bitterness. Chef Yamamoto showcased the versatility of sake by using sake as the main component of a sweet dish was a stroke of genius. Finally ending the meal was a fantastic bowl of matcha tea.

Matcha Tea

Every plate of each course in this kaiseki menu is chef’s Yamamoto reflection of the agricultural richness of Japan. The flavor profiles are strictly Japanese, subtle and minimalist but prepared with modern techniques. There was a high standard of cooking and creativity shown. The quality of ingredients is second to none as they only use the finest seasonal ingredients that were sourced locally and throughout Japan. From the food preparation to kitchenware all the way to the sequences of dishes that follows the traditional kaiseki there were many intricate details that were executed with precision. Accompanying beverage pairing, consisting of eight glasses of European wines and sakes were paired brilliantly.  Each drink brought a different dimension of taste at the end of every bite.

WIne Pairing:

Throughout my meal I was served by an English speaking staff who also handled a large majority of foreign guests that were dining during my visit. Its Japanese counterpart was equally pleasant and tried their best to communicate at a rare time when they were the ones that brought my food. Service was focused yet at the same time approachable with a willingness to engage in quick conversation without taking too much of the guests time. On my way out I was handed a parting gift, a bottle containing water from Mount Fuji. Before reaching the exit Chef Yamamoto came out hurriedly to say his goodbye, thanking me and to see me out the door. The chef and the staff at RyuGin exemplify the humbleness of Japanese hospitality.

Water from Mount Fuji

Many self-proclaimed amazing restaurants rely on their aesthetics for measure, but the great ones will always rely on the food they serve. Authentic gems such as New York’s Eleven Madison Park, Peru’s Central and Italy’s Osteria Francescana, all serve muti-course menus that tell tales of their roots. Chef Yamamoto’s creations are grounded by his culture, and yet his ability to embrace the modernity that surrounds him, and express this fusion into his ingredients, has garnered him many praises. His accomplishments throughout the years created a mini restaurant empire that includes the two Michelin starred Tenku RyuGin in Hong Kong and Syoun RyuGin in Taipei. His devolution still lies in Tokyo where he continues to run the kitchen. With a plethora of great places to eat in Tokyo it was very difficult to choose one, but without the journey of trying many other places, I wouldn’t have experience the magic of RyuGin. It has left an incredible impression on me, and will consider my dining experience there one of the most unique and unforgettable.

 

Sushi Azabu *

Sushi Counter

Sushi Azabu
428 Greenwich St
New York, NY 10013
(212) 274-0428
Official Site

The best sushi is often a combination of the freshest fish and rice cooked to perfection. New Yorkers are very fortunate to have a multitude of sushi restaurants that understand and deliver this perfect combination. One of that easily comes to mind is TriBeCa’s Sushi Azabu.

Located in the basement of another restaurant called Greenwich Grill, this Michelin starred sushi spot can be a bit challenging to find. There are no signs outside, but for sushi connoisseurs, the location is something you simply must know.

When you arrive, a person in the front wearing a headset with a mouthpiece will ask you which restaurant you are here for. After it’s determined that you are there for Sushi Azabu, your arrival is announced through their wireless ear and mouth piece, secret-agent style. You are then escorted through a packed dining room and into a staircase were the scent of fish is noticeable as soon you begin your descent.

As you enter the underground sushi haven, a soft light drops neatly on top of the glossy blond tables and immediately you notice that there is no music. This combined ambiance provides Sushi Azabu a peaceful and calm setting.

There is a strong presence of Japan throughout the restaurant. The interior is designed with bamboo ceilings, stone floorings, and bright red walls. A long brown leather bench stretches at almost the length of the space. A large Japanese goldfish print overlooks a natural oak sushi bar that can sit about eight guests. It is the preferred choice of seating by many patrons that consist mostly Japanese and local TriBeCans.

Dining Room Sushi Bar

The sushi at Sushi Azabu is plain and simple—no frills just traditional Edomai style. Fish and rice brushed with soy sauce according to the chef. There are several set menus that are available, as well as sushi’s al la carte. If budget permits, I suggest going for the omakase menu at $100 per person. In this menu, there are several hot and raw dishes to go along with the sushi.

I’ve had the omakase here before. It began with a mouthwatering oceanic taste, with a little sour and sweet chopped giant oyster. Chilled and served in half shell garnished with fish roe, scallions and soy sauce, followed by assorted sashimi that melts in your mouth with every bite. This was a fine introduction to a great meal. My personal favorite was the tuna.

Omakase:

Giant Oyster

Sashimi

The following courses were the only two cook dishes in the omakase, the first one was the savory Grilled Fatty Tuna. Beautiful chunks soft and milky fatty tuna meat with a slight sweetness from the marinade. Egg Custard, or in Japanese, Chawanmushi was the other cooked dish. This is one of the only few Japanese dishes that a spoon is used. It was a really nice ‘in between’ filler.

The next and last course before the sushi was the Pickled Clams that has a slippery texture and a salty and sour taste. Then a brief intermission, as the sushi chef looks at his paper, planning each piece that he will be serving.

Pickled Oyster

The sushi pieces is as follows: Amberjack, botan shrimp, fluke, flavorful fatty tuna, red snapper, eel, salmon (my choice; the chef will ask you what would you like), uni and tuna scallion roll. They were all high quality, clean and some of the freshest seafood I’ve ever had. The rice was cooked to perfection with a vinegary touch of flavor. It was masterfully compacted and served at room temperature. Each piece explodes with flavor in every bite.

Miso soup is served before the dessert and their version includes a head of a large prawn that is bountifully infused in the soup, creating an abundance of seafood flavor.

Tuna Roll

Miso Soup

I can’t barely remember the desert I had at the end of my omakase since my focus is more on the sushi.I do remember that it’s was a semi sweet green tea ice cream .

I’ve had many visits at Sushi Azabu and each time is better than the last. The most recent one where I had the Koi course (10 pieces of sushi and a miso soup for $35) was magical. The fish was extra fresh. To add to the sushi, the Grilled Black Cod marinated in miso sauce was a delightful hot dish. The cod was properly grilled tasting moist and buttery.

Koi Course

Sushi Azabu’s food is matched with a two paged list of sake that is imported directly from Japan. There is a good variety of sake, available in either full or half bottle.

Grilled Black Cod

Reservations are a must, and they require guest to be on time. There seems to be an unofficial time limit of about two hours per seating especially by the bar on a busy night. But the staff assures guest that they are able to enjoy their dinner during that time. The servers are well trained and approachable. Service never falters and reliable from my different visits.

Consistency and simplicity is the trade mark of Sushi Azabu and for a restaurant at this caliber the prices are reasonable. The quality of ingredients that are used, the flawless execution combined with the techniques that are applied in each and every individual sushi ranks Sushi Azabu among the elite of sushi restaurant in New York City.
.

Hiroko’s Place

Dining Room

Hiroko’s Place
75 Thompson St
New York, NY 10012
(212) 625-1303

*This venue is now closed.

Lost among all the high end shopping and boutique stores in SOHO is a small Japanese restaurant called Hiroko’s Place. Located along Thompson St., it feels more like a café than a restaurant. There are eclectic patterned seat covered steel Windsor chairs, different shapes of tables, and plush sofas and chairs. The walls are nicely decorated with Japanese watercolor art, a curio cabinet is filled with porcelain tea sets and figurines, completed with bookcase filled with Manga books. The floor to ceiling store front windows brighten up the inside on a sunny day.

Hiroko’s Place specializes in a Japanese style of cooking called yoshoku (meaning Western Food). Unfamiliar with the general public, yoshoku was first introduced during the Meiji Restoration in the mid-19th century. A period when Japan transformed from a secluded nation into adopting Western ideas which the emperor believed was a means to the nation’s future progress. During this process Japan adopted Western food and put a little twist to it.

Like many first time diners I was baffled on my initial visit at Hiroko’s Place. Expecting the staple Japanese dishes – rolls, udon, and yakatori – on their menu. Instead, I was presented by what we Americans call comfort food.

 

 

There are a few Japanese inspired appetizers like the crab and shrimp shumai and the Kara-age (Japanese style fried chicken) which is a great way to start a meal or just to snack on. The entrée choices are broad, from spaghetti and casseroles to sandwiches!

The Mushroom Spaghetti greets you with its earthy aromatic mixture of mushrooms making it one of my favorite dishes in this restaurant while its Sea Food counterpart is just as delicious. Their Chicken and Vegetable Curries has a gentle touch of spiciness and when the curry sauce is mixed with the white rice it becomes a hearty dish. The Pizza Toast and Casserole Sea Food gratin are both similar in that they are filling dishes. On my last visit here I had the Fried Shrimp, one of their specialty dishes. Deep fried jumbo shrimp covered in panko (Japanese style bread crumbs) served with rice and eggs.

 

 

 

 

The best dish that I’ve tasted at Hiroko’s Place is the Omu Rice (rice omelet) that is stuffed with fried rice, chicken, and vegetables. For a dollar more the omu rice is transformed into Anpan-Man Omu Rice, presented with a smiling face and Japanese inscription designed in ketchup.

Hiroko’s Place offers desserts that are not too sweet and go well with the in house made coffees. A Green Tea Parfait served in a tall glass and the Custard Pudding A La Mode are both packed with fruits and ice cream while the A la Mode is served with a glass of liquid sugar to sweeten it up to your liking.

 

 

Unfortunately there are no alcoholic drinks served at Hiroko’s Place which can be discouraging for some, but the siphon coffee maker behind the bar brews a potent cup of coffee that any caffeine snob can appreciate. They offer an array of teas and milkshakes as well.

Food prices are inexpensive, large plates are no more than $20 dollars and appetizers average at $8, a surplus for an individual to do more shopping in the neighborhood!

Guests are greeted in Japanese by the staff when you walk in and as you leave. It is a popular spot among native Japanese diners which occupy the restaurant at any given day of the week. On one of my visits I overheard a guest talking to his companion that the food that they serve at this restaurant was close to the one that he had served in Japan. Hiroko’s Place is authentic as it gets!

Yuba Restaurant

Sushi CounterYuba Restaurant
105 E 9th St
New York, NY 1000
(212) 777-8188
Official Site

It’s not hard to find a good Japanese restaurant in New York City, especially if you’re in East Village where there’s an unlimited amount of cheap sushi and ramen places flocked by NYU students on a budget. Then there is Yuba Restaurant, a restaurant that might be a tad too pricey for the neighborhood’s inhabitants but it’s where sushi aficionados can indulge in quality nagiri’s and rolls.

Located on one of the only few blocks where pedestrian traffic is limited in the neighborhood, this modern Japanese restaurant can be easily overlooked while walking along East 9th St. A sign hanging above is all that shows that this place exists. There are a few intrigued passersby that will take a peek inside its large store front windows.

The restaurants simple interior and absence of music from its speakers gives the impression of a relaxed atmosphere were diners can have a peaceful conversation in a normal tone of voice. The décor is so uncomplicated that it seems almost dull. Dark wooden tables are spread throughout the space; paintings of Brooklyn Bridge adorn the wall and a sushi bar located toward the back. Completing the space are round lights on the ceiling that illuminates the surrounding area appropriately. The long leather tufted back bench along its walls and bar on the opposite side looked as if it has never seen an alcohol service.

 

 

Yuba Restaurant opened in 2010 by two of Masa Takayama’s disciples, George Ruan and Jack Wei. This restaurant is no stranger to incorporating luxury ingredients. There is foie gras, caviar, and truffles in their menu, but unlike other high end sushi spots in New York, the prices here are decent that it makes you wonder if they are operating at a loss. Their omakase starts at $50 per person which consists of 12 pieces of sushi that includes special pieces with fish shipped directly from Japan and the a la carte sushi is priced between $3 and $6 per piece. The menu is extensive, with selections of small, large, and hot and cold plates which can be ordered if you’re not in the mood for sushi. Special lunch sets of sushi, sashimi, and rolls range from $11 to $15 are also available. The sets include the restaurants version of miso soup, made with yuba (tofu skin).

 

 

Sushi pieces like the medium raw wagyu beef, squid with a lemon zest, and the octopus were very good. There are also enjoyable small plates like the crunchy and flavor packed Sweet Corn Tempura and the servers’ recommendation of Layered Yuba Pouch with mushrooms braised in a thick Asian sauce.

The drink list is nothing to brag about, but good enough to say they have a nice selection of sake that compliments the food and Japanese beer that is also available. Don’t even bother with the wine, especially if one is a connoisseur.

On my recent visits at Yuba Restaurant, I ordered the sushi omakase for dinner and sat at the sushi bar where I was able to witness the sushi chef’s artistry. He began with a small plate of pickled vegetables, preparing my palate for a night of aquatic goodness. Then one by one the sushi is placed in front of me, no extra soy sauce needed as he glazed them each perfectly while the chef and owner, George Ruan, looked on. Just when I thought the meal had reached greatness from the first six pieces, to my surprise, it was just the beginning. The second half of the omakase was amazing. It started with a snapper with truffle, an off the menu item. The blend of the sharp truffle taste with the flavor and texture of the blow torched snapper was memorable, followed by salmon, then tuna, and afterwards the mackerel and uni. He then ended with an Anago Sea Eel that melts in the mouth. After the meal, the friendly Chef Ruan freely chatted about his days at Masa and his experience as a sushi chef. It was an interesting and fun conversation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An absolute East Village gem, the staff make you feel at home, especially the manager, Nina, who’s welcoming and warm attitude is an attribute to this unpretentious restaurant.

The fish that is used are fresh, clean, and of the highest quality. The focus and the precision of the chefs are showcased in their food. If this restaurant was located outside of New York City this would have been buzzing in the media; but then again this is New York where high quality sushi restaurants are everywhere and some are even comparable to the very best in Japan. Yuba Restaurant can be easily lost in the conversation of the top sushi restaurants in New York. High end food, casual settings, and prices that won’t break the bank, that’s Yuba Restaurant.

Tori Shin

*This venue has moved to another location

Tori Shin may not be your idea of a typical Japanese restaurant; they do not serve seafood but rather specialize in chicken “yakatori” or skewered grilled chicken. But don’t sleep on this Upper East Side Michelin starred restaurant. Its use of high quality organic ingredients, meticulous arrangement of food, and exotic mix of flavors will leave you mesmerize with a new appreciation for Japanese cuisine remixed.

Entering Tori Shin through its sliding black wooden doors feels like entering a restaurant in Tokyo. The hostess and the grillers behind the bar announce your arrival in Japanese for the entire audience of diners and staff. The authenticity of the atmosphere begins with the people, the Japanese staff and predominately Japanese clientele. On one occasion, I overheard a Japanese guy, explaining to his American friend what “yakatori” is and how it is very similar to the food in Japan.

The restaurant has an authentic Japanese dining interior. In the middle a three sided bar (similar to a sushi bar) built with maple wood is paired with red leather chairs all of which occupy the majority of the small intimate space. A long red swayed bench sandwiched between 2 Japanese plants serves as a waiting area. Some uncovered tables by the windows are also available. Soft lighting and minimal noise allows for a very subdued setting.

 

 

 

 

Whenever I come to Tori Shin I always sit by the bar to witness the artistry of the grillers. The grillers are masters at their craft. Knowing the exact timing for turning the skewers to get the right balance of heat, and knowing exactly how much soy sauce to add to bring out the right flavors takes years of intense practice. The highly specialized techniques they use are unmatched. During a lunch visit I saw the same grillers meticulously butchering chickens and preparing skewers with ridiculous precision for the dinner service.

The omakase dinner is highly recommended. Priced at $55, it consists of 10 skewers (6 meats, 1 special meat and 2 vegetables,) grated daikon (to clean the palate,) a rice dish, pickled vegetables and dessert. Submit yourself to the chef, as I did and he will wow you as you watch him work. With over 40 chicken skewers grilled in charcoal, you will want to try all 40; the skewers are that good! The freshness of the organic chicken prepared with various types of sauces is amazing. Skewers like the chicken meatballs are moist with an indescribable chicken flavor. The special chicken meatballs with egg yolk sauce are enough to make you want to return again and again. The rice balls are as good as the skewers especially the Special Oyako Don made with chicken and egg over rice, it was definitely a sublime taste. I enjoyed the texture of the rice, soft and watery. Contrary to my previous posts where I mention that Asian cuisine is not known for their desserts, Tori Shin is the exception; the “Shiso Sorbet” or “Japanese Mojoto” was a unique threat. It tasted like a mojito but 10 times better.

 

 

 

 

Lunch is also good and affordable. Their $20 lunch omakase comes with 5 skewer (3 meats and 2 vegtables,) salad, miso soup, rice and kobachi. The option of A la carte is also available for both lunch and dinner.

In the past Tori Shin was only known to the locals and hard core foodies. Hopefully with exposure from entrance into the Michelin Guide, Tori Shin can become a destination restaurant not just enjoyed by the Upper East Siders. Great friendly service and amazing unique food are the makings of a winning combination.

Tori Shin
1193 1st Ave
New York, NY 10065
(212) 988-8408
Official Site

Matsuri

Matsuri
369 W 16th St
(between 8th Ave & 9th Ave)
New York, NY 10011
212 243 6400
Official Site

*This venue is now closed.

Housed in Chelsea’s Maritime Hotel along with similarly chic bar/lounge and dinning hot spots is Japanese restaurant Matsuri. I was both intrigued and delighted on my visit to this exquisite restaurant. This is one of the places that come to my mind when I have a craving for some Sake and exceptional Japanese food.

Upon arrival to Matsuri guests are greeted by a female hostess dressed in Geisha attire who then escorts them directly to their table or to the lounge area called the “Sake Room” for some pre-dinner drinks. The restaurant is dark, intimate, not too crowded and has a relaxed atmosphere. After the entrance the “Sake Room” (resembling a balcony hanging over the dining area) is the first section of the restaurant. Then from there guests make their way down a small staircase into a spacious and dim dining room that feels like a place where a Shogun calls home. Japanese aesthetics can be felt and seen throughout the space, hanging above are beautifully decorative paper lanterns inscribed with Japanese characters, wall panels are painted with Japanese motifs and bonsai trees sparsely placed throughout. The high ceiling’s curved wooden beams have been described by “Blackbook Mag” as “like the bowels of a samurai ship. ” Guests can sit at tables in the center or in wooden booths that line the sides and corners of the space and elevated on a platform. At the center of the dinner area is a sushi bar.

 

 

 

 

Acclaimed chef Tadashi Ono who has mastered the art of Japanese and French cuisine helms the kitchen at Matsuri. Dinner is incredible and the price tag is the average range for Japanese food and the location. A $69 five course tasting menu (with decent serving sizes) that can be paired with Sake is the way to go. Their Sake drink list maybe the most extensive collection in NYC. Among the appetizers I’ve tried: the Yellowtail Sashimi with yuzu green pepper sauce and the Crabmeat Shumai steamed dumpling with ginger. The sashimi was very good – fresh and clean, while the crab meat was not bad either. For entrées I’ve tasted: the Sake Black Cod, grilled and marinated with sake paste and the Short Rib of Beef, braised slowly with dark miso sauce. The Sake Black Cod has a perfect salty taste that was not overpowering; and Short Rib’s texture was smooth and delicate with an amazing taste. Finally of the desserts, I’ve tasted: the Green Tea tiramisu with red bean ice cream and the Chocolate Cake with raspberry sorbet. Both were very good considering deserts are not usually noteworthy among Japanese cuisine.

 

 

Overall Matsuri has a good vibe, friendly servers, good food and nice décor. With an extensive Sake list and great food, it’s a great place to start out for drinks or dinner before heading out to party in the neighboring Meatpacking District. I always have a great experience at Matsuri every time I come. “Matsuri” being the word for “festival” in Japanese, every meal at this exotic an exquisite restaurant is surely a festivity!!!

MEGU (TriBeCa)

album: http://www.rayspicksnyc.com/wp-content/plugins/dm-albums/dm-albums.php?currdir=/wp-content/uploads/dm-albums/megu/

Megu (Tribeca)
62 Thomas St.
New York NY 10013
Official site

*This venue is now closed.

Located in the heart of Tribeca, Megu is an elegant and exotic restaurant that I would classify as semi trendy, one of hot places to be. Megu wowed me with its slick interior combining modern with traditional Japanese. The chairs, tables and wall units were more or less modern, whereas the Japanese flag, a huge ancient looking bell suspended above an awesome Buddha ice sculpture (the restaurant’s center piece) were among the ancient touches.

My first stop at Megu was the bar or the “M Lounge,” there I had a drink while waiting for my friend. The M Lounge is pretty cool with very dim lighting and walls decorated with Japanese wallpaper (rolls of wallpaper of various designs encased in a glass.) A side section of the M Lounge allows you to view the main dinning room below through a huge glass partition, a great view. While at the bar I had Megu’s signature cocktail called “Blessing” – ”Megu” is the Japanese word for “Blessing.”I was blessed by the taste: Russian Standard, strawberry, and pomegranate juice, a rich strawberry/pomegranate taste, slightly sweet and mildly tart with a zing – yummy. Definitely Bless yourself at the M Lounge.

When my friend arrived and we got to the main dining hall, we were amazed by the ice Buddha up-close. Glowing from the light reflected around it and seemingly hovering above its watery seat filled with red rose petals, you get the feeling that the spirit of the Buddha is alive.

While waiting for our food we noticed a lively group behind us who at closer inspection we realized were members of City Council, of course Megu is often visited by celebrities, political figures and the like.

Megu lived up to the hype when it came to its high-end modern Japanese cuisine – the food was great!!! I began with Madai oriental salad, and then followed with Silver cod for the entree, and finally the Matcha Greentea Crepe for dessert. Everything was delicious especially the cod which was incredibly soft and flavorful. My friend started with sautéed scallops, and then had the Kobe beef for the entrée and finished with chocolate cake for desert. My friend raved about everything. The Kobe beef served on a bed of stone was everything it was supposed to be, the tenderest, smoothest and most appetizing meat you will every sink your teeth into.

The serving sizes are very small, but if you order a three course meal, at the end you will be satisfied but not full. Hardy eaters with homegrown stomachs may have to get some pre or post eats…lol. Appetizers are about $15-$30, entrees will run about $30 and up, and drinks are $17 up depending on how high-end you want to go. It’s pricey but worth the experience.

Before you leave Megu make sure you pour water on the ice Buddha and make a wish or say a prayer. Overall I highly recommend Megu, food and ambiance are great for impressing a date or a client.