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An Asian Eating Adventure


BryanZ
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. . . .

That beautiful specimen of Cha Gio that is crispy yet devoid of any blistering or bubbles on the skin is something I have not yet found here. I believe they achieve that surface texture by drying the skin for a bit before frying it....just a guess. Most of the decent Cha Gio here is crispy but blistered (and many places cheat by using Egg Roll wrappers).

. . . .

Thanks again.

Thank you for this. I have tried in the past to deep-fry the rice paper wraps and the result was not particularly appealing. So the next time I will try drying them for a while before frying.

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

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. . . .

That beautiful specimen of Cha Gio that is crispy yet devoid of any blistering or bubbles on the skin is something I have not yet found here. I believe they achieve that surface texture by drying the skin for a bit before frying it....just a guess. Most of the decent Cha Gio here is crispy but blistered (and many places cheat by using Egg Roll wrappers).

. . . .

Thanks again.

Thank you for this. I have tried in the past to deep-fry the rice paper wraps and the result was not particularly appealing. So the next time I will try drying them for a while before frying.

I'd love a report on the results. If drying (perhaps in an oven??) isn't it - then I honestly don't know how they achieve this - it's almost like thin glass.

fmed

de gustibus non est disputandum

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Singapore, cont'd.

Covered in chili crab we retired back to our hotel room. The next day we set off for more somewhat more rustic eats. This day would take us through a good portion of Singapore's urban center. Like I mentioned, I found the multi-ethnicism of the place fascinating and refreshing, and I certainly appreciated how this variety of cultures influenced the city's cuisine.

Within walking distance one call stroll through a variety of proud, ethnic neighborhoods. While other cities may have a similar level of diversity, in Singapore there's less feeling of disenfranchisement that often unfortunately seems natural in minority neighborhoods.

Inside a Hindu temple

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At Sultan Mosque

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Certainly the world's cleanest Chinatown

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Inside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

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Our first food stop of the day was at Hill Street Tai Hwa at Block 466 Crawford Lane, unit 01-12. This is a famous shop that's actually engaged in something of a family feud at present. Apparently the noodle master's nephew opened up an unofficial branch in a new, high-end mall food court, suggesting that the staff at the original had defected to this new location. Drama. Ooooh. Makes tasting the original that much better.

Hill Street Tai Hwa, ordering area and kitchen

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"We are THE ONE and ONLY ORIGINAL..." Indeed.

Two versions of noodles are available, with soup or dry.

Minced pork noodles, with soup

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A really, really good bowl of noodles. All the raw ingredients go into the bowl, well, raw and are poached as the hot broth is poured into the bowl. Each bowl is quickly assembled by the curmudgeonly old noodle sage. There's minced pork, sliced pork liver, two types of noodles, seaweed, fried dried fish, and probably many other things.

Minced pork noodles dry

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While the soup version was a nicely integrated dish, this dry version made more of an impression. A small cup of broth was served on the side, but with this noodle dish it's all about the diverse textures and a strong hit of vinegar. I really enjoyed the assertive, fermented funk that the dark vinegar brought. Different, eggy noodles here as opposed to the presumably rice noodles in the soup version.

After walking through the Arab and Indian sections of the city we sat down for lunch to sample another very Singaporean dish, fish head curry. I was a little bit skeptical of Banana Leaf Apollo on Race Course Road, as its hugely popular in guidebooks. In fact, the entire Race Course area is generally dismissed by online personalities who fancy themselves fish head curry connoisseurs. I can see where the derision comes from. The restaurants on this road are perhaps a bit touristy. For every party of locals there were two parties of Japanese or Chinese businessmen.

Auspicious beginnings aside, this was still some of the better Indian food I've had. I hardly count high-end NY Indian at the likes of Tabla or Devi as authentic, so it's difficult to compare here. Nor is the typical neighborhood Indian joint putting out order after order of butter chicken worth comparing. I've done some eating in Edison, NJ, a veritable Little India out in the 'burbs, but stylistically Banana Leaf still offered something new. The spicing, though not heat level, was a level or two higher than what I'd previously been accustomed to. From rice to curries, everything was turned up.

And eating off of banana leaves without silverware was just fun.

Biryani, chicken and mutton masala

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The mutton was a bit tough, as I suppose is typical. Both meats were cooked on the bone, but the chicken was the dish that seemed to benefit more from this.

Fish head curry

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This was a small and still amply fed the three of us. Working with such a large fish head actually made things easier: larger pieces of meat to eat and larger bones were easier to avoid. This was very tasty. Not as rich or thick as similar fish curries I've had in the US, but more spiced and with quite a bracing amount of acid. Unique and very good.

Papri chaat

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Refreshing.

Remnants

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We nibbled on the tongue. It was extremely soft, almost like braised pork fat. Not bad, but stronger in flavor than I would've imagined.

Up to this point in the day we'd eaten relatively traditional dishes. Upon coming back into the city center we chanced upon a sleek doughnut shop in the Raffles City mall food court. With a certain standard of living comes time to devote to rather absurd food products. Walk through any aisle in any grocery store in the US with a foreigner's perspective and this becomes staggeringly clear. Here, we sampled high-end doughnuts with a Singaporean twist. Total impulse purchase, not authentic, borderline nauseating, high-quality product.

4 Cs (left) and white chocolate-green tea (right) doughnuts

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The white chocolate-green tea wasn't so much my speed. Too sweet and with that weird Asian beany sweetness that I've never gotten around to relishing in. The 4 Cs, can you guess what they are? Chocolate. Duh. Coconut. Obvious. Custard. OK. Corn. Ah, yes, corn, that most prolific grass that comes up in a great many South Asian desserts. Given the amalgam of ingredients this was actually quite good in a very strange way.

Edited by BryanZ (log)
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What a dead-sexy trip report. I'm already drooling in anticipation of when I can make it over there. Especially for the Singapore chili crab, which is my favorite food in the universe. Thanks for sharing with us.

The fish head curry looks marvelous as well. Just by looking at the dish (and the banana leaves the restaurant uses), it reminds me a lot of some of the Southern Indian (Kerala) fish curries I've had. Was the flavor reminiscent of such?

Edited by faine (log)
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Singapore, cont'd.

One can't leave Singapore without visiting a hawker centre. Or so the guidebooks told me. The most frequently recommended hawker centre is Newton Circus. As a result it's the most touristy and has also come under scrutiny for overcharging. In one particularly egregious incident a party of Americans was charged for $400 for a meal in what's effectively a crowded cafeteria. Read all about it, here.

Instead we chose Maxwell Centre, near Chinatown. One of Singapore's most famous chicken rice vendors operates out this centre, and there were surely many other items to try. One arrives in this covered but open air food pavilion and meets with several long rows of vendors. Keeping with Singapore's penchant for bureaucratic regulation most stalls had health department ratings clearly on display. Mostly Bs but the occasional A here and there. Somewhat comforting, I suppose. My mother appreciated the nods toward cleanliness.

Inside the hawker centre

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Even with the dozens of fans it was hot inside. Getting a seat near sides that open to the street is imperative.

We made a beeline for the chicken rice at Tian Tian, and filled in the rest of our meal with whatever looked good.

Tian Tian chicken rice

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Awesome. A good version of this dish floors me every time and this was by far the best I've had. The chicken is so, so soft, subtle yet flavorful. The ginger chili sauce perks everything up. For having eaten rice my entire life, I'd still say that I still find it blander than most people. This was fragrant, light, delicious.

Right near Tian Tian is another famous vendor, Maxwell Fuzhou Oyster Cake. Both Bourdain and Makansutra give this spot high marks.

Oyster cake

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It's actually not a particularly cheap couple of bites of food, but it is quite interesting. I thought it'd be crispier, like a Korean oyster pancake. Instead it was more pillowy, like a doughnut almost, filled with oyster. I'm not the biggest fan of cakey things, so I didn't love this. It was still quite tasty though.

Black pepper cha siu with noodles and dumplings

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We just chanced upon this stall and were drawn to the promise of glossy, black pepper roasted pork. Th black pepper flavor came through, another layer of flavor on the typical salty-sweet of normal cha siu. This was a solid plate, but probably was the most forgettable of the lot.

Stir-fried bok choy, crispy shallot

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My mother has this obsession with vegetables. I like them just fine and this dish was just that. Nothing notable, but it filled a niche.

Bar kut teh

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Another dish I was told not to miss in Singapore. The development of this noodle soup is, if I have my facts straight, quite analogous to the development of many dishes in trendy restaurants across this country. What began as a traditional herbal tea/broth slowly had other components added to it, namely pork, so that over time it became a dish beacon for meaty excess. A couple of cuts of pork were feature here, but the ribs were the most succulent. The same stall also had a pretty intense looking organ/trotter noodle soup that I saw a couple people order. Next time, I guess. The bar kut teh felt immensely fortifying.

Laksa

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Another coconut curry-based noodle soup, similar to khao soy. Some shrimp and these fried tofu nuggets added texture. Rich and satisfying.

I was impressed with Maxwell Centre. There's clearly a range in the quality of the offerings. Some things, like the chicken, are simply awesome. I would hazard that the average stall ranges somewhere from solid to good. Obviously we're not talking Vietnam cheap here but a large meal can be had for perhaps $8, less if sharing with a few people.

Having consumed more than our share of noodles and other Singaporean delights we retired to the hotel. Getting around Singapore is quite easy with the efficient metro system. We would be departing in just a few hours for a 5 am flight to Tokyo.

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My buddy, Lee, took me to the Apollo for lunch when I was there a few years back, and made a show of scooping the eyeball out.

I can't say it did much for me.

But, I agree with you, Byran. For a place that's written up in all the guide books as a tourist site, the food is quite nice. I particularly liked their side dishes, one of which was baby octopus, pickled black and juicy.

And it is fun to eat off of leaves. :smile:

Edit - I just checked my notes, they were squids in a curry of their own ink. Not octopii.

Edited by Peter Green (log)
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Tokyo, Japan

At 4 am usually airport food offerings are slim to say the least. I was pleased enough to see signs for a 24-hour food area in Singapore's airport, expecting perhaps an edible pastry or, praise the heavens, a simple rice or soup dish.

While only one of the kiosks in said food court was open, we had some very good food. Too tired to take pictures, we tucked into a roasted pork noodle soup and a solid congee. Much better than they had to be with quality that might be expected a hawker center. I'm still of the opinion that Tokyo's handmade noodles were better, but in this last chapter of The Airport Food Showdown, Singapore put forth a very strong dark horse contender. Certainly, 4 am grub in a desserted food court in the Singapore airport garners the people's choice award.

Despite the incredibly early departure, Tokyo and Singapore are actually quite far apart. About 6+ hours in the air, I believe.

For those unfamiliar, Narita airport is a good ways from Tokyo proper. A 1-1.5 hour train ride is the most common means to get to the city, and a taxi costs well over $200. Welcome to Japan. But going straight from Narita to Tokyo would be much too easy. I've been to Japan many, many times so despite the language barrier there's hardly any intimidation factor. So naturally we had to stop at a random kaitenzushi restaurant located in a suburb of the city. Airport, train, taxi, eat, taxi, train, train, shuttle bus. Finally to our hotel. But it was worth it, you'll see.

Kappazushi isn't so much ignored by most sushi fans as it is outwardly scoffed at. Imagine NYC foodies at an automated McDonalds or, perhaps more favorably, Shake Shack. (OK, perhaps this latter scenario would be hailed by some to be among the great inventions of the past century, but you get my drift.) Kaitenzushi are among my most favorite restaurant concepts in the world. Have loved them since I was a kid, still love them now. My favorite as a child was Tsukiji Honten, just a few minutes away from Shibuya station's Hachiko gate. I think in my mid-teens I put away something like 26 plates. Oh, how I yearn for more innocent times. Today, tabelog, a very popular retaurant rating site, has suggested that the restaurant is now a shadow of its former self. At Y105, just over a dollar, for each plate of two pieces, Kappazushi was a frugal choice for our first meal in Japan.

But to be perfectly honest, the primary reason I selected Kappazushi was for its oh-so-Japanese technological gimmickry. Namely, the option to order a la carte via touch screen and to receive said orders by an express shinkansen conveyor belt. Hard to understand? Don't worry, pictures should help that.

The conveyor belt of delights

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Par for the course, if a bit sparse, since we showed up shortly after 3 pm.

Chawanmushi

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Something like a signature dish, our taxi driver recommended it. It was quite good all things considered.

The touch screen ordering system

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Very cool, very efficient. One orders up to four items at a time, and they come directly to the table via express train.

Next stop, my mouth

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I was borderline obsessed with how cool and efficient this whole system was. And to make it even better the staff members on the floor couldn't have been nicer.

After this most technological meal we went to our hotel, the Prince Park Tower, located between the Akabanebashi and Shibakoen metro stops. Japan's metro and rail network can be intimidating to the uninitiated. Here's a map if you're curious.

For dinner we headed we again turned to tabelog and decided to eat at a popular izakaya, Tanto. It took two calls to get them to accommodate us and even then they didn't have an opening until nearly 10 pm. The restaurant is located in the Hachimaki Building at 4-10-11 in the Roppongi neighborhood. Tokyo addresses follow an effectively indecipherable code, so good luck with that.

Tanto is a very small restaurant, a couple four-tops in screened off areas, a short wall of deuces, and perhaps one six-top. I'd say the restaurant sits no more than 25 at one time. Like many thousands of other restaurants in Japan it's also quite peculiarly located. The third floor of an unassuming sliver of a building. Tokyo is really one of those cities where hidden gems are the norm rather than the exception.

Izakaya cuisine refers to small plates, meant to be eaten while drinking with beer. This was a neo-izakaya of sorts, serving the kind of eclectic, creative food that young Japanese seemingly like to eat. For every Westernized riff on a Japanese classic was a Japanized riff on a Western classic. For those familiar with the kind of new izakaya popular on St. Marks and Midtown East, Tanto is similar, just with much more attention paid to ingredient quality and execution.

Negi-toro bruschetta

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An unimpeachable negi-toro spooned atop grilled bread, drizzled with a light sour cream and tobiko. A quintessential example of this style of cooking.

Shrimp, broccoli, bagna cauda

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I was less convinced by this dish because it was such a far departure from the rustic bagna cauda I associate with Northern Italian cuisine. It was very tasty--both shrimp and broccoli were well-cooked--just a bit strange. This warm salad of sorts is one of their most popular dishes.

Jowl kakuni

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Rather than use the belly as is traditional, the jowl was sliced in 1/2" thick slices and braised. I missed the meltingly soft fat that comes with the belly version, but this offered a meatier, porkier experience. Rather than custardy, the meat, when portioned between us, was almost like a pulled pork.

Chicken karaage

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Another Japanese comfort food classic, these chicken nuggets are usually no larger than an inch by an inch and delicately seasoned before frying. Here, the thigh meat, in much larger pieces, was presuambly marinated in a heavy brine of soy, sake, and sugar. The end result was a much more intense, and not quite as delicate, fried chicken dish.

Pizza

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Yes, seriously. Our waiter not very subtly steered us toward trying one. We chose the version with Japanese mushrooms, bacon, and cheese. I would less call this pizza than a topped flatbread. With that said, it had a certain white trash appeal and the execution was very good. It looks over-topped, I realize this, but the crisp, crackery crust was more than able to stand up to it all.

Scallop, uni, tobiko, nori

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We selected this off the specials menu, and it was quite intense but quite good. A whole scallop, roe and all, was broiled, popped on a sheet of nori, then topped with a generous scoop of uni and a sprinkling of tobiko and chives. Wrap and eat. The texture of the scallop was more baked/broiled than seared, and I think I would've preferred the latter, but overall this was a very cool, luxurious dish.

Foie gras fried rice

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Another unlikely marriage that worked quite well. It was, however, exactly as described and tasted exactly as I imagined. This makes me think the pairing of foie gras and Japanese fried rice isn't necessarily one that is greater than the sum of its parts. Still, you have your typical dashi-tasting fried rice with large hunks of foie gras strewn throughout. Each bite of foie added a noticeable explosion of fatty, livery flavor. Not a dish for those who aren't fans of foie.

With a couple beers and this food I think we spent about $45 per person. In Tokyo, if one expects to sit down in any comfort, that's pretty cheap.

Our late dinner behind us we returned to the hotel for a few hours of sleep. The next day would bring two meals with excruciating wait times and a third with some two Michelin starred tempura.

Edited by BryanZ (log)
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Tokyo, Japan, cont'd.

For many tourists, waking up at 5 am to get to Tsukiji is like a rite of passage. This is often made easier by the massive jetlag that can strike travelers on their first days dealing with a 13 hour time change. Unfortunately, we had had 2.5 weeks of intense travel and the previous day's crazy schedule to energize us. It was a bit of a struggle, but we got to Tsukiji just before 6 am. Unfortunately we got a bit lost making our way to Sushi Dai despite having been there a few times before. We didn't arrive until almost 6:30 am, and the wait was epic. We were quoted 2.5 hours, and that estimate was spot-on. While in line, my sister and I started chatting with a group of Canadian girls. Of the four only one actually enjoyed sushi, one preferred Western-style rolls, one had never even had sushi, and one was a strict vegetarian. I commended the last young lady especially, though I warned her as good as Sushi Dai was its cucumber and oshinko rolls were perhaps not worst the grueling wait. Personally, I would've stayed at the hotel and slept. But such is the power of Sushi Dai's reputation.

While my sister held our spot in line, my mother and I were on a knife scouting expedition. I'm obsessed with Japanese steel and buy all my knives direct from the source at Masamoto Tsukiji. Definitely my favorite knife shop in an area with many great knife shops. We'll get there shortly, however.

So, after our seemingly endless wait, we were ushered in. We ordered three omakase sets, advertised at 10 pieces plus a roll, but usually about 11 or 12, for about $45. Again, for Tokyo this is a very good deal.

Sushi Dai

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Now, this place has great fish. That much is obvious. But the most remarkable thing about it is the itamae in this picture. It's been probably 10 years since I was last at Sushi Dai with my family. Most of the time we deemed it not worth the hassle, but as this would likely be my last trip to Japan for quite some time, why not go for it? Anyway, a couple years a go my mother and sister returned for a visit, sat in front of the same itamae and he recognized them both and asked where I was. Remarkable. This time, he recognized us immediately and welcomed us warmly. For the past 20 years this gentleman hasn't taken more than three days of vacation at a time and works in one of Tokyo's busiest sushi bars. It's cool how a place this famous isn't so jaded. Then again, everyone in Japan is polite.

Unfortunately, I didn't take notes as to what all the pieces were. I'll describe those that I know. Everything was really excellent.

Tuna, obvs

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Surprisingly, not among my favorite pieces.

Fluke, of some type

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Omelet

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Served warm.

Some form of snapper

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Uni

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Awesome. With the omakase the diner gets the option to choose one a la carte choice at the end of the meal. As cod milt I had so wanted to try was unavailable, both my sister and I doubled up on uni.

Soy-cured tuna

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Another of my favorites. I believe my mother doubled up on this one.

Scallop

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Frighteningly sweet.

Mackeral, or something similar

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Pleasantly oily and rich, not at all fishy.

Baby shrimp

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Perfect, custardy.

Maki, tuna and pollack roe with cucumber

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Hamachi (or possibly kanpachi)

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A half-step below the uni and soy-tuna bombs.

Eel

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Beautifully soft, light in the mouth. The sauce was far from cloying as is often the case.

I'll say it was worth the wait. If I lived in Tokyo I'd never ever come here. Not to be too self-important but my time and sleep are just too valuable. With that said, coming to Tsukiji and eating here are truly quintessential Tokyo experiences.

Next, it was back to Masamoto to make a final knife selection. I picked up a beautiful slicer and a couple of chef's knives for gifts.

The shop

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Japanese knives on the right, Western on the left.

The proprietor

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This guy remembers us, too. We've bought more than a few knives from him now on our trips.

The area around Tsukiji turns into a large market area after the main operations at the commercial fish market wind down. There's ramen, lots of sushi, curry, all kinds of Japanese comfort food. Also, all sorts of vendors. I have to say that even compared to Singapore, Japanese standards of cleanliness, especially in the market and food-production environments really are in a class of their own.

Assortment of tuna

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Many cuts on offer. Very few of them cheap.

I also passed by a seafood stall that served live uni, straight from the shell for Y500, or just about $5.50.

Dark delights

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The seafood vendor, a woman in this case, picks up a few, tries to find a heavy one, then proceeds to rip it apart with her bare hands.

Uni

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Visceral, delicious.

To be honest, I kind of expected to wait awhile to get into Sushi Dai. Perhaps not 2.5 hours, but it's the most famous sushi spot in the holy land of fresh fish. What I did not expect was to wait two hours and twenty minutes for a bowl of ramen. Yes, seriously. For two relatively cheap meals in Tokyo we waited a total of four hours and fifty minutes. Clearly my devotion knows no bounds. It also helped that we'd been to Tokyo many times and were there only to eat.

But anyway, we endured this wait at Menya Kissou, a little ramen shop in a sleepy outskirt of the city. We missed the place by about a block upon first walking by and asked someone in the street as to its location. "Oh," he responded, "It's just one block back that way. Look for all the people in line." And so we did; it wasn't easy to miss them. At 11:20 on a Saturday morning, when most New Yorkers might be vaguely entertaining the idea of getting some food, maybe, there were 70 Tokyoites lined up outside this little shop, ten minutes before opening. I had never seen anything like it.

The line before opening

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It's longer than it looks. It snakes back on itself, Disneyland style, about three times in front of the entrance.

Menya Kissou is a fascinating place and served me perhaps my most memorable and paradigm-shifting meal of the entire trip. I'll also disclose up front that I don't have any pictures of the ramen itself. Photos are not apparently not allowed. Neither is talking, but I'll get there shortly. For some illicit pictures I highly recommend you check out this blog post on Exile Kiss. It sums up the experience quite nicely.

Part of what makes this ramen interesting is its blended style of broth. It takes the porky richness of tonkotsu ramen and marries that to the ocean-salinity of shio ramen. The effect is quite astounding. So rich, land and sea at once. Silky. Perfect. My mother, was not as big a fan--she found it too fishy--but my sister was equally moved. We ordered both regular ramen in broth and tsukumen, the dipping-style ramen with an even more concentrated broth. I opted for all the add-ins--nori, egg, extra pickles--and still this is less than $20. I'd rather have paid double and waited less but alas that was not the case.

If it was just about the broth the place would be very good but otherwise not that remarkable. The noodles, too, however were also exemplary. Nice thickness, great bite, some body and shape, well-cooked. These did not let the dish down. The pork was probably the best cha siu of this style I've ever had. It looked like belly that had been rolled like pancetta. Clean-tasting, thinly sliced, impossibly soft.

As for the shop itself, well, like I said it's a fascinating, quirky place. First, it only seats 10 diners at a time. Second, there are only two staff members, a husband-and-wife team presumably, who do all the work. The woman handles the line, takes orders, serves food, buses, and acts as a cashier. The man cooks all the ramen in near silence. In fact, the whole place, whether purposefully or not, feels more reverential than many of Tokyo's temples. The latter can at times feel like tourist attractions, overrun with souvenir shops and vendors and loud groups. At Kissou people come to eat ramen. Slurp, do not talk. In fact, even as we were praising the ramen amongst ourselves the proprietress asked if we might be more quiet. Seriously. While we were by no means being loud, I have to admit we were talking, something the other seven diners in the restaurant were not doing. The place is truly something else.

While our experience was surely not enhanced by the wait or the restaurant's numerous quirks it was surely made more memorable for it. I've had some very good ramen in the my day but this was truly on another level. By the time we stepped back into the Tokyo sun, floored by what we had just consumed it was actually too late to make it to the next ramen shop I had wanted to visit. It was past 2 pm, and with a 3 pm closing time at a shop nearly as popular as this one there was no way were getting in. Alas, next time.

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Granted, this was a Saturday but reports of an hour-plus wait are the norm. I think the place is still relatively new enough--less than a couple years, I think--that it hasn't reached "it's so crowded no one goes there" status. There were no white folks in line and most everyone seemed like a local, so it's not like its become nothing but a tourist attraction. There are surely still plenty of people in Tokyo who want to try the "best" ramen in the city so the lines are ridiculous. Makes DiFara's look like a walk in the park

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Granted, this was a Saturday but reports of an hour-plus wait are the norm.  I think the place is still relatively new enough--less than a couple years, I think--that it hasn't reached "it's so crowded no one goes there" status.  There were no white folks in line and most everyone seemed like a local, so it's not like its become nothing but a tourist attraction.  There are surely still plenty of people in Tokyo who want to try the "best" ramen in the city so the lines are ridiculous.  Makes DiFara's look like a walk in the park

It's a tourist attraction for domestic tourists. That's not to say it isn't good, but it's still a tourist attraction.

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Tokyo, Japan, cont'd.

It had already been a long day, but for dinner we had managed to secure reservations at Tempura Kondo at the Sakaguchi Building, ninth floor, 5-5-13 in Ginza. We got the recommendation from tabelog and only after our meal did we learn that the place has two Michelin stars. The stars were not displayed on the typical plaque that one finds at many restaurants but on this cutesy hand-painted picture with the Eiffel Tower and two stars with a place outlined for a third. It was endearing, I suppose, to see how dismissive they were of the accomplishment. When we asked one of the older female staff, a proprietor or long-time employee presumably, he casual response was to the effect of, "Oh, yeah, two stars."

Kondo offers up a style of tempura I hadn't had before, both philosophically and stylistically. I'm pretty sure there's nothing like this in the States. The whole experience is quite austere and almost shockingly simple. We were seated in the second room and had the sole attention of our chef for about half the meal. Not the most talkative guy, but he answered all our questions in a terse but friendly fashion. The bar itself is made of beautiful, soft blond wood. Quite the tactile experience.

The bar, kitchen, and chef

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The tray o wholef produce visible in this picture isn't for show. Quite literally, every vegetable we consumed came straight from that tray. Nearly all the seafood was filleted from whole at the prep area right beside the sink.

The menu we selected was their cheapest at just over $120/person. This seems like a lot but includes tax and gratuity, so it really isn't so bad.

Shrimp prep

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Live shrimp were dispatched at the sink and prepped in two services. First the head, then the body.

Service

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Each piece was cooked, then served individually.

Shrimp heads

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A crispy opening to the tempura portion of the meal. Some edamame were served first, I believe.

Shrimp

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So, besides the austere philosophical simplicity that drove this meal, there was also a unifying stylistic difference that became apparent to me. The batter coated each piece like a thin sheath rather than enrobe it in a thick, crispy shell. As a result, this tempura batter seemed to flake in crispy chips but lacked that huge crunch that is sometimes quite rewarding. Again, this was new to me, but as the meal progressed began to make more and more sense. This place is all about the ingredients and understatement instead of the relative theatrics of huge shards of crispness commonly associated with tempura cooking.

Asparagus

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The asparagus were literally plucked from the basket, trimmed, dipped in batter then cooked. Beautiful specimens.

Shiitake mushroom

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Working the oil

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Everything is fried in sesame oil. I found this fascinating as the food lacked any oiliness and the strong aromas that one might expect from sesame oil. There were two large woks of oil, each at a different temperature for different types of frying.

Fish

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This fish was filleted at the sink then fried for us. Beautifully cooked but perhaps a bit too subtle. I wanted some malt vinegar. Is that cheating?

Pepper

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Probably the best vegetable of the evening. Cooked whole, this was pure expression of pepper and turned rather soft and custardy.

Fish, redux

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I liked this fish more, it was eaten whole so was much more potent. Could be a bit much for some. One thing that was particularly interesting about the cooking process was how a quick, single-sided dip in some flour before going into the batter would give the floured side entirely different crust characteristics.

The fish, flipped

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The non-dipped side. Look at how thin the batter is here. Interesting, no? Or maybe I'm just weird like that.

Onion

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This was my least favorite piece. The onion was sweet, but was way too hot to eat immediately. By the time it was a comfortable temperature the crust wasn't as nice. Not as integrated as the other pieces.

River eel

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At least I think that's what this is. This, fittingly, had the thickest coating and was the closest to "normal" tempura. I will say I appreciated the up in the crunch department but also found it to be comparatively more crude than the pieces that preceded it. As with a lot of tempura, this became less about the filling and more about the crust.

Kakiage

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A tempura fritter, over rice, along with miso soup, and pickles. A chazuke broth of near perfect balance was poured over the whole thing. This was really satisfying and delicious.

Mango

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As is typical at a Japanese meal, it ended with some simple, perfect fruit. Here, mango, totally custardy, but, if I'm being honest, a bit tame in flavor. It lacked the spice of the mangoes I've had in more tropical latitudes.

This was a really eye-opening meal. To me, a completely new style of tempura, served in a completely new fashion. I'm not sure a restaurant like this would ever find much of a following outside of Japan, however. The whole experience is incredibly ascetic, shockingly simple. It's brash in its very unbrashness and understatedness, if that even makes sense. I certainly believe there are tastier, more fun meals to be had in Tokyo, but this one really exhibited--you'll have to pardon the pretension--a most unique Japanese sensibility.

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That sounds a lot like Sushi Yasuda in New York, which is also all blonde wood, except tempura instead of sushi. The ascetic style and how revelatory it was sounds just like my experience at Yasuda.

$120 does seem rather pricey for not a lot of food (compared to Yasuda where $100 could get you a lot of fish at lunch), but I suppose that's Tokyo.

But if Yasuda can work in New York, maybe something like this can too. Ippudo opened recently, so maybe more true Japanese restaurants are on the way.

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Tokyo, Japan, cont'd.

For breakfast my sister and I headed over to Shibuya in search of more kaitenzushi. This was a Sunday morning and still Shibuya was bustling. Japanese youth must be early risers.

We sought out Tenkazushi, the Dogenzaka branch. It's a few minutes from the famous Hachiko gate. Tenkazushi still qualifies as very cheap kaitenzushi. Each plate of two pieces if Y130, or about $1.45. The quality was also very good. More so than Kappazushi, Tenkazushi reminded me of Tsukiji Honten in its heyday. We walked by Tsukiji Honten after this meal and found the crowds there not nearly as prevalent as they'd been in the past.

Tenkazushi, Sunday morning

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Packed. We had to wait a minute or two for our seats.

The damaage

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A light lunch for my sister and I. I really, really enjoyed this place. The vibe was right; the food was good.

We checked out of our hotel then proceded to Tokyo station to catch a shinkansen to Atami, a famous hot springs area about an hour outside of the city by high-speed train.

Whiskey and water

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A little refreshment for the train ride, purchased at the platform kiosk. At 9% alcohol and half the size of a beer I much rather would've had a beer. I'm a big whiskey fan, but this was not very good.

Our train ride was short and comfortable, and after a short cab ride we arrived at Atami Sekitei, a ryokan on the outside of the small city. I've stayed in some really, really high-end ryokan, from the famous Hiragiya on down, so this place wasn't quite as fantastic, but it was a great deal. Usually, one night of accommodations with meals runs about $400/person. Their summer promotion offered a two-for-one special, however. So the four of us--we had picked up my grandmother before leaving Tokyo--stayed for the price of two. Obviously $800 for a night's stay is still a lot of money, but it could've been twice that.

Atami Sekitei

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Sekitei means rock garden, and the entire place is built amidst these rock paths. Very pretty and peaceful.

I don't have pictures of the baths because, well, that would be weird, but they were quite nice, though not on the level of some of the other places I've stayed.

The room

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One of our rooms. At ryokan, meals are usually served in the guests' quarters. We had the two levels in this little house for the four of us. There was more than enough space.

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Whiskey and water

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A little refreshment for the train ride, purchased at the platform kiosk.  At 9% alcohol and half the size of a beer I much rather would've had a beer.  I'm a big whiskey fan, but this was not very good.

Even it it wasn't very good, I feel bad that I missed this. I'll just have to go back.

(Whose brand was this?)

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Wow Bryan thanks so much for writing up your eating adventures in such detail. The tempura meal that you had reminds me very much of the one we had in Ginza Ten Ichi last year. I know exactly what you mean when you say a tempura meal is a whole other experience. $120 dollars though!! And I thought the 8300Yen we paid for our meal was steep.

We planning another trip this year to Tokyo so all this is invaluable reconnaissance.

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Atami, Japan

Freshly bathed and dressed in yukata, we settled down to dinner. I've actually never been a big fan of eating on the floor, just too uncomfortable and cramped for me, but when in Rome...

Menu

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Even for native Japanese, near impossible to decipher.

Sake service

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Great service pieces and drinking vessels.

White fish, aspragus

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Unfortunately the details of this dish have been lost to the depths of my memory. The fish was wrapped around some kind of filling. I remember this dish being a surprisingly good opening.

Clear soup, egg custard, duck meatball, junsai

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One of my favorite dishes of the night, this almost tasted nouvelle French. Sparkling broth, silky and rich custard, deliciously savory meatball. The junsai added that most unique textural component so typical of the ingredient.

Local oysters

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Ridiculously huge, ridiculously fresh. These were like eating an oyster steak, very meaty. One of the more satisfying dishes of the night.

Sashimi

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A variety of fish, all of it impeccable. I will say I've had better but there was really no faulting this.

Scallop, eggplant, in a cage

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Bad memories from Vietnam made us take pause when presented with a dish in a cage. Sparrows perhaps? Fortunately, not. This dish was quite complex and, much like the clear soup, seemed to adopt a nearly European-influenced sensibility. The front of the shell held green beans and stuffed root vegetable components. In the rear was a seared scallop topped with a silky grilled eggplant puree. This dish really worked for me. I wish the scallop was warmer, however. In a restaurant setting, this dish could be a total home run.

Shabu shabu

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Cooked at the table, obviously. The fish in this case was prepared with some pretty intricate knifework. I'd heard of this technique before, where small cuts are made in the fish to deal with the number of bones in the tiny fillets, but this may have been my first time experiencing it. The cooking broth, with the slight addition of a bit of the acidic dipping sauce, made for a most delicious soup.

Octopus, conch, mountain yam

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For me, the weakest dish of the night. The textures here were totally intense. The yam, as those who have had it surely know, contributes a sicky, slimy texture. I'm used to it, but that alone could turn a lot of people off to the dish. The octopus and conch also seemed to be just lightly poached so they had a good deal of bite and chew to them. Not sure if this was intentional or not.

Ayu, pepper, herb

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Apparently the herb served with this fish is meant to offset the fish's natural oiliness and strong aroma. Was very tasty to me.

Pickles, cured tuna, rice, miso soup

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A traditional end to the meal. The tuna was really good and really quite interesting. Not sure how it was cured, but it was extremely meaty yet also gelatinous.

Fruit, some Japanese bean custard thing

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The fruit was very nice. No problems there. I've just never come around to traditional Japanese sweets. I prefer the clean sweetness of refined sugar to the grainy, beany sweetness of Asian pastry. I ate it, it was fine, though really not my style.

This was a very good meal, better than I thought it would be to be honest. I especially appreciated the dishes that required a bit more cooking than those that simply presented a few pristine ingredients. Service, naturally, was excellent. I've gotten used to the whole endless bowing, head-to-the-ground thing, but it still makes me feel just a bit weird. From kaitenzushi to hot springs to a beautifully traditional Japanese meal, this was a very nice day.

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Menu

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Even for native Japanese, near impossible to decipher.

Come on, I can read most of the writing even though it's a little blurry. I think I could read almost all of it if it were clearer, and I'm not particularly good at Kanji.

You should try at least two types of tempura in Japan: tempura-ya style and soba-ya style (usually more coating). You may also want to visit a supermarket and see what the tempura there looks like.

Whisky and water: It's Suntory's product.

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