My Japan: Top Ten Food Experiences – Part I

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I have finally managed to organize some of my thoughts following our recent trip to Japan, even though my mind is still buzzing with all the excitement. Nothing I can say will do justice to the incredible world of food and drink of Japan, but I will nevertheless attempt to briefly recount ten of our most memorable experiences of the two weeks:

1. Breakfast of champions

Upon arrival in Tokyo, one quickly discovers that in the land of the rising sun, there is actually not a whole lot to do at 6, 7, even 8am; which is why almost all visitors end up at Tsukiji fish market, where a breakfast of the world’s freshest sushi awaits. Alternatively, one can have the world’s freshest sashimi as part of a rice bowl (donburi, or don). Featured above is a particularly over-the-top luxurious version of ikura, toro, and uni (roe, fatty tuna, and sea urchin) don, available for only about 20 dollars at Nakaya, a donburi specialist (prepare to queue!). Perhaps, the ultimate decadent breakfast involves buying a box of freshest uni from a vendor in Tsukiji market, and eating the entire box with a big spoon!

During our time in Kyoto, as we were staying in a traditional Japanese inn (ryokan), we took advantage of the opportunity to start the day right with the traditional Japanese breakfast. It typically consists of grilled fish, pickles, rice, nori, miso soup, tamagoyaki (omelet), vegetables, and tea. While it limits one’s ability to snack during the first couple of hours of exploration, it is an experience not to be missed.

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If you are anxious to get the day started, a coffee and a pastry at a French boulangerie, such as Eric Kayser, can also do the trick (I ate my fair share of bichon au citron and miniature yuzu muffins). Or one can opt for a traditional sweet roll (anpan) filled with red bean paste from a Japanese bakery such as Kimuraya, or something else equally delicious.

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2. Food markets and street food

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If you need a break from structured multi-course meals, noshing in the food markets, such as the fantastic Nishiki market in Kyoto is easy as pie. Dashi-maki (omelet on a stick), oysters, takoyaki (octopus balls), grilled mochi, wagashi, soft matcha ice-cream, you name it. If you run out of ideas, just follow a flock of school girls.

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3. Coffee revolution

Japan (and especially Tokyo) is in the middle of a revolution, – a coffee revolution, that is. Exciting choices range from the very traditional kissaten (such as Chatei Hatou) to a coffee stand by the park (Little Nap Coffee Stand); from an artsy syphon bar (Cafe Obscura) to a pop-up coffee shop (Omotesando Koffee).

cafe l'ambre

Two of our favorites were Cafe de l’Ambre in Ginza (Tokyo) and Ogawa Coffee in Kyoto. Cafe de l’Ambre, a serious and classic kissaten, serves only coffee, and has a 30-deep list of single origin aged beans, including offerings like Cuban coffee beans from the 70’s. Ogawa makes simply fantastic espresso-based drinks, and puts the same amount of enthusiasm into one of the hottest trends right now, – latte art:

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4. World’s best French pastries

in my opinion, are to be found in Tokyo. All the top French patissieres (Viron, Henri Charpentier, Hevin, Pierre Herme, etc. ) have long set up shop in Japan. In addition, they are in competition with such Japanese stars as Sadaharu Aoki who have managed to apply immaculate classic technique to traditional Japanese ingredients, such as yuzu, black sesame, matcha, genmaicha, etc.

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Most of them have their own stores, but the best places to search for treasures are depachika (the underground levels of department stores, such as Takashimaya, Daimaru, Mitsukoshi, Isetan, etc. dedicated entirely to food.

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5. Sushi and sashimi

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During the trip, we had sashimi almost daily, as it happens to be a very common course in a progression of any set meal. In addition to that, we went to a dedicated sushi restaurant (sushiya) a total of 5 times (three times to Tokyo Michelin-starred restaurants, once to Daiwazushi at Tsukiji market, and once in Kyoto ( to Izuju, for Kyoto-style pressed mackerel sushi and inari sushi). Even though all of the experiences were extremely enjoyable in their own right, the trip to the 10-seat, 3-Michelin-star Sushi Mizutani left me giddy for hours.

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Mizutani-san does not allow photography, as he finds it distracting; however, I found that not being a food paparazza helps one to focus on what’s important: the absolutely incredible fish, the amazing knife skills, and on sharing the fleeting ideal moment with the legendary itamae (sushi chef), considered by many to be one of the world’s best. It was intimidating at first (which is why I always recommend starting a Japanese meal with a beer to take the edge off), but overall I found him to be very approachable and gracious. Nevertheless, it was very humbling to be face-to-face with a true shokunin, – someone who has dedicated his life to relentless pursuit of perfection through his craft.

Naturally, one cannot speak of sushi without mentioning the rice. Mizutani-san is famous for his top-quality, perfectly textured, vinegared shari (rumored to be from the same purveyor as his teacher Jiroo-san). As he himself put it in response to my excited broken Japanese, “If the rice is good, then the sushi is good”.

Highlights: awabi (abalone), torigai (cockle clam), anago (saltwater eel), and, surprisingly, ika (squid), whose sublime soft and creamy flesh has nothing in common with the squid in the United States. By the way, just in case you have never seen real wasabi root, here is what it looks like:

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6. Tofu: it is not just for vegetarians anymore

Besides the incredible vegetables, Kyoto’s other claim to fame in the food world is tofu, which comes from a combination of centuries of experience from Buddhist monks and great mountain spring water. After eating at places like Okutan, Sosoan and Shoraian (currently considered the #1 tofu restaurant in Japan), it is fair to say that Kyoto has elevated tofu-making to an art. It is interesting to note that many tofu-centric restaurants are not vegetarian, as that connection primarily exists in the Western world (the only exception is shojin-ryori, – Buddhist monks’ ascetic and beautiful cuisine). At a place like Shoraian, tofu is not a bland block of protein, but an incredible handmade ingredient showcased in a tofu kaiseki which may include chilled sesame tofu, yuba (tofu skin), yudofu (hot pot), agedashi tofu, etc.

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…To Be Continued…

Be on the lookout for Part II of this post coming in the next couple of days!

P.S. Since this is a food & wine blog, I will not be talking about the amazing soccer-playing humanoid robot ASIMO at Miraikan, Tokyo’s Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. I will not mention the 1,000-year old Zen rock garden, or Kinkaku-ji,Temple of the Golden Pavillion, whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf.

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Nor will I describe our hike in Kamakura, culminating at the biggest outdoor Buddha statue in Japan, or a boat trip down mountain river Hozo from Kameoka to Arashiyama, or the Thousand Torii (Gates) at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. I will completely leave out stories of playing with the world’s cutest cats at Nekorobi, a cat cafe in Tokyo, and of gliding in a cable car from the top of a volcanic mountain to the lakeshore, while gazing at Fuji-san (Mount Fuji) in stunning Hakone…some things should be left to imagination.

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A Creature of Habit

A few years back, my orange tabby Kuzya really disappointed me. He was totally unexcited by Wellness Chicken & Lobster, Turkey & Duck, and Sardine, Shrimp & Crab flavors that I had lovingly picked out for him at the store (instead of his usual boring Chicken & Herring flavor). I thought he would be all over the new delectable-sounding entrées, but he plain refused to eat them. When I eventually gave up and fed him his Chicken & Herring stuff, he was in heaven. I was miffed and confused. How can he not want to eat lobster, duck, and crab? Even more importantly, how can he keep getting excited by the same dish every single day?

“Oh boy, it’s dog food again!”

When you think of it, we humans are not that different. Three of my co-workers eat the exact same thing for lunch every day (and we are talking about senior management, not starving college students). A real-life example: a turkey sandwich on white bread, a pint of milk, and applesauce for dessert. Every single day.

Heck, I am not all that different. I start every morning with coffee and a Balance protein bar (cookie-dough flavored). Granted, the actual coffee changes (today was  5 de Junio Maragojipe Microlot from Las Sabanas, Nicaragua; tomorrow will be Santa Elena Pacamara from Santa Ana, El Salvador, or perhaps Haru, an Ethiopian high-elevation heirloom coffee from Yirgacheffe(all of them freshly roasted by Counter Culture coffee) . But still…

I could eat good-quality tomatoes, bread and sea salt every day (actually, I do!). In our household, Odwalla Superfood shake and WholeFoods-brand lemon flavored sparkling mineral water are also consumed on a daily basis.

Les tomates mon amour

At least every other day, I eat warm whole wheat pita by The Perfect Pita and 365 brand Greek or Lemon hummus; 0% fat Greek yogurt with tangerine & clementine marmalade or Skyr (an Icelandic style dense yogurt); and scrambled eggs with tomatillo salsa. It is almost a rule…

Unless we are traveling, every Saturday, after the trip to the farmer’s market, I make Horiatiki, or Fattoush (Greek and Lebanese classic peasant salads, respectively). More often than not, they are repeated during the week, as well. Here is my version of Horiatiki made with tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, dried oregano, red wine vinegar, EVOO, mild banana peppers, olives, green bell peppers, and French goat or sheep’s milk feta:

At least once a month, I have to cross the state lines, and drive to Eden Center in Fairfax, VA to get good Vietnamese food.

And this is not even the end of the list…

It is rather ironic I almost never write about the things I love the most (and apparently, cannot do without). Instead, most of the time, I choose to write about deviations from the norm, – about things I make rather rarely, or even about once-in-a-lifetime food&wine experiences. But definitely about something food-blog-worthy, such as this pea shoots, fava bean, and shaved Pecorino salad dressed with EVOO and lemon juice:

Or perhaps, a memorable meal, such as dinner at Annissa on the most recent trip to NY featuring:

  • Fluke crudo with black lime and radishes

  • Eggplant with two Turkish chilis in yogurt water

  • Seared fois gras with soup dumplings and jicama (naturally, the dumplings are stuffed with fois gras as well :-)).

Alternatively, I go on and on about an interesting tasting, such as our self-guided aged European beer exploration at DC-own Churchkey this weekend. (Apparently, aged beer is all the rage these days, so beverage buffs, pay attention!). And of course, there are visually striking and delightful dishes I often come across in my travels, be it the simple house-made pickles at Cha-An Japanese tea shop in the East Village,

or a Grapefruit Givré at Boulud Sud (aTurkish-inspired concoction made with sesame halva, rose loukoum, and grapefruit sorbet):

And yet, when I return home, I keep craving tomatoes, bread, and sea salt…

Chicago: The Future Is Now

A mere two hours away from home, I have hit upon a place of confluence of futuristic trends. Architecture, cocktails, food, coffee, art, you name it. I am an impressionable type, and this was my first time in Chicago 🙂

 

 

 

Let’s face it: Chicago is home to some of the most exciting restaurants in this country, including Next, Schwa, Alinea, El Ideas, etc… Unfortunately I did not manage to get into all the restos I wanted to visit, – Chicago proved to be the hardest city for reservations that I have ever encountered. Silly me – I had thought reserving a month and a half in advance would get me everything I desire…

Still, I was pretty pleased with my weekend line-up: Topolobampo, the Art Institute of Chicago, L2O, Intelligentsia, futuristic landscapes of the city, the Girl and the Goat, the whimsical Aviary/The Office, Avec, Sable… I was fortunate to explore and experience the efforts of such restaurant moguls and weather-makers as Rick Bayless, Grant Achatz, and Paul Kahan.

 

 

Many of those experiences were light-years beyond your average resto experience. I could certainly delve into the imperfections of each place, but I think this time (for the most part), I will focus on their refreshing originality, innovation, and playfulness.

Chicago clearly packs a ton of food knowledge and passion, most of which is delivered with a very flat Midwestern accent. The general theme is subtlety and purity of ingredients (with the exception of Girl and the Goat, who made it their calling to cater to the American palate with in-your-face flavors, while encouraging their patrons to eat and drink more through use of loud music). Here are some comments on just a few places we visited:

Avec: Ironically enough, the decor makes it look like a sauna, except that it is actually quite chilly inside. If you show up in early afternoon, before the hordes descend upon the restaurant, you can enjoy delectable dishes such as their chorizo-stuffed medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo-pepper tomato sauce in peace, and drink fun obscure stuff like the grassy, assertive biancolello from the island of Ischia and a mouthwatering pecorino from Abruzzo.

Aviary/the Office. One word: molecular mixology. I have heard it aptly described as one-fourth chemistry lab, one-fourth theatrics,  one-fourth “How the… and WTF?”, and one-fourth blur. The theatrics are certainly hokey, but all-in-all, this crazy cocktail is pretty balanced. If you have an occasional need to feel important (I do!), perhaps you can score an invitation to the Office, a VIP-style underground speakeasy, inaccessible to the uninitiated. There, one can quietly enjoy a well-crafted pre-Prohibition-style cocktail, such as a rum, green tea, blood orange, pu-erh, and lime concoction. Accoding to Chef Achatz, they have about 30 different syrups, 165 different tinctures, eight different fresh juices, and five different fresh herbs to complement their drinks, as well as house-made custom ice that is hand chipped and/or molded in Japanese press molds. Pretty cool stuff…

I will venture a few random personal predictions about the future (hopefully, this will catch on in the rest of the country):

  • stuffed morels are in; they are tasty little devils.
  • succulent and pure seafood (this time of the year, ceviche from Topo alone will make anyone happy, with choices like Ceviche Fronterizo (lime-marinated Hawaiian albacore with tomatoes, olives, cilantro, green chile), Ceviche Yucateco (steamed Mexican blue shrimp & calamari, lime, orange, habanero, avocado, jcama & cilantro), or Coctel de Atun Tropical (sashimi-grade Hawaiian yellowfin tuna, avocado-tomatillo guacamole, tangy mango-grapefruit).
  • cubed food is in 🙂
  • in the coffee realm, stunning springtime centrals have arrived. It is all about seasonal coffees, such as the gorgeous El Machete from Panama, or La Tortuga from Honduras. Another favorite: Ngogomo Burundi – funky and floral, bursting with flavors of cola, pecans, and dates; perfect as cafe solo.

I yet have to find a shop that would match Intelligentsia’s quality and skill level. They meticulously select the perfect method (V60 pour-over, cafe solo, chemex, espresso, etc.) for the best quality beans money can buy.

Lest anyone think of me as a person who only eats cube-shaped food, I wanted to mention that one of our culinary highlights in Chicago was lunch at Spoon Thai (we ordered from the unpriced Thai menu at the back, of course). Rustic and inelegant in its presentation, the food was to die for: Isaan-style lightly fermented rice and pork sausage, shrimp and lemongrass salad with scallion and lime juice, preserved egg salad with garlic, peanuts, ginger, and lime juice; and lightly sour fish soup with lime leaves and lemongrass (tom khlong plaa chawn).

And finally, our architectural tour on our last day in Chicago confirmed something for me that I already knew: I am a child of the postmodernist era.

The movement of Postmodernism began as a response to the perceived blandness and the perfectionism of the Modern movement, which was focused on the pursuit of an ideal, and attempted harmony of form and function, through dismissal of “frivolous ornament”.

My idea of postmodernist contextualism (check out the earrings purchased at the Art Institute of Chicago!)

Postmodernism openly challenged Modernism as antiquated and “totalitarian”, favoring personal preferences and variety over objective, ultimate truths or principles. This is how the modernist “Less is More” is replaced with the postmodernist “Less is a bore”, and I hope this trend really does catch on…

Cezanne, St. Jacques, and Saint-Pierre

Let’s straighten this out from the very beginning: only one of these is (was) a human being. “Coquilles St. Jacques” is the French for “scallops”, and “Saint-Pierre” is a super-delicious Mediterranean fish known over here as John Dory. The question is: what could possibly bring all of them together? And the answer is, Aix-en-Provence.

 

Aix was the largest (and also most vibrant and youngest) city we visited on our trip to Provence, and I am certain everyone who has been there has a special memory of their own. It is many things to many people, but in my mind it will always be squarely associated with Cezanne, and with most exquisitely prepared fish straight from the market.

one of the many symbols of Provence (and a distant cousin of Two Pigs) in Place Richelme, – location of Aix farmers’ market

Aix is the town where Cezanne was born, where he worked, and died; and therefore, one of the million things for a tourist to do there is to follow in Cezanne’s footsteps. One can visit his last studio (Atelier Cezanne), where everything is painstakingly preserved as at the time of his death, and then walk 1,800 meters up le Chemin des Lauves on the hilltop overlooking Aix. Views from Terrain des Peintres (Painters’ Terrain) are both amazing and familiar, as those are the landscapes that inspired Cezanne around his beloved mountain Sainte-Victoire (the motif of almost 50 of his paintings and watercolors). See if you recognize any of them:


Ok, it is time to get back to Mssrs St. Jacques and Saint-Pierre…

I think we all have had serendipitous perfect dining experiences (or at least, we all have dreamed of having one), where we take a chance on an unresearched restaurant in an unfamiliar town, and this dark horse of a restaurant turns out to be the best meal of our trip… After gazing at Mont St. Victoire for a good while, we started getting peckish, but the descent back into town made us arrive at the planned lunch location at the tail end of the Lunch Period. To make the long story short, they did not have a table for us. By the way, the French offer one quite a short lunch-eating opportunity, – typically between 12-2, or even 12-1:30.


The back-up plan option was unavailable as well, and we went to a place I knew virtually nothing about (not something I like to do on eating trips in Europe!). It turned out, Le Formal (which took pity on us and gave us the last available table) was located in a former cellar space with abstract paintings and vaulted ceiling:

Since it was lunch, and we had been snacking, we went with the 26 euros 3-course option (rather than the 7- or the 9-course option). The restaurant had a well-chosen wine list (always a big plus!), but also delicious by-the-glass selections, such as Chateau de Triennes (a minerally and satisfying Chard), Domaine de la Realtiere Cuvee Cante Gau, or Maison Delas Viognier. After visiting Provence, I am still amazed at how top-notch restaurants have the guts and conviction to serve exclusively (or primarily) wines from the region.

In a true “Farm to Table” manner, it was deja vu all over again at Le Formal!

Among many choices, we noted the spectacular scallops (Coquilles St. Jacques) we had just admired in the marketplace a few hours ago, now served with passion fruit mousse, or with fois gras and wilted arugula. It was also my first time trying John Dory, easily the most tender, sweet and delicate fish I have ever had.

Le Formal was truly sophisticated without being too fussy or pretentious. I think it is fair to say it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable eating experiences in Provence (and overall on the trip). Later I found out that the chef, Jean Luc Formal (who, incidentally, made a point to shake our hands on the way out of the restaurant as if we were regulars), uses some of the techniques and equipment invented by the chef at El Bulli. We certainly found our meal to be flawlessly executed, and a fantastic value to boot. And Aix – to be a new source of inspiration, both gastronomic and aesthetic.

The Mother of All Inns

I am not always a contrarian. I do like puppies, ice cream, and sunshine. But sometimes I certainly zig, while others zag. Holidays often prove a good example of that: instead of staying up till 6am on New Years Eve, and spending New Year’s Day in a daze watching old movies, we went to bed at a reasonable time, got up at a reasonable time, and went hiking in the Shenandoah National Park.

The location of our first lunch of 2012: Hawksbill Summit:

Most importantly, zigging on New Year’s Day provided us with an opportunity to snag and leisurely enjoy a not-so-easy dinner reservation at the Inn at Little Washington (I must admit the reservation thought came first, and the hiking plans followed :-)). Besides, we are not “real” hikers; we are the kind that bring along an IKEA lunch bag, an umbrella, and a Blackberry for taking pictures.

The town of Washington, VA turned out to be an enclave of comfort and pampering,  – something one can get used to very, very quickly. All the individuals we encountered were committed to lavishing attention and making our stay just a little bit nicer: from chef Patrick O’Connell (whom we met during the kitchen tour at the Inn), to wine director Master Sommelier Jennifer Knowles (who was determined to find that perfectly aged bottle of Chambolle-Musigny to capture the mood of the evening), to Kevin & Jay, the gracious hosts of Gay Street Inn where we spent the night (who offered such nice touches as port & chocolates by the fireplace in the library during our late night game of food trivia).

Our dinner at the Inn at Little Washington was well overdue, as I believe many foodies would place it in the top three restaurants in the greater DC area (alongside Komi and Restaurant Eve which we visited last year). I do not like ranking restaurants, as dining is a subjective, in-the-moment experience, but I will venture that, based on the overall pampering and individual attention of the fabulous staff criterion, I would personally rank them number 1, and based on depth of flavors, textural interplay, and general food excitement-worthiness – number 2. Oh, and they have a killer cellar, full of Burgundies and other wonderful things 🙂

The standouts for me were: the phenomenal flavor of one of the amuse-bouches (Bloody Mary gelee), the texture and elegance of my entree of Bitter Chocolate-Dusted Border Springs Lamb Loin with Salsify Puree on Autumn Ratatouille (served rare as requested), the surprising Tortelli of Spinach with Bambino Eggplant Puree and Chanterelle Mushrooms, and the addictive caraway seed/sea salt/walnut bread (and my lovely Burgundy, of course!):

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeff’s Beet Fantasia takes the cake as the most photogenic dish of the evening:

All in all, we could not have wished for a better start of 2012, – ours was full of natural and man-made beauty. Happy New Year!