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Tickets, Barcelona

P1170791Chef: Albert Adrià      Website:     Cuisine: Molecular

elBulli’s closure in 2011 marked an end of an era. There was a shift in the global culinary direction away from molecular gastronomy and towards foraging – thank you Rene Redzepi. It was therefore reasonable, in my view, to be skeptical about the longevity of the Adrià brothers molecular tapas venture in Barcelona, Tickets. After all, people are fickle. Of course, there were a few thousand people who had missed out year after year on a reservation at elBulli (I was one of the fortunate ones but only just), but surely the hype would have died four years on? Is molecular gastronomy a thing of the past?P1170705I was initially intending to go to 41 degrees but unfortunately it had closed before I could come back to Europe, but don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t disappointed when I managed to secure a table at Tickets. I had only visited elBulli once (4 years ago, just prior to its closure) so I saw this as my chance to try some of the other elBulli classics that had evaded me over the years of unsuccessful reservation attempts; Tickets, I understood, also had some of the classic elBulli dishes so my chances were good.

So, after flying 32 hours from Australia, I was finally here outside waiting eagerly to reignite that magical meal from four years ago. This time however, there was one difference… I was with my 11 month old daughter…P1170704I was surprised (but also relieved) to find that a child seat was an option when making a reservation. Of course it was music to my ears, and if anything it highlighted the cultural difference between Australia and Europe when it came to dining out (cough, cough, Vue de Monde). My daughter was even given a very colourful bib for her meal. I was initially worried about inconveniencing other diners if she cried but the festive atmosphere in the restaurant muffled any noise. Much to our relief, this was not one of those quiet Michelin starred establishments.

P11706991st Course – Tickets’ Olive-S: I wasn’t surprised to find the reverse spherified olive at Tickets given Ferran Adria was the pioneer who invented the technique.

P1170702They were very delicate spheres that had to be scooped delicately to avoid breaking the membrane. The flavour was… well… not too dissimilar to that of a high quality virgin olive oil. Left to our own device to serve them, it was inevitable that there were a few casualties. However, the ones successfully devoured were delicious and fun when they popped in your mouth.

P11707122nd Course – Spicy corn tentacles: Crunchy corn crackers with a mild level of heat from spices. Airy and crispy. I could easily have had a bag of these with a cold glass of beer.

P11707143rd Course – Crunchy pizza which came with…

P1170716Bufala Straciatella to dip into. The pizza base was wafer thin and crispy, topped with a dust of dehydrated tomatoes, microbasil and spherified basil oil. The creamy bufala was a much needed component that was cleverly added last minute to avoid the pizza base losing its crunchiness. Delicious.

P11707184th Course – Nigiri of Tuna: A slice of the akami (red lean meat) of the tuna served on a puffed up lemon meringue made to look like a ball of rice. The combination surprisingly worked well with the lemon meringue providing a sharp contrast to the cold slice of tuna. Certainly not a traditional “sushi” course but enjoyable nonetheless and a bit of fun.

P11707205th Course – Basil Air Waffle: Light and fluffy waffle with melted cheese inside. The basil worked very well with the cheese, not too strong but clearly present.

P11707236th Course – Mini Airbag with Manchego cheese foam: It was an incredibly delicate dish that packed a bag of flavours. The mini airbag was exceptionally thin and the manchego foam had an intense flavour of matured cheese. The dehydrated line of iberian ham and hazlnut oil added some extra dimensions in flavours.

P11707298th Course – Ceviche crunchy with shrimps: Crunchy wholly edible shrimps on a paper thin toast served with…P1170731… a citrus sauce typically used for ceviche. It wasn’t a particularly memorable course and I found the citrus sauce slightly too sharp. P11707359th Course – Nordic Landscape with smoked cheese: A bed of crispy rye bread with a layer of veal tartare, lingonberry, slice of shallots, soft smoked cheese and some carefully scattered typical Nordic greens. It was finally dusted with a powdered vinegar ‘snow’ to cut through the rich meat. Perhaps a pointed reference to the foraging trends…?P117074010th Course – Mini mussels with beurre blanc air: A generous portion of tiny mussels dressed with a thick and creamy beurre blanc foam with a hint of yuzu. They were delicious, impressive considering I prefer my mussels to have as little intervention as possible. We could have eaten many more.P117074211th Course – Trip to Tokyo, oyster with ponzu sauce: Top quality Gillardeau oyster with a splash of ponzu and dashi sauce and salmon roe. Whilst I normally prefer my oysters naturally served, this was not a bad dish. The balance of the ponzu sauce and the natural saltiness of the oyster and salmon roes was spot on. I could see why the waiter recommended this oyster amongst the many other choices we had.

P117074912th Course – Crunchy Octopus with pickled Piparra: La piece de la resistance and by far the best dish that evening. The octopus grilled octopus was served on a bed of slightly hot kimchi butter and some crispy panko bread crumbs that worked ever so well for textural contrast. This was a very rich dish and the portion was just right for three adults. It went ever so well with the occasional bite of…

P1170747… traditional Basque long half pickled green chili’s called Piparra. Any Basque Pintxo aficionado will know how addictive these chili’s can be. The vinegar cut through the rich octopus beautifully to occasionally clean the palate.

P1170760Some bread to go with the next course of…

P117076113th Course – Surf and Turf with baby squids and Iberian sausages: A typical Catalan dish which requires one to know the region to truly appreciate it. I loved the fact that this humble dish had a place on Adria’s menu. Each of the elements were cooked well from the baby squid and white butifarra sausages to the beans. It was, however, an odd dish to have in a molecular cuisine restaurant and felt slightly visually ‘ordinary’.

P117076414th Course – Mini ciabatta with crunchy suckling pig: We felt we could order a few extra dishes so proceeded with some additional recommendations. The suckling pig sandwich was fatty, spicy and quite filling. Though the ciabatta was a bit thick it didn’t detract the flavour of the pig.P117077015th Course – Cannibal chicken with Chinese barbecue: Chicken thighs were served with a ‘bone’ made from yuca (cassava) chips over smoking coals. The Chinese barbeque sauce was nothing out of the ordinary but the chicken was tender and juicy.

P117077316th Course – Gunkan with trout roe: The dashi foam formed the base of the ‘rice’ element, dressed with some trout roes and shiso leaves. I didn’t enjoy the texture as it felt quite mushy and the nori was rather soggy. The flavour was however quite enjoyable, especially as each roe burst with its sticky juicy content.P117077817th Course: Foie gras tapa with its “palo cortado”: A rich disc of foie gras resting on top of a glass of semi-dry sherry. Loved the combination and a perfect transition into dessert.

P117078018th Course – Carrot cone, cardamom yoghurt, sugared sesame, and mango and carrot ice cream: A pre-dessert of all things orange. Refreshing and a great palate cleanser. I couldn’t decide whether I liked the texture of the raw carrot shavings but I thought the dish was overall well executed and different.

P1170781Course 19 – Air pancake, caramelised wafer, yoghurt foam, maple syrup and blackcurrant compote: Crispy pancake filled with yoghurt foam served with…P1170784… a jar of blackcurrant preserves. We were then instructed to smear the preserve over the pancake

P1170786I wasn’t quite sold on this dish and felt it missed the mark. Sure, it was a deceivingly light dish but the flavour became one-dimensional after a couple of bites. I’m not a big fan of preserves generally and this sadly was not an exception.P1170789Course 20 – Chocolate eclaire with hazelnut and royaltine: The hazelnut cream core and the crunchy chocolate royaltine were enjoyable, making this one classy ice cream sandwich. Overall however the dessert courses felt weak and lackluster in performance compared to the savory courses. Had it not been for my 11 month old daughter waking up and showing her discontent that she was not in her bed, I would perhaps have ordered a couple more dessert dishes but alas I had pushed the friendship far enough and it was time to get the bill.P1170756Tickets was a whole lot of fun and the chaotic atmosphere surprisingly played to our advantage with a little person in tow. Jokes aside, the food here was well thought out, perfectly executed but never too serious and almost always delicious. It was the type of place you’d want to randomly rock up to with a few friends after work or bring your family after a day out. This also highlighted my main criticism of Tickets, it wasn’t the type of place I wanted to book three months in advance, exhaustively fighting other people for a reservation. There is no sense of occasion that comes with the venue or the experience other than the connection to elBulli. Perhaps the latter explains why it remains one of the most difficult places to get a table in Barcelona four years on. Don’t get me wrong though. If you are in Barcelona you must give this place a try at least once.

Seto (瀬戸), Kyoto

FullSizeRender-2Chef: Ms. Seto    Website:    Cuisine: Chicken

Of all the restaurants I have ever visited in Japan, and the world for this matter, I never expected a restaurant specialising in chicken to have left the most profound dining memory to date. It was a stroke of genius and luck when my friend Waswate suggested adding a one Michelin starred restaurant, Seto, on to our itinerary in Kyoto. As we had already a few three and two starred meals booked, I thought it would be good to get some diversity in the cuisine. In other words, why not? Getting the booking wasn’t too hard as all I needed to do was call the restaurant, but getting to the restaurant was a different challenge. To get to Ichihara station one needed to get to the privately operated Eizan railway line which starts from Demachiyanagi, the last northeastern stop on the main lines of Kyoto’s metropolitan area. It was a good idea to have given ourselves ample time to get there.

FullSizeRender-32The walk from the station to the restaurant was a brief ten minutes without complication. As we approached the restaurant we could see someone waiting by the entrance. That person was in fact the proprietress, Seto-san, who always receives her guests at the front gate. I had booked the table in my native Japanese but as we approached I could see she was looking a little anxious. As I began conversing in Japanese she regained her composure, a sigh of relief could be heard as she explained that the only English speaking person had already been dismissed for the day and we were the only diners for that evening. The only ones? Hmmmm…

FullSizeRender-1As Seto-san guided us through her cozy farmhouse things started making more sense. She in fact had only three private dining rooms available, two as part of the main building and one which was a detached stand alone dining space. To our delight she had prepared the detached room for our meal. As we made ourselves comfortable she continued giving us some background and history behind the restaurant. She had moved here over fifty years ago to be with her now deceased husband and to manage a small plot of land to rear chicken and grow vegetables. They had decided over thirty years ago to start serving the fresh produce and chicken themselves instead of selling them on. Since her husband past away she had managed the restaurant alone with the help of a small team of three.FullSizeRender-3Seto-san explained that she had entertained many celebrities and politicians throughout the years but this was the first time she felt so nervous, though not in a bad way she added. She just never imagined conversing in fluent Japanese with a foreign looking (albeit half-Japanese) person. I was glad to have been able to converse in Japanese for I think my memory and experience here would not have been the same had we been served by someone else (Hint: if you do ever get the opportunity to come up, do come with a Japanese speaking person if possible).

FullSizeRender-26Seto-san didn’t waste a single minute to attend to everything despite being immersed in a full conversation. She took our order for a nice cold beer and made the final preparation for the dinner. As we waited for her to come back with our beers, we took a moment to soak in everything. The glowing coal in the Irori (囲炉裏) or fireplace, the orchestrated sound of the insects gently humming away outside and the lovely old smell of the tatami and surrounding. I couldn’t believe where we were. It was so peaceful and soul cleansing.

FullSizeRender-28 The appetisers consisted of three dishes which were pickled perilla leaves or shiso no mi (紫蘇の葉) with chicken tail, a salad made entirely from home grown produce with tofu, and some aubergine that had been soft boiled in bonito stock (nasu no nibitashi – 茄子の煮浸し).

FullSizeRender-31I couldn’t help commenting on how flavoursome the produce was. Seto-san explained that they did not need a fridge at Seto because everything they served was always picked and slaughtered that day. She explained that the reason why people had to book in advance and why only a maximum of two bookings per sitting was because they were dependent on the number of chicken they have on their farm. Talk about vertical supply chain management. This level of dedication around sourcing was new territory for me.

FullSizeRender-27The choice of spice recommended to go with the first preparation of chicken were rock salt, black pepper and kuro sansho (黒山椒), which is also known as black / ripe sichuan pepper.

FullSizeRender-24The first preparation of chicken involved grilling each part over coal as a sumibiyaki (炭火焼き). Seto-san began by serving unbelievably succulent grilled chicken feet followed by the breast, tenderloin, neck, kidney, liver, thigh, wing and back in this order. The kidney was crunchy and the tenderloin very juicy but the liver was in its own class.

FullSizeRender-23Given the chicken had not been slaughtered till an hour before our meal, the liver was fresh and not too dissimilar to some of the best foie gras I’ve ever tasted in France; rich and creamy. This was unbelievable. Seto-san explained that they only had akadori (赤鶏) or red feathered chickens on their farm which are renown for their flavour.

FullSizeRender-13As we finished up our first half of the chicken, I was still ranting on about the freshness of the produce. Seto-san’s eyes lit up and she dashed off saying she would be back immediately. She  returned around five minutes later with a few funny looking prickly cucumbers. Seto-san had gone to the farm to dig them up, in the dark, just for us. We ate them, as per her recommendation, with only some salt and could not believe how delicious and juicy the cucumbers were. She kindly offered me a few to take home but alas I would have struggle to get them through Australian custom so I had to reluctantly decline her generous offer. Admittedly I did make up for it by eating quite a few…

FullSizeRender-15The second half of the chicken was prepared in a hot pot as a sukiyaki. Seto-san brought over a pot containing all the typical vegetables you’d expect in a hot pot, naturally all sourced from her own farm. In the nabe you could see shiitake and enoki mushrooms, spring onion, noodles, tofu and all parts of the chicken including the skin. FullSizeRender-20She then cracked us a fresh egg from her farm to each of our bowls to eat with the content of the hot pot and…

FullSizeRender-14… began by serving each of us what she described as ‘an egg that’s just about to hatch’. It had an unbelievably creamy texture and flavour. Seto-san claimed the egg would have been ready the following day.

FullSizeRender-10We were then left to our own devices to pick and choose what we fancied. I honestly could not tell what the star of the dish was. Whilst acknowledging that the quality of the chicken was superb, the vegetables were definitely also pulling their weight to make this the best nabe I have ever tried. Seto-san came back to serve us the remaining vegetable and meat before dashing off again to prepare the last savoury dish to complete the chicken trifecta.

FullSizeRender-7The last installment was the Zosui (雑炊), otherwise known as a Japanese rice soup made with pre-cooked rice. Unlike most zosui which use the leftover soup from the nabe, this one had been made from chicken stock that had been reduced over hours of cooking. Whilst a very simple dish, the success of this dish was based on the underlying soup and suffice to say this was very special.

FullSizeRender-6 The fruits for dessert were nothing special although we were very full by this point and welcomed the light refreshing dish.

FullSizeRender-5Our meal at Seto ended ever so abruptly as we had to catch one of the last trains back to the city and they seldom came by late at night. However, the two brief hours there that night left a far more profound impression and memory than any other fine dining experience. The meal at Seto was personable, humble and nothing like anything I’ve ever experienced. The fact that this meal cost each of us just over 8,000 yen was unbelievable, particularly given there was only one sitting that evening. As we slowly made our way to the station, all we could see in the darkness was Ms Seto by the entrance bowing. ‘Come back with your wife and baby’ she yells. You don’t have to worry about that, ‘I definitely will’ I shouted back…

Lûmé, Melbourne

P1170475Chef: Shaun Quade & John P. Fiechtner    Website:   Cuisine: Modern Australian

Amidst all the excitement and hullabaloo that surrounded the Fat Duck’s short stint in Melbourne, it wasn’t until they closed their curtain in August that I realised that a team of three talented individuals were quietly embarking on establishing a world class restaurant in South Melbourne! Ambitious you may say, but their credentials speak for themselves. Collectively they’ve worked across a number of top fine dining establishments like Bo Innovation, Chateaubriand and Royal Mail.  They looked pretty serious on paper, so naturally I had to put it to test. After all, how many restaurants in Australia can boast a generous and constant supply of wine from AP Birk’s Wendouree Wine cellar?

P1170388The history of the premises is rich and colourful. It used to be a bordello before the Bohemia Cabaret Club and, I believe, an Indian restaurant moved in at the same time. There has certainly been a big transformation. From the street however it is still very unassuming and one would be forgiven for walking past it without batting an eye lid. The interior of the restaurant is a whole different story with a relaxed but stylish designer feel. The atrium space they created at the back of the restaurant was a wonderful surprise. Covered with a retractable glass roof, it was a well of beautiful light, with green vertical walls creating a peaceful oasis. I normally like sitting in front of the kitchen and the pass, but given the glorious weather we had on Grand Final weekend, I was very happy to be soaking up the sunlight for the four hour experience we embarked on.

P1170389 The choice was pretty simple. The formal end of the dining room at the back only served one tasting menu consisting of 15 courses, with an option to match each course with a splash of alcoholic beverage cleverly chosen by Sommelier Sally Humble. I opted for the full matching option, particularly after I was advised the beverage options were diverse and not only confined to wine.

We were initially worried as this was our first fine dining experience in Australia with our 10 month old daughter but the staff were ever so accommodating (this was a nice change from Vue de Monde, who had previously flatly refused to accept a friends very food literate 8 month old daughter!!). We did promise them that she was well versed in fine dining. After all, she had already survived a number of Michelin starred meals in France!

P1170397 First course – Warm buttered dough with a burnt and sour crust. The texture was quite similar to that of a brioche; fluffy, moist and pleasant. However, I felt the flavour was one-dimensional despite the burnt and sour crust purée, and it could have benefited from a stronger contrasting flavour to the dough.

P1170398A splash of NV Larmandier-Bernier ‘Latitude’, Blanc de blanc, Vertus, France to accompany the first course. P1170399 Second Course – Rare roasted quince with notes of chamomile and honey, duck liver and nasturtiums served with Georg Breuer Auselese Riesling, Rheingau, 2013. This was a rather deceiving dish as the juicy looking slices of duck liver turned out to be roasted quince. It had been cooked in butter and sage, and was served with a a very rich duck liver parfait, dollops of honey and chamomile. I thought it was a very clever use of texture and flavours.

P1170406A glass of Maidenii ‘classic’ to go with the next course. We were told that the Maidenii Vermouth was a collaboration between French wine maker Gilles Lapalus and Australian bartender Shaun Byrne. It was what they thought was the ‘perfect’ vermouth. It was certainly not bad at all… although I’m not a big vermouth drinker so I am probably not the best person to judge!P1170409 Third Course – Native bird dressed with white soy and hibiscus. The bird of choice here was an emu that had been air dried, cured in sour cherry and hung for six weeks. It was dusted with a sweet white miso powder, tangy hibiscus drops and chewy dried native berries. One thing I would have appreciated here was a wet towel afterwards, as it was nigh on impossible to avoid having sticky fingers!

P1170413Fourth Course – Pearl on the ocean floor paired with a Uehara Shuzō ‘Soma no Tengu’ 2012, Usunigori (shaken to serve). This was a mouthful of the ocean and I mean that in a good way. The little cold ball was recommended to be consumed first to clean the palate and enjoy the flavour of the oyster which was hidden underneath the sea lettuce and other succulents. The glass of sake was ever so perfect to wash the salty flavour down.P1170420 Fifth course – Scallop dressed with Jamon, dashi, honeydew and roe served with Naka Shuzo ‘Asahi Wakamatsu’ 2008, Tokushima, Japan. Another delicious dish, and one of my favourites of the day, again with flavours of the ocean, drawing out the umami with the jamon, dashi and roe. The honeydew was texturally pleasant but perhaps the sweetness of the scallop was slightly overshadowed by the natural fructose. The jamon and scallop was a classic match made in heaven.

P1170425Sixth course – Saltbush lamb perfumed with cherry wood ash, macadamia cream and rhubarb paired with a 2012 Passopisciaro, Nerello Mascalese, Terre Siciliane, Sicily. This was another one of my favourite course. The lamb was perfectly executed, with a just a hint of smokiness, and was served on a creamy bed of macadamia purée. The slightly tart rhubarb cut through the rich and salty lamb well.P1170428Seventh course – Jerusalem artichoke, La Sirene Parline and quince peelings paired with a Maidenii ‘dry’. I appreciated the jerusalem artichoke was cooked in a salt crust. However, despite best efforts to follow the instruction to not eat the salt crust, I did find the course just a bit too salty for my liking. I did however enjoy the texture which was not too dissimilar from a baked potato; soft and creamy.P1170435 Eighth course – Sea corn and dairy cow paired with 2014 Sentio, Beechworth Chardonnay, Beechworth, Australia. Possibly another contender as the best dish of the meal and yet another visual trick. The ‘baby corn’ on the plate was actually crab that had been skillfully converted into a custard that was set in a baby corn mould. What appeared to be crab meat was actually salted cow udder that had been shredded and blowtorched. In fact the only true corn element on this dish was the crunchy fried corn silk. That’s right, even the crisp on top was made from polenta, not corn, though it tasted like corn. Whilst this may sound all gimmicky, trust me the flavours and textures really worked.

P1170439 Ninth course – Raw barbequed prawn paired with Holgate Road Trip IPA, Wood End, Victoria, Australia. I was settling down my daughter to sleep at this stage and missed out on the introduction to the course as we explored the internal vertical herb garden, so many apologies for my lack of detail. What I did however enjoy was the marriage of the sweet raw prawn and the cold malt like granita that went down ever so well with the hoppy beer.

P1170442 Tenth course – Hen cooked in chamomile, acidulated wild violets and salted yolk paired with Nakano ‘BC Chokyu’ 1999 Koshu, Aichi, Japan. Possibly the best chicken course I’ve had in Australia, cooked sous-vide in chamomile and served with a caramel-like salt cured yolk that just melted on the tongue. I’m still not decided on the pennyroyal juice as it had a hint of medicinal after taste but it didn’t distract the dish itself. Simple but perfectly executed.

P1170451 Eleventh course – Cauliflower cheese with a pastry smoked over pear wood paired with 2013 Heidenboden White, Claus Preisinger, Burgenland, Austria. One last illusory trick with what looked like a convincing washed-rind cheese turning out to be a rich cauliflower purée with parmesan oil served with a croissant. I liked the concept but did think the portion could have been smaller as I was over the cauliflower flavour as I scooped the last morsel on the croissant. The croissant was beautifully buttery and a delight to eat.

P1170456 Twelfth course – Lambs blood ganache rolled in maple oats, native apple jam and riberry pepper paired with Custard & Co. Barrel Cider liquor 13 years old, Donnybrook, Western Australia. Come again? Yes that’s right, lamb’s blood. Nothing was out of bound and I liked the fact that the chefs were happy to push the culinary boundary here. The dish represented a transition from the savoury to sweet courses, where black pudding met apple crumble. I thought the textures were pleasant from the crunchy maple oats to the candied apples.

P1170460Thirteenth course – Liquorice, violence and lime. A very pleasant palate cleanser and despite not being the biggest fan of liquorice I thought it worked well. The liquorice flavour was ever so light and the refreshing note of lime was key here.P1170465 Fourteenth course – Jerusalem artichoke, La Sirene Praline and quince peelings paired with a local stout brewed with vanilla, hazelnuts and Mexican cacao charged with a splash of Romate Iberia Cream Sherry, Jerez, Spain. This was a very brave dish as the penultimate course… and I absolutely loved it. The ice cream was made from a local stout brewed with vanilla pods, hazel nuts and cacao nibs. It was gooey, rich and a novel flavour combination.

P1170470Fifteenth course – Cacao pod from Maralumi with notes of tobacco, green banana and currants paired with 2014 Simão & Co, Alpine Valley, Victoria, Australia. Our waiter proceeded to assemble the last course by placing what appeared to be vanilla beans, ice cream and a large cocoa pod made of chocolate on the plate in front of us. P1170473The chocolate pod was smashed to reveal several goodies including currant jellies, tobacco wizz fizz, orange crema catalana and Granny Smith apples compressed in strawberry syrup and absinthe. The “vanilla pod” underneath was my favourite item as it was actually vanilla poached rhubarb juxtaposing tart and sweet flavours as you chewed it. The whole dish was quite a show stopper.

It would be premature for me to say that Lûmé will become a culinary destination but it certainly shows great promise. The chefs are talented and their creative dishes do not compromise on flavour. What’s more, the price is very reasonable compared to other fine dining establishments in Melbourne producing similar caliber dishes. The staff are equally knowledgeable and enthusiastic as the front of house at Attica. Only time will tell if they can continue on this trajectory. I for one am glad they are only ten minutes away from my new home.

Steakhouse Satou, Tokyo

P1160054 Website:  Cuisine: Matsusaka Beef

For the true aficionados there’s no denying that Japan is the holy grail when it comes to the best quality beef in the world. Whilst premium quality beef in Japan may be better value than having it overseas (and certainly is often fresher), it is still an expensive affair, usually beyond the reach of the average person including myself. That is why Steakhouse Satou in Kichijoji should be on any beef loving carnivores itinerary. Whilst they primarily operate as a butcher through a number of other branches, the Kichijoji arm in Tokyo also has a restaurant on the on the second floor above the ground floor butcher. When we arrived there was a 50 people solid queue. Luckily they were locals, queuing up for the butcher. A good sign none the less.

P1160051What makes Satou attractive is their affordable price.  There is a slight catch, but they are very transparent about it. Prior to August 2002 there were very strict criteria around the catchment area in the Mie prefecture that permitted the use of the name “Matsusaka beef” (otherwise known as Kurogewagyuu or black haired wagyuu – 黒毛和牛). Naturally, as with anything exclusive, that meant a hefty price tag. However post 2002 the catchment area expanded to include surrounding regions now commonly known as the “triple prefecture of black haired wagyuu” (三重県産国産黒毛和牛). That being said, the beef originating from the original exclusive catchment area continues to be considered superior and this is reflected in the price. You’ve probably guessed the catch by now. Satou sources their beef from the new catchment area, although they claim their quality is not inferior to the “real deal”. They focus instead on female breeds between the age of 30 to 40 months.

P1160056As with any steakhouse there was a choice of different cuts that dictated the price. As we had purposely come to Kichijoji for the best quality we could afford, we decided to opt for the more expensive dinner menu option (which is also available at lunch after popular demand from diners) and get their regular fillet steak (150g) for 5,000 yen and their high grade fillet sirloin steak (200g) for 10,000 yen. We thought it would be interesting to compare the quality of the cuts.

P1160021The restaurant itself was tiny and could only seat about 25 diners at any time including six seats at the counter (and you don’t really get a choice of the seat unless you are the first in line). A word of warning though, as the place gets packed very quickly, if you’re not early (preferably ahead of their opening hour), you may end up standing in their ridiculously steep and narrow stairway for half an hour as butchers run up and down bringing the cuts of meat to the restaurant.

P1160024We had some salad to get things going but there was nothing special about it.

P1160027As we had ordered their most expensive cut, the chef behind the counter came to present us the beautifully marbled high grade sirloin steak. It looked absolutely magnificent but I was did wonder whether this was going to be too fatty? As they say, the proof is in the pudding eating…

P1160030The chef began cooking some beansprouts to go as garnish for our steak. Under the brassy lid to the side were our steaks…

P1160037The chef wasted little time chopping up our fillet first. The olfactory senses were in overdrive!

P1160048I was genuinely amazed with the quality of the cheaper 5,000 yen fillet steak. The cooking was spot on and served medium-rare, just the way I like it. The balance of the intramuscular fat to the lean meat was just right, making this steak not overly fatty but mouthwatering juicy.

P1160050In comparison, you can see the marbling on the right from the high grade 10,000 sirloin steak which had a far higher intramuscular fat content. I enjoyed the first two bites but I must confess that overall I found it rather too oily and fatty. The texture in fact for me was less pleasant due to the high fat content. This is probably considered blasphemy in Japan, but my dining companion Fine Dining Explorer agreed wholeheartedly. We focused on enjoying the fillet steak before we slowly worked our way through the high grade sirloin; after all we couldn’t let it go to waste. It could simply be a matter of taste so don’t take my word as the gospel. I’d honestly advise you to try them side by side. Who knows? You may disagree. Either way, you are in for a treat!










Narisawa, Tokyo

IMG_0855Chef: Narisawa Yoshihiro   Website:   Cuisine: French Japanese

I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve always been embarrassed by the fact that despite my Japanese heritage I’ve not had many opportunities exploring the fine dining scene in my own country. This naturally had to change and September 2014 was my opportunity (Note that the significant delay in my write-up has been due to the arrival of my first daughter in November 2014). Over the recent years I’d managed to create a long list of restaurants I planned to visit when I returned home and that included Narisawa. I was curious about its reputation for being unorthodox in a country that was deeply rooted to its tradition.

IMG_0851After all, wouldn’t you be curious to find out the culmination of modern French cooking techniques with fresh seasonal Japanese produce? After receiving their second Michelin star in 2010 and successfully retaining the title of best Asian restaurant in San Pellegrino’s 50 Best Awards over the past few years there was no way I could pass this opportunity.

IMG_0848Yoshihiro Narisawa opened Les Creations de Narisawa (now known simply as Narisawa) back in 2003 on his return from Europe after training under the likes of big hitters like Frédy Girardet, Paul Bocuse and Joel Robuchon. The cuisine here was however difficult to label. It was decidedly modern and drew on French techniques yet was not tied down to one particular style of cuisine. What’s more, Narisawa departed from the traditional focus on agriculturally cultivated produce. Instead he favoured natural ingredients and produces from the wild forests and mountains like nuts, berries and the wild animals that fed on them.

IMG_0847The theme of our tasting menu reflected the season we visited, autumn. Unlike many of the restaurants we had visited on this occasion, the front of house was well versed in English which made the meal more interactive for my non-Japanese speaking companions. We left ourselves in the capable hand of the front of house and kicked off our meal with a glass of their Vilmart et Cie, Grand Cellier, Brut, Premier Cru which had been bottled specially for the restaurant.

IMG_0843As we sipped on our glass of bubbles our friendly waiter prepared the Bread of the Forest 2010. The bread was proved at our table. It was made using wild yeast from the Shirakami ranges, one of the most serene and beautiful UNESCO natural heritage sites of the world located between Aomori and Akita prefecture, and was gently heated over a candle. The bread mixture contained ao-yuzu (green yuzu) and ki no me (木の芽) leaves from the Japanese Prickly Ash tree, which added a citrus scent and peppery note.

IMG_0832The dough mixture was then transferred across to a hot stone bowl to bake. The floral arrangement surrounding the bowl represented the season.

IMG_0825The wait was finally over.  What a way to start the meal; an amuse bouche of the Essence of the Forest and Satoyama Scenery. It consisted of a “forest floor” of soy pulp or okara (御殻), bamboo and green tea powder and soya milk yoghurt paste. It was served with the “bark” of mountain vegetables (山菜) such as deep fried burdock skin, sourced from Ishikawa prefecture, which had been brushed with a syrup. We were instructed to eat with our hands and wash it down with…

IMG_0824… “spring water” infused with oak and served in a cedar cup. The flavours were very clean, evoking childhood memories of hikes through moss-covered mountains in Japan. Everything worked in harmony and I felt truly depicted the essence of the Japanese forest. I particularly loved the crispy texture of the burdock root. What I found truly remarkable was that no additional seasoning had been added to this dish, nor did it need any. I could see why this dish had stayed on their menu for over five years.

IMG_0822Our second amuse bouche of Sumi (炭) was essentially braised onion coated in a mixture of charcoal and leek powder. It had been deep fried and served on a magnolia leaf. The sweetness of the onion was an unexpected surprise.


Our bread was finally ready after 12 minutes of baking and was served to us with chestnut tree powder. I had no particular expectation for the bread as I had assumed this was predominantly to provide theater to the meal. I was, however, mistaken. Whilst it wasn’t the best bread I’d ever eaten, it had all the hallmarks of a good bread. It was soft, fluffy and warm. What’s more, the yuzu added an inviting scent yet remained subtle on the palate.

IMG_0820The last installment of the amuse bouche was Okinawa. A dried sea-snake was presented in the middle of the table whilst the waiter explained the dish.

IMG_0819All the ingredients were sourced from Okinawa. The most important component of this dish was the broth that was made over six hours of using a bonito flake dashi, dried and smoked sea-snake and pork from Kagoshima. A slither of crunchy winter melon, taimo (a sticky Okinawa variety of taro which is normally used for dessert) and a crispy pork skin was added to complete the dish. The broth had a great depth of flavour and the textural contrast of each element worked very well. A deceivingly simple looking dish that worked very well with a glass of the 1981 Chateau Gen Brown Rice Sake, Mie, Japan.

IMG_0813A Moss butter made from dehydrated black olives, chlorophyll and Hokkaido butter was presented prior to the next course. It tasted how it looked – mossy! Not that it was a bad thing but certainly different to anything I’ve tried before.

IMG_0807 The Uni Sea Urchin, amaebi, yuzu was another example of a perfectly balanced dish. The amaebi (spot prawn) and sea urchin sourced from Mikawa, Aichi prefecture, was very creamy and sweet. The katsuodashi jelly (set and infused for six hours) gave depth to the dish and the yuzu and tomato hiding underneath cut through the rich flavour, leaving only a fragrant aftertaste. I could also sense a slight peppery heat that contrasted against the cold dish. Beautiful. The dish was matched with a glass of the 2012 Chateau Lestille, Entre Deux Mers, Bordeaux.

IMG_0800The crustacean course of the day was the Langoustine, garden. Under the “garden”, created from  a variety of greens and flowers that had been foraged early that morning, lay…

IMG_0797… a juicy Japanese langoustine (Akazaebi) from Suruga Bay. It had been very lightly seared and served as a warm sashimi. The creamy langoustine was cooked perfectly and the scallop jus served over the dish intensified the crustacean flavour. The only issue I had was with the portion size. I wanted more… The matching 2009 Chassagne Montrachet Les Caillerets, Bourgogne, France was a perfect match with its buttery flavour.

IMG_0795The next course was a Pigeon which represented the animals that fed from the forest. The pigeon was basted at a constant temperature of 57 degrees celsius to ensure a pink finish. It was accompanied with charred beetroot and wild berries also foraged from the forest. The plump pigeon was cooked perfectly with a beautiful texture. I particularly loved the reduced salumi sauce that seasoned the dish. Exquisite! The accompanying wine was a rather smoky and oaky 2001 Lynsolence, Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux. Only 20 cases had been imported into Japan. What a treat!

IMG_0788The Kamo nasu was truly a celebration of the native Kyoto variety of aubergine. This vibrant dish consisted of a bed of soft sautéed aubergine, topped with an aubergine purée and pickles. The shiitake mushroom provided a meaty texture whilst the sheet of acidic tomato jelly and cleverly hidden shiso leaves inside cut through the oiliness of the dish. A special dish like this required a rather special glass of a 1977 Toriivilla Imamura Koshu, Yamanashi, Japan which was not too dissimilar to that of a dry sherry. It was very dry and nutty with a hint of honey and lemon. I had never heard of this Japanese winery and was even more surprised to hear they have been around for over 150 years. I knew the Japanese made a small batch of great wines but this was the first time I had come across so many.

IMG_0782We had a fair share of Hamo (conger pike) on our trip and the one at Narisawa was one of the best ones. The Conger pike, white peach, string bean had a lovely sweet, sour and salty undertone driven by the creamy su-miso (white miso vinegar) and kabosu foam, a citrus related to the yuzu family. The hamo, which is traditionally prepared through the fine art of honegiri (a technique that requires years of practice to efficiently break the vast number of small bones in the fish without damaging the skin), instead had, against convention, removed painstakingly each bone, one by one, by hand. I did not envy the chef but it was definitely worth the effort! Matching the dish was a glass of Shizen no manma unfiltered and undiluted sake, Terada Hoke sake brewery, Chiba.

IMG_0778The next seafood course, the Rosy seabass, matsutake mushroom, was presented in a what was described as a “sustainable wrap” which was supposedly environmentally friendly (admittedly I wasn’t sure how). The waiter proceeded to cut the bag…

IMG_0777… and the delicious earthy smell of the matsutake mushroom immediately hit the olfactory senses. The contents had been cooked in a rich duck essence for eight minutes at 180 degrees celsius which enhanced the flavours of the fatty fish. It was served with another delicious sake of 5 years aged, unfiltered and unpasteurised junmai daiginjo, Chikurin Taoyaka, Marumoto Sake Brewery, Okayama. The aka musu (rosy seabass), known for it’s similarity in fattiness to the o-toro was beautiful cooked with a raw texture and was definitely one of the best preparations I’ve ever tasted.

IMG_0763For the next course a rump cut was used for the Kagoshima beef, beef essence, ichiban dashi. The ichiban dashi made from a matured konbu dashi was added to an essence of beef broth and complemented the tender lean meat, providing the umami. I particularly loved the ginnan (ginko nuts) with their nutty sweet-sour flavour that subtly reminded me of the autumn season. Accompanying the dish was a rather lovely 1994 Alain Verdet Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits, Bourgogne.

IMG_0758Narisawa’s take on the classic champagne cocktail of the Bellini was simply divine. White peaches were in season and the chef made sure to make the most out of them. The same house champagne served at the start was poured over slices of white peaches neatly stacked over a brioche and layer of cream

IMG_0754 The flavour of the peach was very distinct and provided a fresh fruity note. At first sight I expected it to be a very sweet dish but, contrary to what I thought, surprisingly the dish was very light and refreshing. The matching wine was a chenin blanc, 2004 Quarts de Chaume, Domaine des Baumard.

IMG_0753The finale was Chocolate. It was perhaps a little disappointing given the caliber of the meal we had just experienced. The fondant, ice cream and foam incorporated the rather luxurious Domori chocolate from Italy. I found the flavour to be rather one dimensional despite the occasional bitterness of the darker chocolate contrasting against the milkier one. It was after all chocolate.

IMG_0746The number of mignardises presented with our coffee was staggering. Starting with a piña colada macaron, cream puff, canelé, passion fruit, cheese cake tart, warabi mochi as well as nine flavours of chocolate macarons, there was plenty more which I could sadly not fit in my stomach. What was truly remarkable was the skill that went into preparing these flawless sweet treats. By no means an easy feat.

IMG_0775As we looked over the kitchen we could see Chef Narisawa assessing each dish as it came to the pass. Nothing appeared to escape his focus, something that was very evident from the dishes we had just devoured over the last three hours. I could see why this place was so popular amongst those who sought after culinary excellence. Not only was the food delicious here, it was also eco-conscious and sustainable. I particularly loved the marriage of foreign techniques with ingredients typically engrained into traditional Japanese cuisine. By breaking the norms and boundaries, Narisawa was able to bring a whole new dimension to both French and Japanese cuisine. This wasn’t French or Japanese. This was “Narisawa cuisine”.

Daigo (醍醐), Tokyo

IMG_1241Chef: Nomura Daisuke   Website:   Cuisine: Buddhist cuisine

Buddhist cuisine, better known in Japan as shyoujin-ryouri (精進料理), is a cuisine of devotion that follows the Buddhist philosophy of persistency to incorporate austere practices. Ask anyone making a culinary trip to Japan and I can guarantee you that they would have a list of restaurant dominated by sushi, kaiseki, tempura, beef and even contemporary cuisine, but Buddhist cuisine is certainly not one of them. And who can blame them when it is literally on the opposite end of the spectrum to fine dining? It therefore didn’t surprise me that there was little information available in Japanese let alone English in the public domain on our next destination, Daigo. If it wasn’t for the insistence of @Framed Eating to try this Two-Michelin starred restaurant we would have missed out on one of the highlights from our entire trip across Japan. Yes, you heard me correctly… it was unbelievably good and personally I thought they deserved the almighty three star status.

IMG_1244Nomura Yoshiko, who founded Daigo restaurant near Daigo-ji temple in 1950, remained as the okami (female lady of the house / supervisor) of the establishment until the restaurant relocated to a more modern location next to Seisho-ji temple at the foot of Mt. Atago in Tokyo. The current premises of the restaurant works perfectly well and you still get that genuine feeling of entering an old temple despite the modern surrounding. Daigo continues to be a family affair where Nomura Satoko oversee’s the guests arrival as the current okami, supported by her husband Nomura Masao (president) and three sons who run the restaurant that are Nomura Yusuke (restaurant manager), Nomura Tadasuke (office manager) and Nomura Daisuke (head chef).

IMG_1247Unlike traditional shyoujin ryori which can often be very basic and modest in portion, Daigo offers three alternative kaiseki-styled menus – the dearest being a mere 19,000 yen – with carefully selected ingredients directly from the farmers / producers and Tsukiji Vegetable Market. This concept appears to be paying dividends as they have started to attract new devotees across Japan who return during different seasons. The menu here is also designed in a way that allows you to appreciate the tanmi (淡味) or the subtlety of flavours, progressing from lighter preparations to much bolder flavours, allowing you to distinguish the essence of each main ingredient.

IMG_1245Word of warning though for those who are not used to Japanese customs. You will be required to take off your shoes at the entrance before you are shown to one of the eight private rooms available on the premises. All the rooms have tatami floors with a view over their own private Japanese garden. Impressively there was an almost complete absence of any noise from the neighbouring rooms given there were only a couple of shōji’s (rice paper wall) separating us.

P1180822 Our reservation fell on a rather hot and humid September evening and the ice chilled apperitif or shokuzenshu (食前酒) of the Umeshu plum wine (梅酒) with a scented wet napkin to freshen up was a very welcomed gesture to our arrival.

IMG_1249Soon after settling in and absorbing the environment the shoji slid open and Nomura-san personally came to pour us some sake in a ceremonial wide-mouthed cup, also known as Sakazuki (). As expected from a Junmai Daiginjyo, it was rather delicious and left us wanting more.

IMG_1251As the sake was being poured, another waitress proceeded to serving us our Zensai (前菜), otherwise known as the Starter, on a beautiful lacquered tray with a pair of chopsticks that we were encouraged to take home after our meal.

IMG_1248As we were technically still in the fall of autumn, our first course was the chef’s interpretation of Tsukimi Dango (月見団子), a typical dumpling served for the moon-viewing festival (Tsukimi) that dates back to the Heian period, roughly a thousand years ago. Four lightly fried dumplings of Edamame, Corn, Rice and Sesame were served that were all distinctly flavoursome as well as crispy, warm and void of any excess oil. Not a bad start at all.

IMG_1253The dumplings came with a Kotsuke (小附), a small supplement dish called Shikisaikurouyose (色彩九郎寄せ) and Suizenjinori (水前寺海苔) served in a long ceramic case. It was essentially a herbaceious gel of dashi stock containing shiso (perilla) leaves and seaweed from Suizen-ji temple. The strong sweet and spicy flavour really drew the clean flavour of the dashi.

IMG_1254Next was the clear soup course or Osuimono (御吸物), an aromatic Kaburamushi (蕪蒸し), essentially a turnip that had been steamed, peeled and grated before reassembling it into a small ball and serving it in a clear soup with the young leaves of Japanese pepper, kinome (木の芽), and yuba (tofu skin). Whilst Kaburamushi is traditionally made with white fish flesh and prawn in Kyoto, this one was purely vegetarian and was far superior to any kaburamushi I’ve previously. It had a soft texture and distinct but subtle flavour of turnip.

IMG_1255We couldn’t resist trying at least one sake so we opted for the recommended Daiginjyo from Niigata.

IMG_1262The filler course to tie to the next dish, also known as an Oshinogi (お凌ぎ), was an assortment of Vegetable Sushi (野菜寿司) made from Green pepper (ピーマン) with black sesame and salt crystals, Bamboo shootTakenoko (筍), Shiitake mushroom (椎茸), Fermented seaweed and Cucumber – Kappamaki (河童巻). Each sushi was remarkably delicious and varied in sweetness, and seasoning to complement each ingredient. It took us by surprise as we had low expectation from this course because one would normally associate sushi with fish. Nomura-san explained this dish was replaced with a soba course in summer to suit the season.

IMG_1264The next dish, the Hassun (八寸) is perhaps the most poetic and constrained course in a kaiseki meal. The tray used to serve the course is always made of plain cedar, and it is traditionally the course where the master chef and the customer toast with a cup of sake. The tray typically contains two types of food representing “mountain” and “sea” that depict and celebrate the current season. The food is arranged across the tray in tiny piles to create contrasts of color, shape, texture, and seasoning. It is been generally recognised in Japan that a person with sensitivity to the changing season is one that possesses talent.

IMG_1263We started the Hassun with the “sea” item of Atagoshigure (愛宕時雨), where essentially hijiki (brown sea vegetable) and gluten (extracted from wheat) had been delicately seasoned with soy sauce. The texture was not too dissimilar to that of minced chicken and just melted in your mouth. I was worried about the soy sauce overpowering the flavour but that was certainly not the case here. Who needs meat when vegetarian food can be this good? Impressive.

IMG_1265The item representing the “mountain” was the Houzuki Yamamomo (鬼灯山桃) which was a mountain peach encased in a layer of mountain peach jelly and beautifully presented in Japanese lantern leaves (houzuki). I expected the flavours to be rather tart but instead it was bordering on sweet and perhaps my least favourite item in the course.

IMG_1264We continued with the Take ni kogori (茸煮凝り), which was the gelatinated mushroom cube on the right, followed by Konasu Dengaku (小茄子田楽), essentially a small but flavoursome aubergine that had been broiled in a sweet and savoury miso glaze, resting on mountain potato. We finished with the Mizutama Ohitashi (水玉草お浸し) which is a genus of the whillowherb family that had been cooked in a buckwheat soba stock and topped with crispy tempura flakes of wheat. The chef definitely knew how to draw out the flavour of each ingredient whilst respecting them as well. The cooking thus far was impressive and beyond a two-star level.

P1180869The Nimono (煮物) or simmered dish course was a Tougan agedashi (冬瓜揚げ出し) presented in a ceramic bowl covered with a lid. The fragrant aroma that wafted out was sensational and put us under a spell. The dish contained fried winter melon that was steeped in dashi stock and served with rice cake balls and mountain potato, and topped with grated ginger, spring onion and baby corn. The slight heat from the ginger, fragrance of the spring onion and the sticky texture of the rice ball – all came together with the thick dashi sauce. What a phenomenal dish!

IMG_1269Our Agemono (揚物), or deep fried course, was Daigo’s Shyoujin-age (精進揚げ) consisting of a variety of tempura from maitake (hen-of-the-woods mushroom), shikakui-mame (winged bean), sweet pumpkin, tofu and shallots. The tempura here was far more interesting and well balanced in texture and flavours than Raku-tei. I particularly liked the rice pop corn that was salty and packed with so much flavour.

IMG_1276There was a significant pause before Nomura-san came back with our next course. However, contrary to what we expected based on the copy of the menu we were given, a special course of Japanese fig or Ichijiku (無花果) was brought to us on the house. The fig had been prepared in a sakamushi style, that is steamed with sake, and served with a white miso glaze on top. It was by far the best fig dish I have ever tried with a beaitful marriage of sweet and savoury flavours and a melting texture to die for. We were left speechless as Nomura-san came back to collect our empty dishes. We must have looked like a bunch of guppies.

IMG_1278The Shiizakana (強肴) is traditionally served to customers after the fried dish as a relish to further enjoy with the sake of choice. On this occasion we were served a Matsutake Mizoreae (松茸霙和え), that is pine mushroom prepared with grated daikon radish, and Kaki Shishitou (柿獅子唐) which were slithers of persimon and slightly hot shishitou peppers. I’m not the biggest fan of matsutake mushrooms but this wasn’t too bad as far as it went.

IMG_1283Our palate cleanser, or Hashiarai (箸洗) was served in a beautiful ceramic cup that contained…

IMG_1281Chikushi Konbu (竹紙昆布) which was a soup made of a luxurious konbu (kelp that has been shaved manually by hand to make it extremely thin to 0.05mm), garnished with slithers of the konbu itself and puffed rice balls. It was very soothing and aromatic again. Despite having quite a few dishes we felt energised at this point as the food had been light, aromatic and harmonious in progression.

P1180908The Gohan (御飯) or rice dish came on a lacquered tray and was our ultimate savoury dish of the evening. It contained…

P1180914… a bowl of Nameko Zousui (なめこ雑炊), basically a rice porridge dish prepared in a stock made from nameko mushroom served with gooey nameko and enoki mushrooms. As the evening was getting cooler in the Autumn evenings this was the perfect dish to warm your core temperature up. The food here was not only delicious but also thoughtful. The concentrated flavour of mushrooms was stunning and the lingering flavour in our mouths delightful. This was indeed what Japanese people call soul food.

IMG_1288To go with the porridge we had some condiments, Kou no mono (香の物), that included an earthy Yamagobou (山ごぼう) or mountain burdock, Sainome daikon (賽の目大根) or sliced daikon radish, and Bainiku (梅肉) which was a tart paste made from plum.

IMG_1290Our meal finished with a couple of sweet dishes starting with the Mizunomono (水の物) which on this occasion was an unbelievably juicy and sweet slice of melon and grapes and…

IMG_1294… we had a cup of the best cold red bean soup with mochi – Shiratama zenzai (白玉善哉) – I have ever had the pleasure of eating. The flavour of the red bean had been further drawn out with kurozatou or black sugar but without making it sickeningly sweet.

We came with little expectation and left speechless. Shoujin ryouri has countless limitations in its cooking methods and is intertwined with Japanese traditions, culture and arts. This was clearly demonstrated at Daigo by the sense of season in the cooking as well as the selection of crockery used for plating and presentation. In a culinary age that could be perhaps described as gluttony from the abudance of food, a cuisine following the austere discipline of Buddhism is a fresh breath of air. The only thing I didn’t agree was the star rating bestowed by Michelin. This was far superior to many Three-starred establishments we had collectively visited. If Daigo isn’t on your list then I would strongly urge you to add it.

O.MY Restaurant, Beaconsfield

P1160396 Chef: Tyson & Blayne Bertoncello       Website:

Cuisine: Modern Australian

I wouldn’t trade anything for the 20 acres of land my wife and I currently live on east of Melbourne, but living an hour outside the city does come with some drawbacks; namely the proximity to a fine dining establishment and therefore the limitation to the amount of wine one could consume as taxi is certainly out of question. I was therefore genuinely surprised to hear from a local foodie only last week that there was a new fine dining establishment only 15 mins away from us. It offered degustation menus only and made reference to their own vegetable garden. It sounded exactly like the type of place my wife and I love. The rest is pretty much history. A reservation swiftly ensued the same day and we had a booking for later that week.

P1160336The restaurant is housed in an old building that had previously served as a butchery. The two brothers, Tyson and Blayne Bertoncello, transformed the interior into the type of funky modern restaurant you’d stumble upon in central Melbourne but not usually in Beaconsfield. The two brothers are today joined by their up and coming sommelier and younger brother Chayse, and supported by a handful of passionate and friendly front of house staff who are equally professional and attentive.

P1160334The restaurant only opened 18 months ago but appeared to already have a a loyal group of followers who have sworn by the degustation menu. Caving into their diners demand, they’ve done away with the à la carte option, which in hindsight makes much more sense given their menu is entirely dependent on the harvest of the day. It certainly takes a lot of skill, experience and creativity to adapt to the availability of the produce and ingredients every day. As expected, we opted for the extensive 8 course menu, coming in at a very modest $100. I even managed to get a half pour of wines matching my menu. Perfect.

P1160338Our meal commenced with an array of savoury amuse bouches that was served with a glass (or rather half in my case) of one of our favourite Dominique Portet Brut Rosé NV, Yarra Valley. First up was a Salmon pastrami, angelica seeds, rocket flowers which had a good level of heat and salt to whet the appetite.

P1160341Up next were some fresh and crisp Asparagus, yoghurt and nasturtiums. It was a good way to showcase the quality of their own produce. Good crunch to the asparagus.

P1160344A couple of slices of Smoked venison, beetroot / pickled that had been prepared sous-vide. I was particularly surprised to find that the beetroot powder had such a nutty flavour and there was initially some discussion between my wife and I as she was initially convinced it was a spice mix of sumac and nutmeg. It went particularly well with the smokey venison.

P1160346The last of the amuse bouches was all about the Homegrown broad – beans, leaves, chervil flowers, vinaigrette, broad bean purée. You really needed to be confident in your own produce to serve such a dish but it worked well. Everything on the plate was edible. Despite its simplicity, I thought it was quite clever using texture and flavour contrasts from the sweet and crunchy beans to the sharper vinaigrette and smooth purée; all whilst showcasing the freshness of the produce.

P1160351Our first official course of the evening of the Steamed squid, fried squid tentacles, squid stock, burnet leaves, edible flowers, lemon herb oil went on to demonstrate that the food here wasn’t only about the quality of the produce but equally about the skill that went into the cooking. The crispy fried squid tentacles were particularly enjoyable with the stock. The only thing I wasn’t quite convinced with were the edible flowers which looked pretty but, on balance, I felt added little in terms of flavour.

P1160352I had mixed feelings with the Home made bread and butter. The bread hardly contained any salt and I found it rather dense, almost like damper. However, there was a interesting smokiness to its crust. The butter was also very creamy and delicious, and its application with a pinch of salt on the bread worked well.

P1160358The bread did however come handy to mop up the delicious thick jus left from the Prawn seared, oil shell salt, onion shells in prawn oil, lemon gel, carrot sauce, carrot raisins, chive flowers, sheep sorrel, Miner’s lettuce. The lemon gel provided a subtle but sufficient amount of fresh tangy notes to the prawn, thick jus and caramelized onion shells. The miner’s lettuce, essentially a succulent, burst with a salty juice as you bit into it to dress the sweet prawns and the crunchy carrot added that textural dimension. The dish was matched with a glass of 2013 Valere, Riesling, Mansfield.P1160362One of my personal favourite that evening was the Chicken thigh, white chicken sauce, pea purée, pea pod juice, baisted seeds / peas, seed granola, pea tendrils and flowers. The chicken cooked sous-vide in a rocket purée had an almost raw like texture but was perfectly cooked. It was an odd sensation in the mouth but the flavours were superb. The mouth feel was balanced by the crunchy garden granola made from a variety of seeds and seed pods. One of the best and surprising wine pairing of the evening was the 2011 Witness point, Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley.

P1160365There was a change of pace and a brief pause before the Duck breast, begonia leaf, blueberries dried and fresh, duck jus, fresh kale served four ways in vinaigrette, flowers, sauce and fried was brought out. I absolutely loved the thick sticky jus and the dehydrated crispy fried kale chips though I did prefer my mallard to be served slightly more rare. I blamed it on my wife’s influence, given she was in her 39th week of pregnancy, as I suspect they had adjusted the cooking time for her requirements.

P1160370The  slow cooked Beef cheeks, braised red cabbage, radish, pickles, mustard seeds, beetroot was in my opinion two dishes that had been forced together. The pickles, been made and preserved from an earlier harvest from their garden, were spectacular with a superb level of crunch and sourness which I could have eaten on its own. The addition of…

P1160373… the slow cooked beef cheeks sourced from their local butcher for me was unnecessary, albeit delicious on its own as well. I just found the sweet sticky glaze and the sour pickles a little mismatched in flavours.

P1160376In comparison, the last savoury dish of the evening was another cracker of a dish with the Pork neck, cheek, apple tapenade, granola, apple compressed and powder, nasturtium leaves and flowers, pork crackle and jus. As with all their meat, the pork had been cooked sous-vide to retain the flavours and moisture. The charred cheeks with its smokey notes just melted in your mouth with hardly any effort, but the neck was by far the best cut with its perfect fat-to-meat ratio. The crackling, which I normally get excited about the most, could have done with a tad bit more salt but the texture was decent.

P1160377Before jumping into the desserts, we were offered again an array of palate cleansers starting with the Strawberry three ways – sorbet, compressed and frozen drops, and blueberry three ways – sorbet, fresh and dried. It had a lovely natural sweetness and slight tartness that interplayed really well.

P1160378A very sweet and creamy Buttermilk sorbet and rhubarb shard….

P1160382… and finally a refreshing Cucumber sorbet and oxalis. The oxalis was slightly tangy yet strangely sweet with the sorbet. It was definitely the most interesting of the three.

P1160385We unanimously agreed that the Infused creams of prune, raspberry, wild flowers, red vein sorrel with concentrated prune jus and meringue sticks was the best dish of the evening although we had different opinions about the components. My wife’s favourite was the caramel like flavoured prune and infused meringue but I thought the tobacco and chocolate like flavoured sorrel meringue was ingenious and hands down the winner. We agreed to disagree on the minutiae but overall we both agreed the dish was superb.

P1160388The finale was a rather bold and daring dish of the Cauliflower ice-cream, powder and candied cauliflower, fennel candied, dried, syrup with lemon and fennel, and fennel with white chocolate shard, puffed amaranth. The key to this dish was the balance in the flavour of the fennel and cauliflower. Ultimately I thought the dish could have benefitted from less fennel as its sweetness overwhelmed the plate. However, I did enjoy the flavour combination of the two unconventional elements in a dessert. What I particularly loved about this dish was the candied cauliflower that had the flavour and texture of a brittle vanilla tuile. A slight adjustment could make this dish perfect.

P1160392Our experience at O.MY certainly lived up to the expectation. Whilst the food in general was great, it was the creativity and potential the three brothers had that really excited us that evening. For a relatively young restaurant, the cooking here was rather adventurous and ambitious. Creating a tasting menu every day based on the produce you harvested is not for the faint hearted chef and takes locality and seasonality to another level. Coupled with the young vibrant front of house and sommelier, O.MY may possibly be the most exciting up and coming restaurant I have been to this year. It is certainly worth a trip out of Melbourne for a meal. I look forward to witnessing how their cooking will evolve in the forthcoming years.

Rakutei (楽亭), Tokyo

photo 1Chef: Ishikura Shuuji    Website: Not available   Cuisine: Edomae Tempura

Tempura is one of the three cuisines that originated from and defined the Edo period (also known as Edo no Zanmai江戸の三味) when Tokyo became the capital (1603 – 1868), alongside sushi and soba. Given the importance of the cuisine, there was no way that we would be missing out on at least one good tempura experience in Tokyo where it all began centuries ago. Fortunately there are a number of 2-Michelin starred tempura restaurants in the capital. In the end we decided to opt for Rakutei (楽亭) in Akasaka, which specialised in Edomae tempura; that is utilising seafood and vegetables that were available and caught in the vicinity of Tokyo during the Edo period.

photo 2-3Reservation is necessary for this 11-seater restaurant. Just like the chef’s from other famous tempura restaurants like Kondo and Fukamachi, chef-owner Ishikura Shuuji trained at the famous Hilltop Hotel restaurant before going independent in 1970. There were only two options from the menu, starting with the cheapest at 11,000 yen and the most expensive being 13,000 yen. Given the difference between them was only the number of prawns you got, we opted for the cheapest one to leave room for dinner.

photo 3-3As soon as our orders were taken, Ishikura-san began preparing the oil and its temperature. As Ishikura-san had to adjust the temperature of the oil for each course, the meal could not commence until every diner was present as everyone’s meal was served simultaneously. A wet hand towel was brought out to everyone with me being the exception (this wasn’t rectified until half way through the meal when I had to point it out). The apprentice, and only aid behind the counter, wasted no time in preparing our appetiser of Bonito salad, or Sakizuke no katsuo nuta ae (先付の鰹ぬた和え). Unfortunately, it was rather chewy and I felt the fish was dominated by the white miso dressing.

photo 1-3Ishikura-san’s wife then brought out a lacquered tray for each of us. On the tray were essentially all the condiments to go with the tempura. Basically you could have your tempura with grated radish in home made tentsuyu (天つゆ), which is a tempura dip made from a specific ratio of dashi, mirin and soy sauce, or just lemon to squeeze over…

photo 5-2… or plain old salt. I personally preferred to just have salt for most of the courses.

photo 3-2There was no doubt the ingredients being used here was fresh. The prawns were still moving when Ishikura-san brought them out. Each prawn was handled with the utmost care and prepared methodically. The chef made the process look effortless but the slicing, trimming and peeling was done at speed with flawless precision that captivated all of us. He must have done this thousands of times. Each prawn was lightly slashed across the belly before being coated in the light batter.

photo 2-2For the cheaper menu, two Prawn Tempura’s (海老) were served in comparison to four, and in hindsight we made the right choice. The prawn had a natural sweetness and worked particularly well with just salt as it allowed you to appreciate its freshness and natural flavour. Despite this, I was not blown away from essentially what should have been the star dish of any tempura restaurant. I found the texture of the prawn a little drier than I’d like, absent of that expected juicy explosion at first bite.

photo 1-2We continued with some deep-fried Ginko nuts or ginnan (銀杏) which again wasn’t anything earth shattering. Hmmm, this was an ominous sign…

photo 5-1The meal did however pick up with a serving of the delicious and salty Prawn Head (海老の頭) and Matsutake mushroom (松茸). The prawn head was divine with its crunchy texture and depth of crustacean flavour, far superior to the body of the prawn itself. I did wonder though, why did we only get one head when we had been served two prawns? The matsutake was satisfyingly meaty and oozed of its delicious juice. This was more like it!

photo 4-1You could distinctly notice the change in the application of the batter and the temperature of the oil with the Garfish, also known as Kisu (鱚). There was a thicker coating of the batter and it had been fried at a much higher temperature to penetrate the thicker fillet of the fish. Lemon and salt did the perfect trick for this course. What surprised me most was the absence of oiliness despite the thick batter, leaving you with just the flavour of the fish.

photo 3-1One of the two stand-out dishes of the meal was undoubtedly the Long Aubergine or Naga-nasu (大長茄子) from Kumamoto prefecture. I loved the contrasting texture of the soft moist flesh against the crispy batter. The aubergine has been deep-fried to retain as much moisture as it could before it was sliced in half for plating. A ginger stem tempura was then served to clean the palate. Ishikura-san changed his oil after this course to maintain the freshness of the next few courses. Shame the same level of attention wasn’t paid to the service as we had run out of water and tea for some time and there was no sign of any impending top up.

photo 2-1The second star dish of the meal was the Ink Squid or Sumi-ika (スミイカ). I’d never encountered such a delicate texture with the flesh having hardly any resistance to bite. The entire piece just dissolved in my mouth effortlessly and we were all left speechless. Wow.

photo 1-1The Conger eel or Anago (穴子) in comparison felt slightly too oily, unrefined and tough compared to the other courses. The toughness in truth was due to the fact that it had been cooked slightly longer than it probably should have. Mind you, at least the flavour was good and its only saving grace, although admittedly it was difficult to hide our disappointment.

photo 5To finish our meal we were served a plate of Japanese Pickles or tsukemono (漬物) and given a choice of having our Kakiage (かき揚げ), essentially a concoction of various ingredients, in this case clams, being deep-fried together in a batter, prepared in a Tendon (天丼) which is on a bed of rice, or Tencha (天茶), which is in a bowl with a tiny bed of rice and tea.

photo 3I opted to have my Kakiage as a Tendon. The Kakiage was made from the muscular part of the round clam, known as Kobashira (小柱) that had been sourced from Hokkaido. Whilst the flesh was very soft and sweet, I felt there was far too much batter for the amount of the delicate clam, making it rather more doughy than i would like, albeit crunchy on the 4

We reflected over our meal as we sipped on our red miso soupAkadashi (赤だし) and waited for our bill. We all had mixed feelings about the meal. There were some clear winners like the sumi-ika and naga-nasu that were a world apart from any tempura we had ever tried previously but we couldn’t overlook the inconsistency in the quality of the tempura, not to mention the simple mistakes in the service such as my missing wet hand towel and tea not being topped up. For the same price we had a far better and memorable meal at Ishibashi.

Kagari 篝: Possibly Tokyo’s Best Ramen-ya

IMG_1026It took us a couple of attempts to finally get through the queue at the famous ramen-ya in Ginza, Kagari. On our first attempt we were told that the waiting time had surpassed 3 hours so we returned determinedly half an hour before opening time the following day. Amazingly, there was already a queue 14 people strong. Luckily, on this occasion it only took 45 minutes before we finally managed to get a seat. Impressive, as it really is a hole in the wall that only seats 8 people. It must be noted that the queuing rules are fair and empty seats are left until the size of the next party in line can fit in. A word of caution though, there is no English menu.

IMG_1021Kagari’s fame almost came overnight after they opened in March 2013. In particular, they are well known for their two soup based ramen (中華そば); Nimboshi Shoyu (煮干醤油), a soy sauce and dried sardine based soup, and the Tori Paitan (鶏白湯), a chicken based soup. They also had a choice of tsukemen / dipping noodle (つけ麺). Following the advice from Tokyo Food File’s Robbie Swinnerton, we decided to go for the Tori Paitan. After all, how often do you come across ramen that has been made from chicken?

IMG_1022At 980 yen for a large portion of ramen, the price was more than reasonable considering their prime location at the heart of Ginza. The ramen took a good 15 minutes to prepare so we sipped on some asahi superdry whilst we watched other diners tucking in. The smell wafting from our neighbour was agonizingly delicious. But our wait was finally over…

IMG_1019The Tori Paitan arrived with an unconventional choice of juicy and tender chicken instead of pork, as well as seasonal vegetables which on this occasion included lotus roots (renkon – 蓮根), nameko mushrooms, spring onion and a dollop of salmon roe. I also opted for flavoured egg (ajitama – 味玉) from the extra toppings on offer (which also included garlic butter, bamboo shoots and roast beef). On the side were also some fried onion and grated ginger for those seeking a bit of a kick.

IMG_1020The soup had a beautifully concentrated flavour of chicken. It was elegant and creamy yet surprisingly refined. It’s butteriness was something I’d never encountered before with a bowl of ramen and took me by complete surprise. The noodles were slightly thin and softer than I normally preferred, but it somehow worked with the delicious soup. Together with the starchy lotus roots, meltingly good ajitama and slight kick from the fried onion and ginger, this was definitely the best ramen I had as far back as my memory could take me. And just like that, the bowl was empty all too soon. I wished that I had ordered more but I was very content despite my meal being over.

IMG_1018As we walked out half an hour later, the queue had already built up to where we were the night before. One of the chefs was doing his round explaining the waiting time to each patient patron, but not a single soul flinched and they all stayed put. That’s dedication for you. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were return customers. I certainly would queue up again after having tried their ramen. It was really just that good. And for less than 1,000 yen, this may be Ginza’s best valued meal. ご馳走様でした!

Ishibashi (石ばし), Tokyo

photo 1Chef: Nemoto Mitsuaki   Website:  Cuisine: Unagi (eel)

It takes a tremendous amount of determination to rebuild your dream after watcing it crumble right in front of your eyes. It will however take more than the air raid of Tokyo in 1945 to stand in the way between the Nemoto family and their pursuit to perfecting the art of cooking eel. The century old family restaurant may no longer be sitting in its original location at Nakanohashi but I was impressed to see that they had managed to salvage some of their older building material including the bricks for the gate. Currently run by the third and fourth generation of Nemoto Mitsuaki and his son Kazunori, Ishibashi continues to be a contender to holding the title of the best unagi-ya (eel restaurant) in Tokyo.

photo 2Ishibashi’s eel is sourced from a designated farm in Yoshida-cho, Shizuoka prefecture. What I found particularly fascinating was that the eel was cultivated exactly to the chef’s specification, right down to the quantity and type of feed. Depending on the size and weight of the eel, the chef would decide how he would prepare it. According to Nemoto-san, it takes three years of practice to master skewering, eight years to cut and prepare the eel, and a life time to perfect the art of cooking it. That’s dedication for you! Naturally, it would have been rude to turn down the opportunity to try their elaborate menu to appreciate their various preparations of eel, so we obliged.

photo 3Our first course was a rather simple Zaru tofu (ざる豆腐) which is essentially tofu that has been strained using a basket (zaru) to remove as much water from the content of the soy beans. The remarkably silky tofu was sweet and creamy, complemented by the grated ginger, spring onion and soy sauce.

photo 4We were then presented a trio of starters (突出し) starting with Kamaboko or boiled fish cake (蒲鉾イクラのせ) served with kombu, salmon roe and grated daikon with soy sauce and wasabi on the left; a fresh slice of Salmon sashimi wrapped around sliced spring onion with caper (スライス玉葱のサーモン巻き); and some edamame (茶豆) cooked al dente.

photo 5I particularly enjoyed the Eel bone crackers (鰻骨煎餅 – unagi-kotsu senbei) which were, as the chef explained, packed with plenty of calcium with a crisp glass of beer. Crunchy, salty and packed with bags of flavour. As far as I was concerned, this was beer’s best friend and I could have had a truck load of it.

photo 1-1Some Oshinko / pickles (お新香of cucumber, daikon, spring onion, aubergine and shirouri (白瓜), which is also known as summer cucumber. Great crunchy textures and not too salty. I managed to polish this plate before the next dish arrived.

photo 2-1The first proper eel course was a Unagi Chawanmushi (鰻茶碗蒸し), essentially a savoury egg custard dish steamed with pieces of delicious grilled eel, crab meat, mushroom, ginnan and slithers of the aromatic zest of sudachi. A harmonious dish with a beautifully silky texture and one of the better one I’ve had in a long time. I was particularly impressed as to how mush flavour the crab meat had.

photo 3-1Thirty minutes passed by and a rather apologetic waitress arrived with our next course. This was the moment we were waiting for! A beautiful Wajima lacquer box was presented to each of us with a soy sauce and wasabi concoction on the side. Wajima lacquer is one of the oldest lacquer craft produced in the city of Wajima in Ishikawa prefecture. Before opening the box the waitress explained that each eel was carefully handled and grilled just before serving them which was why it had taken thirty minutes. Fair enough!

photo 3-2The first serving of the eel was prepared as a Shirayaki (白焼), which is essentially plain broiled eel without any sauce. This method of cooking is popular amongst the purists as the lower content of fat from the cooking method allows you to truly appreciate the quality of the eel and the skill that comes with the preparation. The dish was accompanied with soy sauce and wasabi but without rice. I personally preferred this preparation and enjoy the clean taste of the eel.

photo 4-1We were then served some more pickles to go with the finale…

photo 5-1As tradition dictates, a bowl of Kimosui (肝吸い) (eel liver soup) was served to go with the next course. The clear broth had a very clean taste despite it’s association with liver. I was however rather more interested with the next course…

photo 1-2…. and at last, the long awaited Unajuu (うな重). This beautiful kabayaki was served on a bed of rice in another Wajima lacquer box. Unlike the shirayaki, the eel had been dipped in a sweet soy-based sauce before being broiled on the grill. Whilst I personally preferred the shirayaki, I did rather enjoy the fact that there wasn’t too much sauce to distract the flavour of the eel completely. To the chefs credit, this was cooked to perfection and it was all a matter of personal taste.

photo 2-2Our first meal on the trip certainly set the tone for the week ahead. What I truly admired was the passion and commitment from the Nemoto family who have continued to refine the art of preparing eel across four generations. From humble beginnings in their original premise in Nakanohashi, Ishibashi had not only evolved in their cooking style but also in the manner in which the eel is cultivated. Eel is an expensive ingredient and for 13,000 yen I think this meal was an absolute bargain. It certainly put some of the other bigger names like Nodaiwa to shame. 

South Beauty, Beijing

20111105-IMG_0082Chef/Owner: Zhang Lan     Website:     Cuisine: Sichuanese

(In collaboration with Kevin from

The South Beauty chain is a success story that began over twenty years ago by a lady called Zhang Lan. With as little as USD 20,000, she opened her first restaurant in 1991 and has never looked back. She now has over 50 chains in her portfolio, racking up an annual revenue of circa USD 100 million, making her one of the most successful modern day female entrepreneurs of China.

For our first evening in Beijing we decided to take it easy and visit their branch in Pacific Century Place. I don’t tend to go to chain restaurants but made an exception on this occasion as it came highly recommended.

20111105-IMG_0087 Given the mountain of chilli that greeted us at the entrance, you can probably guess what this restaurant specialises in. Infamously hot Sichuanese food of course! It may have been my foreign presence (given my dining companion was Kevin from Fine Dining Explorer who was undoubtedly Chinese looking) which instigated the waiter to ask if we wanted to tone down the spiciness in our meal. I didn’t want to exactly destroy my stomach on my first day so I took his advice. In hindsight, this was a very good suggestion!

20111105-IMG_0093I left everything in the capable hands of Kevin as my Mandarin was not quite up to scratch. A few minutes of chatting with the waiter about classic dishes of Sichuan and we were off.

20111105-IMG_0095We kicked off with a few small dishes which were deceivingly spicy, including this Black Fungus that was served cold. Even Kevin had a nasty shock to his system as he took his first bite (although mind you, it turned out he had even less resistance than I did for hot food). I did enjoy the slithery and crunchy texture, although overall it did lack in flavour.

P1030351The next course, literally translated as Hanged Shirt White Meat, was one of their signature dish which consisted of thinly sliced pork served with shredded carrot and chilli sauce. It was a humorous take on how the Sichuanese hang their clothes. Who knew the Chinese were so humorous in their cooking? This dish was all about the sauce, made from the three spices of black, chilli and Sichuan peppers, as the pork was rather bland on its own. There was a very bizarre sensation of mouth numbing from the Sichuanese peppers.

20111105-IMG_0099Next was some Southern Yangtze Duck Roll which wasn’t Sichuanese but came recommended. The slices of duck meat had been rolled around a salty yolk centre. It was also a welcomed rest from the intense heat of the food we already had. Our tongues were on fire but little did I know what was about to come…

20111105-IMG_0101One of the best course of the evening was the Sliced Lung by the Married Couple (Fuqi Feipian) which was essentially sliced beef tongue and tripe served in a pool of Sichuan, chilli and black peppers. It was also the hottest item of the meal and possibly hotter than anything I had previously tried, ever…period. The dish dates back to the late Qing dynasty where a couple in Chengdu gained fame through their secret recipe of beef slices. As a result of some pranks played by mischievous children the name stuck, although I can assure you no lungs were in fact used in this dish ever. The meat used in this dish today is much higher quality slices of beef as well as a number of varieties of offal. I picked at this dish only every once in a while as I must confess the heat overwhelmed my palate, but it was so good I couldn’t stop.

20111105-IMG_0104 By the time our Kung Pao Chicken was served, we had become somewhat desensitised from the spice and heat. I couldn’t quite sense whether there was any heat to this but the chicken was moist and delicious, accompanied by a lovely mixture of crunchy peanuts and the sweet and crips spring onions.

20111105-IMG_0108Given we were having Sichuanese I could of course not resist trying one of the most internationally iconic dish of the region, Ma Po Tofu. The dish is often described and rated by chefs for the seven specific Chinese adjectives: numbing, spicy hot, hot temperature, fresh, tender and soft, aromatic and flaky. This was nothing like any variation I had tried before. Whilst comparably hot to the beef slices, it was indeed fresh, aromatic and tender. I could however not finish this as Kevin at this point had given up after admitting defeat to the intense spice. It was too much to finish this on my own.

20111105-IMG_0113Our saving grace that evening was that dessert, at least, was not spicy… well mostly. Our first dessert course was another playful dish of the Four Treasures of the Scholar’s Studio which included the Paper or simply rice paper, Brush which had an edible nutty puff pastry head…

20111105-IMG_0112Ink stick which was a sesame pancake…

20111105-IMG_0114… and Ink Stone that had been made from dried mince pork. It had a very airy texture yet a contrasting crispy coating, and most surprisingly worked well as a sweet dish. I particularly liked the fact that the chef had a sense of humour which wasn’t found in majority of the other restaurants we had visted subsequently in China.

20111105-IMG_0122For our last dessert we were presented with a variety of toppings consisting of Peanut butter, chive sauce, fermented bean curd, deep fried doughs, honey…. and surprise surprise, spicy sauce. This was to go with our…

20111105-IMG_0123… bowl of Tofu which had been prepared next to our table. I wasn’t a bit fan of this dish. Perhaps it was me, but I found it rather bland, unexciting and one dimensional (even with the spicy sauce!).

P1030344This was certainly not the culinary highlight from our trip, but what impressed me was the calibre of cooking for a chain restaurant. I did of course compare the dishes here against what previously had been presented to me as authentic Sichuanese, both in Asia and overseas, and relied on Kevin’s vast knowledge of regional Chinese cuisine. I’d certainly prefer this place over any other Sichuanese restaurants I’ve previously been to and even the tacky decor would not put me off from another visit to try other dishes… my intestinal lining however may perhaps disagree…

Club Jin Mao, Shanghai

20111111-P1070524Chef: Beck Chen Website: Cuisine: Shanghainese

Having opened initially as a private members only dining venue in 1999, it didn’t take long before Club Jin Mao had to open their doors to the public as their fame grew. The restaurant is located on the 86th floor of the 8th tallest building in the world (though I’m sure the Emirates and Chinese may have built taller ones by now), under the umbrella of Grand Hyatt Shanghai. With only 6 private dining rooms that cater up to 40 people, I felt quite priviledged to have scored a table here.

20111111-P1070527 After switching lifts a couple of times we finally arrived at the reception. I did not quite expect such a grand art deco design for a hotel restaurant but it was very impressive. It was certainly far more tasteful than many of the establishments we had visited during the ten days we were in China.

20111111-IMG_1156We were promptly escorted to our private dining room which had a superb view over the city. We also had the priviledge, on this occasion, to dine with one of our culinary contacts from our trip, Peter Zhou. Peter has an amazing dining history, doing everything from hosting Gary Rhodes during his trip across China, to refining the famous Drunken Chicken at 28 Hubin Road and even cooking with Shannon Bennett.

20111111-P1070521Despite the pollution, the view over the Pudong district and Huangpu river was quite impressive and I’m sure the view at night would have been even more spectacular.

20111111-IMG_1163A wooden box containing an assortment of traditional Chinese snacks consisting of various nuts, seeds and sweets was presented to us whilst we waited for the last diners to arrive.

20111111-IMG_1165Every single chef in this restaurant had been handpicked by Peter in his role as the Food and Beverage Director of Grand Hyatt Shanghai. He explained that he had spent months travelling around the region to scout for young talented chefs wanting to make a name for themselves.

20111111-IMG_1170Some fine yellow wine was poured to match with our lunch. It was a welcomed change to the tea and beer we had been having until that point on our trip.

20111111-IMG_1172Our lunch commenced with an assortment of Chinese bite size morsels starting with a fragrant Drunken Chicken marinated in shaoxing wine, Crispy fried prawns, cubes of Sweet and Sour fish, a couple of soft and juicy Spare ribs on the bone, a highly delectable Venison terrine and a stack of Celery sticks with pine nuts. Not a bad start at all. 

20111111-IMG_1179Similar to our experience at 28 Hubin Road, the food arrived at a slow and steady pace which made the experience much more enjoyable. Our first warm course of the meal was a Mixed Fish Maw Soup which was very light and well balanced in seasoning.

20111111-IMG_1181These were the best Fried prawns from the trip. They were infused with the highly sought after Dragon Well Tea from Hangzhou. Each prawn was cooked to perfection with perfect bite and juiciness. Shame I had to share this plate with four others…20111111-IMG_1184Given we had arrived in the midst of the Hairy Crab from Yangcheng lake season, we were fortunate enough to try a few dishes incorporating them. I personally liked the delicate texture and balance of flavour in the Tofu with Crab Roe although some of my companions found the flavour was overly diluted.

20111111-IMG_1190Next was the Deep fried fresh water fish which had an amazingly crispy texture down to the bone! Unlike some of the other deep fried fish I had tried on that trip, this was not too oily and quite pleasant. With an addition bonus that it wasn’t done with a sweet and sour sauce for a change!

20111111-IMG_1196As we had not had any greens by this point, some Bok choy and sea root vegetable was thrown in. The sea root vegetable, which to this date still remains a mystery to me, had a rather bizarre texture not too dissimilar to rhubarb and parsnip.

20111111-IMG_1199Given the pricetag that comes with an entire Hairy (Mitten) crab, this was our one occasion we allowed ourselves to indulge in, and boy was it worth it! Each of these crustacean comes with its own certification tag given they can fetch up to $150 a piece (and trust me when I say they are not that big). As we had arrived on the 10th month of the lunar calendar when these crab are at their best, we could not resist ordering a piece each.

20111111-IMG_1201As with any warm crab we had to first eat the legs before they cooled down to fully appreciate the delicate flabour. Of course the core of this female crab was also divine, with a yolk like gooey centre formed by the roe. The intensity of the roe flavour was divine and perfectly complemented the regular crab meat. It’s funny to see how a specie of crab considered to be a pest in the Western world is so highly sought after here.

20111111-IMG_1215We had ordered some additional Xialongbao (Shanghainese dumplings) in case we were still hungry. The soup inside this dumpling was one of the best I’ve ever had, and what’s more the meat inside also contained more crab meat and roe. Heaven.

20111111-IMG_1216A juicy Fried pork bun followedto finish the meal and fill the stomach in a not too dissimilar way to the purpose of bread in a classic French restaurant.

20111111-IMG_1228We finished our meal with a plate of Fresh fruits served over a bowl of dry ice emitting a dense fog. The fruits were surprisingly very sweet but I could not hide my disappointment that we were not being served a Chinese dessert. Given the calibre of cooking overall I expected something far more spectacular to finish but dessert was something that seemed to elude most, although not all, Chinese restaurants.

20111111-IMG_1229Club Jin Mao was without a shadow of a doubt one of the best fine dining establishment we came across in Shanghai. There were certainly moments of brilliance similar to 28 Hubin Road and the hairy crab season certainly enhanced the experience. It did come at a significant cost of course, albeit, in my opinion, being worth every single yuan. The cooking here was as authentic as Shanghainese food comes and who could complain with a stunning view? I certainly didn’t and would definitely recommend it if you were prepared to pay a bit for the experience. It’s definitely worth it.

El Celler de Can Roca, Girona

P1070991Chef: Joan, Jordi and Josep Roca         Website:

Cuisine: Modern Catalan

Little introduction is needed for the Roca brothers who brought back, since the closure of elBulli, the title of best restaurant in the world (well, at least according to San Pellegrino’s panel in 2013) to the region of Catalunya. However, their rise to fame wasn’t done overnight and required patience as they competed against the likes of Noma over a few years before knocking them off the crown, even if it was for just one year. But what makes Can Roca so special? Seldom does one establishment have such a recipe for success where each brother has excelled in their own field starting with Joan’s culinary direction as the executive chef, Josep’s impeccable choice and collection of wine as the sommelier and Jordi’s creativity as the pastry chef that is as whacky as Willy Wonka. Separately, they produce brilliance. What they bring together as a team is a gastronomic experience that is difficult to match.

P1080010I wasn’t ready to repeat my dinner experience in 2010 when we ended up leaving the restaurant around 2.30am so we opted for a lunch service on this occasion. We arrived a bit early as we tried to check out their gelateria, Rocambolesc, but unfortunately they were closed for a full refurbishment! So instead we decided to cheekily rock up a little early at Can Roca to enjoy their courtyard and were fortunate enough to get a glass of cava as the staff scoffed their lunch before opening for service.

P1080033I absolutely loved the interior space in Can Roca. Generous amount of space between the table allowing you for some privacy amongst your party, yet aesthetically modern and open, allowing you to see through the entire dining room. Yet again, we didn’t need much convincing to go for their extensive Festival menu.

P1080043The World, according to Joan Roca’s latest travels, was expressed through various bite-size morsels presented in a paper lantern representing the earth. The waiter proceeded by opening up the globe to reveal the contents. If there was one thing Can Roca does well it is their playful presentation. Creativity is not something that is lacking here.

P1080045A guacamole and grapfruit sphere represented Mexico, a liquid spherified ceviche ball for Peru (which came with a warning to have in one bite), hummus for Lebanon, honey and crumbled almonds for Morocco and kimchi for South Korea. They were good fun with distinct flavours depicting the countries from which Joan had been inspired. He even makes his own kimchi now. Impressive!

P1080050The Can Roca classic of the Caramelised Olives then made its appearance. A miniature olive tree was served like a bonzai in a pot. At closer inspection you could find green olives stuffed with anchovies with a caramelised coating hanging amongst its leaves. Sweet, brittle, sticky, juicy – all the sensations from each olive that was dangling off the branches. Sensational.

P1080065More amuse bouche followed with the Campari and grapefruit bonbon. This was a perfectly thin brittle cocoa butter sphere encasing a liquid mixture of the elegant bitters. A word of caution though, please eat this in one go.

P1080071Next was Joan Roca’s play on a Spanish classic of Calamares a la Romana. A welcome adaptation! The squid had been mashed up and reshaped into a thick circular disc and blow-torched before being topped with crispy balls of batter drenched with lemon juice. A finely balanced dish with a very intense flavour of squid and deliciously contrasting textures.

P1080072 Marinated mussels in a ceviche sauce served on long mother of pearl spoons. A soft juicy mussel with a citrus note. This was quite a bit more simple than the other amuse bouche and perhaps my least favourite.

P1080079The last set of amuse bouche was a celebration of the St George’s mushroom, served in two parts. A thin cocoa butter shell encased a liquid concentrated with the flavour of the mushroom, served in beautiful stoneware.

P1080083A bowl with a metal lid was then presented to each of us. Our waiter proceeded by lifting the lid to reveal…

P1080087… a St George’s mushroom brioche and a separate escudella (Catalan broth / stew) underneath in a bowl. We were advised to dunk the brioche into the broth before eating it.

Perhaps it was the choice of mushroom but I felt, for the amount of preparation that went into the mushroom, the intensity of the flavour was not at the level I expected. Some white truffle could have excited my olfactory senses better perhaps?P1080092On to our first course of the day with the Oyster with black pearl served in its own juice with melon juice, dots of cucumber, celery, apple, lime jelly, wood sorrel, melon flower and heartleaf iceplant. Whilst I consider myself to be a purist when it comes to the matter of oysters, I was pleasantly surprised as to how all the component worked here without distracting from the essence of the oyster. It was an elegant and finely balanced dish that could have easily gone wrong, but it didn’t.P1080094A beautiful dish then appeared before us which required a double-take. A dessert dish already? No, of course not, I was mistaken. It was instead Elderflower infusion, cherries with amaretto, gingered cherries and smoked sardine. Of course, how could I have mistaken? I wasn’t sure what to expect here as elderflower infusion, cherries and sardine sounded like a recipe for disaster. However, it was surprisingly memorable…. but for positive reasons. The smoked sardines transformed the dish from what could have been a dessert course into unique savoury dish. Floral, fruity and light – the elderflower infusion effectively removing the fishiness of the silky sardine leaving only the delicate flavour of the fish.

P1080102The next course was a celebration of the local staple, olives. A modern take on a classic with the Black olive gazpacho. This involved a spicy gordal olive mousse, black olive fritter, ice cream made from manzanilla and olives, toasted bread with oil, fennel jelly, winter savory jelly and picual olive. I was amazed to be able to distinctly pick out each flavour of the variety of olives. From the sweet black olive gazpacho to the contrasting bitter and salty gordal olive mousse and slices of picual olives. We needed more bread to mop this beauty up.

P1080109Another savoury dish appeared again mimicking a classic dessert (also known as Viennetta for the non-Spanish), the White asparagus comtessa and black truffle powder. I thought the white asparagus on the side was unnecessary but it did allow me to greater appreciate the intensity of the creamy and velvety ice cream which was full of asparagus flavour such as I had never tasted before. The icing on the cake, literally and figuratively, was that earthy black truffle powder. If only Vienetta came in this flavour…

P1080122 Joan Roca made sure to make full use of the King prawn (I am often frustrated when other establishments have failed to serve the whole crustacean) served charcoal grilled with king prawn sand, ink rocks, fried legs, head juice and king prawn essence. Admittedly, this did not come anywhere near the prawns I had at Asador Etxebarri but I did enjoy the extremely intense and rich essence made from the brain and the smokey flesh of the prawn. My favourite bit, however, was the crispy fried head and legs. Crunchy.

P1080128A slightly smoked fillet of Red sea bream, yuzu, capers and crunchy pickled vegetables was next. This was a nicely cooked piece of fish, tender and moist but nothing extraordinary and perhaps slightly disappointing when compared against the other dishes.

P1080134A much stronger fish course was the Salty cod brandade with salt cod tripe, salt cod foam, olive oil soup, shallots, honey, thyme and chilli pepper. Great interplay of flavours from the creamy and salty brandade balanced against the sweet honey and slightly citrusy thyme. The slight kick from the red chilli was again spot on. Despite the strong flavours, it was a surprisingly light dish.

P1080146Whilst there had been no disaster courses, I felt there had been a lackluster performance in the main segment of the meal compared to the amuse bouches. That was however rectified with the tender and suckling Iberian suckling pig blanquette that had been cooked at 63°C over 30 hours, retaining a beautifully crispy crackling coating. Joan Roca went further to match his take on the cochinillo (suckling pig) with a deconstructed aroma of riesling wine using sweet mango terrine, melon, beetroot, beetroot purée, black garlic, onion and slightly tart orange concentrate. This was much more like it. Clever piece of cooking indeed.

P1080148Next was a minimalist interpretation of the traditional Catalan fishermen’s soup (Suquet); essentially Red mullet cooked sous-vide at a low temperature, served on top of a concentrated fish soup with shredded cabbage and three towers of purée; orange, fennel and saffron. The depth of the fish soup was remarkable and the fish was unbelievably flavoursome. Personally I still prefered the traditional rustic soup but this wasn’t bad.

P1080156A glass cloche filled with smoke was then presented to us. The waiter then proceeded by revealing what laid hidden underneath…

P1080165… which was a smokey Charcoal grilled lamb breast fillet and sweetbreads with spring mushrooms.  Tender piece of lamb, crispy skin and silky sweetbread, served over a concentrated lamb jus which had also been soaked up by some of the earthy morel mushrooms. I wondered what they had done with the rest of the lamb because I wanted more.

P1080168The finale of the savoury segment was a rather brave dish of Pigeon liver and onion, curry-caramelised walnuts, juniper, orange peel and herbs. I absolutely loved the marriage of flavours between the rich gamey pigeon liver mousse, the curry and walnut caramel layer and the classic orange. A sliver of pigeon liver was also served pink but that didn’t phase me. This was a solid dish which also appeared on my first visit and I could see why. Earthy, gamey, rich and intense. I could however appreciate that if game and liver was not your thing then you would have been less enthused.

P1080179On to the dessert and the best course of the evening. The Caramelised apricot: blown sugar apricot with vanilla and caramelised apricot cream was not only a work of art but divine. Visually this is one of the best dishes I have encountered with unbelievable craftsmanship. The sugar work was filled with an apricot foam and presented on a bed of vanilla. The intensity of the apricot flavour was unbelievable and stood out next to the slice of fresh apricot. It was one hell of a dessert particulalry considering I was not the biggest apricot fan… until that day.

P1080185Another modern interpretation by Jordi Roca with Strawberries and cream which was perhaps the weakest dessert dish. It was essentially just a rod of strawberry sorbet, wrapped in a cylinder of cream and more strawberry sorbet, ringed by a spiral of delicate sugar work. Mind you, fresas con nata (strawberry with cream) is a very popular dish in Spain so perhaps the significance may have been slightly lost on some.

P1080190Our final dessert dish was a Mocha mille-feuille, anise mille-feuille with mocha foam and coffee granita. A comforting dish with a lovely contrast of texture, between the gooey mocha and brittle sugar sheets, and flavour, between the sweet foam and bitter coffee granita. It was however the not the most visually appealing dessert, resembling perhaps closer to a half chewed snicker bar. Looks can be deceiving, indeed.

P1080175An addition to the dining room was the Sweets trolley designed by local artist Andreu Carulla (who also designed the lantern from the amuse bouche, equipments in Rocambolesc and many other tableware at Can Roca). The trolley was filled with macarons, chocolates, fruit jellies and other sweets. To be honest, I was too full by this point.

P1080213My second visit to Can Roca was thoroughly impressive as my first one and also confirmed a few things. First and foremost, it was a great opportunity to be able to recalibrate essentially what was my fine dining benchmark. Suffice to say, the bar had been raised again. A secondary observation confirmed my thoughts from my first meal; the creativity and fautless execution of the amuse bouche and desserts are what makes Can Roca one of my all time favourite restaurant. Last but not least, I love the fact that behind all the modern techniques and interpretations, the cuisine at heart is undeniably Catalan and has deep roots to the region. Having grown up with this region as a reference all my life, the food felt familiar yet refreshingly new. What more could I ask for? Well, perhaps a shorter waiting list.