Monthly Archives: October 2014

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.