tokyo shiba tofuya-ukai

•September 26, 2012 • 5 Comments

I adore tofu, especially that of the fresh handmade variety. So when I heard about a tofu kaiseki restaurant near Tokyo Tower, I knew I had to go. It was cherry blossom season back in April and the pathway leading to Tokyo Shiba Tofuya-Ukai was lined with breath-taking sakura trees resplendent with pink blooms.

At the entrance we were greeted by traditionally garbed waitresses, one of whom led us through the lush stone-paved gardens to our tatami room (all diners are given their own private space).

On the way we passed the restaurant shop stocked with a wide variety of bean curd products, all made on-site, and a chef grilling aburaage (deep-fried tofu) for one of their signature dishes.

We were given a choice of lunch sets ranging from ¥5500 (£45) to ¥10500 (£85) – each consisted of 8 courses, with the price variations reflected in the ingredients. I went with the most expensive, the Tsuki set, which opened with a trio of Grilled Bamboo Shoot and Rape Blossoms, Sea Bream Sushi in Sakura Leaves, and Vinegared Mozuku Seaweed with Surf Clam.

Next came the Deep-fried Tofu with Sweet Miso we saw being prepared earlier. It was incredible – soft yet crisp and so light, with a lovely charred aroma. A scant brushing of miso imparted a deep complex sweetness, which was balanced by the freshness of spring onion slivers.

I enjoyed the delicate flavour of the soothing Cod and Pea Soup but the green chewy mochi-like dumplings were a bit bland for my liking.

A small Sashimi selection, served with grated wasabi, was fresh but nothing spectacular.

Clam and Sea Urchin was more memorable – the creamy lobe of uni a nice contrast to the meaty clam beneath.

Tofu in Seasoned Soy Milk, another house special, was served table-side to us by the waitress from a large clay pot.

The simple preparation really let the quality of the tofu shine – smooth and silky on the tongue, its subtle taste enhanced by the faint savouriness of the steaming soy milk.

Grilled Red Tilefish was fine, but paled in comparison.

Steamed Rice with Bamboo Shoot was a little stingy on takenoko, but I wasn’t too bothered having overloaded on the spring vegetable the day before.

Soy Milk Jelly with Azuki Beans and Strawberries made a pleasing end – the quivering milky cube a great canvas for the rich sweet red beans.

I had expected a higher ratio of tofu dishes on the menu, and it’s such a shame the star ingredient doesn’t feature more prominently as the two bean curd offerings were clear standouts with the rest being pretty pedestrian as kaisekis go. It was a lovely experience nevertheless, thanks in no small part to the picturesque setting, and I’d definitely recommend it as a lunch venue, especially during sakura or maple season when the gardens are particularly beautiful. Perhaps opt for one of the cheaper sets – don’t worry, they all include both signature tofu dishes so you won’t miss out!

Tokyo Shiba Tofuya-Ukai
4-4-13 Shiba-Koen,
Minato-ku, Tokyo

t. +81 (0)3 3436 1028

kikunoi akasaka

•July 24, 2012 • 10 Comments

It is quite rare for Michelin-starred heavyweights in Japan to set-up outposts overseas – perhaps born of an attachment to the amazing local bounty, an uncertainty of the foreigner’s palate or just a lack of desire to expand abroad. Luckily for us, in recent years this has started to change, and two high profile Japanese chefs are set to open up here in London – Mitsuhiro Araki of Araki and Yoshihiro Murata of Kikunoi. In Tokyo we sadly we couldn’t secure a reservation at Araki, but we did manage to eat at Kikunoi in Akasaka, the two-starred sister restaurant of the more celebrated original Kikunoi and Roan Kikunoi in Kyoto that hold five Michelin stars between them.

Murata’s style of modern kaiseki is an amalgamation of Imperial palace cuisine vegetarian Shojin fare, tea ceremony tradition and obanzai (Kyoto home cooking), and takes inspiration from the four seasons. His restaurants all serve the same seasonal menu, with three sets (of differing price points) on offer at dinner. Our ¥21,000 kaiseki kicked off with a complementary cup of sake and a petit dish of Sake-steamed Sea Bream Milt with Sea Cucumber Roe and Ponzu. Sea cucumber roe was completely new to me – rich and creamy, it paired well with the sharp ponzu and milky sea bream milt.

A pretty assortment of appetizers swiftly followed – Tai (red sea bream) sushi with kinome (prickly ash leaf bud), grilled Squid with nori and egg yolk, Mountain Yam “butterflies”, Octopus, Yurine (lily bulb) petals, Udo stalk petals, Fava Beans, and a skewer of Abalone, Shrimp and Avocado. No standouts, but all pleasant.

Sashimi of Kinmedai and Tai made more of an impression. The skin of the red snapper was left intact and scorched, and the slices came sandwiched between thin slabs of ponzu jelly, the acid of which accented the fish perfectly. Translucent folds of sea bream were served with a rectangle of Suizenji Seaweed, that too was a great match for the milder fish.

Another sashimi plate of Koshibi (young bluefin tuna) came dabbed with mustard and soy-marinated egg yolk sauce for dipping. Sounds unusual, but tasted great.

Steamed Wakasa Tilefish, Cherry Leaf, Warabi Fern Heads, toasted Rice Cracker Dumpling and Ginger Juice boasted a multitude of components but each was subtle in flavour so came together harmoniously.

Takenoko (bamboo shoot) is abundant in Japan during springtime, so inevitably we saw a lot of that on the menu. The first preparation of the vegetable was grilled with kinome miso – tender, not at all bitter, and wonderfully smoky from the char.

Grilled Tasmania Salmon was cooked on such a low temperature that it ate like raw fish, the soft silky texture contrasted well with the crispy skin and grated radish seasoned with yet more kinome (which, like the bamboo shoot was also in season).

Strawberry and Wasabi Sorbet provided a sweet mid-meal interlude. There was a discernable bite from the wasabi, but only enough to make it intriguing.

Vinegared Firefly Squid and Wild Mountain Vegetables was nice and refreshing.

A do-it-yourself dish of Japanese Hot Pot with Abalone, Bamboo Shoot, Seaweed and Kinome was a steaming bowl of pure comfort.

Steamed Rice with Bamboo Shoot, Green Pea Potage, Kinome, portioned out to us table-side was delicate and satisfying, but did pale in comparison to an outrageously good freshly-shaved black truffle-topped rice we had at Kadowaki a couple of days earlier. We were also beginning to tire of both bamboo shoot and kinome.

To finish, a choice of desserts. I went with the Almond Jelly, Hassaku Orange and Thai Basil Seeds, which was was light, clean and soothing. B liked his too – a chilled Sweet Bean Paste Soup with Rice Cake and Milk Ice Cream.

As tasting menus go, kaiseki is rather virtuous – the word after all refers to the practice of Buddhist monks holding warm stones to their stomachs to subdue hunger pangs – and despite being pretty full I felt sated, not ill. I enjoyed the food at Kikunoi (the cooking was certainly skilled and the ingredients top-notch), yet somehow overall it didn’t quite do it for me. It felt a little bit too commercial – from the waiters repeatedly bringing over the restaurant cookbook to the table for us to peruse, to the merchandise (including said book) for sale at the door. The menu itself also lacked range and wow-factor, although admittedly that could be down to the time of year we visited – their winter kaiseki looks pretty spectacular.

Perhaps the more idyllic Kyoto flagship would have made a better experience, but this meal wasn’t really enough of a push for me to find out.

Kikunoi
6-13-8 Akasaka
Minato-ku, Tokyo

t. +81 (0)3 3568 6055

burnt enz

•July 22, 2012 • 9 Comments

Another quick departure from Tokyo (it’s beginning to look like I’m a dedicated Japanese food blogger), this time to talk about the brilliant Burnt Enz in London Fields. With the sun out, there really is no better place to be than Dave Pynt’s weekend barbecue residency at Climpson & Sons roastery, and we believe this so wholeheartedly we went this both Saturday and Sunday (after a full lunch at Cornish Grill). Yes, it’s THAT GOOD.

First things first, don’t go expecting pulled pork and coleslaw – this is not an all-American BBQ spot. Instead Dave (ex-Etxebarri, so you know he means business with a grill) cooks the best available produce simply, but to absolute perfection, so they shine on their own. He does all this in the roastery’s courtyard, on custom applewood-fed grills and brick ovens.

Sweet new season garlic, the edge tempered by slow-roasting, spread like butter on the slices of grilled bread and made a fine start to our feast in the sun.

A scallop each, plump and proudly sitting in its shell, followed. Grilled complete with its coral and served with seaweed and lemon, it was soft, succulent and a real burst of flavours.

Charred Fennel wedges were cooked through but retained a pleasing crunch, their mild aniseed notes nicely complemented by sorrel cream and orange oil.

A beautiful plate of grilled Tomatoes with Goats Milk and Mint confirms that vegetables are no after thought here at Burnt Enz.

Grilled Sea Bream served with salsa verde was absolutely stunning. B and I picked at the crisp-skinned fish with relish, enjoying every mouthful of moist flaky flesh.

Dexter Forerib was equally impressive – the majestic piece of meat had a good char to it, but was still juicy and pink within. It was quite a lot for the two of us to get through, especially after all we had already eaten, but with the help of a refreshing vinaigrette-dressed side salad of wilted lettuce and onions we managed it. Just.

On Sunday, having already had lunch, we scaled back a little and only ordered two things. The first was the Bone Marrow that I had my eye on the day before. Smoky quivering gloriousness – it was all I had hoped for.

Then, a whole leg of suckling pig, meat fall-off-the-bone tender and skin that cracked against the teeth. This time, even with the accompanying citrus-spiked shaved fennel salad, we were defeated and had to ask for the rest of the piglet to go.

If you’ve yet to have the pleasure of kicking back at the Helmsley Place arch, you need to hop down pronto as Burnt Enz is only running until the end of summer. Not only is the grilling top-notch, the relaxed vibe, cool digs and friendly staff (both the servers and bar-keep at the well-stocked bar, as well as the amiable Dave himself) make it unmissable.

Burnt Endz
Arch 374
Helmsley Place
London E8 3SB

open weekends 2pm-midnight
also on Thursday nights, bookable here

ippudo

•July 19, 2012 • 5 Comments

Speaking of noodles, I obviously wouldn’t visit Japan without eating in at least one ramen joint. The styles of ramen vary greatly, from simple shoyu ramen at Aoba, to the lighter yuzu shio ramen (also soy-based) at Afuri, to the hardcore thick sauce-like soup at Jiro (not to be confused with Sukiyabashi Jiro), which with its large dose of suspended pork fat is not for the faint-hearted. With time to visit only one we decided to go with the safe choice of Ippudo, a reputable chain specialising in Hakata-style Tonkotsu ramen from Kyushu. The tiny Roppongi branch was bustling when we arrived but turnover was swift and we were seated in a larger seating area down the back within 10 minutes.

Food arrived quickly too. Dinky bite-sized gyoza were fantastic – thin dumpling skin tender but with a slight chew and crisped to golden on the base encasing a delicious juicy pork filling. I’d happily pop these handmade beauties, a snip at ¥400 (£3) for ten, all day long.

Steamed Pork Bun on the other hand really wasn’t worth ordering – the thick slab of was pork was bland and dry, and the lone blob of mustard did little to help it along. Give this a miss and just order an extra helping of gyoza.

Ippudo offer a number of different ramen as well as few rice options (menu here). I went for the Akamaru Ramen (with an added soft boiled egg, naturally) – thin elastic noodles swimming in a rich tonkotsu pork bone broth glistening with pork fat and drizzled with black koyu (fragrant oil). Tasty and oh so satisfying.

B’s choice was Shiromaru, the classic Ippudo ramen (also pork-based), which was slightly richer in taste. You can order both the Akamura and Shiromaru as Specials which includes extra toppings of egg, wantan, kikurage (tree mushrooms) and beansprouts, in addition to the standard chashu, spring onions and seaweed. There’s also one topped with spicy miso (Ippudo Karaka), another with a shoyu chicken broth (Hakata Chuka) and the thicker udon-like Hakata Tsukumen, eaten dipped into a shellfish-enriched pork broth. If only I had the capacity to try them all.

Ippudo is reliable, solid choice for tonkotsu ramen and at an average of ¥800 (£6) a bowl, a real quality budget option. With it’s English menus and clean modern digs, it’s also probably one of the most foreigner-friendly.

Ippudo
Odagiri Building 1F
4-9-11 Roppongi
Minato-ku, Tokyo

t. +81 (0)3 5775 7561

honmura an

•July 19, 2012 • 3 Comments

Of the many noodles that hail from Japan, somen and soba are my favourite. Honmura An specialises in the latter – springy chewy buckwheat strands served either hot or cold, with a variety of toppings. The extensive à la carte menu handily includes detailed English translations (owner Koichi Kobari started a hugely successful Honmura An in New York before returning home to set up shop in Roppongi) and not only features numerous soba offerings (uni, ikura, duck and tempura are popular picks) but also an extensive selection of izakaya-style dishes.

The six of us decided to order a soba each and a bunch of small plates to share. I did glance at the seasonal tasting menu as well, and the amuse bouche of Fresh Yuba with Uni, Ikura and Okura looked too good to pass up so a few of us ordered the one-bite dish to start. I didn’t care for the slimy okra, but the combination of cold milky yuba (tofu skin) sheets, briny bursts of roe and sweet creamy uni offset by a gentle wasabi kick was spot-on.

Baby Aji Mackerel from Suruga Bay, butterflied and fried till crisp were tasty and very moreish (shame we only ordered enough for one each).

Baby Wakasaga Smelt, also deep-fried but left whole and served on a bed of lightly dressed spring salad was equally addictive.

Tako Shiso Satsumaage, a lightly fried fish cake with chopped octopus served with shredded shiso leaves and grilled shishito pepper was sweet and pleasingly springy.

I love fresh tofu and seized every chance to order it while in Tokyo. Honmura An’s Hiya Yakko was lovely – yielding blocks of cold bonito-crowned tofu accented with refreshing slivers of myoga and a smidgen of grated ginger.

Tori Dango, highlighted in the menu as a signature item, were a real let-down. The deep-fried chicken meatballs not only looked unappealing but tasted greasy, with the texture of processed meat.

Agedashi Tofu was a crowd-pleaser – soft wobbly tofu encased in light golden batter and dunked in a clear dashi-based soup strewn with nameko mushrooms and chopped mitsuba.

Tender stems of Nanohana (spring mustard greens) needed no embellishment except for a trickle of mustard soy and scant sprinkling of bonito flakes.

Braised Pork Belly with Bamboo Shoots was deeply savoury and surprisingly light, the slow-cooked meat practically fell apart in the mouth.

Finally, it was time for the main event – the soba. I had the famous Uni Soba (opening pic), which when tossed together became a heavenly mass of toothsome noodles coated with luscious sea urchin and laced with toasted nori and mild raw onion. Others on the table also enjoyed their soba choices which included one topped with grated Mountain Yam, Uni and Okura, and another paired with Japanese Wild Vegetables.

Once the noodles have been slurped up we were given a small teapot of hot sobayu (the water in which the handmade soba was cooked) to mix with the remaining sauce in our bowls and drink as a warming end to the meal. The soba-yu is thought to be highly nutritious as buckwheat flour is rich in vitamins and dietary fibre.

Writing about Honmura An makes me terribly sad that we don’t have a soba-dedicated eatery here. However with the snaking queues at Koya and the sudden influx of ramen vendors, I’m hoping that it won’t be long before a soba-ya hits London.

Honmura An
7-14-18 Roppongi,
Minato-ku, Tokyo

t. +81 (0)3 5772 6657

kondo

•July 17, 2012 • 2 Comments

As promised, I’m picking up where I left off with Tokyo. In a bid to get the rest of these posts out within a respectable timeframe I’ll keep things brief and just let the pictures speak for themselves. Our daytime visit to tempura master Fumio Kondo‘s restaurant (hidden on the 9th floor of a narrow non-discript Ginza building) on the second day of our trip saw my first foray into the world of Michelin-starred deep frying. The JPY8,400 (£68)Tsubaki lunch course (a smaller set priced at JPY6,300 with fewer and slightly different items is also available; dinner sets are considerably steeper) featured a line-up of impeccable vegetable and seafood tempura, cloaked in crispy light-as-air batter. From the counter seats we watched chef Kondo cook each ingredient in a simmering vat of sesame oil, turning occasionally with chopsticks and waiting patiently for the perfect moment to pluck the golden pieces out and set them before us.

Prawns were served in two parts – crunchy heads were packed with shellfish flavour (excellent with beer!) while the bodies were sweet and succulent.

Asparagus (vegetables offered vary seasonally) spear segments were bright green and crisp-tender. Kondo famously stores his vegetables on ice to retain their moisture.

A chunky slice of lotus root was toothsome but rather bland – I feel the vegetable lends itself more to being braised in a hearty stew where it’s allowed to sit and soak up all the flavours.

Kisu (Japanese whiting) however, eaten with salt and a squeeze of sudachi (a local citrus fruit similar to lime), was beautifully delicate in both taste and texture.

Fiddleheads suited a tempura preparation well – the characteristic subtle bitterness a great foil to the oiliness of the batter.

I love Japanese aubergines with their compact size, mild near-seedless flesh and glossy thin skins. Velvety and tender, they contrasted nicely with the crunch of the tempura coating.

A second fish, Megochi (flathead fish), was meatier and more robust than the earlier kisu, standing up well to the older oil (the sesame oil imparts a stronger flavour on each re-use).

I wasn’t too keen on the onion which hadn’t cooked through. It may have been a sweet varietal but personally I don’t really enjoy biting into whole raw onions.

Meltingly-soft Anago (eel) was unfortunately marred by a faint taste of grease, which, together with the deeper colour of the batter indicated that the batch of oil was probably ready for a change.

Last of the tempura, was Kakiage Ten-cha – a mass of battered scallop and honewort perched on a bed of rice served with a pouring of tea and pickles (you can also opt to have the kakiage served as tendon – soaked in sauce, on a bowl of rice, or simply with rice and dipping sauce). Fresh fruit rounded off the meal nicely, refreshing the palate.

You can certainly see the quality at Kondo – from the well-sourced seasonal produce (all local to Japan), to the greaseless paper-thin batter that accentuate rather than overshadow the ingredients. On this same trip we also ate at fellow 2 Michelin-starred Rakutei, a small 11-seater in Akasaka helmed by an elderly couple (the restaurant has been around for decades) and their sole kitchen assistant. The cooking was precise and ingredients just as good, but the vibe could not be more different. For me, the cosy tea-house styling and humbler location sets it apart from Kondo in a positive way, and that together with chef Ishikura’s fluffier batter edges it over the glitzier Ginza restaurant. That said, if you want more polish in surroundings and innovative à la carte items then Kondo is the choice for you.

Kondo
Sakaguchi Building 9th floor
5-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
t. +81 (0)3 5568 0923

Rakutei
Music inn Akasaka Building
6-8-1 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo
t. +81 (0)3 3585 3743

sushi tetsu

•July 13, 2012 • 13 Comments

First off, apologies for the snail’s pace at which I’m rolling out the Tokyo posts. I’m hoping to step it up a gear and churn out a steady stream in the next week or so. In the meantime, I’d like to bring to your attention a new Japanese gem closer to home. Sprung up on sleepy Jerusalem Passage in Clerkenwell a short few weeks ago, Sushi Tetsu has already garnered a loyal following of regulars (I myself will be making my fifth visit this weekend) who have long been thirsting for an authentic edomae sushi-ya to grace our shores. I must admit I’ve deliberately dragged my heels a little on this one, reluctant as I am to send even more people flocking to this treasure of a place.

Run by chef Toru Takahashi and his wife Harumi, this 7-seater restaurant stays true to the traditional model of a sushi bar – more so than anything else in London. The fish is sourced mainly from Billingsgate and everything I have sampled there thus far has been excellent. A recent sashimi assortment included stunning rich Sardines, gleaming silky Chu-toro, plump scorched Scallops and the clean flavours of Sea Bream tossed with shredded shiso.

The menu features various sets (ranging from £9.80-£24.80 at lunch, and £20-£38 in the evening), as well as sushi and sashimi à la carte. I prefer to leave the selection in the capable hands of Toru-san, asking him to choose the best of the day’s haul. Beware if you choose to take this route as the beautifully formed nigiri is so moreish that it’s quite easy to rack up a substantial bill – especially if you order that extra slice or two of o-toro!

Toru-san crafts and presents the sushi piece by piece, placing it on a fresh bamboo leaf in front of the diner to be eaten immediately by hand (as it is done traditionally – a wet napkin is provided to clean fingers between pieces) or with chopsticks. Personally I enjoy the tactile intimacy of eating with my fingers. A dish for soy sauce is offered, but not necessary. Toru-san seasons each perfectly, customising according to the tane (topping).

His sushi-meshi (vinegared rice) boasts an excellent balance of sweetness, acidity and savouriness that makes it an all-rounder that matches as well with a delicate Hirame (flounder) as it does with a creamy slab of Hamachi (yellowtail).

Tuna is undoubtably the most prized fish for the Japanese and on most days Toru-san will have a number of cuts varying in fattiness (and sometimes in origin – he has served me both Spanish and Croatian varieties) tucked snuggly in one of his storage boxes.

The Akami (lean tuna) at your standard sushi chain is often pale, sinewy and watered-down in taste – nothing like this vibrant jewel-red specimen which was succulent and intensely flavourful.

Chu-toro (medium fatty tuna) was even better – a thick blanket of luxurious velvety melt-in-the-mouth goodness.

A favourite of many, O-toro (fatty tuna) had a richer taste, with an oilier mouth-feel. Toru-san assesses each tuna he receives from his supplier to determine whether or not to age the fish for a few days to enhance/develop its flavour.

Depending on the day’s delivery, the level of marbling in the tuna can vary greatly – this O-toro nigiri which I was served on another day had a much greater fat content.

The higher level of fattiness lends itself to blow-torching (the sear softens the sinews and releases a tantalising aroma) so Toru-san served a second portion aburi. This preparation was the superior of the two – smoky, less greasy on the palate and practically disintegrating on the tongue.

Although hugely popular in the western world, salmon is not a typical sushi choice in Japan. In fact you won’t even find it on the menu at many of the top sushi-yas in Tokyo. I can usually do without it but was curious to try the Sake from Toru-san’s stash. To my surprise it was quite unlike any I’ve had before – with a denser balik-like consistency and more concentrated salmon flavour.

Often I find Razor Clam served raw to have a more than a hint of fishiness which can be off-putting. Tetsu’s flame-kissed version however was a revelation – sweet, tender with a slight crunch and tasting of the sea.

Another unexpected standout was the Ebi. Freshly-shelled and cooked slightly under, it was quickly torched on the cut side before being placed on a mound of rice and brushed with soy. I’ve had many a dry and bland boiled prawn nigiri, and this was like none of those – juicy and supple, with a well-judged balance of sweet and brine.

Lovely fat Hotate (scallop), lightly blistered, was smooth and creamy in the mouth. Sublime.

Most of the fish was simply treated with a slick of seasoned soy but Toru-san is not averse to slightly more elaborate garnishes if warranted. Vinegary cured Saba was presented covered with a paper-thin rectangle of marinated kombu that countered the mackerel’s oiliness perfectly.

Toru-san painstakingly massages his Tako for an hour and it shows – the lightly seared octopus, nicely accented with a dab of umeboshi (salted plum) and bound to the rice with a strip of nori, was incredibly soft and tender.

Swordfish was briefly marinated in soy and a house-made sauce, wiped clean then slashed in a criss-cross pattern before being blow-torched and topped with negi and togarashi. There was a satisfying robustness – the swordfish more akin in texture to meat than fish.

Aside from nigiri you can also order temaki (hand rolls) and maki. This unusual maki of scallop frills and cucumber was light and refreshing, with an intriguing mix of crunchiness from both the shellfish and vegetable.

Unagi with its sweetness is always a great way to end a sushi flight and this piece was exemplary. I could not help but smile as I slowly savoured it.

Tamago, as much an indicator of the itamae‘s ability as his knife skills or sushi-meshi, takes the place of dessert. Toru-san is constantly tweaking his tamago recipe, but all versions I’ve tasted have been moist, spongy and airy with a depth of flavour from the addition of ground fish and shrimp.

If it isn’t already blindingly apparent – I love this place. And it’s not just the well-crafted sushi that has stolen my heart. Every time I step into that tiny yet perfectly formed space, the zen minimalist interiors and warmth of the animated chef and his delightful wife transport me to a very happy place.

I have long lamented the lack of proper sushi in London, but with the arrival of Sushi Tetsu I need fret no longer.

Sushi Tetsu
12 Jerusalem Passage
London EC1V 4JP

t.020 3217 0090

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