Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Tokyo Restaurants: Tenkaippin Ramen, RyuGin, Birdland Ginza, Ukai-tei, Kandagawa, Sou-tei, Sushi Kanesaka Ginza, Kururi, Mikawa Zezankyo.

Tokyo Restaurants

Whenever I visit Japan, I am always inspired by their unique culture. Their statements in poetry, ritualistic hand gestures in association with an aspect of service (depending on the formality of the service), their cultural aesthetics expressed in food presentation, home and business interiors, gardens, styles of dress, etc, inspire me to sit up and take notice. Their sensibilities are highly refined, interiors typically uncluttered and very clean lined, and, in their most interesting restaurants, those interiors are restrained to the point of elegance, or may be rustic and tranquil to the point where there is a spartan exclusion of objects in the room that has minimally beautiful aesthetics. 

Menus in better restaurants have a theme that not only reflects a season but also the month. In the main, although the Japanese can be fun loving, there is a serious aspect to their character that is expressed in the style of presentation of the elements of their cuisine, even to the rather ritualized way a server may present the dish to you. I mention examples of kaiseki cuisine below, the Japanese equivalent of French haute cuisine.

Tenkaippin Ramen

Ramen restaurants are the other end of the spectrum, Japanese fast food places for people on the go. These restos reflect the bare necessities of decor and cuisine.

"Heavy" Chinese noodles in "special soup" with extra scallions and slices of carrot. "Heavy special soup" is made by slowly stewing chicken and chicken bones with 11 different vegetables ("secret recipe"). The broth is intensely flavourful and rich and had a bit of a bight. I enjoyed the broth very much. A slice of pork sits on top. My Japanese friends laughed at me for going to this particular ramen resto, but....hey.... to my inexperienced North American palate, the soup tasted pretty good.


RyuGin is one of Tokyo's 15 (!!!) Michelin 3*** star restaurants. Below, you will see the "summer menu". It was indeed exceptional from the perspective of presentation, pristine quality of ingredients and artful execution of the dishes. Chef Seiji Yamamoto occasionally applies modern cooking techniques to classic Japanese cuisine, producing a kaiseki style all his own.

A presentation dish with the dragon theme of the restaurant, when we sat down at the table.

The sake presentation. 

The presentation of saki glasses from which we may choose one to use, all japanese cut crystal or hand blown glass and one baccarat shot glass.


Grilled corn with egg custard and sea urchin, 3 kinds of baby scallions, white scallion powder and cubes of Japanese yam. Jewel-like in presentation and providing wonderful complementary flavours in the sweetness of the corn and yam, the bright flavours of the sea expressed by the urchin with contrasting flavours of the scallions.

Twelve seasonal vegetables with marinated pine nut and sesame dressing accompanied by burdock root in a rainbow-like array of flavours and textures. Creamy edamane (soy bean) soup accompanied the dish.


Winter melon soup with matsutake mushrooms, silken yam noodles (in a very difficult to execute version) and cold, wagyu, shabu shabu beef. 


Ichiban dashi (first dashi) soup, the lightest version of this seaweed and bonito infused broth, with eggplant stuffed pike conger eel, topped with a bit of pickled plum, in a summer presentation. 

"Presentation of todays arrangement of ocean delicacies". Individual items on the plate are presented and described below.

 Tofu and abalone topped with salmon roe.

 Japanese snapper sashimi with rice wine vinegar and soy sauce gel.

Squid, white shrimp with a sudachi lime citrus sauce and stems of taro. 

Very lightly sauteed bonito sashimi with a mustard soy sauce. I have never experienced bonito like this and it has become a new favorite sashimi fish for me. Regrettably, I never have seen it in North America.

 Flounder sashimi with grated daikon radish and ponzu sauce.

Golden eye snapper sashimi, highly marinated and seared. 

Squid sashimi with shiso powder, saki washed seaweed and wasabi. 

We were presented with a pickled peach palate cleanser (no photo).

Presenting the still smoking ayu (sweetfish) which were grilled over charcoal and bamboo (aroma). Also see below.

The sweetfish presented on the ceramic plate, with a dab of vinegar flavoured watermelon puree, in a tray of raked sand and rock decor.

Presentation, the dish covered by kudzu leaf.

Fresh, very tender abalone, slow simmered for 10 hours, accompanied by a shrimp ball and edamame bean. The broth was extraordinary.

Presentation of large wild eel accompanied by red miso, shrimp broth soup flavoured with sancho spice, rice with early ginko nuts, Japanese eggplant topped with shaved bonito (katsuobushi).

This may have been the best eel dish I have ever enjoyed. The skin was very crispy, but easily chewable and the flesh exceptionally sweet, tender and rich tasting.

The presentation of the cold course.

A "sparkling", cold grape flavoured powder with warm blueberry jam.

Cold saki ice cream (on left) and hot saki souffle (sticky rice cake filled with red bean paste). 

I finished with whipped and frothed matcha tea, presented in a lovely, very masculine tea bowl.

Birdland, Ginza

When i first visited Tokyo, 25 years ago, with my cousin, a reasonably well connected person in the local social hierarchy, our Japanese host, a close friend of my cousin and someone who considered himself of elevated social status, responded to my request to go to a yakitori restaurant, by not answering me. I let that pass initially, instead of paying attention to the meaning of that etiquette. So, another day, I asked again (because I did not get the subtlety), and again I received no reply. On another day I made the error of asking again. He raised his voice and said, that if I go to a yakitori resto, he would have no respect for me, would not be my friend and would not talk to me again! So, I never again made that request on this, or subsequent trips. 

However, on this trip, I had a very gracious host who appreciated all aspects of cuisine and who took me to a highly respected yakitori establishment where the quality of the chicken was known. Chef Toshihiro Wada is considered an artisan chef who elevated the humble art of grilling chicken and only uses free range shamo gamecock, a top quality chicken, cooked over bincho charcoal.

Gizzard, vinegar pickled chicken skin, Japanese green pepper, cloud ear mushroom (counter-clockwise from top left).

Rare chicken breast with plum sauce topped with julienned shiso. 

Chicken liver on shiso leaf. 

The chef at work grilling over bincho charcoal.

Chicken breast topped with wasabi. 

Chicken livers. 

Chicken tail. This was oily but oh so good! 

Creamy cold tofu with olive oil and pepper, to refresh the palate. 

 Chicken oysters.

Salad palate refresher. 

Gingko nuts. 

Minced chicken balls dressed with "thick simmered" soy sauce. 

Chicken thighs with crispy skin, basted with soy sauce and fresh sancho (Japanese pepper and prickly ash). 

Chicken skin with powdered sancho. 

Shiitake mushrooms. 

Chicken thighs and leeks. 

Grilled miyoga (Japanese ginger) (no photo).

Wonderful, grilled caciocavallo cheese, produced in Japan by Yoshida Farms.

Chicken Soup (top right), with pickles (top left), presented with raw chicken in rice with almost raw scrambled egg and peppers, in the style of oyako (parent and child.

Creme caramel, superbly done and easily among the very best that I have enjoyed anywhere, perfectly creamy but firm texture topped with an intensely flavourful, caramelized orange sauce.

Remarkably, Birdland is in a very small mall, right next door to Sushi Jiro, of movie documentary fame. It was closed this day.

Tofuya Ukai

Tofuya Ukai is a venerable restaurant specializing in presenting a multi-course kaiseki meal with an emphasis on tofu based dishes, freshly produced in house at this location. The resto is located in the western part of tokyo, near the mountains, a 40 minute train ride from Shinjuku and a quick 5 minute taxi ride from the station. The location is special as it this is where the quality of the mountain water nearby is so crucial to making their high quality tofu.

On entering, one removes one's shoes and enters one of the several tatami mat covered private rooms, overlooking the garden.

Goma tofu, a delicious sesame tofu pudding with a dab of wasabi.

The presentation of the dishes for 3 of us. Thin somen noodles in broth, hamo (conger eel) and cucumbers in a vinegar sauce, fried corn and fried okra combo as tempura, beans and pine nuts in a sesame sauce.

The beans and pine nuts.

The tempura of fried corn and okra.

The thin soba noodles in broth with myoga (Japanese ginger buds).

Hamo (conger eel) with cucumber, wrapped in nori with vinegar sauce.

Age (tofu slices first deep fried then char grilled). This course was served with the condiments below: shaved bonito; miyago (ginger); soy sauce made with black soy beans; leek and soybean paste (kinzane miso).

See condiments listed above.

The fried tofu topped with the condiments.

Sashimi of red sea bream (tai), striped horse jack (shimaji) with julienned salted wakame, wasabi and finely grated ginger.

Tiger shrimp, snow peas and eggplant in an intense reduced broth made from dried shrimp, soy and mirin.

Ayu (sweetfish), grilled and simply presented (see below). I learned how to remove the head, vertebrae and tail and leave the meat intact. Quite a trick.


The heating element for the tofu soup to follow.

Soybean soup, with fresh tofu made in house today, cooked in a creamy soya milk/ sea bream broth. The wooden "pot" sits on a square plate over the charcoal burner (see above). 

The tofu portioned in the soup.

Another portion of tofu in soup.

A wonderful tofu topped with soy sauce, with a tofu broth.


Sticky rice with small whitebait fish (shirasu) and chopped shiso was served with pickles and white miso soup.


Rice dumpling filled with adzuki (red) bean paste in a sweet soup.

Kandagawa Eel Restaurant

This eel restaurant has a 200 year old tradition, having been established in 1805! Eel is often brushed with a special sauce and each eel resto as it's own proprietary version. The original building was rebuilt in 1950, because of fires.

 We approach the restaurant from the street.

 Approaching the entrance.

The expression of the eel theme as we remove our shoes and enter the restaurant halls.

Our tatami mat covered room with the tokonoma, place of honour at the walls behind us.

My wonderful, gracious Japanese eating partner, Kumi, who shared my passion for good food.

 Edamame (soybeans), white shrimp sashimi and scallop sashimi.

Shirayaki, eel grilled with a very fine light soy sauce, served with wasabi that light soy sauce. Wonderfully tender, sweet and rich tasting.

Cold uzaku (eel) with pickled cucumber served in sambaizu vinegar. Again, the eel is exceptionally tender and very juicy.

Unaju, grilled eel and rice served with miso soup made with red beans. This is a very typical dish served in eel restos, grilled with the house's special sauce and pickles.

Grapefruit jelly.

Afternoon Tea at Sou-tei

The restaurant sign.

Enjoying whipped matcha tea with sweet, youkan made with green soy beans.

Fruit cocktail with green tea granita.


Sushi Kanesaka, Ginza

This is a classic Tokyo style sushi restaurant, a worthy holder of 2** Michelin stars. The quality of the sushi is exceptional. No english is spoken so you will need someone who speaks Japanese to accompany you as there is no fish on display to point to and the menu is only in Japanese. A pale pink vinegar is used to make this sushi rice.

Kegani (horse-hair crab) accompanied by sambaizu (a cold broth of soy, dashi and rice vinegar)

Bonito sashimi with chives in a sweet soy sauce. Never tasted bonito as good as this (except at RyuGin).

 Simmered abalone and simmered octopus.

Slicing the abalone and octopus.

Tuna cheek (toro) shabu shabu in a sudachi (Japanese lime flavoured) ponzu sauce.

Grilled nodo guro (black throat sea perch from the west coast of Japan) with grated daikon and soy sauce.

Yellowtail sushi.

 Maguro (tuna) sushi.

 Chutoro sushi.

 Clam ligament with sea urchin.

 O-toro sushi.

 Ink squid flavoured with sudachi and salt.

 Kohada (gizzard shad) sushi.

 Tiger shrimp.

 Tiger shrimp closeup.......beauties!

Horsejack, washed in vinegar then brushed with soy sauce and topped with a small dab of wasabi. Silk in the mouth!

Tiger shrimp sushi.

 Hokkigai (surf clam from Sahklin region).

Pickled eggplant handed to me by the chef.

The sea urchin.

 Sea urchin sushi.

Anago (eel) accompanied by tomago (egg with mashed white fish).

I just had to have a last few slices of the fabulous o-toro, to finish!


Kururi is a very small ramen resto. One enters (there is typically a line) outside, chooses what one wants from the picture on the face of a machine in which one puts coins, gets a ticket and sits down when a seat is available at the 8 seat counter.

My selection: "regular with special ramen", includes different chicken parts, bean sprouts, nori, scallions, shinachiku (lactate fermented bamboo shoots), seaweed, shaved bonito, an egg which is soft boiled in soy sauce, to slight firmness, all in a rich tasting miso-chicken broth.

Mikawa Zezankyo

Mikawa Zezankyo was one of the highlights of my trip to Japan. Chef/owner Tetsuya Saotome is considered one of the great masters of tempura cuisine. He personally cooks and serves his guests at the 9 seat counter and typically uses the traditional historical ingredients available in the late 19th century. His restaurant is furnished with antiquities from Cambodia (especially in the tea room museum upstairs) and with the artistic endeavours of about "100" artists who may have been European, but, mostly Asian. His tempura is a flawless rendition that requires perfect batter texture and consistent, precise and flawless timing.

There are 2 seatings.

 The decorative wall outside of the restaurant.

The entrance.

We arrived a bit early and were escorted to the second floor where the chef has a tea room and elements of his own private museum.

Two wonderful elements of his broad, tasteful collection.

 The room and place settings.

My delightful Japanese host and passionate foodie, Kumi.

An antique decorated box at the front of my tray, holding toothpicks.

Some of the condiments, such as soy sauce and grated daikon to my left.

The chef put ground daikon and soy sauce in the crystal dish. At the top, I was presented with edamame. Salt is a common seasoning for tempura. Also presented is a salmon roe starter.

Salmon roe on top of yam and soybean paste mixed with yuzu.

The edamame with a piece of daikon.

Shrimp tempura. The batter, as with many of the tempura elements throughout the meal, was very light (nosu), greaseless and crispy. What is unique about this chef's preparation is that this centre of the body was perfectly raw, but warm and the pristine freshness of the shrimp made for a sweetness brought about by the chef's technique. Also, in preparing the raw shrimp for the batter, he does not break the shell as he flattens the body but only slightly compresses it with the gentle application of his fingers. I ate the body of the shrimp crispy shell and tail.

Shrimp head tempura, eaten in it's entirety, one of my favourite things to eat. 

 Kisu (whiting), flawlessly fried, and enjoyed crispy, with a touch of salt.

Shrimpball and watershield plant (junsai) in broth. The edible part of the junsai plant has a jelly like is rather rare and has a jelly covering that is a form of mucilage that has been preserved in this delicate broth.

The plant with the jelly like covering.

Tempura of shiso leaf sandwich with sea urchin as the filler, very lightly battered and deep fried to perfection. A great taste combination.

Taking a bight of the above.

Myoga (Japanese ginger) tempura.

Fresh matsutake mushrooms.

Matsutake mushroom tempura with a sprinkling of sudachi lime juice and a touch of salt..

Megochi (flat head fish) tempura.

Sea eel tempura.

The chef, frying the next dish, in strict focus and intense concentration.

The restaurant exhaust in the form of a copper hat, especially created by one of the artists for the chef.

Shiitake mushroom tempura.

Asparagus tempura.

Sweet potato tempura.

Sweet potato tempura with shishito pepper tempura.

Tempura chazuke (ten-cha), the kariage mixed with clam ligament as tempura, served on steamed rice with Japanese clear soup made with green tea, dashi and water. Pickled veg in the side plate.

Dessert beans (hanamame).

Chef Saotome, unasked, giving the signal honour of signing my menu with a calligraphic representation of two shrimps, his signature and stamps.

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