Tokyo March 2019

Summary

TBA

Meals

Yakiniku Jumbo Hanare (焼肉 ジャンボ はなれ)
Delicious as last time, perhaps not as mindblowing. I had the omakase this time (booked via Tableall) and thought it was actually a fantastic time, especially as I was dining alone. The noharayaki was great, crushing 750g of chateaubriand by myself was a lot. Since I was solo, there was extra beef rice to take back to heat up and eat as breakfast at 6AM.

Ginza Kazami
I was actually trying to go to Ginza Kagari Honten, which is right next door to Kazami in the same little alley. However, they were taking a “regular holiday” that fine Tuesday and so I waited for Kazami instead and was the first in line. Honestly, not my cup of tea. I think generally, ramen in thick gravy-like broth is just not my thing. The noods were really really good though.

老四川 飄香小院
For what it’s worth, I’m from 四川 (Sichuan) / 重庆 (Chongqing). Quick sidenote, Chongqing is geographically located inside Sichuan, but is administratively a municipality under the direct governance of the central government, like Beijing and Shanghai. I grew up eating this stuff, visit this part of China every year or two, still cook it myself at home. I feel confident in judging a Sichuan restaurant no matter where in the world I am. And this place was solid. I got a beef noodle soup lunch set which came with four appetizers and pickles. The pickle flavor was spot on…just like the 跳水白菜 at the (one of many) hotpot shop below our home in Chongqing. All the flavors were there in the appetizers. As with much that is adapted for the Japanese palette, things were a tad more sweet. The beef noodle soup was delicious. While not as spicy “辣” as I would have liked, it was actually more tingly numbing “麻” than I expected.

Keita
Holy mackerel his shari is strong, pun intended. The akazu shari stood really well to the saba, sawara, and nodoguro and these 3 pieces are utterly unforgettable. Keita-san and his wife were both very friendly and hospitable. Despite him not speaking much English (his wife spoke more), they engaged in conversation with me and were a pleasure to observe and be around. I can’t stress how much more enjoyable this made the experience. No matter how good the food is, sitting with my back straight for 2 hours, somber and severe just wouldn’t be fun. So much food, plus nihonshu for 18,700yen at dinner. Wow.

Gen Yamamoto
I was not as blown away this time…maybe winter produce just isn’t really my thing? 2 / 6 were tomato based.

Hirosaku
The best lunch deal in town. For 3,300yen (less than $30 USD, all included), I was served a 6-course meal. Everything served was so laboriously prepared and the light flavors and preparations were so soothing to my soul and tummy (e.g. steamed yuba with uni). It was exactly what I needed after several days of feasting in Tokyo. Star of the show was the soba noodles made in house from two types of buckwheat that the chef mills in the shop. They were shockingly smooth, shiny and light in colour and tasted SO. DAMN. GOOD. Such good texture. This is what al dente, what noodle perfection is….not that undercooked junk served in so many Italian restaurants in the US. I will no doubt try to return next time I’m in town. Food for the soul.

été Mango Tart
Delicious as last time.

Ryusuke
Quirky ingredients (hirame and engawa with shaved black truffle and truffle salt? scallop cream croquette?), yummy food, fast service. Some outstanding pieces…I really enjoyed his kohada (great balance between neta and shari, and the neta wasn’t a sour bomb) and kinmedai. What irked me a bit was that the price my hotel concierge confirmed for the evening was ~20,000yen. I also had a beer, but no matter how you do the math, it doesn’t add up to 33,000yen. I didn’t bother to ask as I didn’t want to make a scene when language is a bit of a barrier, but this last little surprise at the end doesn’t make me want to come back.

Kimura
Wow…I loved this dining experience. Kimura-san is so friendly and jovial. His mother, the only waitstaff, spoke excellent English, explained sake to us, and treated us with such warmth I did not expect at a sushi restaurant in Japan (or anywhere in Japan, frankly). The food was really delightful and interesting. God I love it when that actually works out. Like soba with a cooked oyster. And shirako risotto — I somehow managed to eat an entire bowl of shirako rice without it feeling like too much! And a 醉蟹 (shoyu and liquor marinated raw crab)! Before the sushi started, we got a taste of his shari…it’s so rigid! Not punch-you-in-the-face flavorful the way Keita's was, but all that chewing helped me appreciate the flavor more. The aged fish were delicious. Sayori, kampachi, buri…all were amazing. The aging really does completely alter the texture and bring about a sweetness in the fish that is really enjoyable to eat. His aji might be the best mackerel I’ve ever eaten.  

Side note on the shirako — was served shirako at both Ryusuke and Kimura. The shirako in this season is of a different fish and tasted much milder than that I’ve had when I visited in November. Anyone have any insights into this?

Lodging

Citan
Japan is probably the only place where I’d happily stay in a hostel. On my first trip to Japan, I stayed at Nui in Tokyo and Len in Kyoto. Both, along with Citan, are part of the Backpackers Japan chain. All 3 have a similar set up with a bar / coffee shop located in the lobby and/or B1 floor (frequented by locals). The decor is industrial minimalist with lots of exposed concrete and rustic wood. The bathrooms and showers are kept clean with good amenities (and better water pressure than my last 3 apartments in SF). Citan is located a more centrally vs Nui and it is on the Asakusa, Hibiya, Shinjyuku subway lines and JR Sobu line, making it really easy to get around. For a very reasonable hostel price, what’s not to like?

Ritz Carlton Tokyo
Before the new Marriott “Bonvoy” program kicked in on March 5, 2019, it was possible to redeem 60K Marriott points for a night at the RC Tokyo. With 5th night free on award redemptions, this meant 240K Marriott points for 5 nights at one of the most expensive hotels in town. Why fucking not. The decor is very…RC, but more tasteful and slightly more understated in comparison to other properties. The service is also very RC…i.e. super attentive in your face and not subtle at all, but surprisingly, not unpleasant. The view from my basic room is superb (and from what I understand, the basic “Deluxe Room” view facing Shinjuku makes for a much better view at night than the “Tokyo Deluxe Room” facing the Imperial Palace as the latter is not lit up at night)

Tokyo Nov 2018

Summary

Highlights

  • “Noharayaki” at Yakiniku Jumbo Hanare

  • Service at L’Effervescence is outstanding

  • Mindblowing mango tart from été was worth every effort and every penny

  • Entire meal at Den exceeded my (very high) expectations.

  • Open air rooftop onsen at Hoshinoya Tokyo

  • Serene gardens at the Nezu museum

Lowlights

  • Kakigori at Kuriyakashi Kurogi did not live up to its hype

  • Service at Eneko during our lunch was abysmal.

  • Too. Much. Fish. at Abysse

  • Braving the crowds of Harajuku on a holiday

Meals

Unagi Uomasa (うなぎ 魚政)
Tabelog
Uomasa is an unagi restaurant in a farther suburb of Tokyo. My friend and I each ordered a 6,000? 8,000-yen lunch set. It was delicious, but probably not worth another trip out. Would be a good option for those looking to try high-end unagi. Reservations can be made by hotel concierge.

Yakiniku Jumbo Hanare (焼肉 ジャンボ はなれ)
Tabelog
High-end yakiniku restaurant that serves a la carte or omakase. Delicious delicious beef. Yakiniku might be my new favourite thing to eat in Tokyo. The “noharayaki”, their take on sukiyaki, is a must-order. Already booked to go again for my Mar 2019 trip.

Hakkoku (はっこく)
Tabelog
I originally had a seat at Sato-san’s counter, but because PDF decided to crash my solo Tokyo vacation, I gave up that seat for 2 at Saito-san’s counter. The food was delicious, a few especially amazing and interesting pieces. However, 30+ pieces of nigiri is just a lot of food. Saito-san spoke good English and was very entertaining. I’m a bit torn between the great experience and how pricey it is.

L’Effervescence
Tabelog
Food is delicious (monkfish liver and black truffle hand pie <3), service is mindblowing. Someone held the tablecloth for me everytime I got out of my seat. And as I was headed to the restroom, someone covered with their hands every sharp counter / table corner that I could possibly have hurt myself on. Very nice touch. Despite the low cavernous ceilings (not my usual preference), I felt like this was one of the most beautifully decorated settings I’ve ever been in. Super serene and wonderful. Lunch is a fabulous bang for buck…great place to peacefully daydrink some amazing French and Japanese wines and sake.

Eneko
Tabelog
The food here is very very delicious, as to be expected from Eneko Atxa behind the 3* Basque restaurant Azurmendi. The truffle egg spherification, excellent. Amazing mushroom dish, also excellent. Txakoli wine, always excellent. Jamon iberico, excellent. But we went during lunch and our server was so so so green. Service was abysmal. Still the food was so delicious, I want to give this restaurant another try (maybe at dinner)…or visit Azurmendi, I guess.

été Mango Tart
Tabelog
Wanted to snag a tart on Omakase, but was missed the time as I was helping a friend’s (now) husband decorate for his proposal to her. Waitlisted on Tableall (which is something like 8,000-yen more expensive or something) and got one! The mangoes are some of the best fruit (and food, in general) that I’ve ever had and to quote PDF, “this tart crust is a gift to humanity”. I hate 7/9 of the tart myself. Was it worth $180? Debatable. But my friend did snag one for our March trip and I’m not gonna say no.

Den (傳)
Tabelog
This meal exceeded every expectation I had. This is how inventive dining experiences should be. Grounded in delicious food, but full of quirks and surprises. The staff was amazing and entertaining. Verdict: will try to visit every and any time I visit Tokyo.

Sushi Namba Asagaya (鮨 なんば 阿佐ヶ谷)
Tabelog
The atmosphere here was amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a sushi (or any) restaurant quite like this one in Japan. The staff was very casual and fun, but made sure all guests were given the best service and utmost respect. The speed was a bit slow as chef Takaoka-san formed each piece of nigiri himself for all 12(?) guests. (He was also so handsome with a very infectious smile. Everytime he smiled I couldn’t help but smile back. Ha!)
I sat right in front of the sous chef in charge of slicing all the neta. He spoke a bit of English and tried hard to converse and entertain me. I sat next to a nice Japanese man who was clearly a regular. He's a retired professor who frequently visited California and was able to translate for and converse with me a bit. This shop is known for their sakes. Professor noticed I wasn’t drinking and offered to buy me a glass if I was willing. Of course I was...and the sake was great. Food-wise, almost everything was delicious, but nothing mindblowing.
It was a trek to get to and from. My 9:00PM reservation meant I left the restaurant at 11:30PM and got back to my hotel ~1:00AM (didn’t catch an express train at that hour). I would visit again if next time accompanied by someone who spoke Japanese, as I feel that would really complete the experience (or learn Japanese myself…)

Abysse
Tabelog
A seafood focused Japanese-French restaurant. I love seafood, and I just didn’t like this place enough to want to go back. I think this is probably because it was just too white-fish-heavy. The sea is such a rich, varied, interesting place! Why not add more of the other stuff? Service was also a bit awkward.

Joumon
Tabelog
Stopped here for a late dinner the first night after my flight got in. Joumon is an izakaya in Roppongi with seats around the grill / counter and also “in the window”. Casual fun place, but would not go out of my way to come back here. I don’t think the yakitori is even as good as Ippuku in Berkeley.

Lodging

Hoshinoya Tokyo
Second stay at Hoshinoya Tokyo, 6 nights this time (you can get fantastic rates when you stack the discounts of a 5+ night stay booked more than 120 days in advance). The concierge is decent. The onsen is such a luxury in the winter (I wish it was colder than the 50-60F when I visited). I generally love how quiet this place is. The only time when I saw other guests was at the entrance foyer putting on or taking off shoes. Unlimited tea, coffee, soft drinks, and snacks in the lounge. If I think about it, the service here is actually pretty bare bones. If you want to be waited upon and pampered, go elsewhere. Even though I spent most of my time on the other side of town, transportation is easy. There’s a very convenient underground entrance into Otemachi subway station.

On Zalto, Cutipol, and Local Ceramics

I am a sucker for Zalto glassware. I love the mouthfeel of sipping out of an ultra thin glass (Shotoku Glass Co makes my favourite home drinkware). I’m also a sucker for the beautiful lines and weight balance of Cutipol flatware, particularly the Moon (and sometimes Goa) line. I love when restaurants showcase rustic ceramics from local makers. While not a sure sign that dinner will be fabulous, these non-food expressions suggest a certain mindset of the restauranteur that typically bode well for the food. Recent dinners at two restaurants checked all those boxes. What’s not to like?

Somni - Los Angeles, CA

At Somni, very little is not to like.

The decour is bright, clean, modern with whimsical accents. While everything is definitely beautiful and comfortable, this is not the place to go if you’re looking to gaze lovingly into your dining partner’s eyes across a sea of white table cloth. A 10-seater chef’s table surrounds an open plating kitchen (and further opens into the main cooking kitchen). Each course is presented by the kitchen staff with one member explaining the dish. They want your undivided attention and may interrupt your conversation flow. Food takes center stage here, and I love it.

And it was incredible. Tasty and delightful without gimmicks. Chef Aitor Zabala says it best: “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity”. No el Bulli spherification, foam only appeared once. Spoiler Alert. Some personal favourites. Chicken liver mousse on schmaltz cracklin, margherita pizza with a tomato meringue crust, croissant made from potato slices, dry aged steak tartare on a crispy shiso leaf tempura, smoked langoustine (LOVE), black truffle brioche, coconuty dungeness crab, and the damn highlight of the evening - grilled turbot wing with housemade teriyaki. The fish was so meaty we ate it like a rack of ribs. When it came to desserts, YJR said it best (damn boy can be poignant some times)...that he really appreciates the strong finish, “so often, dessert is treated as an after thought”. There were multiple dessert courses that were all delicious (I never feel this way, mostly because things are usually too sweet), but I remember the exploding matcha donut the best. (The staff is always helpful to remind you when things needed to be eaten in one bite. We did see a negroni that was encased in a strawberry run all over the counter a few seats down.)

The beverage pairing situation was something I rarely encounter. There were 20 some odd bites / dishes in the meal, but only 6 pairings. When the drinks are that delicious AND you have no idea how to pace yourself, it’s easy to get to the bottom of the glass before the pairing is over. What did they do about this? Pour you more. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ *Cue martini Bun* I find this to be far preferable to most other formats of wine pairings. It makes for a better, more relaxed experience. For one, not needing to taste a gajillion different wines (often which 75%+ are whites, blergh) means less palate fatigue. For another, the restaurant doesn’t appear stingy (arguably though, they’re pulling less bottles off the shelf, but they do have to pair each glass with a wider range of flavors and textures). The wines themselves were playful, but also delicious. Too often, restaurants err on one side or the other. I mean, I can only drink so much white wine with “notes of cement” or vin jaune. I’m also not here to drink a generically delicious Napa cab. We were actually able to finish most of our wines...which never happens for me. Less wastage YAY.

Service is on point. The entire kitchen staff interacted with all the guests (apparently, they were all given speech and performance training before opening). We had great banter with everyone - arguing SF vs LA food scene with chef Aitor (to be clear, we were for LA), discussing the mandarin dessert at Saison with chef Luca (apparently the ice cream uses a marshmallow base!!), and getting restaurant recs on where else to eat during our visit. No one was above picking up a dropped napkin. Chef was there to welcome (read: guide) me back in from using the hotel restrooms. Attentive without being stifling. While there were a few minor details that could be improved, I think the personable and charming service here definitely elevated the whole experience. Solid 2 Michelin star service.

The meal wasn’t perfect - there were a few lowlights for me (the icy cold avocado(?) cocktail starter, the green juice in the fish egg dish far outpowered the delicate roes, the caviar on bone marrow dish was too salty to taste any nuance), but they didn’t take away from an amazing dining experience. YJR said this was my best pick of tasting menu yet (at least in the US. Etxebarri and Tokyo are very very special). For me, this is definitely a top 3 American restaurant experience (Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare and Alinea were also fantastic).

SingleThread Restaurant - Healdsburg, CA

At SingleThread, it turns out, the single most important thing about a restaurant is not to like…the food.

I really want to like SingleThread Restaurant. I really do. I can’t imagine anything better than eating a fabulous dinner, tipsy off a wine pairing, rolling upstairs into a beautiful Japanese-inspired inn room, and finishing a weekend getaway with a delectable Japanese breakfast spread the next morning. I wish I could recommend the restaurant along with the inn to all my bougie-ass friends looking to spoil themselves rotten. Alas…

On the surface, everything is exactly right up my alley. Japanese Californian cuisine. Lots of seafood. Tasteful, Japanese-inspired decor with lots of dark wood. Aesop soap, check. Zalto wine glasses, check. Cutipol cutlery, check. Local maker ceramics, check. All of that tickle my fancy. So what’s wrong with it? It’s. Just. Not. Tasty. None of the other stuff matters if the food isn’t delicious. The execution was technically precise, but I rarely wanted to take another bite during my meal (save for the guinea fowl dish and the petit fours). The flavours were uninteresting, and honestly, kind of bland. To me, this is a shell of a three-Michelin-star restaurant that doesn’t embody the true spirit of a restaurant “worth a special trip for”, which, at the end of the day, is about phenomenal food.

Actually, I had decided to give SingleThread Restaurant another try. I first visited in March 2017, when they had first opened. Everyone (minus one pair of friends, M+O, bless them) loves this place. Chefs, food critics, bloggers, friends, co-workers. Everyone thinks SingleThread is the shit. I didn’t get it. Still don’t. I don’t think my palate or preferences are singular. After all, I love plenty of places that the same people also love.

If beautiful hardware won’t improve the software experience for you when you dine, skip SingleThread.

SingleThread Inn

TL;DR

If you have the money and are looking for a luxury getaway to spoil yourself and/or a loved one near the Bay Area, blow it at the SingleThread Inn. It’s a fantastic, well-rounded experience with a hefty price tag to match.

The Review

The entrance experience is decidedly…mediocre. In the confirmation email, I was instructed to park in a back parking lot, then exit on to the street, round the corner of the building, and enter the non-descript main entrance. From there, though, I was enveloped in cozy dark wood and slate, cut off from the rest of the world. (No, really, cell service is shit in the SingleThread building) There’s no “check-in” process, you’re simply taken straight to your room, given a quick tour, and left to enjoy. On the table was a delicious little welcome bite from the pastry department

The entire space is tastefully and beautifully decorated. A sort of Japanese-influenced, low-key Californian luxury. The lounge, titled “The Study”, is cozy and wonderfully decorated with a beautiful chesterfield sofa, mid-century modern furniture, and lots of floral arrangements. In the hall right outside my room was this beautiful drawer stocked with Cutipol flatware for the rooms.

Close attention to detail and understated luxury all around. Mega soft Matouk bath towels and bed linens, RH alpaca throw on the bed, Japanese slippers, Cutipol cutlery, Zalto wine glasses, MMclay ceramics, Ratio Eight pour-over marchine, Fellow kettle, Aesop bath products, Toto toilet. The spare toilet paper roll is wrapped in linen. The soaking tub is surprisingly ergonomic and comfortable.

Everything is included. As luxury lodging should be. If I’m paying that much money for a room, I should not be reminded of how much you’re ripping me off for a bag of chips or some booze.

  • Breakfast for 2 is included in the room rate.

  • The mini bar — wine, beer, soft drinks, snacks, ice cream (ICE CREAM!), coffee, and tea is “with their compliments”.

  • Short but mighty room service menu of shigoku oysters, and charcuterie + cheese plate is “with their compliments”.

The ice cream with salted caramel comes in a ceramic jar. The wine — 2013 Dry Creek Valley Syrah — was really good. And, of course, everything tastes better sipped out of a Zalto wine glass.

Breakfast is ordered the night before from a few different sets (Sonoma, English, Japanese) with a la carte add ons, all included save for the alcoholic mimosa. Below is the Japanese set with add on scone, smoothie, fresh squeezed OJ, and cappuccino. Pretty sure the donabe of rice and the other of homemade silken tofu were meant to be shared, but when you travel solo … ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Breakfast for one. Excessive much?

Breakfast for one. Excessive much?

Is the SingleThread Inn perfect? No.

When paying this much, I want optionality. I would have preferred to sleep in complete darkness. The lack of blackout curtains and the fact that the curtains didn’t close fully let in street light. The light on the fancy light switches were very bright. Sound proofing was not 100% — can hear walking in the hall. To nitpick, the thread count on the fancy sheets was too high. While running my legs against them felt like bliss, I found them to be not breathable and too warm to sleep in.

But I can say that SingleThread Inn is maybe one of my favourite and most exceptional hotel experiences to date. They create an experience that takes away anything that might stop you from relaxing and enjoying.

Sushi Masuda

TL;DR

Delicious and consistent Edo-mae sushi served in a slightly sterile environment with a “Tokyo 2 Michelin star sushi” price tag. Recommend for an excellent traditional sushi omakase experience in the Jiro school (especially since it’s not terribly difficult to make a reservation at). Skip if you’ve experienced anything of similar caliber and style.

The Review

The food is good. Strong vinegar shari (as to be expected from the Jiro school) with good texture, excellent neta, and yummy otsumami. The whole experience is delicious and consistent. Not a single bad piece. Incomparable and so much better than anything you can get in San Francisco, but it is not mindblowingly good like Jiro (maybe my sushi palette is spoiled?).

The environment is not as uptight as at, say, Jiro, but service and overall ambience was pretty sterile compared to other counters I have eaten at (e.g., Sho Saito, Yoshitake).

It is pricey - we paid ¥70,000 total for two people at lunch with drinks. This is expensive compared to many sushi-ya’s and other Tokyo fine dining genres at lunch. However, this is also inexpensive compared to omakase in the US, especially for what you’re getting. Your call.

The Story

YJR and I visited Sushi Masuda on our July 2018 Tokyo trip. We had a lunch reservation made through our hotel. Upon arriving, we were seated at the far right of the empty bar with beverage menus. I ordered a carafe of the seasonal sake (smooth and delicious) while YJR ordered a ume liqueur with soda. Because of course he orders the girliest drink, of course. Mocking aside, it was delicious. A few courses into our otsumami, another party of two joined us. The four of us at the bar were served by Masuda-san himself, while the sous chef served the private room. The progression of the meal was very standard Edo-mae style sushi, ending on tamago. No fruits and no offers for extra pieces. Not a terrible thing considering how stuffed we were at that point (there were a lot of otsumami courses).

Masuda-san is pretty quiet, but did deliver each piece telling us the Japanese and English name of each. Towards the end, we chatted a bit with Masuda-san and the sous chef. I mentioned that I had visited previously and we had talked about the Mission burrito in San Francisco. The sous chef was very gracious and acknowledged like he remembered. Whether he did or not, we will never know. Oh, the Japanese and their social tendency to give grace and avoid awkwardness.

The Ramblings

Sushi Masuda earned its second Michelin star shortly after I last visited in November 2016. Conceptually, I understand what Michelin stars are supposed to signify. Per the Michelin Guide,

Three stars signify "exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey"
Two stars mean "excellent cooking that is worth a detour", and
One star signifies "very good in quality, cuisine prepared to a high standard that is worth the stop."

Honestly, I don’t think it’s a very practical or applicable system across geographies, cultures, or culinary genres. The guide was maybe never meant to be used for comparisons in this way, but as soon as you assign a rating, comparisons will invariably happen. How are you to compare your overall experience at a sushi-ya in Tokyo versus one in New York? How are you to compare your overall experience at a sushi-ya versus a Japanese-French fine dining establishment in Tokyo? I believe the answer is you cannot. Anyhow, more on this in a later post…

A few untouched Pixel phone photos below.

Abalone in its liver sauce.

Abalone in its liver sauce.

Chutoro, my favourite cut of tuna. Rich and fatty, but still maintained structure and distinct flavour.

Chutoro, my favourite cut of tuna. Rich and fatty, but still maintained structure and distinct flavour.

Kuruma ebi. Dare I say I enjoyed this “smaller” serving more than the larger serving I had at Jiro.

Kuruma ebi. Dare I say I enjoyed this “smaller” serving more than the larger serving I had at Jiro.

Tamago, my favourite sushi dessert.

Tamago, my favourite sushi dessert.

Jerry’s pretty sake cup. I got a matching pink one instead. Hmmm.

Jerry’s pretty sake cup. I got a matching pink one instead. Hmmm.