Giro Giro Hitoshina, Kyoto

June 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

I would love to give you a full and detailed review of my meal at Giro Giro Hitoshina in Kyoto. Sadly a number of days have passed, and there was no written version of the menu we tasted. Our friendly and knowledgeable waiter came by throughout the course of the meal and gave us descriptions of each course, but unfortunately my memory is rather poor. I will, however, provide what I remember to the best of my abilities!

I believe this is sticky rice in broth (filled with something?) topped with a cherry leaf and rice puffs. While I don’t remember the exact components, I do remember that this started our meal on a high note.

Next was an assortment of appetizers. In the back: a small, pickled squid (strange and exceedingly acidic). There was also octopus, a slice of tamagoyaki, tofu, and a couple of other small components which I can no longer identify.

Next: sashimi!

Stewed pork belly (kakuni) in a rich, green (I think cabbage or pea) broth. I remember this dish well because it was probably my favorite (who can resist soft, fatty, melt-in-your-mouth pork belly?).

I believe this was a deep fried spring roll with three different sauces (two green, one red). The flavors were rich and well composed but one of the sauces was a little slimy.

Tempura with some type of jelly. I don’t remember exactly what the fish were (pretty sure they weren’t shishamo) but, following my adventures cooking wakasagi, I had a difficult time eating these. My dining companion, however, loved them.

Finally a trio of desserts (also my ochoko for sake). On the left: some type of stiff, jelly-like square with (I think!) a banana chip. In the middle: sweet lemon with some type of sauce (this was really good). On the right: matcha tiramisu (this was probably my favorite of the three).

While Giro Giro, like Kikunoi, can be classified as kaiseki, it’s a type of non-traditional, fusion kaiseki. And it’s wonderful. For innovative kaiseki on a budget, at around 3,600 yen, this is the place to go.

Kikunoi, Kyoto

June 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

If you have the opportunity (and the money) to have a real kaiseki meal in Kyoto, go to Kikunoi and you will have done well. The service, the decor, the food—it’s a given, everything here is impeccable. My dining companion and I had a private tatami room with a window facing a small waterfall, a gracious and informative attendant, and well, here‘s an explanation of what ryotei is. When you make the reservation for your meal, you will be asked to choose a price point (15,750 to 26,250 yen). The quality of ingredients will reflect the price you choose. We chose the second most expensive at 21,000 yen. Here follows an (almost) complete list of our impressive meal.

Tai (red sea bream) milt, sea cucumber roe, ponzu, lemon juice, spring orchid blossom. This creamy starter was probably my favorite dish that evening.

Our beautiful and impressive assortment of appetizers: tai (red sea bream) sushi with kinome (prickly ash leaf bud), grilled squid with nori seaweed and egg yolk; fava beans; salt-pickled “firefly” squid; mountain yam “butterfly”; poached egg-bearing octopus; yurine (lily bulb) petal with salmon roe; udo stalk petals; skewer of prawn, avocado, and tai lever pate.

Sashimi of tai, sashimi of giant prawn, ponzu jelly, wasabi, suizenji seaweed jelly, curled udo stalk and carrot, shiso leaf, mixed sprouts.

Sashimi of young maguro (bluefin tuna), mustard, soy-marinated egg yolk sauce.

Steamed Wakasa tilefish, sticky rice, bamboo shoot, cherry leaf, warabi fern heads, toasted rice crackers, ginger juice.

Ocean trout low-temperature poached, crisped trout skin, grated radish with kinome and Seville orange juice.

Grilled bamboo shoot (harvested that morning), kinome miso sauce, mustard-vinegar soy sauce.

Salad of octopus, udo stalk, fuki, urui (wild onion), kinome herb vinegar jelly. This was my least favorite dish—it was too acidic.

Strawberry-wasabi sorbet.

Hotpot of abalone, bamboo shoot, wakame seaweed, rapini, kinome herb.

Bamboo shoot rice, tai, sesame paste, kinome herb, wasabi, sesame seeds, toasted rice crackers, green tea broth; pickled chopped eggplant, salt-pickled rapini, pickled daikon radish.

Pistachio ice cream, mango soup, chopped pistachio. Even my non-sweet-inclined dining companion was blown away by this dessert.

And finally warabi mochi and matcha to finish.

Oriental Lounge, Nihonbashi, Tokyo

May 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

Having afternoon tea at the Oriental Lounge was a welcome oasis of relaxation for me during an activity-packed vacation. The service is attentive and respectful, and it doesn’t hurt that the lounge is located on the 38th floor of a building in the middle of Nihonbashi. Even raining and grey (the beginnings of a storm that ended up leaving me stranded in Yokohama), the view is beautiful.

Tea starts with the savory: foie gras parfait and lychee puree with Vin Santo jelly, open-faced sandwich of salmon and avocado omelet, taraba crab and green pea mousse petit tart, pork pastrami and mango cream sandwich. This is a strong quartet, although admittedly on the sweet side.

Next up is a triplet of scones (original, chocolate chip, and cranberry) accompanied by butter and two house jams (cherry and tangerine, if I recall correctly). The scones aren’t the best you’ll ever have, but they are good.

This is followed by what I assume was a palate cleanser. Wasabi jelly and pink grapefruit. I dislike wasabi so I was relieved that I couldn’t taste it in this. All in all, a somewhat strange idea with unmemorable execution.

Finally, the petits fours! (And may I say they were the highlight of my meal.) Here’s a breakdown from the top, left to right: strawberry truffle, strawberry mousse, orange flavored egg tart, red currant and meringue petit tarte, tiramisu, sakura cream and raspberry muffin, basil flavored cheese sable.

The truffle was a little on the sweet side for my tastes, but the strawberry mousse had just the right amount of sweetness, tasting intensely of strawberries, a little tart, with an almost buttery texture. The petit tarte is similarly well balanced and the egg tart is perfect, the dense pastry crust providing contrast to the fluffiness of the filling. The tiramisu is equal parts sweet and creamy with a bitter dusting of dark cocoa on top. The sakura cream and raspberry muffin is almost marshmallowy in flavor with the tartness of the raspberry balancing out the butteriness of the cake and cream. At the end the cheese biscuit adds an unexpected, but welcome, savory bite.

The afternoon tea is 4,200 yen with unlimited access to freshly infused tea and coffee beverages. You can also opt for the ‘luxury afternoon tea’  for 6,000 yen, which comes with champagne. Having recently experienced afternoon tea at the Peninsula in Hong Kong, this was a welcome change of scenery and taste.

Nagi Ramen, Shibuya, Tokyo

May 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I had hoped to sample every bowl of ramen in Tokyo. But time was short and the weather had turned against me. This brings me to Nagi Ramen, the one place on my list I ended up making it to. And if you only make it to one ramen shop in Tokyo, you won’t regret this one. Nagi has several locations throughout Tokyo, each shop specializing in a different soup.

Obviously I chose the Shibuya location, which specializes in pork (pork!). When you walk in you need to buy a ticket from the vending machine (if you don’t read Japanese you might have some trouble deciphering it). I chose, of course, the pork ramen (豚王). After you have your ticket you will be seated and presented with a questionnaire. This is where you can customize your bowl (I’m not sure if they have an English version, but one of the employees might be able to help). On the form you can choose the amount of oil, garlic, thickness, and heaviness of the broth, how hard you want the noodles, in addition to a number of other details. I know what I like, so I opted for a dark, thick, garlicky broth with katame (al dente) noodles.

The place is cramped and warm, but honestly who cares? This is my perfect bowl. Perfect! The broth is creamy, porky, thick, completely delightful. The meat is tender and fatty and the noodles are firm. If, like me, your ramen preferences lean towards cloudy bowls of porky heaven, Nagi is not to be missed.

Ice Fishing & Shishamo

March 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go ice fishing on Kanayama Lake.

As you can see from the number of tents, ice fishing is a relatively popular past time in Hokkaido. We were fishing for shishamo, which are a type of Japanese smelt (edit: these are actually wakasagi, which are a type of fresh water smelt – shishamo are salt water smelt). The gentlemen I accompanied had a tent complete with tea kettle, heaters, copious amounts of beer, and six relatively narrow holes bored deep into the ice.

Several large water bottles and a bucket were used to hold the fish we caught.

Me, excited to pose with dinner.

Shishamo (and wakasagi) are generally prepared whole, deep fried or grilled and salted. They are especially popular in izakaya. At the end of the day I left with about 20 smelts, hungry for dinner. I decided to cook them the way my fishing companions had recommended. It’s very simple and doesn’t really require a recipe, but I’ll detail the method.

First, wash and dry the fish.

Next heat the oil in the vessel of your preference for deep frying. I ended up using olive oil because I was out of vegetable oil, but I wouldn’t recommend it (I got splattered a lot). Coat the fish in potato starch (I think you could substitute corn starch if necessary). Fry in the oil until crisp and golden. Let drain on paper towels and salt generously.

I think the trick here is to make sure the fish are as crisp as possible and amply salted. They should be eaten while still hot.

I was a little apprehensive about preparing these. I very rarely cook fish. My fisherman friends said that if a smelt is on the larger side, it should be cut up and the feces/innards removed. But size is relative and the smaller ones also have feces. So… I’m eating fish feces. What if I didn’t cook them enough? I don’t want to be eating fish feces at all but I won’t tolerate them under-cooked (what is the correct cooking time for fish feces anyway?).

Although I enjoyed the taste (the brains were a little bitter) and I’ve had these in izakaya before and never had an issue, I think the process of catching and cooking the fish ended up being a little problematic for me. But I had been told I had to eat them all, because I killed them, and I was feeling a little guilty, so I did.

Winter in Hokkaido – Kimchi Jigae

March 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Does your bathroom ever smell liked cooked pee? Uh, neither does mine. But well I got a small heater for my bathroom so the toilet would stop freezing and let’s just say – there are side effects. Within the first two days of being back, I had two broken sinks, a burst pipe that flooded the floor, an ice-covered toilet seat, and a frozen, unflushable toilet.

But don’t worry, this isn’t a recipe for cooked pee (how easy would that recipe be?). It is, however, a recipe for those days when your toilet seat is covered in icicles and you can see your breath while you’re peeing. These days still happen here, even in March.

Kimchi & Pork Belly Stew

This is a recipe that you can easily adjust to whatever ingredients you have, and which I’ve made a number of ways. Here are the basics, but please feel free to substitute whatever you like. It’s loosely based on several recipes for kimchi jigae.

Ingredients:

1 onion, sliced
2 large carrots, sliced in thick wedges or rounds
1 daikon, sliced and quartered
meat! (I’ve used thinly sliced pork belly, thick cut pork belly, lamb with the skin on, and various combinations of the three – you can use whatever you fancy, but the thick pork belly and lamb get very tender with this kind of preparation and add a lot of flavor to the finished product)
package of thick shirataki (you can use thin, but I like the texture of the udon-thick variety)
package kimchi (1-2 cups)
4 cloves minced garlic
1/2 c sake
1 c water (add more if needed, depending on how much vegetables/meat you use, everything should be covered – adjust miso, etc. accordingly)
1/4 c light soy sauce (don’t use regular soy sauce, it will be too salty)
1 tbs mirin
2-3 tbs miso (adjust to taste)
2-3 tsp gochujang (adjust to taste)
2 tsp minced ginger
tofu (optional)
green onions/naganegi, sliced thinly (optional)

Method:

Fry the pork belly and/or lamb (skin side down) to render the fat. Remove from the pan and stir fry the onions. Add the carrots, daikon, and any other vegetable you’d like to use (I’ve tried sweet potatoes and potatoes before). Add the meat back into the pan along with the kimchi, shirataki, and garlic. When fragrant add the sake, water, soy sauce, mirin, miso, gochujang, and ginger. Stir to combine and adjust to taste. Bring to a boil and then cover and turn down to a simmer. Simmer for 1-2 hours or until the vegetables and meat are tender. You can also add cubes of tofu at the end and let simmer until heated through. Garnish with sliced green onions or naganegi. This is good served on rice, but with the shirataki I prefer to eat it without.

Sapporo Snow Festival

February 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

A few weekends ago I had the opportunity to visit the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival). The event is held in three different locations throughout Sapporo, where a variety of snow and ice sculptures are featured. I went to the Odori location where there were, in addition to numerous smaller snow sculptures, five large snow and ice scenes. These were naturally impressive,  but I would be lying if I said that the majority of my time wasn’t occupied by the many food booths that surround the festival. My first choice was nikuman, which is a Chinese style pork bun. This one was shaped like a pig and was pretty much the cutest thing I’ve ever eaten. Another booth also had panda shaped buns.

Here’s piggy, preparing for the slaughtering.

Next up was Japanese fried chicken, which is called karaage in most of Japan. In Hokkaido we call it zangi. The zangi still had the skin on, were perfectly crisp, the meat tender, and the green onion sauce a really perfect accompaniment. I ended up making zangi with a green onion dipping sauce last week because the memory of this was haunting me (besides some hot oil splatter, the results were immensely satisfying). At the same booth I also got a spiced chai (they also had a butter rum chai). The chai was nice but a little too sweet for my tastes, and the cinnamon on top formed an unpleasant sort of skin.

There was also a Brazilian BBQ stand (Churrasco). I’ve had this a couple of times in NY, but I had no idea that it could taste like this. The meat was tender inside with a fantastic outer char and just packed with flavor. This is one of those things that just makes you smile to eat.

I was about to burst at this point, but I still had to get an order of takoyaki. Takoyaki are balls of savory pancake batter filled with octopus, which I am extremely partial too. These were probably the best takoyaki I’ve had. The crispy outer skin was a little thick for my taste, but the inside was incredibly creamy and even though I was full enough to explode, with a little help from my companions, I managed to polish them off.

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