Ogino

If you ask me what the Japanese are best at cooking apart from Japanese cuisine, I’d say French. Some of you might argue – Didn’t Italian food get popular first back in the 1920’s? How about Korean BBQ with Kobe beef? Not denying the quality of other international cuisines in Japan (with the exception of Chinese food perhaps, as I have yet to find anything brilliant in Japan apart from a sheng jian bao that was 10 times better than the famous Xiao Yang in Shanghai!) , but it seems difficult to find another culture that has a level of refined sensitivity and perfectionism matching up to what is required of artful French cuisine. This is in part accountable to how serious Japanese chefs get when it comes to sourcing ingredients, and our chef of the night Shinya Ogino is one such example. On the official Ogino restaurant website, all the farms chef Ogino sources from are introduced along with  smiley headshots of the farmers themselves. One of the things I admire most about Japan is that whilst farmers in many countries are commonly pictured either as exploited or lowly-paid workers suffering in the coutryside, Japanese farmers are often seen as proud producers of their specialties, regarding themselves as “researchers” of how to grow the best tomatoes,corn,eggplants,beefporkchicken whatnot.

So here’s our meal at Ogino (in Ikejiri-Ohashi, just one station away from Shibuya) !

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We opted for the 5 course “Menu Saison”. This was an omakase tasting menu although we were also allowed to pick out dishes from the a-la-carte menu if there was a particular dish we really wanted to try.

The first appetizer was a zuwai crab salad in an avocado puree, topped with a layer of mandarin orange jelly. Not a particularly innovative combination, but the mandarin jelly gave a fresh zesty kick to the creamy mixture, all for fostering an appetite to begin the meal.

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Next up was this jerusalem artichoke cream – probably the less impressionable of the appetizers; I would have liked it better with more flavour or a bit of a crunch. The jerusalem artichokes used were evidently very fresh, but IMO a bit of an accent would have been neat :p  IMG_3873

Before the second pair of appetizers we were served the bread and some delicious homemade rilette. IMG_3876

Our third appetizer arrived swiftly after the breads; although I’ve been telling myself to stop eating foie gras for both health and ethical reasons, this Vendée duck foie gras and truffle terrine was too good to miss so I had to side with the devil. The truffle aroma here was not particularly strong – what really took centre stage in this dish was the six blocks of fujinotori chicken, loaded with flavour permeated from the gamey foie gras. IMG_3882

The final appetizer was sauteéd st-jacques with truffled mashed potato in a “bacon cappucino” sauce. This one was divine! The aroma of black truffles in this dish was more apparent than in the foie gras terrine. The scallops were not particularly big but in here it meant a compact, intense sweetness in every little bite. They were also nicely done golden brown at the top and bottom, whilst remaining just opaque enough in the middle to be sufficiently cooked without losing moisture. IMG_3884

For our mains we had two different seafood dishes and two meat dishes. For seafood we had the oven-baked cod with cumin and Lobster thermidor. IMG_3886

I’d say I preferred the lobster thermidor. It was meaty, buttery but not overly so, and smelled oh so good! The cod was not so bad but it made me see why Ogino’s claim to fame was based on meats rather than fishes. IMG_3888

An icy palate cleanser was served between the seafood courses and meat courses.IMG_3891

For the meats we had the Za’atar (mixed herbs of middle eastern origin) lamb and roast veal (from Brittany). Both very good, but at this point I was getting so full that I really wanted dessert ASAP. (They say we have a separate stomach for desserts. I can only assume so, and the only way to keep enjoying food without making one stomach explode ought to be switching to the other one, right?)  IMG_3896 IMG_3894

The next three photos are of desserts that I did not try personally. I’ll just let the photos speak 😛

The warm chocolate brownie,IMG_3900

Pudding,IMG_3899

and panacotta. IMG_3901

I had the “reversed mont blanc” which was basically a standard mont blanc with ingredients done inside out, with the pureed chestnut and whipped cream sitting inside a gang of broken meringue pieces. Not bad!! IMG_3903

Lastly we had our herb tea and madeleines, and that was the end 😀
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Ogino’s motto (as seen on his website) is “世界はひとつ!美味くて安くて楽しい、それがOGINO料理です。” (The world is one ! Tasty, cheap, fun, that’s OGINO cuisine.)

When a restuarant prides itself on being cheap I normally would not expect it to be all that great. However in Ogino’s case the terrific cost-performance of my meal really shone through. At 6500 yen (around 65 USD) for a five-course meal including lobster and foie gras, I think Ogino’s claim to be tasty and cheap is certainly justified 😀

Ogino 

Address: 2-20-9 Ikejiri, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
東京都世田谷区池尻2-20-9

Tel: 03-5481-1333

Website: www.french-ogino.com 

P.S. Ogino even has a link to his own blog in the “About Us” section of the restaurant’s page. When you click the link a message pops up saying that you can only enter the site if you can confirm to be over 30 years of age. Naturally being the good girl I am, I did not click it.

JK. Unfortunately there is nothing explicit in there. Just chef Ogino and his sidekick updating everyday about new goodies from their delis around the city!

Tamawarai 玉笑

‘Twas a drizzly evening in Tokyo and for some reason, everytime it rains I feel compelled to reflect on life (notice how in music videos, there is that cliche depiction of a contemplative subject staring out the window? It always happens to be raining too). Inevitably these reflections include some less philosophical revelations such as the amount of fat I have accumulated from festive feasts consumed in the past few weeks. Over some serious sensations of guilt, I decided that for one night at least, I must not succumb to that evil glutton in my mind who keeps drawing me away from foods that are (relatively) low in calories and fat. And that is how I ended up trekking my way to Tamawarai, a small soba shop buried in one of the most inobtrusive streets near Harajuku.
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The restaurant was a little difficult to spot because the entrance to Tamawarai was anything but ostentatious. I eventually found my way with the help of Google Maps and this lonely looking little lantern.

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It was only 5:30 pm and I was the first customer of the night. IMG_3696

For a traditional soba-ya, the glittery silver menu was rather stylish, with a calligraphic drawing of the lonely little lantern at the corner. The main food menu was divided into three sections – Otsumami (snacks, generally eaten as accompaniment to alcohol), soup soba, and cold soba.IMG_3700

The first thing I opted for was an otsumami, the grilled kuruma-ebi. Since I hate peeling prawns I just ate the entire thing, shell included. This could have been unpleasant at other places but the shell of this prawn was so thin and crunchy that I felt more like I was just snacking on a prawn shaped, prawn flavoured crisp with real prawn flesh inside! This was fantastic with my ume-shu (Japanese plum liqueur). 20140120-123005.jpg

My next otsumami was the dashi-maki tamago (dashi as in fish stock, maki as in roll, and tamago as in egg. In short, a fish stocky roll omelette). Nothing can go too wrong with dashi-maki tamago!  This was standard in a good way; huwa huwa (the Japanese expression for soft, fluffy things) in texture, served while it was still piping hot. IMG_3709

My final otsumami was the misoyaki which was basically a perfectly circular smear of delicately flavoured miso paste containing small bits of spring onion, grilled and served on a hot metal plate. IMG_3711

Finally, oh star of the night – my natto soba! I’m aware that there are many natto haters out there (both in and out of Japan) who find the pungent smell of fermented soybeans vomit-inducing, but seriously, natto is one of the things that truly taught me what an acquired taste really means. In my opinion, acquiring a taste does not necessarily require repeated exposure, nor does it have to be a slow developmental process that needs to be nurtured intentionally unless you are actually neophobic. Sometimes, all it takes is a situation that triggers an urge to give something one more try. For example, I always hated natto as a kid – but it was when I saw a random woman eat natto on rice as though it were the most delicious thing in the world that the crazy foodie in me felt impelled to give the smelly beans one more chance. This opened my gustatory senses to a whole new world of different types of natto, which might not have been possible had I not been in the particular situation. So, natto-rice woman, thank you for appearing in my life that day!  (I’d also like to thank my dad for making durian appear to be exotic ice cream)

OK, back to my bowl – The natto beans here were very large compared to the standard sized natto commonly found in supermarkets. Also on the soba were seaweed, spring onions, katsuobushi (bonito flakes), and the obligatory raw egg in the middle.

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Neba-neba! (That’s the Japanese onomatopoeia for sticky, stringy, slimy things)

Having been living in Oxford where my closest source of artisanal Japanese noodles was udon from Koya in London, and then Hong Kong where the sushi and ramen trends have overtaken the Japanese culinary scene, I have not been having brilliant soba for a long, long time. I couldn’t help smiling as soon as I had my first bite of this nicely firm, aromatic soba.

The tsuyu sauce had an elegant flavour that was suitably strong without overpowering the soba’s sweet buckwheat taste; its refinedness also allowed the freshness of all other ingredients to shine through. Definitely a well-crafted bowl of soba that can only be the product of some very skilled hands! IMG_3724

My mom ordered the tempura soup soba that I also tried a bit of. Whilst the tempura was not particularly commendable, the hot soba, which was significantly thicker than usual soba, had a chewy, grainy texture that was just as impressive as the cold natto soba I had. IMG_3718

As usual the meal ended with soba-yu (hot water used to cook soba) poured into the remaining tsuyu after all the noodles were eaten. A wonderful meal that did not make me feel too heavy afterwards, yep! IMG_3725

Tamawarai 

Address: 5-23-3 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

東京都渋谷区神宮前5-23-3

Telephone: 03-5485-0025

P.S. Whilst looking for their precise address online, I realised that Tamawarai actually received its first Michelin star last year! I’d say that was well deserved 🙂

Kohaku 虎白 

Decided to give this fusion kaiseki restaurant a try tonight because all the other diners I wanted to visit were either closed or fully booked. Well before I start making this place sound like a sad rebound that’s available when everyone else isn’t, Kohaku is actually a highly acclaimed restaurant boasting 2 michelin stars. The only reason I was able to get a reservation last minute was that, unlike at most high-end kaiseki restaurants in Tokyo, chef Koji Koizumi and his team (as I later observed) are energetic night owls who can work well past midnight, meaning that  multiple rounds of customers get the opportunity to enjoy full course dinners everyday. 

Chef Koizumi previously served at the famous 3-Michelin-star Ishikawa, a traditional kaiseki ryotei that in fact used to be located exactly where Kohaku is right now. After the old Ishikawa was re-positioned, Koizumi took over the space (though chef Hideki Ishikawa remains one of its owners) to begin a new project that took traditional kaiseki to a modern plane, by incorporating ingredients from other culinary capitals such as China and France.

IMG_3765Upon entering Kohaku at 9:45 pm- fairly late for a kaiseki meal. (there were people entering even later at 10:45pm)
IMG_3768 The meal began with a delightful sakizuke (the Japanese equivalent of the French amuse-bouche) of ebi-imo, a traditional Kyoto vegetable that literally translates to “shrimp potato” due to the shrimp-like stripey pattern on its skin. Perfumed with a few slices of black truffle, this appetizer set the scene for an avant-garde kaiseki dinner with a French twist. IMG_3773My first course (ippin) was fugu (blowfish/pufferfish), and its shirako (or milt, or sperm, whatever you like to call it) soaked in mizore-zu, a combo of grated daikon radish, rice vinegar flavored with mirin and citrusy yuzu peel. 
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Plump and velvety, my little sacs of fugu shirako matched exceptionally well with the bright tangy flavours of the mizore-zu. Fugu was skillfully prepared into paper-thin slices, with small slivers of its gelatinous skin adding delightful, crunchy bites to the otherwise moist, creamy dish.

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Those not keen on blowfish sperm were served this hotate (scallop) with konbu paste for substitute. I had the pleasure of trying this dish as well because I was hungry … since it was already quarter past 10 at this point! Less exciting, but very fresh nonetheless. 7083331e41ceb9836e40d28cf5c939c9

Next up was the shinogi しのぎ course, a segment of kaiseki cuisine where something relatively substantial, such as rice or soba, is typically served. Tonight I had this suppon gohanmushi,  (snapping soft-shell turtle steamed rice). 20140116-232855.jpg Super rich in collagen, chef Koizumi prevented the gooey consistency of this gohanmushi from becoming too thick by balancing it out with tiny, crispy cubes of wintermelon and shiitake mushrooms. The sophisticated, intense flavour of turtle meat (and its nutritious amino acids!) is infused into every spoonful of perfectly firm rice. Not that I ever care about health when it comes to good food, but if something tastes this good and has notable beauty benefits, I’m all in!

20140116-232915.jpgI also tried a bit of the koubakogani (snow crab) gohanmushi. This was fantastic in its simplicity, for the flavour of fresh crab is best preserved without tampering too much with its natural sweetness. A tiny dab of kani miso (crab roe) rests on top, adding a trace of creamy, pure umami. IMG_3788 In the middle of the meal I ordered a glass of “la france” sake. For those who are unfamiliar, la france is a European pear originally cultivated by a French man called Claude Blanchet back in 1864, and then introduced to Japan during the Meiji period. I guess they were not bothered with giving the pear from France a name any more original than La France.  Its texture is reminiscent of a hybrid between apple and peach (very juicy, like the japanesemomo) and is extraordinarily sweet compared to most other pears. I was very happy with this glass of sake because it showcased the unique, nectarous sweetness of la france most faithfully and whilst it was extremely easy on the palate, it did not feel like it was lacking in alcohol content (hate drinks that are literally just juice when they are not supposed to be juice!).  IMG_3790

Next I was presented with this beautiful bowl ; here is the Owan course,  a warm soupy dish that is served during the course of a kaiseki meal. IMG_3791For tonight’s owan I had fresh bamboo shoots and white sesame tofu in a gentle white miso soup base. The flavours of this dish were delicate and if you are the kind of person who only enjoys heavily seasoned food or deep fried chunks of meat then you are not going to like it. Well thankfully I’m not one of you :p. The fragrant taste of sesame spread through my mouth subtly but clearly, and together with the freshly picked bamboo shoots, this was all in all another enjoyable dish.
IMG_3793After the hearty owan dish, we moved on to the Otsukuri, generally referring to the kaiseki course containing sashimi. I had the aburi kinmedai which is a seared golden eye snapper (apparently it is also called the Splendid alfonsino and according to wikipedia … this fish appears in the Wii game Endless Ocean…lolwtf?). This dish was uber appetizing covered with ponzu jelly, but what I was more impressed by was the other otsukuri dish … (scroll further down)
20140116-232942.jpg The wagyu beef sashimi!  This was simply divine. I often found beautifully marbled pieces of wagyu beef too oily or fatty for my liking but here, combined with the zesty ponzu gelee, it was a match made in heaven! NO SHI*T THIS WAS GOOD. Melt-in-mouth tenderness that literally evaporated as soon as it hit my tongue, leaving only the transcendental, buttery taste of beef behind. 20140116-232931.jpgNext up was the yakimono, or flame-broiled dish. This was a super succulent fillet of nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch). I loved the lingering aroma of the miso marinade which at the same time did not overshadow the inherent flavours of the fish. This was served with komochi kombu (herring roe on kelp) and nanohana karashi ae (brocollini/steamed rapeseed flowers with a soysauce/dashi/mustard marinade), both zippy compliments that worked well to counterbalance the greasiness of this fatty nodoguro.
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In addition I tried the flame-broiled kuruma-ebi (Japanese imperial prawn/tiger prawn) which smelled incredible and after devouring both immaculate plates of seafood I had the sudden urge to become a fisherwoman who lives by the sea and eats from the ocean everyday. IMG_3805 I was served my hiyashimono (the cold dish) just in time to cool those impractical, nonsensical thoughts down (I hold utmost respect for all fisher-men and women; I simply don’t think I can handle that life). This was the matsuba crab and kabu (turnip). Again not a dish for those with less sensitive palates but I inhaled this one in seconds because it was so refreshing, almost like a kuchinaoshi (palate cleanser) after the two relatively salty yakimono dishes! IMG_3812After the cold dish it was time to warm up again with the nimono , or simmered dish. This was the Zao duck simmered with horigawa gobou (burdock), shungiku (edible chrysanthemum greens) and daikon (radish). The duck was pleasantly gamey and juicy, and at this point two slices was exactly the right portion I wanted to be served. I did not want to be too full before the next course which I specifically ordered upon making my reservation!
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And what could be in here? This was the oshokuji (rice dish made with seasonal ingredients) I had been waiting for. IMG_3826Dun dun DUNNN!!! This was my black truffle zousui (japanese soup rice … or hangover porridge) made with aromatic black truffles, a little bit of egg, and crunchy little dices of lotus root producing a zousui with titillating textures. Strong whiffs of truffle wafts through every single spoonful of this delectable bowl of SOUL-HEALING MAGICAL OMNIPOTENT HOLY SPIRITUAL GODLY ELIXIR OF LIFE!! (ok I’m writing this at 2am so I’m kinda **** in the head at the moment). IMG_3832

Absolute ambrosia!!! OF COURSE I ASKED FOR SECONDS. Served in a bowl with a different design (I always pay attention to tableware and cutlery used … somehow that is a very enjoyable thing for me). 

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uhuhu! P.S. the homemade tsukemono (japanese pickles in small dish on the left) were very, very good too.  
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Last but not least I had the dessert, consisting of strawberry sherbet, murasaki-imo (purple potatoes), rum jelly and deep-fried yuba (tofu skin). This might look a bit messy here but tastewise it turned out to be a well-coordinated, interesting but harmonious dessert that ended the meal on a high note. 

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Had to take a photo of this very cool portrait of a white tiger before leaving. (btw the restaurant name Kohaku literally translates to tiger white). Had a casual chat with chef Koizumi as he sent us out of the restaurant and then realised it was almost 1 am already. Oops! I shall be back! IMG_3841

KOHAKU 虎白
Address: 3-4 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
東京都新宿区神楽坂3-4
Tel: 03-5225-0807

An Nam

For the longest time, finding somewhere good to have Vietnamese food in Hong Kong seemed extraordinarily difficult. Although by good I certainly do not just mean “upscale”,  it does appear that there have hardly been any attempts at high-end Vietnamese cuisine in Hong Kong. I mean, in the past, whenever I craved for a bowl of beef pho, I would only think of going to one of the few modest, super-cramped Vietnamese restaurants in the Tai Hang neighbourhood. At times of social gatherings that required more space, I’d generally be stuck with one of the inauthentic, Chinesified renditions of Viet cuisine scattered around the island.

This all changed when my good friend Eva told me about the new(ish) Vietnamese restaurant at Lee Gardens, An Nam. 20131212-164103.jpg

Belonging to the same group as the Japanese restaurant Gonpachi next door, an extention of the famous Tokyo restaurant that I always saw as an overpriced tourist trap, I had initial doubts about the authenticity of the food at An Nam. But! After my first meal there, I’m happy to say that I was probably just a little too cynical.

The first dish I tried was the big head prawns in fragrant sauce. The prawns were fleshy, firm with a bouncy bite, soaked in a flavorful shrimp roe sauce to form a succulent, briny dose of omega-3 😀

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Next up was one of my favourite vietnamese dishes – grilled pork “bun noodles” that always leaves me feeling extra healthy without taking away from the pleasure of taste. This reminded me of the grilled pork noodles from Banh Mi Bay, a cute Vietnamese “cheap eats” diner that I used to frequent in Bloomsbury, London.

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I also tried the rare beef pho and liked it very much compared to most places I’ve been to in Hong Kong. With tender beef slices and a savoury stock, I’ve been back a few times for this bowl of pho. One thing though – the temperature of the broth (upon being served) fluctuates depending on the time of the day/how busy they are, so a polite reminder for them to serve it hot would be a good idea when you order! I personally cannot stand lukewarm soup noodles !

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The rice rolls, which were essentially finely minced pork wrapped in a thin slippery skin with fresh herbs was also satisfying.

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The shrimp paste on bamboo sticks however, were not exactly worth raving about. They were not horrible but definitely on the dry side. I think I would probably be able to find better versions in other Vietnamese restaurants, even in one of the casual diners in Tai Hang.

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The pork and shrimp rice paper rolls (goi cuon) on the other hand were well-made; at many other places I often found poorly proportioned versions of these with either too much vegetable or noodles inside. Here, as you can see, the rolls have been done in a good size and are filled with well-balanced amounts of each ingredient. Goi Cuon devotees may, however, find the skin a little too chewy and rubbery.20131212-105044.jpg

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The deep-fried frog’s legs and deep-fried shoft shell crabs literally tasted the same. Look at the next two photos… at first glance they pretty much look the same too. Anyway… both were enjoyable since for me, all things deep-fried that are not too oily, reasonably crispy and not without flavour are easily good enough to make delicious snacks to go with any kind of drink :p 20131212-105150.jpg

Though on second thought the soft shell crabs pictured below could have been a little crunchier 😛

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THE deep-fried dish I really like at An Nam however, is the spring rolls. The waitress says they are all filled with fresh shrimps and indeed, as far as I remember, these spring rolls are one of the best Vietnamese spring rolls I’ve ever had in Hong Kong. A neatly stacked bowl of baby lettuce is also served on the side for wrapping around the spring rolls, adding a lovely layer of fresh crispiness.

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The stir-fried beef noodles were also wonderful – piping hot and bursting with flavour.

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In general, I still foresee myself coming back to An Nam again and again but what I will never order again are the following things :

These baked cheesy clams which were seriously over-baked and therefore dry.

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The coconut jelly that is almost tasteless.

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The mediocre chocolate fondant and sweet potato dessert (pictured below – it’s that milky looking bowl of whatever at the back). I can assure you that sweet things are not An Nam’s forte. I would suggest leaving after your meal to go for dessert elsewhere 😛

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An Nam

Address:  4/F, Lee Gardens One, 33 Hysan Ave., Causeway Bay
銅鑼灣希慎道33號利園一期4樓

Phone Number:  (852) 2787 3922

Website: http://www.leegardens.com.hk/dining/LG/2435/An-Nam

Edit:just wanted to include photos of 2 additional dishes I tried later! 😛 vietnamese grilled pork & meatball bun noodles and fried flat noodles.
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Ottolenghi – Demonstrating Organic + Orgasmic

I’ve always been an avid meat-eater, but a fair portion of vegetables is pretty much compulsory for the sake of keeping my palate balanced. At times, after having too many meat-heavy meals in a row I would feel the need for a 100% vegetarian day. I’ve been eating a lot of korean BBQ, meaty Italian dishes and steaks lately so on this sunny November day in London, I decided to visit Yotam Ottolenghi’s Islington deli  to get my #fitspo food fix.  (yeah and so that I can post pictures on instagram with tags like #eatclean #instahealth #fitstagram)

😀

Ottolenghi, also known as “the man who sexed up vegetables” (only found this in wikipedia, hah), is an Israeli chef specializing in middle eastern cuisine that draws influence from around the world. My good friend Eiko told me about his fresh and flavourful salads a while back, so I had to seize the opportunity to try them out whilst in London.

Damn, it was a sunday afternoon but I did not expect the line to be this long. I stood there waiting for over half an hour before I got seated.
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Whilst waiting in line I noticed that despite being famed for veggie dishes, the cakes and pastries looked highly appetizing as well. Queueing up next to the heavenly spread of goodies pictured below (imagine the beautiful smell as well) while being hungry for lunch was both mentally and physically tormenting. The queuers infront of me were unable to withstand the torture and called for some pastries from the take-out counter whilst waiting to be seated. I, however, knew that if I were to do that I would not be able to stop myself from eating too much before sitting down so I refrained from doing so.
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Ahhhhh…. these cupcakes!!!
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For lunchtime, everything on the menu is already laid out at the front of the deli. Pumped up by the sight of all the colourful salads, I had already planned in my head to get a portion of everything.
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Just for reference, here is the menu of the day 😀
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And finally I got seated inside.

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I ended up getting a portion of every single salad for my table of 3, sharing also a platter of Ottolenghi breads and 2 main courses. I did not care much about the main courses as I really only came for the salads, and yum! Every salad was prepared with noticeably fresh vegetables, bursting with bold, exotic flavours. The only dish that could have been better turned out to be the char-grilled brocolli  with chilli and garlic,  which was in fact the first thing I picked from the menu because I’ve always been a fan. The brocolli  here was slightly too hard and dry for what I expected; perhaps chargrilling for less time would have been better? (btw I subsequently had a wonderful brocolli salad at Bea’s of Bloomsbury).
IMG_3234One of my favourites turned out to be the roasted aubergine with black garlic yoghurt, fried chili, caremelised hazelnuts and herbs. The unique combination of flavours complimented very well with the perfectly roasted aubergines, which were neither too chewy nor mushy.
IMG_3236 The roasted sweet potato with ginger yoghurt, lemon, pickled red onion, black sesame seeds and parsley were also delicious, despite looking like a giant mess. This was probably the most addictive of the salads.IMG_3237 The potatoes with Jerusalem artichoke, ras el hanout, almonds, sultanas, chilli and preserved lemon was less interesting in terms of flavouring. Simple and good, nonetheless.IMG_3238 And here’s the mixed peppers and brown bulgar tabbouleh with mixed nuts, red onion and pomegranate seeds. IMG_3239And of course, hummus! Ottolenghi’s special butterbean hummus with roasted mushrooms cumin, cinnamon, chilli & parsley

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The two main courses we went for were the filo parcels with burnt aubergine, feta, parsley, walnuts and sweet basil yoghurt and the free range chicken with cloves, cardamom, garlic, preserved lemons and turmeric. I had fairly low expectations for these so was quite happy to find that the chicken was not as dry as it looked and that the filo pastry was not oily at all. IMG_3245      IMG_3249

The Ottolenghi bread platters are prepared at a tiny corner inside the restaurant – each plate consisting of freshly baked & cut sourdough, cornbread, Italian white and focaccia.

IMG_3257 All served with some extra virgin olive oil of course.IMG_3258The dishes were actually presented in a style reminiscent of what I used to get at the college canteen – large spoonfuls of each salad/main course piled onto plates, like this 
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this,IMG_3259and this. IMG_3261Anyway, I left Ottolenghi feeling like a satisfied cow that just devoured a nice, organic, healthy meal. I’ll probably come try dinner next time (which I believe is served much more formally).

Obviously, upon stepping out the door I had to grab a few of these treats to make myself stay fat ‘cos you know, I love being fat. IMG_3269 Well not really … I’m on a diet to be honest but who can resist stuff like this!! IMG_3270

Ottolenghi Islington

287 Upper Street

London N1 2TZ

Tel: 020 7288 1454

Website :  http://www.ottolenghi.co.uk

Xi’anese Food @ 有緣小敍

Went on a weekend getaway in Xi’an last month and was majorly disappointed with most of the food I had there. Despite the research efforts I put in my quest for the best pao mo, rou jia mo, dumplings and noodles in the city, the best thing I had turned out to be the knife-cut noodles they offered for breakfast at the Shangri-la.

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Perhaps Xi’anese food is just not for me.

However there was one dish that I did not have time to try while I was in Xi’an, and this was the Biang Biang Mian (Biang Biang noodles). Whatever “Biang” means, I don’t know. I don’t know anything about it apart from some vague, guessy explanations on Wikipedia. What I do know is that the chinese character for “Biang” looks crazy, with 58 strokes.

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Being a big fan of noodles of all sorts, I felt that I had to do Xi’anese food justice by looking for this Shaanxi region specialty in Hong Kong. I made a quick search for “Biang Biang noodles” on openrice.com and found a little shop in Jordan. I have actually never been to Jordan before but coincidentally I had an errand to run there that week so it was perfect timing 🙂

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The shop is tiny with only one large table and a few seats facing the the wall. As expected, most people were having the infamous biang biang noodles. I also noticed that at the side of the table there stood a few mini terracotta warriors.

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I have a habit of drinking soy milk whenever I have spicy chinese food, so I started off ordering these to drink. If you are fussy about soy milk then you will not like these at all. They taste disappointingly artificial so if I ever come again I will definitely opt for cola. On the other hand my shredded potato appetizer was delicious! It smelled so good I would have liked to eat one whole portion or even two myself.

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Soon after I devoured the shredded potatoes the first bowl of biang biang noodles in my life appeared infront of me. I ordered my bowl with some fennel dumplings and donkey meat.20131105-185816.jpg

Yes and this was the donkey meat. I believe this was also my first time eating donkey. It was slightly smokey and seemed like an extra gamey version of turkey. To be honest I only ordered this because I never had donkey meat before and after eating one slice I did not want any more. It was dry and quite bland. 20131105-185841.jpg

And so I started mixing the noodles to let the spicy sauce cover every milimetre of chewy noodly goodness.20131105-190419.jpg

The fennel dumplings were also nice, though I don’t normally like fennel. The reason I ordered these was that I did not know what “fennel” in chinese was and just pointed at whatever my mom did not order because I knew I would steal some of her lamb dumplings anyway.

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And here is a pic of the same biang biang noodles, but with lamb dumplings. 20131105-185833.jpg

I actually liked the lamb dumplings better than my fennel dumplings.  As a dumpling devotee I believe that the texture of the dumpling’s skin makes the dumpling. Although most of the time people rave about “thin-skinned” dumplings which are smooth and chewy at the same time, the skin here is on the thick side. However, this is the way Xi’anese dumplings are supposed to be and the thickness here is in fact what makes the skin extra chewy (in a good way) and is still very smooth.  I would describe these as having the perfect dumpling skin to meat to veggie ratio. 20131105-190444.jpg

At the end I also ordered the roast lamb flavoured with cumin. At 180 HKD this small portion seemed a little expensive for a restaurant like this, but I’ll admit that it was one enjoyable dish. In conclusion, although I would not travel all the way here again just for this meal, if you ever want to try Xi’anese food in Hong Kong or just happen to be in the area, I’d recommend this place 😀

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Address :

Shop 3, G/F, Keybond Commercial Building, 38 Ferry Street, Jordan  (P.S. this place does not seem to have an English name at all so you will just have to go by this address if you don’t read chinese!)

佐敦渡船街38號建邦商業大廈地下3號舖

Link: http://www.openrice.com/english/restaurant/sr2.htm?shopid=47432

L’Altro

While back in Hong Kong I had a casual lunch at L’Altro, a one michelin star eatery by chef Philippe Leveille, whose restaurant Miramonti L’Altro in Brescia, Italy also boasts two michelin stars. Being born in France, chef Leveille’s cuisine exhibits some distinctively French twists, both in presentation and cooking methods. 20131029-230006.jpgIndeed, the grey, white & glassy interior at L’altro already told me that it was unlikely I’d be in for some rustic, homey Italian fare. My lunch began with the standard bread basket.
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At L’altro the set lunch menu changes regularly. On this day I opted for the foie gras poêlé mainly because nothing else in the starters list really appealed to me. (Note : just checked their new menu out though, it looks pretty awesome this time. anyone want to go this week?) Presentation-wise it was really nothing to scream about but considering the fact that this lunch course costed under 400 HKD, I’d say the quality was decent. (FYI at the moment it is 268 HKD for 2 courses, 298 for 3 courses, 398 for 4 courses, with additional charges for particular dishes such as foie gras) 20131029-230043.jpg

And here is a photo of a salad that I didn’t order but just stole a bit of. Like the foie gras, it was not spectacular but it was not bad enough to give me a poor impression. In fact it was probably quite pleasant to eat, only not impressionable, not that I expected it to be. 20131029-230106.jpg

Our mains then arrived. I ordered a sea bream fillet risotto ; this was buttery rich and cheesy, and the sea bream fillets were juicy with a crispy layer of skin which I liked.

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My favourite dish of the day turned out to be the lobster pasta -mixed with sweet and succulent meat, the lobster sauce soaked perfectly into the spaghetti. The cherry tomatoes also gave the dish a tangy, appetizing kick that made me crave for more. Unfortunately this was not my main dish and I had to stick with my risotto 😡 20131029-230231.jpg

We also tried the kurobuta pork which was probably the lightest of the main courses offered that day. This came with sweet potato chips and mash which were quite nice, but by this time I was ready for DESSERT.

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We ordered their signature Gelato Miramonti. I’ve seen many reviews raving about this very gelato so I was anticipating something pretty amazing. Well, it had a nice creamy texture but I am not sure if it lived up to its rumoured awesomeness. I am not even sure how to describe it … it’s simply mediocre? :/  Maybe it was a bad day for their gelato maker? This was actually nowhere near as good as the gelato I find in random gelato shops in Italy… given that this was a signature dessert I was slightly disappointed. Maybe I’ll try it once more :p 20131029-230344.jpg

Well thank God that was actually my MOM’s dessert which I took a bite of. I had this chocolate tart which was quite standard but enjoyable nonetheless. 20131029-230409.jpgSo I’ll probably return again since the new menu looks tempting.

Thank you for reading 😀

Website : http://laltro.hk

Address:  10/F, The L. Place, 139 Queen’s Road Central, Hong Kong

Takazawa (Aronia de Takazawa)

On a modest little street in Akasaka sits Yoshiaki Takazawa’s culinary wonderland where hours are spent preparing food for a maximum number of ten diners each night. It is easy to miss, as the name “TAKAZAWA” is only printed on the glassdoor in a rather camouflaging shade of grey. Takazawa started out as “Aronia de Takazawa” in 2005 and with only two tables, I had never been able to plan ahead in time to reserve a table for any of my spontaneous Tokyo visits. I have literally struggled to fit this restaurant into my schedule for YEARS and this summer I finally managed to go! Thanks to the one additional table they decided to accommodate per night after hiring an assistant.

ok here we go

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Upon entering the glassdoor I was greeted by these steps with the first and last lines of Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” inscribed on the rail.

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I was sat at the two seater table directly facing the chef’s sleek, metallic stage-like kitchen.  Because I have read before that chef Takazawa himself is somewhat shy, I took this quick snap before he appeared, when his assistant was the only one standing there.
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The meal began with a mouthful of caviar served on an ice spoon. Or so I thought. Akiko, chef Takazawa’s wife and our hostess for the night, explained that the “caviar” was actuallly made with tomatoes. I spent a while staring at it until the spoon melted a bit in a sudden crackle. I quickly shoved the spoonful into my mouth after this photograph was taken. Just in time! A very refreshing mouthful of tiny tomato balls bursting in my mouth. IMG_2479

Had hitachino beer to go with this just because it’s cute 😛 IMG_2478

For the second amuse-bouche we had chef Takazawa’s playful rendition of the standard appetizer combo: parma ham and melon – in jelly form!

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The third and last amuse-bouche was matsutake mushroom tempura. This was SO much better than the tempura I had at the “legendary” Mikawa Zezankyo (see my last post). It was not oily at all and the matsutake itself was aromatic and sapid.IMG_2484

Then we were finally presented with our first course – Takazawa’s signature “ratatouille”. Akiko instructed us to devour all of this in one big mouthful. WOWOWOW THIS WAS AMAZING, and possibly the most colourful bite of food I have ever had in my life. Approximately 15 different kinds of vegetables were cut into small cubes and tidily combined to form this brilliant piece; each chew resulted in a different crunch and it was very interesting indeed.

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Then we were served a thick, square piece of homemade corn toast accompanied by a mini jar of okinawa agu pork rillette. The toast was grilled to perfection, redolent of the sweet, fragrant corn. Combined with the delicious pork rillette, calling this one of the best pieces of toast I have EVER had would not be an overstatement. At this point I was very very very happy.

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Course three was a vegetable parfait. This was a refreshing tomato gazpacho topped with a lovely layer of mozzarella mousse, basil sauce, caviar, a fried basil leaf and some delicately cut pepper cubes for crunch. Hmm. SO GOOD! Although the combination of primary flavours in this dish were, as you can see, common fare in Italian cuisine, what I found most remarkable was the perfect balance of texture and taste that chef Takazawa managed to strike with these standard ingredients.

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Next we were presented with this beautiful platter of uni, kuruma-ebi, ikura and a baby crab, arranged on a blue board with shells scattered around in an image of the sea.

IMG_2515I was all ready to dive in when Akiko came over to place another gigantic plate, also reminiscent of the sea, right at the centre of our table. This plate consisted of baby squid, sazae, bafun uni, abalone, seaweed and jelly.

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The presentation of this entire course was simply gorgeous! I felt like I was literally a sea monster eating all sorts of delectable organisms from below ground level. IMG_2506

Then this showed up at our table. At any other average restaurant we would have thought that dessert has come too early by mistake – this looks like it cannot be anything but  Tiramisu.  But since we were at Takazawa, where almost no mistakes are ever made by the meticulous master chef & wife, we knew that we were in for a surprise…IMG_2521And we were RIGHT! This was corn mousse with crab meat topped with a cocoa & liquorice powder. I normally detest liquorice of all sorts but the liquorice here played only a minor role, of adding a bit of depth to the powder which was mostly cocoa. The corn mousse had a full-bodied sweetness which went very well with the meaty layer of fresh crab.

IMG_2524After that we were served this course entitled “Mount Fuji” made of a variety of  “rare” vegetables. Possibly the most well-executed vegetarian dish I have ever come across – not only was every bite delicious, the contents were very interesting. And this was  NOT because chef Takazawa presented the dish with a ceremonious pouring of water into the mountain of dry ice. The vegetables were actually incredible.IMG_25292IMG_2530

Each vegetable was specially prepared; matched with different sauces, garnishings, or marinated. I was also introduced to the “oyster leaf” (the small leaf at the front of the plate) which tasted exactly like kaki furai (fried oyster) with a dab of tartar sauce!

IMG_2531And then we had the “Candleholder”. At first glance I thought I could just dig into that gleaming brown circle but turns out it was just the design of the lid. 
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And it was foie gras creme brulee inside the LID ! With mango puree in the tin candle base to go with. The gamey flavour of foie gras struck perfect balance with the mango’s fruity freshness and the crunchy caramelized layer of the brulee added a nice touch to the whole affair.

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And it was all so SO good spread on the biscotti that came with it.IMG_25482

And then this was “Breakfast at Takazawa”. Compared with the other dishes, the combination of flavours present here had less of a “wow” factor but was nonetheless delicious. The idea behind this dish was to emulate a typical egg & cereal breakfast, fancified 100 times with summer truffles & cereal pieces that are in fact small potato chips.

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IMG_2556Next up – the Mexican Lobster. The story behind this dish was simply that chef Takazawa went to Mexico, got inspired and decided to add poached lobster in Mexican flavours to his menu :p  The lobster meat was cooked exceptionally well – sweet and tender, and although I am not a fan of coriander it was not overpowering the lobster’s brininess. The salsa, being sourish with fresh tomatoes, successfully spawned some extra appetite, which I really needed after consuming about 10 dishes.

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Our last savoury course was a meaty dish called “Paddyfields” – basically charcoal roast duck (sprinkled with summer truffles) with mashed potatoes shaped to look like a paddy field. Although I normally avoid eating animal skin, this smelled too good and looked too crispy to resist. And boyyy am I glad I broke my own rule – the skin did not feel fatty at all – just a layer of crispy goodness on top of a block of extremely succulent, flavourful duck meat. I was so full at this point … but this put me in heaven, I was dying happy.

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What pulled me back on earth to prepare me for dessert was this palate-cleanser – the “melon soda”. These ingenius pieces of melon were infused with fizzy soda so that as you bite into the melon, the fizziness bursts in your mouth.

 IMG_2570Although the melon soda did work an appetite up for me again, I was praying that dessert would not be something too heavy. After 3 amuse-bouches and 10 courses I certainly was  not in the mood for creamy chocolate or caramel pastry. Luckily, chef Takazawa was probably aware of this and Akiko came out with the perfect “Wine-tasting” dessert! Akiko instructed that we should start with the row of white wine jelly from left to right, and then do the same with the row of red wine jelly. Each piece of jelly was infused with one particular ingredient – this was exciting as we tasted our way through each jelly, from particulalry sweet ones like the peachy white wine to more intriguing ones such as the coffee infused red wine.  The jelly blocks were also presented beautifully like little gems on a shiny silver plate.

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Akiko also kindly gave me a copy of all the flavours laid out, just for reference, Indeed this was one fascinating session of winetasting. I actually would love to try all the pieces of jelly in liquid wine form.

IMG_2584Finally the night ended with a plate of petit-fours, consisting of cat-shaped miso cookies, caramel sweets, crunchy white chocolates, bone shaped calpis gummies and little cakes. IMG_2586

What can I say… I’ve already booked myself a dinner again for when I’m in Tokyo this December 😀

TAKAZAWA

Website:  http://www.takazawa-y.co.jp

Address :

3-5-2 Akasaka, Sanyo Akasaka Building 2F Minato, Tokyo Prefecture, Japan

〒107-0052
東京都港区赤坂3-5-2 サンヨー赤坂ビル裏側2F

Telephone: +81 3-3505-5052

Mikawa Zezankyo みかわ是山居

Having read raving reviews about this one Michelin star tempura restaurant, I trekked my way to Monzen-Nakacho for lunch , hoping for some wonderfully fresh seafood prepared by the “legendary” tempura master Tetsuya Saotome. Word has it that chef Saotome serves tempura in the “Edomae” style – meaning that all parts of the meal are made with ingredients that were used in the Edo period. Now what does this mean? Edomae literally translates to “in front of Edo”, “Edo” being the name of Tokyo back in the day when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate from 1603 until1868. Thus, most of the ingredients used are ones that were obtainable back then in what is now known as Tokyo Bay.

The restaurant is hidden in a small street in a residential area. Unless you are driving with GPS you may need to spend some extra time looking for the place.

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 I was happy when I got there –  It was almost 40 degrees that day and I did not want to spend an extra second outdoors :p Upon entering the restaurant I thought to myself – YAY!! Gonna have some yummy tempura. FYI, the original Mikawa tempura store was in Kayabacho where chef Saotome had worked for over 30 years. (There is also a branch in Roppongi, but only Saotome’s apprentices work there). Yes I gathered this information before coming to this restaurant, and knowing of chef Saotome’s veteran experience I was anticipating a lunch worth his name. IMG_2314

Before getting seated, the table is already laid out, with the daikon oroshi and a green tempura dipping sauce (natsutsuyu) exclusively made for the summer months. The sauce is slightly spicy, slightly bitter and slightly sour. I opted for the 15000 yen Omakase tempura course and a beer. IMG_2312IMG_2313The first thing that came was two pieces of Ebi (shrimp), served one after the other. Expecting very good, grease-free, crunchy tempura, I was quite disappointed at my first bite of ebi!  It wasn’t oily in general tempura standards but for a restaurant with this name, it was slightly underwhelming. I wondered if it was because the weather was too hot and that I felt greasy myself anyway. So I downed some beer and decided to savour the second piece better. Sadly, I felt like I was just eating more grease. >_< grrr Japanese summers!

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As expected, the heads of the Ebi came after the Ebi. How did I feel? Ah…. more oil.
IMG_2319Then came the Kisu (Whiting). I normally like my tempura with only a dab of salt but because after the ebi and ebi heads I already felt too greasy, I dipped this entire piece into the natsutsuyu, hoping that the acidity would take some of the oily heaviness away. At the same time I was served the Suimono – a clear dashi soup containing one shrimp dumpling. The taste of this was so “standard” I cannot think of any particular words to describe it. It was not fragrant, nor was it peculiar in any way….. I’d like to blame the 40 degrees celsius outside again….

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Next came the Ika (squid). This … was kind of tasteless. I started feeling like either all the people who raved about this place were secretly the chef’s friends/paid/never had better tempura/love tempura no matter what or that this was simply a very bad day for Saotome. IMG_2327 Oh by the way here is a poorly taken photo of Chef Saotome.IMG_2329 Next came the ginger and the Uni (sea urchin). These were not bad, but I’ve definitely had better Uni tempura than this for around the same price/cheaper 😦 IMG_2331 IMG_2334

Then came the Ayu (sweetfish). The head was a little bitter but I’d say this was one of the better dishes, mainly because I do not remember what was bad about it.IMG_2340 Then I was served the Meguchi. At this point, eating felt a bit like a chore. It wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t able to notice anything good about it. IMG_2344 The Anago (sea eel) was probably my favourite course of all. It was crunchy and fresh, though unfortunately by this time I was getting very full and was not able to enjoy this piece to the fullest.  IMG_2350 IMG_2351

Had some veggies too – Sweet potato, Aubergines and Asparagus. The sweet potato was nice, but it isn’t too hard to find decent sweet potato tempura. The aubergine was not worth mentioning. Most disappointingly, the asparagus was too fibre-y – not the sweet juicy asparagus I expected from a top-notch tempura-ya! IMG_2356 IMG_2358Towards the end of the meal I was given a choice of either a kaibashira kakiage (scallop kakiage) on rice with miso soup or the same thing in an ochazuke (tea-based soup rice). My mom and I went for one of each. I was getting tired at this point and just wanted to finish the meal.

IMG_2362 IMG_2365A few pieces of sweet beans came as dessert at the end of this uneventful meal.

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So… in conclusion… would I do this again? … No.

Just to be fair I would give elderly Chef Saotome the benefit of doubt – perhaps this was just a very unfortunate, bad day. All of us have bad days. But given the fact that there are plenty of other top-notch tempura-yas in the city, I shall not risk having yet another mind-numbing meal instead of trying out a new place.

Website: http://mikawa-zezankyo.jimdo.com

Address:

〒135-0032 1-3-1 Fukuzumi, Koto-ku, Tokyo

〒135-0032
東京都江東区福住1丁目3−1

Tokujo-Tendon @ Shirou (しろう)

Today I would like to dedicate a post to my favourite ten-don in the world – the “Tokujo Ten-don” from Shirou, a restaurant located in one of the smaller side streets perpendicular to Omotesando. I was never a big fan of tempura on rice until I tried the “Tokusei Kakiage Don” at Tempura Yamanoue in Tokyo Midtown when it  first opened in 2007. (For those who are unfamiliar, Kakiage is  a form of tempura which, instead of being deep fried as whole shrimps or whole pieces of vegetables, are cut into pieces and made into little round fritters). Greatly impressed, I was gutted when I found out that the particular item was only available for the first week of the restaurant’s grand opening, and the ten-don in their usual menu was nowhere near as delicious as their mind-blowing Tokusei Kakiage which contained an overindulgent amount of small but intensely sweet scallops.

It took me a while to realize that the best substitute was actually available in my own neighbourhood! Because Shirou is not actually a tempura specialist (they do standard Japanese dishes like oyakodon, soba and gindara saikyoyaki for lunch and Kaiseki for dinner), I was pleasantly surprised at how well they managed to batter each piece of tempura in my Ten-don. At 2800 yen, I believe this is a STEAL given that the chef visits Tsukiji market every morning to pick the best produce for all the dishes they make each day. Anyway, enough writing – check the photos out!

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On top of the usual ohitashi (chilled spinach) and tsukemono (pickled veggies), the shrimp’s legs are also served in a cute little plate on the side.

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The rice also comes with a flavourful miso-soup with an abundance of nameko mushrooms.

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Those who are not hungry may also take the option of the simpler “Ten-don” which tastes just as good, only with fewer ingredients! 
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I would also recommend the Gindara Saikyoyaki here. However, do note that these dishes are only available at lunch time so you better come in the day! 🙂

Website: http://www.shiro-tokyo.jp

Address: 〒150-0001 東京都渋谷区神宮前3-5-1

3-5-1, Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo Prefecture 150-0001, Japan