Sunday, 20 January 2013

Japan in the Fall

A review of some choice places I visited in November, 2012: Jiro and Ishigaki in Tokyo and Chihana and Giro Giro in Kyoto

The drama around Jiro

In May, I saw a wonderful documentary called, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi". I was inspired by the oldest, most famous, and Michelin 3-starred chef and said to myself that I would hightail it to Japan asap so that I could partake of his sushi masterpieces.

Jiro visits special merchants for his fish and these men were introduced in the film. And there is one rice trader (also interviewed) who sells only to Jiro. At every step of the way, care is taken to provide the freshest and highest quality ingredients for Jiro's sushi.

I contacted my friend, Kyoko in Tokyo. She is an intense foodie like myself and I put her in charge of my restaurant reservations. She got back to me and told me that I had to reserve one month to the day in advance and to please mark it on my calendar and remind her to call.

The fateful reservation day came and, as planned, I contacted Kyoko. She came back to me with bad news: it had been necessary to call the first of the month prior to the month of the day required (e.g. October 1 for every date in November), so of course, they were fully booked. In a way, the goal of my whole trip to Japan at that particular time was to be able to dine at Jiro's. He is in his late 80s and it was likely I would not get another chance to go.

Well, c'est la vie. I would have a wonderful trip anyhow. Kyoko told me that if it were she, she would be very disappointed. Of course, I was disappointed but already knew that Kyoko felt bad so I just left it at that.

The next morning I got an email from Kyoko: GOOD NEWS!!!!!!!!! She called the restaurant again and practically cried and begged and they complied with a reservation. The catch was that (since they don't trust foreigners to show up), I would have to leave a 10,000 yen ($100) deposit three days prior to the day of my meal.

When I arrived in Tokyo, I went right to the restaurant with my money. As always when I wander around Tokyo, I got lost but a street cleaner knew all about Jiro and where the restaurant was, and she directed me.

I paid and then asked if I could take a photo? Not of the restaurant or of the sushi-making process but of my personal sushis only. And then they offered to take a photo with me and Jiro! What a great honor, I thought. I was thrilled.

Here are some things to know about the experience. The meal lasts about 20-30 minutes only and it is straight sushi that Jiro prepares behind the counter. It costs 30,000 yen in cash and that's that. And Jiro prefers that you don't drink alcohol so that you can really taste the flavors of the sushis.

And so the fateful day came. I was nervous that I would not get there on time, as par for the course, I got lost again!! But I did arrive and was surprised to see that only one other man and I were the customers for that lunch!! So what was the big deal about being fully booked? Maybe they don't like to serve foreigners. But where were all the Japanese people?

And then the meal progressed. Jiro made all my sushis, which is a great honor. He seasoned each piece of fish with soy sauce and wasabi so there is no need to dip. The sushis were simple, fresh and that's that. Nothing more. Frankly, as usual, I didn't understand the hype but they do run quite a racket!! In spending that amount of money, one expects something more. I was lucky in that they invited me to sit at a table and have some honeydew melon at the end!

Ishikawa in Tokyo: Truly a gastronomic experience!

I asked Kyoko to make another reservation for me in a good place and she came back with her favorite Japanese restaurant in Tokyo: Ishikawa. This restaurant also has 3 Michelin stars.

Now that was a memorable meal. The charming wife of the chef welcomed me into the restaurant and seated me at the counter where I met her friendly and creative husband, Ishikawa-san. From start to finish, the food was delicious, delicate, beautifully prepared and well-orchestrated with seasonal ingredients for the diner's pleasure. They also printed up a personal menu for me in English.

I had a wonderful soup of Horsehead snapper with somen noodles:

A lightly deep fried tofu dish served in a light soup of Soft-shell Turtle:

and, further on in the menu, a hot pot of grouper, turnip and leeks with white ponzu-yuzu sauce.

A specialty was the delicious Japanese Duck with Seasonal Mushrooms. When they presented it to me, I was so pleased and it looked so wonderful that I forgot to take a photo!

Rice came from Niigata prefecture, from where the chef hails. (It is always sad to get the rice dish as it indicates that the meal (except for dessert) has come to a close. However, this rice dish with freshly made pickles was nothing to be sad about as it too was creatively prepared and beautiful.

Dessert was a light chestnut cream, green tea jelly and sweet red bean in coconut milk--a perfect close to this stellar meal.

Not only was the meal delicious and delightful, but also the husband and wife team and the servers were very kind and helpful. When it was time for me to leave, they came outside to send me off and when I got to the bottom of the street, I turned around. Yes they were there, ready to wave goodbye for this time. I will certainly go back to this beautiful excellent restaurant!

Chihana--Three stars in Kyoto

Chihana is a very famous and old established restaurant that has had three Michelin stars for many years. I tried to go two years ago during cherry blossom season but didn't reserve far enough in advance. This time, going back for the momiji season (stunning red maples), I asked my friend Tomoko-san to reserve a luncheon for me.

The meal was very impressive but very expensive. The first dish was very attractive and quite delicious: Ebi in a gel, pear, pear purée, diced zucchini. The sweet pear puree had a bite to it which added to the complexity of the dish.

Highlights came in a beautiful lacquered dish.

The bowl contained a flavorful broth with scallop, fishcake, shizo leaf, and seasonal mushrooms.

There was also a very complex pork dish with namafu, that reminded me of tofu, sake, sugar snap peas and scallions.

Dessert recalled what a French hostess used to signal her guests with when it was time for them to leave: a glass of orange juice!! I thought this was very strange coming from a kitchen known for its creativity. I could get orange juice in the cafe down the street!!

There were many other wonderful restaurants that I tried during my three week trip. Many had three stars and as a result, are worth a detour. I will write about them in a later post.

Giro Giro: famous to Parisians

Most people interested in Japanese food have been to Giro Giro in Montmartre, Paris. The food is wonderful: creative and diverse. But the uncomfortable setting really puts a damper on the experience. There is just one table for VIPS and the others of us sit at a high counter on hard stools. Giro Giro was born in Kyoto. The dinner is not expensive and the restaurant is very popular. I decided just a few days prior to the desired evening to try to get a reservation and I was lucky.

The Japanese know how to work with people at the counter and the chairs have comfortable backs. Giro Giro is nothing but fun. There is a long, set menu and everyone gets a chance to see all the action behind the counter in the kitchen. You watch as people who arrived before after you have the dishes that you will get in time. The ambiance is upbeat, energetic and youthful and the chefs are too.

The first dish was served in a lovely hand-painted porcelain duck: squid, quail egg, and a sesame oil dressing.

Next came a box of appetizers such as tofu mixed with vegetables, mochi--a gluey rice concoction often found in desserts, spicy seaweed, salmon and spinach, yuba and wasabi in a soy flavored consomme. Yuba is a silky tofu skin.

Crab Flake soup--a thick soup--with tofu, shiitake mushrooms and pea pods followed.

Next came a dish of exotic sushi with bass, apricot, mango, shizo leaf, and a carrot beautifully shaped in the form of an autumn leaf.

There was a beautiful and flavorful beef dish garnished with a variety of interesting vegetables; a lovely dish of root vegetables including my favorite: lotus root; grilled white fish. And then the rice and pickles course. Next followed an excellent miso soup with mochi.

Dessert consisted of a variety of custards with other sweet cakes as garnish.

Unlike a lot of the starred restaurants, Giro (which is not even in the Guide Michelin) is known to all the taxi drivers. It is an amazing fact that this dinner without beverages was in the $30-$40 range. That is why it is packed everyday and full of fun loving gastronomes.