Archive for the ‘Best restaurants in Tokyo’ Category

PG01Event : Lunch at Pierre Gagnaire, Paris
When: Wednesday  November 11th 2015, 12:00
Michelin stars: 3
Addr: 6,rue Balzac, 75008 Paris
URL: http://www.pierre-gagnaire.com/
Phone:  +33 1 58 36 12 50
Type of cuisine: French (classically  French at its core, mostly contemporary in its presentation, at times cosmopolitan  in its work of the flavors, using many  exotical ingredients , though, as it is generally  the case with most 3 star Michelin restaurants in Paris, the kitchen at PG puts the finest produce  from France in the forefront of their cooking).

 

What you need to know is that PG kitchen brigade’s is one of world class quality. There were certainly many exceptional dishes as you’ll see in the account below. Indeed, a top tier French 3 star Michelin anywhere across the globe.

Rating: Exceptional (10), Excellent (9), Very good (8), Good (7)
Overall food rating: 9.5/10 Creative French cooking of the highest level.  Perhaps the cooking of ex Chefs like Jacques Maximin/Olivier Roellinger, or (more recently) Bernard Pacaud / Alain Passard do fit a bit more with what I’d feel comfortable to rate with a 10/10 at this level of French cuisine as I think that Roellinger, Maximin, Pacaud or Passard would have delivered far more exciting versions of the brunoise of vegetables as well as the cucumber soup —– , and although the “ghocchi” and “Cèpes confits, noix, blette paquet” were excellent at what the kitchen was trying to convey (see their respective reviews below), my gut feeling is that the aforementioned Chefs would have replaced them by food items of assertive flavors pertaining to traditional French cuisine – especially Pacaud and Maximin – which, for my taste, is the only way that this meal at PG could have been bettered  .
Regardless,  that is just a personal impression. What you need to know is that PG kitchen brigade’s is one of world class quality. There were certainly many exceptional dishes as you’ll see in the account below.

Service: 10/10
Overall Dining experience: 9/10 Excellent

I am seizing the opportunity of a short trip to  Paris to eat at a 3 star Michelin table that I haven’t tried for over a decade, Pierre Gagnaire.

 

There is a considerable number of  food items served at Pierre Gagnaire. For example, my   starter (untitled  AUTOMNE) will come in   a series of  starters. The same applies to the   main course and  dessert.

I did opt for the A La Carte menu).

PG02The meal started  with two series  of   nibbles (calamari of superb quality marinated in soya, a brunoise of vegetables in a cold soup of cucumber, the brunoise as well as the cold soup were Ok…but I was disappointed that a kitchen brigade of this quality could not deliver a better version of that amuse bouche –  , some cuttlefish ink’s gelée  of spectacular maritime fragrance and a texture designed by the Greek goddess of beauty, Aphrodite, because it was so  pretty to espy,  a superlative lemon paste, an excellent bisque of crab, and many more items – all of great standard at the exception of the brunoise of vegetables in a cold soup of cucumber).  The lemon paste, in particular, had a dazzling taste  which exciting mouthfeel   is hard to imagine even at this dining level.  All in all, 8/10 for the nibbles. Serious  stuff.

My starter was:

AUTOMNE
IMG_3174Cocotte d’aromatiques dans laquelle on fume quelques instants un gros gnocchi au Laguiole – velouté Vert d’automne, graines et pousses de moutarde – Gnocchi on a bed of vegetables. the gnocchi  having the texture of tofu…but in this case, that is not a bad thing at all. Rather a beautiful touch of creativity. I suspect that it is with items like this that some may perceive such meal as uneven (made of ups and downs) since this is certainly not an item designed to wow, but then that would be a complete misunderstanding of what should be expected here: this is a perfectly well conceived  twist on a  piece of gnocchi served with some steamed  vegetables underneath and it was not of the boring kind (both the vegetables and the special sort of gnocchi had vibrant textures and tasted of what they should).  8/10
PG - NOIX DE RIS DE VEAUNoix de ris de veau laquée d’un suc de carotte à l’argouse, pulpe de reine-claude au tamarin – Caramelized sweetbreads that were a  world away from their  tired looking versions, the meaty consistency successful (just the right moist consistency, not mushy) , the overall taken to an even higher level of amazement due to the addition of the tamarind. A dish that could turn into a flop  in the hands of many  kitchen brigades (from the perspective of someone who has cooked with exotical ingredients while understanding the fundamentals of French cuisine, this  is actually a combination that is logical  , but it is also very easy to misjudge the proper quantity of tamarind needed to make such combination exciting)  even at this level, but here it was a demonstration of what a benchmark example of  tamarind mixed with  sweetbreads can look, smell  and taste like. An excellent way of updating a French classic dish. 10/10
PG-Terrine d’anguille au pavot bleu, céleris branches.Terrine d’anguille au pavot bleu, céleri. Gelée de pain de seigle – Quality eel was succesfully paired with celery and a jelly of rye bread. One  of those items which intent is not to dazzle. The intent behind this dish is  to combine  ingredients that most people would not think successful  as a whole  (eel, celeri, rye bread). I have no problem with this   philosophy but in the hands of the majority of cooks it is either a recipe for disaster or an annoying assembly of  ingredients.  Here, you taste that dish and realize that what you just had is a set of matching elements that simply work  really well against all odds.

Infusion de navet daïkon au vin jaune du Jura, écrevisses pattes rougesInfusion de navet daïkon au vin jaune du Jura, écrevisses pattes rouges, oxalis et feuilles de capucine – Crawfish(boiled), daikon radish, white wine, oxalis, nasturtium leaves.  Dazzling contrast  of flavors (sweet/sour/salty) that is technically hard to get this right even at this level. 10/10

PG2 - cèpes confits, noix, blette paquetCèpes confits, noix, blette paquet – I have oftently read that PG takes risks that do sometimes not pay off. This is one of those dishes that could easily be perceived as unsuccessful. Well, as mentioned elsewhere, I do not agree with the suggestion that PG’s cooking is sometimes off. It may not be to one’s taste, but it is certainly not what I would categorize as occasionally faulty. Take this dish: its effect is basically similar to what you’ll get with a juxtaposition of a layer of custard, mushrooms and nuts. All of great quality, for sure, but potentially boring too…??  Now, what about this being a take on the Japanese  Chawanmushi? Not that boring anymore,hein? lol. There are different versions of the Chawanmushi and this one was extremely subtle flavor-wise (some people may even find it bland, but is is not bland…just full of  very  subtle umami flavors) – a take on a perfectly legit  example of the the Chawanmushi.

The main course I chose was AGNEAU (the lamb):

PG- LambCarré d’agneau de l’Aveyron frotté d’origan – the lamb from Aveyron is known for its quality, and this Carré d’agneau did justice to its reputation. Excellent on all fronts: taste, texture, seasoning. A flawless Carré d’agneau. 9/10

Papillons Noirs, datte medjoul, kinjisoPapillons Noirs, datte medjoul, kinjiso – pasta made of black pudding was shaped as butterflies and was served with a mixture similar to chilli paste but without the distracting piquancy. Date palm was added to the dish. This, for my taste,  was sensational (complex middle eastern flavors,  the date palm  blending excitingly well with the  aforementioned chilli paste-alike mixture). It takes a Chef with an incredible palate to create  dishes of this sort.   10/10

Selle en crépine, carpaccio de betterave rouge, betterave blanche au Roquefort.Selle en crépine, carpaccio de betterave rouge, betterave blanche au Roquefort. – The exceptional  lamb from Aveyron made a second appearance. It was paired with a carpaccio of  superlative beets. 10/10

crumble Vert, ails roses sablés, chorizo, cébetteCrumble vert, ails roses sablés, chorizo, cébette – sauteed cabbage, garlic, chorizo was a classic dish but not of  the tired sort,- extremely flavorful. Another exciting dish. 9/10

Soufflé à la vanille de Tahiti, crème glacée Soufflé à la vanille de Tahiti, crème glacée – Finished my meal with a benchmark vanilla soufflé which depth of flavor can only come from eggs and milk of exceptional quality. 10/10

BISCUIT SOUFFLE - CRUS DE CHOCOLATI was less impressed with the Soufflé of chocolate –  , which although generously portioned  and tasting of top quality chocolate was not as exciting as other Soufflé of chocolate I had at lesser restaurants. 7/10

The mignardises at Pierre Gagnaire were also of great standard.

PROS:  They master the fundamentals of French cooking  in a way that few can pretend to, even by the finest 3 star Michelin French cooking standards. Exciting flavors when they cook or reinterpret French classics (Soufflé à la vanille, Crumble Vert/ails roses sablés/chorizo/cébette, Selle en crépine/carpaccio de betterave rouge/betterave blanche au Roquefort). Then, at times, it is possible that you’ll travel to places where  the flavors are   subtle  (the case of Japan, during this meal), but that does not mean the cooking is off. The journey around the globe took me to the Middle East, too and it was a stopover not to forget (Papillons Noirs, datte medjoul, kinjiso).

CONS: The brunoise of vegetables / soup of cucumber was ordinary –the quality of the  produce was great, for sure, but a brunoise of vegetables should dazzle at this level, a cold soup of cucumber too — and that surprised me given the overall fabulous journey.

PG03Bottom line: The kitchen here is helmed by Chef Michel Nave, a 2004 MOF. As most MOFs from the 1990s/2000s, Chef Nave cooking is deeply rooted in Classic French cuisine (meaning the flavors are generally intense/rich, the meal marked by the expected consommé/veloutés/mousseline/meringue/marmelade), with, of course, its own twists (twists that obviously make their French food look and feel contemporary) . Here at PG, the creativity they are talking about covers non conventional ingredient combination (by French cooking standards, although, in France, nowadays, this  is is not as unusual as it used to be ), executed with a very high level of technique, top notch ingredients and an exceptional sense of  combining unlikely textures/flavors/ingredients  (many kitchen brigades do try to  blend  unlikely textures/flavors…but they are generally just basically assembling ingredients with little interraction between each other).

What I think days later: A true world class food destination with superb French gourmet food  to match. As with plenty of high end French restaurants, nowadays, PG also explores non French flavors, so ensure you are familiar and do appreciate such flavors too.

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Tofuro  is a chain of restaurant serving all sorts of food (soba, sushis, grilled chicken, misc Japanese bistrot food). I went to the one situated in Ginza .

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I picked a bowl of hot Soba which featured perfectly thin delicate noodles. I usually prefer thick soba noodles, but this was soba of flawless technique, the noodle impossibly refined, the broth having balanced seasoning.  I won’t hide the fact that this was a bit too gourmet for my taste as I am fonder of the mom and pop type of soba noodles that abound in Tokyo, but that should not detract from the observation that Tofuro’s soba was superb. 9/10

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The yakitori (grilled chicken) was another showcase of the high level of cooking technique found under this roof, with meat of fine quality and flavors that can only come from an inspired kitchen of talented cooks. Miles away from the poorly executed , oftently dry and tasteless, grilled chicken that can be found at plenty of bistrots. Superb yakitori offerings with not one single flaw to be noticed. 8/10

The service was also of really high standard.

Pros: It is rare to find a ‘jack of all trades’ (they do not specialize in one type of food) that does virtually execute pretty much everything flawlessly. I am not implying that Tofuro is exceptional. What  I can tell you,though, is that few restaurants can do as much …this well.

Cons: perhaps  such  refinement will not be the cup of tea of someone looking for rusticity

My verdict: 8/10 (Category: mid-level all-rounder isakaya/soba/yakitori in Tokyo) By reading reviews of local foodies, I realized that they tend to not like their chain restaurants that much, a recurrent trend  a bit  everywhere around the globe. But I could not care about feelings and perceptions. Chains or not, what matters to me is the food and how great it fared to me. Tofuro’s display was one of superb and consistent high level of technique. A place like this could easily remain in the top5 of Montreal’s finest restaurants for years and yet our top 5 is nowhere close in terms of consistency ( I ate 3 times, at Tofuro,within 1 week. Tried lunch and dinner and the  technique was great and  flawless on each instance).

What I think weeks later: Obviously, it would be irrational to expect a ‘jack of all trades’ to showcase the sort of homey/artisan feel that’s more appropriately the affair of a ‘specialist’ (sushiya, dedicated soba place, ramen ya, etc), but finding an all-rounder that does execute pretty much everything flawlessly, and oh, btw…at such low cost, with actually …quality produce, everything homemade, with such level of consistency, well …that is no ordinary achievement by any restaurant standards.

Sushi Sawada –
Type of restaurant: Sushi shop
Date and time of the meal: 20-11-2014 12:00
Address:  MC Building 3F, 5-9-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku  Phone: 03-3571-4711
Tabelog: 4.28/5
Michelin stars: 2
URL: http://tabelog.com/tokyo/A1301/A130101/13001043/

NO PHOTO RESTRICTION

Picture taking is forbidden to normal diners as/per the house , therefore  no pictures were taken. No note-taking neither as I did not know whether that would offend the house’s staff, so I made a mental note of my appreciation of some of the sushi pieces which assessment was determinant in my overall rating of this meal.

***Here are the elements that my overall rating will take into account: (1)How great the quality of the chosen rice stood against what the other sushi shops of this trip have offered  (2)How harmonious or spectacularly bold the work of the seasoning of the rice is achieved while remaining complementary of its topping (3)How delicious and how perfected (temperature/precision of the knife skills/work of the textures) were the sushis compared to the other sushis of this trip (4)How far the sourcing was pushed and how far it revealed a profound understanding of the subtleties of the produce (it is one thing to have top ingredients, it is a different story to pick that precise ingredient from that specific region which on a given point in time will allow your craft to express itself at its best).


Chef Sawada Koji‘ has long established his credentials as one of Tokyo elite Sushi Chefs, his  Sushi shop  is   a top  rated  restaurant  on Tabelog, Japan’s most important online community for local foodies.  Restaurant Magazine’s web site adding, and I’ll quote: ”’those in the know rank Sawada alongside better-known three-starred joints such as Mizutani and Sukiyabashi Jiro”.  I went there to enjoy the place and despite my generally less than enthusiastic report about the food, I could see why Sawada is highly regarded (It is, at this moment,  one of the  toughest restaurant reservations, as hard as Sukiyabaki Jiro Honten as/per  my hotel concierge — the concierge was ultimately not capable to book me a seat at  Jiro, but Sawada was indeed a really tough reservation ) :  it offers a relaxing journey that most of the other  elite Sushi shops failed to  deliver during this trip, the produce was generally of exceptional mention even by the high standards of its competition.  For those reasons, and only for those,  this dinner was my  preferred  ‘sushi experience’ in Tokyo. Had the food impressed me as much,  this would have been life shattering. This meal at Sawada was one of the last meals of  this trip,  therefore easier to compare to the earlier performances at the other sushi places.

FOOD REPORT:  Quick rundown of some of the many items that were offered (I did not take note of each of them, there were too many and I was  more busy enjoying my food rather than stopping all the time to reflect on them):

The highlights of this long meal (there were far more items than at the other Elite sushi shops) have been the sea urchin, which quality was easily the best of this trip (I have long familiarized myself with all sorts of sea urchin sourced from all corners of this globe and shall observe that those from Hokkaido –which Sawada San did serve of this evening — do rank among the most spectacular examples of sea urchin you’ll get to enjoy at a Sushi shop): Bafun sea urchin (less sweet than some of the finest sea urchin of California, but rich in taste, its vivid orange color so easy on the eyes, the taste divine), Murakasi (This sea urchin of mustard yellow color is one of my preferred sea urchin, its sweet taste so fresh in mouth). 10/10

Another highlight was the trio of tuna, in part because Sawada-san thought about the right way to stand out from his direct competitors: the tuna had more concentrated flavor as he has better aged his tuna. A beautiful touch was that   he did slightly grill his fattiest piece of tuna, where most of  the other elite sushiyas of this trip would offer it raw, allowing for the expected spectacular mouthfeel that rarely fails to come from grilled fat. 10/10

Ark shell clam (Akagai ) was  beautifully sourced (Sawada-san had, in general, the best produce of this trip with some items truly exceptional), elegantly  butterflied in typical upscale Sushi shop fashion. It is in the work of items like the Ark shell clam that you can really appreciate the vast difference between the finer vs lesser Sushi shops of Tokyo as the former’s extra efforts (in refining the texture) is admirable. This was almost as skilfully crafted as at the other elite sushiya of this trip,Mizutani,  the only reason I am not rating it with the ultimate score has to do with the fact that the  salinity of the rice stood, for me, as clashing a bit with the clam     8/10

Salt water eel (anago) tasted great, timely simmered, and its  quality I found even better than at Mizutani  (I won’t stop repeating it: the sourcing, here, is, in general, second to none and we are talking about this globe’s finest Sushi shops, so imagine!! ), Sawada’s preparation putting more emphasis on the natural delicate sweetness of the specimen’s flesh, keeping it simple,  whereas most of the other Sushi shops did add a bit of flavor intensity (for eg, at the other Sushi shops, the Salt water eel would  taste more of the tsume sauce that generally accompanies anago sushi, but at Sawada it’s the taste of the eel that stood out). As I prefer my seafood as unaltered as possible, Sawada’s approach suited me fine. However, I found, again, the white vinegar/salt portion of the sushi rice overpowering in a way that its saline intensity distracted from fully appreciating the salt water eel in its full glory. This was certainly – on its own —a great piece of anago, but it is also a piece of nigiri, which means the interaction between the rice and its topping should have been judicious.  7/10

Cuttlefish – Piece after piece, I was floored by the quality of his produce. As if he has suppliers that even the other Sushi Masters of this trip are not aware of. The quality of the cuttlefish was stellar, this time Sawada-San letting the cuttlesfish expressing itself at its best, the texture soft, the flesh retaining a nice chew. One of the best cuttlesfish nigiris of this trip. 8/10 (could have been a 10/10 had the slicing being as impressive as, say, Mizutani...there was also  the vinegar taste of the rice that clashed a bit with the cuttlefish in a way that it made the cuttlefish/rice blending tasting a tad superficial for my taste, but I’ll forgive  that one…it was lovely, highly enjoyable regardless of the downsides ).

Gizzard shad – Talking about exacting sushi pieces, this is another great example of just that. Gizzard shad is a demanding piece as each step of its preparation, from the curing, its slicing, having to cope with its strong natural flavor, everything should be flawless. It’s a fish that can be as rewarding as it can cruelly let you down. The thing about Gizzard shad preparation is that most won’t notice how great it is when it is well done, but one single mistep and you realize how challenging it can be to work with this fish.  As with all the seafood served during this meal, the Gizzard shad at Sawada was of superb  quality, but the effect of its preparation felt unimpressive to me as it tasted just a tad better than any other average Gizzard shad I have sampled in Tokyo, and certainly less spectacular than the one I had at Mizutani (At mizutani, the vinegar  flavor was so fresh and spectacular that it lifted the taste of the fish to palatable triumph, here the Gizzard shad  did not taste  as exciting) + the slicing of such fish should be precise,  but instead, a big part of the edges was almost dented! I am not saying that it is always like that at Sawada, I would not know as it’s my sole visit here, but that was the case during this meal and there’s no excuse for that at such level. 5/10

Hamaguri clam – The consistency springy as it should as/per hamaguri classic sushi prep standards, but the nitsume sauce a tad cloying and less enjoyable than at the other Sushi shops of this trip. The texture not vivid as those I had at the other shops in Tokyo (obviously a consequence of the prep method he used, which is most likely the aging of the clam). Take hamaguri clam, which in its traditional sushi preparation needs to be boiled. Then smoke it a bit, then let it rest at room temp and you’ll get to the exact same feel of my Hamaguri clam. Again, did he smoke it? age it? I did not ask as I do not want to sound / appear impolite to my Sushi Chef. I have heard about the tendency  of an increasing number of Sushi Chefs to age their seafood, and they do age some of their seafood at Sawada too. Alas, for my taste,  seafood’s texture and flavor is generally —-save for some sparse relevant examples  such as tuna/bonito  —, better expressed raw, especially for sushi. A long time ago, they were aging food because they had no choice, nowadays we find the idea attractive because we basically just love trends. Aging beef is a trend, nowadays, but it has its known limits (is meat still  enjoyable upon, let us say, 80 days ++ of aging??For me as well as for many serious Master tasters, it is not)  which, fortunately, most steakhouses are aware of. Aging seafood is sadly a theme that’s applied in a nonsensical fashion at most Sushi shops (around 90% of the aged seafood I tried at Sushiyas, even here in Tokyo,  epitomized the problem of trends:  too much style, little substance. It is one thing to know what seafood to age, it is disrespectful to the hard work of the fishermen  when you age every single seafood they have proudly ‘snatched’ from the floor of the ocean for you to appreciate the mother of all food –the seafood–  in its full natural glory….. ) . 5/10

Abalone was timely steamed to ideal palatable consistency (tender enough, with a nice chew), but Mizutani did better (7/10), bonito tasted great and was timely smoked although its quality was similar to what I had at the other places and honestly, it’s hardly a challenging piece (7/10), quality mackerel but which marination and seasoning failed at lifting its powerful flavor to the heights of palatable enjoyment attained at the other sushiyas (another exacting item where the genius expected at such high level needs to make a difference – Mizutani-san nailed this, alas not Sawada-san who had  not just one chance, but twice, as I had a smoked as well as a raw version of this piece of fish), a 6/10 for the mackerel (I had mackerel tasting as great at lesser Sushi shops in both the marinated as well smoked versions),  salmon roe (better than at the  other places 8/10).

Prawn – properly boiled and avoiding the common error to overcook the prawn –yep, I easily caught couple of   sushiyas  making this mistake in Tokyo—, BUT not as precisely sliced as Mizutani. Regardless, the quality of the prawn was superior at Sawada.  9/10

Omelette’s based cake (Tamago) in its ‘ sponge cake’ version – The elite sushiyas of Tokyo had in common this feature that  the refinement of their   tamagos is   simply unmatched outside of Japan.  But even better, the 2nd tier sushiyas that I  did visit in Tokyo  barely approached the 1st tier when it comes to  perfecting the texture and taste of the tamago. Excellent  texture and consistency of the cake and I can see why, some ppl,  judge some Sushi Chefs  by the tamago (if you go all your way to perfect such an apparently simple cake, then there is nothing more to add about your obsessive sense of perfection, lol –  A 9/10 for that tamago, but I’d give it a 10/10 had I not been a tad more impressed by the delicious tamago of Mizutani an (to set the records straight, Mizutani’s  tasted better  but Sawada’s had finer  texture).

Pros:  Leisurely and incredibly intimate ambience +  the fabulous sourcing of the ingredients (yeah …even by the high standards of the elite Sushi shops of this trip)!

Cons: At this level, I expect the most ‘challenging’ pieces of seafood, those that rely heavily on the best curing preparation/marination/knife skills/seasoning to express themselves authoritatively. That is exactly what Mizutani-san did. That is not what I have experienced at Sawada.  Furthermore, the precision in slicing seafood items like mackerel, gizzard shad,  and cuttlesfish  is a matter of the uttermost importance at this level. 

So,
1)How great the quality of the chosen rice stood against what the other sushi shops of this trip have offered?  – Shari (sushi rice) comprised of a mix of white rice vinegar, as well as the usual salt and sugar. The problem is that the ratio of the salt was misjudged as the white rice vinegar mixed with the salt did, for my taste, impart  an ‘unatural’ kind of saline flavor to some of the seafood toppings, the anago nigiri being a perfect example of just that. This might sound nitpicking and most won’t play attention at such details, but restaurants of  this level, charging  those prices, do exist essentially for their patrons to be able to appreciate such subtleties (or else, just eat your sushi at any random entry level sushi shop).  Another quibble is that the rice was ‘one-dimensional’ in its construction (firm consistency throughout, on my visit), compared to what the other Elite Sushi shops have crafted, in the sense that the other Sushi shops did oftently offer an appealing (to the touch as well as on the palate) elaborate firm exterior/soft interior contrast that I did not experience during this meal at Sawada.  The sourcing  of the rice is uniformly exemplary at those great Sushi shops of Tokyo, Sawada’s is no exception, but I’ll stand by my observation about the seasoning of the rice and lack of complexity in the sushi rice (shari)’s construction.

(2)How harmonious or spectacularly bold the work of the seasoning of the rice is achieved while remaining complementary of its topping? See previous point #1
(3)How delicious and how perfected (temperature/precision of the knife skills/work of the textures) were the sushis compared to the other sushis of this trip?
Sawada-san can is certainly talented, or else he would not be considered as one of the best in Tokyo, and there are certainly plenty of other sushi shops in Tokyo that are doing worse . That said, Sawada-san is also considered as a world class  elite Sushi Master. Consequently, I’ll compare my appreciation of  his craft to those standards. And at such, solely on the back of this meal, I did not find his slicing skills to be as consistently precise/impressive as his peers, and I was left with the same impression about  his work of the textures (which were at times glorious, indeed,  but not always). On the bright side, he was consistent in maintaining  a perfect control of  the temperature of his food: during my meal there, he essentially went by the book, which means almost uniformly using body temp for the rice, room temp for the seafood topping. As for the taste, the overall was not as delicious as, say, the consistently mouth watering meal I just had at Mizutani but rest assured that everything tasted good (just not as consistently  delicious  as what came from the kitchen of some of his direct competitors, the mackerel –in particular—should have been the perfect opportunity to storm my palate, as the others did, but it was a non -happening during my visit).
(4)How far the sourcing was pushed and how far it revealed a profound understanding of the subtleties of the produce (it is one thing to have top ingredients, it is a different story to pick that precise ingredient from that specific region which on a given point in time will allow your craft to express itself at its best)? Even by the already exemplary standards of those elite sushi Shops of Tokyo, some of his produce was exceptional.  Some of the other top sushi Masters of Tokyo can envy him for his beautiful produce. But for me, during this meal, he generally failed at extracting the most out of  his  exceptional produce in a way that his direct competition has managed to do,  during this trip.

””The sourcing is world class, but in the end, my meal at Sawada did not manage to leave an impression in the way that Mizutani did. To the contrary of many people, I do not mind Genius cooking (which is what sushi performance of this level, price tag and world class reputation, is supposed to be – Genius, in this case,  meaning an overall craftmanship that’s way above the standards that already exist and NOT some surreal /out-of-context vision of what food can’t be) to follow the course of hits and misses, but it has  to, ultimately, awe  me with an ‘impression of the spectacular’ that is capable to wipe all the misses and dominate the hits. That is what Mizutani-san did. Alas, Sawada-San did not walk in his steps (I was obviously not floored by Sawada’s seasoning + work of the texture of the rice as well as some of his sushis). At least the finer  sushis  managed  to convey how ingenious, often witty, the Master can be in his prime. I just wished he would express it more  consistently. Still, regardless of some of my severe observations, I fully enjoyed my time here and the journey remains one to never forget as the charisma of the Chef, coupled with a sense of place  and exceptional sourcing do  suffice in explaining why Sawada is oftently regarded as one of world’s finest Sushi shops”’. Obviously, and hopefully, my high  rating of  8/10 (see the section ‘overall food performance’) is a testament to my latest assertion.

SAWADA3

Overall food performance: 8/10  (Category: top tier Sushi shop in Tokyo, World class sushiya)  in comparison to the other Sushi meals of this trip to Tokyo (for eg,  I prefered my meal at Sawada to those I had at Daisan Harumi/Sushi Oono/Sushi Sho/Sushi Iwa, but the meal at Mizutani had the edge). The essential is already written above (the section in red), so I’ll just add that  you SHOULD NOT start comparing my score of Sushi Sawada to — to take an example —  the scores of my Sushi meals outside of Tokyo –  we are in a completely different set of expectations and circumstances.

What do I think a week  later: In Tokyo, the ‘sushi shop spectrum’ regulates itself….the best produce are for a handful of elite shops like Sawada,Mizutani, Jiro,Saito. The second tier shops and the rest will  have to fight hard to get good seafood, rice, etc. The huge advantage of Sawada is that a journey under this roof  does  boot with spectacular produce. That, alone, explains why many have been impressed by Sawada.

Restaurant: Ishikawa
Address: 〒162-0825 東京都新宿区 神楽坂5−37 高村ビル1F
Date and time of the meal: 18/11/2014 17:30
Type of cuisine: Kaiseki
Phone:03-5225-0173
Tabelog: 4.33/5
Michelin stars: 3
URL: http://www.kagurazaka-ishikawa.co.jp/

Ishikawa (1)Kagurazaka Ishikawa is a well known kaiseki house in the area of Shinjuku (Shinjuku is vast, though, so keep in mind that if you stay close to the Shinjuku JR station,  Ishikawa is really NOT in the vincinity….;p). They have been operating for 11 years now. Chef Ishikawa explained that he comes from a part of Japan where the rice is of exceptional quality (yagata?? I am not familiar with Japanese names but it sounded like that), so he plays particular attention to the handling and preparation of  the rice (at a place like Ishikawa, you realize that rice is an ingredient that we, in the West,should  take seriously as great rice is not … just rice, indeed). The service here is world class (couple of waitresses and some few chefs) and the decor tasteful.    I tried to discretely take the pics of my food, discretely I insist  as  Japanese do not like that sort of distraction, especially in such intimate settings (in some of the restaurants that I will visit later on, photo taking is banned— at Ishikawa they are so nice that they won’t tell you anything,  but play close attention at the behavior of the other patrons and you’ll get what I mean ) , so as I usually do, out of respect to the privacy of other diners, I refrained from taking pictures of the room when it was full of patrons.

Ishikawa (2)Kaiseki is my favourite type of Japanese meal for its strong focus on all sorts of seasonal produce. It is also the kind of meal that I do approach with a lot of anxiety (positive / constructive anxiety that is),  because I remember that I, too, come from a country with food of deep and extreme nuances/subtleties/complexity , therefore condemned to be oftenly  mis-interpreted / mis-judged because as diners, we  mostly have no time with how things are supposed to be,  rather interested to expect things to be what we want them to be . I remember, couple of years ago, inviting a long time food journalist/cook/experienced foodie to eat a dish of cassava leaves cooked in coconut milk. A dish of the kind that I like a lot since its description is ordinary, its execution pertains to a totally different registry. In facts, you need to find the proper cassava leaves, cook it for at least 6-7 hrs with the right amount of quality coconut milk (popular in some African cuisines ) and its final taste will depend on your palate and ability to keep enhancing the flavor with as little as coconut milk, water, garlic, onions, salt , your leaves and deep understanding of how fire can impart sublime taste to your food. I ensured that a long time experienced cook, a granny actually, cooked it, because I wanted that friend to start with a version of that dish cooked  by “hands and a palate ” of considerable  experience. That friend/foodie/cook’s verdict on that day was straightfoward: it’s bad, it is just leaves that he  would have boiled, nothing more and that all the attention to details and long time cooking was pure Bullshit. The granny was upset and accused that dude of ignorance.  Both reactions were expected, but  I simply asked my friend to try, as much as he could, to remember that supposedly ‘disgusting taste of simple boiled leaves’ but …since he loves food…. to keep his mind open and give a chance to that dish, wherever he finds it. But more importantly, to do it himself and try replicating that exact memory of taste. 10 years later, this is the dish that my friend admires the most, cooks the most, etc. Of course, this sounds like a fairy tale   — I know, i know …. we are ALL mostly pessimistic by nature,  and tend to be  bored with  nice stories lol — but there’s a reason I brought the “fairy tale” here:  Kaiseki suffers from the same faith…its complexity, its depth, its purpose  is not always  evident, especially for non Japanese palates/tastes.  Even for someone like me who has cooked seriously for almost two decades, and have  studied and practiced a lot with the nuances of Japanese fares for the past 3 years (it was  important for me to spend some time learning/understanding/practicising with one type of cuisine before starting to assess it) , I had to go out of my way in understanding one important element:  the work of the texture and exceptional focus on the details  is for the Japanese leading Chefs far more important than how it is valued elsewhere.

The food report:

Blanched blowfish tossed with Japanese herbs, grated white  radish sauce.  Basically a julienne of  veggies with morsels of blowfish. Tasty, but not a testament to high level kaiseki cooking  ( ordinary for a restaurant of this reputation) as it lacked a sign or two of restaurant quality brilliance (anyone could pull out this sort of ordinary flavors , in an effortlessly way ) . 6/10

Ishikawa (3)

Deep fried shitake mushroom with minced Japanese duck,sliced duck breast, dried shitake mushroom: the quality of both the duck and the mushroom was impressive, but there was more. There was technique (the cooking of both the duck and the mushroom superbly achieved in letting the deep meaty flavor of the duck expressing itself, the mushroom timely roasted so that its earthy flavor is left unaltered while the mushroom is cooked enough and nicely seasoned to spectacular mouthfeel ) and an inspired touch (it is easy to extract decent flavors out of  duck and mushroom, but harder to  get duck and mushroom complementing each other this well. Exciting 10/10

Ishikawa (4)

White miso soup with savory rice cake. The quality of the ingredients continues to be, as I’d expect from a restaurant of this reputation, of the highest order. Such comment also applies to the technical execution of the food: as mastered as it gets ,meaning the balance of flavors is spot on, seasoning judicious (never too salty, never bland). The beauty of great kaiseki cooking is to extract the most out of the least, and that is what they’ve accomplished successfully: deep ,  balanced, delicious  and complex flavors out of a simple rice cake and miso soup. Miso soup is one of those things that escapes attention when done well but which failure you will quickly notice, so it is easy to take such great work of this soup for granted . Excellent Miso soup like this one I was sampling is a rare treat,even in Tokyo, as I came to realise. 9/10

Ishikawa (5)

Sea bream sashimi . I am not too sure what one should expect from seabream. There’s no exceptional seabream flesh, there are just great and bad ones. This was of the great sort. The quality of the seaweed high. As great as ..great fresh seabream flesh tastes.

Ishikawa (6)

Seared Ise Lobster with vinegared soya sauce – quality lobster, one piece served raw (sashimi), the other seared. The quality of an ingredient is always half the battle/ the quality of this lobster was high. There was  a true fresh taste of the sea when eating the raw lobster, which was a reminder that no ordinary lobster was served. Then you had the charcoal grilled piece, which did not fail to remind that quality seafood cooked using a flavor-enhancing cooking method like charcoal grilling does ultimately water the mouth. Delicious as one would expect,the soya sauce is,of course, of the non ordinary sort  8/10

Ishikawa (7)

Charcoal grilled horsehead snapper flavored with salted bonito innards sauce is a technique that I will steal from them as I love charcoal-grilling fish at home (using a hibachi charcoal bbq grill) but I was looking for new ways to enhance the natural flavor of charcoal grilled seafood. Bonito innards sauce is exactly what I was looking for: a distracted palate would think that you’ll get the same palatable impact using just salt .Well,no…there is indeed an impression of  ‘that is easy to replicate’ when flavoring fish with salted  bonito innards sauce, but the level of the  complexity of the resulting flavor is not that easy to emulate. This sauce matched beautifully with the snapper.  Whether it is street food or fine dining, I do not have  unrealistic expectations when it comes  to charcoal grill seafood. I just expect an exceptional understanding of what makes a simple piece of fish ..tasting great! Which is what they did. Superb  9/10

Gluten bread with walnut and dried sea cucumber . The sea cucumber oceanic flavor, striking (in a very very good way). I am usually accused of being very conservative about drying / and or dry-aging seafood, but that is because I find that seafood drying   and/or drying aging is oftently misunderstood (you really need to know which seafood is truely enhanced by such process ). This sea cucumber was timely dried, the exciting mouthfeel and aromas are a testament to its high  quality and this is an instance where drying seafood  adds — rather than substracting — to the pleasure of eating food.  8/10

Ishikawa (8)

Fresh water eel was flawless in all aspects: top quality eel, the tsume sauce highly enjoyable both in texture and taste, the mashed taro packed with vibrant fresh earthy flavors. As it is the case with all the other offerings, the ingredients are complementary BUT in an inspired/thoughtful/witty  way (only the 1st offering tasted and felt like an ordinary assemblage of food items). Flawless. 9/10

Ishikawa (9)

Hot pot of snow crab, tofu and seasonal vegetable. That the ingredients would remain of very high quality was not a surprise anymore,  so it’s in the work of the broth that I had high expectations. They were met: the broth had depth/complexity, its taste exciting.  A world class hot pot, with a benchmark tofu (I am a huge fan of tofu as it is one of those little things that is easy to overlook but that can marvel when executed masterfully ….the tofu,here, impossibly soft, its taste not bold at all and yet so revealing in subtleties) . 10/10

Ishikawa (10)

Steamed rice, seabream paste and pickled vegetables. I won’t rate this dish as my opinion is sadly..biaised.Biaised because the seabream paste was reminescent of our canned tuna in the western world, therefore I am unable to appreciate that seabream paste as I wished … because I can’t genuinely get excited about flavors and texture of this sort. Needless to stress that there is no fault here (it’s one perfect legit version of a  seabream paste), just a clash with a personal perception. What I will do,though,is NOT to overlook the star of this dish, the rice. Again, the Chef seemed to have mentioned Yagata (???) — correct me if I am wrong — as the place of origin of his rice. This, to put it boldly, was spectacular rice with superlative flavor and texture. That he steamed his rice like a master at his craft is not the sole reason behind that incredible bowl of rice  (10/10 for that benchmark rice). At some point, they transformed the dish into their take of the ochazuke dish (combination of green tea/steamed rice) which, on this instance, combined the spectacular rice, a perfect broth, nori, the seabream paste and sesame seeds. The overall was tasty.

Ishikawa (11)

Sweet red beans,Yuzu citrus ager and cream cheese with toasted wafer featured quality red beans which sweetness is not overwhelming but judicious, the yuzu citrus ager flawless in texture and adding necessary acidic balance, the cream cheese is a far better version of the standard cream cheese as its soft consistency coupled with superb lactic mouthfeel did stole the show . It is easy to overlook simple ingredients like those (red beans, cream cheese) as  they are oftently taken for granted, therefore we tend to be uninvolved when we use them. This dessert was a reminder that doing so (underestimating such humble/common   ingredients) is a mistake as cream cheese/red beans/yuzu citrus ager  done this well and tasting this good can be exciting.   8/10

Overall food rating: 8/10 (Category: top tier Kaiseki in  Tokyo)  Kaiseki cuisine (in this case, Chef Ishikawa’s take on it) is very simple in appearance, thefore it can sometimes  gives the wrong impression  that it is hard to get excited about,  but  its  subtleties can  reveal a lot more than what its first impressions may suggest. Ishikawa was about that, and much more: great service , a sense of place, ingredients of the highest quality and more importantly …. a great sense of taste. Ishikawa has an understanding of flavor combination that floats my boat (always that little inspired touch that imparts either surprise or joy in mouth,for eg the rice cake of the miso soup –not the classic texture of rice cake, rather a texture close to marshmallow and it happened to be more effective than the other sorts of rice cakes in its intent to surprise/please. Or a zest of orange skin that tentalized and added a thoughtful kick to the snow crab’s broth ). I loved Ishikawa.

What I think weeks later: That rice, that rice …I do not know if their rice is always that stellar, but the one I was having was like no other rice.