First of all, thanks a lot for helping me plan my trip to Tokyo. The 12 days that I spent there were beyond incredible. NYC may be up there when it comes to variety but purely in terms of deliciousness, Tokyo is just unbelievable!
Before I move on to the food, I'd like to take a moment to describe my experience outside food. Just for reference, this was my first visit to Japan, I do not speak any Japanese (except the basic "hello", "thank you" and maybe 10 sushi related words that I picked up at Ushiwakamaru and 15 East in NYC) and I look like a foreigner :) I'll actually let an incident that occurred about 5 hours after I landed do the talking!
I had dinner reservations at Sushi Iwa for 7:30. Since this was my first meal, I did not know then, how inaccurate (relative to the U.S.) Google maps in Tokyo is. So, I got to the place that maps directed me to around 7 and I had with me photographs of all the restaurants that I wanted to go to so I started comparing Iwa's photo to the buildings around me. None of them matched what I had so I asked a gentleman standing there if he spoke English by any chance. He said no. I thanked him and went back to my papers and looking at the buildings around me. He looked at me struggle for about 2 minutes and what happened next just blew my mind. He came to me and in broken English, asked me what was I looking for so I tried to tell him that I was looking for a restaurant called Sushi Iwa and that I had the address and phone number but I was having a hard time locating it. He took out his cellphone (I did not have one then), called Iwa, asked them where they were located (I was off by about a block and a half). He then walked with me to the restaurant, went inside and confirmed that this was the right place and then left! I was speechless for a few seconds. Though, I would have to add that when I narrated the incident to my Japanese co-workers the next day, they were surprised and told me that this wasn't normal. In fact when a few days later, I told this story to Hidetsugu Ueno at Bar High Five, he too was surprised and said that this probably happened because I was a visitor. Irrespective, I found the people to be very polite and friendly and was floored by their kindness! Awesome city in my opinion!
Time for food! I'll use the following scale to grade my experience,
No stars - Poor
*** Very good
1. Sushi Iwa (dinner) - *** and a half
I had the Omakase. Very-very good sushi, very friendly chef. He translated a majority of the fish names to English for me (refused to translate Shirako though ;) and when he found out that I was visiting from NYC, he asked me about sushi restaurants and sushi chefs there. One dish that I remember in particular was a dish where the chef took some rice in a bowl, added some sea urchin to it and mixed it up well. He then topped it with salmon roe. It was delicious! I liked the Tamago here as well. This was the first time in my life where I was stuffed after an Omakase meal at a sushi restaurant. It was so much food! I actually was a little relieved at the end that the eating was over :)
2. Mansei Mikage (lunch) - ***
I went here to try Sukiyaki. I found this place relatively easily. The server who first came up to me handed me a Japanese menu and he did not speak any English so I was about to just say Sukiyaki and use the pictures in the menu to order when I heard someone say "May I help you. I speak English"! It turned out that one of their servers spoke English so he told me about the 3 kinds of beef that I could choose from. I asked him for his favorite and he recommended the medium grade. I got that and it was delicious! This was my first experience with Japanese beef and I was amazed at how delicate and fatty and flavorful it was. This was a very good meal indeed.
3. Yoroniku (dinner) - ****
I had a set meal. This was what I call a "life altering" experience. Holy c&*p! The only Yakiniku that I had before this was at Takashi in NYC which is considered to be pretty decent by NYC standards but I wasn't too impressed so I wasn't expecting to be wowed. Boy was I wrong! This was the first of the two meals that I had in Tokyo that I would say are must haves! The beef - fatty, flavorful, tender (literally melt in your mouth), just divine.
My favs were the beef sushi (just get this!), Harami, Chateaubriand, Sirloin and the Shinshin. Oh and I have to mention the dessert here. It was shaved ice but it was the lightest, airiest and the most delicious shaved ice I've ever had. It was just amazing! The host spoke good English and my server too spoke some. My server was kind enough to tell me how to eat each piece of meat that I was served, some with a particular kind of sauce, some with a different kind and some without any sauce.
4. Anago Tamai (lunch) - ***
There was a line before it opened. Wasn't expecting that but because I was by myself, I didn't have to wait too long. They had an English menu. I got the medium sized Hako Meshi and the eel broth. My first real Anago experience. The eel was cooked perfectly and was flavorful. The eel broth at the end was very good with some rice and eel as suggested.
5. L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon (dinner) - ** and a half
I was expecting a lot more from a two star, Joel Robuchon restaurant. I admit that I made a faux pas at the starting when I accidentally knocked over a glass of water (not over someone, just on the counter and an empty seat) but I doubt that had an effect on my experience.
I thought that the bread was very ordinary and the amuse was like chicken salad from a deli and should never have made it to a plate. I opted to go for the smaller, appetizer sized portions so that I could try multiple things. The first dish was snow crab with cocktail sauce and marinated Japanese radish. I liked this but I thought that this had a flowery after taste that I could have done without. The next dish was the lobster jelly with Uni dish. Dear god! This is why Joel Robuchon was voted to be the chef of the century! This was one of best dishes of the trip. Texturally innovative and a burst of flavor - it's like the ocean in your mouth. Brilliant dish! My last dish was the foie gras with quail. This was very good as well but nothing that made me go wow.
The service was not what I would expect from a place like this. No major flaws but a decent wait at the beginning and a bizarre 20 min wait for my check at the end.
6. Tempura Kondo (dinner) - ** and a half
Before I write about this, I should confess that I am not a big fan of deep fried stuff in general (except maybe fries) but I still wanted to try authentic tempura while I was in Tokyo. 7 chome Kyoboshi was too expensive for me so I decided to go to Kondo. Very cool space. I got to sit on the counter with chef Fumio Kondo serving me. He too was very helpful about how to eat each piece of tempura that he served. There were a few pieces that he cooked but his assistants served and they did not tell me about how to eat those pieces. They have an English menu. I got one of the set meals and added the sea urchin and the sweet potato.
I loved the shellfish tempura. I don't remember the exact ones that I had but all of them were very-very good. The whitefish and the vegetable ones I thought were just OK. That's probably more my taste than anything else. The sea urchin one was sublime and the sweet potato was good but it was too much for one person. I wish it was possible to get just 1/4th of the potato. If I were to go back to Japan, I would try tempura again but it would exclusively be shellfish and maybe some other fish but I would not spend the kind of money you need to in order to go to a Kondo.
7. Butagumi (dinner) - * and a half
Getting to this place involved a very decent walk through a very residential neighborhood. The stars here are probably a reflection of my mis-ordering, rather than the quality of the food itself. Their menu has English translations as well. I wanted to try something from section 3. I was hoping for the Tokyo X but the day that I went, they only had about 7-8 types of pork and Tokyo X was not one of them. Also, on their menu they had marked the ones that they recommend. None of the ones that were available in section 3 that day were recommended so I opted to go for one from section 4 (most fatty) that was recommended. In hindsight, I think that this was a mistake.
The pork that I had was too fatty for me. And my limited linking of anything deep fried made this one of the least memorable meals of my trip.
8. Daisan Harumi (dinner) - ** and a half
I sat at the counter and ordered Omakase. This place is almost exclusively recommended for lunch but since I could not carve in enough time during lunch, I went here for dinner. I may now know why is it not recommended for dinner. The counter in my opinion, can accommodate about 7 people. The night that I went, there were at least 10 people seated there. I'm not too fussy about personal space and stuff but when someone's chopsticks threaten to topple my glass of water every time he uses them, it's less than a pleasant experience. Also, I thinking serving that number of people is tough. In the first 50 minutes of my meal, I think I had like 3 pieces served to me.
Moving on to the food itself, the sashimi pieces here were huge in comparison to everything that I've had. I'm still undecided if that was a good or a bad thing but it definitely was different. Also, one thing that I noticed was the amount of wasabi the chef used in some of the sushi pieces. They definitely opened up my sinuses and almost got me to tear up at least 3-4 times. It was fine after that. Is this something that is normal and it's common to use more than the usual amount of wasabi for certain kinds of fish? All in all, the meal was good but no where close to my Iwa experience.
Since everyone sitting on the counter were very cosy, the gentleman sitting next to me became pretty friendly and we had a short conversation. The only thing that he relayed back to the chef was that I was visiting from NYC and that I found out about his restaurant on the Internet. As I was about to leave, the chef asked me how was everything and I used some English and some gestures to tell him that I enjoyed my meal. He then asked me to wait a minute, took out the day's menu from the frame behind the counter and gave it to me :) Perfect souvenir! He also told me about one of his friends who owns a restaurant in NYC and gave me his business card. It's little things like this that happened a few times that made this such a great trip.
9. RyuGin (dinner) - ****
My second meal after Yoriniku that I would recommend to anyone. This actually was the first time I was having dinner at a three star restaurant and it was just amazing. Great service, brilliant food! They had an English menu. The standouts that I remember were egg custard with sea urchin, grilled shirako, Matsuba crab soup (the crab was amazing!), the squid from the sashimi plate was the best that I've had. The squid that I've always had has had a slight chew to it but this was so tender. I didn't even know squid could be that tender. The fish in the king fish with eggplant dish had a great texture. The dessert was sake flavored soft serve and sake flavored souffle. Brilliant!! The only dish that I did not think belonged there was a chicken rice dish. Apparently this was a dish that chef Yamamoto created in memory of his childhood. There really wasn't anything going on, both in terms of texture and flavor. An exquisite meal overall.
10. Fuku (dinner) - ***
I sat at the counter and tried a bunch of stuff. They have English translations on their menu. Unfortunately, they had run out of Tori Wasa that day so I missed out on a golden opportunity to try raw chicken. Out of the things that I tried, my favorites were the leek/leg meat, tail, wings and enoki wrapped in bacon. I tried the smoked cheese but wasn't to impressed by it.
11. Nodaiwa (lunch) - ***
I didn't know this when I went but they have another building close to the original one where they serve food as well. I had gone here with a friend and was taken to the other building by a hostess because there was no room in the original one. I got the medium sized Unaju and added chawanmushi. The latter I thought was good but not very different from the other good chawanmushis that I've had in the past. The Unaju was very good.
I'm still undecided if I prefer the Agago at Anago Tami or the Unagi here but I would definitely get them both again if I go back.
12. Sushi Taichi (lunch) - ***
This was my last meal in Tokyo. I had originally intended to get Omakase but there I guess that is not an option that is presented to you when the chef tells you what are the options available. I was given a 11 piece option (I think it was 11) and a 15 piece option and I opted for the latter. In hindsight, I don't think getting just sushi in place of the complete Omakase experience was necessarily a bad thing. I enjoy sushi more than sashimi and it was relatively quick which gave me plenty to time to get to the airport :)
The sushi itself was very good. I would place it between Iwa and Harumi, closer to Iwa then Harumi. The chef translated a lot of the fish names to English for me. I think this was the first time that I had a piece of sushi with sea urchin without nori wrapped around it. I liked this a lot. I think this is an excellent deal for the price.
13. Rokurinsha (lunch) - ***
Waited in line for about 40 min and got the Tokusei Tsukemen. Absolutely brilliant. For me, it blew everything I've ever had at Ippudo and Totto Ramen in NYC out of the water and into orbit! The texture of the noodles was excellent. Soft with a bit of chew. And, the broth! Incredibly flavorful. A little bit of the broth was left at the end so I asked for soup wari and it was excellent by itself. I know that there are places that are supposed to be better than Rokurinsha and I can't even imagine what they must be like.
14. Narutomi Soba (lunch) - ** and a half
I got there about 5 minutes before it opened. No line. Tried the Gobo tempura, cold soba and soba gaki. It was pretty good but I guess I just like Ramen and Udon more. I wasn't a big fan of the soba gaki though. It just seemed like a big piece of tasteless dough.
15. Moyan Curry - ** and a half
This actually was a last minute substitution. Having enjoyed Rokurinsha a lot, I had planned to go to Fuunji but unfortunately, for some reason they were closed when I went (it was a Saturday). So, I decided to go to Moyan. I tired the pork curry here. I thought it was good but nothing special. Not sure if curry can be special :)
16. Hidemi Sugino - *** and a half and then *
Before I comment on this, a general observation about pastry in Tokyo - the number and quality of pastry shops here is unbelievable! I wonder why don't some of these places that have branches in multiple countries open up stores in NYC.
Coming back to Sugino, the first day I went here, I reached about 40 minutes before the place opened and was third in line. By the time the place opened, there were about 20 people in line. I got the Marie and the Ambroisi to try in the store. I thought that Marie was a strawberry based pastry but the one that they had that day had raspberries. One of the best mousses I've ever had. Light, airy and delicious. The Ambroisi too was excellent. The best pastry shop that I've been to.
The twist was when I went back the next day. They were out of the Ambroisi. They had the Marie but I wanted to try something different so I asked one of the clerks there for recommendations. Unfortunately, I don't really remember the two pastries that I tried that day but both of them were very-very ordinary. I was surprised at how much better my pastries had been the previous day.
17. Brasserie VIRON - ***
I only tried the Kouign Amann here. My benchmark for comparison was the DKA at Dominique Ansel in NYC. I think Viron's was better. The texture was superb. Very crisp and crusty on the outside and soft on the inside. It had a caramely flavor. I personally would have preferred for that to be a little more subdued but still, no complains.
18. Pierre Herme - * and a half
I tried a chestnut dessert in the store and bought two macaroons, pistachio and vanilla. All of them were too sweet for me. The flavors were good but too much sugar.
19. Omotesando Koffee - **
This was the hardest to get to. For some reason google maps took me a kilometer away from where this is actually located. I then had to use Time Out Tokyo's map to figure out the correct location. I tried two coffees here, something similar to an Americano and a cold Machiato. Both were OK, nothing special.
20. Bear Pond Espresso - *** and a half
I asked the clerk here for a recommendation and she gave me an espresso based drink. Wow! This was one of the best cups of coffee I've ever had! It looked a little think and heavy in appearance but it was perfectly balanced.
21. Fuglen - ***
I tried two coffees here, the first was their standard hot coffee. It was good, nothing special. The next one was an aeropress. Brilliant. This, along with the Bear Pond coffee and Barista in Portland are probably the three best cups of coffee I've ever had!
22. Elevage - ***
Went here for a couple of post Yoroniku drinks. I don't remember the wines that I had but the ambiance, selection and service was very-very good.
23. Gen Yamamoto - ***
Great ambiance and service. Tried the 6 drink flight here. I particularly liked the kiwi fruit - matcha and the sweet potato drinks.
24. Kuri - ** and a half
They have a great collection. I tried one of their flights. The sake's were good but I guess I'm more of a beer/cocktail person. But, I'm sure that a sake connoisseur or someone who is interested in learning more about sake would have a great time here.
25. Bar High Five - ** and a half
Having heard a lot about Hidetsugu Ueno, I was really looking forward to this. The ambiance and the service is top notch. I tried 3 drinks here and although I would have loved to say that all of them were stellar, I felt that they were just moderately above average. They only drink that I remember being a little different was something with grapes and a Japanese whiskey. I'm not a whiskey person but I did enjoy this. The others I felt were too safe and lacked complexity. Maybe I wasn't able to express what I wanted clearly but having had some pretty amazing stuff at the likes of Dead Rabbit and Attaboy in NYC, I was a little disappointed with my experience here.