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Feb '15 Trip Report - Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka & Niseko (Hokkaido)

NYAngeleno | Feb 12, 201508:06 PM

I just finished a trip to Japan where I went to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osada, Niseko and Hakone. Having been a lurker and reading the posts from regulars and other posters over the last couple of years, I thought it was time to give back a little. Fair warning - I just MAY have gone to a disproportionate number of sushi and ramen places ;)

TOKYO

Ukai-Tei Omotesando (teppanyaki)
This was a fun experience (there was a group of 4 of us in our own private room with our own teppan) with good food, but it’s somewhat pricey for what you get. Some highlights were the grilled abalone, the foie gras, and the “best grade” A5 wagyu (which is different from their “top grade” A5). The Omotesando branch has a view in the common area and a separate room for dessert. Desserts (including the mont blanc) were quite tasty. I would go again if it were for a social get together but not solely for the food (especially when you can spring a little more and go to the restaurant below).

Dons de la Nature (steak)
This four letter-acronym’d restaurant (DDLN) seems to be a four-letter word on this forum these days, but to this day, this is still the best steak I have had. Both the chef (Otsuka-san) and the okami-san seemed more loose this time around – maybe they’ve just gotten used to the foibles of us tourists. The okami actively asked us if we wanted to take pictures, etc. For our meal, both the sirloin and the filet were from Yonezawa. They normally do a 400g minimum, but in this case, seeing that we were undecided about which one to go for, actually allowed us to get less of both. The okami recommended 200g of the filet and 400g of the sirloin, but in the end we got 300/300 to split among two people. I can see why Otsuka-san doesn’t like going below 400g on the sirloin – a very high proportion of the meat is charred, and it’s harder to keep it medium-rare. Like others, I couldn’t eat this every day even if it were affordable (which it’s not), but I would have no hesitation eating it for very infrequent special occasions.

Butagumi Shokudo (tonkatsu)
This is the more casual branch in the Roppongi Hills building. They have a more limited selection of pork – when I went, one could choose a standard pork, a premium pork, or a “super premium” pork (Yukimuro-Jukusei Kogane-Buta from Niigata Prefecture). I went with the super premium, and the set dinner with 110g of loin was 2200 JPY. The fatty parts complemented the meat nicely – the meat was moist without being too rich. This was fantastic and something I’ll have to get again the next time I’m in Japan.

Hirata Bokujo (tonkatsu)
Picked up a tonkatsu bento box here. I know it’s pre-prepared, but I didn’t find the tonkatsu here to be that great. The pork was dry and pretty non-extraordinary – worse than what I have gotten in some places in the US (e.g., Katsuhama in NYC).

Hachibei Roppongi HIlls (izakaya / yakitori)
This place doesn’t get much acclaim here, but I went thanks to Robb S’s recommendation in his posts. Hachibei is a mini chain that serves Fukuoka-styled yakitori. Others can feel free to correct me, but this means that you get pickled cabbage to go with your chicken, and they focus on using salt rather than adding other sauces to season the chicken. I will say this meal was outstanding – highlights include the tebasaki (chicken wings) – which more tasty and juicy than the chicken _oysters_ I’ve had a at Tori Shin in NYC, tsukune, an original sukiyaki skewer, and eringi mushrooms (skewered with some pork belly for good measure). Also tried their oyako don and chicken curry with rice. The oyako don in particular was fantastic – they layered liquid egg yolk on top of the more cooked parts of the chicken/egg concoction.

Inakaya (rip off joint)
My friend’s cousin, who lives in Japan, recommended this to me because I was staying in Roppongi. WHY DID I NOT CHECK ON CHOWHOUND BEFORE GOING??? This place was a complete rip off. We ordered a dish of grilled broad beans, some sashimi (three pieces of hirame, two pieces of engawa, and MAYBE a couple pieces of buri), one large bottle of beer, and the tab was ~10000 JPY. I shudder to think what would have happened if I’d eaten a full meal here – luckily, we cut the meal short because I wanted to go somewhere with more locals (my dining companion was the only Japanese person in the place). Wow did I dodge a bullet…

Bang (izakaya)
Also in Roppongi – we went here after Inakaya. The food was pretty average, but this was a great way to get the “local” experience. They have a shoe locker out front, and each table is its own separate room.

Elevage (wine bar)
We loved this place and visited twice. Yoshida-san speaks excellent English and is a fantastic host. He is very meticulous about his wine and has his own methods to aerate a glass for you perfectly. We made the rookie mistake of swirling a glass of wine after he had prepared it for us – he was very courteous/nice about it but basically threw away the glass of wine he had given us and proceeded to give us a new glass he had prepared. Has a great selection of wine by the glass. We really liked his cheese plate, as well as his grilled ginko nuts. He also uses bread from Viron bakery.

Bar High Five (cocktails)
This place was a bit overrated for me. Felt like I was in the US (almost no Japanese customers), and the cocktails were good but not memorable. On the flip side, service was friendly, and everybody spoke great English.

Rokurinsha @ Tokyo Ramen Street (tsukemen)
I tried this for both breakfast and lunch. As others have mentioned, they use a slightly lighter broth for breakfast, but it’s still fantastic. Overall, their mix of fish powder/stock along with tonkotsu, combined with really thick chewy noodles just makes it perfect. You get the richness of the redmeat with some complexity added by the fish broth. This stuff is intense. I’m still craving a bowl of it as I type this report. There were decent lines both times I went, and I ended up waiting 20-30 minutes on each occasion.

Fu-unji (tsukemen)
Relative to my sky high expectations, this was the biggest disappointment of my ramen meals. The ramen is still good, but I expected it to be the best of the three tsukemen places I visited. In fact, I think this was the worst of the three. I really like tori-paitan, and I love tsukemen with all sorts of fish powder, so I thought this would be a match made in heaven. Unfortunately, I think the fish powders overwhelmed the rest of the flavors, so the broth was just a bit fishy and very salty, with not much complexity. There was no line when I went, but I did visit around 6:30pm on weeknight (before the salarymen get off work?), and weather forecasters were expecting a heavy snow storm that evening.

Tetsu – Roppongi Hills (tsukemen)
Overall, this was not as good as Rokurinsha, but I still thought it was great, and it definitely did the job when I craved Tokyo-style tsukemen. The broth still has a lot of complex flavors, but it just didn’t hit the highs of Rokurinsha. I’ve tried both the cold noodles and the atsumori noodles in warm broth. The cold noodles were a little too hard for me (and I like my tsukemen noodles al dente). Pros for the atsumori noodles : just the perfect texture, and dipping your warm noodles keeps the tsukemen broth warm; cons: ou’re also diluting your tsukemen broth with each dip. There was no line on either occasion that I went for lunch.

Ikaruga @ Tokyo Ramen Street (tonkotsu ramen)
I’ll just preface this by saying that while I like tonkotsu ramen, I don’t love it. I’ve always felt that it’s pretty one-note with a bunch of umami/richness. With that said, I ordered the tonkotsu shio ramen here, and, I don’t know, it was very nice and rich with pork flavor, but I didn’t think it was miles better than what you could get at, say, Santouka.

Hiraguo @ Tokyo Ramen Street (shio ramen)
I stil have really fond memories of the amazing shio ramen you could get at Setagaya in NYC that first year or two that they opened on 1st Ave. I remember amazingly flavorable but light broth with bits of seafood (e.g., dried scallops). Hiraguo is in the Setagaya chain, but the shio ramen here didn’t hit the heights I remember from Setagaya. The ramen actually reminds me a lot of Hong Kong styled wonton noodles. Their shio ramen includes a couple dumplings in addition to the usual toppings, and was light with a touch of seafood flavor.

Kagari (tori paitan ramen)
I waited in line for an hour to get into this place, and, I have to say, it was well worth it. This is like the best chicken noodle soup you will ever have. The broth was thick, rich and silky with layers upon layers of chicken flavor. They served this with chicken breast instead of chashu, and I thought the lighter (but not bland) meat complemented the broth very nicely. I think they might start having crowd issues a la Rokurinsha because, while I was there, I saw some policeman knock on the door and speak to one of the chefs. I think they might have been cited for crowd issues?

Sawada (sushi)

The rice was the most al dente of the 4 places I visited. I actually like my rice harder, so this was my preference. Highlights include ikura sushi, awabi sashimi, tako sashimi (very smoked charcoal flavor), steamed shirauo, grilled kuchiko (sea cucumber roe) – looked a little like a piece of shrimp, smoked katsuo (outstanding!), otoro aburi (grilled under binchotan), uni from Hokkaido and Aoyama prefecture, squid stuffed with rice – prepared “old style”, kuruma ebi. Also, his anago two ways was fantastic. Sawada is consistent in his excellence every single piece was an 8 to 10. They are also pretty friendly. I will say though that they are pretty intense (rightfully) for the first 2/3 of the meal as they go through all their processes, and they lighten up as the meal is coming to an end. FYI, Sawada does one lunch and one dinner every day from Tues – Sat, lunch on Sundays, and closes on Mondays.

Ginza Iwa (sushi)

The rice was the softest, but the white vinegar was pretty strong. Highlights include
Aoyori ika – knife skills on this were amazing. Tsunoda-san took an already thin slab of ika and sliced lengthwise parallel to the table twice, resulting in very thin sheets. Then he cut them with perpendicular slices – the result was almost a juilienned ika. Other highlights were grilled tachi-uo - which they literally translated as sword fish but is really belt fish, Kinmedai fin (equivalent to engawa for fluke), anago was served two ways – the first piece was perhaps the best anago I’ve had. It was made with salt and a squeeze of sodachi juice. But the texture was just perfect. Others include, mirugai that was grilled, but served with milk, and a rice dish mixed with uni and shirako. Our lunch here is one example of a situation where one shouldn’t minimize the impact of being able to communicate well with the chef. Chef Iwa was there, but he served a Japanese couple. Tsunoda-san, who speaks excellent English, served us and a couple from Singapore. He served us the kinmedai fin (which he says they usually discard) because we mentioned we loved kinmedai. While we ordered the omakase, both the Japanese and Singaporean couple ordred the 13-piece lunch special. The Japanese couple definitely received received different pieces from the Singaporean couple (e.g., Japanese couple got uni, Singaporean couple got shirauo steamed in sakura leaves). Iwa was great and better than the top US sushiyas I’ve been to (though more incrementally), but the pieces weren’t as consistently excellent as they were at Sawada or Harutaka IMHO.

Sushi Sho Yotsuya (sushi)

The rice was of moderate hardness, but very strongly flavored (they use a mix of white and red vinegar). Highlights include ankimo sushi with a melon on top, chu- and otoro zuke sushi, toro tataki sushi with pickle and yuzu (?). I was really looking forward to this place, and I thought it might end up being my favorite based on what I had read, but I was pretty disappointed. I didn’t have a problem with the pacing or moving back and forth between nigiri and sashimi, but I can see why people have a love and hate relationship with this place. The pieces listed above were creative and “wow” moments, but there were just too many “meh” mediocre pieces. We were served by an apprentice, while Nakazawa-san served a separate groups of Japanese folks. I don’t know if that made a huge difference, however.

Harutaka (sushi)

The rice was just slightly less al dente than Sawada, about the same acidity, and pretty darn sticky. The highlights – there were so many amazing moments, coupled with a few mediocre pieces. But there were so many “wow” moments that this was my favorite sushi meal of the trip (my gf disagrees and thinks Sawada was the best). Highlights: we started off with some nore sore (baby sea eel) in anago broth. We had some smoked sawara (fantastic!), sayori was the best I’ve ever had, kobashira was the best I’ve ever had (by contrast, the kobashira at Sushi Sho was more limp and not as bright tasting). The mirugai was just the right balance of crunchy and tender, with bright yet not overly briny flavors – perhaps the best I’ve ever had. I also really liked his maguro (akami -> otoro) course. The hamaguri was excellent, the anago prepared with soy sauce was excellent. The saba he gave us was so complex – acidic and fishy at first, but then the oily richness just sets in afterward. The tamago (as you would expect from a Jiro disciple) was excellent. However, a few dishes did fall flat. Grilled fugu shirako was HUGE (probably too big and rich) though I liked the grilled skin. The kuruma ebi was a disappointment, and the kohada was on the dry and fishy side without oiliness to balance it out. Overall, I’ll still be beating the door to come back to this place. Though it did hit No. 1 on tabelog for sushi – I guess I don’t have to worry about going to Saito anymore! (just kidding folks)

Random highlights
Yaki onigiri from the 24-hour Precce supermarket, baguette from Maison Kayser, mochi from Toraya in Tokyo Midtown mall, to-go macaron boxes packed with ice from Pierre Herme, pretty good chicken and rice from the kebab stall 2 buildings away from the Roppongi Hills complex

KYOTO

Jiki Miyazawa (kappo / kyo-ryori?)
This restaurant has twelve seats, all at the counter. We were (very fortunately) seated directly in front of the chef for lunch because he speaks English pretty well. I still can’t believe how great this meal was given the price. This was extremely well-done comfort food with amazingly cooked ingredients. Our meal was 5000 JPY – if this guy had done this meal in NYC, he could easily have charged $150. Every course was fantastic, but some great ones included the initial seafood broth with some tofu and seafood. The broth was clear but extremely dense. His signature is a sesame tofu covered with sesame paste and ground sesame seeds. More dishes followed – I think we had 3 or 4 courses that involved some sort of soup/broth, which really fit well with the winter weather. The last savory course involves eating rice prepared two ways – one style is a little more al dente (my favorite) and the second was a bit more watery (but not quite at gruel/congee level). My girlfriend liked the second course more and thought it might have been the best rice we had on our trip. I thought the rice at Kitcho was a bit better but this was fantastic. Our meal was around 7-8 courses for 5000 JPY per person. At lunch, you can choose a 3500 JPY, 5000 JPY, or 7500 JPY menu, and our concierge told us the difference is the number of courses. I would absolutely recommend this place for anybody visiting Kyoto.

Mitsuyasu (kaiseki)
This tied for the best non-sushi meal I had on my trip (and when you factor in value vs. Kitcho, there’s no comparison). They only book two private dining rooms at a time for lunch or dinner. Our room was right next to the kitchen, and service was extremely warm and intimate. They had blankets for us to use (since it was a cold evening), and the okami-san came in and checked with my girlfriend to see if she should adjust the temperature given that she had draped herself in the blanket. We had a 10-11 course kaiseki meal. Everything was out of this world. We started off with tai sashimi, and progressed to a steamed seasonal vegetable plate – probably the best vegetables on the trip and the best we have had in a while. We moved on to his famed egg yolk that’s been soaked in sake(?) for three years. He now serves it in a small wine glass rather than a dish. The dish was at first subtle, but then you get the full richness and flavor of the yolk that just lingers long after the first bite. The soup with rice and karasumi (so light but so complex) was the best I had on the trip. We also loved his famed buckwheat dumpling. Our dinner was rounded out by some namako sashimi and a rice dish made from kani meat and kani miso. It’s just amazing how much flavor the chef could evoke out of the ingredients at hand. If you couldn’t tell, I loved this meal, and in general, it’s among the top echelon of meals I’ve had, ever. Our dinner was 10000 JPY per person, which given the level of foodcraft and the use of a private room, was a stunning value. For dinner, they also offer a version that costs ~16k JPY – according to our concierge, it has the same number of courses but uses more expensive ingredients.

Kitcho Arashiyama (kaiseki)
I had been once before and had treated it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. However, given the JPY/USD exchange rate, I talked myself into going one more time, and this restaurant did not disappoint. They now list example menus on their website, so I won’t do a blow-by-blow, but some highlights include seared lobster sashimi, a broth with a giant lump of shirako (I’m a bit shirako’d out at this point), and rice two ways. Both were transcendent – the first was a rice steamed with strands of egg omelet prepared perfectly alongside shirauo. The second was “just plain” white rice that was anything but plain. I liked both and could not stop eating them. The pickles they give you are the best pickles I had have anywhere. Dessert consisted of musk melon, some ridiculously large but sweet strawberries, and musk melon.

As I’ve written in another post, I feel that you are able to get the same level of food and excellent service at Mitsuyasu, but at Kitcho, you get more expensive ingredients, a more opulent setting (including more fancy food platings), and more fussy service.

Hachidaime Gihey (rice)
We were walking around Gion and saw a bunch of people waiting around in line at this place so decided to join in. We ended up waiting 30 minutes, but this place was a great combination of value and flavor. Their specialty is all sorts of rice (I think there’s a branch in Ginza as well), and they cook their rice in multiple pots behind a window so that passersby can view the process. Set lunches ranged from 1000 to 1500 JPY; my girlfriend ordered a sashimi and soup course, and I ordered the oyako don. My rice was really good, and they give you the burnt edges to go along as a treat. The oyako don topping itself was excellent, though the egg was served on the very runny side (I like it that way but fair warning for those who don’t).

OSAKA (I only spent a day there).

Kani Doraku – Dotonburi Honten (crab)
I gather this is like the Red Lobster of Japan, but the food was pretty darn good and a great value. For 7000 JPY, we split a set course menu for two which included crab appetizers, grilled crab, crab sashimi, steamed crab, and a crab hotpot. All the dishes were made with snow crab (you can request hairy crab for an extra charge), and I found that the crab was of good quality with a sweet flavor. Would definitely hit one of these again while in Japan.

Botejyu (okonomiyaki and takoyaki)
We orderd both a modern (modan?) yaki here (okonomiyaki with yakisoba on the bottom) as well as some garlic takoyaki. I guess it defeats the purpose of street food to go to a place to sit down and eat it, but we were lured in by the “established since 1946 or whatever sign). While I haven’t had much experience with either of these dishes (my most recent being in St Marks), both were pretty good. The takoyaki was nice with melted middle. We were served the modernyaki on a teppan to keep it warm - the sauce on the modernyaki was just a bit strong. This place was likely pricier than what you’d get on the street maybe in % terms, but was still affordable in the grand scheme of things considering both dishes together came out under 2000 total.

NISEKO (HOKKAIDO)
I doubt many CHers would go to Niseko just for the food, but I did have a really hard time finding any info on Niseko eateries before I visited.

Tozanken (ramen)
We were told this was the best ramen in town, and it definitely lived up to the billing. This was the first time I had tried asahikawa ramen, which seems to be a Hokkaido specialty. This is a fantastic, complex blend of pork, chicken and fish flavors, with some lard on top for good measure. The chashu was thin-sliced, in contrast to other places I tried in Japan, but still managed to be moist and flavorful. On a separate occasion, I ordered their king grab ramen. It’s a bit pricy for ramen (2080 JPY), but they are pretty generous with the crab pieces. The broth itself was wonderful- richly infused with crab flavor but still light. This place was a highlight of our Niseko eating experience.

Niseko Pizza
The host of our condo AND the okami-san at Rakuichi recommended this place, so we had to try it. This was great pizza, though not comparable to US/NYC style nor Italian/Neopolitan styled pizza. The crust is thin, almost cracker like, but still with enough dough to have soft texture on top. The toppings (veggies, meat) were all really fresh and complemented the dough nicely.

Rakuichi (soba)
I didn’t know until actually eating at Rakuichi, but I guess they had been invited to the MAD symposium in Copenhagen during a previous year. At lunch, you can order the soba a la carte, but at dinner, they only have a set course menu with soba as the climax. The first course, sashimi, was wonderful, but I wasn’t very impressed with subsequent courses. They had some fish that was overcooked and tempura that had too much batter. Luckily, the soba (you can get cold or warm soba) was the star of the show, with really great texture and taste. If I went again, I’d probably only go for lunch so I can order the soba separately.

Kamimura (modern Japanese)
Chef Kamimura got his start in Australia, I believe. A few dishes were memorable, including poached flounder, grilled mackerel, and slow-cooked venison. However, some of the others weren’t quite as successful. A grilled piece of shiraoi wagyu, for example, wasn’t as flavorful as I would have expected. I liked the attempt at blending Japanese ingredients with Western recipes, but I just feel like this wasn’t a completely successful execution of the idea.

Bang Bang (izakaya/yakitori)
This was an above-average izakaya that served yakitori dishes. That night, they had a special A5 local wagyu steak (Tokaji?) that they served. We received 350g for 16000 yen, which I think is a decent value for that level of wagyu. It’s not the best I’ve ever had, but it was very very good. We also ordered a bunch of chicken and shrimp skewers and some soup.

Ezo Seafoods
We spoke with the owners (an Australian expat and his Japanese wife ), and they said they started the restaurant because he had heard about all the “fantastic” seafood in Hokkaido, but when they actually ate there, they were fairly disappointed. All I can say is we were very impressed with the fish. The place was laid out like a fish market, where you pick the seafood you want from the buckets, and they prepare it for you at your table. We had hairy crab, king crab legs, sashimi (yellowtail, salmon, tuna), kinmedai two ways (sashimi and then braised) and hairy crab. Everything did taste extremely fresh and well prepared – they did a great job with the cooked pieces. All seafood comes from Hokkaido with the exception of the king crab (from Alaska). Watch out for the bill – it can creep up on you.

HAKONE

Gora Hanougi (ryokan/kaiseki)
I think having a kaiseki dinner in a ryokan is a unique experience, but the food just wasn’t as good as at the kaiseki-focused restaurants listed above in Kyoto. If I were to compare, I would say the food at Kyo Ya in NYC is probably comparable to or better than the food I had here. This meal included some A5 hida beef that you grill yourself – I think it was my least favorite of the five cuts of wagyu I’ve had on this trip, but I will chock that up to my own incompetence – you have to grill your own meat here.

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