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Restaurants & Bars

Kyoto / Tokyo Trip Report (November 2018)

NYAngeleno | Nov 20, 201811:32 PM     5

Just returned from a trip to Japan where I was fortunate to have eaten some spectacular meals. I want to thank all the regulars who continue to post, even sparingly, as your updated information was of great help in planning my trip. Please continue to post (even in the face of the millions of Sushi A vs. Sushi B posts :) !

KYOTO

Ryuhei Soba

This was a bit out of the way, but we figured we would rather make a res and schlep here and eat rather than wait in line for 45-60 minutes at Okakita or Yamamoto Menzou. We ordered the “mini set” for 3000-4000 JPY each, and the meal was utterly delightful. I got the cold seasonal soba with veggies, which came with a starter course consisting of carp sashimi, veggies, and plain soba. Then the main soba course, followed by a fantastic grilled unagi course with rice, and the dessert, a soba cream pudding. This meal was a fantastic value and it would be a great way to eat an excellent course meal without breaking the bank. However, amazingly, i don’t think this was the best soba on our trip - that honor would go to Ifuki or Kimura.

Hyotei (kaiseki)

Sadly, Mitsuyasu was booked, as were many other “hot” two star kaiseki places, so we “settled” for Hyotei. They are like the Rodney Dangerfield of kaiseki, in that they get no respect - at least if you base it on western reviews. I had really enjoyed an asagayu (porridge) breakfast meal at the Hyotei Annex few years back, so I approached the meal with some excitement but also some apprehension that it would be a disappointment. I am pleased to report that, for us, the meal was excellent. It started off slowly - the initial course of the Sakizuke with fresh veggies and fruits with sesame sauce was non extraordinary, but to be fair, I think it served as a palate cleanser. The meal improved with a hurry - some chewy tai sashimi with their house made tomato soy sauce, and then reached a bang with white miso soup with lotus root cake. Other highlights included the deep fried taro root with rice powder (with a delicious side of duck breast) and tilefish in urchin. I would say that the meal was restrained yet delicious, and there were some very crave-worth dishes. I would absolutely return for a full kaiseki meal there, but I would also highly recommend others to go for breakfast or for their bento lunch, which is much more accessible financially and less of a time commitment. I’ve read about cold service - the servers explained things well to us, and they spoke pretty good English. The okami-san also came by at the end, and she was quite warm.

Menya Hiro (ramen)

My goodness. I know it’s hard to compare among different types of ramen, but if I were given a chance to go back and eat only one bowl of ramen from my past, this would probably be it. We had his signature kanishio soba (crab and salt ramen). The chef uses water he sources from nearby Fushimi and then boils the crab for 4 days. The result is such an intense but light crab broth where we basically drained every last drop. The pork was thinly sliced and well done, but the highlight toppings were the grilled bamboo shoots and what seemed like poached chicken. We also asked them to recommend a donburi, and we got a poached chicken bowl with raw egg. Absolutely delicious. We didn’t know at the time, but you can order ajitama (or course) and extra toppings. I would for sure get the egg and extra chicken toppings next time. Our cab ride to Yamashina-Ku from our hotel was 3-4x the cost of a bowl of ramen here. But even if you factor in the fully loaded cost, this ramen was well worth it for me.

Sumibi Kappo Ifuki (kaiseki with a grilling focus)

We had back to back kaiseki dinners (Hyotei first, then Ifuki), but this was a meal with a completely different focus. We didn’t score counter seats and instead ended up in a private room. Where the food at Hyotei was more serene, Ifuki’s was more bold. From the get-go, everything was excellent, starting with the initial appetizer with five different dishes, moving on to a white miso with shirako and some zuwai kani (grilled, of course). Many, but not all, of the dishes had been kissed by fire from the grill. When we moved onto the main part of the meal, we were each given a choice of one seafood and one serving of land meat, from a list including: wagyu, bear, suppon (soft-shelled turtle), red rock fish (kinki), and tilefish (amadai). We tried two different versions of the kinki - the salt-grilled one is up there with the best cooked fish I’ve ever had - the skin was crisp and papery, and the fish was naturally oily, along with the amadai. Of the three meats, the suppon was the best, but the wagyu and bear were only so-so. Before the main rice dish (choice of rice or suppon porridge, which was also fantastic), we were given small cups of cold soba in broth. Ifuki’s specialty is grilled food, but this soba was better than that from any soba specialist I’ve been to (granted I haven’t been to THAT many). All in all, there were one or two missteps, but the meal had many wow moments.

Kyoboshi (tempura)

Not to be confused with Nanachome Kyoboshi in Tokyo, this restaurant is in the Gion district of Kyoto. And to make things even more confusing, chef Sakakibara-San of 7-Chome Kyoboshi is the uncle of chef Sakakibara-San of the Kyoto Kyoboshi. Anyway, back to the food... I had many of the same ingredients from my meal in Tokyo, including the shrimp toast starter, lotus roots, shrimp (of course), and some other veggies. The meal was great, and service was warm (Sakakibara-san cooked, and his wife served drinks). It didn’t hit the heights of 7-Chome Kyoboshi, but I dont’ know if that’s due to a difference in quality or because the former was my first ever tempura meal in Japan. Highlights included hamo, green beans, lotus roots, and then shrimp tempura in rice with a broth at the end, along with what I think I recall as kinki (rock fish). I personally didn’t think 7-Chome Kyoboshi was worth returning to at those price levels, but I would definitely try to go back to Kyoboshi in Kyoto at 1/3 of the price. However, I think it’s time for me to try some tempura in Tokyo that maybe doesn’t trace its roots to Kyoto.

TOKYO

Rokurinsha (ramen)

Great as always. We got the tokusei (special) ramen for breakfast, which uses a lighter broth.

Ekibenya Matsuri (bento takeout)

This place in Tokyo Station was packed! They sell all kinds of bento box meals from different regions in Japan. One highlight was the sukiyaki box; the beef and broth both were both flavorful even though they were served at room / cold temps. They probably used some unholy combination of chemicals that I don’t want to know about.

Kimoto (kaiseki)

I haven’t been to the likes of Matsukawa, Kyoaji, Mizai, Ogata, or whatever the new hotness is in Tokyo/Kyoto these days. So I can’t tell you that Kimoto is the best kaiseki in Japan. What I can say is that this is the best kaiseki meal I’ve eaten, which puts it in the running for the best meal I’ve ever had. When we signed up, we were told it was matsutake season, but when we went, we were served crab instead, which was absolutely fine by me! Having just moved from Kobe to Tokyo, Kimoto-san has quite a bit of competition now, but I feel he is up to the task. As I understand it, he was the junior apprentice of Matsukawa. Just about every single dish was transcendental - we had grilled taiza kani, we had it steamed and served with the liver in its small shell with potatos. Fugu sashimi with shirako, thinly sliced, is the best presentation I’ve ever had of shirako. Kimoto-san also served grilled wagyu from Tokushima along with a very simple but delicious boiled turnip in broth. Both desserts were “wow” moments - a milk pudding, and what can only be described as the best fresh-baked chestnut “cookie” you’ll ever eat. The meal was paired with some sake that I had asked them to recommend, and dessert ended with a glass of (pricey) Chateau D’yquem. At the end, I was jealous of a couple other groups at our counter who were booking their next meal with Kimoto-san. That meal stayed in my memory for a while.

Seirinkan (pizza)

Personally, I normally don’t like spending precious time with non Japanese food on trips to Japan, but we wanted a quick dinner as we had just had a big lunch. David Chang highlighted this place in Ugly Delicious, and we walked in out of curiosity. This pizza joint is 100% hipster and wouldn’t be out of place in Noho NYC or Silverlake LA. The pizza wasn’t the best in the world but pretty darn good. They were able to keep the crust stiff enough to stay straight but still be chewy, and the olive oil was fragrant and permeated the pizza (in a good way). Ingredients were of a high standard, as is to be expected.

Moyan Curry

Thanks to Robb S and bento.com, I was able to search for a local curry joint while walking around at 9pm around Shinjuku. I prefer Japanese curry over other types, so this really hit the spot for me. The beef was extremely tender (you could cut it with the fork) and moist, but a bit less flavorful (presumably because it has been stewed for a while) and the goodness is all in the curry. Would go again to scratch the itch.

Udon Maruka

Thanks Tabelog (and CH). We went on a weekday around 13:30 and “only” had to wait in line for 25 minutes or so. This is the best udon I’ve ever had. I got the cold udon with pour over soy sauce with mtn yam. The noodles were the perfect texture. My dining partner got hot udon in broth; as another poster mentioned, some of the chewy texture gets lost. We also order fried chicken nuggets and fried fish cake. This was not a “light” meal.

Sushi Kimura

Was pretty excited to go given the difficulty in getting a reservation. Kimura-san had just returned from a two-week trip to Europe, and I saw after my meal the he served more “fresh” sushi and less jukusei sushi - what he is known for. All I know is that the meal was delicious and one of the best sushi meals I’ve had. Kimura-san himself is friendly and jovial, and his mother, who speaks excellent English and serves drinks, was so warm and sweet! Setting aside the difficulty in getting a res, the cost, and the fact that everybody was taking pictures of their food :), it really felt like being invited to somebody’s home for an amazing sushi meal. Highlights from the otsumami courses were the initial hamaguri broth, the spectacular soba with two kinds of uni, and the crab “shiokara”. The crab had been aged over four weeks and had a lovely brininess, though there was a touch of ammonia to the flavor. My dining partner didn’t love that as much. Moving on to the nigiri, we first had some of Kimura-san’s shari wrapped in nori as a first course. I assume this is to get used to his rice, which is robust to keep up with the aged fish, but it was absolutely delicious by itself. I didn’t ask, but the shari seemed like it was made with akasu with a finish that lingered on in your mouth. This was probably my favorite rice of the three restaurants on this trip. Highlights from the nigiri course included kawahagi with kimo (we had this at all three places, and I think this was the best version), the sawara, ikura aged over 4 weeks, his signature aged makajiki (blue marlin), and buri with shallots. The combination of the buri with the shallots was amazing - I think if I could go back and have one piece of nigiri from the entire trip, it would be a tough decision, but that would be the piece. All in all, Kimura met or exceeded expectations, and if I were fortunate enough to score another reservation, I would gladly return.

Sushi Nanba (Hibiya)

I’ve never been to the Asagaya location, so I can’t compare to that. But given all that’s been written, I had high expectations, and the meal lived up to them. His otsumami was excellent, with one or two missteps. I really liked his kinki in broth, a shirako dish that reminded me of clam chowder but of course with much greater depth of flavor, and perhaps the best ankimo I’ve had. However, I wasn’t a fan of the (poached?) tako, which had the consistency of pulled pork. On to the nigiri. From the second we got there all through the 7 tsumami courses, Nanba’s apprentice spent the entire time slicing sumi ika into what seemed like hundreds of strips. This was used as the neta for the first piece. The texture was really amazing, and it speaks to the attention to detail. Nanba’s shari was strong, made with akasu and a great deal of salt. While I was eating the meal, I thought the salty shari really highlighted the flavors in the nigiri, but after the meal, I did get this sense that I had consumed too much salt. My dining partner told me that they would probably not return due to the saltiness of the shari. My favorite nigiri pieces were probably a succession of three where I had sayori, sawara, and katsuo. One completely out of this world dish was the ikura - it was basically heated and cooked into some rice, and mixed with truffle. So you didn’t see any overt signs of Ikura. Amazingly, the uni served here was from Santa Barbara! I got an explanation in Japanese, which I dont’ really understand, but it was something to the effect that he found it better than the uni from Hokkaido or Kyushu at the moment (I think). Also, randomly, the chef from Tominokoji Yamagishi (in Kyoto) happened to be eating lunch at Nanba that day. At the end, they asked us if we wanted any extra pieces. I heard him order a kanpyo maki, so I got one for myself. I didn’t understand why, but they made a chu-tori maki and akame-maki as well. No complaints here. For me, Nanba definitely lived up to its reputation, but some might want to be wary of the salt levels in the shari.

Sushi Masuda

On my previous trips, the Jiro-style sushiyas happened to be my favorites (Mizutani, Harutaka), so I made sure to book one this time around. My impression of the Jiro-styled sushiyas is that you will not be served any new fish you’ve never heard of, and the types of fish are pretty middle down the fairway, but the quality will be among the best you’ve had. Both Masuda-san and his apprentice speak great English. We were asked if we wanted to upgrade to the premium course for 7k JPY extra, and we gladly obliged. I would say that the otsumami here was the most consistently excellent, in that every single dish was of the highest level. We got: fugu sashimi with lever sauce, seiko kani with Hokkaido uni, Shirako with truffle, some magaki oysters from Miyagi prefecture in broth, a nori roll with rice mochi and karasumi in the middle, amadai in broth with green onions, and a plain ol’ tuna roll. On to the nigiri - all the tuna was fantastic, but the highlight had to be the kuruma ebi. This was the best ebi I’ve had since my first sushi meal in Japan at Mizutani. But all the nigiri was of a very high quality. They use gomezu in the rice, which give a razor sharp acidity that peaks quickly and doesn’t really linger, leaving a clean taste. Of the three places, I still maintain Kimura had my favorite rice, but it’s all subjective, and others could have different preferences. My only criticism is that they were a bit heavy handed with the seasoning for the hamaguri and the anago. We ended up sitting next to the CEO of Pocket Concierge and chatted with the briefly. FYI, Masuda only seats 5 at the counter - they have a private room. I saw that Masuda-san made the nigiri for the counter, while his apprentice made the nigiri for the private room. I also think they must be in some guide book (yes, I know, Michelin, but I assume other popular ones as well?) because three different parties knocked during lunch and were turned away because they didn’t have reservations. As I understand it, Masuda is not that hard a reservation to get, yet the sushi is excellent (albeit pricey). I would highly recommend this as a sushi destination for many folks on their travels to Japan where you can enjoy world-class sushi and not stress about whether you can get into the latest intro-only restaurant.

Miyasaka (kaiseki)

I have always wanted to try Mizai in Kyoto but have never been able to finagle a reservation. When I learned that a former apprentice from Mizai had opened his own shop in Tokyo, this restaurant automatically moved up my list of must-tries. The counter seats 7-8. There were three of us foreigners, and we sat down and started at 7pm. The remaining seats were reserved by locals, and their reservation was at 7:30. I didn’t mind, and maybe this helped the pace of the meal. No photos were allowed, which was liberating, but this was maybe visually the most beautiful meal of our trip. I would say that all the flavors were very restrained, but not bland (and I know it can be a fine line). This was our third white miso soup, and we still weren’t tired of it. Miyasaka-san is very warm and friendly, and service was responsive without being overbearing. The hassun was perhaps the most spectacular dish, both visually and in terms of taste. But the meal itself was eminently Kyoto in style, not opulent (like Kimoto), with a focus on seasonal ingredients and especially vegetables. We had a soup with the kabu radish and a simple carrot that will long live in my memory. A roasted wagashi with chestnuts was an amazing dessert. The meal really lifted our spirits and nourished us, but it was not a visceral experience. I would not eat here if this is your first foray into kaiseki, but I can absolutely see how Tokyo denizens would be ecstatic about being able to eat at a Kyoto- style kaiseki restaurant without having to jump on the bullet train.

Dons de la Nature (wagyu)

For me, still the best wagyu I’ve had (I liked it more than Ukai Tei or Shima) though the wagyu at Kimoto was comparable in quality yet different in preparation. I’ve found the best serving size for my stomach and wallet is to split 400g between two people (we had a choice of sirloin from Matsusaka, which we picked, vs some sirloin from Hokkaido and some filet from Omi). It was empty on a Saturday night - I’m not sure how he stays in business given he must be paying crazy rent in his Ginza location.

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