Food

Fine Dining – Ryugin / 龍吟 (3 Michelin Stars)

Mum and Dad love their fine dining, so with them visiting me in Tokyo I had to take them somewhere special. Last time I took them to 3-Michelin-Starred Ishikawa, making a vlog about it that now makes me cringe. This time, another kaiseki restaurant that was in some ways very similar and in some ways extremely different. This time, I took them to Roppongi’s Ryugin, meaning ‘Dragon Song’, or at a stretch ‘Dragon’s Poetry Recital’, down a quiet road in the shadow of the imposing Roppongi Hills complex.

Ishikawa was more of an ultra-traditional kaiseki meal, whereas Ryugin has more of a modern twist, in cooking and experience alike. Neither was better than the other, and both had flaws as well as strengths, but both were certainly superb dining experiences and offered some of the best flavours I’ve ever enjoyed.

The primary difference between the two kaiseki restaurants was in service style. In Ishikawa we ate in a private room with each course brought through to us individually. It was nice to have very attentive service and privacy, but an open, western-style dining room like Ryugin’s is more comfortable for us and feels inclusive. It’s fun to see what others are getting and to relax in the wash of noise from other people’s chatter. We decided to start with nihonshu (saké), and I played it safe by ordering Nishida Denshu, which I know to be high-quality.

One interesting thing about Ryugin is the importance given to crafts and receptacles. We were given a choice of glasses to use, and they looked not dissimilar to fine jewels. The nihonshu itself was easy to drink, rich in flavour and complimented almost every course well, though perhaps was a bit indelicate to match with fish.

With ingredients drawn from around Japan, there was something very fitting about the first course – chawanmushi savory custard with eggs from Ibaraki (where we went earlier), yuba, or tofu skimmings, from Tokyo (where we were dining) and herring from Hokkaido (where we’re going soon). This was a lovely start, the chawanmushi extremely tasty but the herring in particular better-prepared than I’ve ever had the fish before, and a real pleasure to eat.

Our next dish came covered, with the kind staff freely conversing with us in English, except when I asked something in Japanese. It’s really the level of service that sets 3-Michelin-starred restaurants apart, and the staff here were excellent throughout, not only with us but with other tables nearby who were treated with courtesy but friendliness too.

The dish turned out to be crab with a topping of uni, or sea urchin. The crab was tasty but it was the uni that elevated the dish, the sweetness and creaminess defining the overall flavour. I’m never sure about uni, but when I actually eat it I don’t know why I don’t eat more. Well, Hokkaido’s the place to eat it so I’d better have some there!

The soup course was inventively served in a teapot, with tile fish and little prawn dumplings evocative of Chinese har gao, and an emphasis on the soup being made with water from Mt Fuji – which we were also given bottled as gifts at the end of the meal. The dumpling was very pleasant and while I never really think soup is a meal’s highlight, this was a solid addition to a strong menu.

 

For us, the meal faltered a little on the sashimi courses, which were much more pleasant at Ishikawa. ‘A Message from the Coast of Japan’ is one of the signature dishes of the restaurant, but this was a stripped down version with two kinds of fish rather than seven. And the first was fugu. I’ve had fugu raw before (as nigiri-zushi) and didn’t like it. It’s chewy and has no strong flavour that I enjoy. Here there were not only thin slices of fugu that were little better here than in the cheap Dotonbori restaurant I sampled the fish before, but scraps of fugu skin and flesh too. The yuzu dip was nice but I just can’t get on with blowfish sashimi. Perhaps I just have a very unsophisticated sashimi palate.

Next was more sashimi, this time stripe bonito. It wasn’t unpleasant like the fugu, but as sashimi it wasn’t what I would call delicious. I like the Western staples of tuna and salmon when it comes to sashimi, and might just be too inexperienced to enjoy this sort of fish, but generally I much prefer bold, simple flavours in my raw fish.

Somen noodles topped with shark’s fin followed. The somen was delicious, with a strong savoury flavour, but I wasn’t convinced by the shark’s fin. It’s something I’ve tried before, in China, and while its texture is very interesting in the mouth, it’s ultimately little more than an add-on to what it accompanies, rather tasteless on its own, and its production is so wasteful and cruel that I really could do without it. I’d much rather have just had the expertly-cooked somen.

Charcoal-grilled perch put things firmly back on track for me, with a grilled fish that was made delicious by the crispy skin. I’ve not had much perch before but I think I ought to try it again sometime.

The venison was an unusual choice in Japan and not quite as nice as Ishikawa’s duck, but was still quite delicious and well-judged in its sparse, somewhat hard accompaniments. The dish was tied together well, but perhaps could have done with some sort of sauce to bring a richer aftertaste.

Once again, rice followed the meat separately. Unlike in Ishikawa, I didn’t feel it was a shame meat and rice were separated, because the rice was cooked with pheasant and accompanied by miso soup this time. On the other hand, the rice wasn’t remarkable for its deliciousness like Ishikawa’s (harvested and cooked the same day), but was actually rather bland.

No such complaints for the desserts, which were by far the best I’ve had in Japan. The first was a little baby mandarin with milk tea ice cream and amazing little crunchy bits of sugar and pepper mixed together. The fruit was a little tart and the small granules were very sweet and the ice cream was in the middle but cold and creamy too, and they all wove together in the most wonderful and changeable way.

But that dish paled beside the superb final course, saké-based desserts served two ways – a hot soufflé and a cold ice cream with little meringue pearls. This was the most delicious meal, with the soft soufflé and the creamy, very slightly tangy ice cream matching one another so perfectly. I was by this time rather full, but could have happily eaten ten more such desserts. A very memorable highlight!

After that, just some matcha to round everything off, and gifts of the chopsticks we’d used, the fun dragon-themed placemats and the water from Mount Fuji. A less traditional but more casual and relaxed experience than Ishikawa, and a very fine companion, this meal excelled in starters and desserts and showcased high-quality Japanese cuisine from beginning to end.

Fine Dining: Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road

Once a year I have the privilege of going to a fine dining restaurant for my birthday. My parents are foodies who worked all their lives as doctors before retiring, and one of their great pleasures is to travel the world eating delicious food. Living in Japan, I don't get to share in many of their meals these days, but when I come home for my birthday, they treat me. I'm so lucky.

I've been wanting to go back to this restaurant, Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, for years now. We went in 2010 for my brother's birthday, and I had fond memories, so wanted to return. But it's a bit awkward to get a reservation, partly because the restaurant is popular but mostly because it's not open on weekends.

This year everyone's schedules lined up, though, so we decided to return to Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, one of what was until recently one of just two 3-Michelin-Star restaurants in London (joined last year by a Japanese restaurant). We walked from Sloane Square to the Chelsea restaurant and after having our coats and bags taken to the cloakroom, had some tasty fruit juices in lieu of aperitifs (some of the others had gin and tonics, but gin is one spirit I really dislike).

The restaurant was different from how I remembered it. It was more spacious and modern, with more art deco touches. In fact, I see that it was refurbished in 2013. The chef was different too - when we first went, it was Clare Smyth (Ramsay hasn't been the chef there since 2007), and this time Matt Abé. So with many crucial elements having changed, it was worth trying again.

We were treated to some little canapes with echos of Japanese and Chinese cuisine, which were a pleasant start. The restaurant seated a few more this time, with many two-person tables around the edges of the room. This gave a slightly unnerving feeling for those of us in the centre of being the entertainment at a cabaret, but that was soon forgotten as we chatted and were greeted by the friendly staff, including an amiable maitre d' Jean-Claude who we remembered from last time.

An amuse-bouche followed in the shape of a soft-boiled egg with creamy garlicky soup inside. I've forgotten exactly how it was described, but it was a very tasty little treat to begin with.

The first course of the Menu Prestige was pressed foie gras with a wonderful piece of fluffy brioche toast on the side. Now, restaurant Gordon Ramsay is the place I had the best foie gras I ever remember having, but that was braised. Braised foie gras isn't for everyone, but I love it, even more than I love foie gras pates, so while this was a good start to a very good meal, it couldn't match up to my memories of the starter from seven years ago, nor to the braised/seared foie gras I had in The Square or Seven Park Place the last two years.

A ravioli followed, stuffed with lobster, langoustine and salmon, which was tasty and charming but a little salty for me.

Better was the halibut with king crab and lime. The fish was superb and balanced in a very interesting way by the lime. This is one of the advantages of a tasting menu - I'd never choose this kind of dish from the a la carte, but I'm happy to try it and be surprised.

Lamb with winter vegetables followed as the main course. It was delicious, especially when the meat and vegetables complemented one another when eaten at the same time. Again, lamb isn't what I tend to choose and I'd much rather have a steak, so while the cooking here was superb, it wasn't quite optimal for me because there are dishes I'd rather choose. Nonetheless, a delicious centrepiece.

Cheese was next. I forgot to take photos until I'd already sampled some. I wanted a strong cheese and two blue cheeses, and one of those blue cheeses was amazing. I'd rather larger, seedless grapes with my cheese, though.

A little blackcurrent sorbet came after that, with slightly questionable presentation but a very pleasant flavour with champagne crushed ice accompaniment.

I preferred the rich flavor of this little cheesecake-like affair for dessert, though, which was very sweet yet very refreshing and matched my dessert wine neatly.

Finally, they brought out some dainty little treats to polish off the meal. These little ice cream balls encased in white chocolate were delicious.

They brought me a little birthday cake, too! Cute. And those salted caramel chocolate pieces were some of the nicest chocolate I've ever had - and I eat a whole lot of chocolate, haha.

And finally, these little jelly pieces with a leaf in reminded me of Japanese mochi. I prefer sweeter things but these were definitely well worth having in between the salted chocolate pieces to refresh the palette. And that was the end of a very fine meal shared with loved ones, which I would love to have again, but which wasn't quite aligned with my ideal dishes. I'd love to try Abé cooking the same dishes I had at the Square last year. The last two years' meals edge this one out slightly, but I'd still say this, averaged with memories of last time at the same restaurant, was one of my top 5 fine dining experiences! I'll have to try Smyth's new restaurant Core when I can, though.

「怖い絵」展 / Fear and Painting exhibition, Ueno Royal Museum

Today, my friend Mayumi and I went to Ueno for the Fear in Painting exhibition, which has been widely-advertised for the past few months with striking images of Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey across Tokyo.

After stopping for probably the best tempura I’ve had in Japan so far, at Ueno’s 音音(Oto Oto), we headed into the park to the Ueno-no-Mori Museum, usually called the Ueno Royal Museum in English. Instantly we knew this was not going to be a simple art gallery visit – today is a national holiday so the queues rivalled the Harry Potter attractions in Universal Studios when they first opened.

One very long wait later and we were inside. I had the same frustrating experience I’ve had in Tokyo art museums with major Western artists so far – extreme overcrowding. You have to shuffle slowly past each painting, which most patrons give a cursory glance to unless their audioguide directs them to look at something, and then get elbowed and shoved by old ladies as soon as you get a good view of a painting, at which point you have to move on to the next. At least the Delaroche painting is on a grand enough scale that it hardly matters! On the other hand, I’ve seen it several times before in London, without the overcrowding, so for all its beauty, masterful use of lighting and interesting place within the theme of ‘fear’, and for all its academic style has become fashionable again, I wasn’t nearly as impressed as I might have been viewing this masterpiece for the first time in a visit from a far-off land.

Otherwise, the exhibition wasn’t really strong enough to justify the crowds or the admission price. There were some gems, from Waterhouse (Circe), Gustave Moreau (Angels of Sodom) and Henry Fuseli (The Nightmare) in particular, as well as some famous drawings/etchings from Aubrey Beardsley and Hogarth, but the overall feeling was that major artworks that the curator would have liked were missing and had to be referred to obliquely – in lieu of The Scream, several minor Munch works had to be included, for example. In place of Bosch, anonymous Netherlandish art. No Dalí, but some proto-surrealism from illustrations of Edgar Allen Poe books. No Goya paintings, only etchings. Then, too often there was a tenuous connection with fear but no actual fear being portrayed, like an image of King Solomon proclaiming the baby should be cut in two, but the only one in terror at this facing away from the viewer. Other renditions of fear were a bit clumsy, like Ford Maddox Brown’s melodramatic (but expertly-painted) rendition of Manfred. There was something to be said for fear inspired by a place in Sickert’s image of Jack the Ripper’s room, but within more of a context of actual fear portrayed, I think that would have been more successful.

Perhaps the most interesting section was a series of paintings by Charles Sims. I don’t know much about Charles Sims but I feel I should find out more. This was one of the most questionable links to the concept of fear, but in several pictures in different styles showed a creative mind tortured by trauma. As a scholar of the First World War, that was very relevant to me, and as a writer and musician who admires the ability to work in different modes and styles, seeing Sims now working as a realist, now a post-impressionist, now a kind of Modernist, was impressive to me. I think I’ll look out for his work in future.

At the end of the exhibit, the crowds and slow pace actually felt exhausting. We had to agree that this isn’t really the way to view art, and far from the relaxing experience we had been hoping for. While there were gems, and I’m happy to have been introduced to Sims, it wasn’t an overly enjoyable experience. Also for some reason the curator, Nakano Kyouko, seems to have a significant bias towards England. English painters were dominant here, or borrowed from English galleries. Or both, of course. The centrepiece may have been by a French painter, but it was an English subject and on loan from the National Gallery. With Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane, a map of the Tower of London to flesh out the Delaroche painting, Sims’ fairies, Sickert’s squalid London room, Waterhouse, Beardsley and, through an adopted homeland, Fuseli, it may have been the most English-dominated art exhibition I’ve ever been to that wasn’t a collection of a single artist’s work. Which was entirely unexpected and seems a little constraining given the multitude of artworks dealing with fear from around the world.

Overall, while the exhibition had its highlights, I didn’t feel it dealt with the subject very well and was limited by a strange narrowness of vision as well as, presumably, budget. But judging from the demand, it was an undoubted success, and was of course much better than seeing no art at all.

Fine dining: Galvin at Windows

I’m back in the UK for a few weeks – and meeting my family these days means trying out a delicious fine dining restaurant! I’ve been over-eating the whole trip, but this will be the highlight – my first trip to Galvin at Windows, high up on the 28th floor of the Hilton Hotel at Hyde Park Corner.
I’ve been to other Galvin restaurants, mostly recently Galvin la Chapelle, and my family had been here before, but it was my first time. This Michelin-starred branch is headed by South Korean chef Joo Won, and while we were led to expect South Korean influences, I can’t say I detected any. What we enjoyed was Anglo-Franco fine dining, most likely because we opted for the Sunday lunch menu.

After enjoying the view out over Baker Street and Gloucester Place, spotting familiar places and trying to figure out where certain key places were, my first course was seared foie gras on Iberico pork and brioche with tomato chutney. All the elements were excellent, and there was a very pleasant variety here, but the overall taste of the dish became peculiarly like an extremely high-quality hamburger – with foie gras. It was tasty, but I much preferred the simple, straightforward presentation of foie gras I had at Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road.

Next was a variation on beef with Yorkshire pudding – only the beef was a fillet and the gravy was peppercorn sauce. This was an excellent dish, with high-quality meat, some interesting flavours to match the very traditional Yorkshire pud, and with a little cabbage that added interest to the texture and some light flavour to an otherwise heavy dish. My one complaint was that the sauce was a little too sweet overall.

We had some cheese next. I never used to like cheese, but cheese with grapes works so well. The Roquefort was particularly tasty with it!

Dessert was an apple tarte tatin, one of my favourites. With a light Rosemary ice cream, it was a little more than I needed since we had cheese as well, but very delicious.

They also made Dad a little birthday cake! That was sweet – can’t fault the customer service today.

 

Birthday meal 2016 – Galvin la Chapelle

Each year, my parents treat me to a special meal for my birthday. This year, I chose Galvin la Chapelle in Spitalfields, a restaurant we’d been to before, but which I remembered as having a beautiful setting and great food. Thus, when I found Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road booked up as usual, I decided on la Chapelle.

The decor - It’s certainly one of the most memorable of London’s fine-dining restaurants, with its beautiful ceiling and floating mezzanine level, and the food was excellent, too. We opted for the Menu Gourmand, a seven-course tasting menu, and every dish was an excellent complement to the last.

     

Lasagne of Dorset crab, beurre Nantais and pea shoots - The first dish was a ‘lasagne’ of crab, which was a neat start to proceedings but probably the weakest moment of the meal. The crab meat was superb but the dish as a whole was a little on the tasteless side.

Ballotine of Landes fois gras, confit quince and brioche - Next came a very rich and well-balanced foie gras pate course, with soft but crispy brioche and the right amount of cutting sweetness from the confit. Very well-done, and I would have liked to have had more.

Risotto of Burgundy black truffle, Jerusalem artichoke and wood sorrel - The third course was risotto with black truffles, combining to make a very strong, almost garlicky flavour – it was a small dish but probably the best risotto I’ve ever eaten. I enjoy very strong flavours, and this hit the spot.

Wild sea bass, marinière of cockles, sea beets and Jersey oyster - The fish course was excellent. Sea bass is my favourite cooked fish in any case, but what really made this dish fantastic was the crispy skin. Everything combined into a very appealing centrepiece to this meal.

Denham Estate venison, lemon thyme white polenta and forest mushrooms - The climactic meat dish was venison – a better option than the pigeon that was on the website sample menu, I think! The flavours were strong and rich but somehow the balance seemed off here. There was too much in the sauce that was battling with the taste of the meat. So while still delicious, this was one I felt could have been better. I didn’t get a picture, but next came cheese – truffled brie de Meaux with confit William pear and truffle honey. A strong cheese and a nice balance, I was very pleased to have decent cheese for the first time in a while!

Apple tarte Tatin with Normandy crème fraîche - To finish the meal, we enjoyed a well-made tarte tatin, a favourite of mine. The crème fraîche was well-made and nothing was overpowering, but the dessert was not a stand-out – it didn’t seem markedly better than any tarte tatin from a local bakery. But that’s not to say it wasn’t very pleasant. The standard of every course here was high and the risotto really stood out as a cut above any other I’ve tried. A very fine meal, in a beautiful setting!

Fine Dining: my birthday meal at The Square, London

The Square is the favourite restaurant of my brother and his wife. For my birthday meal this year, I wanted to go back to Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, but didn’t manage to get a booking in time, so instead remembered this excellent restaurant with two Michelin stars. We had been twice before, but it must have been at least six years since the last time so I thought it would be nice to try it again. After all, The Square served the best dessert I’ve ever eaten on my first trip there, an absolutely delicious pear tarte tatin, so it was well worth another try. Though I was jetlagged and flagging toward the end, the meal last night was excellent once again. Rich, bold flavours balanced with more delicate ones and some superb amuse-bouches. The first of these was the best: a cone filled with delicious foie gras mousse, just the right balance between crispiness and rich creamy flavour. It was accompanied by a fun little spicy prawn cracker affair. 20151219 01 A second amuse-bouche was simpler, three little canapes with rich, interesting flavours to them, though none as direct and mouthwatering as the foie gras pastry. 20151219 02 Continuing on the same theme, what followed was a generous piece of buttery, extremely flavoursome braised foie gras. It was cooked to perfection with the crispy burnt layer perfectly judged. The accompaniment was apple and pear with a meaty pastry-like strip, plus crushed almonds, but honestly I felt all of it detracted from the simple pleasure of the foie gras, so I ate everything else first and then enjoyed the centrepiece unadulterated. 20151219 03 My go-to menu is always foie gras and then beef, and I made no exception, choosing steak for my main course. And what a steak! Shame my photo didn’t come out better, because this was superb. Everything on the plate, from spinach to burnt onion and particularly the meat itself was absolutely delicious. I would eat it again in a heartbeat. I didn’t want to drink wine because it made me much more drowsy after my 15-hour plane journey, but it was worth it with the steak. 20151219 04 The third amuse-bouche before dessert was a little sorbet and meringue arrangement that surprised with rich vanilla flavours, and certainly set us up to finish the meal well. 20151219 05 My dessert was ‘tiramisu’, the inverted commas amusing us – and of course indicating deconstruction. The chocolately affair that arrived looked very pretty and tasted very rich indeed, but a few concentrated dark chocolate balls were just a little overpowering in comparison to the rest. Still very delicious, though. 20151219 06 After that, considering we weren’t having coffee, the little petit fours-style chocolates were a bit redundant, but welcome anyway and served in sweet little wooden boxes. 20151219 07 I was shattered by the time we finished eating and midnight approached, but very gratified. It was a delicious birthday meal and wonderful to spend with the family!

Tokyo Theme Cafés #1: Vampire Café

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Group photo from @leo_punkprince on Instagram.

One of the fun things to do in Japan is go to the themed cafés. I’ve been to the Gundam Café and the cutesy cafeteria in Sanrio Puroland, and I’ve had drinks in an awesome hospital-themed bar in Singapore, but this was actually my first-ever non-anime theme café experience. So here’s a highly goofy one-minute vlog about it!

Tokyo Michelin-starred restaurants #2: Fureika (plus a disastrous haircut)

Luckily, my hair has recovered. Picture by Acqua Models

Luckily, my hair has recovered. But in the video...ew...! [Picture by Acqua Models]

My second visit to a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo. This time it was the more expensive but decidedly yummy dim sum menu at Chinese restaurant Fureika in Azabu-Juban. I was in the neighbourhood to get a haircut which…yeah, I can’t say went very well. Bleh!