Archive for the ‘Food & Drink’ Category

Maru: Affordable kaiseki in central Tokyo

Kaiseki dining is notoriously difficult to access as a gaijin in Japan — you need an introduction and even if you have the luck to get a reservation, it’s all clouded in formal Japanese, so it’s not very accessible to your average gaijin.

This is where Rakushokushu Maru comes in: it offers a wonderful alternative for the expat community in Tokyo — modern kaiseki cuisine with an English menu and English-speaking staff. Lest you think it will be swarmed with gaijins, I didn’t get that impression at all when I went. It seemed like there was a 50-50 balance of locals and foreigners.

interior

Maru has a discreet entrance and once inside, you will be ensconced in a cosy restaurant with woody interior and hushed conversation. Apparently, you can order a full course before your reservation or go ala carte. Ours was a last minute decision so we went ala carte and I was pleased with our selection.

We kicked things off wit ha bubbly, cloudy sake, which was gorgeous in its smooth, slightly sweet, slightly tart palate. Be warned, it goes down too easily and you could get quite tipsy from this drink.

sake-bottle

fizzy-sake

Let’s get into the food. I’ve had a couple of kaiseki spreads in ryokans and what we had at Maru matches up in terms of quality. Most of the dishes were simple creations where the extremely fresh meat and produce shone through their herbs and condiments.

entree

tempura

This croquette dish was one of the few modern touches in the menu. It wasn’t too heavy because the portions were small and the crust was surprisingly light.

pork-with-watercress

This was probably my least favourite of all the dishes, but only because I wasn’t fond of the barely seared pork slices. The watercress and sauce, on the other hand, were fresh and savoury.

rice

You have to order the rice half an hour in advance and you won’t regret it. It comes in a black cauldron-like pot and what you get is a tasty, moist rice which you eat with pickles and a dried sardine paste (pictured below), which is not for those who dislike pungent fishy aromas.

pickled-something

prawn-thing-in-soup

The most complicated dish during the evening was very kaiseki in nature — a deep-fried minced root vegetable ball that floated in a thick, salty broth with scallions. It was hearty despite its tiny thimble size.

grilled-fish

roast-pork

Meat-lovers will swoon over this unadorned smoky platter of roast pork. The secret probably lies in the excellent cut from the freshest of pork and a very subtle marinade on its skin.

bill

Even the bill was done in the spirit of kaiseki. There is usually no direct exchange of money for authentic kaiseki dinners and customers pay their bill via bank transfers a few days or even weeks after their meal. Maru placed the bill simply as a number scribbled on a piece of paper in a cloth envelope, so we put our cash in there, and that was it. We paid a little over the amount required but didn’t stay for the change, but I wonder if we’d waited, would there have been a receipt? By the way, the bill was split between four people, so it was about 8,000JPY per head. Not bad at all for such a classy spread.

Address: Aoyama KT Building B1F, 5-50-8 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
Tel: 03-6418-5572
Opening hours: Lunch: 1130 – 1400 (Mon – Fri); dinner 1800 – 0100 (Fri 1800 – 0200; Sun 1800 – midnight)
Nearest station: Omotesando (B2 exit)

Are you craving for good Chinese food in Tokyo?

As a Singaporean-born Chinese, I’m always in the mood for Chinese food, but sadly, there’re very few establishments that have authentic, affordable, and delicious Chinese dishes.

I’ve become jaded about sticky and sweet ma po tofu, starchy vegetable stir-fries, stale-looking cha han (fried rice) and fancy Japanesey dim sum.

For a change of scenery (and culinary palate), we took ourselves off to Yokohama’s Chinatown in search of a great meal.

If you are not fussed enough to go as far as Nikko or Kamakura for a day trip out of central Tokyo, Yokohama is an excellent and convenient destination that is just 20 minutes on the express train from Shibuya. Yokohama may be a also city but it has a certain quaintness about it — it’s quieter, more spacious, and moves at a more languid pace.

Here are a few pictures of Chinatown in all its red glory.

yokohama-chinatown

small-shops

We poked around and found authentic Chinese ingredients, like fried shallots, fiery-hot chili paste, and dried scallops, but strangely they mingled next to Thai curries and coconut milk.

The ubiquitous nikuban (meat bun) stalls were at almost every corner we turned. They looked fat and yummy.

nikuban

Although the restaurants on the main Chinatown street beckoned with their shiny new menus and extravagant offerings, my friend and I decided to dine at a hole in the wall type of Chinese eatery to get away from the common fare so readily available.

As we ambled down the dark little side lanes, we spotted lively shops promising delicious dishes with the aroma of garlic and oyster sauce wafting out. Rule of thumb while hunting: always pick a more crowded restaurant than an empty one. And so we did.

We got a hearty all-you-can-eat dim sum spread for only 2,500JPY.

har-gao

dumplings

fried-dumplings

fried-radish-cakes

spinach-dumplings

The only things that had a Japanese twist were the spinach dumplings. They used sticky mochi as the skin but they tasted pretty good anyway.

restaurant-name

restaurant-address

I don’t know the Japanese pronunciation of the shop’s name so here are pictures of the kanji and the address, in case you want to look for this place. I wouldn’t say it was out-of-this-world dim sum but it was very good for its price and the dumplings were all succulent and savory like they should be. The sizes are normal (read: not miniscule Japanese servings) so you will feel stuffed to the brim.

This Weekend in Tokyo

raining-in-tokyo

+ Tap into your creative side and feel inspired by Festival/Tokyo, a performing arts festival that is on till the end of March. This weekend, there are four exciting events going on: Clouds. Home, Sunshine 63, Fireface, Shinkan Shonen (Kumquat Seed). Our top pick is Sunshine 63 as the audience gets to take part in the performance. For more details, surf over to the official website.

+ The weather will probably be wet and miserable, so if you don’t want to head out in the rain, hole up in your nook and watch funny Japanese commercials on Youtube. Here are a few suggestions: an old sake anime ad, a weird but kinda cool MacDonald’s ad, a bizarre exercise equipement one and lots more.

+ If movies are what you need to switch off from that stressful work week, there are three movies out that may tickle your fancy as an escape from reality: Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, or Disaster! (a claymation flick by the Team America guys. Yes, it was released in 2005, and it finally made it to the big screen in Tokyo, like…now).

+ It could be time to get yourself to hugely popular French crepe café, Le Bretagne. Park yourself there nice and early at 11.30am or as late as 15.00pm as it’s hard to get a table during peak lunch hour. Go sweet with fruit and syrup or hit the spot with a savoury plate of eggs and ham.

Photo: Kim

Gallerie Vie: A cozy brunch nook in Omotesando

The weekend is upon us and one of the best things you can do for yourself is head to a brilliant brunch.

Gallerie Vie may be tucked right in the centre of Tokyo’s chic district in Omotesando but the café is located around the corner from Issey Miyake on a quiet lane. Part of a women’s boutique, Tomorrowland, the café sits on the second floor with a terrace.

I love Gallerie Vie because it’s convenient but yet you don’t really feel you are in Tokyo. I always feel I’m ready to languish in what looks like a lovely living and dining room located who-knows-where with excellent food.

Even though the set lunch is priced slightly above 1,500JPY, you get thoughtful little touches like delicious olives before your meal arrives.

olives

There is also a bread table where you can help yourself to parmesan cheese, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and four different kinds of bread.

bread

Every visit to this café feels a little new because their menu changes fairly often. I’m an ardent fan of their seafood pilaf, but it has been struck off for other dishes like gratin (pictured below) and steak.

gratin

For something doused in cream, it wasn’t overly heavy with its reasonable serving and vegetable-only ingredients.

pasta

My companions had the tomato-based spaghetti and minced chicken. I didn’t try it but judging from the way they relished it, it was pretty damn good.

The set usually comes with a drink — tea, coffee, or juice and a small bowl of garden salad. In the summer they make a stupendous milky iced latte but the hot version will also make you sigh with gratitude as you wax and wane over what you plan to do over the weekend.

Address: 3-18-9 Minami-aoyama 2F
Tel: 03-3423-8431
Opening hours: Lunch – 1130 – 1530 daily; closes at 2000 (LO 1930)
Nearest station: Omotesando station Exit A4

Tokyo Food Review: Fancy Katsu at Shunkoutei

Honestly, I never thought highly of katsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlet) and filed it under greasy food to eat on the skinkansen or when you take a lunch break at a rest stop on your way out to the boonies.

The picture above is a bowl of katsu don I took while having lunch in Nagano. It was pretty tasty but I couldn’t look at pork for awhile after that. I also feel it has an image where men and teeangers chow down on the stuff because it’s cheap and yummy.

But there is very good katsu to be had restaurant-style and there’s a lot more to it than just dousing everything in tonkatsu sauce. For a lesson on excellent katsu, head to tonkatsu joint Shunkoutei in Akasaka-mitsuke.

This classy corner served wine with chic jazz tunes murmuring in the background and you do anticipate some special nosh coming your way.

To kick things off, tiny cream cheese toasted bread slivers made their way to the table.

And then came a big platter of Japanese pickles and a variety of pate. The flavors were fairly delicate and Japanese in nature; even the meat chunks that sat on a bed of lightly marinated red cabbage leaves.

We decided not to order rice and I’m glad we didn’t because the katsu dishes were generous in size.

Some people may think deep-frying oysters are a shame but the juicy, sea taste is still preserved under the breading and I was sorry to have my last bite.

The lemon tar tar was definitely a high-class sauce with chunks of pickles, mayo, and other mysterious herbs that made it taste oh-so-scrummy.

Do give the strange-looking froth a go because it’s also delicious with seafood katsu. It’s actually whipped soy and it gives a light, salty punch to your seafood fry.

The star of the show was the black pork katsu. I don’t know how it could remain so tender despite having been dunked in hot, boiling oil. Try dipping your katsu into some salt as it gives it a completely different flavor.

I realized that there is a subtle art to deep-fried food — the secret to not feeling you have overdosed on oil is the feather-light bread crumbs and the different dips. You will find that your katsu meal just transforms into a much more colorful culinary experience.

Unless you’re a big eater, katsu will fill you up in no time. We rolled out of there without dessert and wondered how anyone could stomach their multi-course set that includes an appetizer, soup, seafood, pork, rice, dessert, coffee or tea.

Highly recommended to those bringing out friends, family, or business associates who aren’t so keen on Japan’s funkier offerings.

Address: 2-17-69 Akasaka, Muto Corpo Blg, 1F (Just tucked away on the left of the big sqaure at Prudential Tower; opposite Citibank)
Tel: 03-3585-8671
Opening hours: 11.15am – 2.30pm; 5.15 – 9.30pm (L.O.)
Closed on Sundays

Tsukiji market auctions are open again

The auctions are the real reason to head to Tokyo’s famous fish market, Tsukiji — so I keep hearing.

Personally I’ve not been to the 5am auctions but I’ve been to the market twice early in the morning.

I realized that this experience is not for everyone. If you dislike seafood or are indifferent to it, you should skip this tourist attraction. You won’t have any regrets.

But if you love your fish the way I love my mine and the myriad of sea creatures Nature has to offer, it will be visual feast.

Yes, raw and barely alive, and I love it that way.

I’ve a couple of tips as a wee veteran:

*If you can’t stomach sushi first thing in the morning, just head over for an early lunch at around 11 or so.
*If you’re drunk and have a hare-brained idea to eat sushi after clubbing by way of the first train, don’t.
*If you dislike the smell of wet markets and raw meat, skip the wholesale section and just head to the sushi restaurants.

Lastly, don’t queue at the restaurants with the long lines — their sushi is not any better than the lesser known ones. They just didn’t make it to the Lonely Planet.

But since the auctions are open to the public again, I might venture out to take a peek at the boisterous daily event.

Photos: chillntravel, china chas, -nathan, yusheng, photojennic

Tokyo food review: Delicious modern Japanese at Hachiuta, Shibuya

There are hordes of cookie-cutter izakayas that serve up the same dishes in Tokyo, and if you want something a bit more special, you need to make a little effort to hunt down the good places.

Part of the popular Goma izakaya chain, Hachuita (means “eight lyric poems”) is a warm, cosy joint that is tucked away on a small lane in the Shoto-Kamiyama area in Shibuya.

It’s worth the hike as its carefully prepared modern Japanese fare is made from fresh ingredients but is easy on the pocket where most dishes are below 1,000JPY.

Like most fine establishments in Japan, the flavor of the meat or vegetables shine through with only a dash of herbs or sauce. Your taste buds are never overwhelmed and the tapas-style servings are perfect to linger over some excellent shouchu or sake.

Hachiuta is a lively, bustling restaurant, so it’s best to make reservations, especially on the weekend.

Since I was with a group of eight, we ordered a stream of dishes to indulge in.

A simple appetizer of fresh oysters with lemon brought the taste of the sea to our mouths.

The handmade Chinese dumplings with chopped shrimp, water chestnut and spinach were juicy and savory, which make you want to swear off all mediocre frozen ones.

The deep-fried eggplant was very tasty for a stand-alone plate of veggies.

We ordered two of the escargot-style shrimp because it was simply mouth-watering. The cute escargot dish only has six servings of garlic covered prawns, but even if you are in a small group, you may be tempted to order more of this savory sensation.

The dab of yuzu sauce makes all the difference in this generic dish of grilled chicken — it was absolutely succulent with just a hint of citrus.

This is a homey, traditional dish of braised tuna in soy sauce and lots of negi.

A little over 4,000JPY can stuff you to the brim and you’ll leave very satisfied. Hachuita has been mentioned in a few expat-friendly publications and websites so it has drawn many gaijins to its honeypot of culinary delights but there still isn’t an English menu available. The staff is comfortable to speak in English or you could simply point and choose blindly — you won’t be disappointed at all.

Address: Udagawacho 38-3
Tel:03-3496-8009
Nearest station: Shibuya JR station
Opening hours: 5 – 11pm
Access map

Everyone’s fave Japanese drink

There’s nobody I know who doesn’t like chu-hi (which originated from the words shouchu highball — go figure). It’s a fizzy vodka-like liquor mixed with fruit juice which is especially a favourite in summer.

But this winter, the good people at Kirin are not resting and have released a special Apple chu-hi this Christmas season.

Chu-his can be very sweet so Kirin has “50% offu” (means half the calories) and chu-hi zero (which has no calories). Some people don’t fancy the saccharine taste but if you’re a Diet Coke fan, you would think it rocks.

I’ve been trying to figure out why they are so popular and my conclusion is that it’s available in every conbini (convenient store), it’s affordable (250JPY for a regular can), it’s refreshing and it definitely packs a punch even after one or two, so don’t be fooled by its light taste.

To me, chu-his mean party in parks, cozy get-togethers at home, awesome music festivals, and lazy nights in front of the telly.

Top chu-his in my list:
Apple
Cherry
Kiwi

Photos: Kirin

The original Ippudo Ramen in Tokyo

Much has been gushed about Ippudo Hakata Ramen in New York since its grand opening in March this year — news articles reported that New Yorkers waited in the brutal winter cold for up to 90 minutes to eat a bowl of steaming ramen that was a “religious” experience, as quoted in popular food blog, Serious Eats.

A friend who lives there declared Ippudo was her favorite after eating her way through many ramen shops in the Big Apple. With such a vote of confidence, I had to try this tonkatsu (pork broth) sensation when a couple of friends were in town for a visit.

For kicks, I decided to patronize the very first shop built in Ippudo’s chain, which is located in Ebisu, a chic well-heeled neighborhood known for its cool nightlife and culinary delights.

There wasn’t a line to get in (phew…) but it was pretty full of salarymen and OLs (office ladies). I got a seat immediately and pointed to the fabled Akamaru set. Being Singaporean, it was the natural choice as it’s topped with a spicy paste that is not in the Shiromaru one which is just plain tonkatsu soup.

Large bowls of spicy preserved spinach and bean sprouts were placed at every table — this simple but yummy appetizer whetted my taste buds for what was to come.

The rich, savory flavor of the ramen made everyone at the table slurp in silent appreciation. Oishiiiii (delicious)… The noodles were al dente and slippery, while I was just floored by the complexity of the soup — it was a melange of mysterious minced beans (probably from the spicy paste) and punchy meatiness.

You’ve got to try the sui gyozas (steamed pork dumplings) which swim in a clear, light broth and spring onions. Since I’m Chinese by ethnicity, I’m quite critical of gyozas and these little babies were definitely a five-star experience.

What’s unusual about the yaki gyoza (pan-fried pork dumplings) was it had a smidgen of yuzu (Japanese mandarin) paste on the side. The citrus bite completely transformed its heaviness and you’d feel you could stuff in just a few more.

Did I see the Ramen Gods in Ippudo? Almost, just almost. I’ve yet to find another shop that’s better and it’s no wonder that it’s touted as the best ramen chain in Tokyo.

Address: 1-3-13 Hiroo, Hainezu Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Tel: 03-5420-2225
Opening hours: 11am – 4am daily
How to get there: Take the West Exit from Ebisu JR station and head towards Meiji-dori. You’ll spot the shop next to a post office.

Hot Dog from a Vending Machine


Food again, but at the other end of the spectrum. We all heard about the wacky vending machines before coming to Japan, but this still surprised me. Hot dogs, noodles, french fries, etc microwaved from frozen, 400Yen each.
It even has our favourite UsoGaijin 嘘外人 advertising it.
Has anyone out there tried one of these?

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