L’Effervescence, Nishi-Azabu (レフェルヴェソンス、西麻布)

Shinobu Namae is a bit of a food critic’s darling in Tokyo’s competitive fine dining scene. With two Michelin stars, a ranking of #12 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, and an entire CNN Culinary Journeys episode dedicated to him, the sky seems to be the limit for him and his restaurant, L’Effervescence.

Still, while the restaurant had always been on my own culinary radar, the effort required for a reservation and the hefty price tag had deterred me from visiting.  One fateful night in early June while casually perusing OpenTable, however, I found a rare Saturday table and decided to snag it.  For the most part, it was worth it.

When it comes to Tokyo dining, L’Effervescence stands toe-to-toe with the big hitters like Narisawa and Quintessence.  The food is creative, meticulously plated, and delicious. The service is attentive and rarely misses a beat.  The interior design is plush, if not a tad dark, with white table clothes but a “no jackets required, yet collared shirts preferred” kind of vibe.  Expect Radiohead, Rolling Stones, Beck, and The Doors providing background music.

Of course, this is Tokyo haute cuisine and the price tag is “haute” as well.  Only one menu available at dinner for 20,000 yen plus service and tax.  Lunch is 10,000.  Add a few glasses of wine (pairings and an extensive bottle list also available), and you’re looking at at least 32,000 yen per head.  Prepare accordingly.

Let’s eat L’Effervescence!

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Icaro in Naka-Meguro イカロ、中目黒

As an early birthday dinner for me, we decided to visit an Italian restaurant that’s been on my radar a while.  Icaro has one Michelin star and is conveniently located a short five minute walk from Naka-Meguro station.  It is on the 4th floor of a fairly nondescript building more apt to contain chainstore izakaya than fine dining.  Still, upon entering, the restaurant feels like an Italian trattoria adorned with wine bottles, posters with Italian writing, Ducatti paraphernalia, and freeform jazz playing at a volume that encourages jovial conversation.

While Icaro does offer a course menu, the server actually recommended we choose from the a la carte options to ensure we get something we actually want to eat.  He said the dishes are sized to share and recommended 4 to 5 items between the two of us.  All the choices sounded delicious, and we vacillated quite a bit.  Luckily, our server was kind enough to guid us through the more popular options on the menu.  In the end, we opted for two starters, two pastas, one meat dish, and dessert to share.

Besides the food, there is an extensive list of Italian wines to choose from, and everything is priced quite reasonably.  Bottles average 6-7000 yen, while food runs from 2000 yen to about 5800 yen.  All the food pictured below, a bottle of delicious red wine, two glasses of spumante, herb tea, and a generous pouring of grappa with dessert was exactly 30,000 yen.  Not bad at all.

The whole meal was delicious and I’d love to go back to Icaro to try some of their other options.  Fortunately, going back should be easy as it’s on my way back from work, it’s a very casual and open atmosphere, and it is simple to get a reservation through Open Table.   That said, reservations are highly recommended, as I did see one couple get turned away when we dined here on Friday night.

Let’s eat Icaro!

 

Loco – Lisbon, Portugal

Loco was the last stop on our European gourmet vacation, and I’ll say it right off the bat- it was fantastic.  This ultra-modern and vibrant restaurant has quickly gained attention in Lisbon, receiving its first Michelin star just one year after opening, and it’s easy to see why.

After passing through the entranceway featuring a massive, suspended olive tree, one can immediately feel a pulse throughout the restaurant. Perhaps it is the open kitchen at the center of the single large dining room, the vivacious greetings from the youthful and gracious staff, or the striking visual design throughout, the space just feels alive and exciting.  I knew right away that it would be good.

The food is beautifully presented and each dish could double as a work of art. Everything is precise, creative, but never convoluted.  The chef obviously holds great respect for Portugal’s natural ingredients and features them prominently in the very reasonably priced course menu (90 euros).

And then there’s the wine.  This is a food blog and only a food blog namely because I don’t know much about wine.  However, the wines that the sommelier recommended to us were some of the best wines I have ever tasted.  For that, I have included some pictures of the wines at the bottom of this post.

Loco checks all the boxes- it’s fun, exciting, beautiful, and absolutely delicious. Moreover it checks all the boxes without being pretentious and does it all for an extremely reasonable price.  To top it all off, the staff gave us a complementary bottle of limited edition Loco red wine to take home with us.

I am sure that at this rate, Loco will receive its 2nd Michelin star soon enough.

Let’s eat Loco!

 

 

Belcanto – Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon’s only two Michelin-starred restaurant, Belcanto, is located in the heart of the city’s historic center, and is nothing less than a must-visit stop on any gourmet itinerary. Landing at #85 on this year’s World’s Best Restaurants list, Jose Avillez’s restaurant has been helping put Portugal on the culinary map.  Indeed, the country’s celebrity-chef has been featured on CNN’s Culinary Journey’s, No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain, and plenty of other media, as well.

The restaurant is small, cozy, intimate, and very elegant.  Although their countries share a border, this is a whole world away from our experience at DiverXO.  And that’s okay. Sometimes it’s nice to dine in a more traditional setting.  Still, as can be seen in the pictures below, the food is anything less than traditional.  It’s fairly experimental taking cues from Avillez’s time at El Bulli (explosive olives anyone?), but strikes a perfect balance between molecular and recognizable.  And oh my, it is absolutely delicious.

Belcanto offers three different course menus (from 125 euros to 165 euros), each with its own wine pairing.  There is also an A La Carte menu.  Whichever you choose, it will be incredible.  We chose the Evolution Menu with pairing, and it was a perfect amount of food but quite a bit of wine.  We left feeling, well, drunk.

There’s really nothing negative to say about Belcanto in Lisbon.  I can’t recommend it enough.

Let’s eat Belcanto!

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The lovely Belcanto staff were kind enough to let us tour the kitchen. Unfortunately, Jose was not there as he was in Mexico enjoying Noma’s popup in Tulum.

DiverXO – Madrid, Spain

DiverXO, Madrid’s only three-star Michelin restaurant, feels like someone turned Cirque Du Soleil into a restaurant.  Pronounced “duh-ver-show,” the dining experience is an Alice in Wonderland-like, four-hour-or-so trip into the wacky, perverse, and utterly creative mind of owner-chef David Muñoz…and damn, is it good.

To be honest, I feel like blogging about DiverXO deserves a spoiler alert.  If you ever intend to eat there, don’t look at the pics below.  Even if the menu does change regularly, I would recommend going into this restaurant much as you would the latest film in your favorite series.  Keep all prior knowledge and expectations kept at bay and just dive (pun intended) right in.

This destination of a restaurant is set apart from the historic center of Madrid, and that’s probably on purpose.  I won’t pretend to be a Madrid expert (I was only there for one full day), but I can say with a fair amount of certainty that DiverXO’s somewhat remote location was chosen so that its privileged diners could feel they had gone on a journey away from the touristy parts of the city.

Entering the restaurant, one can expect mounted pig butts, massive ice cream cone-shaped wine bottle holders, butterflies everywhere, a full-tour of the ordered chaos of a kitchen, and if you’re lucky (like we were), a photo with the surprisingly down-to-earth David Muñoz at the end of the meal.  Each of the 12 tables are enveloped in a private velvet curtain fit more for a theater than a restaurant.  Around 20 minutes into the meal, the waiters dramatically whisk the curtain away to reveal the rest of the restaurant with a hearty “Welcome to DiverXO!” It’s this dramatic decor and presentation that makes DiverXO more of an experience than just a restaurant.  Of course, there’s also the food, but I’ll let the pictures below speak for themselves.

The food is epic, the presentation is epic, and so too is the price tag- there are only two courses priced at 195 euros and 250 euros.  I usually opt for the “go big or go home” type mentality at these places, because I may never have the chance to go back. In this case, however, the waitress actually advised AGAINST the longer course menu.  We were glad she did, because our shorter course was a ton of food. I’m a big eater and can put up a solid fight at any buffet, but by the end of this meal, I was STUFFED.  It begs the question- is the longer course really even necessary?

The reservation system is difficult, so plan way ahead.  You need to find an open date on their website a good 3 months in advance, and then buy a 60 euro “ticket” (down payment that goes to the final bill price) to hold your seat.

I promise you- this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and totally worth all the effort.

Let’s eat DiverXO! (Note- all food descriptions below are exactly as printed on the menu.)

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A small idea of the interior decor.

Zurriola re-visited (スリオラ、銀座)

For Midori’s 30th birthday, it was a pretty easy decision where to celebrate.  Her answer for “If you were on death row, what would you request for your last meal” has been the caviar ravioli at Zurriola since we first had it in 2015.  Indeed, it was time for a 2nd round to this wonderful Spanish restaurant in the heart of glitzy Ginza.

Even though it has two Michelin stars, Zurriola still feels a bit under-the-radar.  It’s deceptively easy to snag a reservation, and the owner/chef Honda-san is so personable and down-to-earth as he explains each and every dish before you.  Restaurants like Den and Florilege may hit the “World’s Best Restaurant” lists, but for my money, Zurriola is a no-brainer.  This is one of the best restaurants I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit…twice.

Except the speciality caviar dish, every other dish was different from those served two years ago.  The menu in concept is still the same- two course menus to choose with the addition of the caviar marking the supplemental price.  Wine pairings available in 3, 4, or 5 glasses, or a long list of bottles available for the connoisseur.  It doesn’t come cheap (20,000 to 30,000 yen per person), but the simple-yet-innovative, artistic, and most importantly, delicious food paired with a welcoming atmosphere is well worth it for any celebratory evening.

Let’s eat Zurriola…again!

Mr. & Mrs. Bund, Shanghai

We spent an extended weekend in Shanghai last week and wanted to dine at one special restaurant.  Mr. & Mrs. Bund is a renowned restaurant that has won all sorts of awards and been on all kinds of lists.  It unfortunately fell off of Asia’s Top 50 Restaurants in 2017, but I didn’t care- I had heard great things and I had to try it.

The owner, Paul Pairet, is a French guy who has become a household name amongst gourmets in Shanghai. His culinary empire consists of MMB, the avant-garde (and for me unaffordable) Ultraviolet, and the newly-opened gastropub Chop Chop Chop.

Mr. & Mrs. Bund is an absolutely beautiful restaurant.  Although the interior and service style is rather traditional French (chandeliers, huge white doors, table-side carving service, extensive changing of silverware), the food is innovative, exciting, and fresh.

The menu offers a whopping six different course options meant to cater to each person’s preferences (do you like heavy French ingredients like foie gras, or do you prefer the chef’s carefully selected tasting menu? Want caviar on those oysters?), or you can opt for the a la carte menu.  All the dishes are portioned very generously to be shared by the table, and you will leave feeling stuffed but not uncomfortable.

We chose the chef’s tasting menu which also happens to fall right in the middle of the pricing spectrum.  We left the wine choices to the sommelier and were very pleased with everything on offer.  If you know what you like, however, there’s a massive list of wine to choose from, creatively presented on an iPad.

It’s a splurge (around $500 for 2 people), but so, so worth it.

This is an absolutely amazing restaurant…and oh my god…those desserts.

Let’s eat Mr. & Mrs. Bund!

Hashimoto in Edogawabashi (はし本、江戸川橋)

If there’s one thing I learned from last month’s meal at Ryo, it’s that eel. is. good.  I needed more and decided to check out Hashimoto.  Located in a very quiet neighborhood somewhere between Nagatacho and Ikebukuro, Hashimoto was established in 1835 and is run by a sixth-generation owner and chef.

The scent of grilled unagi wafts outside and upon sliding the front door open, it feels like you are entering a traditional Japanese home somewhere far away from Tokyo’s bright lights.  It’s a very casual restaurant and only offers about 10 items on an a la carte menu.  Unlike most Michelin-starred restaurants, there is no course menu, no service charge, a concise, if not limited, selection of libations, and zero sense of pretentiousness or stuffiness.  Rather, the service is attentive and the eel is given its proper space to shine.  From the fact that almost every item contains eel in some form, to the “Unagi Washoku” posters on the walls, there is no doubt that this is a dining destination for the eel purist (do those exist?).

And it’s one of Japan’s cheapest Michelin restaurants, too.  The most expensive item, the unagi-ju jou, is only 3300 yen and most drinks are 700 or 800 yen.  With sake and all the food below, our bill came out to under 13,000 yen.  Not bad at all for expertly prepared eel with a nearly 200 year-old history.

Let’s eat Hashimoto!

Ryo in Naka-Meguro (翏、中目黒)

I’ve never been a big fan of unagi (eel) despite it’s popularity among Japanese and foreigners alike.  It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just something I’ve never gone out of my way to eat.  Still, my wife always credited my lack of unagi enthusiasm to the fact that I’ve never had really good eel.  With that in mind, I searched for some Michelin-starred eel and was happy to find Ryo, a restaurant new to the 2017 guide.  It’s unique in that it only serves one course and each dish comes paired with sake.  Thus, it seemed like a good place to start my unagi journey, because even if the food was no good, I could at least get a good buzz.

Luckily, the food was awesome.  Let me ride the bandwagon- I am a fan, and would be happy to eat the slithery little water snake any time!

Ryo is in a quiet location, a good 10 minute walk from either Naka-Meguro or Ikejiri-Ohashi stations, and it’s 2nd floor location above a car repair shop makes it very easy to miss. Once you find it, it’s a cozy, 8-seat restaurant with just one table that wraps around an open kitchen.  The owner, a 38 year-old well-versed in music, mans the ship doing all the eel preparation, while his father works as a sous chef, and his wife manages the beverages.  It’s a fairly hip place with vinyl album covers like Neil Young and Coltrane adorning the walls, while similar music plays in the background.

The course is a great value, as well.  Two people can enjoy expertly prepared eel served in the kaiseki style and enough rare and unique sake to feel Ryo’s good vibes for well under 30,000 yen.

Let’s eat Ryo!

Sense at Mandarin Oriental Tokyo (センス、日本橋)

I love dim sum.  My wife loves dim sum.  Really, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love various meats, seafoods, or veggies wrapped into dumpling form and then steamed, baked or fried.   With that in mind, and after my epic weekend devouring gourmet dim sum in Hong Kong last year, I thought it was time to see what dim sum Tokyo had to offer.

Sense at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo Hotel offers gourmet Chinese courses and dishes at night, but it’s the weekend-only, all-you-can-eat dim sum course that piqued my interest. Choosing between two courses (8,054 yen or 10,739 yen for the more premium offering), you get an appetizer, a rice/noodle choice, a dessert option, and oh yes, an unlimited selection of delicious dumplings of love made to order.  Bring your appetite- this could be Tokyo’s most filling Michelin-starred lunch.

The restaurant is situated on the 37th floor and offers an amazing view of Tokyo while you eat yourself silly.  The service is attentive and accommodating.   Additionally, it’s rather easy to get a reservation at Sense through their website.  Indeed, a lunch at Sense is a great way to pass away an afternoon taking in a beautiful view, consuming dumplings to your heart’s content, and perhaps catching a nice little buzz with their expensive but delicious drink menu (pairings available at 7,000 yen for 3 wines or 10,000 yen for 5 wines. There’s more than meets the eye, though, as the wines are themselves paired with full servings of Chinese Huanjiu wine!).

Let’s eat Sense!

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Quite the spectacular view.