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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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.

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!

Locavore – Ubud, Bali

My wife and I went to Bali to spend our Christmas and New Year holiday in the hot weather by the beach.  After some research, I was pleased to find that Bali squeezed one of its restaurants, Locavore, into Asia’s 50 Best at #49.

Locavore is in Ubud, a part of Bali that is actually located away from the beach at a much higher altitude enveloped in lush jungle and picturesque mountains.  The restaurant takes advantage of its surrounding by featuring all sorts of ingredients this island has to offer, thus the “local” part in its name.  To be honest, there are so many different components used in each dish, including Indonesian ingredients I have never heard of, that there is no way I can remember them all.  Still, I have included a slideshow of every dish and cocktail included in the course.  Hopefully the beautiful pictures below speak for themselves, much louder than my lackluster descriptions.

There are 2 menus- locavore (featuring meats and other proteins) and herbivore (vegetarian).  You can choose between 5 or 7 courses, and a cocktail pairing is offered, as well.  We chose the full locavore course with pairing, and for about $125 a head, were treated to five appetizers, six main courses, one dessert, several more petit fours, and six sampler-size cocktails to accompany each main course.  For Bali, it’s expensive.  Were it located in any other major city, however, it would be a real bargain.

Locavore is set in the dead-center of Ubud amongst the heavy foot-traffic of backpackers, hippies, and drunk Australians.  Thus, while the dining is fine and expertly crafted, one can expect a fairly boisterous environment and a lackadaisical dress code (“no beer logo tank-tops”).

If you’re in the area, it’s a must-visit.

Let’s eat Locavore!

Hong Kong Dim Sum Battle! Lung King Heen vs. Yan Toh Heen(点心味比べin香港!龍景軒vs欣圖軒)

This past weekend was a three-day weekend, so we decided to make a quick getaway to Hong Kong.  The main purpose behind the trip? To eat, of course!

We really love dim sum and in Hong Kong, Lung King Heen and Yan Toh Heen are arguably the two biggest hitters in the field.  The former has three Michelin Stars and is listed at #10 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.  The latter, meanwhile, holds its own with two Michelin Stars.

There was no question that I had to visit Lung King Heen.  However, it seemed a waste not to visit Yan Toh Heen, too, since we were staying at the hotel in which it is located.  So we went big.  Saturday at LKH and Sunday at YTH.  It became a weekend battle of Hong Kong dim sum! Who would come out on top?

Both restaurants were absolutely delicious and both have stunning views of Victoria Harbor.  However, the answer was almost immediately clear, and Michelin got it right.  In almost all regards- taste, value, service, and interior- Lung King Heen was superior. However, Yan Toh Heen had more gourmet options like the Superior Dumplings seen below, and I enjoyed their dessert more.  Still, YTH lost major points with me for charging exorbitant amounts (~$12) for a small bottle of Evian water, while Lung King Heen’s water was free and clear.  I drink a ton of water any time I eat, so this was a big one for me.  We did not drink alcohol at either restaurant, but LKH’s pu erh tea was tastier, as well.  Both restaurants give you heaping pots of tea for very reasonable prices.  Perfect for dim summing.

If you are going to be in Hong Kong and want to have a special dim sum meal, Lung King Heen is as good as it gets.  If you can’t get a reservation there, though, or you just want more dim sum, Yan Toh Heen is delicious, as well.

Both meals were just under $150 for 2 people.  A great value either way!

First, let’s eat Lung King Heen!

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The meal starts with sauces.  L to R: Spicy rayu, oil with garlic, douchi beans, and mushrooms, and a ginger soya sauce.

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Steamed rice rolls with lobster and water chestnut in a fermented bean sauce.  One of the most memorable items, bursting with lobster and flavor.

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Weekend dim sum special- pork, pine nuts, and veggie dumplings

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Steamed lobster and scallop dumpling.

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One of my favorites- Baked barbecue pork buns with pine nuts.

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The inside of these delightfully sweet and savory buns.

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Luxury! Baked whole abalone puff with diced chicken.  I could eat 10 of these.

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Crispy shredded chicken spring rolls.

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Steamed rice rolls with barbecue pork and mushrooms.  The sauce is poured by the waiter table-side.

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Steamed shrimp and pork dumplings with crab roe.

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Pan-fried turnip pudding with conpoy and air-dried meat.

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Almond cream with egg white- this is a subtly sweet dessert served hot.  At first it seemed to lack flavor, but it really grows on you.

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Chilled mango and sago cream with pomelo.  Much sweeter dessert and also delicious.

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Petit fours were almond biscuits and a jelly with cherries and goji berries.

 

Next, let’s eat Yan Toh Heen!

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The meal starts with a welcome dish of candied almonds with sesame seeds.  Nice to snack on while waiting for the food to arrive.

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Six different sauces! The spiciest is seen at the bottom.  Top to bottom (as best as I can remember)- soya sauce with seafood, plum jelly, ginger red vinegar, rayu, local Hong Kong hot sauce, and yellow chili.

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Yan Toh Heen Superior Dumplings.  L to R- Steamed scallop with black truffles and vegetables, steamed lobster and bird’s nest dumpling with gold leaf, steamed king crab leg dumpling with green vegetable.  Quite the start!

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Wok-seared rice flour cannelloni and red cherry shrimp with soy sauce.  Served with a creamy sesame sauce and a hoisin sauce.

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Steamed barbecue pork buns.

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Steamed assorted mushroom and fungus dumplings.

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Steamed garoupa, prawn, and scallop dumplings. Pretty cute!

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Mango pudding.  I liked this better than Lung King Heen’s mango dessert.

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Jasmine tea (one box each) for us to take home.  A nice touch to finish the meal.

Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Maybe it’s the romance of indulging one’s wonderlust and empty stomach in SE Asia. Perhaps it’s the location set in what feels like worlds away from the tourist-centric Pub Street. Or maybe it’s that slight uncertain feeling the tuk-tuk driver actually has no idea where he is going as you pass through streets covered in darkness (he does).  Whatever it is, a visit to Cuisine Wat Damnak feels like something special.

Ranked #43 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, and the only restaurant in Cambodia to make the list, it can be stated with confidence that this is Cambodia’s best restaurant.  While this may not sound like such an accomplishment at first blush, this country has some seriously delicious food on both ends of the cuisine spectrum.

Founded by a French couple who decided to stay in Cambodia, Cuisine Wat Damnak serves technical, masterful cooking that takes full advantage of the many gastronomical wonders the country has to offer. Indeed, rather than just changing with the seasons, the menu changes every two weeks.

Given that kind of rapid menu turnover, one might think the food suffers.  Fear not, though, as every course was a gustatory hit. Moreover, the chef may be French, but there is no reliance on French ingredients like butter, cream, cheese, truffles, or fois gras.  This is high Cambodian cuisine that leaves you full, but never heavy.

The icing on the cake (durian?) is the jaw-dropping value offered here.

There are two course menus you can choose from, and the table need not order the same menu.  Each menu consists of six courses, there is no service charge or additional tax, and it only costs TWENTY EIGHT DOLLARS!

The four of us enjoyed the course, had plenty of bottled water, and two skillfully selected bottles of wine.  The damage (or lack thereof) was a good bit under $200.  Unbelievable.

I’m really not sure if there is another place in the world that can provide such an outstanding meal for such an unbelievable price.  If I lived in Siem Reap, I would visit every week to try each menu for sure.

If you’re in Cambodia, this is an absolute, 100%, no questions asked, MUST VISIT restaurant.

Let’s Eat Cuisine Wat Damnak!

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Amuse bouche – pickled turnip under a tofu foam.  Amazing start.

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Shredded duck confit in a stir fried “rice salad” of puffed and toasted rice.

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Grilled “sanday” fish in galangal leaves with a green mango salad.

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The perfectly-cooked, meaty white fish after unwrapping the leaf.

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Messed with the lighting here a bit.  Pork and young ginger sour soup with lime, green cabbage, and “crispy breast.”  Perhaps the most Cambodian dish on the menu. A bit of an acquired taste, but I loved it.  The crispy, juicy pork was outstanding.

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Mekong langoustine in crab coconut broth with lemon basil, pumpkin fruit, and shoot.

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Pandan brioche french toast, sesame nougatine, and dark chocolate ganache.

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The petit fours showcased different kinds of local, Cambodian fruit accompanied by a chili-infused salt.  I really loved this idea of using fruits instead of the standard macaroons, etc.

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The receipt was accompanied by homemade tamarind gummies.  Interesting flavor and a great way to finish the meal.

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A parting shot of the restaurant.  At night, it looks like a home set in the woods.  Very cozy.

Den in Jimbocho (傳、神保町)

It’s already been one (amazing) year since I started this blog.  To celebrate (but really just because it’s one of our favorite restaurants), we booked a table at the always entertaining Den in Jimbocho.

This was our fourth visit, and you can see my first blog entry about Den here.

Though it’s been pretty famous for a while, Den has really taken off in the past year.  It won a spot on the prestigious Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, has consistently maintained its one Michelin star, and is a must-visit for any chef, blogger, or food lover in Tokyo.  Indeed, the walls of the entrance are a testament of Den’s worth, with heartfelt messages and signatures from the likes of local stars like Ivan Orkin to famed Noma super-chef Rene Redzpi.

While the food is always fun, innovative, and astoundingly delicious, what really makes Den is the interaction between staff and customer.  Head server Noriko, the owner-chef Zaiyu, and his support chefs always assure each and every customer is treated like a best friend.  Everyone in the intimate restaurant seems to love engaging in lively conversation about the food, the restaurant, and anything in general.  When I congratulated Zaiyu on making the Asia’s 50 Best, he was quick to explain that while Michelin stars are granted for the cuisine, the 50 Best award is granted to the entire restaurant, and that includes the customer.  Thus, he congratulated Midori and me, as well.  A truly humble, yet masterful chef making waves in Japan and around the world.

As usual, expect to pay around 20,000 yen per person including plenty of drinks.  No need to worry about menus for food or drinks, as there is one course only and Noriko will choose the right wine, sake, or beer to match your preferences.

Let’s eat Den!

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Thet humor starts from the first course with this angry face composed of aori ika (squid) with soramame beans, sudachi citrus, and home-made salt.  The salt is made of sea salt and konbu seaweed that is crushed by hand into a fine powder, and it is amazing.  Midori’s plate was a cute, smiley face.

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Junsai (brasenia, or water shield) with an onsen tamago egg served in a katsuo (bonito) broth.  The junsai has a soft, gelatinous texture that has a pleasant popping sensation.

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The always-amzuing Dentucky Fried Chicken box.

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Our two servings of chicken, garnished with momiji leaves.

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Today’s chicken was stuffed with black rice, kuko no mi (wolf berry), matsu no mi (pine nuts), and chosen ninjin carrot.  Finger lickin’ good, indeed.

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The sashimi course was Hatsugatsuo, the season’s first katsuo (bonito) served with a dash of salt and wasabi.

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A beautiful main course consisting of kinmedai (golden eye snapper) served with a fiddleneck fern miso and various fried mountain vegetables.  The roasted onions between were roasted to a sweet, soft-yet-still-crunchy perfection.  The fish was cooked on the outside and pink on the inside, having been cooked only with a hot dashi made from clams.

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Otsumami to go with our alcohol between courses- karasumi (salted and dried mullet roe).  Noriko explained that this is homemade, repeatedly brushed with sake and dried, over a period of 6 months.

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Den’s 2nd signature dish- a salad with over 20 natural ingredients.  There is no dressing, but instead gets its flavor from kombu seaweed and naturally-pressed sesame oil.

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Under the greens, one finds many individually prepared ingredients, such as these fun little carrots.

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A dashi made with sansho (Japanese pepper), myoga (Japanese ginger), and duck meat.  Savory, umami flavor that warms the soul.

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Today’s donabe rice was served with a hearty portion of hotaru ika (firefly squid).

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The rice as served with pickled vegetables and miso soup.  I asked for an omori (large) portion as seen above.

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Dessert was a refreshing and light finish- yogurt sherbet with a tomato jelly and dekopon (Japanese sweet mandarin).

 

 

 

Narisawa (ナリサワ青山)

Narisawa needs no introduction.  It has two Michelin stars and has been named Asia’s 2nd best restaurant two years in a row.  It’s been blogged about hundreds of times, but now it’s my turn.

This was our third time visiting Narisawa, a wonderful restaurant in the heart of Aoyama, one of Tokyo’s ritziest areas, just past the Bentley dealer and just before Tokyo’s only Tesla dealership.  The third time is a charm, as this was the most impressive lineup of dishes yet.

It’s become apparent that since our last visit one year ago, Narisawa has focused his efforts on looking inward at Japan’s naturally growing ingredients and seafood to create a course that is not only delicious and masterfully presented, but sustainable and healthy. Two walls have been refurbished to display an impressive collection of Japanese sake, they have added a Japanese tea pairing option, and (for better or worse) have removed from the course almost all imported, non-Japanese items like the line of macarons featuring different grades of chocolate (chocolate isn’t produced in Japan, so it is no longer served).

Don’t call this “French/Japanese fusion,” or “innovative French cuisine.”  Narisawa is going for something completely unique, completely new, and completely delicious through and through. There are few, if any, misses during the almost 3 hour meal, and it seems that as times goes by, this restaurant only gets better and better as they perfect their craft in terms of both cuisine and service.

But it doesn’t come cheap.  Last year, they increased the price of both lunch and dinner, so be ready to spend at least 50,000 yen for two people before drinks.  The one salvation is that the amount of dishes and portion sizes are exactly the same at lunch and dinner, so you can find a better value here during the day time.  Either way, a visit to Narisawa is always worth it.

Let’s eat Narisawa!

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We started with a citrus champagne cocktail.  Basically a mimosa.

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The spring menu had just started, and today’s bread included kinkan (Japanese kumquat), walnet, and yurine (lily bulb root).  This is the fermented dough that later proofs in a hot stone bowl at your table.

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“Essence of the Forest and Satoyama Scenery” – One of Narisawa’s specialities that is always served.  Start with the cedar-infused water on the left.  The “scenery” is fried gobo (burdock root), crushed soybean powder, and a fermented soybean yogurt underneath.

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Supon Karaage from Saga Prefecture.  Fried balls of soft shell turtle.  Grab the bone with your hands and enjoy.  This was the best preparation of turtle I’ve ever had (though I’ve only had turtle a couple of times…).

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This final starter appears to be coal, but is actually a slice of onion inside a carbonized leak.

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An amazing new dish here, omi beef tartar “sushi,” lobster ceviche with caviar, and Okinawa sea snake dashi soup with winter melon and potato.  The two crackers were made out of kuzu (a traditional Japanese root starch), giving a soft, natural texture to support the raw meat and lobster.

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I was really excited about this.  Not written on the menu, this is Narisawa’s famous (notorious?) soil soup.  There are only two ingredients- soil from Nagano and gobo (burdock root, a very common item in Japanese cooking).  There is no salt or seasoning otherwise, and it was absolutely delicious.  Somehow sweet and savory, smooth, and delicious with an earthy aftertaste.  I actually requested this dish last time to no avail.  I requested again and it was served just for us!  Thanks, Narisawa!

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The finished bread served with Narisawa’s moss butter.  The moss is made of olive and spinach crumble.  Especially delicious after it gets soft and spreadable.

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Akashi sea bream and botan ebi shrimp.  Served ceviche style with various herbal garnishes and a yuzu kosho sauce.  The shrimp was especially delicious, cooked in the kobujime style, where the shrimp is wrapped in kombu for several hours to allow the natural umami to penetrate and tenderize the raw shrimp.  Amazing.

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Hamaguri clam from Mie Prefecture.  Served in the hamaguri essence with tomato and menegi green onions.  Another fantastic dish.

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Langoustine shrimp with udo and fuki no to, bringing together the sea with naturally growing mountain vegetables in a scallop and fuki no to sauce.  Plenty of shrimp eggs and brains were included in this beautiful dish.

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Tilefish (amadai) coated with a crispy, crumbled, colorful rice cracker mixture with horsehair crab (kegani) with a red daikon radish for garnish.  The broth had a strong, savory mitsuba (Japanese parsley) flavor.

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“Luxury essence 2007” – a broth made from boiling a mixture of several meats for many hours.  It didn’t come through in the photo, but the soup is filled with abalone (awabi) and spring vegetables.  A hearty soup indeed!

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Artfully prepared fugu and a tempura of shirako (fish semen!!).  The fugu was served in a shabu shabu style.

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The final savory dish was duck (aikamo) that was prepared in the Peking Duck style.  Crispy, crackling skin with juicy, medium rare meat.  Served with beets and a fairly avant-garde sauce presentation consisting of black, fermented garlick, beets, and shungiku (Japanese chrysanthemum).

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Our first dessert was a pleasant surprise not featured on the menu.  A tasty white chocolate and vanilla cake to celebrate White Day, a greeting card holiday when the men reciprocate for gifts they received from the women on Valentine’s Day.

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“Matcha” A very Japanese dessert consisting of green tea gelato, shirotama mochi, azuki beans, and kanten (Japanese agar).  The garnish on top of the glass is a green tea meringue.

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Magnolia gelato with strawberries, strawberry jam, and strawberry mochi topped with a hot magnolia broth for a hot-cold contrast.  My favorite part of this was the jam on the left that was so deeply infused with strawberry flavor and unlike any jam I’ve ever had.

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And finally, the mignardise.  These are wheeled out on a beautifully arranged cart, and you can choose whatever you want.  I asked for one of each and loved it all.