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!

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!

La Bombance in Nishi-Azabu (ラ・ボンバンス in 西麻布)

Well, it’s been a while since the last update.  We were itching for some fine dining, but had no real occasion to celebrate.  We decided to try La Bombance thanks to its ease of access (it’s near Roppongi station which is on my commuter ticket) and because it’s in Gurunavi’s Top 500 restaurants in Japan.  One Michelin star doesn’t hurt either!

Stated plainly, La Bombance is an amazing restaurant for any occasion (or in our case, non-occasion).  It’s a cozy affair with four tables, one long counter-top, and an interior only slightly fancier than your average izakaya.  Still, it’s clear from the very beginning that La Bombance is on top of its game in terms of both service and taste.  It’s fancy enough to celebrate a special event (like the classy family seated next to us enjoying the father’s birthday), but at a price that’s reasonable for a regular date night out.  The course comes out to around 12,500 a head, while the drink menu, extensive in shochu, sake, wine, and beer options, starts at just 800 yen.

The food is stellar through every course with beautiful presentation, flavors, and a sense of humor.  Several dishes feature different dashi, all of which are incredibly satisfying.  The humor is especially evident in the whimsical menu that plays with the Japanese language to create a kind of puzzle that keeps you guessing the whole evening.

This was a no-miss meal that I highly recommend.  The chef’s technique is similar to Jimbocho Den‘s Zaiyu Hasegawa-san, but I am going to give La Bombance the one-up here. The free bottle of limited edition Bombance sake the manager gave us on our way out was the unexpected icing on the cake.

Let’s eat La Bombace!

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The Japan menu, with its numbers, symbols, and odd characters create a great talking point throughout the evening.  The English menu, however, is more straightforward.

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The first course came covered by a lily pad topped with some of these ingredients.  I didn’t get a photo, but when you pick it up, a hole in the middle is revealed and the ingredients fall through.  This is a ginger gelee with junsai (water shield), abalone, shrimp, and summer vegetables.

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Next was a fairly simple corn served in the kaki-age style.  Juicy, salty, and perfect with alcohol.

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A nod to Spanish tapas- fig and sesame sauce, pon de queijo with shirasu (whitebait fish), and prosciutto-wrapped mango with popping sugar candy.

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Back to Japan, the next course was pike conger eel soup (hamo), togan (winter melon), and okra “surinagashi”  (pureed okra mixed with dashi).

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La Bombance’s signature featuring three luxurious ingredients- black truffle, fois gras, and shark fin soup atop a chawan mushi.  I hate the process of farming shark fins, and I also think it’s a bit of a cop-out to mix luxurious ingredients like this together, but this dish…this dish was absolutely incredible. One of the best dishes I’ve ever had.

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The hits kept coming.  This is a take on ocha-zuke (a very traditional Japanese dish of tea poured over rice), featuring sea urchin, amaebi shrimp, kazunoko (herring roe), and ginger.  So. Effing. Good.

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The presentation of this dish seems to be a nod to Italian cuisine, and features tachiuo  (hairtail fish) in a simple salted-and-grilled style, unagi eel sushi, okahijiki (salsola) and shiitake mushrooms served cold, and a fried “ebi shinjo” (shrimp dumpling) wrapped in Kyoto togarashi pepper served with a salsa.

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The meat course was thinly-sliced wagyu with matsutake mushrooms covered in an ankake sauce.

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Somen (cold noodles) with fried ayu sweetfish and a rayu (chili oil) and sudachi citrus infused tsuyu sauce.  Salty, sweet, spicy, smooth, crunch, slippery, and utterly delicious.  The best part? Free refills of noodles!

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Dessert was a matcha sorbet atop anko beans and mochi, a sesame sorbet consisting of only sesame, sugar, and icea (INCREDIBLE), and a “white coffee” blancmange.  Simple in presentation, masterful in its technique.  An amazing finish to a very memorable meal.