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!

 

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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!

 

 

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.

 

Regalo レガロ(代々木公園)

The 2017 Tokyo Michelin guide was published just two weeks ago with relatively minimal fanfare, few, if any, surprises, and no new 3-starred restaurants.  There were, however, several new one-star establishments, and Regalo, just outside of Sangubashi Station in the always-fashionable Yoyogi Koen area, is one of them.  Actually, Regalo was featured in last year’s Bib Gourmand section, a collection of restaurants of both quality and affordability, but not quite warranting the coveted star.  In the new red guide, Regalo has been promoted to one-star status, and it’s with good reason.  Regalo offers top-notch Italian cuisine that relies heavily on seasonal Japanese ingredients.  The result is a fusion cuisine that works well for a reasonable price.

It’s a fairly casual affair with pop music on the speakers, a counter/bar area facing the open kitchen, and enough seats set spaciously apart to fit around 30 people.  The staff is personable, the atmosphere is welcoming, and nothing feels stuffy or pretentious.

It’s also very affordable.  There is an a la carte menu, but I recommend putting yourself in the chef’s hands with any of the 3 course menus.  Even the most expensive menu only costs a mere 8000 yen, inclusive of tax and service charge.  One interesting point is that even in the course menu, you are given an a la carte choice for both dessert and after-dinner drink.  If you don’t have a sweet tooth, you can choose to drink your dessert as we did (see below).  Wine pairings are available as well for 3000, 4000, or 5000 yen (essentially 1000 yen per glass). Indeed Regalo is friendly on the wallet, and very delicious.

Let’s eat Regalo!

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Amuse Bouche- fried fugu served over a yurine (lily bulb) puree. The fugu (poisonous pufferfish) is prepared two ways- the regular meat and the minced skin.

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Hokkaido codfish shirako (smelt) wrapped in kadaif over an Italian herb sauce.  The best fish sperm I’ve ever tasted!

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The breadbasket- parmesan focaccia, onion focaccia, ciabatta, and milk bread.

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Spaghetti with handmade karasumi (bottarga).

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Orechiette over a whole oyster in a spicy tomato sauce.

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Higedara (armored cusk fish) meuniere served over a spinach puree with spinach.

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Charcoal-grilled Hokkaido beef with grilled radicchio and a salsa verde.  Divine!

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While the desserts sounded delicious, we opted for dessert cocktails.  On the right is kaki (apricot) amaretto and on the left is one of the best drinks ever- gorgonzola-infused Okuhida vodka.  Had never heard of cheese in a drink, but this was creamy, refreshing, and absolutely amazing.

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After-dinner drink- who needs coffee when you have herb and berry-infused grappa? Ok, I was drunk by this point.  Midori opted for the herb tea.

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Petit fours to finish.  Buono!

Bon Chemin ボンシュマン

One great thing about living in Tokyo, the most Michelin-starred city in the world, is that one can find high-quality cuisine in almost every neighborhood.  I found Bon Chemin by looking up restaurants that are close and on my commuter pass.  That means there is no cost for using any of the trains between my house and my office.  Super convenient, and I find some odd satisfaction in not spending a couple bucks to get to a restaurant, only to splurge on a fancy meal.

Bon Chemin is a French restaurant through and through, so it’s pretty clear what you’re getting into from the start- meticulously prepared proteins with rich sauces, and generally heavy ingredients throughout.  This restaurant does, however, provide respite from the notoriously high prices of most French restaurants.  This is especially true at lunch. You can get the full course for a mere 7000 yen and really get a feel for why this chef was awarded one Michelin star (cheaper, less extensive courses are available, as well).  Wine is a little on the pricey side, starting at 1200 yen per glass, but the selection is vast and the staff can accommodate whatever preference you have.

A great value in a charming setting, Bon Chemin is a perfect spot for any purveyor of fine French cuisine.  Even more recommended if you are a fan of foie gras (see below).

Let’s eat Bon Chemin!

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The course kicked off with a creamy, flaky quiche amuse bouche.

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Next, homemade bread was served warm with a devilishly good pork rilette.  They sell this rilette in the store, and it makes a wonderful gift or treat for yourself.  Only around 650 yen for 100 grams.

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The salad course featured a beat dressing and a mushroom sauce, winter vegetables, and a perfectly rare, meaty piece of sawara (Spanish mackerel) fish.

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If you love foie gras, this is the course for you.  A grilled foie gras, foie gras terrine, and fig jam.  Look at all that delicious oil on the left.  If your cholesterol is on the low side, this course should to the trick and bring you right up to those unhealthy levels.

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An amazing slice of namatagarei fish (slime flounder…interesting name for a fish) served in a beurre blanc sauce atop a seaweed risotto.  My favorite dish of the course.

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Wagyu from Shizuoka served with a kabocha (squash) gratin, onion, and burdock root.

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For dessert, an apple crumble served with caramel ice cream.  So sweet and so delicious.

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Mignardise – raspberry macarons and a chocolate sabré.

Ostu in Yoyogi (オストゥ 代々木公園)

Ostu, a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant located just across from Yoyogi Park on the Hachiman side, knows a thing or two about customer relationship management.  We had thoroughly enjoyed their very reasonably priced course menu two years ago, but for one reason or another (chalk it up to being spoiled for dining options in Tokyo), hadn’t been back since.  However, after receiving an email from Ostu outlining a campaign including 10% off the price of the meal AND a free glass of Franciacorta sparkling wine, we made a reservation right away.  Nice CRM indeed.

It was a great strategy on Ostu’s part, as they have seriously stepped up their game in the past two years.  Not that our first experience was negative (it was anything but), but this evening’s offerings seemed to tell us, “Look what you’ve been missing since you’ve been gone.”  To sweeten the deal even more, they were offering a supplement of white truffles at 2000 yen per 3 grams.  White truffles are only available for a month or two, so we obliged for 9 grams shaved over two dishes.

Hearty portions, simple, yet expertly prepared dishes that let the ingredients shine, delicious wines, perfectly attentive service, and extremely reasonable prices all make Ostu one of Tokyo’s best Italian options.  Given the deal mentioned above, we were able to fully enjoy everything Ostu has to offer and get out of there for well under 30,000 yen for the two of us.  It felt like we had found a real bargain.

Let’s eat Ostu!

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The first of two dishes featuring the prized white truffles- a simple scrambled egg with plenty of butter.

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Insalata di Autunno (Autumn salad) – Rabbit meat slowly cooked at 140 degrees C, autumn “grey” truffle, endive, fig, raising, and balsamic vinegar.

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Porcini pie with brown butter sauce.  The crust was so light and flaky, the dish like a luxurious lasagna.  Delightful.

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Bavettine pasta with crab and spicy tomato sauce.  It was so easy to pull all the crab meat out from the leg in one juicy piece.  I loved it.

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Pumpkin and potato gnocchi with prosciutto ham crumbs in a cream and Italian cheese sauce.  The gnocchi were so soft.  Hearty and delicious.

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The second white truffle dish- a very simple butter sauce pasta.  This came covered, and when the waiter lifted the lid, a deep, rich scent of the truffle wafted over the table.  So nice.

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Rack of Icelandic lamb flavored with thyme, vinegar, the meat’s natural juices, and the charcoal grill.

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Usually one must pick between dessert and cheese.  For 1000 yen extra, we got both.  L to R – garganzola, a hard sheep’s milk cheese, and a soft cow cheese, served with a fig crostini and a loquat flower jam.

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A crepe made of chestnut powder with a vanilla gelato, hazelnut and chocolate creme, and candied figs.  DIVINE!

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Petit fours with coffee/tea.  A corn cookie, a hozuki cherry dipped in chocolate, and fresh cream meringue.  A sweet, fantastic finish.

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.

 

Casa Vinitalia in Azabu Juban (カーザ ヴィニタリア)

As an early birthday celebration to me, we wanted to go somewhere nice to eat.  We love Tokyo’s selection of fine Italian restaurants because they are delicious, fairly simply, usually do not rely on heavy butter or cream, and are some of the most affordable Michelin-starred options in the city.

On this occasion, we chose Casa Vinitalia, an establishment in Azabu Juban (or 15 minute walk from Hiro Station) that’s fairly easy to find thanks to its location near a major intersection.  Upon entering this elegantly simple restaurant, it is immediately apparent that they focus a great deal of attention on their wine selection.  Wine bottles adorn the staircase used to access the main dining room, are used as decoration all around the restaurant, and the wine bottle is a thick, binded book of sorts.  We are by no means wine experts, so the staff were very accommodating in serving us wine by the glass based on our amateurish preferences (“Not too dry,” “Something fruity,” etc.).

Casa Vinitalia’s interior is beautiful in it’s white and sea green simplicity.  Every table in the main dining room centers around an open patio with lots of greenery.  Though we visited on a sweltering summer day, there is plenty of air conditioning in the open room to feel comfortable, while still enjoying the view.  It feels as if you’ve stepped out of Tokyo and into a coastal Italian restaurant for a couple hours.

The food offers some of the best cost performance I’ve experienced in Tokyo’s fine dining options.  For 8100 yen INCLUDING tax and service charge, the course menu is long and very generously portioned.  The course menu is, however, not a set menu.  Every customer is given plenty of options to design the course that best suits their preferences.  Indeed, from a choice of sauces for the starting bagna cauda to the number of grams for the final,”simple” pasta before dessert (30, 60, or 100 grams), there are so many options that it actually gets kind of confusing.  Sometimes it’s nicer to just sit back and let the chef make these kinds of decisions.  Still, the warm staff is more than willing to help in choices.

After plenty of drinks, a supplement of bagna cauda sauce, and with very stuffed bellies, we walked out having paid far less than 25,000 yen.  Highly recommended.

Let’s eat Casa Vinitalia!

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I really loved the interior of the restaurant.  Here, you can see the open patio.

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Olives provided for munching while musing over the menu food and drink options.

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Various breads.  Enjoy them on their own or dip them in the amazing bagna cauda.

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All the course menus start with the specialty bagna cauda.  We chose the gorgonzola cheese sauce.  Accompanied with a bouquet of fresh, seasonal vegetables.

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Doing the dip.

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The first starter – tachiuo (scabbard fish) carpaccio with a caper olive oil and herb sauce.

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Starter 2 (before plating) – sumibiyaki iwashi, or sardine cooked over coal.

 

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The plated sardine. Perfectly cooked and so juicy.  Squeeze the sudachi over the fish for a nice citrus kick.

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We opted for a supplementary refill of bagna cauda sauce- here is the standard anchovy-based dip with olive oil and butter.

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Ayu risotto (sweetfish) featured a generous helping of dill, zucchini, and string beans.

 

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Kinka pork.  Rare, juicy, and delicious.  Served with its own fat and a mustard-based salsa verde.

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Potatoes served with the pork.  We loved how much this restaurant uses Staub cookware.

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The final savory dish is a “simple pasta.”  We chose 60 grams of spaghetti and the spicy tomato sauce.  It had a nice zing and the homemade noodles were cooked perfectly.

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My dessert was white peach with a white wine sorbet.

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Cassata- an Italian ice-cream cake with various fruits and a passion fruit sauce.  I preferred this dessert.

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Petit fours featured a lemon caramel with apricot, a whipped cream meringue, and a brandy-infused ganache.

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Shakerato- an espresso shaken with ice with grappa liquor.  I absolutely loved this both in terms of taste and the presentation.  Excuse the dirty table in this photo.  I spilled a bit of bagna cauda!