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.

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!

 

 

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).

 

 

 

Craftale in Naka-Meguro クラフタル、中目黒

Craftale, opened in September in 2015, has been creating quite a buzz in the Tokyo food and blog scene, so I thought I should check it out myself.  Located along the famous Naka-Meguro river, it’s perfect for enjoying before or after a stroll along one of Tokyo’s more scenic areas.

Firstly, Craftale has nothing to do with beer made in small batches.  The name is a portmanteau of “craft” and “tale,” as in the chef is weaving a story with his cooking technique and stylistic presentations.  Perhaps more confusingly, it’s actually pronounced “craf-tah-lu.”

Besides the name, there is nothing unclear or unfocused about the restaurant’s focus on high quality food, drink, and service.  This is beautiful food taking advantage of the ingredients’ natural colors and flavors, and at only 7560 yen for the course (there is no menu), it’s also extremely affordable.  Two wine pairings are available at 3240 yen for 4 glasses, or 5400 yen for 6.  The wine is mostly French, highlights each dish perfectly, and I would recommend paying just a bit for for the latter, more extensive pairing.  This standard of quality always goes better with a little buzz.

The restaurant itself is actually rather casual and jovial.  With it’s crisp white walls, open kitchen, and smartly procured tablewear and utensils, it almost feels like you are enjoying a meal inside a friend’s designer apartment in SoHo or the like.  Extra points for the owner’s selection of background music, which included both Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see this in the 2017 Michelin guide.  We will find out at the end of the year, but until then…

Let’s eat Craftale!

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Mousse made entirely of fuki no tou (butterbur sprouts) on top of tanpopo (dandelion) salad.

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Udo (mountain asparagus) fritters with a fromage blanc and horseradish sauce, topped with slices of pickled udo.  The batter contains shirasu (whitebait).

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A beautiful dish! Horse tartare with a carrot mustard, powdered pickled egg yolk, carrots marinated in sherry vinegar.  The “tree” is pastry crust, rounding out this portrait of cherry blossoms falling in Spring.  The horse was outstanding!  Not pictured is the first of the “bread pairings,” a sakura baguette.  (Also, horse meat is referred to as “sakura meat” in Japanese, so there is a bit of a pun going on in this dish just for fun).

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Continuing with the fairly unique proteins, the white-ish meat peaking out from underneath is frog atop a white asparagus sauce.  Topped with sweet onions, Inca no Mezame potatos,  na no hana (rapeseed) and nasturtium flowers.

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The second “bread pairing” was a chiffon cake made with plenty of garlic and parsley.  Apparently in France, they eat frog with these two ingredients.

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Taking a Southeast Asian turn, the next dish was sakura masu (cherry trout) with a shrimp crisp topped with sakura ebi shrimp and lime.  The broth was a sakura ebi dashi infused with lemongrass.  A kind of fancy tom yum soup.

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The “bread” course here looks like a traditional Japanese sakura mochi, but is actually sakura rice stuffed with shrimp XO sauce.

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Detail of the inside of the rice.

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The meat dish was an amazingly juicy and tender chicken that was cooked for two hours.  Extra crispy skin, white meat, and dark meat atop two sauces- almond milk and clam.  Garnishied with okahijiki (salsola) and asparagus.  Divine!

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The last bread pairing was a seaweed bread stuffed with seaweed butter.

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The seaweed butter.

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The first dessert utilized the same “mousse-ing” technique as the first course.  Strawberry ice cream and candied strawberries topped with evaporated milk.  This dish was very reminiscent of Narisawa’s strawberry dessert, albeit a bit more one-dimensional than Narisawa.

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This second, more superior dessert featured a delicious ginger ice cream, meringue, lemon jelly, and a biscuit in the image of a honey comb.  A fantastic end to an amazing meal.

 

 

MARKT 二子玉川

Sometimes you come across a great restaurant in the strangest of ways.  I was searching restaurants in my neighborhood of Futako Tamagawa that participate in JAL’s 2X mileage program, and there I found MARKT.  If you use your JAL credit card here, you get double the frequent flier miles.  After checking the page’s website, it looked good, close, and affordable.  We had to check it out and I am really glad we did.

MARKT is about a five minute walk from the station, located on the spacious 1st floor of a stand-alone building.  The interior is bright, open, and rustic.  Think bread plates made out of finished tree bark, deer antler wall decor, Jack Johnson and Norah Jones background music.  Casual, comfortable, and attentive service.

Where MARKT really shines, though, is the food.  In terms of both taste and presentation, the food is skillfully cooked and artful in preparation.  We were impressed with every dish, and at 5300 yen for the full course, you get a big bang for your buck (or yen).  All the ingredients are organic, sourced in Japan, and selected based on what is currently in season.  Wine is 600-800 yen per glass and champagne at 1050 yen.  No more expensive than your average bar.

There were only a couple small issues with over-seasoning, but at this price and with this much food, they could be easily forgiven.  For the most part, the meal was entirely delicious and we will definitely visit again.  The course changes every month as the freshest ingredients hit their seasonal peak.

Let’s eat MARKT!

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Parmesan “chiffon cake.”  What looks like dessert is a cheesy, savory, fluffy way to start the meal.

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Sweet potato soup with a smoked milk foam.

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Homemade bread with a carrot puree spread.

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Niji masu (rainbow trout) served with a dill and cream cheese sauce and na no hana (rapeseed) sauce.  Brussel sprouts, orange, and carrot garnishes.

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Probably my favorite dish- soft and delicious potato gnocchi with maitake, brown mushrooms, crispy cheese, and egg.

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Matodai (John dory) fish with an asari clam dashi sauce that was so savory and delicious.  Garnished with a turnip sauce and yamaudo (mountain asparagus).

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Pork from Yamagata prefecture with black olive sauce, black cabbage, pickled mini onions.  Another amazing dish to finish the savory courses.

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Dessert was a work of art.  Strawberry gelato, herb sorbet (which started melting by the time we could take a picture), strawberries, meringue, beet sauce, and fromage blanc.  A lot of tastes and textures going on, but it all worked.

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Homemade “nama” (raw) caramel served with our coffee and herb tea.  The caramel melts in your mouth for a very sweet finish to an all around beautiful meal.

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.

 

 

Zuisetsu (瑞雪、梅ヶ丘)

In Japan, Valentine’s Day is for women to give a present to men.  I told my wife I don’t want a present, but would rather a delicious, Michelin-starred meal somewhere.  She was kind enough to take me to Zuisetsu, marking the first time we would indulge in Michelin grade Chinese food.  It was a fantastic choice. (Oh, and for the romantics/purists out there, men reciprocate in March during White Day.)

Zuisetsu is essentially a Chinese restaurant showcasing seafood dishes.  Located in a very quiet neighborhood a couple stops from the more lively Shimokitazawa, the restaurant is a bit off the beaten track.  However, it’s well worth the effort, and the location may be one reason the restaurant is able to provide an astoundingly large amount of food at a very reasonable price.  The course is a mere 7000 yen, and glass wine only 750, making Zuisetsu quite possibly the best Michelin bang-for-your-buck in Tokyo.

The restaurant is very small, meaning reservations are essential.  We were able to quickly and easily secure a table with one phone call a couple of weeks ahead.  There are around 12 seats in this unpretentious and comfortable restaurant (you take your shoes off before entering), and the restaurant is run entirely by the chef and his wife.  They are friendly, accommodating, and the chef comes to each table to greet each customer at the end of their meals.

Zuisetsu quickly became one of our favorite restaurants and we will definitely be back.  The course changes monthly and the amazing food makes the journey all the more worth the effort.

Let’s eat Zuisetsu!

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The amuse bouche was two cooked oysters. A subtle taste of star anise.

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Tai (red snapper) sashimi salad garnished with coriander, crushed peanuts, and fried wonton chips.

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Crab and shark fin soup served with black vinegar.

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The next dish was presented as above.

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Unwrapped, we were presented with fried honmoroko fish with a yuzu sauce. That fish is translated to, er, Gnathopogon.

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“Mocchiri Tofu.” A tofu with a thick, almost bread-like texture topped with a juicy piece of crab.

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Tenshi no Ebi (angel shrimp) served with a dipping sauce and a bowl to wash your fingers. This shrimp was absolutely amazing. We sucked the hell out of those heads and it wasn’t bitter at all. Creamy, sweet, delicious.

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Butter-soft pork belly in “douchi” sauce with vegetables. That’s a Chinese black-bean sauce. So so good as the pork belly and fat mixed together to form an almost cream-like texture.

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The same fish used in for the sashimi salad above, the red snapper is cooked and served in a decidedly salty sauce for the table to share.

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We plated the fish to make it look pretty.

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Later, we were given a bowl of rice in which to mix the soup and have a kind of porridge.

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Fish dashi and seaweed Chinese noodles. Like a ramen to finish the meal.

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Dessert was a coconut “Oshiruko” (coconut milk with kodaimai “ancient rice”) and annindofu, a very traditional Chinese tofu-based dessert. Served with complementary jasmine tea to round off an absolutely amazing meal.

Da Olmo(ダ オルモ、神谷町)

I work in Kamiyacho, a business district in central Tokyo.  I was browsing through the Michelin guide to see if there were any restaurants in this area, and was happy to find Da Olmo, a one-star Italian restaurant featuring simple, yet beautifully prepared dishes from Northern Italy.  In 2015, Da Olmo was listed as a “Bib Gourmand” restaurant, but was promoted to one star in the 2016 guide.  I knew I had to go.

At 7000 yen for the dinner course, this is one of the best values for a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo.  Wine starts at 800 yen a glass, making it easy to enjoy a fantastic, authentic Italian meal for two with plenty of drinks for under 25,000 yen.  We let the staff choose the wine to pair with each dish.  All I told them was I don’t like anything too dry, and they were able to pick delicious wines that went perfectly with every dish, every time.

Attentive and friendly service, a knowledgeable sommelier, and a boisterous (but never obnoxious) atmosphere round out Da Olmo as a real winner.

Hidden on a side-street in an area of Tokyo that is somewhat deserted on the weekends, this restaurant feels like an undiscovered gem.  Highly recommended for any occasion.

Let’s eat Da Olmo!

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Bread was served warm with our glass of prosecco.

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Appetizer plate.  From the bottom, R to L – carpaccio, fried gori fish, mackerel, spicy anzu beans in a tomato sauce, smoked duck (amazing), and a “cake” made from soba flour, milk, and ham.

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Tai (red snapper) and fresh tomato pasta.

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The highlight of the meal- risotto with loads of parmesan topped with a generous portion of shaved black truffles. I’d go back for this dish alone.

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Main option one- duck served rare with seasonal vegetables, all expertly prepared and delicious.

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Main option two- Que fish (longtooth grouper) served with its scaled fried like a senbei cracker. Same vegetables as the duck. I preferred the fish, Midori preferred the duck.

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A cheese plate featuring Danish, French, and Belgian cheeses. Perfect with the bread.

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Rum raisin ice cream, panna cotta topped with kinkan (Japanese kumquat), and hazelnut cake. A great finish with my cappuccino.

Disfrutar – Barcelona, Spain

The second of two Michelin restaurants we visited in Spain was definitely the stronger of the two, and I would say this was my favorite meal of 2015.

Disfrutar was opened in 2015 by three head chefs of El Bulli, and unsurprisingly, gained a Michelin star in the guide’s next publication.  This was a truly epic dining experience, clocking in at just shy of 4 hours, and a highlight of our trip.

Again, I have to apologize because my descriptions of the food may be somewhat lacking. I chalk this up to three factors: 1) Sometimes it’s hard to completely understand the staff’s accents, 2) Sometimes it’s difficult to “get” all the descriptions of the food that is closely linked to Spanish culture, 3) We did the wine pairing, it was something like 12 wines, and by the end of this meal I was absolutely smashed.  Seriously, I’ve never been so hungover after a night of fine dining.  This just goes to show how truly FUN it is to eat at Disfrutar. There is no pretentiousness, and though the cuisine is arguably some of the best in the world, the restaurant is quite casual in the best way possible.  The vibe is jovial and the staff is very friendly.

There were three menus- a standard menu (~70 euros), a festival menu (100 euros), and the holiday menu (130 euros).  When eating at these kinds of restaurants, my theory is to always go big and really see what the restaurant has to offer.  However, the holiday menu featured a lot of game meat (primarily rabbit), of which I’m not a huge fan, so we took the festival menu.  The amount of food served for this price is outstanding, and the wine pairing is well worth the 55 euros.  It’s obvious the chefs and sommeliers put in great effort and meticulous detail to make sure the wines matched each and every dish or movement of dishes.

I can’t say enough about Disfrutar.  It may only have 1 Michelin star (perhaps it’s too casual to be considered for more), but it should be on every gourmet’s bucket list.  This is some of the most exciting food I’ve ever had, and in my opinion follows just behind Sagrada Familia on the list of Barcelona’s must-dos.

Let’s eat Disfrutar!

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“Welcoming cocktail” – Frozen passionfruit, rum, and shaved coffee that the waiter adds in front of you.

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“The beet that comes out of the land.” The waitress shook the dish and out of the soil came these two delicious bites of dehydrated “beets” flavored with yogurt.

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Texture detail of the “beet.”

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“Gin rose petal” – You just eat the little drops of gin. Like gin ikura.

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“Salty candy with walnuts” and mango on the right.

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A tomato “polvaron” – a play on a Spainsh Christmas sweet. The little drops are made from a rare olive oil.

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“Transparent pesto ravioli” served with a parmesan water. You dip the ravioli and put the whole thing in your mouth.

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Disfruta olives- brought over from El Bulli. These both look like normal olives but actually burst in your mouth. The left one is concentrated olive juice and the right tasted like citrus.

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The olives were served with this little spoon of citrus juice to accompany the second olive.

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Idiazabal smoked cheese on a biscuit…

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…Served with a glass of fancy apple juice.

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Amazing dish right here- “Crispy egg yolk over mushroom gelatin.”

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The inside of this perfectly cooked egg.

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The truffle gelatin underneath the egg.

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“Recuit de drap,” this was unwrapped and topped with the sauce and pine nuts in front of us. A kind of Spanish cheese made from almond milk and topped with a truffle sauce and fir tree honey.

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Detail of the anchovy served with the cheese.

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Langoustine cocktail sandwich. The toast dissolves away as soon as you touch it. Reminiscent of Gaggan and absolutely delicious.

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Salmon and mackerel sushi- the rice is actually cauliflower. Tasty, but a little random.

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Continuing the short Asian theme- delightful mushroom dumplings.

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Macaroni carbonara. The pasta is actually made from gelatin.

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Liquid salad- hiding at the bottom was another little explosion of juice for the mouth.

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Eel gelatin, soy milk, cream, and Ossietra caviar- you fold it up into a thin little empanada and eat in one bite. This was so good.

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Razor clam with two types of peas- the ones on the right were normal peas, while those on the left were concentrated drops of pea juice.

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Disfrutar’s take on ajillo- An entire langoustine with black garlic and parsley foam.

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Red mullet with pork jowls and aubergine “gnocci.”

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The final savory dish was “Thin sheets of veal” – served with a chunk of bone marrow and truffle sauce. Delicious, but a bit heavy after all the previous food.  We actually had to leave a few slices.

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Pineapple sorbet with coconut and licorice.

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“Cheesecake cornet” topped with strawberry gelato.

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The “tarta al whiskey” starts with them pouring nice whiskey on your hands…

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…Then you eat these with your hands- the deconstructed tart….

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…Served with a vanilla cream.

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Chocolate peppers with salt and oil. The inside of the peppers is actually chocolate.

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“Coffee profiterole” – The final dessert. By the time this was served, I was totally wasted, so the picture alone will have to do.