Kaiseki Dinner @Mitsukoshi Department Store, Ginza, Tokyo

Date of Visit: December 20 2013

Japanese drinks vending machines are awesome, they sell both hot and cold drinks (colour-coded in case you don’t read Japanese – red for hot drinks and blue for cold drinks). In Japan one must try Calpis! A sweet yoghurt-y soda drink. And when you travel in Japan, you should also get yourself a Suica or Pasmo from JR Stations or from the many convenience stores around, this is stored-money card akin to Octopus in Hong Kong. BTW, Octopus is an Australian invention that failed miserably in Australia. In fact the company went burst – one of my earlier lemons! ūüė≠

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ūüėćūüėćūüėć Calpis

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For the first night in Tokyo, I did not bother to make any dinner reservations since I did not want to tire us out by dashing off to find the restaurant as soon as we arrived. It turned out to be a mistake – all the restaurants (the ones that we are interested in) were FULL! After wandering around Ginza, we were still undecided which restaurants to eat in and whether there is an English menu available. A quick think on our feet, led us to the Ginza Mitsukoshi Department Store.

There are 2 levels of restaurants serving International cuisines -Japanese, Japanese-European,European and Chinese (on Levels 11 and 12) inside the department store . We finally decided on a Japanese restaurant on Level 12 serving called Áü≥ś°∂ŤäĪ.

We were served by 2 very courteous and efficient waitresses. We were given an English menu with 3 courses to choose from РBanquet Cuisine Meal ¥4,800; Sumire Kaiseki Cuisine at ¥5,500 or Shakunage Kaiseki ¥8400. We settled on top-end Shakunage Kaiseki. We were very appreciative that the waitresses made a conscious effort to communicate with us and also to explain in English what is being served at each course.

To drink: We ordered a bottle of Japanese white from Chateau Mercian Katsumnuma Koshu ¥4,300 (the only Japanese white available on the menu). Clean and crisp on the palate, it has a pleasant astringent taste, and with an aromatic grapefruit and green apple finish and another note that I could not put my finger on Рit turned out to be banana when I read the tasting notes (here). The pleasant scent of the white-flowers reminded me of sake too. A very enjoyable white from Suntory Brewery! KAMPAI!!

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Chateau Mercian Katsumnuma Koshu

Time for me to polish up on my chopsticks skills as the first of our courses arrives…

Appetiser #1 was 5 Gingko Nuts on a bed of sweet miso. Gingko nuts has a gummy texture, their rich, nutty flavour has a quick bitterness to it. (An important note is that children should not eat more than five ginkgo nuts per day, and adults should not eat more than eight per day. Going over these limits can result in ginkgo poisoning!! ūüėĪ).

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Gingko Nuts

Appetiser #2 consisted of crab meat, a deep-fried yam coated with sticky rice, a deep-fried sweet potato coated with sticky rice and some jellied pickles. I enjoyed the sticky yet crunchy-puffy-fried-rice a lot which provided a different layer of texture to both the yam and potato.

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Crabmeat and deep-fried sticky rice balls of yam and sweet potato

The Sashimi was very fresh – although not the top quality, but still standing head-and-shoulders above the sashimi served in top-hatted Australian restaurants. Understandably, the Japanese keep all the premium stuffs for their own local consumptions whereas other countries (e.g. Australia and especially China tend to export their top produces to overseas markets.) Here, we were served with yieldingly firm Yellow-tail, Kingfish and a very fatty Tuna that literally melts away in our mouths. The dish was beautifully presented with edible flowers, shiso and shredded radishes.

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Sashimi

Since this is Winter, we were served White miso soup with Mochi. The soup leans towards to the sweet side. I thoroughly enjoyed the chewy and glutinous texture of the mochi that has been slightly chargrilled before it went into the soup.

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White Miso Soup

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White Miso Soup with Mochi

Delicacies of the Season are winter root vegetables – mushrooms, pumpkin, fresh tiny shrimps, burdock and yam. Each very delicious and has natural sweetness to them.

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Delicacies of the Season

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Delicacies of the Season

Next to follow is the Soup. The star of this course is definitely the Sea-urchin on Tofu. Ilove the sweet briny taste of the sea-urchin very much, the tofu has an unusual texture that I was not accustomed to due to its stickiness, perhaps sticky rice was added to its list of ingredients. The salty soup was very gelatine-y, and worked well to cleanse the palate of the briny sea-urchin.

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Sea urchin on tofu

The Grilled Japanese Beef course literally melts in my mouth! This is Kagoshima beef was simply seared and served with Japanese green peppers (not hot) and enoki mushroom.

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Grilled Japanese Beef

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Grilled Japanese Beef

For the Boiled Dish, we were served 2 minced pork balls as light and fluffy as soufflé, they were joined by Japanese leeks, onions, fungus and shreds of yuzu peels for a citrusy kick. We were also given a hot black tea (Ocha).

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Boiled Dish

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Boiled Dish

The boiled dish forms part of the last course of our kaiseki dinner, with pickles, rice and a side of salmon roe (ikura). We were asked to eat the rice with the ikura.

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Boiled Dish, Pickles, Rice, Ikura

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Ikura Rice and grated radishes

The food served at the restaurant all tend to be on the sweeter side, due to sugar content of miring sauces used.

Finally dessert and matcha (green tea) were served. ¬†Our¬†Dessert¬†was¬†ice-cream and poached apple drenched with flower honey – delicious, but too sweet for me. ūüėÄ

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Dessert

During dinner, a Japanese business man had a heart attack, but still we had seamless service, everybody remained calm and helped the man to wait for ambulance.

Check out the interior of the restaurant.

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Very clean and simple Interior

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Watching the chefs at work at the bar

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Outdoor seating in Summer – a fantastic place to watch Ginza night view too!

So when you are at a lost, unsure of where to eat in the Japan, do check out the dining floors in the department stores where English menus are provided. The basement level is usually food outlets where you can buy bread for tomorrow’s breakfast and traditional sweets and delicacies or something for mid-night snacks! ūüėčūüėčūüėč

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Our late night snack – mochi with red bean (azuki) paste inside

A Modern Ryokan Experience @ Oyado The Earth, Toba, Japan

Date of Visit:  February 27 2013 (overnight stay)

To truly enjoy traditional Japanese hospitality, one should at least stay at a ryokan – like what I did for my little R&R after Tokyo Marathon 2013!

Never heard of a ‘ryokan’? ¬†Easy-peasy, let me explain….

Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns which became popular in the 17th century (Edo Period) to accommodate travelling merchants and feudal lords along the Japanese highways (gokaidou).

And for a more verbose explanation with historical perspective…

In feudal Japan, vast landholdings were controlled by the Daimyo, ‘territorial lords’. ¬†In order to stop them from becoming too powerful and rebellious, the Shogun, ‘generalissimo’,¬†issued a directive that all Daimyos have to travel to Edo (current day Tokyo) every other year (sankin-koutai)¬†to spend a year in Edo where their wives and children were forced to remain as hostages. ¬† Since the Daimyos travel in an entourage of hundreds of people, they needed frequent stops along the road to rest and eat, and thus the traditional inns were born to serve these needs.

Today, the ryokans continue as the cornerstone of Japanese culture offering retreats to visitors to immerse in traditional customs, cuisines and architecture.

Ditto-ed and onward to my stay at Oyado The Earth!!

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Oyado The Earth (OTE) is a 16-suite inn in the City of Toba located at the northeastern end of the Shima-hanto Peninsula in Mie Perfecture.  Bordering the Ise-Shima National Park and facing Ise Bay of the Pacific Ocean, Toba is also a beautiful place for boating and  hiking.  The area is famous for seafood especially oysters and cultured pearls.  Does Mikimoto ring a bell, Ladies?  I am sure that you are all too familiar with the name synonymous with the perfectly round pearls Рand this is where it all started РToba!

Nevertheless, the main reason I travelled down to Mie Perfecture was to visit Ise Grand Shrine Рthe most sacred shrine in  Shinto religion.  I was also lucky to have Taka, my friend whom I met in Hong Kong ages ago to volunteer as driver for Mom, Bro and I.  (FYI:  If you are not as lucky as us, OTE is 2 hours and 45 minutes by car from Nagoya, or a 1 hour 40 minutes by train from Nagoya station to Toba Station and a further 35 minutes ride by car from the station).

Booking Oyado The Earth¬†(apparently ‘oyado‘ is another word for traditional-style Japanese inn) meant¬†venturing into unfamiliar territory for me and proved an interesting exercise since I could not find much online reviews when I started booking back in December 2012. ¬† And what a wonderful surprise to find out how wonderful The Earth¬†was!

OTE is set in a near total immersion in a relatively pristine natural environment surrounded by forests and Toba Bay.  From the observatory deck in The Earth, one can easily see the numerous islands in the middle distance.  Our trip to OTE took us down the windy narrow and rocky road to the edge of a cliff.  

We were very suprised to find the hotel attendant already waiting for us at the gate to direct us to our carpark.

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I am impressed with the geometric low-sprawling layout of Oyado The Earth set in harmony with the natural environment

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Oyado The Earth

The passageway to OTE is quite James Bond-ish – cue in the automatic steel sliding-doors and zig-zag corridors with pockets of landscaping.

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Passageway to oyado

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Landscaped niche

While waiting for the key to our room,  we were seated in the lounge and treated to a welcome drink of sparkling wine and Japanese sweets.

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Welcome drinks and snacks

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Sweetened Soy Bean

OTE’s common spaces includes gender segregated 24-hour hot-springs bath or onsen (on the ground floor where the rooms are), a cosy library and an adjoining lounge furnished with plush sofas.

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Bar, Lounge and Library areas

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Reception Area

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Entrance

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L: View into the entrance lobby/ reception
R: View from the entrance lobby looking up to the observatory deck

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Central stairs: Ground floor = Rooms, Spa and Onsen
1st floor = Entrance, Reception, Restaurant, Lounge
2nd floor = Outdoor observatory deck

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Ikebena/ Flower arrangements

While each suite in OTE has a  private open-air spring-fed onsen attached, ours went one step further with our own private entertaining room and a guest toilet.  Our Premium Suite is very spacious, we also have a separate sitting area for Bro to close off for his privacy.  He slept on a make-shift futon which was laid out on the heated tatami mat when we were having dinner.  I have to point out that service in Japanese hotels are truly all-inclusive whereby pajamas and toiletries are provided Рthe guest simply has to turn up!

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Our room. Note the sliding screen door which can be closed off and the cupboard where extra futons and yutakas are kept.

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Our room

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Freebies: Mikimoto facial care kits (Yay!)

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Bathroom

We had a small outdoor onsen where Mom, Bro and I went to soak our feet after dinner.  Even though we were sitting in the freezing cold,  the hot water warmed us up and  I must say the stiffness in my calves and feet literally melted away in the hot water from the springs!

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Onsen

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Our backyard

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Our private dining room with heated kotatsu seating which is adjoined to our room with a small kitchen.

Our packaged stay came with elaborate set meals for both dinner and breakfast, served at a time set by us. ¬†(‘Confession!’: I had exchanged some emails with the ¬†Eri, the GM of the hotel, regarding dietary requirements and meal times, so even though the attendants did not speak much English, everything went smoothly without a hitch!) ¬†We had the traditional multi-course kaiseki dinner, drawing on freshest produce from the land and sea in the area.

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1st Course + Orange Juice

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1st Course – the roe was amazing

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Sake

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2nd Course: Sashimi with sea-urchin

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3rd Course: Soup with white baits

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4th Course: Asparagus and mushrooms specially prepared at our kitchen by our own private chef!

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5th Course: Steamed vegies and fish paste

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6th Course: Seafood – remember to request Ebi lobster, the speciality of Mie Perfecture!

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7th Course: Kagoshima beef accompanied by the biggest broad pea ever!

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Palate cleanser: O Cha

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8th Course: Rice mixed with baby shrimps

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9th Course: Preserved vegies and a cockle dressed in mustard. Yum!

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10th Course: Miso Soup

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Dessert: Ice-cream and fruits

Last, but not least, OTE left no details out, by ensuring that we have our midnight snack of rice and roe on standby in case we wake up in the middle of the night hungry!

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Midnight Snack

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Rice and Roe

We woke up early the next day to catch day-break.  Watching the sun-rise was truly a majestic experience and made even more special by catching the sun rising over the the Pacific Ocean.

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We had our breakfast at the restaurant at 7:30am as arranged.  Here is our very attentive server.

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Restaurant

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Interesting round windows

Our breakfast of assorted small dishes was literally fit for a Daimyo!

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Breakfast

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Breakfast

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Breakfast

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Rice

Hang on! ¬†That’s not all for breakfast! ¬†We were invited out to the Lounge for fruits and yoghurt while waiting for Taka to pick us up! ¬†More Oishi!

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Yoghurt with fresh fruits

It was truly a fantastic experience staying at OTE Рdelicious food, attentive service and beautiful surroundings.   The only regret is that we only stayed overnight, if we revisit Toba in the future, we  will stay for an extra few days to take in attractions of the area such as  Meoto Iwa, Toba Aquarium, Mikimoto Museum and Pearl Island  Рmaybe even go hiking in the Shima National Park.

We also had a warm send-off from the manager.  As Taka drove out of the oyado, we noticed in our rear-view mirror that the manager maintained his deep-bow position until we lost sight of the oyado!  Wow!  Now, THAT was a real traditional Japanese hospitality!

Before we headed back to Nagoya train station, we detoured to visit Ago Bay which came highly recommended in the Michelin Green Guide.

The winding road to Ago Bay is a bit like the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia Рtrees and shrubs on one side of the road and scenic water views on the other.  Once we arrived at Ago Bay, we had to climb some steep steps to reach Yokoyama Observatory Deck.  There, at the height of 203m, one can take in the spectacular panorama overlooking the peninsula to see with our own eyes the famous saw-toothed coastline that has more than 60 small islets.   It is said that every season has its natural beauty, such as cherry blossoms and red maple leaves.

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A steep walk up to the observation deck

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Walked around the observation deck

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Views of Ago Bay

After 30 minutes, it’s time to head back to Nagoya train station to drop off our rental and onward journey to Kanazawa!

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Nagoya station: This is the only 2 modern buildings in Nagoya! (Surprise! Surprise!)

Additional info:  I booked Oyado The Earth through  JAPANiCAN.com (here) and hired our car from  Japan-experience. com (here).

The Most Affordable Michelin Meal In Japan So Far… It’s 3 Stars! @ Wa Yamamura, Nara, Japan

Date of Visit: March 3 2013

The ancient capital of Japan, Nara is 45mins away from Kyoto (there is a direct trolley running hourly, but don’t hop on the train bound for the other direction like I did!). ¬†Compared to Tokyo and Kyoto, Nara is a tranquil town, boasting temples and shrines. ¬†Most significantly Nara is a World UNESCO Heritage site and my prime reason to visit Nara is to visit the temples there. ¬†However, my quest to eat at Michelin-rated restaurants continued, and I was thrilled to find Wa Yamamura, a local Nara restaurant that has been awarded a 3 stars status by the Michelin Guide in Andy Hayler’s web of international restaurant reviews (here). ¬†Since Wa Yamamura’s webpage is in Japanese,¬†I asked my hotel concierge at Hotel Nikko Nara to book for me.

This husband and wife operated restaurant was packed by locals on the night we visited, so even though we made a bar seating reservation for 3 people, we were given a private room which is divided by a kimono curtain. ¬†Our 10-course kaiseki was ¬•12500 per person. ¬† We were very well taken care by the wife of the chef and her team of young waitresses (with one speaking English). ¬† True to being ‘omakase’, a hand-written description of the course on pretty notepapers accompanied each course. ¬†Here’s what we had…

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Chef of Chefs @Zeniya, Kanazawa

Date of Visit:  March 1 2013

The Kaga cuisine of Kanazawa is a distinct regional cuisine known as kaiseki ryori (a traditional Japanese multi-course meal) which is famed  for fresh seafood  caught off the Sea of Japan, rice and vegetables growned in the Kaga Plain and superior sake made from the quality water from the Hakusan Mountains.

It was a lucky fluke that ¬†Zeniya turned up in my search for fine dining in in Kanazawa. ¬†Little did I know that Chef Shinichiro Takagi is well-known for his innovative approach to Japanese cooking. ¬†Zeniya’s founder was his father who started the restaurant in 1970.

We were thrilled to find out that Chef T spoke English and kept us entertained and informed throughout dinner about the local culture and places to visit. ¬†He also told us that he has another restaurant in Kanazawa in the Geisha district and another overseas branch in Seoul. ¬†He also divulged that his father and him were invited to open a fine dining establishment in Sydney in the 80’s, but the deal did not go through. ¬†With training from the famous Kyoto Kitcho restaurant and having studied abroad including a stint in New York, it’s ¬†no wonder then, Chef T regularly guest chef overseas. On the night of our dinner, he and his team of chefs had just returned from a week long of cooking for a private function in Saudi Arabia.

The unassuming restaurant is actually a 2-storey building with large private dining spaces, popular with the local politicians, media personalities including overseas star chefs Tetsuya and Alain Duccase!  To be close to action, we chose to sit at the  eight-seater counter.

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The food at Zeniya is a celebration of the culinary culture of Kanazawa, where local produce is artfully presented  and also healthfully with a twist.

1st COURSE

White Fish with Amasake (a traditional Japanese sweet low alcohol drink made from fermented rice)

An artfully arranged pair of fish atop fresh produce in sweet mirin

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TO DRINK:

YACHIYA SAKE  from the most famous and oldest sake brewery in Kanazawa.  It is a family business started in 1628 and currently in its 16th generation.  True to Japanese family-run restaurant tradition, his wife came out to pour a round of sake for us.

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There has been comments that kaiseki¬†was developed in Kanazawa as a means to show off the fine lacquerware. ¬†The lacquer ware and crockery that the food were presented at Zeniya were from Chef T’s father’s collection from over 40 years ago. ¬†They are still in pristine condition. ¬†Chef T also mentioned that a must-visit in Kanazawa is the gold leaf factory where he had accompanied Alain Duccase to buy 200 sets of gold-leaved chopsticks!

2nd COURSE

Soup

The soup was very light, yet bursting with umami.  Egg and fish, wakame with wild fern from the mountains and a slice of carrot to add colour

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3rd COURSE

Sashimi, prawns in yuzu accompanied by local tomatoes.  

The star of the plate is definitely the baby tomatoes. ¬†Have you ever seen such small cherry tomatoes? ¬†Red distinctive rings on the the prawns marking freshness and ‘seasoned’ by the squeeze of yuzu juice.

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AMUSE BOUCHE

Chef T’s explained that this is his twist on carpaccio. ¬†Bonito shavings on marinated sashimi decorated with edible flowers. ¬†It certainly has a ‘twist’, very tasty and ‘Italian’ with additional flavouring, departuring from the traditional sashimi of soy sauce and wasabi. ¬†The piece of fish practically melts on my tongue.

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4th COURSE

BBQ Clam

The prepping of the locally sourced Manjugai clam was a bit violent!  The clam was given a few slaps on table to toughen it, because otherswise it would be too soft.  Then sliced and presented on a bowl of ice.  The rock was handpicked from the river, less than 10% made it to the table since it need to sustain very high temperature.  This is a DIY where we cook the clam on a hot stone, then dip the clam into the soy sauce under the watchful eye of the chefs.

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5th COURSE

Assorted Sashimi accompanied by local Kaga root vegetables

This is an exquisite platter of appetisers.  Each piece is meticulously prepared.  The star here is the Firefly Squid on a gold-plated plate that Kanazawa is so famous for.  The squid signals the arrival of Spring and is special as it emits blue light.

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6th COURSE:

Grilled Fish

Milky and tender – what more can I say?

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7th COURSE:

Beef

Kogashima Beef, one of the Top 3 beefs in Japan, served with freshly grated wasabi, turnip and leeks.  The beef was not fatty, but meltingly tender.

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8th COURSE:

Crab Rice

Grilling the crab legs

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Lots of fiddly work to pick the meat out of the long spindly legs of the crabs, so co-operations of 2 chefs are needed.  Chef T on the right with his second-in-command.

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Accompanied by pickles and wakame

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O-Cha to cleanse our palate

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DESSERT

A very simple dessert to finish our meal – a humongously sweet strawberry

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Dining at Zeniya is not cheap at ¬•30,000¬†per person, but Chef Takagi ‚Äď with his entertaining stories and sociable demeanour ‚Äď completes the experience.

Rollicking Good Food @Ginza Okuda, Tokyo

Date of Visit: February 23 2013

While the other runners opted for carbo-loading¬†with pasta for their pre-race meal.¬† This runner threw all caution to the wind and had a full-course omakase set¬†lunch at Ginza¬†Okuda instead!¬† Why, she reckoned, there’s a rice course in Japanese kaiseki¬†and¬†that’s carbo-loading, ain’t it?!¬† Continue reading