I can’t go to Japan and not visit the famed Tsukiji market, having seen it featured on multiple foodie features. Unfortunately the early morning tuna auction is allegedly no longer open to tourists, so we didn’t have to get there at an ungodly hour of 5 am. Instead, we got there at around 8 am, in time to walk through the market and watch the spoils of the tuna auction being broken down for sale.
The TV programmes are correct when they say that the seafood here is so fresh that it doesn’t smell at all fishy – just a general fresh smell of the sea. After gazing in awe at the huge array of seafood on offer, we made our way to the Tsukiji Outer Market to wander the many sushi restaurants offering some of the freshest sushi around. We had such an awesome first meal that we came back twice more – once that same afternoon, and again the day before we left.
Naturally, we took the opportunity to order various cuts of tuna, especially the otoro (fatty tuna), which I simply can’t bring myself to order in Singapore cos of the prohibitive prices for the measly portions. Here, a piece of otoro nigiri sushi is approximately S$7, but you get a huge piece of fish that spills over a small mouthful of perfectly cooked sushi rice.
You can totally taste the difference in the various grades of tuna – the normal bluefin, the medium fatty tuna and the fatty tuna. The fatty tuna is luxuriously rich and just melts in your mouth.
At Sushi Sen at Tsukiji, we had an aburi sushi platter that arguably was one of the best meals of the trip. Salmon, albacore tuna, medium fatty tuna, horse meat and scallop were sprinked with salt and aburi-ed with a blowtorch. The horse meat tasted just like lean beef, only a tad chewier, but the rest of the sushi was awesome.
At cousin C’s recommendation, we went to Ten-Ichi – the main branch at Ginza where the shifu is stationed. This was definitely our fine dining experience for the trip. From the moment we walked in where the maitre d’ took our coats, to the geisha waitresses who provide impeccable service without being too obtrusive, Ten-Ichi definitely exuded a quiet sophistication. The food is straightforward – simply the freshest possible seafood and vegetables coated in a whisper of batter that enhances rather than overwhelms the ingredient itself. The result was the lightest and best tempura I’ve ever had.
I ordered one of the set lunches, which came with prawns, squid, white fish, asparagus, lotus root and a seafood kakkiage. A, not being the world’s biggest fan of tempura, went for a few a la carte items like shitake mushroom, eggplant and scallop.
Unlike normal tempura where a huge coating of oily batter covers thin slivers of ingredients, here you can really taste the quality of the produce, and because the batter is so light and flash fried so quickly, there’s hardly any oil. I didn’t try A’s scallop but he said it was really fresh and almost meaty. My absolute favourite were the tempura prawns, because they came with the heads/feelers. Those mouthfuls of the prawn heads, with the sweet richness and crisp texture, were some of the best bites of the trip.
Ten-Ichi is quite a bona fide celebrity restaurant, and has even been featured in the book “Everybody Eats There”, which showcases 100 of the world’s most legendary celebrity restaurants. Our trip to Ten-Ichi brings the grand total of the number of featured restaurants that we’ve visited to... one.
Because of my aversion to cigarette smoke, unfortunately we couldn’t partake of the authentic yakitori joints in what’s loosely known as Yakitori Alley in Shinjuku. I would have loved to, since the smells wafting out were so enticing, but indoors was too heady a mix of chargilled smoke (thumbs up) and cigarette smoke from the many salarymen relaxing after work (big thumbs down).
We did manage to get in a yakitori fix in Tokyo though, at a random joint we chanced upon in Shibuya called Nanbantei. We still don’t know if it’s related in any way to the institution at Far East Plaza, but it had a wide range of very good skewers – from regular bacon-wrapped asparagus and cherry tomato to lamb chops and a delicious steak skewer with the most luscious sizzling fat. I’m also pleased to report that I think this trip has converted A to the wonders of chicken heart skewers!
Another example of chance finds sometimes being better than hunting down subjective recommendations from guidebooks etc is Negishi. Also in Shibuya, A saw this on our first night in Tokyo and, tired and hungry, we went in expecting just to fill our bellies.
We were very pleasantly surprised to find very good value sets with grilled meats, barley rice and optional grated yam. We tried beef tongue, beef karubi and pork collar, all of which were good but the karubi fell just short of the other two. I found the grated yam, which is supposed to be eaten with the barley rice to aid digestion, too slimey for me to appreciate, but surprisingly A dug it.
After Sapporo we were quite ramen-ed out, but we couldn’t not have at least one ramen meal in Tokyo. We hunted for Kyushu Jangara, which was recommended by several blogs as well as A’s colleagues. Unfortunately we didn’t have an address, just general directions of its location near the subway exits. We traipsed around Omotesando and almost gave up, when we decided to just venture one more block down, and saw it right in front of us.
Their specialty is Kyushu ramen with a healthy dollop of mentaiko – spicy cod roe. A bit like the one they serve at Tampopo in Singapore, only way more potent on all counts, from the intensely rich pork bone broth with an added fishy kick from the mentaiko, to the combination of both tender char siew and fatty braised pork belly. They also had condiments at the table for you to add to your liking. The soup didn’t need any additions, but I found that a tiny dollop of grated garlic and a drop of vinegar really accentuated the richness of the pork belly.
The texture of the noodles was also really good – perfectly springy and al dente. Interestingly, they use different noodles for different types of ramen. My Kyushu ramen had quite thick noodles, whereas A’s bowl which had a clearer but fishier broth had much thinner noodles.
After Hokkaido, we found the snacks in Tokyo to be slightly less inspiring. We did however come across some bizarrely flavoured Kitkats – wasabi, soy sauce and kinako.
These actually weren’t as bad as we feared. The soy sauce, coupled with white chocolate, tasted faintly like teriyaki but in a pleasant way. The kinako was like a black sesame mochi. Only the wasabi was a bit iffy, only because I don’t really associate the heat or flavour of wasabi with sweetness.
Again, while there’s a dizzying array of pastries and desserts at all the department store food halls, some of them look better than they taste, and I think the ones we had in Hokkaido were slightly better. Having said that, we had two standouts in Tokyo.
Firstly, we popped into La Boutique de Joel Robuchon in Roppongi Hills (couldn’t afford to actually dine there, heh), and had a custard brioche, a cream puff and a foccacia with blue cheese and honey. Man, that was one of the best foccacias I’ve ever had. The bread was soft, and as we all know, the combination of blue cheese and honey is classic. Definitely the best bread we had on the trip.
While Hokkaido had better desserts as a whole, we did have 2 fabulous fruit tarts at the Comme Ca Cafe in Shinjuku. A had the banana caramel tart, and I had the strawberry mascarpone one. Mine was amazing – the tart base wasn’t hard at all, and the mascarpone cream was whipped till it was light as air.
I must say that while the food was generally very good, with the exception of a few meals/bites, it was generally less wow-inducing than our trip last year to Vancouver. I guess it’s partly because that trip opened our culinary eyes more. Also, maybe our palates aren’t honed enough to fully appreciate the subtleties of really fresh, raw seafood. Still, having said that, this trip was a blast, both gastronomically and otherwise.
Top picks – Sushi Sen in Tsukiji. Kyushu Jangara in Harajuku.
Random finds – Nanbantei and Negishi in Shibuya.
Overall, the lack of street names makes it almost impossible to find small joints. My recommendation is to just wander around and go to any place that catches your eye.