Japan

Traveling and dining in other Arizona cities and beyond
User avatar
ScottofStrand
Posts: 624
Joined: 8 years ago
Location: Mesa, AZ

7 years ago

So much good food in Japan, it's hard to know where to begin! Amazing Sushi, mind blowing Ramen, a new and constant craving for delicious cold SOBA.. Here's something that's hard to find in America. DIY Takoyaki tables!
TakoTable.jpg
Takoyaki Table
TakoTable.jpg (59.06 KiB) Viewed 10275 times
Tako9.jpg
Octopus goes in
Tako9.jpg (69.62 KiB) Viewed 10275 times
Tako8.jpg
Batter's next! Left is Shiso and Cheese, right is Plain with Onions and crispy ginger
Tako8.jpg (59.78 KiB) Viewed 10275 times
Tako6.jpg
Starts to come together
Tako6.jpg (60.73 KiB) Viewed 10275 times
Tako5.jpg
Taking Shape
Tako5.jpg (70.25 KiB) Viewed 10275 times
Tako3.jpg
Takoyaki!
Tako3.jpg (77.32 KiB) Viewed 10275 times
Tako4.jpg
Dress with sauce and Bonito
Tako4.jpg (64.04 KiB) Viewed 10275 times
TakoYaki2.jpg
Hot, salty, creamy, sweet Takoyaki!
TakoYaki2.jpg (57.04 KiB) Viewed 10275 times
One of many delicious food experiences in Japan.. More to follow.
TakoYaki1.jpg
At Pizza Ball House, in Osaka.
TakoYaki1.jpg (49.97 KiB) Viewed 10275 times
User avatar
Lunchbox
Posts: 1073
Joined: 8 years ago
Location: Gilbert
Contact:

7 years ago

ScottofStrand wrote:DIY Takoyaki tables!
That's so cool! How long do those take to cook?
-- LBX

Instagram: @zachary.garcia

Twitter: @zach_garcia
User avatar
ScottofStrand
Posts: 624
Joined: 8 years ago
Location: Mesa, AZ

7 years ago

About 15-20 minutes total. It took me a little while to figure out the technique, but I think they turned out pretty good for my first time!

For whatever reason, the thing that I found myself craving the most during my trip was Soba. Maybe it's because I was in alternating states of intoxicated and hung over, but Soba always seemed to hit the spot.
Soba.jpg
Cheap Soba from a chain
Soba.jpg (74.59 KiB) Viewed 10220 times
Soba.jpg
Nice Soba with meat broth
Soba.jpg (62.17 KiB) Viewed 10220 times
SobaBroth.jpg
Soba Broth
SobaBroth.jpg (60.2 KiB) Viewed 10220 times
This meat broth was oily and delicious. A perfect compliment to the clean Soba noodles.

Not sure if there are any local places that do killer Soba, but I will be on the lookout!
User avatar
Skillet Doux
Posts: 3437
Joined: 8 years ago
Contact:

7 years ago

Oh, man, takoyaki!

A number of years ago, I came across a small chain in Japan (maybe they're huge now, maybe they no longer exist) called Gindaco. The one we hit was in the entertainment area that's part of the Tokyo Dome complex.
gindacocooking.jpg
gindacocooking.jpg (72.96 KiB) Viewed 10199 times
gindacotakoyaki.jpg
Takoyaki
gindacotakoyaki.jpg (70.23 KiB) Viewed 10199 times
It's a chain, it's fast food... don't care. Killer takoyaki. It's all they made, with three different toppings. This was the standard, then there was one with a lot of green onion, I think, and then one with a big scoop of potato salad(!).

Zarusoba is so, so easy to make at home (the tempura, less so). It's one of my favorite summertime dinners. Here's a really nice rundown with accompanying recipes:

Basics: Cold soba noodles with dipping sauce (Just Hungry)

Also, I know there are some places you can get zarusoba. Sushi Ken's... okay. Better Hana, I think. I haven't had their soba yet, but after seeing your post this morning I went and got some hiyashi udon, and based on that I bet their soba's great.

Keep 'em coming, man. I'm so looking forward to hearing all about this trip :-)
Dominic Armato
Dining Critic
Arizona Republic | azcentral.com
User avatar
Skillet Doux
Posts: 3437
Joined: 8 years ago
Contact:

7 years ago

Skillet Doux wrote:I came across a small chain in Japan (maybe they're huge now...)
WOW!!!

398 locations! I think there were only four or five when I went.
Dominic Armato
Dining Critic
Arizona Republic | azcentral.com
jerseygirlangie
Posts: 7
Joined: 7 years ago

7 years ago

I'll be in Tokyo ( and points south, probably ending up in the Hiroshima area ) for two weeks, then, on to Seoul for a week, at the beginning of July .
Any recent gustatory ( or touristy ! ) info would be appreciated, especially on any up to date info regarding Tsukiji .
User avatar
ScottofStrand
Posts: 624
Joined: 8 years ago
Location: Mesa, AZ

7 years ago

I was in Tokyo about 6 weeks ago, so I think most of my intel is pretty up-to-date.

The Tsukiji Market move has been postponed until 2015, so you can definitely go and enjoy the market as well as the delicious food! I'd say to go ahead and avoid the tuna auction all-together, unless you REALLY want to go. I showed up to try and get one of the 60 spots at 5am, and was informed all the spots had filled up by 3AM! Instead, I wandered around the outer market area inspecting interesting shops selling fresh produce, knives, bowls, tea-sets and all manner of other things.

After that, my friend and I wandered around, deciding which line to stand in for breakfast sushi. Sushi Dai is the most famous, and the longest line with a couple hours wait(when you figure out which place it actually is). My issue was that I had 3-4 other places written down as recommendations, but I couldn't figure out which place was which. We eventually settled on a place that was relatively cheap compared to the rest and had a fairly short line.
Tsukiji.jpg
Ichiba Sushi at Tsukiji
Tsukiji.jpg (13.93 KiB) Viewed 10207 times
904599_10200888278469165_965306299_o.jpg
Sushi at Ichiba Tsukiji
904599_10200888278469165_965306299_o.jpg (67.92 KiB) Viewed 10207 times
893591_10200888278029154_100442234_o.jpg
Nigiri at Ichiba Tsukiji
893591_10200888278029154_100442234_o.jpg (49.65 KiB) Viewed 10207 times
904034_10200888277789148_2000999471_o.jpg
Nigiri at Ichiba Tsukiji
904034_10200888277789148_2000999471_o.jpg (72.32 KiB) Viewed 10207 times
It was all very good, no frills, high quality sushi. There were several more plates including amaebi, unagi and sea cucumber not pictured above as well. In retrospect, I wish I had gone a bit bigger or tried Sushi Dai, because how often are you really at Tsukiji in Tokyo?

The actual market opens up at 9am for the general public, and it is HUGE. It had an outdoor warehouse feel to it, and it was set up in a giant rounded grid. A word of caution; you will constantly feel like you're in everyone's way, and nearly get run over by speedy flatbed carts zooming around at a high speed. Be aware of your surroundings and try to be a polite tourist when you're wandering around. I only snagged a few pics of it, because I didn't want to be too obnoxious.
902325_10200888284629319_559503934_o.jpg
Icing down a whole fish
902325_10200888284629319_559503934_o.jpg (66.43 KiB) Viewed 10207 times
904105_10200888285389338_1435935949_o.jpg
Tuna Chunks
904105_10200888285389338_1435935949_o.jpg (75.96 KiB) Viewed 10207 times
903719_10200888284869325_124685995_o.jpg
Can someone tell me what these are? They look like giant scallops, but they were the size of my head!?
903719_10200888284869325_124685995_o.jpg (58.56 KiB) Viewed 10207 times
All-in-all, it was a terrific, and slightly overwhelming, morning at Tsukiji. I'm super glad I got to see it in action!

Here are links to other blog posts about places(mostly inexpensive)in Tsukiji I bookmarked but didn't get a chance to check out.
Kagura Tsukiji
TSUKIJI ITADORI UOGASHI-SENRYO
MARUSHIZU Unajyu(GrilledEel over Rice)
TSUKIJI TOHGARASHI(Jjiagae-Korean Style Spicy Noodle Stew)
SUSHI DAI(famous Sushi at Tsukiji)
User avatar
ScottofStrand
Posts: 624
Joined: 8 years ago
Location: Mesa, AZ

7 years ago

Hmm, it might be best to move that post and the discussion to the Japan thread thinking about it. I did a blog post about the amazing Ramen there too. What other suggestions are you looking for Angie? I was there for two weeks, and had a killer time.
jerseygirlangie
Posts: 7
Joined: 7 years ago

7 years ago

Thank you for the info, guys ! It's much appreciated !
User avatar
Skillet Doux
Posts: 3437
Joined: 8 years ago
Contact:

7 years ago

When are you leaving, Angie? I've got a bunch to share... just been buried. I want to post it before you go.
Dominic Armato
Dining Critic
Arizona Republic | azcentral.com
jerseygirlangie
Posts: 7
Joined: 7 years ago

7 years ago

That would be wonderful, Dom !

We're leaving June 23rd, and right now, it looks like we'll be in Tokyo for five days, then on to Kyoto and Hiroshima .
User avatar
Skillet Doux
Posts: 3437
Joined: 8 years ago
Contact:

7 years ago

Last I was there was January 2012 before we launched PHXfn, and I can (and did) do a blow-by-blow, but there's so much amazing food in Tokyo, probably best to focus on some of the highlights.
ScottofStrand wrote:A word of caution; you will constantly feel like you're in everyone's way, and nearly get run over by speedy flatbed carts zooming around at a high speed.
Yes, yes, and yes. Your ankles won't appreciate a close encounter with one of these:
tsukijicart.jpg
Tsukiji Cart
tsukijicart.jpg (73.56 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
I have to believe that the local hospital is staffed with orthopedic surgeons who specialize in ankle reconstruction, because these things are everywhere, swarming around at high speed in very tight quarters with heavy foot traffic.

I can't speak to the tuna auction. I never did it. Though I did manage to get to Sushi Dai. It wasn't so bad of a wait for me. I got there really early -- about a quarter to 5:00 (they opened at 5:00) -- and I think I waited about 45 minutes. And there was a big domestic tour group in front of me, so I was 21st in line, and got in on the second turn. I can't speak to how it compares to some of the other little sushi joints at the market, but I was staying just a 10 minute walk away and I have no real sleep patterns to speak of, so I figured getting there early and just doing Dai was the safe bet. It was fun... lots of energy, and the folks running the place came out and passed around hot green tea to anybody waiting in line.
sushidaiinterior.jpg
Sushi Dai Counter
sushidaiinterior.jpg (66.18 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
It's tiny inside. Really, really tiny. Like, you could fit the entire restaurant inside a Winnebago tiny. And there are three guys working the counter, and it's warm and cheery and everybody's having fun. Just a great vibe.
sushidaiotoro.jpg
Otoro
sushidaiotoro.jpg (51.39 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
Of course, this is the stuff you come for. And I think it's hilarious that if you do their set menu (you should), they lead with the otoro. It's almost like they're showing off. Yeah. You got your otoro. Now watch what we can do.
sushidaiaji.jpg
Aji
sushidaiaji.jpg (56.74 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
What I loved about this place, beyond just being phenomenally delicious, is that it's kind of a perfect benchmark experience. No frills, nothing cute, just straight up traditional nigiri made with some of the best fish in the world from the market a few dozen yards away. You want to know what this is supposed to taste like? This is what it's supposed to taste like.

Anyway, if you do go, I would definitely recommend trying to get there for the opening if you can (might not be possible with the metro hours, depending on where you're staying). Scott mentioned it above, and I think I read it somewhere else after the fact, but I can't believe their official visitors hours are that late. The market's practically shut down by then, compared to the early morning hours. I rolled out of "breakfast" before 6:00, walked the market, and they certainly didn't seem to be enforcing any specific hours.

As long as you're in that part of town, you really want to check out the food courts in the basements of the big Ginza department stores. They make me want to weep. Huge football field-sized basements filled with little stalls selling everything -- prepared foods, tea, fish, vegetables, 20 types of miso, Asian specialties, pastries, breads, Western specialties, all of the highest possible quality... it's just completely mindblowing.
foodcourtasparagus.jpg
Asparagus
foodcourtasparagus.jpg (92.42 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
foodcourtfish.jpg
Fish
foodcourtfish.jpg (120.55 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
foodcourtjamon.jpg
Jamon Iberico
foodcourtjamon.jpg (83.66 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
foodcourtpastry.jpg
Pastry
foodcourtpastry.jpg (66.32 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
foodcourtwagyu.jpg
Wagyu
foodcourtwagyu.jpg (54.96 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
One place I'm a little surprised Scott didn't mention above is Gogyo, where I had my favorite dish of the trip, and I think Scott might have felt the same way. It's a little restaurant on a primarily residential street in Nishiazabu (be sure to hit the right one -- there are multiple locations, all serving different food), but they do this one dish that's total insanity. You order their burnt miso ramen, and back in the open kitchen you can see them dishing out broth, preparing noodles, etc. Then one of the guys starts working a wok -- they're facing you and it's behind a short wall, so you can't see what they're doing -- and all of a sudden, there's a HUGE WALL OF FLAME, like, four feet high, roaring out of this wok, and it persists for what seems like five or six seconds. Then the flames die down, they pour that into the bowl they've been preparing, add a couple of last touches on top, and bring it out to you:
gogyoramen.jpg
Burnt Miso Ramen
gogyoramen.jpg (50.43 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
And this stuff is totally amazing. It's like carbonized soup, jet black with a slick of chile oil on top, with great pork, a perfect egg, and really tin, rail-straight noodles that have a ton of bite. But the thing is the soup, which is a tonkotsu base, but it captures all of this smoke and char and complexity without getting acrid or bitter. It's completely amazing. Like fire in a bowl, but not in the spicy sense that we usually use that comparison -- actual smoky, black fire. Completely blew my mind.

The city is filled with little izakayas, and man, you could spend years there and barely scratch the surface. But I found a blog post that pointed me towards a place where we had a fabulous time. The doorway is kind of tucked away in an alcove on the ground floor of a small office building...
nakamenoteppenentrance.jpg
Nakamenoteppen Entrance
nakamenoteppenentrance.jpg (74.8 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
...but what doesn't come across in the photo is that the top of the door -- the rolled-up piece of white fabric -- is about belt high. I have absolutely no idea why they do this. I don't know if it's some historical remnant, cultural thing, or weird marketing gimmick. But it does have this kind of Alice in Wonderland being transported into another world feel to it, and when you stand up on the inside after practically crawling through the door...
nakamenoteppeninterior.jpg
Nakamenoteppen Interior
nakamenoteppeninterior.jpg (82.14 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
...you're in this cozy little joint with a big counter, a small seating area with some tables in back, and one guy running a grill with a huge spread of fresh seafood and vegetables in front of him (so sad I didn't get a photo of that). It's really simple food, served with a ton of sake or shochu. We tried probably a dozen things, and I don't think a single dish, with the possible exception of the tsukune, had more than four ingredients, including salt or soy.
nakamenoteppenscallop.jpg
Scallop
nakamenoteppenscallop.jpg (64.32 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
You order scallops, and he'll just take a huge, fresh scallop off the pile of ice, open and clean it, and grill it right there with just a touch of salt and soy, bubbling away in its own juice and absorbing the smoke from the wood fire beneath. When we got a huge, two foot long eggplant, he seasoned and wrapped it in tin foil, pulled up one of the grates, and buried the whole thing right in the coals. We had a bunch of grilled items -- young bamboo, hamachi collar, onions, bacon-wrapped greens, some other fish -- all of them, crazy simple and amazing.
nakamenoteppentsukune.jpg
Tsukune
nakamenoteppentsukune.jpg (69.87 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
The most complex dish we got. And so, so good. Wish we'd had a dozen.
bekohiraexterior.jpg
Ebisu Yokocho
bekohiraexterior.jpg (98.19 KiB) Viewed 10037 times
Also, in that kind of downscale eats vein, a friend who's been living in Tokyo for a while took me to a place called Ebisu Yokocho, which is this almost Blade Runner-esque indoor food court that's practically invisible from the street. It's a narrow doorway, and it opens into this long, snaking hallway that's flanked by maybe 20 little stalls, all specializing in different street eats. None of them were more than 10x10', and they'd have little makeshift tables and milk crate stools that would spill out into the narrow aisle. The stand we stopped at, Bekohira, exclusively served dishes made with beef tongue.
bekohirapickledtongue.jpg
Chilled Beef Tongue with Ponzu
bekohirapickledtongue.jpg (55.13 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
This one was really thin slices of chilled beef tongue with shaved onions and ponzu... almost pickled-tasting, but not quite. Meaty, and yet light and refreshing.
bekohiragrilledtongue.jpg
Grilled Beef Tongue
bekohiragrilledtongue.jpg (67.88 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
This was the opposite... kind of a sugar bomb, but so, so good, tenderized somehow, grilled and glazed with a deep, caramelized soy glaze.

All of these stands looked amazing. I posted the website with all of the addresses and such, below.

And perhaps most importantly, if you happen to come across these:
kitkat.jpg
Hotcakes Kit Kat
kitkat.jpg (43.72 KiB) Viewed 10071 times
...BUY THEM.

Then buy three more boxes and bring them to me :-)

(Seriously, the most amazing commercial confection I have ever tasted, bar none... sooooooo good.)

Please let us know how the trip went when you get back!

Sushi Dai
Tokyo-to, Chuo-ku
Tsukiji 5-2-1
3541-3738

Nishiazabu Gogyo
ramendining.gogyo.com
Tokyo-to, Minato-ku
Nishiazabu 1-4-36

Nakamenoteppen
Tokyo-to, Meguro-ku
Kamimeguro 3-9-5
5724-4439
5775-5566

Bekohira (Ebisu Yokocho)
www.ebisu-yokocho.com
Ebisu Yokocho
Tokyo-to, Shibuya-ku
Ebisu 1-7-4
3445-4118
Dominic Armato
Dining Critic
Arizona Republic | azcentral.com
User avatar
BarbaraToombs
Posts: 1471
Joined: 8 years ago
Location: Chandler/Tempe, Arizona

7 years ago

Holy crap, Dom! What an amazing write-up! Ready to book my flight NOW!
User avatar
Tim H
Posts: 280
Joined: 7 years ago
Location: Gilbert, AZ

7 years ago

Angie, in Hiroshima you might want to try okonomiyaki, a kind of savory pancake with batter, cabbage, meat or seafood, and noodles topped with a sweet sauce and Japanese Mayo. It's a Japanese comfort food, and Hiroshima is famous for it.

There's a three-story building with a couple dozen okonomiyaki shops on the east end of the Hondori walking mall called Okonomi-mura. A single okonomiyaki is plenty for two people. (I worked a few blocks from this place for a year -- it really is worth a visit.)

If you like Japanese gardens, Shukkei-en is lovely. It's on the tram line and not far from Hiroshima Castle.
There is nothing either good or bad but gravy makes it so. - Kevin Hearne
User avatar
Skillet Doux
Posts: 3437
Joined: 8 years ago
Contact:

6 years ago

What better way to kill 16 hours worth of return flight than doing a little photo editing and ramen writing, right?

I have a ton -- a ton -- of stuff from two weeks in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. And unfortunately I have a three day turnaround before I head right back for a surgical strike for work (ugh), so the rest might have to wait a little bit. But man, I couldn't wait to write about this one.

The goal: 96 hours in Tokyo, ten bowls of ramen. Totally doable, right? I've been going to Tokyo off and on since my teens, and until recently ramen was an occasional thing. But this ramen renaissance isn't limited to the States -- it's happening in Japan, too -- and I've really been wanting to further my ramen education. So, since I had such a blast hitting ramen joints last January, I decided to up the stakes and see how many I could cram in this trip. In between izakayas, yakitori joints, the counters of tempura masters, etc. etc. I, uh... ate a lot of food in four days.

Day 1
After arriving late in the afternoon, checking in, and running out to grab an outstanding dinner at Nakamenoteppen, an izakaya that I think has cemented its place as a regular stop for me (I'll post about non-ramen stuff later), I figured I had enough time to have a bowl of ramen for dinner number two. Maybe even another, if I really hoofed it. One of the problems with late-night ramen adventures in Tokyo is that the subway system shuts down around 12:00 or 12:30, and cabs are super expensive. Like, get caught on the wrong side of town and you could easily spend $100 or more getting back to your hotel. That is a pricey bowl of ramen. And, incidentally, the reason I suspect capsule hotels exist.

Anyway, on the way back from Nakameguro (the neighborhood where we had dinner #1), I jumped off the line in Ebisu, a hopping 'hood with a good late night scene and a lot of ramen options. Before I go any further, I need to give a huge, huge shout out and word of thanks to www.ramenadventures.com, which is such an amazing English-language resource for the Tokyo ramen scene that I owe nearly all of my tips and info to him. That's the guy who's doing the legwork, and a prime example of how much dedicated online food writers can do.
afuriexterior.jpg
afuriexterior.jpg (59.23 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
Anyway, Afuri, just a couple of short blocks from the Ebisu station, was my first bowl of the trip, and one of only three I finished completely (ate a lot of ramen, above). Afuri seemed like a great place to start. Their specialty is shio (salt) ramen, about as stripped-down and light as you get, and Afuri even has a reputation for producing an especially light ramen. And yeah, light is the operating word here.

But first, a note on the machine.
afurimachine.jpg
afurimachine.jpg (67.54 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
This is the machine. And it's at the front of every ramen shop, usually just inside the door, sometimes out on the sidewalk. And it's really kind of a genius system. Ramen bars are often, if not usually, seat-of-the-pants type operations, with a small handful of seats at a counter, minimal if any decoration, often crammed into any alley or basement that offers cheap rent, and frequently operated by just a pair of people. But keeping ¥750-950 (about $7.50 - $9.50) bowls of ramen profitable in a city with sky-high rents means turnover. So the last thing two guys running a tiny ramen shop want to be doing is slowing down their customers and handling money when they're trying to do everything else. So the entire menu is on a vending machine. You drop some money in the machine, press the button for what you want to have, and the machine spits out a small ticket. When you sit down, you hand the ticket to the guy watching the counter (always doing double-duty on bowl assembly and presentation as well), and a few minutes later, you get your ramen. So wherever possible, and whenever I remembered, I got a photo of the machine. Because the singlemost difficult thing about navigating the ramen scene in Japan is reading the machines. Some places will hand you a translated sheet -- if they have one, and if they're paying attention -- but I think I got two out of the ten places I visited. What's more, I took a couple years of Japanese in high school, I still remember most of the kanas (hiragana and katakana, two alphabets for writing Japanese words and approximations of foreign words, respectively), and these were still mostly impenetrable to me because I don't know a lick of kanji. So in the interest of helping out anybody who may happen upon this post, you can use these photos to do some translations in advance. Sorry I didn't get more of them.
afuriramen.jpg
Yuzu Shio Ramen @ Afuri
afuriramen.jpg (50.89 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
Back to ramen! Oh, my... Afuri's shio ramen (top row, second button, I believe) was a thing of complete beauty. My tastes generally tend towards the heavier, more aggressive bowls, but this was so, so, so wonderful. The broth seemed to be mostly chicken -- not sure if there was any pork involved -- but it was simultaneously light and incredibly flavorful, with a light salty lick and an intense fragrance, a noseful of bright aromatics, chief among them yuzu, which is their signature ingredient. I don't think much of the juice was used, but there were little bits of zest floating around, and that's what took an already outstanding broth and sent it way, way over the top. Noodles were thin and delicate but had a good chew, there was some sliced menma (fermented bamboo), a sheet of nori, and a little fresh greenery that I think was chrysanthemum leaves. The look of the egg tells you all you need to know about it. And even the pork was simultaneously light but full of flavor, tasting almost of lightly cured bacon, sliced thin and charred for a little bit of smoky complexity. I can't even imagine what they could do to make this better. I'd just finished a huge dinner, and I inhaled this. There were two vying for my favorite of the trip, and this was one of them. Go here.

It's a good thing I started with the light broth, because my second bowl of the night was anything but. I had about 45 minutes until the last train, and there was another joint I'd read about in the neighborhood that piqued my curiosity. With the caveat that they've obviously mastered the basics before getting creative, truth is that as much as we harp on tradition, folks in Japan certainly aren't bound by it themselves. Enter: Cheese Ramen.

Tsukomo in Ebisu is, I think, an outpost of a mini-chain, and it's a short walk from the station. Maybe five minutes. Their thing is cheese ramen, and you'll have no trouble ordering it, firstly because this was one of only two shops I stopped at that didn't have a machine, and secondly because it's the entire first page of the menu. Point and eat.
tsukomoramen.jpg
Cheese Ramen @ Tsukomo
tsukomoramen.jpg (49.57 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
Whoa. It's a pork broth, but grated cheese has been melted into the broth -- a cheese they call "Hokkaido Tokachi Golden Gouda," lightly sharp and a touch sour -- and as each bowl comes out of the kitchen, there's one guy standing by the pass operating one of those industrial cheese graters in full view of the dining room. He pops a golf ball-sized hunk of cheese into the grater, bowl goes underneath, and you end up with a mountain of light, snow-like cheese on top as well. You eat some noodles -- thick and kinky -- and the cheese on top grabs the noodles as you slurp. Plus, that broth is hot and there's some moisture in the cheese, so as you go along, your noodles start getting wrapped up in these globs of hot, melty cheese. And I have to confess, this is kind of awesome. Part of the reason it works, I think, despite its absurd decadence, is because the underlying broth is really, really good. They're not just taking some middling pork water and throwing a ton of cheese into it to make it palatable. There's not a thing subtle about it, but it's extremely well-crafted. Cheese ramen. I'm on board. Who'da thunk?

Day 2
After my Rokurinsha mishap of the last trip, I was bound and determined to have some full-strength fishy tsukemen. But I didn't want to just go back to Rokurinsha, and Ramen Adventures was hot on this place in Shinjuku called Fuunji. As luck would have it, work took us to Shinjuku for lunch on day two. Fuunji was the second-longest wait of the trip (there was none at Afuri or Tsukomo, though waits aren't uncommon).
fuunjiinterior.jpg
fuunjiinterior.jpg (69.78 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
This is what so many of these ramen shops look like. This isn't unusually small. It's typical. A counter, a kitchen that would be small for an economy apartment, maybe a foot and a half of space between the stools and the back wall (occupied by the line when it's busy), and 6.5' ceilings. The line was just out the door -- right about where I was standing for this photo -- and we probably waited for about 20 minutes.

A word on tsukemen. When it comes to ramen, some people are broth people. And some people are noodle people. And the noodle people are known to get a bowl of ramen and immediately bolt the entire pile of noodles as quickly as possible before finishing the soup. The reason for this is that a ton of work goes into producing these beautiful, fresh, strong alkaline noodles, and they're cooked to just the right texture, and what do we do with them? We plop them into a searing how bowl of broth so that they continue to cook, getting softer and less and less awesome with every slurp. So tsukemen is the noodle lover's answer to ramen. The noodles are cooked and shocked, then served alongside a small bowl with the broth and toppings, usually a highly concentrated version thereof. So you dip your noodles in the ultrathick broth, it clings to the noodles, you slurp them up, eat a little bit of the toppings, and you continue this way -- perfectly cooked noodles in every bite -- until you're done with the noodles. At this point, if you have any broth left, there's a thermos filled with hot water that you can use to thin it out slightly before finishing it like normal soup. Let the record show that I was on the fence about tsukemen going into this trip. And let the record show that Fuunji has made me a believer.
fuunjimachine.jpg
fuunjimachine.jpg (96.37 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
On this machine, the top row is the noodles. The two on the left are ramen, and the two on the right are tsukemen. And I think (somebody who reads Japanese please check me on this) that the second and forth options are essentially richer, more intense versions of the first and the third. I'm really not sure. But I went with number four -- the potentially richer and more intense tsukemen.
fuunjinoodles.jpg
Tsukemen Noodles @ Fuunji
fuunjinoodles.jpg (56.28 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
So you get two vessels -- a plate with the noodles, which are thick and chewy and delicious, and served lukewarm or even cool. And then you dip them in the soup.
fuunjibroth.jpg
Tsukemen Broth @ Fuunji
fuunjibroth.jpg (77.58 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Just... wow. This stuff is intense. It is the polar opposite of Afuri's yuzu shio, and it was my other favorite of the trip. It was really thick, more like a creamy sauce, but the thickness came from the natural stuff of chicken bones alone, fortified with all kinds of wonderfully fishy things that I couldn't even begin to pinpoint. It is a fishy broth, but what is shocking is how the flavor is simultaneously so strong and yet devoid of all of those negative things we think of when we think of the word "fishy." I mean, sometimes you go to France and you get a soup de poisson and man, they don't fear the funk. But this -- it was creamy, and thick, and rich, and just so unbelievably complex. And the more of that dried fish powder on the top you mix in, the more rich and fishy and complex it gets. And if I hadn't \read somewhere that there was no pork involved in the creation of the broth, I never, ever would have believed it. Hiding down beneath the surface, however, were thick batons of tender, fatty pork, blanched bean sprouts, menma, another perfect egg (this would be a theme) --- totally floored. Totally blown away. I even came to appreciate the slightly cooler temperature. I think it brought out more of the complexity in the broth. Done. Sold. Along with Afuri, this is as good as ramen/tsukemen gets for me.

Later that night, after another regular dinner, I decided to go out for another one-two punch of late-night ramen. First stop was Kikanbou, known for their spicy/numbing ramen, and there's no missing this shop.
kikanbouexterior.jpg
kikanbouexterior.jpg (51.09 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
It's kind of hilarious. And the demonic imagery doesn't stop there.
kikanboutotems.jpg
kikanboutotems.jpg (64.06 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
You get inside, and the walls are covered with all kinds of devilish masks and totems, while ominous drums play in the background. They've got their theme, all right.

One way Kikanbou distinguishes themselves is by letting you set your level of hot and numbing. It's ma la. Chiles and Sichuan pepper. And they can each be set individually, on a scale of 1-5, by pointing at the chart one of the fellows holds out for you. I opted for four on both.
kikanbouramen.jpg
Spicy Ramen @ Kikanbou
kikanbouramen.jpg (74.67 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
Oh, it's hot. And numbing. They're not kidding around. This isn't "hot." It's actually hot. Most of you know my comfort level with spice, and I'd say the four was about as far as I like to go. I'm sure I could have handled the five, but I don't think I would have enjoyed it. And depending on my mood, I might even choose the "normal" level three. Anyway, yeah, it's a bowlful of ma la fire and lightning suspended in a pork broth with a touch of sweetening miso, and it kicks like a Sichuan mule. There are a ton of blanched sprouts, thick and fatty chunks of pork, scallions, a dark sauce I couldn't identify, a little extra chile and Sichuan pepper to boot, and a charred piece of mini corn to finish if off. It's like Sichuan meets Japan. Not quite either. A great example of fusion done well. There's a huge box of tissues at each seat. You will need them.
domisoexterior.jpg
domisoexterior.jpg (72.76 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
The last stop for ramen on day two was Do Miso, what seems like a pretty widely-known place just off the main drag in Ginza. When I tweeted about this place, some smartass (you know who you are) asked if I'd also been to their sister restaurant, Re Fa. I replied yes, but it didn't strike a major chord with me.

Thank you, thank you, try the veal.
domisoramen.jpg
Miso Ramen @ Do Miso
domisoramen.jpg (60.95 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
Truth is, neither did Do Miso. It just felt -- flat, particularly for a style that's usually pretty intense. To be clear, anytime they decide to open a branch in Phoenix, I'll squeal with glee. But I'm thinking I either caught an off bowl, or this place is well-known because of its location. I resolved to try much better miso ramen before the trip was over. Thankfully, I succeeded.

Day 3
Dinner on day three was one of my favorites of the trip, and I briefly considered leaving well enough alone and skipping the ramen. But I really, really, really wanted to further my education. So I decided to cram in two more. And I did a lot of walking. A lot of walking.
dokkanexterior.jpg
dokkanexterior.jpg (62.6 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
Stop one was Dokkan, a rather popular joint that was spun off of another ramen joint that would change names and styles depending on the day of the week. Apparently Dokkan was the most popular, so it got its own shop.
dokkanmachine.jpg
dokkanmachine.jpg (127.27 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
I offer a photo of the machine, but I can't say this ramen was for me.
dokkanramen.jpg
Shoyu Ramen @ Dokkan
dokkanramen.jpg (53.06 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
First off, that chunky, opaque white stuff on top of the chashu? Grated daikon? Fried tempura batter doused in soup? Nope. Minced pork fat. Yup. And it was... kind of shockingly light. It lent surprisingly little in terms of flavor, and mostly just slightly enriched the broth, but much less than you'd think creamy curds of fat would. Anyway, it's a shoyu base, and it's piled with vegetables -- tons of blanched sprouts, menma, spinach, daikon (there was some in there as well), I think there was cabbage -- I don't recall all of it. And, I dunno... this felt more like a fill-you-up bowl, more utilitarian than artful. But there were also an unusual number of condiments out on the counter, so perhaps it's intended to be a baseline that you doctor up. And I suppose I can see the appeal. If you're really into that interplay of noodles and vegetables -- the noodles were great -- I can see this working for you. But for me, the broth was just kind of dull. And not because it was a basic shoyu (but we'll get to that later).

So I went off in search of big flavor. I really wanted to keep trying new joints, but I had to return to my favorite from last year's trip.
gogyoexterior.jpg
gogyoexterior.jpg (78.26 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
Gogyo is situated in a residential neighborhood in Nishiazabu, a bit of a hike from the nearest stations (10-15, depending on your pace), and it's a full-service sit down restaurant rather than a little stand. A word of warning, there are multiple Gogyo locations around Tokyo, and they all have completely different menus. Further complicating this is that the closest station to the Nishiazabu Gogyo is Roppongi... and there's also a Roppongi Gogyo. But you want the one in Nishiazabu (address below).

Anyway, the thing at Gogyo is their kagashi miso ramen, or burnt miso ramen. And when I say burnt, I mean burnt. I managed to get video this time:


Sadly, I missed the initial explosion, but yeah. That happens every time somebody orders a bowl. They prep the broth, burn the tare (the tare is the seasoning that's mixed with the broth base -- shoyu, shio, miso, etc.), dump it in the bowl, add the noodles, toss on the toppings, and bring out this...
gogyoramen.jpg
Kagashi Miso Ramen @ Gogyo
gogyoramen.jpg (60.36 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
...kagashi miso ramen, black as night. Last trip, this was far and away my favorite. One of my favorite things I ate all year. It's crazy complex, and somehow manages to capture all of the charred, smoky essence of fire and brimstone without getting bitter or acrid. It's kind of genius. And it's potent, too, beefed up with garlic and (I'm pretty sure) Chinese fermented black bean, and the noodles are thin with a ton of chewy bite. Unfortunately, this bowl wasn't up to the one I had last time. It was just... too much. I think too much of the tare went into my broth, and it was just overpowering. Still delicious, still with all of the character I remembered, just taken to 14 instead of 11. But I know what this bowl can be (ScottofStrand had it and loved it as well), and I still list it among my favorites.

Day 4
Day four's post-dinner ramen adventure put me behind the eight ball, so to speak. I planned my usual one-two, forgetting that it was now Friday night. And I'm sure all will be shocked to discover that people are apparently more willing to wait for ramen on the weekends. I was on a really tight schedule, and I arrived at Kururi only to find a line about 15-20 deep. It's Japan, of course, so it's orderly and polite, and despite my fears that the machine would automatically shut down at the appointed hour, the shop was kind enough to accommodate everybody who was in line on the sidewalk at closing time. One of the two guys running the shop simply stepped outside, informed the fellow at the end that he'd be the last bowl for the evening, and took a quick head count to make sure there were no interlopers.

Kururi is one that's gotten quite a lot of international press, and their thing is Sapporo-style miso ramen. Sapporo is credited as the birthplace of miso ramen, and while I'm not qualified to discuss the fine points of what typifies Sapporo miso ramen, I'm of the understanding that Kururi's is kind of a Tokyo spin on Sapporo style -- mostly the way they make it there, but not totally traditional. Anyway, though not by much, Kururi is officially the smallest ramen shop I hit, boasting a whole seven stools at an L-shaped counter. The fellow running the show was an affable gent, and he was even kind enough to notice my struggles with the kanji on the machine and he handed me a sheet with basic translations and descriptions of the bowls they have on offer. They do a couple of variants on miso ramen (I think the only difference was toppings), likewise on spicy miso tsukemen. The spicy miso tsukemen was really tempting, but I was on a mission to get a delicious, basic miso ramen in after the underwhelming Do Miso.
kururiramen.jpg
Miso Ramen @ Kururi
kururiramen.jpg (70.49 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
Oh, man, am I glad I did. If I'm naming favorites for the trip (and I am), this was only a baby step behind Afuri and Fuunji. They use a blend of different miso pastes, in a pork and chicken base, and the thing here is balance. It's creamy but not too creamy, a little sweet but not to o sweet, a little salty but not too salty, and the mix of miso pastes gives it an awesome complexity when compared to a lot of one-note miso ramens. I really dug their little spins on the toppings, too. The obligatory egg was (thankfully) present, but the menma was cut into thick batons, the chashu had a fun shaved texture, and there was a pile of shredded Japanese leeks on top of blanched sprouts. This bowl totally rocked, and it served to illustrate how the inherent complexity and sweetness of miso makes it easy to make a passable miso ramen, but difficult to make an excellent miso ramen. Achieving this kind of balance with something as easily overpowering as miso is no small task, but man, they nailed it.

Sadly, the 45-minute wait at Kururi combined with some bad info I found online conspired to ensure that I arrived at my second stop for evening ten minutes after last order. This would have been crushing had I not made up for it on the last morning.

Day 5
The last morning is always a sprint. I swear, I always get on the bus to the airport a sweaty mess. It's the last chance to find that cool game, check out that neighborhood you didn't get to, or slam one last bowl of ramen. Or... um... maybe two more (got a goal to reach, you know.)

After getting up at 3:30 to hit the Tsukiji fish market before it became a zoo and some last-minute morning shopping, I rolled into Tokyo Station to hit up Ramen Street. Ramen Street is a little nook of the FREAKING ENORMOUS Tokyo Station, that feels like an entire enclosed city all to itself. At some point a number of years ago, the developers running the massive mall there invited seven or eight famous ramen shops from around Tokyo to open outposts in the station, and they're all bunched together, in danger of generating ramen critical mass. There are always lines. For most of the shops, though mostly for the superfamous Rokurinsha. But I wasn't after Rokurinsha. I wanted another crack at shoyu ramen, and I got it at Honda.
hondaramen.jpg
Shoyu Ramen @ Honda
hondaramen.jpg (57.89 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
Now THAT'S what I was looking for. Textbook bowl. Almost completely sans frills and completely killer. The only reason this wasn't among my absolute favorites is a matter of personal preferences. This broth had the strongest chicken flavor of any I tasted, punched up with just a touch of shoyu for salt and richness. These guys could put on a clinic in chicken broth. Clean, light, bursting with flavor, little shimmering pools of fat glistening on the surface -- absolutely perfect. And the hook was little tiny, tiny bits of caramelized leek, giving just the faintest hint of allium sweetness and char to the broth. Most of the standard toppings were present, plus a medium-thickness slab of pork that was very lightly seasoned and roasted to a beautiful medium rare. Long, straight noodles, not the type you have to fight (though I do enjoy fighting my noodles), and... well, I gush. If straight-up shoyu ramen is your thing, bam... this is it.

I didn't get any other photos because at this point I basically had to sprint to get to the shop I'd missed the previous night, my one pure, unadulterated tonkotsu ramen on the hit list, to be found at Ikaruga.
ikarugainterior.jpg
ikarugainterior.jpg (61.62 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
Ikaruga is one of the larger shops, modern design, large kitchen for a ramen shop, and it was still two guys tag-teaming all of the prep.
ikarugaramen.jpg
Tonkotsu Ramen @ Ikaruga
ikarugaramen.jpg (65.05 KiB) Viewed 8769 times
See, this is precisely why tonkotsu broth is disappointing 95% of the time. I mean, just look at that stuff. It's freaking thick. It's like cream of pork soup, except there's no cream involved. Just pork bones (possibly lightened with a touch of chicken), and all of the flavor, fat, and gelatin therein. And Ikaruga's is smooooooth. It's basically liquid meat, topped with solid meat, an egg, and a token amount of a couple of vegetables. It was only 11:30, I was already on my third meal of the day after two weeks of heavy eating, and there was no way I was getting all the way through this bowl. But man, I really, really wanted to.

So there it is. Four days, ten bowls of ramen. This was a lot of fun. Part of what I love about ramen so much is that there's a template -- rigid enough that it has clear parameters, but flexible enough that different cooks have room to express themselves within the rim of that bowl. I love that it's a form that rewards patience and technique and detail -- building flavors in broths, crafting excellent noodles (though many places, even great ones, buy them in from local noodle specialists), balancing the flavors in the tare, getting all of the little flavor and textural elements of the toppings just so. And just when you think it's all been done, somebody comes up with Sichuan ma la ramen, or burnt miso ramen, or cheese ramen. In some ways, I hope our domestic ramen craze acts as a catalyst in driving us towards better food. It's a very different attitude -- mastering something like a craftsman and concerning yourself with making the best version of your specialty that you can, rather than trying to be everything to everybody. These shops are tiny, they don't cost a lot of money to set up, they're dirt cheap to eat at, they only offer a few items, usually small variations on a central theme, but the artistry happens because these guys (and a few gals) choose a very narrow scope, and then focus, and focus, and focus until a crystal clear vision emerges. It's both delicious and instructive, and I hope chefs in the States take the right lessons from this particular cultural import.

(Japanese addresses listed below in addition to English addresses -- I find that Google Maps tends to be more accurate when you paste in the Japanese address.)

Afuri
Tokyo, Shibuya-ku, Ebisu 1-1-7
東京都渋谷区恵比寿1-1-7
03-5795-0750

Tsukomo
www.tukomo.com
Tokyo, Shibuya-ku, Hiroo 1-1-36
東京都渋谷区広尾1-1-36
03-5466-9566

Fuunji
www.fu-unji.com
Tokyo, Shinjuku-ku, Yoyogi 2-14-3
東京都渋谷区代々木2-14-3
03-6413-8480

Kikanbou
Tokyo, Chiyoda-ku, Kajicho 2-10-10
東京都千代田区鍛冶町2-10-10
03-3256-2960

Do Miso
blog.livedoor.jp/do_miso
Tokyo, Chuo-ku, Kyobashi 3-4-3
東京都中央区京橋3-4-3
03-6904-3700

Dokkan
Tokyo, Shibuya-ku, Hattagaya 2-19-2
東京都渋谷区幡ヶ谷2-19-2

Gogyo Nishiazabu
www.ramendining-gogyo.com
Tokyo, Minato-ku, Nishi-Azabu 1-4-36
東京都港区西麻布1-4-36
03-5775-5566

Kururi
東京都新宿区市谷田町3-2
Tokyo, Shinjuku-ku, Ichigayatamachi 3-2
03-3269-0801

Honda
www.tokyoeki-1bangai.co.jp/en/ (Ramen Street website)
B1F Yaesu South Exit, Tokyo Station

Ikaruga
Tokyo, Chiyoda-ku, Kudankita 1-9-12
東京都千代田区九段北1-9-12
03-3239-2622
Dominic Armato
Dining Critic
Arizona Republic | azcentral.com
User avatar
Tim H
Posts: 280
Joined: 7 years ago
Location: Gilbert, AZ

6 years ago

Wow, thanks for the amazing write-up, and thanks for showing some love for the shoyu ramen. For me, that's still the one, though I have to admit, I've just never had a proper tonkotsu or even tried tsukemen.
There is nothing either good or bad but gravy makes it so. - Kevin Hearne
User avatar
ScottofStrand
Posts: 624
Joined: 8 years ago
Location: Mesa, AZ

6 years ago

Epic Ramen hunt Dominic! Makes me want to plan a PFN Food Vacation some day! Super inspirational, especially considering I've got a giant pot of Tonkotsu stock ready to go on the stove.
User avatar
Tim H
Posts: 280
Joined: 7 years ago
Location: Gilbert, AZ

6 years ago

ScottofStrand wrote:I've got a giant pot of Tonkotsu stock ready to go on the stove.
Scott, any chance you could provide some tonkotsu tips either on your blog or on the cooking board? I'd like to give it a try, and yours looks pretty amazing.
There is nothing either good or bad but gravy makes it so. - Kevin Hearne
User avatar
BarbaraToombs
Posts: 1471
Joined: 8 years ago
Location: Chandler/Tempe, Arizona

6 years ago

FANTASTIC write-up, Dom!!! So jealous. Can't wait to hear about the REST of your trip, food-wise! :)
User avatar
Skillet Doux
Posts: 3437
Joined: 8 years ago
Contact:

6 years ago

I wanted to do one blowout meal on this trip, and I was having a brutal time deciding. High-end sushi? Premium steakhouse? Kaiseki? Indecision kind of let an unexpected choice slip in the back door. I really wanted to get some good tempura at some point, and after reading about a couple of upscale tempura restaurants, I found myself wondering what the heck constitutes high-end tempura? At roughly the same time, a poster on LTH talked about how a high-end tempura restaurant in Kyoto was the highlight of his trip, and thus the deal was sealed.

We ended up at Zezankyo, overseen by Michelin-starred master Tstsuya Saotome (I didn't even know the place had a star when I picked it!), which has sort of become the high-end tempura stop for Western travelers in Japan. And I ordinarily try to avoid such places, because for every place that catches fire, I'm sure there are at least a dozen more in the city almost just like it that didn't happen to have the benefit of a key blog post here or a travel site review there. You know how these things snowball. But our second night was a really mediocre dinner, I was lamenting the waste of a meal, and decided that I'd really just rather play this one safe. Maybe there's better, maybe we'll overpay, but it's going to be -- at the very least -- really good.
zezankyoexterior.jpg
zezankyoexterior.jpg (86.69 KiB) Viewed 8369 times
So many of these outstanding restaurants in Japan are so unassuming from the street. And then you start to look carefully, and you start to notice that everything is arranged just so. My favorite part? Note that the large pot right by the door is broken -- it collapsed and cracked while being fired. There's a little textbook wabi-sabi for you. In any case, we weren't even sure if we were in the right place when we walked in the door, but they were expecting us. A tiny little entryway gave way to an absolutely gorgeous room. Warm, cozy, not ostentatious, but stunning design with little art pieces all over the room. More accurately, just about every object in that room was a work of art. But more on that in a bit. There was an L-shaped counter that seated ten, and standing at the fryer, underneath an enormous cornucopia-shaped bronze exhaust hood, stood the master, his first in command by his side preparing the ingredients for frying.
zezankyomenu.jpg
zezankyomenu.jpg (55.64 KiB) Viewed 8369 times
Did I mention everything in the room is art? This is the menu, calligraphy drawings with little red Xes next to those that weren't available that night. Dinner is an omakase-only affair, running about $150 depending on where the exchange rate sits at the moment. Our dinner ran 15 courses, and here are... most of them.
zezankyopickles.jpg
Pickles
zezankyopickles.jpg (76.92 KiB) Viewed 8369 times
A dish of pickled vegetables greeted us as we sat down, just a simple little refresher to clean and wake up the palate. On a raised portion of the bar in front of each seat is a rectangular ceramic dish with a metal grate, covered with a carefully folded piece of paper. Every piece of tempura came out of the fryer and directly to this plate.
zezankyoshrimpprep.jpg
zezankyoshrimpprep.jpg (59.01 KiB) Viewed 8369 times
But first, a little prep. The master's assistant (who spent the entire night conversing with the couple to my left, from Singapore) cleaned the shrimp, removing the tails, shelling them, taking off certain parts of the heads while leaving other parts intact. My favorite step was the last. You know when you get amaebi sushi and they fry the heads for you, and when you eat them there are those two short spikes on the shrimp's face -- stronger than all the rest -- that jab you in the throat? His last step was to crack these at the base while leaving them intact -- tasty and crunchy when fried, but just barely hanging the body so that they'd easily give way when you bite. Detail, people.
zezankyoshrimp.jpg
Shrimp
zezankyoshrimp.jpg (40.69 KiB) Viewed 8369 times
The tails came out first, sweet and luscious and perfect. We were all provided with a small dish of salt and a larger bowl of tentsuyu (that light dashi/soy sauce served with grated daikon). But they instructed us only to use the salt. The humor in the instruction, however, was that they ended up giving this instruction for every course (no exceptions), and as if to make the point, the tentsuyu was the lightest (read: weakest) I think I've ever tasted. It seems clear the master would prefer you just use salt. Most everybody present, Japanese and non-, dipped anyway. I settled on taking a little dab of tentsuyu-soaked daikon as a chaser, and found that I actually preferred it this way. In any case, shrimp -- delightful. Sweet, tender, a thin and light coating, light on the oil... really delicious.
zezankyoshrimpheads.jpg
Shrimp Heads
zezankyoshrimpheads.jpg (44.2 KiB) Viewed 8369 times
But I'm a sucker for heads, and I enjoyed these even more. My father is not so much a fan. I was the beneficiary.
zezankyofish.jpg
Kisu (Whiting)
zezankyofish.jpg (38.76 KiB) Viewed 8369 times
This was kisu, a type of Japanese whiting, and with a thin filleted fish like this, you start to appreciate the skill necessary to make this crisp on the outside while keeping the fish -- which couldn't have been more than 8mm thick -- tender and light and flaky.
zezankyosoup.jpg
Dashi with Shrimp Dumpling
zezankyosoup.jpg (36.83 KiB) Viewed 8369 times
We had a strip of exceptionally tender squid (not pictured), followed by a little palate refresher after the heavier piece of fish, a light dashi with what I believe was a shrimp dumpling.
zezankyouni.jpg
Shiso-Wrapped Uni
zezankyouni.jpg (49.99 KiB) Viewed 8369 times
I loved this. I've never had tempura-fried uni before, and I was curious to see how they'd do it. The answer was between two shiso leaves, barely held together with a tiny dab of water, lightly dusted in flour, then battered and fried. Delicate and fragrant, and kind of show-offy, which to be clear is completely awesome.
zezankyogingkonuts.jpg
Gingko Nuts
zezankyogingkonuts.jpg (43.32 KiB) Viewed 8369 times
When one of the seafood offerings wasn't available, we'd get some sort of vegetable instead. Here we had gingko nuts, which have such a curious flavor and texture. Very nice.
zezankyomatsutake.jpg
Matsutake
zezankyomatsutake.jpg (39.91 KiB) Viewed 8369 times
Next was another piece of fish (not pictured), though I don't recall the type, and then a stunning matsutake mushroom, halved the long way, trimmed at the bottom, and fried. It's dense stuff, woodsy, and also lovely.
zezankyoanago.jpg
Anago (Sea Eel)
zezankyoanago.jpg (59.78 KiB) Viewed 8369 times
Winner. Unquestionably the highlight of the night. An long sea eel fillet, perhaps a foot long when whole, fried -- it seemed -- intentionally a touch longer than the rest. He'd place the fillet on our plate, and with his chopsticks, quickly break it in half. And what struck me here were two things. First, the large puff of steam that emerged from the break in the fillet like a mushroom cloud. And second, the sound... a sharp, crisp crack followed by a loud hiss as the steam escaped. Hard to believe that something so simple could be so dramatic, but it was.
zezankyoshishito.jpg
Shishitos
zezankyoshishito.jpg (51.9 KiB) Viewed 8369 times
Here, they brought out a basked filled with perhaps 8-10 vegetables, and let us select two. I went with sweet potato and shishito peppers. The sweet potato was among my least favorites of the evening, but I'm such a freaking sucker for shishitos.
zezankyoscallop.jpg
Kaibashira Kakiage (Scallops in Tea) with Tsukemono
zezankyoscallop.jpg (78.95 KiB) Viewed 8369 times
This is also something of a signature dish at Zezankyo. It's a fritter made with lots of tiny scallops, and they offer a few choices for how you'd like it served. I opted for ochazuke-style, swimming in a light tea broth. You get the crisp on top, and the soaked tempura batter on the bottom, and this was another favorite of the evening.
zezankyoredbeans.jpg
Sweet Red Beans
zezankyoredbeans.jpg (91.8 KiB) Viewed 8369 times
See, now this is my kind of dessert. Three huge red beans, just tender enough but still with bite, slowly simmered in sugar syrup so that they absorb the sweetness.

During a lull while dessert was coming, Saotome reached over, took my menu, pulled out a small calligraphy brush, and got to work. A few minutes later, I was presented with this:
zezankyocalligraphy.jpg
zezankyocalligraphy.jpg (50.12 KiB) Viewed 8369 times
Y'know. Just in case there was any doubt that the artwork was his. There's a keepsake for you. I also struck up a conversation with the couple next to me, who were from Singapore. After trading pleasantries, the fellow started telling me some of the things he had learned from speaking with the assistant chef all evening. He started pointing out how different pieces of serviceware were true antiques, some over a century old. And the fellow dining with his wife at the other end of the bar was, apparently, part of the family that either owns or operates the Tsukiji market, friends of Saotome for decades. After a little more conversation, we cleared out for the second seating, paid in the small entryway, and headed off into the night.

Some of these pieces were absolutely outstanding. Some of them were not to that level. I understand why some are disappointed by Zezankyo. But while I truly enjoyed the food, I enjoyed the experience just as much. The room, the company, the serviceware, the little rituals -- it is something special. It won't keep me from trying other new places on future visits, but it ended up being a good call. I really loved the experience.
Dominic Armato
Dining Critic
Arizona Republic | azcentral.com
Post Reply