Kyubey, Tokyo

O-toro - fatty tuna

Kyubey is arguably the most prestigious and well known of all the sushi houses in Tokyo. Founded in 1936 by the father of the current owner, Yosuke Imada, it is the place where “gunkan-maki”, the wraparound style of sushi used to serve soft toppings such as sea urchin and fish roe, was invented. It has steadily expanded from its original location in Ginza, which we visited, to now seven restaurants in total, yet still manages to maintain a reputation for serving some of the finest sushi in the world. The evening we visited Kyubey always promised to be the culinary highlight of our trip, and the venerable institution did not disappoint.

The restaurant is sectioned into a number of sushi bars each seating around 10 people, allowing for an intimate experience despite the rather large 5-floor venue. We were presented with a few set menu choices, all in Japanese, and not able to read any of it, simply went for the most expensive option – no sense in skimping having travelled all the way here, and on the cusp of possibly the best sushi meal of our lives.

Kyubey

Before I start waxing lyrical, I should say that not every single dish was a success – the sea cucumber was rock hard and nearly impossible to eat. But that was, literally, my only complaint. Everything else was the highest quality, freshest version of that dish I have ever had - hardly surprising considering Kyubey’s long-standing reputation for securing the very best fish available. The tuna auctions at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market have become famous the world over – restaurant owners go every morning to bid for the highest quality fish. In January of this year, the most expensive fish ever sold at the auction was recorded – a 342kg bluefin tuna caught off the coast of Hokkaido going for ¥32.49 million (£250,000) to none other than Kyubey (in partnership with the Itamae Sushi chain in Hong Kong). The most expensive fish of 2010 was also purchased, partly, by Kyubey, as was the most expensive tuna of 2009. It’s a common theme.

Uni - sea urchin

Though the tuna we had that evening didn’t come from a record-setting fish, it was still the best available, of that we could be assured. And it was simply divine. The o-toro – fatty tuna, presented first as sashimi, and later as nigiri, was so incredibly creamy, it just melted in the mouth. The uni – sea urchin served of course, as it is now across the world, in the form of Kyubey’s own “gunkan-maki”, was equally amazing. Sea urchin is probably the sushi topping most sensitive to a lack of freshness. Needless to say, Kyubey’s version did not contain the slightest hint of fishiness, and was creamier than any I have had before.

Odori ebi – dancing prawnOdori ebi – dancing prawn

Another highlight was the odori ebi – dancing prawn, so named because it is eaten while still alive. The prawns were extraordinarily sweet and had a very unique texture, unlike anything I have ever eaten before. The heads of the prawns were then grilled until crisp enough just to pop into the mouth and eat completely. Also served grilled was the anago – sea eel, done beautifully and perfectly seasoned. Other standout items included the aori-ika – squid, aji – horse mackerel, and the striking akagai – red clam nigiri.

Anago - sea eelAkagai – red clam

It was an absolute pleasure and privilege to watch the chefs at work. Their remarkable knife skills, and the care with each perfectly formed piece of sushi was crafted was truly a joy to behold. Midway through the meal, Imada-san himself, donning a chef’s uniform with the name “Mr Kyubey” emblazoned on the front in case anyone was to be in any doubt that he was the boss, stopped by for a brief chat, and was more than happy to indulge us with a photo, and a signed copy of a Wall Street Journal article on the restaurant.

Aori-ika – squidAji – horse mackerel

In a nutshell…
This was a special, transcendent meal that had everything – an intimate, personal experience; a wonderful sense of theatre from watching master chefs practise their craft; and most importantly, some of the best sushi anywhere on the planet.

9.5/10

Ginza Kyubey
8-7-6 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
+81 3 35716523
Average Price: ¥20,000
1 Michelin Star

Namiki Yabusoba, Tokyo

Namiki Yabusoba

Founded in 1913, Namiki Yabusoba is one of Tokyo’s most well-known soba shops, conveniently located close to the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa. Despite being so near to a major tourist attraction, the restaurant was reassuringly devoid of any sign of having compromised its standards or authenticity in an attempt to attract tourists. Half of the seating is on tatami mats - with no hole in the ground to place one’s legs of course; the menu is on the wall, only in Japanese; and the staff barely spoke a word of English.

I had the Cold Tempura Shin-Soba. The soba was awesome - freshly hand-made from newly-harvested buckwheat, it was thin and springy, a touch sweet, with a lovely flavour, texture and consistency.

Cold Tempura Shin-Soba

In hindsight, however, I should perhaps have opted for something simpler like the Cold Zaru Shin-Soba – Soba noodles topped with seaweed. Not that the tempura was bad; far from it – it was light and crisp, and dare I say, better than the tempura at world-famous Ten-ichi, but I was not given a separate bowl of sauce for the tempura, so it had to be dipped into the soba tsuyu, the soba dipping sauce, detracting slightly from the purity and lightness of the dipping sauce, and by extension, my enjoyment of the excellent soba.

We went before midday and were able to walk straight in but when we left, still relatively early in the afternoon, there was a healthy queue already building outside the restaurant. Long queues aren’t so much for a problem here though – soba is fast food after all, and this is not a place to linger – service is brisk, and the seating is far from comfortable, especially for those not accustomed to sitting cross-legged on tatami mats, so turnover should be relatively quick.

Namiki Yabusoba

In a nutshell…
Outstanding. Good location, great value, quaint setting and most importantly superb soba.

8.5/10

Namiki Yabusoba
2-11-9 Kaminarimon, Taito-ku, Tokyo
+81 03 38411340
Average Price:
¥1000-¥1500

Café Below, London

Lamb chilli & mint burger in one of our baps, aioli, slow roast tomato, red cabbage salad & tyrells crisps

I have worked in and around the Bow Lane area for the best part of six years now and yet had never been to Café Below until this week. Shame on me. In an area rife with mass-produced, production-line food, Café Below makes for a very refreshing change. Located in the crypt of the St Mary-le-Bow Church (tables are also available for alfresco dining upstairs by the church), it serves a small selection of freshly prepared dishes, from a menu that changes everyday.

Ham hock, cucumber and broad bean salad, honey and mustard dressing, our own brown bread

I had a Lamb chilli & mint burger in one of our baps, aioli, slow roast tomato, red cabbage salad & tyrells crisps. The bap was soft on the inside, floury and crusty on the outside; the meat juicy and tender, with just the slightest hint of chilli (could have done with that being a bit stronger) and good aioli – thoroughly enjoyable it was. It’s not all about the burgers at Café Below either – I didn’t taste it myself, but a Ham hock, cucumber and broad bean salad, honey and mustard dressing, our own brown bread was, apparently, good too, with just the right level of seasoning.

Chocolate and chestnut cake

For dessert, we shared a slice of Chocolate and chestnut cake, served with dollop of cream. It was also very nice - moist, not too heavy, with a lovely nutty taste.

In a nutshell…
A pleasing alternative to the many generic chains and soulless restaurants that pervade the area. Handily, all dishes are also available for takeaway. Will definitely be a regular lunch option for me from now on.

Update: Subsequent visits have proved somewhat disappointing, indicating, at the very least, a lack of consistency, and necessitating a downgrade of the original score.

6/10 (previously 7/10)

Café Below
St Mary-le-Bow Church, Cheapside, London , EC2V 6AU
+44(0)2073290789
Average Price: £10-£15

Cafe Below on Urbanspoon

Ten-ichi, Tokyo

Ten-ichi

Ten-ichi is the world’s most famous tempura establishment. At last count, it boasted 14 branches in Tokyo alone. Its main shop on Namiki-dori in Ginza, which is the one we went to, has played host to visiting dignitaries and celebrities such as Kofi Annan, Jacques Chirac, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and Frank Sinatra to name but few. I had heard many first hand accounts of Ten-ichi’s other-worldly, ethereally light batter and was greatly excited to finally be able to try it for myself.

TempuraTempura

Let me start by saying that all of the raw ingredients used for our tempura, be they seafood or vegetables, were fresh and of a high quality – no complaints there whatsoever. The tempura batter, however, was a different matter altogether - heavy and soggy, it was completely the opposite of what I was expecting. It was almost as if it had been cooked sometime before being served, except it hadn’t – it was prepared right in front of us. A fresh batch of batter brought out halfway through the meal raised hope of an improvement, but only brought more disappointment. I was, and remain, completely perplexed. This place is universally acclaimed, and yet it was serving me such substandard tempura? Perhaps it was an off day. That is the only explanation I can come up with because so many people cannot all be wrong, and yet no one who ate the tempura I ate that day could possibly have rated it very highly at all. But there you have it. We had a full set-menu of a vast assortment of tempura, and even added a couple of additional items from the a la carte, so Ten-ichi had ample opportunity to serve me just one piece of tempura worthy of its name – it didn’t.

TempuraTempura

In a nutshell…
Based of this experience, it’s impossible to understand why Ten-ichi has the status that it has as the undisputed king of tempura.  This wasn’t just a let down by ‘best tempura in the world’ standards, this was average even by your ‘run-of-the-mill neighbourhood Japanese restaurant tempura’ standards. Colour me disappointed. Hugely disappointed.

4/10

Ten-ichi (Main Shop)
Ginza 6-6-5, Namiki-dori, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
+81 3 35711949
Average Price:
¥10,000

Brasserie Roux, London

Brasserie Roux

The Roux name is, rightly, held in the greatest esteem within food circles – brothers Albert and Michel Roux opened Britain's first Michelin-starred restaurant Le Gavroche in 1967, now a 2-Star establishment run by Albert's son Michel Jr.; and 3-Michelin-Star Waterside Inn in 1972, one of the finest eating venues in the United Kingdom, now run by Michel's son Alain. They are culinary royalty. Any restaurant that bears the Roux name, therefore, invariably carries with it exalted expectations.

Brasserie Roux, inspired by Albert, is situated within an imposing double-height room at the Sofitel St James hotel, formerly the banking hall of Cox and Kings Bank. The food here is, as its name suggests, French brasserie cuisine; the atmosphere, one of relaxed, informal elegance.  We actually booked on the three course £25 London Restaurant Week offer but struggling to find even one item of interest on the special menu, ended up ordering from the a la carte instead.

6 escargots á la bourguignonne

I started with the classic, 6 escargots á la bourguignonne, which was perfectly decent, but by no means the best example of this old favourite I’ve had. My main course of Walnut crusted Devon rosé lamb rack, baby vegetables & rosemary jus was decidedly average, in fact below average – the meat far too chewy, and not the least bit enjoyable – it was a struggle to finish it.

Walnut crusted Devon rosé lamb rack, baby vegetables & rosemary jus

We shared a dessert of Dark chocolate soufflé tartlet, Orange marmalade, star anis ice cream. I noticed that the pastry chef carried the name Roux – perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence then that the tartlet was, by far, the best dish of the evening - the wonderfully fine pastry crumbling nicely in the mouth, the dark chocolate filling rich but not too heavy, the orange marmalade adding a touch of sweetness. I am not at all a fan of star anis ice cream but thankfully the strength of the chocolate meant that the only contribution of the ice cream to the dish was that of temperature, and not flavour.

Dark chocolate soufflé tartlet, Orange marmalade, star anis ice cream

In a nutshell…
Impressive space, but the food was very ordinary and certainly did not do justice to the Roux name. A bit expensive too for what it is.

4/10

Brasserie Roux
Sofitel London St James, 6 Waterloo Place, London, SW1Y 4AN
+44 (0)2077472200
Average Price: £40

Brasserie Roux on Urbanspoon

San Pellegrino World’s 100 Best Restaurants 2011

The latest San Pellegrino World's 100 Best Restaurants list was recently released, and I should start by noting that Noma in Denmark has retained its position atop the list. Congratulations to Noma, which by all accounts, is a very fine restaurant and thoroughly deserving of the accolade of the World's Best Restaurant. Meanwhile, Alinea in Chicago has maintained its status as the best restaurant in North America, and Les Créations de Narisawa in Tokyo (serving French cuisine) continues to be rated the top restaurant in Asia, jumping from 24th in last year’s list to 12th this year. Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli has dropped off the list on account of it closing down shortly, whilst another former title-holder, The Fat Duck, slipped further to 5th.

Right, now that the news report is out of the way, I would like to take a more critical look at this list, focusing only on the restaurants that I have been to, and am therefore a bit more qualified to speak about. Nihonryori RyuGin in Tokyo is the list's highest climber, up 28 places to 20th, making it the second highest ranked restaurant in Asia. I dined at RyuGin in December of last year, and whilst there were a couple of dishes that definitely wowed me, the overall experience left something to be desired - it wasn’t even close to being the best meal I had in Tokyo.

Nihonryori RyuGin

Another restaurant I went to last year was Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York (40th). The steamed pork buns – hoisin, cucumbers, scallions, Ssäm Bar’s signature dish, were excellent; as good as the ones one might find in Asia . But that’s the point, they weren’t better than what one might find in Asia, they were as good as – quite an achievement, admittedly, for a restaurant located in New York but rather less impressive when one has every restaurant in the world, including those in Asia which Ssäm Bar has succeeded only in imitating, to chose from. The other dishes at Ssäm Bar, I should add, were just mediocre.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar

At number 60, Hakkasan in London is rated the best Chinese restaurant in the world (Momofuku Ssäm Bar is pan-Asian). Now I am a fan of Hakkasan, but better than every single Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan? No, of course not. London’s Nahm (77th) lost its Michelin Star this year, and not before time – the meal I had there was a complete mess – overly strong flavours thrown at you from all angles without the slightest concept of balance. And yet never mind the amazing Thai restaurants in Bangkok, according to this list, Nahm is the very best Thai restaurant in the world. I have been to Thailand a number of times – believe me, you don’t have to look very hard to find a restaurant that beats Nahm.

Hakkasan

Meanwhile Zuma in London (66th) is, apparently, the third best Japanese restaurant in the world behind Nihonryori RyuGin and Tetsuya’s (Sydney). I have been to Zuma twice, and enjoyed my latest visit last year, but it is still barely the third best Japanese restaurant in London, let alone the world.

Finally, Hibiscus in London has climbed 6 places to number 43 on the list. I ate twice at Hibiscus last year and they were two of the most underwhelming meals I have ever had at a Michelin-starred restaurant (it has two). Boring, tired, uninspired cooking; a featureless, characterless room; poorly-trained wait staff – there really is nothing redeeming about that place at all.

I would like to conclude by saying that I was at first very happy to see the brilliant Cracco in Milan make a re-entry on this list at number 33 as it is truly sensational, but upon further scrutiny it really matters not because the San Pellegrino list now has next to no credibility in my mind.

Cracco

Tombo, London

Tombo

I stumbled upon Tombo, a Japanese café and deli in South Kensington, last Saturday afternoon and am very pleased to report that it was a bit of a find. For late lunch, I had a Tombo Taster Box: Chicken Teriyaki, Miso Marinated Salmon, Prawn Avocado with Yuzu Mayo Maki Roll, Unagi (Grilled Eel) Sushi Sandwich, garnish and Miso Soup. I applaud the attempt to do something a little different with the ‘Sushi Sandwich’, and everything did feel very light and healthy, but also, I must say, a little bland and tasteless. It was passable, but no more. The serving wasn’t very big either, but that proved to be a blessing on this occasion, as it left me with plenty of room for dessert – and that turned out to be the real gem at this place.

Tombo Taster Box Chicken Teriyaki, Miso Marinated Salmon, Prawn Avocado with Yuzu Mayo Maki Roll, Unagi (Grilled Eel) Sushi Sandwich, garnish and Miso Soup

I had a slice of the Green Tea Gateau Chocolat and a Sesame Macaroon, along with a Hot Matcha (green tea) Latte. All three were superb. The gateau had a delicate crust, a delightfully light, moist, and lovely-textured filling, with a strong green tea taste. It was great. The macaroon was very good too – crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, and imbued with a subtle sesame flavour. The latte was suitably creamy, with the essence of the green tea again shining through and leaving a pleasing hint of a bitter aftertaste.

Green Tea Gateau Chocolat, Sesame Macaroon, Hot Matcha (green tea) Latte

In a nutshell…
Excellent sweet offerings. London needs more places serving up Asian-themed desserts such as this! (I had to temper the rating slightly on account of the less than impressive savoury stuff)

7.5/10

Tombo
29 Thurloe Place, South Kensington, London, SW7 2HQ
+44 (0)2075890018
Average Price: £10-£15

Tombo on Urbanspoon

Bifteck no Kawamura, Tokyo

Bifteck no Kawamura

Kobe beef has garnered global fame and taken on almost mythical proportions - tales of the incredibly tender meat of cattle fed with beer and massaged daily, universally recognised as the highest quality steak in the world, so out-of-this-world that it even inspired the parents of Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant to name him after it; the stories go on and on. I had never had real Kobe beef before - there are many imitations but genuine Japanese Kobe beef is available only in Japan, and never exported - so on my recent visit to Tokyo, I had to seek it out. Kobe beef comes only from select Tajima cattle born in the Hyogo prefecture so even in Tokyo it is not widely available.  Bifteck no Kawamura is a chain of restaurants, six in Hyogo Prefecture, one in Ginza in Tokyo, renowned for serving the best Kobe beef around - as Kawamura-san himself told us, his business plan is simply to snap up every champion cow going at auction, and he largely succeeds.

The Highest Award (Champion) Winning Kobe Beef

Various set meals are offered, differing mainly on the choice of beef - Champion cow, Champion bullock, Award-winning cow, Award-winning bullock, etc. We went for the Champion cow - it's not everyday one gets to sample this wondrous meat, especially one who doesn't live in Japan - it would have been silly not to pick the very best option available.

The Highest Award (Champion) Winning Kobe Beef Sashimi

We started with The Highest Award (Champion) Winning Kobe Beef Sashimi, which was superb, the quality and creaminess of the beef really shining through – it was truly mouth-watering. The next two courses, a clear Oxtail Soup and Foie Gras Steak were nice too, and continued to build momentum for the highlight - The Highest Award (Champion) Winning Kobe Beef Steak. It was cooked right in front us, teppanyaki style. We requested it be done medium rare, of course, but it was cooked slightly beyond that - perhaps the chef, who had spent many years in London, got distracted chatting to us about the old place.

Oxtail SoupFoie Gras Steak

I can't quite believe I'm saying this, but I was disappointed by the beef. It wasn't bad by any means - in fact it was top quality steak, but it didn't melt-in-the-mouth or blow me away like I was expecting to after everything I had heard, read and been told about this almost mystical Kobe beef. The fact that the beef was slightly over-done didn't help either, but I doubt my opinion would have been changed had it been cooked to a perfect medium rare.

The Highest Award (Champion) Winning Kobe Beef Steak

We finished with a stomach filler of garlic fried rice that was really bad - the rice far too sticky and clumpy, poorly cooked and tasteless.

In a nutshell…
A bit of a tough one. Kawamura, by all accounts, serves some of the best quality Kobe beef there is. It seems unfair, therefore, to mark it down based on the fact that the beef itself failed to live up to my expectations. Having said that, the meat was (slightly) overcooked, and the fried rice was terrible, and when one pays as much as this for a meal everything should be perfect and one should be blown away and I quite simply wasn't, not by a long way.

6/10

Bifteck no Kawamura
GINZA MST Building 8th Floor, 6-5-1 Ginza-Chuou-ku, Tokyo
+81 03 62525011
Average Price: ¥20,000

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