Category Archives: English menu

Sushi Sora, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Tokyo

Sushi Sora view

A sushi dinner in the lofty environs of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, paired with sake from a menu compiled by a champion sommelier: my expectations were as high as the restaurant’s 38th floor location.

Sushi Sora had enjoyed a blitz of media coverage throughout the summer, with superlative laden ‘reviews’ illustrated with beautifully composed images gracing the pages of advertorial magazines and “pay for content” international travel blogs. As tempting as it seemed, the cynic in me was not so easily swayed – I know a marketing push when I see one. Despite my reservations, Sushi Sora had the endorsement of my sushi senpai, Ninisix, who had enjoyed several lunches there and was keen to return for a dinner omakase with lashings of sake. Needless to say, I leap at the chance to join her.

The restaurant certainly delivers on wow factor. This is the epitome of lux-dining. With a swish of the sliding door, you are drawn into an elegantly conceived space with dark onyx walls and a sweeping view across the Tokyo skyline. But for me, the star attraction is not the illuminated spectacle of nearby Tokyo Skytree, but the elegant 8-seat blonde wood counter top made from a 350 year old cypress tree.

IMG_4238
Yuji Imaizumi (pictured) is the chef in charge of operations at Sushi Sora. Unfortunately, as the restaurant was fully booked, we were only able to secure seats in front of his assistant, Hironobu Sato, who seemed to be lumped with serving the foreign contingent. Our chef turned out to be a very friendly chap who, despite his apparent youth, had an impressive resume of experience; beginning in the kaiseki kitchens of Kyoto, before apprenticing at elite Ginza sushi shops Tsubaki and Ookawara.
IMG_4218
A present? The menu? Neither, in fact. I unwrapped the origami creation to discover a napkin. An elegant detail.
IMG_5436
The assistant manager, Kaoru Izuha, was the recent winner of the Kikizakeshi (sake sommelier) World Championship – an enormous feat for someone so young. She has used her impressive knowledge to compile sake list of 25 labels that pair best with sushi. I was interested to see that she had chosen to arrange the list by sakamai rather than grade – a nice touch given that rice is as fundamental to sake as it is to sushi.
2013-07-29 00.06.12
Sadly, she was not working the night we visited, but her well-trained staff were well versed in the range, and very generous with complementary tastings.

2013-07-29 09.56.38

We settled on the Masami ‘Sanka’ Junmaiginjo (Yamada Nishiki 45%), Miyasaka Shuzo – Nagano. 真澄 純米大吟醸「山花」(山田錦 45%), 宮坂醸造 – 長野  The complex fragrance of fresh green herb and ‘mountain flowers’ followed through in clean, refreshing flavour.
2013-07-29 09.56.39-1The vessel you drink from not only has an enormous effect on your enjoyment of sake, but also your perception of its taste. However, apart from specialist bars and izakaya, sake still is almost always served in tiny ochoko cups. While these are perfect for liberals sips and top-ups around an izakaya table, they do justice to the beverage they hold; their small dimensions restrict aromas from developing on the surface and make it difficult to impart the subtleties of refined grades. So it was nice touch to be offered a choice.
2013-07-29 09.56.39
There are three courses available at dinner (¥15,000~¥25,000), or you can order a la carte – as the blinged out baby oligarchs were doing to our right. After conferring with the chef, we decided on the ¥25K omakase, the only course that uni was offered in, with a request to focus on cured white fish, hikarimono and ‘red meat’ fish.
2013-08-12 05.59.58
In Japanese the word sora means sky – a fitting epithet for a sushi-ya with sweeping views of the Tokyo skyline. Sora is also used in the name of the Japanese fava bean, soramame, as its pods grow in the direction of the sky. As a cute tie-in with the shop’s name, we began with a chilled soup of soramame dashi. Velvety smooth, with the delicate sweet flavour of the bean supported by a subtle smokiness from the katsuobushi and kombu dashi. A delightful and refreshing start.
2013-08-12 05.58.50
Mizunasu (water aubergine) begins to appear on menus in the summer months, when it is enjoyed as a raw crudité. Ours was served with its traditional accompaniment, sumiso; a sauce made with white miso, sugar, vinegar and mirin. A fresh taste of the season.
2013-07-29 00.31.50
A heavenly fragrance filled the air as our chef grated fresh Shizuoka wasabi for our next course.
2013-08-12 05.58.17
An assorted tsumami plate of shiroshita-garei (marbled sole/flounder), from Oita, and iwashi (sardine cured in vinegar). The garei was exceptionally good; cured to perfection so that the tight sinew in the meat had softened and the kombu had imparted a soft fragrance into the flesh. The iwashi, however, was ghastly. Despite being cured in vinegar it had a funky, off fish smell. Shudder. At least we had solved the mystery of the unpleasant odour in the air.
IMG_5528

Shiroshita-garei no kimo (flounder liver), engawa (not pictured) and tako no ashi (braised octopus legs). Disaster! I was so engrossed in our conversation with the chef that I forgot to document the plate! Seeing the stricken look on my face, the chef kindly tried to find another piece of the engawa that I had scoffed, but alas, ours were the only pieces.

Engawa is the thin muscle of the dorsal fin which is located on the either side of spotted sole/halibut. This part of the fish gets more of a workout than the rest of the body, so the texture of the meat is chewier; the flavour more developed. It also has a higher fat content which makes it a prized delicacy at sushi-ya. At Sora, the fatty ribbons of engawa had been braised in sweet soy marinade, so that the meat unbelievably soft and more concentrated in flavour.

I have a particular fondness for fish liver, so was delighted to try the rich, silky smooth kimo of the garei we had enjoyed earlier.

The simmered octopus tentacles were less delightful. I found their slimy, gelatinous texture and the overly sweet marinade off-putting.

IMG_4188
Our final tsumami course consisted of Meiji maguro aburi (Aomori) and aji (Nagasaki). I am probably one of the worst offenders of eating unsustainable fish stocks, but even I had a quick intake of breath when I learned that the weight of this baby tuna was a mere 6 kilos. That’s a ‘throw back’ in my books. Sadly, this poor little creature had died in vain; the sinew was taut and difficult to chomp through and I was left an unpleasant, congealed fat aftertaste, which makes me think it was served too cold. There were definitely some problems with storage/refrigeration here. The aji, on the other hand, was very good.
IMG_4358
While the tsumami courses had been a bit hit and miss, Ninisix assured me that their nigiri was very good. The koshihikari rice they use is aged for 2 years, and seasoned with a blend of old red vinegar and kasuzu (vinegar made from sake lees).
IMG_5445

For the nigiri section of the meal we changed to a tokkuri of Hokusetsu Junmai (Gohyakumangoku – Kōji: 55% – Kakemai: 65%), Hokusetsu Shuzō, Sado Island, Niigata. 北雪 純米 (五百万石 – 麹: 55% – 掛: 65%), 北雪酒造 – 新潟県佐渡市.

Its restrained aroma, crisp and refreshing flavour followed by a clean, dry finish make it unmistakably a Niigata sake. I’m not particularly drawn to the tanrei-karaguchi style, but it does pair well with sushi.

2013-07-29 00.22.10
Shinko (baby kohada) from Shizuoka. Unlike ‘promotion fish’ like buri, gizzard shard decreases in value as it ages – a ‘demotion fish’ if you will. The fish of the spring season’s shinko causes a flurry if activity in sushi-ya, and the huge demand and limited supply means that prices are astronomical. Sato-san arranged the tiny butterflied fillets before us, each were the about the size of a small lime.
IMG_5429
Beautifully presented in intertwining ribbons, the shinko was soft, fragrant and delicately flavoured. Sadly, we found the shari to be overly soft and, again, the temperature too cool.
2013-07-29 09.56.50
While the foreigners next to us, who were eating the standard nigiri course, were being served magurozuke (marinated akami), our tuna was cut fresh from a block of hon-maguro, landed near Aomori.
IMG_5433
The akami was rich and fragrant, though my appreciation of it was slightly let down by the memory of chef clumsily dropping the nigiri on the counter as he was forming it.
2013-07-29 09.56.54-2
A seasonal offering of kisu aburi kombujime. Lightly seared (aburi), the whiting had been marinated between sheets of kombu (kombujime) to impart a delicate sweet flavour in the fish.
2013-07-29 00.26.14
We were the only customers eating the omakase course, so all eyes where on us when a box of Ezo murasaki uni (purple sea urchin), from Yagishiri Island, Hokkaido, was presented for our inspection. The ‘中’ kanji refers to its middle size while the ‘1’ denotes its grade (the highest). It may just be internet rumor, but I have read that Sushi Sora uses the same uni supplier as Sukiyabashi Jiro.
IMG_5435
My hastily snapped photo does not do justice to the glorious flavour of this uni gunkan. Meltingly soft, rich and creamy, it was the highlight of the meal.
We were once again offered to choose our preference of neta for the final round. However, as we were underwhelmed by the rice, we opted to take the rest of the course as tsumami. For a nigiri maniac like Ninisix to opt out of continuing the sushi course, was a clear signal that things were very much amiss.
2013-07-29 09.57.00-1
The kuruma-ebi kimizu oboro zuke (Japanese prawn cured in sweet vinegar with minced egg yolk), was pre-cooked and served cold, so lacked the juiciness of prawns prepared à la minute. The awabi (abalone simmered and finished with a brush of tsume sauce) was good; the kohada okay. All in all, a fairly lackluster finish to an expensive omakase course.
2013-07-29 09.56.59
It must be said that throughout the evening our food was served on a wonderful array of plate ware. The final savoury offering of miso and junsai broth, was served in an elegant urushi-nuri (lacquer coated) bowl.
2013-07-29 09.57.01

We finished with the Dassai 39 Junmai Daigingō (Yamada Nishiki 39%), from Asahi Shuzō, Yamaguchi. 獺祭 純米大吟醸 磨き三割九分 (山田錦 39%), 旭酒造 – 山口県 – my favourite of their range. Befitting a sake of this refinement, we chose to have it served in champagne flutes. Lightly fragranced with notes of banana, melon and nashi pear, it has a clean, balanced flavour with an elegant dry finish.

For a sake menu that professes to be a selection of the best sake from small, family run kura (that explanation was only written in English, by the way), I had to laugh when I saw Kubota – the largest sake producer in Niigata – on the list. It’s also worth noting that Dassai, Masumi and Hokusetsu, which are indeed a family run kura, focus a lot of their sales on overseas markets. In fact, most of the sake on their list is readily available abroad. For example, Hokusetsu is the exclusive supplier to Nobu’s international franchise. I wonder if the Mandarin Oriental uses Izuha’s selection as the template from which to purchase sake for all of its Japanese restaurants. That would certainly explain why we were paying New York prices for our sake in Tokyo.

2013-07-29 00.35.39And finally, dessert: hakumomo (white peach) compote with hakumomo and lemon yōkan (a thick jelly made from bean paste, agar, and sugar).

Having billed itself as one of Tokyo’s premier sushi destinations, Sora failed to live up to its own marketing hype. While the omakase’s ¥25,000 price tag (substantially more once the sake was factored in) was on par with some of the city’s most elite sushi-yas, the food and execution were rather ordinary, and the inconsistent serving temperature of both the fish and the rice was cause for concern. The acclaimed sake list fell short of the mark too – very few options by the glass, no seasonal offerings, and the mark-up on price was criminal. It’s such a shame, as the service was very good indeed. Imaizumi-san and his staff were friendly, attentive and showed genuine care for their customers’ dining experience. I wonder if Sushi Sora’s problems are due to the hotel location. Generally, the hotel sushi-yas do not rate highly; even the hotel branches of esteemed names like Kanesaka and Kyubei are the weakest performers of their group. I think this may be due to the need for the shops to be open 365 days of the year, and to comply with the hotel’s food standards and procedures. Whatever the reason, something was definitely amiss, and I shall from hence forth be seeking my sushi and sake fix closer to terra firma.

Sushi Sora

03-3270-8800

Tokyo Sake: Sake no Ana, Ginza – 酒の穴、銀座


Ginza is an area synonymous with international luxury brand stores, posh boutiques and exclusive gentlemen’s clubs. Given that the real estate is famously amongst the most expensive in the world, this is a place you should expect to dine out on an expense account – not a budget. Well, so I thought, until I discovered a welcoming watering hole named Sake no Ana (literally The Sake Hole), a veritable rough diamond amidst Ginza’s glitz.



Despite its location, Sake no Ana is a reasonably priced izakaya, with an excellent sake selection and decent food. Built during the bubble years, it may look a little worn around the edges these days, but I find its old school ambience rather charming. The clientele is mostly portly mid-management level salarymen, who chain smoke and talk nonsense, while the kimono-clad waitresses attentively tend to their needs. 



Seating is available at the counter, which overlooks an impressive wall of glass fronted sake fridges, or at small tables inlayed with snazzy individual copper sake warmers. The in-house sake sommelier, Sakamoto-san, is an invaluable guide, and is often able to ‘find’ you something not listed on the menu from the the 130 plus labels he keeps in stock. 



Case in point: My recent visit. I was keen to introduce my visitors to nigori, knowing this is a type of sake they would rarely find in their home country. When I enquired why there was none listed on the menu, Sakamoto-san disappeared for a few minutes and returned with an unopened bottle of Harushika ‘Shiromiki’ Junmai Daiginjo Nigori (春鹿 しろみき 純米大吟醸 活性にごり酒 – Yamada Nishiki 50%), from Nara. I was chuffed; not only did I he find the kind of rich and textured nigori I was hankering for, but I was also introduced to a label I had never tried. Well played, Sir!



Flushed with success, we perused the menu while nibbling on a dainty otooshi of mitsuba, chrysanthemum petals and enoki mushrooms in a chilled dashi broth. 

The menu offers a comprehensive range of standard izakaya fare: a wide variety of sashimi, grilled fish and meats, as well as the deep-fried treats and umami packed sake snacks, which are the staples of many a salaryman’s drinking session. Their English menu is a boon for non-Japanese speaking travellers, however, because it is not updated, you will need to ask about daily or seasonal specials.



When confronted with such a broad menu, I tend to lower my expectations of the food quality from the kitchen – corners often need to be cut in order to prep so many dishes. That said, I always find the fish served at Sake no Ana to be of good quality and nicely prepared. On this visit, we started off with a simple trio of mizutako (octopus), hamachi and shime-saba (cured mackerel) sashimi.



A current favourite: Kameizumi Junmai Ginjo Namazake (亀泉 純米吟醸 生酒) from Kochi, a tiny prefecture on the island of Shikoku, which has the distinction of having one of the highest rates of sake consumption per capita in the country. Sake from this area tends to be dry, clean and robust without a lot of aromatics. Kameizumi’s namazake shirk this generalisation, by being softer, fresher and more fragrant in style, which may come down to their use of the yeast strain CEL-24 – a yeast that went into space, apparently. I don’t know what happened to it in the stratosphere, but whatever it was, it’s creating some wonderful sake back here on planet Earth. 


Autumn is a great season for saba (mackeral), and this grilled, home-smoked saba was outstanding.
Fatty, with mild smoky flavours and a big wallop of umani. A wonderful match for sake.



Having lived in the Izu area of Shizuoka, the local himono (salted semi-dried fish),  is comfort food for me. It’s not the most photogenic of foods, but a whole hokke is a tasty and inexpensive way to fill up at an izakaya.


Namashima, from Saga-ken in Kyushu, produces consistently good sake. Their purple labelled junmai ginjo (鍋島 純米吟醸 山田錦 – Yamada Nishiki 50%) is a favourite in the summer months, but as the weather cools I turn to the fuller flavours of their orange label junmai ginjo (鍋島 純米吟醸 雄町 – Omachi 50%) to match the heartier autumnal fare. Clean, balanced and softly fragranced, this sake never disappoints. 


Once the sake kicks in there is no escaping the sirens call of deep-fried goodies. These enticing golden nuggets of panko encrusted kani (crab) cream croquette were delicious and restorative. 


Out of curiosity I ordered the in-house label, Sake no Ana Daiginjo (酒の穴 大吟醸 – Yamada Nishiki 50%), which is brewed in Nagano by Osawa brewery, makers of the well regarded Meikyoshisu (明鏡止水) label. It was soft and pleasant,  but given their excellent selection I would only order it for the sheer novelty.


Drained sake pitchers signal the end of another eventful evening of ‘research’. The combination of friendly, knowledgeable service, good food and a comprehensive sake selection, means that it is very easy to justify repeat visits to this ‘Sake Hole’ –  especially when it doesn’t put too much of a hole in your wallet.


Sake no Ana
3567-1133

Tokyo Coffee: Fuglen Tokyo – Yogogi-Hachiman, フグレン トウキョウ – 代々木八幡

A Nordic ‘Bird’ has nested in Yoyogi Koen, and if the number of fixed-gear bikes parked at its door is any indication, it’s certainly got Tokyo’s bespectacled hipster set atwitter. 

This new foreign resident is Fuglen, a Norwegian import which, since its opening this past May, has built a solid reputation and garnered a loyal following amongst foreign and Japanese coffee aficionados alike. Originating in Oslo, this multi-concept space is a cafe cum vintage store by day, and by night a cocktail bar where cultures, conversations and design converge.

The retro colours, 60’s modernist furniture and dark wooden cabinetry, which showcase a selection of vintage Nordic ceramics – all are available for purchase – create an aesthetic which is effortlessly cool yet decidedly laidback. Customers can lounge on the leather sofa while flicking through a thoughtful selection of Scandinavian design books and the latest edition of uber-style bible, Monocle, or take a pew at one of the window seats which look out over a quiet residential street. All the while the place hums with conversations spoken in a multitude of languages, and so for a moment it’s easy loose one’s bearings. The reason for this is, explains manager Kenji Kojima, “This isn’t Japan, this is little Oslo.”

Unusually for Tokyo, Fuglen is open from 8am on weekdays (I predict this will be a growing trend as locals cotton on to the idea of a cafe breakfast), and, rarer still, serves remarkably good coffee. Along with Nozy Coffee beans, which are used for espresso, they also offer a selection of Norwegian roasts as fresh brew & aeropress coffee. Again, all are available for purchase – albeit at steep Norwegian prices.

Food is minimal: you can order a smoked salmon sandwich or choose one the pastries that are occasionally displayed on the counter.  But if you’re peckish, don’t dispair – bring your own. Yes, that’s right, one of Fuglen’s charming idiosyncrasies is its BYO food policy – a system it has adopted from its parent store. Bring along some tasty morsels from a local bakery (I recommend Viron and Cheese Stand), or order a takeout from your favourite delivery service. No one will bat an eyelid.

The atmosphere changes at dusk when the dim lights come on and the bar seats fill. Japanese and Norwegian craft beers are popular on a balmy summer’s evening, as are their extensive list of cocktails, all conceived by champion mixologist, Halvor Digernes.

I was fortunate enough to meet the man himself on one of his regular trips to Tokyo to update the staff on the preparation of his bespoke cocktails. His signature Dandy Lion, the cocktail which scored him a victory at the 2011 Linie Awards, is a revelation: Linie Aquavit, Dandelion root, bee pollen syrup, lemon, egg-white and burdock bitter all shaken into a pillowy dream. Sublime.

It is the attention to consistency and quality which really makes Fuglen stand out from the new faces in Tokyo’s burgeoning cafe scene. From the decor to the coffee beans, everything is of exceptional quality and executed expertly by the welcoming & talented crew.

On a recent visit I managed to inadvertently become part of a photo shoot for the popular style magazine, Brutus. So if you see a photo of a girl sipping a Shiga Kogen craft beer while nonchalantly holding (someone else’s) Shiba puppy – you’ll know its me. But be warned, once that publication hits the news stands it will be standing room only at this little bastion of cool.

Fuglen Tokyo
03-3481-0884


Tokyo Izakaya: Nakamura, Shibuya – 並木橋 なかむら、渋谷

Sunday, August 1st.
Summer sees the arrival of a plethora of antipodean visitors to these shores, desperate to escape the worst of the southern hemisphere’s bleak winter. So while most folks headed to Yokohama to watch the hanabi display, I guided two Kiwi’s through the madding crowds of Shibuya to a quiet side street in Namikibashi, and our destination, Nakamura.
Housed on the 2nd floor of a nondescript office building, Nakamura’s restrained, minimalist interior and subdued lighting give it an air of casual elegance. The room is dominated by a wide U-shaped wooden counter, which encloses the kitchen, upon which large platters of the day’s vegetables and fish are temptingly displayed for your consideration. Discrete private dining areas are also available for larger, more boisterous groups. 
Nakamura specialises in obanzai fare; something which has become a bit of a trend among eateries these days – what’s old is new, it would seem. The menu focuses on homestyle food made with seasonal ingredients. This evening’s specials included a variety of organic vegetables, which could be ordered individually or as part of an obanzai tasting platter. 

We opted for nasu (eggplant), tomato and courgette, which were served on ice with umeboshi, miso and Okinawan salt. Although flavourful and cooling, let’s be honest it’s just a pricey plate of cut up vegetables. The sadachi sours we ordered helped everything go down nicely – including my indignation.


The waiter who attended us grew impatient with my endless questions and requests for kanji readings – fair enough, it was peak dining time and the place was filling up fast. So after a few minutes fretfully deciphering the cursive script, I placed our order and hoped for the best.

Our sashimi moriawase was an elegant array of suzuki (sea bass), iwashi (sardine), katsuo tataki (seared bonito), nama tako (fresh octopus) and tashiuo (great sword fish). The only let down of the evening was that the special of oma maguro (line caught adolescent tuna from the Tsugaru Channel) was not included in the dish.
We were advised to eat the white fish with a squeeze of sadachi and Okinawan salt in order to best enjoy the flavour, and we obediently did just that. All were of good quality, and they did not skim on the portions – as is so often the case with posher places.

Nakamura’s sake list has around a dozen well regarded brands on offer and a sake sommolier is on hand to guide you through the selection process. Prices range from ¥1,000 to over ¥1,400, for a daiginjou, per tokkuri; a little expensive, but one can can’t really quibble when the sake comes served in an elegant urushi bowl such as this.

First up, the sommelier’s recommendation of Ishizuchi junmaiginjou (石鎚酒純米吟醸) from Ehime, which had the soft fragrance of rice and a nice clear finish in the mouth. The bottle was not presented to the table (me being a mere female and all), so click here for a visual.

The agejakko (fried whitebait), okahijiki (land seaweed) and silken tofu salad is one of Nakamura’s most popular dishes for good reason; it’s delicious. Even the Kiwi’s, who prefer their protein to come with a wooly coat, scraped their plates clean.

There was no nitsuke this evening – the bane of dining out on a Sunday – but I was delighted to learn that they had ‘early’ sanma shioyaki on offer; a fish one usually associates with autumn. According to the news, fishermen are predicting the worst sanma season on record due to a severly reduced fish stocks off the coast of Hokkaido. Apparently, ‘global warming’ is to blame – or that just the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestries and Fishing’s code word for ‘overfishing’?
The sanma was indeed early, as it arrived before the sashimi. When I questioned the waiter about timing, he immediately apologised for the oversight (sashimi is usually served at the start of the meal, and I had ordered it as such), and the the offending dish was immediately removed. When it, or rather one of its freshly charcoal grilled brethren,  reappeared later in the meal, it was indeed a happy reunion. The flesh was moist and unctuous with a wonderful smokey flavour. Delectable.


Reminiscing about misspent youths is thirst inducing, so a round of Gorin daiginjou (五凛大吟醸), from Ishikawa, was ordered. It had a fresh, slightly fruity fragrance and a full body, which gave way to a lovely clean finish. Mmmm. By now, the sommelier had realised that one member of our group was a sake otaku (my stack of sake guidebooks must have been the giveaway), and began offering the bottle to the table. Please note; they don’t take too kindly to flashes accidentally being fired – I was soundly admonished by our curmudgeonly waiter for this oversight.

The kiwi’s were well pleased with the golden orbs of minchi katsu which arrived next. The crispy panko coating gave way to juicy, just pink meat inside – or so I am told. The waiter decided that I shouldn’t miss out on action, and presented me with a plate of my own, “Service desu!”. It was a nice, though wasted, gesture and was quickly re-gifted to the Kiwi’s, who thought all of their Christmases had come at once.


Plans were being hatched for a nijikai in Ebisu, so umeboshi ongiri were ordered along with a round of Senkin junmaigingou (仙禽純米吟醸), from Tochigi. The Senkin was refined and elegant with a gorgeous aroma, kind of like cassis… or at least that’s what I managed to glean from my increasingly illegible notes. I have no memory of the onigiri.

Nakamura is definitely a shop to keep in mind when an occasion calls for food and surroundings that are a little more refined that your usual izakaya joint. Overall, the food was fantastic and the service, while at times brisk, was professional and attentive. Sadly, my ordering did not do the thoughtful and comprehensive menu justice, so a return visit is most certainly on the cards.

Nakamura 
03-6427-9580

Kyoto Food: Giro-Giro, Kyoto 枝魯枝魯 ひとしな 京都店

April 29th, 2010

No stay in Kyoto would be compete without a kaiseki-ryori meal. However, my previous encounters of this highly esteemed cuisine have been disappointing to say the least. Thus far my experience has been beautifully plated morsels of luke warm, micromanaged fare, served in impersonal and overly formal environs. Other than an expense account – am I missing something? The morning we arrived in Kyoto, my reticence was weakened on the strength of a NY Times review of Giro-Giro, and I promptly made a reservation for BooBoo and I the next evening – at ¥3,600 for a 7 course meal, we could afford to take the risk.
Later the same evening, as we wandered down the canal that stretches from Pontocho down to Shichi-dori, on route to our accommodation, I spied a brightly lit machiya, which was brimming with activity. This walk is part of my regular routine when in Kyoto (this being my 11th trip), and I had often taken note of this establishment – then immediately forgotten about it. On closer inspection, I could just make out the name from across the canal, ‘Giro-Giro’ – Shazam! How is that for synchronicity?

The next night, after asking the hotel staff to call and confirm that one of the guests would not be eating red meat or chicken (yours truly), and that counter seats were reserved, we arrived at Giro-Giro’s doors at our appointed time.
The restaurant is a converted traditional Kyoto townhouse, which has had its back wall replaced with glass panels to provide a pleasing view of the sleepy canal below. The open kitchen on the first floor, is surrounded by a U-shaped counter, and the second floor is available for larger groups – or the poor sods who couldn’t secure a seat downstairs. The rooms have a modern wabi-sabi charm, and the motley-crew of chefs, with their day-glo mohawks (punk kaiseki?) create a hip vibe, which no doubt makes it popular with a younger demographic.

Greeted and seated, it was time to get some drinks ordered. I quickly dispensed with the English menu I was offered, when I realized, as so often the case is, that the Japanese menu had a more comprehensive sake list. In due course a tokkuri of Biwa-no-chouju Junmaiginjou (琵琶の長寿 純米吟醸), appeared before us, and was dispatched with gusto.

The 7 course meal started with a sampler plate of shirasu sushi, smoked salmon, butter grilled scallop, yamamomo, and some other pleasing tidbits.

Followed by a morsel of tempura hamo (pike) – which was served at that dread luke-warm temperature I despise. It quickly found its way to Boo-Boo, who must have thought all of her picnic baskets had come at once.

The third course revealed itself to be a moreish edamame soup with poached hamo (again) for me, and poached chicken, for the meat-eaters.The fresh wasabi at the bottom of the bowl provided a pleasant kick.

Our chokko were replenished with Dassai junmaiginjou, just as the the sashimi course arrived. Is it me, the booze, or are they serving the food out of order?

By now, I was losing track of the courses, as the chefs had enlisted me to translate the dishes to the other foreigners around us. My photos tell me it was grilled snapper with miso sauce and momiji-oroshi (grated daikon and chili), garnished with mushroom and lemon peel.

A small respite then followed in the form of a biwa (loquat) sorbet.

By the penultimate course of takenoko gohan and tsukemono (dashi was poured over the rice to make ochazuke), the counter was buzzing, as guests bantered with their neighbours and regaled each other with their Lost in Translation moments.

There was a little head-scratching between the chef and myself over the ingredients of the dessert, but we finally settled on the translation of banana sorbet, pannacotta, わらびもち Japanese bracken jelly and toasted soybean flour and a caramel macaroon on a banana foam. Phew!

We rolled out of Giro Giro into a balmy spring evening, sated and well pleased with our experience. While this was not Michelin standard kaiseki, the food was a creative and fun interpretation of a traditional cuisine. Giro Giro may well find itself on the itinerary for a 12th visit to my favourite place on Earth.

They have shops in Paris and Hawaii, too.

Giro Giro Hiroshina
075-343-7070