Sunday, 14 August 2016

Taishoken. Before Tsukemen, there was Mori Soba

Char Shu Mori Soba. 1100 Yen
Summers in Japan can reach dangerous levels (up to 38 degrees Celsius), but that doesn't stop its people from finding ways to enjoy their food. A steaming bowl of ramen with piping hot soup is not the best way to enjoy a bowl of noodles in the sweltering heat, hence the need for Tsukemen arises.

Back in 1955, Kazuo Yamigishi, owner of the legendary Taishoken, would eat noodles with leftover broth and soy sauce for staff meals in his days as a kitchen apprentice. It sparked the inspiration and birth of the Tsukemen as we know it today. Yamigishi christened his new creation "Mori Soba" and it became an instant success. Passing away on 1st April 2015, the pioneer of Tsukemen left behind a legacy spanning over 100 restaurants all over Japan and a dish which still continues to evolve to this day.

The heart of a bowl of Ramen lies in its soup. But for Tsukemen it is an entirely different ball game altogether. Consisting of 2 separate components, both the broth and noodles must be able to stand on its own and at the same time not disrupt their symbiotic relationship in order to create a flavourful yet balanced dish.

For starters, noodles are usually served cold and are thicker than your average ramen. The texture of noodles hold high importance as it must be nicely chewy and be able to hold the broth as it is dipped. The taste of the noodle without the broth is also what separates a normal Tsukemen from an exceptional one.

The broth is served hot and is a heavily reduced version of the normal soup base and may consist of additional ingredients such as bonito powder, shrimp oil and scallions. Ingredients used for the soup stock can vary from beef bones, pork, leek and many others which the chef deem fit.

Mori Soba. 800 yen
The process to eat this is simple. Take some noodles with your chopsticks, mix it well inside the bowl of broth and slurp it (ala soba). The shape of Taishoken's noodles are made specifically for the broth to cling onto them. The contrast in temperature is a pleasant sensation, and each chew releases intense flavours of the broth which has been on a rolling boil for hours.
The well-marbled char siew is grilled on a pan before being topped onto a noodles which lends a rich, smoky fragrance to the Tsukemen also.

Tsukemen is perfect for any occasion, but enjoyed especially in summer. Bringing chewy, faintly sweet noodles together with a well-seasoned intense broth you can't get enough of, it's one of those fine food pairings in life.

Taishoken (Narita Branch)
88 Wing Tsuchiya, Narita, Chiba Prefecture
+81 476-29-4868

Nearest Station: JR Narita.

Operating Hours:
Open Daily
Lunch: 1100 to 1500 (L.O 1430)
Dinner: 1800 to 0200

Link to their website.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Genkatsu. It's Pork Cotton Candy.


Kimukatsu Trio Platter.
From left clockwise: Yuzu Pepper, Garlic and Cheese
Mention the word Tonkatsu and most would immediately think of a large, thick slab of pork coated with flour, eggwash and fine panko (japanese breadcrumbs) deep fried to a golden crisp and bursting with juices.

I present an alternative to you today: The Kimukatsu.

Considered a variation of its more common counterpart, the approach to kimukatsu is to cut the meat into paper-thin slices and stack them meticulously one on top of the other before breading and frying them. As you can imagine, the process is much more tedious and requires more skill and finesse to execute properly.

Enter in Genkatsu, a little restaurant located on the third floor of a narrow spiral building in the upscale district of Ginza in Tokyo. Having been here for close to a decade, it has gained a sizable following and loyal customers alike.

Genkatsu considers each aspect of the Kimukatsu carefully. The batter is thin, crisp and not oily. The pork they use is locally sourced kurobuta, thereby ensuring consistency in its quality.

Yuzu Pepper Kimukatsu
Genkatsu also provides a wide variety of flavours to spice things up and give customers more choice. Aside from the plain Kimukatsu, flavours like Cheese, Garlic and Black Pepper are also available. I selected Cheese, Garlic and Yuzu Pepper as these are my top 3 favourite flavours in their menu.

Cheese Kimukatsu. Molten goodness.
"Won't the cheese overpower/interfere with such a finely sliced piece of pork which is already so flavourful?"

I am glad to say otherwise. On the contrary, the cheese further augments the umami sensations and increases satisfaction levels twofold. The profiles of the pork and cheese complement each other very well and it is no wonder that their cheese kimukatsu is the most popular choice here among the customers.

But the differentiating factor lies not so much in the flavour but in the texture itself. A normal tonkatsu, no matter how tender still requires some form of chewing. At the first vertical motion of the jaw, kimukatsu practically dissolves like cotton candy, while still releasing sufficient juices at the same time. In essence, you're getting pork fairy dust neatly encased in a crisp, thin batter. Ladies who are not fans of overly heavy and substantial fried meats would find this a wonderful alternative to enjoy katsu.

Each cutlet is thoughtfully cut into equal, bite-sized pieces to minimize effort on the diner's part. Pick up your chopsticks, carefully grab a piece and feel the kimukatsu literally melt by the mere heat from your tongue.

Rice cooked ala minute
Another notable highlight is that the rice here is prepared in individual portions and cooked only upon every new order. They time it such that when the kimukatsu is ready to be served, the rice will be literally fresh out of the steamer to be served to the guests. Kudos to the management team and staff for taking on such a laborious process to go that one step further in quality.

Genkatsu offers a refreshing and refined take on tonkatsu, while still retaining the usual services such as free flow cabbage and rice. The dining atmosphere is comfortable and not too formal while the service staff are cheerful and efficient. A whole range of condiments (tonkatsu sauce, salt and ponzu are available to go with the meats) and cabbage here is free flow like any other respectable tonkatsu establishment.

This place warrants multiple visits for its commitment to quality. The prices here are also easy on the wallet, which makes it more accessible for customers. Come here if you wish to experience a new perspective on the humble tonkatsu and be pleasantly surprised.

Genkatsu (Ginza Branch)
4-6-18 Ginza
Ginza Act Building 3F
Chuo 104-0061
Tokyo Prefecture

Operating hours:
Last order at 2230

Nearest Station:
Ginza Subway Station on Ginza Line, Hibiya Line and Marunochi Line.

Link to their website.

English menus are available, but they differ slightly from the Japanese menu so having a dining companion familiar with the language would be advantageous.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Umegaokasushi no Midori. Value-for-money Sushi doesn't get better than this.

Kani Miso Salad. 800 Yen
I've struck gold.

In a land where almost everything is expensive, locating and having a meal here is akin to winning the sushi lottery (bar obtaining a reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro or Sushi Saito).

I am of course, talking about Umegaokasushi no Midori, or Sushi Midori as it is more commonly known.

Sushi Set. 2000 yen.
Top Row: Negitoro Handroll and Anago
Middle Row: Ikura, Kuruma Ebi, Tamago Yaki, Crab Leg Sushi, Uni
Bottom Row: Hotate (Scallop), Chutoro, Tai and Chutoro

Located at the bottom of an expressway among rows of restaurants, Midori Sushi bravely puts in a claim as the best in its class for offering value-for-money sushi. 2000 yen is enough to get you a set as shown above, while anything more can buy you an indulgent meal fit for a king. The quality here is also much better than expected, which gives you the ultimate bang for your buck. The Kani Miso Salad (Crab innards mixed with miso) was a powerful prelude to the sushi carnage that followed soon after.

Triple Ponzu Appetizer. 800 yen
Ankimo (Monkfish Liver), Octopus and Shirako (Cod Fish Sperm Sacs) drizzled with Ponzu
and topped with Ohba and Wakame Seaweed

Take for instance this appetizer. For 800 yen, I get 3 thick, large medallions of monkfish liver and generous helpings of shirako and octopus enough to feed 3 people. The ankimo is soft and creamy, as is the shirako. The octopus is a little more chewy and the ponzu lends a refreshing and acidic aftertaste to whet the appetite.

Anago (600 yen). Let me know if you find the sushi rice.
This has got to be the ultimate steal. For 600 yen, I got a piece of eel the length of my forearm (>30cm). The Anago despite its large size, still maintained a melt-in-your-mouth texture and the thick, sweet and savoury sauce was the icing on the cake that took me to eel heaven.

Clockwise from Top: Chutoro, Magurozuke, Otoro and Aburi Chutoro
Ordering the different forms of Tuna, I am glad to say that all 3 (Akami, Chutoro, Otoro) fared competently and are definitely worth much, much more than the price they charge.

Otoro. (500 yen a pop)
This is perhaps the only place where I can order 5 Otoro Nigiris at one go and not even worry about my wallet later. Each piece is well marbled and juicy, albeit a little veiny due to the intermuscular fascia commonly present in Otoro. But at 500 yen a pop, I am certainly not complaining.

Sujiko Nigiri. 400 yen
The next moment of epiphany was when the Sujiko (Salmon Roe still held in egg sacs) arrived. The chef had to use a large shiso leaf to fully contain all the salmon roe and they give you a sheet of nori to wrap it yourself. Carefully placing the inter-connected sujiko and rice inside the nori, a few drops of shoyu and one bite later, time stood still and the only sound I heard was the individual popping of each single roe as I burst them slowly with my teeth.

Top to Bottom: Aburi Hotate (Blowtorched Scallop) Otoro and Scallop
The ingredients themselves are fresh and clean tasting. While certainly not comparable to the top-tier sushi restaurants that reside in Tokyo's luxury district, they more than hold their own with its mid-range quality and high turnover ensures that no customer gets seafood from the previous day.

Aburi Hotate
The Aburi options here prove to be a hit as well with the foreign customers. Salmon, Otoro, Scallop and Botan Ebi are among the few options available for guests who crave for a different flavour for their sushi.

Pictures plastered all over the walls also feature specials of the season. The menus have English in them and the friendly waitstaff are happy to up sell and recommend their house specialities.

In all honesty, I have absolutely no idea how they are able to command such low prices given the generally expensive food cost of seafood. I can only assume that they buy in bulk and enjoy economies of scale, while the never-ending horde of customers waiting outside their doors provide a steady and constant revenue stream.

If there's only one thing that's not so pleasant, it is the queue. Waiting times are at least 2 hours (I waited 3 hours for my table to be ready).

But the good folks here have purchased a ticketing machine and employed a system similar to clinics where customers can get a queue number and wait for their number to be called.

My advice? Go early and get a queue number and you can head off and spend the next 2 hours shopping and wandering in Ginza's shopping area. But do use your judgement and estimate roughly when your table will be ready so you will be present when they call your number. Come back later in a state of ravenous hunger and unleash the beast, while dealing serious damage to the world's seafood supply in the process.

Cheap food with respectable quality, Sushi Midori is truly the find of the decade for me.


Umegaokasushi no Midori (Sushi Midori)
7-2 Ginza, Chuo-ku 104-6601, Tokyo

Operating Hours
Monday to Saturday: 1100-2200. (Last Order at 2130)
Sunday and Holidays: 1100-2100 (Last Order at 2030)

Closed on New Year's (1st January)

Nearest Station: Ginza or Shimbashi Station on the Ginza Subway Line.

Note: The shop is located below an expressway along the train tracks, so use the train tracks/expressway as a point of reference when using GPS to locate the restaurant.

Rokurinsha: Slurp it up to the last drop

Tsukemen: Thick, al dente noodles that are cool to the touch, dipped in a highly concentrated broth that has been reduced under the watchful eyes of a master and finally slurped up quickly in one breath, bringing a savoury and chewy sensation to the diner.

The origins of  Tsukemen can be traced back to a certain Kazuo Yamagishi, founder and chef of the timeless Taishoken ramen stall at Higashi Ikebukuro. It's said that Yamagishi discovered this dish while he ate noodles with some left over broth and soy sauce, and hence the concept was born.

In recent years however, the title of "Most Popular Tsukemen" would probably go to Rokurinsha. Ever since their first original branch in Osaki, they have expanded aggressively to 5 outlets. The branch at the Tokyo Skytree (Solamachi) commands queues of up to 2 to 3 hours during lunch/dinner time.

Noodles made in house (Normal Portion)
The advantage of Tsukemen is that diners get to fully appreciate the texture of the noodles in its entirety without worry of carry-over cooking due to the hot soup in normal ramen. Rokurinsha's noodles are about 1.5 times thicker than the average ramen noodle which makes it easier to pick up the broth when dipping. The portions for noodles are generous so order the large portion only if you are absolutely dying of starvation. You have been warned.

Dipping Broth
Rokurinsha's broth is one to behold. Carrying the consistency of a gravy, the broth is made from pork bones, bonito, sardines, vegetables and other undisclosed ingredients then carefully boiled and reduced until it achieves the desired thickness and viscosity. Taking one spoonful by itself, it was akin to drinking liquid umami as all the goodness of the ingredients have been fully extracted and concentrated into a small bowl.

It is practically impossible to take just one mouthful as I found myself slurping continuously, stopping only to catch my breath. The chewy, cool and clean tasting noodles complements the warm and rich broth and the flavours dance and mingle nicely."Shiok" would be the word to accurately describe this.

Tokyo Solamachi 6F
Tokyo Skytree
1-1-2 Oshiage, Sumida-ku, Tokyo

Operating Hours
1100-2300 Daily unless otherwise specified.
Last Order at 2200

Nearest Station: Oshiage

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Kawatoyo Honten: Eels for the Chills

Unajyu. 2500 Yen

Narita is highly famous for the Narita-San Temple which is just an approximate 15 minutes stroll from the station with the road flanked by cosy and family-owned shops that sell anything from food to souvenirs.

One item which cannot be missed when taking a trip down to this quaint little town, is the Grilled Eel over rice, or Unajyu. Take a walk down the shopping arcade and the seductive aromas emitting from the restaurant will force you to stop and take a second look.

Kawatoyo Honten has been around for generations, dishing up piping hot lacquer boxes of smoky, meltingly tender sea eels blanketed over pearly rice. Locals, transiting air crew and tourists form the main demographic of its target market.

Jo Unajyu 3100 yen
Having gained worldwide popularity in the past decade or so, queues usually an average of 30 minutes at least (over an hour during the peak seasons) depending on the party size. But thankfully they have a 2 level seating space which can accommodate large parties. Tatami mats and cushions are their choice of furniture here, lending an oriental touch to the convivial dining atmosphere, so please kindly remove your shoes and help yourself to a plastic bag to put your shoes in when entering the seating premises.

The chopsticks cut through the eels with utmost ease and each bite releases a smoky-rich flavour with a slight sweetness, courtesy of the homemade sauce that the chef uses prior to finishing the eels off in the grill. Paired with the short-grain rice hidden snugly beneath the eels and a cup of ocha, this makes for a comforting meal best enjoyed in the company of loved ones while soaking in the serenity of the town.

Kawatoyo Honten Narita
386 Nakamachi, Narita City, Chiba Prefecture

Nearest Station:
JR Narita Station or Narita Station on Keisei Main Line

Operating Hours
1000-1700 Daily unless otherwise specified.