Tempura Kondo, Tokyo

I was pretty much unaware that tempura could be transcendent. Turns out it can, and it can even earn two Michelin stars.  At the twelve seat bar in Tokyo run by Chef Kondō Fumio each faultlessly fried bit of vegetable or seafood is delivered in a crunchy, lacy, little package which you either dip into tempura sauce or eat with a little lemon and salt. While he has help behind the bar to prep and batter the food, Kondō personally fries each piece to perfection, so this isn’t a super speedy meal, especially by Japanese standards.

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I have to say this had to be one of my favorite (out of a pretty nutty array of amazing) meals in Tokyo. Some people say that after you eat sushi in Japan you can never eat it again in the US.  I don’t think I’ll have that problem (though there were a few bites, like the uni at Mizutani that I don’t think will ever be replicated) but I might be ruined for American tempura.

Some of the stand outs from our meal included:

A deep fried shrimp head.  I think this was my favorite thing period.  I need to eat more shrimp heads, they were in a number of things we ate in Japan and they are seriously delicious (at least when fried).

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The shrimp bodies were pretty excellent as well. Not at all over cooked and incredibly sweet.

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Some seasonal vegetables followed including asparagus, lotus root, and some of the most amazing fiddlehead ferns I’ve ever eaten – I know what I’d be making all spring if I could replicate this batter:

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There were many other excellent courses but I thought the two most interesting were the icefish wrapped in shiso and then fried.  These little buggers are pretty bizarre, even though the flavor was pretty much like a typical white fish. It’s hard to tell from the photo but these are a bunch of individual clear noodle like fish.  While we were at Tsukiji earlier in the trip a man standing in line next to us told a story of drinking them alive in a glass of water at a sushi place where he ate.  I’m thinking that would have been a bridge too far for me.  I’m not guessing actually, I’m sure I would not have enjoyed that.

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The other was tempura sea urchin.  Another item I’d not encountered before. I liked the crunchy texture with the creamy filling but like many things the flavor was over powered by the shiso. Can I suggest wrapping the uni in squash blossoms?  For some reason I think that would be amazing.

photo 5The meal ended with pickles, soup, and rice. Followed by some fresh fruit.  Bob ordered the slightly more expensive menu which also included tempura scallops which were sweet and delicious even though I was packed to the gills (pun intended).  My one regret is that we didn’t buy his cookbook.  It was all in Japanese so I didn’t think it would be useful but now I’m realizing I’m sure I could have conned a friend into providing translation services.  Alas …

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The Real Buddha Bar

Kanga An is a beautiful temple on an unassuming side street in Kyoto. Built at the request of retired Emperor Go Mizuno it’s still in operation today. But in addition to a Buddhist Temple it’s also an acclaimed vegetarian restaurant. We didn’t eat there because at this point in the trip we couldn’t handle any more huge set multiple-course meals even if they were composed entirely of vegetables. But you know what we did stop by for a drink.
Yeah this temple has a secret bar in the back. It’s surrounded by lush gardens and the bar is tended by a sweet and gentle man who will tell you everything you’d like to know about the temple and take you on a tour of the gardens and shrines. This place is by no means a secret (it’s even been featured on GOOP for goodness sake *sigh*) but we were there on a very quiet night and it was a lovely and contemplative experience.

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A Japanese Baseball Game

The rules might be the same, but the experience is totally different. Turns out Japanese baseball games are more spirited than those in the states. We saw the Yakult Swallows play the Hanshin Tigers (who are notorious for their rabid fans). The first sign that this is going to be a different experience is that each team shows up with a band to encourage their fans to cheer the team on.

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And cheer they do. They have a different song for each player that comes up to bat along with some kind of catchy rhythm that they rap out by tapping little plastic baseball bats together. This may not be the Yankees, but even A-Rod doesn’t have half a stadium cheering him on in perfect unison every time he comes up to bat. Speaking of cheering:
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Yup cheerleaders! At a baseball game. It was pretty great sometimes they had flags, and sometimes little umbrellas.
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Little umbrellas you ask? This had to be the most unexpected part of the event. Each time the Swallows scored a run (out of seemingly nowhere) all the fans opened up tiny plastic umbrellas bobbed them in the air and sang a little victory song. Not only was the spectacle delightful but the umbrellas fold up and pack out of sight so it was also totally unexpected since I hadn’t noticed anybody (let alone everybody) carrying one. >

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And of course I can’t forget the food. You can buy beers from girls with kegs on their backs, or beers with frozen foam. Oh and the snacks are a little different than what you’d find at american baseball games too ;).
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All in all it was a delightful way to spend the day doing something familiar in an unfamiliar setting. >

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Tjukiji Fish Market

Our first meal in Tokyo was at Sushi Mizutani. It was an experience (and a bill) to be reckoned with. Mizutani-San doesn’t speak English nor does he mess around (and he certainly doesn’t let you screw up the experience by pulling out a camera). He does deliver pristine sushi in an efficient no nonsense manner (though he did finally crack a smile when we thanked him in Japanese). The experience is incredible. Each piece of fish is expertly cut and delivered on just warm, perfectly seasoned rice. The experience in some ways is a revelation. I didn’t know uni could taste almost like sweet custard. And I realized I’ve wasted years thinking I don’t like mackerel. I’d only eaten abalone in stir fried preparations. Turns out it is delicious unadorned (but its liver is not for me).

The next morning we attempted to go to the auction at Tsukiji Fish Market. Even arriving by 4:18 am wasn’t enough to score us a seat sadly. So we wandered off to sooth our chapped feelings with what’s supposed to be amazing fish at Sushi Dai. The wait was about 2 hours.

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It was cold. It was 5 something in the morning. No way was I waiting 2 hours to eat.
Enter Sushi Daiwa. Which I’m informed is just as good. It opens 30 minutes later at 5:30 but we were able to get in on the first seating. Turned out to be a great call. The fish was incredibly fresh. It wasn’t as expertly prepared (the o-toro was cold, though the chu-toro was perfect), the uni wasn’t life changing (though it was excellent), and the rice wasn’t as good. But for less than a quarter of the price of Mizutani this experience wins in my book. You’re crammed into a tiny sushi bar and the fish arrives as fast as you can eat it (or faster)! The sushi chef didn’t speak English here either but he was a jolly chap and I think amused by my efforts to name each piece in Japanese after he’d tell me the English name. Tsukiji isn’t an experience to be missed if you’re in Tokyo. And if you hate lines like I do, I suggest you mosey over to Sushi Daiwa around 4:45 am and get ready for a totally legit fishy encounter.
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Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo

We lucked out and happened to be in Tokyo during cherry blossom season. Of course the city is magnificently beautiful when it’s brimming with flowers. But the season also imbues the inhabitants with cheerfulness as they gather in parks to eat, drink, and spend merry times with family. This was a rescheduled trip and despite the initial despair about a delayed vacation I couldn’t be happier that we ended up here now.

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Warayakiya, Tokyo

Our first night in Tokyo was a relative breeze. We cleared customs quickly, caught a bus to the city in 15 minutes and didn’t get stuck in the threatened traffic jam.
We arrived at the Grand Hyatt (more on that later) surprisingly hungry given how much we ate on our flight.
Warayakiya, an izakaya place close to our hotel was the perfect place to start our trip.

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Waiters yelling in Japanese, dark smoky spaces, and huge fires are big pluses in my book.

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The grilled items at Warayakiya are cooked over straw which gives them a unique (and seriously delicious) smoky flavor. We started with grilled bonito that came with wasabi, salt, garlic, and two kinds of onions.
20140404-091006.jpgThe fish was fresh and tasty but rich enough to stand up to the smoky char that surrounded the rare interior.

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Next came some Japanese black haired beef. Oh. My. God. This was the richest beef I’ve ever had. It also had excellent grilled flavor and pretty much melted in my mouth. 20140404-090321.jpgI can’t even begin to imagine how the kobe beef we have planned for a couple nights from now will taste.
We also ordered some crunchy fried shrimp that you ate whole. I loved these. They pretty much tasted like really fresh shrimp crackers. But I did agree with the Bob that slightly meatier shrimp would have been welcome.

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In an effort not to eat only meat we ordered some tart and crunchy Japanese pickles which were very refreshing (reminder must pickle vegetables this summer) and fried sweet potatoes which were delicious and crunchy with a smooth filling, but a little too heavy for me.

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