This was a year of culinary highs for sure, one that involved freshwater eel, lamb ramen, sake and more.
Kyuri Cucumbers at Sobaya Nicolas
Following a visit to Kyoto’s Nishiki Market, I felt myself yearning for local kyo yasai, vegetables from the Kansai region of Japan. That night we were invited by a local artisan for a Michelin-starred soba meal at Sobaya Nicolas, a much-lauded eatery far from the crowded streets of central Kyoto. A great soba restaurant is judged not only by the quality of soba and sauces, but also by the side dishes accompanying the soba. The salvo of opening appetizers at Sobaya Nicolas included red Kyoto miso nestled alongside crunchy local Japanese kyrui cucumbers for swiping through it. The dish reminded me that often the simplest foods offer the greatest brilliance.
There are dishes we dream about and then there are dishes that make us feel as if we’re dreaming. Obana’s umaki, unagi (freshwater) eel tucked inside an ethereal egg omelet, always feels like a waking dream of savory umami bliss. True, the trek to Obana on the outskirts of Tokyo is long. Yes, so is the line for a table. But both are worth it every time I go. The egg omelet is otherworldly, and Obana’s charcoal-grilled eel is considered by Tokyo aficionados to be the best. This year I visited with friends and we ordered a second round of umaki to have with sake as we waited for them to prepare our main dish of unagi over rice.
– Fran Kuzui
It is with great sadness that I write this: I realize that it’s been over nine months since my last visit to Mensho Tokyo and that is far too long. I last found myself wedged at a table in this experimental ramen joint on February 14th for what I now know is called a “Galentine’s” date. I befriended my dining companion in that very store on that very day three years earlier: we had both gone to try their chocolate ramen, a limited-edition dish that changes every year but always seems to leave customers with heart-shaped eyes.
Mensho Tokyo is unique in that it offers lamb ramen – lamb being a general rarity in Japan. You can choose between lamb-tonkotsu (pork) or lamb-niboshi (sardine broth), although I’ve only ever opted for the former, and I always drink the rich soup down to the very last drop. There is also a foamy aromatic lamb tantanmen ramen option that you definitely should try. Yes, you want the extra tender lamb slices as a topping, and you probably want the lamb gyoza (dumplings), too.
This spot is the brainchild of “hyper ramen creator” Tomoharu Shono, who now owns several stores with unique concepts and menus across Tokyo, and has also launched ventures in Bangkok and San Francisco. I’ve yet to try them all, but there’s still time yet.
2018 was the year that I could finally call myself a sake fan, though I am still a long way from being anything close to knowledgeable. I love nothing more than to stumble into tiny sake bars and strike up a conversation with the staff and customers. Kiyoi enticed me in with its modern pale-wood front, cozy-looking interior and large dishes lined up along the counter – a scene reminiscent of a tapas bar. Close to my workplace, it’s a space where I can settle myself down, relax and tuck into some home-style cooking. The dishes are simple but always delicious, from lightly stewed chicken to simmered pumpkin or tofu.
These are naturally accompanied by a well-matched sake, recommended either by Yuri, who opened the bar last year, or Tomomi, a sake consultant. Sake is served by the glass and often with debate on the side: Kiyoi is a place where aficionados of the drink freely bandy around opinions and advice. On my first visit, a middle-aged chap, outraged by my stated preference, sent me a contrasting cup to change my mind. On my latest visit, the bar erupted on discovering that I’m British, led by one gentleman waxing lyrical about “Sex Pistols” and “The Beatles.” Fortunately, karaoke was spared until next time.
I have a secret that shocks and horrifies many of my overseas friends who are envious of my Japan food life: I am completely ambivalent towards sushi. In fact, if there’s a choice between sushi and something else, I’m likely to opt for that “else.” Yet at Sushi Kinoshita, which opened in June 2018 under the supervision of the master chef of three-star Sushi Yoshitaki, sushi nears its zenith, where its flavor and texture melts my cold heart and brings tears to my eyes – although I should point out that the price is also eye-watering.
Hidden within a nondescript apartment building in Nishi Azabu, Sushi Kinoshita can only be entered by pressing a buzzer and announcing yourself over the intercom, as if you were popping round a friend’s for dinner. The interior, however, is as exquisite as the series of artworks that will be served to you. A counter of just eight seats frames the kitchen space, putting head chef Junichi Sato, and his team, in the spotlight as they work. The dishes are too numerous to list; the debate over our favorites meandering. But one moment stays with me in particular: a moment of stillness as the chutoro maguro (medium-fatty tuna) dissolved on my tongue. Sushi Kinoshita is probably heading for the stars, so go now and say you visited before the hype.
There are complaints that the Michelin Guide to Tokyo overly favors Japanese and French cuisine, neglecting the city’s worthy Italian food scene, and I’m inclined to agree. Emilia and its sister store, Daniela, at the very least deserve a Bib Gourmand. Their “menu piccolo” is a steal at 1,400 yen for homemade pasta, homemade bread and a coffee, but I never regret the larger menu with a small starter and dessert thrown in. The appetizer is a build-your-own mini sandwich with a slice of salami, dash of cream cheese and salad. This remarkably simple yet impactful dish sets the tone for what’s to come: fresh pasta that will whisper to you in your dreams, regardless of whether you’re a carboholic or not. I always go with a willing partner in greed: we share a seasonal pasta and my true addiction, the black truffle tajarin, where the truffle is grated into thin slices that rain down upon the butter-soaked, perfectly textured pasta before my ever-widening eyes. This dish costs a supplement but comes with no regrets, only blissful memories and a mildly guilty feeling that life shouldn’t be this deliciously good.
– Phoebe Amoroso