Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Nodaiwa is a Michelin-starred restaurant that specializes in exactly one item: unagi. Nodaiwa has been around for over 160 years and is currently run by the fifth generation of the same family that founded the restaurant. Unlike most other unagi restaurants, Nodaiwa uses unagi caught from the wild (instead of farmed unagi). The unagi is tender, fall-apart-in-your-mouth flaky, but comes at a high price: the very cheapest meal offered by Nodaiwa is a lunch set for 2250 yen, plus a 10% service charge. This includes unadon (a bowl of rice topped with seasoned unagi), soup made from unagi liver, tsukemono (Japanese pickles), grated daikon in dashi broth to cleanse your palate, and tea.

While my meal was good, I was left thinking: "hmm, that was kind of expensive for lunch" and "wow, a Michelin star for this? really??" I think there's something slightly faulty with the Michelin rating system when it hands out exactly the same number of stars for a one-dimensional restaurant that basically makes only one dish (because while Nodaiwa's unagi is good, it wasn't mind blowingly better than other unagi I've had) as it does to restaurants such as Tapas Molecular Bar (one of my favorite restaurant on the planet, truly innovative and creative molecular gastronomy).

Food rating: ***
Bang for buck rating: 2.5 (I can think of better ways to fill my belly with 2500 yen)

The essentials:
No website for Japan (but one available for their restaurant in France)
Location: Higashi Azabu,on Sakurada-dori
Average price of lunch for two: 6000 yen (~$65)


Although I'm a staunch omnivore, there are many times my body craves vegetables, and only vegetables. In New York, I used to like to cleanse my system every now and then with a raw food meal from LifeThyme in the West Village (I loved their raw "lasagna" and spirulina pie), and in SF there was always a plethora of vegetable/vegetarian options, from the ready-made items at Whole Foods or Trader Joe's, to vegetarian restaurants such as Cafe Gratitude and Greens. As it turns out, it's not that easy to find delicious, filling vegetarian meals in Tokyo.

So I was thrilled (THRILLED, I tell you) to discover Vegematto, a tiny 14-person bar/restaurant at the end of a long side street in Roppongi. Vegematto is really a bar that happens to serve some of the best vegetarian food in Tokyo. The food isn't gimmicky or creative, it's just fresh and simply well-cooked.

A la carte is available, but we went with one of the two chef's courses - at 3500 yen per person, I thought it was a deal (although you might not think so if your definition of a meal requires the inclusion of meat).

Ingredients for dinner!

The chefs prepare the entire dinner at this tiny bar

Marinated veggies (third course, after soup and salad) - fried gobo sticks, marinated onion and yellow bell peppers, broccoli rabe, soy-marinated gobo, tomato cream sauce broccoli

Grilled vegetables - perfectly and simply seasoned with salt, grilled to perfection. Sweet potatoes, turnips, white asparagus, broccoli, broccoli rabe and lotus root

Bread and bagna cruda dipping sauce (made of ground anchovy paste, garlic and olive oil) - if you don't eat fish, cheese fondue is also available (but no vegan option)

Steamed vegetables for bagna cruda

Miso soup

Gohan course - steamed rice served with raw egg, which you mix into the hot rice with soy sauce, served with assorted Japanese pickles and miso soup

Food rating: ****
Bang for buck rating: 4

The essentials:
Location: at the end of a side street near Roppongi Crossing
Roppongi 3-9-3, Dai-2 Roppongi Village Bldg 1F
Average price of dinner for two: 7500 yen (~$85)


Kushikatsu is what you get when you cross the skewering method of yakitori with the breaded and fried method of katsu (such as tonkatsu). I can just imagine some guy eating tonkatsu one day and yakitori the next and thinking: "you know what would be good? If my tonkatsu was skewered on a stick like yakitori" or perhaps he was thinking the converse "you know what would be good? If my yakitori was all breaded and deep fried like tonkatsu." In any case, when you try kushikatsu for the first time, you think: hmm, it's the same (as other Japanese food), but different. This folks, is exactly where that useful term found all over backpacking areas in Southeast Asia comes handy: same same, but different.

To prepare kushikatsu, chefs just put whatever item they can find on bamboo skewers - shrimp, beef, vegetables - then coat it with panko breading and deep fry it to golden brown perfection. You're usually served one skewer at a time so your food doesn't get cold, and a variety of dipping sauces are available.

Kushinobo was first established in 1950 in Osaka. In Tokyo, they are located on the 5th floor of the West Walk building in the Roppongi Hills complex. I'm not a huge fan of deep fried food because of its artery-clogging attributes, but the kushikatsu at Kushinobo was pretty darn delicious. I swore I would only eat 2 or 3, but ended up eating 10 or 1l skewers. Sorry, arteries, I promise to run 10 km to make up for it!

You may think you can't eat multiple skewers of deep fried food, but trust me, it goes down very easy and very quickly. Just order the omakase (about 4500 yen each), and the servers will bring you the finest morsels, one at a time. By dinner's end, you'll be surprised at how many bamboo skewers you've racked up!

Shiso wrapped ebi and Japanese beef kushikatsu

Dipping sauces for kushikatsu

Food rating: *** and a half
Bang for buck rating: 3

The essentials:
Location: 5th floor of West Walk, Roppongi Hills
Average price of dinner for two: 10,000 yen (~$110)


Sometimes, you don't want sushi or fusion Italian or any of the other haute cuisine that Tokyo is so good at. Sometimes, you just want good old American style pizza. The kind that reminds you of all the Domino's and Pizza Hut and Little Caesar's and Papa John's you ate growing up in a household where both parents worked.

Pizzakaya is Tokyo's most "American" pizza joint - the crust is a bit like Domino's, but the concept is a bit like CPK - "innovative" combinations such as Ahi tuna and avocado, bacon cheeseburger and a Pakistani spiced-beef version called Rahat's Pizza. It is by no means outstanding, but it's pretty darn decent pizza in a city where good greasy food is hard to find. When only American-style pizza will do, Pizzakaya hits the spot.

Half Pizzakaya gourmet- half New Love pizza

Food rating: ***
Bang for buck rating: 4

The essentials:
Location: on Roppongi dori, walk towards Nishi Azabu crossing from Roppongi crossing
Dai-ichi Koyama Building 2F, 3-1-19 Nishi Azabu
Average price of meal for two: 4800 yen (~$55) for medium pizza, salad, appetizer and drinks

Devi Fusion

Devi Fusion's name is misleading - the food is not fusion, it's solid Indian classics such as chicken, lamb or fish curries, tandoori chicken, etc. Their execution of such classics is just average. However, their huge, fluffy, straight-out-of-the-oven naan, brushed with melted butter is delicious, and worth going for.

You smell the buttery, yeasty, freshly baked smell as the waiter brings you your plate. The naan is perfect, with just enough pull to give each bite that soft yet chewy, yielding bite that makes good naan so satisfying. Lunch sets start at 850 yen, a bargain in this city whose restaurants seem to have colluded to make all lunch sets cost exactly 1000 yen.

Chicken curry lunch set with naan

Food rating: ** and half for the food, *** and a half for the naan
Bang for buck rating: 4

The essentials:
Location: 3-3-15 Roppongi
Average price of lunch for two: 2000 yen (~$22)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Macchan (aka Mat Jjang)

Sam gyup sal, a popular Korean dish, is uncured pork belly, fried crispy and eaten dipped in fermented soybean paste, wrapped with lettuce, and washed down with a cold shot of Korean soju. It’s a lot like bacon, except unsalted and unsmoked so that the natural savory flavor of the pork can shine through without distraction. I call it “crunchy fat” because when grilled to perfection, the outside layer of the pork belly is crispy and crunchy, giving way to a tender layer of meat in the middle. Carnivores and omnivores who appreciate the velvety, rich texture and taste of kurobota pork will love the juicy, savory perfection that is sam gyup sal.

Japan’s fondness for extra-marbled, extra fatty meat has ensured an abundance of sam gyup sal restaurants throughout Tokyo, but one of the city’s best is Macchan in Shin Okubo. Macchan is the katakana-ized version of the Korean for “Mat jjang” which literally means “best flavor.” The slices of pork belly arrive at your table about 3 centimeters thick, which one of the busy servers will grill for you on a sizzling cast iron grill. After the meat has browned to the desired crunchiness, dip a piece in the salt-sesame oil sauce or dwenjang, Korean fermented soybean paste similar to miso, then wrap in a lettuce leaf and enjoy. Mmmm…crunchy fat – delicious!

After you’ve had your fill of crunchy fried pork fat, ask for a serving of fried rice, which is prepared on the same grill so that none of the pork fat goes to waste. If the main branch of Macchan is packed, as it often is, try Macchan #2 or #3, located on the same street to accommodate the overflow of hungry customers in search of sam gyup sal.

Ssam (wrap) items for samgyupsal - lettuce, perilla leaves, bean paste, garlic


Ingredients for fried rice

Prepared fried rice - delicious!

Food rating: *** and a half
Bang for buck rating: 4

The essentials:
Location: Shin Okubo
Average price of dinner for two (with drinks): 5000 yen (~$55)

See review for the Tokyo Weekender here:


The best ramen in Tokyo is at Ippudo in Roppongi. I realize that's a very bold statement to make in a city with more than 4000 ramen shops, but I stand by my claim. Ippudo doesn't make trendy ramen or gourmet ramen (such as ramen shops with gold flakes) or innovative ramen (such as shops with corn or butter or cheese ramen). It just makes the best freaking bowl of tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen you will ever have in your life. The broth is amazingly rich and savory and decadent - like melted down lard, in the best possible way. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the tiny mysterious white flecks floating in the Akamaru ramen broth ARE lard.

My favorite is their Akamaru modern, made with miso paste and black garlic oil, but the Shiromaru classic is a cleaner version, with less oil. A variety of condiments are available to add to your taste - spicy marinated bean sprouts, pickled ginger, pickled greens, sesame, garlic, etc.

Your happiness of eating this ramen makes us happy!

Condiments for ramen

My prepared Akamaru modern ramen - happiness in a bowl!

Food rating: *****
Bang for buck rating: 5

The essentials:
Location: behind the Softbank at Roppongi Crossing
Average price of meal for two: 2000 yen (~$22)

Seoul Ddookbbaegi

A friend recently introduced me to a rarity in Tokyo: a Korean restaurant that serves FREE banchan (side dishes). That alone is reason to visit Seoul Ddookbbaegi, on the ground floor of the same building occupied by Hyungboo Shikdang, another one of my favorite Korean restaurants in Tokyo. But here are a few more reasons: the banchan is delicious, the kimchi is delicious, and the seollungtang (beef bone soup) is delicious. Seollungtang is especially good to prevent or cure a hangover, so if you're out late drinking or partying in the Akasaka area, head over to Seoul Ddookbbaegi for a delicious bowl of steaming, satisfying seollungtang.

Seollungtang - beef bone soup, the best hangover cure!

Free and delicious side dishes!

Sign is only in Korean

Food rating: *** and a half
Bang for buck rating: 3.5

The essentials:
No website
Location: 2-13-17 Shintomi Bldg, Akasaka, Minato-ku
Average price of dinner for two: 3000 yen (~$33)


So many websites and travel books recommend Gonpachi that I would like to offer an alternative viewpoint: Gonpachi is overrated and mediocre, don't go there.

I have no photos from Gonpachi because I've never been impressed enough by the food to merit taking any photos, and I don't ever plan to go again because there are too many great restaurants in Tokyo to waste my time going back to Gonpachi (I've been 3X and was not impressed on any of the visits). Depending on which floor you go to, Gonpachi serves sushi, tempura, soba and various grilled items on skewers. You can find better sushi, tempura, soba and skewer places within a ten minute radius of Gonpachi, I promise.

I don't understand why people go, except that the warehouse-style restaurant at Nishi-Azabu crossing was the inspiration for Kill Bill. Honestly...who cares?! A restaurant is only worth visiting if the food is delicious.

Food rating: **
Bang for buck rating: 2

The essentials:
Location: various, but the one of Kill Bill fame is on one corner of Nishi Azabu crossing
Average price of dinner for two (without drinks): 8000 yen (~$90)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Elio Locanda

My first visit to Elio Locanda was truly memorable - delicious house-made pasta, creamy risotto, fresh mozzarella, perfect cannoli and cappuccino...a Japanese colleague recommended it as the best Italian restaurant in Tokyo, very high accolade for a city with some of the best Italian cuisine on the planet, and it didn't disappoint. On my first visit.

I couldn't wait to revisit, so I recently went back for dinner, expecting the same great food and service as my first visit.

After we were seated and gave our order, we were served a basket of bread. We waited, watching our neighbors get served salad, then antipasti, then pasta. We waited through two birthday cakes/songs. And waited.

Then a waiter (different from our original waiter) arrived and asked if he could confirm our order, asking us if we had ordered the chef's menu. We had not. We gave our order again, and commenced waiting, again. We were served our salad. Then waited another 20 minutes for our pastas to arrive. To be fair, the salad and pastas were good (although not great). And the staff brought us tiny pieces of brushchetta and flutes of blood orange juice as "gifts" for keeping us waiting. However, our dinner took 2.5 hours, 2 of which were spent waiting. If Elio Locanda was truly sorry for keeping us waiting as long as they did, they could have comped the meal - I think if you keep your patrons waiting that long, it's the least you can do to maintain goodwill. But the bill came with all our items listed, minus only the 600 yen per person service charge. We paid, we left. And I will never be back. Good job, Elio - you made 6500 yen but lost me as a patron and an advocate.

Tagliolini with basil tomato sauce and gnocchi with parmesan and tomato

Food rating: * and a half (3.5 stars for quality of food, minus 2 stars for inexcusable service and lack of adequate remedy)
Bang for buck rating: 1.5

The essentials:
Location: exit 1 of Hanzomon station
Average price of dinner for two (without wine): 9000 yen (~$100)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Aux Bacchanales

Tokyo is full of excellent bakeries and patisseries and pretty much all of them offer an excellent array of croissants, whipped cream cakes, Japanese style breads filled with red bean or chestnut or sweet potato, and uniquely Japanese-French fusion breads. I've tried many pastries at many bakeries but the one I go back to time and time again is Aux Bacchanales. And the reason I go back is primarily for a single item: the magically delicious croquant.

From what I can tell, a croquant is a confection that falls somewhere between bread pudding and brittle. Buttery bread pieces are soaked in a sweet cream mixture and baked with a mixture of caramelized nuts, then glazed with a melted brown sugar brittle. With a glass of milk or cup of coffee, a croquant is the ultimate afternoon snack, although probably not good for your teeth or your waistline.

"Aux Bacc"'s other pastries are also excellent, and their cappuccino is hands down the best I've had in Tokyo. The brasserie also serves excellent versions of traditional French cuisine.

Croquant - the perfect pastry!

Food rating: *****
Bang for buck rating: 5

The essentials:
Location: several throughout Japan, including in Ark Hills, Akasaka
Price of croquant: 210 yen (~$2.50)

Tsukumo Ramen

When I was a kid, I used to make Korean Neoguri brand ramen with less water (to make the soup more concentrated), then add milk to the cooked bowl of ramen, which resulted in a creamy, spicy ramen - quite possibly one of the most delicious culinary creations ever. My family and friends would raise their eyebrows and exclaim "gross," but the creaminess of the milk added the perfect balance to the chewy ramen noodles and savory soup base.

I think the folks at Tsukumo Ramen are cut from the same cloth as me, because their pork broth-based ramen topped with a mound of shaved cheese (which melts into the ramen and makes the broth creamy and buttery) encompasses the same concept - that is to say: creamy ramen!

Cheese tonkotsu ramen

"the harmony unexpecter cheese of combination and fermented soybeen paste play whis pork bone soup seemingly is the taste of the nonesuch"

Look for this awning in Ebisu

Food rating: *** and a half (loses stars for being a bit too salty)
Bang for buck rating: 4

The essentials:
Location: 8 minute walk from Ebisu station, toward Hiroo
Average price of meal for two: 2000 yen (~$22)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Chez Tomo

I'm still on my self-declared mission to eat through 20 Michelin stars (a mere fraction of its over 200 total stars!) in Tokyo within a year, but Michelin stars don't come cheap, so I perused my Tokyo Michelin guide for the best value-for-money meals I could find and Chez Tomo topped the list for its 2890 yen lunches and 5780 yen dinners (not cheap, but for a full course meal in Tokyo, a veritable deal). Not to mention, their signature dish of 25 vegetables, prepared in bite-sized morsels, already put them on my radar.

On a quiet street in Shirokane, Chez Tomo is a cozy yet modern, sleek yet unpretentious restaurant with an all-white setting. The service is impeccable and the staff goes out of their way to make your dining experience memorable (including trying to move a light fixture so that our photo would come out better!).

The dishes are well executed French-influenced-by-Japan, served beautifully, and were generally excellent. The 5780 yen dinner course is all inclusive - six courses, two of which are set (two appetizers) and four which you choose (appetizer, main, dessert, choice of after-meal beverage).

Butter and pork rillettes for bread

Lobster and soft-scrambled egg in a sea urchin soup (could have used a teeny bit more salt, but otherwise luxurious and delicious)

Foie gras terrine - made with actual pieces of foie instead of the foie spread/paste usually found in terrines. Absolutely delicious!

Chez Tomo's signature vegetable plate: 25 different vegetables, prepared uniquely. Some were delicious, others didn't quite hit the mark, but I was just happy to see so many vegetables on my plate!

Delicious duck two ways, served on a puree of beans (I couldn't tell what was delicious and tasted a bit like hummus, a bit like refried beans)

Deconstructed cheesecake - a mound of fresh whipped mascarpone on top of a crumble crust, with strawberry coulis. So delicious and light!

Crepe flambee dessert - quite good, but I thought the cheesecake dessert was the best out of the three (the other dessert, not pictured, was creme brulee with ice cream)

Food rating: ****
Bang for buck rating: 4.5

The essentials:
Location: Shirokane, Tokyo
Average price of meal for two (dinner): 12,000 yen (~$135)

Sushi Dai - Tsukiji market

Tokyo has an endless array of sushi choices, with decent offerings for every budget category. The fact is, even the mediocre sushi I have in Tokyo is better than some of the best sushi I've had elsewhere in the world. However, after having tried everything from cheap kaiten (rotator belt) sushi to 3-Michelin star establishments to Kyubey (creator of gunkan sushi), I have finally concluded that the best sushi in Tokyo is indeed found at Tsukiji market. Actually, let me backtrack. The best sushi is really an overbroad term - it may depend on whether you want "innovative" sushi, or an austere setting, or interaction with the chef, etc. For each of those categories, there's a restaurant that fits the bill, but the best sushi (in my opinion), in terms of freshness and taste, is at Sushi Dai in Tsukiji market.

I've tried both Sushi Dai and Sushi Daiwa (the original, and I believe owned by a family member of Dai's owner), as well as a couple other restaurants in Tsukiji, and Dai is my favorite. For 3850 yen, you are served the chef's omakase - ten pieces of the chef's choice (you can tell the chef if there are specific types you don't like - for example, I don't like "chewy" sushi such as ika, tako, clam, etc.), plus one piece of your choice, plus tuna and cucumber rolls and freshly cooked tamago. Sushi Dai also offers a 2500 yen set, but trust me - trust the chef and go with the chef's omakase. After all, if you waited 3 hours to eat sushi (which you will if you arrive anytime after 7 am), you might as well eat the best they have to offer!

Otoro - the most buttery, velvety toro I have ever had, without any of the chewy muscle strings that other otoro often has



Warm tamago, straight from the chef's pan

Food rating: *****
Bang for buck rating: 4.5 (half a star knocked off because you have to spend 3 hours of your life waiting in line, and time = money)

The essentials:
No website
Inside Tsukiji market, in block #6. Look for the ridiculously long line, and you've probably found it
Average price of meal for two: 7700 yen (~$85)


When I mentioned to a long-time Tokyo resident that I was having dinner at Uoshin, he scoffed that "Uoshin is for tourists and foreigners." It didn't dissuade me since I am a foreigner, and for the record, he was wrong because Uoshin was packed to the brim with Japanese and non-Japanese alike, progressively getting drunker, fuller, louder.

That being said, Uoshin is a good rendition of what a visitor or foreigner would imagine a rambunctious izakaya to be - full of salarymen letting their ties loose (literally and figuratively), fresh fish on display, chefs yelling out the mandatory "iratshai!" as you walk by. It certainly goes on my list of restaurants to take visitors from out of town for a lively izakaya experience. The food prices are some of the most reasonable I've come across, service is efficient, menu is diverse and food is quite good (I always find izakaya food to fall somewhere between "ok" and "quite" good" - never horrible, but never mind-blowingly amazing).

View of Uoshin from Gaienhigashi-dori

Uoshin's special roll - cucumber maki covered with minced toro, uni, ikura and kani

Braised yellowtail and daikon in dashi broth

Deep-fried fish skin

Spicy nabe

Food rating: ***
Bang for buck rating: 4

The essentials:
Location: several, but this one was on Gaienhigashi dori, near Tokyo Midtown
Average price of meal for two (with drinks) - but best with groups: 6000 yen (~$65)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Le Parc

"Yum Cha" means "drinking tea" in Cantonese and refers to what most people generally call "dim sum" - an event that marries drinking tea with eating small dishes. Whatever the correct nomenclature, I love me some good dim sum. Having lived in San Francisco for most of my adult life, I always had access to amazing, and amazingly cheap, dim sum.

Chinese food in Tokyo is generally very disappointing - I would venture to say that most Chinese food I've had so far in Tokyo doesn't even live up to Panda Express standards (although to be fair, ramen is technically Chinese noodles, and the Japanese have ramen down to an art form).

So when a Cantonese friend told me there was an excellent dim sum joint in Ebisu that served dim sum all day, every day, I put it on my list of must-eats immediately.

I wasn't disappointed - all of the dishes we ordered were delicious, from the deep-fried wonton nest-wrapped shrimp, to the slightly sweet fried glutinous rice balls filled with meat, to the various steamed har giow, to the sauteed pea sprouts. I was in dim sum heaven. The price was a bit of sticker shock after being used to being able to get more than my fill of dim sum for less than $10 in SF, but just knowing that there is a haven of excellent Cantonese food in Tokyo makes me feel a little bit closer to SF.

Egg roll, wonton-nest wrapped fried shrimp, glutinous rice balls filled with meat

Assortment of steamed dumplings

Sauteed pea sprouts

Food rating: **** and a half
Bang for buck rating: 3.5

The essentials:
No website
3 minute walk from west exit of JR Ebisu station, Tokyo
Average price of meal for two: 8000 (~$90)


Lauderdale is the kind of place that makes me feel so cozy and happy that ever since my first visit, I've been planning my next. It's the type of place I would love to live next to so I could stroll in every morning for a cappuccino and newspaper before heading to the office. I loved the kitschy hats on the walls as decor, the laid back brasserie vibe, the shabby chicness, feeling like I was caught somewhere between Paris and the West Village in New York.

And I adored their mushroom and cheese souffle - served perfect straight from the oven: airy, light, savory, delicious. Lauderdale sugar-coats the rim of the souffle dish so that you get a slightly sweet finish to each fluffy bite.

The brunch specials all come with your choice of two sides, one of which can be a breakfast beverage (coffee, OJ, tea, etc.). All in all, it's great value for great food, and Roppongi Hills was in need of a refreshing new restaurant. Lauderdale, je t'aime!

Blueberry pancakes

Perfect mushroom and cheese souffle

Mama's garden omelette with bacon

Food rating: *** and a half (4.5 for the souffle)
Bang for buck rating: 4

The essentials:
No website
Location: Off Keyakizaka Street in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo
Average price of meal for two (brunch): 3500 yen (~$40)