Saturday, December 12, 2009


My first month after moving to Tokyo, there were three earthquakes, my laptop died a sad, quick death after I spilled tea on it, I was working until 1 or 2 am on a daily basis, I got food poisoning after eating raw chicken livers (in my defense, the menu listed them under the "grilled" section), and I came down with a severe cold that I couldn't shake for almost the entire month. On top of that, summer in Tokyo is excruciatingly, unbearably hot and humid. Needless to say, I was in a pretty miserable state.

Whenever I catch a cold, my go-to remedy is tom yum gai, Thai chicken soup. The lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf completely clear my sinuses, the hot broth sooths my throat, and the bright, fresh flavors inject life back into me. So after about three weeks of trying to fight my neverending cold, I decided I NEEDED tom yum gai. And it had to be REAL tom yum gai, not a Japanified, dumbed down version stripped of all flavor and spices.

After an hour or so of googling Thai restaurants in Tokyo, I decided to seek out Bangkok, a tiny Thai restaurant in the backstreets of Roppongi. I ordered tom yum gai. And it was perfect - so perfect, so comforting that I wanted to cry from joy. And that was when I decided I could survive Tokyo.

Bangkok serves up authentic Thai cuisine - spicy, sour, sweet, savory, intense flavors that delight your taste buds and take me back to memories of street food in Thailand and my favorite Thai restaurants in San Francisco. Strangely enough, this tiny Thai restaurant in a random location was the first thing in Tokyo that reminded me of home. I may not be Thai, but along with my grandma's Korean home cooking, Thai food is comfort food to me.

Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of the tom yum gai, but below are some other terrific dishes by Bangkok.

Red chicken curry lunch set - 1000 yen gets you rice, curry, soup, tea, larb gai salad and dessert

Close-up of the red curry

Som tum - green papaya salad, a refreshing salad with the perfect blend of salty-sour-sweet-spicy, a trademark of Thai cuisine

Minced beef with basil - the default version on the menu is extra spicy, but we asked them to tone ours down a bit

Sticky rice with mango - a solidly executed version of the classic Thai dessert

Food rating: *** and a half (some of the best Thai in Tokyo)
Bang for buck rating: 3 (lunch is a great deal but dinner can get pricey)

The essentials:
No website
Location: on the 2nd floor of the Woo building, on a small street behind the Don Quijote on Gaien Higashi in Roppongi. Close to Oakwood Roppongi
Average price of meal for two (dinner): 7000 yen (~$75)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Tofuya Ukai

When I moved to Tokyo this summer, I resolved to eat through at least 20 Michelin stars within one year. I printed out a list of all of the Michelin-starred restaurants and started researching some of the ones that sounded good. How does a restaurant "sound good" just by the name? I don't know, it's a lot like choosing a book based on its cover. For example, an Italian restaurant by the name of Monnalisa was immediately noted with a "pass" because the name just sounds so cheesy for an Italian restaurant, whereas the name Tofuya Ukai immediately caught my eye because I suspected it might be a restaurant specializing in tofu, which it is. I put a star next to it, indicating it was one of the restaurants I wanted to garner a star from (along with Tapas Molecular Bar and Ryugin and a few others).

Maybe it was the Michelin star or maybe it's the picturesque location with Tokyo Tower in the backdrop of a beautiful, serene traditional-style building with a lush Japanese garden, but securing a reservation at Tofuya Ukai was the most difficult one I've encountered to date while living in Tokyo. Weekends get booked months in advance, as do dinners, so I had to settle for a lunch slot. The full menu is available at lunch, as are a few lunch-only options. We opted for one of the abbreviated lunch options since we had reservations at Tapas Molecular Bar that night.

The first impression is quite...well, impressive. After you walk through the garden, which makes you feel like you are in a small town or village rather than steps away from the chaos of central Tokyo, you are greeted by extremely polite female servers in traditional garb who escort you through the silent hallways to your private dining room, each of which has a gorgeous view of the garden.

However, like a book with a captivating cover but badly written story, Tofuya Ukai's cuisine was sadly disappointing. It wasn't bad, per se. Just...underwhelming. I love the tofu kaiseki at Ume no Hana, which was not on the 2009 Michelin list, so I (falsely) assumed that Tofuya Ukai would be even better. But I think Ume no Hana does a much better job of presenting a vast array of tofu-derived food items that dazzle and delight, while Tofuya Ukai leaves you slightly hungry and wanting (for more variety, more flavor, more...tofu - strangely, there weren't all that many tofu dishes in our tofu kaiseki). Afterward, I couldn't help thinking: "THAT was a Michelin-starred restaurant? The Michelin guide is SO losing its credibility."

I recently purchased the 2010 Michelin guide and discovered that Tofuya Ukai lost its star. So maybe the Michelin guide isn't completely un-credible.

Lotus root cake and simmered mushrooms in starch-thickened broth.

Deep fried tofu skin and tamago (sweet omelet roll)

A tiny (but beautifully presented) portion of sashimi

Quail meatball and yam in simmered broth. The quail meatball had some strange crunchy bits, which I couldn't help but wonder were bones or beak of quail. Shudder. Needless to say, I didn't finish the meatball.

Hassun - assortment of small dishes. Our hassun included rice cracker-batter fried shrimp, pickled turnip and salmon roe and tofu with peanut dressing

Fresh tofu in soymilk broth - this was my favorite of all the courses. The broth is savory and very satisfying.

Rice with salmon, pickles and miso soup. The salmon was severely overcooked and I refused to eat it - after one bite, I declared: a Michelin-rated restaurant should NOT overcook salmon (which even the most basic decent chef will not screw up)

Steamed sweet potato dessert with red bean paste - slightly bland and not very good

Private dining room with view of garden

Food rating: ** and a half
Bang for buck rating: *** (the scenery is gorgeous, at least!)

The essentials:
Location: at the foot of Tokyo Tower
Average price of meal for two (lunch): 13,000 yen (~$145)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Bourbon Street

Tokyo doesn't exactly have a plethora of down-home American southern cuisine options so sometimes you have to take what you can get. Which in this case means fairly decent executions of Louisiana cuisine, but at steep prices, and served by a nazi-ish chef/host who may disapprove of your order (when we asked for the gumbo and the jambalaya he sternly told us that we shouldn't do those dishes together, but we insisted) and for whom the adjective "brusque" is generous. Then again, it's kind of refreshing to encounter an opinionated, flamboyantly disapproving personality in Tokyo because it's so rare in this city where the default answer is always hai (yes). It's pretty audacious for anyone to say "no" directly, especially to a customer!

Southern fried chicken (an appetizer on the menu, but so large it could easily be an entree) with a delicious honey mustard dipping sauce

Cup of gumbo, with chunks of okra, chicken and what they call Andouille sausage but is more like a poor Japanese attempt at Andouille sausage (the sausage had a sort of sandy texture and lacked a robust smoky flavor)

Shrimp etoufee - gigantic prawns in a spicy herbed cream sauce (which was a little salty but otherwise very good)

Snapper le rouge - delicious, smoky grilled swordfish topped with a perfectly executed balsamic reduction and served with mashed potatoes and grilled vegetables

Jambalaya, loaded with spices - the flavor is authentic but again, that wannabe Andouille sausage made an appearance

Food rating: *** and a half (some items were too salty, but loved the generous use of spices)
Bang for buck rating: 3 (very pricey for Southern food, but given the lack of alternatives in Tokyo, what can you do?)

The essentials:
Location: off a small side street across from Tokyo Midtown
Average price of meal for two: 10,000 yen (~$110)


Korean shabu shabu. I was extremely suspicious - a restaurant claiming to offer Korean cuisine that doesn't even have a menu in Korean?? And what the hell is Korean shabu shabu - I've never had Korean shabu shabu in my 30 years of existence. Nomenclature aside, whenever I have a red meat craving (which is very rarely), Imasara is where I go for delicious fat-marbled beef, which you cook tableside in a very clean-tasting broth, then dip in a sesame-soy sauce that you flavor to your taste with garlic, red pepper paste, red pepper flakes, green onions and vinegar. If you add enough garlic and red pepper paste, the sauce does indeed remind you of Korean food.

The menu is entirely in Japanese and the English version is a severely reduced version that includes only the items they want you to order (for example, it only lists the more expensive, extra-fatty beef, which I think is way too greasy. The normal fatty beef is tender and fatty enough and is 1000 yen less per serving). If you can't read the menu, just ask for the regular beef moyanabe (2950 yen per person), which also includes a bed of bean sprouts and cabbage. They also have fatty pork (like uncured bacon), which is also delicious - this also comes in two versions, fatty or extra fatty - I always go with the regular fatty.

The extensive menu also includes various Korean dishes including bibimbap, naengmyun, jun (savory pancakes which for some reason is called jijimi in Japan, but I have known it as jun all my life). However, I have never tried these, nor have I ever seen anyone else dining at Imasara eating them. Everyone goes for the moyanabe, which I think means Korean shabu shabu.

Regular beef moyanabe for two - slices of fatty marbled beef on a bed of bean sprouts and cabbage, which you cook in the broth once it starts boiling

A la carte serving of regular fatty pork

The condiments you can add to your sesame-soy sauce to your taste

The finished sauce - mine had extra garlic and red pepper paste, which made for some kicking breath afterward

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

The essentials:
Location: on the 8th floor of the building across from the Peacock grocery store in Azabujuban
Average price of meal for two: 8000 yen (~$90)


Hyungboo means "brother-in-law" in Korean and I don't know whose brother-in-law this restaurant refers to, but it serves up the best, most authentic Korean food I've had in Tokyo. Mainly, this means that they don't add sugar to their jjigaes (stews) and soups.

Note #1 to other Korean restaurants in Tokyo: unlike Japanese food, Korean food is not supposed to be sweet. Please do not add sugar to soups and stews, it ruins them.

Note #2 to other Korean restaurants in Tokyo: please do not charge for kimchi. Hyungboo offers gutjuri (fresh, unfermented version of kimchi) for FREE and it is lip-smackingly delicious, totally worth the smell of garlic that will reek from all your pores all day.

Like most restaurants in Tokyo, lunch offers the best deal with an entire page of options that include rice, banchan (side dishes) and soup or meat (or both) for 1200 yen or less. Their lunch Special "D," which comes with spicy sauteed chicken on top of rice, soondubu (spicy soft tofu stew) and banchan was especially good, as was their yukgaejang (spicy beef soup - not on the lunch menu but can be ordered off the regular menu).

Seafood and cheese pancake - a bit greasy but we had to try it as I've never seen attempts at Korean-Italian fusion before

Spicy chicken on rice



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

The essentials:
Location: on a side street about 3 minute walk from Akasaka Sacas
Average price of meal for two (lunch): 2500 yen (~$28)

Sushi Zanmai

One of the greatest things about living in Tokyo is that even the mediocre sushi you have in Tokyo will be better than the best sushi you've had in the US. In Tokyo, the sushi choices range from super-cheap stand up sushi bars to kaiten sushi (rotating sushi bar) to 3-Michelin starred experiences. I am a sushi fiend and need to get my raw fish fix at least 2-3 times a week in Tokyo so I've sampled a wide array of budget-priced sushi joints and I can firmly say that in my experience, within the limited Akasaka-Roppongi-Azabujuban area, Sushi Zanmai is absolutely the best bang for your buck. Zanmai consistently serves up fresh, generous portions of nigiri sushi at extremely affordable prices. Their toro and maguro offerings are especially excellent and throughout the year they have various specials on seasonal fish. Currently (through mid-December), they offer three versions of tuna tastings - I've tried all three and my favorite is the one featured below - one piece of maguro, one piece of chutoro and a toro, shiso and daikon handroll. Zanmai is open 24 hours - a delicious, affordable post-clubbing alternative to the ramen shops.

Ikura and Uni - the ikura pops in velvety bursts of omega fatty acids without the oversaltedness that a lot of ikura suffers from. The uni was a solid, silky version with just a tinge of brininess.

From L to R: amaebi, salmon, hotate, aji, a type of shrimp (forget the name but it kind of looks like a blue cockroach), tamago

Delicious broiled anago - the soft flesh crumbles in your mouth with a wonderful twinge of charred smokiness mixed with the sweet eel sauce

Tuna sampler (on sale for 398 yen through mid-December, a steal since a single piece of chutoro is normally 298) with maguro, chu toro (medium fatty toro, my favorite), shiso and toro handroll

Deluxe version chirashi

Food rating: *** and a half
Bang for buck rating: 5

The essentials:
Location: Various, but the one on Gaienhigashi-dori near Don Quijote is open 24 hours
Average price of meal for two: 6000 yen (~$65)