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Star trekking in Japan
NOT all Michelin restaurants are created equal. We know that. A three Michelin-starred French restaurant in Hong Kong would probably be laughed out of its counterpart in Paris, while that same Parisian eatery may well get the same response from its peer in Tokyo, albeit with a polite smile and bow. Where Singapore will stand in this framework when the guide debuts here, will be interesting to watch.
But what about within the same country, namely Japan, and notably between Osaka and Tokyo? One would think it's easier to bestow stars with the same wand, but from several dining sprees in both Osaka and Tokyo, apparently not. Osaka and its lower-priced, more laidback dining vibe still differs from the anal precision at the top tables of Tokyo, so a two or three star in Osaka is not likely to match that of Tokyo. It doesn't limit the enjoyment because both offer different experiences, and a recent dining spree highlights just how different they can be.
2-3-23 Minamimorimachi, Kita-ku,
WE didn't start out wanting to go to Sushiyoshi, which only just got promoted to two stars from one in the 2016 Michelin guide. We wanted to eat at Harasho - its fellow two-star that is proving to be as difficult to get into as the three-starred Sushi Saito in Tokyo. Harasho boasts a pure sushi experience that holds its own but is still a big fish in Osaka's smaller pond of high-end sushi joints. Since it doesn't have a competitor close enough to challenge it, it remains the go-to place for one's sushi fix, especially for die-hard Singaporeans and other Asian sushi-chasers.
Since Harasho is full, the hotel we're staying at - Imperial Hotel Osaka - suggests Sushiyoshi, a convenient 10-minute walk from the hotel. And we're glad we listened to the concierge.
We're always wary of the reception we will get when trying out a new place. Stone-faced, non-English speaking Japanese chefs who are none too happy to have to stretch their non-existent vocabulary to deal with foreigners can be intimidating, but in this case, we're welcomed with Santa Claus-like geniality by Nakanoue Hiroki. Armed with a strong command of English and an endearing teddy bear frame, chef Nakanoue is not your typical clean shaven, buzz cut sushi chefs in starched chef's whites. Boasting a trimmed beard and a pony-tail to keep his salt and pepper hair in place, his jovial demeanour translates into his approach to sushi - passionate about his craft and dedicated to flavour but without always playing by the rules.
Chef Nakanoue tells us that he doesn't like following the crowd, and enjoys looking for interesting ways to exercise his skills. So forget about the traditional order of being served appetisers such as sashimi and cooked items followed by a stream of sushi. He mixes things up, preferring to go by the ingredient he's serving, while adding a few twists that might make his more purist peers recoil in horror. We almost recoil too, at the sight of scallop sashimi dusted with grated parmesan cheese that appears before us. Not so much a scallop but a pen shell clam, the crunchy tender slices are also topped with chopped green onion. The cheese (Japanese) is too mild to make an impact, so it doesn't detract from the clean flavour of the shell, leaving you with clean shellfish flavour and an Italian carpaccio comparison.
He next serves a scallop sushi on a mound of slightly cold rice with a too-strong dab of wasabi. It's still good though. He continues in this manner of serving a cooked dish followed by sushi using the same ingredients. A super fresh squid "leg", for one, is cooked and served in a thickened sauce accentuated with yuzu which heightens the squid flavour. He follows that up with sumi ika or squid sushi on red vinegared rice. Fresh Murusaki uni - he proudly tells you he's one of only a few people who can get their hands on this particular grade - is served au naturel first and then as a sushi and it's ice-creamy good. Then there's oyster - served raw in its shell with a drizzle of sesame oil and lemon, and then re-appearing as sushi, with the oyster cooked sous vide at 60 degrees and then drizzled with sweet sauce.
Cod milt is lightly blanched and served with a sauce of grainy mustard. The little seeds popping in the mouth is an unusual sensation with the mild tasting milt - interesting but we still prefer the more familiar version with rice and nori.
We like how he brews a green tea to go with the grilled prawn - which were live and jumping barely a few minutes before he speared them and tossed them on the grill. Oddly, the tea lends a lovely savoury note to the prawn.
Next thing we know, he dons a jacket and disappears out of the restaurant into the winter chill, holding a slab of young tuna that he roasts over a small fire of burning hay. He nips back in and slices the charred maguro which has attained a lovely smoky crunchy exterior that you will never get from a blowtorch. Lovely with sweet grain miso.
Finally, you see him layering thick strips of tuna in varying shades of fattiness, rolling the mother of all tuna maki that you get to devour with great relish. It pretty much sums up the meal - rough around the edges and not sophisticated in execution, but offers really good ingredients and immensely enjoyable food. At 20,000 yen (S$243)(before taxes) it's a shade lower than Tokyo, but with such generous quantities you're getting more than your money's worth.
1-5-1 Dojima, Kita-ku, Osaka
REMEMBER the aforementioned stone-faced non-English speaking Japanese chefs who are none too happy to have to stretch their non-existent vocabulary to deal with foreigners? At Koryu, they have iPads permanently on a translation app and are slightly more polite, but make no mistake. They're not fond of non-Japanese.
It's subtle, but it's clear who their preferred clientele is. Choice seats - namely those close to the chefs and with a view of all the cooking action - are reserved for native speakers. We are placed in an odd corner of the L-shaped counter where the only view is the Korean couple sitting across (and also subjected to the same seating arrangement). Watching the chefs involves twisting the back in an awkward position that, if we'd sat like that throughout the meal, would have had us walking sideways to the metro station after dinner.
We initially thought it was because of our late booking, but when the restaurant fills up, the seating arrangement is pretty clear.
Koryu has three Michelin stars. The food though, is what you get at dinner in a halfway decent ryokan after a nice onsen soak. It could well be the price that won it the top honours. Priced at just 12,000 yen for dinner, it is a steal. You don't get great ingredients or great cooking, but it's really hard to beat the price. We've been told that they have a different sake list for foreigners which is more expensive with poorer quality choices - compared to the list for locals which has better stuff and lower prices. It's hard not to speculate about who's subsidising the low menu prices. Still, the young man with the iPad who takes pains to explain what each dish is is exceedingly polite and really tries hard to make us comfortable.
Even so, we'd rather pay more for better food, if we deign to return, which is unlikely. Our meal starts off with a mish mash of cold crab meat and tasty warm fried yam, pickled leeks and boiled vegetables covered with a crab roe and miso sauce that tries to overwhelm whatever lack of freshness there is in the crab. A lot of work goes into the sashimi platter which offers a few different kinds of fish decoratively displayed complete with a vase with a single stalk of narcissus. There is an interesting dish of chutoro paired with a salty soft egg yolk cooked in shoyu that is very good on rice. And a clear soup with daikon and three slices of pork belly turns out to be whale. It's surprisingly tasty, like a cross between fatty tuna and wagyu. But not something we would want to eat again.
Everything else goes along the same lines of predictability - a pretty good tempura of bamboo shoot and butterbur, with a salty black sesame dipping sauce. Dry grilled yellowtail undermines the creamy shirako it's paired with, although marbled Miyazaki beef is enjoyable with comforting porridge. But nothing stands out, which makes the already uncomfortable seating conditions more intolerable. We don't know how they managed three stars, but we know quite a few equivalent restaurants in Tokyo who should laugh them out of their kitchens.
6-3-7 Ginza, 1F Yugen Bldg, Chuo
Tel: +81 3-3571-7900
UNLIKE the above two Osaka eateries, Sushiya in Tokyo has no stars. But it's been steadily gaining strong word of mouth thanks to its chef-owner Takao Ishiyama, the baby-faced early 30-something chef who has cut his teeth working for the likes of Sushi Saito and Kanesaka. His restaurant is a co-venture with Kanesaka, but other than that, there's little comparison to be made in this tight eight-seater eatery in Ginza that's hidden in a dark, dodgy back alley so at odds with this flashy neighbourhood.
It's taken us a while to make up our minds about Sushiya, having had both good and disappointing meals there. But a recent visit has put paid to our reservations, as chef Ishiyama is easily one Michelin star quality with good potential for a second. Granted, we're there in winter when seafood is at its peak but his handling of the ingredients and the perfect textured rice (an improvement from previous visits) put Sushiya in our stable of dependable eateries.
The style is typical edomae, kicking off with glistening, translucent baby eels; lightly broiled fish wrapped over a bouquet of chives; and meaty crabmeat steamed and stuffed back into the shell.
He treats shirako with utmost respect, lightly grilling it, with just a touch of sauce and sprinkle of chilli powder. Cod liver is spongy and beautifully fatty, with grated yuzu to counter the richness. Tender squid is stuffed with its own flesh and roe, and a sweet sauce to dress it. We're especially pleased with the big chunks of baby tuna just lightly smoked with a vibrant rosy pink flesh.
No complaints about the sushi either. He tells us he's tweaked the recipe and it's now firm, warm, chewy and tasty, covered with everything from hirame and aji to various cuts of tuna and kuromutsu - a fleshy fish we haven't had before.
Our concerns now are two-fold. That his growing popularity is making it harder to get a booking, and consistency. But the upshot is that we're happy to take our chances with him.