You are here
Journey to Japan - Hidden dining gems
As Tokyo gears up for the 2020 Olympics, there's no better time than now to explore the dynamic capital city and the rest of this fascinating country that's on top of every traveller's must-go list. In this fortnightly series, Singapore Airlines and Weekend magazine present a close-up view of what the amazing land of omotenashi has to offer.
A sushi restaurant where the sommelier is as important as the sushi chef is the unique feature that has made Sushi M a talking point among savvy diners in Tokyo. The trendy eatery in Aoyama is a meeting of minds between head sommelier Yoshinobu Kimura and chef Michimasa Nakamura, who also runs another sushi restaurant where Mr Kimura was a customer.
Chef Michimasa Nakamura
Mr Kimura was the head sommelier of two Michelin-starred restaurant Narisawa for 10 years, where he honed his skills at matching its innovative cuisine with equally unique wine and sake pairings. The two of them came up with the idea of M - essentially a ‘marriage’ between sake/wine and sushi, where Mr Kimura toys with temperature and sweetness to bring out the flavours of Chef Nakamura’s sushi.
For example, he serves slightly sweet Aramasa sake at minus 9 degrees Celsius for the first two courses to wake up the palate, followed by something with acidity such as Alsace Riesling or no-sugar-added Umeshu, and even hot sake. “The pairing depends on the fish, the ageing and how Nakamura-san cuts it, and how the rice was cooked,” says Mr Kimura. In turn, Chef Nakamura offers some surprises in his innovative sushi menu which can include oyster sushi and elaborate presentations of lightly steamed black throat perch under a glass dome or a creamy seafood mixture served in a baked orange.
Classic sushi at Sushi M
But he is also skilled in the classics, and the partners travel together to source premium seafood from Shinkejime (an elevated form of Ikejime, a method of killing fish to maintain its quality) masters, as well as visit sake producers.
Since its opening in April this year, Sushi M has been steadily gaining the attention of international gourmets and local celebrities. It’s still under-the-radar for now, but probably not for long.
At Home Square 2F, 4-24-8 Minamiaoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo. Tel: +81 3 6803 8436
Discover the wonders of Japanese cuisine with Singapore Airlines and SilkAir.
Visit the Singapore Airlines website for fares to Japan.
As the name suggests, Kaniyoshi in Tottori prefecture is a restaurant that specialises only in Japanese crab. Run by second generation chef-owner Tatsuya Yamada, it serves premium male snow crabs called Matsubagani - which can only be fished from November to March in the waters from Shimane to Kyoto.
Matsubagani at Kaniyoshi
This short season is the best time to enjoy the crabs referred to as the ‘treasure of the sea’, because of the way fierce bidding by traders can drive the price of a Matsubagani to as much as 5 million yen, or S$62,000 for a single crab. This puts them at a mind-boggling premium over the more familiar Zuwaigani which are plentiful in Tottori - known as Japan’s capital of crab because it produces three times more than Hokkaido.
Crab auction in Tottori
Chef Yamada’s ability to source Matsubagani - the cream of the Zuwaigani crop - and prepare them in his signature Kani-suki or hotpot, earned Kaniyoshi two stars in the Japanese Michelin guide. Before he cooks it, he shows you the prized specimen with its gleaming opalescent sheen, before he cuts and cooks each part separately. The crab legs are cooked one by one, gently blanched in crab-infused dashi before he scrapes out all the flesh and hands you a morsel of fluffy and ever-so-sweet goodness.
Kaniyoshi is located a five-minute walk from Tottori station, in the middle of this hot spring town. He took over the restaurant from his parents, who were crab suppliers in Hyogo prefecture and opened Kaniyoshi as a casual restaurant 55 years ago. He learned to cook from his parents (his mother still goes to the crab auctions to bid for the restaurant’s supplies). He took over the restaurant 30 years ago, but it wasn’t doing well until he had an epiphany 10 years ago - when he travelled through Europe, eating at the likes of The Fat Duck and Michel Bras’s restaurants.
Kaniyoshi chef-owner Tatsuya Yamada
When he returned, he changed the restaurant concept to showcase his own cooking style, focusing only on the best quality.
“Hotpot is home-style cooking, anyone can make it,” says Chef Yamada. “But by cooking every part differently, I can elevate it to the level of fine dining, and these quality crabs deserve that.”
271 Suehiro Onsencho, Tottori 680-0833, Tottori Prefecture. Tel: +81 857 22 7738
It’s a 50-minute taxi ride from Toyama station to get to the one Michelin-starred L’evo, but chef-owner Eiji Taniguchi is thinking of moving his restaurant even deeper into the countryside.
“Nature makes me more creative,” muses the 43-year-old Osaka native who opened L’evo five years ago to cook French-inspired cuisine using the lush ingredients found in Toyama’s rich surroundings of mountains, rivers and sea.
Trained at Le Relais Bernard Loiseau when he was in his 20’s, he says, “When I was young, I thought I could be a great chef if I learned all the techniques. But after I came here, my thinking changed - if I know more about the region, my dishes would be tastier.” It’s for this reason that you won’t find the chef cooking in the likes of Tokyo. “I like to cook my fish and meat on a wood fire, but it is impossible to do it in the city. I can get a whole deer from hunters within an hour after they have killed it. And we also raise ducks by the river in front of us.”
Creations of L'Evo Chef Eiji Taniguchi
With his menu dictated by what’s available around him, sustainability is a big worry for him. He tries to change diners’ mindsets about less ‘premium’ ingredients, and makes delicious crunchy appetisers out of tiny local hiiragi (Spotnape ponyfish) - bony fish that are usually discarded but he mixes them with bread dough and sansho pepper, deep-frying till the bones are crunchy and the meat is fluffy.
Chef Taniguchi’s plans to move deeper into the forest is not a pipe dream. In January, he will close his restaurant to prepare for his move in November 2020 to Toga Village, an hour away in a rural mountain area, which he hopes to turn into a self-contained community with a restaurant, casual dining, hotel and souvenir store.
B1F River Retreat Garaku, 56-2 Kasuga Toyamashi, Toyama. Tel: +81 76 467 5550
Takuya Kataori’s daily schedule runs something like this: He wakes up at 3am - it’s more like a ‘nap’ considering he’s serving guests at his namesake restaurant in Kanazawa up till late the night before. He drives to Himi fishery port to get the seafood he needs for that evening and attend the fish auction that starts at 4.30am.
Clear soup of Ainame, dried Kuchiko and sansho leaf at Kataori
“In this region, not many fishermen or suppliers know how to do Ikejime,” says the 36-year-old chef who personally picks the live fish he wants to bid for.
Trained at the two Michelin-starred Tsurukou in Kanezawa where he spent 11 years, Chef Kataori opened his own place in 2018 to fully indulge his obsession with the purity and provenance of ingredients. “I would like to showcase the natural flavour of the ingredients,” he explains of his minimalist cuisine.
Braised young onion and steamed abalone
For example, white fish such as Kue (grouper) is served with only salt and wasabi because “I don’t want to distract from its delicate natural umami.” The same goes for radish, which is usually cooked in dashi but he only uses water so diners can taste the fresh sweetness, topped with a dab of yuzu miso. “Our vegetables come directly from an organic farm in Himi which only grows native species in clay-based soil. The vegetables grow slowly and absorb the flavour of the calcium-rich soil.”
The mimimalist interiors of Kataori
Besides the cuisine, presentation is equally important as he uses antique Kutani porcelain and baccarat, some dating back to the 18th century. The ceramics “enhance the freshness of the ingredients” and adds to the overall unique experience of dining at Kataori.
3-36 Namiki-cho, Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Tel: +81 76 255 1446
- Story edited by Jaime Ee