Dinner @ Tempura Niitome にい留 (Nagoya, Japan)

October 3, 2019 in Japanese by thywhaleliciousfay

I had been fortunate to eat my way through Japan the past few years. Visiting some very famous and reputable restaurants. A quick recap… For tempura, I gone to Mikawa Zezankyo and Tempura Fukamachi in 2016, Tempura Motoyoshi in 2017, and Takiya and Nihombashi Sonoji in 2018. And for my trips in 2019, I was extremely fortunate and blessed to secure reservations at Tempura Niitome, Tempura Kondo and Kusunoki.

When I was planning my 2019 trips, I realised the restaurants I dined in my earlier trips was just a scratch of the surface. There were so many other good tempura restaurants. Names which unfortunately didn’t come up on the first few pages of Google’s search results. So yes, I created a new list of tempura-restaurants-to-try. Keke:
  - Kusunoki: Also known as the most expensive tempura restaurant
  - Mikasa
  - Tempura Kondo
  - Tempura Naruse
  - Tempura Niitome: Best tempura restaurant in Japan. Yes, it held the no. 1 spot on Tabelog’s tempura restaurant ratings.

Being the typically paranoid me (since 2019 also marked the year I finally ventured out of Tokyo), I decided to use Tableall’s service instead of trying to make the call on my own since I had a specific date for my meal in Nagoya (before I proceeded on to Kyoto); I didn’t want to risk not securing a seat at Tempura Niitome cause I also read it’s super hard to get through once the line opens for reservation. So I sent my reservation request in December 2018, but was informed by Tableall that Tempura Niitome take reservation for April on 1 February 2019. And so, the wait began. It was nerve-wrecking cause I read that it’s really hard to get through their line. But thankfully on 1 February, I got my confirmation from Tableall. Yeah!

Confirmed for 6pm, I was informed that dinner would last for 3 hours minimum. I was asked if I had to catch the last bullet train (shinkansen) at 10.12pm. Cause if I had to, chef-owner Shuji Niitome would then (try to) quicken the pace of dinner. But thankfully, I didn’t have to.

  

So one could say I only traveled to Nagoya because of Tempura Niitome. And it was honestly with much excitement as I counted down to dinner. And for my 6pm dinner, I entered the restaurant at 5.55pm. I actually reached earlier but chose to linger outside the building. Till I saw a couple making their way up to Level 2 where Tempura Niitome was located at.

And once everyone settled down, I commenced my ¥‎28,000 omakase dinner with:-

1) Dish #1 (above) – An English-speaking staff came round and helped to translate head chef Niitome san’s introduction of the dish. But I wasn’t sure if I heard her right. Pine nut? Scallop? Bamboo shoot? But this was seriously good. The (green) sauce was superb.

2) Dish #2 (above) – 3 slices of snapper (tai) sashimi.

3) Dish #3 (above) – Marinated bonito.

While we were waiting for our fourth dish, the English-speaking staff came up to me and asked if I was fine with dinner lasting till 10pm. Since I was not rushing for the last bullet train, I confirmed with her that I was good.

4) Dish #4 (above) – Squid stuffed with roe. This was my first time having it so huge, and it was a bit too much for me. I didn’t quite enjoy the roe which was of a mushy texture. But I finished it nonetheless.


5) Dish #5 (above) – Clam soup.

6) Dish #6 (above) – Tomato served with vinegar jelly.


7) Dish #7 (above) – Prawn heads tempura. It’s interesting and really unique that head chef Niitome san removed the shell head before deep frying. And these were crispy and flavourful, especially with all the high cholesterol (prawn head) insides still intact. Yum!

8) Dish #8 (above) – For the prawn tempura, I noticed head chef Niitome san would flex the prawn tail before frying it. And before my first prawn was served, I noticed him calling his staff over. And although he was whispering to her, I overheard a “Tan san”. Haha. So I figured it had to be something for/about me. And true enough, she came round to me and said I should have the prawn tempura without any sauce.


9) Dish #9 (above) – And with my second prawn tempura, I realised it was intentional for the batter to be consistently gathered at where the (prawn) legs were.

10) Dish #10 (above) – Cuttlefish (ika) tempura.

11) Dish #11 (above) – Broad beans tempura.

12) Dish #12 (above) – Baby white anchovy (shirauo) tempura.

13) Dish #13 (above) – Mountain herb tempura.

14) Dish #14 (above) – Sillago (kisu) tempura.

15) Dish #15 (above) – Dandelion flower tempura. And with this piece, I really noticed even though the batter was just a teeny weeny oily, the batter was really light and airy. In fact, the batter wrapping the various ingredients was like cloud; Biting into a light mass of tempura batter. Really crispy. Really nice.

16) Dish #16 (above) – Bamboo shoot tempura. And I really enjoyed watching how the various ingredients were prepared differently. For the bamboo shoot, head chef Niitome san had an additional step of dusting (dry) flour with a sieve onto the bamboo the ingredient with dry flour with a sieve, before proceeding with his next few steps of deep frying.


17) Dish #17 (above) – Sweet fish (ayu) from Nagano prefecture. Before head chef Niitome san started working on this dish, he went round the table for us to snap pictures. Although I had my turn, I decided I wanted more (photographs) while watching others take picture and raised my mobile. And it was really nice of head chef Niitome san that he noticed and brought the pot towards me (again). And after our photo-taking session, I watched him pour some of the water out, put ice in and shake the pot (with the plastic lid over the pot mouth) really, really hard. He must have seen the question marks on my face, because he used body language to explain that the shaking was to put the fishes to sleep. Ohhh… The ‘sleeping’ fishes were then transferred to a straw tray where head chef Niitome san dried every one of them with a cloth before coating them in a wet batter for frying.

18) Dish #18 (above) – Clam tempura.

19) Dish #19 (above) – Asparagus (middle portion) tempura.

20) Dish #20 (above) – Asparagus (bottom portion) tempura.

21) Dish #21 (above) – Scampi prawn tempura.

22) Dish #22 (above) – Asparagus (top portion) tempura.

  

23) Dish #23 (above) – Sea urchin tempura. And I was told April (the month which I was dining at Tempura Niitome) was the best month for sea urchin. The female customer sitting beside me shared that the one box of sea urchin cost ¥50,000. Gasp!

24) Dish #24 (above) – Shiitake mushroom tempura.

25) Dish #25 (above) – Sea eel (anago) tempura.

  

26) Dish #26 (above)

27) Dish #27 (above) – Pickled vegetables.

28) Dish #28 (above) – And there was 3 options for the rice bowl; Tendon, tenbara and tencha. I asked head chef Niitome san for recommendation and he said “Tendon”. So I went with that. But it was only later that I realised some customers actually ordered all three. Sad! Greedy me want all 3 too. But then again, I was glad I went with just tendon because my stomach was seriously bursting by then. And the portion for the rice bowls (don) were regular portion. Though if I knew I could order all, I probably would request for smaller portion. Ha! But one should definitely order the tendon and tencha. The tencha looked so good. After putting a scoop of rice into the bowl, he added a spoonful of thick green paste (think it may be the same tasty sauce used in Dish #1) which he diluted with tea. And the tencha was complete after he topped it with his sakura-shrimp-cake tempura.

29) Dish #29 (above) – Clam soup.

By the time I was served green tea (after the clam soup), it was midnight! Yes. I was shocked to realise it was that late when I checked the time. So it’s a must to spend the night at Nagoya in order to fully enjoy the meal at Tempura Niitome. I honestly couldn’t imagine how madly rushed dinner would be had anyone needed to catch the last bullet train out.

  

It was an ‘one man show’ at Tempura Niitome. He did everything with no sous chef to assist him. The other staff were present but to assist with the logistics like removing our plates, topping up our beverages, etc. And head chef Niitome san was really, really friendly. It helped that I got acquainted with the (Japanese) couple seated beside me; The lady acted as our translator. But head chef Niitome san was really friendly and smile-ly. It was amazingly coincidental that I mentioned I was at Hatsunezushi earlier in the week and head chef Niitome san said he was at Hatsunezushi just yesterday. And 10 minutes later, chef-owner Katsu Nakaji of Hatsunezushi posted the group picture of him and head chef Niitome san on instagram. It cracked us up so badly.

And as we made our way out of the restaurant after the meal, he presented us with a bag of tempura bits. A real treat because what set Tempura Niitome apart from the rest had to be his tempura batter and the way he fried the ingredients. The batter was light and airy. I would even use the word ‘fluffy’ to describe. His unique way of frying was very evident with his prawn tempura where one could see the fluff of batter gathered at the prawns’ legs. Really good. It was also after my dinner that I read his batter was made with flour that had been chilled to around -10 degree. Thus, the melt-in-your-mouth texture.

Would I recommend Tempura Niitome. FOR SURE! It’s a pity he’s in Nagoya. But hey! I guess it’s a good thing that he’s not located in Tokyo. It’s already so difficult to make reservation when he’s in Nagoya. I couldn’t imagine how worst the reservation would be if he shift to Tokyo. And because I made reservation through Tableall, I pre-paid ¥35,000 (including tax, etc) for my ¥28,000 (excluding 8% VAT). Which I felt was reasonable. Do the mathematics please!

Certainly hope I would get to return to Nagoya for Tempura Niitome. =)

Now… At the point of my dinner in April 2019, there was no Michelin Guide for Nagoya. I actually thought to myself then that if there’s one published, Tempura Niitome was worthy of at least 2 Michelin stars. And! In the first edition published in May 2019 (just 1 month after my meal at Tempura Niitome), Tempura Niitome was awarded 2 Michelin stars. Woohoo!

NIITOME にい留
Cast Building Izumi, 2-19-11 Izumi, Higashi, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan (愛知県 名古屋市東区 泉 2-19-11 キャストビル泉 2F)
+81 52 936 2077, Website, Tablelog
Overall: 9
Opening hours:-
Food/Beverage: 10
Irregular : 18:00 – 00:00
Ambience: 8
Value: 9
Service: 9

Lunch @ Komatsu Yasuke 小松弥助 (Kanazawa, Japan)

June 2, 2019 in Japanese by thywhaleliciousfay

My friend was trying to book Komatsu Yasuke for his December 2018 trip to Japan in September 2018 but was told they only had table seats to offer. Since counter seats are the best for sushi-yas, he was advised to call back in November 2018 for February 2019 reservation. So when my friend shared his update with me, I was like “I also want (to go Komatsu Yasuke)!” Yes, we were coinciding our trips to Japan in February 2019. So thanks to my friend, a weekday lunch reservation for 2 was secured successfully at Komatsu Yasuke. There are 3 seatings; 11.30am, 1pm and 2.30pm. My friend booked us for 1pm.

Komatsu Yasuke was previously a by-introduction-only sushi restaurant. But in 2015, head chef Kazuo Morita (suddenly) announced that he will be taking a break. And at that point, many took it that he was retiring because he was already 84 years old. So imagined everyone’s surprise relief when head chef Morita san returned in 2017. And of course, I was delighted to know upon his return, Komatsu Yasuke started accepting reservations directly from non-locals too. Yes! In English.

It’s a 10 to 12 minutes walk to Komatsu Yasuke from Kanazawa (Railway) Station. And for our 1pm seating, we reached the restaurant by 12.40pm. However, we didn’t get seated till 1.25pm because the first seating overran by a little. Likewise, we only managed to vacate the restaurant around 2.40pm for the third seating.

Upon seated, we noted the everyone was very busy preparing the ingredients for our seating. It was like watching an orchestra performance. There was so many things going on at the same time, but everyone knew what their roles were. They were very much in tuned with one another. But of course, my eyes were fixed mostly on head chef Morita san. Keke. We were lucky to be seated early; As the other customers slowly settled down, I watched head chef Morita san intently as he personally sliced the various ingredients.

A female staff went round to take our orders. Between sushi course and sashimi and sushi course, we went with the latter. We also stated our preference to have appetiser followed by sushi. And with that, we commenced our lunch with:-

1) Sashimi & sushi menu comprised of:

(A) Dish #1 (above) – Steamed awabi (abalone) served with dashi.

(B) Dish #2 (above) – Sashimi assortment of hirame (flat fish), chutoro, amaebi, aka uni and akami topped with konowata (sea cucumber innards).

(C) Dish #3 (above) – Akami zuke topped with konowata.

(D) Dish #4 (above) – Aka ika topped with salt and sesame. And to prepare this, head chef Morita san unrolled the ika which was wrapped with serviette and commenced slicing. The ika sheet was sliced into thinner sheets before they were passed on to his sous chef to slice the sheets into thin strips. Amazing teamwork and amazing knife skill. And of course, this was amazing. It just melted in my mouth.

(E) Dish #5 (above) – Head chef Morita san’s signature otoro. And we were told specifically “no sauce”.

(F) Dish #6 (above) – Amaebi. And we were told to put some soya sauce before consuming.

  

(G) Dish #7 (above) – Appetiser of (yamaimo) grated yam, akami zuke, uni and shari (sushi rice).

(H) Dish #8 (above) – Hirame with its fin, and topped with ume (plum) sauce. Again, we were told to have it with no sauce.

(I) Dish #9 (above) – Hamaguri.

  

(J) Dish #10 (above) – Unagi roll with sliced cucumber within. The unagi was charcoal-grilled by one of his sous chefs, before it was passed to head chef Morita san to make the roll. And it was simply amazing. I loved the bits of charred bits inside. So good. I was really touched and gratful that head chef Morita san taught his disciple well.

(K) Dish #11 (above) – Soup with egg, tofu and gani (crab).

And as we were almost reaching the end of our course, the (same) female staff went round to take additional orders. My friend did his homework prior and said we had to order the anago and negitoro handroll. So yes, it’s a must to order additional! Keke.

  

2) Additional dish #1 (above) – Bafun uni with a touch of salt. And this was ordered upon the staff’s recommendation. And seated at the counter, we watched the sous chef passed head chef Morita san an almost empty uni box. And instead of using the remaining uni (like how a business man would), head chef Morita san told his sous chef to get him a new box of uni! Deeply touched. It’s the little actions that showed head chef Morita san’s passion in only serving the best to his customers.

3) Additional dish #2 (above) – Anago. I would call this “double decker” because head chef Morita san folded the long strip of anago into two before using it as a neta. A real treat.

  

4) Additional dish #3 (above) – Negitoro hand roll. And this was fully done by (another) sous chef. But one should belittle it just because it was prepared by the sous chef. This was really good. I read that this could be prepared by his sous chef because head chef Morita san acknowledged his skill.

It was an amazing experience. One of the best meals I ever had in all my trips to Japan. I loved everything about it that even I, one who is pretty awkward posing for pictures, requested to take photograph with head chef Morita san. The food, the atmosphere… And yes, the Komatsu Yasuke team!!!

In fact, dining at Komatsu Yasuke was like dining in head chef Morita san’s house. I felt like a grandchild waiting to be fed really well by grandfather. Now… I wouldn’t say the food was refined. It was slightly rough, but made with lots of love. Head chef Morita san always had a wide endearing smile, and was very inclusive. He made sure he gave his attention to every customer (at the counter). Even the customer seated at the furthest end. Very lovely. And although head chef Morita san couldn’t speak any English, that didn’t stop him from interacting with us. It was really those moments I wished I know Japanese so that I could reply his questions. In fact, it kinda reminded me of how I am with my grandmother. She would speak to me in Hokkien but I don’t understand dialect and couldn’t reply her. Yeps. But both (head chef Morita san and my grandma) spoke with the same ‘loving and caring’ tone. I was really in awe.

And one really should get counter seats because I noticed only counter customers had all their dishes prepared by head chef Morita san personally. For exmaple, the unagi roll was prepared by his sous chef for customers seated at the tables.

With the 3 additional dishes and hot green tea, my meal came up to ¥20,000 (including tax, etc). Komatsu Yasuke? A must try!

KOMATSU YASUKE 小松 弥助
Kanazawa Chaya Annex, 2-17-21 Honmachi, Kanazawa, Japan (石川県 金沢市 本町 2-17-21 金沢茶屋別館 1F)
+81 76 231 1001, Tablelog
Overall: 8.5
Opening hours:-
Food/Beverage: 8
Fri – Tues : 11:30 – 16:00
Ambience: 8
Value: 9
Service: 9
* Closed on Wed, Thur

Dinner @ Ogata (Kyoto, Japan)

April 18, 2019 in Japanese by thywhaleliciousfay

For my annual trip to Japan in 2019, I (finally) ventured out of Tokyo. Grin. And when I decided to head to Kyoto, I knew I had 4 restaurants that I wanted to try; Ogata, Tominokoji Yamagishi, Acá and Hirasansou. Having read that it’s really difficult to secure a booking at 2 Michelin stars Ogata, I decided to use Tabeall.

I sent my reservation request to Tableall in end September 2018 but was informed that Ogata only take reservation for February from 1 December. However a few days later, I received another email from Tableall confirming that they had secured my booking with Ogata for dinner in late February 2019. Yeah.

For my 7pm dinner, I was the second to reach the restaurant. And instead of directing me to the empty seat beside the first group of customer, the staff led me to the other end of the counter which was beside a full-height glass window with a view of the indoors garden. And I liked my seat because it’s directly in front of the charcoal grill. VIP seat to witness chef-owner Toshiro Ogata’s grilling actions. Keke.

After seated, I was asked for my choice of drink which I went with iced green tea. And once everyone had settled down, I commenced my ¥33,000 dinner with:-

1) Dish #1 (above) – Sea urchin with sticky rice, topped with grated yuzu and pine nuts which was so light I nearly mistaken as puffed rice. In fact, I initially thought the topping was meat as the urchin’s colour was very dark. But its dark colour was from the seasoning.


2) Dish #2 (above) – “A type of Japanese pasta,” the staff said. And this was somen served with grated radish.

  

3) Dish #3 (above) – Baby tuna (meiji-maguro) sashimi. And when this was presented with a fox mask over it, the staff explained it’s a Japanese culture celebrated on 2 February. “A major day for Japanese,” he elaborated. I was told that the fox mask and leaves were used to ward off evil. The staff further shared the leaves were personally collected from the place of prayer and hand-carried back for Ogata’s customers. Wow. And after the explanation, the staff asked me to lift up the mask to expose the sashimi beneath. But just as I was about to do that, head chef Ogata san came over and assisted me. He continued to take the leaves and demonstrated what the Japanese would do by hitting himself on the chest. Once on each side with the leaves. He even got me to follow suit! And just as I was about to tuck in, I noticed head chef Ogata san whispering to his staff and nudging his staff in my direction. Apparently he asked his staff to take my handphone and take a photograph of me posing with the mask. So cute! I was honestly touched as his actions made me feel included. Fox mask and leaves aside, the baby tuna which was slightly grilled (aburi) was really tasty too.

4) Dish #4 (above) – Belt fish served with toasted sesame seeds. The toasted sesame seeds was very aromatic. It tasted almost similar to the peanuts used in our muah chee (glutinous rice snack coated with sesame seeds or peanuts).

5) Dish #5 (above) – Tempura butterbur (fukinoto) flower bud on tempura butter fish.

  

6) Dish #6 (above) – Tempura carrot. And for this, the other customers were exclaiming in excitement when head chef Ogata san placed the tempura carrot onto their plates. I concluded it must be a really special carrot especially with its deep-red colour. Even with my first bite, I mistook it for sweet potato because it was as sweet as roasted sweet potato.

7) Dish #7 (above) – Tempura abalone served with its liver sauce. And I was expecting it to be soft (like simmered kind of soft) but its centre was hard and crunchy. And the sauce definitely had something else besides liver. It contained small chunks which tasted like baby white shrimp (shiro-ebi). I ain’t too sure but it sure was yummy!

  
  

8) Dish #8 (above) – Blowfish (fugu) and milt. Shortly after my plate of milt was placed on the counter, head chef Ogata san appeared with the ice snow ball. Head chef Ogata san opened the snow ball with chopsticks to expose the packets of individually packed blowfish sashimi within. And we were told to personally take out our pack from the snow ball. I got to learn it was a tradition which the Japanese do for good luck. Food wise, one could eat the blowfish on its own or dip it in the milt sauce.

9) Dish #9 (above) – Hot sake with grilled blowfish fin.

  

10) Dish #10 (above) – And I very clearly heard the staff introduced the ingredient as round radish and not Japanese radish. Served with kelp (kombu).


  

11) Dish #11 (above) – Moroko fish. I was told this fish could only be found in the biggest lake in Japan. And we were given 3 each. Yum.

And it was a sign that the rice dish was to be served next when the assorted pickles was placed in front of me. And for the rice dish, the staff mentioned there’re 3 flavours. Unsure, I asked for recommendation and the staff proposed the oyster dish. But he went on to say I could have all three too. So I requested small portions for all. Keke. Stomach was bursting but I was greedy.

12) Dish #12 with options of:

(A) Baby white anchovy with egg omelette on rice (above)

(B) Deep-fried oyster on rice (above)

(C) Buckwheat noodle (above)

13) Roasted tea (above)


  

14) Dish #13 (above) – Filled with azuki beans, I was told cherry blossom was also used.

15) Green tea (above)

Head chef Ogata san certainly impressed. Dinner was fabulous! How do I put it… He wasn’t extravagant in terms of plating. One would realised from the food which were presented simply. But the taste of the dishes weren’t simple. He was able to bring out the best in each ingredient. And I was very impressed by how he also mixed tradition/culture into the dishes. Like the fox mask (kitsune).

I initially thought I would be neglected cause head chef Ogata san didn’t seem to be able to converse in English. The first few dishes were presented by his staff. But his passion and sincerity in wanting every customers to enjoy their dining experience must had made him cast aside his shyness and came up to me. Yes, the third dish! And for that, I was honestly touched and grateful. I ended up enjoying myself a lot. Head chef Ogata san looked stern on the outside but was actually mild and gentle. Even charismatic I must admit. Keke.

As I made my way to the exit, head chef Ogata san and his wife were there to say goodbye. And as a souvenir, I received a pair of chopsticks. Wow!

Would I recommend Michelin-starred Ogata? I definitely would! The raves about Ogata were real. And since I booked my meal through Tableall, it’s to note I pre-paid ¥44,000 (including tax, etc). And for the iced green tea which I ordered during the meal, I topped up another ¥1000. The ¥33,000 which I mentioned was the meal course, but tax not included yet. So if one did the mathematics, handling fee by Tableall is almost ¥4800. Very affordable, considering Tableall has been the most reliable third party reservation website. To me, at least. I always rely on Tableall for the super-hard-to-book restaurants.

OGATA 緒方
726 Shinkamanzacho Shimogyo, Kyoto, Japan (京都府 京都市下京区 綾小路西洞院東入新釜座町726番地)
+81 75 344 8000, Tablelog
Overall: 9
Opening hours:-
Food/Beverage: 9
Tues – Sun : 16:00 – 21:30
Ambience: 8
Value: 9
Service: 9
* Closed on Mon