Dinner @ Kumano Yakitori 熊の焼鳥 (Osaka, Japan)

March 3, 2020 in Japanese by thywhaleliciousfay

When I was planning my March/April 2019 to Japan, I decided to spend a night in Osaka. Yes! A night just for me to do some shopping and squeeze in a meal. Keke. So to allow myself more time to shop, I decided to dine at somewhere which opened till late. And I was lucky that while I wasn’t too familiar with Osaka dining scene, I had bookmarked 1 place which fitted my criteria perfectly! I had seen pictures of Kumano Yakitori’s chicken sashimi platter on instagram, and hadbookmarked the place cause I was intrigued. Woohoo!

For my meal in April, I used TableCheck and booked 3 weeks in advanced. Me wanting a late dinner worked out well because time slots for non-members were 4pm to 5.50pm, and after 9.30pm. And when I made my reservation, I indicated my choice of menu as 10-skewers course with 12 kinds of chicken sashimi platter. And now… When I made my booking, TableCheck had a disclaimer which said “ご入店の際に必要な暗証番号を、ご予約前日にSMSにてお知らせ致します。 必ず携帯電話番号をご入力頂き、間違いのないようご確認をお願い致します”. I didn’t pay much attention to it. It was only when I was stranded in front of the restaurant that I realised how wrong it was of me to have ignored that.

Using Google translate, the disclaimer said “Enter the PIN required to enter the store. We will notify you by SMS the day before your reservation. Please be sure to enter your mobile phone number and confirm that there is no mistake.”

For my Japan travels, I would get myself a Japanese SIM card. So having ignored the disclaimer, I didn’t realise I was meant to receive a 4-digits pin. The pin was crucial because I was supposed to key it into the restaurant’s security keypad to unlock the door and let myself in. But because of my ignorance, I only managed to enter the restaurant almost 25 minutes later.

I was going crazy then because I called the number listed on Tablelog but it went straight into voicemail. And it was seriously frustrating because no one responded to my knocks too. Maybe they couldn’t hear my knocks since it’s noisy inside? Although I suspect it’s mainly because the eatery was meant to be exclusive; Either you know the password, or you don’t. Either you let yourself in, or you couldn’t.

It was only when I checked TableCheck that I got the correct landline number. But! Even though the staff answered the phone, he couldn’t speak any English. Sigh! After failing to carry out a conversation, I hung up. By then, I was already waiting outside the eatery for 20 minutes. I was hungry and I didn’t know where else would be opened at 9.50pm. And while I was standing in a daze, the person who answered the phone must have been curious because he stepped out of the restaurant a few many minutes later. Ahhh!!!

After showing him the email with my reservation confirmation, he proceeded to unlock the door by keying the pin. Yes, the pin which I was supposed to receive but didn’t (Verified that by switching to my Singapore SIM card after the dinner). Oh well…

And although I had indicated my choice of menu during my reservation, the staff continued to pass me the menu (pages 1, 2). After re-confirming my orders, I commenced my dinner with:-

1) Chicken sashimi (12 types), ¥2500 (above) – To be honest, I totally forgot I pre-order this. So when the staff asked if I wanted to try the sashimi platter, I went “Sure”. Haha. But do note it’s stated on the menu that advanced order is required for this dish. So if one plans to try this, please make sure one orders this in advanced! The only downside was that the platter was meant for 2 to share. That said, I managed to polish everything off. I mean… The only place where I would (dare to) eat my chicken parts raw is Japan. And Kumano Yakitori couldn’t have been a better place for it! So no way was I going to waste any food. Keke. And it was really interesting trying the different parts. Thankfully they had a pictorial to explain what I was eating!


2) Chicken breast sashimi, sea urchin and yam (above) – For this, I was told to eat it like a hand roll. And it’s cute that the seaweed had the restaurant’s mascot logo; The bear.

3) 10 skewers course (¥2800) comprised of:


(A) Skewer #1 (above) – Chicken breast with leek.

(B) Skewer #2 (above) – Chicken heart.

(C) Skewer #3 (above) – Chicken cartilage.


(D) Skewer #4 (above) – Meatball.

(E) Skewer #5 (above) – Chicken liver.

(F) Salad (above)

(G) Skewer #6 (above) – Didn’t get an introduction of this dish. But the skewer of meat contained some soft bones. So with that, I guess one could guess which part of the chicken. No? Keke.

(H) Skewer #7 (above) – Similarly, no mention of what I was eating. But this skewer had meat and skin. Maybe thigh?

(I) Skewer #8 (above) – Chicken skin.

(J) Skewer #9 (above) – Small sweet green pepper.

(K) Dish #10 (above) – Chicken wing.

  

4) Rice bowl with yolk (above) – The staff recommended the rice bowl which I was more than happy to order. Beside the chicken sashimi platter, this was the other dish that I came for! And I was told to poke the 2 yolks, pour them over the rice and mix everything well. It’s actually a pretty simple dish in terms of taste. But I enjoyed it much!

5) Ice cream, Complimentary (above) – The ice cream was seriously damn hard. They probably prepared it way in advanced by putting the scooped ice cream in the freezer and only taking it out when a customer ordered it. But nice flavour of pistachio!

6) Beer (above)

Despite the difficult start, I enjoyed myself! The staff didn’t speak much English, but it was really nice because they used a translator to introduce my various skewers. The 2 skewers which I didn’t receive any introduction was because the (waiting) staff were busy with other customers and those were passed to me by the chef (that’s in charge of grilling). Maybe he’s shy? Maybe he wasn’t confident with his English?

In all, I paid ¥9910 (including tax and service charge). And that included 2 cups of beer! Would I recommend Kumano Yakitori? Oh yes! Especially if one is a fan of yakitori, and is up for chicken sashimi! But just make sure one’s contact number is keyed in correctly when making the reservation. And bring sufficient cash too! They only accept cash.

KUMANO YAKITORI 熊の焼鳥 天六本店
6-3-26, Tenjinbashi, Kita, Osaka, Japan (大阪府大阪市北区天神橋6-3-26)
Overall: 7.5
Opening hours:-
Food/Beverage: 8
Mon – Sun : 16:00 – 23:00
Ambience: 7
Value: 8
Service: 7

Lunch @ Nihombashi Sonoji 日本橋 蕎ノ字 (Tokyo, Japan)

February 23, 2020 in Japanese by thywhaleliciousfay

When I first read about Nihombashi Sonoji on instagram, I was particularly drawn to the fact that chef-owner Toshiyuki Suzuki served (fresh) soba instead of the usual tendon (tempura on rice) and tencha (tempura on rice, in green tea) for the final dish. And people were raving about his soba. So I knew I had to visit. One could almost say I made reservation at his tempura restaurant for his soba. Oops.

I initially tried to use my credit card concierge for my lunch reservation. However I was informed the restaurant require hotel concierge as they had a cancellation policy. Thus, I got my hotel concierge to assist.

And I was informed that Nihombashi Sonoji took reservation from 1 December 2017 for dining reservation request in February 2018. I was also asked to decide on my choice of menu prior to my visit. Either full course (‎¥‎8900) or half course (‎¥‎6900). I went with full course and also indicated my preference for no beef and no oyster. Yeah… I stated ‘no oyster’ cause I saw he served really large oyster tempura on instagram and wasn’t sure if I was totally over my oyster phobia. Bad move on my part, I got to admit.

The restaurant could sit 8 people but there was only 3 of us. I didn’t mind that as I was craving for a quiet session. The waiting staff used Google translate to check if I was fine with deer. Deer? No problem! And soon after that, head chef Suzuki san commenced my omakase lunch (full course, ¥‎8900) with:-

1) Dish #1 (above) – Clam soup.

2) Dish #2 (above) – Mushroom, seaweed, and what tasted like barley or chopped ginkgo. Didn’t quite like this appetiser.

3) Dish #3 (above) – Prawn.

4) Dish #4 (above) – Prawn.

  

5) Dish #5 (above) – Prawn head.

6) Dish #6 (above) – Prawn head, served in sauce.

7) Dish #7 (above) – Japanese whiting/sillago (kisu) fish with lemon juice.

8) Dish #8 (above) – Flounder. 1 piece served with sauce (and was told to have it on its own), and 1 piece to eat wit salt.

9) Dish #9 (above) – Was told to take a break from tempura by having buckwheat! Pretty interesting… And bitter.

10) Dish #10 (above) – Carrot. And this was super, super sweet.


11) Dish #11 (above) – Tamatoridake mushroom (玉取茸).

12) Dish #12 (above)

13) Dish #13 (above) – Deer.

14) Dish #14 (above) – And because I stated my preference for no oyster, head chef Suzuki san replaced my oyster with flathead (megochi). So although I had my fish tempura in front of me, I couldn’t help but glance over at my neighbour’s oyster tempura. It was interesting because head chef Suzuki san would serve the huge oyster tempura in halves. First half to have it on its own, and second half served with sauce and seaweed.

15) Dish #15 (above) – Onion. And I was asked to be careful as it was hot.


16) Dish #16 (above) – Sea eel (anago).

17) Dish #17 (above) – Sakura shrimp.

18) Dish #18 (above) – The waiting staff came round and asked if I preferred to have my soba served hot or cold. I opted for cold cause I felt that’s the best way to enjoy and appreciate his soba; Head chef Suzuki san handmade the soba daily using buckwheat flour from Mashiko and Kawane. And it was really good. The soba texture was light and went down the throat very smoothly. And I loved that much love was also given to the dipping sauce. I read that the dipping sauce was prepared with 4 different bonito fish flakes and soba sauce base (which matured in the same pot for over 30 years). Enjoyed everything about this dish!


>

19) Dish #19 (above) – Red bean dessert.

I really enjoyed my lunch at Nihombashi Sonoji. My stomach was bursting by the time I finished! And what I learnt after my meal was that although head chef Suzuki san moved from Shizuoka to Tokyo, the ingredients he used were all specially sourced from Shizouka. For example the carrot and mushroom! And Shizuoka vegetables are apparently hard to find in Tokyo. A treat indeed! And I liked that the meal was affordable at ¥10,057 (including tax and service charge).

However, there have been some changes since my last visit in 2018. Instead of ¥‎8900, lunch now cost ¥‎‎12,900. Did the price increase come along with the star, I wonder… And yes! Since my last visit in 2018, Nihombashi Sonoji was awarded 1 Michelin star by Michelin Guide Tokyo 2019.

NIHOMBASHI SONOJI 日本橋 蕎ノ字
2-22-11 Nihombashi-ningyocho, Chuo, Tokyo, Japan (東京都 中央区 日本橋人形町 2-22-11 井上ビル 1F)
+81 3 5643 1566, Tablelog
Overall: 7.5
Opening hours:-
Food/Beverage: 8
Tues – Sun : 12:00 – 14:00 (Lunch)
Ambience: 7
Tues – Sun : 18:00 – 21:00 (Dinner)
Value: 8
Service: 7
* Closed on Mon

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