Lunch @ Tempura Kondo てんぷら 近藤 (Tokyo, Japan)

June 28, 2020 in Japanese

When I did my first (ever) research for tempura restaurants in Tokyo, Michelin-starred Tempura Kondo was one of the few names that came up top in my Google search. But… It took me almost 4 years to eventually dine here. My bad. And for my restaurant reservation, my hotel concierge assisted me with it. I was given the second seating at 1.30pm, and was also informed that Tempura Kondo provided 2 menus (¥6500 and ¥8500) which I was to choose at the restaurant.

And on the day of my lunch, I was really nervous as I made my way to the restaurant. I didn’t realise there were 2 counters at Tempura Kondo, and was praying hard I would be assigned to chef-owner Kondo Fumio’s.

Located on level 9, I stepped out of the lift at 1.25pm to see a group of people had already gathered outside the restaurant. But because we belonged to the second seating, we had to wait for the first seating to finish their meals before we could be seated. As we waited patiently, a staff would regularly step out to check who (else) had arrived. Although I guess if one was anxious, one could also head into the restaurant to inform the staff of one’s arrival. I ain’t sure if seating arrangement was first-come-first-serve, but I noticed the staff indicated a ’5′ beside my name on her reservation list.

Words couldn’t express my relief and excitement when I was led to the main counter. The pair who entered before me was somehow led to the other counter which was located at the back.

And for our bags, there were baskets placed beneath every chair. However, I had trouble putting mine. I was lazy and was trying to place my handbag into the basket by bending over while seated. Haha. I was so focused that I didn’t realise head chef Fumio san noticed my struggle. He got his waiting staff to help me, and only resumed what he was doing after making sure I had settled down comfortably. How did I know? After the staff helped me out, I looked back to the front and locked eyes with head chef Fumio san. He gave me a gentle smile, and that’s when I realised. And honestly… That gesture touched me a lot.

And from the menu (pages 1, 2), I ordered:-

1) Tsubaki course (¥‎8500) comprised of:-

(A) Tempura #1 (above) – Prawn heads.


(B) Tempura #2 (above) – Prawn. Ever since I was taught a perfectly fried prawn tempura is one with a slightly raw centre, I since developed a habit to bite into my prawn tempura and check the centre. Keke. And yes! Perfectly fried prawn tempura by head chef Fumion san. :)


(C) Tempura #3 (above) – Prawn.

(D) Tempura #4 (above) – Asparagus. These didn’t look like it but they were so hot within!

(E) Tempura #5 (above) – Lotus root.

(F) Tempura #6 (above) – Japanese whiting/sillago (kisu) fish.

(G) Tempura #7 (above) – Eggplant.

(H) Tempura #8 (above) – Ice fish wrapped with shisho leaf. This was really interesting. Although it was made with many (fishes), the texture was like that of a thick fish fillet.


(I) Tempura #9 (above) – Sea urchin. And it’s becoming a habit that I would pay extra attention to the preparation of sea urchin tempura. And I noticed head chef Fumio san would ensemble his and dip it entirely into the wet batter before frying.

(J) Tempura #10 (above) – Lily bulb.

(K) Dish #11 (above) – Onion.


(L) Tempura #12 (above) – Sea eel (anago).

  
  

(M) Rice dish (above) – We were given 3 options to choose from; Tendon-sauce dipped, tencha or scallop-prawn tempura served separately from the rice. And I went with tencha.

(N) Roasted tea (above)

(O) Dessert (above) – Strawberry.

2) Sweet potato, ¥2400 (above) – When the staff went round taking our order at the start of our meal, it was specifically mentioned that the course menu do not include sweet potato. And the sweet potato was an item which many highly recommended. So I ordered it as an additional a-la carte item. And I must say, I wasn’t expecting it to be so big! As I was trying to finish it, the waiting staff came up to me and said I could pack the untouched half. Thank goodness! But to be honest… I didn’t really enjoy my sweet potato. It was a little dry in the centre.

3) Oolong tea, ¥400

I was thankful to sit at the length of the L-shaped counter where head chef Fumio san faced. I always appreciate being able to watch chefs in action. And although he had 2 sous chefs, I noticed head chef Fumio san preferred to do almost everything. He would personally fry all the pieces as his sous chefs prepared the various ingredients. And when he was done with the frying, he would put the cooked ingredients onto a common metal tray where his sous chefs would then take over and distribute the various tempura pieces to us. I guess that’s head chef Fumio san’s way of managing the quality of food at Tempura Kondo. Everything at the frying section was personally handled by him. Although he was visibly aged and with a hunchback, the arduous task of changing the oil was also done by him. The only time the sous chef came near to his frying station was to help him top up the dry flour in the bowl.

My lunch came up to ¥12,204 (including tax and service charge). And I liked that it was a very straight-forward dining affair. Head chef Fumio san was very focused with his cooking. The only times he interacted with customers (including his regulars) were before he started cooking and after he finished cooking. I guess it’s also because of that, that Tempura Kondo don’t receive much attention on social media. But head chef Fumio san definitely left an impression on me. I could feel his sincerity through his food, and from our brief interactions; Ready to leave, I bent down to pull my handbag from beneath my chair. And when I looked up, he had positioned himself in front of me behind his counter. He smiled and bowed to me. I bowed and smiled back, and thanked him for the enjoyable lunch.

Will I recommend Tempura Kondo? Yes. But again, one should manage one’s expectation. If one’s after an interactive experience with the chef or to be swept off by fancier food presentation, Tempura Kondo isn’t a place for that. And having said that, one should also order the carrot tempura as an additional item! Head chef Fumio san does his differently where the carrot were shredded before deep fried. And it looked so delicious!

TEMPURA KONDO てんぷら 近藤
9F, Sakaguchi Building, 5-5-13 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo, Japan (東京都 中央区 銀座 5-5-13 坂口ビル 9F)
+81 3 5568 0923, Tablelog
Overall: 8
Opening hours:-
Food/Beverage: 8
Mon – Sat : 12:00 – 15:00 (Lunch)
Ambience: 7
Mon – Sat : 17:00 – 20:30 (Dinner)
Value: 8
Service: 8
* Closed on Sun

Dinner @ Torioka 鳥おか (Tokyo, Japan)

June 23, 2020 in Japanese

I got to know about Torioka through a friend. “Sister branch of Torishiki,” he texted. And that message got me so excited! You see… Ever since I began my annual trips to Japan in 2016, I always tried to make reservation at 1 Michelin star Torishiki. But of course, I haven’t been lucky yet. I reckon I need a miracle to get through Torishiki’s busy phone line. But I digress…

So when my friend told me chef-owner Yoshiteru Ikegawa of Torishiki had opened an offshoot in September 2018, I knew I had to make my reservation because Torioka could be the closest I ever get to Torishiki. And honestly, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect too. Just in time for my 2019 trip to Japan! I also liked that chef Ikegawa san appointed Noriyuki Kurosaki, his long time assistant at Torishiki, to be in charge of Torioka. It meant I was definitely in good hands!

And surprisingly, reservation at Torioka turned out to be more straight forward than I thought. One didn’t even need to call. Everything could be done with a few clicks on the reservation website. So different from Torishiki’s reservation system!

My dinner booking was at 8.45pm. But what I didn’t know was that the restaurant was located inside the mixed-use development Roppongi Hills. And Roppongi Hills was huge! I reached the compound at 8.35pm and ended up being late for my dinner because I had much difficulty locating the shop. And it was uncomfortable stepping through the entrance and directly into the main space because everyone turned to stare at me.

A U-shaped counter took the main stage of the space. And hidden out of sight by the black noren (Japanese fabric divider) was the kitchen. Upon seated, I was given the drinks menu. And after placing my order for beer, I commenced my omakase dinner with:-

1) 11 skewers course (¥7300) comprised of:

(A) Assorted pickles (above)

(B) Skewer #1 (above) – Chicken thigh.

(C) Skewer #2 (above) – Chicken gizzard.


(D) Skewer #3 (above) – Chicken skin.

(E) Skewer #4 (above) – Mushroom.

(F) Skewer #5 (above) – Quail egg.

(G) Skewer #6 (above) – Tofu.

(H) Skewer #7 (above) – Liver. Didn’t quite enjoy this though. It was too thick and soft. But not to be confused as raw.

(I) Skewer #8 (above) – Gingko nut.

(J) Skewer #9 (above) – Chicken heart.


(K) Rice (above)

(L) Skewer #10 (above) – Head chef Kurosaki san tried to explain what the skewer was (in Japanese), but I unfortunately couldn’t understand him. But it tasted a lot like skin to me. On the fattier side though.

(M) Skewer #11 (above) – Meat ball.

(N) Chicken soup (above)

(O) Roasted tea (above)

2) Beer

When I was onto my meat ball skewer, I realised it was the last of my 11-skewers course. It then dawned on me that I wasn’t getting any chicken wing. Sad. And because I arrived to the restaurant when everyone (who had reached earlier than me) was already in the midst of their dinner, I rationalised head chef Kurosaki san must have run out of chicken wings.

And when head chef Kurosaki san doused the ember charcoal of his grill (which was also the main grill), I wondered why the others were still grilling at the secondary grill. Especially since I was served the last skewer for the night. I watched on curiously and got to witness a beautiful scene…

  

Chef Yoshiteru Maekawa, another of chef Ikegawa san’s trusted assistant, was also stationed at Torioka. He’s helping out at Torioka before he leaves for Torshiki’s overseas branch in New York in June 2020. And it was very heartwarming as I witnessed him patiently training the assistant. Chef Mawkawa san never left sight of his assistant even when he stepped aside to give the assistant his space to grill on his own. Loved it!

My meal came up to ¥9590 (including tax and service charge). Will I recommend Torioki? A definite yes from me. Not just because I was touched by what I saw, but also because food was good! Every skewer was beautifully grilled.

I would also recommend one to dress up a little. The customers on a Sunday night were mainly young adults who looked pretty well-to-do. I was put to shame sitting alongside dolled-up female customers who had really thick lashes. I only had concealer to cover my eye bags. Oops!

Torioka 鳥おか
5F, Roppongi Hills West Walk, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato City, Tokyo, Japan (東京都 港区 六本木 6-10-1 六本木ヒルズ ウエストウォーク 5F)
+81 3 6447 2933, Tablelog
Overall: 8
Opening hours:-
Food/Beverage: 8
Mon – Sun : 16:00 – 22:00
Ambience: 8
Value: 8
Service: 7

Lunch @ Acá 1° (Kyoto, Japan)

June 14, 2020 in Spanish

One could say it was love at first sight with Aca’s crab paella when pictures of the dish started surfacing on my instagram feed. I made a mental note to self that I had to dine at Michelin-starred Aca although I wasn’t too sure how to go about it (when I needed to) because there wasn’t much information of Aca’s reservation system on the internet. And that’s back in 2017. To me, it seemed like those who dined at Aca were mostly all regulars.

But I got my small glimpse of hope when Aca joined the reservation website Omakase in second half of 2018. Yeah! And to make my reservation, I set reminders on my calendar to make sure I was on Omakase website when seats were released for Aca. Very important because having used Omakase a few times, I noticed some restaurants only put up a handful of seats. And because of that, the seats could be fully snapped up within minutes. Or seconds for the more popular restaurants.

I was unsuccessful in my first attempt at securing a seat at Aca for my February/March 2019 trip. But was super thankful that I got lucky for my March/April 2019 trip. I was going to be in Kyoto for 2 days, and Omakase only offered seat for 1 of the 2 dates I was after. And yes, I was glad my internet speed didn’t disappoint me too. Keke.

  

Located at second level, a couple was already waiting when I arrived at the restaurant. We waited quietly on the narrow flight of stairs before the staff unlocked the entrance door at 12pm sharp and welcomed us in. And in terms of seating arrangement, it was pre-assigned; The couple turned out to be friends with chef-owner Tetsuo Azuma and were led to the furthest end which had the best view as the seats were directly in front of the grill where head chef Azuma san spent most of his time at. I realised seats were not first-come-first-service first-arrive-first-sit when the staff pointed me to the counter seat nearest to the entrance instead of directing me to sit beside the couple.

And based on my overheard snippets of the long conversation between the couple and head chef Azuma san, I realised head chef Azuma san speak really good English!

Before we commenced our lunch, head chef Azuma san personally came up to the various groups to say “thank you for coming” and to check on our allergy. I mentioned my dietary restriction of ‘no beef’ and he said he could replace the beef dish with horse. Sounds good!!! And with that, I commenced my omakase lunch with:-

1) Dish #1 (above) – Charcoal grilled arctic surf clam (hokkigai), sea urchin and foam of seaweed and Spanish ham. I thought the sea urchin would just be the ones at the top, but no! Sea urchin was layered in between too. And the foam was really good. It contained a strong smokey taste of the ham. Yum!

2) Dish #2 (above) – Baby sweet fish (ayu) coated with a shimmery powder which the staff mentioned was used in pasta, and topped with goat milk cheese. And I really liked this. The two main ingredients of baby sweet fish and cheese paired well as the cheese toned down the bitterness of the fish.

At this point, head chef Azuma san took out 3 slabs of beef and went around to ask for the customers’ pick. One asked if they could choose 2 but he recommended not to as it will be too heavy.


3) Dish #3 (above) – Charcoal grilled big-eye snapper (kinmedai) and Jerusalem artichoke puree.

4) Dish #4 (above) – Sugar snap pea with bead-like rice grains which reminded me of what’s used for risotto. But I got to learn (while putting together this review) that this dish was a Spanish dish known as arroz caldoso, which meant brothy rice since the dish consisted of broth (bouillon) and rice. And simple it may look, but this was so good!


5) Dish #5 (above) – Served in a pot of sizzling hot sauce made with garlic and olive oil were Japanese tiger prawn and zanthoxylum piperitum. I was appreciative when staff took out his phone to google the vegetable for me when he saw my confused look. Thus, the very long and specific zanthoxylum piperitum. Or Japanese pepper, in short. Hee.

  

6) Bread (above) – And for us to enjoy the sauce, we were given bread. Yum!

7) Bread (above) – Was given a different bread when I nodded my head to additional bread. Keke.

8) Dish #6 (above) – Made with fruit tomato, this was like a refreshing palette cleanser.


  

9) Dish #7 (above) – Herbs and spring vegetables salad, and white anchovy (shirauo), paired with a hot soup dressing made with garlic and almond. And as head chef Azuma san poured the dressing over the greens, he mentioned the vegetables were done in 3 ways; Charcoal grilled, steamed and fried.

  

10) Dish #8 (above) – So while the rest had their beef, I had my horse tartare. I was really thrilled when this was presented to me because beside the crab paella, this to me was the other signature dish at Aca. And noticing my look of confusion, the staff offered to assist me with the dish which I was more than glad. And what happened next was like a theatrical performance. He removed the sesame leaves to reveal the slightly charcoal-grilled horse meatball beneath. He went on to slice it open to expose the pinkness within, and continued by placing the smoked egg yolk, bread crumbs (seasoned with garlic and jamon iberico) and black sauce (made from squid ink) onto it. With everything on the split meatball, he started to fold everything for a good 3 minutes at least. And for this dish, I had the tartare on its own first before enjoying it with the sesame leaves, and then with the toast. And I definitely liked the dish! Although to be really honest, I ain’t sure if I should have enjoyed it that much. Considering the religious reason behind my dietary restriction of ‘no beef’, I ain’t too sure if I could consume horse meat. Hmm…

  

11) Dish #9 (above) – Crab paella! The dish that I was looking forward to the most. The main ingredient used for the paella changes with seasons, and I was lucky that crab was in season when I dined in April. However, I didn’t catch what type of crab Was used; I too read that the type of crab used also changes with what’s seasonal. And I was told to have it on its own for my first bite, before having it with the lemon and mountain herb sauce. And this was so good! Whenever I had Spanish cuisine (in Singapore), I would always order paella and they usually failed to impressed. But this was unbelievably good. So when they asked if I wanted to have some for take away, I was like “yes!”

12) Dish #10 (above) – Ice cream on olive oil.

13) Dish #11 (above) – Was asked if I wanted coffee or tea, and I went with English mint rose.

14) Dish #12 (above) – Amazon cocao chocolate covered with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and chocolate crumbles, and garnished with a dried apple chip.

15) Hot tea (above) – At the start of my meal, I ordered tea for my beverage. And it was refilled once during the course of my lunch. Am honestly not too sure if I was charged for this because the drinks menu had no price. But even I was, I am sure it would have been reasonably priced. :)

16) Homemade sangria, ¥1000 (above) – Hard not to order sangria at a Spanish restaurant. Keke. And when the staff said they have hot sangria, I was totally up for it.

My lunch at Aca came up to ¥28,570 (including tax and service charge). And that excluded the ¥390 which was paid straight to Omakase for using their website to make the reservation.

And onto the big question… Would I recommend Aca? A big resounding… Yes! I was relieved (in a way that) I didn’t leave the restaurant disappointed, especially with my expectations heightened from all the raving reviews that I read prior to my visit. And I appreciated how head chef Azuma san tried his best to add a personal touch to every customers’ dining experiences. He would also personally walk us out at the end of our meals. Now… If one still doesn’t know, I am really bad at striking or continuing conversation. So I actually strategised to be the second to leave. I thought I could get away if head chef Azuma san was still occupied talking with the first group. But, no… He still managed to grab me. Haha. But I enjoyed our brief conversation. I think I became a bigger fan when he asked for my name; He wasn’t asking for the sake of asking. We were talking about something which led him to asking that. And that gave me the impression he was going to remember me. I hope? Sheepish grin.

It was also interesting that only 6 of the 8 counter seats were occupied. I was pretty sure Omakase showed all seats were taken up. So I guess maybe a pair of his regulars pulled out? It’s either that or it was done intentionally to allow himself to cope with the bigger group that was to come later; We were halfway through our meal when a group of 5 entered. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but I could (again) hear snippets of their conversation as my seat was nearest to the communal table. Realised the group was from Hong Kong, and a mutual friend had contacted head chef Azuma san.

And as a heads up, do note there has been changes to Aca since my meal in April 2019 as I write this review. Aca has closed their Kyoto-based restaurant and will be relocating to Tokyo in June 2020 (Not too sure if the opening date will be delayed because of COVID-19 pandemic). So if reservation was hard to get when they were in Kyoto, I can’t imagine how harder it’s going to be now that they are shifting to Tokyo. I just hope Aca is still on Omakase. Cause if they are, there’s always a glimpse of hope. However small it may be. Wink.

ACA 1°
2F, 55 Masuyacho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto , apan (京都府 京都市中京区 桝屋町 55 白鳥ビル 2F)
+81 75 223 3002, Website, Tablelog
Overall: 8
Opening hours:-
Food/Beverage: 9
Mon – Sat : 12:00 – 13:00 (Lunch)
Ambience: 7
Mon – Sat : 18:00 – 21:00 (Dinner)
Value: 8
Service: 8
* Closed on Sun