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

February 23, 2020 in Japanese

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!


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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

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

Dinner @ Ogata (Kyoto, Japan)

April 18, 2019 in Japanese

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