Iga ware: Strength in Fire

Rice cooked in an Iga donabe at Kitayama Akiyama. (c)2010 Kirk VuillemotWe’ve expanded our Ceramics section with an introduction to Iga ware. Made in Mie prefecture, Iga-mono (Iga “things”) are regular companions in Japanese kitchens, able to withstand extreme changes in temperature. What’s more, they can go from burner to table because of their beauty.

We recently enjoyed  rice cooked in a Kyoto-style Iga donabe at Michelin-starred Kamigamo Akiyama (watch for a review in the coming months) and have been coveting one ever since.

Read more about Iga ware and its rugged good looks on Savory Japan, updated for October.

Simmered Tai head and more at Yururi

Savory Japan is updated for October with a feature on my cousin’s restaurant, Yururi. I promise I’m not including it because of my family ties. After all, Savory Japan has been around since March of 2009 and we’re only now getting around to reviewing it as part of our series on Tokyo.

That said, I probably wouldn’t have found this quiet oasis on busy (some might say gaudy) Romance-dori in Ikebukuro on my own. But visitors will find good food at extremely reasonable prices, especially during lunch. It’s also very much a local’s restaurant with authentic menu items, such as the simmered tai (sea bream) head pictured here.

You might ask what’s in Ikebukuro to warrant a special trip? Well, just minutes away is another hidden gem: A school complex built by Frank Lloyd Wright and his assistant Arata Endo called Myonichikan. Read the article for more.

Savory Japan for September: Kyubey and Kappabashi

Some of you have noticed that we at Savory Japan spend far too much time in Kyoto. The evidence is right there in the Travel section: 12 articles on Kyoto and only a handful elsewhere. We’re addressing this inequity by shifting the spotlight to Tokyo for the next few months. And what better to kick off the series than a review of Kyubey, a stellar sushiya (sushi establishment) serving classic  Edo-mae sushi?

We also have a photo essay on Kappabashi, a neighborhood comprised of a few blocks centering on Kappabashi-dori (street) that is nicknamed “kitchen town”. If you’re a fan of food, it’s a fun stop on any Tokyo itinerary.

The two articles also sport a new look: heavy on photos and lighter in text, to cater to the trend of readers on the net. But don’t worry, the long, in-depth articles are still there for back-up when you want more information.

I’d be curious to know if you like the new look. We intend to vary the layouts in the upcoming months, depending on the subject.

Savory Japan for August: Kikunoi Honten

Savory Japan is updated for August with a personal account of a memorable meal at Kyoto’s Kikunoi Honten. I had the unique opportunity to interview Yoshihiro Murata during a visit to Tokyo in May (chef Murata regularly flies back and forth between Kyoto and Tokyo overseeing his three Kikunoi branches), and when he explained how he sources his ingredients, I immediately decided I had to go. While I don’t typically dine at 3-star Michelin restaurants, and Savory Japan’s recommended restaurants (located in the Travel section by city) represent good value, I would have to say that the expense was well worth it. You’ll learn more about Japanese culture, cuisine and artistry in one dinner at Kikunoi than you would during a week’s worth of travel. At least, that’s how I see it.

For those planning a trip to Kyoto, I hope the article is helpful; for those lucky souls who have dined at this wonderful place, I hope it brings back memories.

Savory Japan for July: Yoshihiro Murata; Imari Elegance

Salt-grilled ayu (sweetfish) served on a bed of bamboo leaves at Kikunoi Honten in May

Savory Japan is updated for July, and features a recent conversation with famed kaiseki chef Yoshihiro Murata. Read about this amazing Renaissance man and ambassador of Japanese cuisine and culture in the first of a two-part series- which continues in August with a visit to the singular Kikunoi Honten, one of Kyoto’s most respected ryotei (traditional Japanese restaurants). At the moment chef Murata explained how the Kikunoi restaurants source their ingredients, illustrated by the story of a tilefish’s journey – plucked in the morning from the Inland Sea, stopping in Kyoto and ending up on a plate in Tokyo at dinnertime – I knew I had to make a reservation. The network of fishermen, farmers, artisans and chefs that make the magic of Kikunoi possible is a fascinating in its simple, poetic and entirely natural efficiency.

If you are inspired by the article and would like to meet chef Murata, you’ll have a chance when he appears at the upcoming World of Flavors conference Japan: Flavors of Culture in early November. I’ll be there to gain more inspiration and wisdom as well.

We also give a (very) brief introduction to Imari, the elegant and versatile porcelain ware that is an essential part of every Japanese kitchen. The subject is way too broad and deep to cover in a single article. We also share a few of our favorite Kyoto shops, where you can find a good selection of antique and vintage Imari ware.

Yoshihiro Murata, Renaissance Man

Risa with famed kaiseki chef Yoshihiro Murata in Tokyo last month
With Yoshihiro Murata in Tokyo last month

Among all the conversations I had during my trip to Japan last month, the most memorable was my interview with famed kyo-kaiseki chef and winner of seven Michelin stars, Yoshihiro Murata, chef/owner of Kikunoi Honten, Kikunoi Roan and Kikunoi Akasaka. This would not have been possible if it were not for the kind folks at the Culinary Institute of America, the organizers of the upcoming Worlds of Flavor conference: Japan: Flavors of Culture, which takes place from November 4-6, 2010. Chef Murata will appear as one of the conference’s featured experts, which will be attended by chefs and professionals in the food industry from across the U.S. (and worldwide.)

The man is amazing. Murata is not only the third-generation owner/chef of one of the most respected ryotei in Kyoto, but an ambassador of Japanese cuisine, writer, educator, mentor and all-around Renaissance man. However, as busy and famous as he is, Murata is also remarkably kind. He cares about struggling craftsmen and budding chefs. I’m writing the article now, it’s pretty difficult to stop gushing about him. Seriously, this guy is an inspiration.

Stay tuned for the article, part three of our Masters series, on Savory Japan, coming soon.

May features: Sushi Etiquette and Ippodo Tea Shop

Savory Japan is updated for May, with new articles on sushi etiquette and Ippodo, one of our favorite shops in Kyoto. Ippodo has been around for nearly 300 years, and they have certainly gotten everything right. What impresses us about this venerable Kyoto establishment is its’ user-friendly outlook and welcoming attitude.

Just a small selection of fine green tea at Ippodo
Just a small selection of fine green tea at Ippodo

While they have branches throughout Japan and an excellent English-language website, a visit to the main shop is quite an experience. Read more.

To follow articles on Japan dining etiquette (which mainly covers chopstick use) and drinking etiquette is our third in the series, on sushi etiquette. What this, you might ask? Well, every type of Japanese cuisine has its own peculiar rules, so read on to make sure you aren’t offending your Japanese hosts and dining partners while enjoying sushi. More importantly, this handy guide will also help you get the most out of your sushi experience.

Inspired Shojin Ryori at Ajiro

Savory Japan is updated for November, and in honor of the upcoming holiday celebrations, includes a short article on Japanese drinking etiquette. You may find it useful for dining at Japanese restaurants abroad, and some of the hints are essential when drinking in Japan.

The other feature is about Ajiro, a stellar shojin ryori (vegetarian temple cooking) restaurant that earned one star in the 2010 Kyoto/Osaka Michelin guide. Since I haven’t yet had the good fortune to dine at any others listed and can’t compare, I’m probably not a good judge in terms of the star rating, but I beg to differ with the description, which says it is a ‘casual place’. My experience in May was far from casual. I enjoyed an excellent eight-course lunch, served in formal, old-fashioned Japanese style by an elegant kimono-clad woman, on fine red lacquer while seated in a private room lined with Zen paintings. The only thing casual (as well as surprising) was the price, which was just over ¥3,000.

There’s a detailed description of the entire meal, as well as a slide show, so you can see what I mean. It really does make one take notice when local food expert Sachiyo Imai calls it one of the best restaurants in Kyoto, a place that ‘personifies the flavor of Kyoto’.

Kyoto Osaka Michelin Guide 2010

In May, I posted an blog entry on the Michelin Guide to Kyoto/Osaka. Well, I just got my hands on a copy, and nervously thumbed through it quickly to see if any of my favorites were listed. Only one made it on the list: Ajiro, a delightful shojin ryori (vegetarian temple cooking) restaurant near Myoshinji Temple. We visited Ajiro last May, upon the recommendation of Sachiyo Imai, as well as Reverend Daiko Matsuyama of Taizo-in Temple. I’ll post an article about the restaurant soon, as well as a slide show of our marvelous meal there.

But back to the guide: 150 restaurants are featured, with 85 restaurants in Kyoto earning 110 stars and 65 restaurants in Osaka earning 79 stars. What strikes me about the list, other than the fact that it includes many famous names, is their relative affordability when compared to Tokyo’s starred establishments. This puts the meals within reach of a wider audience of Japanese food enthusiasts, that is, alas, IF you can secure a reservation; Ah, the flip side of fame. This is why I was nervous when opening the guide. But selfishness aside, congratulations to all the chefs, restaurants and ryokans who’ve made it on the list.

On Oct. 14m=, New York Times In Transit blog focused on the fact that Kyoto earned 110 Michelin stars, more than the Big Apple itself. I’m sure this will lead to controversy over the coming months, as most of the restaurants serve strictly Japanese cuisine. There will also undoubtedly be controversy over the ones that didn’t make it, but should have, and the ones who didn’t want to be listed, but were. (I know of at least one, from a trusted source.)

Do you have a copy yet? Are your favorite establishments listed?

Kyoto Izakaya says “No Thanks” to Publicity

Shime saba (vinegared mackerel)
Shime saba (vinegared mackerel)

We’re back from our Kyoto adventure, and I have to admit with some irony that the best food we had this time around was at a place I can’t divulge. Therefore, as much as I want to, I won’t be listing it on Savory Japan. But don’t despair, for if you go to Kyoto and befriend a local, they will probably tell you where to go or better yet, take you there, because you’ll need a translator.  Your destination would be a humble and utterly ordinary-looking izakaya (pub) that serves extraordinary food. Since it’s famous among residents and usually packed to capacity, the no-nonsense and down-to-earth staff and management decline all press coverage and general hoopla. It’s the sort of classic, old-fashioned place that is loved by its patrons and staff, who want to keep it just the way it is. They don’t take reservations or credit cards. There is no English menu. In fact, the menu is hand-written in Japanese (lots of hirgana for the kanji-challenged like me) and doesn’t include prices. If the place is full, you’ll be turned away, or perhaps allowed to wait on one small bench.

We counted our lucky stars when we were able to grab choice counter seating on two visits (we had to return to sample all the dishes we wanted to try.) From there, we watched the action in the long kitchen, where three expert itamae (chefs) grilled yakitori and Kyoto vegetables, sliced excellent quality sashimi and poured copious drinks with wide and genuine smiles, especially on the second evening when the general mood and vibe was great. One female server covered the remaining zashiki (tatami-matted floor seating) tables, efficiently moving to and fro without fuss.

On our first visit, we came prepared with a list of recommended items for which the izakaya is well known: shime saba (vinegar-ed mackerel) soaked in layers of kombu; crispy chicken skin yakitori, suitably salty and full of flavor; grilled herring which was air-dried overnight, intensifying its flavor; grilled manganji peppers with katsuobushi and shoyu; kamo nasu (Kyoto eggplant) dengaku, roasted and slathered with sweet miso. We ended with a big plate of hearty and piping-hot oden. As the custom is in true izakaya, no rice is served, but that hardly mattered, for we drank (way too much) beer and shochu throughout the meal.

Kamo rosu (chilled grilled duck breast)
Kamo rosu (chilled grilled duck breast)

On our second visit, we had the best katsuo no tataki (bonito cooked just on the outside, with scallions, ginger, ponzu and a few slices of garlic) we’ve ever had; saba (mackeral) simmered in sweet ginger sauce; maguro no yamakake (diced tuna covered with grated mountain potato); roast and chilled kamo (duck) breast with a lip-smacking light but savory sauce and a generous dollop of hot mustard. We ended with our favorite: agedashi-dofu. This humble dish is somewhat of a miracle, and widely available but hard to get right. Two pristine blocks of fresh, silky-smooth tofu were coated in starch, deep-fried, then placed in a savory bowl of flavored dashi, topped with a mound of grated daikon and ginger. The resulting combination of textures and flavors was perfect and utterly delicious. Again, we drank (and ate) way too much, but the bill on both evenings seemed awfully low for ordering with such abandon.

Along one wall there is the customary shelf with bottles of sake and shochu, scrawled with the names of regulars. On our next trip, we plan to buy a bottle to keep there to claim, in a small way, some prime Kyoto real estate.