13 April 2008

Kaiseki in Japan

Since my first visit in 2006, I always loved coming back to Japan, a place where people are like little flecks of nori in the miso of life. Or a speck of aduki bean paste in the daifuku of existence. Or something along those lines. I'm no poet, ok?

Anyway, in April 2008, I was once again in Japan, and since I really like and admire most Japanese cuisine, I had thought that it's about time to sample some local haute cuisine. To be honest, I never found Japan to be an expensive place for dining, and that's not because I am rich or anything. I just never did outrageous things like order bottles of
Petrus or single-malt scotches or eat sushi off a naked woman. Or even try fugu (poisonous blowfish). That is just not my thing as I'm a shy, retiring sort of person in real life. Ask anyone. But I like food and often, the best food I have encountered in Japan are from little family restaurants where they make only one main kind of dish, like soba or udon or kushiage but they've been doing the same dishes for several generations so usually they have gotten it right by now. My best suggestion is to just pop into a place with only Japanese signs and just gesture that you want to eat. The Japanese are so polite that often the host will show you what they can offer (usually via a picture menu), and then you just order whatever you fancy. In this way, I have encountered some splendid food, from spicy pork broths made from bones that have been simmered (not boiled) for days, to stunning zarusoba, a cold plate of soba noodles dipped in dashi sauce, to various kinds of rice dishes served with meat mixed with raw egg which somehow still tastes so right. I would never eat raw eggs in Europe but in Japan, the standard of hygiene is really much better than in Europe and the quality and freshness of the food is so good that I really do trust the restaurants, and trust is really the secret to eating well in Japan. And a sense of adventure! :o)

But there is a higher order of food in Japan, called kaiseki, the haute cuisine of Japanese food. Apparently, the phrase kaiseki means "stones in the bosom", and is related to some old Zen monks' habit of putting warm stones around their bellies to ward off hunger pangs. To be honest, how this relates to haute cuisine, I have no idea as every kaiseki I have been to don't serve stones, cold or hot. What they do serve are very unusual dishes, made lovingly from the freshest ingredients, presented beautifully as virtual works of art and they are designed to excite the senses of sight, smell and taste.

As the area around Kyoto is known for the best kaiseki in Japan, I started with Uma no Me,
housed in an old farmhouse in Nara, just inside the main park. I opted for the private dining room, which costed an extra 1.000 yen and it was well worth it. After all, 1.000 yen is only roughly 6 Euro and that doesn't even count as a tip in most restaurants in London. The meal starts with a sakizuke, a morsel of exquisite bean curd and gingery radish meant for cleaning your palate. Then came the hassun and mukozuke, a combined course of strikingly-presented sashimi with a curious bowl of mixed wild ferns harvested from somewhere in the mountains. Then came the futamono, a lovely piece of fried bean curd that has been simmered in stock and served with an unusual dashi sauce. This was followed by yakimono, kono no mono and tome-wan, respectively some grilled river bream, a beautiful selection of unfamiliar but delicious pickled vegetables and an elegant miso soup. All too soon, came the mizumono, a suprisingly unflattering and unexpected strawberry mousse. Overall, it was a wonderful introduction to the world of kaiseki and the lunch was well worth the 4.500 yen. More pictures can be seen here.

The next kaiseki was Grotto in Kita-Shiragawa in Kyoto,
a place easily reachable by bus, which is just as well as few taxis seem to prowl around here. This kaiseki is run by an affable and friendly cook, Takada Shinichiro, who has worked in New York and Australia, and he did all the cooking in front of the diners, which were seated at a square bar around his rather efficient little kitchen area. Mr Shinichiro's cuisine is rather upgraded for the 21st century and he has a less formal approach to the tradition of kaiseki. He is also rather fond of scallops or hotate, which is just fine with me! The sakizuke is a little sashimi of salmon and firm white fish, beautiful in its sparseness and really makes one itch for more food. A lovely soup was served next, a delicious broth with scallop dumplings. Then the hassun appeared, an enticing hotate and flounder sashimi, followed by the futamono, a thickish soup with a slice of monkfish wrapped in a sakura leaf. The main shiizakana then appeared, consisting of tempura and various kinds of grilled fish and vegetables. This was exquisite in its simplicity and taste. A naka-choko followed next, a rather overly thick version of chawan-mushi. Then came some salad speckled with sesame dressing and served with a small piece of grilled fish. The tome wan was a rather curious rice ball floating around in a cornflour-thickened clear miso broth. Finally, the mizumono arrived and it was unexpectedly simple and bland - chiffon cake, some sweet bean paste and peach sorbet. Again, it was a lovely and interesting experience of a new style of cuisine and was well worth the 4.500 yen for the dinner. Pictures can be viewed here.

Emboldened by my previous kaiseki experiences, I headed out finally for Doi, widely considered to be one of the best kaiseki in Japan. It is located in a hidden spot, uphill in the Kodai-ji Temple complex reachable from the Gion temple in Kyoto. This place does kaiseki for no less than 25.000 yen per person, but fortunately, there is a cheaper option where one can have the same food for half the price, as long as one does not mind sitting on chairs at a dinner table (instead of tatami mats) and being served by apprentice geishas. The restaurant itself is rather surprising, in that one has to take an electric lift to the 3rd floor dining room. It seems that tradition here stops on the ground floor but I didn't mind as the view was superb and somehow captures the essence of modern Kyoto.

The kaiseki here would never be accused of being ungenerous for I ate here as much as in both previous kaiseki combined. Fortunately, I had a loose pair of trousers and a lot of willpower. The meal kicked off immediately with the hassun, various pickles and bracken fern on a gluey paste of wild yam, accompanied by jellied abalone. A very interesting combination indeed, especially the yam paste which pretty much had the structure and texture of mucus. Next was the futamono, a broth of mushroom, abalone and fish, which tasted luscious. This was followed by a mukozuke, a huge platter of sashimi, wonderfully fresh and bountiful enough to warrant loosening my belt a notch. The strangest course appeared next, an overcooked, rather rough-tasting lobster served with some seaweed. I cannot really say that I enjoyed this dish as the lobster was at least 10 minutes or more overdone, and hence it had lost its texture and much of its natural sweetness. Still, the kaiseki pressed on with the shiizakana, a triple whammy of grilled duck, broiled fish and a chowder of baby clams cooked in what appears to be brown miso. This came with the gohan, a rather simple rice bowl mixed with fresh peas and a tray of pickled vegetables. All was rather palatable, especially the duck and even the green-tea coated fish was better than I had feared. As usual, the meal ended with a rather insipid mizumono, basically just some sliced chilled tropical fruit. Was it worth 12.500 yen for this lunch? Well, I have to say that I am no kaiseki expert but somehow, I found Doi rather formulaic. The food was never less than well-done and well-presented, even delicious in most part, but it seemed to have been prepared without a lot of passion or delight - my lunch felt a little like a task that had to be done by someone following a formula. This is a top-class restaurant, of that there is no doubt, but I would suggest to please don't make Doi your first kaiseki experience. There are other kaiseki with more tradition, flourish and atmosphere to sample beforehand. Some pictures of Doi are on here.

But would I like to have another kaiseki again? Sure, of course, if someone wants to buy me dinner - anytime! :o)

19 March 2007

Dinner Club in San Sebastian, March 2007

Firstly, I would really like to thank Sylvia, Veronica, Yulia, Andrea, Ruth, Patti and Peter for joining me in San Sebastian. I truly hope everyone had a good time and enjoyed some culinary experiences that they will never forget. Right now, I am writing this in my apartment in San Sebastian mulling over what to do for dinner. Shall it be a jamon iberico pintxo or two at the new Bideluze at 24 Garibal Kalea or the stuffed baby courgette pinxto in Martinez in the Parte Vieja? Or perhaps the signature dish at Iombi (if they bother to open tonight)? It's a tough decision, and I have to make more hard decisions for lunch tomorrow before I leave. Oh well...

Anyway, here's the story so far. We met up on Thursday with Veronica at Stansted on the way to Biarritz via Ryanair. Trust me, if there is any other airline you can use rather than Ryanair, then use them instead. From Biarritz we hopped on a couple of trains and were in San Sebastian within an hour or so, mainly due to some lucky train connections. Yulia came in via Bilbao and together we all set off for an impromptu pinxto crawl around 21:00. First stop was Rojo y Negro around the corner from the seafront. Some magret and foie pinxtos washed down by a glass of red wine hit the spot before we strolled over to Antonio, where we had some jamon iberico floating on top of hand-made potato crisps and a plate of chopitos (baby deep-fried squid). Feeling less anxious about dinner now, we made the effort to stroll over to Alona Berri in Gros, where we had countless numbers of their sublime pinxto creations. This is the bar which tends to win the annual pinxto competition. Sated, contented, chilled out, we moseyed back via a jazz bar and then to sleep.

Next day, we met up at noon, and first stop was Iombi in the Plaza de Gipuzkoa. This place opens and closes when it feels like and it was a rare privilege to catch them not only open for business but in top form as well. Their signature dish is also called Iombi, and is a porcelain spoonful of foie gras on top of an olive oil and port sauce, topped with a raw pigeon egg. The trick to eating this is to pop the whole spoonful into your mouth, munch once or two, and then press your tongue up against the roof of your mouth. The experience is spiritual - no other word comes close to describing it. Next stop around the corner was Meson Martin, which does fantastic tortillas and grilled black puddings, and when we were finally stuffed (again), we sort of wandered over to visit Mont Igeldo via the funicular train. Then after some pictures, we came back down and hiked around the corner to the Chillida Leku sculptures and the hissing sea holes which blow air and water up your trousers if you are not careful! Really. San Sebastian is that sort of place.

For Friday evening, we had a local friend, Manuel, very kindly come round to show us the Parte Vieja properly. (We do things properly in this little club.) Andrea and Ruth had made it by then and they happily joined us as we sojourned through the lovely old town with Manuel explaining the history and architecture of the town. Apparently, San Sebastian did really well when they backed Queen Isabel against some rough-smelling Spanish lords and when she finally won, she bequeathed a lot of favours to the town, which started its eminence in Northern Spain. Manuel also forced us to sample several of his favourite (and fantastic) pinxto restaurants (where the rule was to have only 1 or 2 pinxtos before the next bar) and the ones I can remember out of the 6-7 places are Txepetxa, Muntos, La Cuchara de San Telmo, Martinez and Goiz-Bargi where we had to very understandably prise Veronica away from the corner of the gambas grill bar. I say understandably as I was there in the same position before and I wouldn't have moved even if they had a Scud missile warning. There was also one that specialises in grilled fresh anchovies (I can recognise the place but not remember the name) and I never thought anchovies can taste so good! Fortunately, Patti and Peter had also made it into town just after the start of the tour and they met us up at Martinez, where Peter did his valiant best to make up for lost time. At the end, I somehow found my way home (we had a glass or two of wine at every pinxto bar, remember) and I vaguely recall that a few people then headed off for a disco that evening.

Saturday lunch was a, er, well, rather haphazard Spanish event, and somehow we had managed to upset the waitress in the restaurant which some Spanish friends, Augustina and Pepe, took us to. It was precariously poised for a moment or two whether we will all get to have lunch, but in the end all was well. Food was not that great, to be honest, but it was a very typical Spanish meal, just for a contrast. In the afternoon, everyone did their own thing and we only gathered again around 20:00 to take the bus to Lasarte and Martin Berasategui.

Regarding Saturday's dinner at Martin Berasategui, all I can say is that it was, for me at least, an almost transcedental night. Where can I start? It was just 10 courses of genius cooking. At the end, people were trying to figure their favourites out of the courses, but to me, they were all simply divine. I think that I will just let the pictures do the talking for this dinner as I hate to sound gushy. Oh, and we were very fortunate to find a lovely Rioja to match the dinner, a Marques de Risqual 2002. It was a superb wine, which matched the dinner well and was not too expensive (unlike the dinner)! It was definitely a night which one will remember for a very long time.

Sunday lunch at the sidaria was completely the opposite end of the culinary spectrum. Whereas we had designer plates and servile waiting staff the night before, at the sidaria, we had to fetch our own drinks and the food was more or less eaten with our hands! But it was about as much fun as one can have with clothes on. We started with a lengthy bus trip from San Sebastian to some village called Astigarraga and and the dining hall is the canteen used by the sidaria's workers in summer. This particular sidaria is actually a working apple farm and they do these special meals only outside of the apple growing/cider making season. The first course was a simple salted cod omelette, followed by baked cod and then followed by slabs of the most delicious grilled beef in Spain. We even ordered an extra slab of beef, as it was just soooo good! Dessert was Spanish cheese with sticks of apricot jelly and walnuts which you crack open yourself. Most fun was catching the cider as we squirted streams of dry cider straight from the barrels onto the floor. The trick is to get as much air as possible into the cider before knocking it back as quickly as possible. And the trick is definitely not getting cider all over your clothes and shoes, like Yulia.

After such a lunch, the evening was understandably muted, and some of us met up in a bar and then just moseyed over to Gandarias for a few glasses of Belondrade y Lurton, arguably the best white wine in Spain. This was followed by a red Marques de Vitoria 1998 which was unfortunately served straight out of the bottle but nobody spat it out, even though it was not decanted. We wandered back via the Dickens Bar where someone had a very serious gin & tonic.

Monday is when everyone deserted San Sebastian for various reasons, mostly to do with work, apart from me. As I said before, I do things properly. So here I sit, writing this little diary and amusing myself with what I shall have for dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow. Perhaps after reading this, you can now understand what a dilemma I have on my hands here.

Monday night notes: Well, eventually hunger overcame me and I was forced to set out to find some food. To be honest, Monday night is not the best night for culinary hunting in San Sebastian as many restaurants are closed this night. However, I managed to struggle through and here is a simple guide to how to survive a Monday night in San Sebastian. First, you need to quench your thirst and the best place to do this is the Taberna Gandarias where I sloshed out a glass of Senorio Andion. Listen - if someone pointed a gun at your forehead and forced you to drink a glass of Senorio Andion, well, all I can say is that things could have been a lot worse. I had an insipid dish or two here as well, nothing to write home about, although the consomme was light and refreshing. But next stop was Martinez, where they had delectable "souffles" of wrapped baby courgettes with seafood stuffing. They also had other very good pinxtos as well, including seafood layered raw scallops and thin bread sticks with lines of iberico ham and I can remember vouching for those as well. That was almost enough but unfortunately I passed by Egosari, who do the most delicious moist grilled spiesses (or kebabs). So I had a couple, as I was not a rude person. They even had lovely-looking iberico ham pinxtos topped with lightly-fried pigeon eggs but I refused them, such was my will. So, I was now heading back home, minding my own business, when the barman at Meson Martin winked me into his bar. I'm usually a fussy person, but when he pours a well-aerated bottle of Marques de Vitoria and serves me fried aubergines with tomato, ham and cheese filling, then even I may get persuaded. Also, believe or not, a hailstorm hit the town just as I was walking by and if it was not destiny, I don't know what it was that forced me into this bar. Now thoroughly stuffed to the gills, I stumbled out and was saying the Lord's prayers when I saw that the idiosyncratic Iombi was also open! Again, I stress that I am not a good contestant against destiny so I was compelled to crawl in and take a picture of an Iombi (something which I had forgotten to do before). But this meant ordering one and a degustif, so I did both. The only good news after this was that I did not have to pass Bideluze on the way back to the apartment!

Tuesday lunch notes: I just thought that I would scribble these thoughts down just before I leave. Someone had (cruelly) suggested that I might have added on a few ounces during the last few days and suggested a walk to Gros for lunch. Well, I am game for this, despite the fact that it has been hailing and raining all day. All I forbade myself was another visit to Alona Berri as that would just mean that I would be there all afternoon. So the first port of call was Bergara, the place where Juan Mari Arzak started his cooking career. It was not the worst decision of my life to come here and they really do things a little more elegantly and tastefully than the bars in the Parte Vieja. Also, one would have few arguments if one considered Bergara to be one of the very best pinxto bars in town. A couple of Marques and few pinxtos later, I made the mistake of dropping into Casa Duran, where, although the fried stuffed aubergine was passable, it just did not compare to Meson Martin last night. The red wine was also pretty awful, so I really would not recommend this place. However, I easily made up for this mistake by sampling the numerous foie gras pinxtos at Bar Iraeta, just down the road and opposite the front of the main church in Gros. This place specialises in foie gras and with that much foie experience under the belt, well, let us just say that it was a fitting end to my stay in San Sebastian, especially as the 4 pinxtos and a lovely red crianza I had there costed less than 12 Euro in total!

All the rather haphazard pictures I took in San Sebastian can be seen here, if you wish.

09 December 2006

Sojourn through Malta, December 2006

Due to some unavoidable circumstances, I ended up in Malta for a week at the beginning of December 2006. As usual, I did my usual research by simply asking a friend who has lived there for a year or so and her curt advice was generally not to bother unless I liked esoteric modern glass works, eating fish or drinking a lot, not necessarily in that order. However, in the end, things were not as dire as that and it proved to be quite an interesting visit to a place steeped in history, with lots of curious buses, bad roads, friendly people and quite surprisingly good food.

The first thing one notices is that the Maltese tourist spots are rather like seedy versions of Brighton in England, or Zinnowitz in Ruegen, only bigger and warmer. However, the roads are invariably in a state of chronic disrepair and designed to twist the ankles of the unwary or test the suspension of your hire car. But the people are friendly, and even friendlier if you leave them tips. It is not unusual to have complete strangers "assist" you in finding a parking space and then holding a hand out for a coin or two. It seems that any Maltese can become a self-authorised parking assistant or tourist guide and they are generally so friendly that it seems impolite not to hand over a little silver every day to people who just loiter around car parks or tourist attractions. By the way, watch out for people selling you timeshares or excursion tickets. The timeshares are always ripoffs or scams and the excursions sold are not always for the specified time.

Outside of the tourist spots, Malta is, well, different. The whole island is practically a walled fort and has been for centuries, and the Maltese still seem to like to build walls. All over the countryside are fields and orchards divided by walls and crisscrossed by more walls, all painstakingly assembled from large chunks of limestone or local sandstone. Why they like walls so much is a bit of a mystery and when they are not building walls, the Maltese are building little solid sandstone forts all over the countryside as well.

Still, Malta can be very pretty and impressive, especially when viewed from the sea. Do a Captain Morgain excursion around the Grand Harbour and Marsamxetto Harbour to get a flavour of how stunningly secure Malta is as a fort and how beautiful it looks, especially in the sunset. The capital Valletta is a complete city within a fort, the only capital in the world to be such. More inland and on Gozo (an island north of Malta), one can find prehistoric hypogeums and temples that date back as far as 5,000 years BC, even older than the pyramids in Egypt. For a quick synopsis of what Malta is about, just attend the Malta Experience, an audio-visual show in Valletta, but it is also worth visiting some of the historic sites later.

But I digress. This is a food site and I have to say that the food in Malta is quite tolerable, if not actually pretty good and nearly always amazingly cheap. For example, it is at Bobbyland at the Dingli Cliffs where I had the best rabbit ever in my life, a superb fenek done with a fragrant garlic and wine sauce that complemented a supremely juicy whole wild rabbit. Normally I hate rabbit but Bobbyland had such a reputation that I had to try it there and I am so glad I did. Even the local red wine was quite tolerable and its dryness matched the rabbit well. My partner had bragioli, which is a little like a rind rouladen but stuffed with local Maltese sausage meat. It was also very good, but not as good as the fenek. Both dishes together, including drinks, costed less than 25 Euro, by the way. However, a little warning is in order. I was later wandering around Valletta and was convinced by an earnest Maltese lady to try fenek again at her "original" Maltese restaurant. The only differences I can find are (a) her version had potatoes boiled with the stew, and (b) it tasted horrible, exactly the dry grassy-gamy rabbit meat that I hate. I had to get out and (i) drink a coffee (ii) eat a vanilla cake and (iii) drink a milkshake, to get rid of the aftertaste.

The normal Maltese breakfast, available practically everywhere, is the standard English fry-up; eggs, sausages, bacon, toast and beans, plus coffee, tea or fruit juice. It is somewhat better and cheaper than in England but the sausages, being Maltese, have a different taste and does not have so much rusk as in England. I rather like it but it is not something I can have every day. It is ridiculously cheap though, less than 5 Euro in general, and less than 2.50 Euro in some places!

As fish is such a staple dish in Malta, for a true experience of it, I was recommended to Tal Familja in Marsascala. The lampuki was out so I had to settle for cerna, a lovely silvery fish with firm white meat, filleted beautifully in sauce meuniere with roast potatoes and steamed vegetables. I also tried the same fish at another restaurant near St Paul's Bay but it was not nearly as good, even though it was more expensive, although I guess that is to be expected.

I was walking around Xemxija Hill one evening, which in the low season, is a dusty moribund district full of empty restaurants and bars and where the only people around are those scuttling away in cars. To my amazement, I saw a line of cars parked outside Zeus, a Greek restaurant that advertises a 10-dish meze for less than 15 Euro. So I strolled in and ended up having a surprisingly good meal of fried zucchini and charcoal-grilled kotixia (quail) on tomato rice. Which goes to show that it is always a good idea to follow the locals.

Because it looks so wholesome, one night I bought a Maltese loaf, a round crusty bread costing less than half a Euro. So here is a simple sandwich idea which will provide ample sustenance as a lunch or picnic snack: Cut 2 thickish slices of Maltese loaf. Spread 2 squares of French Kiri cream cheese on one of the slices. Layer 3 slices of Parma ham on top of the cheese and close with the other slice. And that's it! Great, especially when washed down with a beer.

I also wandered over to Gozo, a smaller calmer island north of Malta. It's a pretty place, lots of greenery, agriculture and even nicer people. Here one can see the world's oldest upright structures created by man, a strange double temple where I guess prehistoric man used to have BBQs and chew the fat around muddy cups of grass tea after work or something. In Gozo, the centre of food is Xlendi and I was there especially to try It-Tmun, only to be annoyed and disappointed as we arrived 1 minute after last orders at 2 pm. Discussing this with the manager proved pointless so we repaired to Zafiro, a newish-looking place on Xlendi Promenade. This proved to be a very good move as they served a wonderful lampuki, bordered by fresh mussels cooked in white wine. Despite looking a lot like mackerel, lampuki tastes more like grouper, not oily at all, firm delicious white meat simply cooked in butter and garlic sauce.

On returning from Gozo, we stopped at Arches in Mellieha, reputed to be the best restaurant in Malta. Perhaps I had raised the expectations bar a little too high, but for me, such a reputation would remain a subjective matter rather than fact. Saying that, the atmosphere and service is good, the decor is elegant and more classy than other Maltese places and the wine list was surprisingly good, with even Petrus available for around 1375 Euro a bottle. Yes, it is that sort of place. But, none of the fish was fresh and all the meat is not local either, with the lamb and beef coming from New Zealand and the fowl from other European countries. Oh well.

We also had dinner one night in Bacchus, a huge sprawling restaurant that takes up a twelveth of the fortress town of Mdina. Passable food (but a little over-ambitiously creative), good ambience as the main public restaurant was located in interesting gunpowder vaults built in the 17th and 18th centuries, and nice friendly service. Definitely a place to sample if you are ever in Mdina but not worth a special trip just for the food.

Pretty much all of my pictures taken in Malta can be seen here, and following are recommendations and some places where I have dined:

Zafiro, Xlendi Promenade, Xlendi, Gozo. Linked to San Andrea Hotel which looks a cool place to stay in Gozo.

It-Tmun, Xlendi, Gozo.

Tal-Familja, Triq il-Gardiel, Marsascala, Malta.

Bacchus, Inguanez Street, Mdina, Malta.

Arches, Millieha, opposite Maritim Hotel, Malta.

Bobbyland, Dingli Cliffs, Malta. Best rabbit (fenek) ever.

It-Rizzu, near seafront, Marsaxlokk, Malta.