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If memory serves me correct, there is a Chinese restaurant in Yokohama’s Chinatown that is not only the oldest Chinese restaurant in Japan, but also one of the most respected Chinese restaurants in the world. I first heard of HeiChinRou when watching Iron Chef years ago. The restaurant sent its top two deputy chef’s up against Iron Chef Chen Kenechi only to have him cut them down. Not satisfied, they finally sent their Grand Master Chef to set things straight, Xie Huaxian. Xie is considered by many to be the greatest Chinese chef of our time. He was victorious. Ever since then I told my self, “I have got to eat at that restaurant!” After 7 trips to Japan, including numerous time walking past HeiChinRou, that day had finally come. Yuki had plans with a bunch of her friends to show off Otis, so her parents took me to fulfill my belly’s destiny.

An elegant restaurant on numerous floors, there’s a peaceful bamboo garden when you walk in. They took us in an elevator up to the second floor and sat us in a very comfortable booth. Coming from Chicago I was pleasantly surprised by how absolutely clean the restaurant is. It had the look and feel of a high-end French restaurant, not the greasy Chinese stir-fry I am used to. The menu features many a la carte dishes as well as a handful of set course options. Being the first week of 2012 we opted for the “Happy New Year” course option.

Uichiro and I started off with some Shokoshu, a type of Chinese rice wine or Shaoxing. Served warm, it has a caramel color as well as taste more similar to a Brandy than a rice wine. Very smooth and very warm in the belly, its delicious on a chilly day.

The first course consisted of 5 tastes. Jellyfish, a baby squid stewed in soy sauce, a shrimp, a slice of smoked duck breast, a piece of Chinese BBQ pork, and a dollop of mustard. While they were all fantastic, I have to say that the pork may have been the best piece of swine that has ever graced my palette! If it were socially acceptable I would drape myself in it and nibble on it all day long.

The second course was Shark Fin Soup with Crab. I have eaten shark fin soup before, but always questioned the authenticity of the shark fins. I always thought I was being served cellophane noodles instead. I think I was right as this texture was nothing like the bowls I’ve previously eaten. Slightly chewy, they combined beautifully with the sweetness of the crab meat. This soup may not be humane, but it sure tasted good!

The third course was abalone with Simmered Shiitake and Bok Choy in Oyster Sauce. It’s really too bad that abalone is illegal in the States, it really is a wonderful mollusk. Dense in texture, it matched very well with the soft shiitake and bitter green.

The fourth course was Beef with Shimeji Mushrooms, Carrots, and Asparagus. Served in a soy based sauce it was simply wonderful. After eating this I don’t see how I can go back to eating Mongolian Beef in Chicago’s Chinatown.

The fifth course was Shrimp in Chili Sauce. A little bit of sweetness and just the right amount of heat to get your mouth tingling a little. The spice made you want to keep coming back for more. Fried wonton skins added some crisp texture and was Uichiro’s favorite part of the dish.

The sixth course was Sautéed Rice with Egg, Pork, Green Onion, and Lettuce. This dish is similar to fried rice except that it’s sautéed together over a lower heat. This keeps the rice a little softer and helps prevent the lettuce from wilting under the intense heat of a hot wok. I’ve seen his dish on Iron Chef and was glad to get the chance to eat such a high quality version of it.

The seventh course, dessert, was Almond Jelly with a sprig of mint. I think this was Uichiro’s favorite part of the whole meal. He’s eaten many different almond jelly’s in his life and couldn’t get over how good this one was. I’ve only eaten a few, but I agree that this one was the best I’ve ever had. Sweet with the texture of a fine silken tofu, a great way to end a great meal.

All in all, I will say that none of these dishes were out of the ordinary for Chinese food as far as creativity. However, that said, I don’t think you’ll find better preparation anywhere in the world. In each dish the ingredients were of the highest quality, they were all cooked to perfection, and the flavors were expertly balanced. Hands down the most fantastic Chinese food to ever pass through my tracts!

While Xie Huaxian is no longer cooking at HeiChinRou, his successor, Nishizaki-san, is no slouch.

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Alright, last night I was able to knock out one more Iron Chef from my list as Yuki’s parents took us along with her sister to Iron Chef Italian Masahiko Kobe’s restaurant, Ristorante Massa. It’s located in a very cool neighborhood of Tokyo called Ebisu tucked away off a main street. It’s a simple little restaurant that seats only about 25-30 people. It was full when we were there, and probably is most nights due to his celebrity status and fantastic food.

There were two pre fix menu options. The one we opted for was the less expensive of the two (approx $65 compared to $85) as it offered one less dish than the other. Since none of us are fat Americans it seemed like the right choice. We could chose one from each category of Antipasto Freddo (3 choices), Antipasto Caldo (three choices), Primo Piatto (5 choices), Secondo Piatto (4 choices), and either a Dolce (5 choices) or Formaggio Plate (pick two out of 4 cheeses) followed by either tea or espresso. We washed down the meal with some Chianti Classico. I have pics of everything, but I’m only going to mention what I ordered otherwise this post will be way way way too long. This is already one of the longest introductions I’ve written. So, on to the food!

We each started off with the Oyster starter that was not part of the Pre Fix. It is probably the largest oyster I’ve ever eaten in my life! So fresh and clean it was simply served in its own juices with a little squeeze of lime and some rock salt. What more does a good oyster need?

Then they brought out an amuse bouche. Baked pasta filled with ricotta cheese, a little slice of pear, and an Italian parsley leaf. It almost reminded me of matzoh with cream cheese, a treat dear to my stomach for one week out of the year.

The Antipasto Freddo I ordered was a foie gras terrine with chamomile. It was served with smoked Ishikawa potatoes, a yuzu consomme jelly, Italian Arugula, and sprinkled with flaked red pepper.

My Antipasto Caldo of choice was a bit of a mis-translation. I thought I was getting duck confit, when it showed up we thought is was duck balls, but it turned out to be chicken gizzards. I actually preferred it to be balls since I’ve never eaten bird balls, but it was still outstanding! The gizzards were served on top of a kabocha puree with thinly sliced red onions that were soaked in cold water, a shishito pepper, and a pea pod.

The Primo Piatto, pasta course, I ordered was chitarra with cremini sauce. The sauce was as simple and delicious as could be…olive oil, garlic, and minced cremini mushrooms. There were big slices of sautéed cremini in it as well. With Kobe being the “Prince of Pasta” it was easily the best pasta in my life. Cooked to perfection, nice and al dente.

For the Secondo Piatto I got the beef, of course. A perfectly grilled strip loin to medium rare covered in a light mustard sauce and served with asparagus, a shiitake, a pea pod, and a slice of red pepper. Uichiro, Yuki’s dad, ordered his with black truffles on top. I wish I knew I could do that. He gave me a few of the truffles and they made an outstanding steak even better…as truffles always do.

I opted for the Formaggio instead of a Dolce. I chose the parmigiano and taleggio. He served it very typically with some dried fruits and sliced nut bread. I washed it down with lemon tea instead of espresso as I wanted to sleep later on.

Maki, Yuki’s sister, couldn’t finish her Tirimisu so I took it upon myself to not waste any food. It was served with kiwi sorbet and fresh fruit. Of course, it was the best tirimisu that I’ve ever digested.

Overall, this was by far the best Italian food I’ve ever eaten, hands down. And I’ve been to Italy. I’m sure there are places as good in Italy, but when Yuki and I went there we couldn’t afford any of the top restaurants. We ate some pretty damn good food there, but nothing as refined as this.

I have also said before that I didn’t think modern Italian food existed. I said that due to the lack of creativity and refinement of Italian food in Chicago (although, I have yet to eat at Spiaggia). At home it’s mostly humongous bowls of pasta with thick rich sauces that weigh you down. Nothing like Ristorante Massa where the portions were clean, fresh, perfectly sized, and creative modern takes on classics. I have a newfound respect for Italian food.

While I have eaten at Sakai’s, Michiba’s, and Chen’s restaurants, this is the first time that an Iron Chef has actually cooked for me. It was very exciting to see Kobe back in the kitchen when we walked in. I think there are two reasons Kobe was cooking for us. First, he only has one restaurant while the others all have numerous. So you know where Kobe will be when he cooks as opposed to it being a crapshoot for the others (I missed Sakai by 4 hours back when Yuki and I went to La Rochelle). Second, he’s still young at only 40 and still wants to create. Michiba is an old man and doesn’t cook anymore and I don’t think Sakai cooks too much anymore either.

No more Iron Chefs this trip as we head back to cold Chicago tomorrow. Next trip I’ll visit Iron Chef Japanese Nakamura Komei and maybe Honorary Iron Chef French Ishinabe Yutaka. Morimoto will have to wait as his Teppanyaki restaurant here in Tokyo starts at approx $300 a head!

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In light of my great respect for the fine art of Kaiseki, Yuki’s mom decided that she wanted to take me out for another style. That woman loves me! Frankly, I can’t blame her. At any rate, a friend of hers had recommended Ushiyama in the Meguro neighborhood of Tokyo, so we gave it a shot last night. And what a shot it was! Slam dunk!

It started off with a plate of carrots, shiitake, and mibuna with grated apple. Who would have thought of putting grated apple on mushrooms? Ushiyama, that’s who. I’m damn he did, it was amazing!

After that came a dish of four. I ate them clockwise from bottom left. Ama ebi (sweet shrimp), raw sardines with thinly sliced onion that’s been soaked in cold water to remove the sharpness, warm salted ginko nuts skewered on pine needles on top of seitan (wheat gluten) cakes on top of grilled sweet potato that was shaped like a ginko leaf, and uni in a lily blossom. No, I did not eat the maple leaf in the center of the plate nor the pine needles.

Next was the soup course. I heavily bonito flaked dashi broth that was nice and smokey with a rinkon (lotus root) and mochi dumpling and a bok choy leaf with some yuzu zest. It ranks right up there with the best soups I’ve ever eaten, next to the one I ate a few years ago at Iron Chef Michiba’s restaurant.

After the soup course was the sashimi course. It consisted of suzuki (sea bass), melt-in-your-mouth tuna, and ika (squid). It must be ika season because the ika I’ve eaten on this trip is by far the softest and sweetest I’ve ever had.

Then they served us home-made soba noodles in a light soy-dashi with some thinly sliced negi (green onions) on top. I’m telling you, there is absolutely nothing like top quality freshly made soba noodles. I don’t know if I can go back to store-bought dried soba when I get home. I mean, of course I can, but it just won’t be the same. So chewy and clean tasting.

Next up was the grilled course. Sawara (a cousin of the spanish mackerel) grilled with yuzu-miso and served with yuzu-miso konnyaku and daikon that was cut into a flower with a small slice of red pepper. I’ve never had yuzu-miso before, I’m a huge fan!

After that was the simmered course which was kinmedai (splendid alfonsino) in a ginger sauce. It was served with spinach and daikon radish with chawanmushi in the middle.

For the fried course we got a dish with some tempura. Shishito pepper and ebi imo (a kind of yam) served in a light dashi with momiji oroshi and chopped chives.

Then came the rice and miso course. The rice was a glutinous rice with chirimenjako (baby sardines simmered in saltwater, dried in the sun, and covered in a sweet soy marinade), sliced shiso, and served on top of a cherry leaf. The miso had mizuna greens in it. There was also some lightly pickled cucumber and daikon on the side (yes Nick, I even ate the pickles!).

Finally, for dessert we got sweet potato mousse. It was so soft and lightly sweet, it was really more like a light sweet potato cheesecake. Served with a sweet potato chip on top.

This Kaiseki was Kyoto-style which is considered to be the most sophisticated and delicate of all styles. Hard to argue as the food was simply magnificent! Plus, all of that food for only $50 per person! I challenge anyone to find a deal half that good for a meal of that quality prepared with that caliber anywhere in the states. Thanks so much for bringing me here Tamiko!!!

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chen

Friday night Yuki’s mom went to a concert with a friend, so it was up to me to decide where we went for dinner with her dad. In my quest to eat at every Iron Chef’s restaurants I was able to convince him that we should head out to one of Chen Kenichi’s joints. It wasn’t a hard sell. So, the three of us hopped on the train to Roppongi where Chen has one of his four places.

There were a handful of pre fix options, but none of them really had what we wanted, so we ordered a bunch of dishes in typical Chinese family-style dining.

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First up was a trio of cold appetizers. On the top were Scallops cooked with chili peppers. Not too spicy, just a nice, slow, gentle burn on the back of the throat. Bottom right was shredded chicken with a sweet miso sauce. Bottom left jellyfish in a light soy. All three were very complimentary of each other and made for a great start to the meal.

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Next up was Shark Fin Soup. Not the most politically correct dish, but hey, a little shark fin never hurt anything. A lot does, but a little doesn’t. The broth was a thick soy flavor and it had thin slices of pork in it alongside the shark fin.

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Then came Abalone, one of the sea’s finest of all creatures! Served with shiitake and bamboo shoots it was truly delicious. Judging by Uichiro’s (Yuki’s dad) reaction when he first bit into it, I’d say it was his favorite part of the meal, next to the beer.

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After that we had mixed seafood served on rice cakes. The restaurant manager poured the hot seafood on the rice cakes making it sizzle, much like the classic sizzling rice soup commonly found in American Chinatown restaurants. I need make a correction, I think Uichiro liked this dish more than the abalone. Hard to argue, the shrimp, scallops, and squid were cooked to perfection with all of the natural sweetness brought out.

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Next was probably my favorite dish of the meal, beef with mushrooms and lilies in a thick ginger soy sauce. The beef was so tender it almost melted in my mouth. The mushrooms and lilies were nice counterpoints to the salty soy. The only thing missing was white rice to balance a little more of the salt. This was definitely more of what Americans are used to than Japanese. Give me this dish and a cold beer and I’m a happy man!

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Here we go, the dish that brought me to Chen’s restaurant and the one that will make my brothers very envious, his famous mapotofu! There were two choices on the menu, Kenichi’s and Kenmei’s. Kenmei was Kenichi’s father, the one who brought true Szechuan cooking to Japan. It was a tough choice, but we opted for Kenichi’s since it was his restaurant and not his father’s. It wasn’t quite as hot as I expected, but it was definitely a hot and spicy dish! Packed with Szechuan peppercorns it gives an initial citrusy spice followed by a mouth-numbing burn. Yuki and I added some extra peppercorns to get the full experience, while Uichiro only ate a few pieces of tofu. I think it’s a little spicy for him. It was a little oily as it was douced in chili oil, but that’s what makes it so delicious. The funny thing is that in the middle of the night Tokyo experienced what it thinks was a small earthquake. It wasn’t an earthquake at all though, it was the effects of my trying to digest Chen’s mapotofu! I’m still not quite sure exactly what that dish did to my intestines, but it made a city of 16 million rumble a little. And somehow my chest got a little harrier.

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We followed the mapotofu with a mild pork and egg noodle dish. It had shiitake, green onions, chinese cabbage, sprouts, and bamboo shoots. It took a few bites to get the burn out of our mouths, but once it was gone this dish’s wonderful flavor stood out. It’s just too bad I couldn’t finish it all because we ordered one too many dishes I think. Oh well, what can you do?

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We thought we were finished when the manager brought us some complimentary dessert, Annin Tofu. Annin Tofu is a popular Chinese dessert. It’s basically just almond jelly. Very smooth, light, and creamy. It’s the perfect way to finish off a meal.

All in all, I have to say that I was a little dissapointed. After watching countless episodes of Chen creating some of the most amazing looking dishes anyone could ever think up, this meal was a very straight forward Chinese meal. Every dish was a classic that you can get at just about any Chinese restaurant. Granted, everything was perfectly balanced, but nothing was off the wall. I was kind of hoping for some Chen originals. This restaurant wasn’t the right format for him to create Iron Chef dishes. I have no regrets, but I wasn’t blown away like I was at other Iron Chef restaurants.

I have now been to three Iron Chef restaurants (4 if you count Bobby Flay, but I don’t consider him an Iron Chef and I never wanted to go to his place). I have done Sakai, Michiba, and now Chen. Next up….Kobe Masahiko.

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Kawabata Family Lunch

So, someone talked me about yesterday’s post.  “Lasagna, what’s the big deal?” I know, it’s a very basic dish. I really just wanted to show that good, well-rounded, organic meals can be whipped up on a budget. I’m going to continue showing different ideas in the future as well.

At any rate, there is a reason that lasagna holds a special place inside my duodenum. You see, my wife is Japanese. I met her when bumming around Tokyo before grey hairs started popping out of my scalp. While I ended up hanging out with her quite a bit on that journey, it wasn’t until my next trip to Japan that I met her parents.

In Japan, it’s typical for parents to meet the “boyfriend” (I use quotes because I think I was married from the first time I talked with her, or at least it feels like I was) for the first time out at a restaurant or a public place. Parents typically do not invite them into their home until after they’ve met. However, my situation was different. Here I am, a hairy Jewish gaijin from Chicago who’s travelled to Belize, Italy, and Kyoto with their daughter. They also know of my love of food and the Iron Chef. Being quite the home gourmets that they are they decided to invite me over for a home cooked meal.

I was expecting some weird Japanese dishes that I’ve never heard of or seen before using ingredients that don’t look like food. Much to my surprise her dad made his special lasagna. Actually, two special lasagnas, one with and one without meat. I have to say, the man can cook Italian! If he had big boozims I’d think he was an Italian grandmother.

Because of how her parents let me into their family, and because her family may very well be the best damn people in the world, I will always have a deep and profound love for homemade lasagna. Oh, and her mom bought a bottle of Coke because all Americans drink Coke. (I prefer sake)

Seriously, let’s be honest here. Isn’t this the cutest man in the world?

Uichiro's Mustache

He thinks the mustache makes him look like Sean Connery.

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