Ohayo Gozaimasu, everyone!
We're back to talk more about some of our favorite foods we encountered on our recent two-week trip to Japan.
For more, check out Part 1: Sushi, Ramen and Adventures in Pancakes.
Yakitori, as you may already know, simply refers to grilled chicken on skewers. We had two yakitori experiences in Tokyo -- about as different from each other as could be -- and we loved both of them.
The first was in Omoide Yokocho, which, as we mentioned in our previous post, is this very cool Tokyo alleyway filled -- filled! -- with all these yakitori grill restaurants. These restaurants are tiny: Each one seats maybe 6 to 8 people.
As you walk down this narrow lane, the air is filled with enticing aromas from all the sizzling charcoal grills in the stalls. We picked one almost entirely at random, and we have no idea what it was called. (We didn't see a single English word in Omoide Yokocho.)
We wedged our way in to the restaurant, which was about 6 feet wide and maybe 20 or 25 feet deep.
We pointed at what we wanted, the guy grilled it to perfection, and we chowed down. Our favorite was a smoky, savory skewer that alternated pieces of chicken and the huge scallions. The flavor was just excellent, and the whole evening in Omoide Yokocho was super fun.
The very next night, we had a very different yakitori experience, and it was our single favorite meal of our entire trip.
It was incredible.
Located on a quiet residential street, Masakichi is a spare, calm space. We walked in and took a seat the single wooden counter, and the chef started wordlessly preparing and plating food for us. (Literally, we never actually placed an order for anything, other than sake to drink.) The first course was this drop-dead gorgeous salad of greens, onions, green peas, radishes, bonito flakes and a prodigious amount of fresh ginger. It was so fresh and bright and mouthwateringly delicious.
Then, it happened: chicken sashimi. Yep, raw chicken. We knew it was coming, so we were prepared. But still: chicken sashimi.
We did a few mental acrobatics, brought the spoon to our mouths and swallowed it down. You know what? It was pretty delicious! The chicken was augmented by fresh shaved yuzu and a few green peppercorns. We kind of liked it, at least for one bite. That said, we probably won't be clamoring to try chicken sashimi again anytime soon. (For those of you keeping score, that means we've eaten both raw chicken and raw horse within the past 6 months!)
The rest of the meal was a parade of classic yakitori skewers of pork and chicken, including chicken wings, necks and livers. Some of the skewers were spiked with spicy wasabi; others came with a dusting of togarashi or other Japanese spice blends. The whole meal was cooked and presented with such care and precision and perfection, it was all just fantastic. (That's the Masakichi grillmaster in the photo at the top of this post.)
Two other quick notes about Masakichi Yakitori: You get to end your meal with ramen! As if the dinner isn't filling enough, you're served a bowl of ramen at the end, just to really round things out. We were stuffed, but we couldn't resist getting some noodles anyway: They were gorgeously rich and savory.
The other thing about this dinner? It was a bargain. Masakichi Yakitori is a Michelin-recognized restaurant. As you may already know, Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world. Masakichi is what's known as a "Bib Gourmand" restaurant, which is a level just below a Michelin star. (Essentially, it's Michelin's way of saying, "We've got our eyes on you.") Anyway, our whole meal, including three bottles of sake and our postprandial ramen bowls, came to about $115 total for the two of us. Now, that's not a cheap dinner, to be sure. But the same thing at home here in Washington, D.C., would have cost way more than that.
We went home that night with full bellies and huge smiles on our faces.
This was a big surprise for us: It turns out that Japan is obsessed with French food and, specifically, French bakeries. We lost count of all the marvelous French pâtisseries we encountered.
But even beyond that, Japan is just obsessed with pastries. Savory, sweet, fancy, low-brow: We saw pastries everywhere in Japan.
Sorry, did we say we "saw" pastries everywhere? We meant that we ate them. Everywhere. Bittens, we had more delicious pastries in two weeks in Japan than we've probably eaten in the past five years. From donuts to petit fours, from cheese bread to sweet buns, it was like we were carb-loading for an Ironman.
Here's but a teensy sampling:
One of our favorite bakeries was a place called Kayaba. We spent a morning exploring the quiet Tokyo neighborhood of Yanaka. We got coffee at the popular Kayaba coffeehouse; when we left, they told us to be sure to check out their new bakery nearby.
We didn't need to be told twice.
Kayaba Bakery is situated in a beautiful century-old wooden house, in a cluster of similar buildings where you'll also find an olive oil shop and a small beer hall. The pastries at Kayaba aren't Japanese at all -- we had a rosemary potato roll, a red-pepper-and-cheese roll, a basil-bacon wrap and a chocolate-chip bun (which was this lighter-than-air pillow filled with chocolate cream and chocolate chips). In the compilation image above, the top-right photo shows our tray from Kayaba.
We spent a couple days in Hiroshima, which we really enjoyed. There's the aforementioned okonomiyaki, and we were fascinated and awestruck by the Peace Memorial Museum and the beautiful adjacent memorial park. (We also did a side trip to the jaw-dropping Naoshima Island, a former fishing village that's now home to some of the greatest contemporary art installations in the world. We could write an entire separate post on that. Maybe we will.)
The other thing we really enjoyed about Hiroshima was visiting the island of Miyajima. It's an easy 40-minute ferry ride from the heart of the city, and on Miyajima you'll find the famous Itsukushima Shrine with its "floating" torii gate, one of the most iconic images of Japan:
Miyajima also has a beautiful mountain that you can summit in a couple gondolas and a more-than-slightly-grueling 30-minute hike. The views are phenomenal.
Anyway, in terms of food, Miyajima has a very important contribution: oysters. Tons of oysters are harvested from the bay around the island, and oyster bars line the main street of the town on the shore. We had lunch at one, called Kaki-ya; we were enticed by the oysters grilling over an open flame out in front of the place:
We each had a "lunch set" of several different oyster preparations: grilled oysters, steamed oysters on rice, batter-fried oysters, oil-cured oysters, a pickled oyster and oyster-miso soup.
Japanese steak is famous around the world for its exquisite quality and marbled texture. (A quick primer: wagyu literally just means "Japanese beef," while kobe refers specifically to one breed of cattle raised in Hyogo Prefecture. Actual kobe beef is incredibly expensive and accounts for something like .001% of beef sales around the world. So it's our personal belief that the vast majority of kobe beef you see on menus -- and probably wagyu as well -- isn't authentic. If you see "kobe sliders" for 20 bucks on a menu in Las Vegas, you're probably being sold a bill of goods.)
Anyhow, we wanted to sample some authentic wagyu beef, and we figured Kyoto would be the place to try it, since western Japan is historically much more beef-heavy than the rest of the country.
One night in Kyoto, we picked a dinner spot in picturesque Ponto-cho, a small pedestrian lane lit by glowing red lanterns and packed with restaurants along the river. We chose the restaurant mostly at random, but it was marvelous. It was a fixed-price dinner of sushi, sashimi, grilled salmon, tempura vegetables ... and wagyu beef.
The beef was astounding. So tender and flavorful and melt-in-your-mouth amazing. It was completely unadorned, save for a sprinkle of sea salt. It was the kind of food that makes you close your eyes and groan from enjoyment. We could have passed out.
It whet our appetites for more wagyu. So the next day for lunch, we sought out an actual steakhouse: Hafuu Honten, which we'd seen rated as not only one of the best steakhouses in Kyoto, but one of the best in all of Japan.
Is it the best steak we've ever had in our lives? It might be. We can't think of a better one. It was just absolutely beautiful: Gorgeously seared outside and rare inside, with the most amazing flavor and the most tender texture you can imagine. It was like the essence of steak. It came with crispy fried slices of garlic, a sprinkle of salt and, to our surprise, a dollop of whole-grain mustard. We barely even touched the mustard, because the flavor of the beef was so incredible on its own.
So that's yakitori, oysters, wagyu and pastries. Next up: snacks. Get ready.
~ Zach & Clay