A culinary cornucopia with an experience worth sharing, in every corner, Tokyo, with the energy of a teenager, never ceases to amaze.
Time after time, I leave a piece of my soul there. This time was no exception.
August in Tokyo, you might say, is as hot as a sauna room, but there’s never a bad time to visit.
The excuse to visit, judging the International Sake Challenge and the Japan Wine Challenge for the fourth consecutive time, made for an outstanding week.
Although free time is never enough in Tokyo and my planning skills are nearly non-existent, the trip turned out to be quite fun.
In true Japanese fashion and craftsmanship, each meal over-delivers, from train-station ramen to multi-course meals.
A couple new places made the list in addition to a few favorites that I try to visit every time.
— Italian Food & Sake: Firenze Sake Tokyo, Setagaya-Ku
Every once in a while there’s an experience that makes you realize how amazing life can be. This was one of those for me. The connection started while talking to a friend about Vinitaly, which took place in Verona, Italy in April. There I met Firenze Sake imports through a friend. It so happens that they are connected to this restaurant in Tokyo.
Upon entry, the 10-seat restaurant glows with charm. Its sake selection covers some of the most exciting producers in Japan. The food, an Italian interpretation with an eye for detail to flavors and textures, is majestically married with interesting sakes.
At first, we were greeted with a glass of sparkling rose sake from Aihara Shuzo, Hiroshima. Dry and floral with finesse and champagne-like delivery, it was paired with a textured parmesan gazpacho.
Following this dance of flavors, we tasted an array of sakes from Aramasa Shuzo, Akita including the famous number 6 and the 2018 oak-influenced sake.
A couple dishes stood out. A red shrimp tartare with pistachio, pink peppercorn and sea beans paired with a fruity and expressive Amabuki Shuzo Junmai Daiginjo made with Banana yeast from Saga.
Just when we thought nothing would top the last dish, we were presented with a Foie Gras stuffed Sardine with cherries alongside Kamonishiki Shuzo Omachi Junmai Daiginjo from Niigata.
To finish with a bang, we had a pink salt gelato paired with Tamagawa Junmai Kimoto 1712 aged sake from Kyoto, which balanced out the rich creaminess like no other.
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A place worth revisiting over and over and an experience that I will be dreaming about for years to come. Dinner with sake was around ¥140000 ($140)
— Tempura: Yamanoue, Ginza
Highly recommended by a fellow judge, Yui Uno, it offers a unique tempura tasting menu. We opted for the Omakase (tasting menu or “in chef’s hands”). We sat at the counter where we could observe the artist at work.
In front of each seat there was a metal box with a griddle that served as a rest for the crispy tempura. The tasting began with crispy shrimp heads, the body served with fine Nagasaki salt to season.
Next was crispy okra and seasonal shitake mushrooms. The party continued with an emphasis on anago (salt water eel), which simply melted in your mouth. The following dish simply brought me to my knees, combining some of my favorite ingredients in an unexpected festival in a bowl: Small pieces of shrimp and scallop tempura with a green tea with katsuo (dried bonito) and sea kelp poured table-side. Simply heavenly. To finish, a silky textured and pleasantly bitter matcha ice cream served with red beans. The whole experience paired with Ebisu beer was ¥12000 ($120).
— Cocktails: SG Club Shibuya
A bar like no other, founded by one of the world’s most renowned mixologist, Shingo Gokan, SG Club Shibuya is a place that I look forward to visiting every time I’m in Tokyo, six times since it opened just over a year ago.
The SG Club is a complete theatrical experience, from the tucked-in location in Shibuya, the warm entrance with an 1800s feel and, of course, the cocktails.
There are two bars, the more casual at the entrance on the bottom floor is an intimate and inviting room. Shingo Sanis shaking cocktails with grace and elegance behind the bar when he’s not globe trotting. The list reads like a novel and delivers with every cocktail. One of my favorites is The World is your Oyster Leaf. As Shingo explains, it is a play on a whiskey sour. “When you visit Scotland distilleries, they love to pair oysters with Scotch; this cocktail is served with an oyster leaf.” The green leaf tastes just like an oyster out of the water. The cocktail is superb, layered and full of complexity and unexpected savory notes.
Another favorite is the Unnatural Wine, a whimsical cocktail that is reminiscent of natural wine. Made with gin, green apple and passion fruit, it is served out of a fancy wine bottle.
Cocktails range from ¥1300 to ¥2500 ($13 to $25).
— Coffee: Cafe L’Ambre, Ginza
A unique recharging and enlightening “hole in the wall” experience. Much like visiting the Duomo in Florence or Bellas Artes in Mexico City, this is a culturally enhancing experience. The options range from vintage coffee from all over the world to chilled coffee drinks. If you’re in luck, the 1973 Brazilian blend will be available. Who thought coffee could deliver such an intellectual experience with depth and lingering notes just like an aged Barolo?
Another indulgence worth the visit is the Coffee Jelly, served on a coupe glass with a dollop of sweet cream.
Coffee ranges from ¥700 to ¥1600 ($7 to $16).