A Sydney food blog providing informative restaurant reviews, with a dose of global travel sprinkled into the mix. I'm Still Hungry is here to make sure the food you eat is never boring, and always keep the cravings going.
This is part 2 of a 3-part series on my trip to Korea. Find part 1 here and part 3 [pending]
Date of trip: 26/Jan/2019 – 17/Feb/2019
Single question pop quiz: what’s the busiest flight route in the world? If you answered Sydney to Melbourne, I applaud you for being so close. But at the same time, not at all: SYD<->MEL does hold the record for the world’s second busiest flight route with ~54,000 flights a year (that is a number alright), but it’s more than 25,000 flights short of #1.
That the Seoul<->Jeju flight corridor, with nearly 80,000 flights a year, is by far the world’s busiest says a lot about the popularity of Jeju Island (Jeju-do in Korean) as a year-round destination. There is so much to do, see and eat here – it’s not just the volcanic remnants, teddy bear museums (yes) and Jeju black pork. And I know that these are hollow words – a first-time visitor can say them for just about any popular destination – but Jeju is an island that really punches above its weight. While I concluded more time in Seoul is a must in the first post, the fact that we allocated more time to Jeju was not lamented.
If Tokyo, Fuji, Kyoto & Osaka is the golden route for tourists visiting Japan, then Jeju is a non-negotiable component of the South Korean equivalent.
Better make some time for it.
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All Currency conversions were carried out during drafting (May 2019) and should not be relied upon other than as approximations.
You’d think with 200+ flights a day, getting to Jeju from Seoul is pretty easy.
Nah, no twist there: you’d be right. With that frequency, this is pretty much the least risky flight you’ll ever have to take. Miss one? Whatever, there’s at least eight in the next hour. Do note that flights to Jeju Airport (CJU) depart from Seoul’s Gimpo Airport (GMP), not Incheon (ICN). And while it sounds obvious, even this seasoned traveller has mixed up Paris’ Orly Airport (ORY) with its better-known Charles de Gaulle (CDG) sibling during #ISHRTW.
Don’t make that mistake.
If you’re staying near Seoul Station, a quick subway ride on lines 5 or 9 will get you to Gimpo in less than 25 minutes. This is exactly why I recommended the Millenium Hilton as accommodation. At that point, you should already have a T-money card (the equivalent of Hong Kong’s Octopus, London’s Oyster or Sydney’s Opal) because how else have you been exploring Seoul??? Use this and it’ll get you through the gates to Gimpo.
The flight to Jeju was quick and uneventful: as it should be
With a flight time of 70 minutes, there was absolutely nothing eventful about our journey – the way it should be. We flew with Jeju Air, which seemed kind of appropriate. It’s a budget airline, much like all the other wallet-friendly options that dominate this route, and was a perfectly pleasant (and full!) flight. The cost? $66 per person. Do note that this figure can easily double during peak seasons.
Sure, you could also fly Korean Air on this route, but at 2-3x the price for such a short hop, why oh why?
All flights to Jeju land in Jeju City, to the north of Jeju Island. For logistical reasons, we made the call to hire maxicabs to take us directly to Seogwipo, Jeju’s second largest city on the south side of the island. If you look at the trip map, the reasoning becomes clear – there are real efficiency gains to be had staying in both Seogwipo and Jeju City. We just happened to do the former first.
Sunrise from Days Hotel Seogwipo Ocean
The view from the city-facing side of the room
We stayed at Days Hotel Jeju Seogwipo Ocean, for no particular reason other than its centrally convenient location and cheaper-than-market rates (at the time). $57 per person, per night for a modern room (the hotel is sparkling new as of 2019) with ocean views sounds pretty good to me.
The view from our room, which was actually a suite. It’s pretty sweet, for the price.
Seogwipo Maeil Olle Market – 서귀포매일 올레시장
One of the many entrances to the Seogwipo Maeil Olle Market. Looks empty now, but the place quickly got packed as lunchtime approached
Lack of a proper breakfast and no food provided on the plane meant that pleasing the stomach was priority #1 – especially after the 90min drive from Jeju City to Seogwipo! Seogwipo’s Maeil Olle Market – the city’s biggest – answered the call, and it’s probably the only one you’ll need to visit while there. It has everything. Probably even the kitchen sink somewhere.
Gimbap in the making
So fresh, so good
We ordered both bulgogi & kimchi versions. Both were full of flavour, and the rice, goodness!
Might be a mandarin or two there…
Jeju black pork hotteok. All freshly made, these were very, very delicious
A honey & mandarin hotteok. This worked surprisingly well!
Normal, mung bean & corn buns
Can’t say no to a red bean croquette!
Green = healthy, yes?
Jeju black pork, served cold. Not a fan of eating cooked and then cooled meats, but the pork was decently sweet
Enough fermented product to preserve me for a century
Yup: giant blocks of castella. We tried some and they were average.
‘Peanut’ buns, but actually filled with pork. Steamed buns are always good in my book
Soft serve at 0 degrees is totally fine
Whatever you buy here (and you really should craft a whole meal out of it), do be sure to try the Korean version of the Dekopon mandarin, called Hallabong. Otherwise known as the sumo mandarin, Jeju is one of Korea’s primary producers.
There are three famous waterfalls in Jeju, with two of them near Seogwipo. Most helpfully, the Koreans of bygone days have named them Cheonjiyeon (this entry), and Cheonjeyeon. Spot the difference. The name is a literal amalgamation of sky (Cheon) and land (ji), so named as it seemingly connects the two. For someone who’s somewhat jaded when it comes to vertical streams of water, it really is quite a lovely sight given its surroundings, even with the hordes of tourists jostling for that perfect K-drama photo.
I’m not even kidding: the couple behind us were romantically posing for a good 5-8 minutes. I guess you do you!
‘Nothing is ever created nor destroyed. It only changes form’. This conclusion from the first law of thermodynamics isone of the most eloquent truths in physics. And so it is with Phil Wood leaving the much-vaunted, now-shuttered Eleven Bridge, to make his mark on the picturesque slopes of Merricks in Victoria at Point Leo Estate’s Laura. A loss for NSW, a gain for Victoria. It’s quite the radical departure, moving from the seductively dark and heritage tones of the historic Burns Philip Building to the vast and open Mornington Peninsula unto which the dining room at Laura overlooks. A literal sea change.
This is no ordinary cellar door
A bottle tree…and a courtesy wine cart (lol, what?)
used to be one of Sydney’s finest fine diners, the unquestionable flagship of Neil
Perry. With three hats in its prime, the restaurant was one of only four in the
harbour city that bore the honour. It was no stretch to say that Phil Wood was Neil
Perry’s right hand man, with his cooking firmly cementing the restaurant as one
of my favourites during its reign. To this day, I still miss the restaurant’s
spelt bread with kombu liquorice butter, chicken wing medallions, expertly-cooked
birds and gueridon service. There really wasn’t another restaurant quite like
And that’s the obligatory obituary. Vale, Eleven Bridge. The torch has been passed onto Laura.
The cellar door and entrance
Point Leo Estate from the other side
While Phil Wood moving on from Perry’s gastro-temple in 2017 meant a blow to Sydney’s fine dining scene, Melbourne’s gain arguably more than offsets the loss – this isn’t a zero-sum game. Sorry, I say Melbourne, but I really meant Melbourne’s south-east. With neatly-arranged vineyards and idyllic green hills on one side and open blue sea on the other, Mornington was already one of the prettiest places in Victoria. Then came a flush truckload of cash to the tune of some $40 million injected into the estate that involved a full-scale renovation, plus the construction of a 19 acre (that’s 76000sqm for those counting at home) sculpture park showcasing a wealth of predominantly Melburnian artists and sculptors. If there were ever a Victorian equivalent of Bondi Beach’s Sculpture by the Seas, this is it – except this one’s permanent. In what is an absolute platitude to the philanthropic Gandel family (the benefactors of Point Leo Estate), I don’t even think one has to visit Point Leo’s restaurants in order to make the drive worthwhile.
Some sights from the sculpture park. Tap to expand.
With that said, Point Leo Estate’s sculpture park is not free; tickets cost $10. But guess what, admission is free for diners at Laura. Neat. And that leads us to the restaurant, or restaurants: in addition to Laura, those looking for a more casual, a la carte experience are catered for by the Point Leo Restaurant. The Gandels brought Phil Wood on not only for Laura, but as culinary director of the entire estate’s F&B operations, so he’s responsible for menus at both venues. However, with Laura the focus of his unbridled creativity, I found him in Laura’s kitchen most often. Yes, it is refreshing to see a vaunted chef still clanging the pans in the kitchen.
Contrast the Point Leo Restaurant… …with the more upmarket Laura.
Curiously, the two eateries are separated only by a glass door – they otherwise share the same segment of the estate’s circular building. But with Laura having less than half the seats of its counterpart, Zaltos instead of Riedels, more attentive service and a more refined space, the separation is effective.
It helps that the glass is an effective noise barrier
Of course, the food’s a fair bit different, and more expensive: it’s a set menu only, with diners being able to choose from four, five or six courses at $120, $140 and $160 respectively. Commensurate drink pairings are a reasonable $70, $80 and $90. Then again, the pours weren’t all that generous, so you get what you pay for.
A good thing for tables with diners of varying appetites is that you can mix and match the set menus. On my visit, my less able-bodied dining partners opted for the five course menu, while two of us opted for the full experience. To be fair, one of those courses involved blue cheese, which is already divisive, and perhaps a bullet dodged – it was one of the weaker courses of the meal. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Taralinga Estate olive oil-infused brioche
The lunch started on a strong note, a Taralinga Estateolive oil-infused brioche made using locally hand-milled flour served alongside Cape Schanck olive oil that was pressed on the very day. The result? A bready, slightly nutty and warm (yay!) roll that was akin to a fluffy, savoury cake. And that’s before dipping into the luxuriant, flavourful oil. Needless to say, the entire table went for seconds, no deliberation required.
WA razorback prawns w/pepperberry salt & chive foam
Things then moved onto a literal spoonful of razorback prawns, and by that I really mean just one such prawn, served with pepperberry salt and a chive foam. This was a rather anomalous dish in a menu that otherwise lives up to its ‘locavore’ promise – the prawns were from Ocean Made Seafood…in Western Australia. Hmm.
Heritage farm duck egg, squid & carrot salad
The entrée of squid & carrot salad, resting on a yolk sauce made from Heritage Farm duck eggs in Moorooduc was revelatory – not because of the slippery squid, or even the unctuously delicious egg sauce. But because of the way the carrots were cooked low and slow, to a point of such sweetness that I could genuinely have been fooled to believe that they were sweet potatoes.
Harry’s mussels, Hawkes farm corn, lavendar
The next course was ostensibly a Flinders Piermussel, served in its shell and arriving with sweetcorn cooked in a lavender broth. This was perhaps the most technical dish, and boy it was a good trick: the mussel shell as it turns out, wasn’t that at all. It was a scallop mousse (darkened with presumably squid ink) that nested pre-roasted mussels inside, and the whole thing steamed. Damn, that’s clever, and well done for showing this jaded fine diner a totally new, almost Heston-like way to present an otherwise common crustacean.
Dutch cream duchess, crab, celery
A closer look at the ‘Shepard’s pie’
If there had to be a singularly most delicious dish, it would be
the Hawkes Farm dutch cream potato
from Boneo, luxed up with creamed spanner crab and Yarra Valley salmon roe and beurre blanc. An optional dollop of
caviar was eschewed. It was akin to a fine-diner version of the potato upper
half of the best Shepard’s pie I’ve ever had: and that’s a mighty fine
compliment, even if I say so myself.
At Eleven Bridge, Wood’s cooking was decidedly East-Asian with classical technique, even if we’re talking about a Modern Australian restaurant (but perhaps, that’s exactly what it is). At Laura, things are similar, yet different. Flavours are a bit more delicate, the produce has become – where practicable (those WA prawns?) – highly local. But the old ways remain: like Eleven Bridge, fanciful gastronomy isn’t what dominates the plate, just classical techniques but with enough of a twist.
Great ocean duck blanquette
For the final main, diners choose from one of two options (regardless of courses previously picked). One of them is a blanquette of duck from Great Ocean Ducks (spelling GOD; well done), served with lamb sweetbreads and what I believe was a pea sauce. It might not be the best duck I’ve ever had, but there’s less to talk about here, precisely because everything went just as Phil intended: flawlessly. Eleven Bridge, after all, served some excellent birds.
Steamed snapper, Daniel’s Run heirloom tomatoes, prawn oil
The other main option was a steamed snapper in nori w/Daniel’s Run heirloom tomatoes and prawn oil. This was a mediocre dish, if only relative to the bangers that have come out of the kitchen so far. There was nothing technically wrong with the cooking, the flavours were a bit too loose and too thin.
This year, Ledoyen turns 240 years old. The restaurant, as one of Paris’ oldest, is steeped in history. It was an establishment favoured by artists like Monet. Here was where Napoleon met Josephine. Here was where Robespierre ate, a mere two days before his head parted ways with his body. Do they still teach the French Revolution in history any more?
But who knows if any of that is true. Hearsay is after all, just that. However, the romance of such a storied past is difficult to ignore, and nowhere is this more particularly true in Paris. The restaurant was – is – something.
The stately pavillion. Yes, that’s a security guard at the front.
Yannick Alléno, Ledoyen’s current head chef, unlike the restaurant he helms, turns a relatively ripe young 51. Anything about him is far from rumour: seven Michelin stars, 15 restaurants around the world in the Yannick Alléno group, and a prolific author with seven books to his name. One of them, Ma Cuisine Française weighs in at 1200 pages and a whopping 1500EUR for the oversized French-only edition. It’s on display at Ledoyen’s foyer and is perhaps one of the most beautiful cookbooks I’ve ever seen. You could make an argument to visit the restaurant just to flip through those pages. Indeed, you wouldn’t even have to splash out on the 380EUR required to dine there, as the bar downstairs – from what I hear – serves walk-ins a perfectly reasonable plat du jour.
So here we have a renowned French chef in an equally renowned French restaurant in the heart of Paris with all the accolades that matter for a Euro-centric audience. Did I mention Ledoyen is ranked #10 and #27 in France and world categories respectively on the French Government’s La Liste? More trophies on a crowded shelf. But such is France, one of the few countries that takes its culinary tradition to levels that few others match.
So earlier, I mentioned the outlay: 380 euros for the tasting menu. It’s a curiosity that the best bang for buck to be had for a Parisian dinner is actually to opt for the long-format option. This is a universe where a 3-course a la carte menu will run you up to and beyond 100EUR per course, so ten of them – albeit smaller – at a similar price point is not even up for debate. If you want to impress – whether it’s your date or yourself – you’ll have to splash out and regret your decisions afterwards. If you want a bargain, visit the bar, or during lunch.
The dining room. All class, zero gaudiness
However one might feel spending this kind of money on a meal, regret was assuredly not one of the emotions for a Ledoyen visit. Sauntering past the bar and up the stairs to the main dining room exposes an effortlessly elegant space, despite the restaurant’s long and storied history. Or rather, it’s Ledoyen’s history that defines the timeless perfection that’s been put in place. It’s not the over-achiever’s King George-level of opulence that you’d find at Le Meurice or the Plaza Atheneé, but a level of reservedness that’s still a hundred per cent paree. Despite its proximity to the busy Champs-Élysées, adequate soundproofing keeps the focus where it’s supposed to be. It’s the kind of dining room I would be happy to find myself in again and again.
Something must be said of the service as well. High-end dining in Paris is sometimes stereotypically denigrated as a stifling experience. As an Australian, our larrikin, happy-go-lucky attitude can be challenging to French sensibilities, their establishment way of hospitality conduct. Try to crack a joke with the waitstaff and don’t be surprised to receive a *whoosh* in reply, lots of blanks stares and no change whatsoever in register, emotion or expression. It can be…stiff – call it a clash of cultures.
Brioche that proofs at the table, to be eaten as a dessert at the end
Never a French restaurant with bad bread & butter. This one included.
Ledoyen was not like this. Or to be precise, it didn’t get nearly as bad as I’ve experienced elsewhere. While banter was still a mythological construct, Ledoyen’s servers were relaxed, conversational, and happy to explain things. As such, I felt the same way: relaxed, conversational, and happy to make a fool of myself pretending to know things I don’t.
No matter, as the quintessential start of any fine food experience in Paris allayed all nerves: the glide of the champagne trolley, and a glass of Moët (Alléno’s an ambassador of the champagne house). What nerves?
Slow-cooked cardamom-spiced celeriac, shaved at the table
Pikefish eggs & the shaved celeriac from earlier. Quite a subtle spoonful with beady pops of fish egg; the celeriac’s flavour dominates. I think that was appropriate.
Seaweed pie w/onion, nori & vegetable risotto. A one-biter that easily could be a whole dish, or meal of its own. Almost a shame that it wasn’t, such was the flavour.
Date ‘meat jelly’ w/black bean & red onion confit. Tasted like dates, tasted like meat. A leathery texture to the date skin made for one of the most ‘wtf’ amuses I’ve had.
My tasting experience was a typical French orchestration: a progression of many small snacks, with a tighter number of more substantive courses, finished off with a dessert selection that would give Willy Wonka a challenge. It left me, in every sense of the word, gasping. An incredible amount of food, a dazzling showcase of flavours, textures and technique, all with Alléno’s deft touch. Examples were aplenty. Take the seaweed pie w/vegetable risotto: deft mastery of French pastry, with a finely-tuned ingress of Japan in the form of nori. Easily passing the ‘I hate that they only gave me one bite’s worth’ test with flying colours.
Morel mushroom ‘veil’
Knobs of citron butter. Well, when in France.
Or, perhaps, the morel mushroom veil. This was made with pricey morels and a corn starch puff pastry, which sits atop a dark-as-my-heart (with flavour intensity to match) mushroom reduction, and Scarmorza cheese (from Puglia). This dish is a large part of the reason why Ledoyen has cemented itself as a top-ten restaurant; Alléno’s command of sauces is present in most dishes, but was best realised here; a dish so fantastically delicious, I may have swooned a bit upon taking my first bite. The depth. The complexity. The flavour! And I’m not even a huge fan of mushrooms to begin with!
White asparagus with coconut fat, flesh & mature sorrel. Very well-balanced between fat and acidity (the sorrel was insanely tart!).
Langoustine in rice vinegar, herb oil, white strawberry gel. A more average dish, but nonetheless delicious
Reduction of langoustine
w/julienne celery, & white strawberry. This was excellent
As is the French way, vegetables were no less respected. Two spears of white asparagus, slowly braised and bathed in butter and coconut fat were perhaps the best I’ve had outside of Japan, while finely chopped celery stems – an underrated vegetable in yours truly’s opinion – were amped up with a savoury langoustine broth and white strawberries.
Super slow-cooked turbot (nearly a day). For something that’s been under for so long, the fish exhibited surprisingly little flavour. Texture? Absolute mouth-melting perfection.
Turbot terrine & potato rosti with sarrasin (buckwheat). A little awkward, when the dish accompaniment outshone the primary act. A delight, nonetheless!
Tomme cheese from Normandy w/seaweed jam & milk mousse. Strong but not funky, and a marvellous fusion of dairy & sea-based umami.
While savouries certainly had their misses (see picture captions), what ultimately clinched Ledoyen’s position as my favourite French meal of 2018 was the desserts, for which the only adjective I could use that doesn’t undersell this portion of the meal is epic. It consisted of over ten courses, and more if you count the smaller, amuse-style one-biters. ‘Well that’s not all that much then’, I hear you say. That’s what I thought too, and then I had it.
Get ready. The desserts, in all their bountiful glory:
Confit of liquorice & tangerine, tangerine butter; curdled milk & olive oil, tangerin gel w/arlette pastry; Jamaican grapefruit w/caramel & chocolate chestnut pastry & milk ice cream; the brioche from earlier (only two knobs are shown, but I could – and did – eat all six)
Salted butter brioche tuile (sugary heaven with an offsetting bitter jelly), fresh spun honey, chocolate (floral) & poppy pollen. Awesome.
Among the general
public, it would be fair to say that ‘freshness’ ranks highly when it comes sushi
evaluation criteria. Whenever I read reviews of sushi-ya such as Lonely Planet
Dai, ‘fresh is best’, ‘straight out of the ocean’ and – perhaps somewhat excessively
– ‘still moving’ are common platitudes. There’s nothing wrong with this – fresh
fish is excellent and by and large, preferable
over the rank alternative.
But you know where this is going: the aging fridge.
Sushi Kimura: you’ll walk right past it
To more fully
appreciate sushi begins with empting the full cup and acknowledging that
freshness isn’t the whole story. Take steak. It’s common knowledge that dry
aging a prime cut over a handful of weeks (or even longer in some extreme, but
marvellous cases) can impart new flavours to such a degree that you’d be
forgiven for thinking it comes from a different animal!
But is aging
something as delicate as fish, infamous for its short shelf life and propensity
to absolutely wreck people when eaten on the wrong side of the freshness
calendar, even possible?
The sushi bar normally seats only 6, though 8 can be accommodated. Any more and Kimura won’t be able to maintain quality.
that do happen to age fish typically do so for up to a week. The occasional,
deserving piece is daringly treated with a fortnight. If you’re new around
these lands, the thought of putting fish through ‘nature’s processes’ for even
that length of time can be gag inducing. To the old hats, you know it’s a
literal other dimension of deliciousness.
But where norms are, by definition, average, mavericks capture hearts and stomachs. And so we come to the iconoclast of this post: Kouji Kimura, of the eponymous Sushi Kimura. He takes sushi seafood forward – to a whole new era. Almost literally.
In the fanatical circles of the sushi-obsessed (guilty as charged), Sushi Kimura is known as the father of aged sushi and his name is household material. The usual tropes apply in defining his fame: three generations of sushi chefs; an ‘origin story’ – where no-show customers led to spoiled expensive fish (the ‘a-ha!’ moment); and, a lifetime dedicated to its mastery, yet never reaching perfection. Aged 10 days? Cute. Try two months: such is the period for which the mekajiki (swordfish) goes under. Or hamachi (amberjack) that’s casually been chillin’ in the aging fridge for 50+ days (you know, about the average duration our top politicians last in office).
The general premise of aging fish is the same as that for meat: the reduction of water content and encroachment of beneficial bacteria concentrates and alters the fish’s flavour & texture profiles. But aging fish is no easy task and arguably more difficult than that for beef: it’s not a matter of chucking a fish into your fridge and letting nature have at it: if you’re doing this right now, maybe check up on it. And list your fridge on eBay as ‘slightly used’. In sushi-making, various fridges and temperatures are needed depending on the fish and the desired result. The margin of error is, well, high. In my eyes, it takes more skill to run this type of sushi-ya than one that only focusses on fresh fish. My respect for Kimura began before even taking a single bite.
Hamaguri sake soup. Well, this was new.
restaurant, there is no pandering to those who seek known crowd-pleasers: if fatty
tuna and sea urchin aren’t in season, they simply won’t be on the menu. Kimura’s
not afraid to serve relatively unknown cuts as long as they are optimal
products of the season and of his aging processes. There is no better
expression than bringing out the most of what you’ve got. If tuna become
extinct one day, you can bet Kimura will be ahead. Although any high-end
sushi-ya will claim this, I personally felt that it rang more true for Kimura. This
isn’t your typical (though excellent) Edomae style sushi you’d find aplenty in on
the streets of Ginza. Even the location, in Futako-Tamagawa, is well outside
Tokyo CBD: you make the trek out not to impress, but to be impressed.
And boy, was it
impressive. This is an easy one really: it’s a top three, and one of my best
meals of 2018. It starts all the way from the appetisers, themselves very
different to what you would get elsewhere. Name another sushi-ya where you get
a tsumami (starter) of ‘oyster butter’, an actual oyster that’s
boiled, reduced and blended with butter that tastes of the sea if it was turned
into creamy icicle? Or creamed shirako
(cod sperm sac) risotto – served with
rice cooked in dashi? Or to make three for three, ika no kimo (squid liver) that’s salted, miso applied and frozen over
a course of 3 months? There is only one answer.
Ankimo (monkfish liver) & ginger
Oyster butter. Gooey, challenging, delicious
Konoko (sea cucumber) soba. Superb dish with al dente soba.
Shirako (cod sperm sac) risotto w/pepper. A rather Western dish prepared with quintissential Japanese ingredients. Deeeelicious.
Then there’s the shari, or sushi rice. One of the courses Kimura served me – as he does everyone else – is a spoonful’s worth of it encased simply by nori. It takes true confidence in your rice to serve it without accompaniments, and it absolutely deserved its own showcase. Like Kimura’s fish, his shari is different: it’s not pre-soaked prior to cooking, which induces the counterintuitive property of extra vinegar absorption all the way through to the centre of each grain. The result is a fuller-flavoured, al dente grain; Kimura’s own style. This result is specifically designed to juxtapose against the sushi-ya’s neta (sushi toppings), which is softer as a result of ageing. The rice grains are flavoured with an akazu (red vinegar) produced small-batch style from Kyoto. As is befitting of Kimura, the vinegar too has been aged – for 3 years. Complexity is one result, but harmony is the finale.
Fermented watarigani. Very salty and not for me.
Shiozuke squid liver, two weeks under miso, frozen 3 weeks. Tastes like a nama chocolate – ‘for adults’.
Fugu (puffer fish) soup boiled with 3 whole fish for 8 hours, & fugu sperm sac ‘dumpling’.
While the tsumami certainly raised eyebrows and perked tastebuds, more well-known pieces round out the menu – with a Kimura twist, of course. Konoko (sea cucumber), but creamed and served as a soba for a dish that rivals the richness of sea urchin. A kawahagi (filefish) that’s been aged for a relatively blink-of-an-eye period of 6 days is fattened up with its own liver, an unctuous 4-5 bites of pure ecstasy. One of my favourite pieces was the awabi (abalone), sliced so thinly it literally became translucent. A perfect case of how an unusual texture opened up a whole new world of possibility – I haven’t had such a confounding example since Noma washed up Sydney’s shores.
Shari (sushi rice). Kimura’s sushi rice is something else.
Shiro-ika (white squid). Brunoise scoring makes a very soft bite
A very chewy sayori (garfish)
Amadai (red snapper)
You can probably tell that flavours and textures at Sushi Kimura are not what they seem, particularly if you’ve come into sushi with the ‘fresh is best’ mentality. At times, things inevitably did go overboard. For example, the watarigani (Japanese blue swimmer crab) was overly salted, with a level of fermentation that took me right to the edge…and then pushed me over. The squid liver I talked about earlier? Also hugely challenging to eat, notwithstanding its gooey, raw chocolatey texture. But I feel like I’m singling these two dishes out in order to deliver a post that doesn’t come off as overly biased. I may not succeed very well, because literally every other course was on the money. It’s rare to get such a hit rate, even more so when it’s a chef that pushes the boundaries in this way.
Kawahagi & its liver (threadsail filefish). Rich, luxe cut!
Torigai (Japanese cockle). Subtly-seasoned, very soft.
Awabi (abalone), wrapped around the shari. Its thickness (or lack thereof) made for a different mouthfeel.
Kanpachi (greater amberjack). So soft, tastes like tuna.
Iwashi (sardine). Very strong flavours balanced out by equally strong red vinegar
One of my best meals of 2018 was at Yakiniku Jumbo Hanare, a restaurant whose entire business revolves around sizzling the greatest gift God bestowed upon meat eaters. If the destiny of wagyu cattle is to be slaughtered for our consumption, then Norimitsu Nanbara’s restaurant may well be bovine heaven – somewhat literally. The restaurant’s singular focus on top-tier A5 and A4 kuroge cattle makes it a pilgrimage destination for those that worship all things bovine: cow head statue and all.
Yakiniku Jumbo Hanare
Here’s a fact: yakiniku (lit. ‘grilled meat’) did not come from Japan despite the Japanese name. In fact, it’s a bit of a misnomer, as the entire concept (particularly that of marinated grilled beef) came from the Koreans in the 19th century, who themselves got it from the Mongol invasions of the Middle Ages. You know, that period when humans got really stabby stabby with each other.
History lessons aside, the fundamental theme I want to draw out lies with with Japanese appropriations of other countries’ cuisines that extends to yakiniku: the Japanese are masters at taking something, change (or ‘appropriate’ if you will) it, and as can be often argued – elevate it into a product that’s unmistakably their own. In Tokyo, there are maybe five or six yakiniku restaurants that respect beef at the highest level. A rather obvious conclusion that should be spoiler-free at this point: Jumbo Hanare is one of them.
Reminding us all of yakiniku’s Korean roots. Heck, the restaurant even serves a Korean namyeong!
A few important titbits to keep in mind when attempting to book a seat at Jumbo, and all of them happen long before you step foot inside the restaurant. Firstly, make sure you’re booking the right Jumbo. Norimitsu Nanbara actually runs a micro-empire of three restaurants that do different things at different price points – wagyu being the connective tissue. But for you, dear experience-seeker? The right place is ‘Hanare‘ (lit. ‘separate/branch store’), the flagship. Here, dedicated chefs cook your meat using only the best A5 (and sometimes A4, depending on availability) sourced by Nanbara himself. Be careful: Hanare is located literally opposite Jumbo Hongo, which is your classic, DIY Korean BBQ-style joint. Not. The. Same.
A $70 RRP wine going for 20,000JPY ($250 AUD) at Jumbo. Nothing against the restaurant: it’s a common adage in the restaurant world that ‘the first glass pays for the bottle’
While Jumbo Hanare is assuredly at the ‘fine dining’ end of the spectrum, with counter seating and all, I found it most curious to find that a la carte is the default menu format. For a bit of juxtaposition, even ‘pedestrian’ dishes such as beef ramen can be ordered off the menu. It’s almost certainly going to be good, and I do understand that not everyone wants to sit through 10 courses of meat, and some will pay for quality – no matter the dish. But then why wasI here? No fear – countless bloggers have already cleared the path: there is an omakase menu, featuring Nanbara’s greatest hits. The signature noharayaki that’s akin to a religious experience, the wagyunigirizushi, the chateaubriand…no sweat right? Except meat sweats.
The restaurant’s rather plain decor (I like the exterior much more than the interior!) would confuse anyone into thinking this is just one of Tokyo’s many thousands of average (by Japan standards) restaurants. I certainly thought this – but all doubts were dispelled when I stepped through the door.
Left: zabuton (‘sitting cushion’, a marketing term for the top part of the chuck, so-named as it resembles a cushion that I definitely do not get) Right: the heart
Chewy heart muscle – not a texture for everyone
Grilling the zabuton
Zabuton in the salt & kabosu-based sauce
That smell. Never have I ever lamented the inadequacy of the written word more when it comes to its capability in conveying sensation. If only you could smell what I could smelled – almost tasted – from the moment I walked in. It was at this point that I knew the experience would be nothing short of sublime. Of course, it was.
Sirloin – to become the noharayaki dish
The completed noharayaki. This is Nanbara & Jumbo’s signature dish: a thinly-sliced, marinated sirloin that’s grilled for about ten seconds and then dunked into a bowl of raw egg yolk. It is ‘pretty f*cking amazing’ as some friends would like to describe it. I concur.
The noharayaki in action. The cooking, like most other pieces was over in no time!
Our omakase at Hanare spanned some 9-12 beef courses (depending on how you choose to count them), encompassing many well-known and some not-so-well-known parts of the cow. Heart, tongue, chuck, upper rib, chateaubriand, rump, tenderloin. All grilled with speed, all delicious in their own way.
Rump, fillet, tongue
Yakiniku really isn’t one of those things that photographs well….but just try reader, to imagine you’re smelling it
Aitchbone (hip), 2x fillets from different parts of the cow. I was genuinely drunk on happiness so forgive me for not telling you the exact crevice of the cow from which these came
A mix of lean, marbly and gelatinous meat. Not my thing but one for those that seek more ‘interesting textures’
As with almost every other piece, it’s cooked in under 15 seconds.
If I had to caption every piece of cooked meat I’d end up overusing the word ‘so good’, so I’ll just use it here once and you can ‘apply to all’.
Each cooked piece went into one of two sauces – a soy-based version with kombu and bonito dashi, with the other a more Korean-style sauce with sesame, pepper and a clean, saltier kick. Like high-end sushi chefs deciding the level of soy, not you, so it is the same here. The cook, which for us was Nanbara-san half the time, puts each piece into the correct sauce. No negotiations or you’re on the chopping block.
The premium chateaubriand cut
I think this picture describes my thoughts well on this premium cut
I will happily sign up for 12 courses of these
Nanbara’s treatment of each and every course could only be described as ‘reverent’. Like you would expect grill masters, there is very little pre-processing. Yes, knife skills – ensuring each slice of beef is cut to the right thickness – are on display. But this is no place for gastronomy or the next revolution in seasoning. Guaranteeing input quality means the challenge to executing is restraint, and in no small part those secret sauces. It’s what makes Jumbo, well, Jumbo. It’s no exaggeration to say that careful cooking aside the condiments made the difference.
What does it take to fly over the coldest, driest, windiest, and most inhospitable continent on Earth?
You might want to bring some sunnies, and a camera. That’s about it.
Antarctica Flyover - View From the Window - YouTube
A few weeks ago, I left home at just past the crack of dawn and headed for Sydney Airport’s Domestic Terminal. Our flight? QF2904, with our boarding passes helpfully reading ‘Mystery Flight’. Of course, it’s all in jest: our destination is the least-visited continent on Earth. It almost felt a little bit exclusive.
Yes. Actual view.
And really, it kind of was. Antarctica Flights is the only company in the world to do chartered sightseeing flights over the great southern continent. With only four or five flights a year, it’s not wrong to say that this is an experience as rare as actually setting foot on Antarctic soil snow. And as it is only a flight – there is no landing, it makes for a most curious Sydney-Sydney itinerary. Wheels up at 8am, back to Sydney in time for bed.
I’ve always wanted to visit Antarctica. I think, notwithstanding the cold, all of us have the same spark of curiosity. Antarctica is in many ways, one of the last great unknowns on land. A desolate place that has almost nothing, and yet teaches us so much. Plus, it’s just so damn big, and icy – yet it’s technically a desert. While I may embark on an expedition there one day, a sightseeing flight that allows me to take it in for less than a day’s effort? Done deal.
Being a sightseeing flight, seating is ya know, kinda important. With 25 years of experience, Antarctica Flights has this down pat. There are seven tiers of pricing that spans the Boeing 747’s economy, premium economy and business class seats. Most arrangements feature a seating rotation halfway during the flight, which gives everyone the fairest shot at getting a view out the window. The cheapest – appropriately named ‘economy centre’ for it spans the middle two seats in economy – does not rotate. That comes in at $1199. While that seems like a bit of a cop-out (you’re stuck in the middle and don’t even get a window!), the atmosphere on the flight was electric: people were more than happy to let others have a view out their window and everyone walks freely around the aircraft – within their own class, at least. You might not believe me, but this was a near-sold out flight, so make of that what you will.
Qantas’ 747 business class seating is quite dated, but did the job fine. Oh and hi @stephwoon
The most expensive class – Ice Class – is a test of one’s credit limit at $7999. For that price, you’re seated in the nose of the plane, served champagne in addition to all the other business class perks and a gift pack that contains quite a collection of goodies. As with any Qantas flight, a full in-flight service that’s commensurate to one’s seating class is provided by the Qantas crew that staff the plane alongside Antarctica Flight’s own staff, who are more on hand to teach and inform.
The goodie bag for Ice Class passengers contains the usual branded stuff (hats, bottle sleeves etc.) and a ton of material (including books) on Antarctica. However, these penguin plushies pretty much did it!
Frequent flyers will appreciate the nerdy fact that this is one of those blue moon moments where a 747 ‘Queen of the Skies’ departs from a domestic terminal, enters international waters (the Antarctic Treaty Zone) and yet check-in doesn’t require anything more than a driver’s licence. We collected our boarding passes at the departure gate itself, rather than at the check-in counters and took in the palpable energy of those about to embark on the ‘world’s most unique day trip’. Most other passengers appeared to be seniors or three-generation families. All wore big smiles and even bigger cameras. A large contingent of them even took overseas flights for the express purpose of catching this one. Needless to say, a photo opportunity with a human-sized penguin mascot was in high demand. Heck, even a Channel 7 crew was on-board filming it all!
After grabbing our boarding passes, we shuffled back to the Qantas Domestic Business Lounge for a quick breakfast (that 6am wake-up killed…) and coffee before boarding.
A quick breakfast at the lounge. Note our dual boarding passes – even Ice Class rotates
We were told that the flight would be roughly 13 hours: 4.5 hours from Sydney to the first icebergs, 4 hours of flyovers of the continent itself, and then 4.5hrs back to Sydney. Other than a military exercise off the NSW coast that added half an hour to the flight time, things were pretty much bang on schedule.
Leaving Sydney, temporarily! En route
The Lady’s breakfast: a huge croissant that’s even better than the one in the lounge
My breakfast: pearl barley risotto w/peas, broad beans, speck, parmesan & serrano ham. Quite delicious but too salty
The champagne available to Ice Class
Let’s just say I tried REALLY hard to get my money’s worth with this
It may be nearly 5 hours before we see the first bits of white that aren’t clouds, but Captain Greg Fitzgerald (as well as Captain Owen Weaver & Rob Meek, who are not coincidentally some of Qantas’ most experienced 747 pilots) played two documentaries on repeat through the in-flight entertainment system; this, along with on-board lecturers Peter Hicks, Peter Attard and David Dodd who are all deeply experienced with Antarctica in their own way kept us plenty occupied. After all, if you’re on the plane, presumably you have some interest in learning a thing or two about our great southern neighbour.
Peter Attard in particular was MC throughout much of the flight and kept things highly interesting while we were gliding towards and over the polar ice caps.
Bought some raffle tickets to support the Mawson Hut Foundation. Didn’t win anything which describes my life pretty well!
‘I have no idea where I am’
The first signs of ice – but just an island several hundred km from Antarctica proper
Ok no kidding, this prawn & celery brioche roll is probably one of the best things I’ve had on a Qantas flight
My beef koftas w/Moroccan eggplant, pearl couscous & coriander yoghurt was not too bad either!
While the atmosphere was already electric, it was positively crackling when we saw the first signs of ice. For the next four hours it was snap, snap, snap, interspersed with too many instances of ‘wow’, ‘oh my god’ and ‘amazing’. Even I underestimated just how awed I would be upon seeing Antarctica for the first time. This is truly an otherworldly place, yet not far at all from our doorsteps. The sheer magnitude of it just blew me away.
PICTURE FLOOD INCOMING – click/tap on an image to expand
A lonely iceberg
Sky meets Antarctica
White as far as the eye can sea
Antarctica has many mountains that are taller than anything Australia’s got
Some time in mid-2018, I received a curious private message from a follower on Instagram. This person, who I had never met in person before, said ‘I know you’ve mentioned that if you were ever offered a seat at Kyoaji, you would fly to Japan for it.’ After an intense period of umming and ahhing lasting all of a minute, I jumped online, booked flights, and BAM – half a year later, my 8 day trip to Tokyo last December materialised.
Just like that. And they say I’m predictable…
Like many other high-end Japanese restaurants, you could walk straight past this one…
This was no casual invitation. Kyoaji is an introduction-only restaurant that put the term on the map. This kind of policy, more formally known as ‘ichigen-san okotowari’ (first timers not allowed) fits right in with Japanese mores. The requirement for you to be accompanied by someone who’s visited before makes Kyoaji and restaurants like it exceptionally difficult to get into – without knowing someone, it’s akin to turning a bolt without a wrench: can’t be done. Like landing many coveted jobs, it’s not about who you are or what you have. In Japan, it’s about who trusts you.
But if you can land a coveted spot? The game changes.
Kenichiro Nishi (you can figure it out) with his retinue of master craftsmen
My love of Japanese food is no secret. The depth of culture and tradition that expresses ingredients at their absolute best has shaped its cuisine to be one of the world’s greatest. It exudes universal appeal, and to say more is to waste words preaching to the choir. I’ve written on some impressiveJapanesediningexperiences on this blog, even if coverage of actual meals in Japan itself are under-represented. This is one small step to change that.
Besides, when Kyoaji is unquestionably the best meal I had in 2018 and one of the top 5 in my life, not writing about it is tantamount to gross negligence. And so here we are.
Sea cucumber and mochi rice. Lusciously silky and perfectly gummy rice
Kyoaji is a kaiseki restaurant in Tokyo whose name means ‘flavour of Kyoto’. It is unquestionably considered one of the best kaiseki restaurants in all of Japan, which by extension makes it one of the best restaurants of any type – such is the pinnacle on which kaiseki rests in washoku (traditional Japanese) cuisine. That said, if you casually walked in, there are no accolades that would clue you into the fact – no awards hanging off the walls, no signs of an expensive renovation. It doesn’t even hold a Michelin star and won’t appear in any official guidebook – though that’s not for Michelin’s lack of trying. Head chef-owner Kenichiro Nishi dislikes media attention, and like many of his compatriots that operate their own outstanding venues in the Land of the Rising Sun, reject international bodies’ attempts to qualify their work. Suffice it to say, it’s not needed – booking windows are capped at 6 months in advance, and it’s chock-a-block.
Already at 80 years of age, Kenichiro Nishi’s presence in the kitchen is rare, even by Japanese standards. But it is vitally important. In Japan, the names of chefs are often what foodies follow – more so than the restaurant itself. In many cases, restaurants in Japan (and France, now that I think about it) are themselves named after their chef-owners. This is just not done in many other countries. Imagine if Quay was renamed to Restaurant Peter Gilmore. We’d be laughing and calling him out for establishing a cult of personality.
Zuiki (taro stems) & ginger. One of the most mind-blowing things I ate in 2018. I guarantee it does not taste like what you think
And so Nishi’s shadow looms large in Kyoaji’s kitchen, even as he himself doesn’t do much of the actual cooking. In fact, we jokingly observed during our dinner that he spent more time doing the dishes! But in reality, his keen eye was transfixed on his kingdom, a front kitchen of six chefs.
As per Kyoaji’s namesake, the particulars of Kyoto kaiseki are at play with the omakase – and like many high-end restaurants, it is omakase-only – menu which for me stereotypically suggested rigid tradition, impeccable presentation and the occasional overly subtle (read: bland) plate.
Matsubagani (Japanese snow crab) three ways. The vinegar dipping sauce to the side (not pictured) was an exceptional condiment, and I would have bought it by the bottle if I could Actually not the best crab I’ve had in Japan, but it comes very close and is about as good as this type of crab can get, I think
I was so wrong.
Kyoaji defied expectations. The presentation was still customarily Japanese – but emphasising a more homely style rather than necessarily creating edible works of art. Ingredients were cooked, combined and fashioned such that flavours and textures were always pronounced, discernible and accentuated by the right amount of seasoning. Any subtlety worked as intended: (actually) subtle, without being lost, into a void of blandness as is what I sometimes find with Kyoto-style kaiseki. And tradition? Sure, many kaiseki tropes were followed (the five fundamentals: raw, simmered, steamed, fried, grilled; plus rice), but with dashes of a free-form kappo-style, where the chefs are free to prepare what they will with a relaxed order, all right in front of the counter-seated diners.
Fugo shirako-yaki (grilled blowfish sperm sac aka milt). Sperm sacs of certain fish are considered a delicacy in Japan much like caviar and salmon roe is known to the Western world. Fugu shirako is the most expensive and most delicious. Its extremely creamy texture and subtly sea-sweet flavour is unparalleled Ebiimo (shrimp taro), a variety of taro that’s so-named as it resembles the curl of a shrimp when harvested. This is perhaps the simplest-looking dish: a deep-fried ebiimo. But it is perhaps the definition of perfection.
Otsukuri of fugu & tai (sliced fish dish, blowfish & sea bream). Many kaiseki restaurants do an excellent display of knifework in its sashimi. This was good, though not as earth-shattering as some of the earlier numbers.
Tamatofu (egg tofu) w/suppon dashi (turtle dashi). An umami bomb, an incredible soup. For the easily shocked, you can’t really taste turtle – it’s more that it imparts a sweetness to the dashi that otherwise wouldn’t be there. But yes, real turtle people.
Moroko & miso ofu (gudgeon fish & miso wheat gluten). It’s my first time having this kind of fish and I have to say, being able to eat it in its entirety – head, bones and all – was a novel and delicious experience. The wheat gluten was particularly impressive (it always comes from what you don’t expect!)
Daikon & kamo (radish & duck). I don’t actually like boiled/simmered/soft radish. This dish changed my mind completely. The duck was a little bit tough, but otherwise fine.
Ankimo surimi (monkfish liver paste), fashioned into tofu form. Another serve of umami that blew my head off with its flavour. The thickened dashi added additional volume that by this time, got me feeling quite content – and we haven’t even moved to rice yet!
Kyoaji’s legendary salmon rice. If you think about it, a traditional restaurant in Japan serving salmon is pretty much unheard of, and is one of Kyoaji’s cheeky ways in breaking with tradition. Well, this is one of those times when it’s perfectly fine, for it respects the revered gohan (rice) course that’s mandatory in any kaiseki, while raising the bar with something different. I had 3 bowls of this and would have gone for more, were it not for sheer embarrassment!
Various tsukemono (pickles) accompanying the salmon rice
Warabi mochi, a signature dessert at Kyoaji. I hate to contribute to the groupthink but this is truly the best I’ve had. Perfect texture, perfect flavour. Nishi-san gave a lot so despite it being so good, I was actually fully satisfied! (note the dipping sauce in the background is actually for the next dessert, oops haha)
Kuzukiri (Japanese arrowroot starch noodles), Kyoaji’s most famous dish. Again, the best of its kind, surpassing even ones made by dedicated dessert houses I’ve tried. This is the only dish that Nishi-san makes himself right in front of us, and it’s quite the process, not dissimilar from the method used to make liang pi. The kuzukiri is quite neutral in flavour – it’s meant to be dipped in the kuromitsu (black sugar) pictured earlier.
Many restaurants are good, and many bad. A superb (or god forbid, terrible) meal is when there’s a response that goes beyond the palate and provokes unadulterated emotion itself. Additionally, if I can remember most, if not all of the dishes with astounding clarity, to the point of being able to summon the flavours in my mind, then that too is a benchmark of a superior performance. Combine the two and you get close to something that resembles a life-changing experience – in a food context, of course.
There hasn’t really been a restaurant visit in recent years that I would consider life-changing (though some come close). Much like the word ‘awesome’, it’s a term that’s at risk of being overused, dulling its impact. And so I’ve saved it – you know where this is going.
To paraphrase something Kenichiro Otomatsu – Nishi’s father – supposedly said once upon a time: something unique and something good are not the same thing. Kyoaji is good and that is an undersell, though perhaps a reasonable one in order not to inflict the greatest damage on one’s dining experience: our own expectations. But on this, I defy myself: Kyoaji is unquestionably the best kaiseki I’ve had, redefining my standards and expectations about just how good food itself can be. And it does this without a single dollop of caviar, truffle, or A5 wagyu in sight.
But unique? Well, depends on your point of view. Kaiseki is plentiful in Japan. The meal format will be immediately familiar to Japanese gourmands. So too are the ingredients – any expensive restaurant with some repute is able to source high-quality produce: it is a minimum expectation. By this definition, Kyoaji is not unique. But in Tokyo, where high-end kaiseki is especially plentiful and there’s a restaurant at the end of every alley that has the potential to serve you the best meal of your life, that Kyoaji manages to stands out is itself a rare achievement. Somehow, Nishi-san has never let any of this get to his head: he’s one of the humblest chefs I’ve ever met, seeing off every guest with that kind of hospitality I’ve only ever found in Japan. And even at his age, he still remains in the kitchen to oversee the operation day in, day out. Again, quintessentially Japanese.
Not only was my dinner at Kyoaji objectively and subjectively 2018’s best, the circumstances that led to it which depended on the kindness of a stranger-turned-friend, the childlike impulsiveness that had me booking a ten hour flight to Tokyo just to eat here (of course, I made the most of my stay), and the warmth of the staff forged an emotional attachment that is unlikely to be reproduced for a long time.
People fly to other countries to attend concerts. Flying to Japan to effectively change your worldview on what Japanese food can be hardly seems inordinate.
Thank you for everything.
Date Last Visited: 18/Dec/2018 Address: 3 Chome-3-5 Shinbashi, Minato, Tokyo 105-0004, Japan Price Guide (approx): 46,000 JPY ($578AUD at time of writing), plus drinks
This post is based on an independently-paid visit to Kyoaji. Many thanks to you know who for the priceless invitation.
I guess someone with a head lice problem would find nits to pick