Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Kyourakutei, Tokyo

You've heard my spiel before about Tokyo and Michelin stars.  Nearly 300 Michelin stars in the city.  On past visits, I made it a point to rack up as many as I could, but on my visit in 2017, I was all about more unique, authentic experiences.  I dined at 7-Eleven, Lawson, and FamilyMart, yes, the convenience stores.  I went to a tiny place for monja, where we were the only non-Japanese, and our meal was less than $10 a head.  Same thing with visiting a local takoyaki chain Gindaco.

But of course I wanted *some* Michelin star dining, right?  My research lead me to learn about Kyourakutei, one of 8 Michelin stared soba restaurants in 2016 (although my visit was in 2017, when they lost the star, but were still recommended as a Bib Gourmand).  I haven't ever loved soba, but I wanted to learn if that was just because I hadn't had good soba before.  I also was initially lead to Kyourakutei when researching tempura, something I do love, and they are also known for.
The stars: Tempura, Soba, and Yuba.
So, to Kyourakutei we went.  A chance to finally have good soba, highly recommended tempura, and almost-Michelin stars?  Yes!

Sadly, I didn't love the food, but it was an incredible experience.

And yes, we were the only English speakers there.

The Setting

Our visit was actually wrought with some failure.

The first time we tried to visit was a Saturday, a day they are indeed open.  We eagerly showed up right at opening to get a seat.  But ... we couldn't find the place.  Now, if you have tried to understand the address system in Tokyo, this likely sounds familiar, and not a real cause for alarm.

But we tried and tried, and couldn't find anywhere that looked like the photos at the right address.  We tried asking, using Google translate, and showing our screen to other shop keepers.  They all kept telling us they weren't it.  We were confused.

I tried calling the restaurant.  The phone rang and rang.

It was then that I learned that the Japanese take their national holidays very seriously.  It was Autumnal Equinox Day.  This is a real thing.  So, they were closed.


Undeterred, we returned a few days later, on a Wed, our last night in Tokyo.

This time we found it easily.  The signs and entire storefront had been covered up before!
One of the features of the restaurant is the in-house millstone, where they mill the grains sourced from the owner's home area, every single day.  You can see it right in the front window, and it is in action throughout the day.

The noodles are then made fresh daily, and hand cut.

The soba is a serious specialty here.
Weighing Noodles.
The noodles are then weighed to order, each and every time, cooked one order at a time, to order.

(Side note: check out the knife block!).
Counter Seating.
The interior is small, with mostly one large counter, and then a handful (I think 3?) tables for 4.

My first move, 2 months before my visit, was to try to make a reservation, through my hotel concierge.   But Kyourakutei takes only 3 reservations per day, for pairs only.  And they were booked for the entire month I was there, 2 months out.  Doh!

So we arrived right at 5pm opening, and were able to easily get a seat.

The hostess offered us a table, but I declined, asking for the counter.  I knew this is where we would want to be, as I had done some research, and knew everything would be prepared to order in front of us.
The Kitchen.
And indeed it was.  The kitchen area was small, with 3 stations.

Directly in front of us was a counter, with tiny tempura area beside it.  Cold apps were also prepared here, by one chef.

Behind that was a cooktop, where sometimes pots were boiling away.  But this was not the noodle station, that was separate, on the side.

Cooking & Grilling Area.
The cooktop also turned into a grill, whenever a grilled appetizer was ordered.  Again, everything done, one at a time, to order.
Tempura Station.
The tempura station is the area that fascinated me.

There was a box of fresh vegetables, and a tank of live fish.

The tempura chef plucked items from the box, whole veggies, and sliced off bits to order to fry.  He removed live fish from the tanks.

It doesn't get fresher than this! I loved watching this chef in action.

The Food

We were provided an English menu, but I'm convinced it contained only a fraction of the items from the Japanese menu, as we saw many things being prepared that were not on our menu.
Cold Noodles.
The first two pages of the menu were cold noodles, soba or udon, topped with different things, like grated radish, grated yam, soft boiled eggs, mushrooms, or even tempura.

I had read that the cold noodles were the way to go (unless it was winter), and as it was a hot day, that seemed right.

So, cold noodles it was.  Since we were sharing, we opted for the large size.
Hot Noodles. 
Hot noodles were the next two pages, similar options, plus some soup ones.
Appetizers were the final two pages, a few chilled items, fried items, simmered items, and tempura sets (or a la carte).

We opted to try the three things I most wanted to try: cold soba, yuba, and tempura, by getting the large chilled soba topped with yuba, and a appetizer of tempura.

For tempura, we selected the Kisetsu Tempura "Seasonal Seafoods and Vegetables", for ¥2400.  It came with 2 seafoods, 3 vegetables, each in a pair so we both had a piece.  A decent value.  The other tempura choice was tiger shrimp, conger eel, and vegetables, same price, but we went for the seasonal one, since, seasonal is better right?
I'll admit that I had planned to do more research before our visit, and, uh, I ran out of time.

And thus, I was a bit stumped when things started showing up in front of us.

First, the condiments, set out on every table/place setting.

The sea salt in the bowl I knew to expect, as, legit tempura is meant to just be dipped in salt.  In the box next to that was togarashi.  I wasn't entirely sure when you were supposed to use it, but, its one of my favorite seasoning mixes, so that was fine.  And then, the taller box, seemed to be soy sauce?
After we ordered, two small little round dishes were provided, a triangle dish of chopped green onion, a pot of another brown liquid, and, a cup.

Now we were confused.

Ok, a little round dish for each of us to eat off of?  We looked around, but didn't see anyone else with these.  It seemed like a reasonable assumption.

I knew the chopped green onion would go with the soba.  The sauce?  We think it was vinegar.  Was it for the tempura? The soba?  Not sure.

And then ... the cup.  That was confusing, and, got more confusing as we went.  I'll get to that soon.
Seasonal Seafood Tempura: Sweetfish.
Our first piece of tempura came up, served directly to us from the chef who had just fried it moments before, one of the seafood selections of the day: sweetfish.

I'll admit, I was intimidated by this one.  Whole little fishes.  But look, they were plated so nicely!

I consider myself fairly food-brave at this point, but, eating a whole fish was a bit much for me.  Head.  Eyes. Tail.  Oh my.

As you can see, the batter was very very light.  This was not oily in any way.

This was an experience, that is for sure.  The texture inside of it was unlike anything I've ever had. It was like ... little tiny balls?  Kinda mushy inside, but crispy outside.  And the tail and bones, uh, gave some crunch.

I can't say I enjoyed this piece, but, it was an experience.
Vegetable Tempura.
I breathed a sigh of relief when the next set came, all vegetables.

The vegetable tempura was served all at once, a half a slice of zucchini for each of us, a piece of okra and a chunk of corn.

Here too, the batter was so very light, and it was not oily.  So different from "tempura" I've had in the US.

I started with the okra, and nearly burnt off my tongue.  I knew it had been plucked from the hot oil moments before, but, I still wasn't prepared for just how hot and fresh it was.  Yikes!  It was fine, not slimy, but not particularly something I like.  My companion, who previously did not like okra, said he liked it for once.

Next I went for the zucchini, also hot and fresh, nice and moist, but, not a veggie I really care for.  My least favorite.

I saved the best for last.  A chunk of corn, individual kernels still attached.  The chef literally just sliced chunks off the cob in front of us before frying.  Incredible.

I loved the corn, it was super crunchy, great pops as each kernel burst.  My favorite bite of the meal.
Seasonal Seafood Tempura: Pike Eel.
The final piece was pike eel.  It had a bit more batter, but still not much, and again, not oily.  It was incredibly moist inside, and, for eel, good enough.

For most of the tempura, I did just use a little salt, which greatly enhanced things, but I did try dipping it in a little of the soy and vinegar too.  I think that is what our little dishes were for?

Overall though, I wasn't a big fan of the tempura.  I'm not sure why, or what I wanted different.  Maybe different seafood, different vegetables? 
Yiyashi Yuba. ¥1100 + ¥200 (large).
"Chilled noodles with tofu skin." 

And then, it was time for noodles.  A giant bowl of soba, chilled.  It came topped with sheets of yuba (per our selection), and a little grated wasabi.

It was here that I realized we had no idea what we were doing.  My research had been months ago, when I planned the trip.  I thought I recalled something about making a dipping sauce, and dunking your noodles into it?  Maybe that is what our cup was?  But we only had one cup, and we were clearly sharing.

But then, we were brought what looked like a tea pot, even though we didn't order tea.  Neither of us touched it at first, since we didn't want caffeine, and assumed it was tea.  Did they think one of us ordered tea?

Yeah, we were confused.  We tried the noodles.  They were ... very plain.  There was nothing on them.  We knew we were missing a step.  Again, we looked around, but no one else was in our phase of the meal.  We did verify that we had correctly used the little dishes for our tempura though.

So I kinda gestured at the chef, and mimicked pouring sauce into the bowl, looking for confirmation that we weren't supposed to do that.  He definitely said no to that, and pointed at the cup.

Ok, we were on the right track.  Make a dipping sauce in the cup, dunk the noodles.  But this was very hard to do with two people and one cup.  Finally, we asked the server for a second cup, and things made more sense.

But I still didn't like the soba.  It was just ... cold noodles.  With a slightly hearty flavor I guess.  I added soy sauce, vinegar, spices, wasabi, green onion to my sauce.  Still, meh.  Not my thing.

I moved on to the yuba.  I love yuba.  I was super excited for fresh yuba.  But ... it turns out, I'm spoiled in San Francisco, as we have Hodo Soy right across the bay, where I've gone for a factory tour before, and been eating yuba from for years.  I think their yuba was fresher than this.

The yuba was sadly unremarkable.  I think the rave reviews likely stem from people who aren't as familiar with it.  It was fresh enough I guess, and the addition of soy milk poured over enhanced the "soyness" of it and added a touch more creaminess, but, it just wasn't special.

And now, let's get back to the aforementioned pot.  Once I grew bored of the noodles, I decided to try to figure it out.  But I wasn't sure how, where was I supposed to pour it.  My cup was full of sauce, and that seemed ... right?  So I poured my sauce into my dining companion's cup (I know, so wrong), and poured a cup of the liquid from the pot.

It looked like ... dirty pasta water. And it tasted like it too.  It turns out, that is exactly what it was, called sobayu, the water from cooking your soba.  A quick moment of looking this up online told me what to do: I was supposed to add it to my leftover sauce at the end of the meal, and drink it like warm soup.  Aha!

So, I took back some sauce, added it to the soba water, and tried it.  It was really good!  Almost like miso soup.  I ended up making a second cup, with fresh sauces.

Overall, an experience of soba unlike anything I've had before.  I think we did it all correctly in the end.  But, I just didn't care for it. 
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