Having teased you with mention of it a while back, here, finally, are some really bad photos of my not-that-bad meal at Ryugin in the back streets of Roppongi, Tokyo.
But first, on the controversial subject of photographing your dinner: it's really naff, annoying for other diners (I didn't use a flash, but, still, no one wants to see photographic hardware while they are eating), and, well, common. But, as with talking on my phone while driving and being bitchy about people behind their backs, some rules are just for other people. Besides, as the appalling quality of my photos attests, I take them in an unseemly hurry before getting down to the important business shovelling food down my cake hole.
RyuGin has just been voted the 48th best restaurant in the world, one of only two Japanese restaurants actually in Japan to feature in the much discussed list published by Restaurant magazine and overseen by Observer restaurant critic and super-suave man about town, Jay Rayner.
I've had my tuppence ha'penny about the list already and when Jay kindly showed up to my Asia House Festival of Literature thing to promote my book a while back, he gamely defended it, pointing out that it was just a list and not to be taken so seriously. He added that, for a restaurant to be included, several of the judges have to have visited it that year, which is difficult for a far-off destination like Tokyo (though does present another obvious question: how do so many of the judges manages to get to eat at El Bulli? If they have any tricks to getting a reservation, I'd love to know).
Anyhoo, back to the number 48 on the list, which also has two Michelin stars. I knew vaguely what to expect having seen the chef, Seiji Yamamoto, give a demo at Tokyo Taste in 2009 - it was going to be rooted in classical kaiseki, but with contemporary twists. And so it was.
(This is the famous candy apple dessert. It's a hollow sugar sphere, filled with freeze dried apple powder)
What I didn't expect was for it to be such a hit and miss affair. There were astonishing highs - monk fish liver, and the sashimi for instance, and some surprising lows: over-cooked fish; a dashi which for my uneducated gaijin palate was borderline bland; over-sugary desserts. The room was also a little disappointing. Small, dark and, though decorated with what were probably heinously expensive antique Chinese porcelain dragon plates ('ryu' means 'dragon'), just a bit dowdy I'm afraid.
(The monkfish liver is on the right, poached (or marinated raw?), and with exactly the colour and texture of foie gras. Staggering. I'm going to be hoovering the monkfish liver up at my fishmongers from now on.)
More happily, the service was impeccable without being over formal. They knew when to be chatty, and when to let me eat, which is just what you are looking for when you dine alone.
(This was the thoroughly cooked fish dish, topped with toasted rice. Perhaps they just thought to themselves, 'He's English, he'll like it rubbery.')
At the end of the meal, Yamamoto-san graciously came out to say hi and, in the Japanese tradition, he and the maitre'd stood outside on the pavement to see me off, which was lovely of them and makes me feel a little guilty for dissing them so.
If you are in Tokyo, I promise you won't be disappointed overall by a meal at Ryugin, but I wouldn't say it was the best restaurant in Tokyo, and probably not the 48th best in the world.
Ooh, this online restaurant criticism is tough, isn't it? I feel really, really bad now. They were so nice to me, and everything. Oh well.
This sea urchin chawan mushi (savoury custard) had a challenging texture, but sublime flavour.
A 'medley' of vegetables cooked in various ways/raw. Reminded me a little of an Alain Ducasse dish - like a firework explosion in a green grocers.
It is up for the Kate Whiteman award for work concerning food and travel, against The Hungry Cyclist by Tom Kevill Davies, which I haven't read but will do so immediately, and, oddly, an episode of BBC Radio 4's Food Programme about Iceland produced by my friend Dan Saladino.
The gentlemanly thing would be to say something like, 'It's enough just to be nominated, may the best man win, I'm just looking forward to a nice evening.'
Firstly, a quick thanks to everyone who turned up at Asia House in London to hear me witter on about Japanese food last Tuesday. The event was a sell out, which was a massive and lovely surprise. So thanks again, especially to all those who asked really interesting questions, and stayed on afterwards to chat.
Now, as a kind of addendum to my thing in the Guardian today on how some foods just don't travel, how about this: a kit for a classic French patisserie, bought in Japan, and tested out at home this weekend?
I found it in the flagship store of Muji, in Yurakucho. It's part of a new range of products they are making to try and get families to spend quality time together. So, rather than buy a pack of ready made macarons, they thought it'd be nice to get parents and children to make them together (they also have a self-build cardboard chair).
I bought them because I was deeply sceptical that you could make macarons - the most notoriously temperamental of baked goods - from a kit.
The kit included two measured sachets of icing sugar, two of almond flour, one sachet of cocoa powder (to flavour the chocolate macarons) and one of caramel powder (to flavour the caramel macarons). There were also some chocolate buttons to make the ganache filling.
You have to provide the egg whites, whipped to soft peaks, plus a little milk or cream for the ganache.
A Japanese friend kindly translated the instructions for me, and I set to work. This is the result:
A little flat, perhaps (I must have over mixed the whites, cocoa powder, sugar and almond flour just a tad - told you they were temperamental), but otherwise I reckon it's pretty much the Platonic ideal of a chocolate macaron. Which, sadly, was not something you might say about the caramel ones.
Look, they weren't cooking fast enough, so I did what any other man would do and, instead of waiting a few minutes more, I turned the oven up, ok? They tasted fine enough.
Will macaron kits catch on? I could imagine so, being this easy, but I doubt Pierre Hermé is quaking in his boots just yet.
Starts with a bowl of noodles and aubergine tempura in a local soba shop for breakfast.
Followed by some window licking in Kappabashi, the astounding kitchenware district famous for its plastic food models - which this shop has taken to a whole new level.
How have I coped without my own squid-flattener all these years?
Sadly, the dog cafe was closed... ... the day continues on to the festival food at the Sensoji temple in Asakusa.
Ice cream tempura: solid gold genius.
Although deep-fried, spiral-cut potatoes run it a close second. Spot the theme?
I think it's rather late to be worrying about putting them in a water tank now:
This is just a fragment of the hour long queue for one of Tokyo's hottest ramen joints, Rokurinsha Ramen.
Safe to say, it was a heavyweight, but all for less than six pounds.
Although, no matter how large the noodle bowl, there's always space for a piece or five of mochi ice cream. Perhaps my favourite food stuff in all the world.
More window shopping, this time for tuna in Ginza.
What? You think seventy three pounds is too much for a melon? Is your mother not worth it, or what? And don't forget, you get flowers too.
Perhaps she'd like some 'street' strawberries instead.
One thing is certain, she would not approve of this boy's t-shirt. You'll have to take my word for it - and he can't have been older than 6 - it reads 'Los Angeles Mother Fucker'. Stay classy, Tokyo.
And now I am off for dinner at the newest entry on the San Pellegrino and Restaurant magazine's top 50 restaurants in the world list: Ryugin. Fascinating to see whether it deserves it 48th ranking, or might it actually be worth 47th? Whatever, I am sure the judges have all eaten there and at the other 49 places listed. This year.
Well, the volcanic ash finally mysteriously parted to allow my plane to escape to Tokyo, and I am as delighted and mildly bewildered as ever to be here.
When I am not gazing dreamily at cherry blossom...
Or gazing dreamily at ramen for breakfast, lunch and dinner...
Or gazing dreamily at Japanese sweets in the department store food halls...
...I spend my time frowning in confusion trying to decipher the thinking behind corporate communication.
For example: for which demographic would this woman's endorsement be considered a deal-maker, I wonder?
"Hey, guys! Put your pens down, I've finally got the perfect name for our new sake outlet!'
The company that manufactured the rubbish bin in my hotel room had meetings, allocated resources and commissioned a designer in order that this sticker would one day grace their product and clarify forever their 'life-vision'. No, let's not.
"Honey, can you see how much this damn thing costs anywhere?"
Then again, you've got to love any race which elevates crackers to the status of jewellery.
Hello to anyone dropping in by way of the second piece on my and my family's recent Indian odyssey in the travel section of the Sunday Times.
Thought I'd use this opportunity to shamelessly plug my forthcoming appearance at the Asia House Literary Festival next month.
Fresh from my even more forthcoming trip to Tokyo (next week - woo-hoo!) I’m going to be divulging some of the great secrets of Japanese cuisine, talking about the current trends there, and looking at the weird and wonderful techniques and ingredients.
Here’s the blurb:
Michael Booth - Sushi & Beyond What the Japanese Know About Cooking with Erica Wagner of The Times
Tuesday 18 May, 2010 6:45 PM - 7:45 PM Location: Asia House, 63 New Cavendish St, London W1G 7LP,
Asia House Festival of Asian Literature
The Japanese go to surprising lengths and expense to eat the finest, most delectable, and downright freakiest food imaginable. Their creativity and ingenuity, not to mention courage in the face of dishes such as cod sperm, whale penis and octopus ice cream, is only now beginning to be fully appreciated in the sushi-saturated West. In Sushi & Beyond, travel and food writer Michael Booth takes a fascinating and funny journey through this extraordinary, food obsessed country.
Tickets £10, Concessions £6 Asia House Friends £5
For booking please call 020 7307 5454
Online booking closes 24hrs before all events. Bookings are neither refundable nor transferable.
This is, simply, my favourite place on earth: Tsukiji, the largest sea food market in the world. It's been written about endlessly, of course (including in Sushi and Beyond, where I describe a visit with a top sushi chef), but I had a few photos that I thought I'd post from some of the visits I've made there recently.
It is, rightly, one of the main tourist sights of Tokyo but, for me, Tsukiji is more than that: it is one of the great wonders of the modern world - a testament to man's greed, ingenuity, magnificence, courage and downright, short-sighted stupidity. It is also, of course, a living, daily-updated catalogue of global sea life. Everything is here, from shrimps the size of eyelashes, to vast slabs of whale blubber.
There are plans to demolish it and move the market to a location further out in the bay so if you have the chance, go and see it sooner rather than later.
On the way in.
Something possibly not nice.
Sea squirts. Or hernias. Not sure.
Don't tell George Monbiot!
It's not what you think. Wait. What were you thinking?
Very expensive frozen food.
Elvers. Long way from Gracelands.
That's going to take some microwave.
Okay, gather round guys. This is the one that stole our sand.
Anyone feel a bit of a draught.
Monkfish livers. Or polar bear lips. Not sure.
A fascinating if gruesome technique for keeping fish fresh: the fishmonger half chops the fish's head off then sticks a piece of wire down its spine. They don't seem to mind.
Whale meat, get it while it's hot.
Fish eggs grown on seaweed. What will they think of next?
Scorpion fish. You'd look pissed off too if that damned fugu kept grabbing all the toxic seafood headlines.