Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Nihonbashi Yukari, Tokyo

In a city where food standards are exceptionally high with a mind-boggling variety on offer, I was hesitant to go with the Asia’s Top 50 list or Michelin recommendations; I’m still guaranteed excellent food without the crazy price tags.

Nihonbashi Yukari serves Kaiseki-style dinner in a warm traditional dining room. It has some heritage as Chef Nonaga is the third generation to run the restaurant since his grandfather opened it 80+ years ago. Since then Chef has won the Iron Chef  Japan Cup in 2002, politely declined interests from the Michelin men and continues to serve the Imperial family. Let’s hope that’s enough to impress the man.

There is no English signage outside the restaurant; ask around like we did or look for a modest glowing door next to a small pebbled garden. The menu was pre-decided as we agreed on our budget upon booking. We sipped on tea as our hostess presented the first course; she spoke good English to explain each dish.

Otoshi: Amuse Bouche
Sorry it’s not a great photo - think I was really hungry. The slice of lightly smoked fish was moulded between two layers of kombu-flavoured agar, drizzled with a sweet soy dressing. It reminded me of jellied eel but much more subdued.

Zensai: Appetiser 
The presentation was exquisite, each piece had incredible attention to detail. There was a lot going on; the best of the selection was the two black beans skewered by straws willowy grass. The shiny pearls were sweetened and marinated to give a sticky, grainy and slightly chewy texture. Not everything was perfect though, the disc of octopus was stale to the point of flakiness, almost like it had been left on the counter for weeks. A part from that, the ensemble is carefully balanced with delicate flavours. 

Owan: Soup
The green pea soup was very clean with a distinctive earthy aftertaste, quickly washed away by the crunchy bamboo shoot. The bloc of fish cake gave the dish more substance, but I have always thought fish cake is just fish cake.

Otsukari: Sashimi
The thick slices of yellowtail (hamachi) was excellent, sturdy muscles that was full of bounce with a  crisp finish; the shiso flower worked well. The scallop (hotate) was lightly torched to give it a hint of smokiness, which amplified its creamy sweetness. The highlight was undoubtedly the tuna belly with its fragrant trace of fish oil… 

He wasn’t sure what I meant when I say tuna is generally quite ‘fishy’, in the sense that it’s quite pungent like mackerel and sardines, while most white-fleshed fish is much milder.  I know he still doesn’t get it because it was brought up again two evenings later.

Yakimono: Grilled Item
I can’t remember the name of the fish, but our hostess explained it was in season only for a few weeks in spring. It’s not my kind of dish, I prefer something slithery and soft, this was too stocky and dense, a tad dry as well despite the sweet soy sauce. Similarly the carrot cake was stale and crumbly - sadly this dish fell flat.

Sunomono: Pickled Item
The vegetable was mildly pickled with vinegar, mixed with strips of duck and a generous sprinkle of bonito. I wouldn't write home about it.

Tomenono: Finale

The stretchy yam dumpling was marshmallow-like, soft and playful, with a sea urchin (uni) filling that was bursting with umami. The interesting combination worked surprisingly well with the slice of Spanish mackerel at the bottom, which I would describe as a very ‘fishy’ fish. The clear gelatinous consumé, however, tipped it over the gooey edge for me.

Shokuji: Rice 
I love porridge, or congee, especially fish ones. This red snapper porridge with clouds of egg and clams was an excellent finish to the meal.

The ice cream tasted like roasted malt, or a roasted soy bean flavour with sweetened black beans and crispy toasted rice.

Kaiseki is often a pricey affair, but it was all quite reasonable at Nihonbashi Yukari; we requested 10,000 JPY per head for our dinner, which is less than half of a Michelin starred restaurant would demand. Stripped of the unnecessary pretence and ostentation, the cosy dining environment allowed us to take our time over each course, and as usual, we did. While I have had more elaborate kaiseki meals elsewhere, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Yukari. Perhaps my amazing company and our conversations were more memorable than the food, but I felt Yukari was perfect for the occasion.

Thanks Ai, for the recommendation

3-2-14 Nihonbashi
Tokyo 103-0027
Tel: +81-3-3271-3436

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Monday, 14 March 2016

India - Delhi, Agra & Udaipur

India has never been on my travel list. Then opportunities present themselves and there are people worth travelling for. 

After queuing for an hour to go through immigration at Delhi airport, we made our way to the city via airport metro express. We bought a metro Smartcard as opposed to single journey tokens, and he was totally right because the chaotic masses of people waiting to buy their tokens at other stations were frightening. The 20min ride on the spanking new airport express teleported us back 60 years to the New Delhi Railway Station… Oh boy, the stench of piss followed by waves of tuk tuk drivers was overwhelming. Welcome to India, he said.

I wanted to keep it short and sweet in Delhi; the only items on my agenda were Bukhara and Indian Accent, both on Asia’s top 50 restaurants. We had a couple hours to wander around Connaught Place before Bukhara. Burger Singh intrigued us - what kind of burgers do they serve in a country that doesn’t eat beef… so we shared a veggie paneer burger and Dilli-6 fries.

Originally I asked if he wanted to try the super spicy fries - he laughed at my naivety. True enough, the ‘non-spicy’ food in India starts at 7/10 of my heat tolerance, anything marked with chilli sign is almost suicidal. The burger… didn’t taste like a burger… it was somewhat lacking without meat - I prefer Burger King.

See Bukhara review here

The following morning we caught the early Bhopal Habibganj Shatabdi Express train to Agra at 6am. It’s the fastest train in India between the Delhi and Agra stretch, also one of the poshest trains too. We splurged and went for executive class to ease myself into Indian train travel. Imagine what peasant class Eurostar would look like in 30 years, there you have our first class opulence. We were kept very busy throughout the 2-hour journey; first we were served some spiced yoghurt drink, which was possibly the most horrid beverage known to mankind; it was tangy, savoury, pungent and just downright weird. The tea and biscuits that followed was very well received to wash down the aftertaste. The brown bread, banana and cornflakes with hot milk got the approval stamp for safety; the hot food (idli, media vadai with sambhar) with a cold yoghurt dip didn’t. We arrived at Agra shortly after breakfast.
I'm still not sure how the ‘official pre-booked taxi’ work; the crowd of drivers that came to hustle us were the same bunch that we were assigned to via the taxi booth. After a nap and a simple lunch, we rented a taxi to take us to Agra Fort and the renowned Taj Mahal for sunset.

Agra Fort was alright.. we had an audio guide that sent us looking for things that were much smaller than the not-to-scale map.

The Taj was much less laid back. We were dropped off at the West gate where we made our way up to the entrance to buy our tickets. There was no queue for foreigners, and we cut straight to securities, by-passing hundreds of local tourists - one of the privileges for paying 37 times more. The securities were quite irksome, they had issues with our gorillapod and insisted we rent a locker to store them… grrr.

It’s as impressive as people say it is, albeit crowded. I guess in a country of a billion people, the challenge is to take photos that don’t include them… 

Everyone’s heard the romantic story behind this colossal monument of love… alright, got it. Regardless of what they are trying to sell, the sheer size of the tomb was impressive. Can’t say I was completely blown away by the Taj, but very glad that I visited it with my special someone - tick.

The wedding celebrations spanned over 2 days. In between various ceremonies, we stole a few hours to see the Baby Taj (Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah) and saw the Taj from the river bank.

One of the many great things about the wedding was the array of snacks to sample before the main meal, all freshly prepared at the hotel. Saves me from risking it on the streets to tick the ‘street eat’ box. I had some dosa, two types of chaat, pani puri, some other deep fried thing smothered in yoghurt and tamarind that was absolutely delicious, jalebi, chloe bhature… loved all of them!

After 3 days in Agra, we made our way to Jaipur by taxi via Fatehpur Sikri, which is about an hour away from Agra. Our driver dropped us off at the carpark, where we walked to a bus that took us up to the sikri for 10 rupees. We avoided all the (un)official guides at the entrance and wandered around the walled city… until we got caught by a boss. He had us in the first 30 secs - offered to show us around for 100 rupees and cruising the place like a chief, dishing out random info to anyone within earshot. To be fair he was pretty good, not to mention all kinds of cheesy shots he made us do… He was good fun.
The mosque was on the other side was much more crowded as it doesn’t charge for entry, so there was a good mix of locals there. Another marble tomb with a huge square built out of red sandstone. We’ve seen a fair number of those these couple of days. 

About 2.5 hours later, we were back on the road to Jaipur. The drive was supposed to be another 3.5 hours, but we took a little detour around the city and was so glad we didn’t plan any time there. Our overnight train to Udaipur was scheduled for 11:40pm, so we headed to Peacock Rooftop Restaurant for dinner. Meh - just another TripAdvisor-hyped joint.

The train was truly Indian in the sense that it was 2 hours+ late. Our options were a) sit in the platform where it was littered with blanket-wrapped bodies (dead or asleep) b) wait in the only bar (aka hole in a basement) nearby where a guy said it’s not good for girls c) back to the ITC bar. Answer is (c).

When the train finally arrived, it took the station’s power down, 3 times. This was followed by a tsunami wave of people running to the sleeper carriages, which were already at 90% capacity - it was a scene to behold. First class was a 4-bed perth but since it was a mid-way stop, we were just dumped a stack of sheets and blankets. Then it was a blur - he made my bed; some Americans stressed out about their booking; he asked for the bin and got 'the look’ - I slept uninterrupted.

Udaipur was much calmer than any other cities we have visited so far; it was a much needed change of scenery. We checked into a heritage hotel which was filled with traditional Indian charm. The quaint hotel had hand-painted ceilings with colourful lamps, rooms that boast Indian charm with carved doorways and antique furniture. 
After breakfast and a nap, we spent the day wandering around town starting at Jagdish Temple which was dedicated to Vishnu. We agreed it was the prettiest attraction we have seen so far with detailed marble carvings all over the temple, telling mythical stories of the gods. Shoes off and sat on the side to watch hordes of locals dressed in their brightly coloured sarees, chanting prays in unison and buying their small packages of offerings for a few rupees.

Then we made our way to City Palace despite a growling stomach, because it closes at 4pm. It was a nice stroll through various complex that boasts Rajasthani and Mughal architecture and design. The balconies gave great views over the lake and the city. My favourite were the Peacock Courtyard and rooms with mirror inlays, then we whizzed passed the end bits of galleries and textiles.

Our hotel recommended Jagat Niwas Palace for lunch. It’s a hotel restaurant that overlooks the lake; we took one of the couch seat on the balcony, where they were a gentle breeze in the afternoon. The bloody-mary here was delicious, food wasn’t bad. We lounged and chilled as the sun began to set.

On our second day in Udaipur we took a day trip up north to The Kumbhalgarh Fort, which was just over 2 hours away. The fort is the second largest wall after the Great Wall of China, stretching 36km around the town, so was also known as the Great Wall of India.

The mountainous area of Rajasthan was different to what we have seen so far, and I was loving the serenity and the lack of crowds. 

After a lunch stop at a resort hotel in the middle of the valleys, we made our way to Ranakpur Jain Temple, about a hour away from the fort. This place had a lot more foreign tourist and the securities were crazy strict about the camera fee; the ticket includes an audio guide.

The temple was exquisite. The temple was made up of 80 domes supported by 1,444 marble pillars, and each and every one bore their distinctive intricate carvings. I doubt it looked anything like this back in 15th century, but the restoration was truly magnificent.

Our second heritage hotel on an island in Pichola Lake was even more beautiful with its rooftop swimming pool, refined traditional ornaments, vibrant gardens. We stayed in one of the suites, which was unnecessarily huge; the grand 4-poster bed was the most outstanding feature.

Restaurant Charcoal was booked out, so we were pointed to Rainbow Rooftop, which also offered a great night view of the lake though we didn’t get a couch table this time. The food was ok but the candle-lit ambience and unexpected fireworks made up for it.

On our last day in Udaipur we joined a cooking class with Enjoy! before our flight back to Delhi. Harinder was a great host and helped us to choose our dishes from a huge variety. It was great to have the opportunity to visit a local's home and learn a few tricks in the kitchen. Just be warned that she puts A LOT of salt in her cooking, we just need to scale it down a bit, I mean a lot. 
Getting to the airport was more complicated than anticipated. After trying UBER 3 times and no cabs turned up, followed by one of Harinder’s sons getting his car out of the parking lot to drive us to town for a taxi, then a cab was apparently there but we couldn't see it… we found one in the end, which had to drive backwards against traffic for 100m before he floored the accelerator to get us to the airport in 30mins. He didn’t need to really, because as with typical Indian time, our flight was delayed.

Our evening in Delhi was confined to our hotel in the most unromantic way; trust we have let our guard down towards the end of the trip and the much anticipated Delhi Belly caught up. We didn’t think it was the food from cooking class, but perhaps the filtered water we drank there. Or it could have been the food from the evening before… Either way, we didn;t make it to Indian Accent for dinner.

The following morning we managed to wander around Old Delhi to see Chandni Bazaars and the masses of random stalls selling anything and everything under the sun…though being a Sunday, it was already much quieter than usual. The one thing I did enjoy in Delhi was our visit to Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib. We were welcomed and shown around the gurudwara where volunteers were working huge pots to prepare foods that’s provide for those in need throughout the day. A sikh gave us a comprehensive tour, explained the praying rituals and encouraged us to take photos - the volunteers were overjoyed, albeit slightly shy, when we asked to take photos with them. The sikh was so affectionate and genuine, and understandably proud of what they do for the community. It was a really warm experience.

We ended up in Jama Masjid after ploughing through more bazaars; the mosque isn’t anything spectacular, we just sat in the shade and rested before heading back to Connaught Place for lunch. Given the state of our digestive system, we just had something simple at Saravana Bhavan, which serves vegetarian South Indian foods around the world (even in London and Singapore!).

The departure hall at New Delhi Airport makes no sense. First passengers need to hold a paper copy of their e-ticket to get in; then they only allow passengers into the check-in hall 6 hours before departure - so we had a hurried farewell:( 

I really enjoyed my time in India. It’s been an eventful 9-days; we experienced an Indian wedding in traditional attire; saw elephants strolling down an 8-lane highway; survived an overnight train; learnt to say ‘chalo’ to touts; ate at a beef-less McDonald’s and fell in love with the pizza McPuff; ticked the Taj off my list; learnt to cook Indian dishes; ate more daal than I had done in the last 29 years put together; saw more men pissing on the streets than ever; similarly saw more people sleeping on the streets than ever; witnessed a cat looking shit-scared because it was surrounded by rats of the its size; finished off by conceding to the infamous Delhi Belly. It’s been fun.

Thank you for looking after me, as always.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Bukhara, New Delhi

Listed as No.41 in Asia’s top 50 restaurant and nested in the opulent ITC luxury collection hotel, Buhkara is one of the most hyped-about restaurants in Delhi. So in our scruffy travel clothes we rocked up for dinner - feeling under-dressed had eventually become a familiar sentiment during this trip.

We were told that they only take reservations up to 7pm, then it’s walk-in only from 8pm onwards. We had our names down at 7:30 when the restaurant was mostly empty, and had a drink at the adjacent Golf Bar. We were summoned 45mins later and the restaurant was only starting to fill up with a small queue accumulating outside. From then the queue just kept growing.

Bukhara specialises in tandoor-cooking, which uses a traditional clay oven that rocks up to 480 degrees to seal the meat juices quickly. For four of us, we chose a couple of dishes from the vegetarian and non-veg section of the menu. Our server explained that Bukhara encourages their diners to eat with their hands and fingers – we’re cool with that. I guess I would have struggled a bit had we ordered rice instead of naan to go with our meal though.

Reshmi Kabab Tender rolls of chicken mince spiced with black cumin, blended with cheese, ginger, garlic and “Royal Cumin”, chargrilled in the Tandoor
They may not look it, but these minced chicken sticks were spicy. The meat was juicy and tender, infused with a concoction of spices and a very generous rub of green chillies; the heat wasn’t explosive but it slowly seeped through my senses, the heat lingered and hijacked my taste buds long after. It was my first day in India, my spice tolerance hadn’t quite adjusted to local cuisine yet.

Peshwari Kabab Boneless cubes of leg of lamb seasoned and marinated in child powder, royal cumin, yoghurt, ginger-garlic paste, malt vinegar. Skewered and chargrilled in the “Earth Oven"
The leg of lamb, by contrast, was very mildly seasoned. The large chunks of meat were expertly roasted to retain its succulence. Though it was cooked beyond medium, more medium-well, the lamb was very soft, easily torn apart with fingers. It reminded me of having lamb shish in a Turkish restaurant.

Dal Bukhara A harmonious blend of black lentil, tomatoes, ginger and garlic, simmered overnight and slow charcoal fire, finished with cream and served with a dollop of unsalted butter
I used to think I only like the house black dal from Dishoom in London. Now I know I like dal makhani, or dal made with black lentils; it’s buttery and velvety with subtle flavours from spices.

Tandoori Simla Mirch Capsicum stuffed with sautéed beans, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, cashew nuts, and sultanas, spiced with cumin and chilipowder, skewered and roasted in an “Earthen oven”
The stuffed peppers were my favourite of the evening. The vegetable stuffing was crunchy and succulent, gently seasoned with fragrant spices and mild heat that brought out the bitter-sweetness of the pepper. It was simple yet delightful.

Naan Bukhara
This colossal naan was flying across the dining room like a UFO. Since naan bread is usually flash-cooked on the surface of a tandoor oven, I can only imagine the size of the clay oven here. Hmm… despite its theatrical entrance, I didn’t particularly enjoy the naan. This could be purely down to my Indian cuisine ignorance though. My idea of a great naan was one that is light and crispy on the outside, but fluffy and slightly stretchy on the inside, so that it holds and wraps the curries.  While this flying carpet was very crispy, almost brittle, I thought it was probably too dry and lacked the smoky char on the surface. It was fun and great for sharing for at least 6 people, but I’d go for regular butter naan given the choice again.

Kulfi A rich and creamy frozen dessert with almonds, served with corn starch vermicelli and rose syrup
Phirni A light dessert of milk and ground Basmati rice flavoured with cardamom set in an earthen mould, topped with pistachio and almond slivers
This tasted like nougat in a dense ice cream form, rich and creamy with a nutty bite – we enjoyed it. The vermicelli on the side was less well-received; I don’t like any food rose-flavoured, it has an artificial, forced sweetness. The baked egg custard was alright, not dissimilar to an Indian version crème brulee with nutmeg.

Bukhara was a fun restaurant. The food was very good, though it wasn’t worlds apart from what we had experienced back in London; perhaps I was expecting an authentic meal to have unheard of dishes or flavours. As the evening went on, the dining room started to fill with more Indians all dressed immaculately in their brightly coloured attire and bling. The vibe became more relaxed as more UFO naan was flying about, and huge trays of tandoori dishes were shared. Interestingly it didn’t feel like an Indian restaurant, perhaps my narrow mind is trained to associate these tandoor recipes with Turkish cuisine.

A couple of days later we went to Peshwari in ITC Agra; it’s a sister restaurant of Bukhara that mirrored Bukhara to the dot. We tried some chicken dish in a tomato-based curry and some pastry parcel stuffed with cabbage, paired with bharwan kulcha and butter naan. Again it was a good meal, just not remarkable.

ITC Maurya
Diplomatic Enclave
Sardar Patel Marg, Chankyapuri
New Delhi - 110021
Tel: +91 011-46215152

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