Showing posts with label soba. Show all posts
Showing posts with label soba. Show all posts

Kaiseki Yu-Zen Hashimoto Restaurant (Toronto)

Tucked in the Japanese Cultural Centre, walking into Kaiseki Yu-Zen Hashimoto transports you to another country. Given their limited seating, their doors may be locked, so give the posted number a call and in no time, someone will greet you at the entrance and lead you through the orange torii gates into the dining room.

There’s so much to take in that the first ten minutes is like sensory overload. Take a deep breath and get ready for the meal; Hashimoto only serves three tables an evening, there’s plenty of time to explore after dinner. So, settle into your private dining room and decompress for the meal to come.   

Hashimoto describes kaiseki as “much of an art form as a style of food preparation” and this is certainly accurate. Each dish was beautiful and like a gift waiting to be unwrapped; a sense of excitement settled over me as I lifted the dome from many of the courses.

The eight-course meal ($350 per person) began with an onjyaku-zen (amuse bouche) consisting of three hearty soups designed to warm-up the stomach. Hashimoto’s saikyo miso soup wasn’t overly salty but rather rich in umami made with white miso, topped with a braised carrot, and a pea-sized amount of mustard to add an expected spice against the broth. Meanwhile, the nutty flavour that burst through the cube of goma (sesame) tofu was incredible, almost bordering bitter if it weren’t balanced out by the thick savoury soup. If anything, I could have done without wasabi on the tofu as the sesame taste was already so pungent.

Of all three bowls, my favourite was also the simplest and what Hashimoto calls “seasoned rice”. It’s like a thick congee studded with cubes of sweet soft squash and topped with slivers of salty dried kelp (?). The bowl was lovely and comforting and had us wanting another taste of it to end the meal.

Paper thin slices of tennen madai (line caught sea bream) was featured in the sashimi course, so delicate that it’s like eating flower petals made of fish. Around the plate were three agar jellies flavoured with ginger, carrot, and seaweed, as well as a washer-sized daikon filled with thinly julienned pickled vegetables. It’s a much lighter dish following the onjyaku-zen and really showcases the knife skills of Chef Masaki Hashimoto.

Diners are asked to refrain from wearing strong scents to ensure they’re able to enjoy the sensory experience of the food. The yuzu aroma that escapes from the owan-mono was so refreshing, although at first whiff, it leaves me wondering if a citrusy soup is something I’d enjoy.

Hashimoto didn’t disappoint, balancing the yuzu in a savoury consommé and pairing it with a host of rich flavours: a silky chawanmushi (egg custard), a thick chewy rice cake, and a soft braised daikon. The slice of amadai (tile fish) was cooked perfectly and I loved that the fish’s scales were deep fried to form a crunchy garnish on top.

The yaki-mono (grilled course) featured a host of ingredients that were in-season during the autumn in Japan. Generally, I only have persimmons raw, yet somehow the fruit tastes so good baked, releasing more of its sweet flavours with chewy pieces of mochi included to soak up some of its juices. The fruit was so inventive that the grilled shima-aji (stripe jack) almost seemed secondary; I found the fish a tad overcooked and in need of a stronger glaze to make it stand out.

To finish the yaki-mono a host of seasonal produce were used as palette cleansers including crisp lotus root, a gooseberry topped with egg yolk (surprisingly, it works), mountain yam, and a lovely mountain peach that’s almost tastes like a cross between a plum and strawberry.

The Spice Girl’s song, When Two Becomes One, is what comes to mind when I think of the taki-awase course. The dish begins with ingredients being stewed separately – in this case, cubes of octopus, vegetables, squash, and daikon – and are then steam together to blend the flavours and aromas without causing the ingredients to become overcooked. After simmering for four hours, the octopus was so tender that if our server didn’t tell us what the protein was, I would have thought we were eating brisket.

Following the softer steamed dish was the shii-zakana (signature course), which provided a textural contrast with different crispy elements:

  • Medallions of the most incredible chicken teriyaki encapsulating a soft walnut and wrapped in a thin crispy skin. I could munch on rounds of these in lieu of chicken wings.
  • A ball of flavourful mashed Japanese potatoes filled with wagyu beef cubes and rolled into crispy rice grains creating something that rivals arancini with its crunchy and soft elements. Of course, in this case, instead of the traditional ground beef and peas, it’s filled with rich wagyu. Oh boy.
  • Even the garnish of popped wheat was edible; a bit fibrous when I took a bite of the entire stalk, but once we started picking out the individual grains from the husk, became almost like a nutty popcorn.

Guilt washed over me as I took my first bite of Chef Hashimoto’s hand carved radish crane… it must have taken so much time to carve its delicate neck and legs! It was the last thing consumed so that I could appreciate its beauty before finally dipping it into the carrot sauce and devouring the refreshing décor.

The last savoury course brought a bowl of sticky rice topped with slices of A5 Hyogo wagyu, the prized beef from the Kobe region. While it was delicious, I do wish the beef was left thicker and cut into cubes so that more of the fatty rich flavours would be locked in and flow onto the tongue.

A bowl of noodles and soup is always a delight. In this case, a cha (tea) soba served in a fragrant dashi broth that was good to the last drop. What a lovely way to end and cleanse the palette before dessert.

Like many Japanese desserts, the mizu-mono was a fruit plate prominently featuring the expensive Shizuoka musk melon. A sizeable melon is upwards of $200 a fruit and commands the premium as supposedly they are raised to only have one melon per plant to ensure all the flavours are concentrated into one fruit and there being less of a chance of the melon having blemishes.

Indeed, every time I’ve had a slice it’s the sweetest melon ever and tastes like a cross between cantaloupe and honeydew. What also makes it different is the texture: when you have a normal melon it tends to be very soft and sweet in the centre, then gets hard and flavourless as you approach the find. The musk melon tends to have a more uniform sweetness and tenderness throughout.

It’s strange when I’m excited to try fruit, at Hashimoto they also provided a white strawberry encapsulated in a light jelly and topped with condensed milk. Truthfully, it just tasted like a lighter Ontario strawberry that you can purchase at a farmer’s market when it’s in season… I don’t think I would pay the ~$40 for a pint. It was my first experience having a shine muscat, which was like a sweeter and juicier globe grape without seeds. Set in gelatin and adorned with a gold leaf it’s crazy to think that a bunch of these grapes can be upwards of $100.

Aside from the fruit, we were treated to a leaf of uber-rich matcha pudding and a dollop of sweet azuki beans topped with a crispy candy. My recommendation is that Chef Hashimoto switches out the rock sugar with pop rocks to really give the diners a surprise.

With an extensive sake menu, if you’re not familiar with the Japanese spirit, they have a “sommelier” to help you choose one based on your preferences for other alcohol. Letting her know that we like a dry crisp wine, she recommended the Okunomatsu Junmai Ginjo Genshu Arabashiri that was offered in a half bottle on weekends ($55), which does have a less sweet finish.

For those who are abstaining from alcohol, they also offer pots of fragrant tea ($9 a person) or water served from a kimono clad Swell bottle ($7 a person).

Incredible surroundings and beautiful unique dishes aside, what makes dining at Kaiseki Yu-Zen Hashimoto an unforgettable experience is their service. With only three tables nightly, we were in good hands – just like in Japan, the hospitality rises to another level.

It evens ends warmly with our server offering to take a picture of us, which they email to us later that evening along with pictures of the dishes sampled. It’s a simple and sweet gesture that sets the restaurant apart, from the moment you enter and after you return home, dining at Kaiseki Yu-Zen Hashimoto is a true sensory experience. 

Overall mark - 8 out of 10

How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 6 Garamond Court

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Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!

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Kamakura Gozan Bekkan 五山別館 (Kamakura)

Location: Kamakura, Japan
Address: 1531 Yamanouchi (right across from the Kenchoji Temple)
Type of Meal: Lunch

Kamakura is a region in Japan, only an hour train ride away from Tokyo, filled with shrines, temples and forests. During our day trip, I was determined to try shōjin ryōri (vegetarian Buddhist cuisine) but after leading our group on a 30 minute walk away from Kamakura’s city centre towards Kita Kamakura found the restaurant closed.
Too hungry and tired to walk back, we went into Kamakura Gozan Bekkan, a little noodle house across the street instead. Their menu is also limited to vegetarian options, except is soba or udon in various soup bases (tsukimi, natto, sensai, hiyshi sansai, etc.).

I ordered the house speciality, kenchin udon (¥900) an autumn vegetables based soup simmered together with tofu, miso and sesame oil. There were so many ingredients in it that I’m sure I’m missing some.  I recall soft root vegetables (radish and carrot), crunchy preserved veggies, a root jelly (could have been lotus or burdock?), onions, delicate tofu and toasted nori (seaweed) strips. It had such a wonderful scent and so warm & welcoming after a long cold walk. The hot broth was amazing … a little thicker and filled with flavour. The udon is thinner and softer than the North American versions but went well with everything.

After warming up and exiting Kamakura Gozan Bekkan, we realized Kencho-ji (one of Japan’s earliest Zen temples) was directly across the street.  Originally, it wasn’t one of the attractions we were planning to visit but ended up being the highlight of the trip! The buildings in the temple were ornate and pleasant but really weren’t that different from other shrines and temples across Japan.

What made the Kencho-ji visit so worthwhile was walking towards the back of the grounds and climbing all the stairs to the top. 

 If you continue past Hanso-Bo (a prayer area with a bell) and walk up the makeshift rocks going up the mountain, you’ll eventually get to an observation deck in the forest. We were treated with an amazing view of Mount Fuji, the Sea of Japan and Tokyo. So, what could have been a disappointment ended really well – a delicious bowl of vegetarian noodles and a lovely tranquil view of Japan.
Overall mark - 7 out of 10

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Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!