RAMEN | 本家 第一旭 (Honke Daiichiasahi)

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Supposed to be one of the must DOs yet LG still managed to miss this pair of old guards of Kyoto ramen (the other one being Shinpuku Saikan (新福菜館), established in 1938 first as a Yatai) everytime in town until now. Established as a shokudou (旭食堂) by Taguchi-san (田口有司) back in 1947, this is now the Honten of the evolved ramen joint with branches and spin-outs to be found all over Japan. Hit this shop as they were the one opening on this early Monday morning but it was never a doubt that the two are very similar in style and fittingly choose to have their rest day always on a different day as well. Without the famed fried rice being offered at the neighbours, the focus was clearly on the ramen for this visit. As in all other classics, there is no guarantee that what is being offered fits all tastes, and yet one can be assured that it is indeed the same taste being offered day in and day out. Technically a shoyu tonkotsu ramen with a slightly darker colour yet sweeter soup, it is old fashioned taste no doubt if not slightly forgettable. The embedded ‘umami’ taste is also dubious as found in all other similar ‘classic shoyu’ ramens yet one can certainly taste the history. With a queue even during the wee hours on a Monday morning (pictured), (we went there at one in the morning with the shop only closing everyday from 2 to 5am for cleaning) this has certainly become part of the Kyoto-nites’ daily lives. Yet another must try in Kyoto, even if just as a tourist spot.

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SUKIYAKI | 三嶋亭 (Mishima-tei)

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Probably another touristy stop though quality Sukiyaki outside of Japan are indeed hard to come by, let alone one with history, established in 1873 going into its 5th generation to be exact. In an era that one can source the best wagyu anywhere in the world when money is no object, it is certainly way beyond the beef when one visits a Sukiyaki joint. Though quality of the table top cooking are arguably at times down to luck these days, given the limited new attendants devoted to the space, the century old Kansai style sukiyaki recipe, said to be the original being less watery and more robust than its Kanto counterparts, as well as the quality ingredients (choice Kyoto seasonal vegetables no less) all the way down to the ‘secret’ sauce are still the drawcards. While certainly clear signs of tear and wear noticed at this 140-year old joint, it is indeed these historic ambience that helps to deliver the total package. Yet another one of those that probably should be enjoyed in complete silence to savour the essence.

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KAISEKI | 京都 吉兆 (Kitcho)

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Originally an encounter merely to pay pilgrimage to this old guard of Kaiseki established since the 30s, the short trip to Arashiyama on a beautiful early summer evening still deserved all the praises it could get. In a classic old-fashioned tea house setting private room, with a little back garden and much tranquillity to come with it, the cool breeze let in by opening the sliding door injected much energy as the night fall. The dinner started off with a bang, as a nicely decorated plate of ise-ebi that could rival some of the top haute cuisine tables out there, let alone its amazing taste and texture, showed the true colours of third-generation executive chef Tokuoka-san (徳岡邦夫) right from the start, a combination of top ingredients and decoration as preached indeed. The evening went on with all the best in class seasonal dishes one would have expected from the most celebrated name in Kyoto, and the detailed explanations given by the attentive staff, even without a written menu at all, had kept us all very well informed to enjoy each of the dishes to their fullest. With the exception of a little ‘lighting’ play in the middle of the 9-course meal, one might say that surprises were the only element that went missing a bit on the night. That being said, isn’t it the same with all these historic gourmet monuments everywhere else in the world? Without a doubt a well-worth once in a life-time experience!

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TEMPURA | 玄海 (Genkai)

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A seasoned and rather unique husband and wife team delivering quality tempura fare yet in a Yatai setting. Haven’t tried it all but probably the best Yatai tempura out there in a rather ‘Showa’ style setting with that mini TV at the back and still serving classic bottled Kirins. Ideally situated in Fukuoka where access to quality fish from the Genkai seaboard is a given, hence the namesake, Yatai stuff like bacon and chicken fillet were also on offer. Not to be missed is of course the said to be ‘off-menu-frequent-customers-only-while-stock-last’ mentaiko tempura. Asking for merely 140-220 yen per piece, this is certainly one of the best value for money quality tempura joints one can find, and I can guarantee you it is not that shabby at all even if compared head to head with those upscale ‘Edomae’ ones in Tokyo. One can even say that this is indeed back to the basics as tempura did come from ‘yatais’ in the first place. One of the must tries in Fukuoka.

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RAMEN | はしご (橋悟) (Hashigo)

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Back to my first found dandan joint conveniently located in the heart of Ginza which opens till 5 am on weekdays! Our late night ramen in Tokyo award certainly would have gone to them if there was any ever in contest. Afterall, the shop has been serving Ginza salarymen since 1964 from its humble beginning at the basement of the Toshiba building. Caught them passed midnight on a Monday this time around and what a scene! For my fellow Hongkies, picture LKF Tsui Wah at 3 am and you won’t be that far off. The gentlemen next to me at the counter seat was actually asleep right after he finally managed to order while a bunch of young salarymen was getting rowdy at the far end and drew some angry comments from the master. With such an entertaining backdrop on the night, however, the bowl turned out to be rather disappointing. Granted it probably wasn’t fair from me just coming out from sampling the top 3 dandan-men in Tokyo but this was actually very far off from what I can remember it used to taste (or maybe just this time around I hadn’t drink enough beforehand!) The servers were also not in their best mood to please as well, can kind of understand it given the chaotic yet busy scene. In short, the soup was watery and the noodles to the point of soggy. Having said that, if one managed to stay till the wee hours in the neighbourhood and still managed to drag oneself into the shop, anything with carbs and a hot and spicy soup probably tastes heavenly. Still searching for that soul saving bowl in Ginza past midnight but for now this is the best shot.

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RAMEN | 四川担担麺 阿吽 (Aun)

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First read about this joint some years back at Japanese blogger R’s page, surprised to see that it is now ranked the #2 dandan-men joint in Tokyo according to Tabelog, even ahead of the newly-starred Nakiryu. Went for level 4 in terms of both ‘ma’ (numbness) and ‘la’ (spiciness) (one can choose seperately for the amount of sichuan peppercorns (ma) and chili (la) to put in) ahead of the standard level 3 suggested and opted for the soup version rather than the popular `maze’ one here, which certainly would taste wonderful as well with the featured good old ‘Mikawaya’ noodles, the immediate surprise for LG was the level of ‘ma’ the Japanese can take. The bowl certainly would have been qualified as an authentic bowl even in Chengdu or Chongqing, to the extend that the ‘numbness’ did overwhelm the taste a bit here. As in ‘spiciness’ from the chili, a level 4 was just right for LG and would recommend anyone to probably go for just a notch down for its peppercorn vs chili (x-1 vs x) mix to extract the true taste. Probably the dandan joint LG will most likely return in the future with the company of a few serious dandan-men lovers. Certainly an eye opener showing the sophistication of Tokyonites nowadays with classic Chinese tastes. It is indeed the first dandan joint one should visit as a true reflection of modern Sino-Japanese cuisine.

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TEMPURA | 天海 (Tenkai)

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It was a bit like picking up mispriced stocks on a slow day taking advantage of short term supply and demand imbalance. Got lucky and read their Facebook message around noon saying that they are opened today and figured that it might have been an indicator of slow business. And indeed, Bingo! as I ended up having nearly the entire counter just for myself. They only serve sets for lunch except Sunday thus will have to do a part 2 about their Omakase one day. Was always full when I walked by during lunch and given that it is walk-in only, never had the chance to try out Nagasawa-san’s skill, who used to run an Izakaya in Shizuoka (which is where he sourced most of his ingredients), until today.
Started off with an amazingly priced tempura-mori of 7 pieces for only 150 hkd. Though not served piece by piece, this I can say is not too far off from the Ginza elites and probably the best ‘CP ratio’ one can get in town. Highlight of the day, however, was this ‘Handa-men’. Basically a made to order sakura-ebi kakiage on top of a bed of Handa soumen from Tokushima, seeing the preparation of it from scratch was an enjoyment itself, not to mention the harmony it brought along from the texture to the taste. Certainly one for the Summer! Can’t guarantee one can have the same experience on a busy day but enjoying this entire meal at the counter all by oneself and in complete silence from start to finish is truly priceless.

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