Sunday, February 14, 2016

The best gastronomic day of my life - at Niseko, Hokkaido

It's uncommon to have two back-to-back memorable once-in-a-lifetime meals. We had that happen on February 14, 2016 at Niseko, Hokkaido.

Thanks to the lousy weather that day (raining in Niseko), we decided to skip skiing and try our luck getting into Sobatei Rakuichi, a tiny 12-seater soba house made famous by Anthony Bourdain when he featured them back in February 2011.  This wonderful small restaurant is in a tranquil, woodsy area away from the ski area. We got there at 11:05 AM (yes, admittedly a tad crazy) but we were the last two seated at the first lunch service; the next couple, who were right behind us and arrived at 11:10 AM, had to wait a whole hour to be seated in the next round.

This is a truly memorably experience, knowing that your soba was just rolled out and cut by hand after you ordered your dish and the cooking begins. Menu is simple - classic cold soba, cold soba with hot duck soup, or hot soba with duck, vegetable tempura. That's it! For a famous and highly sought after place, I was surprised at how inexpensive the menu was. The classic cold soba is only 900 Yen, about USD 8!

The soba was 'light' yet al dente.  It didn't have the strong buckwheat taste of other sobas. The vegetable tempura was delicious, and served with a green tea salt (no dipping sauce).   The duck soup was very tasty, with succulent slices of perfectly cooked duck. I also liked the side of spring onion tempura that came with the duck order.

The place is run by Rakuichi-san, the soba master, his wife and their daughter. They remain authentic to their craft, hospitable and calm as they feed the people who visit them from around the world with high expectations. Here's a link to a video demonstration of his soba making.

Our dinner that night was at Asperges Hanazono, located at one of the four base areas of the Niseko ski area. Having had our fair share of fine-dining experiences, we were impressed by this place. Most of this is attributed to high quality ingredients and 'respectful' cooking that allowed the ingredients to shine. Much of the cooking was done right at the fireplace, in the middle of the dining room, including grilled beef and casseroled items.

EVERY single dish was a standout - from the 4 amuse-bouche, the salads of 20 winter vegetables, the abalone first course, the grilled beef second course to the petit-four.  What surprises me is that some sides, such as the risotto for the abalone and the gratin for the beef, are done in casseroles prepared for your table, and then served at table-side. That's highly unusual for fine dining. It reminds me of 'home-cooking' and the concept of sharing. Don't get me wrong, I can't home-cook these dishes!!

The 4 amuse-bouche dishes:
1) hokkaido oysters - fresh, creamy
2) flounder (raw) on rice cake with mixed herb salad - the combination of herbs is outstanding
3) botan shrimp lightly poached - they present the raw shrimp before cooking them. Served medium rare, it's really the best way to eat these shrimps
4) grilled smoked herring - didn't know herring could taste so complex, with a combination of smokiness and char

This is followed by a refreshing and colorful 20-vegetable winter salad. I ate each vegetable separately as they all have a slightly different taste, texture and preparation. How do they grow so many colorful vegetables in the winter? Hothouse would be my guess.

The next course is a knockout. Yes, I mean out of this world. Hokkaido abalone, seared lightly so that a crust is formed on the underside and served with a squid ink sauce, accompanied by a squid ink risotto. Every kernel of the risotto is flavorful, every bite of the abalone is succulent.

The main course was grilled beef with potato gratin and grilled turnip. Yes, it's the first (and also last time) we saw foam, thank goodness. Served with some wasabe (in place of traditional horseradish), this is an outstanding dish, especially the potato gratin (underneath the foam).

The petit 4 is a main dessert - "Baba au Sake," a kind of rum baba but with sake, followed by coconut meringue, homemade marshmallows and black beans coated with chocolate. The Baba au Sake is a standout - light yet crusted, in a light sake syrup.

We finished the feast with a snifter of 17-year old Hibiki whiskey - from Japan, of course.

I cannot believe that this has been such a tremendously good day - a fantastic lunch, followed by a wonderful dinner. Can't thank my lucky stars enough :-)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Otaru - Vienna of the East

Otaru is a small coastal town, about 70 minutes via local train from Niseko (Kutchan) or a little shorter from Sapporo. I was expecting a typical fishing town, perhaps a little run down and worn from the unforgiving coastal winds. To my surprise, Otaru has some of the best cafes and confectionary shops. They are seriously good - big, modern spaces that turned out really good tarts, soft serve ice cream, cheese biscuits, cream puffs and more.  Don't miss out on visiting Le Tao Pathos for sample treats of their famous double fromage, cheese biscuits and mini chocolate 'pyramids'.

It must be the famously high-quality Hokkaido milk that makes all dairy products taste so good!!

Kitakaro - cream puff heaven
Custard oozing out...

Otaru is also famous for fishcakes. We stopped by Kamaei and tried their satsuma fishcakes. Even my companion, who is not particularly fond of fishcakes, actually liked it a lot!!

Fish cakes counter at Kamaei

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Sapporo - land of good beer, uni, miso ramen and cheese tart

Sapporo is a nice gateway to Hokkaido. Especially during the snow festival, the air around the Odori Park is filled with the scent of unami and seafood from the multitude of food stalls serving festival goers.

A must visit is the Sapporo fish market called the "Curb Market," which is across the street from the wholesale fish market - not open to the public - located a mile or so from the downtown area.  (The other fish market is called Nijo, which is closer to downtown.)  Most hotels offer a free shuttle to one of the largest shops in the Curb Market. Initially unhappy that we were 'chained' to one shop since we took the free shuttle, that turned out to be the best decision we made. It was the largest shop, and that means good turnover and fresh seafood. After arriving at about 6:45 am, we ordered the Donburi (rice with a selection of raw seafood) for breakfast. Everything was ultra-fresh but the uni (sea urchin) stole the show. Creamy, light, slight hint of brine, smaller and lighter in color compared with the uni I've seen before, this was the best uni - hands down.

Donburi with mixed seafood
A special find in the Sapporo Underground Pedestrian mall is Kinotoya Bake cheese tarts. Selling only one item in a modern bake shop, this is a must-try. Best time to have the tarts is at 10 AM when the shop just opens, the pastry is still slightly warm, the crust is crunchy and the filling (made with 3 cheeses) is light and airy with a hint of lemon.

No visit to Sapporo is complete without a visit to the Sapporo Beer Museum followed by a mongolian lamb dinner with Sapporo beer at the Beer Garden right next to it.

Enjoying beer with lamb bbq
Another famous dish in Sapporo is Miso Ramen. We took the advice of one of the young ladies on the hotel staff and went to her favorite miso ramen shop - Keyaki. It is a tiny place, but it was a good hearty meal. I ordered the char siu ramen, which was a tad oily from the seared pork. My companion's miso ramen (with nothing else) was better!

Cooking miso ramen
Char siu (roast pork) ramen
Another piece of advice for Sapporo is to give yourself plenty of time at the New Chitose Sapporo Airport.  In the Domestic terminal before you check in for your flight, you will see all our Hokkaido favorites again - fishcakes from Kamaei, cheese tarts from Kinotoya bake, LeTao sweets and of course, Miso Ramen!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Chocospoon – A new way to hot chocolate in Luxembourg

The Chocolate House in Luxembourg is right across from the Palace of Grand Dukes. It serves up hot chocolate in a very ingenious way - in a pre-packaged chocolate cube with a wooden spoon!

I ordered the Ginger and our friends ordered the Hot Chili Orange. The latter was a hit! If you can take heat, you should definitely try the Hot Chili Orange.

And if you order one with alcohol, the package comes with a small tube of the desired alcohol/liqueur. 

Really, really clever!!
Warm milk, and a packet of Ginger hot chocolate
The Menu
Hot Chocolate Packets for Sale

Thursday, September 3, 2015

A 'Pure C' Seaside Lunch in Cadzand, The Netherlands

On the windy shore of the Nord Zee (North Sea) in The Netherlands, just across the Belgian border, is an elegant restaurant called Pure C.  It is owned by well-known chef Sergio Herman, who had the famous (now closed) Oud Sluis in a small village a few minutes away and who currently operates The Jane in Antwerp, Belgium.  But Pure C should not be overlooked.

Panoramic views over the dunes to the sea formed a stunning backdrop to our lunch at Pure C, which began with an amuse-bouche that looked like rocks and were served in a bowl with actual rocks.  It was hard to tell the difference visually - good thing the server warned us about the seasoned but inedible stones!  The edible treat was a puff crisp filled with a cream of anchovy, mushroom and bleu cheese. The flavors blended wonderfully, with the bleu cheese providing just a hint of richness. Truly a delight!

The anchovy "stones" were accompanied by spheres of carrot filled with foie gras and camomile, and a small bowl with quark, wheat and celery.

The next amuse-bouche was cockle, beetroot, rosemary and horseradish, served on the shell.

We were too full to order the tasting menu, but shared Langoustine served three ways and Lobster served two ways.

The Langoustine began with a raw preparation served on a locally grown and completely edible mini corn stalk, together with lime, lavender and soya sauce.  This was a real hit at our table!  The second preparation was with Chinese cabbage, a ribbon of butternut pumpkin and watercress.  The third and final course was with eggplant, dashi and tarragon.

The first lobster course was served with shiso and pearl barley, followed by a second course with tomato, olive and zucchini.

Our meal concluded with a lovely berry dessert and a selection of petits fours.

It's worth a detour to Pure C for a breath of fresh Nord Zee air and a delightful meal served by a gracious staff in a modern atmosphere.

Carrot Spheres (left, filled with foie gras and camomile) with Anchovy Stones (right, filled with a cream of anchovy, mushrooms and bleu cheese) and a mix of quark, wheat and celery (bottom).
Can you tell the difference between the edible Anchovy "stones" and the actual stones?
Cockles, served with a seaweed-based crisp
A tasty olive-based bruschetta-style appetizer
Fabulous crusty bread served butters (one infused with seaweed) and seasonings
Langoustine #1, on an edible mini corn stalk
Langoustine #2, with Chinese cabbage, a ribbon of butternut squash and watercress
Langoustine #3,  with eggplant, dashi and tarragon
Lobster #1, with pearl barley and shiso
Lobster #2, with tomato, olive and zucchini
A berry good dessert ;)
Petits Fours

Lightest, Crispiest Belgian Waffles in Brugge

Craving Belgian waffles the first morning after arriving in Brugge, we chanced upon Verdi Tearoom. To be honest there are not that many places that are opened at 9 am in the morning. Love the Belgian lifestyle, or is it more generally the Europeans! I ordered the waffles with sugar, my partner ordered it with strawberries and bananas. Wow!! Never had waffles that light and crispy. Like a good crusty bread, you know that it's good when you hear that 'sawing' sound. 

Really good waffles! Highly recommend it!!

Waffles with strawberries and bananas

Waffle (half) with powdered sugar for 4 euros

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Good heart, great talent, nice value - Zeno in Brugge

Had a really enjoyable meal at Zeno in Brugge. With a decor that's mostly white, spare and clean, this restaurant is run by a husband and wife team - the chef Reinout Reniere is a very talented man who worked at the 3-star restaurant de Karmeliet in Brugge. He serves most of the dishes himself with his wife running the front of the house. 

The standouts of the meal were the amuse bouche and the dessert, which is really unique. A composition of malt ice cream, chervil root mousse with fennel seeds and fennel flowers, it is very flavorful and not too sweet. The chef told us himself that he doesn't have much of a sweet tooth. At 37 euros, the meal consisting of 4 amuse-bouche, fish entree (appetizer), chicken main course, dessert, palate cleaner and a variety of petit fours, is really worth every penny.
Amuse bouche - picked cabbage
Amuse bouche - beets
Amuse bouche - celeriac with a citriusy filling
Amuse bouche - 'Ratatouille' - eggplant puree, with tomato gazpacho freeze balls, cucumber, sorrel
Bread with olive oil, butter and pork grease with seeds
Fish (crispy skin) with chanterelles
Farmed chicken with onions
Malt ice cream, chervil root mousse, fennel seeds/flowers
Hazelnut delight, canele, chocolate with buttonberry, fruit parfait
Refreshing palate cleanser - coconut balls, basil