Tokyo Day 1: Roppongi Robataya

Today marks the start of a 12 day adventure in Japan. We left Sydney early this morning and landed at Tokyo Narita at 5pm. After an hour on the train, a quick stop at our hotel and another couple of layers (it is COLD), we stepped out into the city.

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Dinner was in Roppongi, a neighbourhood that’s undergone a transformation in recent years, casting off its reputation as a hedonistic watering hole in favor of a more sophisticated, classier image. Today, Roppongi is known for some of the city’s best food, bars, shopping and culture.

As we stepped in from the cold to Roppongi Robataya, we were greeted with a chorus of irrashaimase’s and a beautiful spread of fresh fruit, vegetables and live seafood. The space is wood-paneled and cozy, in the way that you might imagine a Japanese ski chalet to look, and the staff is warm and engaging.

“Robatayaki” or, more commonly “Robata” translates to “fireside cooking”, and is a style of Japanese cuisine in which morsels of seafood and vegetables are skewered and slow-grilled over hot charcoal.

The origins of Robata can be traced back hundreds of years to the fishing communities of Hokkaido where, at the end of the day, fisherman would encase hot coals in a stone box on their boats and gather round the makeshift hearth to partake in the day’s spoils.Here in Roppongi, our chefs for the night sat at the center of the room behind a sunken grill, with less than 15 customers seated at the semi-circular bar around them.

After a hot towel, some tea and a pouring of saké, our server gestured to the spread and asked what we’d like to eat. For someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy looking at menus, it doesn’t get much better than this: I felt like a kid in a candy shop and immediately pointed at various delicious looking vegetables.We chose asparagus, some enoki mushrooms, an eggplant and a hearty plate of fava beans. We also picked out a cut of fish and a giant prawn from the gorgeous tabletop tank. Lastly, we ordered some sashimi and on the recommendation of our server, some Hokkaido oysters.
Needless to say, everything was delicious. The produce and seafood is all so fresh that robata seasoning rarely involves more than a basting of oil and sometimes miso. Most dishes are served with salt and a lemon wedge. Indeed, the British couple seated beside us were politely turned down when they inquired after “soy or some kind of dipping sauce”.
Other than the delicious food, it was the experience of Robataya that made it memorable. Each chef wields a long, smooth, wooden paddle. Once they’ve grilled and plated the food, they masterfully balance the plates and even bottles of beer and sake on these paddles, which they then extend to hungry guests. After plucking your dish from the wooden paddle, you load it up with empty plates, which the chef then deftly draws in and sets aside for cleaning.

The staff and servers at Robataya are equally engaging and will sneak up next to you and join the conversation. There was a lot of fanfare around a “changing of the chefs” where our two chefs stepped off the grills and were replaced by two members of the waitstaff.

Overall, it was pricey but an incredible meal in a very fun yet intimate environment — I only wish there were one of these in Sydney!

R & G Lounge

After several weeks of lusting after the salt and pepper crab, my boyfriend got his wish Monday night as we ventured over to China Town for dinner at R & G Lounge. We’d ordered takeaway from R & G several times before and, while I found the food good, I didn’t think it dramatically different from any other Chinese restaurant. After dining in-house at what many consider to be the holy grail of San Francisco’s Chinese food, I ended up changing my mind.

For starters, R & G wasn’t the cramped, colourful Chinese food shop I had pictured it as in my mind. Instead we were greeted by a large, modern space, three-tiered, high-ceilinged and brightly decorated in glass and steel. People dress up to go to R & G and the short skirted, high-heeled Asian girls who walked in left me feeling uncharacteristically underdressed for SF in my jeans and hoodie. While modern and high-end, the upstairs seating area feels distinctly Chinese, with traditional decorations and an entirely Asian staff. We managed to snag the last table before the dinner crowd tumbled in and a waiter promptly came by to ask about drinks.

At first glance, R & G’s leather-bound menu could fool you for a 12-page novelette, but a closer look reveals that it’s conveniently illustrated with delicious-looking pictures of signature dishes. Having previously tried the special beef and seafood lettuce cups, we decided to go for the hot and sour soup, geoduck sashimi and scallops with steak cubes (in addition to the infamous crab, of course). The waiter was nice enough to inform us that the geoduck was trading at $60 per person (yikes!), meriting an easy pass and, resulting in a more realistically sized order.

Everything was delicious! The watermelon juice was fresh and unwatered down and came in a giant ceramic glass along with a crazy straw (who doesn’t love crazy straws?), the soup was a delightful medley of tangy flavours and the crab a golden mass of crispy goodness. My favourite dish of the night, though, was easily the steak & scallops – a surprisingly delicate and ungreasy blend of melt-in-the-mouth juiciness. I couldn’t stop nibbling on these bite-sized morsels long after I was full. As a bonus, we were in and out of there in just under an hour with less than $100 of damage. Worthy of its 4 stars on Yelp? That and more…

R & G Lounge on Urbanspoon

Hoorah for Restaurant Week 

Today was my first day back at the big H post Spring Break. I thought it would be a rough shock to my body. I was right. Waking up for 840am classes is never pretty for a night owl like myself. As I chugged a freshly brewed coffee (my first one in a week) I realized though, that I am happy to be back. Time away has left me refreshed, reinvigorated and perhaps, most importantly, re-employed (for the summer at least). Besides, seeing my friends and classmates after a week of separation has turned out to be a surprisingly emotional reunion! Emboldened by this new found exuberance, my friend Ram and I decided to venture into Boston for some restaurant week fine dining action.

Ram was very strategic in sending me an Open Table link with the details of participating restaurants. You see, outsourcing and delegating is a fundamental skill taught at HBS and Mr Lokan knows full well that the foodie in me would diligence every restaurant on the page to shortlist our top 10 choices. Having experienced restaurant week in NYC last year (which ended up turning into restaurant “month”), I was thrilled to discover that some amazing-sounding restaurants were offering three course meals for less than $35.

I settled on Meritage, which 95 Yelpers have awarded an average of 4.5 stars, and booked a table for six at 830pm. The Meritage is located on the second floor of the sumptuous Boston Harbor Hotel but, unfortunately for us, it was too dark to indulge in the supposedly breathtaking views. The first things I liked were the prompt and professional service and the classy bar at the entrance. It is a large and grown-up space, with mostly older patrons (but then that’s Boston) and a modern, minimalist decor. The restaurant week menu is fabulous and is perfectly complemented by a three course wine pairing for only $17. I ordered the Salmon and Avocado Creme Fraiche Tower to start but was first presented with an amuse bouche soup and a few rolls of warm bread. Delicious. My appetizer arrived on a beautifully decorated plate and was surprisingly filling despite its small size. A few bites into my Diver Scallops, I was really feeling quite sated but happy to continue sipping on the Rhone Valley white pairing. We ordered all four plates for dessert but my favourites by far were the chocolate and the red fruit tasters.

The Damage: $0 as the two alpha males of the group decided to surreptitiously pay for the entire thing.
The Verdict: Meritage you are delicious. You’re older and a little out of my league but anything goes during restaurant week and I shall definitely be seeing you again.

Lured in

Lure Fishbar that is.

About 30 minutes after I finished my 14 hour journey back to New York this Friday, the bf announced he wanted to go out to dinner and celebrate our new jobs. Being the fatty that I am, I jumped in the shower and threw caution (and sleep deprivation) to the wind as I revved my jetlagged appetite for a long night out. Unfazed by our utter lack of a reservation, we decided to resort to our foolproof strategy of walking into restaurants and asking to be seated at the bar. So much for that… After striking out with Peasant, Balthazar and Cafe El Portal, we followed Yelp’s directions to Mercer and Prince and were warmly welcomed into Lure’s boat-like Fishbar.

One of the first things we noticed about Lure was the sheer volume of alcohol being consumed. Dozens of wine glasses littered the tables and there was a relaxed yet convivial air to the place. Its a large large space, much bigger than I thought when I first walked in. The lighting is dim and the acoustics are perfect with catchy 2005 tunes on the ready (if you need them) for awkward silences. The crowd is pretty mixed in age – some groups of 20 somethings, a few large tables of older couples, a few girls’ nights and some small tables with dates. Definitely a higher end crowd but without the aspirational element of some other Mercer Street establishments…

I’m a huge fan of eating at the bar. Not only is it prime real estate for watching elaborate cocktail mixage, but if you’re lucky enough, you can witness the creation of every piece of mouthwatering sushi, every plate of delicately shaved carpaccio, or in our case, every glistening oyster arranged perfectly upon a bed of salt.

We ordered mostly large appetizers (the bar menu is identical to the standard dinner menu), choosing to start with the shellfish plateau, followed by the fluke ceviche, yellowtail & scallion roll and lastly the octopus salad. The service was attentive and friendly with a busboy appearing after each course to change our silverware and our waiter apologizing for something being slow even though we hadn’t noticed. The dishes were beautifully presented, the portions larger than expected and the food was fresh and absolutely delicious.

I savoured my standard (seafood) accompaniment – a lychee martini – which was muddled and strong, but fell slightly short of the Bond Street version. The boyfriend loved his Dulce Caliente. Thoroughly stuffed, we decided to skip dessert and head instead to a friend’s party.

The Damage: $100 for two people who ate mostly appetizers, with two cocktails and no dessert.
The Verdict: classy ambience, warm service, delicious food … bonus points for hosting your menu on tumblr, well done Lure. Not bad at all for a celebratory dinner.