20 June 2010

Chicken Katsu Curry - Recipe

I love cooking but I know where the limits of my cooking skills lie. What I lack in culinary talents I try and make up for with enthusiasm, so it is a wonderful day indeed when you produce something so amazing that you can scarcely believe it was produced by your own hand in your own kitchen. Today was one of those days and it was such a simple dish of chicken katsu curry that brought such a smile to my face.

I first had this dish (probably like most others from the UK) at a Wagamama restaurant in the mid 90s and I was instantly hooked. Curry never seemed a very Japanese sort of food but I didn´t care, it was fantastic and rapidly became one of my Waga favourites. Fried breaded chicken, rice and lashings of super smooth curry sauce - all the major food groups then; what´s not to like? Curry is hugely popular in Japan and was introduced to the country by the English (of course it was) in the Meiji era (1869 - 1913). I suppose chicken katsu curry must be a sort of Japanese chicken tikka massala, a dish so far removed from its origins that it is a class of food in its own right.

I could have created a curry sauce from scratch (I found this recipe from Gizzi Erskine) but frankly almost all other recipes suggested using ready made blocks of Japanese curry sauce so that´s what I did. It turned out amazing, way better than anything I had had at Wagamama, and its super simple to make too. So, if you love katsu curry then you have to give it a go.

Ingredients (Serves 2):
2 chicken breasts
Panko breadcrumbs
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups sushi rice
Japanese curry (I used S&B Torokeru curry, which is much better than their Golden Curry brand)
Vegetable oil for frying
Beni shoga (pickled shredded red ginger) to garnish

1.  Cook the rice using roughly 1 part rice to 1.3 parts water
2.  Heat some oil in a shallow frying pan
3.  Slice the chicken breasts in half horizontally to make four thinner cutlets and season with salt
4.  Coat the chicken in flour, shaking off the excess. Dip the chicken in the beaten egg and then cover with the panko breadcrumbs
5.  Shallow fry the chicken for about 5 minutes on each side until cooked and golden then place on some kitchen paper to soak up the excess oil
6.  While the chicken is cooking make the curry sauce using about 500ml water to half a packet of S&B curry sauce
6.  Slice the chicken into fat strips
7.  Serve with rice, curry sauce and garnish with some beni shoga

A Simple Miso Soup - Recipe

Now that I am the proud owner of a stash of Japanese ingredients I wasted no time in putting them to good use. One of the things I had been craving was a really good, simple miso soup. In Tokyo I was surprised at the variety of miso soups they serve, some came with fish, others with the smallest clams I had ever seen, and each one seemed to have a slightly different dashi base.

Here´s my interpretation of a simple miso soup. Warm, soothing and full of that wonderful umami taste. I decided not to make my own dashi stock from scratch as I was feeling a little lazy but I used Ajinomoto Hon-Dashi granulated dashi stock instead. To it I added some white miso paste and garnished with some wakame and silken tofu. I would also have added some sliced spring onion but I didn´t have any in the fridge.
L-R: white miso paste, dashi stock, wakame
Close-up of the dried wakame
Miso soup with tofu and wakame
Such a simple and satisfying soup. One of my favourites. All I need now are some of those beautiful lacquered wooden miso soup bowls.

Ingredients (serves 2)
4 cups of water
2 tbsp white miso paste
1-2 tsp instant dashi powder
2-3 tsp dried wakame
150g silken tofu
1 spring onion, thinly sliced

1.  Bring the water to boil in a saucepan
2.  Add the instant dashi powder and stir
3.  Add the miso paste and stir, letting it dissolve into the liquid
4.  Add the wakame and leave for 1 minute to soften
5.  Cut the tofu into blocks and place into two soup bowls
5.  Pour the soup over the tofu and garnish with the spring onions

19 June 2010

I think I´m turning Japanese...

One week. That´s all it took for me to become totally hooked on all food Japanese, one glorious week in Tokyo. The problem is that Norway is not the easiest place to find authentic Japanese food or ingredients. So imagine my joy of joys when a quick Google search alerted me to Japantorget (update: now sadly closed), a Japanese food store in Oslo that was mere yards from my office. Could it be true?

The shop itself is not that large but contained a large variety of Japanese ingredients as well as kitchen utensils, crockery and yukatas. OK, so most of the products are of the long shelf-life variety (dried, canned, or frozen) as I can´t imagine turnover of stock is very high here but there were certainly enough things to do justice to Japanese cooking in Norway. I´m a very happy bunny.

Here´s a picture of my stash:

Left to right from the back row: Ramune, curry sauce, dashi, soy sauce, wasabi, mirin, Oishi green tea , Strawberry Pocky (my daughter loves this), Beni shoga (shredded pickled ginger), instant miso soup, Nishiki sushi rice, panko breadcrumbs, white miso paste, dried wakame, Iri goma (black sesame seeds), Udon noodles, rice crackers.

Now I´m going to have to think of some things to make with the stuff. Stay tuned for some of my attempts at creating authentic Japanese food in Norway...

18 June 2010

Joël Robuchon, Monte-Carlo - Restaurant Review

A few weeks back I was lucky enough to be in Monaco to indulge in two of my passions; food and Formula 1. It was a glorious spring weekend on the Côte d'Azur and the buzz surrounding this usually staid place was palpable. In such surroundings and company I could have eaten at KFC and been happy (in fact I can generally eat at KFC and be happy). As it was I had made a reservation at Joël Robuchon, a two-Michelin star restaurant located in the fantastically grand Hotel Metropole. The reservation process itself was a bit of a palaver requiring photocopies of passport and credit cards having to be faxed over, but in the end a table at 9:00pm was secured.

The entry to the restaurant is very grand with a long candle-lit driveway leading to the covered entrance. This being Monaco the driveway was lined with the most luxurious cars you could imagine. We were a little early so we decided to have pre-dinner drinks in the wonderfully decadent lobby, which was dominated by a huge central skylight. Just off the lobby was a large bar area with wall-to-wall books, the door to the toilets being hidden behind one such bookshelf, very James Bond. The overall feel was one of timeless luxury; elegant without being gaudy.

The restaurant is run by the very capable Head Chef, Christophe Cussac, a Robuchon protege. Cussac was formerly executive chef at the two Michelin Star restaurant La Reserve de Beaulieu, executive chef of two Michelin Star restaurant Hotel L’Abbaye, and Chef de Partie at the three Michelin Star Restaurant Troisgros, so he has bags of experience and talent in running such a high-end restaurant.

The dining room was designed by Jacques Garcia and was elegant and contemporary. The open plan kitchen is at one end with a sushi-style bar around it which I gather, given Robuchon's Japanese influences, serves as the chef's table. The restaurant seemed busy without being hectic, emitting that pleasing hum of of well-oiled Michelin-starred machine. My only gripe was that the dining chairs were a bit too low for me which, combined with the lack of space to stretch your legs under the table due to a huge central column that restricted the floorspace, made for a somewhat uncomfortable seating experience.

We all opted for the 10-course "Discovery" menu which at €210 per head without drinks was probably the most I have ever paid for food in a restaurant. I also suspect prices were somewhat inflated due to the Grand Prix as the tasting menu is usually €180 according to the restaurants website. However, sometimes you just have to splurge, and Monte-Carlo is hardly the place to visit on a shoestring.
We started with an amuse-bouche of foie gras mousse, salted caramel and Parmesan. This was a fantastic combination, the rich an silky foie gras combined perfectly with the sweet caramel and salty cheese. It had a surprisingly light texture given the heavy ingredients involved. I should also mention the bread. What I though was the cheese or dessert trolley turned out to be full of bread. I had never seen something like this before, but it was a fantastic idea. The butter was stored as one gigantic block under a bell jar and the waitress would create perfect quenelles of salted butter to place next to your chosen bread. A very classy touch.

Foie gras mousse, salted caramel and Parmesan
Next was a visually spectacular dish. A small tin bearing the logo of the restaurant was placed before us alongside a mother-of-pearl spoon. The tin was opened to reveal beautiful, perfect spheres of glistening caviar. Underneath (to the disappointment of my good friend who thought it was caviar all the way to the bottom) was a layer of shellfish jelly and beneath that was crab meat. This was one of my favourites of the evening. The flavours worked really well together, the crab was sweet and perfectly cooked, and the shellfish jelly was like a super concentrated essence of langoustine. I love caviar, and scooping up spoonfuls of it seemed like such a naughty thing to do. What a fun dish this was!
Caviar with crab and shellfish jelly
Next up was probably the most mediocre dish of the meal. Asparagus with morels and shavings of Parmesan. There was nothing bad about it per se, its just that it seemed a tad boring after the opening fireworks. Asparagus is always a good starter in my book and it combined well with the dense, woody morels and shavings of Parmesan. The asparagus was a touch overcooked for my liking though, but I've often found that asparagus in France and Germany is cooked that way, so maybe it was just me.
Asparagus, Parmesan and morels

This was followed by duck foie gras. The foie gras was cooked so that a wonderful savoury crust had developed which yielded to a meltingly soft interior. Again, salted caramel was used to provide sweetness, echoing the amuse-bouche. This was accompanied by vibrant minted peas, which were semi-mushy and incredibly fresh tasting. The menu stated this dish also came with bacon but I suspect this was a typo as no bacon was to be found. Instead it was Arnad lard from the Aosta valley in northern Italy. A wonderfully fragrant lard flavoured with mountain herbs made from pigs fed only chestnuts and vegetables.
Foie gras, salted caramel, and peas

After this was a dish consisting of a solitary langoustine tail wrapped in a basil leaf and then in filo-type pastry and deep fried. Alongside it was a slick of thick parsley sauce. The star of this dish of course was the langoustine which was stunning. Perfectly cooked, sweet, juicy and a nice contrast to the light and crisp pastry shell. I suppose this was Robuchon's take on tempura with a South of France influence. It worked really well and was gone in a few seconds.
Langoustine in a crispy parcel with basil
Then a warm salad of poivrade artichokes, squid and chorizo. The artichokes had been thinly sliced and had a nutty, grassy taste with a hint of bitterness, much more flavoursome than their globe artichoke cousins. Squid and chorizo is one of those food matches made in heaven, and here it did not disappoint. Small pieces of tender squid offset by the robustly smokey chorizo. The whole thing was topped off with shredded Jabugo ham. To be honest, each component of this dish in their own right would have been perfect on their own.
Poivrade artichokes, with squid, chorizo and thyme

The main course was next and it was a choice between quail or lamb. I opted for the lamb while my dear (and misguided) friends chose the quail. The lamb cutlets were just glorious. They had been grilled to perfection and almost melted in your mouth. A bit like a dainty meat lollipop. On the side was some pureed garlic and the waiter came round with a bowl of Robuchon's infamous pommes purée that is allegedly made with equal parts of butter and potatoes. This was my first time trying them and they were every bit as good as I had imagined – a dream dish for cardiologists. Our waiter spotted the jealous stares of my friends and a second bowl of mash soon appeared.
Grilled lamb cutlets, pommes purée

Finally on to desserts. Surprisingly, given our location no cheeses were offered, which is just as well as we were getting pretty full by now. Maybe this was the Japanese influence coming in. For our first dessert we were served a "tendance fraise". I've still no idea what a tendance is or if it's just a descriptive phrase used to name the dish, so if any kind readers could fill me in I'd be grateful. What was served was a some yoghurt and lime ice-cream and a sort of cold square of pain perdu atop some semi-set strawberry jelly.  This tasted much nicer than it sounds, with a really intense strawberry taste, but we all agreed that the custardy bread thing was probably redundant.
Tendance Fraise
This was followed by another dessert. This time fresh pineapple and green apples with meringue and a basil and pineapple sorbet. This was easily the better of the two desserts and had such a fresh and clean taste, exactly the sort of thing you'd like to finish a meal with; cool, light and refreshing.
Pineapple, apple, meringue, basil and pineapple sorbet
Finally, along with our coffee a solitary chocolate was served and I'm not sure why this was listed on the menu as a separate course. It seems odd to list something on the menu that usually comes with coffee at most restaurants of this calibre. Portion-wise, to serve one single chocolate for petit-fours seems a bit mean in my book. I know I'm a glutton but where were the macarons, truffles and tuilles? Oh well. The chocolate was delicious though, and was filled with more of the salted caramel (what is with salted caramel at this place? Was there a salted caramel sale going on that I missed?) but alas it was gone all too quickly.
Chocolate with salted caramel
The total bill (including some really decent wine) came to an eye-watering €400 per person. The food was sensational, but at times you felt like the chef was playing it a bit safe with dishes like the asparagus and the lamb. It would have been nice to see more adventurous dishes on the menu but I guess the menu has to cater to its target audience, which in Monaco means a older, super-wealthy person who, dare I say it, prefers a more traditional, conservative dining experience. The cost also seemed a little out of whack, but this is Monaco where nobody asks because everyone can afford it. A place like this certainly wouldn't get away with charging as much in London, Paris or New York.

In summary though, this was a monumentally good meal. The setting was magical, making you feel part spy, part plutocrat and the service was good (if a little stiff). I would definitely come back (after having taken out a second mortgage) and if you're ever in Monaco and feel like splurging then I can highly recommend you pay a visit to Joël Robuchon.

Food:           8 / 10
Service:        7 / 10
Ambiance:    9 / 10 (a point knocked off for the seats being so darn low!)

Hôtel Métropole
4 avenue de la Madone
Monte-Carlo 98 000

Tel: +377 93 15 15 10

15 June 2010

Tuna Auctions at The Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

The alarm clock's incessant beeping woke me at 3:30am. The temptation to turn it off and snuggle under the warm duvet of my ridiculously comfortable bed at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo was almost too much. Then I realised what lay ahead. Tuna. I was heading off to the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market (aka Tsukiji Market), and here I would be able to witness the sight of tons and tons of tuna being auctioned off for tens of thousands of dollars. At Tsukiji the action starts early and the hotel concierge advised us to be there by 4:30am at the latest.

Tsukiji Market is truly huge. It handles over 2,000 tons of seafood each day, which by comparison is almost 30 times more than Billingsgate market in London, and employs over 60,000 people. If you were in any doubt about the importance of seafood in Japan, then you only need to look around at the sheer scale and intensity of Tsukiji Market which handles about a third of Japan's seafood. The market is split into an inner- (Jonai Shijo) and outer-market (Jogai Shijo). The inner market is where most of the activity is and apart from access to the tuna auctions it now remains closed to the public until 9:00am. The outer market consists of small restaurants and various shops selling things like restaurant supplies, kitchen utensils, amazingly sharp knives, seafood, and fruit and veg.

Tsukiji Market has had an up and down relationship with tourists and has periodically banned them from attending the famous tuna auctions due to the behaviour of some thoughtless tourists interfering with the auction process. The tuna auctions have just reopened after their latest tourist ban and have now limited the number of daily sightseers to just 140 on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The tuna auctions run from around 5:30am to 7:00am and the daily group of 140 sightseers is split into two groups of 70 to better manage the crowds. Even though we arrived by 4:30am we were in the second group which entailed about an hour and a half wait before we got to see the auctions. Before entering the auction area we were given bright green "gaijin alert" vests to wear and were guided through the market to the inner market area where the auctions take place. Even at this early hour the market was in full swing, with dozens of small motorised fish-carrying carts zipping around all over the place. One false move and you'd easily be run over. It was organised chaos and was amazing to see, this being my first time at a working fish market.

The actual auction area itself was breathtaking; A gigantic, football field-sized warehouse with hundreds of frozen bluefin tuna fish laid out in neat rows on the floor. They looked like giant steel-grey torpedoes, and the mist coming off them gave a very eerie feel to the place. The tuna has been arriving from all over the world since the previous evening and each fish had been marked with bright red paint to presumably indicate it's provenance and weight. Seven wholesalers take responsibility for bringing in the tuna from around the world and then selling it to mid-level wholesalers who in turn sell it on to distributors for use in shops and restaurants. The fish had been grouped, seemingly by size, into smaller lots. Their tails had been removed and a huge gash was cut into the rear of the fish so that a flap exposed the flesh beneath. Licensed buyers working in overalls and wearing wellington boots would inspect the fish with a small gaff and a torch to check the quality and determine how much they would bid.

Inspecting the tuna before the auction begins

Suddenly a loud clanging of hand bells indicated that an auction was about to begin. An auctioneer stood up on a plastic crate in front of a row of tuna and a small gaggle of buyers huddled around. Then the auctioneer launched into some rhythmic shouting. I have no idea what he was saying, but now and then one of the buyers would make some subtle gesture and scribble something down on a notepad. And then as quickly as it had started it was over. This lot of tuna were sold. Tens of thousands of dollars had changed hands and the auctioneer was already off to auction the next lot of tuna. Someone came round to paste labels on the fish, indicating who had just bought it. Two men hauled the beasts with their fish gaffs onto small hand carts and they were carried off to their next destination en route to being turned into wonderful sushi.

Auctioning off the bluefin tuna

Clip of a tuna auction

Labelling the winners´fish

Cutting up the tuna with a bandsaw

After that we filed out of the auction area, again watching out for the motorised carts, and instead of hanging around till 9:00am when the central wholesale market opened to the public we decided to wander off in search of some of the best sushi on the planet.

Tsukiji Market is really an amazing sight and a must-see if you are ever in Tokyo. Unfortunately though, it is not immune to changing times and its longer term future remains uncertain, at least in its current form. Due to the growth of the market there are plans to move the market to a new 374,000 sq.m. site on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay in 2014. Sadly, it is also expected that the traditional open-outcry markets will be replaced by a computerised system. However, whether this materialises or not is another question, a recent article in the Japan Times cites the growing trend for end-users to source seafood directly from fisherman and a growing appetite for meat in Japan as a cause of the Tsukiji's declining influence. It would be a real shame if the Tsukiji Market as we know it today were to change significantly and one hopes that the Market can adapt and bounce back and keep wowing visitors with its amazing seafood spectacle.

10 June 2010

Alex Sushi, Oslo - Restaurant Review

I know, I know, I shouldn't have done it. I was only ever going to be disappointed right? Within days of arriving back from Tokyo and eating at the legendary Sushi Dai, I found myself with an insatiable itch for more of the sushi I had there. Now I must be some sort of masochists because surely, short of hopping on to the next flight to Tokyo, that is one itch that is never going to be satisfied outside of Japan, and surely not in Norway at that?

So it was that Mrs. Nibbler and I found ourselves at Alex Sushi in Oslo. This is one restaurant that I have heard consistently good things about from numerous sources. So when the sushi urge struck, this restaurant was the natural choice. So how disappointed was I then? Well, to be fair, comparing any sushi restaurant outside of Japan with Tokyo's finest is a little unrealistic. However, I was more than surprised that Alex Sushi got remarkably close, and was able to rekindle some of that sushi magic I had experienced in Tokyo. It is probably some of the best sushi I have experienced outside of Japan.

The restaurant itself is quite minimalist, with an industrial feel to it. We sat at the large central sushi bar, which is dominated by a lighting arrangement that looks a little like an upside down viking long boat. Bold artwork on the walls offsets the starkness of the interior. There is also table seating further inside the restaurant and a bar area upstairs. The overall feel was light and airy, with glass, wood and steel being the dominant materials - very Scandinavian and a very pleasant place to while away the evening.

The menu consists of a la carte selections of a variety of nigiri, sashimi, maki, tempura, and salads as well as four omakase menus which ascend in price according to the ingredients used. Mrs. Nibbler opted to go à la carte, while I went for the "Black" omakase menu, the second most expensive tasting menu they offer, at a not unreasonable (for Norway at least) NOK 595 (around €76/$92 as of writing).

To start with I had a seaweed salad; the seaweed was finely shredded and came dressed with sesame seeds and a pleasingly sweet, but sharp, dressing. I love seaweed, it has such a satisfying squidgy crunch, and this salad was fantastic.

Mrs. Nibbler had some tempura to start with and was presented with a selection of prawn, fish and vegetable tempura. The tempura was perfectly cooked with a thin, crispy coating that was not greasy at all. I would even say that it was better than some of the tempura I had in Tokyo. The one let down was the vegetables; the asparagus tempura was great but red and green pepper tempura is just not that inspiring to be honest and at this price point I think more effort should be made to use a little bit more special ingredients (shiitake mushrooms, sweet potato, lotus root?).

Seaweed salad


Next, I had a selection of sashimi which consisted of hirame (halibut), hamachi (yellowtail), and sake (salmon). This was covered with the house sauce ("Alex's special sauce") which, although great, was maybe a bit too overpowering for the subtle fish, and it would have been nice to have it on the side instead. The sashimi itself was wonderfully fresh and expertly prepared, with the salmon just melting in your mouth. My only gripe was the halibut sashimi. I'm just not a fan of raw halibut, I find it's texture to be a little wet and spongy at times and I would much rather have had something like toro (tuna) or unagi (eel) instead.

Salmon and halibut sashimi
Following this was a plate of nigiri and two gunkan maki. I loved the maki, they were really interesting and very unusual and were a great blend of Scandinavian ingredients with Japanese cuisine. The first maki consisted of just the fat from the halibut and was fantastically creamy, almost like some of the uni (sea urchin) I had in Tokyo. The second maki was ikura (salmon roe) which was topped by a quail's egg yolk. The creamy egg mixed well with the salty tang of the vibrant Norwegian salmon eggs.

Ikura gunkan maki with quail egg

Selection of nigiri sushi

 The nigiri sushi was excellent too, but I felt the rice was not quite up to scratch. Had I never been to Japan I wouldn't have noticed, but the one revelation for me about eating sushi in Japan is the quality of the rice they have over there; each grain perfectly cooked al dente and separate from the other. The rice at Alex Sushi was well seasoned but just a touch too mushy. As I mentioned, prior to going to Japan I wouldn't have noticed this, so maybe I'm splitting hairs a little bit.

The nigiri consisted of yellowtail, salmon, prawn, king crab, halibut, and scallop. The yellowtail, salmon, and halibut were the same as the sashimi and the prawn and king crab were both sweet and succulent. The scallop was huge and wonderfully fresh and was probably the best of the bunch. However, again, I would have liked to have seen more variety of ingredients such as unagi, ama ebi (sweet shrimp), and toro used instead. They feature on the à la carte menu so I could have ordered them separately, but given that I had already had the same hamachi, sake and hirame for the sashimi, I think it makes sense to use different fish for the nigiri.

However, the main event for me was, a little disconcertingly, whale nigiri. Yup, raw whale meat. Before I get hate mail from PETA and Sea Shepherd et al, your concerns have been noted. Norway is a whaling nation and that's maybe not such a popular thing, but I tend to take the philosophical view that if you condone eating other animals such as cows and sheep then why not whales, who, before ending up on my plate, have probably have a much better life roaming the seas than most sheep, cows, and chickens ever did.

OK, so back to the whale nigiri. It was a rather alarming deep purple in colour and appeared to be very lean with hardly any fat on it at all. Surprisingly in taste and texture it was almost identical to beef tenderloin. Maybe a touch sweeter in taste and softer in texture. It was rather delicious though. However, for some strange reason, thoughts of childhood visits to SeaWorld and the film "Free Willy" (which I've never seen) filled my mind and made it difficult to enjoy the nigiri. Oh well, whale meat is not something I'd have regularly, if at all, but at least I can say I've tried it.

 Free willy

Finally, back to more normal things (or so I thought) with another platter. This time soft shell crab uramaki (maki rolls with the rice on the outside). I love soft shell crab, and this maki roll was fantastic. The crab meat was sweet with that satisfying crunchy characteristic of soft shell crab. The rolls were draped with thin slices of avocado and topped with ikura. Not one for the purists but who cares when it's this delicious. There was also some wonderfully sweet (but a tad overcooked) lobster meat, and two piles of seared beef fillet. Well, I thought there were two piles, but it turned out that one was seared whale meat. "Free Willy 2" I suppose. This was better than the nigiri and I think this style of cooking probably suits whale meat best. A nicely seared and seasoned exterior with a very rare interior is definitely the way to go, although I can't see it being a hit in London's Borough Market. The beef fillet was very tender but felt a bit out of place at a sushi restaurant.

Soft shell crab uramaki

Seared whale fillet

Mrs. Nibbler rounded off the evening with a plate of fried soft shell crabs with some wasabi mayonnaise for dipping. As she was getting full by now, I ended up having most of it and it was spectacular. In the words of Gregg "The Egg" Wallace, I could have eaten this all day.

Fried soft shell crabs with wasabi mayonnaise

So, where does that leave us then? I started this review quite negatively by saying that I expected to be disappointed, and yes it's always going to be futile to compare fantastic sushi in Japan with that served elsewhere, so with that in mind there were no surprises here. However, what did surprise me was how well Alex Sushi managed to hold up against Japan's finest. In isolation it's a fine restaurant, serving wonderfully fresh (predominantly Norwegian) seafood in an attractive Scandinavian dining room. The prices were reasonable too compared with other similar quality restaurants in Oslo and we paid NOK 1,045 (approx £110) for two (yes, eating out in Norway can be ruinously expensive). I would like to have another trip back to try some of the other seafood they had on offer, but from what I had I would say Alex Sushi is easily Norway's best sushi restaurant and in my opinion probably ranks just behind the sushi I had at Umu in London, which is my favourite sushi place in London (even though its more of a kaiseki restaurant). And believe me, that is one of the highest compliments I can pay.

Food:           7 / 10
Service:        8 / 10
Ambiance:    8 / 10

Alex Sushi
Cort Adelersgate 2
0254 Oslo
Tel: +47 22 43 99 99

9 June 2010

Sushi Dai, Tokyo - Restaurant Review

It's 7am and after a ridiculously early start to the day to see the tuna auctions at Tsukiji Market (see my post here) my tummy is rumbling and its starting to feel like lunchtime already. Tsukiji Market is littered with lots of tiny restaurants along its narrow alleys with most, naturally, specialising in sushi. Having done a bit of research I decided upon Sushi Dai, which is generally perceived to be one of the best sushi restaurants in the market. Finding it was a bit tricky as there are no signs in English, but I was told to look for the restaurant with a green banner above the door and a long queue outside. Sure enough, as I rounded the corner, it was the only restaurant in the alley with a queue outside. After peering through the window I could see why; the place is tiny and has just 12 seats. Fortunately the wait was not too bad, just 30 minutes or so. Apparently queues of up to 3hrs are not uncommon later on in the day. There is a friendly lady who keeps popping out to organise the long queue and take pre-orders for the omakase (chef's)  menu. Although too polite to say so, the staff expect you to eat and go without lingering, so the turnover of customers is pretty high.

So, is the queuing worth it? Well, in a word, YES! Sushi Dai serves some of the best sushi I have ever had in my life. This is the holy grail, the mothership, the promised land of all that is sushi. I am forever spoiled, I will never be able to look at another piece of nigiri again, without comparing it to Sushi Dai. Yes, it was that good. This could become an expensive addiction...

Upon entering the restaurant we were greeted by the usual greetings shouted out by the three chefs who were standing behind the counter of an impossibly narrow restaurant. Racks are made available to place bags and coats as there really isn't anywhere else to put them. We were ushered to two empty stools at one end of an L-shaped bar surrounding the chefs. I had opted for the 10 course omakase menu which also includes an additional piece of sushi of your choice. Although as I later found out the ten-course set menu was probably just a rough guideline as we received a few more dishes than that.

The three itamae's spoke a little English and would place great big pieces of nigiri sushi on the wooden counter in front of you (no plates here) with a flourish. Proudly announcing what it was and how it should be eaten; sauce/no-sauce, one/two bites. The atmosphere inside was fantastic, the chefs worked quickly and precisely, churning out stunningly fresh sushi at an incredible rate clearly happy with their work. When one squeamish customer returned a half eaten piece of uni nigiri (a capital crime in my book), their sense of disappointment was palpable. Like most of the other restaurants in Tokyo I went to, what impressed me most about Sushi Dai was the precision of the cooking, the attention to detail and the sheer freshness of ingredients.

To start the proceedings we were served o-toro (fatty tuna) which in my opinion is the emperor of sushi. This o-toro was unlike any other I have had. The first thing I noticed was how big the portions were, the fish seems to totally envelop the nugget of rice and spills down over its sides. The tuna had a beautiful spiders-web of rich marbling. Eating it was such a sensual experience; the cool flesh of the tuna juxtaposed by the perfectly al dente and lukewarm rice. I hardly needed to chew, the buttery tuna just melted on my tongue. Wow, I was speechless.
O-toro (fatty tuna belly)

Next was a trio of sushi. The uni (sea urchin) was so fresh and creamy with a wonderful ozone taste of the ocean. Tasting it I was transported to the south coast of Norway on a warm summer's day, breathing in the wonderful sea air. Truly outstanding, and a close tie with the o-toro for my favourite of the meal. Tai (red snapper) was next; a vibrant pink fish which had a pleasing firm texture. This was followed by suzuki (sea bass) which we were instructed not to dip in soy sauce as the chef had put a drop of sudachi (a kind of Japanese lime) and some homemade salt on it. This gave the fish an amazingly clear and zingy taste and was a wonderful complement to the moderately oily sea bass flesh. The chefs seem to judge the amount of wasabi they use to perfection with each piece having just the right amount.

L-R: Uni (sea urchin), Tai (red snapper), Suzuki (sea bass) with homemade salt and sudachi

Next it was back to earth for something a little more mundane. The tamago (egg) was served hot and with no rice. It was good with a slightly sweet finish, but let's be honest, it's the seafood I'm really here for.
Warm tamago (steamed egg)

Sake (Japanese salmon) was next, again no sauce with this one. What was unusual about it was the deep pink hue the fish had to it and the lack of fat, which was in contrast to the pale pink and flabby salmon that is so often seen in Europe. Like most of the ingredients used, the quality really makes you evaluate why this sort of thing isn't available outside of Japan. Certainly it should be possible back home in Norway which has some stunning seafood of its own. But I digress.

Sake (Japanese salmon)

Maki rolls were next. These were made with more of that wonderful uni and diced chu-toro (medium fatty tuna). From the photos you can really see how well the rice is cooked, with each grain having the same firm consistency. I'm running out of superlatives already, but as I'm sure you can guess, both were amazing. Before I came to Tokyo, I sort of knew that the quality of the seafood in the sushi would be outstanding but what surprised me most was the quality of the rice. Perfectly seasoned, served slightly warm with each grain being separate and cooked to perfection.

Maki rolls: Uni (sea urchin) and diced chu-toro (medium fatty tuna)

Maguro-zuke was next. This is tuna marinated in a mix of soy sauce, sake, and mirin. Again, no dipping in soy sauce for this one.

Maguro-zuke (marinated tuna)

And next, judging from other reviews I've read, was the party piece of Sushi Dai: Akagai (red clam). As the chef placed it in front of me it was still moving! It really doesn't come fresher than that. I was expecting this to be somewhat chewy but was surprised to find it almost as tender as the o-toro and had a mild taste of the sea.

Akagai (red clam)

Then we had kajiki (swordfish) which was topped by some finely shredded spring onions.

Kajiki (Swordfish)

Next was shira-ebi which consisted of a clump of tiny white prawns ("no sauce"). This was another real show-stopper, the translucent prawns were stunningly fresh with a wonderful sweet taste to them.

Shira-ebi (tiny white shrimp)

I'm not usually a fan of raw aji (horse mackerel) as I find it can be a bit overpowering and doesn't really sit well with the subtleties of a typical sushi meal. However, the aji here was wonderful. No overpowering fishiness at all, just a strong meaty taste, offset with a tiny bit of seaweed and ginger on the top.

Aji (horse mackerel)

Just for fun, they presented us with some kohada (gizzard shad. No, I didn't know either) that had been beautifully plaited.

Kohada (Plaited gizzard shad)

Next was hamachi (yellowtail) topped by batons of spring onion and wasabi. It was, of course, delicious. As part of the omakase meal, you could select one final piece of sushi. This proved much harder than it seems as I was torn between the o-toro, uni, shira-ebi, or something entirely different. In the end, I opted to get the most bang for the buck and went for another piece of silky soft o-toro. This was washed down with a rich miso soup which contained pieces of fish, and we re-entered earth orbit with plenty of matcha tea.

Hamachi (yellowtail)

The total bill came to JPY 3,900 which seemed like a bargain in relation to the quality of the food. Looking back now I can see that this was one of those life-changing culinary moments. When you experience food so amazing that it forces a re-evaluation of almost every other dish thereafter. It changes the scale of just what is possible to achieve in a kitchen. The levels of the freshness of the ingredients, the precision of the cooking and the enthusiasm of the chefs were just incredible. This is one meal that I will be reminiscing about for a long time to come. 

Food:             9 / 10
Service:         9 / 10
Ambiance:   10 / 10

Sushi Dai
Tsukiji Fish Market