Tokyo Day Two Part Two – A Tale of Three Very Different Dining Experiences
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I’ve always heard that Tokyo is a foodie destination, so I was hellbent on trying as many interesting things as I possibly could. That’s why I orchestrated my meals on my second day to hit three distinct specialties: 1) Ultra premium beef 2) Ultra blue-collar grilled innards and 3) Ultra fresh sushi. Luckily I had a local Japanese friend to help me with 2 and 3 and when I arrived to the hotel, the PR manager asked me to lunch at the Park Hyatt’s famed NY Grill – which is known for it’s selection of prime Japanese beef. Perfect.
After my Tokyo Hands excursion, I went back to the hotel to change for lunch. The New York Grill is a hot spot among the who’s who of Tokyo, so I wanted to look presentable, though a jacket is not needed – at least not for lunch. Upon walking back to the hotel on the stunning, sunny day – I couldn’t help but admire the hotel and view from my room.
I went up to the 52nd floor for lunch at the NY Grill and was immediately impressed by the open design of the kitchen. It very much reminded me of layout of The Blue Duck Tavern, which is in the Park Hyatt Washington DC.
We were seated at a booth in the main dining room, which afforded great views, since the restaurant is surrounded by walls of windows. The lunch is a pre-fixe with appetizer and dessert buffet and choice of entree. I ended up ordering the Grilled Yonezawa sirloin, which came highly recommended. Yonezawa is in Northern Japan and they are known for their beef, just like Americans are most familiar with Kobe beef. I didn’t realize it at the time because I was treated to lunch as part of my stay, but the beef was an additional 5,200 Yen ($65) surcharge on top of the 5,200 Yen pre-fixe price. Good thing my $130 lunch was absolutely delicious!
We started with the appetizer bar, where I got fresh greens, seafood and cheeses. I didn’t want to eat too much before my beef, but the selection was too good to pass up.
I was told in the days after the earthquake that the appetizer buffet took a temporary hiatus due to the supply chain being disrupted (all ingredients are local), but you would have never known looking at the extensive display. I asked about the hotel on the day of the quake and there wasn’t much damage, except for wine bottles falling off a wine rack in one of the restaurants. I think that is important to note – while the tsunami wreaked havoc on Sendai, Tokyo was largely unscathed – no deaths and very few injuries. Walking around during the day, you’d never be able to tell there was a major earthquake just under three months prior.
Before long, the entrees came and I was presented with a beautiful piece of steak, that was cooked at the chef’s discretion, a nice medium rare.
I liked the steak, because it had a little bit of tender fat on one side, which had great flavor. Unlike some poor qualities meats, the fat was not grisly or chewy at all – it just enhanced the overall savoriness of the steak. The rosemary potatoes were a nice addition and by the end, I had to pass on dessert. Sometimes it’s best to quit while you’re ahead.
Leaving the restaurant, we walked through the New York Bar, which is where several scenes in Lost in Translation were filmed. In fact, it’s a really hot spot, but as a hotel guest you can get access (and Hyatt Diamonds are given free admission).
I wasted the day away walking around and building up an appetite for round 2. In fact the most notable thing to happen was that I got an email from a TPG reader who was in Tokyo and she invited me on a tour of Tsujiki Fish Market for the following morning. This couldn’t have been better timing, because I was planning to go to the fish market, but had heard the inside market was closed to tourists. The guide she had secured was possibly going to get us in, so I immediately responded that I’d love to join, which would turn out to be the best decision I made on the entire trip. More to come on that later.
For my “local” night out, I thought it would be nice to treat my friend to a cocktail at the Park Hyatt 41st floor lobby bar, which was nice. I usually don’t do fruity drinks, but I decided to try a vodka martini with some sort of cranberry compote and bergamot (which I’m used to seeing mostly in cologne). The drink turned out to be really good, though after it I was ready for my foodie night out with a Tokyo local.
Our first plan would be to go to a very “Japanesey” (his words, not mine) local bar and grill where people went after work to get cheap drinks and fresh grilled meats. At least it sounds much better when you say meats, but as I came to find out, most of what we ate were innards.
He asked me several times if I was okay with a low-key, cheap options and I emphatically re-emphasized that I wanted a local experience (plus as much as I like fine dining, I also love bar culture and hanging out and eating small dishes). We came to the restaurant (which has no English name) and it was an indoor grill area with bar and some high tables and a couple outdoor tables as well. We tried to stand by the bar, but I was too tall – I had to cock my head to be able to stand, so we opted for an outside table, which was much more my speed anyway, since it was a beautiful, warm night.
The menu came (in all Japanese) and I gave my friend free license to order whatever – and to surprise me. Eyebrows raised, he asked if I was sure and I agreed. This was only a pre-dinner snack, so how bad could it be?
We enjoyed our ice cold beers (Kirin, I believe) and before long, a plate of piping hot meats off the grill came to our table. My first impression were that they smelled really good. He smiled and encouraged me to start so I started off with the whitest meat (all the way to the right). Looks like chicken, so must taste like it too, right? Wrong, however the taste was really nice. It was still hot off the grill and I think most of what I tasted were the spices/oils used on the grill. But overall, I was impressed – not chewy, and a nice smooth flavor.
Second, I went with the middle meat, which had a thicker texture and richer flavor. However, it was enjoyable and went nicely with the cold beer. Another success – this isn’t so bad after all.
The third meat was my least favorite. It was much tougher than the other two and had less flavor. I did enjoy it more when I dipped it in the ultra hot Japanese mustard, though I didn’t go back for seconds. I did go for seconds on the first two and I decided that the first was my favorite.
So what did I eat?
The last one (my least favorite) was tongue. Okay, not so exotic.
The second one (middle in the picture) was heart. Okay, kind of weird, but not really.
The first (and my favorite) was uterus. My friend seemed to get a kick out of this and he didn’t go near it. Honestly, it sounds horrible (and kind of cruel), but it really did not taste bad. If you gave it to most people and said it was tender chicken, they probably wouldn’t think twice.
Check-out the full menu, which they did have in English, but I’m glad I didn’t see it until later.
To round out our meal, we also got an order of peppers, which were phenomenal and also came with robust mustard – which I loved as a mustard connoisseur.
All in, our bill came to under 1,000 Yen ($12) for 4 beers, meats and peppers. A pretty fantastic deal if you ask me.
After we finished our beers and walked around, we went to his favorite sushi restaurant in Shinjuku, which is located at the top of the Hotel Century Southern Tower. I was a bit skeptical that the best sushi would be found in a mid-tier hotel, but he assured me – he ate there usually once a week and he grew up in the neighborhood. Fair enough.
We sat at the bar, which was great because I got to see the chefs in action. Once again, I let him order, but I am a huge seafood fan, so I wasn’t worried about pushing my culinary limits so to speak.
To start we got tempura shrimp and asparagus, which was much better than the sad attempt at tempura the evening before.
Then came the first sushi plate which was a mix of tunas, salmon, amberjack, crab and scallop. The most surprising to me was the crab. I normally loathe crab sushi in the US since most sushi joints use imitation crab meat (which I find repulsive), however this was real crab and it was phenomenal. All the way to the right was an egg-cake that is popular in Tokyo. I thought it was okay, but nothing in comparison to its plate-mates.
Then came two show-stoppers; sea urchin and salmon roe. I’ve only had urchin in sushi a handful of times, and this one blew them all away. To be honest, I was shocked at first at the power of the urchin – very sea-foody (don’t want to use the term fishy, but it did remind me of a fishing dock/salt-water type smell). While I disliked it at first, because it was such a new dimension, I ended up really enjoying it, as well as the salmon roe which is always a favorite (right behind tobiko, which I’m obsessed with). The salmon roe was large and just the right amount of salty and smooth.
All the meanwhile, I was amazed at the sushi chefs, who were using the freshest ingredients, including my favorite – a fresh squid/octopus tentacle being sliced and diced.
Then came another one of my favorite rolls of the evening – the warm eel roll.
To lighten things up, we got a spring onion roll, which I’ve never had before. Kinda tastes like you’d expect, but it was a good interlude before the last couple rolls.
The last couple rolls of the evening, ended up being my least favorite. This one was a shrimp that was just killed and then cooked very quickly. I found it to be a bit bland and mealy.
And then came the worst roll of the end, which unfortunately was the last roll. It was the head of the shrimp, which was burnt and super crispy. I honestly almost gagged, the flavor was that offensive, but I did my part and swallowed it down, as to not be rude. However, this apparently is a Tokyo delicacy and my friend enjoyed it greatly. He can have mine next time.
Update: Several of you have asked how much the sushi meal is and the answer is: I don’t really know. My sneaky friend paid the bill before I could even see it, even though I told him I was treating him to dinner. However I did snap a shot of the menu, so you can get a sense for the price- remember 80 Yen= 1 dollar. So the most were around $4 a piece, with the urchin being about $8. All in with beer, I bet the meal was $170 for two people.
Overall, I hit a wide spectrum of tastes – starting with a well-done classic American breakfast, eating high-end to flat-out gross meats and ending with the freshest sushi I had tried to date and an unfortunate burnt shrimp head. Normally I would have experienced the nightlife, but jetlag was setting in and I had to be up at 3am for the fish market tour, so I called it an early night. I’m glad I did because the next day ended up being epic.
Reminder – Full disclosure: My flights and hotels were comped by Delta and Hyatt respectively.