Tag Archives: dining

Dining Review: Tian in Vienna, Austria

Tian in Vienna is one of only three Michelin-starred restaurants in the world that I’m aware of that doesn’t serve meat. Joia in Milan is another. I went to Tian for lunch and had a great, affordable vegan meal.

Entrance to Tian

Entrance to Tian

I loved the interior of the restaurant. Super airy with high ceilings. It felt interesting and bright.

Dining room

Dining room

For lunch that day, they offered the choice of 2 or 3 (or more) courses from the light lunch menu, or you could order a 4-, 6-, or 8-course tasting menu. I asked for 3 vegan courses from the light lunch menu (although no vegan dessert option was listed, they substituted a vegan dessert course for me).

Lunch menu

Lunch menu

The amuse bouche was a mushroom foam. It was tasty and savory like any good mushroom foam should be, although it was quite salty.

Amuse bouche

Amuse bouche

The bread service consisted of a delicious house-made ciabatta served with three kinds of olive oil, an extremely rich butter that was almost cheesy, and some sprouts. I’ve never been served sprouts with my bread, but I enjoyed it. It was fun and unusual.

Sprouts with bread service

Sprouts with bread service

As a starter, I received turnips and cabbage. I felt that my dish was a bit confusing, but it was decent.

Turnips and cabbage

Turnips and cabbage

My dining partner had the asparagus as a starter. I felt that the preparation of asparagus at Tian was better than the asparagus dish I had eaten at Steirereck the day before.

Asparagus

Asparagus

My main consisted of sunchokes and spelt. It was a hearty dish and a large portion, although perhaps a little one-note. It could have benefited from some acidity or freshness. My dining partner had the risotto, which was an absolutely massive portion.

Sunchokes and spelt

Sunchokes and spelt

For dessert, I received a plate of chocolate and passionfruit. I loved the presentation, and it was extremely tasty. The brightness and acidity of the passionfruit was a nice contrast to the sinful decadence of the chocolate.

Chocolate and passionfruit

Chocolate and passionfruit

My dining partner had a sour cream strudel, which she also greatly enjoyed.

Apple tart

Sour cream strudel

Overall, the lunch menu was extremely affordable, and I thought the food was quite solid. The three-course lunch menu was only 34 euro, and I’d love to return for the full tasting menu at some point.

Dining Review: Steirereck in Vienna, Austria

One restaurant that I dined at in Vienna was Steirereck, a two Michelin star restaurant. I went for lunch, which was more affordable experience than dinner.

Steirereck is located in a somewhat funky reflective building in Stadtpark. The park itself is also quite nice, if you get a chance to walk around.

Funk building

Funk building

Entrance to Steirereck

Entrance to Steirereck

We were the first guests to arrive for the lunch service. The decor inside was understated and elegant. There are a couple of separate dining areas, so it feels like a more intimate dining experience since you don’t see all of the diners in the entire restaurant.

Table decoration

Table decoration

I went for the four-course lunch menu, as I chose to skip the cheese course.

Menu

Menu

We started with selections from the bread cart. I sampled the black pudding and blood sausage bread as well as the rye bread with honey and lavender. One small downside (or upside depending on your perspective) was that we got the end pieces of the loaves since we were the first table served for lunch.

Ridiculous bread cart

Ridiculous bread cart

The breads themselves were delicious and served with three sticks of butter with different toppings. Not pictured here were the amuse bouches that we were served.

Bread service

Bread service

My first course was the char with beeswax, yellow carrot, “pollen”, and sour cream, one of the signature dishes of the restaurant. It’s a slightly gimmicky dish in that they come out with the char and pour the beeswax in front of you (and then take it away so it cooks), but the char was cooked perfectly and it was absolutely delicious. The caviar served on the side was great, as was the jelly infused with beeswax. A super inventive and wonderful dish.

Char being cooked in beeswax

Char being cooked in beeswax

Cooked char, yellow carrot, "pollen", and sour cream

Cooked char, yellow carrot, “pollen”, and sour cream

My next course was green asparagus with sheep’s cheese, daylilies, and bergamot. To me, this was the biggest miss of the meal. I was hoping for a treatment of vegetables like you might find at L’arpege or Manresa, but this was just not that great.

Green asparagus with sheep's cheese, daylilies, and bergamot

Green asparagus with sheep’s cheese, daylilies, and bergamot

My main course was the charcoal grilled tubers with tumeric “caviar” and shoots. This was a giant portion and generally tasty, but it wasn’t that remarkable otherwise.

Charcoal grilled tubers with turmeric "caviar" and shoots

Charcoal grilled tubers with turmeric “caviar” and shoots

My dining companion ordered the cheese course, and out came an enormous cheese cart. There are so, so many choices in front of you. I’m not a big cheese person, but it might be worth it to order the cheese course just for this experience.

Ridiculous cheese cart

Ridiculous cheese cart

Cheese service

Cheese service

The dessert courses were great and satisfying. My dining companion had an absolutely delectable souffle; I had a wonderful preserved calamansi (a citrus fruit) with cream cheese, gingerbread, and walnuts. Interesting flavors, good contrasting textures, and not too sweet. Everything I want in dessert.

Souffle

Souffle

Preserved calamansi with cream cheese, gingerbread, and walnuts

Preserved calamansi with cream cheese, gingerbread, and walnuts

Finally, there were some petit fours from the kitchen. They were cute, if a little simple.

Petit fours

Petit fours

Peek into the kitchen

Peek into the kitchen

Overall, it was an enjoyable dining experience. The char was by far the best dish of the meal, but otherwise, I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend this restaurant.

Dining Review: Joia, Milan, Italy

Joia in Milan is one of the very few vegetarian restaurants in the world that has a Michelin star. There are, of course, many Michelin-starred restaurants that serve vegetarian food, but I’m talking about restaurants that serve no meat. So when I found myself in Milan recently, I knew that I had to eat at this restaurant.

I made a reservation for 7:30pm, which is late for me to eat dinner, but this is Italy, so I was the only one in the restaurant for about half an hour when I arrived. Joia offers three different tasting menus, as well as ordering a la carte. I decided to go for the most extensive tasting menu which was named “Zenith”. I also asked for everything to be made vegan (rather than just vegetarian), and they were happy to oblige.

Dining room

Dining room

Miscellaneous toys around the holidays

Miscellaneous toys around the holidays

Zenith menu

Zenith menu

The first thing brought to me looked like a painter’s palette. It had a number of raw vegetables served with various things to dip them into. This was a bit playful and whimsical, but wasn’t much more than dipping raw vegetables into vinegar and oils.

Vegetables to start

Vegetables to start

The first cooked course was a fake cactus served with parboiled potatoes in a creamy, tart, acidic goodness. There was also a carrot at the bottom of the pot, which was a nice crunchy and sweet surprise. This offered up a good potato flavor and was again quite playful.

Fake cactus

Fake cactus

The first dish that was on the written menu was called travel notes. The cup contained almond milk foam, celeriac, artichokes, and olives. On the spoons were passionfruit and 25-year old aged balsamic vinegar. This course had a deep, meaty flavor (strange to say meaty when there’s no meat), and the flavor notes reminded me a lot of Chinese food until I got to the olives and balsamic vinegar.

Travel notes

Travel notes

The bread was served in a bamboo steamer, and one of the breads also reminded me a lot of mantou, which is a Chinese roll.

Bread service

Bread service

The next official course was the shape of life. This was a fake egg made out of beets and filled with almonds and other things. This was an incredible course, both in taste and execution. I’ve never eaten anything quite like it.

The shape of life

The shape of life

Up next was a vegan take on foie gras. I have no idea how they made this because it really did taste like foie gras. It was super savory and accompanied by apple, a crazy delicious tofu that was more like a savory mochi, and a kale chip. This was course was another winner.

Oh my dear planet

Oh my dear planet

The next course was a truffled cream with artichokes and cabbage. You were meant to take the herbs on the side and rub them in your hands to release the aromas (but not eat them). This was crazy delicious, although maybe a tad salty. The charred cabbage leaf on the bottom of the dish was some of the best cabbage I’ve ever had.

Let's singing the mountain

Let’s singing the mountain

The soup course was a curry that contained more delicious cabbage. The soup and its contents provided a nice mixture of textures. I am generally not a big fan of soup courses, but I thought that this was a great soup.

Reflection about where I would like to be, here

Reflection about where I would like to be, here

Next was a miso cream on top of a rice cake with artichoke inside. The rice cake was executed perfectly with a slightly crispy outside but chewy inside. The miso cream was quite pungent, but it was worked well with the rice.

The navel of the world

The navel of the world

The next course was my least favorite of the night. This was a replacement course because I requested a vegan tasting menu, but it was a clear artichoke soup with a buckwheat disc, balls of carrot and turnip, different purees, and some balsamic vinegar. This course didn’t make much sense to me and was unwieldy to eat with just a spoon.

Serendipity in the garden of my dreams

Serendipity in the garden of my dreams

I was then brought a nut ravioli with carrot puree, a tart sauce, and carrot, celery, and avocado. The ravioli and puree were really good, but I didn’t really understand why they needed the other things on the plate.

Divertissement, thinking about winter and zen

Divertissement, thinking about winter and zen

Up next was a pea cake, tofu, mushrooms, and grapes. It was served table side from a cauldron, and the sauce was incredibly meaty and heavy. I did not realize that you could get these sorts of flavors only using vegetables.

A soothsayer told me

A soothsayer told me

The next course consisted of fried artichokes on top of cabbage. The cabbage was again delicious, but I think the batter of the artichoke was missing some salt.

Under a thin blanket

Under a thin blanket

The final savory course was similar to a cheese course with an almond cheese served with turnip, brussels sprout, and beet. This was a great course that was simultaneously simple in composition but complex in flavor.

Fallow

Fallow

The first dessert course had green tea cream, anise almond milk ice cream, orange, and hidden pomegranates. I’ll admit that this dessert was a little strange, as I didn’t think that the flavors melded that well.

Rainforest

Rainforest

Citrus fruits the Asian way contained orange, grapefruit, kumquat, and a tangerine sorbet. It was also served with a stick of incense for additional aroma. I feel like the most Asian part of this dish was the kumquat, but I’m not complaining because it was a tasty dessert.

Citrus fruits at the Asian way

Citrus fruits at the Asian way

The penultimate dessert was called “gong”. And it was served with an actual gong. When they serve you the dessert, they put a mini gong on your table and ring the gong before you eat. Part of the rationale is that the chef wants to make sure to involve all of your senses in the dining experience (hence the things like the incense stick and rubbing herbs with your hands).

Gong

Gong

The actual dessert was an almond milk foam and cream served with raspberry and chocolate. Absolutely delicious.

Gong

Gong

The final dessert was a raw chocolate and coconut mousse served with raspberry, mango, and guava. You really can’t go wrong.

Macon

Macondo

The service throughout the meal was very attentive. Everyone was on the ball, and my water glass never went empty (surprisingly hard for me since I drink a lot of water!). The service maybe wasn’t as formal as restaurants with more Michelin stars, but there were no miscues and the service was generally very competent.

This meal ended up taking about 2.5 hours and cost 110 euro (+3 euros per bottle of sparkling water). I think that this was extremely reasonable given the inventiveness and playfulness of the food, but I recognize that not everyone will be as amused as I was, and not everyone is looking for novelty in their food. But I heartily recommend this restaurant for any vegetarians or vegans looking for a fine dining experience or for those people who are looking for novelty and whimsy in their food.

 

Restaurant Review: L’axel in Fontainebleau, France

Fontainebleau is a relatively small town outside of Paris. Some tourists take the shortish (~40 minute) train ride out to Fontainebleau to visit the famous chateau in this city. When I visited Fontainebleau, I decided to dine at L’axel for lunch, which has one Michelin star. Because I wasn’t sure about my schedule, I just walked into the restaurant without a reservation, but I walked in pretty late in the afternoon, and it was not the busy tourist season.

For lunch, they offer their full tasting menu, a shorter menu, and a lunch menu. I decided to go with the menu gastronome, which is their medium-length menu at lunch (this seemed to be the most common choice at lunch the day I was there).

Menu

Menu

Interior of restaurant

Interior of restaurant

Up first was a couple of small bites: a beet and mussel tart, a kabocha squash puree, and a spoon with smoked salmon. Each of these bites was fine, but nothing special. The best smoked salmon I’ve ever had (and one of the most perfect bites of food I’ve ever had) was at Willows Inn on Lummi Island (Washington state).

Small bites

Small bites

The bread service was solid. I love me a good bread service (why don’t more airlines have better bread?). The butter could have been served closer to room temperature, but I loved that they provided salt with the butter since salt is key to unlocking the amazingness that is butter.

Bread service

Bread service

The amuse bouche was a foie gras flan with herring eggs and a smoky foam. This was pretty delicious.

Amuse bouche of foie gras flan

Amuse bouche of foie gras flan

I’ll mention that one of the servers was quite good and spoke very good English (those are two separate facts). The rest of the wait staff defaulted to French, which I mostly understand, but it’s not a restaurant where all of the wait staff are comfortable conversing in English.

My first course was described as a daikon millefeuille with crab salad. There were a lot of things on this plate, and while everything tasted good, the components didn’t feel additive to me.

Daikon millefeuille with crab salad

Daikon millefeuille with crab salad

My main course was sesame-crusted duck, served with sweet potatoes, beets, bok choy, and a raspberry vinaigrette. This was a pretty heavy and sweet dish (the sweetness coming from the sweet potatoes, beets, and vinaigrette). I’d imagine that most other people would like this dish, but it wasn’t my favorite.

Duck and sweet potato

Duck and sweet potato

The final savory course was a take on a cheese course. 1000-day old gouda served on top of a salad. I’m generally not a cheese person, but this was absolutely delicious.

Aged gouda

Aged gouda

The first dessert was a vanilla wanna cotta with jellied apples, a poppy flower mousse, and… pop rocks. Okay, they might not have been actual pop rocks, but they were some sort of carbonated candy that made the same mouth sensation. I’ve encountered pop rocks in dessert a number of times now in fine dining restaurants, and while it’s fun, it feels a bit gimmicky to me.

Dessert #1 - vanilla panna cotta

Dessert #1 – vanilla panna cotta

Dessert #2 had a lot going on, but it was tasty. There’s apple, orange salad, avocado mousse, green tea, pastry cream, sorbet, praline, and pastry here.

Dessert #2

Dessert #2

Finally, there were some petit fours to end the meal.

Petit fours

Petit fours

Overall, the meal took about two hours, and I thought that the pacing was good. For 52 euro, I felt that this was a pretty good deal for this quality of food and service, especially given the current exchange rate. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back if I found myself in Fontainebleau again.

Restaurant Review: Ester, Sydney

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a restaurant and just been like, “wow, this place is good” (off the top of my head, the last place I felt this about was probably Barley Swine in Austin, which I ate at 2 years ago, if that tells you anything). Ester has delicious food, and I think it’s surprisingly affordable in a relatively expensive city like Sydney, so I’m posting about it now just in case anyone has a trip to Sydney in their immediate future since you should definitely go.

I made a same-day reservation online for a Wednesday night for a seat at the bar. I’d definitely recommend making reservations, since every seat was reserved the night that I was there (both at the bar and at tables). The restaurant is located within walking distance of Redfern station, so I took the train and walked.

A la carte menu

A la carte menu

View of the kitchen

View of the kitchen

Some of the restaurant

Some of the restaurant

On Wednesdays, they do set menus from around the world (menu for August was Sri Lanka), but from talking to the bartender, he recommended that I just order off the a la carte menu and he could figure out some half portions and such to give me a taste of what the restaurant does since the plates are normally meant for sharing. Maybe I just need to ask for it more, but I really wish more restaurants would do half portions so you can try more.

First up was brussels sprouts three ways. Brussels sprouts have definitely become a trendy food over the past couple of years, but this was my favorite brussels sprouts dish I’ve eaten. The shredded brussels sprouts were great with a tangy vinaigrette, creaminess from the soft egg, and an appropriate amount of saltiness from the parmesan. You can’t go wrong with the crispy fire-roasted leaves, and the last preparation of roasted brussels sprouts made them so caramelized and sweet that you’d think you were eating candy. This plate was the normal serving for $17.

Brussels sprouts three ways

Brussels sprouts three ways

Next was the roasted cauliflower with almond mayo, almonds, and mint. When this dish first came out, I thought for sure it was a full portion since it’s a lot of cauliflower, but my server did confirm that this was in fact a half portion for $8. The cauliflower was roasted beautifully. It was tender without being mushy, retaining a good texture. The mayo provided a slight tang, and the roasting brought out so much of the cauliflower’s natural sweetness. I think cauliflower needs to be the next “it” vegetable.

Roasted caulfilower

Roasted cauliflower

For my final savory dish, I got a half portion of bone marrow ($8.50) with house-made XO sauce. It was served with their house-baked bread, which had a great char, and some salty and peppery and acidic greens, which provided a nice contrast to the gluttony of bone marrow. I think they forgot to salt the bone marrow, but when I added a pinch of salt, it became savory on a whole new level. I normally think bone marrow is a bit of a cop out since it’s so easy to make delicious, but the XO sauce definitely added something else to the dish. I also appreciated the amount of bread they provided, as I often find with dishes like this that I run out of bread.

Bone marrow with XO sauce

Bone marrow with XO sauce

At this point, I was completely stuffed and didn’t really want to keep on eating, but the previous dishes were so amazing that I had to try some dessert, so I got the three milks dessert ($11). It has goat’s milk dulce de leche, cow’s milk ricotta panna cotta, and sheep’s milk yogurt foam, as well as some crushed olive oil cookie and deep-fried rosemary. I loved the tang of the yogurt contrasted with the sweetness of the caramel and the crunch of the cookie to the creaminess of the panna cotta, all with the aroma of rosemary. Good, competent dessert.

Milk three ways

Milk three ways (I accidentally started eating it before I took a photo–sorry!)

In total, this meal was $44.50, which I think is already a good deal for the quality of food (and tax and tip are included!), but what I think is crazy is that I could easily have split that amount of food with another person and both people would have been satisfied. Those half-portions of cauliflower and bone marrow were absolute steals.

I honestly contemplated just eating here for the rest of my meals in Sydney since it was so good, and I’ll definitely come back the next time I’m in Sydney. If this restaurant existed in San Francisco, you’d have to make a reservation exactly 2 months in advance and the prices would be doubled and it’d still be worth it. So go.

Dining Review: Maido, Lima Peru

Lima is known as being one of the best food cities in South America, so of course I based most of my plans around eating. Unfortunately, I was in Lima for a Sunday and Monday, so Astrid y Gaston wasn’t open while I was there, but I did check out Maido and Central. This is a review of Maido, a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant.

Like Astrid y Gaston, Maido isn’t open for dinner on Sundays, but it is fortunately open for lunch, so I booked a late lunch and the Nikkei experience. I made my reservation less than a week in advance, but I was there in January and aiming for a late lunch.

Outside of Maido

Outside of Maido

The restaurant was busy when I arrived, full of relatively loud groups of people enjoying a leisurely lunch. I ended up sitting at the bar as I was by myself, which did give me a chance to see some of the food being prepared. A server came up to me to reconfirm that I wanted to do the Nikkei experience, which I think is pretty uncommon for people to do at lunch. Because I was eating on a Sunday at lunch, I think they also made a number of substitutions for ingredients.

The menu

The menu

The first course was grilled octopus and a piece of black olive tofu. I’m not a huge fan of the flavor of olives, but there was a great contrast of textures between the chewiness of the octopus and the creaminess of the tofu and the crunch of the quinoa on top of the tofu.

Grilled octopus and black olive tofu

Grilled octopus and black olive tofu

Next up was a mushroom cracker and a whelk served in the shell covered in apple sorbet. The mushroom cracker was absolutely delicious. The whelk was a bit unwieldy to eat as the whelk was quite large and the sorbet was cold (duh), but it was a good combination of sweetness from the sorbet and sea from the whelk once you got past the contrasting temperatures.

Mushroom cracker and a whelk with apple sorbet

Mushroom cracker and a whelk with apple sorbet

Ceviche is a staple in Lima, and the next course was a faithful interpretation of ceviche. Deliciously acidic, bright, salty with fresh fish. Very solid.

Ceviche

Ceviche

The next course had a bit of show with it, as it came in a smoke filled bell that was released when set down (you can still see the smoke in my picture). While the individual elements of this dish were too much on their own–like the gobo was too sweet and the sauce was too creamy–they blended together well.

Scallops

Scallops

A fish sandwich was next, which was comforting and delicious. Fried monkfish, tartar sauce, a couple of vegetables for crunch and freshness, and a tasty bun.

Fried fish sandwich

Fried fish sandwich

Cuy (aka guinea pig) was also on my list of things to eat in Peru, so I was glad to be served a cuy confit. Honestly, it tasted like most other meat. The noodles were substituted with a sweet potato, but I still enjoyed them and they had a good kick. Again, the individual components were a bit much on their own, but they balanced each other out when eaten together.

Cuy (guinea pig) confit

Cuy (guinea pig) confit

This was an unconventional take on ceviche. Essentially, they took the ceviche sauce and froze it using liquid nitrogen. For me, this dish was more interesting in concept than in execution. The sauce was very strong, and I don’t think the flavors of the fish or corn were really able to come through.

A frozen take on ceviche

A frozen take on ceviche

The first set of nigiri that I got was nigiri from the sea. The smoked mackerel was great without being too smoky (my usual complaint about smoked foods). There was a good balance with the sauce and the onions. The other piece was fried conger eel, which was surprisingly sweet and didn’t really seem like eel to me.

Smoked mackerel and fried conger eel nigiri

Nigiri from the sea: smoked mackerel and fried conger eel

Next up was a rice tamale with pancetta on top, served with some cocona pepper. The tamale was creamy, the pig was tender, and the pickled peppers were crunchy. The accompanying sauce also reminded me of Mexican food.

Rice tamale with pancetta

Rice tamale with pancetta

A take on chawanmushi was next. Savory delicate custard with crab instead of river prawn since the latter is now apparently protected by law. While I’m sure that others would love this course, it was a bit forgettable for me.

A take on chawanmushi

A take on chawanmushi

Then the set of nigiri from the earth. The rice was deliciously seasoned, and I loved the delicate quail egg, although the beef was a bit charred and overcooked. The pancetta nigiri was a bit touch and chewy, so it was forgettable. The peking duck nigiri was definitely interesting, given the crispy duck skin with sweetness from the hoisin and just a hint of leek.

Unconventional nigiri: quail egg + beef, pancetta, peking duck

Nigiri from the earth: quail egg + beef, pancetta, peking duck

Next was black cod served with potato cream, baby corn, and a potato chip. The black cod was served in typical Japanese fashion, but the potato cream provided a brightness and creaminess that was a great contrast. Again, the individual components were a bit heavy-handed, but the combination was great.

Black cod with potato cream, baby corn, and potato chip

Black cod with potato cream, baby corn, and potato chip

The next course was simple in concept but well-executed and crazy tasty. Braised short rib on top of fried rice. The short rib was tender and savory and fatty without tasting like a heart attack. The fried rice was competent, and the pickled ginger provided a nice complement to cut through some of the savoriness.

Tender braised short rib with fried rice

Tender braised short rib with fried rice

Finally, the first of two desserts. This was ice cream served with various toppings. I know I’ve railed in the past against sundaes, but the toppings here were incredible. The mango was intensely flavorful and better than any mango I’ve ever had in the US. The mochi was just about the best mochi I’ve ever had. The nuts were a good complement, and the milk on top added that je ne sais quoi. Great dessert.

Ice cream with toppings

Ice cream with toppings

The last bite looked like sushi, but they used chocolate instead of seaweed (although there was also seaweed there) and tapioca instead of roe. There was also mango, cream, and nuts. I enjoy it when chefs play with our expectations, and the inclusion of actual seaweed made it all the more interesting.

Temaki sushi made with chocolate and tapioca instead of seaweed and roe

Temaki sushi made with chocolate and tapioca instead of seaweed and roe

Altogether, the meal took around 2 hours, and the service was really rushing the courses to get through them all (not necessarily in a bad way). My server was quite good (he appeared to be the maitre d’ or equivalent), and he was able to explain all of the courses in detail, but the overall level of service at the restaurant did not appear very high given the quality of the food (perhaps because I was there for a lunch service instead of a dinner service). As a trivial aside, this was the second fancy restaurant I had been to that month where one of the waitstaff seriously needed a breath mint…

Maido is a great introduction to Japanese-Peruvian fusion, and this was a fusion restaurant where I felt that the food was actually delicious and not just gimmicky. The total cost was 320 soles for the Nikkei tasting menu, 8 soles for a glass of gassy water, and 10% for tip (about $130 USD, although I see on the website that this same menu is now 370 soles roughly 6 months later). I thought this was a good price for the quality and novelty of the food, as this would easily be a $200 meal in a place like San Francisco. Personally, I enjoyed this restaurant more than Central (dining review coming shortly).

Tokyo for the New Year: Ushigoro

Austrian Airlines Business Class Chicago to Vienna
Austrian Airlines Business Class Schengen Lounge Vienna
Austrian Airlines Regional Business Class Vienna to Prague
Turkish Airlines Regional Business Class Prague to Istanbul
Turkish Airlines Lounge Istanbul
Turkish Airlines Business Class Istanbul to Tokyo Narita
Park Hyatt Tokyo
Shinjuku Kuyakushomae Capsule Hotel
Ushigoro
Hilton Narita
Narita-san Shinsho-ji
Swiss Business Class Tokyo Narita to Zurich
Park Hyatt Zurich
Oneworld Lounge Zurich Airport
Swiss Business Lounge Zurich Airport
Austrian Airlines Regional Business Class Zurich to Vienna
Austrian Airlines Business Class Vienna to Chicago


The best meal that I ate in Tokyo–and one of the best meals I ate in 2013–was at a yakiniku restaurant called Ushigoro. This restaurant was recommended to me by my friend Aimal who spent two months working in Tokyo earlier in 2013.

I don’t like making reservations in advance for fancy restaurants during short trips, as I’m never sure what my jet lag will be like and if I’ll want to eat a 2-hour meal at 7pm on the first day I’m in a new city. As a result, I didn’t make reservations for this restaurant until I arrived at the Park Hyatt. Luckily, when the concierge called, there was space available for me that same night at 5pm, provided that I finish my meal by 6:30pm, which I was happy to do.

The restaurant is located in Roppongi, roughly a 10 minute walk from the Roppongi metro station.

Restaurant facade

Restaurant facade

I was the first diner to be seated. At the table was a bib to wear instead of a napkin. I’m not sure if this is a traditional thing, but the food wasn’t messy at all so I’m not sure why they offered a bib.

2013-12-28 16.57.11

They have one waiter who speaks fluent English, and he was quite friendly and willing to explain to me how to eat each course (he also remembered Aimal from his numerous visits). My friend had recommended that I get the most expensive set menu (10,000 yen), which isn’t actually listed in the English menu, so that’s what I went with. As a result, I’m not 100% positive on what I ate at times, so I apologize for mislabeling in advance.

English menu (but not exactly what I ordered)

English menu (but not exactly what I ordered)

I was first served an assortment of kimchi and a small, simply dressed salad. The kimchi wasn’t overly spicy or overly sauced, and it was a great, crunchy, slightly sweet and spicy assortment of vegetables to get my mouth excited for what was to come.

Assorted kimchi and salad

Assorted kimchi and salad

The first three courses of beef were all served raw. From left-to-right, it seemed to be a take on carpaccio, tartare, and sushi. I don’t have much experience eating raw beef, but each of these bites was astounding, with the beef sushi being the best piece of sushi I had in Tokyo (better than the sushi I had at the Tsukiji fish market).

Raw beef three ways

Raw beef three ways

Next up were three different cuts of beef that were grilled by my server. Since each cut was relatively thick, this was done to make sure that I didn’t overcook or undercook the beef myself. There were a couple of garnishes as accompaniments, as well as a healthy serving of freshly grated wasabi. Unlike the fake stuff that’s endemic in the US, this wasabi tasted fresh and subtle. Each cut of meat was cooked perfectly, with a nice sear on the outside and the juiciest, most succulent red meat on the inside. The meat was also well-seasoned, highlighting the incredible flavor of the beef. While it’s clear that this meat had a lot of fat content to be so flavorful, nothing felt fatty.

Three cuts of beef to be grilled

Three cuts of beef to be grilled

Freshly grated wasabi

Freshly grated wasabi

Beef on the grill

Beef on the grill

I was then served a bowl of soup with a meatball. While I’m sure that people who enjoy soup would have liked this more, this was my least favorite course of the night.

Meatball soup

Meatball soup

The next course was a large, thin slice of sirloin grilled by my server and then rolled up and dipped into a delicious ponzu sauce with radish. The meat was tender and yielding to my teeth and yet so full of flavor, which is usually rare to find with beef.

Grilled and rolled sirloin

Grilled and rolled sirloin

The accompaniments for the next round of beef included a teriyaki-like sauce, an egg, and some rice. For this round of meat, I was to grill it myself, and each piece needed only a couple of second per side to be cooked. Again, each cut of meat was immensely flavorful without feeling fatty or too rich, and the accompaniments provided a nice slightly sweet and yolky contrast.

Dipping sauces for the next round of meats

Dipping sauces for the next round of meats

Three cuts of meat to be grilled on your own

Three cuts of meat to be grilled on your own

The last savory dish was a Japanese curry, which was the best Japanese curry I’ve ever had. The curry was complex and flavorful, and each bite made me want to eat another to unravel another layer of flavor.

Special Japanese curry

Special Ushigoro curry

Finally, I had the pudding for dessert, which was creamy and delightful and a great conclusion to the meal.

Pudding for dessert

Pudding for dessert

I have never had beef like I had at Ushigoro. Granted, I generally lean toward vegetarian tendencies, so it’s not like I’m hitting up steakhouses on a weekly basis in the US, but this was by far the best quality and best tasting beef I’ve ever eaten in my life. If all meat in the world tasted this good, I would finally understand why people eat so much meat.

Random Travel Thoughts New Year’s Edition

I’m currently writing this from the Park Hyatt Tokyo, which is definitely the nicest and classiest hotel I’ve ever had the pleasure to stay at (granted, I haven’t stayed at that many hotels in my life). Here are some random things that are on my mind:

1. I feel so, so grateful to be able to have the experiences that I do, and a large part of what enables many of these experiences is miles and points. I doubt I’d ever have the chance to stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo if it weren’t for points (or better yet, free night certificates via the Chase Hyatt credit card).

2. T-Mobile’s new free data roaming thing is pretty great. I took a rather circuitous routing to get to Tokyo, and in Vienna, Prague, and Istanbul, my phone was able to pick up 3G data. It’s nice to not have to worry about getting internet access or renting phones or paying extra to get basic international services via your current carrier, and this will definitely change the way that I travel.

3. I flew Austrian and Turkish in long-haul business class for the first times to get here. Austrian was disappointing because the service was honestly not very good (well, there was one flight attendant out of all of them who was actually good, but the rest were just inattentive and not helpful), and they didn’t have their typical meal service or the coffee menu. Turkish was good in most respects, and the Turkish lounge at IST is definitely the nicest business class lounge I’ve ever been to. Both Austrian and Turkish use Do & Co for their catering, and Do & Co is supposed to be the best out there, but these flights just reminded me that A) if I want gourmet food, I should eat it on the ground, and B) if my goal is to create experiences, I should forgo business class and save up for first class instead.

4. Speaking of food, I just ate one of the best meals of this year at a restaurant called Ushigoro. I’m not a big meat eater, and this was just course after course of beef, but I still loved it (although I might regret it in a couple of hours). Thanks to Aimal for the recommendation!

Eating in Hong Kong

Here’s a sampling of things that I ate in Hong Kong.

Tsui Wah
You’re not going to find anything gourmet here, but I do think it’s an interesting experience, especially if you come at 4:30am as I did on my first jetlagged morning in Hong Kong. Tsui Wah is a chain of restaurants that are essentially diners, so they’re popular with the drunk crowd late at night (the location that I went to in Central is open 24 hours).

Tsui Wah at 4:30am

Tsui Wah at 4:30am

Dim Sum
I went to the Tim Ho Wan in Sham Shui Po, One Dim Sum near Prince Edward MTR, and Dim Sum Square in Sheung Wan for dim sum during my stay. All were good and cheap and better than anything that I’d had in the US, but I wouldn’t say any of them was phenomenal or a must-eat, and I still can’t believe that Tim Ho Wan and One Dim Sum have Michelin stars.

The fabled Tim Ho Wan pork buns

The fabled Tim Ho Wan pork buns

The best item was (of course) the BBQ pork buns at Tim Ho Wan (Dim Sum Square had a very similar version). Rather than the steamed or baked versions that are common in the US, these have a sort of snowball-fried-sweet top, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever had before. It’s light and airy yet fatty and sweet. It does get a little too sweet-on-sweet for me, as the bun is quite sweet and the filling is also sweet so it gets to be almost cloying.

One Dim Sum

One Dim Sum

Other items that I tried included turnip cake, sponge cake, and rice noodle rolls, but none of the other items that I tried were that much better than what I’ve had elsewhere. I definitely wouldn’t wait more than half an hour to eat at any of these places. For what it’s worth, I was seated immediately at Tim Ho Wan, although I went relatively early in the morning.

Yardbird
This place was recommended to me by a friend, and it was also mentioned in the NYTimes somewhat recently. As such, it’s pretty popular and waits can be quite long, so plan to get there early.

This restaurant is a restaurant that I’d expect to find in a place like San Francisco or New York: much of the waitstaff is not Chinese, menus are completely in English, and prices are high. It’s a yakitori place, so think skewers of chicken. I had the waiter order for me, and I ended up trying the eggplant salad, sweet corn tempura, meatball, heart, rib, and korean fried cauliflower.

Chicken hearts at Yardbird

Chicken hearts at Yardbird

All of the food was flavorful, but I got a little bored with some of the flavor profiles quickly. In particular, the most lauded dishes of sweet corn tempura, meatball, and KFC were all pretty one-note. Flavorful, yes, but interesting, not really. Coupled with relatively high prices (my food was ~$50 for not that much actual food, and it’s Hong Kong, where you can get a meal for <$5), it’s not a place that I’d highly recommend, but it’s worth trying.

Joy Hing
This was another place recommended by a friend, and I really enjoyed the simplicity of good BBQ pork on top of a bed of rice. This place isn’t fancy and it’s crowded and busy and you won’t have enough space and there’s no English, but it’s good food (and it’s cheap). Get a plate of whatever meat you want on top of rice (the recommendation being BBQ pork, of course), pour the special sauce on top, and enjoy.

Joy Hing's BBQ pork on rice

Joy Hing’s BBQ pork on rice

Joy Hing kitchen

Joy Hing kitchen

A similar place that I enjoyed was Yat Lok, although I missed out on the roast goose because I was there too early, but my bowl of noodles was just simple and tasty.

Breakfast at Yat Lok

Breakfast at Yat Lok

Australia Dairy Company
If you want an authentic dining experience in Hong Kong, brave the lines and eat at Australia Dairy Company (don’t worry, the lines move quickly). There are hordes of people inside and out and tons of workers moving people quickly through the restaurant. They even have English menus (or they at least have one), but it might take a while to get to you.

Scrambled eggs and egg custard from Australia Dairy Company

Scrambled eggs and egg custard from Australia Dairy Company

They’re known for their scrambled eggs and egg custards. I’m not sure they’re the best scrambled eggs I’ve had (that distinction probably still lies with Gartine in Amsterdam), but the food was tasty, and it feels like you’re part of Hong Kong’s bustle when you’re squished into your table with people running around, sharing a table with strangers.

Desserts
I’ll be honest, I was disappointed with egg tarts in Hong Kong. The egg tart I had from Lillian’s in Shanghai was better than the egg tarts I tried from Tai Cheong and Honolulu Coffee Shop.

What I wasn’t disappointed by were the desserts at Cong Sao and the drinks at Hui Lau Shan. Cong Sao has lots of desserts that are variations of tropical fruit (e.g. mango, durian) with potentially frozen things (e.g. shaved ice) and probably gelatinous things (e.g. mochi, boba, but not those things). Hui Lau Shan also has some of those things, but they’re better known for their ridiculously tasty and refreshing and sweet-but-not-too-sweet drinks.

Durian ice cream with stuff

Durian ice cream with stuff

B3 at Hui Lau Shan: mango, coconut, and aloe

B3 at Hui Lau Shan: mango, coconut, and aloe

Concluding Thoughts
Hong Kong has lots of good, cheap food. They also have some very, very expensive food that I did not try this time around, but I will try to get to some of those places on my next trip. I was kinda expecting more things to just blow me away like what I ate on my trip to Shanghai, but perhaps it’s just because I’m more familiar with a lot of the foods I ate in Hong Kong that I was a little less impressed.

Late Night Eating in Helsinki

My second and final day in Helsinki, I did something rather stupid and let myself fall asleep at 4pm. I was exhausted and jetlagged (I find it harder to travel east than west) and ended up sleeping for 8+ hours and thus woke up past midnight without having eaten dinner.

There is not much to do in Helsinki in November; there is not much to do in Helsinki on a Sunday; there is not much to do in Helsinki between the hours of midnight and 6am. Combine all three of those, and I felt like I was in a bit of a pickle, especially since I was getting hungry.

After doing a little bit of research online, I found just about the only two restaurants open at 1am on a Sunday night: 1) a random hamburger stand that was featured in the New York Times many years ago and is best known for serving something called the “Kannibal”; and 2) McDonald’s. I ended up going to both.

I’m sure that during the summer months, Jaskan Grilli is much more crowded, but in November, it was dead. I was heartened to see light inside of the little stand, although I’m sure that they don’t do much business during the winter months.

Jaskan Grilli

Jaskan Grilli

Approaching the stand, everything was in Finnish. And the woman working there didn’t speak much English besides “hamburger” and “hot dog”. And there wasn’t anyone around to ask for help. So I ended up communicating to her that she should just give me anything, and she ended up making me what I believe is the Jaskan hamburger, which is two patties, an egg, and a slice of cheddar in a roll, and slathering it in all of the sauces and condiments.

The vast menu

The vast menu

I'm pretty sure this is the Jaskan Hampurilainen aka Jaskan hamburger

I’m pretty sure this is the Jaskan Hampurilainen aka Jaskan hamburger (6 euro)

This was unlike any other hamburger I’ve eaten. I think that it’s quite rare to find a good burger outside of the US, but this was oddly tasty with the confusing number of sauces and components. I got rid of most of the cheese bits, but the meat patties themselves were a little lean but still flavorful, and some of the sauces were pretty darn delicious. The garlic sauce in particular was potent and tasty (I could still taste it after brushing my teeth twice).

After eating a burger, I naturally wanted fries, so I stopped by the McDonald’s in the Sokos mall that’s open 24 hours a day. Inside, most of the patrons appeared to be drunk Russian people, with all of the women ordering fries only and all of the men ordering at least 2 burgers.

The 24-hours McDonald's

The 24-hours McDonald’s

Russian tourists

Russian tourists

All in all, I didn’t have many options open late at night on a Sunday in Helsinki, but I was pretty satisfied after my trek to Jaskan Grilli and McDonald’s. I’m sure that Jaskan Grilli would be a great place to visit on a summer night when lots more people are around (and can help you order), but it’s definitely the epitome of greasy drunk food.