Latest Posts

Review: Creative Omakase at Michelin-rated Sushiyoshi (Osaka, Japan)

Getting to experience the creativity of Chef Nakanoue Hiroki at Michelin-rated Sushiyoshi was the culinary highlight of my recent Japan trip. Although Osaka has a booming street food scene, its sushi has generally played second fiddle to Tokyo’s. Sushiyoshi is trying to break that narrative with its creative omakase. I had heard great things about this 26-year-old sushi-ya and was excited to try it. As an added bonus, Chef Hiroki speaks decent English and his exuberant personality makes the experience memorable for all guests. How did this chef’s tasting stack up to all the other omakase?

When I arrived at 7pm for my reservation, there was already a full house as the sushi-ya contains only 8 seats at the counter. I was escorted to my spot at the end of the bar and was promptly served tea and a hot towel. Japanese omakase can be intimidating for non-Japanese tourists; however, Chef Hiroki was very welcoming. My omakase started with salmon and caviar tartar housed in an “apple” wafer vessel. The wafer reminded me of a candy that I ate as a child. My curiosity peaked as I was served a bowl of cherry tomatoes. I thought it was going to be some fancy tomato concoction…but it was really just delicious tomatoes. This was likely intended as a palate cleanser much to my embarrassment.

The second course was sama sashimi that was beautifully wrapped in a shiso leaf. The third course was sama-pressed sushi, Japanese pike fish with sugar sprinkled on top. There was a hint of smoke, which contrasted the crunchy sweetness of the sugar. Osaka is known for pressed sushi and this was an interesting take on the traditional nigiri that I’m used to. The fourth course was mashed shrimp with its brains served alongside a plate of rock salt. I was instructed to squeeze some fancy lime onto the salt plate and then dip the shrimp paste on it. The citrusy salty mixture elevated the delicate sweet shrimp. At this point, I got the hint that I was in for a different “omakase” than what I had expected. It is much less about the nigiri and more about Chef Hiroki’s interpretation of the “sushi” chef tasting.

The fifth course was a traditional Japanese grouper nigiri, which was delightful. However, it was not as spectacular as the previous courses in terms of creativity. I was also served pickled cucumber as a palate cleanser instead of the typical ginger and it was very refreshing. The sixth course was raw oyster from Brittany served with tuna and caviar from a fish that the Chef Hiroki caught in Bordeaux. It was a burst of ocean flavor and easily one of my favorite of the night. The story of how he caught the fish added to the enjoyment. The seventh course was cod sperm sac and lime. Funny enough, Chef Hiroki was a bit shy and amused while explaining cod sperm to me. I assumed he expected me to be nervous about it, but I’m an adventurous eater so that did not phase me at all.  The lime was also a variety that I have not seen before; it was crunchier and longer in length than the US version. The eighth course was cod sperm hand roll, which looked like an intestine from a small animal. Surprisingly, it was creamy and soft, almost like cream cheese, and luckily not fishy at all.

The ninth course was baby sardines served on a spoon with a quail egg yolk. The creamy egg yolk ameliorated the salty sardines making it a delicious combination. The tenth course was a more traditional chu toro nigiri, a reminder that Chef Hiroki can do traditional sushi with the best of them.  The eleventh course was salmon roe, ikura, made from Hokkaido salmon. The preparation process was entertainment in itself as he made the ikura in front of us. Chef Hiroki informed us that salmon from Hokkaido had doubled in price due to the low inventory, which I mused that we were adding to the situation by eating salmon eggs. Normally salmon roe is marinated in a combination of soy and other ingredients. This rendition of ikura was prepared fresh from the sac at the bar with just a little drizzle of soy and a sprinkle of yuzu zest resulting in the exceedingly fresh salty eggs. Another entertaining tidbit was seeing Chef Hiroki’s assistant painstakingly roasting each seaweed over a small charcoal grill, one by one. That is commitment to freshness.

The twelfth course was a highlight of the dining experience due to how much fun and interactive it was. We were given marshmallows on a long skewers and were guided to go outside the restaurant. Waiting for us was Chef Hiroki with a bucket of coal and straw roasting bonito while sitting on the street in front of his restaurant. That is not something you see every day. As guests all crowded around the fire while ignoring curious passersby and roasting their marshmallows, we all had animated short moments with the chef. As I was trying to capture the experience on my camera, Chef Hiroki asked for my cell and proceeded to take a selfie of us. That was very spontaneous and a great memento for me. After what seemed like 15 minutes, we moved back inside and savored the street-side grilled bonito. The smoky flavor from the hay added depth to an otherwise delicate fish and the accompanying wasabi mousse. At this point, I was very full and satisfied. However, Chef Hiroki was not finished as we had four courses left to go…to my horror.

The thirteenth course was grilled sea eel, simple and elegant. Luckily it was a small portion as I was hitting my limit. The fourteenth course was soup made from bonito and seaweed broth with maitake mushrooms and a splash of lime. It was minimalist and complex at the same time. I happily slurped this up thinking dessert was next. To my astonished delight, Chef Hiroki made a sea urchin and caviar pot just for me as he knew it was my absolute favorite thing to eat. All the other diners looked on with a mixture of jealousy and amusement as I devoured the Hokkaido uni. The “fifteenth” course was Courbet apple, a variety native to Japan. Chef Hiroki checked each apple under the light to ensure that it had maximum “honey” center, a juicy part that surprisingly tasted like honey. Additionally, the apple had a crunchy texture similar to an Asian pear. The last course of the night was a coriander sorbet with mango mousse and olive oil, a satisfying end to my 16th (officially) or 17th (with the extra uni pot) course omakase.

Chef Hiroki made the omakase experience very memorable with his mad hatter’s energy and with his culinary alchemy. There is only one seating per night for eight seats at $250 a person. This is an experience that is worth the price tag in a sea of other great restaurants in Osaka.

img_2334

Chef Nakanoue Hiroki

Address: Japan, 530-0054 Osaka Prefecture, Osaka, Kita, Minamimorimachi, 2 Chome−3−23, 和光住建南森町ビルⅡ 1F

Phone: +81 6-6361-0062

Click here for our 3 “Days” of Gluttony in Osaka, Japan. 

Click here for our 2 Day Temple Stay in Koyasan, Japan.

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

3 “Days” of Gluttony in Osaka, Japan

Osaka has been a YouTube sensation over the past few years due to its reputation as a street food haven. The city has been overshadowed by Tokyo and Kyoto for the last decade and is now finally coming into its own. On my recent trip to Japan, I made it a point to include this foodie destination on my itinerary and the city did not disappoint. I had limited time since it was only three full days, so my trip was packed with eating and some sight-seeing. This is my foodie adventure in the kitchen of Japan.

Day 1: Dotonbori

I had underestimated how long it would take for me to travel from Bangkok, so by the time I arrived at my hotel, it was already 7pm. Since I only had three full “days” in Osaka, every minute counted. I quickly made my way to Dotonbori, the heart of Osaka’s entertainment district, which reminded me of New York’s Times Square with its bright neon signs and throngs of tourists. I quickly searched for Mizuno, the oldest okonomiyaki restaurant in Osaka. Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake made with flour batter, shredded cabbage and various toppings. Mizuno is THE destination for okonomiyaki in Dotonbori. It is also easy to spot the restaurant as there is always an hour wait out the door. Don’t make my mistake of waiting while hungry because it is pure torture and the one-hour wait felt like an eternity. My patience paid off as I sat at the end of the eight-seater bar. The host had already taken my order while I was in line for their most popular okonomiyaki made with mountain yam flour, shrimp, scallops, and pork. The experience was similar to teppanyaki in which chefs would cook on a griddle in front of the diner. As soon as I dug into the crunchy pancake smothered in mayonnaise and a barbeque-style sauce, I was in foodie heaven. The only downside to traveling solo was that I couldn’t order more food to try as everything just smelled heavenly.

After Mizuno, I walked around the main gallery toward the famous Glico running man sign, the ubitiqous symbol of the vibrant city. Much like Times Square, lights lit up the night sky and there was sea of people wherever I looked. To take a break from the claustrophobia inducing crowd, I ventured along the walkway situated next to the river. The calm and quiet here were an interesting juxtaposition to the bustling activities one level up.

Feeling like I had worked off enough of the okonomiyaki, I searched for the next popular dish in Osaka, takoyaki, a ball-shaped snack made of wheat flour batter and filled with scallions and octopus. I stopped by the Konamon Museum for their rendition of takoyaki and I was not disappointed. In my excitement to try it, I forgot how hot these suckers were because my mouth was scorched. After I got over my burnt tongue, I feasted on the octopus balls, which were slightly crunchy on the outside and pillow soft inside. By the time I was finished with my snack, it was around 9:30pm and I had just enough time to try one more restaurant…although, my stomach was starting to protest at this point.

For the last meal of the night, I stopped by Kushikatsu Daruma, famous for its deep fried skewers and operated by the same family since 1929. I was able to squeak in before they stopped accepting guests. I quickly got a seat at the bar and ordered a few skewers to try. What is there not to like about fried food with Japanese flair?! My favorite was the mochi skewers, which were crunchy outside and chewy inside. I would dip each skewer into a communal kushikatsu sauce that was on the bar for a burst of flavor and to offset the grease. There is no such thing as double dipping here. Additionally, raw cabbage was served with the meal as a palate cleanser in between each skewer. Pairing fried food and a cold glass of soda was the perfect finish to my first night in Osaka.

Day 2: Eat and Eat Some More

I had planned an aggressive morning itinerary starting with breakfast at Endo Sushi at 5am, which I did not attempt at all due to exhaustion from traveling most of yesterday. When I finally woke up, I realized I did not have much time until I met my friend for our reservation at Naniwa Kappo Kigawa. The thought of food got me out of the comfortable bed and ready for my full day of gluttony. Kappo is the casual cousin of Kyoto’s formal kaiseki, which focuses on traditional Japanese cuisine. Naniwa is a Michelin-starred restaurant that is known as an institution for kappo and has trained some of the best chefs in Osaka. As I approached the restaurant located in a traditional alley called Hozenji Yokocho, it felt like I had stepped back in time. The sliding door opened promptly at 12 and the hostess welcomed us into the shop. Unfortunately, we got the upstairs section, which I did not know about so we did not get the full kappo experience of watching chefs prepared the exquisite food. The courses came out expeditiously and the server was very accommodating and sweet. Every course was a meticulous visual feast followed by a flavor medley in my mouth. My favorite was the main course depicting autumn, which was a work of art. It was so beautifully plated that I did not want to ruin the presentation by eating it, but someone had to do that hard job. (Check back for our in-depth review of the experience.)

After the 11-course lunch, I was ready to do some sightseeing. I got on the shockingly efficient train system as compared to NYC’s antiquated subway and made my way to Osaka Castle. I needed to exercise some of the food off before my next meal so taking in the famous sight was a two-for-one activity. The 16th century castle was rebuilt in 1931 after numerous fires and is now a classic and elegant symbol of the city. The interior of the castle contains an observatory on the top deck and five floors of exhibits on its history. As the line for the elevator to the observatory was out the door, I huffed and puffed it up to the 8th floor the old fashion way. Worst, I did not count on the amount of walking at this destination! The exhibits were interesting, especially a recreation of a samurai battle using tiny figurines. The surrounding parks reminded me of Central Park with nature enclave in the middle of skyscrapers.

After two hours, I made my way over to Shinsekai, the retro area of Osaka near the downtown “Minami” area. In the middle of Shinsekei is the Tsutenkaku Tower, a reminder of the neglected area that is now starting to be hip again. It is known to be “seedy” due to a high population of homeless people and prostitution…however, it is very safe by western standards. I did not know what to expect when I arrived, but this had to be one of my favorite areas of the city due to its authenticity. There were not as many tourists here and it was legitimately a time capsule of the 1970’s as soon as I exited the subway. My friend and I started to get hungry and, luckily, we discovered a hidden gem of a neighborhood sushi joint: Sahei Sushi. The tiny hole-in-the-wall only contained a sushi counter and an English picture menu. The chefs, the server and locals in the restaurant did not speak English at all…it’s exactly what I was looking for. The sushi was cheap, fresh and delicious. It was a perfect appetizer to our dinner an hour later.

Osaka is next to Kobe so is also known for amazing beef, hence we had to try it. For dinner, I made a reservation at Matsuzakagyu Yakiniku M – Houzenji Hanare in Dotonbori for the famous matsuzakagyu beef, one of the top three types of beef in Japan. Yakininiku M is an “affordable” way to sample the different cuts and is so popular that reservations must be made at least a two weeks in advance. As the beef cooked on the table grill, the sizzling sound was hypnotic as the fat just melted and caramelized. It was every beef lover’s dream. As we ate our way through the various cuts, I could not help but to “ooh” and “ahh” over every piece. It was that good!

By the end of dinner, I could have been rolled out the door and called it a night. However, we were still missing the elusive Rikuro’s jiggly cheesecake. Japanese cheesecake is a cross between a soufflé and American cheesecake. I was lucky to arrive when a new batch came out of the oven so I got to see the stamping ceremony with the bell and the efficiently fast packaging of the cakes. As I bit into the warm and fluffy slice, I was on cloud nine. My stomach at this point could not expand anymore indicating the end of my day two eating fest.

 

Day 3: Train Station Goodies

On the third day, I bid my friend goodbye and headed to Namba station for my trek up the mountain to Koyasan. It was the perfect opportunity to try convenience store food. I found a shop and was able to stock up on various onigris and snacks for the three-hour train and bus trip. I was overjoyed when I found the Nankai Soba booth right by the train platform. That is what I call Japanese convenience. Luckily they had some pictures with numbers so I could order and pay at the vending machine. It was not the best soba noodle soup ever; however, it was good enough to give me a healthy start for my long trip to Mount Koya. (Click here for in-depth blog on our Mount Koya adventure.)

Day 4: Another Gastronomic Feast

After arriving back at my hotel that afternoon from my quick trip to Koysan, I quickly made my way to Ramen Yashichi, ranked 39 out of the top 50 ramen shops in Japan by Tablelog. I speed walked to the shop as it was getting ready to close for the day. The heart pounding dash was worth it by the time I sat at the bar and slurped up this delicious chicken based ramen. I can definitely say it was the best ramen I had in Japan thus far. Yaichi’s ramen had the right level of saltiness, thickness and fattiness. The chefs and servers did not speak English, but were very helpful as they helped me navigate an all Japanese vending machine.

After a late lunch, I headed to Doguyasuji Arcade where the restaurant supply stores are located. As I hunted down each store in the alley for perfect chopsticks and holders as gifts, I wished I had brought a bigger suitcase to bring everything back with me. My favorite store was Osaka Shikki in the arcade. They had the most gorgeous and unique cutlery and chopsticks guaranteed to give you sticker shock. I ended up buying most of my gifts there and it was worth the high price.

As the stores all closed early, I made my way to Sushiyoshi, a Michelin-star restaurant, known for its innovative omakase. Chef Nakanoue Hiroki is both a creative genius and approachable at the same time. The highlight of my dinner was when Chef Hiroki went outside of his restaurant to roast bonito fish with a bucket of straw while his diners roasted marshmallows. I was even more surprised when he asked for my phone and took a selfie with me. This is a representative of the culinary alchemy and luckily the food is as good as the mad hatter’s creations. (Click here for the in-depth review.) The whole dining experience took 4 hours and I was sad to leave at the end of the night having made a new friend in Japan.

DSC02179

View from my room at the Marriott Miyako.

Day 5: Last Meal

On my return from Koyasan, I had booked a room at the Marriott Miyako Hotel, located in Abeno Harukas, the highest skyscraper in Osaka. The view of the city from the bedroom is magnificent as I was situated 54th floors above the city. Guests at the hotel are given a free pass to the observatory on the 60th floor. I took the opportunity to check out the view, which was nice but nothing different from the Marriott.  However, the highlight was the architecture of the place with glass walls and the sun streaming through them. After the quick visit, I had enough time to eat lunch at Kaiten Sushi at the Kintetsu department store a few floors below. By the time I arrived around 11 o’clock, there was already a 30-minute wait. The restaurant offered affordable lunch sets and picture menus to assist foreigners. The sushi lunch was a tasty way to end my memorable feasting adventures in Osaka.

*Tip: Most restaurants do not have online reservation capabilities and reservations must be made over the phone a few weeks in advance for the top restaurants. If you are staying at a hotel, the concierge should be able to make the reservations for you. If you are lucky like me, my Japanese friend made all my reservations. Additionally, certain restaurants will not allow reservations for foreigners like Sushi Saeki .

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

Restaurants to Try in Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon (Vietnam) for 2018

On my recent trip to Ho Chi Minh City (“HCMC” or “Saigon”), my local friends recommended a few of their favorite restaurants (a combination of classics that we highlighted in previous posts and current hot spots). I was able to try a few and loved their recommendations. As many of my friends and colleagues continue to ask me where to eat in Saigon for their upcoming trips, I decided to share this list.

Phở Lệ

Address: 303-305 Võ Văn Tần, Phường, District 5 / Tel: +84. 3834.4486

This is an oldie, but a goodie with all the locals. When I had a craving for a good bowl of southern phở, my god sister (a Saigon native) and I ventured to Phở Lệ in District 3 (the second location is in District 7). The restaurant is your quintessential phở restaurant with a short menu of the famous noodle soup with a variety of meat toppings. The broth is rich, sweet (from the herbs and fruits) and robust, which can only be achieved from hours of cooking beef stock on a low boil. At 60,000đ to 75,0000đ or roughly $2.50 to $3.50 per bowl, this is a cheap eat at its best. Try to sit at a table near a fan or otherwise you will be sweating while eating a steaming hot bowl of phở.

Phở Dậu

Address: 288 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, District 8 /Tel: +84 28 3846 5866

For northern style phở, try this third generation phở shop that has been opened since the 1970’s. A bowl of phở ranges from 65,000đ to 80,000đ or $3 to $4. The biggest difference in the phở here is that there are no herbs or vegetable accompaniment. There is only a bowl of onion mixed with vinegar and sugar. This is something very different for most foreigners who are likely more familiar with the southern style phở topped with beansprouts, basil and hoisin sauce. This shop is open from 6am to 12pm.

Lẩu Cua Xuân Đức

Address: 208 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu, Phường 6, District 3 / Tel: +84 98 201 71 99

Hotpot is a popular type of cuisine for a gathering and another HCMC native took me to Lẩu Cua Xuân Đức to try their popular crab hot pot. The broth was meaty and flavorful and at 190,000đ or $8.50 for a large hotpot for four people, this hits all the right notes.

Cục Gạch Quán

Address: 10 Đặng Tất, Tân Định, District 1 / Tel: +84 28 3848 0144

We recommended this family style dining restaurant in 2016 and it is still just as good today. The restaurant is located in a house in alley decorated in 1970’s vintage style. The whole concept reminded me of going to an artsy relative for dinner. There is no menu to choose from as the restaurant serves a different meal set each day for a fix price of 200.000đ to 330.000đ or $9 to $13 per person.

Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa|

Address: 26 Lê Thị Riêng, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, District 1 / Tel: + +84 28 3925 0885

The famed bánh mì shop with a cult following with locals and tourists is arguable one of the best in HCMC. Locals pulled up in their motorbikes and jockey to place their orders. Like at most Vietnamese eateries, there is no real line so be ready to stand your ground. The bánh mì here is delicious and definitely worth all the hassle.

Ốc Đào

Address: 214/C84 Nguyễn Trãi St, Nguyễn Cư Trinh Ward, District 1 / Tel: + 84 90 943 70 33

This is another one of our favorite shellfish eateries in HCMC. Friends and family come here to enjoy fresh seafood and beer. This restaurant is insanely popular with locals, which is always a good sign. However, the restaurant can be disorienting for newbies. Luckily their menu contains pictures to make it easier to order. All the seafood are cooked over a charcoal grill or stove adding a depth of flavor. My favorite was the grilled clams sprinkled with peanuts and scallions and sea snails stir fried in a sweet and sour sauce. I was in seafood heaven and all for a super cheap price.

Quang Nuong 3T

Address: 29 – 31 Tôn Thất Thiệp, District 1 / Tel: +84 08 3821 1631

This is a rooftop Vietnamese barbeque restaurant located to the right side of Fanny Ice Cream and above the Temple Club. The entrance is hard to find and is also very popular. You can expect table-side bbq where you can grill various seafood and meat dishes on your own. The prices are very reasonable at 50,000đ to 165,000đ or $2 to $8 per dish.

Đông Phố

Address: 57 Hồ Xuân Hương, District 3 / Tel: + 08 39 30 7665

This cozy restaurant specializes in Hue and central Vietnamese cuisine. The atmosphere is nicer than your typical restaurant, however, the prices are still reasonable at 50,000đ to 350,000đ or $2 to $15 per dish.

The Deck Saigon

Address: 38 Nguyễn Ư Dĩ, Thảo Điền, District 2 / Tel: + 84 28 3744 6632

This swanky Pan-Asian restaurant and bar is located on the banks of Saigon River. The prices are comparable to the US with entrée starting at $10+. This is a place to chill out and catch a sunset over the river. The food is good, but it is not the main attraction. The crowd varies between internationals and affluent locals.

Pizza 4P

Address: 8/15 Lê Thánh Tôn, Bến Nghé / Tel: +84 28 3622 0500

This Japanese take on Vietnamese pizza was launched in 2011 and has been popular ever since. The farm-to-table restaurant has five locations around HCMC. The prices and atmosphere are fancier and friendlier than the typical pizza parlor making it a favorite for locals and tourists craving western style food with Vietnamese flair.

The Crab Shack

Address: 54 Đông Du, Bến Nghé, District 1 / Tel: +84 28 3827 5168

This American-Cajun style seafood restaurant opened its door in 2014 in District 3 and now has three locations in HCMC.

Hủ Tiếu Cá Nam Lợi

Address: 43 Tôn Thất Đạm, Nguyễn Thái Bình, 1 / Tel +84 28 3821 0720

This restaurant specializes in fish noodle soup and is only opened from 6am to 12pm with at least a 15 minutes wait most of the time. The prices are more expensive than your local noodles shop at 82,000đ to 112,000đ or $4 to $5 per bowl.

Quán Cây Sứ Phong Cua

Address: 1019A Bình Quới, phường 28, Bình Thạnh / Tel: +84 28 3556 5683

This restaurant is all about crab, especially their curry crab and crab hot pot. Unfortunately, it is often crowded and takes a while for the kitchen to prepare your food. If you have the patience for it, you will be rewarded with an authentic affordable, by local standards, Vietnamese crab feast.

*Special thanks to Lana Tran, Han Vo and Tho Nguyen for these recommendations.

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

 

2 Day Temple Stay in Koyasan, Japan – the Birthplace of Shingon Buddhism

In order to take a break from modern Osaka, I ventured to a secluded village up in the holiest mount an of Japan for a spiritual rejuvenation. Mount Koya (or Koyasan) is the birthplace of Esoteric Shingon Buddhism in Japan that was founded by Kobo Daishi* over 1,200 years ago. Today, the UNESCO-designated World Heritage site has 52 shukubo open to visitors. Shukubo are temples that historically offered overnight lodgings to pilgrims, with the majority of them welcoming tourists today. The shukubo experience includes sleeping on a tatami mat floor in a 1,000-year-old temple, eating a vegan feast cooked by the resident monks and participating in certain Buddhist rituals. A trip to Koyasan is an authentic spiritual trip that refreshes the soul.

For my recent trip to Osaka, I carved out two days to make my way up the mountain. Normally, this trip would take 90 minutes on an express train from Namba station on the Nankai Koya Line. Unfortunately, two weeks before I arrived in Japan, a typhoon disabled the cable car service between Gokurakubashi and Koyasan, approximately a 5-minute journey. Now, visitors must take the train to Hashimoto station and then take a bus up the mountain to Koyasan for an additional 1 hour, for a total travel time of almost 3 hours. Once I arrived after the expedition to Koyasan bus station, I boarded another bus heading toward Okunoin Cemetery where my shubuko, Kumagaiji Temple (founded in 837AD), is located. This temple features classic Japanese architecture and simple facilities with shared bathrooms and an onsen** among guests. After checking in to my traditional room, I was ready to take in the sights around this sacred village.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My first stop was Kongobu-ji Temple, which is the head temple of Shingon Buddhism featuring the Banryutei Rock Garden, the largest rock garden in Japan, and a portrait of Kobo Daishi. The temple visit consisted of walking around and appreciating the gilded door screens in each room adorned with paintings of nature. The temple was decorated sparsely and had few visitors since I came on a weekday, so I had most of it to myself. Next, I walked toward the Garan complex through a pathway littered with autumns leaves that were turning brilliant shades of orange, red and yellow. The Garan complex contained numerous buildings and structures built by Kobo Daishi and is where majority of the Buddhist services in Koyasan are held. Of the structures that are there, I focused on Chumon, Kondo, Rokkaku Kyuzo, Konpon Daito, Daito Bell and Hasu-ike.

  • Chumon is a twin-tiered, five-sectioned tower standing at the lowest point before the entry to the Kondo.
  • Kondo is a building that serves as a central hall on Mount Koya.
  • Rokkaku Kyuzo is a hexagonal depository of scriptures where there are handles near the base, which can be rotated. This is done to denote that one has completed the pious act of reading the scriptures once through.
  • Kopon Daito is a 145-foot pagoda that is a representation of the universe in Shingon Buddhism, and it played a role as the central training dojo for the Shingon Sect.
  • Daito Bell is the 4th largest bell in Japan, and it rings five times a day.
  • Hasu-ike is a picturesque lotus pond that houses a small shrine that was thought to clear the drought of 1771.

Each structure had historical and religious significance; however, it is best to appreciate the exteriors as there is not much to see inside. Walking around the complex allowed me to take in the fall weather and the beautifully laid out structures while dodging an arsenal of camera wielding elderly tourists.

Another short walk from the Garan complex was the Daimon Gate or a tori gate that marks the entrance to Mount Koya. There is an inscription on the gate that reads “Kobo Daishi appears each morning, makes the rounds, and offers us salvation.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

At a certain point, I got templed out as the moderate autumn temperature dropped and the sun started to set. Buses are not as useful in Koyasan as they come by infrequently, so I ended walking back to Kumagaiji Temple, a task that I dreaded after a long day. Along the way, I passed by Koyasan Reihōkan with just 45 minutes left before closing time at 5pm so I quickly ventured in. Luckily there were only a handful of people mulling around so I was able to breeze through this small museum. There are three exhibition halls that house Buddhist and cultural artifacts and paintings from various temples in Koyasan. It was nice sit and rest my weary feet while I ponder the significance of each artwork in silence. As Kumagaiji Temple has a strict time for dinner, I hustled back to make it in time.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The highlight of the temple stay was the vegan feast. As I reserved the best room in the temple, my dinner was in the main living room with another guest from Chile. The rest of the guests ate in a large communal tatami room nearby. The vegan feast was impeccably prepared and just as delicious. It was a special moment to be in this historic temple enjoying a meal prepared by monks in front of a Kobo Daishi portrait.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I had signed up for a night tour of the famous Okunoin Cemetery since it would be less creepy in a group than venturing there by myself. Okunoin Cemetery is a dramatic Buddhist resting place containing over 200,000 unique gravestones and monuments in the forest and the final resting place of Kobo Daishi. Since it started pouring rain at the beginning of the tour, the whole event was more atmospheric and at times, pitiful as we were getting drenched. After walking endlessly on a path guided by stone lanterns to Kobo Daishi Mausoleum, the group disbursed as we each made the 1.5 mile walk way back to the entrance. The atmosphere was surprisingly serene until random instrumental music came on out of nowhere to scare the bejesus out of me. At that point, I speed walked like an Olympian out of the cemetery not wanting to make any new friends that night.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Before sunrise the next morning, I, along with other bleary-eyed guests, made our way to the ceremonial room for a 6am fire ritual. This daily spiritual event cleanses the soul and keeps evil spirits away. We were asked to write our wishes onto a wooden tablet and throw it into the fire at the end of the ceremony. As tempting as sleep is after an exhausting day, this is one ceremony that cannot be missed. After the ceremony, the temple served all the guests a vegan breakfast in the large communal room and bade us a good journey.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After leaving my luggage for the morning with our gracious hosts, I made my way back to Okunoin Cemetery before all the tour groups arrived. I highly recommend getting there as early as possible as tours started to pour in after 9am ruining the serene atmosphere. As the mist faded away and sunlight streamed through the trees, it was magical to be in the middle of this forest resting place. I did not get a sense that this was a cemetery, but more like an eternal bedroom for the soul. I revisited Kobo Daishi Mausoleum and the Torodo Hall: The Hall of Lamps and purchased some blessed charms from the mausoleum as a gift. Apparently, these items should be very effective considering the venue.  (Cameras are not allowed in the vicinity of the mausoleum and Torodo Hall for religious reasons….although I found images of these sacred places on Instagram anyway.)

 I waited around until 10:30 when the daily food offering was being made to Kobo Daishi, who the monks believe is still alive to this day. This was an interesting daily ritual and made me ponder whether the monks truly believe in eternal life as Buddhism is more about reincarnation. As my time in Koyasan wound down, I was glad that I made this trek up the mountain. I left Mount Koya with a sense of relaxation and peace that I have not had in a while. A visit to the sacred mountain of Mount Koya should be on your next trip to Japan.

* For additional background on Kobo Daishi, click here.

*An onsen refers to a Japanese hot spring  or the bathing facilities or inns frequently situated around them. Many shubuko will have an indoor onsen as private bathing facilities are rare at temples.

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

Weekend Unexplored: Gluttonous Adventures in Houston, Texas

I had a chance to visit Houston over a long weekend and took the opportunity to check out the city’s vibrant dining scene. For this trip, I focused on a combination of stalwarts and new additions to Houston’s downtown and surrounding area. Which establishments lived up to its hype and which restaurants failed to summit?

Saturday

After checking into the Hilton Americas in downtown the previous night, my friends and I were ready to start with brunch at Backstreet Café. This is a popular establishment in Houston and of course, we had to check it out. The exterior reminded me of a fancy French country home with a gorgeous patio beckoning us to waste the morning there; however, we could not compete with Houston’s heat and humidity. We were wimpy New Yorkers so we opted for an indoor table overlooking the brick patio. The menu at Backstreet Café focused on American dining. We ordered a few dishes such as Tuna Poke, Housemade Fresh Burrata, Skirt Steak and Eggs, Lamb with Pesto and Gulf Coast Beignets. All the dishes were well executed, but there were none that stood out. Furthermore, the atmosphere had the ubtiquous casual Southern charm, with well-dressed ladies and gents. I spied a few Hermes Birkin bags while I was there and the prices reflected that ambiance perfectly. [Verdict: Try]

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Next we rolled our stuffed selves over to the Trellis Spa at the Houstonian for some much deserved pampering. This is considered the best day spa in Houston and was packed when we arrived. The amenities included a pool, steam room, Jacuzzi and rest area in addition to the usual spa services. The deep tissue massage was excellent and pricey at $200 after tip and tax. This would be a splurge for special occasions and a great way to unwind with friends. I would suggest coming a few hours early to maximize the benefits of this spa, especially at the high price point. [Verdict: Try if you have the budget]

All that pampering made us famished so we dressed to the nines to try out a buzzy new restaurant, Roka Akor, for my birthday dinner. Roka Akor is a chain of high end steak and sushi restaurants with locations in San Francisco, Chicago and Scottsdale and just opened its Houston outpost a few months ago. The chain has been voted one to of the top 10 sushi spot in America by Bon Appétit. The restaurant is cavernous, but we never felt lost in it. The décor, especially the bar area, is spectacular. How can I package all that oomph into my tiny home in NYC? My party of six opted for the omakase menu costing $128 per person, which did not disappoint. The menu consisted of Roka’s best dishes spanning sushi to seafood to waygu beef. Surprisingly, the beef was a bit of a letdown while the sushi and seafood shined. Our favorite dish of the night was the beef wrapped in onion and topped with truffles. It was decadent and bursting with flavors. The only negative was that this was one of the most expensive dinners that I had had in a while at around $200/per person after wine, tip and tax. Overall, the trendy yet elegant ambiance really brings special occasion dining up a notch for Houston. [Verdict: Must Try]

img_1450-1

Sunday

Houston heat and humidity set in, which made us all too lazy to venture far for lunch. We settled on Brasserie du Parc with its bistro interiors across the park from the hotel. The menu was typical of a French café and the food was quite average coming from the renowned Chef Philippe Verpiand. I actually think some of us had stomach aches after that meal. I would recommend passing up this brasserie for better options around the corner. [Verdict: Pass]

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My friends then left for the airport so I was solo for the rest of the trip. For dinner that night, I arrived at a small strip mall to try Kata Robata, a highly rated sushi restaurant in Houston. I did not know what to expect and let my curiosity dictate what to order. I was seated in front of the sushi bar and noticed that there were a lot of people behind the counter who were not necessarily experienced sushi chefs and were putting out various rolls and sashimi dish with too much urgency. To my right and my left were diners that raved about how good the sushi was…so my expectations were heightened. The head chef, Chef Manabu Horiuchi, was also not there that night so that affected my experience. I ordered a few dishes that highlighted Kata’s creativity. My favorite dishes were uni chawanmushi for its light bonito broth with a perfect egg custard texture and chef choice of nigiri made with waygu, uni, quail egg and caviar. My least favorite dish was the roasted bone marrow with miso and bonito. I was searching very hard for that miso flavor profile and ended up disappointed. The quality of the nigiris were inconsistent such that my hamachi with quail egg literally fell apart as I was picking it up. There was a strong emphasis on the mismatch of ingredients for sushi where it should be focused on the essential basics: rice and the quality of the fish. At $10-$15 per nigiri, the sushi was just average. Overall, the sushi was good for Houston standard, but the pricing was misaligned with the quality being offered. [Verdict: Meh]

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Monday

I researched and found Xochi, a restaurant from famed Chef Hugo Ortega, that opened 8 months ago and was only a block away from the Hilton. Xochi’s food is focused on an elegant interpretation of Oaxaca cuisine. The new restaurant has a fantastic “2 for $22” lunch special where you can try some signature dishes at an affordable price point. After being seated, I ordered the popular Ostiones De Lujo (half-dozen wood-roasted oysters, mole amarillo, cotija, breadcrumbs) and Robalo (sea bass, aguachile verde, cilantro, avocado, serrano, corn, red onion, cucumber, plantain tostada). I had some concerns whether the portions would keep me full as they are technically appetizer dishes. Luckily this was Texas where everything is supersized! The oysters were perfectly roasted so that the bread crumbs were warm and crunchy, while the oysters were still rare on the inside. Next came the gorgeously plated sea bass that showcased strong French influences in its presentation. The Robolo was perfectly seasoned so that there was enough tartness without giving me the sour lemon reaction that I often get with ceviche. The dining space is ginormous, yet the service is also personal. I normally do not go for Mexican food, but I would not hesitate to come back the next time I am in town. [Verdict: Must Try]

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For dinner that night, I was able to secure a reservation for Theodore Rex, a hot new restaurant that literally just opened. It felt like being part of a secret club to be able to try this gem. The dishes were inventive and experimental, while remaining approachable for the average Joe. As the restaurant is new, there were inevitable misses when the chef tries to be creative. I appreciated the courage to do something different even with a simple seared chicken breast. (Click here for a detail review of Theodore Rex) After dinner, I would say this was my favorite restaurant of this trip to Houston. Houston has a booming culinary scene that only gets better with time. [Verdict: Must Try]

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I look forward to seeing what I can discover on my next visit to the vibrant city.

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

Review: Chef Yu’s Reinvention with Theodore Rex (Houston, TX)

On my recent trip to Houston, I discovered Theodore Rex, a 28-seat restaurant from Chef Yu situated in the same space as his acclaimed and now closed Oxtail. Chef Yu is a James Beard award winner and rose to culinary fame with his vegetable tasting menu. After losing passion for the tasting menu concept over the last 5 years, he decided to open a “new” restaurant with a shareable plate concept. Theodore Rex was so new that I had not heard of it until Chef Takata at Kata Robata recommended the restaurant for my last dinner in Houston. The restaurant opened on Friday, October 6. As expected, reservations were already booked out for October. I called the restaurant and was able to get a walk-in seat. The restaurant reserves four bar seats facing the kitchen and one table for walk-ins. Did Chef Yu’s reinvention live up to the hype?

My Uber driver had trouble finding the restaurant in the sketchy looking warehouse district as it has been badly affected by the recent flooding. Once I entered the small and inviting space, I was captivated by the mismatched décor that alternated between rustic, industrial and modern…but it all blended together seamlessly. I was presented with a short menu and selected a few recommended dishes. In addition, the restaurant also has a good selection of wine and cocktails at affordable prices.

  1. Tomato Toast – Rye and flaxseed pan de miel toasted and dressed with tomato fondant, green tomatoes, water, fresh grape, tomato slices and fresh herbs. This dish was a classic holdover from Oxtail and was a perfect start to my dinner. The toast was surprisingly light and had both tartness and sweetness from the tomatoes and grapes. There was an underlying hint of spice that added another dimension to the dish.
  1. Potato Pave – Thinly sliced Yukon Gold potatoes layered with butter and cream, baked and then pan seared in chicken drippings. The chef then added sofrito and celery, shallot, carrot and parmigiana reggiano. The potatoes were crispy on the outside and soft and buttery on the inside. The only negative was that the combination of the sauce and parmigiana reggiano made the dish too salty. I asked my friend to try it and he agreed… this coming from a guy who likes salty food.
  1. Pankora-battered Indian Creek “Oyster” Mushrooms” – This tempura dish was made with brown rice and chickpea pankora batter, Indian creek oyster mushrooms and bunching onions. These fried mushrooms were served with a white onion soubise and hackleback roe sauce and topped with cured egg yolk. I had such high expectation after the waiter described this dish to me eloquently. However, all I tasted was the batter and more fat from the sauce. The oyster mushrooms and all the other fancy ingredients got lost in the preparation process. This dish could benefit from some tartness to offset the grease. The batter was well prepared; however, it just lacked any personality. This was a reversal of my Texas bias of “go big or go home.”

img_1646

  1. “Guinea” Hen – My main entrée was a chicken dish: the horror! I rarely order chicken, but the waiter sold me on this. The chef brined a breast of a French guinea hen and then pan seared it. The breast was sliced and added to a broth of fermented green garbie and chicken. The meat was then topped with a salad of sliced onion, cucumber and herbs. The green garbie were fermented for one and half weeks creating a stronger onion taste that stood up to the chicken broth. On my first bite of the brined chicken, I did not know what to make of the texture. My best description would have to be “bouncy”. After a few more bites, I started to like it. The chicken breast had a soft and chewy texture at the same time and worked with the soupy sauce. I generally do not like onion, but it added a lot of extra flavor to this dish without overwhelming the delicate chicken. This dish perfectly described the style that Theodore Rex is trying to capture in its menu, experimental and yet approachable.
  1. Roasted Texas Waygu – This dish highlighted a “Denver cut” that was perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper and then seared and basted with butter. The steak rested atop a sherry vinegar pan sauce and topped with fermented radish caramelized in beef fat and cooked down in beef stock. Charcoal wilted mizuna and kale finished the dish. This was my friend’s favorite dish of his meal and he could not stop raving about it. I had a taste and had to agree that this was a highlight of the night. The steak melted in my mouth and the sauce and vegetable accompaniments lightened an otherwise heavy protein. This was another standout entrée for all meat lovers. It may have been the best steak I’ve had in Houston so far.

img_1615

  1. “Saijo” Persimmons – This was a simple yet complex and delicious dessert. Very ripe “Saijo” Persimmons were skinned and finished with fresh calamansi juice, olive oil and finishing salt. The salt enhanced the sweetness of the persimmons and kept them from going into the candy land territory. I finished this dish in less than a minute, which should tell you how much I liked this dessert.

img_1696

While I had my meal, Chef Yu came by on a few occasions to chat about the food and his background. I asked him why he closed down his acclaimed tasting menu restaurant for this new endeavor. His response was that he wanted to focus on simplicity and the ingredients at the core of his menu. Furthermore, he wanted to be passionate about his food again. I also found out that his favorite vegetable was carrot and he hopes that it will be an addition to the current roster. The menu at Theodore Rex changes every week and is very affordable for the quality, effort and creativity.

img_1688

My experience at Theodore Rex was overall very positive. As the restaurant just opened a few days before my dining experience, some kinks still need to be worked out. There are more hits than misses with the experimental menu and that should continue to improve as the chef du cuisine, Jason White, gets his bearings. Theodore Rex should be on your list to try before it becomes impossible to secure a reservation. This restaurant is a breath of fresh air for Houston’s crowded dining scene.

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

Featured photo courtesy of houstonfoodfinder.com

Review: The “Beginner’s Omakase” – Sushi by Bou at Sanctuary Hotel (NYC)

The concept of affordable omakase that is meant to be eaten within 30 minutes is relatively new to New York City. Sushi on Jones by Chef David Bouhadana launched this trend in 2016 with its first outdoor sushi stall. Fast forward a year and Chef Bouhadana has moved on to open Sushi by Bou at the Gansevoort Market with the same concept, $50 omakase comprising of 12 pieces of nigiri. By July 2017, Chef Bouhadana opened a second Sushi by Bou location at the Sanctuary Hotel. I was intrigued by this speed eating concept so I reserved dinner for two one Monday evening. How did this omakase compare to the typical sushi experience?

Sushi by Bou menu

First, we needed to find the entrance. The restaurant is in the basement level to the left of the Sanctuary Hotel’s main entrance. A bright neon sign and a lot of graffiti indicated that we were at the general vicinity where we could search for a semi-hidden door. Once we passed through the grungy looking entrance, we were greeted with a trendy studio-sized restaurant containing a sushi counter and a “bar”. I had hoped that we would be served by Chef Bouhadana, but we ended up with his sous chef. Once we settled into our seats at the counter, we ordered two cocktails, one sake-based and one whisky-based. My sake cocktail was awful while my cousin’s whisky cocktail was surprisingly easy to drink. This inconsistency was the theme for the rest of the meal.

The sous chef started the timer indicating the beginning of our omakase and then proceeded to feed us one nigiri after another. At times, I felt like I was in a sushi eating contest within a NY minute…which I had expected. Some pieces were nicely composed while other nigiri were just average. The quality of the fish is better than your neighborhood sushi joint in the city and tended to be kissed by a blowtorch. Even though the rice seasoning was nicely balanced between vinegar, sugar and salt, the overall quality was just above average. The omakase veered toward traditional sushi with the exception of one nigiri combination of waygu beef and uni. This Frankenstein nigiri hinted at what Chef Boudahana’s creativity can bring given the right conditions. This piece was my favorite nigiri of the night.

After ingesting 12 pieces of sushi in 30 minutes, we were asked if we wanted to order additional nigiri and I declined. For the price and quality, I did not think it warranted ordering extra pieces. My cousin, who is an omakase novice, loved it for both the trendy atmosphere and generally above average quality for the price. He summed up this experience best as a “beginner’s omakase” and I would have to agree. Sushi by Bou’s $50 chef tasting is an enticing entry point in a sea of $100+ options in Manhattan.

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

Feature photo courtesy of Sushi by Bou