The Great Noodle Tour: Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant

20150427_015527

The restaurant that I was told to visit in Shanghai, the city famed for its soup dumplings, was Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant. It’s a mini chain and there is a location isnide the touristy but lovely and well located YuYuan Garden. Think Disney-esque China, complete with street performers, hordes of families with kids, and a million kitschy souvenirs.

20150427_013001 When you follow the signs and eventually find Nanxiang Steamed Buns, you will go upstairs (Skip that huge line outside for the counter service) and be confronted by 2 lines. They are, though not identical, nearly so. Go in whichever line is shorter – there is one dining room that has, like, a $5 minimum spending which you will reach, no problem.  20150427_013007 It’s very, VERY difficult to get any sort of service here. Breathe into it. And tip the first person who comes by. Then the service comes real fast. 
20150427_013500 Soup dumplings.

Pork and Crab. Lovely! Thin, soft wrappers surrounding soft meat and plenty of juice. The pork taste is predominant, which I prefer.  20150427_014233

You can see how juicy it is. The pork is a little underseasoned, but the tangy/tart vinegar spikes it up really well.  20150427_013539 Big ass crab dumpling
20150427_013836 It’s honestly huge. And delicious. Like the most buttery, silky, sweet crab flavored chowder ever. It’s clean and umami, not at all minerally or funky. You sip up the broth through the straw and then discard the wrapper. Or eat it, as I did. Doughy wrapper = excellent vinegar delivery system. 
20150427_015509 Nanxiang is certainly where the locals go and the food is inexpensive and delicious. However, was this the greatest soup dumpling of my trip? Why, no. That’s yet to come. 

The Great Noodle Tour: ANA Flight Tokyo to Shanghai

In which we may together lament the crappy way that Americans experience short haul flights.

20150425_174223 Seeing a cute Victorian home off of the Japanese highway was an odd experience, until I realized that it was Tokyo Disney. I went a long time ago (before this blog was even an idea in my mind) and would definitely go back for the day. It’s like going to an amusement park in outer space. 
20150425_191150 Whiskey and shochu tasting in the ANA business class lounge. Amazing. A damned whiskey tasting in a lounge with showers, shopping, and another sake tasting bar. All for a sub 4 hour flight.
20150425_191639 Noodle bar in that ANA lounge. It’s an extremely kick ass lounge and I highly recommend it.
20150425_201054 Cool livery outside of the airport windows. I would love to go to Thailand someday, sooner than later.  20150425_202416 Incredible business class seats on this short jaunt. Do you see those miles of leg room?
20150425_202425 Super comfortable with slippers, a pillow, individual entertainment systems, and a great recline. I could have flown in this seat for 6 hours.  20150425_213249 Mount Fuji from the airplane…exquisite and majestic. What a view! 20150425_213821 Random Japanese cracker snacks 20150425_214858 Easily the best thing that we ate on the flight.  20150425_220240 The rest of the food was very…Japanese. The western meal was okay – some tender (if salty) beef with a baked turnip, a rather fishy salmon roulade, and a very nice apricot cake. Exceptional, it wasn’t. 
20150425_220313 And the Japanese food, while beautiful, tasted uniformly of fish. And not the good kind of fish. Very thankful for the miso soup that came alongside.  20150425_222816 Plus we got to enjoy a great range of entertainment options, including some amazing documentaries on Japanese chefs. 

The food was a little weird for my tastes, but ANA is a first class experience even on a short business class flight. 

Southwest, eat your hearts out. 

The Great Noodle Tour: The Conrad Tokyo

We stayed at a phenomenal hotel in Tokyo – the Conrad Tokyo.

It’s located within walking distance of the Ginza, right above a convenient subway line, has all of the modern amenities (including a fabulous Toto washlet), several restaurants, and is beautiful. Here are a few snapshots of our time there (mostly food related): 20150420_161735 Beautiful king sized bed (not so easy to find in Japan). The rooms look exactly like they do on the website – no scary surprises here. Big, beautiful double sinked bathroom and plenty of space, even by American standards.  20150420_162356 Sitting area overlooking Tokyo’s busy buildings.  20150420_193751 Private breakfast room for our loud, large group. The rate can include breakfast, and if yours does, you will not be disappointed.  20150420_193840 Cerise, the continental restaurant that serves breakfast and the buffet is legit. Japan is often mocked as the worst Asian country for breakfasts, but the Conrad disproves that theory. A huge buffet filled with Asian dim sum, American omelettes, salad, pastries, fish, meat, and everything else you could possibly want at any time of the day or night. 
20150420_194035 The salad section was welcome after a 10 hour redeye flight.  20150420_194345 The tomatoes are sweet and jewel hued.  20150420_200253 And the bread pudding with Nutella is a good first dessert.  20150420_201204 We sadly never ordered the egg slut.  20150421_192031 But I did eat a ton of noodles with soft eggs and dim sum.  20150425_070126 One night, we actually broke our “all Asian all the time” vow and ate dinner here.  20150425_072406 The spaghetti Bolognese was the best I’ve had since…the last time that I was in Tokyo. Tokyo does the greatest Italian food outside of Greece. I feel like Italy needs to up its own game.  20150425_075339 The French pastries are, as always, sensational.  20150425_080931 A sweet goodbye note from our INCREDIBLE concierge, Ari.

A word about the staff here. The staff here is…impeccable. Leagues better than the much-lauded Park Hyatt. These concierges went above and beyond during a scary medical encounter – let’s just say that I had a bad, BAD allergic reaction after a meal. I was alone in a shopping mall and started to blow up with hives. I was scared that it would spread to my throat. Somehow, the hotel got me a cab, got me home, walked my dad down to a pharmacy, found me Japanese Benadryl, and got it to me within an hour. They closed down the front desk while this happened to take care of me. We weren’t in a suite. They don’t know that I write a blog  . They just did what was necessary to help someone far from home. It left an extraordinary impact on me. I would stay here again in a heartbeat. It’s my home away from home in Tokyo.

Now I just gotta get back there.

The Great Noodle Tour: Don Quijote, Tokyo’s Dollar Store

Now it’s time for: more wacky shopping in Japan!

20150423_201648 You could not pay me to wear this thing. I’m getting claustrophobic just looking at it.  20150423_201816 So much nail art.
20150423_202046 I mean…so much. 
20150423_202303 “Heart and the You” dry shampoo.  20150423_202434 Very scary mini toothbrush ad. 
20150423_203506 Disney-esque fake windows in the local dollar store.  20150423_204201 And real, super expensive handbags in the dollar store. 
20150423_204407 Japanese adults love Elsa.  20150423_210329 Don Quixote is the greatest dollar store on the face of the planet. You must come here for all of your personal and souvenir needs. 

Of course, there are other Japanese sights, too.
20150423_215102 Japanese mascots are unceasingly amazing.  20150423_221602 Plates inspired by one of my favorite artists, Rene Magritte.

20150424_001522 A $3,000 Hello Kitty statuette. Obvi.  20150424_001735 I want all of this fake sushi.  20150424_001804 And none of this Sanrio vomit.  20150424_001811 I especially don’t want this huge Hello Kitty chair.  20150424_002310 Leg covers so chairs dont’ scratch your apartment floor. Of course, they are adorable. 
20150424_002418 I could use “a little happiness” of me.  20150424_002907 Miranda Kerr representing a handbag line I had never even heard of. Of course, I bought one before I left the country.  20150424_054740 Oh no…IS YOUR PHONE RUNNING OUT OF BATTERY?! Don’t worry, many cabs have chargers. I love this pop cartoon because it’s exactly how I feel when my phone is almost out of juice.  20150424_202106 Banana flavored sweets and tonkatsu sandwiches reign supreme. 
20150425_005757 These socks are fancier than my wedding dress was.

Since visiting Tokyo, shopping at Target has lost a lot of its charm. I wish I could go back tomorrow. 

The Great Noodle Tour: Tsukiji Fish Market

Now, let’s walk through the Tsukiji fish market. We took a guided tour, which is the only way to get into the market unless you wake up at like 3 am and go see the tuna auction. It’s so worth it to see this place. You need to shell out of a tour or wake up early – well, I’ll just let the photos speak for themselves.  20150422_193515 Everything in Tokyo is amazing.
20150422_193732 Tiny dried fish.  20150422_193805 The area around Tsukiji seems older, gentler, and more historical than most of uber-new Toyko.
20150422_193859 Fake sushi that I SO wish I bought! 20150422_193906 Fried shrimp crackers 20150422_193921 Freshly baked nori bread.  20150422_194003 Shuffling through the restaurants setting up outside the market.  20150422_194100 So many restaurants, all promising mouth-watering dishes of toro, uni, ikura, and every other luxury sushi bar item you can imagine. There are many sushi restaurants that have winding lines out the door, but that ain’t my style. If it’s yours, I hear that Sushi Dai is the place to go.  20150422_194112 A million stalls each selling one type of food. This one specializes in kimchi.  20150422_194424 Special tamago vendor. Don’t be afraid to accept the samples, everything is delicious and even this, an outdoor market, is impeccably clean.  20150422_194508 Whale sashimi
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Inside the inner market! Here is where the world’s premier fish is bought and sold. The entire place smells cleaner than your doctor’s waiting room – its unbelievable how non fishy it is. However, definitely wear boots and keep your hands to yourself. There are lots of live specimens splashing water everywhere and the place is filled with people running around with giant knives and driving tractor-like apparatuses. Follow your guide and walk quickly! 20150422_195243 Huge salmon fillets.  20150422_195305 Whelks? Some sort of shellfish that they don’t sell at Fairway.  20150422_195418 Octopus as far as the eye can see. 
20150422_195613 Like, a thousand varieties of fish in various forms of butchery, from still wriggling to just the sperm sacks. (Cod sperm…it’s a thing and it’s pretty good). 20150422_195829 Uni…glorious uni. Ranging in color from pale yellow to almost brown. From Hokkaido and everywhere else in Japan. Briny, creamy, salty, meaty. All incredibly fresh and incredibly well priced. I weep for the uni left behind.
20150422_195858 Uni not even out of its shell! 20150422_195927 Fresh crab, just picked and waiting for some rice…or a bread bowl and some butter. Weeping for this, too.  20150422_200110 Scallop shell!
20150422_200410 Big tuna
20150422_201018 But not the biggest they come. Those can fetch thousands upon thousands of dollars at the famous tuna auction. 
20150422_201318 Beautiful dried eel. Don’t you just want that over a bed of sweet and sticky sushi rice right now? 20150422_201656 Huge scallops, freed from their shells. 
20150422_202759 Ready made sushi for lunch.  20150422_202832 Because walking through the market is honestly exhausting.  20150422_203521 Hot corn soup anyone?  20150422_205740 HUGE scallops grilled with garlic and butter. I regret not eating this.
20150422_205931 Hello, fish.  20150422_210052 Tuna. Perfect, lean to super fatty tuna.  20150422_210158 Like a hot knife through butter.

Tsukiji was my number one experience this trip. Do NOT miss coming here. Walk around with a guide then go through the shops outside the market and buy lunch, a few ceramic souvenirs, and maybe come back later for dinner.

And…as Andrew Zimmern would say…”if it looks good, eat it!”

The Great Noodle Tour: Shabu Shabu and All That Jazz

This was one of our favorite experiences in Tokyo.

Shabu shabu. In English, this translates to “swish swish.” It consists of dipping raw meat, vegetables, and noodles into boiling hot water or broth. We went to the large, bustling Shabuzen for this experience.

20150424_062720 There are burners on the table and after you order, your server puts pots of water on the table until they start to simmer away.  20150424_063940 Two sauces – one bright and tangy, the other nutty and sesame-sweet. Both utterly delectable.
20150424_063954 Salad

Because in Japan there were shockingly few non-pickled veggies at our meals. This was VERY welcome.  20150424_064723 Premium beef

Yes it is expensive. And yes, it is worth it. Impossibly tender and rich, with a taste that is unmistakably beefy. It nearly falls apart in your mouth without chewing since it’s so tender. It doesn’t taste fatty or muddy, just incredibly satisfying and rich. It’s as close as I got to eating Wagyu or Kobe steak and it is sensational.  20150424_064746 A plethora of veggies – tofu, cabbage, mushrooms, bean threads, and a million other goodies. They don’t just taste good on their own, they also flavor the cooking water.  20150424_065024 Just drop the beef and veggies into the pot 20150424_065026 Swish swish till it’s cooked to your liking (for me, that’s just a few seconds), then dunk it into your sauce of choice (us smart kids mix the two), eat and enjoy. It’s so light and yet so delicious. Each ingredient is piping hot and tastes totally of itself – bright, earthy, meaty, vegetal…it’s just so fun and delish.

But don’t get too full!

Because when your platters are emptied… 20150424_072743 The server comes and brings fabulous noodles and rice cakes for you.  20150424_073026 The noodles are long and springy and the rice cakes are addictive – doughy and chewy. They soak up all of the flavor that the meat and veggies left in the pot. Its a comforting, delicious way to end the meal. You don’t want to be too full to enjoy.  20150424_080147 Shabuzen is the place to go if you have a large group and want a reservation. Or if you are dying to try some premium Japanese beef. Or if you have a big appetite and want to do all you can eat (your appetite would have to be huge…gargantuan).

Or if you just want an experienced that really can’t be mimicked elsewhere.

I reckon that anyone would love this place. Anyone I like, at least!

The Great Noodle Tour: Ginza Numazuko for Awesome Kaiten Sushi

Don’t worry, we ate plenty of sushi while in Japan.

In fact our first night there, we went to Ginza Numazuko for arguably the greatest value of the trip. 

Six of us ate until we could eat no more. Toro, uni, the sweetest shrimp imaginable…all for about $20 a person. Including some fabulous sake.

Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Sushi Numazuko is a kaiten sushi restaurant; a revolving sushi bar. 

In America, these places aren’t super popular and they definitely aren’t known for their freshness or sushi artistry.

In Japan, they certainly aren’t thought of as “high end” either, but in Japan there is no such thing as food that isn’t incredibly clean and fresh.

image (6) Our lovely server poured us sake the traditional Japanese way, into glass set inside a wooden box until the sake overflowed into the box. Once you were done drinking hte glass, you just drank out of the box. And then you got very tipsy on top of jet lag, which makes for very few pictures and an 8 pm bedtime. 

image (7) We sat at a counterside booth with a hot water spigot and green tea box to make fresh green tea throughout the meal. There is a large, rotating conveyor belt upon which the sushi chefs put plates of sushi as they are made. The plates are all color coded – as you take them off of the belt and eat them, you stack the plates and the server bills you at the end by counting the number and color of plates that you acquire. Tamago is obviously cheaper than uni, and so on and so forth. We did a mixture of ordering from our extremely friendly and English speaking server and taking plates off of the conveyor belt. The place is so busy and the chefs work at such a furious place that there is no risk of the sushi being too old.

image (9) Just about everything there was, for the price point, exceptional. Velvety toro. Sweet shrimp. Savory soy inari. They even served us some of the softest, mildest salmon belly I have ever had – such an American order. 
image (8) The uni isn’t as ethereal as it is at Tsukiji, but it’s still LEAGUES better than most of the really expensive stuff here. 

image (11) Before we knew it, we had built up QUITE the stack of plates. 
image (10) And, of course, left a major mess. 

Ginza Numazuko is PHENOMENAL. It’s casual, the food is wonderful, tons of Japanese people eat here, and the price is right. It’s open all day and ideal for a quick lunch or casual dinner. You can eat until you are stuffed for a very reasonable price, including some super tasty sake.

Somehow, I just haven’t been able to even look at supermarket sushi since I got home. It seems my standards have irreversibly risen. 

The Great Noodle Tour: Thai Food in Harajuku

Of course, it wasn’t all Japanese food in Japan.

After all, that cuisine seriously lacks heat and a gal needs to spice it up now and then.

That’s how we ended up eating Thai food for lunch – that, and it was the only place open after 40 minutes of walking.

20150422_002332 Chaiyaphum Thai Restaurant is at the top floor of a sketchy looking building. Well, as sketchy as it gets in Tokyo Which is still probably safer and cleaner than your yoga studio. When we were here, there seemed to be one server and one chef and everything was happening  verryyy sloowwwllyyyy.

Luckily, we were in great moods and the food is excellent.

20150422_004753 Thai BBQ chicken

always get this even if you don’t like chicken or BBQ sauce. This isn’t what you are thinking. This is burnished, smoky, charred chicken that is so juicy and tender within that it might be injected with butter.s It has a nutty, deep flavor that is accented by the sweet-hot chile sauce alongside.  20150422_004932 Spring rolls

Always get spring rolls, and DEF always get them here. They are so hot that they will scald your tongue if you don’t take care. Stuffed with bean threads and woodsy mushrooms, they are all salt, crisp, and sweet when dunked in the accompanying sauce. Dunk, eat, repeat.

20150422_005208 Satay

Always get chicken satay. This version is exemplary – satay can so often be tough and tasteless, relying entirely on saccharine peanut sauce. This is not that at all. This is juicy, fragrant chicken tenderly cooked until its still moist and served with wonderful peanut sauce. Spicy, salty, savory, sweet…everything. That peanut sauce is everything. The cukes alongside are lightly pickled, sweet, and refreshing, but that satay stands on its own. So does the peanut sauce.  20150422_005813 Pork Larb

The best version I have ever had, hands down. The balance of flavors is memorable. It’s spicy from chiles. Sweet with sugar and a little gritty from rice powder. Bright from limes. The pork tastes clean and the cabbage somehow cools the heat. Some larb is just spicy, too bland, lacking acid…this one sings on every tastebud. I can’t recommend it more.  20150422_013732 Coconut custard

That’s what they claimed it was. Really, it was just hot panna cotta. Ugh. Do not get.

But everything else was just delicious. If you are looking for a break from sushi and ramen, head here for some really tasty Thai food.

Then fall headfirst back into Japanese cuisine for dinner.

The Great Noodle Tour: The World’s Best Tonkatsu at Butagumi

When we wanted to get tonkatsu, I imagined that we would enjoy it at Maisen.

I was so, so wrong.

We ended up at Butagumi…and I have been praising the culinary G-ds ever since.

20150423_050723 Butagumi is a small, quirky restaurant located in a residential neighborhood near the now-chic Roppongi Hills complex. It’s actually an old house that was converted to a restaurant. And it’s pork-a-licious.  20150423_050730 That entire menu is chock full of pork that you can get tonkatsu style – lightly fried in panko breadcrumbs. All that they serve is pork. Many, many breeds of pork. Imported Iberico and Mangalitsa pork. Specially fatty Japanese pork. Especially lean pork. Sirloin which is fattier and tenderloin which tastes more purely porky. It’s pork heaven.  20150423_052023 Pickles

Not my favorite start to the meal the way that I thought it would be. A little bitter and a little too funky, even for me.  20150423_053435 Minced pork tonkatsu
20150423_053606 Now THIS is an appetizer. The chicken nugget of my dreams. An impossibly, thick, shaggy crust concealing the juiciest, porkiest patty I have ever enjoyed. It’s so sweet and juicy that I could eat this with honey and be totally satisfied. However, if you dip it in some of the accompanying thick and sweet tonkatsu sauce, you won’t be disappointed. Amazingly delicious.  20150423_060618 Cabbage

The classic tonkatsu accompaniment. Douse it with the addictive tangy vinegar at your table to cleanse your palate and allow for maximum pork consumption. This, plus rice and miso soup, are all unlimited during the course of your meal. I defy you to eat more than one bowl.  20150423_060623 Pickles for tonkatsu

Unlike their predecessors, very good. 
20150423_060742 The pork…the pork! We got several different cuts and each was a gem.  20150423_060816 The golden boar pork was my favorite since it is so fatty and rich. The fat melts like the fat at the bottom of a pan of meatloaf. Just golden, buttery, rich. Not at all bouncy or weird tasting.  20150423_061006 The tenderloin is no slouch either and was cooked until it as just barely rosy so it was still juicy. 

The biggest shock here is the taste of the meat. It isn’t at all robust or barnyard-y. It’s gentle and elegant – sweet, even. It would be perfectly at home at an elegant dinner party. How can this be peasant food?! 20150423_061313 The miso soup is just he best I’ve ever had. Chock full of flavor and these tiny, adorable, sweet clams.

Butagumi is a MUST VISIT in Tokyo. It’s up there for my favorite meal of the trip. The service is delighful, the surroundings are unique, and the food is fabulous.

You could really make a pig of yourself here. 

The Great Noodle Tour: Uni Donburi at Tsukiji Fish Market

If you are a foodie…or even a person, really…you need to visit Tsukiji when you go to Tokyo. It’s the world’s most famous fish market. We took a fabulous guided tour (for another post) and by the time we were done seeing gigantic tuna, live scallops, and eels wriggling around in buckets, it was time for lunch. Tsukiji has some of Tokyo’s freshest, most reasonably priced sushi, and though it may not be Jiro, it is pristine and fantastic.

20150422_233401 After winding our way through the alleys, kitchen shops, and multiple restaurants that surround the large fish market, we ended up climbing the stairs at just one of dozens of spots promising mouth-watering chirashi, sushi, and the like. We emerged into a beautiful, upscale restaurant that belied its humble exterior. It looks similar to Sushi Yasuda here in NYC – blonde wood, quiet, fastidious service, and a clientele that is almost entirely Japanese. There is a brief English menu and the servers, who aren’t necessarily fluent in English, are phenomenal at somehow delivering exactly what you want to eat. And what we wanted to eat was donburi, a classic Japanese dish of rice covered with various toppings. Katsu, vegetable curry, eggs, or – in our case – premium raw and cooked fish.  20150422_234703 Tuna, toro, uni, and ikura donburi

I’m crying looking at this. It is beyond merely delicious. It is perfect. Each fish compliments the other. The tuna is fatty but not overly so, to allow the buttery, delicate flavor of the toro to shine. The uni is creamy and SO mild, letting the almost fluorescent ikura handle the salty, briny component. There isn’t too much toro, since that would overtake the entire dish. The ikura itself is gently cured so it retains some brightness and isn’t at all bitter.

And that uni…YES. Hokkaido uni now reigns supreme even over Santa Barbara uni in my book. It’s really that sweet and clean tasting. Even the ginger is excellent, a nice palate cleanser in between bites of seafood.

20150422_234713 Tuna donburi

An embarrassment of riches. Similar to the above lunch, but this time with different cuts of tuna, each highlighting a different aspect of this impeccably fresh sashimi. The tekka is smooth and lean, with a mild, not metallic taste. There are no odd sinews or bloodlines as there are in other sashimi. The maguro is much fattier but it doesn’t taste fatty. It just tastes…lush. No other way to describe it. Not too rich, but certainly more full and deep than the tekka. Then the toro. That buttery, smooth, decadent toro that needs just a hint of fresh wasabi to make it a full flavor experience in one bite. This is excellent.  20150422_234723 Broiled seafood donburi

Salmon, red bream, scallops, Botan shrimp, and sea urchin. This is usually made with tuna but my mom is allergic to that and through a flurry of Google translate, rudimentary Japanese, and hand motions, the server somehow understood this and substituted salmon (which I think is what all Japanese people assume that Americans like to eat). It’s just amazing at what lengths the servers went to accommodate my mom. At one point, during the rather busy lunch rush, there were 3 servers bent over my mom, smiling, chattering in Japanese, and trying to figure out what she wanted. It was much appreciated and so amazing to see this level of service in the equivalent of a hole in the wall restaurant.  20150422_235025 Tsujiji Itadori Bekkan is a GEM. Lunch like this isn’t cheap – each bowl averaged between $18 and $25 – but the portions and quality of the food make it worth it. Big time. The surroundings are lovely, the service is fantastic, and the food is just what I dreamed it would be in Japan – simple. Fresh. Delicious.

Don’t worry, there’s lots more about Asia coming up next week!