Ding Tai Fung {China}

>>  Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I must sound like a broken record by now. And you must think I’m a bit cuckoo to be visiting seemingly every Din Tai Fung under the sun.

But haven’t I told you the story of how dumplings are the one food I would choose to eat if I could just eat one thing forever? Or how Din Tai Fung is one of my favorite restaurants in the world?

Is it that crazy to try to visit all the Din Tai Fungs in the world?

Don’t answer that.

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Yang's Fry Dumpling {Shanghai, China}

>>  Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Yang's Fry Dumpling
Have you ever had a “fry dumpling,” otherwise known as shen jian bao in Chinese?

Until I visited China, my only experience with this unique street snack was in Boston Chinese restaurants. The ones I had were usually normal big Chinese baos (pork filled steamed buns) pan fried so that they were a bit charred on the bottom. They tasted alright, but I never thought they were anything special.

Now I realize I just hadn't ever tried a real shen jian bao.

In Shanghai, after finishing two delicious steamer baskets full of xiao long baos (Chinese soup dumplings) from Jia Jia Tang Bao, we hopped across the street to sample the famous Yang’s Fry Dumplings (小杨生煎).

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Jia Jia Tang Bao {Shanghai, China}

>>  Monday, December 27, 2010

Jia Jia Tang Bao

Who has the best dumplings in Shanghai?

As you might know, dumplings, especially soup dumplings (xiao long bao), are a Shanghai specialty.

Bryan and I visited Shanghai for the first time this past September. Naturally, we eagerly sought out the best dumpling places in the city.

I soon found out that this is a highly contested issue (at least on English language forums), with the die hard Din Tai Fung fans on one side and loyal Jia Jia Tang Bao supporters on the other side.

Jia Jia Tang Bao fans usually deride Din Tai Fung for its obscenely priced dumplings (especially by China standards) and chi chi westernized atmosphere. Din Tai Fung fans maintain that the dumplings at Din Tai Fung are more sophisticated, better tasting, and overall higher quality.

Anyone who has been reading this blog for awhile will know that I am a HUGE fan of Din Tai Fung, a dumpling shop that originated from Taiwan. When I found out that Jia Jia Tang Bao was only a 10 minute walk from my hotel room, I knew I had to check it out.

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Merry Christmas!

>>  Saturday, December 25, 2010

Totoro Christmas
Merry Christmas everyone!

What did I do all day? Enjoyed a fantastic lunch full of all my favorite foods, including Bryan's mom's famous CHE pumpkin cakes, leftover dumplings from our delicious meal yesterday at Din Tai Fung, and several other fantastic homemade dishes.

I am loving the warm, California sunshine here.

Yes, we were so fortunate! We arrived the day after the California torrential rains stopped, and missed all the snowstorms back East. It looks like we might be flying back into yet another snowstorm though. (!)

Tonight, we enjoy a traditional Chinese hot pot, one of my favorite ways to celebrate Christmas dinner. Can't wait!

That's all I have, really. We conclude with some mouthwatering pictures of our lunch today. (Thanks Bryan's mom!!!)

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Holiday Baking Ideas!

>>  Thursday, December 23, 2010

Eating Hello Kitty
I've never spent a holiday in Boston. Ever since college, I've been flying somewhere for the holidays. For years I went straight home to Ohio every Christmas. More recently, Bryan and I shuttle between Ohio and California to visit the families on both sides.

This means that I have never been in my own kitchen during the holidays.

Could that explain why I hardly bake throughout the year?

OK, probably not. It could be a plethora of reasons. Maybe it's because Bryan doesn't really like sweets. Or perhaps it's because I don't have a stand mixer? Or . .  .

Alright, enough with the excuses. There's really no excuse!

Nevertheless, despite the fact that I don't bake frequently, I do have a few favorites that I make over and over again. These recipes are tried and true, and the results are crowd favorites. You can easily make any of these without huge "non-tiny kitchen friendly" appliances (ahem stand mixer).

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These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

>>  Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Photographing Food

I know it's a bit late to be drafting up a list of my favorite things, especially with Christmas being . . .  uhhh three days away? But I've been just a bit distracted with this thing that's been taking up, oh .  . the last four months of my life. So honestly, I haven't really had time to think about much else.

But never mind that, better late than never, right? 

Many, many people have asked me what camera I use in my food photography, especially at restaurants where the lighting is really dark.

There's one camera that I carry with me all the time. I swear, it's the ultimate food blogger's camera. It's got interchangeable lenses, great low light capabilities, and is small enough that I actually carry it with me everywhere I go.

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Project Food Blog Round 11: Thank You SO MUCH . . .

>>  Friday, December 17, 2010

I’m still in shock, I think.

Friday afternoon at 3PM EST Foodbuzz announced that Tiny Urban Kitchen had been crowned the winner of Project Food Blog.


Yes, I won!!!!!!!

I can’t believe it. Both of the other finalists, Marc from No Recipes and Angela from Oh She Glows, are such incredibly talented bloggers and put forth thoughtful, well-composed, and beautiful entries. I certainly don't envy the difficult jobs that the judges had!

What a crazy, tiring, but SUPER FUN ride it’s been, these last four months. I have loved the challenge of being pushed and stretched as a blogger in so many directions. As a goal-oriented person, I know it takes contests like these to force me out of my comfort zone to learn new skills, techniques, and dishes. Yes, it takes a TON of energy, but the end result is super satisfying. The best part? I’ve gained skills that will stay with me for life.

Please join me as I take you on a short “behind the scenes” peek at what was happening in the Tiny Urban Kitchen during each round of the competition.

Click here to continue ...

Ma! I'm on Radio! {WBUR}

>>  Thursday, December 16, 2010

Longfellow Bridge from Vegetables

Hi everyone! I'm so excited to announce that I'll be featured on WBUR (Boston Public Radio) this afternoon at around 3:30 PM!

I'll be talking about the animated vegetable Boston video that I made for Project Food Blog Round 10 along with thoughts about the contest and Tiny Urban Kitchen in general. I'll even be carving some vegetables live in the studio! Come check out this short article that was published a few days ago.

You can listen live streaming this afternoon at wbur.org or just dial in your radios to 90.9 FM. Or if you prefer, I will update this post with a link to the archived interview later on today. Link is up!

Holy Eggplant! Is that the Pru?
Article: Holy Eggplant! Is that the Pru?
Listen Now: Holy Eggplant! Is that the Pru?

Last day to vote!

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Voting for Project Food Blog Round 10 is Open!

>>  Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I absolutely, absolutely cannot believe this, but I am actually one of the remaining three bloggers in Project Food Blog. The competition has been insane, and I really didn't think I would ever ever make it this far.

Anyhow, for some crazy reason, I am now one of the three remaining.

For this last post, we were given free reign to do whatever we wanted. I really wanted to share about my home city of Boston, so of course, I decided to go about it in a sort of unusual way.

I built the city of Boston out of vegetables, and made a cute little stop motion animation about them. I also shared some of my favorite Boston restaurants, along with some recipes of dishes from these restaurants.

Finally, there is a surprise video at the end where I sort of sum up my impressions of this contest . . . again, in a very unusual way.

Voting opened Monday and will be open until Thursday. The final winner will be announced on Friday at 3:00PM EST

If you are so inclined, please check out the post and vote here.

Again, I can't thank you all enough for your support throughout this entire competition. I have loved reading every single comment, tweet, e-mail, vote, etc.

Thank you!!!

Click here to continue ...

Project Food Blog Round 10: Final Reflections

>>  Sunday, December 12, 2010

Voting is now open! To vote, click here.

So here we are.

Almost to the day, three months ago, hundreds of us embarked on this crazy journey to figure out who we were as food bloggers. Most of us would be challenged, stretched, (twisted! baked!) beyond what we ever thought we could accomplish. Through this entire time, there’s been laughter, disappointment, excitement, frustration, sleep deprivation, horribly messy kitchens, and expanding waistlines, no doubt.
But at the same time, there’s been tons of encouragement and support, long-lasting friendships that have formed, and the building of a real, true community. Not only that, we’ve all grown. Those of us that have gone through round after round after round, week after week after week, know first hand the insane amount of stamina that is required for a contest like this.

I can’t believe it’s almost over.

For this last post, I really wanted to reflect on this entire contest in general, and revisit what I had written in my first blog post, “Ready, Set, Blog!.” In that post, we had been asked, What defines your blog?” “Why should you be the next Food Blog Star?”

After much thought and self-reflection, I had come up with three key attributes that define Tiny Urban Kitchen.

  • Fearless Pursuit of Crazy, Ambitious, and Fun Ideas
  • A Deep Commitment and Passion for the Local Community
  • A Love of Food, Photography, and Friendship
 It’s been quite a journey since those young, naive days back in September, but I think those three attributes still stand.

* * * *

Throughout this contest I have shared many things with you. I’ve shared recipes from my Taiwanese heritage; I’ve told stories about grandmothers, both from my side of the family and Bryan’s side of the family; and I’ve described stories and dining experiences from my various travels around the world.

Yet here I am, sitting in my home city of Boston as I realize there is a wealth of amazing food experiences locally, none of which I’ve shared with you.

So let’s experience Boston, Tiny Urban Kitchen style.

I. Fearless Pursuit of Crazy, Ambitious, and Fun Ideas

Tiny Urban Kitchen Builds Boston

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

OK, neither was Boston, but when you’re building cities out of fresh produce, you have to build it, photograph it, and eat it within a day. Day old vegetable buildings don’t look or taste nearly as good.

Who am I? What defines this blog? I have always loved art and design, which is evidenced by the crazy bentos (and pizzas!) that I’ve made in the past. I love combining art with food in unusual ways. I also love vegetables, and could probably be a vegetarian were it not for my weakness for sushi.

I also love crazy, ambitious, and fun ideas, and will fearlessly pursue them with a passion.

Enter Project Food Blog Round 10 Part 1:

Boston Veggies Build Themselves A Skyline

Music by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons "Attribution 3.0"

Highlights Of Some Boston Landmarks

* Longfellow Bridge*

One of my favorite jogs (and one of the most beautiful jogs, in my opinion), is a loop that runs along the Charles River and crosses two bridges, one of which is the Longfellow Bridge, also known as the “Salt and Pepper Shaker Bridge.” The vegetable version is made out of daikon radish and carrots. I painstakingly carved out the individual bricks of the towers with a very sharp Japanese knife, and then layered the pieces in between large carrot slices.

*The MBTA*

Boston’s “red line” subway runs on this bridge, so I made little subway trains by carving red radishes to resemble the bi-layered look of the subway trains. The windows are made out of eggplant skins. My favorite part of traveling on the red line is when you cross the Long fellow Bridge. Not only is there an astounding view out the window, you also have a brief moment of cell phone reception!

*The Prudential Tower” and “101 Huntington Ave” (Also known as the “R2D2 Building”)

Known affectionately as “The Pru,” the lower levels of this building is one of the premier shopping areas on Boston. The Pru is covered with over a hundred green beans, lined up in a way to imitate the patterns on the actual building. The R2D2 Building sits right next to the Pru, and is made out of a handcarved eggplant.

*Fenway Park*

I never knew what it was like to live in a city with a national sports team until I moved to Boston. Even if you’re not a sports fan, you can’t avoid getting caught up in the excitement of the Boston Red Sox baseball team. I still remember 2004 when the Red Sox finally won the world series after 86 years of “the curse of the Bambino.”

The whole city was so tired but happy the day after each game in the playoffs as everyone stayed up late at night watching that magical run - this is how dedicated Bostonians are to their team! I’ve made Fenway Park, including the Green Monster, out of a cut out watermelon. The seats at Fenway are red, and the stadium is green, so I thought a watermelon would be the perfect fruit to represent the stadium.

Other Boston Landmarks Featured
Hancock Tower
Boston Common
Public Garden

II. A Deep Commitment and Passion for the Local Community
Where would a food nerd go in Boston?

I’ve lived here for over 15 years, and I have my own little list of favorite hidden (or not so hidden) favorites where I consistently bring out-of-town guests. Here are a few of my all time favorites. For those of you who can’t make it out to Boston, I’ve included some recipes below for how I cook some of my favorite Boston dishes from these restaurants.

1. A Moqueca at Muqueca
Muqueca is one of those little hole-in-the-wall family owned restaurants that everyone wishes they knew about. Unlike your typical Brazilian restaurant, which serve various cuts of meat in the form of a Brazilian Barbeque, Muqueca focuses on moquecas, a delicious Brazilian seafood soup cooked in a clay pot. Your choice of seafood is cooked with onions, garlic, tomatoes, and cilantro. No additional water is added, and thus the liquid in the "stew" is rich full of flavors from the vegetables and the seafood. Moquecas come mainly from two coastal Brazilian states: Bahia (Moqueca Bahiana) and Espírito Santo (Moqueca Capixaba).

All of the moquecas are made on the spot, so you have to wait around 15-20 minutes for your dish, but it’s sooo worth it. Though the ingredients are simple, the resulting combination of flavors is fantastic, and something I could eat over and over again.

2. Toro Truffle Maki at Oishii
Oishii Boston Maki Rolls
After my Round 9 post, more than one person asked me about my favorite sushi place in Boston. I would love to introduce you to my all time favorite sushi roll in my favorite sushi place in Boston.

This roll is decadently crazy, with toro (fatty tuna), caviar, and shaved truffle slices. At $25 a roll, this insane roll does not come cheap, nor should it, considering the ingredients.

Seriously though, everything at Oishii is well executed, so you won’t go wrong no matter what you order. But if you have a chance, definitely try this luxuriously delicious roll.

3. Grilled Octopus at Craigie on Main

Grilled Spanish Octopus from Craigie on Main

Craigie on Main has always been one of my favorite restaurants in Boston. Tony Maws (chef-owner) is a genius in the kitchen. He’s totally a farm-to-table type of guy, and it shows in his food. Not only are his ingredients superb, his dishes are consistently well executed, thoughtfully designed, and artfully plated. The food is fantastic, and I’ve never had a bad meal there.

The grilled Spanish octopus is one of my favorite dishes. The meat is juicy and succulent, while the outside is just slightly charred. Tony Maws’ version is made with grilled cipollini onions, fresh hearts of palm and lemon salad, spiced pumpkin purée.

I decided to try to make my own version of Tony Maws’ dish by using the sous vide technique. If you don’t have a sous vide machine, you can try baking the octopus at low temperature (around 200 °F) for several hours.

Grilled Octopus
Sous vide octopus leg in 1 tsp olive oil and salt and pepper at 190 °F for 5 hours. Remove purple skin and then grill over high heat until just charred. (I used a grill pan). Serve with pureed butternut squash soup, microgreens, chives, grilled cippolini onions and sliced palm hearts.

Home version of Spanish Grilled Octopus

The sous vide technique really brings out the tenderness of the octopus, which was soft and juicy. The octopus itself is already very flavorful, full of savory umami from the sea. The grilled onions and the butternut squash puree add a nice sweet counterbalance while the microgreens and palm hearts balance out the richness in a bright and crisp way.

4. Potage of Spring Dug Parsnips at Craigie on Main

Bryan and I enjoyed this parsnip soup at Craigie on Main during one of our anniversary dinners. That was the first time I had his amazingly simple spring-dug parsnip soup. This soup is super easy to make at home, and is a great way to use up those farm share parsnips! Tony Maws puts pork jowl croutons on top, but it tastes delicious without. Tony Maws has kindly shared his recipe on his website, so I will not reproduce it here.

5. Grape Nut Ice Cream at Toscanini’s
Tosci's Grape Nut Ice 

Grape Nut Ice Cream from Toscanini's

Toscanini’s is my all time favorite ice cream place in Boston. We used to have one on my college campus and I used to go there all the time (hello “freshman 15!”). Not only is the texture of Toscanini’s premium ice cream uniquely thick and doughy, the flavors at Toscanini’s are constantly changing and are always really, really interesting.

My all time favorite ice cream flavor is Grape Nut Ice Cream. I know it sounds weird, but the Grape Nuts soften considerably once they're mixed into the ice cream, and they give a wonderfully malty flavor to the ice cream.

Here a recipe to my own version of Grape Nut Ice Cream, which I love making at home in the summertime, or the wintertime, or . . well, anytime, for that matter.

Grape Nut Ice Cream
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups half and half
¾ cups sugar
4 egg yolks
¼ to ½ cups Grape Nuts Cereal

Day 1
Heat the half & half, heavy cream, and sugar in a pot on medium low heat until the sugar is dissolved. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks together. Slowly pour the egg yolk mixture into the hot cream mixture while continually stirring.

Heat the half & half, heavy cream, and sugar in a pot on medium low heat until the sugar is dissolved. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks together. Slowly pour the egg yolk mixture into the hot cream mixture while continually stirring.

Cook over medium heat until the mixture thickens slightly and coats the back of a spoon (~8-10 minutes). Optionally filter the cooked liquid and allow to cool overnight in the refrigerator.

Day 2
Pour the cream mixture into the ice cream maker and make ice cream according to the manufacturer's instructions. Halfway through the process, pour the Grape Nuts into the mixture. Freeze finished product for at least 4 hours but preferably overnight.

III. A Love of Food, Photography, and Friendship
As I reflect upon these crazy three months of sleep-deprived nights, disastrously messy kitchens, and nerve-wracking Friday afternoons, I wonder many things. Was it worth it? What did I learn about food? What did I learn about myself?

I have been challenged and pushed beyond what I ever thought I could do
In life, we tend to get comfortable and stick with things we know how to do. Sometimes, it takes a fierce competition to kick us out of our little comfort zones. Round after round, I found myself stretched, pulled, and twisted in ways far beyond my comfort zone. In each round, I continued to think outside the box, trying to “up” myself every round, even though I had already poured out what I thought was my “all” in each previous round.
Though at times it was painful, I have grown tremendously in so many ways. I never thought of myself as a baker, much less a pastry chef. Yet all of a sudden, I found myself learning to make thousand layer spiral mooncakes - by far not the easiest of Asian baked desserts! Similarly, I had absolutely no knowledge of video whatsoever, yet this competition pushed me to quickly learn and perfect (as much as I could in a week!) these valuable and important skills. Yes, there was a ton of stress at multiple points throughout these last few months. But was it worth it? Absolutely.

In the end, it’s all about the people
Back in Round 1, I described my discovery about how I was relational to the core.
I’ve kept on writing because of the people. I love sharing my ideas with others. I am relational at the core, and I love the interactions, conversations, and support I receive from my readers. I could have all the passion in the world about cooking, eating and photography. Yet without readers, I would have no motivation to write. I have made some amazing friends through this process. 
The support and encouragement of this food-loving community is beyond overwhelming, and I am continually surprised by the humility, grace, and love of the people I’ve met.

This is really what Project Food Blog is all about. Sure, it’s nice to have a big prize at the end to motivate everyone to participate. But what this contest really does is bring people together. We motivate each other to write, to challenge ourselves, to become better at what we do.

In that sense, we are all winners. Whether it be the new skills we have learned, the new friends we’ve made, or new insights we’ve gathered about ourselves, we have all gained something valuable, priceless, and that will stay with us forever.

Despite the sleep-deprived weekends and nerve-wracking Fridays, I will miss this in some ways. Now don’t get me wrong - I am beyond relieved finally to get my weekends back. However, in some ways I’ll miss the camaraderie of the contestants on twitter; I’ll miss the excitement of trying to figure what to do for my next round; and I’ll miss the challenge and energy-filled spirit that any competition brings.

Or maybe I don’t have to miss those things. I mean, after all, those same food bloggers are still around. And why not challenge myself continually by thinking of crazy, fearless, impossible but fun posts to write? It’s not like Tiny Urban Kitchen is going anywhere anytime soon.

Wait, didn’t I say I was fearless back in Round 1?

Fearless indeed.

"The Longest Time"
Written and Sung by Jennifer Che 
(with help from some great friends!)

Again, thanks so much for everything.

Previous Posts
Round 1: Ready, Set, Blog
Round 2: Kaddo Bourani
Round 3: A Luxury Interpretation of China
Round 4: Bah-Tzangs (Taiwanese Rice Dumplings)
Round 5: A Pizza Tour of My Travels
Round 6: A Taste of Autumn
Round 7: Hand Pulled Noodles
Round 8: An Unusual Take On Pumpkin
Round 9: Everything I learned About Sushi I Learned From My Mom ... and Kyubei
Round 10: Final Reflections

This is my entry for Project Food Blog Round 10 (!!!).  Thank you so much for all your support and encouragement throughout this entire competition. Voting opens Monday, December 13. Voting is now open! Click here to vote.

Click here to continue ...

White Alba Truffles

>>  Thursday, December 09, 2010

Last day to vote for Project Food Blog Round 9! To check out my entry & vote, click here.

I had an unusual meal last weekend. It was one of those exhausted semi-celebratory meals that you have after finishing something big. Granted, it wasn't like I had just taken the bar exam, or completed a thesis or anything like that. But it was still something that sucked up a lot of my time and energy. I had been slaving away the entire weekend writing my Project Food Blog Round 9 post, which I submitted just under the wire at 6PM EST.

Exhausted was I.

I'm so thankful for my dear friends, who came over (while I was busy typing away) and cooked for me (and Bryan). I did nothing for this meal except purchase the white alba truffle, which was actually available at our local Whole Foods for all of 10 hours before they were all snatched up.

Click here to continue ...

David Chang (Momofuku) Lecture

>>  Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Voting is still open for Project Food Blog Round 9! To check out my entry & vote, click here.

"I knew I should have eaten something . . ." I muttered to myself as I stepped into Lecture Hall D at the Science Center at Harvard University. The room was filled with a warm and inviting aroma, the savory umami of kombu and stock. My stomach growled in protest.

Why would a lecture hall smell like soup?

David Chang, from Momofuku, was giving the last lecture in the Science and Cooking Lecture Series at Harvard University. I had seen Wylie Dufresne's talk about meat glue several weeks back and loved it.

I couldn't wait to see what David Chang had in store for us.

Click here to continue ...

Voting for Project Food Blog Round 9 is Open!

>>  Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Jen playing with knives at Tsukiji Fish Market

Voting for Project Food Blog Round 9 (!!) is open! You can check out my entry and vote here. Voting ends this Thursday!

I cannot thank you all enough for your votes these last 8 rounds. I am continually surprised, touched, and overwhelmed by the love and support I have received throughout this entire competition.

The next round is tough - only three votes out of 12 contestants! So, whatever happens, it's been an incredible journey and I've grown so much as a food blogger because of it. No regrets!

This round I've written about one of my favorite restaurants in the world, one that I got to visit a few weeks ago when we went back to Japan. If you read my original Project Food Blog profile, I actually mention this place. :)

The following video is also in the post, but check it out as a little teaser to the entire review. :)

VIDEO - Tiny Urban Kitchen Goes to Kyubey
warning:  for those that are a wee bit squeamish, this video contains footage of live prawns having their heads removed by a sushi chef

All music in this video is royalty-free and composed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons "Attribution 3.0" 

Click here to continue ...

Project Food Blog Round 9: Everything I Learned About Sushi, I learned From My Mom...And Kyubey

>>  Sunday, December 05, 2010

Voting is now open! To vote, please click here.

Sushi is one of my favorite foods. I have eaten at many fine sushi restaurants across the US, ranging from Sushi Gen in L.A. to Oishii in Boston to Sushi Yasuda in New York. I have made sushi and sashimi at home many times. And, my mom owned a sushi catering business for years. In fact, I have always regarded myself as a connoisseur of the food.

That is, until I went to Japan.

Eating at Kyubey, one of Tokyo’s oldest and most highly regarded sushi restaurants, showed me that, actually, I didn’t know nuttin about eating sushi.

Founded in 1935, Kyubey is a high-end sushi restaurant tucked away in a non-descript back road in Japan’s ritzy Ginza district and just a 10-minute walk from Japan’s famous Tsukiji fish market. Yosuke Imada is the second generation chef-owner and has won numerous awards for his restaurant, including a Michelin star back in 2008. Kyubey is consistently listed as one of the best sushi restaurants in Tokyo.

I fell in love with Kyubey when I first visited the place in the spring of 2009. Just a couple weeks ago, Bryan and I had the privilege to go back again for a second visit!

Here are the top eight things I learned about sushi from eating at Kyubey:

1. Wasabi Goes on Fish and Is Not for Making Soy Sauce Paste
Whenever Bryan eats sushi, he always makes a thick wasabi paste. The paste has to be thick enough to coat heavily onto the fish so that he can experience “the rush” (as he calls it) when he eats each bite of sushi. Can you imagine his surprise, and maybe even disdain, when restaurants in Japan consistently omitted that familiar green blob from his sushi orders?

Thankfully, the warm and friendly folks at Kyubey helped us out in that arena.

The moment we entered the restaurant we felt like we were visiting someone's home. A warm chorus of Irrashaimase! (Welcome!) greeted us as a woman hung up our coats for us and quickly brought us some drinks. We ordered the omakase, giving our chef, Chef Takeshima-san, free reign to serve whatever he wanted. [see pictures of entire meal at the end of the post!]

Soon afterwards, Chef Takeshima-san handed us our first slice of sashimi. He then picked up a pair of chopsticks, picked up a dab of wasabi, curled the sashimi piece around it, and instructed us, “now dip in soy sauce.”
Wasabi is only for serving with sashimi and never for putting in soy sauce. Since sushi already has wasabi inside it, you aren’t supposed to add additional wasabi to it. In fact, many Japanese restaurants won’t even give you any--in contrast to the large dollops of wasabi that US sushi restaurants typically provide.

Eating wasabi this way definitely enhances the enjoyment of the quality of the sushi itself, if you’re eating high quality sushi like at Kyubey. Otherwise, Bryan still likes to use lots of wasabi paste.

2. Cooked Shrimp is Not Cheap Filler

Around Boston, many of the best sushi restaurants are located in the town of Brookline, which has a large Jewish population. In order to cater to the locals, these sushi restaurants in Brookline frequently have a “no shellfish” kosher option. Even though I am not Jewish, I always order “no shellfish” at these restaurants because, typically, “no shellfish” = “no dry, bland cooked shrimp nigiri.” I have never liked cooked shrimp nigiri and always regarded it as cheap filler food.

Trying cooked shrimp at Kyubey was truly a revelation. These prawns (kurama ebi) were incredibly sweet, with a tight firm texture that exploded into sweet juiciness when you bit into them. I never thought I would like shrimp, but there’s definitely no need to ask for “no shellfish” if I’m at Kyubey.

3. Freshness & Quality Make All The Difference (Duh!)
I have always disliked ikura (fish roe) for its weird texture and off-putting salty “mini-explosions” inside my mouth. Similarly, I hated uni (sea urchin) that I tried in the US because it was stinky and slimy.

Trying ikura and uni at Kyubey was like experiencing flavors I had never tasted before. Instead of being overly salty and off-putting, the tiny delicate balloons of roe popped in my mouth to release a subtle yet definitively clean umami taste of the ocean, tempered perfectly with a small sprinkling of lime zest. Similarly, the uni was sweet and creamy without a hint of fishy-ness. Freshness and quality had completely transformed the humble uni and ikura into masterpieces.

In fact, chef-owner Yosuke Imada is obsessed with freshness and quality. Kyubey serves over 40 types of fish at any one time, and only serves local, Japanese fish. There are no imports here. Being one of the biggest players in the fish market, Kyubey has access to some of the top picks at the fish market, and Imada makes sure he gets it. Case in point: at the beginning of the bluefin tuna season last year, Imada and another sushi owner jointly paid the highest price in 8 years for one bluefin tuna – 9.63 million yen ($116,000 USD using today’s rates). He ended up not even making a profit on that fish, yet he vowed he would do it again. If anyone was going to have the best fish in Tokyo, Imada wanted it to be Kyubey.

uni gunkan-maki

As an interesting side note, Kyubey actually invented the classic uni roll you see at restaurants today. Called gunkan-maki, which translate to warship roll, this vertical roll is filled with rice and topped with ikura or uni.

4. There is no Salmon In Japan
Salmon has always been my all-time favorite fish for eating raw. Imagine our utter shock and surprise when we realized that Kyubey (and other high end sushi restaurants in Tokyo) do not serve salmon! Salmon in Japan is imported, and since Kyubey only serves the freshest local fish from Tsukiji, you won’t find a sliver of salmon there.
It’s quite alright, really. At Kyubey I came to understand why the Japanese love tuna so much. The fresh toro, otoro, and chutoro (different grades of tuna belly) tasted like nothing I’d ever had before - soft and buttery, with a melt-in-your mouth richness that's really hard to describe. You just have to try it. The seared chutoro was especially phenomenal, as the light sear melted just a bit of the fat on the surface, enhancing the beautiful rich and buttery flavors even more.

Honestly, I didn’t miss salmon one bit.

5. Fresh Sometimes Means Live and Twitching

We were about halfway through our omakase when when noticed something jump on the plate in front of us. Chef Gouke-san quickly darted out his hand to cover what turned out to be live prawns on the plate. One nearly succeeded in its escape as it jumped off the plate, but Chef Gouke-san made sure that didn’t happen.

I turned to Bryan, my face a little green, “I don’t want to eat that.”

Suddenly, swiftly and in one quick, humane jerk, Chef Gouke-san twisted their heads off and removed the shells. Moments later, a perfectly formed kurama ebi nigiri was sitting in front of me.

Twitch Twitch

Was I imagining things? We stared intently at the piece in front of us. The flesh was still moving.

Twitch Twitch

I turned yet another shade of green.

“You have to eat it while it’s fresh.”

With my eyes closed, I quickly grabbed the sushi and stuffed the entire piece in my mouth. I chewed faster than I had ever chewed in entire my life, at the same time desperately trying to squash visions of "twitch twitch" in my mouth.

I’m sure that piece of ebi was the most delicious piece ever, but to be honest, I was a bit too stressed to enjoy that one.

Check out the video at the end of the post to see some twitch twitch action plus other footage of the above experience!

6. Yebisu is Sapporo’s Good Stuff
Sapporo is one of Bryan’s favorite Japanese beers, and he likes to order it when eating sushi. The first thing we did when we sat down at Kyubey was to order a “Sapporo.” The server nodded politely and then brought a “Yebisu” over.

“Sumimasen, but I ordered a Sapporo,” Bryan called out to the server, motioning for her to come back.

“Yebisu is Sapporo, but better, higher.” She explained as best she could. And, indeed it was.

Yebisu is Sapporo’s high-end beer, and we have never seen it in the US. It has a much maltier and more complex flavor while retaining all of the typical crispness of a Sapporo. If you order the Yebisu at Kyubey, you won’t go wrong.

7. This is Why Training to Become a Real Sushi Chef Takes So Many Years
When my mom decided to start catering sushi in Ohio on a whim, she spent a few days with this sushi guy to learn the ropes. Within a few weeks she was making and selling sushi to local supermarkets. When Bryan saw my mom doing this, he said, “if your mom can do that, how can it really take 7 years to become a sushi chef?”

Once you visit Kyubey, the answer is quite evident.

a) Rice

 I’ve heard that the first few years of being a sushi chef involves just learning how to make rice. Now that I’ve tried sushi at Kyubey, I can totally believe it. I have a new appreciation for the importance of rice texture when it comes to sushi. At Kyubey, the rice was slightly warm, had a perfect al dente texture, and, most importantly, you felt like you could taste each individual grain. I've never had such good rice in the the US before, and I was surprised at how much it enhanced the enjoyment of the sushi. The “training” chefs brought out new rice frequently in small batches, which meant we always had the freshest rice possible with every nigiri piece.

b) Knife skills are important.

Going to Kyubey is like getting front row seats to a show where you never know what to expect.

We were probably on our second course. I was busy taking photos of the fish and totally missed what happened next.

Chef Takeshima-san picked up his knife, paused, and winked at Bryan.

Whirl Whirl Whirl

The knife and the hand became one indistinguishable blur as Chef Takeshima-san’s hands whipped back and forth at lightning speed. Moments later, perfectly chopped leeks emerged from the whirlwind of knife activity.

Whoaaa!!!! came impressed gasps from around the room.

I glanced up, my face having been buried in the camera.

“You just missed it!” Bryan said. “Stop taking pictures and watch!” The curses of being a food blogger!

At the end of the meal, I begged Chef Takeshima-san to show once more the amazing leek cutting trick. Thankfully, he was kind enough to demonstrate it for me again!

Check out the video at the end of the post to see Chef Takeshima in action!

Besides just the knife cutting trick, which I’m sure is crowd pleaser, Chef Takeshima-san demonstrated impeccable skills throughout the night, everything from effortlessly peeling fish skins off to slicing paper thin daikon sheets with a knife.
Jen,  Chef Takeshima-san, and Bryan

8. Chefs control the flavors, not you
Although we had access to soy sauce and wasabi all night, almost every time we looked at Takeshima-san and asked, “soy sauce?” he would answer with a resounding “No!” (with a smile, of course).

At Kyubey, Chef Takeshima-san individually custom-tailored the flavors of each bite. Sometimes he would brush the fish with a bit of soy sauce while other times he just sprinkled a bit of sea salt. Lime was surprisingly featured often, either in zest form or juice. I actually loved the bright citrus-y notes that lime added to most of the sushi.

Is Kyubey Really the Best Sushi Place In Tokyo?
That's a tough call.

The quality of fish that you will get at any of these top sushi places is going to be very similar. They all go to the same fish market and bid on the same types of fish. The differences come down to knife skills, presentation, and creative interpretations of the fish.

Though it might be true that some of these other top sushi places (often opened by "graduates" who trained at Kyubey), have more exotic ingredients or more interesting preparations, the chefs at Kyubey are still often much more experienced, something that was clearly evidenced by their amazing knife skills.

photo from Sushi Kanesaka, one of the "graduates" of Kyubey

Mostly importantly, however, the people at Kyubey are really warm and friendly.  Kyubey serves a very international clientele and therefore all the sushi chefs speak reasonably good English. Takeshima-san was a riot, everything from winking at us before doing a cool knife trick to jokingly yelling at us for using soy sauce at the wrong times.

In the end, so much of the omakase experience is your interactions with the sushi chef. Many sushi chefs in Japan hardly speak a word of English, and will only take reservations in Japanese. Even if the food is amazing, you miss out on half the value of an omakase if you can't talk to the chef at all about the food you are eating.

In that regard, I do think Kyubey is one of the best choices for a foreigner to enjoy a true omakase experience. Even if you don't get a chance to try every new exotic sushi preparation, you will have an incredibly fun, informative, and awe-inspiring meal.

Us after our first meal ever at Kyubey in 2009

The Nitty Gritty Details
Kyubey is located in Ginza in Tokyo one street behind one of the main roads. We always looked for Toy Park as a landmark (near Shimbashi Station). It's on the street behind Toy Park.

Although Kyubey is actually a large restaurant with five stories, it doesn’t feel that large at all, since each floor is small in square footage. There is a hierarchy here, with the first floor (manned by Imada-san himself) reserved for regulars and important people. Of course, you can try reserving a spot there, but it will be much harder to get than a space at any of the other floors. Though we never made it to the coveted first floor, we totally enjoyed our space in the annex - a cozy sushi counter with two chefs serving just 8 people.

Prices are not cheap, with lunch prices starting at ¥4,000 ($48 USD) to omakase meals that go as high as ¥30,000 ($363 USD) a head. I still say it’s worth the money. Go during lunch, which is a fantastic deal considering how much dinner can cost.

I must warn you, though; you will never look at sushi the same way again. It’s really hard to eat ordinary sushi after coming back to the States. Typically, I think it’s awful, and it takes me months before I can have sushi again. I'm totally willing to take that hit though. It's sooooo worth it.

Us after our second meal at Kyubey in 2010

Link to English Menu
7-6, Ginza 8-chome, Chuo-ku,Tokyo
104-0061, Japan
Closed on Sundays
Tel: +81-3-3571-6523
Reservations Recommended

VIDEO - Tiny Urban Kitchen Goes to Kyubey
warning:  for those that are a wee bit squeamish, this video contains footage of live prawns having their heads removed by a sushi chef

All music in this video is royalty-free and composed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons "Attribution 3.0" 

Visual Progression of Our Omakase Meal 
(In chronological order)

Thank you so much for your support throughout this competition so far. I can't believe it, but I'm in Round 9!! This is my entry for Project Food Blog Round 9: You're the Critic,where we have been asked to review a restaurant. Voting opens Monday, December 6! Voting is now open! To vote, please click here.

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you can contact me at: jen[at]tinyurbankitchen[dot]com
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