Thursday, 3 August 2017

Nara, Osaka and our only duff meal in Japan

Tōdai-ji in Nara
We took a regional train to Nara from Kyoto, which was a bit of a crushing disappointment having solely zipped about on bullet trains up to that point.

Nara was the capital of Japan and in the 8th century and contains some pretty amazing gates and concentrated in Nara Park just a short walk from the train station. There are some reasonably tame deer wondering around the park too and I can't forget the modern park offices, the toilets of which I was very pleased to avail myself of not finding any other loos in the park!
Todai-ji close up
There is no doubt that there were some incredible sights in Nara, and if you were looking for a 'best of Japan's temples and shrines' day trip you'd struggle to do much better. I know it will make me sound incredibly uncultured, but I didn't feel as awed by Nara as I feel I should have been. It was probably a bit of fatigue of having already seen so many temples already and spending quite a few days on our feet.
15m high seated Buddha
Nara was also the location of our only duff meal in Japan. There seems to be nowhere to eat inside Nara Park. We walked to the nearest exit we could find, hoping to find a line of restaurants catering to all the tourists. Sadly there was nothing around and when we did find a café it was the only duff thing I ate during our entire holiday. Not bad considering.
Crazy statues inside the temple

Bells? Laterns? at Todaiji Nigatsudo
Rather than get the train back to Kyoto, we headed to Osaka for dinner, because with the Japan rail pass you can go a bit crazy.
When we arrived in Osaka we took the metro from the main station to the Donburi district to have a look at all of the lights. Needing some dinner we fell into our now customary routine of walking past perfectly good looking places and finding some reason to dismiss them, until we found ourselves in an izakaya, a Japanese pub.
Donburi II

We pulled up some seats at the bar, ordered a beer and selected some random bar snacks. All of which were absolutely excellent. I think the bar staff quite enjoyed having two gaijin in their bar too. I was really pleased that we'd had a good izakaya experience during our holiday.
Full we headed back to the main station in Osaka to catch the bullet train back to Kyoto. A train ride which ONLY TOOK SIXTEEN MINUTES. I know that the cities are practically one continuous conurbation, but which other country in the world could you travel 55km from city centre to city centre in sixteen minutes?
Back in Kyoto we had a quick explore of the amazing station building and then caught a bus back to our hotel. We jumped on the same number bus that we'd used the previous day and new went close to our ryokan, only for it to start heading in completely the opposite direction. Once we were sure it was just a minor detour we hoped off at a random stop, with another couple of westerners who had made the same mistake.

We walked through the darkened Kyoto fish markets, which in any country other than Japan would have felt mildly threatening, up to a main road where we were able to catch another bus back to our ryokan.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Hanging out in Gion and eating buckwheat noodles Arashiyama Yoshimura, Kyoto

Gion back streets
A quick photo blog of our day slowly drifting around the traditional houses in streets of Gion, along with a lot of other tourists. It was a pleasant and relaxing drift not really caring where we went (which led us to go down at least one dead end street).

For dinner we went to a recommendation from our ryokan, Arashiyama Yoshimura. It is a restaurant which specialising in making their own buckwheat noodles and was probably the smartest restaurant we went to while we were away. It was a bit of a tourist trap with a sprinkling of Japanese businessmen as well.
Five tiered pagoda in Gion

A garden in Gion


Cold soba noodles and tempura

Warm soba noodles

Ice cream dessert

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Fowl Mouths at Noak

Asparagus with hollandaise and wild garlic bombs
I was really pleased to be able to try the recent Fowl Mouths residency at Noak in Brockley, going twice while they were open. The first visit was on my birthday with Ed and the second trip was with Becks on the last night of their extended run.
Togarashi Crispy Squid 
There was a lot to like, with the kitchen working quietly and efficiently to produce some beautifully plated food.  From my first visit the chargrilled asparagus with hollandaise sauce and wild garlic bombs was definitely one of the standouts with the wild garlic pods provided a real hit. I also remember the chargrilled broccoli with ponzu from my second visit being almost as good.
Miso aubergine

The Togarashi crispy squid was an exciting roulette with the some pieces of squid more well coated in the seven spice blend than others. Ed and I also both enjoyed the side of kara-age chicken, which brought back memories of eating the same thing in Hiroshima station after jumping off the Shinkansen from Miyajima.
Side of kara-age chicken
Both dinners could have been elevated to one of my highlights of the year, but were sadly held back by a couple of dishes that didn't quite work so well. On each occasion the pork from the slow cooked pork belly was a little dry. The miso aubergine was beautifully cooked, but there was so much miso paste on top that it stuck to the roof of your mouth as you ate it. On the second visit when I ordered the vegetarian miso garlic mushrooms, the yolk of the crispy panko egg was over-cooked too.
Gojuchang beef ribs 
It may sound like I'm quibbling, but the disappointment when something potentially brilliant falls short, is somehow worse than just having an average meal. I will just whisper that the pricing felt a touch too high for the portion sizes as saying it out loud would make me sound like I'm being unnecessarily mean.
Slow cooked ginger and sake pork belly

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Palma Pintxos, Mallorca

Pintxos at Tast Union
We checked out a few restaurant options for the Saturday night of our trip to Palma, but with none of them appealing, we decided to do some bar hopping instead.

The first place that we visited was Tast Union. Grabbing some seats at the counter we were a little unsure of the etiquette, but the form seemed to be that you helped yourself to plates from the pintxos counter (that either came in single or double servings). We also ordered a couple of dishes from the tapas menu.
Prawn, whitebait and salmon
The pintxos at Tast Union were really, really, good. Not only did every plate look amazingly appealing but there were also so many tasty combinations of flavour in every single bite. I particularly remember the courgette, jamon and garlic mayo pintxos (photo below) and an anchovy and jamon number with basil oil.
Chorizo in cider and cured sheep's cheese
Slightly less successful than the pintxos, for me, were the tapas that we also ordered. The chorizo in cider wasn't a patch on the version from L'Oculto. I'm usually a big fan of manchego style cheeses, but here it was easy to be eclipsed by the pintxos.
Courgette, ham and garlic mayonaise
Realising that we were somewhere very good we had a couple of extra pintxos rather than moving in case we ended up somewhere disappointing.

Tast Union
Calle Unio, 2, 
07001 Palma, 
Illes Balears,

When we did finally tear ourselves away we crossed the road and headed up a small side street and straight into La 5a Puñeta, which was equally great but in a completely different way. Where Tast Union on the main drag was polished, this place felt a lot more like an authentic local bar that hadn't changed a bit in the last ten years,

The small restaurant was filled with families and young locals looking to get their pintxos hit. Plates of food were brought out from the kitchen and placed on the bar. The crowds then descended to help themselves and if you didn't get in quick you were likely to miss out!
I remember trying the tortilla from the photo above which was really salty, but it worked very well.

Payment seemed to almost be on a honesty system where you went up to the counter on your way out of the bar and showed them the number of cocktail sticks that you had and told them how many glasses of wine that you'd drunk. Proving that honesty system do work when I realised I couldn't have paid enough, in my faltering Spanish I asked them if they'd charged us for the carrot cake (which they hadn't).
Carrot cake
I was pretty surprised both places charged the same for their pintxos at 1.75 EUR a pop. They are absolutely both worth a try. Tast Union won on presentation and just edged the flavour combinations for me. La 5a Puñeta wins on atmosphere and the fun factor.

La 5a Puñeta
Carrer de les Caputxines, 3
07003 Palma
Illes Balears

Monday, 29 May 2017

Hopping round Kyoto with a bus pass

Rock garden at the Daitoku-ji temple 
On our first full day in Tokyo we decided to purchase a one day bus pass, and coupled with our Japan rail pass, try and tick off as many of the major tourists sites as we could in a day.

Our first stop was the walled Daitoku-ji temple complex in the north of the city. There are twenty two temples inside the walls, with several open to the public to visit. All of the ones we saw had an entrance fee so we only went inside the Daisen-In zen garden. No photos are allowed inside the temple. It was a very tranquil and relaxing place and I have never seen such manicured gravel in all my life.  Surely they can't have placed all of those pieces of gravel individually. Surely?
The golden temple
It was then a second hop on the bus to get across to the far more popular golden temple, Kinkaku-ji. The ancient looking temple was actually rebuilt in 1955 having been burnt down by a novice monk five years earlier. The temple and lake were beautiful but it wasn't particularly tranquil with the crowds of tourists filing round with us.

In stark contrast to all of the other temples we visited there were hoards of stalls positioned so that you had to walk past them on the way into / out of the temple. They all felt quite out of place.

I'd been suffering with a streaming nose for a couple of days (pleasant image for you I'm sure) and as we walked past a pharmacy Becks convinced me that I should go in to buy a decongestant. Unfortunately the pharmacist didn't speak any English, and with Google translate letting me down, I attempted to act as having a cold with very little success. I was sold a nasal spray (Japanese pharmacies are expensive!) which I later discovered was a hay fever medicine. However, it had some positive effects even if it was a placebo.
Inside the bamboo garden
Our third stop of the day was one of the sites I was most looking forward to in Kyoto, the bamboo forest at Arashiyama having seen so many stunning photos of the place over the years. Sadly it was one of the most disappointing places we visited during our time in Japan. There was definitely a lot of bamboo but I saw none of the vistas that inspired me to visit in the first place.

Fushimi Inari-taisha
Our final stop of the day was Fushimi Inari-taisha. The main shrine was built in 1499, but the site is probably best known for the thousands of torii gates which line the paths on the mountain behind the main shrine.

I was already beginning to approach dusk as we arrived at the shrine so we didn't have long enough to explore the whole mountain and discover the inner shrine. However, we still managed to drift along quite a few of the walkways and up part of the hill.

Foxes (to can be seen in the photo above) are regarded as messengers and there were quite a few of them in and around the temple. Becks bought herself a small ceramic fox as we descended from the hill in the fading evening light. Sadly it got crushed in her bag on the flight home.
Torii gates

Dinner at Ootoya
For dinner we went to Ootoya, which is a chain of restaurants that we saw from time to time on our trip round Japan. It was a teishoku style restaurant meaning the food is served as set meals. I really liked the place as it was one of the view set meal places we visited during our stay and I think we picked a pretty good one to try. It was simple, clean and efficient and I was a happy boy with my katsu, rice, cabbage, pickles and mustard after a long day sightseeing without a lunch stop!

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Palma eats: three places to try

Ca'n Joan De S'aigo
Here are three places we discovered on our weekend in Mallorca that are worthy of a mention.

The first is Ca'n Joan De S'aigo. We stumbled on this café on our first afternoon in Mallorca as we were waiting to meet up with the host of our Air BnB apartment and returned three times during our stay.

Open since 1700 this place has gone through the phase of looking faded and has come out as a classic with tiled floors, marble tables and some interesting pots and mirrors dotted around the place.
On our second visit we all tried the ensaimada, a traditional Mallorcan pastry made with an enriched dough. The pastry has a layered quality like filo but was much softer and less brittle. I've seen some recipes say that ensaimada are made with pork lard, but I never would have guessed based on the taste.

On our third and final visit I had a cup of the strawberry ice cream. Incredible value at just over 2 EUR this was the taste of summer with a beautiful strawberry flavour. Having seen other tables try the ice cream I'm definitely pleased that I got to sample some before leaving Palma.
Strawberry ice cream 

Ca'n Joan De S'aigo
Carrer Can Sanç, 10, 
07001 Palma, 
Illes Balears

Jamon y queso
On our first night we visited the nearby Molto Barra and were the first people through the doors as they raised the shutters at 19:30.

We ordered a bottle of Mallorcan red wine. We thought we should try a local wine and the barman commended us on our choice saying that Mallorcan wine has been going through a bit of a resurgence recently.

I was keen for my first taste of jamon so we ordered a plate of jamon y queso. What appeared was a plate of thick sliced Serrano ham, a sheep's cheese similar to manchego, toast rubbed with garlic and then covered in fresh tomato, olives and a few pickles. It was bloody brilliant and it only cost 9 EUR. I still think that must be a mistake, but as it was an off-menu item we've got no idea what it should have cost.
A Punt, Mallorcan Red
Molto Barra 
Carrer del Pes de la Farina, 12,
07001 Palma,
Illes Balears

Mike and Ed outside Mercado Gastronómico San Juan
On our Sunday stroll north of the city centre we found ourselves at the Mercado Gastronómico San Juan. The former abattoir which has been converted into a cinema, supermarket and upmarket food court.

(I was a bit surprised at how upmarket the place was. The prices were higher than several restaurants we'd visited in the centre of the city and while not being in a bad area, it wasn't the most well heeled either. However, it was definitely popular with the locals who arrived en masse to enjoy Sunday lunch.)
Inside the mercado
I started with a chorizo tortilla which came with a skewer of padron peppers on top. Padron peppers were a staple tapa when Becks and I were in Madrid and Seville so I was pleased to be able to taste some on this trip too.

The tortilla wasn't quite filling enough, and tempted by lots of people with boards of croquetas y rebozados I decided to order six to try. My Spanish isn't the greatest so my selections were a bit of a shot in the dark but I went for flavours I recognised as 'cheese', 'chorizo' and 'squid'. The tastes were a bit 'acquired' for me but the locals seemed to be hoovering them up.
Mercado Gastronómico San Juan
Carrer de l'Emperadriu Eugènia, 6,
07010 Palma,
Illes Balears

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Curry noodles, somewhere in the Gion backstreets, Kyoto, Japan

Dinner on our first night in Kyoto was on of my favourite meals during our two weeks in Japan last year.

Before we went on holiday Becks bought me a copy of Rice, Noodle, Fish, a book about the food culture and unique dining experiences of Japan. One of my memories from the book is the stories of small restaurants run by individuals striving to be the best they they can. They frequently only serve one dish and spend their careers perfecting their craft.

Dinner that night in Kyoto felt like one of those places.
The small restaurant only sat 8-10 people along a single counter and was run by a friendly man who took our order, served us drinks and most importantly cooked for us. He only cooked two things, noodles and tempura.

I ordered the curried udon noodles. The handmade noodles still had a touch of bite and the curry sauce was the perfect consistency to coat them on their way into my mouth! I really enjoyed the balance and subtly of the curry sauce.

Becks ordered the aubergine noodles which slightly to my surprise came served as a whole deep fried aubergine. Everything came served in some beautiful hand made pottery.
While we were eating a few locals popped in and out for a bowl of noodles. Another person bought in a friend to watch them eat a bowl of noodles. I couldn't understand what they were saying, but I got the impression that they were getting their friend to try a favourite place.

More than just the food that night, which was good, it felt like we'd had a cultural experience and were starting to get under the skin of Japan a tiny bit.