I know it’s impossible to come up with just five experiences, considering I just spent 10 days devouring more ramen, sushi and kimchi than most people do in a year, but such are the limitations of this space, and the ridiculous Top 5 corner I’ve backed myself into. As the images swirl in my head, it’s pretty easy to come up with my top 5. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Bo Ssam at Gung, in Seoul – I’m going heavy on Seoul to begin with, since I spent the final three days of the trip there, but also because the food was so remarkably vivid and flavorful. This bo ssam began with a massive piece of cooked pork belly, and arrived with all of the necessary condiments – pickled cabbage, kimchi, leeks, fresh garlic – to allow me to keep assembling little packages of eye-popping flavors and shove them into my mouth:
2. North Korean-style mandu (dumplings) at Gung, Seoul – These dumplings are made throughout the day in the restaurant’s front window, by a woman who deftly stuffs, seals and shapes each of them in just a few seconds. They’re boiled in a rich, beef stock and served with a mild dipping sauce based on soy and sesame. When you cut into them, you realize instantly these are not your typical potstickers. There are oceans of cabbage and mung bean, enhanced by fatty pork and onion. This is Korean dumpling soup at its finest, and I could have easily polished off the entire bowl, had I not been making so much bo ssam for myself:
3. Takashimaya’s basement (depachika) food court – Nearly every Japanese department store has a basement filled with food. They’re kind of a cross between a deli, fish market, liquor store and grab-and-go. But Takashimaya’s, in Shinjuku, near the train station, was particularly notable. My daughter spotted the onigiri, while I drooled over row upon row of delicate Japanese sweets, pickles and grilled fish. When you go, be sure to plan at least two hours here to peruse (and eat):
4. Sushi lunch at Dai Bekkan – This diminutive restaurant, about a 5 minute walk from Tsukiji Fish Market, was about as unassuming as they get, but I loved seeing a small line form at 11:30 a.m. when they open. Our guide, Shinji Sakamoto – a former fish buyer himself – served as translator and compadre, introducing us to the sushi chef and deciphered not only the fish appearing in the exquisite nigiri, but also pulled out his map to show us where it came from. The personal highlight was tasting my first-ever kinmedai, a rosy-hued fish with the most buttery, delicate flavor. I asked for seconds and the chef happily complied. I don’t think it was the sake talking, but I do feel like this was one of those lunches you talk about for years to come:
5. Dinner at Tempura Matsu in Kyoto – This dinner was one for the ages. Truly among my Top 3 of all-time, I couldn’t stop gushing about it via pics, Vine, Twitter and Facebook. It had that perfect combination of an out-of-the-way restaurant, manned by one family, serving dishes much as they have for the past several decades in ways that seems almost too simple, and yet are beguilingly complex and delicious. As long as I live, I’ll never forget the toro handrolls, the spiny lobster miso soup, the arc clams and seared baby squid over hot rocks; the delicate tempura vegetables and the homemade soba noodles. If you are ever anywhere near Kyoto, go see for yourself. Life-changing.
Now, of course, I’m kicking myself, because I’ve forgotten to mention the cold bibimbop with raw beef and ginko nuts in the Insa-dong area of Seoul; also the Kyoto-style okonomiyaki (pancake) doused in wispy, light bonito shavings. There’s also the toothsome ramen at Tokyo Tonkotsu, where they provide fresh garlic gloves and presses on every table, just in case you need to ramp up the flavors in your bowl, as well as the panko-encrusted pork cutlets (tonkatsu) covered in thinly-sliced cabbage and served with that crazy-good sweet sauce at Maisen. Who am I kidding? There’s no way in hell a person can come up with only five places or eating experiences that are memorable in these three cities. I better expand my list to 10 next year.
Incidentally, if you do plan on going to Tokyo, I would strongly advise you to contact Shinji and his wife, Yukari Sakamoto, who are excellent guides. Yukari grew up in Minnesota, and her English is perfect (her Japanese is also fluent). They know where to eat, whom to speak with and how to navigate the city. Contact via their blog: http://foodsaketokyo.wordpress.com/