Kozue, The Peak Lounge, and the New York Bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, Japan

Disclaimer: In exchange for meals and drinks at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan, I am writing this review.

Although I had known about the Shinjuku Park Tower before, I have to make two confessions.  One, I used to think that the whole building was the Park Hyatt Tokyo (it’s also an office building; the hotel occupies the 39th to the 52nd floors, but I reckon if it did occupy the whole tower exclusivity would be diluted).  Two, it was precisely because of the 2003 movie Lost in Translation that I was drawn to it.

As I already had accommodations for the night, I arranged with the kind, upbeat and patient PR manager to sample lunch at Kozue, the Park Hyatt Tokyo’s signature Japanese restaurant, as well as to have cocktails later on at the New York Bar, where just a few of the many memorable scenes from Lost in Translation were filmed.

Earlier that day I had just come from Kyoto, thus I was carrying all of my luggage.  To my surprise, the Park Hyatt Tokyo offered to look after my bags for the day.  It was a much appreciated gesture!

For those Japanese language buffs, Kozue (梢・こずえ) means “the tip of a tree branch.”  Indeed, the name might make one conjure up a tranquil and natural setting, even amidst the endless urban jungle that is Tokyo. Kozue’s decor is clean and minimalist, and augmented by western exposures of the Tokyo metro area.

Formal Japanese cuisine is lauded for its seasonality, presentation, and freshness of its ingredients…but you probably already knew that.  Undoubtedly, it is for those reasons that I wanted to try Kozue.  Who knew what the chef de cuisine would be serving?  (Unless you cheated and previewed the menu online.  On that note, the Kozue online beverages menu should be changed from “Sake/Wine” to “Beverages,” because it also includes non-alcoholic choices.)

To start, I chose the herbal tea tincture called Sei, which contained pu’er, kumazasa (Veitch’s bamboo), hatomugi (Job’s tears), perilla (shiso/beefsteak plant), red rose, and dandelion (known in Japanese as tampopo, which is also the title of another of my favorite movies):

The tea concoction was delicious, and had a good mix of sour, bitter, and fruity flavors.  It was recommended to me by my waitress, though all waitstaff appeared equally eager to help.

For the meal, the “En” bento – in spite of having the same contents as the “Kozue” bento – was suggested to me by the Park Hyatt Tokyo PR rep., in part because of how it is served.  Prior to eating the bento, there was a small appetizer:

The upper dish is called suimono (吸い物・すいもの), which refers to a clear broth soup, this time with a short neck clam fish cake, and Japanese pepper tree leaf buds.  The lower dish was a prime example of how the seasons affect Japanese cooking.  It’s a firefly squid (蛍 烏賊・ほたるいか・hotaru ika), which comes into prominence between March and June.  Firefly squid are quite unusual in that they’re bioluminescent—  they glow in the dark to attract prey.  Delicious stuff, and this time served with simmered taro and soy milk sauce.

On to the bento…

So that’s what she was saying about a nuanced decoration…if only it was made out of yuba (湯葉・ゆば), or tofu skin.

They tricked me!  I thought it was going to be one box, but the containers stack up.
My explanation of each dish won’t do this justice, so I’ll leave a cheat sheet here:

My main complaint with any Japanese set meal is that they’re never filling enough…perhaps I should have ordered another?  But then, the point isn’t to incapacitate yourself for the rest of the day.  It’s to appreciate the delicate nature of each item, to introduce to your taste buds a diversity of flavors and textures, and in my perpetual case, to learn about ingredients that may be completely unknown/incapable of being imported to my hometown.

In the case of En, there were clear winners.  The scallops were brilliantly prepared, as were the sashimi set and the eggs.  I tend to think that Japanese food errs on the salty/umami side, but many of the items in the bento were lacking in that department.  Still, on the whole I liked En, and on that note enjoyed sampling various seafood and vegetables cooked in ways to which I’m not accustomed.

Much to my surprise – in spite of it being clearly noted on the original Kozue menu – the bento included a dessert and tea/coffee at The Peak Lounge, the popular spot that you first encounter when you alight the elevator at the Park Hyatt Tokyo.

Looking east/southeast from The Peak Lounge

The Peak Lounge is a busy, afternoon tea spot with a bar and full menu becoming available later on in the day, too. To me, it looked rather drab (but still quite orderly), but the views more than made up for it.  On an overcast day, though…

Never mind that, I’ve got an espresso with a mango cake and coconut ice cream to down!

You may not think of Japan when it comes to Western desserts – save for Kit Kats and Pocky – but once you try some of the tarts, croissants, and kouign amann at random bakeries throughout the country, you’ll be thoroughly convinced.  And overweight.

The main course at dusk was the 52nd-floor New York Bar, where the characters played by Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray exchange glances for the second time.  It adjoins one of the more well-regarded restaurants in Tokyo, the New York Grill (maybe I’ll try you next time), and has sweeping views of the megalopolis, and if you’re lucky, Mt. Fuji:

Both the Shinjuku Park Tower and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (the twins in the middle) were designed by Tange Kenzou.

You may say “you should have ordered a Hibiki Suntory whiskey like Bill Murray,” but you probably won’t.  Besides, why would I want such a monochromatic drink when I’ve got choices such as these:

Instead, I opted for the L.I.T. (know what that stands for by now?), which had sake, cherry blossom liquor, peachtree, and cranberry juice:

OK, so the color is off-putting, but the ingredients didn’t try to hide the fact that it would be that shade.  All drinks come with snacks, better known as otsumami (お摘み); in this case, I had smoked edamame and peanuts.

As pleasing as that cocktail was, I wanted to try something else.  But first, a look around the iconic New York Bar:

I walked through the bar to the New York Grill, which also has an open kitchen.  The mood of the bar was spirited and relaxed, but I really couldn’t get enough of the views.  Rather liked the art work on both sides of the bar, too. Be aware, however that the bar levies a cover charge during certain weekend hours.

The New York Bar/Grill felt like a “power” meeting spot, somewhere deals are made on a daily basis.  What does that mean?  I have to go back there some time, to make a deal.

Though I may have been feeling a bit woozy by that point, it was time to explore the drinks menu again.  For my second cocktail, I went with the “Monkey 52,” which had Monkey 47 gin, elderflower syrup, and lime and cucumber juice:

Apologies for the extreme close-up of the Monkey 52 (must’ve been feeling slightly tipsy by then).  Whoever their mixologist is should continue the good work (both on creating quality drink, and consequently on liberating patrons’ imaginations from reality).

Thanks to the PR management, I had a quality, appetizing, and photogenic day at the Park Hyatt Tokyo.  お疲れ様です!

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Event Review: The Village Voice’s Choice Eats

Disclaimer: In exchange for an event review, I was offered one press ticket.

c/o The Village Voice

On May 19th, 2017, the Metropolitan Pavilion (125 W 18th St. between 6th and 7th Avenues) Manhattan, New York played host to The Village Voice’s Choice EatsThe Village Voice, established in 1955 in Greenwich Village as a source for alternative news, has held The Village Voice’s Choice Eats festival every year since 1998; restaurant critics have selected one dish each from around fifty eateries throughout New York City for attendees to sample.  “VIP” and press patrons were admitted about an hour before everyone else.  Lastly, sponsors this year included the Japanese beer company Asahi, and coffee cold-brewers STōK.

Although the layout of the The Village Voice’s Choice Eats was generally fine, and the setting at the Metropolitan Pavilion not too claustrophobic, it wasn’t without its issues.  There weren’t enough standing tables at which to enjoy the food (indeed, it seemed as if there was a lot of empty space, ostensibly to preempt overcrowding), and once the standard ticket-holders started pouring in, lines started becoming predictably ridiculous, often getting in the way of lines at other booths.  I did appreciate that plenty of water was available, courtesy of Polar.

Jumping right into the main event, the food was mostly underwhelming.  Yes, The Village Voice’s Choice Eats is known for offering a wide array of cuisines and dishes to try.  That’s a good thing.  However, there were more misses than hits; unlike previous posts, I’ll only specify what I thought were the better options of the night:

Before checking out any of the booths at The Village Voice’s Choice Eats, I knew that Untamed Sandwiches would be one of two safe bets (more on the second later).  Having been introduced to them on a Midtown West food tour two years ago, I figured that their beef meatball with black garlic butter and whipped goat cheese sandwich would be nice…and it was.  Too bad they were limited to one dish, as they’ve got good cookies, too.

To the left, Obicà mozzarella with truffles, and panna cotta with passion fruit.  I would’ve been set with the Untamed sandwich and the panna cotta, but no, the latter wasn’t the other safe bet of the night.  Keep trying.

OK, I’m cheating here a bit.  This seafood appetizer was lackluster, but I was admiring the chapulines – grasshoppers – in the background.  I hear United will start serving them in coach next year.

Sigmund’s Pretzels had a churro version with melted chocolate on the side.  Mmm.  Though, I can’t say their feta olive pretzel was even worthy of one “m.”

Nom Wah had jellyfish salad with peanuts.  Although this was borderline sweet – I typically only like sweets once the meal is over – it was also umami, pleasantly crunchy, and most importantly, edible.  As you may come to notice, more desserts won me over than savory bites.

But, Horchata’s elote, or corn with chipotle mayo, cotija cheese, chile de árbol was a rare bright spot.

Originally established inside of a car wash near the Intrepid museum, Underwest Donuts contributed a couple of flavors that night.  I chose the halvah, because lately I have been craving sesame.  It was rather sweet, unsurprisingly, but still did the essence of halvah some justice.

We’ve finally reached the other safe bet, also known as Ample Hills Creamery.  Their presence has been expanding through NYC over the past couple of years.  Scales, be damned.  That night, they were offering Ooey Gooey Butter Cake and Chocolate Milk & Cookies.  If they only had a third, peanut buttery flavor (allergies, be damned), I’d have never left.

The Village Voice’s Choice Eats served up a few good meals last week.  Still, I hope that next year’s event will offer more in the way of tables, vegetarian options, and more non-alcoholic beverages.

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Restaurant Review: Ichicoro Ramen, Tampa, Florida, USA

Disclaimer: In exchange for a restaurant review, I sampled one dinner at Ichicoro Ramen.

Ironically, just 36 hours before my meal at Ichicoro Ramen, I had been in Japan.  Yet, I didn’t even have ramen…what was I thinking?  Ah, yes, eating vinegared rice with raw fish (what’s that combo called again?), and Okinawan donuts took priority.

I had made it to Ichicoro Ramen – which only opened at the end of October in 2015 – at around 6pm, but the place, similar to its Birmingham, Alabama location, doesn’t take reservations.  Indeed, the casual, cozy and clean dining room was quite packed, so I was able to have a seat at the bar, right beside the open kitchen.  If you’re looking to draw comparisons, Ichicoro Ramen would feel most welcome in the Lower East Side or Williamsburg in New York, or Echo Park/Silver Lake in Los Angeles.  Or Paris.

Jo(h)n, one of the managers of Ichicoro, told me that he and a few colleagues originally started off in the f&b (food and beverage) industry in New York City, but came to the Tampa to try something different.  Perhaps the fact that co-owner Noel Cruz is from the Tampa area has something to do with it, or that the Seminole Heights neighborhood is one of the South’s up-and-coming food scenes.

Either way, I was curious to find out what Tampa-style ramen meant; were Cuban sandwiches going to be drowning in a tonkotsu – broth?  Would Florida orange juice bedaub every bowl?  The answer to both is a resounding NOT QUITE…

…but do expect to see a bit more spice and citrus influence in the ramen and snacks.  Vegetarian options are also available – and are seasonal – and the mixed drinks and local craft beers are also tempting. In rare form, I actually chose a beer, which came with an amusing surprise:

Looks like we’ve got fellow Final Fantasy VII enthusiasts at the helm!  Protomateria by the way, is a mash-up between Ichicoro Ramen and a local brewery.  Expect similar collaborations in the future.

Without hyperbole, I’d eat every single thing on Ichicoro Ramen’s menu.  In that Tampa heat, though?  Someone would need to forklift me back home.  Or Uber.  Availing of that latter option, I chose the miso ramen with citrus-grilled shrimp, and a side order of their delicious “homemade” hot sauce:

Miso ramen is a Sapporo, Japan specialty, with a fermented soybean-based broth.  It’s easily my favorite type of ramen, and often comes with butter, sweet corn, and a sesame grinder.  Ichicoro’s take may not have some of those extras, but they’ve got a number of others such as grilled shrimp, chicken, a poached egg, and spicy sauce.

The miso ramen was very good; it was creamy, well-balanced and had a generous amount of ingredients, but I can’t stop thinking about the inadequately-named spicy sauce. According to a couple of waiters, it contained Japanese ra yuu, spicy oil, yuzu essence, and an umami and piquant spice mix.  Whatever it was, I’d like to have it shipped to New York!

In short, Ichicoro Ramen was a worthy finish to my brief trip to Tampa.  The atmosphere was convivial, the waitstaff helpful, and the food was quality.  Check here for directions.

NB, follow this link if you’re curious about the definition of ichicoro.

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Hotel Review: Bay Harbor Hotel, Tampa, Florida, USA

Disclaimer: In exchange for a two-night stay with one breakfast, I am reviewing the Bay Harbor Hotel, in Tampa, Florida, USA.

I would like to start off this two-part look at the Tampa Bay area by thanking Cris of Visit Tampa Bay for her generosity, kindness, and time.  In spite of my hectic travel schedule prior to coming to Tampa, she came through in planning logistics with the utmost in professionalism.

My hotel for the hastened two-night stay in Tampa was the Bay Harbor Hotel, located within free shuttle range of Tampa International Airport.  The shuttle, which runs from roughly 6am to 11pm, will take guests anywhere within three miles of the hotel; additionally, for cruise passengers, they’ll help you arrange a third-party shuttle to the piers.

Bay Harbor Hotel Lobby

Check-in was not as smooth as I had hoped.  Paul, one of the front desk agents, mentioned that the previous night’s occupancy rate was 100%, therefore my room could not possibly be ready.  However, another front desk clerk, Mikaela (spelling might be incorrect), was much more proactive, and allowed me to check-in then and there.

I was surprised to learn that I was placed in the Nautical Junior Suite, a spacious and refreshed-looking room with a terrace overlooking Tampa Bay:

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Though the bed was quite comfortable, there were a few issues with the room.  Namely, although the bay view sounds like a treat, because it was very close to a Jersey Shore-type of restaurant called Whiskey Joe’s (you’re welcome for the unintended promotion), music blared from their subs every night.  The wifi only worked in half of the room, the tv was finicky, and the basin area in the bathroom was not terribly well-cleaned.  Moreover, when I woke up both mornings, I found a few fast food leaflets stuck in the door:

Except for the tv issues, the rest are all good reasons not to return to the Bay Harbor Tampa…or at least, to that side of the hotel.

Although my first day was mostly spent eating a grouper sandwich and attempt to recover from jet lag, given that the weather was quite stormy, it wasn’t exactly a beach day either. Still, the Bay Harbor Hotel has an outdoor pool, beach volleyball, relaxing chairs, and even jet skis to rent.  All pluses in my book.

Unfortunately, there are just a few uninspiring restaurants located close to the Bay Harbor Hotel; best advice would be to take the hotel shuttle, or to hire a car/car service.

However, since breakfast was included for one night, I walked over to the adjoining Beach restaurant to order one of everything on the menu.  OK, so that last bit didn’t happen, but I did order…

Monterey Hash, which had pepper jack cheese, bell peppers, onions, and a couple of eggs over easy.  Bland, to say the least.  It was just about on par with the…

waffle, which wasn’t even served hotel.  However, I have to give the Beach restaurant credit for a couple of things: 1) the staff was nice, and 2) the waffle condiments were served alongside the waffle, as opposed to on top of it.  It’s a major pet peeve of mine to see anything inedible – ehem, besides the plate and utensils – touching the food.  Have to admit, it was nice eating outside, too (though they also have indoor seating available).

It would be fair to say that I don’t plan on staying at the Bay Harbor Hotel again.  It was rough around the edges, is not too convenient to anything (besides the airport and a couple of malls), and didn’t always seem clean.  That said, there were a few pleasant staff members, and that shuttle bus certainly came in handy.

Stayed tuned for a whirlwind journey throughout urban Tampa next time!

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Truffle Cheesesteak at The Truffleist at Mad. Sq. Eats, New York

Previously, I met with Jimmy Kunz, the founder of Queens, New York-based The Truffleist at a March food service event.  Since then, they’ve asked me to try out their truffle cheesesteak at the seasonal Mad. Sq. Eats market – which coincidentally takes places across from Madison Square Park – in Manhattan.  Mad. Sq. Eats typically occurs between May and June, and is generally at capacity; fortunately, The Truffleists’s cheesesteak booth is quite close to the northern entrance of the market, at 25th Street.

I was slightly concerned that the truffle cheese would be overwhelming; fortunately, just the right amount was used to impart a truffle flavor.  The cheesesteak also had the expected caramelized onions, chopped beef, and crunchy hoagie hero bread, in addition to bell peppers.

Even though the service was a bit slow (before Jimmy got there), the customers in front were much worse.  If I could call ahead next time – and if I were regularly in the neighborhood – I’d totally want to try some of their other offerings, such as the goat cheese and truffle honey cheesesteak.  In case you were wondering – and if you also have lazy patrons in front of you -The Truffleist Mad. Sq. Eats outpost offers beer and mixed frozen drinks.

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Guest Post: Uji City, the Center of Tea Culture in Japan

Uji city is one of the most famous places in Japan when it comes to tea traditions. Mostly famous for Byodoin – the temple on the reverse side of the 10 yen coin – Uji is the perfect place to learn about tea cultivation and tea drinking traditions.

C/O Pinterest

The area around the city is one of the most renowned in all of Japan for growing green tea. From this crop, locals produce a number of fine teas like gyokuro, matcha or sencha.

For many people outside Japan the tradition of consuming tea is hard to understand. In the western world we mainly use tea for treating different health conditions. For this we use different plants and prepare concoctions like parsley tea, lemon balm tea or chamomile tea.

In Japan and especially in regions Uji life revolves around tea. Let’s see what Uji has to offer!

The best way to discover Uji is by visiting Ochagai Meguri festival. During this period the three main shopping streets in Uji are well decorated and welcome the customers with many discounts. Ujibashi-Dori, Byodoin-Omotesando and Uji Genji Town in Uji are the place to visit.

There are 51 different shops which sell many, many different blends of green tea. To make getting around easier, please visit this link.

Getting around should not take a long time as the town is pretty small. Take your time and savor the local cuisine and local green tea. Immerse yourself in the atmosphere and let your soul feel the real Japan.

Many restaurants have menus that revolve around matcha tea. The most popular dishes are soba noodles(photo below) , ice-cream and other sweets that contain matcha.

C/O Pinterest

What Not to Miss in Uji?

If you arrive in Uji at any other time than the festival, it is really indicated to visit Taihoan. This is a public tea house where tourists are offered the chance to take part to an authentic tea ceremony. The price is not too high and the experience will allow you to learn the correct tea ceremony etiquette.

Also, across the city you will find matcha workshops. Here you can learn how to grind matcha powder correctly and prepare traditional matcha tea. Most workshops allow participants to drink the tea that they prepare, which is really cool. Enjoying the fruits of your hard labor is very fulfilling.

C/O Pinterest

If you are really interested in Japanese culture and tea traditions, then Uji is the place to visit.

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Desserts: Indonesian Kolak

For me, there’s no shortage of delectable desserts in Indonesia.  They might include local fruit such as the starfruit, papaya, and salak, a combo dinner-dessert- for example, peanut sauce (bumbu kacang) for sate, or ketoprak, or traditional sweets like cucur and bika ambon.

Today’s topic, kolak, might be my favorite Indonesian dessert yet:

It is one of many dishes most popular during the month of Ramadan.  Consequently, it’s considered a tajil, or a snack consumed at iftar, which is the point at which one breaks the fast.

Though I tried the above version in Bandung, there are various types of kolak through Indonesia.  For the base, you’ll need coconut milk.  Knowing that, each time I eat kolak I’ll have to find a belt with an extra notch in it.  Palm sugar or coconut sugar, and if available, a sweet-smelling but uniquely pleasant pandanus leaf are also typical ingredients.  The pandanus leaf, also known as screw pine, lends its flavor to numerous Southeast Asian desserts.

From here on, I’m pretty sure kolak is a dumping ground for all sorts of fruits.  The one that I tried had sweet potatoes, bananas, and cassava with palm sugar, as well as a mystery item, which I believe is called kolang-kaling, or sugar palm fruit.  In all, kolak has great texture, a sneaky way to get vitamins (which might make it kid-friendly), and can be served either hot or cold…except that if you choose the latter, and your only option is street food, you might want to harvest your own ice.

Want some recipes?  Check out this one for English, and this for Indonesian.

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