tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:/posts Tuyen's Blog 2020-02-19T10:34:29Z Tuyen Vo tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1510553 2020-02-19T10:34:28Z 2020-02-19T10:34:29Z Amazing dinner at Rakuichi Soba In the No Reservations episode in Sapporo, Anthony Bourdain visits a soba shop where he sees a master chef hand making soba. I've been a huge fan of handmade soba ever since our early visits to Kyoto. From that day on, I have never enjoyed eating soba at any place in the States that wasn't handmade (shout out to Sobaichi in Oakland as the only place in the Bay Area I've found). Knowing we'd be in Hokkaido, I wanted to make the trek to the same soba shop from that episode and experience what Bourdain calls the best soba he's ever had.

It was about a 20 minute drive in the falling snow from our hotel and in a somewhat secluded area. Our taxi cab driver actually missed the entrance and had to make a U-turn. Once we pulled into the nondescript parking lot, the only thing that even tells us we're in the right place is a small sign next to a wooden framed gateway. Stepping through that gateway, we were instantly transported to a serene snow scape. Incredibly picturesque and beautiful with the light snow falling around us. Seriously a postcard moment.

Upon entering, we were warmly greeted by Midori-san, the wife of the chef and Emily-san, an ex-pat working at the restaurant. The space is simple and humble, like walking into someone's home (which I'm sure it once was). We felt instantly at ease and excited for the meal to come.

There's a simple drink menu and I was able to try both the imo sochu as well as the soba sochu which I tried both on the rocks and in the recommended style of mixed with the soba cooking water. My wife had some very nice Hokkaido sake, graciously poured and topped off by Midori-san. The tableware itself was beautifully crafted including the "place mats" which were Italian ceramic tile made to look like sheets of wood. The attention to detail was impressive.

We were treated to their kaiseki course menu with some minor alterations for my food allergies. We started with a very lightly seared salmon topped with fresh wasabi and sitting on a daikon slice with a piece of kombu kelp at the bottom. The tastes was superbly balanced and the contrasting textures made for an enjoyable bite. 

Next, was o-toro sashimi which needed no further additions save for wasabi, soy sauce, and a type of herb (sorry didn't remember the name) on the side that added crunch and a light clean flavor that cut through the fattiness. Quality of the fish was outstanding.

Our next dish was lightly smoked (or poached?) Hokkaido scallop topped with local uni, and fresh wasabi. The broth was a simple dashi that enhanced the sweetness of the scallop. I'm not an uni fan but this one was very good with a flavor that wasn't overpowering like the usual uni I've had. 

We follow with negitoro. As a huge fan of negi (Japanese green onion), I was blown away by how the crisp, sharp taste of the negi mixed with the raw tuna. Each ingredient was equally present yet the combination was even better. The yuzu peel and wasabi enhanced the flavor, creating a light accent to the strong flavors. 

We move on to the bonito and bonito dish. Lightly seared bonito is topped with shaved dry bonito flakes and more negi. There is a hint of ginger as well which adds another flavor profile to the two similar yet different versions of bonito. 

We then come to the hot portion of the meal which was shabu-shabu style Iberico ham. The dashi broth enhances the flavor of the ham when cooked and the light ponzu dip helps to cut through the meat. I tried cooking each slice at different degrees of doneness. The first I left in pretty long but the last couple were more rare. The ham is cut so thin that to get a nice medium rare, you only need to dunk it in for a few seconds. Each level of doneness brought out different flavors in the ham but it definitely was more flavorful on the rarer side. After all the slices were cooked, Midori-san said to add as much of the remaining ponzu as we wanted to the broth to make a flavorful soup. The rich broth warmed us up and was an excellent palate cleanser for the main course - tempura and soba. 

I, of course, could not have the ebi (shrimp) tempura so was given a couple of extra tempura veggies. My wife and daughter said the shrimp was perfectly cooked and was crispy on the outside yet warm/soft on the inside. I'll take their word for it.

We now come to the real star of the evening, the soba. Soba master Tatsura Rai is world renowned for his technique and skill in making soba. You can see a demonstration of his soba making skills from a symposium in Copenhagen narrated by another famous chef, René Redzepi. I can tell you that seeing it in person made it seem so simple yet unbelievably mesmerizing. The entire process takes a good amount of time so I've edited it down for your viewing pleasure below.

I was honored to see this in person and even happier to taste the results of his craft. I opted to have the seiro soba (100% buckwheat) served with a warm duck dipping sauce over the traditional cold dip. In hindsight, I should have been more bold and asked for an extra serving (which they would have gladly offered) so I could have tried both versions. Ragrets. The soba itself was easily the best soba I've ever had. I realize I've never actually ever known the real flavor of buckwheat since the soba tasted so different from every soba I've had in the past. Most soba is instant and even the few places that will hand make soba will mix in some regular wheat flour to make the dough easier to work with. Not Tatsura-san who chooses to do 100% buckwheat and has made it an art of how to work it properly to get the most flavor. The amount of noodles was not huge and I could picture myself eating 10 times the amount, happily asking for more. We ended the meal with a simple warabi mochi which happens to be one of my favorite Japanese desserts. Again, superbly made and different than most warabi mochis I've had in the past.

This was easily one of the best meals I've ever had in Japan (or anywhere else). Tony wasn't lying and it was bittersweet to see his autograph on the wall. Midori-san was beyond amazing and her care for us was truly felt. The way she made sure that my daughter was having a good time and enjoying the food warmed my heart. I could see myself returning to Hokkaido every year just to see them again. Perhaps during the summer when the menu will change and no doubt the experience will remain absolutely phenomenal.

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1510441 2020-02-17T10:49:07Z 2020-02-17T10:50:07Z Lots of Western food means more conbini store food for us

Niseko has a lot of foreign visitors (us included). What that means is that there is a fair amount of non-Japanese food throughout the town. There are a ton of western food spots like pizza, mexican food, etc. We even found a nearby "Off The Grid" style food truck area. Our breakfast at the hotel was pretty much San Francisco brunch fare with eggs benedict, avocado toast, etc. Nothing wrong with the flavor at all, just not what we came all the way to Japan to eat.

What that means is we've been spending a lot of time eating from the Seicomart, which is another conbini store similar to 7-11 or Lawson. Well prepared Japanese food both hot and cold that would rival any casual Japanese restaurant back in the States. And the prices can't be beat. About $5 for a huge fried chicken nanban over rice or a katsudon over rice. Made fresh daily too! We have probably dined from the conbini stores for more than half our meals here and without complaint.

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1509971 2020-02-16T01:40:08Z 2020-02-16T01:43:49Z Niseko and Izakaya Koharuya

Heading up to Niseko for some snow activities. It was a fairly easy 2 hour train ride from Sapporo to the mountains with some beautiful scenery on the way up including a stretch along the sea and some snowy landscapes.

After settling in, we decided to grab a casual dinner at one of the many local izakayas, Koharuya. It was oddly located in the middle of a residential part of the city surrounded by what seemed to be AirBNBs with many foreigners milling about. The building itself looked like a converted ski house with a small downstairs bar area and a loft upstairs with a few tables. The place itself was packed and energetic with a constant stream of diners coming in. 

Great drink menu. I got a great imo sochu (Akakirishima) and an awamori (Tama no tsuyu). The wife got a couple of Hokkaido sakes.

Plus a wide variety of food. We got a bunch of Hokkaido specials including venison, oysters, huge scallops cooked table side, and of course huge cuts of sashimi. There was even this weird Frankenstein sausage with a rib bone stuck in it and grilled. Not sure the rib added any flavor but it was definitely a nice visual.

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1509726 2020-02-15T09:53:26Z 2020-02-15T09:58:03Z Ibis Styles Breakfast and Ramen Alley Lunch

One benefit (?) of coming to Japan from the West Coast is that the jet lag will have you waking up super early which means you get to have more hours in the day to eat. Breakfast came with our room at the Ibis Styles Sapporo and though it is a budget hotel, the breakfast buffet was well made. In typical Japanese breakfast fashion, there were many small items for you to choose from including tamago, miso soup, soft scramble eggs, grilled fish, etc. I went back a couple times to get a bit of everything.

We had a few hours to kill before our train to Niseko so decided to take a walk through downtown Sapporo. The historical clock tower was a must visit as it's an iconic landmark of Sapporo. Another iconic spot is the famous Ramen Alley where Anthony Bourdain visited during his time in Sapporo. We opted to not eat at the same spot he did but instead chose another miso ramen joint a few doors down, Misogin. After ordering from a touch screen at the door, we gave our ticket to shop owner, and then took a seat at the bar. My daughter didn't want a full bowl of ramen so we got her fresh made gyozas that were blow torched then crispy fried leaving a nice "skin". I got the Miso Ramen Kiwami and my wife got the Miso Ramen Irodori. I'm usually not a miso ramen person (prefer tonkatsu) but this really hit the spot after walking through the snow. The egg was perfectly cooked, the noodles had the right amount of chew, and the broth was rich (even had a pat of butter!). Sad we only had a chance to have one bowl during our stay in Sapporo as the other shops looked great with some offering specialities like clam, abalone, and crab ramen. Something to put on the to-do list for next time.

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1509441 2020-02-14T13:57:51Z 2020-02-15T07:24:50Z Back in Japan for 2020 - Sapporo and Lawson

We’re back in Japan for 2020 and decided to head up north this time to see some snow. After an 11 hour flight to Tokyo, we hopped a domestic flight to Sapporo to spend the night before heading up to the mountains. Definitely much colder than Tokyo (which was unusually warm for this time of year) with snow lining all the streets.

We picked a budget hotel, Ibis Styles, which turned out much nicer than I expected. The bonus is that they have a Lawson connected to the lobby! 

Whether you are loyal to them or 7-11, you can’t go wrong eating from a cobini store. Besides having ATMs that accept foreign bank cards, they have very good food at very cheap prices. 

Case in point, we arrived at about 9pm and were too wiped out to go back out to dinner. We turned to Lawson for a quick, cheap, and pretty healthy late night meal of oden and onigiri. All you see below was less than $9 and was more than enough for us. I even got to choose my oden items - tofu, egg, fish ball, and daikon in a soul warming simple broth. Great end to a long day...


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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1381118 2019-03-15T22:14:38Z 2020-01-14T23:24:05Z Kurakura izakaya and Wako Isetan for tonkatsu

For our last dinner in Kyoto, we stopped by our favorite izakaya in the area, Kurakura. This is a favorite with locals and we were lucky to have a local friend join us for dinner. We started with a house appetizer of potato salad, stewed tuna, and black sesame tofu. We then moved on to eggplant stewed in dashi, little fish tempura, a healthy tuna salad with a tangy sesame dressing, fried renkon, large grilled squid, and grilled ayu (sweet fish). All simply prepared and delicious. For dessert, we were treated to homemade warabi mochi. If you ever get a chance to try this, do it! It's an amazing flavor that's not too sweet yet still quite satisfying as an end of meal dish.

The next day, we were getting ready for our shinkansen back to Tokyo and decided to grab lunch at Kyoto station. We had not yet enjoyed tonkatsu so wanted to have that. Our local friend recommended their reigning favorite, Katsukura at Kyoto station. However, we got lost amidst the rows of restaurants at The Cube mall attached to the station and ended up at another tonkatsu place, Wako Isetan, by mistake. Not a bad thing since it was really good! This place is super kid friendly with toys and candy for my daughter alongside a hearty kid's meal. I decided on the standard kurobuta (black pig) while my wife got a set that included tempura shrimp and clams. A great way to fill us up for the train ride back to Tokyo!

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1379382 2019-02-27T23:19:18Z 2019-02-27T23:19:18Z 7-11 Fast Food and Kyoto Station Curry Udon Mimikou

7-11 in Japan is an essential place for us. Not only does it provide free Wi-Fi but it also has ATMs that accept foreign debit cards. Most Japanese ATMs will not accept foreign debit cards so only those from 7-Bank (7-11's bank), the post office, or at some other convenience stores like Lawsons or Family Mart will work for us (though 7-11 ATMs are the only ones that are guaranteed to work). The other major benefit of 7-11 is the cheap and high quality food. Picture freshly made, high quality sandwiches, onigiri, and even oden (veggies, eggs, tofu, fishcakes, etc. cooked in dashi broth for hours). We got 3 onigiri and a container of oden for less than $5 which was a perfect quick breakfast for us. Our coffees from Starbucks were more expensive!

For lunch we went to Kyoto Station to have curry udon at Mimikou. Hearty and satisfying on a cold day. Plus they give you bibs which was necessary to slurp these noodles up without staining your shirt with curry sauce!

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1378212 2019-02-27T18:34:36Z 2020-01-14T23:23:39Z Komeda’s Coffee and whisky @ Yamazaki

Every time we’re in Kyoto, we make the quick train ride over to Yamazaki to buy whisky at the Suntory Distillery. For breakfast, we headed to our favorite coffee shop, Komeda’s Coffee, for some good strong coffee and the best egg salad sandwiches. New on the menu was a hearty tonkatsu sandwich which was crispy and juicy. The little one got her usual flaky pastry with soft serve on top, this time with strawberry sauce on top. Seems strawberries are in season!

With the popularity of Japanese whisky at an all time high, there are no longer good buys at the distillery itself. Aged whiskies are pretty much gone and the bottles that can be bought at the distillery can also be bought at most shops in Japan. Instead, the reason to go visit the distillery (besides the beautiful nature) is to drink some of the best whiskies in the world at extremely reasonable prices. Below is my line up of pours which ranged from a 12 Year Puncheon Cask (extremely good and can only be had at the distillery) to a 30 Year Hibiki. Prices ranged from as little as 300 yen (less than $3) to at most 2,900 yen (about $26). I've seen places in the states charge $15-$20 just for a pour of 12 Year Yamazaki so $26 for a pour from a $3,000+ bottle seems like a pretty good deal to me.

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1377498 2019-02-23T19:25:57Z 2019-02-23T19:25:57Z Kyoto and our traditional first meal at Sakuraya for soba

We are back in Kyoto and our first meal was with good friends at their neighborhood soba shop, Sakuraya. I look forward to this meal every year for the perfect nishin soba. There's something so comforting about that dish and I have yet to find anything that even comes close in the States. We rounded out the meal with dashi maki tamago (the best I've had any where), tempura soba, tonkatsu don with egg, and chicken karaage. Now I need to wait a whole year before I can have this great meal again...

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1377490 2019-02-23T19:13:44Z 2019-02-23T19:25:07Z 2nd Kaiseki Dinner @ Nishimuraya Hotel Shogetsutei

After our first night's dinner, our server asked if we wanted a similar crab/beef dinner for the next evening and we decided to forego that. We figured there would be similar dishes with some of the crab/beef dishes swapped out. To our delight, we were treated to a completely different menu with no repeats of the night before. My daughter's meal was also varied to include nigiri sushi, different sashimi, and a sizzling beef plate.

Our meal started with a lovely set of mini bites which included a playful little face made from mochi. We next got a dish wrapped in a plastic bag which turned out to be a chawanmushi egg custard. This was followed by a sashimi course with completely different fish from the night before.

Moving on to hot dishes, we had a steamed beef dish cooked on a large leaf which imparted a nice charcoal flavor. However, it was the next hot dish that surprised us. We were each given a live Japanese abalone which we grilled over charcoal. It was a pretty decadent dish and I felt a little bad since I'm not a huge abalone fan. Still, it was definitely an experience to behold and eating a whole abalone with its liver was definitely a treat. 

Our final two hot dishes was a very nice grilled salmon with crispy skin and a steamed white fish in dashi. Both flavorful and a nice contrast from each other. We rounded out the savory portion of the evening with a pot of rice cooked with fish for me and little shrimp for the wife. This went nicely with a hearty red miso soup and pickles.

Our dessert was just simple seasonal fruit with a strawberry sauce. They even had a nice little gift for my daughter! A really great meal served impeccably with care and attention.

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1376550 2019-02-21T05:43:59Z 2019-02-21T05:44:01Z Walking Kinosaki and cooking an onsen tamago

One of the charms of Kinosaki is transporting yourself back in time by walking the town in your yukata and geta. Most hotels will provide guests with a full ensemble and it's pretty cool to see everybody walk the streets in their traditional wardrobe. Of course, when in Rome...

The buildings feel like they are from a different era so there is definitely a tourist town kind of feel to it. But Kinosaki is also a working town, as well, where locals go about their daily business like shopping for groceries. It's pretty cool how both tourists and locals co-exist and navigate through the same streets together. We walked up and down the main road which was divided by the Otani River, making occasional pit stops to take a foot bath, grab a coffee and donuts in a modern cafe, and even cook some soft boiled eggs in the hot spring waters.

Near where we cooked our eggs was an old temple where the statues are "dressed up" in winter attire to keep them warm. A nice intersection of reverence and whimsy.

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1376542 2019-02-21T05:02:40Z 2019-02-21T05:03:56Z Nishimuraya Hotel Shogetsutei and their buffet breakfast

Breakfast was served in a dining hall for both of our days at the Nishimuraya Hotel Shogetsutei. There was a ton of variety in what was available and it was all quite good. I loved all the small bites you could choose from including Tajima beef croquettes, fresh okra, oden, and perfectly cooked onsen tamago.

The hotel itself is beautiful and grand. It's like something I would imagine from the 50's or 60's. Very mid-century modern which still holds up today. The highlight is an expansive window wall that overlooks a picturesque garden.

Of course this place is known for their hot spring baths. In addition to their large public baths (separated for men and women, with an inside and outside area for each), they have private spas which you can book for an additional fee. We were lucky and reserved while they had a special deal which gave us one free session in one of their private spas. We opted for the Gingetsu (Japanese Style) which had a rock sauna room. There was even a lounge area where we could just chill after getting out of the bath with a free bottle of bubbly. An amazing onsen experience!

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1375456 2019-02-18T07:55:50Z 2019-02-18T07:58:38Z First night in Kinosaki Onsen Town @ Nishimuraya Hotel Shogetsutei

We finally made it to Kinosaki and checked into our hotel, Nishimuraya Hotel Shogetsutei. It's a larger place than our previous onsen experience at Arashiyama Benkei but were still able to get a very nice tatami mat room with a garden view.

Service was outstanding including a welcome snack with tea and a refreshing vinegar juice. Snacks included rice crackers, red bean cookie, a wafer with light cream inside, and a preserved plum candy.

For dinner that night, we were treated to a full kaiseki meal in our room. They even had a special children's kaiseki meal which included sashimi, tempura, Matsuba crab, Tajima beef, and a box of fresh made onigiri. They even had two desserts for her. I would have been perfectly happy with that line up!

The adult menu was much more extensive and left us completely stuffed. We had two separate menus to accommodate my very inconvenient crustacean allergy. While my wife had a good helping of crab, I was treated to extra dishes centered around Tajima beef. I even had my own teppanyaki plate for one of my courses! I hope tomorrow's dinner will be as varied - stay tuned!

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1375452 2019-02-18T06:20:43Z 2019-02-18T07:01:45Z Shinkansen to Kinosaki Onsen Town with ekiben from Ekibenya Matsuri

After just a night in Tokyo (we'll be back later), we are headed up to Kinosaki Onsen Town for the next couple of days. It's a pretty long train ride (almost 5 hours with transfers) so getting ekiben was required. Ekibenya Matsuri in Tokyo Station is a crazy place that has a huge selection. We always try to get something different each time, including ones with collectible containers for my daughter.

I opted for the unagi bento which was quite good (though would have been even better served hot). My wife is a huge squid fan and these stuffed squids (ikameshi) are a regional speciality of Hokkaido. Riding the Shinkansen just wouldn't be the same without ekiben!

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1375275 2019-02-17T13:48:42Z 2019-02-17T20:14:29Z First bite in Tokyo - Ramen @ Ippudo Roppongi

After an 11+ hour flight and a 1+ hour train ride from Narita, we were exhausted when we got to our hotel in Roppongi. We didn't want to think too much about what to eat so headed to nearby Ippudo Roppongi for a quick bowl of ramen before crashing. Our first bowl of ramen in Japan nearly three years ago was at Ippudo Ginza. Since then, Ippudo has setup shop in Berkeley and San Francisco so we are well acquainted with what they have to offer. 

I will say that there is a vast difference in the quality of Ippudo here versus the US. One major point is that the shops in Berkeley and San Francisco no longer offer soft boiled eggs (only hard boiled eggs or poached eggs). When I asked one of the waitresses in San Francisco, she told me it was due to the amount of time it took to get perfectly peeled soft boiled eggs for every bowl. Doesn't seem to be an issue for the shops in Japan! The other thing I noticed is that it's less expensive for a bowl of ramen in Japan versus the US. I got the Akamaru Special meal set which came with a good helping of gyozas for 1,500 Yen (about $13.50 USD). In the US, the Akamaru Special by itself is about $19 USD!

Delicious ramen with zero problems and for an affordable price. A great start to our trip.

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1375250 2019-02-17T13:18:19Z 2019-02-17T13:50:24Z Japan trip 2019 begins with a very good airline meal

We're off again to Japan for President's Week. Snagged a great deal on ANA leaving from Los Angeles and was eager to see how the flight would compare to our JAL flight last year. Both offer great service but I'll give the slight nod to ANA because of the better quality food. We had a great miso grilled mackerel to go along with perfectly cooked rice. Noodles in dashi broth was also a nice touch and quite tasty. More to come once we land!

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1307934 2018-07-31T18:53:11Z 2019-01-24T00:11:55Z Cinc Sentits Dinner

Our dinner after Santa Maria Del Mar was at Cinc Sentits, a Michelin starred restaurant which served an extraordinary tasting menu. This was the only restaurant we got reservations for prior to arriving in Spain and it did not disappoint. The meal itself lasted almost 4 hours so this is going to be a long post but it's well worth the read and the visuals. The decor was simple and modern but highly refined. The space was small but well laid out so that we never felt cramped. Even before a single dish was served, we knew we were in for a treat.

We started with an amuse bouche of maple syrup, cream, cava sabayon, and sea salt. This is a nod to chef-owner Jordi Artal who comes from Canada.

Next we had our tapas course which consisted of small bites of familiar tapas dishes. First was anchovy with quince paste, anchovy emulsion, and pickled pepper with a cheese cracker. Next, just shucked baby clams with salsa verde and marcona almonds. Then we had Iberian jamon de bellota on pan con tomate (the best jamon we had on the trip). We then had salt-baked potato with bonito tuna belly and topped with a carrot and green bean puree. This was followed by grilled vegetable flatbreads with olive oil "caviar". The last and most surprising dish were olives two ways. The top light green olive was actually olive puree suspended in a soft olive shell that burst in your mouth, filling it with the full flavor and essence of green olives. The darker green ones below it were manzanilla-arbequina olives with herbs. A great way to start the meal!

We moved on to more pre-entree bites. First was white asparagus with Iberian pancetta in a roasted almond emulsion. Delicate but hearty. After that we had a little sandwich called a molette made from shredded beef with smoked bone marrow and black trumpet picada sauce. This little sandwich stole the show for me. The bread was crispy but soft on the inside and the beef/marrow combination was an explosion of flavor. I could have probably eaten 20 of these.

Our first entree was mackerel with cucumber and jalapeno ice cream. It was topped with a cream, caramelized onion horchata. The cucumber and jalapeno ice cream were (as expected) very refreshing and spicy at the same time. The horchata also balanced out the fishiness of the mackerel. Next, we had huge pan seared scallops on top of a sun-choke and onion sauce. Then, a turbot clam beignet with lemon peel, brown butter salsify, and marsh samphire. Being seafood, these were light but full of flavor due to the excellent ingredient combinations.

With our seafood entrees behind us, we moved on to the meatier portion of the evening. We were treated to a nice hunk of foie gras that was perfectly cooked in a caramelized sugar shell and served with braised leeks and chives. As a mushroom and egg fan, I was delighted by the next dish of roasted and smoked hen of the woods mushrooms with a 63C cooked egg yolk. This was served with thyme-brown butter breadcrumbs and pickled onions. Though there was no meat, this dish tasted rich and full of umami flavor. Keeping with the fowl theme, we ended the meat entrees with duck served three ways. First with sautéed pears and red wine gel, then topped with crushed pistachios, and lastly a Peking style pancake with pear chutney. Each was a small bite which was just perfect for you to get the full taste without getting stuffed, which we were at this point!

Of course, dessert couldn't simply be a single dish. We were treated to three artistically crafted dishes. The first was strawberry frozen yogurt with basil and a black currant sauce. Subtle with just enough tartness to balance out the sweetness. Next was a playful plate of cherries. Like the olives before, these were cherry puree suspended in a soft cherry shell that contained the full concentrated flavor and tart cherries. This was balanced out by cherry "pit" ice cream, candied almonds, and crushed cookies. The final "temptations" were a plate of little bites. There were mini vanilla muffins, thyme meringue with orange and orange blossom macarons, and finally a deeply chocolate truffle with olive oil and salt. A sweet and lovely end to our meal.

Not pictured were the wines that were expertly paired with each dish. Though there was plenty to drink, the pacing of every dish never had us feeling heavily intoxicated. It goes without saying that the service was impeccable, but also thoughtful and quite casual. Even though it was an extremely refined setting, it never felt uptight. The staff was funny and extremely accommodating of us dining with a child at the table. They don't have a separate menu for children but where appropriate, made small changes to the dishes to make them more palatable for a younger person. Easily one of the best dining experiences I've ever had and when we return to Barcelona, we'll be coming back. They'll be moving into another location soon and we can't wait to see what they do in a larger venue.

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1307037 2018-07-31T06:18:18Z 2019-01-24T00:12:03Z Santa Maria Del Mar

Another day, another historic church. Santa Maria Del Mar was built in the 14th century and was in the part of the city where most of the merchant guilds were located. As such, many of the guilds contributed to the building of this church which they considered their own. As part of our tour, we were able to climb to the very top of the church and get an amazing view of the city.

We then made our way down and headed off to the best meal of the trip...

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1307035 2018-07-28T07:27:41Z 2019-01-24T00:12:17Z La Sagrada Familia Part Deux

We were finally able to get tickets to see La Sagrada Familia. I won't bore you with too much words. The photos of the church speak for themselves. It was amazing to see it over 10 years after the first time we came to Barcelona. So much has changed and can't wait to see the new additions in a few more years.


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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1301214 2018-07-09T05:25:29Z 2019-01-24T00:26:22Z Casa Amatller and Hot Chocolate

Not far from La Pedrera is Casa Amatller, the former home of chocolatier Antoni Amatller and his daughter Teresa. It's a beautiful building that housed his artwork and showcased the architectural style of the time. The architect was Josep Puig i Cadafalch and similar to Gaudí's Casa Mila, it's in the neo-Gothic modernist style. The house had many cutting edge technologies for a residential house of the time like electrical lights and an elevator!

Amatller was a collector of art and antiquities. Many of his acquisitions are still showcased in the house to this day.

At the end of our tour, we were treated to a cup of traditional Spanish hot chocolate. Thick and rich, it isn't meant as a drink but more as a sauce to dip bread or churros in. We tried both hot and cold varieties which were a nice little afternoon snack.

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1301171 2018-07-09T00:57:02Z 2019-01-24T00:28:54Z RAÓ Bar and Restaurant

Dinner after our La Pedrera visit was at RAÓ Bar and Restaurant for a new spin on old tapas dishes. Our server was from Scotland and was great in guiding us through the menu. We started with smoked burrata with butternut squash, a simple plate of ibérico ham, a refreshing tomato salad, patatas bravas, and catalan cristal bread which tomato sauce.

Next, the main dishes. We had scallops, roast beef with mustard ice cream (amazing!), roasted duck breast, and pork cheeks. We ended the savory portion of the meal with a tasty seafood paella.

For dessert, we had bread pudding and catalan cream. The kitchen was also able to scare up a simple chocolate ice cream with whip cream at my daughter's request. We were also served two nice digestifs. One was El Afilador which was herby and similar to a Fernet-Branca. The other was a milky liquor, similar to Kahlúa. Overall, a great experience with super friendly service.


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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1300277 2018-07-05T23:37:11Z 2019-01-24T00:29:04Z Brunch and La Pedrera

We took a break from hotel breakfast and ventured out into the city. We found a great "American" style brunch spot called Milk Bar and Bistro. The menu definitely had familiar names like huevos rancheros but also some more European style dishes like Turkish Eggs and Mediterranean Eggs. Portion sizes were HUGE!

We left to grab some coffee at a local 3rd wave joint called Black Remedy. Their cold brew was excellent and really hit the spot on the hot and humid day.

The rest of the day was spent touring La Pedrera. It's a super weird and cool building, very indicative of Gaudí's style. Definitely worth a visit if you love neo-Gothic art and Catalan Modernism.

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1300031 2018-07-05T22:59:30Z 2019-01-24T00:29:13Z La Sagrada Familia (kind of) and Lokal Bar

We had visited La Sagrada Familia years ago on our first visit to Barcelona. I remembered it being much easier to get into but now requires reservations in advance. Since we had none, we had to settle for an external view. We did have reservations for later this week so will post updated photos then.

After our quick outer tour, we grabbed dinner nearby at Lokal Bar. Smaller and less frenetic than other tapas bars, the food was more refined. The place had a musical themed decor with old cellos and guitars that were converted into wine racks. 

On to the food. Sangria (red and white) were superb. I appreciate that they didn't offer us the pitcher because they said the ice would melt and water down the drink before we could finish it. We did glasses instead and the white was my favorite. Next, we ordered a few starters including super creamy guacamole, refreshing gazpacho, not so spicy padron peppers, and a smoked goat cheese salad. The two entrees we had were the very tender octopus and ox tail wrapped in phyllo dough. We then had Catalan cream and a brownie for dessert with a cappuccino.

Before we left, our server offered us a complimentary glass of his family's Țuică, a plum based high alcohol content liquor. Usually made and bottled in the same year, his family instead ages their Țuică for almost a year in oak barrels, then buries them in the ground for an additional 11 years. The result is a much more mellow drink that doesn't burn and leaves a really long finish. A great way to end the meal.

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1299582 2018-07-03T22:17:49Z 2019-01-24T00:29:23Z El Nacional - Tapas Meets Dim Sum

Spent the day walking La Rambla and seeing the waterfront at Port Vell. A parent from school suggested the Mission Barcelona kids scavenger hunt book and this was Mission #1 and #2 for us. Definitely a fun way for kids to experience the city and gives them something to read up on and look forward to before they arrive.

Dinner was at El Nacional, a huge space with multiple restaurants inside. It reminds me a little of a Las Vegas high end hotel lobby (in a good way) with the many different restaurants laid out in front of you. The vibe/energy here is amazing.

We opted for the tapas bar, La Taperia, and were surprised to be served dim sum style. They call it "singing tapas" with servers walking around with specific tapas plates, hawking their selection. It was an amazing way to see more than a menu could ever tell you. Food was excellent and service was great.

We started with some wine and cava to go along with our fava beans. Then calamari, meatballs stewed with mushrooms, cheese fritters, amazing jamón ibérico, patatas bravas, a mini seafood paella, and pickled peppers with anchovy. For dessert we got a thick flan and a ice cream sandwich. Come early as they will run out of certain dishes. We missed out on squid ink paella and steamed razor clams but no complaints about any of the dishes we got.

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1299012 2018-07-02T04:46:59Z 2019-01-24T00:29:31Z First meal in Barcelona

We found a local tapas bar near our hotel for a late night snack. L’Olivera is open until 1am, great for weary jet lagged travelers. We started with a nice cava sangria.

Next up was a steady stream of great tapas. Tomatoes with burrata, patatas bravas, chicken and cheese croquettes, tasty steak with chimichurri sauce and a fried egg, anchovies on toast, arugula with more of that great burrata, and olives at the end as a palate cleanser. A great start to the trip.

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1298777 2018-07-01T16:17:37Z 2019-01-24T00:29:42Z Hola from Barcelona!
Just landed in Barcelona for a week long trip. Will post more once we get settled in!
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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1257229 2018-03-12T03:30:30Z 2019-01-24T00:29:56Z Farewell to Japan

A new tradition is emerging for me on the last night before we leave Japan. We usually try to get our gift buying done the last days we are on a trip so we don’t have to lug them around. There were a few sweets that we wanted to get and the only place open late (besides convenience stores) was Donki (Don Quijote). For those who have never been, Donki is somewhere in between a dollar store and Target - taking the best of both worlds. Last year, I bought an extra piece of luggage to carry back my whiskey and this time I got some mochi and Kit Kats. If you ever find yourself needing some random item, check out Donki. There's usually one in every major city.

Our hotel was about a kilometer away from the store and it afforded me the opportunity to see Ginza at night. It was a beautiful, crisp, Friday night and many office workers were stumbling out of restaurants and bars, slightly tipsy. The streets were lit with the neon of Ginza and a lone saxophone player was performing. We’ll leave Japan with many happy memories, eager for the next trip back.

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1256668 2018-03-04T08:49:09Z 2019-01-24T00:30:04Z Ramen Street @ Tokyo Station

As our trip was coming to an end, we spent the last day doing a bunch of shopping in and around Tokyo Station. The station itself is massive with shops and restaurants inside. You could spend a full day here and still not see everything. Once we completed our gift buying, it was time to eat and of course, we couldn't leave Japan without having some ramen. Luckily, there is Ramen Street inside Tokyo Station where 8 ramen shops are located. A sign at the entrance to Ramen Street shows you where each shop is and what style of ramen they serve. We wanted to get some good tonkotsu style ramen so decided on Oreshiki Jun.

These shops are designed for fast service so you order outside at a vending machine, then hand your ticket over to the host who finds you a seat when one becomes available. Your food is then brought over and you're expected to eat very quickly and make room for the next person. Quite honestly, the whole process was fairly confusing and unless you can read Japanese it's hard to tell which ramen shop you're ordering from. Unfortunately for us, we ended up going into the wrong line and ordering from another ramen shop that wasn't quite up to par. We quickly ate but left feeling pretty unsatisfied.

Undeterred, I eventually was able to find Oreshiki Jun and we were not disappointed. Great broth, amazing soft boiled eggs (Japan really does this well), melt in your mouth char siu, and noodles that were perfectly made/cooked. All was forgotten after I finished that bowl!

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1252590 2018-03-04T08:29:03Z 2019-01-24T00:30:16Z Tsukiji Fish Market and Nigiri Sushi @ Shou

The iconic Tsukiji Fish Market, in its current from, will be closing. Though they keep pushing the date back, we wanted to make sure we got to see it one more time, just in case it changes the next time we return. We didn't tour the inner market this time but instead spent our time in the outer market checking out food stalls and buying some kitchen implements. A must visit is Onigiri-ya Murotoyo. Get the one with a perfectly soft-boiled egg inside which was a favorite of the wife's.

My daughter also wanted some nigiri sushi so we decided to go to a different restaurant than the one we visited the first time. There are two very popular sushi bars in the outer market, Daiwa Zushi and Sushi Dai. I’m sure both are good but given the long waits and hurried nature of dining, we opted to go with an equally well reviewed sushi bar next door, Shou. We still had to wait about 15 minutes but better than an hour or more at the other two. We ended up ordering omakase (12 course for wife and I, 8 course for my daughter). Below are the photos of mine (the difference is the wife received mantis prawn instead of squid). The line up was:

Snapper, Maguro, Hamachi, Spanish Mackerel, Otoro, Aji, Octopus, Scallop, Uni, Baby Scallop, Squid, Anago, Tamago, and lastly a Vegetable Roll

Each piece was expertly made and the quality of the fish was top notch. It's no surprise given their proximity to probably the best fish market in the world. The chef was extremely friendly and gave us background on every piece of fish. It was a great experience in a very casual setting. I'd put their nigiri up against any of the high end omakase restaurants back in San Francisco.

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Tuyen Vo
tag:www.tuyennhatvo.com,2013:Post/1252587 2018-02-25T05:58:29Z 2019-01-24T00:30:27Z Kabuki and Tonkotsu @ Maisen

We fulfilled a bucket list item for the wife by watching Kabuki at the Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza. Was more interesting than I expected though a little long (almost 4 hours).

As a reward, we had dinner at Maisen Tonkotsu in Shibuya. Yet another Tokyo institution I had to have again. This time, I tried the Tokyo X Pork which I paired with a nice shochu made from soba. The cutlet was juicy and tender on the inside and perfectly crispy on the outside with no heavy greasiness associated with deep fried foods. There was even a special tonkatsu sauce specifically for the Tokyo X! A little thin for me but the taste was sweet and tangy with what I believe was grated apple mixed in. My favorite is still the thick tonkatsu sauce which I ate over the pork, cabbage, and rice! Will be dreaming of this tonkotsu until the next time we come to Tokyo.

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Tuyen Vo