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Smorgasburg

In the years past, I’ve always made my annual Smorgasburg visit in early May – to beat the heat and the crowds. This year, since I was waiting for my cousin and his niece, we didn’t end up going until mid-June. If you’re going anytime during the summer months of late-June, July, or August, be sure to wear a lot of sunscreen and go early! In the earlier months of April and May, it doesn’t begin to get crowded until closer to 1:30/2:00. But in the summer, you definitely need to go at 11:00am to beat the crowds and the lines!

We walked around a little bit before I settled on what I wanted to try. My first order of business was Big Mozz Sticks for their fresh, made-to-order mozzarella sticks (4 long sticks for $8.00). Last year at Smorgasburg, Big Mozz was serving these delicious freshly made mozzarella bombs with pesto on the inside. Their new product this year did not disappoint at all. The mozzarella was gooey and cheesy and the mozz sticks just felt fresh and light – nothing like pizzerias at all.

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My second order of business was to finally try the chicken wings at Dan & John’s Wings, which has been a Smorgasburg regular for years now. I ordered their boneless wings (5 pieces for $8.00) with mild sauce since I’m not a huge spice person. The wings were crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside – a perfect combination.

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To combat the growing heat, I had one of my two usual drink vendors – Brooklyn Soda Works (my other being Kelvin Slush). I’ve had their blueberry soda before so this time I opted to try the Cherry Vanilla ($5.00), which was delightful. It kind of tasted like if you mashed a Cherry Coke and a Vanilla Coke together, which is awesome because they’re my two favorite flavors of soda.

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After we finished chowing down on the savory goodies, we moved onto the dessert portion of our trip. First up, gai dan jai, or egg waffles. Gai dan jai is a childhood staple for many Chinese kids, myself included. Back when I was younger, they used to be everywhere in Chinatown. Now there’s probably one stand on Canal Street and my favorite little old man cart on Grand Street (he’s only there on odd days now). So when the egg waffle cone craze started, I was super excited! I’ve had Eggloo, so I knew I had to try Wowfulls. We had their Wowfulls Creation ($9.00), which features Matcha Green Tea Gai Dan Jai with white chocolate chips inside and your choice of vanilla ice cream or their crazy ice cream. It’s all topped with mocha, green tea Pocky, and a drizzle of your choice. We opted for the fruity pebbles dust. The end result is this crispy egg waffle with delicious ice cream in the middle. The mochi was soft and the waffle was perfectly made.

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I also made a pit stop at Baonanas before we left. Baonanas sells “light and fluffy puddings”, according to their banner. I do have to agree – the puddings are, indeed, very light a fluffy. I opted for the double scoop ($7.00), because it allowed me to pick two flavors. They let you try one and I opted to try their Lychee Rose flavor. It was pretty good – but I also wanted to try their banana, which is their signature and most popular. I felt that both were tasty – but the Lychee Rose was definitely lighter and less sweet.

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All in all, I think it was a very successful Smorgasburg visit. We’ll be back in September to give some of the other places a try – I especially want to try the new kids on the block – Jianbing Co. for their Shanghai-inspired street food.

 

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How To Plan Your Trip To Japan

Planning my trip to Japan took a better part of 6 months – from the date I finally committed and booked my tickets to the date of departure. I didn’t plan every single day of those 6 months, but I did read up quite a bit. Japan is definitely not one of those places where you just take a plane there and wing it – although I’m sure tons of people do it that way. I’m a planner and a list-maker. It just makes me feel better to know that I won’t land in a foreign country (even one as safe as Japan) and not have anywhere to stay or not know where to go.

Two of the most invaluable resources that I used to plan my trip were –

JapanGuide.com – Japan Guide is free, up-to-date, and very informative. There are a bunch of day and half-day plans on the website that is very useful for first-time travelers.

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Fodor’s Japan Travel Guide – Fodor’s has always been my travel guide of choice – it’s easy to read, colorful, and offer great tips about the culture and etiquette with an abundance of general useful information.

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And now, I’ll walk you through the steps that I took in planning my 2.5 week trip to Japan.

Step 1: Pick where you want to go – Japan is much like America in the sense that going from one city to the next could take 1 hour or it could take 10 hours. Decide on which region or cities you want to visit.

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From JapanGuide.com: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e623a.html

Step 2: Pick when you want to go.

The best times to visit, in my opinion, are:

  • Spring from March – April for Cherry Blossom Season
  • Fall from late September to late October for Fall Foliage Season

The winters are harsh and cold and the summers are hot and humid – very similar to the weather on the East Coast/Mid-Atlantic area of the USA. I knew I didn’t want to go during these times because I get enough of that bad weather back home!

Step 3: Decide where you want your home-base to be – you don’t want to be packing up your luggage and traveling to another hotel, AirBnB, or hostel every 2-3 days. It’s a hassle as well as time-consuming.

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For me, I picked a central location in Tokyo (Shin-Okubo area inside Shinjuku) and for Osaka/Kyoto, I picked one of the two and traveled using the train to get to the other.

Step 4: Decide what you want to do. I found the most logical method was to divide Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto into location pockets and then look up the attractions in each pocket. This way, you don’t waste your time taking the train to and from different areas. Take some time to get to know each area and find what interests you. You don’t necessarily need to follow the “Must-See” lists because they might not fit you.

For example, to block out my two days in Kyoto, I spent one day exploring Western Kyoto and the second day exploring Southern and Eastern Kyoto. It’s definitely “doable” to try to do all of Kyoto in one day, but you won’t get to truly explore if you’re jumping from block to block to block.

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http://www.francejapon.fr/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/france-japon-kyoto-map-carte-10.gif


Step 5:
Think about all the tickets you’ll need to buy or reservations you’ll need to make in advance. A lot of places only take reservations or sell tickets 30 days in advance – be aware of your dates and when you’ll need to make reservations. For example, the onsen I visited in Hakone only took reservations for private rooms 30 days in advance.

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Hakone Yuryo, private room #3 – book 30 days in advance via email or phone.

Step 6: And lastly, just have fun! Go with a plan so you know you’ll do the things your heart is set on doing. For me, the Studio Ghibli Museum, Tokyo Disney, and Shirohige’s Cream Puff Factory were a MUST (and none of them disappointed at all). But also give yourself time to explore and discover – have a list of things or areas that can be of interest, but don’t feel pressured to get to them all. You won’t see it all. Just think of it as a reason to return!

 

 

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Japan Round-up: Kyoto Edition

And here is where I segway into the Kyoto portion of my round-up! Our favorite meal was an accident. I had bookmarked Arashiyama-Yoshimura Restaurant, located right on the river in Arashiyama, a district in the western district of Kyoto, for their soba. When we arrived at the restaurant after an energetic walk up to see the snow monkeys at Arashiyama Monkey Park (which I highly recommend!), the wait was 2 hours. Discouraged, we realized that their tofu restaurant had only a 30 minute wait. It was probably the best accident of our entire trip. The tofu meal was astounding – the tofu was soft and fresh and the whole meal just felt clean and light. The ambiance is also very calm and soothing – we were seated right next to their little outdoor garden and we felt like we were dining in the countryside.

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Another Kyoto highlight is the food stalls leading up to Fushimi Inari Shrine, known for its beautiful orange/red torii gates. Each gate is a donation to the shrine and there are over a thousand to date.

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I had some of the best taiyaki from a food stand along the path to the shrine. While the owner of the stall was a bit cranky, his taiyaki was top-notch – probably because he refused to make more until he sold out his previous batch. It meant the wait time was a bit longer than your usual taiyaki stand, but it also meant delicious, super fresh taiyaki.

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If you explore the Gion area in Kyoto, you’re bound to notice that matcha soft-serve is a big thing. But what’s even better is matcha soft-serve with little cakes on the bottom! We stumbled onto this little store than specialized in omiyage specific to Kyoto – but they also sold soft-serve as well as certain cakes to eat on the spot. We opted for this delicious vanilla-matcha twist soft-serve on top of their matcha sponge cake. Divine! Perfect after a long hike through the streets leading up to Kiyomizu-Dera temple!

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The thing with Osaka and Kyoto is that everywhere you go, there will be so much good food to eat – especially in the areas surrounding the major attractions. Sometimes, I think the food stalls on the side of a temple is more appealing than the restaurants! Don’t be afraid to walk up to a stand and try something new – you won’t be disappointed!

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Japan Round-up: Osaka Edition

And now onto the second half of my trip to Japan – Osaka. Osaka is part of the Kansai region of Japan, which is further south than Tokyo is. Osaka is pretty much, in my opinion, very similar to Tokyo. It’s a big city with a very sophisticated train system and lots of residents. We stayed in the Namba area in Osaka, which is very close to the main dining area of Dotonburi.

In Osaka, one of the best meals we had was at Matsusakagyu Yakiniku Yokocho, located in the heart of Dotonburi, Osaka’s famous eating street. Matsusakagyu Yakiniku specializes in Matsusaka beef, a special kind of beef from the suburban area of Matsusaka city. Matsusaka beef, known as black-haired Wagyu, has a high fat-to-meat ratio and is considered one of the three big beefs, along with Kobe beef and Omi beef. We went with the Premium Course (7,800¥ per person) that featured their famous Matsusaka Marbled Beef Sushi and 4 different parts of Matsusaka beef. The beef itself practically melted in our mouths! The price is a big steep, but it is well worth being able to try such a delicious type of beef.

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Another one of our best meals in Osaka also featured beef – but Kobe beef this time. Located inside Namba Station is New Kobe, a tiny restaurant where customers sit around a counter and are given individual pots for shabu shabu. This was our last meal in Osaka before returning home, so we decided to go big and order their A5 grade Kobe Beef Shabu Shabu set. The meat was phenomenal! Usually with fatty beef, there is some residue when you eat it after cooking it in the broth. But there wasn’t any at all – the beef went down super smooth and the fat-to-beef ratio was out of this world.

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Anyone visiting Osaka should pay a visit to Kuromon Ichiba Market – or the kitchen of Osaka. This market runs down several streets – and then branches off to several side-streets as well. There is so much to eat that you literally cannot eat it all! There’s a lot of fresh seafood being grilled right on the spot as well as seafood that you can eat raw. You can even have them crack open a fresh uni for you to eat on the spot! And of course, don’t forget the Taiko-Manju, or drum-shaped sweets with red bean paste on the inside!

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If you don’t have time to take a trip to Kobe to have some Kobe beef, there are a few spots in Kuromon Market that will grill up Kobe beef for you on the spot to eat. We went to Maruzen because they have a tiny counter for you to sit and eat. The Kobe beef was phenomenal! We didn’t use any type of dipping sauce – just their special salt. The beef melted in our mouths – but wasn’t as fatty as the Matsusaka beef from Matsusakagyu.

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Another highlight of Osaka was eating all the street food from stands that pop up around major tourist attractions. At Osaka Castle, we had some of the best takoyaki. It felt more authentic than the shops in Dotonbori, who are cranking out takoyaki in faster than you can even say the word takoyaki! The soft-serve from tourist attractions are also top notch – do not skip out on that!

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Japan Round-up: Tokyo Edition

I’ve always been a fan of Japanese cuisine – you name it, I’m there. So naturally, when I take a vacation to Japan, I’m going to eat as much as I can! And if there’s one country where food is abundantly available – in copious variations – it’s Japan. I sheer amount of street food (glorious takoyaki, sweet taiyaki, and the best soft serve in the world) that I had in my two weeks in Japan is astounding! And of course, the infamous vending machines that are probably the best invention ever.

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Since I split my time between Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto, I’m going to split my posts into two food round-ups: one for Tokyo and day-trips and one for Osaka/Kyoto. The food types are somewhat similar in the sense that in every city there is takoyaki, there’s ramen, there’s soba, and, of course, there is sushi – but the tastes and flavors are vastly different between these three cities. Let’s start off with the giant hub that is Tokyo.

My very first meal in Tokyo was Numazuko, a conveyor belt sushi restaurant in the heart of Shinjuku. Here at Numazuko, you sit around a giant conveyor belt that stretches the length of the restaurant. You can either pick off the belt or order directly from the chef if you don’t spot what you want. Prices vary depending on the color of the dish and at the end of your meal your waiter will count it all up for you. Green tea is completely self-service and you’re pretty much left alone during your meal unless you flag someone down. I personally thought the fish was pretty fresh and since we sat in front of the chefs, we got first dibs on the new items.

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One of the highlights of my trip to Tokyo was Shirohige’s Totoro Cream Puff Factory, located in Setagaya, a residential ward located 15 minutes away from Shinjuku. Shirohige’s specializes in – you guessed it – Totoro cream puffs! You can buy them from the store front or walk upstairs to Tolo Café and eat the cream puffs with a nice cup of coffee. We opted to sit down in the café since I wanted to take my time and admire these cute little desserts. The cream puffs were actually very good – and not just a gimmick! I think my favorite was either the chocolate cream or banana cream.

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When a tourist visits Tokyo, they often go to Tsukiji Market, one of the most famous fish markets in the country. They are famous for their tuna auction, which requires attendees to start lining up at 3am in the morning just to get in! They’re also famous for their fresh fish and delicious sushi. Instead of lining up for hours at the hotspots Sushi Dai or Sushi Daiwa, I opted for Yamazaki, located right smack in between the two restaurants. Our wait was only about 1 hour and we probably stayed for close to 2 hours (much to the discontent of the people waiting in line outside). We ordered a set to share but then ordered a few pieces off the menu straight from the chef. Our chef was super nice and the entire restaurant is pretty English-friendly. The highlights were definitely the fatty tuna, fatty salmon, abalone, and this firefly squid sushi with 3 tiny squid on top. The Uni was a standout as well. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal at Yamazaki and highly recommend it if you don’t want to wait in line for the two usual suspects.

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My favorite ramen meal in all of Tokyo had to be Rokurinsha Ramen, which serves Tsukemen. Tsukemen is ramen that is served in a separate bowl from the liquids – there is actually no soup. You dip the ramen in a thick fish sauce. If you have leftover sauce, you can ask for broth to be added and then you can drink the soup. I thought the combination of bouncy, al dente ramen worked so well with the fishy dipping sauce. If you’re interested in trying out Rokurinsha, I recommend the Skytree Solamachi branch over the Tokyo Station branch, which is always busy.

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One of our favorite meals of the entire trip was in Hakone, a small mountainous town known for their hot springs and views of Mt. Fuji. Hakone is located close to 2 hours away from Tokyo – faster if you take Odakyu’s special Romancecar train. Right on the side of Lake Ashi is Ashinoko-Chaya, a restaurant with great views of Lake Ashi and amazing soba. Here, we had soba and rice topped with Hakone’s famous soy milk skin. The flavors were simple, but the freshness and crispness of the ingredients really shone. If you have extra time in Hakone, walk to the Hakone Checkpoint and make a stop at Amazake-Chaya, a small teahouse that served the best mochi that I had my entire trip. You won’t regret it.

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We took one more day trip out of Tokyo during our week there to Yokohama, a former port city just 30 minutes by train from Tokyo. Inside one of the many malls in the Yokohama Minato-21 area, is Yokohama Motomachi Doria, a restaurant that specializes in rice doria and omu rice. We had the mushroom-meat sauce omu rice and it was divine. The egg, or omelet, was so soft it practically melted in my mouth! If you’re in the area checking out the Cup Noodle Museum or Cosmo World, definitely give Motomachi Doria a try.

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And lastly, I want to give a shout-out to Coco Curry Ichibanya, which might be a chain, but offers up some of the best (and cheap) curry rice in all of Tokyo. You can literally order any variation of curry rice here – vegetable, chicken katsu, pork katsu, no katsu, sausage, and a bunch of other toppings and sides. Your meal will be hot, delicious, and super cheap! I had the pork katsu curry rice with cheese on top and it was pure perfection. You’ll end up smelling like a walking box of curry when you leave, but it’ll all be worth it!

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Have any good places to recommend? Or general questions about where I went? Drop me a comment – I’d love to talk more about this amazing country!

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Teisui

Teisui, located in the Flatiron district, just opened about a month ago and it has been attracting a bunch of good reviews. When I first read about this restaurant, before my trip to Japan, I was intrigued. It wasn’t until I came back from Japan and was feeling “Japan-sick”, that I knew we had to go here for our belated 6th Anniversary dinner. Teisui was designed to recreate the traditional Japanese Ryokan experience in New York City. In fact, Teisui will feature a roaster of visiting chefs as well as in-house chefs from her sister hotel in Akita, Japan, where many of the ingredients come from.

 

True to its design, Teisui serves a 10-course seasonal menu ($150) that’s modeled after a yakitori kaiseki meal that’s typically served in Ryokans. And like all restaurants in Japan, hospitality is included – something I really appreciated and wished we had more of! Wine pairings are an extra $90 and sake pairings are $95 – but don’t feel pressured to participate. We ended up ordering individually off their impressive list since we’re a bit picky about our sake.

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We were the first to arrive so we had the sole attention of the staff for a while. We were seated at the corner of the bar so we had full view of the cooks, which is a sight to behold. They took notice of my note that we were celebrating our anniversary and offered us a generous pour of champagne. How sweet! Our waiters was also not pushy about picking the sake or wine pairing and let us choose our own pace when it came to beverages.

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Our meal started off with a hot towel to clean off, which I really came to appreciate during my time in Japan. It’s great to be able to clean off the dirt from outside before starting our meal! Then came the amuse bouche of chawanmushi with edamame purée and foie gras and topped with Hokkaido uni. The chawanmushi was super creamy! Since chawanmushi and the lighter edamame purée was so lightly seasoned, you could really taste the foie gras and uni. I could literally sit here and eat this every day!

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Our first real course was the Hassun, or a mixed plate of king crab, kiritanpo, or smashed rice that is oval-shaped and cooked yakitori-style, chicken burdock, and watercress goma-ae, or watercress tossed in peanut sauce. The chicken was very tender – but the standout was definitely the kiritanpo, which was chewy on the inside and crispy on the outside from the grill.

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The next course was Tsutsumi-Yaki, which featured tender chicken and mushrooms cooked in plastic wrap. You are presented the dish fully intact so you can unravel the plastic and catch the full aroma of the chicken and mushroom soup-like dish. People always say that you don’t just eat with your mouth – but with your nose and eyes too. This dish definitely appealed to all three!

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Our next course was the Rabbit Miso Cappuccino, which featured two pieces of rabbit meat and Kyoto miso cappuccino. The course was presented to us in separate cups – the rabbit in one and the miso cappuccino in the other. We were instructed to pour the cappuccino into the rabbit cup and have it with the rabbit meat. To be honest, I was a bit thrown off by the words, “miso cappuccino”, but I was pleasantly surprised when it paired so well together. The cappuccino flavor was light and very smooth and creamy. We ended up scooping the leftover out with a spoon.

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Next up was Tsukune, or chicken meatball cooked yakitori-style with egg yolk. The meatballs are meant to be dipped into the egg yolk, which was interesting. The meatballs were very tender and juicy – not a dry patch in sight!

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After the Tsukune course, our utensils were cleared and we were given a palate cleanser containing ikura and a new hot towel. Our waiter called it intermission, which I thought was pretty neat. After a brief break, we proceeded to our next course – Tori-Mune Konsai, or chicken breast yakitori with beets, an arugula-wasabi sauce, and a dash of salt from Akita on the side. The chicken was tender and cooked so that it had just a hint of smokey-ness.

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The next course was the Kamo Mushi-Yaki, which featured duck breast, a red wine sauce, and seasonal vegetables. Our waitress told us that there is citrus jelly drizzled over the season vegetables of tomato, pepper, and radish. The citrus was indeed a nice contrast to the savory red wine duck. This was a standout dish of the night – the duck breast was cooked to perfection and the red wine sauce was not overpowering at all.

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Our next course was perhaps my favorite of the night – Tori-Momo with Couscous, which featured chicken thigh cooked yakitori-style with mashed potato, eggplant, and couscous. I’m not normally a huge fan of couscous, so for me to say this was the star of the night, it means it was pretty darn delicious! The presentation itself was gorgeous with a gold plate topped with perfectly squeezed dollops of mashed potato. A piece of thigh meat paired with the airy and light couscous was a burst of flavors in my mouth.

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The next course was more subtle in flavor, since we were winding down for the night. We were presented with the Chef’s Special Selection of sushi, a piece of nigiri and a piece of a roll. The flounder nigiri was good, but I really enjoyed my tuna roll piece that was topped with Hokkaido uni and ikura. The uni was creamy, salty, and sweet at the same time – the true butter of the sea!

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Our last savory course was named after the restaurant – Ishiyaki Teisui – or miso soup with red snapper, king crab, and Tokyo scallion. The chef beings over the soup in a huge bamboo bowl and then explains that he will heat the soup with rocks from Mt. Fuji that are heated to 700 degrees. He drops the rocks into the soup, which brings it to boiling temperature almost immediately. After a few seconds, he removes the rocks and serves us each a bowl of soup. The soup is enough for each person to have at least 3 servings. I had a huge piece of red snapper in mine, along with copious amounts of Tokyo scallion. I remember seeing the size of the scallions while I was in Tokyo and marveling at how big they are. Now I know how they taste! The soup was light and rich in miso flavor – not too salty at all.

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Our grand finale was the Anmitsu with yuzu jelly, red beans, a scoop of honey milk ice cream, and topped with a sugar cookie. This was a light and refreshing way to end our meal – the dessert was a nice change to the otherwise savory meal without being too sweet or lingering.

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I thoroughly enjoyed my meal at Teisui and cannot wait to find a reason to go back! The service was impeccable – our waiter and occasional waitress were both very attentive without being overbearing. Our waitress even noticed that the Boyfriend was left-handed and started placing his settings on his left side. What a small attention to detail that he’s never received anywhere else! They also open the door for you when you enter the bathroom and then listen to you to come out so they can open it again for you. It’s really these small little things that can really add up to making the evening. I highly recommend a visit to Teisui – whether you’re just looking for a good meal out or celebrating a special occasion!

Ps. They’re on OpenTable so reserving a counter seat – or even a table for a larger party – is super easy!

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Rafele

For those of you who regularly embark on my eating adventures with me, you’ll notice that I posted about Rafele as a good option for Christmas Eve dinner. It’s too late for Christmas Eve dinner now, but it’s never too late to pay this restaurant a visit! A quick OpenTable reservation, which I highly recommend, and you could be on your way to some delicious Naples-inspired cuisine.

Since we were four people, we opted to order three appetizers to share. But before the appetizers arrived, we were served a delicious eggplant antipasti with an assortment of bread. The eggplant dip was sweet and sour at the same time, which really helped open up our appetites.

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Our first appetizer to arrive was the Gnocco Frito ($16.00), which features 24-month aged Black Label Prosciutto with Fried Dough. The prosciutto was delicious – soft, just a tad salty, and practically melted in our mouths. The fried dough tasted a bit like zeppoles without the powdered sugar. It was a very nice mix of warmth with the chilled prosciutto.

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Our second appetizer was the Crostini with Duck Liver Pate ($13.00), which is served with duck liver pate, whipped ricotta cheese, and crostini drizzled with olive oil. The pate was rich and creamy and paired well with the light flavor of the whipped ricotta. The warm crostini was a perfect base for the smooth pate.

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Our last appetizer was the Polpettine ($13.00), or Pan-seared Veal and Beef Meatballs in a light tomato sauce. The meatballs were tender and juicy – but a bit on the salty side. I think an order to split is the perfect portion size because if I had to eat the entire dish, I’d definitely be too full.

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For my entrée, I ordered the Gnocchi Pignatiello ($16.00), which is their house-made gnocchi with melted taleggio cheese and basil in a tomato sauce. I’ve never had a cheesy, baked gnocchi before so this was a new experience. I found that I quite liked it – each bite if gnocchi was cheesy and pillowy – like eating a cloud.

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My mother had the Zuppa di Pesce ($27.00), which features market seafood with tomatoes, garlic, and pepperoncino baked inside a bread dome. It comes incompletely intact and your waiter cuts the bread dome open for you. The stew comes with all sorts of goodies: large shrimp, mussels, clams, scallops, and fish. It’s a very light, yet hearty meal – especially if you dip in some of their delicious pizza bread!

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We didn’t order any dessert since we brought our own cake, but I would’ve loved to try out their signature cheesecake. Service was attentive without being overbearing. They brought over the cake at the end of dinner without having to be prompted, which was very nice. If you’re ever in the West Village and craving Italian food, give Rafele a try!