Monday, 23 December 2013

Seafood Kaiseiki at Ryotei Fumoto (冨茂登)

Within Japan, the views from Mt Hakodate are considered one of the best the country has to offer. In the spring, fog rolls in and obscures much of the bay, but in Summer and Winter the vantage point is clear. The scene was quite spectacular once the sun set as the city lights twinkled on, but all my pictures from that point look rather garish, so here it is at sunset instead:


Hakodate's geography means it's spared the worst of the extreme temperatures the rest of Hokkaido may see, but it was still bitterly cold when we stepped outside the cocoon of the Mountaintop Observatory. Looking across the Tsugaru Straits to the mountain ranges in the distance was breathtaking in more ways than one as the sea winds rolled in. 


We stayed a little while after the sun went down, spending some time browsing through the gift shop, then quickly escaped before everyone else who was only there for the night views moved in. The ropeway runs every 5 to 10 minutes, so we didn't have to wait long for our ride back down. The top of the mountain already felt fairly crowded, but when we went back down, it took some skill to wend our way through the crush of people that had gathered. 


We were dropped off at our hotel to freshen up before dinner, which was very nearby at Ryotei Fumoto (冨茂登), a restaurant housed in a traditional Japanese-style building. In 2012, the special Hokkaido Edition of the Michelin Guide awarded Fumoto with two Michelin stars for its isaribi kaiseiki, which focuses mainly on fresh, locally sourced seafood. If any other tour company included a Michelin-starred restaurant in their itinerary, it would probably be massively hyped and be one of the trip's highlights. With Follow Me Japan, the commitment to serving us amazing food day in day out is such a given that they didn't even mention all the awards this restaurant won. We didn't even know we were dining at a Michelin-starred establishment until after the fact, when we decided to look it up. 


Stately kimono-clad waitresses led our group to our private room facing a snowy garden. The room had beautiful detailing including this screen and some lovely carved ceiling beams. There weren't any menus around, and everything looked so good that I started eating before I thought to ask what was on our plates, so the first impression I had of what was in this lovely blue bowl was that it somehow tasted exotic yet quite like chicken, which made me think of this article. As it turned out, it was catfish and meat, topped with thinly sliced leek.


When we eventually asked for help in puzzling out what we were being served, one of the waitresses came in and enlisted the assistance of Tomoko-san in translating what we were having. The appetizers were superb, and when I decided to be brave and try the squid in its fermented malt dressing, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the flavours worked, and how tender the squid was. 

Our appetizers, in a clockwise spiral from left: Thinly sliced globe fish with ginger, spicy radish and ponzu sauce - Strips of squid in shio-koji (Fermented rice malt used in sake brewing with salt) - Sweet egg omelet - Trout sushi - Cod roe jelly - Salmon wrapped in radish - Yuzu manju - Soy bean mochi. 

As it turns out, the building used to be part of Hakodate's bustling geisha district in Horai-cho, and its rich history includes playing host to military commanders during the Russo-Japanese War. A famous geisha owned the house before it was passed down to her second son, who converted it into a fine dining establishment. 

The placemat
Our next dish was a truly delicious Peppered Conger Eel Consomme, with Daikon (Radish) Fluff, Lily Bulb and Mushrooms. The hint of spice made the soup really warming and the flavours were hearty while still feeling like a light consomme. We learned that our main waitress had once been a teacher of Japanese etiquette, and she patiently guided us through the steps of picking up our bowls and chopsticks the right way. It was a very elegant method, without any of the grappling that sometimes happens when chopsticks are employed. When she demonstrated how, her hands moved so fluidly. All of us tried it, and let's just say it was a miracle no one dropped their bowls by accident. 

Since this tour, I've quite successfully kept on practicing this particular soup-drinking ritual,  which always makes me feel quite proper indeed.


Next was a well-rendered chawanmushi in this beautifully glazed bowl. It was studded with a sweet piece of chestnut, which M particularly enjoyed. As always, I passed her mine. 


From where we were seated, each of us caught different glimpses into the magnolia leaf parcels, so before we opened them, D was convinced that I was wrong about there being cod involved.

D: No! It's obviously crab!

When we unwrapped it, it turned out everyone had been right. There was both cod and crab, as well as scallops, onions and bell peppers that had been grilled with miso paste. All the seafood was nice and fleshy, a world away from the disappointingly watery morsels you often find in restaurants. We were being decidedly spoilt, food-wise. 


The sashimi showed up fairly late into the proceedings, but they were worth the wait. I've woken up at butt o'clock to buy sashimi-grade scallops from Billingsgate Fish Market before, but it's never been quite like this. The taste here was sweetness, with a clear hint of very clean sea, sans the salt. 


The main course for the evening was crab leg hotpot, and we were encouraged to throw our vegetables in first to flavour the soup. We did so as instructed, and the resulting broth was indeed very drinkable.


Everyone got two perfectly-shelled crab legs to cook in our paper pots, which were then dipped into the bowls of sesame sauce provided. The fresh crab was sweet and juicy with enough meat to give a little firmness to each bite.


The savoury part of the meal was rounded off with pickles and rice topped with Ikura (Salmon Roe). I still get cravings for this sometimes, often during very inconvenient moments, like while I'm in a meeting, or in the middle of the night. There is the salmon roe you get in supermarkets, or little bottles of red caviar, and then there is freshly harvested Hokkaido Ikura, lovingly marinated in top-quality soy sauce and mirin before being served over a fluffy bed of Japanese rice. Nothing else can really compare. 


Dessert was Matcha ice cream with bits of fruit and caramelized Fu, aka pure wheat gluten. For a while we debated what that little thing on the side of the bowl was, with everyone guessing things from banana to croutons, but no one even dreamed it was Fu. 


After dinner, it was back to the hotel for a very indulgent dip in the hot springs before bed. It had taken us no time to get used to a daily schedule of utterly lavish meals, interspersed with the odd bit of sight-seeing, and we loved it. 

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