Zen tempura experience
I'm a big, big tempura lover so I made it a point to ask our hotel's amazing concierges to recommend a good place to eat tempura. They suggested Ippoh, which they said is both the city's best tempura restaurant and one of Osaka's oldest. I couldn't pass on the idea of eating in a restaurant with over 150 years of history. As with all things in Japan, the experience was expensive but worth it. Ippoh is housed in a lovely old building. Upon arrival, S and I were asked to remove our shoes and were brought to a small tatami room. There, we were served one course, a refreshing soup. Then we were asked to leave our coats and our bags and were brought to another private room. Here we were served a gomatofu with wasabi and prawns. This was followed by a trio of artfully plated cooked food.
After that, we were brought to a third room. This one had a tempura bar with space for 6 people. The chef introduced himself and then proceeded to prepare our tempura on the spot. I have to say that after eating freshly made (and well-made) tempura, it is hard to go back to eating mediocre versions. The tempura was excellent, served crisp and hot. The chef instructed us which items were to be eaten with sauce, salt or no seasoning at all. We were each given prawns, a couple of fish, lotus root, gingko nut, fish roe wrapped in shiso, sweet potato, prawn wrapped in shiso, namafu (a glutinous rice flour and wheat flour dumpling), leeks, and a red bean pastry. We also had a side plate of sashimi and, to end the meal, a "tendon" (chopped up prawn and vegetable tempura served on rice). As said, the tempura was fantastic, but we thought that the other tidbits served us were okay but nothing special. All in all, this is a memorable (and of course) place to visit at least once.
If we could have, S and I would have eaten at Endo Sushi every day. Sadly, we were in Osaka from a Thursday to a Monday and it was closed on Sunday and we had to leave our hotel by 8am on Monday. Anyway, we did have brunch here on both Friday and Saturday. This tiny sushi bar is located in the carpark next to the Central Wholesale Market. It is open from 5am - 2pm.
You order by the plate here. Each one comes loaded with 5 fat pieces of sushi, chosen by the chef. One piece, however, will always be a wickedly fresh slice of otoro (fatty tuna). On the table, there are brushes soaking in bowls of soya sauce. You are encouraged here to brush your sushi with sauce instead of dipping, which makes perfect sense since most people wrongly dip their rice and not the fish into the sauce. At 1,000 Yen per plate, Endo is also one of the best bargains in Osaka. I really can't say how much S and I loved this place. This is a must-visit!
Another fantastic place, albeit much more ritzy (no pun intended), for sushi is Hanagatami at the Ritz-Carlton Osaka. S and I enjoyed an amazingly serene sushi lunch at this gorgeous and deceptively large restaurant. Hanagatami has a small sushi bar, an equally small tempura bar (which I plan on lunching at next trip instead of going to Ippoh), and a large area serving Kyoto-style Kaiseki meals. Sitting at the sushi bar, you don't even notice the rest of the restaurant. And as you would expect at a Ritz-Carlton, everything from the food to the service was perfect.
Yummy shio ramen
I'm a magazine junkie (which comes from having spent a decade in that industry); I like looking at magazines even if they are in languages I don't understand. I love looking at layouts and photography. One of the magazines that had been thoughtfully placed in my hotel room was the latest copy of GQ Japan. In it, there was an article on top ramen shops in the country's major cities. When I noticed that two of them had Osaka telephone prefixes, I quickly asked my concierge where they were located and if he had heard of them. One of them, in fact, was a less than 10 minute walk from where we were staying! We found Berashio easily and were thrilled by it. Berashio specializes in shio ramen. S ordered one with extra roast pork while I picked a Winter special, which came with pork, leeks, mushrooms, grilled scallops (yum!) and a pat of butter. We loved that they charcoal-grilled the scallops and pork in front of us. The stock was lovely and if it wasn't for the fact that the portions were so filling, I would have loved to have sampled other variations. This reasonable ramen restaurant is definitely worth a visit.
On our last night, a friend arranged a large group dinner at a good, reasonable and very casual shabu-shabu restaurant called Udon-chiri Nishiya Iori. The beef was lovely and the restaurant was relaxed and reasonably priced.
There are of course many more restaurants in Osaka we didn't visit. Four that I want to go back to try are Kawazoe, Nishi, the Harijyu Curry Restaurant (I was very excited by the huge line), and Becasse, a sexy-sounding French restaurant.
In Osaka, the best hotel (and the only one my friends recommended to me when I was looking for a place to stay) is the Ritz-Carlton, Osaka. This perpetually busy hotel is fantastically well-located in Umeda and is brilliantly appointed. It was perfect in December, right before the holidays. The lobby is furnished with a nod to 18th and 19th Century European opulance. The rooms, by contrast, are classic and very comfortable. The hotel has 4 pretty stunning restaurants, a Japanese, a French, a Chinese and an Italian. It also has two bars and a lobby lounge. The wine bar is really cool; it offers 25 different wines by the glass, including some pretty ultra-premium labels, stuff that you'd normally need to buy a whole bottle to taste. If you can swing it, get access to the Club Lounge on the 34th floor. It's very plush and comfy and they serve drinks and food throughout the day. Be warned though; all your fellow guests will be similarly circling the food tables waiting for the next delicious something-or-other that will come out from the hotel's kitchens. When we visited, the hotel was completely full. Amazingly, 90% of the Ritz-Carlton Osaka's business is domestic. Fortunately, everyone here spoke English perfectly (which is not the case for the rest of the city). And the concierges are amazing. Without their help, we wouldn't have been able to navigate our way through Osaka. These tireless and always helpful women made recommendations for us, made reservations, printed maps and gave us more help than I have ever gotten from any other concierge in any other city. Their help alone made staying at the Ritz a joy. (If and when you go Osaka and want to go to some of the places I've written about in this or the previous post, I suggest asking your own concierge for help. If you stay at the Ritz, I guarantee you'll have no problem.)
Osaka really amazed both S and I. We thought that Singaporeans lived to eat and shop. Well, they don't hold a candle to the people that populate Osaka. The city was a buzzing, utterly mad, utterly wonderful, eating and shopping playground. The city's two major shopping districts, Umeda and Shinsaibashi, were packed throughout our entire stay. The stores were full and the cash registers were ringing like crazy. The stores were also full of much cooler stuff than what we get here. Among our favourites were the 0101 department store in Namba for cool Japanese women's fashion, Hankyu department store in Umeda for men's shoes, the Tomorrowland store on Mido-Suji for really chic men's and women's fashion, and Doguya-suji and Hankyu department store for some nifty Japanese kitchen tools. Also, as expected, all the food halls in the department stores were pretty jaw-dropping. S especially liked the ones in Sogo in Shinsaibashi and Takashimaya in Namba. I can't even begin to describe the sheer joy we had going from pastry counter to pastry counter snacking on gorgeous and delicious sweets. In a class of its own, though, is the food hall in the basement of the Hanshin department store. More like a giant market, this food hall was simply amazing. You can get everything there from fresh produce to specialty cooked foods. Unfortunately, it's also perpetually packed. You'll spend just as much time elbowing your way through the crowds as you will trying to buy stuff to snack on.
A drink after all that food
Finally, I had to mention what is one of the coolest bars I have ever been to. There are 3 B Bars in Japan. Owned and operated by Baccarat, these sleek and stylish bars are located next to the French crystal brand's stores in Tokyo and Osaka. The Osaka B Bar is in Hilton Plaza East in Umeda. From the Ritz-Carlton, it's a short 10 minute walk. The bars are gorgeously moody and dark. Spotlights highlight each patron's drinks, which are served, as expected, in Baccarat crystal glasses. For those of us who can't afford a collection of high-priced crystal, it's a great chance to feel and use their products. The drinks, by the way, are also perfectly made and simply delicious.