Just a couple of months back, Y decided to take the week of over her birthday in September to celebrate with R and me in Japan, one of our favourite food cities in the world. We discussed it would be wise to explore a different part of Japan in addition to Tokyo, and since we found out that Singapore Airlines flies daily to Fukuoka, we figured why not? With Fukuoka confirmed as a destination, I got down to planning the details with Y, especially finding another interesting exotic location for our ryokan cum hot spring visit in the Kyushu Prefecture which Fukuoka is part of.
Given none of my friends has been to Fukuoka yet, maybe it’s a blessing that I did not have any preconceived notions of the place hearing from others and just went there with a happy and open mind. My only knowledge of the city was that it was ranked 10th as the most livable city in the world by Monocle Magazine this year. That does speak volumes for the city otherwise known as the “Land of Ramen” to me, as the ‘hakata’ style ramen originated in Fukuoka. I could see R especially, was salivating the moment we revealed this fact to him, as he is fanatical about ramen. I was just crossing my paws he was not going to go on a ramen rampage in Fukuoka, as Y and I planned on trying some of their other local food specialities, and weren’t exactly too keen to be eating lunch and dinner at various ramen joints, although I did read online on some crazy bloggers that really did that.
Fukuoka city is a rather small city as compared to Tokyo. It took us roughly 20 – 25 mins by taxi to get to the hotel which is in the Tenjin area. I had chosen to stay at Hotel Il Palazzo partly as its location was near enough to all the malls and most of the restaurants we were planning to head to, very important when we only had 2 nights in Fukuoka. The building had a very interesting facade to it, no windows, I kinda got worried that our hotel room wasn’t going to have windows but thank god it did! Although I think the building facade looked more impressive than the rooms, decent but not great. The weather was lovely too, as we were going into autumn from summer, it was not as hot, and the temperature averaged around 22 degrees celsius.
Enough said! So talking about the food in Fukuoka, with only 2 days essentially, only 4 proper meals and whatever we could stomach in between, I arranged for all the restaurants to be booked in advance, and some needed to be of course Fukuoka local specialties.
The first beginning with Toriden (they have 2 locations, Hakata and in Yakuin) – a restaurant well known for Mizutani, which means hot pot with chicken soup. Here, they are well known for their dense milky chicken broth, with chunks of chicken meat and vegetables thrown in. I had read on some local blogs that they don’t speak English so we just asked for the 4800 yen course set to be on the safe side. We went to the main branch in Hakata city, a 30 minutes slow walk from our hotel, and was seated in a private room. They started off our course meal with a soft boiled egg with miso paste, shimeji mushrooms with mizuna salad and saba fish with goma dressing and some mixed tempura. The main star that emerged after was the CHICKEN HOT POT! After simmering in the hot pot for a while, the tender chunks of chicken thigh meat and vegetables were served to us in a bowl, and we were advised we add the yuzu paste and other seasonings on the side for more oomph, the citrus flavour from the yuzu coupled with the creamy chicken soup was a perfect combo. This was a perfect dish for a snowy winter. At the end of the course, we could choose to have the remaining soup with noodles or porridge, and a no brainer we opted for porridge, as what’s more classic than to end off with a chicken and egg ‘zousui’ (otherwise known as porridge). This first meal in Fukuoka was a nice welcome to the city.
Sushi in the different cities of Japan have different influences, like Tokyo is more Edo style, in Fukuoka the ‘Hakata-Mae’ style sushi is more prevalent. R’s Japanese friend MT, gave us his local recommendation for sushi to head to this place called Yamanaka Sushi (2-8-8 Watanabe doori, Chuo-ku, Fukuokashi, Fukuoka, 810-0004, Japan), a very popular place and definitely require reservations. The sushi restaurant had a rather discreet entrance to it but thank god for Y being able to still read some Japanese words and recognised the Japanese signage. Designed by well known architect Arata Isozaki, it had a sleek modern appearance to the interiors. I noticed the billowing Japanese paper lights that spanned above the entire sushi bar counter as we were seated at our counter. To book a seat at the counter required a minimum 12,000 yen course and I was sure we would manage to spend that or even more. I managed to articulate to the Japanese server we wanted the sashimi, sushi course with some add ons such as my favourite matsutake mushrooms – only available during this autumn season, the moment my big bear eyes saw them glistening in the counter. So yes our total spent escalated accordingly as well.
Below marks the courses of food we had in a gallery format for your easy viewing. I personally did not really like the sashimi, in fact I found some of the fish rather chewy which was really odd. The Hokkaido crab was nicely deshelled for us, but I wasn’t too impressed that I still found shell bits inside. My favourite was the grilled fish – thornhead, it seemed like it had been simmered in a sweet soy sauce for a really long time giving it a really nice intense flavour. The Matsutake mushrooms were nicely grilled and served classic style with lime, that’s always my preferred way to eat them. After tasting the sushi, I regretted not just opting for a pure sushi meal instead of a mixed sashimi and sushi meal. I would have loved to try more sushi but we were so full by then. I think the distinction between the sushi here versus what I have tried in Tokyo is the soy sauce and the taste of the rice. A special soy sauce is made in house and apparently the rice is blended with black vinegar which explained the difference in the taste. Tokyo sushi I find is more delicate and lighter on the palate, while here, the sushi is slightly heavier in taste.
Moving on to other local specialities in Fukuoka would be the Motsunabe which is like a hot pot stew of beef or pork guts, innards and could be with miso, salt or soy based soups. Y and I were especially hesitant to try this since we don’t eat all the insides of the animals typically but R was keen to try, so we asked the hotel to suggest a place for us instead. Nakamura Motsunabe was a small mom and pop shop just a street away from our hotel, run by a friendly elderly lady and her hubby. Not crowded at all when we got there at 7pm, we noticed the restaurant had a small bar counter and couple of tables on tatami mats. Not sure what to expect, we decided to order a small bottle of sake and start with the cheapest course which we assumed was the smallest amount just in case it was not so good. The broth was a light soy based and had all the usual suspects of chicken gizzard, chicken pieces, liver, intestines and leek and cucumber. Surprisingly, it tasted better than we expected and did not have the gamey taste that guts sometimes have. And to top it off, this is a fantastic meal that goes with sake, can imagine why the locals love eating this over drinks. A pity we weren’t given a namecard, so sorry about not leaving an address or telephone for this place.
As a part 2 dinner after our trial of Motsunabe, we decided to head for the best bowl of ramen and settled on Shin Shin on my long list of ramen joints to check out. We went to the one in Tenjin (3 Chome-2-19 Tenjin, Chuo Ward, Fukuoka, 810-0001, Japan) a short taxi ride away, and thank goodness there was not a queue yet at 8.30 pm when we arrived. We shared a bowl of dry style ramen and ordered the classic soup with lots of spring onions. The soup was definitely the best as the noodles were the winner. It was very long and thin almost like mee sua (a very thin Chinese noodles) and did not feel so starchy like some other ramen places and had a nice bite to it. I noticed how the chef always ‘extends’ the noodle as he cooks it in the broth before serving. The broth was also very tasty without being too salty, definitely on my list of top ramen places to visit now in addition to Ichiran.
One of the not so typical Fukuoka dishes but definitely one of my favourite Japanese dishes is Unagi (eel), and I discovered one place in my research called Yoshizuka Unagi (2-8-27 Nakasu, Hakataku, Fukuoka, Fukuoka Prefecture 810-0801, Japan; Tel: 0922710700). Thank goodness we booked it for lunch as it was packed especially more so as it was a Saturday. We were brought up to the 3rd floor which was for reserved seating and had a nice view of the river. After looking through the menu, I decided to order the Super Deluxe Kabayaki which came with 7 extra large Unagis served in a beautiful lacquer box, and ordered a rice and miso set on the side. We shared some appetizers such as the Honesenbei (deep fried eel bones) – also a must try, and my favourite Umaki which was eel rolled omelette. I was obviously a little bit greedy as I struggled to finish my last 2 pieces of Unagi but oh I have to say this is the best Unagi I have ever had, even better than one I had in Tokyo, Chikuyoutei a few years ago. No wonder this restaurant is featured as a recommended restaurant although with no Michelin Stars in Fukuoka Saga 2014 Michelin Guide. I am still dreaming of it now especially when all the unagi in Singapore really sucks!
There are still many more eats worth exploring in Fukuoka such as their famous night street stalls known as “yatai” and ‘live’ squid sashimi, just some signature local highlights which we didn’t have a chance to try, as well as other interesting Michelin and bib gourmand restaurants I discovered, after purchasing the 2014 Michelin Guide for Fukuoka and Saga. It gives me a reason to come back to visit this city, which is so convenient from Singapore. Even their airport gift food hall was impressive, likened to a smaller version of Sapporo Airport (no kidding), selling all their local delicacies such as Mentaiko.
It was a rather short but eventful trip exploring some of Fukuoka’s best eats including a lot of walking, so a much deserved break in a lovely Ryokan was needed. Look out for my next post on what I got up to in our drive down from Fukuoka.