Somewhere between Hong Kong and Japan, I installed Field Trip on my phone, and now it buzzes every so often when we pass something Field Trip deems interesting. The app pulls data from a wide variety of blogs, so the notices aren't always that relevant to a family of four. Yet when it went off as we rode Street Car No. 1 to our hostel in Hiroshima, I was intrigued by the description of a restaurant called Tsukunejima that was pulled in from food critic Andy Hayler's blog. So intrigued, in fact, my wife and I decided we wanted to try it for dinner. It turned out to be one of our most memorable moments of 2014. Here's how it went down.
After an emotional day wandering around Hiroshima, we were pretty hungry and set off to find the place. Finding anything in Japan comes with a certain level of difficulty, and Tsukunejima was no exception. We walked by its nondescript storefront on a pedestrian-only side street two times before we finally located it.
This is a small restaurant with only 13 seats, and we totally lucked out that there were just four seats left in an otherwise packed house. After we were seated, the waiter came up and explained there was no English menu (nor had we expected one). Instead, he wrote two numbers on a sheet of paper: 3,740 and 5,100. These were the prices, in yen, of the two fixed-menu (or set menu as its often called in Japan) options. We ordered four of the less expensive meals.
The waiter brought us each a neatly organized tray filled with pickled vegetables, a small salad, dipping sauce for tempura, a bowl of daikon radish, and a two-compartment dish with curry powder and salt.
As we waited to be served, the other patrons were talking among themselves and laughing, and it didn't take too long to realize we were the topic of conversation. After a few minutes of what looked like friendly debate, they elected one man who spoke the best English to field questions from the others to us and translate our answers back to the group. They were curious about how we found the restaurant, our occupations, the ages of our daughters, our travel plans, and what we're doing for the girls' schooling. They also seemed to be very happy that all four of us knew how to use chopsticks.
Behind the counter, only a few feet from where we were seated, the chef used long, thick chopsticks to dip the different courses into tempura batter and fry them to crispy perfection in a wide pan filled with oil. One of the things that had initially intrigued me about the restaurant was Andy Hayler's description of this oil, and I wasn't disappointed—it tasted like no other oil I've ever had. It was light and gave the food a subtle sesame flavor.
As the chef cooked and served each course at a comfortable pace, we continued talking to the the other diners thoughout the meal. The whole setting was a very friendly and intimate, more like a dinner party than a meal with strangers from a different country.
And the meal itself was amazing. The chef spoke English well enough to explain to us what we were eating and what sauces and seasonings we should use for each course. Here's what we ate during the hour and a half we were there:
- Prawn (with head)
- Prawn (no head) wrapped in shisito (small Japanese pepper)
- Two renkon (lotus root) slices
- A mushroom stuffed with shrimp
- Squid wrapped in shiso (perilla leaf), the green (aojiso) variety
- Gobo (burdock)
- Some kind of white fish with no English name
- Kakiage (corn, green beans, and clams over rice)
- Miso soup with clams
- Cup of tea (with something roasted)
- Two orange slices for dessert
When it was over, we were stuffed. Even my youngest, who's a notoriously picky eater, tried most of the courses (except the prawn with the head). It was one of the more expensive meals we've had on the trip so far (¥15,000; about $125 U.S.) and totally busted our daily budget. But it was also one of the best meals I've ever had—and one I'm likely to think about for a long time. If you're ever in Hiroshima, do yourself a favor and check it out. But I recommend an making a reservation first.