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El Comal Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

El Comal, serving great New Mexican food in Santa Fe for more than thirty years

From a social connectedness perspective, 1995 was the dark ages. The internet as we know and love it today was in its relative infancy.  There was no Urbanspoon, no Yelp, no Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog…no trusted online resource to enlighten and entice diners.  My only knowledge of Santa Fe’s restaurant scene came from fading memories and a 1994 article on Fortune magazine naming the City Different as one of the fruited plain’s ten best dining destinations.  The article listed such stalwarts as the Coyote Cafe, Santacafe and the Tecolote Cafe as among the city’s best.

After nearly two decades of wanderlust and travel courtesy of the United States Air Force, I had finally returned home to New Mexico and looked forward to introducing my bride of ten years to one of Fortune magazine’s anointed restaurants.  It was our first excursion together to Santa Fe and my first opportunity to impress my Kim with sophisticated Santa Fe cuisine.  My mom who’s infinitely more intelligent than I am had other ideas, steering us away from Fortune magazine’s popular tourist destinations and introducing us to one of Santa Fe’s quintessential off-the-beaten-path, mom-and-pop restaurants, a gem named El Comal.

Some of the very best chips and salsa in Santa Fe

By 1995, El Comal had already been serving New Mexican cuisine for over a decade.  Tucked away in a small, nondescript strip mall that already had an anachronistic, timeworn look and feel to it, El Comal was the antithesis of Fortune magazine’s anointed restaurants, devoid of the trappings and superficiality that so often defines what unenlightened diners often consider signs of good restaurants.  El Comal is named for the heavy cast iron griddle used to cook tortillas.  It appeared to be a magnet for blue collar workers and Hispanic families, preparing New Mexican food as they would prepare it at home.

Just as El Comal itself is receded from the well-trafficked Cerrillos Road, over the years memories of the restaurant receded to the back of my mind.  Frankly, it wasn’t until the well-traveled Lobo Lair owner Mark Chavez mentioned it on a tweet that I fondly remembered a very good meal there so many years ago.  Chavez captioned a photo of his lunch “real recognize real.” Real is an apt description for El Comal, one of the least pretentious and most authentic New Mexican restaurants in the Land of Enchantment.  Not much had changed in the nineteen years since my last visit, but it did secure a commitment not to let so much time pass before my next visit.

Breakfast Enchiladas Christmas Style

If you have a number of restaurants on your “rotation” of frequent favorites, one visit to El Comal will probably  convince you to add it to that rotation. It’s that good!  It’s that real!  A comprehensive breakfast and lunch-dinner menu is replete with all your favorite New Mexican dishes while a chalkboard lists a handful of daily specials which the wait staff dutifully pushes. Cumin is not used on either the red or green chile.

Chips and salsa have become so de rigueur that we often take for granted that they’ll be good and that they’ll be the most piquant items on the menu.  More than often the chips and salsa live up to those expectations.  At El Comal, they exceed all expectations.  Quite simply these might be the best chips and salsa served at any New Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe.  The salsa, made with red chile, is incendiary, offering a piquancy that is heightened by the restaurant’s scalding hot coffee.  The chips are crisp, lightly salted and perfect for dredging large scoops of the superb salsa.

Carne Adovada Taco

My server pushed the breakfast enchiladas with such alacrity that not ordering them was not an option.  Thank goodness I’m such an easy mark.  These are among the very best breakfast enchiladas I’ve had: two rolled corn tortillas engorged with scrambled eggs and chorizo topped with shredded cheese and red and green chile.  Chorizo is the Rodney Dangerfield of the breakfast meats, usually mentioned after bacon, sausage and ham, but when it’s made well, there is no meat quite as rousing in the morning. El Comal’s chorizo is rich and flavorful with a pleasant spiciness and just a bit of char.  The corn tortillas are redolent with the enticing aromas of corn just off the comal. 

The highlight of the breakfast enchilada entree is most assuredly the red and green chile, both of which are absolutely magnificent.  The red chile, in particular, has a depth of flavor very few red chiles achieve. The green chile also has a real personality, one that reminds you chile is technically a fruit.  The breakfast enchiladas are served with pinto beans and hash browns.  The hash browns are of the “take it or leave it” variety, but dip them in the chile and they’re addictive.  In fact, the chile is so good you’ll finish off the oft-annoying garnish with it.  The beans are top shelf, as good as they can be made. 

El Comal offers a la carte tacos filled with ground beef, shredded beef, chicken and get this, carne adovada. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a carne adovada taco. It’s a life altering experience, one that should entice you to order the carne adovada plate on your next visit.  The carne adovada is porcine perfection, tender tendrils of pork marinated in a wondrous red chile.  It pairs wonderfully with the corn tortilla.   

El Comal may not be on any national publications touting the best in Santa Fe restaurants, but locals have a high regard for this small mom-and-pop. It’s a great restaurant warranting a greater frequency of visits.

El Comal Cafe
3571 Cerrillos
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 471-3224
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Coffee, Breakfast Enchiladas Christmas Style, Chips and Salsa, Carne Adovada Taco

El Comal Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Whole Hog Cafe – Santa Fe & Albuquerque, New Mexico

Whole Hog in Albuquerque

While the etymology of the expression “whole hog” appears to be American, its progenitor is actually an English slang word.  Americans in the new world employed the slang use of hog as a word for dime, intending the term to mean “spend the entire coin at once.”  The word hog had been previously used in the Mother Country as slang for a shilling and came from the depiction of a hog on one side of the English coin.

To barbecue fanatics, however, the term “whole hog” can only mean one thing–the whole hog category in Memphis in May, the annual world barbecue championships in Memphis, Tennessee, an event which has been called the “Superbowl of Swine.”  If you win the whole hog category in Memphis, you have every right to call yourself the very best in the world.  It means you’ve mastered ribs, pulled pork and sausage–virtually snout to tail.

The trophy room

When we saw a restaurant on Cerrillos Road billing itself as the “Whole Hog Cafe,” we wondered if it was an audacious pretender to the pinnacle of pork or the real deal.  The restaurant’s trademark image of a portly porker subtitled “World Championship BBQ” cued us in to the fact that its ‘cue just might have the porcine pedigree to call itself Whole Hog.

Sure enough, the Whole Hog Cafe and Catering Company, which competes in Memphis in May as the “Southern Gentlemen’s Culinary Society” earned first place in the 2002 Memphis in May World Barbecue Championship. It has also earned walls full of awards in premier pork events throughout the country. Memphis in May awards alone include the 2002 world championship, first place in the whole hog category and second place in the ribs category. In the millennium year, they also earned second place in the ribs category at Memphis.

Two of the three Memphis in May championships earned in 2002

Two of the three Memphis in May championships earned in 2002

Based out of Arkansas, the Whole Hog Cafe is but one of five restaurants listed in Fodor’s Travel Guides as “Don’t Miss” as you travel through the Razorback state.  Aside from the original restaurant in Little Rock and satellites in Arkansas, only  Santa Fe,  Albuquerque (as of December, 2007),  Cherry Hill (New Jersey) and Springfield (Missouri) can boast of a Whole Hog Cafe, all licensed franchises of the original.  The Santa Fe restaurant launched in the summer of 2006 and has been pulling ‘em in like the pulled pork on the menu.

True to the restaurant’s name, pork–porcine perfection Memphis style–is the specialty of the Whole Hog Cafe, but that’s certainly not all you’ll find.  Whole Hog also offers chicken and beef brisket you wouldn’t be ashamed to serve in Texas where beef is king.  The restaurant isn’t a slouch at sides either, offering a number of complementary dishes you’ll enjoy.

The essentials

One of the essentials Texans and Southerners order with their barbecue is Big Red soda, a bright red cream soda with effervescence and personality.  It’s a beverage tailor-made for barbecue.  The other essentials are already at your table: a roll of paper towels (you’ll be using up several of them) and a six pack of barbecue sauces, each numbered.  There’s another sauce, but you have to request it at the order counter where you’ll be cautioned that the “Volcano” sauce is enjoyed at your own risk.  It’s pretty incendiary stuff.

Sauce number one is sweet and mild with a molasses flavor.  Sauce number two is a traditional tomato and vinegar sauce and is slightly tangy and acidic.  Sauce number three is a spicier version of sauce number two.  The fourth sauce is more traditionally Southern and features vinegar and spices.  The fifth sauce is sweet with a heavy molasses flavor.  It is practically lacquered on when applied to baby back ribs.  The sixth sauce is reminiscent of the sauce you’d find in the Carolinas with a basis of rich mustard and vinegar.  It’s better than some of the best mustard-based sauce we’ve had in the Southeastern states.

Pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw

Pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw

Purists will tell you that great barbecue doesn’t need sauce if it’s redolent with smoke and dry rub spices.  The Whole Hog’s meats certainly don’t need sauces, but it’s fun and adventurous to experiment with various sauce and meat combinations.   After an April, 2014 trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I couldn’t get enough mustard and vinegar-based sauces.  Sauces, like meats, are a matter of personal preference. 

So are sandwiches.  Unless you request otherwise, Whole Hog sandwiches are topped with a sweet coleslaw.  This isn’t just Memphis style barbecue, it’s the way barbecue is prepared in Arkansas.  It’s the way former president Clinton loved his barbecue as depicted in a photograph near the restaurant’s entrance.  Sandwiches come in two sizes–regular and jumbo.  Each is abundantly packed with juicy, flavorful and fork-tender meat–either pulled pork, beef brisket, pulled chicken or pork loin.  Each is smoked to perfection for fifteen hours after a delicate application of dry-rub spices.

A half rack of ribs

A half rack of ribs

The pulled pork sandwich is something special.  Shredded, smoky bits of pulled pork marry with the sweet and tangy coleslaw and the sauce of your choosing to form a two-fisted, mouth-watering sandwich you’ll remember long afterward.  The pork is so full-bodied, you can almost imagine it as a carne adovada.  For being a Memphis style barbecue restaurant, the Whole Hog would do Texas proud with its rendition of a beef brisket sandwich replete with fork-tender sliced beef.

The most prodigious plate on the menu is fittingly called The Whole Hog Platter.  Large enough to feed a small family, it includes a triumvirate of smoked meats: pulled pork, beef brisket and baby back ribs (four bones) along with three sides–beans, potato salad, coleslaw and a dinner roll.  The ribs can’t be describe as “fall of the bone” tender which isn’t a bad thing as sometimes that means they’re overdone.  The meat does come off the bone rather cleanly and easily with minimal effort.  The ribs are meaty, tender and smoky.

The Whole Hog Platter

The beef brisket and pulled pork are both redolent with spice and smoke.  They’re tender and moist, the perfect vehicles for any of the sauces if you’re in a saucy mood.  Whole Hog’s pulled pork and beef brisket are the type I refer to as Ivory Snow in that they’re 99 and 44/100 percent pure.  You won’t find any fatty or sinewy meat here, but that type of meat is exactly what people love about restaurants such as Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City.  Whole Hog’s barbecue also doesn’t give you a whole lot of smoke, merely enough of a hint to leave your mirthful, another attribute of outstanding barbecue.

The half chicken plate is a paragon of poultry perfection, a panacea for patients suffering from (or enjoying) Alektorophilia.    Within a half chicken, you’ll find both white meat and dark meat all within a thigh, breast, wing and leg.  Mildly flavored and not as smoky as other meats, it nonetheless features flavor which can’t be cooped up.  If you must insist on a sauce, might I suggest the number six, a rich mustard and vinegar sauce reminiscent of the sauces served in the Carolinas.

Smoked Chicken with a cucumber salad

The menu features only a few desserts: brownies, cookies and banana pudding.  The latter is what the great South is famous for and a good choice.  It comes in a small bowl and the portion size isn’t quite big enough for two to share.  The banana pudding is served cool, but not enough for your teeth to chatter.  The vanilla wafers are certainly more assertive than you might be used to.

Santa Fe is one of America’s very best restaurant towns, but it isn’t known for barbecue.  In recent years only the Cowgirl BBQ & Western Grill has seen much success as a barbecue restaurant.  Successive years (2006 and 2007) saw the launch of two barbecue restaurants–Whole Hog Cafe and Josh’s Barbecue (reopened in 2010 as The Ranch House)–which might put Santa Fe on the barbecue map.  It’s much closer than Memphis.

Banana Pudding

Whole Hog Cafe
9880 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-323-1688
Web Site
LATEST VISIT:  26 May 2014
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Jumbo Pulled Pork Sandwich with Coleslaw, Jumbo Pork Loin Sandwich, Babyback Ribs, Baked Beans

Whole Hog Cafe on Urbanspoon

Izanami – Santa Fe, New Mexico

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The pathway to sublime dining at Izanami

“Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words.”
~Marcel Marceau

When the Spaniards first gazed upon the setting sun as it hit the towering snow-capped mountains and appeared to bathe the slopes in a burst of red, they were so moved that the pious Conquistadors exclaimed “Sangre de Cristo,” blood of Christ.  Whether bathed in the spectacular red alpenglow of sunset or in the “like yellow hair of a tigress brindled with pines” gold of autumn aspens as described by D.H. Lawrence, the Sangre de Cristos still move people deeply, stirring their very souls.

The Sangre de Cristos are also spectacular when wispy amorphous clouds dance around the blanket of sky in all its magnificent gradations of blue. That’s the palette from which skies were painted on the day my friends and culinary kindred spirits Franzi Ortega and Nikko Harada joined me for an incredible dining experience at Izanami, the celebrated izakaya-style restaurant at the Ten Thousand Waves resort scant minutes from downtown Santa Fe.

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Izanami, an incredibly rare dining experience and more

You don’t have to spend time at Ten Thousand Waves to fully appreciate Izanami, but if you don’t, you might  feel you missed out on a very special place.  The 20-acre Japanese-inspired spa and boutique inn just a few miles from the terminus of the Sangre de Cristo range is transcendent, a tranquil idyll at which you might feel you’re on a mountain retreat in the Land of the Rising Sun instead of one in the Land of Enchantment. The Japanese onsen (thermal baths), spa suites, lodging and restaurant are situated among piñons and junipers where the stillness is punctuated only by birdsong and wind rustling through the trees. 

Opening its doors in November, 2013, Izanami is a meticulously planned, no detail spared, culmination of years of dreams come true for owner Duke Klauck.  Though there are a few parking spots in close proximity to the restaurant, parking in the lower lot near Hyde Park Road provides a back-to-nature option you’ll ultimately appreciate more.  With a 91 step climb over a dirt trail, you’ll not only gain 60-feet of elevation, but you’ll feel renewed and refreshed among nature.  At night the trail is illuminated by Japanese lanterns.

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Wakame Salad

As you approach the summit and Izanami comes into view, any notions that you’re still in New Mexico may temporarily dissipate.  Instead of the adobe-hued architecture that so defines Santa Fe style, the elegant edifice housing Izanami is architecturally,  thematically and spiritually Japanese.  The hunter green roof is constructed from some 11,000 tiles procured from the  Aichi prefecture in Japan  It’s only when you look across the vast expanse across the valley and see the adobe stucco tinged homes dotting the distant hillsides that you’ll remember you’re still in New Mexico.

Prefacing the restaurant’s entrance is an elegant waterfall from which rivulets of water cascade in a calming cadence.  Seating options offer a variety of dining experiences.  Weather permitting, there may be no better option than the outdoor patio which offers spectacular views of the Sangre De Cristos.  A tatami (woven straw mat) room provides experiential authenticity with its floor seating (although people of height may not find this option very comfortable).  Sit at the counter and views of a spectacular exhibition kitchen complete with robata  charcoal grill at your beck and call.  Other options range from a communal table to a custom-made private booth.

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Daily assortment of pickles

As you peruse the menu, you’ll immediately discover Izanami is not your standard run-of-the-mill Japanese restaurant as Americans have come to stereotype them.  Izanami is an Izakaya which translates literally to “stay sake shop.”  It’s essentially a Japanese tavern or drinking house with a menu of small dishes.  Call it a gastropub, if you will.  Contrary to many American restaurants, Izakaya establishments don’t try to “turn tables” by rushing customers out so others can take their place.  Izakayas are intended to be milieus in which diners can linger with good friends, good food and good drinks.

The good food is in the form of kozara (small plates) which arrive from the kitchen as they’re ready.  It’s become popular to equate kozara with Spanish tapas, but the kozara tradition actually has its genesis in Japanese fishermen using paddles to share food with one another.  Seasonal menus are crafted from locally-sourced meat and produce.  The kitchen is helmed by the phenomenally talented Kim Muller, one of the most credentialed and popular chefs in New Mexico.

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Crispy Brussels Sprouts

Perhaps only Andy Rooney, the curmudgeonly commentator on television’s 60 Minutes would dislike Izanami.  Rooney didn’t like food that’s “too carefully arranged; it makes me think that the chef is spending too much time arranging and not enough time cooking. If I wanted a picture I’d buy a painting.”  Everyone else should enjoy the eye-pleasing artful plating. Everything is where it should be for optimum harmony, balance and appearance, a sort of plate syzygy. The balance of color, texture and appearance makes diners give pause to reflect on how great everything looks before their taste buds confirm what their eyes already know.

Having Nikko across the table during our inaugural visit gave us insights as to culinary traditions, preparation styles and ingredients.  She guided our adventure, three separate orders of three items per order, all shared by the three of us.  In nearly three hours of relaxed paced dining, we never felt rushed nor did we ever feel overfull. It was all so un-American.

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Seasonal Vegetable Plate with Edamame Hummus and Shiro Miso Dip

Our inaugural triumvirate of deliciousness included a wakame salad, a mound of deeply green wakame (an edible seaweed) surrounded by thinly sliced radishes and drizzled with a ginger wafu dressing.  Scallions and a small tangle of rice noodles completed the artisan salad.  The Wakame, a mild sea vegetable vaguely similar to spinach, comes to life with the mild, yet refreshingly cool dressing.   As if tasting great isn’t enough, the wakame salad is high in vitamins and minerals and is low in fat and cholesterol.  The dime-thin radishes, including daikon, are lightly pickled and are absolutely delicious.

The daily assortment of pickles is not to be missed.  An essential part of the Japanese diet, pickles are served with virtually every traditional meal (along with rice and miso soup).  The versatility of pickles allows them to be used as a condiment, relish, garnish, digestive or palate cleanser.  Moreover, they’re absolutely delicious, in large part to judicious use of pickling spices, brine and salts.  None of the pickles we shared were of the lip-pursing variety.  The pickled cucumbers, for example, have a crunchy texture and a sweet-sour flavor with neither sweet nor sour being overly so.

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Nami Burger

In recent years Brussels sprouts have become a trendy, almost de rigueur offering at restaurants of all genre.  Brussels sprouts not only transcend ethnicity, they’re considered among the healthiest foods in the world.  Izanami’s crispy Brussels sprouts have a light, crinkly texture and are seasoned with lemon, chili, mint and puffed rice.  Diners who are averse to the aroma or taste of Brussels sprouts should try these.  Unlike some restaurants which try to mask the natural flavors of this cruciferous vegetable, Izanami complements those flavors, rendering these Brussels a joy to eat.

Hummus, a traditional and very versatile Middle Eastern dish, is yet another food that has transcended ethnicities.  Restaurants of all genres offer their take on a dish that can be used as a dip, spread, condiment or even entree.  Izanami’s rendition is made with edamame, the young, tender soybeans beloved by vegans and carnivores alike.  Edamame hummus has all the qualities of an outstanding hummus with an element of freshness many of them don’t offer.  This hummus is part of a seasonal vegetable plate which pairs the edamame hummus with a shiro miso dip, the lightest and sweetest of all misos.  Instead of the more fashionable pita wedges, a bowl of sliced carrots, sliced zucchini, edamame in pods and cabbage are provided for dipping.  The shiro miso dip was outstanding, on par with the edamame hummus.

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Yaki Onigiri

After espying burgers being delivered to the table behind us, we succumbed to carnivorous temptation and split a Nami Burger.  Constructed of six ounces of naturally raised, impossibly decadent wagyu beef from New Mexico’s own Lone Mountain Wagyu, this is a burger good enough to belong on such a sublime menu.  Wagyu beef, which surpasses USDA marbling standards for prime-grade beef, comes from the same breed stock that yields the famed Kobe beef of Japan.  It’s unctuous and delicious, rendering toppings unnecessary.  Even green chile would have been superfluous.

Perhaps nothing pairs with burgers as well as fries.  Izanami’s Shichimi fries are certainly a wonderful complement to the Nami burger.  The fries themselves are cut from Kennebec potatoes, a favorite of fine restaurants everywhere.  Shichimi is a coarsely-ground, seven-spice seasoning blend widely used in Japanese cuisine, takes those fries to another dimension of deliciousness.  One of the reasons we all enjoyed Shichimi so much is that red chili peppers are the primary ingredient in the spice mixture.  A shaker of Shichimi is available on each table along with salt so we used it on almost everything.

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White sweet potatoes with a miso glaze and butter

Perhaps the closes Izanami comes to serving sushi is in offering Yaki Onigiri, described on the menu as “grilled rice balls” even though they’re triangular in shape.  Onigiri is made of sushi rice, is flavored with rice vinegar and is dotted with sesame seeds.  Unlike nigiri, no raw fish is involved.  A miso glaze smear on the plate is all the condiment you need to enjoy this Japanese street food favorite.  The onigiri is accompanied by a small bowl of daily pickle.  Trust me, you can’t have enough Japanese pickles.   The Dill stork should deliver these treasures.

Nikko, Franzi and I all had our favorites and selflessly allowed one another to eat more than an equal portion of our individual favorites.  For me, the white sweet potatoes became an object of cupidity, maybe even lust (I momentarily contemplated hiding the bowl of these terrific tubers from my friends).  Glazed with a sweet miso and plenty of butter, these grilled white sweet potatoes aren’t overly sweet or starchy, but have a thoroughly enjoyable flavor and texture.

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Sake-braised shimeji mushrooms

As a sheltered child growing up in an agrarian village in northern New Mexico, my first exposure to mushrooms came from an episode of Gilligan’s Island when Mary Ann believes she had eaten poisonous mushrooms (roomis igloomus).  It wasn’t until years later during a visit to Furr’s Cafeteria that I experienced edible and delicious mushrooms for myself.  Izanami’s sake-braised Shimeji mushrooms are far superior to the gravied mushrooms from Furr’s.  Shimeji mushrooms have small, rounded, tight caps and when lightly cooked, are replete with the flavor sensation known as “umami” in Japanese cuisine.  These are truly exceptional mushrooms.

Not all of Izanami’s desserts are traditional Japanese postprandial offerings, but they’re certainly Japanese inspired.  They’re also absolutely fabulous, all worthy of their amazing predecessors.  A banana, cut into four sections, coated in panko bread crumbs and deep-fried is somewhat reminiscent of some Thai desserts, but with a personality all its own courtesy of the panko which imbues the bananas with a light, crunchy coating sheathing a sweet, soft fruit.  The black sesame panna cotta is delicate and light with an almost alchemic quality in that its flavor profile builds on your tongue and taste buds.  The longer you linger between bites, the more you enjoy the amazing flavors of this ethereal dish.  Our third dessert was a plum sake sorbet.  Perhaps more than any other culinary culture, Japanese have actualized the potential of plums.  The plum sake sorbet is imbued with the sweet-tart flavor unique to plums, while taking in the refreshing qualities of a superb sorbet.

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Black Sesame Panna Cotta, Plum Sake Sorbet, Panko Banana

In the past two months, I’ve experienced outstanding meals at two transcendent restaurants in the Land of Enchantment–Epazote and Izanami–both in Santa Fe. One of the things that made them transcendent and transformative is their ability to transport diners to a better time, a better place, a better self. Within months after opening Izanami was one of only thirty restaurants nominated for a James Beard Award as the best restaurant to launch in 2014.  It has and should continue to garner tremendous accolades for years to come.

Izanami
Ten Thousand Waves
3451 Hyde Park Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 428-6390
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 5 May 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$$ – $$$$$
BEST BET:

Izanami on Urbanspoon