With temperatures getting colder by the day for our more temperate Asian neighbors, my social media feed has, at one point, been barraged with photos of the rich reds and yellows of koyo (autumn leaf viewing) in Japan. It’s the splash of bright warmth just before the trees go bare for winter, and the streets turn gray with snow (believe me, winter in the city—especially ones as urbanized as Tokyo—isn’t always a sparkling winter wonderland).
I feel a mix of envy and joy for my revenge-traveling friends, but ultimately grateful their posts are allowing me to live vicariously through them. To compensate, as I wonder at the digital change of scenery, I indulge in experiences that are as close to Japan as I can get for now.[READ: Revisiting Japan’s ‘Golden Route’ with my senior parents was surprisingly fun]
An easy way to fulfill that desire to travel, especially for Japanophiles like me, is through food. More so if it’s at a restaurant that takes its commitment to achieve the Japanese aesthetic and flavor seriously.
That’s exactly how I feel eating at Yugen, a mere months-old Japanese restaurant nestled in a corner of the bustling Ortigas district.
Parting the white noren framing its sliding wooden door transports you into a space akin to a traditional Japanese home—heavily accented by wood, but maintaining a certain lightness, thanks to its minimalism and warm lighting. There are pockets of little shelves showcasing small accent pottery pieces, and nooks cradling simple yet sophisticated ikebana arrangements.
The simplicity of the setting allows diners to focus on what is truly meant to be the highlight of a restaurant: its food. Yugen has a wide menu that features a good mix of dishes you’d find only in the most authentic Japanese restaurants, as well as the all-around staples Filipinos love. I think it’s also worth noting that despite the understated luxury of the space, the menu remains reasonably priced.
Yugen’s dishes run the gamut from the unassumingly typical to more colorful, elaborate dishes.
Take the traditional appetizer, the chawanmushi. The savory, steamed egg custard is as one might expect, subtle and simple. Served in a lidded cup, the silky treat has bits of chicken, shimeji mushrooms, and edamame. It is topped with fresh ikura for added richness.
On the opposite end is the visually unassuming nasu miso—slices of pan-fried eggplant, slathered with sweet miso sauce. Each piece, sprinkled with scallions and sesame seeds, bursts with flavor, making it a perfect way to whet the appetite ahead of a big meal.
They have the usual sushi and maki options, along with more unique rolls. Yugen’s aburi platter features a good selection of these. The kurimu chizu roll—named after the unconventional key ingredient—has cream cheese stuffed inside the roll along with the reliable kani and cucumber, then topped with salmon, sweet unagi sauce, and black tobiko (flying fish roe). Meanwhile, the Battousai roll, its name likely a nod to popular anime “Rurouni Kenshin,” features all the staples of Japanese cuisine, from tuna and kani to ebi and tempura bits, all slathered in spicy Japanese mayo.
For something with more heft, there’s the beautifully arranged Yugen chirashi special—a chirashi bowl filled to the brim with an assortment of fresh sashimi on a bed of lightly seasoned sushi rice. (Off the menu, but available to order, is a more decadent salmon-uni bowl.)
Testament to the freshness of their seafood, even evident after they’ve been cooked, is the gindara uni. A thick portion of pan-fried black cod is served with sweet uni sauce, along with sauteed vegetables. The fish is melt-in-your-mouth tender, and made even more flavorful with the sauce.
To cap off the meal, you can choose from various flavors of kakigori or shaved ice. Though typically a summertime treat in Japan, it suits the perpetually tropical Manila, especially with flavors like halo-halo and sweet corn. But if you still want to maintain the Japanese feel, matcha and red bean are also among the options.
L-R: Onigiri, okonomiyaki, halo-halo and sweet corn kakigori
Yugen’s extensive menu is enough to allow your palate to journey back to the Land of the Rising Sun, a simple yet sophisticated reintroduction to the cuisine that brought us the idea of umami. Now if I had just happened to hear Japanese voices beyond our wooden screened private dining area, I would’ve almost forgotten I was still in Manila.