I finally made it out to Urasawa after reading all of the reviews. I went there this past Friday.
My review is at http://www.tylerpaik.com/urasawa
The text is copied below. I am not a professional food critic...just a guy who went to a restaurant and decided to take some pictures and write about it. If you don't want to read it all...I'll just tell you...WOW.
Urasawa - Review by Dan Paik
218 N. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills
Hours: Daily, by reservation only, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Urasawa. Wow. "Wow" is the only word that came to mind before, during, and after my first time dining at this small restaurant in Beverly Hills. Let's start with some background information. If you ask any Los Angeleno about the best sushi in the city, you will likely hear answers like Nozawa, Mori, Sushi Roku, Nobu Matsuhisa, etc. If you ask anyone about the best restaurants in the state, you will likely hear places like French Laundry, Bastide, Ginza Sushiko (place before Urasawa), and thesedays...Urasawa. Hiroyuki Urasawa is the master chef who runs Urasawa. He took over the space from Masa Takayama (who called the restaurant Ginza Sushiko). Masa left for New York to open his new restaurant in the Time Warner building simply called "Masa". Hiro-san (as everyone calls him), was formerly the assistant chef to Masa so when Masa left, I guess it made sense to take over the space. I have been contemplating a meal here for the past couple of years but the high price tag stopped me. I was also afraid that after my years of buildup, I would be left highly disappointed. I finally made the decision to have a meal here for my anniversary next month but ended up going a month early to celebrate my birthday (after all these years, I couldn't wait an extra month). In those years, Masa-san left, Hiro-san took over, but luckily from what I hear, the quality doesn't seem to have suffered.
The restaurant is located in Beverly Hills at the corner of Rodeo Dr. and Wilshire Blvd. Parking is available through the underground lot (enter on Dayton Way). Valet parking only for $5 after 6pm.
The restaurant is available for lunch and dinner every day but is 100% reservation only. I used the word "available" instead of "open" because if there are less than 4 people for lunch, he will not open for lunch. Each day, he sources the freshest fish and ingredients depending on the number of reservations set for that day so the menu will differ slightly on any given day. Because of this, there is a 24 hour cancellation policy for all reservations. If you do not cancel in time, you will be charged $100 per person for a cancellation fee. He also updates his menu every now and then so if you go in January and go again in June, you are likely to see some differences. Well, about that menu...well, there isn't one. It's omakase only and you generally eat what Hiro-san puts in front of you. When making your reservation and also when you first sit down, you will be asked if you don't like certain foods. Hiro-san will create a custom menu for you depending on your likes and dislikes. About the price...well, there isn't any price published at least. I guess it's one of those places where if you need to ask, you probably can't afford it. But if you must know, the prices start at $250 per person + drinks + tax for the standard omakase. If you are a regular and he knows you like certain foods, he will prepare special dishes just for you and will adjust your price upward accordingly. Again, it's one of those places where you get a bill, you pay, and you don't ask questions. Amazingly enough, I left this meal thinking I got a steal. I almost felt bad for Hiro-san and thought he wasn't charging enough.
Hiro-san gets fish flown in daily but he did admit to me that not everything that we ate was flown in that day. He does get all of his ingredients cycled out in a few days. He rattled off the places that he gets his various fish (Uni from Santa Barbara, Toro from ..., ... from Japan, etc.). He said that the Hokaido uni is best but it takes 3 days from the time it is harvested to the time he gets it so by then, it's not fresh enough for him. I asked him about fugu and his reply was that he no longer serves fugu. I asked if it's because it's not quite fugu season yet (fugu season is in the winter) but he said it's actually because it's illegal and he was importing it in from Japan. His last few shipments were all seized by customs and he was fined heavily (in addition to being out a lot of money for the fugu in the first place). He said that because of terrorism, all shipments are being checked so he can no longer get it. He does that real kobe beef though (and this stuff was truly amazing). He said that I can get fugu in New York so I asked him if Masa-san serves it and he said he does but it's pricey...about $500 per person. Hiro-san told me that you can go to Japan and have full course fugu meals (all fugu dishes) for around $300 so we joked that it might be cheaper to go to Japan and eat it depending on how many people you have in your party.
There is a sushi bar that seats 10 people and a lone table that seats 4. I have never heard of anyone sitting at that table. In fact, the wait staff put my wife's jacket and my outer shirt (I wore my Detroit Tigers #23 Kirk Gibson jersey) on the chairs at the table. The sushi bar seats 10 people and there is only one sitting per night. We got the best seats in the house...the 2 corner seats at the sushi bar. If you put it this way, Hiro-san isn't making big bucks here...he has to pay rent on Rodeo Dr and he only gets a maximum of 10 customers per meal (lunch and dinner). But the fact is that most weekdays only have a few customers. But he does have a good number of regulars who eat there weekly, eat whenever they come into town, etc. I called and made a reservation for 7:00 PM but got there at around 6:30 PM. Since there is only one sitting, it doesn't matter if you get there early. In fact, I would highly encourage that you make a reservation for 6:00 PM and get there at 6 to start your meal. There was another couple eating when we arrived at 6:30. They were about 6 courses ahead of us when we got there but an hour or so later, we had caught up to them. Hiro-san doesn't rush you but the dishes keep coming one after another. I would have preferred the dishes to come out with more of a pause between them to truly savor each one. Two guys came in at around 8:00 and their dishes were back to back to back so their entire dinner experience was pretty fast. This isn't a quick meal...by the time we were done and ready to go home, it was 9:30. This was a 3 hour meal.
There is one assistant chef named Sung and two wait staff (Ji-Sun and a new guy who had just started the day before). As expected, service is impeccable. As chef Hiro-san lays out each dish on the top of the sushi bar, his wait staff takes the dish and presents it to you in front of you. The first time, my wife tried to take the dish from the top counter (since Hiro-san placed it in front of her) but he said "no, you do not need to do that. My staff will do that for you". The new guy had just started the day before so he was learning the ropes. He was making a lot of little mistakes and he was very nervous. When he served us tea, he put the tray down on the counter only to have Hiro-san reprimand him for that (not to lay the tray on the customer's table). He was also laying out the dishes a little incorrectly so Ji-Sun was teaching him. He also gave us a coaster for our tea but he used the sake coaster instead of the tea coaster so that had to be fixed. He also reached over the customer a few times to pour water and things like that. He almost poured our water into the customer's cup next to us when Ji-Sun told him not to do that (she showed him our water vs. their water). I almost felt bad for the guy because he looked like a nice guy but I don't know if he'll last very long in there.
My wife and I don't drink so our bill was pretty much the minimum here...2 people ($250 X 2 = $500) + 2 bottles of evian water ($8 X 2 = $16) + tax. The total was $558.57. With a tip of $100 it came out to $658.57. Most people will drink a small sake and that will bring the total to roughly $700 for 2 people. I don't think they serve tap water here.
Without any further delay, let's get into the pictures. I brought my digital camera and took pictures of almost all of the dishes. The pictures came out a little dark because I didn't use the flash. Hiro-san explains each dish as he gives it to you but his English is not so great so sometimes it was hard for me to understand him. He is a genuinely nice guy though and is happy to chat with you. Perhaps it was the crowd I was dining with that night but it was pretty quiet.
This is the sign in the underground garage.
This is the sign in the elevator that takes you straight up in front of the restaurant.
Here is the entrance once you get to the second floor. The wait staff is trained to listen for the elevator and greet you by name as soon as you walk in.
The sushi bar table is sanded daily. The wood feels smooth and great. It is solid cypress wood. Hiro-san's chopping block is solid maple. This picture is a small container for toothpicks.
Course #1: Toro with grated radish, scallions, 24k gold flakes, and ponzu sauce. The toro melts in your mouth. As I watched Hiro-san cut the toro, he carefully cuts it so you only get the best parts of the fish. He throws away big chunks of fish that he decides is not worthy of serving. This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening...I can eat this every day for every meal.
Course #2: Ikura (salmon eggs) with edamabe tamago (edamabe, egg, shrimp made into tamago), uni, scallions, and 24k gold flakes. The ikura was so fresh and not very salty. Hiro-san only brings in the freshes ikura and never uses the frozen stuff. Each egg was soft and delicious. The edamabe tamago had just the right texture and finding the piece of uni mixed in there was like discovering a delicious treasure.
Hiro-san then took out a live lobster that started jumping around on his block. He proceeded to split the belly and kill it in front of us. He took the meat from the lobster tail and extracted it for future use (which will will see in a moment).
Here is another shot of Hiro-san working on the lobster.
These are real wasabi roots. There is no powdered wasabi being used in this restaurant. All wasabi is hand grated in sharkskin. That container also has a Japanese citrus fruit (sudachi) that Hiro-san grates by hand and puts on top of most of his nigiri sushi.
Course #3: Abalone liver and innards. Hiro-san told us that this dish is best with sake. Eat a piece of this dish and have a shot of sake. It's a pretty strong dish because he has it marinated in a salty type sauce. My wife didn't like it but I thought it was ok.
Course #4: Sashimi is served on an ice block. Toro, red snapper, and lobster sashimi (yup, the lobster that he just cut up) with hand grated wasabi. This is some of the best sashimi you will ever eat.
Here is a closeup.
Course #5: Cooked abalone with boiled shijui intestine, uni, and bonito. Everything was slightly cooked. I liked this dish but didn't love it like the raw dishes.
Course #6: Kobe beef marinated in soy sauce, bonito sauce, and lot of other good stuff. This beef was cooked and so tender that the beef melts in your mouth. It was similar to a Korean dish called "kalbi jjim" but much more tender and flavorful. That's saying a lot because kalbi jjim is my favorite Korean dish.
Course #7: Seared toro on a hot stone with salt and dipping sauce. You sear the toro on the hot stone and then dip the toro into the sauce. It's sublime.
Closeup shot of toro.
Course #8: Shabu Shabu of foie gras, kobe beef, and octopus. The foie gras shabu shabu was superb...the soft texture is simply amazing. Kobe beef again was simply melt in your mouth. The octopus was unbelievably fresh. I am usually not a big fan of octopus but like everything else in this meal, it was unlike any other octopus that I had ever had. Unfortunately I was busy eating and didn't get a picture of this. The wait staff helps you cook each piece so that it's just right.
Course #9-~#21: Nigiri sushi. I didn't take pictures of the nigiri sushi. Hiro-san makes nigiri with a small dab of wasabi, brushes some drops of sauce, hand grates a japanese citrus fruit and brushes some flakes onto the nigiri, and finally puts in on a small tray in front of you. It's now your turn to grab the nigiri with your fingers and eat it. He said to eat it immediately after he puts it on your tray because the temperature of the rice and sushi are at odds with each other so you must eat it fast. There is no additional wasabi or soy sauce. Each piece was simply the best sushi I ever ate in my life. Of course the toro was awesome. He has a seared toro sushi that he makes which was probably one of the best. The sweet shrimp is unbelievably fresh (he kills it in front of you and hands you the nigiri). He even closed with a seared kobe beef sushi which words cannot express. He serves all of the fish and asks you if you want any more. You can make special requests for more nigiri if you wish. It looks like most people are full and ready to burst by this time. When you say "enough", he served us the beef sushi and then tamago (egg, shrimp mixture) to close out the meal.
Closeup of the uni.
Hiro-san preparing the uni for nigiri.
Even the ginger is the best I have ever had...this isn't the funky smelly stuff found in most sushi restaurants.
Hiro-san and his assistant Sung working on the raw shrimp.
Video of Hiro-san and Sung working on the raw shrimp.
Green tea was served with the nigiri sushi. My mug had a blue guy on it.
My wife's green tea mug had a red guy.
Course #22: Fruit jelly. This included melon, grapefruit, and persimmon. This is the start of dessert and post meal teas.
Course #23: Green tea mochi ice cream. Hiro-san usually does not serve mochi ice cream but he said that he has a Chinese customer who always asks for it so he bought some. The ice cream was served with Omacha green tea, which Hiro-san explained is very strong but excellent for your digestive system.
Course #24: Roasted Tea. This is green tea but roasted.
Course #25: Sesame ice cream topped with 24k gold flakes. This is homemade in the kitchen over a few hours. The texture and taste is unlike any other ice cream I have ever had. My wife thought this was the best ice cream in the world. It's sweet but not overly sweet. Obviously I ate some before taking the picture. It was churning and just finished a few moments before it was served to us.
Another shot of the ice cream.
Here is his set of knives.
To some people this may look like the biggest hunk of toro you will ever see but it's kobe beef from Japan. That is some of the best marbled beef I have ever had.
A closeup of Hiro-san at work.
Here is my wife, Jeeyoon sitting at the sushi bar. You can see the table in the back with my Detroit Tigers Kirk Gibson #23 jersey. Hiro-san actually said I have a nice shirt. He's a big Yankee fan because of Hideki Matsui.
In closing, I would have to say that this was definitely an unforgettable experience. Hiro-san is a master chef who makes sure you only get the best of the best food available. I plan to go there again in another month for my anniversary and try to make it out at least twice a year.
i don't think there is any culinary value to the gold flakes. i tried eating the flakes just by itself and it just melted in my mouth and didn't actually taste like anything.
sure it may be gimmicky but i think it adds to the experience. food to me is about taste but it's also about presentation as well and the gold flakes certainly help in the presentation.
i can't wait to go again someday. the next time i won't be so shy about asking him for some more sushi. i could have eaten another 2-3 more pieces. oh well.