Tempura Takahashi (天婦羅たかはし), Okayama
I hadn’t spent much time in Okayama in a few years and my friends were excited to take me somewhere for some good dining. However, we had a few constraints to work with. They haven’t been out often with their 18 month old daughter, and since they just bought a house, being careful with their funds, we sought out a place that would have a good course menu for around 5000 yen. This was a job for the monk (as I mentioned earlier in this post: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/361854 ). The monk recommended Takahashi, which is regularly a tempura house, but the chef always has a course menu available (for 5000 yen). The monk even called to make a reservation for us, so the chef was expecting us.
When we arrived, the place was empty. I’m not sure if it’s the location, or that it was a weeknight in Okayama, but it seemed a little strange that it was so empty. While it would have been nice to sit at the counter, with the little one in tow, we were better placed in the tatami room in the back. Takahashi is run by a husband (chef) and wife (front of house) team.
We started with an assorted plate of appetizers and little tastes. http://farm1.static.flickr.com/136/318265344_ec7b8ae0a1_o.jpg
From left to right, there’s shirako (cod milt) in a ponzu sauce with what looks like momiji-oroshi (grated daikon with a bit of chili), a seafood based dumpling (I can’t recall) with the ikura (salmon roe) topping, behind the leaf was a dumpling or meatball made from steaming or simmering some kind of fish roe, then there’s oyster tsukudani (simmered with soy, mirin), and squid with spinach ohitashi with an egg yolk sauce. This quartet of seafood items demonstrated the chef’s ability with several cooking methods, and moreover, his restraint. Everything was flavored gently, nothing overpowering the flavor of the ingredients. This was a fabulous start.
From the understated appetizer plate, the next item provided a crescendo with slighter bolder flavors, but still a gentle touch. http://farm1.static.flickr.com/138/318265378_78dd9c3e7f_o.jpg
This is a sunomono of Japanese cucumber with grilled scallops, and shrimp, some wakame seaweed, inside a yuzu bowl. The sweetened vinegar and the residual yuzu flavor was a perfect match, and the shrimp and scallops added a nice textural and flavor counterpoint to the acidity of the vinegar and the crisp cucumber. Very nice. (And I might add the best food photo I took on this trip).
The next course was sashimi. http://farm1.static.flickr.com/131/318265401_4372fcd021_o.jpg
There’s squid and aji (or it could have been sawara) sashimi. The sashimi were in peak condition, and demonstrated good knife skills, especially with the squid.
My friend’s wife and I had a discussion about the next course of simmered daikon in a light miso broth and with some abura-age (fried tofu) and greens. http://farm1.static.flickr.com/136/318265418_133b38b2c6_o.jpg
We were both impressed by this dish. It takes a great deal of control to create a great version of simmered daikon, and is not as easy as it looks. We discussed how difficult it is to achieve this perfect combination of texture, lightness of the broth, and that perfect balance with the dashi. I’ve tried many times to make something like this, and there’s always a flaw. We both recognized that this was made by a very experienced cook. And that miso broth just rocked.
The next course was a mushroom soup. http://farm1.static.flickr.com/137/318265425_70c756c9fc_o.jpg
There were at least two kinds of mushrooms (nameko and perhaps eringi or something similar) and submerged in there was a dumpling or two, made from satoimo (or taro), if I remember correctly. The soup is also thickened with kudzu starch to give it a slightly viscous quality. And those green items topping the soup are boiled gingko nuts. This was a delightful soup. I liked the texture of the soup with the nameko, and the lightness of the broth complemented the flavor of the mushrooms. Very understated, but another winner.
The next course was a grilled fish, very similar, if not black cod. http://farm1.static.flickr.com/125/318265457_29ee634578_o.jpg
It was marinated in a miso sauce for day or so, since the saltiness of the marinade pulled the moisture out of the fish, and the grilling was light and easy. It was another good example of control and balance.
The next course was a chawanmushi. http://farm1.static.flickr.com/131/318265472_398a00d0c8_o.jpg
I’m accustomed to chawanmushi in little cylindrical cups, but this was a giant portion in comparison, in a nice wide bowl. And the lily bulbs steamed in the chawanmushi was a first for me. I savored this one for a while.
The final course was a zosui (rice in soup) with seaweed, and some tsukemono. http://farm1.static.flickr.com/140/318265518_215090e82b_o.jpg
This was a nice finale to a very nice meal. What this meal did for me was to punctuate the essence of washoku, in all its subtleties. At the hands of a truly experienced chef, I had what I thought were quintessential versions of traditional Japanese flavors. While it’s possible to find this kind of cooking at good quality traditional ryokans (inns), here it was in this little empty restaurant in Okayama, and for a bargain.
Takahashi website: http://www.geocities.jp/tenpura_takahashi/
(WARNING: cheesy music when opening the site