Urasawa - World-Class Excellence in L.A.! [Review] w/ Pics
(Fully-formatted with All Pictures found here:
I had first heard about Urasawa thanks to Chowhound and the *stunningly beautiful* Review and Pictorial by Dan Paik / rvd72 (if you haven't seen / read it, you need to :). I was blown away by what I read and saw and from that point on (with additional prodding from russkar, J.L., SauceSupreme and many others), it was my mission to try Urasawa at least once. Since then it is also only one of three L.A. restaurants to receive a Michelin 2 Star rating.
Having just come back from a two week gourmet vacation in Japan (Tokyo & Kyoto), I just had to try out Urasawa immediately (partly to see how it compared to the Modern Kaiseki, Traditional Kaiseki and amazing Sushi I had in Japan, and partly because I already dearly missed the great Japanese food I experienced and was hoping Urasawa could match that). Last night, I took one of my longtime friends (and Sushi Hound) to try out Urasawa. And even after the experiences I had in Tokyo and Kyoto, the mastery and amazing dishes that Chef Hiroyuki Urasawa prepared for us was truly mind-blowing, and simply *amazing*!
As a quick FYI, Urasawa has no menu: He serves whatever he can source that is fresh and seasonal (and he asks if there are any particulars the customer cannot eat). I was worried Hiro-san might be one of those quiet masters that would be unapproachable, or just too busy, but from the moment we stepped in, it was obvious that we were in for a truly remarkable and engaging experience. Hiro-san welcomed us with a humble smile and after finishing up a dish he was in the middle of preparing for the other guests, he turned his attention to us and started chatting away. Hiro-san is so approachable, down-to-earth, warm, and funny, and it's clear that he's truly concerned about his guests and makes sure we're enjoying whatever we're eating or drinking. We began with:
Mozuki - Okinawan Seaweed topped with Pure Gold Flakes.
The Okinawan Seaweed and the sauce was simply divine! Simple and refreshing.
Next up was the Kinuta Maki: Shrimp, Red Snapper and Shiso Leaf, served with fresh Radish.
The Shrimp and Red Snapper were extremely fresh and tender, and the ponzu-based sauce worked nicely, along with the crisp crunch of the fresh Radish.
The 3rd course was Uni Nikogori: Fresh Uni, Amaebi Shrimp, served atop Yama no Imo (Japanese Mountain Yam), topped with Pure Gold Flakes.
This was just ridiculously good. The combination of the natural sweetness of the Uni and Shrimp and the freshly-grated Japanese Mountain Yam with the sauce Hiro-san prepared was perfect!
The 4th course was Toro Tataki: Ohtoro lightly seared on the outside, with Kiku Flowers and Shiso no Hana (Flowers), topped with Pure Gold Flakes.
I've had Maguro Tataki before, and many variations on Toro, but Chef Hiro's dish was in another league. The Kiku and Shiso no Hana flowers added a touch of beautiful springtime fragrance to the mouth-watering, extremely tender Ohtoro, and the light searing transformed the Toro's flavors to a combination of the best of fresh, raw Toro with the fragrant taste that one can only get from searing fatty Tuna.
The 5th Course was Hotaru Ika.
The Squid came in a nice marinade, and Hiro-san bade us to eat each bite of the Hotaru Ika with some Sake. We started with a Kubota Manjyu Dai Ginjo Sake, which was simply one of the best Sakes I've ever had. The combination of the Kubota Sake with the Ika really was delectable and unique. The Hotaru Ika was really tender and had a great texture, and it wasn't "chewy" at all.
At this point, during one of our conversations with Hiro-san, we were talking about favorite restaurants, and Hiro-san mentioned that he loves going to Sea Harbour (Rosemead) and that it's his favorite Chinese restaurant. :) It was a nice surprise that someone of Hiro-san's stature thought so highly of a Chowhound favorite (and my favorite) Dim Sum restaurant. I also found it amusing and cool that Hiro-san would be kicking back, waiting in line to get Dim Sum on any given weekend at Sea Harbour. :)
Our next course was Fresh Sashimi served on a block of Hand-Carved Ice, paired with 2 Types of Seaweed.
The Sashimi consisted of Ohtoro (flown in overnight from Spain), Tai (flown in from Kyushuu, Japan), and Kanpachi (Japan). We started with the Tai, which was very good. Fresh and naturally a firmer fish, so it was a little chewy. The Kanpachi was wonderful. It was also fresh and the knifework by Hiro-san really showed through. It was a cut above Sushi Zo's Kanpachi (which was my previous favorite). Finally, the Ohtoro was excellent. Complete melt-in-your-mouth goodness as only great quality Ohtoro can deliver.
Next up was a Yuba Chawanmushi, the classic Japanese steamed egg custard, but elevated with a nice mixture of Yuba, Daikon and Pure Gold Flakes (in addition to the classic Ginko Nuts and other ingredients found in normal Chawanmushi).
It was perfectly steamed, and the delicate Yuba combined well with the Chawanmushi foundation, and the perfect balance of seasoning and salt. The best Chawanmushi I've ever had.
The next course was Asami Age, a delicate "sandwich" of Fresh Bamboo, Shrimp Paste and more Fresh Bamboo, then perfectly fried:
The Fresh Bamboo was SO tender and when combined with the Shrimp Paste (which wasn't anything like the traditional Southeast Asian-style heavily-salted Shrimp Paste), and the perfectly fried outer batter, made for an amazing dish! What was probably the greatest aspect of the Asami Age was that it was fried at the right temperature (so that it didn't soak up the oil and get too oily / soggy), and that the oil was *fresh*. You can taste the difference and know that Hiro-san used a fresh batch of oil to fry up this dish for this evening and changes it out every meal.
Following this came arguably the most amazing dish of the evening (as if they all weren't already :) - Hoba Yaki, with Fresh Shrimp, Tofu, and Hokkaido-Gyu (Hokkaido Beef) in a Miso Sauce.
The dish was literally being lightly-roasted in a giant Hoba Leaf, and with just a couple minutes over the coals, the waitress removed the Hoba Leaf from the coals to prevent overcooking. The Tofu combined with the amazing Miso-based sauce was great. Soft and tender and fresh (with no soy aftertaste that may accompany tofu at times). The fresh Shrimp was perfectly cooked, still very tender and lightly (naturally) sweet, and when combined with this Miso sauce, was another star in the dish. But *nothing* could've prepared us for the Hokkaido-Gyu, a wonderfully marbled cut of Beef flown in from Hokkaido. The Hokkaido-Gyu was RIDICULOUSLY, Pure, Melt-In-Your-Mouth GOODNESS. It was honestly like eating a piece of *Toro* (Fatty Tuna), but this was *Beef*! There was no gristle, no tendon, no "chewiness" at all. This cut of beef was better than any other cut Beef I've ever had in my life.
Hiro-san, seeing my expression, then half-jokingly whispered to me that it was a little known secret to most people outside Japan: That certain cuts of Hokkaido-Gyu are just as amazing as the much more famous / popularized Kobe Beef. He wasn't joking, this was truly... wow.
Our next course was Shabu Shabu with Amaebi, Hokkaido-Gyu, and Foie Gras.
The waitress took each piece and placed it into the heating bowl, and removed each piece when it was cooked the right amount. First up, we had the Fresh Shrimp which was lightly poached. When placed in the Ponzu-based dipping sauce, it made for a nice, citrusy, slightly sour and savory flavor, that balanced well with the natural sweetness of the Shrimp. The Shrimp was perfectly cooked and tender. Next up was the Hokkaido Beef which was unbelievably good (still) in a Shabu Shabu preparation. Still as buttery tender as before and amazing! The last piece was the Foie Gras, which was as good a piece of Foie Gras as I've ever had (restaurants in Paris included). Very rich and buttery smooth! Finally, the waitress gave us a soup spoon and we were asked to try some of the Shabu Shabu broth, which was wonderfully light and full of flavor (especially after the Amaebi, Hokkaido-Gyu and Foie Gras were cooked in it).
After this, we began the Sushi portion of the dinner, and Hiro-san warned us that we should eat the Sushi within 10 seconds of plating, or else we'd start losing the freshness and the taste would start changing. (Forgive the blurriness of the photos, I was snapping as fast as possible so as to enjoy the Sushi and eat it the way Hiro-san had asked us to try it.)
First up was Kanpachi. It was extremely tender, and the cut of Kanpachi was amazing! The knifework and the cut we were presented was the best Kanpachi I'd ever had, surpassing Zo's easily. It should be noted Hiro-san only uses a special kind of Koshikari Rice from a prefecture in Japan (I forgot the name in the course of our epic dinner and sake "festival" last night :). But suffice to say the rice was excellent and had a noticeably different texture and taste from what I've had at nice L.A. Sushi-yas like Zo, Mori and Sasabune, etc.
Next was Ohtoro (flown in from Spain). As with the previous pieces, it was simply divine! Wonderfully buttery and super-tender goodness.
After this, we had a Seared Toro (the entire Toro piece, not just the outer border as with the Toro Tataki). It was amazing and I enjoyed it just a touch more than the regular Ohtoro.
Next up was Tai, presented with some light Sudachi (Japanese citrus fruit) shavings:
This was one of the few missteps in an evening full of excellence. The cut of Tai had some "gristle / tendon" in it, which made for an overly chewy experience. My Sushi Hound companion also had a similar experience.
Next up was Aji (Japanese Jack Mackerel), flown in from Kyushuu, Japan.
The Aji was very good and fresh, and I liked the cut and texture better in this piece than what I had at Mori's.
The next piece was Ika (Squid):
Ika is usually a challenge, having the characteristically "chewy" texture that's inherent to Ika. But since my visit to the Michelin 3 Star-rated Sushi Mizutani in Tokyo, I now realize what Ika can truly be. Hiro-san's Ika was excellent, truly the best Ika I've had outside Japan, with a wonderfully creamy texture at times, but it still had a chewiness throughout. Normally, this would still be amazing (the creaminess and nice cut he gave us), but after having tried Mizutani's mastery, this falls short.
As an aside, I asked Hiro-san if he knew Sushi Mizutani and he was impressed that I knew the place and that I was able to get reservations (it's usually 1-3 months backlogged). He told me all about Mizutani-san and how he trained with the oldest and most revered Sushi Master in the world (Jiro-san), etc. It was a really nice conversation. :)
The next piece was Mategai (Razor Clam):
I've had a variety of various shellfish (and especially the amazing, rare types at Sushi Mizutani), but I've never had Mategai before. This was a nice welcome treat. The Mategai that was presented to us was a wonderful cut, with a nice toothsome texture that was still very tender and nothing like the more common Mirugai (Geoduck). Excellent.
Next up was another nice, unique dish: Shiraebi (Fresh, Tiny Shrimp (about 20 of them) on one piece of Sushi!).
The Shiraebi was flown in from Toyama prefecture and is a specialty of theirs. This was the first time I've ever had it, and it was SO good! I love Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp), but the advantage of these tiny Shiraebi shrimp is that they have the inherent sweetness of Amaebi, but the texture of something more akin to Toro(!). Simply wonderful.
The next piece was Roasted Shiitake Mushroom Sushi.
Hiro-san had been tempting us 15 minutes prior with the fresh Shiitake slowly roasting in the background behind him (over the traditional open-roasted coals). We could smell the wonderful fragrance of the Shiitake way before he presented this piece to us. :) The Shiitake was perfectly cooked, and had such a wonderful, deep Shiitake Mushroom aroma that it pervaded every bite! Very nice.
The next piece was Uni (from Santa Barbara):
Uni is always a challenge, as its "decay time" can be measured in minutes/hours instead of days for other seafood. While it was fresh, it had just a tinge of the "sea water / fishiness" that took away from perfection (which is really hard to get). I'd give it a ~99.3% (the best I've ever had was a perfect 100% at Mizutani (and once at Nozawa)). It's still far better than most Sushi restaurants (which I would say hover in the "50%" rating (really fishy and gross)).
The next piece was Kohada (Japanese Gizzard Shad):
The Kohada was ~Ok. I felt the cut of Kohada that we got was good, but not great. The Kohada at Mizutani was definitely a level above this one.
The next piece we had was Skipjack:
The Skipjack was excellent. A really nice cut, and it paired really nicely with the rice grain (more noticeable on this piece than on others).
The next piece (we were definitely struggling at this point :), was Aoyagi (Round Clam) flown in from Hokkaido.
The Aoyagi was another piece of excellent knifework from Hiro-san. Really nice texture and the preparation made this Aoyagi my new favorite version of this dish (easily surpassing Sasabune and Zo). It was more tender and interesting in texture than Mirugai, lightly "chewy" (but not in a bad way), with a more delicate flavor than Mirugai as well.
The next piece was a special roll that I unfortunately forgot to note as I was talking with Hiro-san about some restaurants in Kyoto. I do remember that it contained Kyoto Miso, Shiso, and Negi (Green Onions), mixed with at least 2 types of seafood. It was delicious and a nice break from the simpler flavors of the nigiri we had prior to this.
The next piece was Mirugai (Geoduck Clam):
It was smartly executed, with a nice crisp texture that was never chewy. I felt it edged out Mori, but Sushi Mizutani was a cut above.
Next was Awabi (Abalone):
The Awabi was amazing. A really nice cut and with a good, toothsome texture that exceeded any Awabi I had outside Japan. But Mizutani's Awabi was better (both in quality of shellfish and knifework). It was still truly great Abalone, but I'm noting this for comparison purposes.
The next item was one of my favorites - Amaebi (Live Sweet Shrimp)! Hiro-san ducked underneath and pulled out the Live Giant Sweet Shrimp from a tank beneath his cutting area! The Amaebi were still moving and he quickly dispatched them and prepared our dish.
The Amaebi was SO fresh (of course :), and the meat and cut were top-notch! The sweetness of the Shrimp and the nice creamy, yet slightly muscular texture was the best I've ever had anywhere.
The next item was something I thought I'd never see again outside Japan: Akami (Special Portion of Tuna next to Chutoro).
This was a cut of Tuna that I had first experienced in Tokyo, Japan, and had never seen it before that. Imagine my surprise when Hiro-san presented us with Akami! It was excellent and was more enjoyable than the usual Maguro cut found in most restaurants. The Akami had just a bit of the fattiness (due to its proximity to Chutoro), and still had the great texture one finds in a good cut of Maguro, only slightly more tender. This was very good, but the Akami at Mizutani had this beat by a touch (freshness and the cut that we got from Mizutani-san).
The next piece was an Ohtoro Roll with special Pickled Daikon (Radish):
It looks so simple, but the pieces of the Ohtoro Hiro-san used, combined with his special Pickled Daikon (it was SO good and better than most of the Tsukemono flavors I've had prior), really made this standout. The saltiness and intense pickled daikon flavors were truly the perfect foil for the buttery creaminess of the Ohtoro, especially combined with the negi, rice and the nori.
Next up was a welcome return to... Hokkaido-Gyu (Hokkaido Beef) Sushi:
He had lightly seared it on the open coals and quickly presented it to us. Like the previous presentations (Hoba-Yaki, Shabu Shabu), it was amazing! I enjoyed all the presentations of Hokkaido-Gyu, but would probably rate the Hoba-Yaki and then this Sushi preparation as my top 2 favorites; but truly, they were all SO wonderful.
Next up (we were beyond struggling at this point, but Hiro-san's dishes were so good (^_~)) was Anago (Conger Eel):
Perfectly roasted, and the quality of the Eel was very good. Definitely the best Anago I've had outside of Mizutani. The sauce Hiro-san used for this dish was just a bit too much and too heavy, when compared to the preparation by Mizutani-san, but besides Mizutani, it was the best Anago I've ever had.
Then we saw the Tamago (Egg). Finally! We knew that signaled the end of the Sushi, and a welcome relief from the wonderful array of fresh fish. :)
Tamago is always a nice test of the skill of the itamae, and the Tamago was nice and light and fluffy. Very well executed, and normally amazing, but it didn't come close to Mizutani's Tamago (which some people go to Mizutani's *just* for his Tamago(!)). But still very, very good.
Our dessert courses came at this point, starting with Fresh Papaya and Papaya Jelly, with Shiso and Ume (Japanese Plum).
The Fresh Papaya was perfectly ripe, and each "tip" of the Papaya that was cut, had a perfectly-formed piece of Papaya Jelly to complement it. The Jelly had a beautiful, delicate flavor that was a nice gradation from the actual Papaya fruit, and then the Shiso and Ume were really herbal and slightly sour, respectively, and fresh. A nice combination of different tastes that woke up my taste buds after having so many savory dishes.
Next, Hiro-san prepared some fresh Matcha for us! Matcha is a finely powdered Green Tea, and usually found in Tea Ceremonies in Kyoto.
The Matcha was really fresh and intensely flavored, but a bit milder than the Matcha I had at Hyotei (Kyoto, Japan). I prefer Hiro-san's Matcha, but really like the one at Hyotei depending on my mood. :) It was a nice treat to get this here in America.
At the same time, he brought us the final dish of the evening, a Sesame Ice Cream (Non-Dairy), with Azuki (Red Bean) and Pure Gold Flakes.
I've never had Sesame Ice Cream before and when combined with the Azuki, it was really, really nice! I normally find most desserts too sweet, but this Sesame Ice Cream had a really nice, nutty, complex flavor that was more fragrant and unique as opposed to pure sugary sweetness. It was an excellent ending to an excellent evening. The total came out to be $550 U.S. per person (including Tax & Tip), and it was worth every penny. (FYI: It's $300 per person, but we had multiple bottles of Kubota Manjyu and Senshin Sake - both excellent! - which brought up the cost.)
Having experienced some of Japan's best cuisine, and now having tried Urasawa in Beverly Hills, I can confidently say that Urasawa provides a true taste of Japanese gourmet mastery in Southern California. Having tried the amazing Michelin 2 Star-rated Modern Kaiseki cuisine of Ryugin in Roppongi, the wonderful knifework and skill of Sushi Mizutani (Michelin 3 Star-rated) in Ginza, and the stunning beauty of traditional Kyoto Kaiseki cuisine at Hyotei (which Hiro-san highly respected as we talked throughout the evening (he said Hyotei is a 14th Generation, Family-owned establishment! Wow.), Chef Hiroyuki Urasawa is forging his own path of excellence, essentially a *great* hybrid experience of an intimate Sushi restaurant with a sushi master, with Kaiseki cuisine. While I enjoy aspects of Mizutani, Ryugin and Hyotei more (and I enjoy aspects of Urasawa more), it's impossible to truly compare the entire experience of Urasawa to those restaurants that focus on a specific style.
Besides an intimate sushi bar with a master like Mizutani-san or Jiro-san, I have never been to a restaurant in the world that has the quality and amazing coursework and preparation, combined with the *intimacy* (he only seats 10 people per night!) and direct, humble, funny, interesting interaction with the chef, like what we have in Urasawa. In addition, Hiro-san is so humble and approachable. You *never* feel like you have to shut up and just admire what he's doing (unlike some other highly-rated Japanese restaurants), for example, Hiro-san asked me if I followed the Lakers, and wanted to know how they did that day (I told him they crushed Denver, and he was so happy :). Hiro-san is a true master, and I'm so happy to find a level of Japanese Cuisine excellence that is on par with the best in Tokyo and Kyoto, here in Southern California. Urasawa is easily in my Top 5 Best Restaurants I've ever eaten at (from L.A., N.Y., Paris, to Tokyo and Kyoto). Highly recommended!
*** Rating: 9.8 (out of 10.0) ***
218 North Rodeo Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Tel: (310) 247-8939
218 N Rodeo Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
A few more pictures (don't want to spam CH). The rest can be found in the link in the original post. Thanks. :)
AWESOME write-up. One thing that I think people have now started to report in their Urasawa posts is how cool Hiro-san seems to be just to hang out with, since it's really evident he's just as much a foodie as we are. In addition to mentioning Sea Harbor, he also mentioned he liked hakata-style ramen. Hiro-san, simply put, is a city treasure.
Thanks. :) And again, thank you for your advice (which helped push me over the edge and try it :).
I totally agree with your assessment: Hiro-san is truly a treasure to this city. It's so rare to be able to see a master chef work within a few feet of you, and personally serve you (the guest), and to be able to chat and interact with him. You just can't get that experience in most places (e.g., I wish I could dine and see a Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck or Joel Robuchon cook right in front of me, just for me and a few guests that evening, and talk to them for the entire night, but I can't).
I thought I'd be going to Urasawa once to "try it," but I'm a regular now! (^_~) Besides, this is as close (and just as good with some dishes) to being in Tokyo or Kyoto as we're going to get without flying over.
Right on brother! Hiro engaged us in so many ways besides his artistic brilliance with food. He was sincerely interested in hearing about places that we enjoy, not to mention his warmth and easy going manner. It's been an expensive month at Camp Jeff and Owen---just put in a brand spanking new air conditioning/heating system. That being said-----a return trip to Urasawa seems to be in our radar. Especially after reading posts like this one.
OMG! Great great great great review. This restaurant is pricy, but seems well worth its price. Boyfriend and I really want to go to Urasawa, but we just don't have this kind of money to spend. So we've decided to try to save up for a whole year then have a super fancy meal toward the end of the year. If we save enough, definately will be going to Urasawa. ^^
As to price...look at it this way. 35 dishes @ $300 is about $8.50 ea. Not bad when every course appears to be world-class cuisine. However, I seriously doubt I could eat all 35 dishes (or if I could, I probably wouldn't enjoy the last half dozen or so due to pain). My wish would be for them to cut down the courses to 23 (which I'm sure would be just as satisfying and enthralling), making the price point $195pp. I guarantee his reservation list would lengthen as well..
Just my opinion, I could be wrong.
Yah, for the price per dish angle, it's definitely reasonable, especially for the true pursuit of excellence and quality in every dish.
I'm not a big eater, and when we were dining 3 couples with petite women were all able to finish the meal by Urasawa. :) Considering it's a nice, relaxing 3 hour dinner, and you can request to slow down the pace if need be, it's Ok.
But as a point of reference, Urasawa had far more courses than any of my extravagant (and amazing) meals at Tokyo's Ryugin, Sushi Mizutani, and Kyoto's Kaiseki masterpiece at Hyotei.
Fantastic review. It cost me the equivalent of 8 tanks of gas to go to Urasawa for the Fugu experience a few years ago. Now that it only costs 4 tanks of gas, it actually seems like a bargain!
As another point of reference, how much do other restaurants in Urasawa's league cost for a similar experience?
re: FKA Andrew
Hi FKA Andrew,
* Ryugin (Roppongi, Tokyo, Japan) ran $300 U.S. (including Tax) (FYI: There is no tipping (or it's already included in the menu prices) in Japan.)
* Sushi Mizutani (Ginza, Tokyo, Japan) cost $275 U.S. per person (including Tax/Tip included).
* Hyotei (Kyoto, Japan) cost us $270 per person (including Tax/Tip included).
So 3 of the best restaurants I've eaten at are much less than Urasawa in cost, but it's still cheaper than buying an airplane ticket and flying over to Japan (and getting a hotel room, etc.). (^_~) But it's a small cost compared to getting Top Class Japanese Food here in L.A.
If you want, you can read more about these places here:
So does Urusawa include the gratuity in the $300 price, a la Mizutani or French Laundry? Because if it doesn't, backing out the gratuity from the French Laundry's $240 brings the food cost down to somewhere near $195 per person.
If urusawa includes gratuity, then the total of the food is around $250 per person, right?
Excellent review. It's good to know that Hiro-san "stacks up" very nicely with authentic Japanese sushi establishments. Welcome to the Hiro-san Fan Club!
I see where you're coming from (I, too, don't really care or need any pure gold flakes in my food :). But at the same time, just to let you know, Chef Urasawa is one of THE most humble, down-to-earth chefs I've ever met, anywhere. It may seem pretentious, but his restaurant, his wait staff and he himself, are not.
It's one of the most enjoyable, genuinely down-to-earth restaurants I've ever eaten at. (^_^)
Why so? Because it was gold (Au)? You are not offended at the exquisite Japanese pottery Hiro-san serves his food in? No? Would you be if you learnt that the pottery costs way waay more than the thin sliver of golf leaf he used? Is it your imagined cost of the gold leaf that offends you, or that that a precious metal gold is used in food?
There are many cultures where gold and silver foil are used in food. These are very small amounts, and often serve no particular purpose other then enhancing the display. (In India it is often used in sweets and other dishes that at one time signified wealth of the consumer) As I understand Japanese culture, their food goes beyond 1-dimension of taste - it is visually one of the most aesthetic cuisines that I know of.
to respond, the pottery and other wares are reusable. im aware that indians use varaq. (and im no fan of that either). surely the golf and silver are extremely thin, and of trivial actual value. it is just the notion of putting something in the dish for purely ostentacious reasons - like you said - that doesnt gel with my own sensibilities. (one dish, neat, but multiple? very over-the-top)
sorry to get personal. again, everything else looks spectacular, and i wouldnt hesitate to get a seat there if i happen to be around; but theres no such thing as a Perfect meal, right?
Like many cuisines, Japanese cuisine attempts to evoke satisfaction from as many senses as possible. The sense of taste is the climax, but all of the other senses are played upon with the teasing and the sensual foreplay leading up to it. One very important aspect that pervades this cuisine, particularly this level of Japanese cuisine, is its presentation. Attention to detail is held in high regard by most Japanese - it is a given. If you've ever had the opportunity to immerse yourself in the Japanese culture, you will eventually come upon the tradition of giftgiving. The effort that goes into the proper wrapping and presentation of a gift is beyond insane. Go to any department store in Japan and there will be counters that offer nothing but specialty items of various levels that are used exclusively for wrapping, embellishing and enclosing certain gifts for specific occasions. There are even elaborate clothes that are ceremoniously wrapped around the wrapped and embellished gift again where its soul purpose is to carry and protect the honored gift that is then ceremoniously unwrapped upon the time to present the gift. Carry this deeply imbedded part of Japanese culture over to the tradition of kaiseki or any other level of Japanese cuisine where an artistic master like that of Urasawa-san can emote what is driving the right side of his brain, married with his deep knowledge of the various edible elements at his disposal, and the results are shown in Exilekiss's excellent photos. The ceramics, the ice, the garnishes - they collectively play a role in an attempt to elevate one's visual and tactile senses. These in turn are supposed to give the guest a strong notion, even a yearning, of what great things are to come. The question is how much attention to detail can one apply without going over the top? Well, as in all other things that attempt to arouse our visual sense, that is up to the individual to decide. Is the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt reduced in sensibility because of his use of goldleaf? I don't know - I think it is pretty darned fine myself. So did the buyer who paid $135 million for it...
Excellent post bulavinaka. :)
And to add to it, I witnessed first-hand the amazing and wonderful detail paid to their presentation in each of the great restaurants I visited in Tokyo and Kyoto, and especially in the Kaiseki style meals of Ryugin and Hyotei (reviews on the Japan board), where the chefs delighted you and "fed" you with each dishes' Sight, Smell, and finally Taste. Here at Urasawa, I was engaged with each dish the moment it was presented to me (visually arresting).
Shame on me for not writing this up sooner. My birthday present to myself this year was a trip to Los Angeles to see old friends and to finally dine at the mythic Urasawa. There was as much anticipation in approaching this meal as there was in going to the French Laundry for the first time; so much has been written about it and its masterful chef, that one can almost anticipate disappointment. I mean, how special and remarkable can ultra-expensive hunks of raw fish be after all? Suffice to say, that nary a meal in my past can surpass what I experienced at the hands of Hiro Urasawa. Yep, its true. It is the best meal I have ever eaten in my entire life, bar none. No mis-steps, every taste a revelation, every offering better than the last.
Old food-chat-board buddy, Jschyun, was my dining companion for the evening and this was her -- what? -- fifth or sixth visit (if you can believe that!). It was funny to watch Hiro recognize her upon our entrance. She insisted on doing the camera duty for the evening so that I could just relax and enjoy what was to come. The only regret is that I did not bother taking notes and when the onslaught of nigiri commenced, upon reviewing the photographs after the fact, all cannot be remembered specifically. I have to laugh a bit about that, though. In perusing other blogs to try and match some others' recent pictures with what we ate, I learned that we easily had five or six MORE nigiri than what others have been served on similar dates. Jschyun and I are chalking that up to her presence; it seems she used to even eat a lot more than what we had that evening. I left stuffed so how her tiny little self is able to consume even more boggles my mind.
1. We started with a small crystal bowl of Junsai, a bit of fresh seaweed, a bit of fish (I thought shrimp, but Jschyun doesn't think so), all topped with a bit of gold leaf. Elegant, refreshing and a wonderful start.
2. Next was a gorgeous, delicious offering of o-toro, topped with a bit of grated radish, a bit of green, more gold leaf and all perfectly displayed in a rustic, handmade dish with an exquisite broth.
3. An incredibly simple offering came next, a single slice of Japanese eggplant with dipping sauce. Clean and fresh.
4. Goma Tofu - A stunning little dumpling made of sesame tofu stuffed with fresh uni and some red snapper. A little more gold leaf and a delicate broth.
5. The sashimi offering - on Hiro's famous hand-carved pillar of ice (which frosted, actually LOOKS liek paper!). Seaweeds, Spanish o-toro, red snapper, and uni. The wasabi was fresh and very sweet.
6. Chawan-Mushi - Hiro's sous chef, brother-in-law, Kim, instructed us to lightly mix the bit of wasabi hiding under the gold leaf. When he saw me scooping down the bottom to blend, he reached over with his chopsticks to show me that only the top gelée and wasabi were to be blended together. Within the custard were a bit of grated mountain potato and sweet shrimp. Elegant and enticing.
7. Tempura with uni, red snapper, a bit of greens. I can never not like a fried dish and tempura is a favorite. I could have eaten a number of these...
8. Seared fatty tuna - The stone placed in front of us was the cooking stone and while Jschyun was shooting pics, Hiro looked playfully annoyed as he reached over to cook her food while Kim cooked mine. So flavorful and rich it could have been mistaken for seared quality beef.
9. Shabu-Shabu - We had been watching Kim thinly slice foie gras and I had no idea that it was going to be cooked in a soup! The foie is added first to give the broth a level of depth and richness with the melting fat. Then the sweet shrimp (which we had been laughing at their movement during Kim's dessication) and a bit of Wagyu beef. Again, Hiro was scolding Jschyun as he is obviously anxious that the foods being prepared are eaten within minutes and she was delaying. I was fascinated that the chef was so conscientious about the timing of the courses and their consumption!
10. Being served some of the chef's homemade pickled ginger, the onslaught of nigiri was about to begin! First up was o-toro. Ohmygod. I apologize there are not specific notes on all of the nigiri. They were each remarkable and a great deal of the joy was the relaxed enjoyment while not analyzing and note-taking.
11. Seared Wagyu nigiri.
12. Aji nigiri.
13. Tai Red Snapper nigiri. If you look closely at the picture, you will see a fine dusting of yuzu on top. Much of the ritual of the evening involved Hiro slicing the fish for the nigiri while Kim watched intently, grating fresh yuzu in a small hand grater. Just as the pieces were ready, Kim would hand the grater to Hiro who, after topping the pieces with a light marinade of yuzu sauce and a light soy, would grasp a chasen (green tea whisk) to brush the grated yuzu onto the pieces. It was a ballet of culinary proportions.
14. Sawara Mackeral nigiri.
15. Shiitake nigiri.
16. Maguro nigiri.
17. Skipjack nigiri.
18. Red Snapper nigiri
19. Squid nigiri.
20. Ebi (Sweet Shrimp) nigiri. A beautiful presentation where Kim is scooping out the shrimp brains and pulverizing the offal into a "sauce" which is smeared on the raw shrimp. Stunning.
21. Kohada (Spanish Mackeral) nigiri.
22. Abalone nigiri. I enjoyed watching Kim prepare this. Only the "heart" of the abalone is used -- the rest discarded. And is very carefully scored so that when eaten raw, is completely tender.
23. Spanish Mackeral Tataki nigiri.
24. Scallop nigiri.
25. Migugai (Giant Clam) nigiri.
26. Anago (Sea Eel) nigiri.
27. Tamago - Egg custard.
28. Grapefruit Kanten - A sweet bite with bits of grapefruit and wolfberries, garnished with a touch of 24k gold.
29. Wagyu nigiri -- Okay, we couldn't resist and I asked for one more serving as I had never tasted a beef so tender. Served completely raw, it absolutely melted in the mouth.
30. Sesame ice cream with green tea - Hiro whips the tea himself and the ice cream also has a touch of gold. Such a beautiful finish to an amazing evening.
31. Barley tea. A way to clean the palate and relax while paying the bill. Yes, this meal was $500 a person (I alone drank sake). In retrospect, it was the most well-deserved and easily spent $500 I have ever spent. Worth every single penny.
Pics on my blog.
We have been dining a long time at Urasawa and were frequent diners at Ginza Sushi-Ko when Masa was there. There is such a huge contrast between Masa and Hiro. With Masa you felt he was doing you a favor to let you eat there. With Hiro, he so wants to please and feels that you are giving him the favor of your presence.
I decided to look over old photo albums and came across my notes from one of our first dining experiences.
My over-all impression is that Urusawa excels in seasonality and creativity. This is a kyoto-style kaiseki meal that has all the elements of being carefully orchestrated. Artful presentation is essential which is even evidenced in the serving pieces; each one is specially selected. All the garnishes – even the real chrystanthumums surrounding the ice bowl – are selected to mirror the ingredients and heighten the seasonality of the meal.
Hiro’s kaiseki meal is a carefully composed symphony where the diner, as audience, is by turns charmed, calmed, surprised and satisfied. Hiro, as the showman not only chooses and prepares the food, but expresses his personality through its artful presentation. There is a very real connection between the diner and the chef. This is not passive dining or a traditional Western tasting menu. Much of the meal is dependent upon this “give and take” between you and the chef.
At Urasawa you are truly an "honored guest". Hiro Urasawa does not over reach, over book or over promise. This is no haughty, celebrity chef or panderer to the "stars". Hiro is glad to have "regular people" at his bar. Every guest is treated to the best of the best. And, he reveled in our pleasure, savored our wines and catered to our every need.
Our final assessment was that this was one of the finest Japanese meals we have ever had.
This assessment remains true to this day. Yes, it is expensive, but it is worth every penny and it certainly is cheaper than flying to Japan.
Pics and full write-up are on my blog.