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Urasawa has ruined me

Well, not really, but close.

I'll try to keep this short, because I'm sure everyone has read about how awesome the Urasawa kaiseki experience is, and because I have over 400 exposures to sort through (I'll only be keeping like 40 or 50 of them for post-processing). My best friend and I went Saturday night, and it was unquestionably the most amazing meal of my life, narrowly besting my experience at noma in Copenhagen 5 months ago. Here's the rundown; please let me know if I butchered the Japanese, or if you know the Japanese term for a dish:

1. Shrimp, grated daikon, yuzu zest, sweet ?tomato? sauce: the sauce was clear and very thin, it sounded like the server said tomato but I'm not sure. Anyway, WHOAH this dish was astonishing. Right off the bat, Hiro-san made something that bested just about every dish I've ever had anywhere. The sweetness and tartness worked perfectly with the gorgeous little shrimp and daikon. It was so good, I was afraid the rest of the meal would not be able to measure up. I thought it was the second best dish of the night.

2. Hamo namba - deep fried king eel marinated in sweet vinegar sauce: very light, not at all greasy, slightly powdery batter which did not overshadow the eel. It came with a little lime wedge to squeeze over the eel. I'm such a sucker for lime.

3. Eggplant from Osaka: the perfect eggplant, crisp and delicious. And the simplest preparation, a raw wedge eaten by hand with a bit of dipping sauce. I had forgotten to take photos. Luckily, the couple sitting next to me (whose meal started a little later) was kind enough to let me photograph theirs.

4. Edamame tofu, shrimp and uni, topped with ikura (salmon roe) - I don't like tofu, and I'm okay with ikura though I don't prefer it (usually think it's too salty). But this dish completely blew me away. The tofu had a nutty quality from the edamame that made it so much more interesting than regular white tofu, and the ikura was just perfect - with the gold leaf, this dish looked like jewelry.

5. Sashimi of toro (fatty tuna) from Boston, kampachi (yellowtail) from Toyama Prefecture, and tai (snapper) from Kyushu: as great as the fish and freshly grated wasabi were, and as beautiful as the carved-ice bowl was, I was most intrigued with the vegetables, especially this tiny light green one that curled around to look like a sun with rays. Visually the highlight of the evening, along with the tofu. I had to stand up to get a decent shot of the whole thing.

6. Dobin mushi - soup with shrimp, snapper, abalone, matsutake mushroom, and gingko nut: I don't know how Hiro-san sliced the shrimp, but it was sort of like those curled and scored pieces of squid you get at Chinese restaurants, only prettier. The abalone was SO tender, with just enough crunch, and the matsutake was perfect in taste and texture. What's the tiny little chive-like herb that Hiro puts in his dishes? Anyway, the soup was wonderful but I hate pouring from teapots because I always spill.

7. Awabi karaage: fried abalone which was boiled with kombu for over 6 hours, which Hiro explained was the trick to making abalone tender.

8. Marinated kama toro seared on a hot stone: my favorite dish of the night. Kama toro is the toro from the collar (or "neck" as Hiro kinda joked, not being sure of a more accurate term) of the tuna. It looked like a gorgeous, well-marbled piece of beef!

9. Shabu-shabu of shrimp, king eel, beef, foie gras, and kelp: the beef and foie gras were especially good. Now that I think about it, maybe the fancy cut shrimp was in this dish. I should have taken better notes. The broth was delicious but really, really hot, and I am extremely temperature-sensitive. I drank as much of it as I could, but my tongue was already somewhat burned so I had to stop.

Here's where the sushi begins, all of which were incredible, though smaller than I'm used to. Nearly every piece was delicately sauced by Hiro-san:

10. Toro

11. Seared kama toro

12. Kampachi

13. Tai

14. Seki aji (Spanish mackerel) from Kyushu

15. Maguro (bluefin tuna): I'm not sure, but I think this was the one piece that had a bit of gristle (or whatever it's called for fish).

16. Ika (squid)

17. Matsutake mushroom

18. Shima aji (skipjack)

19. Mirugai (geoduck, aka giant clam)

20. Amaebi (sweet shrimp) - okay, this one was huge! I have pics of Hiro-san's assistant ripping apart the live shrimp.

21. Awabi

22. Sanma (pike mackerel): Hiro explained it was made in a very old style. It was like one super-long piece of nigiri cut into smaller pieces (like a roll). The sushi was cooked with hot metal rods. The first time he cooked it, it caught on fire. I was a second too slow with my camera to capture the flames. :-(

23. Toro roll with scallions and pickled radish: it was cut into six pieces and divided among six diners. The server forgot to give my friend and me the dish of soy sauce that was supposed to accompany this sushi, and we didn't know any better, so we ate it as-is. Hiro-san corrected the oversight by making another roll, and giving each of us half! My friend and I joked that the sushi was SO awful without the soy sauce (of course it was still amazing); but Hiro-san was right, it was better with it.

24. Kobe beef: I forget what the grade was; I think he said something like A5, and 8 on the 12-point scale.

25. Anago (sea eel)

26. Tamago: this was the most surprising bit of egg custard I've ever had. I swear it tasted like some kind of light sponge cake. I wonder if he separates the eggs, whips the whites, then folds the beaten yolks back in?

The sushi overall was different enough from your standard traditional sushi-ya that it didn't ruin me for simpler, more modest places like Shibucho. Thank god! But it has made me strongly consider going to other sushi-ya far less often in order to afford Urasawa once again.

And finally, the desserts:

27. Asian pear jello, umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum) sauce and goji berries: sweet, fruity, and delicious.

28. Black sesame ice cream with red bean, with matcha: the flavor reminded me of Chinese sesame cookies. I couldn't really taste the red bean (it was just a little bit on top, mashed into a little paste), but no big deal, the ice cream was awesome. The matcha (powdered green tea) was an opaque bright green, thick and very very strong. It looked like the poblano soup I had at Opus last year.

After the meal, we were served (brown?) tea.

Hiro-san is a consummate host. He made it a point to talk with us even though we were quiet and completely absorbed by the meal (not to mention super-paranoid/conscious about being bothersome - he had a full house and then some, including some regulars he was chatting away with, and I know I was nervous about asking for his attention). His favorite place to eat in LA? Sea Harbor in Rosemead! Because I took so many photos (don't worry, I never let the sushi sit for more than a few seconds; Hiro-san actually had to chastise one guest for that faux-pas), he joked that photos are $5 each. He would wait for me to take my photos (to capture the sushi's good side) before turning the sushi for me (I'm a lefty). He also mentioned that he never visits Japan because he doesn't want to have to close the restaurant while he's gone.

A few small negatives:

1. The pacing. Everything before the sushi came somewhat fast - I thought there could have been just a bit more time in between each course. The sushi came out much slower, which doesn't really bother me, but my friend wished it could have come a bit faster (not likely considering how much Hiro-san has to do).

2. Elbow room. A full house means fairly tight quarters, made tighter by the servers always there to pour drinks, set utensils, wipe the counter, cook the food, etc. I guess that's what I get for going on a Saturday. But I do love the atmosphere of a bunch of strangers sitting around and casually chatting with each other and Hiro-san at will, while relaxedly dining on food of the highest caliber, plus the theatrics of watching the food being prepared.

3. Not enough food. Well, not really. But after reading all the posts here, I had the impression that there was a chance that I would not be able to finish the meal. I certainly didn't leave hungry, but I wasn't stuffed either. Which is a good thing, except that when the food is that good, and it's the kind of place I may be able to go to only a handful of times in my lifetime (and honestly should not be attempting to afford at all on my income), I want to eat as much as I can when I'm there. My friend was actually afraid he would leave hungry. I think the amount was barely adequate for him. To be fair, neither of us ate much all day before dinner.

Cost was $300pp for food, $15pp for Pellegrino, plus sake, tax, and tip. My friend isn't a big drinker, and neither of us are knowledgeable/experienced enough to fully appreciate really expensive sake, but Urasawa has some relatively reasonably priced stuff (under $100) on the list.

In conclusion: best meal ever. It is difficult and perhaps unfair to compare the Urasawa experience to that of a modern European restaurant like noma, but thinking about just the food, Urasawa has the edge for me (and I think it's criminal that the place only has one Michelin star). My friend now wants to go once a year. I don't know how I'm going to manage that, but I will definitely try!

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  1. I enjoyed your report, just as I have enjoyed all the others, so thanks for another perspective! I simply HAVE to do this before I leave L.A.

    Here is my problem. I know the counter is fairly small. I, personally, am really tired of going to nice restaurants and having flashes and camera sounds go off near me for an entire meal. It seems like everyone who goes to Urasawa, takes photos. Is this going to be impossible to escape?

    I'm not trying to be snarky, this is a genuine concern. I find the cameras throughout a meal to be just as jarring as when someone opens their cell phone in a movie.

    What are the odds that when I go, at least one patron will be taking photographs? I mean 400 images? That's 400 shutter clicks, in such a serene environment as Urasawa!

    I'd appreciate any input.

    1 Reply
    1. re: annalulu

      When I was there, every party but one or two had at least one camera (every party that night was a party of two). I was the only one with a DSLR; everyone else had pocket-sized P&S cameras. Several people (myself included) had notepads too. At least one person was using flash, but I think most weren't (I didn't, which was why I brought a DSLR). So I'm afraid yes, it will be impossible to escape, unless you're lucky enough to go when no one else is there.

      But Urasawa is not that serene. It certainly isn't loud like Mozza, but everyone is talking with Hiro and each other fairly constantly. IMHO it feels more casual than many other fine dining places in LA.

    2. Hi mrhooks,

      Nice review. Glad you enjoyed your visit! :) Hiro-san / Urasawa is simply world-class / outstanding! :) A few thoughts:

      * Urasawa actually got 2 Michelin Stars, but IMHO, it should've gotten 3.

      * Interesting about the food quantity! My friend and I went and we could barely survive the last few courses / dessert; we were stuffed!

      * Next time you go, try their Kubota Manjyu Sake. One of the best Sakes around, clean, crisp, and Hiro-san's favorite. :)

      * Pacing: During our visit it was actually evenly paced: The early courses came out at a good pace (not rushed or fast) and the Sushi was about the same.

      Regardless, I agree that Urasawa is definitely one of the best dining experiences around. Can't wait to go back again (and glad to see that he's serving Matsutake Mushrooms now :).

      5 Replies
      1. re: exilekiss

        Oops, I must've misremembered the Michelin rankings. Yeah, I think it deserves 3, not that I would know.

        Thanks for the tip on the sake! I'll ask for it in a couple of years. ;-) Just kidding, I'll look for it somewhere else.

        As for the pacing, to be fair, I took just a little longer to eat because of the photos. Perhaps it would seem slower if I had been able to dive into the dishes immediately.

        I forgot in my notes and my write-up that uni was one of the sushi too. And Hiro-san was extremely generous with it too - there must have been 4 pieces of uni on the rice. It was very fresh. My friend doesn't like uni and even he was blown away.

        1. re: exilekiss

          In my opinion, Michelin knows NOTHING about L.A. - I swear by those stars in Europe, but I wouldn't trust those stars in SoCal.

          Granted, if Michelin knew L.A. dining better, Hiro-san should have gotten 3 stars. And Mei Long Village should get at least 1 star.

          I usually shoot 200-300 photos each time I go. 7 or so visits = mucho mucho good food. I'll try to get around sharing them one of these days....

          1. re: exilekiss

            Do you know approximately how much Kubota Manjyu Sake costs? I am over half-way on my "Ursawa fund" and just wondering about how much more we should expect to pay for sake. Thanks.

            1. re: Rizza

              It was $160 last time I was there (May). I've gotten the same bottle for $80 at other restaurants so the mark up is steep. Even at $160, it was one of the more affordable sakes on the menu. I have the full sake list posted here: http://www.kevineats.com/2008/05/uras...

              1. re: kevin h

                Thank you. that's helpful. We are just saving up for the food. We will splurge on the sake out of our regular big night out budget.

          2. Welcome to the club!

            About the pacing, I think generally speaking, most omakase meals just keep the food coming based on the pace that you are eating. So if it looks like you are slowing down while eating the things, the chef will slow down accordingly.

            1. Your report has whetted my apetite, as I'll be going again (my third visit) this Saturday. My last trip was in May, so I'm glad to see that the menu has changed somewhat.

              Naturally, I'll be bringing my camera (Fuji FinePix F30, so no flash and no shutter either) and notepad, so expect another Urasawa report, the third in the series!

              1. Great report mrhooks! I been looking forward to trying Hiro-san's dobinmushi this season. For us the pacing was maybe too fast during sushi portion of the meal, otherwise we definitely had enough to eat, if not a little over the top.
                On #26 the tamago, it's really a Japanese Castella in my opinion, good pic here:
                http://www.flickr.com/photos/akatayam...