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An Epic 6-Hour Meal Urasawa--March 2009 Report with Photos and Video

This was actually my fourth visit to Urasawa. At Urasawa, you're pretty much a "regular" if you come more than once a year, so I guess that makes me one. Let's get right into the food:

1. Toro-Senmaizuke Maki - This dish consisted of ankimo (monkfish liver), shiso, and scallion wrapped in seared toro and senmai-zuke (salt-pickled shogoin kabu turnip from Kyoto), topped with caviar, all in a light citrus ponzu sauce. The initial taste was sweet on the attack (a combination of the senmai-zuke and the sauce), which then gave way to the mintiness of the shiso mixed with the creaminess of the ankimo on the midpalate, finally finishing with a slight fishiness. The ankimo really did a lot to temper out the tanginess of the other ingredients, adding weight and depth to the dish. Amazingly, the caviar took a back seat here, with its signature brininess countered by the dish's other elements. A very cohesive, balanced course.

2. Goma Dofu - Despite the name, goma tofu, or sesame tofu, isn't actually tofu. Instead, it's an amalgam made from water, sesame paste, and kudzu/kuzu powder (from the root of the kudzu vine). Here, the Kyoto-style tofu was stuffed with uni, served with nanohana (rapeseed stems, a type of Spring vegetable), and topped with wasabi and gold foil. The goma dofu was denser and creamier than standard tofu, and had a definite sesame finish to it. We were told to spread out the wasabi--good advice, as its tang served as a fitting contrast to the delicate tofu. The nanohana, meanwhile, was like a cross between broccoli and kale, and added a lovely crisp texture contrast to the dish, as well as a subtle bitterness.

3. Hotaru Ika - Also known as the firefly squid or the sparkling enope squid, hotaruika are a regional specialty of Toyama Prefecture. The squid are small, about three inches in length at maturity, and are bioluminescent. We were instructed to place the squid in our mouths, drink some sake, and chew the resulting mishmash. The hotaruika's sharp, briny, gingery flavor was deftly countered by the relative sweetness of the sake.

4. Sashimi - The sashimi course, served in a hard-carved block of ice, is one of the constants in the Urasawa experience. The trio of fish consisted of toro from Spain, tai from Kyushu, and kanpachi from Toyama. The wasabi from was Shizuoka (famous for its wasabi), the shoyu from Wakayama (the "birthplace" of soy sauce), the carrot from Kyoto, and the lily(?) flower from Los Angeles! I didn't inquire about the origins of the red cabbage, white daikon, green daikon, cucumber flower, or seaweed. The toro was immensely fatty and melt-in-your-mouth, with the fish oozing oil upon mastication; but it wasn't heavy--in fact, the flavor was very mild. Eating the fish with the soy and wasabi really made the toro work, with the two elements countering the unctuousness of the fish. I had the snapper next; it had an almost creamy texture, and a very mild, clean flavor. The tai really needed the wasabi to bring out its best features. Finally, the kanpachi had a fantastic texture, tender with a bit of bite, and its flavor was marked by a very subtle sweetness, one that was drawn out when eating it with its accompaniments.

5. Chawanmushi - Though this was referred to as chawanmushi (basically a steamed egg custard), its transparent body was unlike that any other chawanmushi I've seen, with a consistency more akin to gelatin than egg. The dish contained a bevy of ingredients, including: yuba (tofu skin), mitsuba (a type of vegetable), hairy crab, squash, uni, snapper, shrimp, ginger, ginko, and shiitake, all topped with a touch of gold foil. With so many disparate ingredients, each bite was different, each bite a pleasant surprise. However, all bites were backed by an overarching light smokiness, the tang of ginger, and the subtle bitterness of the mitsuba. I don't hesitate in saying that this was probably the best chawanmushi I've ever had.

6. Spring Vegetable Tempura - Your standard tempura ingredients won't cut it at Urasawa; no, I was able to try three that I'd never tasted before, all seasonal and best in the spring time. First up was taranome (young shoots of the aralia elata/Japanese angelica/tara tree), which had just come into season. It was prepared with an uni sauce and had a meaty texture, with a slightly bitter flavor. Next was fukinoto, the buds of the fuki/giant butterbur/coltsfoot/bog rhubarb. It was done with Kyoto miso, giving the tempura just a hint of sweetness, and had a creamy, pasty texture that was fascinating. Last but not least was a tempura of bamboo sandwiched with shrimp paste. I loved the texture contrast here (the crispness of the bamboo was awesome), as well as the subtle interplay between the flavors of the bamboo and the shrimp. As with most tempura, the examples here were served with tentsuyu dipping sauce (made from shoyu, mirin, and dashi) and grated daikon. Humorously, Ken-san nearly jumped across the counter when he saw me eating the tempura sans sauce! I had to assure him I just wanted to try a small bite without the tentsuyu, just to see how it was.

7. Kani Miso Korayaki - This consisted of Hokkaido kegani (horsehair crab or hairy crab) meat and its kani miso (internal organs), topped with uni and mitsuba, all cooked in the crab's shell over a hibachi. The dish's aroma was intoxicating, and the flavor was simply the most intensely "crabby" I'd ever experienced, really imbuing me with the pure essence of crab, punctuated by the soft creaminess of the uni and the bitterness of mitsuba. This was my favorite course of this entire meal and arguably the best crab dish I've ever tasted.

8. Saga Beef - This was Wagyu beef from Saga Prefecture on Kyushu island, cooked for two days in sake and shoyu, and served with daikon, scallion, and snow peas. The result of this extended cooking session was an incredibly soft and tender texture. I literally was able to eat this without chewing, instead using my tongue to mash the beef against the roof of my mouth! Flavor-wise, this had a distinct sweetness to it, which was expertly offset by the use of the scallion and snow peas; the veggies were also key in providing some textural contrast to the dish.

9. Shabu Shabu - The shabu shabu course is always one of the most highly anticipated courses at Urasawa. This time, we had amaebi, Saga beef, and foie gras. The sweet shrimp and foie were the first to go into the pot. The shrimp was cooked quickly, resulting in a crisp, snappy texture, and when dipped in the ponzu sauce, had a great sweet-salty interplay. The beef went in next, and after some light cooking, we ate it with the kombu kelp--it turned out remarkably tender, and really soaked up the sweetness of the ponzu. Finally, it was time for the foie gras, which requires the longest cooking time. The result was fantastic, as expected--rich, decadent, subtle yet profound.

10. Shabu Shabu Broth - The shabu shabu broth is always a treat. An interesting anecdote: early in the night, we saw Hiro-san tasting some sort of liquid multiple times. When we inquired, it turns out he was taste testing the broth, which he adjusts to account for the body size of the diner. He said that we were all pretty "skinny" so I guess no major adjustments needed to be made! In any case, the base of the broth is dashi and kombu, but the key is that the soup absorbs the multitude of flavors of the ingredients that are cooked in it. Its flavor was sharp and intense, yet not overpowering, saturated with the heady, hearty essence of the foie gras.

11. Toro / Tuna Belly - Unlike pretty much any other sushi chef, Hiro-san likes to start out with toro. I'm not complaining, as his toro is always decadently fatty, unctuous, and rich, with the wasabi adding a touch of heat to accent the fish. This is, quite simply, the best toro I've had in the States (the #1 spot belongs to Kyubey in Tokyo).

12. Seared Kama Toro / Tuna Collar - Kama toro is a cut of tuna from the fish's collar area, of comparable fattiness to toro (from the belly), but much rarer. It's something that I've only had at Urasawa. The kama toro had a richer taste and fattier complexion than standard toro, and its flavor was punctuated by a light smokiness imparted by the searing. Excellent.

13. Kanpachi / Amberjack - Kanpachi is related to the common yellowtail, and as a result, it's somewhat similar in flavor, though sweeter, less oily, and more tender. Delicate and refined, kanpachi isn't terribly distinctive or in-your-face, though it certainly is delicious.

14. Aji / Spanish Mackerel - Aji has become one of my favorite sushi fish, and this reminded me why. Mackerel can be overpowering at times, but that wasn't an issue here. It had a subtle fishiness to it, which was countered and complemented by the wasabi. Great snappy texture on this one too.

15. Tai / Snapper - From Kyushu. A perfect piece of tai, the fish had a great snap to it and a mild flavor that was heightened by the use of yuzu zest.

16. Hon Maguro / Bluefin Tuna - The quintessential expression of tuna. Maguro rarely stands out, but this is about as good as it gets. The tuna's flavor was straightforward and clean, well-accented by the wasabi.

17. Shima Aji / Striped Jack - This was actually my favorite fish on my second visit, and though it didn't reach quite the same heights this time, it was still lovely, with a fresh, light flavor highlighted by a wasabi finish. The most distinctive thing about the shima aji wasn't its flavor, but its great crunchy texture.

18. Shiitake - Shiitake has shown up on every Urasawa visit so far, and yet, I've not had it at any other restaurant. The mushroom had a strong, smoky, earthy flavor (reminding me of a Chinese-style preparation) that stood in stark contrast to the vinegared rice and spicy wasabi.

19. Shiro Ebi / White Shrimp - Tiny shrimp from Toyama Prefecture, where they're a regional specialty. Consisting of over a dozen shrimp, the nigiri broke apart instantly upon mastication, spreading the shrimps' sweet creaminess everywhere.

20. Seki Saba / Japanese Mackerel - As with its cousin seki aji, seki saba is considered the crème de la crème when it comes to mackerel. Seki saba is caught in the Bungo Channel (a strait that separates Kyushu from Shikoku) off the coast of Oita Prefecture. Now normally, seki mackerel has a very fine, delicate flavor that I find simply fantastic. Unfortunately, this didn't live up to my expectations, which I think was my fault, as I let the fish sit too long. Typically, I'll eat the sushi within seconds of it being served to me, but in this case, I happened to get distracted by a side conversation and let the fish sit for over a minute. The result was a taste that was duller, blunter, less refined that it should've been, with a texture that was drier and tougher. Hiro-san has a 10-second rule for a reason; stick to it! I know I will next time.

21. Awabi / Abalone - Often times, abalone can be too tough, but that wasn't the case here. The mollusk, shipped from Japan, had just the right amount of snap to it, and its briny flavor was set off nicely by the application of yuzu zest.

22. Mirugai / Geoduck - Also known as the king clam or elephant trunk clam, the mirugai had a definite crunch to it, yet was yielding to the bite as well. The flavor was sweeter than that of the abalone, and was nicely contrasted by the use of wasabi.

23. Aji No Tataki / Chopped Spanish Mackerel - Another type of nigiri exclusive to Urasawa, this consisted of diced aji mixed with shiso, ginger, Kyoto miso, and scallions. Rather than being fishy, the nigiri had a light sweetness from the miso, which was countered by the sharp tang of shiso, ginger, and scallion. Very nice.

24. Gyusashi / Beef - The first thing that hit me here was the zesty flavor of the grated yuzu skin; this then gave the way to the sweet flavor of the lightly cooked, slightly chewy meat, after which the wasabi came to the fore. Always a crowd pleaser!

25. Negi-Toro Maki - The only rolled sushi one typically get at Urasawa is the negi-toro maki, made of toro, negi (leek), and takuan (pickled daikon). The bitter leek was a wonderful complement to the heavy toro, and the daikon pickles gave the roll a slightly sour flavor, as well as a refreshing crunch.

26. Anago / Sea Eel - I've had anago on all three of my Urasawa trips, which I believe has helped convert me from unagi. You won't find unagi at Urasawa (at least not in nigiri form), as freshwater eel is traditionally not used as a sushi ingredient, due to its fattier, heavier consistency. This was the strongest anago amongst all my visits; the eel was lean and light in body, yet flavorful, and was accented by yuzu and a dollop of sweet sauce.

27. Tamago / Egg Omelet - Tamago always signals the end of the sushi at Urasawa. Here, it's always made in-house, in a style that's completely different than what you'd see elsewhere. You'll find that the tamago is light, spongy, fluffy, and cake-like, with a flavor that's indeed eggy, but also quite sweet.

28. Papaya and Yamamomo - When I saw this, I thought that it was just a piece of sliced papaya. I was wrong fortunately; instead, what we had was a grapefruit gelée that had somehow been melded on a slice of papaya. The effect was that the sour essence of grapefruit permeated the milder flavor of the papaya, creating a nice balance. The other component here was yamamomo, a.k.a. mountain peach or bayberry. It's flavor was interesting--tart but almost savory.

29. Goma Pudding - This was a sesame pudding, topped with a layer of red bean paste, sprinkled with chestnuts, sesame seeds, and topped with gold foil. Very nice; this had a great base of sesame flavor, accented by the sweetness of red bean, while the chestnuts added a bit of nuttiness as well as a pleasing crunch to the whole amalgam.

30. Matcha - With dessert came a cup of matcha, a type of powdered green tea often used in Japanese tea ceremonies. It had a strong, bitter flavor that balanced the sweetness of the desserts, as well as a thick, grainy texture.

31. Hojicha - A roasted green tea, hojicha signals the close of a meal at Urasawa. I'm usually not a tea drinker, but I always make room for a few cups of this (you get free refills).

Over the course of dinner, Hiro-san asked me if I'd been to a few restaurants, such as French Laundry, Joël Robuchon, and even The Bazaar. Apparently, José Andrés had called Urasawa the best restaurant in Los Angeles; humorously, he also mentioned that Yoshie-san went to dinner at The Bazaar once, and thought that many of the dishes "tasted strange" (e.g. a dish with toro and apple)! I asked him what restaurants he liked. Names mentioned include Otafuku Noodle House in Gardena for soba and Oumi Sasaya in Lomita for udon. He also likes K-Zo in Culver City, though owner Keizo Ishiba is a friend of his. Hiro-san's favorite cuisine is Japanese, naturally, but behind that is Chinese, which he eats at least twice a week (he likes Empress Harbor in Monterey Park if I recall). His father actually ran a Chinese restaurant back in Tokyo, so Hiro-san grew up around good food. Though originally from Tokyo, he moved to Kyoto to learn the art of traditional kaiseki cuisine, which is evident in the elaborate courses that precede the sushi.

During our meal, I asked Hiro-san how business was holding up, given the recession and all. Interestingly, he noted that business has not, in fact, slowed. He did mention though that he talked to his old teacher Masa Takayama, Corey Lee, and Michael Cimarusti, and that all three had stated that business had slowed at Masa, Per Se, and Providence, respectively, as a result of the economic slowdown. The fact that Urasawa hasn't experienced declining business, I believe, is a testament to the quality and uniqueness of the restaurant. There's always room for the best right?

Full review with photos and video: http://www.kevineats.com/2009/03/uras...

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  1. Great report, Kevin and brilliant photography - as usual. I don't know about sitting for a 6 hour dinner, but that may be my very green envy talking... ;-D>

    So was this a tip of $1,000? That would be something...putting down a grand as a tip. lol

    Thanks for the report and the "free" entertainment.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Servorg

      You're welcome!

      I believe the final tally was $5,750, so a $857.10 tip, which comes out to about 19%. Not bad for a bill of this size!

      1. re: kevin h

        Wonder how many dishes I'd have to wash for that? Great review, still planning my Urasawa night, hopefully soon.

    2. Great report. We're planning a group trip in September.

      Regarding the anago. It looks pre-packaged to me. The flesh is compact and flesh brown stained and not white and flaky like the freshly grilled anago at Yasuda and Mori. Do you know if Hiro-san prepares his own anago?

      And yes, Providence was half full this past Tuesday.

      7 Replies
      1. re: Porthos

        It seems unlikely that he'd take shortcuts with the anago, given the care that goes into every else. Maybe the color is the result of some sort of saucing or treatment? I know he does grill the eel himself; I've seen that part with my own eyes.

        Shame about Providence. I'll be going there at the end of the month for the 5x5 though, hopefully snagging the Sonoma room.

        1. re: kevin h

          Whoa! Slightly off topic but do you know the lineup for the 5x5? Who is the guest chef?

          As for the anago, freshly grilled anago has freshly applied sauce that the itame makes himself. I wouldn't call it a shortcut but it's reasonable to say that not all sushi chefs are trained to do eel just as not all sushi chefs can do fugu.

          1. re: Porthos

            Hiro-san does make his own sweet sauce which is applied to the anago right before serving. This is visible in the video I have of the anago being prepared. I've had anago at other places that were much lighter in color; I'm not sure what accounts for the darker tone here.

            As for the 5x5, the guest chef at Providence is Alessandro Stratta of the Michelin 2-star Alex restaurant at the Wynn in Las Vegas. The line up is Gabriel Kreuther (The Modern) at Melisse, Sean McClain (Spring) at Grace, Curtis Duffy (The Avenues) at Water Grill, Paul Bartolotta (Bartolotta) at Angelini Osteria.

            1. re: kevin h

              It's not just the color, it's the texture of the flesh. Freshly grilled eel has the texture, consistency, and appearance of freshly grilled fish. Anago is lean and has a fine textured flesh. The compact flesh from your excellent quality pictures makes me suspect that it's prepackaged stuff. Grilling it in front of you and saucing it in front of you is a way touching it up I guess. So far, I've only had freshly grilled eel at Mori and Yasuda.

              I know you had a bad experience with Mori and pictures but try his freshly grilled Anago and you'll know what I mean. Also, I suspect that you may find Mori's nori superior to Hiro's. Ask Mori before you take pictures this time. He may be more amenable. Ask him to show you his rice husker and polisher in the back upstairs room.

              Otherwise, it'll be a few months before I can run the comparison myself.

              Here's a link to what freshly grilled anago looks like at Yasuda

              http://www.flickr.com/photos/ulterior...

              1. re: Porthos

                Indeed, I've had anago that has more closely resembled the linked photo. They've been different, but not necessarily better or worse. What are your thoughts on how the anago looks at the following places?

                Kaji: http://www.kevineats.com/2008/03/kaji...
                Kyubey: http://www.kevineats.com/2008/03/kyub...
                Natori: http://www.kevineats.com/2008/03/nato...
                Shibucho: http://www.kevineats.com/2008/12/shib...
                Sushi Zo: http://www.kevineats.com/2009/01/sush...

                I'll probably make it back to Mori some time. Recently I've seen photos on other blogs so I gather he's not as restrictive anymore.

                1. re: kevin h

                  Beautiful photos. I'd say the photos from Kyubey most closely resembles the freshly prepared anago at Mori and Yasuda. It should convince you even further that the Urasawa version is most likely prepackaged.

                  1. re: Porthos

                    "... the Urasawa version is most likely prepackaged."

                    Maybe, but how else can he keep the meal price under five-hundred bucks pp?

      2. The Senmaizuke Maki dish was my favorite dish last time with a different type of fish. Balanced is a nice way to describe it. So many different flavors coming together. I don't know how you guys go through so much sushi at the end. After seeing all these pictures, I really need to go back ASAP! BTW I believe he likes Sea Harbor for dim sum.

        11 Replies
        1. re: peppermonkey

          Sea Harbour in Rosemead you say? I could see how I'd get that mixed up with Empress Harbor.

          1. re: kevin h

            that was a RIDICULOUSLY awesome Urasawa report... Thanks for sharing your 4th experience with us....

            and yes Hiro-san loves to have dim sum at Sea Harbour on Rosemead and Valley... i've seen him there with his family...

            1. re: Perceptor

              Thanks, I've made the correction on my blog.

              Who have you seen him with at Sea Harbour? What family does he have here besides Yoshie?

              1. re: kevin h

                i dont know the people he was with at Sea Harbour... it looks like his family....

                1. re: Perceptor

                  Ok. It's just that I'm pretty sure he's single, and his mom lives in Japan, so I was just wondering who he was with. Did you go up and talk to him?

                  1. re: kevin h

                    nah.. didnt wanna bother him when he was enjoying dim sum with family

                2. re: Perceptor

                  The one time I ate at Urasawa, we talked a bit about Chinese food as well. He did mention Sea Harbour, but what I thought was hilarious is that he also mentioned that he loves the Phoenix places (Inn, Bakery, Food Boutique, etc...)

                  1. re: andytseng

                    I'm not familiar with the Phoenix family of restaurants. How are they?

                3. re: kevin h

                  Sea Harbour in Rosemead is correct. He has told me that as well. That's pretty much the only non-japanese place he really seems to frequent. He knows the owners and makes a special reservation.

                  1. re: choctastic

                    On my previous visits, he mentioned that he likes Angelini Osteria and Sona, though I don't know how often he goes.

              2. Thanks for another amazing and inspirational review! *dreams big*

                2 Replies
                1. re: lotta_cox

                  You're quite welcome! When can we expect to see your Urasawa post?

                  1. re: kevin h

                    not for another year! unless the economy takes a wild turn for the better.

                  1. Wonderful review and photo essay! As much as this would probably be the meal of a lifetime for me, because I'm "fussy" when it comes to beer, I would not be able to eat here.

                    To not have, at least, a selection of the widely available Hitachino beers is ridiculous. The Red Rice Ale, Classic Ale, White, etc. would pair beautifully with this cuisine. Instead you get "Japanese" beers contract brewed in Canada by Molson. Clearly Hiro-san doesn't drink beer, but he would make a lot of people happy with some beers worthy of his own efforts.

                    Having said that, his food looks breathtaking. You're really lucky to hit that place once a year.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: SaltCod

                      How are you with sake? He has a great selection and they pair wonderfully with the food. That said, I'd really appreciate an expanded beer selection as well.

                      1. re: kevin h

                        I love sake and it looks like you had some of the best available. I just get frustrated when high end restaurants give their customers terrible beer because of a lack of knowledge. I had a bad experience with this recently at Gary Danko in SF. Jumbo's Clown Room has a better beer selection than Gary Danko, and I'm, sadly, being literal.

                        It's my pet peeve. I love wine, sake and cocktails, but I expect certain restaurants to be in the know on everything. To show I don't complain all the time, I noticed that since the last time I was at Pizzeria Mozza, they've brought in some excellent beers from all around CA. (Russian River, Bear Republic, Anderson Valley, etc.) Well done!

                        1. re: SaltCod

                          Yeah, it's often difficult to find interesting beer selections at many restaurants, even high-end ones. Fortunately, I do think that the situation is improving. I actually haven't been to the Pizzeria, but Osteria Mozza does have a decent spread.

                    2. Superb post, the best yet. I no longer can go here because I no longer eat animal products but your post made me twinge with nostalgia.

                      One note, I have had unagi nigiri, on at least one or two of my earliest visits, about a year after he opened. Very distinctive. His anago is like other people's unagi. However, his unagi is the fattest, sweetest, richest I've ever had. Unlike any other unagi I've ever tried, though I never had the opportunity to cruise all the best places in Tokyo.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: choctastic

                        Interesting. I wonder why he doesn't serve unagi any more. I'd love to see how his compares to the rest.

                        As for the anago, it's pretty distinctive, really unlike any others I've tried. I'll try to remember to ask him about it next time I'm there.