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$1100 later... URASAWA report! - VERY long!

  • m

Hi 'hounds!

Per my posting about a week ago (and encouraged by jcwla's original 43 part Japanese feast posting-- see his link below), two co-workers and I decided to take the Urasawa plunge. At $250 a head, it is of course a bit intimidating, but let me just say that after experiencing last night, it is all about percieved value.

Hiro Urasawa is an interesting guy... about my age (which is to say 30-ish) Very humble, extremely friendly, knowledgeable and obviously incredibly passionate about the food he's preparing. "my life is food," he told us. He is contantly reading food and restaurant magazines from Japan for ideas. He travels back home 3-4 times a year to see what's happening at restaurants in Kyoto (as opposed to the more modern and experimental Tokyo style, his preparation is Kyoto style -- which is to say very traditional, whole foods prepared very simply-- no "fusion" cuisine here-- he seems to have less regard for popular fusion chefs like Matsuhisa and Iron Chef Morimoto ("he's okay... first Iron Chef Japan much better!")

It would be difficult to explain to someone who eats to live (a non-chowhound) why $250 for a dinner is not highway robbery. Hiro's passion is to recreate the experience you would have at a high quality Kyoto restaurant. The only way to do really this is to fly in fish (and Kobe beef) from Japan. "Everything flown in from Japan except abalone... and tuna comes from Boston. Very good tuna in Boston-- even restaurants in Japan fly in Boston tuna!" But of course, flying in fish 8 hours from Japan almost daily (over ice, by the way-- but never frozen!) is not cheap. Also, kobe beef is a premium item-- people in Japan pay hundreds of dollars for the meat from cattle that are massaged with sake and fed beer to keep the meat tender and flavorful (since Japan is a small island nation, there is not a lot of land to raise cattle on-- so up goes the price.)

I asked Hiro if it was his desire to open a restaurant one day in Kyoto. His reply: "No, I am here forever. If you open other restaurants, quality goes down. I only serve 8 to 10 people per night to keep quality as high as possible." Also, factor in that Hiro has to pay a staff of about 4 other people working for him (this incredibly sweet and beautiful exchange student... I'm still kicking myself for not asking for her phone number... or at least her name! :-) And consider what is probably rediculously obscene rent at the Two Rodeo location, and the $250 price tag almost seems like a bargain. I actually came out doing the numbers in my head, wondering "how can he keep doing this for *just* $250 a person?"

So okay, you've read jcwla's post, and you're wanting the details. Well I've got details. I too kept semi-notes about what I was eating. So without further ado...

OH Wait... one more ado. I must mention the wasabi. REAL wasabi, from a gnarly green root, grated tableside (on a piece of rough *sharkskin* attached to a wooden plank with a handle) Oh my... real wasabi tastes so different, but at the same time familiar. The real stuff has 100 different notes... you still recognize the familiar heat of the old paste, but it's so much deeper and more complex. Really wonderful.

One last ado... at the end of the meal, was asked about progression. He said it is very important to start with bland items and work towards stronger flavors, so "your mouth doesn't go numb" (much like a cheese tasting... young cheeses first, older ones later). So bear that in mind as we explore...

The Courses.

1. Jaun Sai - served in a beautiful, unusual shot glass, this was a tiny drink (sort of a soup) of sweet rice vinegar, soy and "akadashi" (probably misspelled) Sort of like a tiny shot of soup/tea. Interesting way to start.

2. Green beans and sesame - a tiny, delicate bowl of green beans in a flavorful grey/black paste. I didn't see any sesame, be he swears they were in there.

3. Chawan mushi w/ sea urchin - this was my first taste of uni. Served in a little custard cup, a loose egg custard covering layers of uni, topped with beluga and little gold flakes. It tasted, literally, like the sea (I later realized this was the uni at play)

4. Salmon roe- a little cup of salmon eggs, served with a little tiny spoon (one of many tiny, delicate pieces of silverware to be had), mixed with yuzu juice (yuzu is like a small, round Japanese lime... he used the citrusy, fruity tang of yuzu in many of his dishes). Strange... as the salmon roe popped between my teeth, the yuzu made it taste as if I were eating a citrus fruit.

5. Tofu Danuk? (spelling) - miso mixed with shiso leaf and pickled turnip

6. Ikano chocolat? (spelling)? Squid sprinkled with squid guts. Firmer than the calamari I've had in the past, a bit like rubber bands, but the sauce (squid guts?) was flavorful and delicious

7. Sea Urchin - in a little cup, with anouther little spoon

8. Sea Urchin presentation - this was spectacular. This was a replacement for the ice sculpture ("I do ice sculpture myself, but I didn't make one today") that jcwla reports on. A square aged green plate with flared edges, decorated with rose colored rocks, and a spiny black sea urchin shell in the middle-- cavity filled with ice, covered with a green leaf, and layers of uni piled on. Accompanied with that were sheets of seaweed slightly toasted over a charcoal kiln of some sort. Then fresh grated pickled veggies (cabbage/turnip?) of some kind, and more of the lovely fresh wasabi-- garnished with two pink and white flowers. The idea was to make your own mini uni hand rolls. Really delicious... but, a little uni goes a long way. And while the presentation was spectacular and the uni was apparently fantastic (my coworker never eats uni, but loved it here), the texture became a bit repetitive, and the seawater taste of the uni started to give me a bit of a headache.

9. Chakin Mushi - Fish cake w/ mushroom, sea urchin and shrimp. Hiro says this is his favorite. Really wonderful-- look at the incorrectly captioned "gama tofu" for a picture of the fish cake http://www.gayot.com/restaurants/feat...
As you can see, it looks like chinese steamed bao but the white "dough" in this dumpling is soft, mild, wonderful fish cake. Even after the overload of uni in the last dish, this was wonderfully balanced and really spectacular. Also topped with a smidge of beluga, if I remember correctly.

10. One thing to keep in mind is that the staff is *always* one step ahead. They are anticipating your last bite, and are preparing for the next dramatic presentation. So as I finished my last bite of fish bao, my plate is whisked away and a giant paper sheet is laid down in front of me, and then a plate with a sizzling hot black rock about the size and dimensions of a corn bread cake (with a tall dracula style collar tucked behind it as a splatter guard of some sort). Next we're surrounded by the staff, who take out 3-4 little cubes of toro and start to cook them on the sizzling rocks in front of us. Now let me tell you, this is unlike any toro I had tasted before. It had a distinctly meaty flavor, with a slight chew and then… nothing. It melted away like cotton candy, leaving this wonderful smoky flavor behind.

11. Kobe Beef – this is what I was really waiting for. I’ve had the wagyu Kobe beef (American style Kobe) but this was completely different. Now I must say that I was expecting something earth shattering…. And it wasn’t. It was fantastic—unlike any beef I’ve had before. Three little cubes of beef, maybe 2 cm square, with a wonderful flavor and texture that melted away. Why wasn’t it a transcendent experience? I don’t know. But it was really, really good.

12. Karasumi – definitely one of the most unusual items we had. We were served three thin, ochre hued wedges of what can only be described as being extremely similar to parmesan cheese (certainly more like parmesan than any other item I’ve encountered in Asian cooking!)—it had a slight gummy chew the way a fresh parmesan has, and the same aged flavor, but with a distinctly unusual, sour finish. We were told later that it was, in fact… fish eggs! Tiny fish eggs, pressed together to form this wholly unusual item. Fascinating.

13. This was certainly one of the most dramatic items on the menu. As we finished our karasumi, Hiro slapped 3 extremely fresh, thrashing shrimp down on his preparation block. Without hesitating, snap—one broken in half. Snap, snap. Then he pinned the tail to the (former) middle with a toothpick, and they became part of a wonderful soup, served in a tiny kettle with a miniature shot glass as the bowl. Sip the cup, eat a shrimp. Sip the cup, eat a mushroom. (By the way, he said the mushrooms were matsitake—the most expensive mushrooms in Japan). And the shrimp that had given its lives for us? Unbelievable… sweeter than any shrimp I’ve ever tasted.

We learned later that the soup was a way to cleanse the palate for the beginning of the rounds of sushi. By the way, I had printed out a copy of jcwla’s report and given it to Hiro (who was really thankful as he does not use computers!)
Ah… and let me just tell you, as good as the wasabi was, Hiro’s homemade ginger was unbelievable. I don’t know what he did to it, but it had the texture and softness of potato! Phenomenal!

Also, he gave us some sushi rules. Finger food—no chopsticks. Only dip in soy if you have to, and if so, fish side down. Also, eat the sushi within 10 seconds of having it served to you! He dabbed wasabi on the underside of the fish and often finished the piece by brushing it with homemade soy sauce, so when it was presented it had already been seasoned. Also, it should be noted that his pieces of sushi are small and delicate—about ½ the size of what you would expect at a typical sushi place.

14. Toro – wonderful, but with a slight chew that I was not expecting! I had always considered the best sushi to just melt away, and this had a definite firmness to it.
15. Shimaze
16. Maguro – GREAT – melt in your mouth as I was expecting.
17. Red snapper
18 Cooked Toro – FANTASTIC. Again, a really meaty flavor (perhaps from the charcoal) that was just incredible
19. Uni
20. Hoki clam – alive! He did a dramatic presentation by slapping the clam down on the his prep block, and watching the corners curl up. Mean, but… delicious
21. Shimayagi clam (also alive
)22. Scallop
23. Formerly live sweet shrimp, seasoned with guts (really delicious…)
24. Adago (eel). Much firmer than the softness you expect when you bite into eel—Hiro says it’s firm because it’s fresh. Wonderful, as I’m not a big fan of squishy eel. This was perfect! Served warm of couse.
25. Pickled radish—completely unusual flavor. I liked it—my companions didn’t.
26. Pike Makerel prepared Kyoto style—which is to say that they prepare the sushi almost like a roll, with fish fillet laid on top of a log of rice, and then cut into pieces. The result is the same, fish on top of rice, but it looks more like a cut roll than nigiri
27. Shiitake sushi—ok, this was totally shocking. He grilled 3 shiitake mushroom caps over the charcoal kiln for like 10-15 minutes (one cap burned… oops… so he slices the char off!) he then takes the mushroom, folds it over a piece of rice, cuts it in half… and it was amazing! Such simple ingredients, and it tasted so good.
28. Toro roll with scallions
29. Sayori
30. Kohada (fish are becoming gradually stronger in flavor—kohada had a distinct “fishy” flavor

Also, please note that by now we were getting pretty full—but I think Hiro felt compelled to beat jcwla’s 43 course meal or something! We kept say “no no, it’s okay… but this is a man obsessed…!”

31. Small shrimp (really surprising—didn’t even look like shrimp—more like calamari or udon noodles)
32. Giant Clam
33. Spanish Mackerel
34. Japanese Mackered (much more delicate flavor than Spanish mackerel—really good)
35. Seared toro sushi—or was it? I wrote down toro in my book and he said “no… kobe!” Amazing!
36. Abalone – extremely firm, almost difficult to eat—but Hiro had scored the abalone to tenderize it. Not one of my favorites
37. Japanese cucumber with shiso leaf and plum paste. Really delicious, refreshing, and surprisingly flaborful
38. Tamago – ok, tamago is simple eggs, right? Wrong. This was almost like a flan or cake, but was as light as air. With a sweetness/foaminess that just disappeared. He had a pan of it in the back and cut us each a square. Remarkable!
39. Watermelon juice and red beans over shaved ice – So simple, so refreshing, incredibly delicious
40. Strawberry mochi (served with this fascinating long pronged metal fork)
41. Green tea, roasted by Hiro and frothed with a wisk as they do in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.

And that was it. Total for three people with tax and tip—about $1100. (We ordered water, beer and sake.)

Now the question is—would I do it again? Under the right circumstances (and the right budget), certainly. I really respect Hiro for finding a way to carry our his passion for his native cuisine.

Mr. Taster

Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

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  1. Guys, I'm just loving the reports on this place. But I've just got to step in and correct on the junsai issue.

    Junsai is a water shield, part of the water lily family. It's ultra slimy and oh-so-delicious. It's also so rare (even in Japan!) that it'd be awfully hard to convince even Japanese that you could really find it here. I'm stunned this place has it, and it, alone, makes it worth the trip to me.

    I had some junsai in Japan this summer, and it was a highlite of my trip. Here's the relevant passage from my super long and ambitious Tokyo Report, which we're about to publish in electronic form (if you want a notice when it's available, drop me an email to address above and I'll send an announcement in a week or so). You're coming in in the middle of the description of one of the best meals of my life, at a place no one's ever heard of on the wrong side of town (I had some pretty serious chowhounding success over there):

    ----------
    After this semi-religious repast, we peered at our waiter - he who'd brought us such undistilled happiness - with infinite love and asked what we'd failed to order that's REALLY great. He wandered into a corner, stroking his chin, and spent not seconds but minutes pondering (on a busy night, no less). He returned and bellowed "Junsai!" To which we agreed, en masse, "Hai! Junsai!!"

    Junsai turned out to be the slimiest, weirdest, least food-like vegetable ever. It's served in a small cup - little rolled-up pieces afloat in a gingery murk - and you cannot extract them with chopsticks; they're just too slippery/slimy (junsai make okra seem like potato chips). We cheated and grabbed them with our fingers. And they were fabulous, exquisite, and the very last thing you'd expect to find in a humble yakitori joint.

    We devoured the junsai - even slurping up the gingery murk - and asked our waiter what, um, junsai ARE, exactly. He returned (I'm not making this up) with a field guide to marine plant life, and pointed at a diagram of a lily pad. (Actually, it's a "water shield", part of the water lily family.)

    Why had he recommended junsai? Subsequent research revealed that they're precious (their short annual harvest used to be reserved for friends of the emperor), expensive, and considered highly weird and disgusting by most Japanese. Was he testing us? Was he padding our bill? Was he somehow screwing with us? I don't know, but we loved them, which is all that mattered.

    Link: http://www.media-akita.or.jp/akita-sh...

    2 Replies
    1. re: Jim Leff

      Very interesing... Hiro's insructions for us on this were drink it like a shot and then chew.

      I remember an incredibly unique flavor, but unfortunately after so many different courses and flavors, the details are lost to me! Should have been taking more copious notes ;-)

      Mr. Taster

      1. re: Mr. Taster

        "Hiro's insructions for us on this were drink it like a shot and then chew."

        woops, sorry...I forgot to add that THIS is correct and our approach was wrong. OTOH, we had five people sharing one little cup, so the grab-and-splurk method was necessary.

        "unfortunately after so many different courses and flavors, the details are lost to me"

        Maybe too many courses? I tend to get overwhelmed in extensive tasting dinners in exactly the way I do in art museums. There's an element of decadence and wastefulness unless you're incredibly diligent, disciplined, and aware while eating. If I just want to luxuriate, I prefer a couple courses.

        ciao

    2. Mr. Taster, thanks for the report, a few questions if you'd be kind enough to reply.

      Does he do lunch, and the same spectacular meal at that hour?

      Do you know what kind of beluga caviar he used, and also was the sea urchin from the coasts of Santa Barbara or Japan?

      And what kind of sake did you guys have, oh and how long was the meal?

      I may be able to go there, if I stay away from blowfish or something like that which would up the ante. And I will definitely post on it, of course if he allows a pocket notebook and pen in there, and allows me to take copious notes.

      thanks for your honest report. for what it's worth if you like that kobe style grilled beef and just that go to Tsuruhashi on Brookhurst in Fountain Valley, greates melt in the mouth beef i've ever had. Unbelievable, it's Korean bbq by way of Japan, Japanese owners and Japanese style.

      1. Mr. Taster, thanks for the report, a few questions if you'd be kind enough to reply.

        Does he do lunch, and the same spectacular meal at that hour?

        Do you know what kind of beluga caviar he used, and also was the sea urchin from the coasts of Santa Barbara or Japan?

        And what kind of sake did you guys have, oh and how long was the meal?

        I may be able to go there, if I stay away from blowfish or something like that which would up the ante. And I will definitely post on it, of course if he allows a pocket notebook and pen in there, and allows me to take copious notes.

        thanks for your honest report. for what it's worth if you like that kobe style grilled beef and just that go to Tsuruhashi on Brookhurst in Fountain Valley, greates melt in the mouth beef i've ever had. Unbelievable, it's Korean bbq by way of Japan, Japanese owners and Japanese style.

        1. Mr. Taster, thanks for the report, a few questions if you'd be kind enough to reply.

          Does he do lunch, and the same spectacular meal at that hour?

          Do you know what kind of beluga caviar he used, and also was the sea urchin from the coasts of Santa Barbara or Japan?

          And what kind of sake did you guys have, oh and how long was the meal?

          I may be able to go there, if I stay away from blowfish or something like that which would up the ante. And I will definitely post on it, of course if he allows a pocket notebook and pen in there, and allows me to take copious notes.

          thanks for your honest report. for what it's worth if you like that kobe style grilled beef and just that go to Tsuruhashi on Brookhurst in Fountain Valley, greates melt in the mouth beef i've ever had. Unbelievable, it's Korean bbq by way of Japan, Japanese owners and Japanese style.

          3 Replies
          1. re: kevin

            1) dinner only
            2) I asked him where his beluga came from, but I could not understand his answer through his accent and did not was to appear rude, so I dropped it.
            3) He said that all of his fish was from Japan, except for the abalone and tuna. That would indicate to me that the sea urchin would come in his daily fish shipments (it was a bit confusing after reading jcwla's report, as we were told that fish comes in every day)
            4) We asked the type of saki we had, but unfortuantely I did not write it down... I believe it began with an "N"
            5) We arrived at 6:45pm and left around 10:30pm. We of course were the only people there the entire evening, which is part of his philosophy of doing preparing and presenting food in as perfect a way as possible.
            6) He said that blowfish season begins in October and runs through March. He said that although farm raised, poison free blowfish exists, he does not believe in using it unless he is specifically preparing the poisonous parts for consumption (liver and sperm sac)... then he has no choice but to use farm raised. But he told us that he is of course licensed in Japan to prepare blowfish, and it is safe. This incidentally spurred us on to a semi awkward conversation of American food paranoia, lawsuits and liability, which I don't thin Hiro quite understood the nuances of-- but he knew enough to say "that's okay, I have insurance!"

            Thanks for the rec of Tsuruhashi... do you know if they serve the japanese kobe or the American kobe beef?

            Mr. Taster

            1. re: Mr. Taster

              i'm specifically sure if it's kobe beef, if it is it's defintiely american not japananese, since it is after all less than ten dollars an order, count on at least three orders per person, and a couple side dishes or so, and they also have soju and a few high end sakes by the glass.

              1. re: kevin

                It's certified angus. Also, having had all the various styles of meat mentioned (Standard American, Japanese Kobe, The Angus at Tsurahsi, and Wagyu)I can also say it also comes down to preparation. I love my steak RARE and the last time I went to Tsurahasi I went on a date with a man who felt the same way... so we just lightly seared the meat and it was as good as the real Kobe I had because it was so soft and tender... I can also say that about the EXCELLENT prime rib's I've had here and in Chicago...

                Anyway, thanks so much Mr. Taster... The report was excellent. I too hope to visit sometime soon! :D

                --Dommy!

          2. Nothing much new there.

            1 Reply
            1. re: jcwla

              Many of the courses were the same, but there were several differences. I was hoping that by paralleling your itemization of the courses that people could get a better sense of how much variation goes into his menu from night to night, as well as a slightly broader impression of the overall experience.

              Mr. Taster