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Aug 19, 2009 01:53 PM

Urasawa, August 2009 Report -- Number of Visits: 5; Number of Courses: 40

Since this was my fifth time here, I'll skip the pleasantries and get right into the amazing experience that is Urasawa. Base price was $350pp, or $500pp out the door.

To Drink - As usual, we brought some Champagne to pair with the meal, this time a trio consisting of the 1996 Dom Pérignon Rosé, 2002 Louis Roederer Cristal, and 1995 Krug. Corkage is $50 per bottle ($100 per magnum). We also purchased two bottles of sake from Urasawa's list, the Watari Bune, Shiboritate Namazake Genshu, Junmai-Ginjo from Ibaraki Prefecture [$80] and the Hiroki, Special Classic, Tokubetsu Junmai from Fukushima [$90]. Sake corkage is $70 per bottle.

1. Toro Tataki - Hiro-san usually likes to start with a light toro tataki dish, and tonight's iteration had seared toro wrapped around an amalgam of shrimp, uni, and shiso, topped with radish, scallion, and shiso flower, garnished with yuzu juice and skin, soy, vinegar, and sweet sake (mirin). The attack was a mixture of sweet and tangy, a somewhat bracing sensation that eventually gave way to the sweeter, creamier midpalate, thanks to the uni and ebi, no doubt. The finish was flush with citrus and it was here that the flavor of the fish finally came to the fore. The shrimp, meanwhile, provided a pleasing snap and crunch that livened up the dish texturally.

2. Ikura Chawan Mushi - Next up was an egg custard with shiitake mushroom and shiro ebi, covered with ikura and topped with mitsuba and 23-carat gold. Dipping into the silky chawanmushi, I noted a fantastic contrast between the briny, salty roe and the rich, luscious egg custard. The mitsuba gave the dish a sharp tang while the mushroom and shrimp added a palpable weight and provided a bit of textural variation as well. Very good.

3. Wagyu Tartare - I loved the presentation of this one: a big wooden spoon heaping with chopped wagyu beef, pickled radish, caviar, scallion, and shiso, all topped with uni. A luxurious dish, I first experienced a tangy attack on account of the radish, which really tempered the decadence of the beef. At the same time, the uni acted as a moderating element, while the generous dollop of caviar was relegated to a supporting player. The long, lingering finish was dominated by the admixture of beef and pickles.

4. Sashimi - The sashimi course is one of the constants at an Urasawa dinner. Placed in a hand-carved block of ice were:
• Toro from Boston - This was arguably the best toro sashimi I've had in all my Urasawa visits. It was incredibly unctuous and oozed oil upon chewing, but yet, at the same time, it remained light, delicate in flavor. It was delicious on its own, but even better when balanced by the wasabi and soy.
• Tai from Kyushu - A clean, crisp cut of snapper, this was textbook tai, with a mild flavor that was good with the wasabi, but superb with the tart red cabbage.
• Uni from Hokkaido - Perhaps the perfect uni: unabashedly sweet, yet kissed with the briny essence of the ocean. Even better when paired with the seaweed.

5. Marinated Seafood - Served in a tagine-like vessel were abalone from Chiba, shrimp, Japanese shark's fin, and the Hokkaido uni. I started with the awabi, which was tender, yet satisfying to chew, with a uniquely gelatinous consistency that wasn't what I was expecting. I then had the abalone entrails, which were sweet and gamy, a stark contrast to the mild flavor of the mollusk's adductor muscle. The shrimp was plump, snappy, and satisfying, but the standout here was the shark fin: gossamer, ethereal, imbued with the flavor of all the other ingredients. It reminded me of why it's considered such a desirable delicacy.

6. Sake-Steamed Beef - The pot contained Japanese beef wrapped around shrimp, shiitake, and uni, steamed with sake; it came with an oroshi ponzu (ponzu with daikon radish) dipping sauce. What struck me about the dish was the temperature contrast between hot and cold--the interplay between warm beef and its cool fillings--fantastic. Flavor-wise, the morsels were sweet initially, with the richness of the wagyu coming in afterwards, while the ponzu provided a tart complement. The finish, meanwhile, was uniquely uni-tinged while the ebi did wonders texturally.

7. Anago Tempura - It's hard to go wrong with tempura, and here we had a fine example of anago, or sea/conger eel, from Tokyo Bay (the top spot for eel I'm told). This was actually my first time with anago tempura, and I really appreciated its delicate white flesh, mild flavor, and crispy, savory battered exterior. As usual, the tempura was paired with a tentsuyu dipping sauce and a mound of grated daikon and ginger. The sauce elevated the dish, adding a sweet/tangy component to the anago that really made for a great pairing.

8. Seared Toro - The stone-seared toro is always one of Urasawa's most highly anticipated courses, and for good reason! Upon touching the stone, the toro released a cloud of rich, savory smoke that whetted our appetites even more. Eating the toro was almost like eating a ridiculously-marbled piece of beef--it pretty much broke apart in my mouth upon mastication. I absolutely adored the unabashedly unctuous consistency of the fish, and how the fat, flesh, and char interacted in my mouth. The paired ponzu, meanwhile, did its part in cutting the decadence of the toro, but the fish's sapor lived on in a ridiculously lingering finish.

9. Shabu Shabu - Next to the seared toro above, the shabu shabu course is also one of the most sought after dishes at Urasawa. There are always slight variations in the assortment of shabu items, and this time we were given the following:
• Hamo - The king eel had a surprisingly rich flavor, as well as a soft, spongy texture. It went superbly with the sweet ponzu.
• Hotategai - Next to go was the scallop--firm and unconscionably sweet.
• Kagoshima Wagyu - My favorite of this set, this had the perfect amount of fat, giving the beef an absurdly pleasing texture, and a flavor that was deftly offset by the use of scallion.
• Foie Gras - Cooked the longest, the foie had a firm, yet yielding texture and a subtle, sublime sapor that just lingered in my mouth. Even one of my dining companions, who wasn't previously a fan of the liver, enjoyed this.
• Kombu - I made sure to eat the kombu separately this time, and it was some of the best kelp I've had. It was from Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, and possessed a sweet, satisfying smack and a wonderfully crisp consistency.

10. Shabu Shabu Broth - The resultant shabu shabu broth is always a treat to imbibe. The key here is the foie gras; note how the liver's fats are visible on the soup's surface. This provides for a heavy, hearty stock absolutely saturated with the pure essence of foie gras. Yet, it was not overwhelming, thanks in part to the light, vegetal tang of the scallion.

11. Toro / Fatty Tuna - Unlike at just about every other sushi place, Urasawa's omakase starts with toro, and that's perfectly fine with me. The fish was certainly deserving of the moniker melt-in-your-mouth, enveloping my palate with its luxuriousness. The fat was mitigated by the application of wasabi, resulting in something decadent, yet delicate. Superb.

12. Seared Toro / Seared Fatty Tuna - Given how good the toro is, you'd think that you should just leave well enough alone. However, lightly searing the tuna yields wondrous results, making the fish even more unctuous, even more profound, with the taste of the char contrasting beautifully with the toro's natural succulence.

13. Kanpachi / Amberjack - Flavor-wise, the kanpachi wasn't terribly distinctive--clean, mild, and nicely accented by the wasabi. What wowed me here was the impeccable texture, a stunning combination of snap and yield.

14. Aji / Spanish Mackerel - Aji's arguably my favorite sushi fish, and this quintessential example merely reinforced that notion. The flesh was firm, a satisfying chew, while the taste was very fine, not fishy at all. Note the lovely scoring of the skin.

15. Tai / Snapper - From Kyushu island comes this belly of tai. Snapper is a fitting nomenclature for the fish, given its snappy texture! Truly a paragon of tai, the combination of soy and sudachi was perfect, and note the crosshatch pattern on the fish's top surface.

16. Hon Maguro / Bluefin Tuna - Regular tuna can be a bit boring, but this was just about the softest, most buttery piece of maguro I've ever had, more buttery than many pieces of toro I've eaten in fact! In terms of taste though, it was very mild, so the texture was key here.

17. Shima Aji / Striped Jack - On my May 2008 visit, the shima aji was my favorite piece of sushi, and though it didn't reach quite the same lofty heights this time around, the shima aji was nevertheless quite tasty, with a light, refined flavor accented by a sharp wasabi finish. The best part about the fish was its firm, crisp texture.

18. Ika / Squid - From Japan comes this creamy, palate-coating squid that gave my mouth quite the workout. Taste-wise, the ika was subtly sweet, aptly accented by the grated sudachi and salt.

19. Shiitake / Mushroom - I've had shiitake nigiri on every visit here so far, yet Urasawa remains the only place where I've seen it done. The preparation really brings out the smoky, woody, earthy nature of the mushroom, balanced by the rice and wasabi.

20. Uni / Sea Urchin Roe - I must say, this was some of the best uni I've ever had. Delicate, sweet, and super-creamy, it was a model of what sea urchin should be. And the wasabi kick at the end? Beautiful. It even managed to convince one of my dining companions who'd previously had an uni aversion.

21. Chu-Toro / Medium Fatty Tuna - I've had plenty of toro and plenty of maguro at Urasawa, but amazingly, this was the first time that chu-toro was served. As expected, it had a richer, fattier flavor than the standard tuna, though it obviously wasn't up to the level of toro. What surprised me however was that the texture was a bit more unyielding than the standard hon maguro.

22. Shiro Ebi / White Shrimp - Urasawa remains the only place where I've been served nigiri made from shiro ebi, small white shrimp gathered off the coast of Toyama Prefecture. Given their small size, about a score of shrimp was needed to construct a single piece of sushi, and the mass broke apart instantly upon mastication. Their flavor was mildly sweet, and very creamy, with a gelatinous body.

23. Awabi / Abalone - From Japan came this abalone, with a subtle sweetness that was perked up by the application of tangy grated sudachi and fiery wasabi. Texturally it was firm, though somewhat supple, not overly crunchy. Note the scoring on the surface of the awabi.

24. Mirugai / Geoduck - The award for crunchiest item of the night would be taken by this mirugai, a.k.a. giant clam or elephant truck clam. It was a very pleasing crispness though, not tough at all, but satisfying. In terms of flavor, it had an intense, briny smack, backed by a bit of sweetness.

25. Toro / Fatty Tuna #2 - At this point, Hiro-san asked us if we'd like more toro. The correct answer is, of course: "yes please!" It was much the same as the previous one: scrumptious.

26. Kohada / Japanese Gizzard Shad - Kohada is also known as Japanese gizzard shad, or Japanese herring as Hiro-san likes to call it. It was an oily fish, with a strong yet slightly sugary taste, lovely skin, and a uniquely firm consistency. Quite nice.

27. Negi-Toro Maki - Containing chopped toro, negi (leek), and takuan (pickled daikon, which aids in digestion), this is just about the only maki roll you'll see at Urasawa. What struck me was the texture of the pickle, which gave the roll a wondrous crunch and sour flavor. The leek, meanwhile, providing a bracing tang that tempered the lavishness of the toro. The roll is shown here sitting in soy sauce.

28. Gyusashi / Beef - Of the nigiri, the gyusashi is one of the ones that I look forward to the most. It didn't disappoint this time either, with an incredible beefy sumptuousness balanced by the mitigating tang of citrus. One of the tastiest bites of the night!

29. Uni / Sea Urchin Roe #2 - Another round of uni. What happened was that Hiro-san accidentally got more uni than he needed, and thus had to "get rid of it," which was fine by us! I've only had Santa Barbara uni on my previous visits, so it was nice to have the Hokkaido version this time, considered the finest in the world I understand, with a season running from May to October. What I'd really like to do is compare Santa Barbara and Hokkaido back-to-back and see if I can discern a difference.

30. Amaebi / Sweet Shrimp - This was pretty much the acme of amaebi: sweet yet briny, creamy yet crunchy. It was heightened by the use of a sauce made from the shrimp's innards, which gave the amaebi a distinctly sweet-metallic tinge. One of my dining companions called it the best amaebi he's ever had, and I can see why.

31. Amaebi Sashimi / Sweet Shrimp Sashimi - Here's something I didn't know: at Urasawa, you can request sashimi versions of the nigiri sushi, as we see here. Instead of entrails sauce, the amaebi is accompanied simply by a dollop of wasabi. The end result is a very different experience than with the sushi: the texture was even more apparent in this case, and the flavor was much milder, with the sweetness accentuated.

32. Aji No Tataki / Chopped Spanish Mackerel - Here we have another item that I've only seen at Urasawa--an amalgamation of chopped aji, Kyoto miso, scallion, shiso, and ginger. This is one that I always look forward to, as it has a great base of aji to begin with, which is then accented by the sweetness of the miso and the invigorating savor of the shiso-scallion-ginger complex. Excellent.

33. Chu-Toro / Medium Fatty Tuna #2 - Our second round of chu-toro here. Think of a fattier maguro. Delish!

34. Shima Aji / Striped Jack #2 - Compared to the first, I liked the texture of this one even better.

35. Anago / Sea Eel - I usually tend to favor unagi over anago for its more unctuous nature, but this version would give unagi a run for its money. It was suitable fatty, suitably lush, and well-accented by the included sweet sauce (we told the newbies that it was chocolate sauce!). I think this might've been the best anago I've had yet at Urasawa.

36. Tamago / Egg - Unlike most places' tamago, the example here resembles a cake more than an omelet, perhaps even resembling datemaki in that regard. Dense, heavy, and moist, its flavor was an intriguing interplay of sweet and savory.

37. Peach Gelée - And with that, we were on to desserts. The first was this gelée of peach, topped with goji berry (a.k.a. wolfberry) and gold foil. The gelatin had a surprisingly unyielding consistency, and a taste that was like eating liquefied peach. Chunks of the fruit made for a nice textural variation.

38. Goma Aisu Kurimu - Urasawa's sesame ice cream always satisfies. We asked Hiro-san what was in it and he responded that soy milk, cream cheese, and honey were used. No matter, the result was an ice cream absolutely infused with the pure quintessence of sesame. I wish I could take a pint or two home!

39. Matcha - Matcha is a variety of powdered green tea, often used in Japanese tea ceremonies. The tea's texture was frothy, gritty, and grainy, with a strong, bitter flavor that cut right through the sugariness of the desserts.

40. Hojicha - The second tea was a roasted green tea. Mild and easy-drinking, it was a nice way to close out a meal and Urasawa, and I always find myself having multiple cups of it.

What can I say about Urasawa that hasn't already been said? Though this is now my fifth visit, I can say that the place never disappoints, and that I look forward to and treasure every meal I have here. One of my dining companions described the experience as a "symphony of food" in terms of a progression of flavors, and I think that the phrase sums things up nicely. During the meal, Hiro-san and I discussed how the vaunted Michelin guide was leaving LA, and the reasons behind the move. Urasawa may never get its third star, but if there's any place in the City that deserves it, this'd be the spot.

Full review with photos:

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  1. dood.... wow..... im hungry now
    thanks for sharing your 5th visit with us

    1. You can do the Santa Barbara Uni vs Hokkaido uni comparison at Mori for 1/3 the price.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Porthos

        Last time at Mori (which was, admittedly, two years ago), the omakase was around $200 per person if I recall. Isn't that still the case?

        1. re: kevin h

          Usually $120-140 pp depending on how much sake you get. Hokkaido uni is spectacular and the nori is amazing.

      2. Wonderful write-up.

        If you think his anago is good, his unagi, when he has it, is totally succulent, just...awesome. I agree that sometimes the shima aji he gets can blow your mind.

        Too bad I'll never go here again.

        29 Replies
        1. re: choctastic

          So you won't go back to your favorite restaurant...

          1. re: kevin h

            Ya gotta admit, the cost, regardless of value, is steep. I'm beginning to wonder if I'll ever make it back myself, and not for lack of desire.

            I wish I had paid more attention to the difference between SB and Hokkaido uni.

            1. re: mrhooks

              Nothing against Hiro-san but I don't think I'll be back either. I've been here 4 times and the last time was over a year ago. Unfortunately Hiro-san and I had a little bit of a falling out last time I was there.

              The food and experience is simply superb and my memories will last with me forever but I couldn't afford to eat there anyway (and still made it out there a few time despite that fact) and with our latest mishap, I don't think I'm welcome there anymore anyway.

              1. re: rvd72

                Never piss off the goose that lays the golden roe on your plate...

                1. re: Servorg

                  heh yeah, wise words. I didn't actually mean to piss him off. I wrote in my blog something along the lines of:

                  "Although Hiro-san's English is not very good, he is able to effectively communicate his wit and sense of humor to his patrons"

                  Perhaps that can be taken as an insult but I like to think that it is precisely because English is his second language that he did not realize that I was not actually insulting him but paying him a compliment.

                  When he saw me he said "I did not like what you wrote about me in your blog. You said that I can't speak English and that my English is bad? Please don't write about me or my restaurant anymore." - and needless to say, it made for an awkward dinner for the rest of the night.

                  1. re: rvd72

                    You're right. The fact that he was insulted by that comment proves his English is not that good. That's a shame.

                    1. re: rvd72

                      Wow, so he read your blog? Damn, he's come a long way!

                      Actually, when he first started, his English really wasn't that great, but I must say in his defense that I've seen a huge improvement over the years.

                      1. re: choctastic

                        In case Hiro-san is reading this particular thread... I love you, man!!!

                        あなたが素晴らしいですね !

                        1. re: choctastic

                          yes, he has come a long way. I actually wrote one of the earlier blog/reviews about Urasawa a few years ago (I would guess maybe 4 years ago). A lot of people read it and went to Urasawa. Hiro-san always asks "how did you hear about my restaurant" and most people said Chowhound, "some guy's blog", etc. Whenever I would visit after that first time, the other patrons would always say something along the lines of "dude, you're the guy who wrote that really long review with all those awesome pictures"...Hiro-san always told me that he "doesn't know computer" and left it at that when he found out that I wrote some reviews.

                          I guess someone later brought him a printed copy of one of those earlier reviews where I had made that remark about his English. His English is much better now but back then, communicating with Hiro-san was part of the experience. Oh well, it's a shame and it did kind of sadden/annoy me a bit when it happened.

                          When you are in Hiro-san's inner circle, he is a cool guy though. He transcends that chef/patron relationship. Although I was too lazy / flakey to take him up on any of his offers, he asked me to join him on the LA marathon, join him for korean bbq on his day off, etc.

                          1. re: rvd72

                            that is pretty cool joining him for korean bbq. what bbq joint would he go to?

                            I remember that Masa used to have a soft spot for Lawry's the Prime Rib for those humongous slabs of beef.

                            1. re: kevin

                              I think he used to go to korean bbq pretty frequently when Sung was there. I believe he mentioned going to Chosun but I'm not sure.

                              Nice review and pics by the way. I would guess that you bought a new camera recently? Your reviews were always good but the pictures were a little lacking until this recent set.

                              1. re: rvd72

                                Yes, I used a DSLR on this visit, while the others were shot with a P&S.

                              2. re: kevin

                                btw, if someday you would let me know the next time you go to Totoraku and have space...I will be eternally grateful...I still don't have a contact out there.

                                1. re: rvd72

                                  If you do go, show up with some serious french wine and you can get the card the first night.

                                  1. re: Porthos

                                    got it. i do have a nice bottle of haut brion that i have been saving for a special occasion. I was going to drink it next May when I graduate from school with my MBA but maybe it will go to this experience.

                                    1. re: rvd72

                                      i'm not the same kevin (the originial poster is kevin h) and i haven't been to urasawa, but i have been to Totoraku, it's a good experience.

                                      let me know, i do have the car.

                                      it's at least a 175 per.

                                  2. re: rvd72

                                    If you'd like to sponsor me, we can take a trip to Totoraku pretty much any time. ;)

                                    In fact, I'll be going in a month with a reader of mine. It's just a small group of four, to maximize his and his wife's time with Oyama-san (in order to make a good impression, so that they make gain the ability to make reservations themselves).

                                    1. re: kevin h

                                      i went once a few months back and it is really good, i don't know if it's earth-shattering though.

                                      when i talked to the chef after the meal he was the friendliest and most sincerely humble chef i have ever met. a true class act.

                                      and then he presented me with the much prized business card.

                                      if anyone wants to sponsor me too, i'm down to lead the way.

                                2. re: rvd72


                                  too bad you didn't take him up on any of his offers because he has a tendency to grab the check...

                                3. re: choctastic

                                  Last I heard, Hiro-san still doesn't use a computer. However, his sister and brother-in-law do, and I imagine that they show him any interesting Urasawa-related items that they stumble upon.

                            2. re: rvd72

                              Please provide details on the falling out?

                              1. re: albatruffles

                                re hiro-san being insulted - maybe he is sensitive. however, it seems like there is a desire by some diners to be "down with Hiro," which implies some type of friendly relationship. if you want to be down, don't make him a clown!

                          2. re: kevin h

                            Oh I still love the place and I love Hiro because he's brutally honest (he always notices when I lose weight), but I am *trying* to go vegan these days so no more Urasawa. Good times though, and I love Hiro, but I gotta make up for all the animal killing of my past. I have also been here a total of 6 times and I can't believe I used to do that.

                            As for the uni comparison, to my taste the SB uni is (generally speaking) sweeter, lighter, and somewhat blander, but Hiro said that the difference could also be because of the fact that the Hokkaido uni was flown in.

                            1. re: choctastic

                              Funny, I feel that Hokkaido is sweeter, richer, and more custard-like. Agree that SB uni is more bland when compared to Hokkaido. That's why you're supposed to eat SB uni first when having them side by side.

                              1. re: Porthos

                                Well, I haven't had the Hokkaido uni more than a couple of times. It could have depended on the batch as well.

                                1. re: choctastic

                                  i wonder if you guys have ever had the live uni at the korean place Masan. I'm pretty sure it was SB uni. But it was the most buttery, sweet uni I've had with absolutely no trace of fish. IMHO better/equal to urasawa. I was completely shocked. And you eat it straight out of the still quivering shell which is like 5-6 pieces and it's SEVEN DOLLARS! The next time I went we ordered 2 each. They looked at us weird.

                                  1. re: peppermonkey

                                    address further info on masan????


                              2. re: choctastic

                                Best Uni inTokyo this Sushi Iki in Tarzana.