Tsubaki 海石榴 – Okuyugawara, Japan

The mountains, a baby pink hue of blushing spring cherry blossoms, turns a vivid green in the summer to a lively chorus of shrilling cicadas, then transforms into a stunning background of reds and yellows as the autumn maple leaves take on their fiery colors.  In the dead of winter is when I find these majestic mountains in its most beautiful state, a steely landscape hushed by the deep snowfall and the valley below blanketed in pure white.

Every year I look forward to this serene view of the Okuyugawara mountains from my private outdoor onsen, a rotenburo bath made with hinoki cypress wood that gives off a refreshing forest aroma as I soak in the healing hot springs at Tsubaki ryokan. There is nothing quite like a ryokan experience in Japan where guests travel from afar to indulge and relax in the comfort of true Japanese hospitality.  Tsubaki, a traditional ryokan opened in 1978, is only an hour by express train from Tokyo and an additional 30 minutes by car along the coast line, straight past the mikan orchards that grow on the slopes of Atami and deep into the hidden mountains of Okuyugawara.

As I take that first step through the entrance of Tsubaki, I leave all of my stress and worries at the doorstep and enter into a haven of beauty and serenity.  Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns where people come to rejuvenate their body in the healing waters of the local natural hot springs, rest their weary feet in the comfortable tatami rooms and nourish their souls with traditional kaiseki meals.

It is quiet at Tsubaki, a good soothing silence save for the occasional soft rustle of leaves swaying in the cool wind and the gentle babble of the stream that runs below.  A faint aroma slithers through the hallways, a brew of incense and freshly whisked green tea, while guests shuffle along the cobblestone paths in their yukatas to the communal bath for their first soak of the day.

There are 15 rooms at Tsubaki, each tastefully decorated in wabi sabi aesthetics of simple and understated beauty with accents of ancient scrolls, beautiful ceramics and breathtaking ikebana flower arrangements.  Some, like my favorite room, have an unobstructed view of the forest and the snow capped mountains, while others look over the koi pond and the zen rock gardens.  The room smells like fresh straw, and I lay down on the floor, my body flat against the green tatami mats as I deeply inhale its aroma into my lungs for my first real moment of relaxation.

Since 1978 Tsubaki has been one of the most exclusive ryokans in the country, maintaining the same level of hospitality and quality of service since its opening.  There is a Japanese term called ‘ichigo ichie’ 一期一会, meaning ‘one time, one meeting’.  Each new encounter, each new meeting is a unique and special moment that will never recur in one’s lifetime, and therefore, must be treated with utmost sincerity.  The staff at Tsubaki live by these standards, and make every moment truly unforgettable and exceptional. For this reason, each room has an attendant, a nakai-san, that sees to your every need.  One of their many important duties is to work with the chef to ensure an enjoyable kaiseki meal.

A stay at a traditional ryokan is as much about the food as it is about the hot springs.  A full course kaiseki meal is part of the allure of this exquisite Japanese experience, and at Tsubaki, Chef Tadanori Igarashi has been creating tasting menus for its guests since its opening in 1978.  Kaiseki is a type of art form that paints edible murals of seasonal landscapes on canvases of beautiful ceramics and lacquerware.  It is a labor intensive process for the chefs, a precise craft that takes years to master, to be able to express such artistry and elegance.

Each plate is a study in balance and refinement, and there is a smooth flow of concepts and flavors from course to course.  It is important that this elaborate meal, a ritual that when properly done takes 3-5 hours, follows a traditional formal structure in order to observe an overall sense of harmony.  The menu, beautifully handwritten in Japanese calligraphy, presents the courses in its appropriate order.

Sakizuke (先付): an amuse bouche

A shot of plum wine commences our meal, followed by the sakizuke course of kelp wrapped sayori gently curled around green bouquets of brassica with a touch of Kamo rice vinegar from Kyoto.

Hassun (八寸): the second course, sometimes called the zensai course, sets the seasonal theme with one type of sushi and an assortment of smaller bites

This kaiseki meal at Tsubaki, enjoyed this past winter shortly after the New Year, is about celebrating new beginnings and prosperity.  Slices of flash seared sea cucumber with ponzu are presented in a crane shaped ceramic bowl to symbolize longevity, with ribbons of gold and silver mizuhiki strings expressing joy.  Komochikombu (herring egg coated seaweed), a caviar topped potato chip, cured karasumi bottarga made with mullet roe, a bitter orange syrup of salted cod ovaries in an aromatic bowl of carved yuzu and a cut of ayu with its roe simmered with sansho berries symbolize fertility and new life.  A green fukinotou butterbur stem, simmered with peppercorns, gives me a bitter bite that I love with my glass of cold sake, to which I follow with the delicious pieces of pressed salmon matsumae sushi.  This hassun course brings seasonal gifts of land and sea together on the plate for a picturesque arrangement of colors and shapes.

Futamono (蓋物): a “lidded dish”, also referred to as wanmono, which presents a warm soup

A floating leaf on the surface of a pond, a green kinome pepper leaf creates a beautiful scenario in this futamono course where a white fluffy hamaguri clam shinjo infuses its bold flavors into the suimono broth.  A green udo stem, crisp both in texture and in its fennel-like flavor, create a contrast against the delicately constructed temarifu, a pillowy ball of gluten with colorful decorations to resemble a traditional New Year toy called a temari.

Mukōzuke (向付): a seasonal sashimi plate

The mukozuke course presents the freshest offerings of the sea in a simple presentation so that the guests can enjoy the pure flavors of the fish.  Divine cuts of fatty bluefin toro are augmented with a hint of Japanese karashi mustard and soy sauce, and meaty akagai clams of a warm orange hue are perfect with freshly grated wasabi.  The final sashimi presented in the hamaguri shell-shaped ceramic, a symbol of love and harmony, is hirame wrapped in a rich coating of uni that woos with its sweetness.

Meshimushi (飯蒸し): a steamed rice course, a special dish that is not often included in a standard kaiseki

Kuri okowa, a steamed glutinous mochi rice dish with chestnuts and a sprinkling of black sesame salt, is another celebratory dish that the Japanese commonly prepare for festive occasions.  The red hue imparted by the azuki beans is what makes this dish a symbol of happiness and joy, a standard offering at birthdays and weddings.

Takiawase (焚合): simmered vegetables served with meat, fish or tofu

In keeping with the traditional Kyoto style of kaiseki, this takiawase course keeps the seasonings light and subdued to appreciate the true flavors of the vegetables at their peak. Horikawa gobo, a thick spongy burdock root that is a winter standard, is stuffed with minced chicken meat and simmered in a light dashi until the vegetable has been plumped full of umami.  Lightly sake braised abalone, tender and moist, is accompanied by boiled mibuna greens and a dash of yuzu rinds for aroma.

Yakimono (焼物): broiled seasonal fish

2 delicacies that pair beautifully with cold dry sake find its way onto my plate for the first of the yakimono courses.  Sweet luscious cream oozes from within the seared membranes of the fugu shirako, poisonous puffer fish sperm sacs that are particularly plump and lovely this time of year.  To contrast, there is a triangular wedge of lightly seared bachiko, dried sea cucumber ovaries with a salty briny flavor that intensifies with each successive bite.

We each get our own plate of ise ebi, a majestic Japanese spiny lobster that is arguably the most festive culinary symbol for New Year celebrations.  The sweet flesh is briefly tossed in shuto, salt marinated bonito innards, then baked on a hot stone to a dramatic orchestra of sputters and sizzles as we all wait, impatiently, for our moment to pounce.

Shiizakana (進肴、強肴): also called azukebachi, is a course designed to encourage the consumption and enjoyment of sake

As if the 2 yakimono courses aren’t enough to encourage happy sake drinking, we get a trio of delights representing cardinal Japanese winter delicacies that make the sake flow even more freely.  Suppon nikogori, a thick gelatinous soup of snapping turtle with enough collagen to equal a Botox treatment, is served in an aromatic yuzu bowl, and Matsuba crab competes with Kegani hairy crab for a stand off where both ultimately win.

Onmono (温物): a warm braised dish, sometimes presented as a hot pot

The onmono course, as it is one of the last courses of a kaiseki meal, is intended to aid digestion and be gentle on the nearly full stomach.  A mixture of madai (tile fish), grated turnips, gingko nuts and wild mountain vegetables are simmered in a dashi broth, the result a simple and mild flavored course infused with the chef’s love.

Gohan (御飯): a rice dish made with seasonal ingredients

Kō no mono (香の物): seasonal pickled vegetables

Tome-wan (止椀): a miso or vegetable soup

Rice, miso soup and pickled vegetables are how a kaiseki meal typically ends, a simple combination that echoes the roots of Japanese cuisine.  Chef Igarashi himself comes out to present this last course, a fuki gohan made with tangy butterbur stalks and an assortment of tsukemono (pickled vegetables) that includes yellow takuan, thinly sliced senmaizuke turnips, matsutake mushrooms infused with kombu, cucumber asazuke and red shiso calabash (hyoutan shibazuke).

In the winter, traditional Kyoto style kaiseki calls for a white miso base soup. In the summer, a more robust and intense dark red Hatcho miso. Spring and autumn incorporate both for a blended miso base.  For this winter tasting menu, we slurp a nameko mushroom white miso soup- comforting, warm and delicious.

Mizumono (水物): a seasonal dessert of fruits, confections, ice cream or cake

First a plate of sweet juicy fruits- strawberries, blueberries, papaya and melon with a sprinkling of clear kanten crystals, followed by a Japanese dessert of koshian azuki bean paste encased in a fluffy green tea shiroan icing.

Beautiful arrangements of seasonal ingredients with intricate garnishes, course after course, presented on attractive plates that enhance the appearance and theme of the food forms the basis of a multi-course Japanese kaiseki meal, and within the structured flow of the banquet, the chef expresses his sensitivity and style to delight his guests.  It is a special experience to enjoy this in between relaxing dips in the hot springs, and to have the staff pamper you with their kindness and hospitality.  For the ultimate kaiseki experience you can even have geisha accompany you for the meal.  Geisha, who are highly skilled female entertainers versed in traditional Japanese song and dance, will keep the conversation lively and most importantly, as your dinner hostesses, they will ensure that your sake cup is never empty.

Tsubaki ryokan                                                                                                              776 Miyakami, Yugawara machi                                                                    Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa prefecture            Japan                                                                                                                             TEL: 0465-63-3333

Random trivia: Did you know that there can never be a married geisha? If a geisha marries, she must retire.

Kohaku 虎白- Tokyo, Japan

Tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) expressed the four principles of chanoyu, the Japanese ‘Way of Tea’, with four characters: Wa Kei Sei Jaku (harmony, respect, purity, tranquility). They are the principles that practitioners of tea integrate into their craft and their daily lives, and what has now become synonymous with Japanese hospitality.  Peace, humility and selflessness are how the Japanese try to live (albeit with a hefty dose of shyness), and the service industry is also built on these teachings.  Such Japanese hospitality is taken to an entirely different level in a traditional ryotei where a diner can experience ultimate bliss through a kaiseki meal.

Japanese hospitality begins the moment one calls to make a reservation at a place like Kohaku, a quaint ryotei that opened last fall in Kagurazaka, a beautiful neighborhood in Tokyo where real geisha can still be seen walking along the cobblestone streets.  Through winding roads, narrow alleyways and mysterious staircases lit with lanterns, Kagurazaka seems like a maze, but it is one of the most charming areas of the city where one can time travel back to old Tokyo.  While many ryotei in Kagurazaka maintain a strict policy of ‘Ichigen sama okotowari’ (‘We respectfully decline first time customers. Reservations are only made with the introduction from a regular customer’) as a way to honor and respect their regular patrons, most, like Kohaku, have an open door policy.

‘Thank you very much for calling Kohaku. We will be awaiting your arrival on your reservation day,’ they said, promptly following the call with a fax of a map and directions to the restaurant.  On the evening of my dinner, they indeed were waiting for my arrival out in front of the restaurant entrance with beautiful Japanese umbrellas ready to protect me from the light drizzle of rain that the dark grey clouds were about to deliver. Welcome, they said with warm smiles, addressing me by my name as if they knew me, and I instantly felt like I was coming home to a familiar place.

Kohaku is the more casual sister restaurant to famed 3 Michelin star Ishikawa, a traditional ryotei in Kagurazaka run by Chef Hideki Ishikawa.  Kohaku’s chef and owner, Koji Koizumi, was at Ishikawa from the very beginning, serving as Ishikawa’s right hand man for years. When Ishikawa moved his Michelin feted establishment to a new location in 2008, it was an easy decision to trust Koizumi to make something special out of that space.  While Ishikawa stays true to traditional Japanese kaiseki flavors and concepts, Kohaku ventures into the modern, incorporating ingredients not usually associated with Japanese cuisine and giving kaiseki an avant garde twist.

The kaiseki begins with a delectable dish of uni in its own spiny receptacle, filled with layers of light refreshing flavors and crisp textures.  Diced cucumbers, crunchy and fresh, are followed by slippery junsai that slide across my tongue like water-striders on a pond.  Chilled yuzu gelée, perfectly sweet and tart, add bright summer notes to the buttery sea urchin for a memorable dish that starts the kaiseki off on a high note.

Chef Koizumi’s food at Kohaku can perhaps be classified as nouveau kaiseki, introducing a different way to enjoy this elegant style of Japanese cuisine.  His playfulness can be seen throughout his courses, enough to intrigue the diner’s curiosity but fortunately without compromising classic flavors and preparation.  There is nothing more important in Japanese cuisine than tradition, and he stays faithful to that concept while presenting his tasteful creativity.  The temari sushi course, for one, delightfully perfumed with the enticing aromas of roasted sesame seeds and green yuzu rinds, showcases that prized brininess unique to caviar while bringing a level of familiarity and comfort to this non-native roe.

Yet at the same time, he excels and ultimately impresses with simple seasonal dishes like deep fried ayu, sweet finger-sized river fish eaten whole from head to tail, the slight bitterness of its intestines and a smidgen of seaweed salt the perfect complements to the watermelon-like flavors of its succulent flesh.

As with any traditional kaiseki meal, great care is taken in choosing the correct vessels for food and beverage, for it forms the framework within which to showcase the art.  One can feel the sensibility of a chef through the ceramics and glasses that are used, and my moment of adoration for Chef Koizumi came when our sake arrived, perfectly chilled in a gorgeous hand hammered pewter cup, ready to pour into the most perfect little brown-glazed ochokos that made our sake taste unforgettable.

Tiny pinky crustaceans called sakura ebi, or cherry shrimp from Suruga Bay in Shizuoka prefecture, colorfully dot the surface of the warm somen noodle dish served in a white miso broth with shiitake mushrooms, mitsuba herbs and shaved white negi.  It’s a comforting dish, one that satisfies any craving, transporting its recipient to a full course of blissful slurping and a habit-forming shrimp high.

Sake steamed abalone, juicy and tender, excites with garnishes of shiso, myoga and seaweed ribbons for a simple yet satisfying tsukuri plate.

Early summer bounties unite in joyous celebration in a luscious creamy black truffle sauce brimming with beautiful earthy notes.  I bite into the thin stalk of himetake bamboo shoot and it reciprocates with a vigorous crunch and a delicate milky flavor.  Juicy mizu nasu eggplants from Senshu are as sweet as apples and the ainame fillet, a rock fish only found in Japan around this time of year, tastes as happy as it looks to be bathing in truffle sauce.

Chef Koizumi keeps the kegani hairy crab dish simple with a cut of asparagus and yuzu gelée, for the sweetness of the Hokkaido crab does not require much more than those little accents, and simplicity, after all, is one of the hallmarks of Japanese cuisine.

There is no summer ingredient that symbolizes the mastery of a Japanese chef better than hamo, or pike conger, a long powerful fish whose razor sharp teeth and vicious face are no indication of its delicate sweet white flesh.  Hamo are laden with rows of tiny coarse bones that are impossible to remove, and only a skillful chef with superior knife skills can perform honegiri, making precise incisions into the bones without cutting through the skin.  The result of Chef Koizumi’s workmanship is tender hamo, flesh and bones, tossed with myoga, shiso and hamo skin that has been blanched in hot water, proudly served on a bed of chilled pickled plum gelée that has been sieved to a fine texture.  Little dollops of grated ginger, wasabi and spicy daikon radish allow the diner to enjoy different flavors to augment the tartness of the ume sauce.

The high collagen content of suppon, or snapping turtle, naturally renders its hearty broth gelatinous and silky, and viscous enough for the little bits of sweet corn, winter melon, snap peas, scallops and tiger prawns to appear suspended in time and place.  The turtle soup is comforting, and like nutrient rich liquid gold it glides down my palate and invigorates me with its Midas touch.

The wanmono course (rice dish) of a kaiseki meal signifies the impending end to the culinary experience, and we are given 2 choices, of which we take both.  Wagyu beef, slow braised to exquisite tenderness and quickly pan seared with sweet corn and young onions, is served on a bed of warm white rice and nori.

The triumphant winner however, is a truffle zousui, a soft rice soup simmered in katsuo kombu dashi and garnished with corn and plentiful shavings of summer black truffle. Ocean and land gently embrace in a delicious collaboration of delicate aromas and flavors for an ultimate experience of pure goodness.

Sweet Yubari melons at its juiciest summer peak are highlighted in the dessert course as a bright orange melon soup with rum bavarois, sherry sorbet and a drizzle of kuromitsu (brown sugar syrup), all neatly presented in beautiful red lacquerware.

This beautiful kaiseki meal at Kohaku, course after delicious course, shows an honest and straight look into how Chef Koizumi sees the world.  It’s a world that joyously celebrates the seasons, that gracefully moves within the subtleties of Japanese art forms, that lovingly honours the harmony between man and nature, that cultivates mutual open-mindedness between traditional and modern, and flowing through it all like a gentle stream is a sense of comfort and peace, unperturbed.  It’s a world created on the principles of Wa Kei Sei Jaku (harmony, respect, purity, tranquility)- a world that I would love to visit again, perhaps on another drizzly summer evening where they will be waiting for me outside, welcoming me back under those majestic Japanese umbrellas.

Chef Koji Koizumi

Kohaku 虎白                                                                                                                    3-4 Kagurazaka                                                                                                         Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo                                                                                                        Japan                                                                                                             03-5225-0807

Update: Kohaku was awarded 2 Michelin stars for the 2012 Tokyo Michelin Guide- well deserved!

Random trivia:  Did you know that Yubari melons are the most expensive melons in the world? A pair of Yubaris sold for 2.5 million yen (~USD 23,800) in 2008’s first harvest auction in Sapporo, Hokkaido.  They usually sell for USD 50-100 in the market.

Urasawa- Los Angeles

I straighten my dress, rearrange my scarf and examine my coat for lint in the quiet elevator ride up from the parking garage on Two Rodeo Drive in the heart of Beverly Hills.  As the doors open into the dark hallway, I pause to clear my throat and my mind of the day’s insanity before ducking under the white linen noren inscribed with the restaurant’s name.  It is important that I look and feel my best before entering the sacred grounds of this culinary temple called Urasawa.  Chef Hiroyuki Urasawa, dressed in a sharp navy blue kimono, greets me with a waist low bow as I reciprocate with a longer bow, then settle into the seat directly in front of him.  ‘It’s been a long time,’ he says, and to my pleasant look of surprise he quickly follows with ‘has it been 7 years?  How is everything at the hospital, doctor?’  I’m flabbergasted that he remembers me from so long ago, yet at the same time not, for a true professional like him never forgets a customer.  Especially when that customer is somebody who survived his last meal.

7 years ago on my first visit to Urasawa, I had a delicacy that is known for causing a slow miserable death through asphyxiation and paralysis with no antidote or cure.  Through a day long process of cleaning and draining that only a professional like him knows how to do, he stripped the product of its toxins to produce a beautiful fatty morsel of delight, resulting in a life changing, and luckily not a life ending, moment of culinary inspiration. This exquisite delicacy (which I will not name for fear of getting him into trouble) was frightfully delicious, and I felt happy to be alive, in more ways than one.  It’s not often that I trust my life to somebody, but Chef Hiro is an exception in many ways.

Hiro Urasawa is the very embodiment of a Japanese master- devoted to his craft, constantly in pursuit of excellence and perfection to the point of obsession.  Balancing precision and artistry to create the ultimate form of beauty.  Sacrifice to be the best at his discipline, yet incredibly humble, never considering himself at a status more elevated than a student of life and a pupil of his mentor Masa Takayama whom he inherited this restaurant from.  Most of all, it is his thoughtfulness to create the ultimate dining experience for each and every customer.

Such meticulous attention to detail and consideration is visible in his magnificent flower arrangements that reflect the seasons, palpable on the soft cypress counter that is sanded down every day with 3 types of sandpaper, savored in the beer that is served at the perfect temperature down to the millidegree and appreciated in every glance and smile that he casts my way.  With one silent nod, he summons his server to lay a white napkin on the counter upon which to lay my camera, not because he is afraid that my camera will damage the pristine cypress, but because he doesn’t want the cypress to somehow damage my pristine camera.  In the presence of this master, my posture naturally straightens while my eyes and shoulders soften, and I prepare myself for an exceptional kaiseki experience.

Elegance

Horsehair crab from Hokkaido, known as kegani in Japanese, is shredded and tossed with mitsuba leaves and yellow chrysanthemum petals (kikka)Each ribbon of flower petal and green mitsuba leaf is cut to the same size as the shreds of crab meat to create symmetry and balance of flavors, colors and textures in this simple sakizuke appetizer that is elegantly presented in a gold and black lacquer bowl. 

Decadence

Decadence when done poorly is debauchery, but decadence when done tastefully and for the pursuit of excellence and beauty is divinity, like the seared toro wrapped around monkfish liver (ankimo) and myoga ginger, neatly tied in the center with a strip of Kyoto turnip and tressed with a caviar updo.  Little yellow flecks of yuzu rind add a refreshing aroma to the ponzu sauce, and like social débutantes, these aristocratic ocean delights, immaculately groomed, fitted, brushed and powdered, are presented on a brightly shining golden pedestal. 

Beauty

While the Japanese hold an appreciation for beauty in things that are skewed, imperfect or incomplete through the aesthetic values of wabi-sabi, we also strive for creating and maintaining beauty through perfection and symmetry, especially that of nature.  Perfectly round glistening balls of soy marinated ikura salmon roe, each an exact clone of the other, are worthy of stringing into a Mikimoto necklace, its fresh taut membranes succumbing to my bite with audible pops.  What lies underneath these miracles of the sea are succulent shiraebi white shrimp from Toyama prefecture and a pleasantly sweet and creamy edamame tofu.  A 24K gold leaf embellishes this dainty bowl of jewels, and while I hesitate to disturb the perfection of this culinary masterpiece, I indulge with full force, for an empty bowl and a clean spoon, in the end, is the perfection that Hiro is seeking. 

Craft

If water could have feelings and dreams, it would aspire to become the ice block that Hiro personally chisels and sculpts by hand for his sashimi tsukuri.  Perfectly cut in a fanned out pattern of a blossoming flower, the ice block proudly displays the fresh offerings of the evening- buttery uni, tender toro and savory aji with intricately prepared garnishes of carrots, seaweed, chrysanthemum petals and freshly grated wasabi.  The ice dutifully keeps the sashimi at its optimal temperature and doesn’t think twice about being thrown away after one use, for it is exactly that fleeting yet deeply intimate moment with Hiro for which it was born- and it, and I, are both content.

Balance

Hiro makes an interesting version of ‘Wagyu beef tartare’ by simmering the meat for 6 hours in soy sauce, sake and mirin, resulting in an intensely sweet mouthful of what reminds me of tsukudani.  The beef is balanced on a black lacquer spoon with a generous heap of caviar and a garnish of takuan pickled radish for an interplay of sweet and salty flavors, a contrast that is heightened with a concluding bite of pickled red bell pepper on the side.

Artistry

Shark fin chawanmushi arrives warm in a hand-painted Japanese ceramic cup, the luscious collagenous fins layered in gentle loving curves around a gold leaf like a flower bud hiding a secret.  The bonito broth releases an inviting aroma while adding glimmer and shine to the glorious shark fins from Kesennuma.  I slowly slip each fin into my mouth, closing my eyes as I appreciate the texture of the fine gelatinous fibers against my tongue.  Thereafter my archaeological excavation begins as I dig my spoon deeper into the light egg custard to discover and devour embedded shiitake mushrooms, shrimp, ginger, yuba, gingko nuts and ultimately uni, prompting a gasp of delight. 

Devotion

After proudly showing off a hot stone and a plate of marbled kama toro to me, Hiro begins preparing the ishiyaki course behind the counter.  The moment of contact between kama toro and hot stone creates a dynamic sizzle and a magnificent puff of aromatic smoke that perfumes the restaurant.  A white paper screen partially blocks this process from my view, but also protects me from the random splattering of melting tuna fat ricocheting off the stone, a gesture of kindness that I appreciate.  The heat of the smooth flat stone, no doubt chosen as the stone for this task from thousands of others, liquifies the marbled fat into a decadence augmented by ponzu that sinks well into my taste buds. 


Comfort

Kensaki ika, squid from southern Japan, is served as a tempura with a squirt of sudachi and a plate of vivid green matcha salt for dipping.  I forget that the tempura is fresh out of hot oil, and the first scorching bite makes me open and close my mouth like a fish out of water.  Once the heat dissipates, I find my teeth effortlessly biting into a warm thick cut of squid the texture of room temperature butter.  The hint of Japanese citrus and aroma of Japanese green tea bring a sense of familiarity and comfort to me, and along with it the most genuine smile. 

Innovation

Foie gras shabu shabu is a signature Urasawa dish, the additional ingredients constantly alternating to reflect the seasons. A warm simmering pot of water with a dish of thinly sliced goose foie gras, lobster and scallops are placed in front of me.  Before I can even think of moving my hands, a server slides up next to my seat to do the dipping and cooking for me.  ‘Swish, swish’ she goes with the foie gras, its melting fat forming canary yellow droplets of savor that float to the top.  Just shy of its complete melting point, she carefully removes the sliver of foie into the dipping bowl of ponzu, and I relish the union of these two contrasting flavors.  The scallop and lobster, briefly cooked in the foie dashi, also leave me speechless.

Discipline

Hiro’s answer to the traditional gari pickled ginger is a sweet pickle of shinshoga young ginger, thickly cut and pickled in honey, sugar, salt and yuzu.  The rustic pickles cleanse my palate in preparation for the climax of the meal, his nigiri sushi that in its simplicity and bareness demonstrate his true skills and expertise.  His hands are swift and nimble, moving with the precision of a robot, yet executing each maneuver with the tenderness and care of a newborn’s mother.  He starts bold with a fatty cut of toro, then a seared aburi kama toro, the same exquisite cut of collar toro that made its debut on the hot stone.  A silky shima aji that lingers on my palate, followed by a lighter Kumamoto snapper with sprinklings of grated sudachi zest.

My salivary glands release its juices at the mere site of the wooden boxes of sweet Santa Barbara sea urchin, as he carefully spoons them onto the shari sans nori, just the way I like it.  Seki aji at its winter peak of fattiness melts in my mouth, maguro zuke lightly marinated in soy sauce creates an explosion of flavors and kensaki ika from Kyushu dressed with home made seaweed salt delights with a butteriness that is distinctly unlike regular squid.

Slice, squeeze, drape, cradle, pinch and caress Hiro does for each beautifully prepared specimen of fish, and I take a long second to revere the elegant sushi before savoring it with closed eyes and deafened ears, concentrating every sensory nerve in my body on the glorious bite that I am blessed to have.  Chutoro, its perfect balance of meat and fat, ends in a sigh of pleasure while kohada, dainty, fatty and optimally marinated in vinegar makes me wonder why I go anywhere else for sushi.  Shiraebi is juicy and sayori evokes a young rosebud.

Kuro awabi, abalone from Chiba prefecture, has been steamed to exquisite tenderness and served with a gentle brush of concentrated soy, and seki saba is a shining example of why the line caught mackerel from the Seto Inland Sea is considered the best.  Iwashi, winter sardines plumped full of fat, makes me swoon with excitement with its piquant kick of grated ginger on top.  En fin, I find the fluffy sweet tamago to be much lighter than I expect, and it practically floats up to the ceiling as I pick it up with my chopsticks.

Simplicity

The first of 2 desserts is a Japanese hachiya persimmon that stands alone in its perfect state of ripeness.  So ripe, in fact, that the flesh has morphed into a gelatin-like consistency and appearance that almost seems unreal.  It has the sweetness, tenderness and softness of a first kiss and I fully succumb to its innocent allure.

A second dessert of black sesame ice cream with black truffle, red azuki beans and 23K gold leaves holds up to its reputation with grace and poise, so much so that in my utter infatuation my paralyzed hands fail to grab the camera. 

Tradition

This beautiful meal, flowing from course to course like a Mozart symphony, drawing me in with each successive plate into a state of admiration and ultimately bliss, concludes with Chef Hiro preparing a perfect bowl of matcha green tea.  He commands the chasen bamboo whisk with confidence and whisks the liquid into a uniform consistency, the surface a bright green sea of perfectly symmetrical fine bubbles.  I show my respect by carefully rotating the ceramic bowl in both hands and sipping the bitter tea in 3 audible slurps in Japanese tea ceremony tradition.  A long sigh of satisfaction and serenity…we lock eyes…we both smile.  An epic meal. 

Urasawa
218 N Rodeo Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

t. 310-247-8939

Random trivia: Did you know that soluble tannins in unripened Hachiya persimmons are what cause that astringent unpleasant furry mouth?