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?

Shigeyoshi 重よし- Tokyo, Japan

Takeshita-dori

Harajuku, a bustling district in the lively city of Tokyo, is the epicenter of cultural juxtapositions where the rich elite collide with eclectic punk fashionistas.  Where Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Christian Dior proudly line the grand shopping boulevard of Omotesando, which sees no paucity of young and old shoppers who are driven by their greed for expensive designer clothes.  Just behind omotesando is the famous Takeshita-dori, the narrow street just yards away which attracts grade school teenagers for cheap casual wear and knick knacks.   Omotesando literally means ‘the front road to the shrine’ in Japanese, and was originally constructed as the main path that led visitors to the grand Meiji shrine just behind Harajuku station.  It’s almost easy to forget that a peaceful and sacred shrine stands proudly at the periphery of this busy shopping district where people are consumed with superficiality.  In addition, the Jingu Bridge, which connects the Harajuku area to the shrine, has become the mecca for cosplay youngsters who don’t hold back in their lavish goth and lolita costumes, acting as a hub for unique and outrageous street fashion.  Do you recall Gwen Stefani giving a shout out to the Harajuku girls?  This is what she was talking about.  If you’re visiting Tokyo for the first time, a visit to Harajuku is a must- you can get a taste for many dimensions of the Japanese culture in a matter of an hour.

A stone’s throw away from the dynamic streets of Harajuku, on the 1st floor of an apartment building right on Omotesando Avenue, is a quiet unassuming restaurant with a wooden sliding door entrance.  In this peaceful haven lies Shigeyoshi, my favorite restaurant in the world.  Shigeyoshi is run by Chef Kenzo Sato, who at the tender young age of 27, opened this restaurant in 1971.  He trained at Taimeshirou in Nagoya, and named his restaurant Shigeyoshi after his mentor.  I have been coming here every year for the past 6 years or so, and it has quickly made its way into a very special place in my heart.  I go back to Tokyo every year over the Christmas and New Year holidays to visit my family, and a trip to Kyubei and Shigeyoshi are the activities which I look forward to the most.  I was proud and ecstatic to learn that Shigeyoshi was recently awarded 2 Michelin stars- these are 2 very well deserved stars, for I know first hand that the food, service and ambiance are exceptional.

The space is a comfortable size, fitting 3 tables and 12 seats at the pristine wooden counter.  There are 2 private rooms upstairs as well, but the golden seat is at the counter toward the right, in front of Chef Sato and the stovetop.  What I love about Shigeyoshi is that despite its Michelin status and its revered reputation in the culinary world, it always feels like I’m hanging out with Chef Sato in his own home.  It’s as if I dropped by his house on a weekend for a casual friendly chat as I sit on the bar stool and have him whip something up in the kitchen for me.  Especially now that he knows my likes and dislikes and even saves my favorite dish for me, I feel comfortable being with him and being in that space.  I almost forget that I’m in one of the best restaurants in Japan, as the place is warm, relaxed and serene.

There’s something to be said about this classic Japanese style of counter dining which is common in sushi restaurants.  When chef and diner are face to face, it naturally creates open dialogue and wonderful conversation.  For the diner, there is nothing more fascinating and wondrous as seeing your food be prepared right in front of you with artistic mastery and care.  For the chef, there is nothing more gratifying and humbling than watching the diner savor every bite of your creation with joy and contentment.  At Shigeyoshi, it’s always an honor and such a treasure to chat with Chef Sato and his trusted crew of 5 chefs as they prepare a meal of a lifetime. Especially with Sato, who has a great personality and calm demeanor, I never run out of interesting topics to talk about.

Chef Sato started our incredible tasting menu with an amuse bouche assortment of 黒豆 kuromame braised black beans with sprinkled gold powder, 唐墨 karasumi bottarga slice and 平目のこぶ締め hirame no kobujime kelp-infused fluke sushi.  It was such a treat to be able to commence my meal with the rich and salty flavors of bottarga.

Fresh raw oysters were quickly and skillfully shucked by Chef Sato and served with a garnish of chopped onions and his version of cocktail sauce.  We had 的矢 Matoya oysters from the Mie prefecture which claim to be 無菌 mukin or sterile and bacteria-free.  It was the first time that I had ever even heard of such a concept, and was very intrigued.  History has it that shortly after World War II, American soldiers and personnel at the American bases in Japan refused to eat oysters in Japan because they were thought to be contaminated and of bad quality.  This criticism angered and fueled scientist Tadao Sato’s quest to create safe bacteria-free oysters.  He eventually patented a process in which oysters are bred in sea water that has been sterilized by UV radiation.  These bivalves had a clean and sweet flavor with a crisp cucumber finish.

Next we had tempura of 白魚 shirauo white fish and 蕗の薹 fuki no tou.  I had a tough time researching the English translation for fuki no tou, but I finally found it: Japanese butterbur scape, or butterbur flower stalk.  They look like round plump flower buds with a light green color and a brown center.  Fuki no tou are one of the first wild mountain vegetables to sprout through the layers of melting snow as winter turns to spring.  The slight bitterness of these vegetables is addictive, and it is most popular as tempura although it can also be prepared in braised dishes and miso soup.  The warm crispy tempura was surprisingly light with very little oiliness.

Chef Sato knows my eclectic taste in food, and he was proud to present me with this assortment of Japanese delicacies.  You know when Bugs Bunny’s eyes turn into big red hearts that pop out of their sockets when he sees the sexy Lola Bunny walking by?  Well, that’s what my eyes were doing when I saw this orgasmic smorgasbord of lovely delights.  Top left was a mixture of ずわい蟹のミソと子の塩辛 salt marinated Zuwai crab digestive innards and ovaries with an intense caviar-like flavor.  This was my favorite.  Top middle was sliced sea cucumbers in a ponzu sauce garnished with yuzu zest.  I love the unique textures of fresh sea cucumbers- the outer layer is soft like a fresh mango, and the center layers are more firm, at times even crunchy.

Top right was a small serving of extremely sweet Hokkaido sea urchin which was so fresh that it had a marvelous plump texture.  Bottom right was a piece of コハダ kohada or shad that had been marinated in and mixed with おから okara, which is the dry crumbly soy by-product of tofu.  Shad, due to its fishy taste that spoils easily, is normally marinated in heavy vinegar and salt, so it was a pleasant surprise to enjoy this fish in a light and delicate preparation.  Bottom left was tofu no moromizuke 豆腐のもろみ漬け, tofu marinated in a moromi shoyu that was specially made for Chef Sato by a soy sauce maker in Hiroshima.  Moromi is the fermented mash of soybeans, whole wheat, salt and water from which soy sauce is eventually made.  Tofu was simply marinated in this special moromi for 30 minutes, which rendered it soft and creamy like cheese.  Simply amazing.

スッポンスープ Suppon soup- this is a Shigeyoshi standard in the winter season, and I always look forward to having this cup of snapping turtle soup that warms my entire body down to my very tippy toes.  It’s a common tradition to eat turtle in Japan, especially in the winter time, as it is said to have great medicinal and nutritional powers and is best enjoyed in a hot pot nabe dish.  Shigeyoshi’s soup tastes like refined beef consommé, except with a slightly thicker consistency that barely leaves a silky gelatinous veil on the tongue.

Turtle is high in collagen and can practically make any woman look 5 years younger overnight with its ability to plump up wrinkled skin.  It is also said to enhance virility and sexual stamina in men, especially when drinking its fresh blood.  I’ve tried fresh suppon turtle blood before, many years ago in my early 20′s.  The warm bright red blood was served in a shot glass mixed with sake.  It didn’t taste like anything other than the sake, but I remember feeling flushed and hot all over for a couple of hours, and wondering if that was what menopause was going to feel like.

Next was a fantastic dish of 平目 hirame flounder sashimi from Naruto city, served with a side garnish of flounder liver.  Both the regular meat and the エンガワ engawa, which is the meat from the dorsal fin, were fatty and succulent with a delicate satiny texture.

We had 2 different types of grilled fish, of which my favorite was the マナガツオの西京焼 managatsuo no saikyo-yaki,  Silver pomfret marinated in saikyo miso.  The pomfret fish, which is similar to butterfish in consistency, hailed from Naruto city in Tokushima prefecture where the previous flounder was also from.  I loved the buttery and rich texture of the fish coupled with the sweetness and lingering aroma of the white miso marinade.  Chef Sato told me that he marinates the fish in the saikyo miso marinade for anywhere from 1 to 2 days depending on the quality of the fish, and never more than that to prevent the miso from overpowering the inherent flavors of the fish.

The other grilled fish hailed from Takeoka of Chiba prefecture, a fatty and delicate piece of line-caught 甘鯛 amadai tilefish that was simply seasoned with sea salt. It was interesting that both fish dishes were plated with a small piece of pickled chorogi 長老木 which is a Japanese artichoke, aka Chinese artichoke, aka Crosnes du Japon.  These tiny bumpy vegetables are not artichokes like their name suggests, but actually a member of the mint family.  I love learning about new foods.

越前ガニ Echizen crab was at their peak during the winter season, and we enjoyed the incredible sweetness of the moist and juicy meat along with a small but tantalizing serving of its green innards.

The next dish exemplified the concept of understated beauty in Japanese art and cuisine.  A simmered 煮物 nimono dish of Kyoto turnips with fuki butterbur stems was prepared simply in a flavored broth and garnished with grated ginger.  The flavors and the presentation were both simple, yet in its simplicity and nakedness, it was beautiful.  These winter treasures were prepared to a perfect consistency in the way that would most respect its purity and essence.  The dish was warm, comforting and peaceful.

And finally, the dish that I had been waiting for.  This is my favorite dish at Shigeyoshi, and I have this every year.  河豚の唐揚げ deep fried fugu puffer fish is sure to convert even the most hardcore fried chicken fan.  Most of the pieces served this particular evening were from the fish’s head, and I thoroughly enjoyed nibbling on the moist tender meat that fell right off the bones and the big fat gelatinous lips.  This is the kind of dish that makes you so engrossed in the food that all conversation comes to a halt.  For those precious few minutes, it’s just me and the fugu, and nothing else matters.  I can honestly say that this is one of my most favorite dishes in the world.

We had some special pickled vegetables before our final rice course.  The 沢庵 takuan pickled daikon radish on the right was made at Shigeyoshi, but the 奈良漬け narazuke, pickled white melon, was made by one of my dining companion’s sisters.

At Shigeyoshi, you can choose any one of many rice dishes to end the meal.  Choices include rice with deep fried oysters kakifurai カキフライwhich I ordered.  Lovely.

Another option is rice with toro, or fatty tuna.  Scrumptious.

The kakiagedon, mixed vegetable tempura over rice, is a classic rice dish.  Delectable. Other choices include oyakodon chicken and eggs over rice, gyudon braised beef over rice, and really if there’s anything that you want, Chef Sato and crew will make it for you.

A warm and nourishing bowl of しじみ汁 shijimi jiru clam miso soup rounded out the savory portion of our incredible meal.

Delicious seasonal domestic fruits were sweet like honey and refreshing on my palate.

A traditional Japanese dessert of ぜんざい zenzai, a warm bowl of red azuki beans with mochi, was served in beautiful red lacquerware.

As if this extravagant meal wasn’t special enough, Chef Sato gifted me with a signed copy of the Shigeyoshi book that is no longer in circulation.  This beautiful book, which features Shigeyoshi’s seasonal specialties like turtle soup, doesn’t have many recipes but rather highlights the story behind each dish.  It talks about Chef Sato’s inspirations, memorable anecdotes and stories about the artisans who produce the high quality ingredients that are used in the dishes.  I especially love the essays that Chef Sato writes about certain regular customers with whom he has established a long lasting friendship, and their favorite dishes at Shigeyoshi.  It’s an amazing and touching book about the intention and the human spirit behind this wonderful restaurant.

As Chef Sato shed his chef’s jacket and joined us at the counter for an after dinner beer,  I got an even more personal look into the soul of this magnificent chef.  His gentle eyes, so full of life, lit up with each new conversation topic as his engaging exchanges revealed his genuine curiosity for life.  His calm yet uplifting sense of humor is one that I can only imagine comes from years of hardships and adversity.  It is impossible for this marvelous chef to not affect your spirit, for his vitality is infectious.  I mean, look at that smile.  If you could only have one meal in Japan, have it at Shigeyoshi.  Go with an empty stomach, and let the beauty of the chef, the restaurant and the food permeate your heart.

Shigeyoshi 重よし

6-35-3 Corp Olympia 1st floor

Jingumae, Shibuya-ku Tokyo

Tel 03-3400-4044

Random trivia:  Fugu, or puffer fish, is notorious for containing lethal amounts of the poison tetrodotoxin in its liver.  The poison acts as a paralytic and kills its victims in a slow and agonizing death from asphyxiation as it paralyzes the respiratory muscles.  To date, there is no antidote.  For this reason, only specially licensed chefs can prepare this potentially deadly fish.  A chef must undergo a 3 year apprenticeship before being allowed to take the licensing exam.  The examination process consists of a written test and a practical portion where the chef must prepare the fish and eat it.  The passing rate is only 35%, and some of the failed challenges result in death.