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?

Tasting Japanese delicacies at Kiriko- Los Angeles

Flamingo tongues and peacock breasts were once highly prized dishes in ancient Rome, praised for their exotic and rare quality and served at extravagant banquets for royalty.  If that sounds weird to you, think of what people all over the world are eating today or were eating until recently: bird’s nest soup and shark fin in China, ant larvae in Mexico, fried tarantulas in Cambodia, casu marzu (live maggot cheese) in Sardinia, puffin hearts in Iceland, and little birds in France called ortolan drowned in Armagnac and eaten whole, crunchy bones and all, many of which are now illegal (and you thought that foie gras, caviar and truffles were haute!).

Japan also joins that list with poisonous puffer fish, horse sashimi and whale meat, all of which I have had and are delicious.  Of the many unique foods that Japan is known for, there are 3 that are considered to be the 三大珍味, or the ‘three delicacies’- uni (sea urchin), karasumi (bottarga or mullet roe) and konowata (sea cucumber intestines).

I love all three delicacies, and often bring karasumi and konowata back from my annual trips to Japan.  Both usually hold up in the fridge for a couple of weeks at most, so I make a beeline for Kiriko, my favorite restaurant in Los Angeles where I only entrust head chef Ken Namba to prepare my prized products.  Kiriko is my special go-to restaurant in Los Angeles for its delicious food, amazing service and consistency of high quality dishes.  For the last 12 years this has been my culinary haven and Chef Namba, who grew up in Tsukiji, understands exactly what to do with these delicacies.

Konowata, sea cucumber intestines, come in a small glass jar.  Amber colored with a slimy consistency resembling snot and an intense saline pungency that some may characterize as putrid, these lovely aquatic treats are incredibly difficult to make. Only a small amount of intestines can be extracted per sea cucumber, and a small jar worth the equivalent of 50 intestines can fetch a high price, especially the longer the intestines.  Chef Namba chopped up the konowata and tossed them with cubed yamaimo (Japanese mountain yams) for added gooey and slimy texture.  Julienned fresh wasabi with a mild kick mellowed out the brininess of the intestines to compose a well balanced appetizer that went extremely well with chilled Hakkaisan.

Baby baigai, also called ivory shells or babylonia spirata, are sea snails that at Kiriko, were stewed in a soy sauce and sugar broth for a nibitashi dish.  Toothpicks were used to wiggle its flesh out of its corkscrew shell and eat whole, a process which can be technically challenging, tedious, and ‘high work- low yield’ as my friend Josh mourned, although each small bite of these slippery little critters were worth it.

Another jarred delicacy that I recently brought back from Japan was shuto, made with pickled entrails (mostly stomach) of skipjack tuna (katsuo).  The pink entrails are brined for 6 months in sake, honey and mirin and have a characteristic salty and musty flavor that sake drinkers love.  In fact, shuto 酒盗 literally means ’to steal sake’, as its unique saltiness and taste make one want to drink more sake.  The one I brought was a low sodium version although still quite intense in fishiness; it was prepared with grated daikon radish, squid sashimi, yuzu kosho and a sprinkling of chopped scallions.

Sea cucumber ovaries, which are called konoko or kuchiko in Japanese, are even more of a rare delicacy than the intestines because only a minute amount can be extracted per animal.  A dried version called hoshiko that I brought to Chef Namba was simply heated for a few seconds over an open flame and torn into bite sized pieces.  These small pieces are meant to be chewed slowly for as long as possible to extract its intense brininess and release its ocean aromas all throughout the palate.

A wet version of sea cucumber ovaries sold in a jar that I recently brought back from Japan had a beautiful bright saffron hue and a more delicate and sweet flavor compared to the dried version.  These were beautifully draped over pickled cucumbers at Kiriko, a delectable preparation of balanced flavors and wonderful aromas that perfectly complemented a light floral sake.

Chef Namba served the wet sea cucumber ovaries with uni gohan, a comforting bowl of warm rice infused with the rich buttery flavors of sea urchin.

Karasumi, made from salted and dried mullet roe, is well known by Italians as bottarga where it makes frequent appearances in pasta dishes.  The Japanese version is moist and meaty, for we like to slice it thin and eat it straight, while I find the Italian version to be more salty, flat, dry and brittle, making it ideal for grating. It is easy to find these prized delicacies in select markets and department stores, although they are very expensive.  Such delicious ocean treasures are best enjoyed with a glass of cold sake and a little magic from Chef Namba, like the sliced daikon radish and mizuna salad tossed with generous karasumi crumbles, bursting with crisp textures and refreshing flavors.

On another plate Chef Namba coated warm tender satoimo (Japanese taro) with grated karasumi, a simple and delicious preparation served alongside slices of toasted karasumi.

Earlier this year I brought back freshly made karasumi from Kyubei sushi in Ginza, Tokyo, a soft and tender mound of orange colored heaven that took them 10 days to make through a painstaking process of repeated drying, sake soaking, pressing and salt curing.  Homemade karasumi, especially from a renowned restaurant like Kyubei, is distinctly different from store bought types- fresh, evenly moist all throughout with no brittle dryness, outer membrane still fully intact and easily peelable, and every single egg in the roe sac glistening, perfectly round and ready to pop inside your mouth.

In one preparation, Chef Namba grated the karasumi over a warm bowl of hakusai (napa cabbage) braised in garlic, dashi and anchovies.  The warmth of the broth softened the mullet roe shavings ever so gently, releasing its appetizing aromas with every stir of my chopsticks.

The karasumi mochi sandwich toasted to a nice sear and drizzled with soy sauce was simple yet satisfying and comforting.  Warm gooey rice cakes as soft as down feather pillows, gently encasing the thick slices of salty savory fish roe- this was something that would make for a decadent yet delicious late night snack.

I loved all of Chef Namba’s innovative creations, but with something so precious and perfect, sometimes you don’t need to do anything at all.  Homemade Kyubei karasumi was, in the end, best enjoyed slightly toasted and mostly raw, simply sliced and paired with a good bottle of Japan’s finest sake.  Simple is best, with such supreme delicacies as this.

Tasting dinners like these are unlikely to happen even in Japan, where these ocean delicacies are not easily accessible, not mainstream and not even widely appreciated.  Many people scowl at the mere thought of sea cucumber intestines and ovaries, and understandably so, sticking instead to more familiar and easily recognizable foods.  Is it the rarity that makes these items so special?  Absolutely.  But in my case I salivate at the first hint of brininess that hits my nose and permeates my palate, for I truly love how they taste.  I cannot wait for my next trip to Japan when I can secure more delicacies to bring back to Kiriko.  Will you be joining me for the next tasting?

Kiriko sushi

11301 West Olympic Blvd # 102
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(310) 478-7769

Random trivia: Did you know that the digestive enzymes in konowata (sea cucumber intestines) break down its own proteins, producing amino acids like glutamic acid which create its umami flavor?

Sea cucumber delicacies

In my last blog entry I talked about Japanese delicacies, rare delights of strange and exotic flavors so unique to the tongue that it does not taste like anything familiar.  Among the 3 Japanese delicacies is konowata, or sea cucumber guts.  For those of you who don’t know what sea cucumbers are, here’s a photo of these soft squishy bottom dwellers:

Sea_cucumberSea cucumbers, also known as bêche-de-mer, holothurians, or trepang, come in all varieties: bright multi-colored, dull grey, spiked, smooth, firm and slippery.  To reproduce, sea cucumbers simply shoot eggs and sperm out into the water and hope that there are enough chance meetings for fertilization to occur.  When threatened, sea cucumbers violently contract their muscles and eject sticky threads and internal organs out of their anus to ensnare their enemies.  Amazingly, even after ejecting their organs out of their anus, they can regenerate these body parts within a day. Such interesting creatures!

Sea cucumber flesh in itself is a delicacy that is commonly eaten in Asia.  I love sliced raw sea cucumber in ponzu sauce.  It has a very crunchy yet slippery texture. Konowata, the salted intestines, is one of my favorite appetizers to enjoy with a cold glass of dry Japanese sake.  Every time I go back to Japan, I buy a jar to take home with me.

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The sea cucumbers are first kept in clean seawater to empty the intestines, then they are carefully removed by hand to make sure the viscera does not break and the intestines are kept intact.  These intestines are then cleaned with saltwater, and prepared through a multi-step salting process that takes a lot of time and patience.  The best konowata are freshly prepared ones in sushi restaurants in Japan, but this is hard to find.  I’ve only had the pleasure of having fresh konowata at Kyubei in Tokyo, Japan.  The bottled ones are often too salty, though it’s still delicious.  I love eating them with grated yuzu rind sprinkled on top, but I also enjoy it with a warm bowl of white rice. It has an intense salty ocean flavor, almost like licking moist seaweed growing on jagged rocks by the shore.

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Another wonderful sea cucumber delicacy is konoko, also known as kuchiko, bachiko, or hoshiko.  These are dried sea cucumber ovaries that are extracted, salted and dried in the sun.  Amazingly, removing the intestines or the ovaries can be done without killing the animal.  They can be extracted through a small incision/cut which will heal in about a week, and both the ovaries and the intestines will automatically regenerate.  Wow! The ovaries are carefully layered together and dried in the sun in a triangle shape.

IMG_8883The best way to enjoy this delicacy is to lightly toast it over a flame and shred it.  The toasting awakens the deep ocean flavors and releases the intense fragrances.  As you chew the konoko pieces, the flavors become more complex.  It almost tastes like caviar, but with a nutty undertone.

IMG_8885It takes about 10-20 large sea cucumbers to make a bottle of sea cucumber intestines, and even more (sometimes up to 100!!) to make one triangle piece of sea cucumber ovaries.  As you can imagine, it is a time consuming process that is done by hand, so these wonderful delicacies are extremely expensive and hard to come by.  They can only be purchased through specialty stores and websites, but if you can get your hands on these treats, it is well worth it.

Random trivia:  Did you know that sea cucumbers have no brain?

Japanese New Years

It’s a tradition in Japan to eat a certain assortment of foods called ‘osechi’ on New Years Day.  It’s an assortment of all types of beans, fish, meats, and vegetables which all require a painstakingly long and elaborate preparation process.  Each type of food has a special meaning, so eating it will grant you that good fortune.  All of these foods are cooked in such a way as to last for a few days (not immediately perishable), so they can be eaten without refrigeration during the first few days of the new year.  This is so that people (well, women) can take a break from the kitchen and enjoy the new year.  As most Japanese cuisine goes, the food is just as beautiful to look at as it is to eat, and they are displayed in elegant lacquer boxes.

Osechi lacquer box

Osechi lacquer box

These boxes usually have 3 levels, each overflowing with lots of delicious food.

Let’s open the lid and look at the top level…

osechi level 1

osechi level 1

The little fish in the top corner are soy sauce stewed baby anchovies (tazukuri), and they symbolize good harvest.  The lobster in the middle is for extravagance, and it also symbolizes longevity, supposedly because long antenaes on the lobster make it look like an old man.  The black beans (kuromame) in the front symbolize diligence and living each day with humility.  The gold flakes are sprinkled on for that extra ‘bling’ effect.  The yellow wedges above that which look like orange wedges are pickled herring roe, or kazunoko, which symbolize fertility.

The second level…

Osechi level 2

Osechi level 2

The seaweed wrap in the upper right hand corner symbolizes happiness and joy.  The orange and white stuff in the blue bowl in the front is pickled radish and carrots- supposed to symbolize and celebrate the white and red of the Japanese flag.  On the left is sake steamed abalone, a popular delicacy in osechi.

The bottom level…

Osechi level 3

Osechi level 3

Interestingly, the cooked lotus roots symbolize a good future, because you can look straight through all of those holes right into the future.  Every little item in these boxes are made with a certain intention- whether to bring wealth, longevity, good fortune, or to promote health and happiness.

This is a wonderful Japanese New Years tradition that most families celebrate.  After we eat this food, we drive over to the shrine and get our blessings for the new year.

Happy New Year!

Random trivia:  Did you know that lobster blood is colorless (clear) and flavorless?