Hatchi series at the Breadbar- Makoto Okuwa

That time of the month has come yet again, the exciting Thursday night Hatchi dinners at the Breadbar in Century City where a guest chef is invited to present 8 dishes for $8 each in a one-night solo venture (Hatchi means 8 in Japanese).  This wonderful event, created by Ironnori concepts in collaboration with the Breadbar, has been on a successful roll for the past year, introducing local chefs to enthusiastic patrons who get the unique opportunity to sample adventurous and innovative cuisine for a bargain price.  In return, chefs experience complete freedom in an open environment where they can push the creative envelope and translate their imagination onto plates while enjoying intimate interactions with diners.  I’ve had some spectacular and memorable dinners at the Hatchi event this past year with chefs Remi Lauvand, Marcel Vigneron, Ricardo Zarate, Saul Cooperstein, Brian Redzikowski and Walter Manzke, and I always look forward to the upcoming events.

I was especially excited for July’s Hatchi dinner called ‘Power of Miso’ by Chef Makoto Okuwa, a Morimoto protégé who began working with the famous Iron Chef in Philadelphia, and has helped to open Morimoto restaurants in New York and Tokyo.  Okuwa, originally from Nagoya, began his culinary career at the tender young age of 15 working in sushi restaurants in Japan.  After gaining a solid foundation in sushi philosophy and execution through his many years of training there, he moved to the US where he learned new ways of putting a creative twist on his food.  His career has skyrocketed through his apprenticeship with Morimoto, learning fun and innovative approaches to arranging traditional Japanese ingredients with local produce.  He recently competed on Iron Chef America, and although the kitchen arena was a comfortable and familiar place for him, having cooked with Morimoto as his sous chef on numerous Iron Chef competitions, he lamentably lost to Michael Symon on a sea urchin battle.   Good fight Makoto-san!

Regardless of the loss, we are proud to have this talented chef in our city where he can be seen in the kitchens of Sashi sushi and sake lounge in Manhattan Beach.  As executive chef, he brings his traditional Japanese training as a sushi chef, his avant-garde execution learned under Morimoto, and the intensity and precision required of working in a pressured Iron Chef environment all together into one beautiful restaurant space that is graced with a sensual yet confident touch unique to Makoto Okuwa.  Sashi stays more true to traditional flavors, offering robata-yaki items and sushi, but in the Hatchi event he took a more bold approach to give diners a glimpse into the creative direction that he is taking his cuisine.  In true Iron Chef style, he even chose one food ingredient as his dinner theme- miso, fermented soybeans that define the foundation of Japanese cuisine.

The Hatchi events are BYOB but recently the guest chefs have been offering unique one-of-a-kind cocktails that reflect their theme.  For the first time ever, we tried all 3 cocktails at the ‘Power of Miso’ event, and the sensational drinks almost made us forget about our wines.  Okuwa Watermelon, a dainty pink concoction of watermelon juice, shochu, lemon and gomme syrup served in a martini glass, was a tad bit too sweet for me, but the familiar Japanese flavors in the Shiso Mojito were perfect for our summer al fresco dining experience.  Fresh shiso, yuzu and lime were mixed with rum, cachaça and agave for a vibrant and refreshing drink with an added tart kick and textural gusto from the umeboshi pickled plum and ground white sesame seed shirogoma rim.  My favorite, pictured below, was the Nihon Teien (Japanese garden) with Grey Goose Le Citron, agave, apple juice, fresh cucumber and a zen minimalist landscape of dark green leaves quietly floating on a cloud of cucumber foam. Its serene and enchanting beauty moves me to write a haiku…

Melting frost

the silent quiver of leaves

An uguisu beckons

I was pleasantly surprised to find my favorite dish of the evening in a cold fish dish, which is unusual for my warm-blooded carnivorous palate.   A tender and beautifully fatty harami cut of miso butter-poached Loch Duart salmon was served with feta cheese purée, coarse and grainy pesto powder, refreshing tomato foam, kumquat confit and microbasil with plump tomato caviar and feta cream biscuit garnish.  The marriage of Japanese and Mediterranean flavors was a success, especially with the sweetness of the kumquat kinkan bringing everything together and the crunchy pesto powder and delicate saikyo miso chip adding hints of delightful texture to the mix.

Another enjoyable and fun dish was the Asian taco made with tender chunks of smoked lobster, diced donut peaches, pistachio, cold miso frozen yogurt and paddle fish caviar all nestled neatly inside of a hard sweet potato taco shell.  The loud crunch of the sweet crispy shell, a satisfying bite into succulent lobster meat and the tantalizing rush of chilled cream finished off with the saltiness of black caviar pearls, all in celebration of summer peaches at its peak- this delightful dish was a haiku in the making.

A stylized ikameshi came in the form of California baby squid stuffed with crab meat on a carpet of dark seaweed and scallion paste that tasted like Gohandesuyo, a popular nori purée that is frequently enjoyed on a bed of white rice.  A tender cube of sesame and nori crusted tuna, the powerful splash of tangy sumiso or nuta made with vinegar and white miso, a resting twig of salty sea bean at the mercy of a crumpled wakame chip and a side of pickled myoga added dramatic levels of flavors and textures to complement the squid.

Breadbar’s signature epi bread came out warm, soft and pillowy with 3 types of miso butter- white miso, red miso and a barley miso called moromiso.

Who would have ever thought of deconstructing ramen, especially when we love this dish for its signature simplicity of noodles in broth?  Chef Okuwa left the spicy miso broth intact with slivers of kikurage wood ear mushrooms and asatsuki Japanese chives, although he put an enhancing twist on the soup with black sesame paste and lemon verbena.  The noodles in his version of Taiwan miso ramen emerged as compressed round patties that functioned as burger buns for the ground beef steak hamburger, topped with classic ramen garnishes of ajitsuke tamago in the form of a soy marinated quail egg, pea shoots instead of moyashi bean sprouts, thin slices of pink and white naruto fish cake, and chopped bamboo shoot aioli using menma.  This playful slurp-less ramen dish was an absolute joy to figure out and a wonder to devour.

四海巻き ‘Shikai Maki’, which means ‘Four Oceans roll’, is a square-shaped futomaki sushi roll that is often served for special occasions and celebrations in Japan, as its axial cut reveals a unique geometric pattern that depicts the waves of the four oceans of the world.  Instead of traditional ingredients, Okuwa made this Shikai maki with cucumber, tuna and Fontina cheese in a soy paper wrap in celebration of the vibrant colors and flavors of summer- drapings of thinly sliced prosciutto, a dramatic swipe of yellow miso emulsion paint, blood red sriracha dots, splashes of strawberry powder, kidney and garbanzo beans, bitter baby watercress and sprinklings of sweet yellow corn completed the cheerful canvas of summer bounties.

A miso feast is not complete without a dengaku dish, a rustic preparation of grilled vegetables, tofu and meats coated with miso paste.  田楽 dengaku, which means ‘field music’, finds it roots in rice planting and harvesting rituals.  Okuwa took this opportunity to celebrate his Japanese heritage using a trio of miso with various mediums.  A buttery cut of braised Wagyu beef chocked full of tender gelatinous collagen, perhaps from the cheek, melted in my mouth along with a dark red miso that tasted like tenmenjan and a lingering aroma of summer truffles.  A less intense white miso paste found a perfect partner in atsu-age crispy tofu with a garnish of peppery kinome leaf while a cube of polenta and a slice of kabu Japanese turnip celebrated its union with a chorizo moromiso blend.  A thick slice of Japanese eggplant and a miniature cube of konnyaku topped with shichimi togarashi, usual suspects for dengaku dishes, came along for the ride in the nude.

Miso as dessert seemed inconceivable and preposterous, but it actually worked in this dish of caramel miso cream with almond cinnamon crumble, apricot sorbet, buttermilk foam and pistachios.  The miso ice cream in its solitary form was nothing to ride home about, but a magical chemical reaction occurred when consumed with the tartness of apricots and the sweetness of buttermilk.  Somehow the three flavors came together as one to create an exciting and inspirational revelation.

The final dessert didn’t fascinate me like the previous one, but I was amazed with Okuwa’s mastery of miso in both savory and sweet preparations.  Long bars of pliable yuzu curd weaved through a dashing display of bright pink candied raspberries, chocolate sponge cake, sweet miso chips, a dome of white coconut sorbet, cocoa nibs and a sprinkle of dry miso powder.  It was a busy dish with a lot of traffic going in all directions, but every bite was alive with flavor and energy.

In a bold and daring move, Makoto Okuwa took on the challenge of creating 8 savory and sweet dishes of miso, and he emerged an undeniable champion, proving his understanding and mastery of this classic Japanese ingredient.  There were many discerning Japanese diners at the Hatchi event, a tough crowd to please, but both his traditional and radical takes on miso dishes won their hearts over.  An explosion of creativity, an elegant illustration of finesse, a lively parade of artistry and an undeniable demonstration of skill- all in this young, handsome, kind and humble chef who put the sexy back in miso.  His memorable miso event moves me to write another haiku…

Warm salty broth

A loud slurp, a lingering sigh

The power of miso


10250 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90067
(310) 277 3770

Sashi Sushi & Sake Lounge

451 Manhattan Beach Boulevard
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266

(310) 545 0400

Random trivia:  Did you know that miso is made by fermenting rice, barley and/or soybeans with salt and kojikin, a type of filamentous mold called Aspergillus oryzae?  A. oryzae is also used in the fermentation process to make sake, shochu, soy sauce and rice vinegar, making it the most important Japanese ‘fungus among us’.