LQ@SK- Los Angeles

An f-bomb bellowing lad in a yellow banana suit hardly seems like a fitting partner for a classically trained French chef, but when the stars aligned for the unlikely duo that is Starry Kitchen’s Nguyen Tran and Chef Laurent Quenioux, a delicious culinary project was born.  Los Angeles diners were saddened with the news of Quenioux’s Bistro LQ closing earlier this year, one of the few restaurants in the city that offered a wonderfully stocked cheese cart and a vivid menu of non-traditional fare like calves’ tongue, duck neck and goat tripe, proteins perhaps too adventurous and ambitious for the local audience. While Quenioux has since kept busy in the kitchens of Vertical Wine Bistro as Executive Chef, his enthusiasm and creativity needed an extra outlet, and a pop-up project called LQ@SK (Laurent Quenioux at Starry Kitchen) was born.

What started out as an underground food operation out of Nguyen and Thi Tran’s apartment has now become a famous joint called Starry Kitchen where downtowners nosh on lemongrass chicken bánh mì and crispy green tofu balls for lunch, and spicy Korean black pork belly for dinner on Thursday and Friday evenings.  Starry Kitchen has a loyal following, a spacious dining room, an energetic staff, a large kitchen, an available venue for dinners most nights of the week, and a signature mascot/owner whose banana suit has become just as famous as his radiant smile and dirty mouth- it’s a near perfect location for a pop-up.  Near perfect, that is, as there is no gas stove- only an induction cooker that may scare off most chefs, but not our French renegade whose LQ@SK ‘Fooding Around in LA’ pop-up dinner shows no sign of such kitchen shortcomings in his dynamic food. The first successful run of LQ@SK last month showcased delectable whimsies of global delicacies like escamoles tacos and teriyaki rabbit albondigas. This year, he started his tasting menu with another Mexican delicacy in his amuse bouche, huitlacoche.

Amuse  – Little neck clam, huitlacoche, epazote, sauerkraut sushi

Poached and chopped little neck clams were neatly tucked into a bite sized sushi with huitlacoche, sauerkraut and epazote flavoring for a light and crunchy amuse.  The earthy seduction of huitlacoche, dark maize fungus also known as corn smut (and raven’s excrement in Nahuatl), came through very slowly through each successive bite.

Warm veal feet, “ravigote”, anchovy, piquillo varnish, “gargouillou” of summer vegetables

One of my favorite courses of the evening was the warm veal feet, a delightfully gelatinous and tender serving of buttery meat, classically paired with an acidic ravigote sauce and an anchovy fillet that added a whole new dimension of flavors to the dish.  That alone would have sufficed to make for a satisfying course, but the addition of bright orange piquillo varnish with an assortment of summer vegetables (cucumber, tomato, radish, carrot and beets) transformed each bite into a memorable marriage of bright festive flavors.

Scallops 2 Ways, (tartar and sautéed), beet ribbons, zucchini smear, vermouth demi glace

Minced scallops perfumed with yuzu and a sprig of dill glided across a carpet of red and yellow beet sauce while a meaty scallop, perfectly pan seared to exquisite tenderness, soaked up the flavorful juices of the vermouth demi glace and zucchini smear.

Lemongrass galanga Consommé, Sautéed Foie Gras, Dungeness crab, roasted nectarine

The other memorable success of the evening was the Dungeness crab and roasted nectarine dish, not only for the complex flavors and light seductive aromas of the beautifully done broth, but for the surprising fact that the foie gras, which would normally take center stage, was outshined by the summer nectarines.  The foie was transformed into a docile and subtle accent under the sweet spell of the fruits and soup, making for an unexpectedly light dish that was easy to eat and enjoy.

Lamb loin, lamb kidney, lamb sweetbreads, chipotle, sweet peas

The lamb trio, reminiscent of Chef Quenioux’s Bistro LQ days, presented a trio of lamb loin with peas and tarragon, lamb kidney with a spicy chipotle sauce and lamb sweetbreads with Meyer lemon and thyme. Each told a completely different story, and the one that lured me in the strongest with its unique texture and lingering spiciness was the lamb kidney with chipotle.

Pandan pana cotta, grenadine, prickly pears, cherry apricot sorbet

Colorful Crayola hues and playful contemporary plating popped against the white background, each component with a strong personality that delighted my palate.   Bright magenta prickly pear smear, grenadine Thai basil seeds with a quiet crunch and a quenelle of cherry apricot sorbet were fun components to this dessert plate, but the Kaffir lime and pandan panna cotta, with an unusual lime green color, was the most memorable, for it lingered for almost half an hour on my palate.

Techno music, friendly staff and a laid back vibe created an atmosphere that made it seem like a casual gathering of friends more than a restaurant pop-up, a refreshing experience in this phase of LA dining where guest chef stints and pop-ups are becoming all too common.  $45 for 5 solid delicious courses was also appealing, reminding me that great food and a fun dining experience can still be had for an affordable price and not exclude budget conscious diners.  This second round of LQ@SK will only be around for a few more weeks, and we can only hope that there will be more to come.

*August 7th at 7pm, LQ@SK will be doing a special 1 night-only dinner event for LA Gastronauts. Fancy some duck hearts, bear tenderloin, cockscombs, sea cucumbers and…..beaver? Sign up for this unique dining experience before it sells out!

LQ@SK

Starry Kitchen                                                                                                                 350 S Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90071                                                                                                   (213) 617-3474

Random trivia:  Did you know that epazote, a pungent Mexican herb, is frequently used to season beans as it is believed to help relieve abdominal discomfort and gassiness from eating beans?

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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.

Shigeyoshi 重よし revisited – Tokyo, Japan

I have said this before and I will say it again.  Shigeyoshi, an elegant 40 year old restaurant in the heart of Tokyo, is my favorite restaurant in the world.  While I have been fortunate enough to experience numerous meals all over the world that have blown me away, this is the place that I always come back to, and look forward to returning to the most.  It’s not just the attentive yet unobtrusive service- that is almost a given in any restaurant in Japan.  It’s not just the highest quality ingredients that represent regional specialties and seasonal offerings.  It’s not just the consistency of astoundingly delicious meals, plate after plate, course after course.

It is Chef Kenzo Sato, the quintessence of the soul of traditional Japanese cuisine, that attracts me to this quaint 2 Michelin star haven.  He is humble and unassuming, doing it all for the simple and pure love of food and people.  He has kept the same loyal staff at his side for the majority of the 40 years (and they have happily remained by his side), knowing the importance of consistency, especially for his regulars who depend on it. He pours his heart and soul into each and every plate, and it comes through in his beautiful presentations and unforgettable flavors.

My first experience at Shigeyoshi was 6 years ago, and I will never forget the magical feeling that I had on that fateful night.  Sitting at the pristine wooden counter, directly in front of this chef who immediately drew me in with his bright smile and charisma, I remember watching his every move with wonder as he skillfully prepared each course.  It quickly became apparent to me that this man absolutely loved his restaurant and his craft, and I could taste it in every memorable bite.  His food is exciting, but also comforting, and always saturated with love and care.  At Shigeyoshi, there is no thinking, critiquing or analyzing.  One just feels, and that feeling is pure- ‘delicious’.

That extraordinary feeling has brought me back to Shigeyoshi every year since then, and through every successive meal I have fallen more in love with this amazing chef, the tranquil space that he has created and the exquisite food that has changed my life.

Every meal at Shigeyoshi is a testimony to the beauty of Japanese cuisine.  There is something so incredibly wonderful about the simplicity and sensitivity of Japanese aesthetics.  Sayori sushi, layered with a slice of perfectly pickled Kyoto turnip senmaizuke and neatly wrapped with a kombu seaweed ribbon, was served with a side of nanohana brassica lightly dressed with sesame paste- nothing more, nothing less, and it was perfect.

Coarsely chopped Japanese kuwai potatoes and arare rice crackers were made into a shinjyo, deep fried and served with warm dashi broth and spinach for a comforting earthy dish with just the right balance of moist and crunchy textures.

Matoya oysters from Mie prefecture, a staple on the Shigeyoshi menu, are famous for being sterile and bacteria-free through a special method of breeding and harvesting.  These oysters had a clean crisp cucumber finish, pairing especially well with the Dom Pérignon Vintage 2000 that we brought that evening to celebrate Chef Sato’s second Michelin star, a well deserved recognition.

The tempura course featured two delicious items- shirauo, little tiny ice fish that were still alive and kicking when they were tossed in the hot oil, and kansouimo, dried sweet potatoes from Ibaraki prefecture with a chewy and dense texture.  A smidgen of sea salt accentuated the freshness of the delicate fish and brought out the intense caramel-like sweetness of the satsumaimo potatoes.

One of my favorite courses at every Shigeyoshi dinner is the chinmi mori, an assortment of Japanese delicacies that serves as the ultimate complement to chilled sake.  This time it was sweet luscious Hokkaido uni, tender namako sea cucumbers with ponzu, sweet amaebi shrimp with its eggs, asari clams with bitter butterbur sprouts, and an unohana of shime saba, pickled mackerel coated with soy pulp.

The futamono course, a ‘lidded dish’ of warm soup and hearty seasonal offerings in ornate lacquer bowls, usually signals the halfway mark of a traditional kaiseki meal.  In stark contrast to the simplicity of his signature suppon turtle soup that he usually serves every year, this time Chef Sato presented a bold and dynamic dish of hongamo duck shinjyo topped with warm mochi and garnishes of baby turnip, thinly sliced daikon and carrot.  The shinjyo was like paté, rich, airy, buttery and divinely delicious, but Chef Sato insisted that it was only made from duck meat.

Tai sashimi (red snapper) from Naruto at its fattiest winter peak was served with thick seaweed and a rare vegetable called kanzou no me, a Chinese medicinal plant that tasted like licorice.  One of the charms of dining at the counter at Shigeyoshi is to be able to see all of the action in the kitchen, including Chef Sato’s swift and skillful hands breaking down the whole majestic tai into a beautiful sashimi plate.

Young tender bamboo shoots from Kyushu, the southern part of Japan, lightly seared and dusted with katsuobushi, were served with braised butterbur sprouts in a gorgeous black lacquer bowl for a simple aromatic mountain vegetable dish.  These fresh takenoko bamboo shoots, which don’t resemble their canned counterparts in the slightest bit, were crisp and vibrant with a slightly sweet milky flavor.

No part of a perfect red snapper goes to waste, especially when it’s a beautiful specimen from Naruto, Japan.  After we enjoyed the sashimi course, Chef Sato prepared a traditional tai no nitsuke dish with the fish head, briefly simmering it in a soy ginger sake broth.  While slurping up the gelatinous coating around the fish eye and nibbling every tender morsel of meat and skin off the bones, I realized that this is exactly what sets Shigeyoshi apart from all other restaurants for me.  Michelin star or not, it is not about complicated technical artistic plates with multiple components that aim to impress and ultimately overwhelm.  It’s about what sings to the soul, and this expertly seasoned and perfectly executed dish of braised fish head, while not sexy nor fancy, was one of the most delicious things that I have ever eaten.

Echizen gani, a type of crab that is often called the ‘king of winter food’, was served with a side of its tomalley, the savory creamy green innards that I personally find to be the best part of the crab.  These large snow crabs, whose season runs from November to March, are sold at auctions with special yellow tags on their right claw to distinguish their supreme brand.  Sweet, moist and light, this prized crab meat was particularly delicious paired with our cold sake.

For the final savory course at Shigeyoshi, the diner is always given multiple options to accompany rice, tsukemono pickles and miso soup.  In the past I have enjoyed traditional Japanese comfort dishes of kaki furai or breaded deep fried oysters, ebi ten don or shrimp tempura rice bowl, kaki age don or mixed tempura rice bowl, and oyako don which is simmered chicken and eggs over rice.  At Chef Sato’s recommendation (‘I got the most amazing toro this morning from Tsukiji!’), I ordered toro sashimi, thick tender marbled slices of buttery heaven that effortlessly melted in my mouth.

A simple dessert of intensely sweet grapefruit wedges was the most perfect way to cleanse our palates and end our wonderful kaiseki meal.

For the past 40 years Shigeyoshi has continued to maintain the same level of quality and service, staying immune from fickle trends and unnecessary pretentiousness despite its recognition as one of the best restaurants in Japan.  Shigeyoshi has it all- the finest seasonal ingredients, perfect execution, beautiful presentation, heartfelt service and memorable food.  The special added touch is the chef’s character, and the intimate experience that he has with each diner through his food, which is an extension of his soul.  His food satisfies my palate, and also conjures up tender memories from childhood and a strong sense of comfort and peace.  Dining at Shigeyoshi always reminds me of what food is ultimately about- to nourish.  I look forward to going back to Shigeyoshi on my next return home to Tokyo, where Chef Kenzo Sato will be waiting for me with that same warm welcoming smile.

Shigeyoshi 重よし                                                                                                             6-35-3 Corp Olympia 1st floor                                                                                 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku Tokyo                                                                                            Tel 03-3400-4044

Crab trivia- did you know that the Japanese Spider Crab, which is known to be the biggest crab in the world, is also the oldest, the most deep-living, and with the highest longevity (they can live for more than century)?

Les Créations de Narisawa- Tokyo, Japan

In the dead of winter, when all is dormant, a culinary shaman summons the elements of earth, fire and water, recreating vibrant landscapes of forest and sea on beautifully presented plates.  Tender green leaves sprout from moist edible dirt and pearly white shells resonate with the brilliant splash of ocean waves.  Mother earth’s energetic vibrations are translated into delicious stories through this spiritual guide, Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, whose elegant cuisine reflects the beauty of the seasons and the natural landscapes that nurture us.  He reminds us of where we came from through his edible interpretations where guests ‘should not only be eating a meal, they should absorb life itself- and there is no feeling that can exist beyond that experience, for one cannot perfect that which nature has created.’

His 2 Michelin star cuisine at Les Créations de Narisawa in Tokyo that was recently ranked 12th best restaurant in the world in the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants List has a message, and it is an important one of balance, harmony and beauty.  Through flavors that are European (having trained in Switzerland at Girardet’s, France at Robuchon and Italy at Antica Osteria del Ponte), aesthetics that are distinctly Japanese, techniques that are modern and concepts that are uniquely his own, he takes inspiration from our surroundings to create a culinary experience that awakens our senses.

In his Winter Collection 2011 menu, he guides me on a journey through ocean and land for a delicious celebration of life.  The experience begins with ‘Evolve with the Forest’, Narisawa’s edible tribute to how humans should symbiotically coexist in a forest ecosystem.  A bubbling tabletop concoction of fermenting bread, slowly rising from the gentle heat of candlelight, releases a waft of yeast aroma as our vegetable course arrives.  A fresh crimson colored radish, sprinkled with edible dirt made from deep fried mustard seeds, appears as if it was freshly pulled out of the earth.

Narisawa’s tasting menu is minimalist, listing only the main ingredient of each course and whether it is a ‘gift from the sea’ or a ‘gift from the forest’.  The first ocean treasure washes up on a plate of sea shells, Toba oysters from Mie prefecture prepared as thick fluffy fritters in a powdered charred leek batter.  While the fritters are not the most handsome looking players on the block, the intense smokiness of the charcoal black batter lends an intensity and depth of flavor that fares well with the bivalves.

Land and sea come together in beautiful union in the hirame carpaccio dish made with thinly sliced hirame from Awaji-shima, scallop cream sauce and domestic olive oil from Kagawa prefecture.  The clear plate creates an optical illusion of a vibrant garden sprouting from the ground with edible flowers, garden greens and herbs reaching tall and high up into the sky.

The spear squid dish, named ‘Wind of Basque’, undergoes a dramatic transformation in the blink of an eye, from a naked virgin to a seductress concealed in a veil of black mist.  Like a matador that whirls his red flag in one graceful arc, our server sweeps in with a spoonful of charcoal black liquid nitrogen ash made with burnt red peppers for a dramatic presentation. Burnt red pepper soup, Basque pimenton sauce and now a blanket of pepper ash create three layers of smoky pepper flavors to augment the tender squid.  2007 Domaine André Vatan Sancerre finishes all 3 of these seafood courses on a good note.

The fully risen bread, now ready for baking, is placed in a heated stone pot on a table adorned with twigs and dried citrus.  A smidgen of chestnut powder is lightly dusted onto the bread before it is covered with an oak tree lid to bake for 12 minutes.  A faint aroma of yuzu seeps through from under the lid to tantalize our appetites as we wait for what seems an eternity until our hot bread is ready to be served.

Chestnuts and roasted walnuts add a wonderful earthiness to the warm bread introduced on the menu as ‘Bread of the Forest’.  Tender young buds sprouting from the pot of soil that signify the return of spring are in fact red cabbage sprouts in a layer of dehydrated Taggiasca black olive tapenade and whipped butter.  To be able to experience the full evolution of this bread course is a unique Narisawa concept that certainly brings man and nature closer to eye level.

The Saint-Sever foie gras dish, scoring high on the pleasure factor, is my favorite dish of the evening.  The rich buttery foie with a perfectly seared exterior that is first poêléed in red wine vinegar and fond de veau, then finished with balsamic vinegar and strawberries, has the perfect balance of acidity, sweetness and savoriness that leaves me scraping the plate for every last remnant of sauce.  Our bottle of 2008 Domaine Prieuré Roch Nuits St Georges pairs especially well with this memorable course.

My expectations are heightened when they present this beautiful chemistry set-like display of soup-filled glass tubes for the next ‘gift from the sea’.  Chinese Jinhua ham soup releases an intoxicating perfume into my nares as it is poured onto our spiny lobster dish, but the end result is a disappointingly uninteresting plate of incongruous flavors.  Bitter nanohana brassica takes away from the finesse of lightly dusted spiny lobster fritto while the prominent acidity of sudachi shavings seem to compete with the savor of the prized ham broth.

The final ‘gift from the sea’ is a madai red seabream from Awaji-shima, a well prepared slice of fish with crispy skin that I also find difficulty enjoying with its diffuse and somewhat disjointed plating of components.  A scallop-esque cylinder of sesame tofu fritto, bright green wakegi onion sauce, Japanese putit vert greens, sudachi lecithin foam, and Kyoto white miso and scallop ribbon sauce are all individually delicious, but I struggle to grasp Narisawa’s philosophy of appreciating our natural landscapes through simple forms of beauty when I am too busy assembling each bite.

Chef Narisawa does, however, make up for it in his ‘gift from the forest’ dish of expertly prepared Hida wagyu rump roast where he manipulates the element of fire to express ‘rebirth’ and ‘transformation’ through another charcoal black presentation of carbonization, a recurrent theme throughout his tasting menu. Leeks are charred, allowed to mature and cure for 3 days to remove its bitterness, then coated onto the beef.  The meat is arroséed with olive oil on low heat in a frying pan, requiring 1 chef to continuously baste the meat by hand for 30 minutes on the stovetop.  The result is a tender moist cut of meat, evenly pink throughout as if temperature controlled sous vide, full of juiciness and the very flavor and essence of what beef is meant to taste like.  A red wine bordelaise, some sweet Japanese chijimi spinach, a palate cleanser of Japanese sake granité and a bottle of 1998 St. Emilion Denis Barraud ‘Lynsolence’ later, I find myself soaking up the energy of the natural elements through my satisfied taste buds.

The first dessert course, served in a dramatic glass sculpture of winter landscape, features Le Lectier pear smoked with magnolia chips, magnolia flower ice cream and a chocolate fondant made from 125% Valrhona chocolate.  A long overwhelming explanation of how chocolate can have a cacao percentage of 125% is kindly given to us by our server, but its technicality loses my attention and my brain fails to comprehend this concept.  It seems though, through swirling the thick creamy chocolate dessert in my mouth, that Valrhona has somehow devised a way to create one of the most intensely concentrated dark chocolates in a product called P125 Coeur de Guanaja chocolate, and I am happy to receive.

Warm and pleasantly bitter matcha green tea french toast is presented in a dessert duo with milk ice cream coated with sweet sugar cane powder, a contrast of temperatures and flavors.

The dessert cart at Les Créations de Narisawa is quite a spectacle, its multi-tiered trays of smoothly sanded tree barks offering an irresistible array of bite sized sweets, from tarts (pear, muscat, chestnut and Satsuma), macarons (chestnut, tea), chocolate truffles and kirsch cherries to galettes, meringues and choux cream puffs.

A signature Narisawa item, a colorful gradation of petit macarons completes the tasting menu, with flavors ranging from white chocolate to rose and cacao intensities ranging from 41% to 80%.  While a fun concept and a delight for the eyes, the macarons are dry, brittle and overly sweet.

Les Créations de Narisawa’s philosophy is an admirable one, one that honors nature, respects the elements and derives inspiration from our beautiful surroundings.  With unique concepts and new methods of preparation and cooking, my meal here proved to be a great learning experience, but somehow didn’t take my breath away as a memorable one.  With long introductions, lengthy explanations and technically elaborate dishes, I found this tasting menu to be more cerebral and less visceral, and one that I unfortunately don’t look back at and yearn to relive again.  With such passionate visions to pay tribute to the forest, the sea and the earth, one would hope that these inspirations would translate more easily, but its complexity and technicality had me distracted on more than one occasion, creating within me a sensory block to receive Narisawa’s art.

Nature, for me, is raw, bold and at times chaotic (and in that there is such beauty)- the very opposite of what I felt at Les Créations de Narisawa that night where the food, the service, the quiet dining room and the spotless kitchen (my utmost respect to the cleanest kitchen I have ever seen where they even wipe the light bulbs every day) were pristine, polite, sterile and almost too perfect.  Some day I hope to return to this restaurant during a different season and with a different mind set to be able to be more vulnerable to Chef Narisawa’s artistry and completely fall under his spell.

Les Créations de Narisawa

2-6-15 Minami Aoyama
Minato-ku, Tokyo
Japan
Phone:  +81 (3) 5785 0799

Random trivia: Oysters are considered aphrodisiacs.  According to Greek mythology, Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, sprang forth from the sea on an oyster shell and promptly gave birth to Eros, god of love.

さんだ Sanda- Tokyo, Japan

Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Chanel are arguably the top 3 powerhouse fashion brands that have been dressing, tressing and decorating beautiful women from head to toe for decades.  Their easily recognizable logos are splashed all over bags and clothes on international fashion runways and magazine covers.  Similarly, in the beef realm we have Kobe, Matsuzaka and Yonezawa, the 3 famous sandai wagyu brands that reign supreme in the bovine world with their unique method of breeding and exquisite marbled meat.  These respective haute couture and haute cuisine trios are international icons with A-list star status.

And then…there’s Hermès. Incomparable in craftsmanship, each carefully hand-constructed by dedicated artisans, ultra luxurious and a timeless classic.  The illustrious Birkin bag (a larger version of the Kelly), for one, is a fashion legend that is known to fetch up to $19K with a 6 year waiting list.  Such is the Sanda gyu in the wagyu world, a more exclusive beef brand in a league of its own with only a handful of farmers who raise less than 1000 cattle per year.  While Sanda gyu is served selectively at upscale steakhouses like Aragawa for a price that could buy an Hermès clutch, one can sample this highly prized beef at a more affordable restaurant in Tokyo called Sanda after its illustrious namesake.

The only catch is that you won’t be sinking your teeth into juicy cuts of sirloin and rib eye steak.  Sanda restaurant, tucked in a quiet neighborhood behind the Tokyo Midtown Complex in Roppongi, only serves Sanda wagyu offals.  Every part of the glorious specimen of Japanese cow is treated with utmost respect and served elegantly in kaiseki style, elevating beef organs to a 1 Michelin star status.  My first meal at Sanda 6 years ago, in the Akasaka location that has since closed, was a life-changing experience.  Luscious cuts of cow blood vessels, intestines and reproductive organs opened my eyes to a whole new world of innards and showed me the path to offal nirvana.  It was time for me to make my pilgrimage back to this holy shrine for an awakening of the senses and transcendence into offal enlightenment.

前菜:アキレス腱ポン酢

Due to the interesting selection of cuts, the chefs serve each course without an introduction.  ‘Try it first, then I will tell you’ is their motto, as they watch each diner’s reactions with mischievous smiles.  The restaurant blooms with conversation and laughter as playful exchanges between guests and chefs come naturally.  The first course, for one, had me stumped.  A dainty starter of soft semi-translucent strips with chopped scallions, spicy momiji oroshi grated daikon and ponzu sauce was all about texture- pliable with a subtle crunch, a pleasant elasticity and bounce against my teeth, all owing to the high collagen content of julienned Achilles tendon.

ハツモト中華風

Then came the hatsumoto, directly translating to ‘the root of the heart’, aka ascending aorta, the largest main artery that stems from the left ventricle of the heart to deliver oxygenated blood all throughout the body.  Thick batonnets of aorta with the texture of semi-firm cheese and a mellow buttery savor were exceptionally delicious tossed with sesame oil, shaved Tokyo negi and togarashi chile, one of my favorite bites of the evening.

ハチノス胡麻和え

Another sensational hit from the tasting menu was the hachinosu honeycomb tripe, the second stomach of the cow, with its firm chewy texture and ever so delicate hint of wonderful gaminess, balanced by the creamy white sesame dressing that made the sake flow easily.

フワ辛子醤油

Sanda is quite possibly one of the only restaurants in the world to serve beef lung and do it so elegantly, showcasing its bold minerality and iron flavor in a simple preparation with soy sauce and Japanese karashi mustard.  Referred to as fuwa by the chefs, taken from the onomatopoeia fuwa fuwa to describe something soft and fluffy, these pink cuts of pulmonary tissue were indeed spongy and light, juxtaposed against the delicate crunch of the cartilaginous bronchioles.

椀物:牛タン団子のスープ

The stand out course of the evening was the beef tongue and throat cartilage dango meatball soup, a densely packed yet soft flavorful meatball with finely chopped bits of crunchy cartilage for fun marvelous texture.  The enticing aromas that wafted through my nares and the warmth of the delicate broth that seemed to spread down my esophagus straight through to my toes left me sipping this bowl of comfort in silence with a long lingering sigh of content on the finish.

刺身:レバーの刺身

Glistening crimson red slices of liver sashimi adorned with white sesame seeds and chopped scallions were creamy and silky like crème fraîche, surprisingly sweet with absolutely no iron flavor characteristic of this organ.  A quick dip in salted sesame oil rendered these delightful segments even more slippery on the tongue, making for an intense session of culinary foreplay.

牛トロ寿司

Harami, commonly known as hanger steak from the cow’s diaphragm, was prepared as delectable sushi, one topped with wasabi and the other with Japanese karashi mustard for a side by side of eastern and western interpretations.

揚げ物:ミノの唐揚げ

As the chef placed this deep fried dish in front of me, I caught his look of challenge in eyes.  ‘Guess which part of the cow this is,’ he seemed to say with his smiling eyes, as my taste buds pondered over this elastic piece in deep thought.  Springy, pliable, but with added layers of juicy flavor through every successive bite, it was obvious that it was a part of the digestive tract.  It was mino, the first stomach, deep fried with shishito pepper and dipped in sea salt and curry powder, a delicious morsel to complement our sake.

煮物:ほほ肉のシチュー

It seemed unfair to be served only 2 bites of Sanda’s breathtakingly delicious beef cheek stew, tender cuts of richly flavored meat braised in red wine long enough to melt its connective tissue layers into liquid umami.  Having fallen under its hypnotic spell, I slurped the sauce down to its last drop with no shame, chasing this liquid gold down with a Japanese plum wine made from red wine infused plums.

焼き物:四種

For the grilled course, the chef presented the 4 beef selections of the evening.  Plates of coarsely chopped daikon radish and finely chopped cabbage were served to enjoy with the fattier cuts of grilled meat, while 3 types of soy sauce (wasabi, garlic and ginger) were presented to use as dipping sauces.

膵臓

Pancreas was surprisingly light, lean and tender, reminding me of grilled chicken thighs, going well with the wasabi soy sauce.

ほほ肉

Thinly sliced beef cheeks had a little more texture and robustness, augmented by the zing of ginger soy sauce.

やん

A first for me, the next grilled course was called yan, the thick knobby portion of connective tissue between the 2nd and 3rd stomach of the cow.  Definitely more chewy and dense, this morsel was all about flavor- the more one chews, the more flavors are extracted, until the jaw fatigues and cannot chew anymore.

ハラミ

Harami, the rear diaphragm, was unexpectedly fatty and juicy, turning into liquid fat at the first bite.  Dipped in wasabi soy sauce, these were intensely rich bites that went well with the crispness of coarsely chopped daikon radish.

鍋:牛タンのしゃぶしゃぶ

4 perfect thin slices of Sanda beef tongue were presented across the counter for the final wagyu course, a shabu shabu.

ギアラ、しびれ

Wrapped around crisp stems of mizuna greens, the delicate slices of tongue were tender and delicious, but the star players in the ponzu dish were the bite sized servings of savory giara, the 4th stomach of the cow, and shibire, buttery sweetbreads/thymus glands that simply melted in my mouth.

〆:中華麺                                                                                                                        デザート:黒胡麻アイスクリーム

Slurping ramen noodles in a light beef based broth, spiked with green onions and a generous sprinkling of coarse black pepper, followed by a simple dessert of dark black sesame ice cream, was the perfect way to end the inspirational meal of beef offals.

Only in Japan can such an experience be possible- a full course kaiseki of beef innards, expertly prepared and elegantly presented to be worthy of a Michelin star, for the quality of the Sanda wagyu brand naturally renders its innards at a similarly high quality.  Not once did I feel like I was having entrails, waste products normally thrown to the hounds, for the freshness of the ingredients, the delicacy of the flavors and the beauty of simple plating elevated the dining experience to one of luxury and finesse.  For a lavish adventure into organ meats, pay a visit to Sanda and allow the friendly welcoming staff to guide you into a whole new world of beef.

Sanda                                                                                                                            Wagyu Restaurant                                                                                                         4-5-9 Roppongi                                                                                                    Minato-ku, Tokyo Japan                                                                                 03-3423-2020

Random trivia:  Cows ‘moo’ in English, but they make other sounds around the world.

Afrikaans: moe-moe                                                                                                   Bengali: hamba                                                                                                              Dutch: boeh                                                                                                                   French: meuh                                                                                                          Hungarian: bú                                                                                                            Korean: um-muuu                                                                                                         Thai: maw maw

Gyugin 牛銀本店 – Matsuzaka, Japan

He wakes me every morning with that sweet gentle voice of his, calling my name with even more affection than the day before.  ‘Come outside, it’s a beautiful day,’ he says, and he leads me into the wide serene pastures where we frolic and play.  He strokes my black hair with a soft brush, then proceeds to tickle me all over with his playful touch.  We walk along the beautiful river, drinking the fresh natural spring water to quench our thirst.  We toast to our time together with a bottle of beer which I happily guzzle down.  Mozart playing in the background, a little tipsy, I fall into a state of absolute bliss as he massages me all over with those strong masculine hands.  Life is good…

…very good, for the black-haired wagyu cattle raised in Japan that live a privileged and pampered life. Daily massages, shochu hair and hide treatments, classical music, long walks, a special diet made with homemade okara and grains, and lots of beer sound more like the luxurious life of an A-list Hollywood celebrity, but the extent to which these Japanese farmers go to treating their cows (better than their own wives) culminate in an unrivaled cut of supreme beef.

File:4 Kobe Beef, Kobe Japan.jpgKobe beef is world renowned, but it is only 1 of the trio of ultimate Japanese beef supremacy- the top 3 brands of the ‘Sandai Wagyu’ being Kobe, Matsuzaka and Yonezawa.  All are beautiful works of culinary perfection, their intricately marbled patterns of snow white fat melting easier than butter and bursting with refined flavor.

This past January I made a pilgrimage to the Ise Jingu in Mie prefecture, the most sacred and holiest of Shinto shrines in Japan, to honor my roots and receive blessings for the new year.  On my way back to Tokyo I made a separate pilgrimage to Gyugin restaurant in Matsuzaka city, one of the most highly regarded temples of Matsuzaka beef.

Just as one would expect a plethora of pizzerias in Napoli, there are as many as 30 specialty Matsuzaka beef houses in Matsuzaka city.  All, including the top 3 restaurants called Gyugin, Wadakin and Mimatsu, boast prime cuts of the prized meat and crowd their walls with photos of legendary champion cows to augment the experience.  Gyugin is the locals’ restaurant of choice, including 3 taxi drivers, a train conductor and numerous store owners whom I carefully interviewed that day.  The restaurant is tucked away in an old merchant neighborhood at the foot of the Matsuzaka castle, housed in a 2 story wooden structure that still resonates with Meiji era architecture.

In Japan in the 1800’s, meat was randomly cut up in cubes and used in mixed batches regardless of the muscle cut, thrown into a large pot with scallions and miso.  At the turn of the Meiji era in the late 1800’s, butchering became more of a precise art with a deeper understanding of preparation and aging, with an emphasis on select cuts for use in specialty dishes like amiyaki and sukiyaki.  It was around this time that Ginzo Kobayashi, born as the 3rd son of a field farmer, followed his ambition to make it big in the city.  He got his first job at a butcher shop called Yonehisa.  After learning the craft of butchering and the ins and outs of raising premium cattle, he opened his own butcher shop Gyugin at the tender young age of 22 in the heart of Matsuzaka city.  That was 1902.  Today, almost 110 years later, Gyugin remains a sacred site for Matsuzaka beef and a historical icon of sukiyaki.

As with any Japanese craft or restaurant, Gyugin exemplifies the Japanese philosophy of kodawari– the uncompromising and almost stubborn devotion to excellence and attention to detail in the pursuit of perfection.  In the end, kodawari leads to consistency, a quality that I find most important in a restaurant.  At Gyugin one will find the sukiyaki prepared in exactly the same way as it was 110 years ago- only with soy sauce and sugar- to honor the same flavor, quality and tradition that it was built on.  The beef and its beautiful sashi (marble) speak for itself.

Gyugin offers 2 other ways to enjoy Matsuzaka beef: shiochiri, a lighter sukiyaki using white soy sauce, kombu dashi and white pepper, and mizutaki, essentially a shabu shabu with ponzu and white sesame dipping sauces.  Yet sukiyaki is the shining star here, the taste that made Gyugin history, with 3 grades of beef to choose from.  Our server recommended the middle grade called Take for 8,400 yen per person, not by any means a middle grade price, but the best balance of fat, meat and flavor.

Every meal is prepared by your server to ensure perfect execution and flavor. Large slices of Matsuzaka beef, hand sliced to order by a seasoned butcher who cuts as precisely and evenly as a machine, are gently draped into a cold iron pot with a cube of beef fat that begins to melt like butter once the heat is turned on.  Slowly the meat starts to sing, first a low hum then a gradual fortissimo with sputtering sounds of melting fat.  In goes the sugar, then kijoyu soy sauce, an overly simple concoction for such a grand display, yet its slow caramelization releases a sweet intoxicating aroma that grips you with a visceral pang of hunger.

The white sashi (marbled fat) slowly turns translucent as red turns an appetizing brown.  Meanwhile the most perfect fresh farm egg, its bright orange yolk standing taut and almost a gravity defying vertical, requires a strong puncture of the chopsticks to get through the elasticity of its membranes.  It’s a powerful and vigorous specimen of egg, one that can stand up to the heartiness of the sukiyaki.  We all whisk the egg in silence as our eyes fixate on the simmering pot of meat.

After what seems an eternity, a glistening slab of beef is lowered into my bowl.  I gently toss it around with my chopsticks, coating the large surface area with a light application of whisked egg.  The first bite is phenomenal- an explosion of sweetness quickly followed by the creaminess of egg, then a slow injection of fatty meat that liquifies with each careful bite.  Tender, silky, savory yet light, I now see why so many have dedicated their lives to this wagyu.

Beef, warm white rice, kurazuke daikon pickles, repeat, and within minutes the first course is done.  It’s time for the vegetables now, a palate cleanser before another intense round of Matsuzaka gyu.  Carrots, onions, enoki mushrooms and mitsuba cook briefly in the beef glaze, enjoyed in a simple ponzu kombu dashi dipping sauce.  After another satisfying round of beef sukiyaki that tastes even better than the first, we are served the final savory course of tofu and scallions, then a refreshing yuzu sorbet.

Gyugin Yoshokuya next door serves Westernized Matsuzaka beef dishes like beef cutlet, grilled steak, beef curry, beef katsu and hamburger, a popular joint for families with children. However, to really appreciate the essence and beauty of this glorious wagyu beef in its purist form, an evening of sukiyaki at the original Gyugin restaurant is an experience not to be missed.  The most prized beef in the world, created from tender love, care and years of pampering, is truly one of the most delicious foods that I have ever had the privilege of savoring.

Gyugin-Honten

1618 Uomachi

Matsuzaka city

Mie prefecture, Japan

Tel. 81-0598-21-0404

11am-8pm, closed Mondays

Random trivia: Did you know that the song ‘Sukiyaki’, by Kyu Sakamoto, remains the only Japanese-language song to hit #1 in the US (1963 US Billboard Hot 100)?

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?