Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Urasawa - 10/04/2008

218 N Rodeo Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

Unlike my last trip, I made the reservation too late and was unable to book the entire restaurant. When I arrived, there was a couple, well into their dinner already, they were celebrating a birthday and only came because of my friend's review of a past visit. As usual, I was allowed any empty seat in the restaurant. I wanted to take one at the corner but the waitress pulled out one of the chairs in the back. Feeling it would be rude to refuse, I gave up the best seat in the house, still it was nice to see the place from a different perspective.

While I was waiting for the rest of my party, four other diners arrived and sat at the aforementioned corner. When Urasawa-san asked if there was anything they didn't eat, one of the diners gestured to the slab of meat resting in the back and said he didn't want any toro as it was too rich. Urasawa-san looked surprised at the request for no toro (first time I was here I requested MORE toro but to each his own), he then pointed out that the gentleman was pointing at a slab of BEEF not toro.

As always we had a bottle of sake to start, this time we went with the Fukukomachi rather than our favorite Kubota Manju. The sake was quite a bit thicker and more full flavored lots of sweetness and smoke compared to the more refined Kubota. With the sushi we of course paired a champagne. This time it was a 2002 Louis Roederer Cristal, an excellent vintage with aromas of white flours, subtle notes of apricot and honey, and a long lingering finish. Urasawa-san seemed to enjoy it as well, finishing the proferred glass rather than sipping sparingly as he has in the past.

01: Toro Tataki - Orange Ponzu, Daikon, Scallion, Shiso, Gold Leaf, Mum and Shiso Flowers
A beautifully presented dish with two perfectly seared slices of toro topped with daikon and scallion sitting in a small bath of orange ponzu. The fish itself was delicious, and the onion, radish, and shiso each added their unique flavors to the mix. This was rounded out with an lusciously sweet tangy ponzu.

02: Hamo Nambanzuke - King Eel, Carrot, and Sudachi Zest
My first experience with King eel, the best kind of eel according to Urasawa-san. The eel itself was surprisingly firm and lean, almost like it had been dried. The flavor started out a bit tart but eventually I detected some smokiness that reminded me very much of ham.

03: Edamame Tofu - Soybean Tofu, Ikura, Ebi, Uni, Mitsuba Vegetable, and Gold Leaf
This reminded me very much of the chawanmushi I had on my first visit. Again the ikura were orange globes of briny goodness, adding a salty slightly fishy tang to the slightly sweet earthy tofu. The inclusion of ebi and uni were a bit unnecessary flavor-wise but they really enlivened the uniform texture of the tofu.

04: Sashimi - Toro, Tai, Kampachi, Grated Wasabi, Red Cabbage, Nori, and Daikon
The sashimi this time was toro from Boston, tai from Kyushu, and kampachi from Toyama Prefecture. The toro was pleasantly fatty but a bit thick resulting in a slightly chewier texture. The tai was very clean tasting with a straightforward, firm texture. The kampachi was my favorite of the trio with it's subtle complex flavors (almost nutty or sesame-like), definitely the most distinctive when eaten without any accompaniments.

05: Matsutake Dobin Mushi - Konbu Broth, Matsutake Mushroom, Awabi, Ebi, Tai, Ginko, Mitsuba, and Sudachi
The broth was dashi-based and infused with the smoky aroma of Matsutake. My only problem with this course was the small serving saucer, I couldn't drink the soup fast enough! The amalgam of ingredients added subtle notes to the dish, a tanginess from the citrus, the lingering sweetness characteristic of shellfish, these disparate elements elevated the soup to another level.

06: Awabi "Karaage" - Fried Abalone with Sudachi Juice
When I saw this I thought it was morsels of fried chicken of course Urasawa doesn't serve anything as mundane as chicken. This was abalone, boiled for 6 hours than lightly battered and fried. After cooking for six hours the flesh was remarkably soft, taste-wise, the batter was most apparent although there was an undertone of umami from the shellfish. I could have done with an extra 10 or so servings of this dish.

07: Toro - Seared on a Hot Stone with ponzu
This is the dish I heard the most about before my first trip to Urasawa, we were denied this the first time around. Happily it has been available both trips since then. The fish was so saturated with oils that plumes of smoke seemed to leap off the stone as soon as the fish brushed it, and napkins are placed on the wood to protect it from splashing oil. The rich aroma sets off an almost Pavlovian response and my mouth waters as I wait for the delicate morsel to be placed in the ponzu, a sign that the agonizing 15 second wait is over. After a moment's delay to let the fish cool, I popped the morsel in my mouth, rich oils ooze out with every chew as the fish fairly evaporates on contact with my tongue.

08: Saga Beef - Marinated in Soy and Sake
A return from our first visit, a small morsel of Saga Beef, slow cooked for 2 days to the point that pushing it around in my mouth literally causes the beef to disintigrate. The meat is marinated in a soy sake mixture that reminds me of Chinese braised beef. After eating this dish I hungered for more, but some small part of my brain knew the serving was just right as any more would have probably gotten too heavy.

09: Shabu Shabu - Ise Ebi, Hamo, Hotate, Foie Gras, and Saga Beef
The shabu shabu is always a bittersweet course, delicious in it's own right but it marks the end of the Kaiseki portion. Don't get me wrong, the coming sushi is brilliant but I am sad to see the end of Urasawa-san's otherworldly cooked dishes. With this course I always look forward to the foie gras, but this time it was a bit overcooked. The foie was hard with a bitterness that suggested the oils had been cooked out. This was terribly disappointing since my first two experiences with foie gras shabu shabu remain my favorite preparation of foie, even more than the vaunted French Laundry terrine. The lobster was excellent, exhibiting characteristic sweetness and snappy texture. The king eel was a bit bland, somewhat like boiled fish. The hotate was good but very nondescript. Lastly the beef, slick, with a slightly chewy texture, the broth infused into the meat with a complex layer of flavor that left me wanting more (a common occurrence with the food here). Inevitably, I burned my tongue on the scalding konbu broth, in my haste to savor its flavor which benefited greatly from the oiliness of the foie.

10: Toro
Rich and flavorful, with no tendon or gristle, considered in isolation it would be an excellent example of toro; it is just a bit simple compared to the two seared toro preparations.

11: Seared Toro
Maybe Urasawa-san read my mind because our next course was seared toro. Lightly charred, the fish had a more uniform texture than the raw toro and the addition of yuzu added a freshness that really toned down the oiliness of the fish.

12: Kampachi
At this point, Urasawa-san noticed I was picking up the sushi with my left hand so after I took my picture he rotated the sushi 180 degrees so it would be easier for me to pick up, talk about attention to detail! I thought the nigiri was much better than the sashimi. Pre-sauced by Urasawa-san, the fish had a much more subtle balanced flavor and a firmer texture.

13: Tai
Unlike the sashimi, the tai nigiri's texture left a pleasing sensation in my mouth. In addition the addition of citrus complimented the fish much better than the soy. Three for three, the nigiri outperformed the sashimi. I suspect this is due to Urasawa-san handling every aspect of the nigiri's preparation rather than leaving us to blunder through it like we do with the sashimi.

14: Seki Aji
The best aji available, this fish was delicious in a mysterious sort of way. The flavor was surprisingly mild with just a whisper of the typical fishiness associated with aji. Sadly my poor command of the English language is insufficient to describe the complex texture of the fish as there were so many contrasting elements it wouldn't make sense if I were to describe the sensation. You'll just have to try it for yourself!

15: Maguro
As always the maguro is stellar at Urasawa, too bad it is in such fine company that it seems simple by comparison.

16: Shiitake
Fresh shiitake mushrooms are smoked over a wood charcoal grill then wrapped around rice. This simple preparation really showcases the nuanced flavor of the mushrooms.

17: Uni
This might be the strongest Uni I have ever had. Creamy with a lignering salty-sweetness and most importantly absolutely no bitterness. One of my dining companions was a bit skeptical since since Uni was so fresh and plentiful in Australia, but I think this won here over. The same gentleman who earlier mistook beef for toro decided to take this opportunity to add his two cents. He asked why Urasawa-san used uni from Santa Barbara rather than Japan to which Urasawa-san responded it was the best. Not willing to leave well enough alone, the diner persisted saying something like "Have you tried all the other unis? How do you know it's the best?" After pausing for a moment, a visibly annoyed Urasawa responded, "Because I'm the chef!" Even though he said this with a smile we could hear the undercurrent of displeasure in his voice.

18: Ika
The cut of this ika was probably the most aesthetically pleasing I have ever seen ethereally white with the slightest scoring to soften the meat. Texturally it was firm and not as creamy as most. The seaweed salt enhanced the light flavor of the squid and added a nice crunchy element to the the textural interplay.

19: Mirugai
One of my favorites, this had a thick dense feel and a loud crunch that sort of echoed in my jaw. After seeing our approval, Urasawa-san noted with a smile that Chinese people always like the Geoduck, so very true.

20: Shima Aji
The shima aji was one of the most impressive fishes, texturally this is as elusive as the seki aji with the contrasting elements just so difficult to describe lucidly in writing.

21: Aji no Tataki
Easily the busiest of the nigiri courses, this was a blend of Spanish Mackerel, miso, scallion, ginger, and shiso. The oiliness of the fish is drastically tempered by the miso and the garnishes each add distinctive scintillas of flavor.

22: Awabi
The abalone here has been consistently strong, my second favorite after Go's Mart. The use of sudachi really tempers the natural flavor of the abalone, but you can still get a hint of that flavor abalone is so justly prized for.

23: Sanma
Another new addition to the menu. Urasawa took long strips of sanma or Pike Mackerel, wrapped it around some rice, then pressed heated rods of metal against the side of the fish to sear it. Contact between the fish and the metal produces this thick fishy smoke and even briefly ignited some of the fish's natural oil. The fish is a bit dry due to the searing and has a heavy salty, oiliness to it, probably one of the harder fishes to appreciate.

24: Ise Ebi
As I mentioned last time, Urasawa-san is obsessive with his quality control. When his assistant, Ken opened up two scallops, he patted them with a knife to see if they'd react. When they didn't, he set them aside and brought out a live lobster from the tank under the sushi bar. The freshest lobster sushi I ever tasted, the meat was still glistening with the natural juices of the lobster. I preferred this to the shabu shabu as the natural flavor of the lobster was more readily apparent.

25: Toro Maki - Leek and Pickled Daikon
The 6th dish to include toro, we were served something similar our first visit when we kept on asking for more toro. I really love the crunch and tang of the pickled daikon. Toro can definitely overpower garnishes, but here it was served in just the right amount to harmonize with the scallions and daikon.

26: Gyusashi
When I was watching them prepare this over the charcoal grill, I thought back to my experience at Totoraku. Turns out Urasawa has been there before, I couldn't help but if he were there to cook for us at our upcoming trip to Totoraku how great the experience would be. As impressive as the shabu shabu beef was, I believe beef was meant to be cooked over an open flame not boiled. The use of the charcoal grill imparted this smoky flavor that was the perfect pairing to the natural richness of the beef. Despite having copious amounts of fat, the meat had a delightfully chewy texture and wasn't overpoweringly heavy.

27: Anago
Another constant fixture of our dinners, the anago had a soft texture and mild flavor sweetened nicely with the eel sauce. I wasn't as impressed with the sea eel as I was last time.

28: Tamago
As always the nigiri portion of the meal ends with tamago. This time we actually saw the tamago resting in a cake pan. While there is some egg flavor this definitely tastes more like pound cake

29: Nashi Gelée - Ume Sauce, Goji Berry, and Gold Leaf
The first dessert is always some sort of fruit jelly. The pear gelée wasn't quite as fruity or intense as his past efforts. instead the most distinctive part of this dish was the Japanese plum sauce, quite salty this reminded me of some of those salted plums my mother loves. Never a huge fan of that flavor, I had a hard time getting past its flavor and enjoying the rest of the dessert.

30: Matcha
Thick powdered green tea. This was a bit foamy and gritty, with a lively youthful bitterness that suits its bright color. The tea is a nice contrast especially to the sesame ice cream.

31: Goma Aisu Kurimu - Red Bean Paste, Sesame Seeds, and Gold Leaf
Our third sesame ice cream, this was a switch since he used black sesame which seemed to have a deeper richer flavor. The texture was incredibly smooth an uniform no grit whatsoever from the sesame. One of my dining companions aptly compared this to the filling in Chinese Tong Yuan dessert.

32: Hojicha
The restaurant serves a dark roasted green tea as a close to the meal. Endless cups of this tea are poured as diners sit and chat with one another and Urasawa, this lets the evening come to a very sedate organic close rather than the restaurant shooing diners out the door immediately after the last course is served.

The food was stellar as always, overall I think this may have been the strongest trip foodwise. In terms of sushi the differences are probably too minute to tell but the kaiseki part of the meal felt even stronger than it had in the past. The only hiccups came from the guests at the other end of the bar whose volume seemed to rise in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed.

For many restaurants I have been to, repeat visits fail to live up to the memories of the first trip. Certainly part of this is due to the faultiness of memory (mine is a particularly bad example) but some of it is due to the fact that the novelty is gone. This is not the case at Urasawa, I anticipate each trip as much as the last if not more and I always leave as impressed as I was the first time. I can't think of another restaurant that has so consistently exceeded my expectations. Bravo Urasawa-san!

As always we posed for a photo with the chef before calling it a night.


Aaron said...

Does Urasawa recognize you at this point?

Tangbro1 said...

I don't think he can put a name to a face but he does remember we have been in been there before.

andrew said...

I've been following your reviews for quite some time, and have learned a lot about sushi from you. I moved to LA about a year and a half ago and have slowly started making rounds to all the best sushi spots. I have tried Nobu, matsuhisa, the hump, and Nishimura among others. To this day I find Sushi Gen downtown to be the most impressive. Although the food was less impressive the one time I sat at a table, to me it is more enjoyable than all of the more established places I listed above. Have you ever tried this spot downtown?

Tangbro1 said...

Hi Andrew,

I am glad my blog has been of some use to you. Seems like you have tried most of the top sushi restaurants in a very short time.

I have yet to try Sushi Gen. From what I know the restaurant specializes in nigiri and sashimi. I might be in LA tomorrow, if so I'll give it a shot

darien79 said...

Nice review! I am really interested to go Urasawa one day! So he really served until you say stop ?

Also for Sushi Gen, I tried couple times and I was not too impressed by the food there. Maybe I am different but if you get a chance to try it, do share your experience with us!

Tangbro1 said...

Hey Darien,

I would highly recommend Urasawa as an experience any sushi lover should try at least once. He does indeed serve until you say stop although I believe he stops once everything in the case is gone.

I didn't get a chance to do Gen last night but when I do I will definitely post