Friday, June 28, 2013

Yamakase - 06/27/2013

After my last visit to Yamakase I told Stan and Yama-san that I would be back the next evening. So maybe that was intoxication talking, but another trip was definitely in order. This time around we decided to book the entire restaurant a la Urasawa. Our last trip here was an early New Years Eve celebration replete with plenty of champagne. Round two brought even more champagne with a vertical of Dom Pérignon as well as a Bordeaux for the beef and something sweet to finish.

1978 Moët & Chandon Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon
This was the oldest of the champagnes we brought, this wine was definitely showing its age. Molten gold in color, this wine offered faded notes of hazelnuts and coffee overshadowed by oxidation coupled with residual sugar that caused a number of people to liken this to a dessert wine.

Hokkaido Uni - Quail Egg, Caviar & Cucumber
While Yama-san was prepping I noticed that there were four or five cartons of uni so I suspected we'd be seeing the stuff early and often throughout the meal. First up, we had a spoonful of immaculately sweet and creamy urchin roe mixed with an equally soft quail egg then topped with a pinch of truffle salt. The warm egg had a nice temperature contrast and seemed to restrain the uni on the start leading the subtle aroma of truffle to the fore with a creeping sense of brine on the finish. Where the spoon was rounded and gentle the caviar and cucumber proved to be a starker contrast of lusty salinity with refreshing crispness.

1980 Moët & Chandon Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon
What a difference two years makes, the '80 still shows some sherry-like character but also offers butter and toasty notes with some earth and overripe apples as well as a short lived acidity and effervescence to give the wine some lift.

Sashimi - Kisu, Tairagai, Aoyagi, Naruto Wakame
Next up was a trio of sashimi paired with special seaweed from Naruto Japan. First up the Kisu or Japanese Whiting came lightly seared imparting a subtle sensation of savor to the otherwise mild fish. Given its rarity, I'm always pleased to see Tairagai, also known as Pen Shell Clam or Half Moon Scallop the texture is firmer than a regular scallops but stops short of being snappy while the flavor couples slight smokiness with the classic shellfish sweet brine profile. The Aoyagi was surprisingly mild and tender with an intense sweetness in place of the harsh brine that I typically associate with orange clam.

Kyoto Tofu - Marinated Tomato, Olive Oil, Truffle Salt; Uni
Next up was two spoonfuls of a special tofu from Kyoto. The first spoon was a take on an Insalata Caprese with the tofu standing in for the Mozzarella. A specially marinated tomato headlines the dish, the dense fleshy sphere was imbued with a forceful yet harmonious acidity that deftly complimented the floral tones of the olive oil and nutty undertones of the dense creamy tofu. Surprisingly I preferred the finesse of the salad to the combination of tofu and uni which seemed more like a classical pairing with the uni dominating the match.

Madai - Crab Guts, Yuzu
While it might not sound like the most appetizing thing, crab guts make everything better and this was no exception. The pristine fleshy pieces of snapper are a lovely study in texture, particularly the belly piece at the bottom, but the fish definitely needed a bit of augmenting in terms of flavor making the livery sweetness of the crab guts a fitting accompaniment the sashimi.

1982 Moët & Chandon Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon
Remarkably similar to the '80, with perhaps a bit less on the toast and butter and an added twinge of almond and honey. Enjoyable but I was hoping for a bit more complexity from my birth year Dom. Like its older siblings, the '82 had some fine bubbles when poured but they stilled quickly.

Kusshi Oysters - Santa Barbara Uni, Quail Egg, Yuzu; Blue Crab, Quail Egg
With their unrivaled sweetness and dense body Kusshi's are probably my favorite oyster right now. The pairing with uni was absolutely beautiful with an immediate concentrated brine mixed with a lively sweetness from the yuzu and finishing with a lingering melon-like sweetness. The second spoon was a bit heavy-handed this time around thanks to the addition of sesame sauce which blunted the nuanced flavors of the oyster.

Earlier in the night we saw Yama-san drop two prized Hokkaido hairy crabs into a pot and it was finally time to see the fruits of his labor. Fittingly, Yama-san served these pretty much without any adornment so the crab could stand on its own. Valued for their especially sweet flesh, I have to say I fail to see what all the hype is about. The meat did have some good flavor but I wasn't wild about the texture; certainly not the end-all-be-all of crab that I was expecting.

1985 Moët & Chandon Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon
Aromas of toast were immediately apparent in this bottle. This wine had more apparent fruit notes, bitter lemon and a touch of orange blossoms coupled with secondary savory notes of smoke and slate. Straddling the line between fresh youthful champagne and deeper more mature vintages, this was my favorite of the tasting.

Hamo - Ume Soba, Junsai, Asatsuki
Hamo or conger eel is a summer delicacy in Japan. Filled with tiny bones, hamo requires a special knife called a hamokiri (hamo cutting) knife with incisions made every 2mm to sufficiently tenderize the flesh. After cooking, the meat takes on a firm spongy consistency that is quite unique though personally I thought the accompaniments were actually better than the fish. Hamo is often served with a pickled plum paste which Yama-san replaced with supple ume-soba noodles while a clear broth filled with fragrant junsai and Japanese chives adds a tranquil homey warmth to the mix.

1988 Moët & Chandon Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon
Despite being 10 years younger than the '78 this was even darker with an almost amber cast to it and I thought the wine was correspondingly faded on the nose and palate; prematurely aged for a mere 25 year old.

Kanpachi - Sesame Dressing, Ponzu
Yama-san quickly dipped the slices of Amberjack in boiling water heightening the supple snap of the fish. The contrast between the creamy sesame dressing and tangy ponzu was a nice flourish to compliment the nuanced oily nature of the fish.

Maguro - Uni, Pine Nuts
I had a similar course during my last visit but this time around Yama-san kicked things up a notch with the addition of yet more uni. The tactile sensation of biting through the thick cuts of maguro are an absolute joy; the culinary equivalent to lying on silk sheets. Already seasoned with plenty of soy, the uni adds an extra layer of flavor while the pine nuts add a pointed if ephemeral nutty counterpoint.

1995 Moët & Chandon Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon
Jumping forward almost a decade, the 1995 was firmly on the youthful side of things. Faint toasty notes were matched with a perfume of citrus and white flowers wrapped around a taut core of acidity.

Chawanmushi - Baby Scallop, Crab, Junsai, Uni, Ginko Nuts
A more conventional chawanmushi than my previous visit. The flavors were a bit more refined with a restrained earthy brine permeating the silky custard thanks to the troika of scallop, crab, and uni.

Steamed Madai - Root Vegetables, Japanese Gravy
Still slightly translucent, the steamed snapper still retained some of its characteristic firmness and gained a light salinity. Seasoned heavily with sansho, the "gravy" had the spicy bite and consistency of a hot and sour soup as well as a slight earthy twang from the junsai and mushrooms.

2002 Moët & Chandon Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon
Almost creamy on the palate, this wine had a more defined bouquet of fruits than its predecessor, with clear crisp apple, candied lemon, juicy apricot, and even some tropical flair appearing as the wine warmed.

Wagyu Tataki - Crab, Italian Truffle Cheese
My friends and I dubbed this creation the Tokyo cheesesteak. The tataki retained a soft silky consistency and just the right amount of savor from the quick sear. A blend of sweet crab and fragrant luscious truffle cheese give the dish a welcome touch of extra luxury.

2004 Château Pavie
I was expecting something lush, perhaps a bit fruit forward in nature, but this inky black treat was dominated by crushed mint, herbs, tobacco, tar with a lingering finish of dark ripe fruits

Kagoshima Beef - Red Wine Dressing
The Kagoshima beef was one of the highlights of my previous visit. This time around Yama-san cut the steaks a bit thinner so while the beef was still amazingly soft and fatty some pieces were a touch overcooked for me. The beef came resting on a bed of greens which added a nice contrast though I would have preferred it if the dressing was on the side since I thought it detracted from the pure beefy goodness of the steak.

Chutoro - Medium Fatty Tuna
Moving onto nigiri we started with a piece of chu-toro. Straddling the line between akami and toro, this had some of the textural nuance of the former with the fatty indulgence of the latter.

2003 Moët & Chandon Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon
I can see why this vintage causes so much controversy. Made from an unseasonably warm early harvest, the wine is lean and taut with an inscrutable aspect that definitely doesn't fit the classic profile of the preceding champagnes.

O-toro - Fatty Tuna
Forget the restraint of the previous piece. this was like eating solidified fish oil finished with a kick of wasabi and an earthy musk of truffle.

Aji - "Special" Mackerel
Yama-san described this as a special Mackerel only found in two places one of which was Kyushu. The fish was remarkably mild despite the oily sheen and lithe supple texture.

Steamed Awabi - Yuba, Truffle Butter
A special dish created just for us, this was my favorite course of the night. The abalone was slowly cooked for six days making it incomparably tender and had Yama-san simply served the awabi as nigiri it probably still would have been my favorite dish. The inclusion of rice and a heady truffle-laced seafood broth give the dish a luxurious gusto that perfectly ends the meal while the Japanese zha cai (pickled mustard) is the savory icing on this otherworldly dish.

1961 Chateau Guiraud Sauternes
This was a surprise Kevin brought from his personal stash. The cork showed some worrisome signs of compromise but the dark amber liquid was still quite enjoyable. Unlike younger Sauternes this wasn't overly sweet. Restrained notes of caramel, honey, and tropical fruit are met and countered by a lively acidity on the finish.

Ume Sorbet
Dessert was almost an afterthought in comparison with the elegant savory courses, but the piquant tang and bracing chill of the plum sorbet were quite refreshing after all that seafood.

No idea what kind of caviar this was, but I wasn't about to refuse when the chef started handing out spoonfuls of the stuff. The unbridled salinity of the fish eggs was a fantastic contrast for the '61 Guiraud.

Despite my relative sobriety this time around, the meal was no less fun for it. Unlike the archetypal stern sushi chef a la the Sushi Nazi or Keizo Seki(Sushi Zo), Yama-san is quick to smile and likes to crack jokes; frequently at his own expense. Stan was also on hand and the genuine warmth he brings to the dinner service only heightens the restaurant's relaxed and inviting atmosphere.

Yama-san says eat your vegetables!

My first visit to Yamakase was one of my best meals of 2012, though I freely admit the night's drunken shenanigans may have unduly influenced my opinion. I actually managed to remain sober this time around giving me the opportunity to more fully appreciate Yama-san's cooking. While I was more critical on a number of dishes this time around, the majority of the dishes were still superb. A self-taught chef, Yama-san's style feels a bit more homespun and authentic, with a bolder less restrained feel than his peers.

The only complaints I could see with Yamakase have more to do with the mechanics of the meal rather than the cooking itself. First is the relatively limited selection of seafood available at any given meal and the inevitable repetition that comes with it. While I would like to see Yama-san work with a wider palette of ingredients he certainly makes the most of the pristine seafood he has on hand. The second nitpick had to do with the relative lack of nigiri. While I would have liked to have more of Yama-san's delicious nigiri, there are plenty of great Edomeaezushi-focused restaurants. When coming to Yamakase just sit back and let the chef work his magic; you'll be happy you did.


Charlie Fu said...

Where did you guys get the first four bottles of Dom? From your notes and the color makes it sound like poor storage conditions.

I had a mag of the 85 past Saturday that was delicious.

Charlie Fu said...

Btw. Totally agree about the crab. Just give me good of dungeness at a quarter of the price

Jai said...

Bottle variation can be a big deal with 30 year old Champagne. I popped an '82 Dom 3 weeks ago and it was AMAZING. Also, you can't just pour out the entire bottle for a table. What was most remarkable for me was seeing how the wine evolved over the course of the dinner. An hour of breathing really woke it up and took off that "funkiness" and made it sublime.

Anonymous said...

disappointed too. appreciated the imported seafood and expensive ingredients but the execution and flavor profiles are lacking. he transformed A5 wagyu into a mediocre steak dish. seemed he used a lot of uni to cover up otherwise uninspired dishes, much like using bacon.

Epicuryan said...

We got the Dom where you get anything these days: the Internet. I understand that provenance can kind of be a crapshoot. Next time we do something like this I'll just raid your cellar ;)

There's definitely something to be said for experiencing the evolution of a wine but that just wouldn't have worked in this case. In the wine's defense Kevin said it was his favorite of the night.

I did enjoy the meal overall. The last time he made Kagoshima beef he used thicker cuts and a simpler prep that was fantastic.

David said...

Another great review and pics.

Just curious, how many people were in your party? I ask because there are plenty of bottles but you didn't get that drunk. :)

Epicuryan said...

We had 11 people, 10 of whom drank plus we poured tastes for Yama-san and Stan

Charlie Fu said...

;). Dom P provenance is tough, lot of bad bottles out there cause on release you could basically go anywhere to pick it up. Like you said a crapshoot. Probably the safest avenue is auction in larger quantities.