Saturday, December 16, 2017

Sushi Tanaka - 10/21/2017

3977 Cochran St, Ste D
Simi Valley, CA 93063
(805) 306-1374

Having been to most of LA's top sushi restaurants I found myself looking for something new. So when I heard about Sushi Tanaka I grit my teeth and made the 75 mile drive to a tiny spot located in a nondescript strip mall in Simi Valley. I wasn't sure what to expect though I was comforted by the fact that the Chef's resume included stints at both Nobu and Shunji in LA.

Sushi Tanaka is run by Chef Sei Tanaka and his wife who serves as the spot's only front-of-house staff. The restaurant is smaller than most neighborhood sushi spots with only a tiny 7 seat bar and a handful of tables running along one side of the restaurant.

When I made the reservation, I had requested a more nigiri-heavy meal and Chef Tanaka was happy to accommodate us offering us 1 plated appetizer and 18 pieces of nigiri for $100 rather than the standard 3 plated appetizers and 13 pieces of nigiri. For those looking to splurge there is an "unlimited" option that includes delicacies like Japanese beef, live lobsters, and hairy crab.

Arugula Salad - Madai Sashimi, Heart of Palm, Charcoal Salt, Sudachi, Persimmon
The meal got started with a delicate salad served with a side of Madai snapper dressed with sudachi and persimmon. The fish is a nice textural contrast to the heart of palm but the sweet-sour contrast from the fruit highlight the flavor profile along with a nutty bitterness from the greens.

Kuromutsu - Black Bluefish
The pink flesh was nicely charred with a blowtorch and chunk of binchotan charcoal which gave it a pleasing smokiness. The fish itself is moderately oily though there was an unexpectedly sinewy layer running just under the skin that gave the fish a pleasantly complex texture.

Aji - Spanish Mackerel
This was a pleasantly minimalist rendition of Spanish Mackerel. The single strip of ginger imparts a surprisingly intense spiciness that combines with the fish's natural oil to create a slighly sweet flavor.

Sanma - Pacific Saury
Most chefs tend to grill Sanma over charcoal which results in a dry tough texture but Chef Tanaka's opted for a raw preparation that still highlight's the fish's natural oiliness but with a sublime, quiveringly tender mouthfeel.

Hotate - Scallop
This was a quintessential Hokkaido Scallop topped with a salty-spicy mix of charcoal salt and yuzu kocho to compliment the sweetness of the flesh.

Mirugai - Geoduck
Sai-san followed up the scallop with a sliver of Geoduck though other than both being bivalves, the two pieces of shellfish were as different as could be. The Mirugai offers a much denser and firmer texture to the point of being crunchy along with a strong salinity.

Tako - Octopus
Cooked Tako isn't usually my thing but this version was smoked then charred giving it a tender texture; the addition of a slightly sweet sauce gives the meat a satisfying barbecue-like flavor.

Kanpachi - Amberjack
The Amberjack was on the lean side; with less oil the fish had a firmer texture and milder flavor than the typical cut of Kanpachi.

Shima Aji - Striped Jack
I really appreciated having the Shima Aji follow the Kanpachi. The pink striped alabaster color and snappy texture were reminiscent of the preceding fish but the flavor had a bit more oily warmth.

Hon Maguro - Bluefin Tuna
Everything about this piece screamed quintessential Akami, from the soft even texture to the mild clean flavor though I could have done with a bit more wasabi.

Toro - Fatty Tuna
This was one of the best pieces of toro that I've had in a long while. The trick was to go with a wider surface area but thinner cut that coats the tongue in an ephemeral blanket of heady fish oil.

Kinmedai - Golden Eye Snapper
Truffle oil and daikon aren't two ingredients I would expect to find together but their combination on the kinmedai was nothing short of majestic funky yet savory with a bit of char to boot.

Kinki - Rockfish
Kinki has a viscous supple texture reminiscent of raw octopus that was quite memorable while the quick sear added depth to the normally mild white fish.

Sake Zuke - Kelp-marinated Salmon
Sei-san's seared kelp marinated Salmon breathes new life into the tired ordinary salmon that graces every sushi newbie's plate. The fish takes on loads more depth and character from the undertones of brine from the kelp to the nuanced smoke laced with buttery sweetness. Hands down the best salmon nigiri I've ever tasted.

Ikura - Salmon Roe
Chef Tanaka throws a curveball on the classic Ikura with a dose of truffle oil. I found the flavor a bit heavy-handed and the texture of the roe was a little flabby to boot.

Uni - Sea Urchin
After a rare miss with the Ikura, the meal got back on track with a perfect piece of sweet Santa Barbara Uni.

Kamasu - Barracuda
The Barracuda made for a a deftly composed one-bit course blending a burst of tangy pungent plum, fragrant shiso, and a pleasing deep smoke-laced oily twang.

Amaebi - Sweet Shrimp
The Amaebi is served feathered with tiny cuts to accentuate the shrimp's natural crunch. A deft brush of soy sauce accentuates the shellfish's intrinsic sweetness.

Akamutsu - Red Bluefish
This was one of the softer cuts of fish on the night with an almost creamy mouthfeel that throws the crunch of the black salt in sharp relief.

Kawahagi - Thread-sail Filefish
This is one of Chef Sei's signature dishes, pairing a lean cut of Filefish with a lobe of sweet creamy liver. The former provides a silky supple textural base while the latter brings a seductive mouth-coating richness.

Unagi - Freshwater Eel
Chef Tanaka eschews the traditional sticky sweet Nitsume sauce and prefers to serve the unagi au natural. I much preferred this rendition which still has the tender fatty texture and and simple charred flavor.

Yakitoro & Uni - Seared Fatty Tuna and Sea Urchin
We opted to add a couple extras to our meal. First up was a seared Toro topped with delicate lobes of uni. The warm oily fish and cool pillows of creamy uni result in a shudderingly decadent pairing that verges on sensory overload.

Seared Scallop - Uni, Caviar, Truffle
Our second supplement was actually something that is included as one of the plated appetizers in the regular $100 omakase. The seared scallop comes topped with more uni and caviar with a slice of truffle to complete the dish. Not quite as overtly rich as the previous dish, there was still plenty to love about this luxurious morsel.

Tamago - Egg
Of course the meal ended with a piece of Tamago. I was glad to see Chef Tanaka serves the sweet sponge cake-like variant.

I have to say Sushi Tanaka exceeded my every expectation. The fish quality is comparable to any of LA's top spots but at half the price. Chef Tanaka also nails the rice temperature and consistency perhaps a legacy of his training at Shunji. Pacing can be a bit slow as Chef Tanaka not only handles all the sushi preparation, but does all the cooking normally handled by back of the house. When the restaurant is busy, this can result in a bit of lag between pieces, though the pace picked up towards the end of the meal so if this bothers you I'd recommend a later reservation. Bottom line, if only this restaurant weren't so damn far it would undoubtedly be my go to spot for sushi.

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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Otoko - 09/30/2017

1603 S Congress Ave
Austin, TX 78704
(512) 920-6405

I wouldn't have expected to find a modern Kaiseki restaurant in Austin much less one that requires diners to buy tickets in advance, but a quick look at Austin's dining scene shows a surprising plethora of Japanese restaurants. This is largely thanks to the outsize influence Uchi has had on the city since it opened in 2003. Uchi gained national renown for its marriage of traditional Japanese technique with contemporary multi-cultural flare. As a result of this reputation, many of Austin's young up and coming chefs have done a stint at either Uchi or its sibling Uchiko. This includes Paul Qui, arguably the most famous Uchi/Uchiko alum and Top Chef Season 9 winner to boot.

While Otoko might trade on Paul Qui's name, in reality his former senpai (senior) Yoshi Okai is the one who runs the show. Okai, a Kyoto native grew up helping out at his family's catering business and after a brief stop in California to study landscape architecture, wound up at Uchi where he started to learn about sushi. The heavily inked Okai looks more like a dokyun rock-star than a sushi chef(Okai is actually the lead singer in a punk band called the Kodiaks), but his easy smile and high-energy bring a comfortable casualness to the intimate dining space where he works his magic.

SAKIZUKE: Kurage - chayote squash, sawagani kikurage, fried shiitake, finger lime, umi budo
Vazart Coquart Blanc de Blancs Champagne, France NV
The meal opened with a salad of chayote and fennel on a bed of jellyfish that was a study in crunchiness. On the palate the dish was a bit jarring, mixing licorice with the funky earth of the mushrooms and a bright citrus pop from the lime in a combination that never quite jelled.

ZENSAI: Nopales - itogaki, myoga, uni bottarga, ayu fish sauce
Vazart Coquart Blanc de Blancs Champagne, France NV
The second appetizer was a much heavier salad of Nopales in a multifaceted fish sauce that was salty and pungent with a whiff of BBQ-esque smoke on the finish. Though I've never been particularly fond of Nopales, I appreciated the Southwestern flair they brought to the dish.

SUSHI: White Sea Bass - irizake
Villa Wolf Riesling Dry GG Forster Pechstein, Pfalz, Germany 2014
Unlike traditional Kaiseki, the meal immediately veers from appetizers to nigiri. Our first piece of sushi was a sliver of firmly textured sea bass. The fish was seasoned with, an old-school "soy" sauce of rice wine, shaved bonito flakes, and pickled plums popular during the Edo period that added a gentle persistent fishiness to the traditionally mild bass.

SUSHI: Kanpachi - lemon zest
Villa Wolf Riesling Dry GG Forster Pechstein, Pfalz, Germany 2014
Next up was a stellar example of Amberjack. The mild oily flavor is tinged with a sweet butteriness that played beautifully with the citrus-y zip of the fresh zest.

SUSHI: Shigoku Oyster - yuzu ponzu, smoked steelhead roe
Villa Wolf Riesling Dry GG Forster Pechstein, Pfalz, Germany 2014
Shigokus have always been one of my favorite oysters on account of their creamy body and delicate melon-y character. Unfortunately the flavor of the oyster was overpowered by the one-two punch of salt from the ponzu and smoked roe.

SUSHI: Mishima Wagyu - negimiso, chives
Villa Wolf Riesling Dry GG Forster Pechstein, Pfalz, Germany 2014
I am more used to seeing a light sear on Wagyu but Chef Okai spent a long time lovingly torching each slice over a bed of binchotan. The extra time worked wonders with the skirt steak by highlighting the cut's intrinsic beefiness while imparting a wonderful smokiness.

SUSHI: Hirame - yuzu
Villa Wolf Riesling Dry GG Forster Pechstein, Pfalz, Germany 2014
After a quartet of inventive nigiri, Chef Okai opted for a classic but effective pairing of salt and yuzu on the halibut.

SUSHI: Aji - black sesame
Villa Wolf Riesling Dry GG Forster Pechstein, Pfalz, Germany 2014
Chef Okai served up a supple of minimally dressed Aji with just a dash of salt and black sesame. The result was a pointed clean oiliness finshed with a hint of nuttiness.

SUSHI: Hon Maguro - wasabi
Villa Wolf Riesling Dry GG Forster Pechstein, Pfalz, Germany 2014
Okai has somehow procured Kindai tuna, a more sustainably sourced form of the prized Bluefin. Okai smartly sticks with the classics here and the familiar flavor of wasabi and soy are somehow elevated when paired with the slightly rich twang of the Bluefin. Add to that the smooth even mouthfeel of the fish and you have the makings of a top notch Akami.

SUSHI: Hokkaido Uni - fresh wasabi, white sturgeon caviar
Domaine Jean-Max Roger Rosé, Pinot Noir Sancerre Loire Valley, France 2016
The lush creamy roe oozed rich salinity with a creeping sweetness and while the caviar fit nicely, the salt was just a hair too strong.

SUSHI: Madai - sakura koji, matcha oil
Domaine Jean-Max Roger Rosé, Pinot Noir Sancerre Loire Valley, France 2016
The final nigiri of the night was an alabaster cut of madai drizzled with a verdant matcha-infused oil. The delicate flavor of the snapper was a good base for the subtle nuttiness of the oil and floral notes of the cherry blossom.

MUKOUZUKE: Ocean Trout - ponzu, dino kale, lemon basil, frozen tomatoes
Domaine Jean-Max Roger Rosé, Pinot Noir Sancerre Loire Valley, France 2016
Moving on from the nigiri, we were presented with a summery composed sashimi presentation. The tangy ponzu and high fat content of the trout worked together nicely with the fresh basil and icy rush of the tomatoes.

MUKOUZUKE: Black Cod - fresh onion, ginger, sumiso, shiso, dried shimeji
Domaine Jean-Max Roger Rosé, Pinot Noir Sancerre Loire Valley, France 2016
The ever popular miso Black Cod has always been a bit heavy handed in my opinion but I quite enjoyed Okai-san's more complex presentation. He deftly tempers the buttery sweetness with a soft herbal fragrance and hint of earthy savor.

YAKIMONO: Eryngii Mushroom - purslane, sudachi juice, morokyu, fried glass noodles
Château Thivin Gamay Bruilly, Beaujolais Burgundy, France 2015
This course veered from flavor to flavor in rapid-fire fashion, sweet and nutty one minute, then bright acid the next. Sadly the only flavor that was missing was the mushroom though they did provide a pleasing slick squid-like texture.

YAKIMONO: Binchotan - hamachi, smoked tamari sauce
Château Thivin Gamay Bruilly, Beaujolais Burgundy, France 2015
Fittingly the headline of this course is the charcoal and indeed it is all about the Binchotan. Chef Okai plates and dresses the thick slabs of yellowtail, pulls out a piece of red hot charcoal from the grill, and taps each piece of fish sending up wisps of smoke that fill the room with a woody smoke tinged with umami from the fish oils. Technically the fish itself is enjoyable, but largely a blunt sledgehammer of smoke though the fennel and olive oil help matters somewhat.

MUSHIMONO: Gomadofu - bubu arare, ikura, yuzu zest, black truffle oil
Domain Louis Bovard Chasselas, "Mèdinette" Dèzaley Grand Cru, Vaud, Switzerland 2013
I've been warming to sesame tofu of late. The neutral nutty block is a perfect vehicle for whatever flavors the chef sees fit to pair, in this case the truffle oil and yuzu. The bubu arare really pops here like a savory cereal dippin dots.

AGEMONO: Tempura - okra, sansho
AGEMONO: Tempura - ovoli mushroom, sal de gusano
Domain Louis Bovard Chasselas, "Mèdinette" Dèzaley Grand Cru, Vaud, Switzerland 2013
Next we were presented with two types of vegetable tempura, the first was a Japanese-influenced take on fried okra. The Italian Ovoli mushroom was definitely the more memorable of the duo, with a deep earthiness tinged with sweet yeastiness of the freshly fried batter.

SHIRUMONO: Kyuri Gazpacho - koebi, mango, Thai chili, mint, pine nut
Maximin Grünhäser Riesling Auslese Herrenberg, Mosel, Germany 2011
The cool cucumber gazpacho was a nice follow-up to the hefty tempura. The verdant broth is unabashedly tangy with layers of heat and sweetness to keep the dish from being too astringent. The shrimp was a touch overdone and in my opinion superfluous to the cohesiveness of the dish.

MIZUMONO: Persimmon - nectarine, apple
Maximin Grünhäser Riesling Auslese Herrenberg, Mosel, Germany 2011
The simple fruit intermezzo was especially effective with the sweetness of the fruit standing in sharp relief to the acidity of the Gazpacho.

KANMI: Natsu no Hibiki - (harmony of summer)
Maximin Grünhäser Riesling Auslese Herrenberg, Mosel, Germany 2011
The final dessert was as much a feast for the eyes as for the palate. The prickly pear ice cream rests atop a bed of frozen sushi rice milk with the latter providing a creamy even temper to the unabashed florid flavor of the cacti. The bits of avocado and mochi tempura bring a hint of savor and substance that round out the frozen elements in the bowl.

From the moment that you step into the dining room at Otoko you are in for a treat well worth the $150 ticket price. While not all the dishes worked for me, I certainly appreciated the irreverent creativity that went into them. It is that combination of ambition and high-octane punk-rock flair that landed Okai a spot on Food & Wine's list of best new chefs for 2017.
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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Dialogue - 09/27/2017

1315 3rd Street Promenade
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Dialogue, the tasting menu-only restaurant from Chef David Beran is easily one of this year's most exciting restaurant openings. Chef Beran cut his teeth at both Tru and Alinea. In 2011 he was tapped as the executive chef of Grant Achatz's new restaurant Next. He lead the ambitious new restaurant through 15 different menus, earning a slew of James Beard nominations and a couple awards. In April 2016, Chef Beran served his final meal at Next before striking out on his own.

Following the trend pioneered by Achatz and Kokonas at Next, Dialogue requires guests to purchase tickets in advance of the meal. With only 18-seats spread across a handful of tables and a bar overlooking the kitchen, it makes sense that the restaurant lacks the ability take on the burden of no shows.

Beran adopts the Kaiseki philosophy of tasting the seasons and his menu starts with a springtime levity , before transitioning to a hearty summer warmth, and finishing with the flavors of fall.

"Springtime for Sean"
Caviar is a great start to any meal whether served with traditional accoutrements or as a composed dish as we have here. The Osctra Caviar is paired with fresh basil, charred scallions, and peanuts two ways. The basil jumps out immediately laced with a twang of lime. The smoky-bittersweet scallions follow while the peanuts bring a lovely textural component soft boiled nuts and a dense creamy butter. The caviar overlays a nutty salinity over the entire dish.

roasted banana tea, browned butter, peanut
Chef Beran has a penchant for aging his own vinegar which made several appearances throughout the meal. First up was a shot of roasted banana vinegar (I didn't even know that was a thing) topped with a brown butter and peanut foam. The vinegar has a light tang tempered by the aroma of the ripened cooked fruit. The vinegar really shines when the foam comes into play bringing with it a savory-sweet toffee essence turning the tipple into a liquid Bananas Foster.

blackberry thermidor, short rib, bone marrow
The third course was markedly heavier than the first two with a creamy base of blackberry thickened with bone marrow. A bit of short rib centers the dish with a meaty holiday-roast like heft. A bit of cooked fruit add a pop of tart sweetness and the croutons provide an element of structure.

fennel, white peach and rose vinegar
The next two courses were intentionally designed to be completed by the wine pairing, a white blend that brings a bright juicy acidity. While I appreciated the soft notes of jammy peach and flowers, the fennel definitely stands out with a pungent licorice flavor. The acid from the wine does help matters but the bit still felt unbalanced.

dragon fruit, scented with roses from early spring
With my palate still reeling from the fennel, the dragon fruit had almost no flavor. Chewing on the soft mild block of fruit I kept waiting for something to happen, but alas, whatever was supposed to happen was lost on me.

king crab, popcorn, orchid, earl grey
For Chef Beran, roses always marked the end of spring and popcorn was evocative of summer evenings. The crab meat is covered in a subtly fragrant floral perfume. The crumbled popcorn comes through loud and clear; a beautiful compliment to the sweet crab meat.

"burnt lettuce that thinks it's a peanut"
Som Tum or green papaya salad has always been one of my favorite Thai dishes. This elegantly minimalist Som Tum has the traditional elements of papaya, chili, lime and sugar with one key difference; the peanut has been replaced with charred lettuce. Despite this change, the flavor profile is eerily faithful to the classic recipe.

96 hour koji plum, fresh yuba, thai basil
Two words: "Sugar Smacks." That's how Chef Beran described our next dish. Using their kitchen wizardry, Beran and his team have converted plum, soy, and basil into cereal. Toasted soy beans provide the starch while the fermented plum completes the illusion with an eerie caramel savory sweetness

squab, thai long peppercorn crème fraiche, begonia
The squab was served two ways, a sublimely supple breast and lusty hash. The breast is perfectly cooked with a bit of extra flavor from the skin and a creeping hint of parsley. The hash has much more meaty richness up front but finishes with a lactic creamy tang and faint whisper of heat.

bitter chocolate, cherry, preserved sakura
The chocolate has a dark bitterness and bright red fruit center that paired nicely with the lingering flavors of squab. This dish is something of a psychological experiment, with 76% dark chocolate the filling flavored solely with cherry juice, there isn't much sugar in this course, but we're so conditioned to think of chocolate as a dessert or candy that most diners are taken aback when its served in the middle of the meal.

"the sobering of rhubarb"
Along with the chocolate came a couple pieces of dehydrated rhubarb. The texture was more akin to fruit leather, the dense chewy "chip" has a tendency to get stuck in the teeth, which as it turned out was by design, with the remnants of this course needed to flavor the next.

choy sum, strawberry nahm prick, cashew
Choy Sum, a mainstay of many Cantonese restaurants, was a regular part of my diet growing up, but I don't think I've ever had it served raw. The vegetable is laced with a strawberry chili sauce that was simultaneously sweet, funky, and spicy; a bold accompaniment to the fresh succulence of the green.

pork belly, nasturtium, strawberry sambal
Chef Beran generously described this course as a "salad" but it was the stuff beneath the leafy nasturtium that stole the show. The tender slab of decadent pork belly gets a tangy lift from the jammy strawberry as well as the funky heft of the sambal.

black cod, yuzu kosho beurre blanc, sea grape
This was another of the psychological experiments. Diners either feel the dish is Japanese or French depending on the flavors the staff chooses to highlight. Indeed, with my focus diverted to the heady beurre blanc, the distinctive flavor of the yuzu kocho registered only as a vague sourness.

"everything is burnt"
With this course the Dialogue crew deftly recreate the feeling of a backyard barbecue, the quintessential capstone to summer and an appropriate way to welcome the onset of fall. The plate of monochromatic ingredients doesn't look particularly appetizing but the mix of smoke, onion, and soy was so eerily familiar to the family cookouts I had as a child that I couldn't help but feel an instant affinity for this course.

french onion soup, rosemary aroma
Ironically the savory portion of the meal wound down with re-imagined versions of classic soup and salad recipes. Inside the cheese covered puff was a concoction of rich sweet onions.

"memories of a tomato salad"
The shot of salad was centered around a tomato gelee. The bright summery morsel has a beautiful tomato fragrance contrasted by a peppery nuttiness.

whipped persimmon, lemon shortbread, hibiscus sugar
Our first dessert was a tangy lemon shortbread topped with a sweet persimmon frosting. The sweet and sour flavors complimented each other quite well.

ages of seedling farms apples, miso caramel
Moving firmly into fall, this was one of my favorite courses of the evening. The core of the dish is the familiar interplay of a caramel apple with a consistent even savor from the miso. The dish is augmented with a rapid-fire melange of textures

"an autumn morning"
The red and white color of this dish along with the prominently placed leaf, gave our last dessert an unintentional Canadian feel. The flavors were indeed autumnal with a pumpkin spiced ice cream and toasty pepitas. The leaf had an oddly tangy flavor to it that helped cut the heft of the pumpkin.

"a carrot pulled from the snow"
The petit four consisted of a cooked carrot tossed in a sugar frost. My girlfriend B aptly dubbed this a paleo churro.

Given Beran's resume, I had super high expectations for Dialogue and I'm happy to say that the meal easily met them. Despite his stellar resume, Beran comes across as very approachable; confident yet self-effacing. Beran and his crew engage with diners as much as they want to be engaged. A couple engrossed in conversation will receive a different level of explanation with each course than say a couple of food bloggers and their friends who are intently following the action in the kitchen and hanging off chef's every word.

At one point, Beran explained his goal was for guests to focus on each other with the meal as one element of their experience, a catalyst to generate dialogue. To that end the meal leverages elements of narrative, psychology, and of course the avant-garde techniques Beran honed over the past decade in some of America's finest kitchens.
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