Thanks to all the Hounds who helped out with this seemingly ancient trip - a Kings Stanley Cup, a move across the country, and a new job have been time consuming. Below are the texts with pictures available in the blog. I hope to come back soon - likely late 2013.
The Why: Steve Plotnicki loves it. RJ Cooper loves it. When palates you trust recommend a spot as “best in the city” or “best in the country” it is hard to ignore, particularly when the price is 1/3 or 1/4 the MASA and Urasawa level and you land a seat at the 4-person Omakase room directly in front of Chef Nobu Yamazaki. Admitting here that being from Ohio I am certainly not an expert on sushi this was a situation where I was willing to trust those wiser than me that the food would “blow me away,” especially for the price, and although I knew I’d have little precedent by which to judge what I’d experience I was happy to sit back and learn.
The Food: $120 Omakase, $12 Cocktail. (yes, the Omakase price is not a typo – and I was there for nearly 3 and a half hours)
Umeshu: A greeting from the chef featuring house-made plum wine derived from green plum, rock sugar, and sochu aged for one year. Sweet, intense – this was my kind of wine.
OH-I Ocha: Recommended by the chef as something that would be great for sipping throughout the meal this blend of Gyokuro, Jun, Zen Green Tea Liqueur, Green Tea, and Matcha Powder was slightly bitter but entirely refreshing – a great palate cleanser between courses as I watched the theater of the kitchen.
Sesame seed paste and kuzu root starch “tofu,” Santa Barbara Uni, Fresh Wasabi, pickled soy bean, sansho pepper: Made daily in house and served only on the omakase due to the labor intense process involved this “signature” dish was superb, balanced, and featuring just enough heat to make the uni pop while the “tofu” was sweet and toothsome…an outstanding dish; one of many to come.
House Made Soba topped with yamaimo, Roasted Sea Weed, Soy Sauce: Just barely able to see the noodle station in the proper kitchen from my seat at the sushi bar Chef Nobu gathered the soba and proceeded to shred the creamy sticky yam over top as he described the province of the ingredient at length. Truly sticky, pleasantly sweet, and bathed in house soy I liken this dish to a noodle pudding and actually found it even better than the prior dish.
Live Flounder: Three ‘rolls’ with the just killed flounder wrapped around Japanese cucumber, yellow chive, and shaved bonito served with ponzu-plum sauce and crisp flounder skin. Silky meets crunchy and all with the intensity of a thick slice of bonito balanced by the sauce.
Slow cooked Whelk, Steamed Portuguese Octopus, Celtuse pickled in Miso paste, Egg Custard with Shrimp, King crab leg with Edamame paste, Snapper roe and Warabi in Gelatin, Grilled Tofu in the style of Unagi, Gingko nuts with Fish paste and Rice cracker, and Steamed fermented green plum: A beautiful plate composed by a second sushi-san while Chef Yamazaki greeted a Japanese couple (regulars) who would occupy the opposite end of the bar simply suffice it to say that this dish was complicated yet outstanding, each bite offering something entirely new; the whelk, tofu, and egg custard particularly impressive.
Hamo Shabu Shabu: One of the benefits of dining in the presence of regulars was that Chef had sourced some truly esoteric ingredients for that night’s meal and having never tasted Purple Conger Eel before I was educated on the delicate fish from Kyoto while the small bones were delicately cut and after adding the Hamo to a broth with wakame seaweed and bamboo shoots I can honestly say I’ve never tasted anything quite like it – light yet unctuous, almost sweet and very tender.
At this point I was told it was time for the Sashimi course and unveiling a stack of trays featuring Santa Barbara Uni, Canadian Wild Salmon Roe, Top Neck Clam in Soy, Sweet Shrimp, Arctic Char, Wild King Salmon, Japanese Yellowtail, Amberjack from Hawaii, Oh-Toro, Ultra-Lean Red Tuna, Japanese Fresh Bonito, Sea Conger Eel, Octopus, Madagascar Sake Steamed Prawns, Omelette, Saba cured with Salt, Flying Fish, Needlefish, Tokyo Spotted Kohada, Baby Snapper, Yellow Grouper, Japanese Ocean Perch, Kinmedai Alfonsino Snapper, Papuan Black Snapper, Live Scallop, Pen Shell Clam, and Jumbo Oyster I was asked what I’d like…a question that I’m sure left me wide eyed as I stammered “whatever you think is best.”
Served with House Soy, House Soy with Grated Ginger, and fresh grated wasabi:
Kinmedai and Papuan
Needlefish with mint
Sweet Shrimp, Live Scallop, Cured Tuna intestine
Bonito with Yuzu: Transitioning from the sashimi course to more composed courses I learned here of the seasonal variation in Bonito fat content and told that this was early season and thus very lean I was shocked to find the dish quite unlike what I’d expected – nothing like dashi or the flakes but instead intense and slightly mineral, perfectly complemented by the yuzu.
Soft Shelled Crab in Squid Ink Tempura with Tempura Wild Ramp: The dish of the night and potentially the best dish of the entire trip this was without a doubt the best tempura I’ve tasted and with the crab killed, breaded, and friend before my eyes it was also the freshest and sweetest.
Golden Eye Snapper Jaw with Japanese Turnip and Zest of Yuzu: Apparently sourced as a whole fish specifically for the couple to my right I was informed that the steaming broth before me was from the same fish as the sashimi I’d just enjoyed and while the raw fish was good this fatty soup was even better, a total umami bomb with the yuzu and turnip serving to balance but not overwhelm.
Wild Live Abalone and Australian Wagyu, Fleur de Sel from Okinawa: Served raw alongside a Hot Rock there is really nothing I can say about this dish that will do justice to the quality of each ingredient – the abalone opened and dissected before our very eyes and the wagyu beautifully marbled – a few seconds each on the stone, a pinch of salt…simple and spectacular
Whole Firefly Squid from Sea of Japan, Fiddlehead Fern, Broccolini, Fava Beans, Vinegar Jelly, Mustard Sauce, Edible Orchid: Having tasted firefly squid at Roberta’s in the past and expecting something tender and briny this was the only course of the evening that seemed even remotely unbalanced to me and taking into account my aversion to mustard this was probably more an conflict of taste than one of quality or skill as the heat of the mustard and acid of the vinegar simply overwhelmed the cephalopod and vegetation.
Golden Eye Snapper Milt in Rice Vinegar: Having mentioned the Golden Eye Snapper already my co-diners declined the milt course and having never tasted milt prior I decided to take the plunge; a quick burst of saline sweetness and then nothing – far more harmless than some would suggest and something I’d eat again though not something I’d actively seek out.
Sushi Course: Again offered my pick of the lot and again deferring to the chef who instructed me to lightly brush soy sauce on each bite all I again sat back and watched the knife work as each pristine piece of fish was presented over superlative rice – a succession of 8 different fishes that only ended when I asked Chef Yamazaki to stop for fear of seeming a glutton as I’d already outlasted my dining companions by at least three courses and a handful of nigiri.
Sake Steamed Live Prawn
Sea Conger Eel with dried Sansho
Uni with Coarse Japanese Sea Salt
Sakura Salt Ice: With the dessert menu presented I requested a tofu pudding dish but unwilling to let his recommendation for a rare seasonal special go unheeded Chef Yamazaki first set before me a small bowl of this lightly salted cherry blossom ice cream. Rich, light, savory moreso than sweet, and perfumed exactly like its namesake flower I can’t say this was the best textured ice cream I’ve ever tasted but all things being equal it was definitely one of the most unique; like the hamo and the milt I really have no standard to which I can compare.
Soy Milk “Annin Tofu” – Vanilla Almond Infused Tofu Pudding with Goji Berry: Served with a soy infused dark caramel plus crunchy crushed almonds and a Goji berry this dessert was every bit as good as it reads and with flavors reminiscent of a salted caramel custard or budino I cannot think of a better sweet course I’ve had in a Japanese restaurant, each bite a slightly different balance of the ingredients and the goji berry intensely sour – like a reset button to the palate as I was instructed to enjoy it last.
Grape and Strawberry Gelatin Block: The last bite (or two) of the meal this lightly sweetened gelatin block with fresh fruits was a simple and refreshing finish to nearly 200 minute experience.
The Verdict: Entering the restaurant with no knowledge of the cost of the menu (it varies day by day) but some knowledge of the ingredient costs of the food I’d just enjoyed I anticipated a $200-300 bill to arrive at the end of the evening and as such my jaw nearly hit the counter when I saw a pre-tax/tip bill of $132 staring back at me – while certainly not an insubstantial amount a veritable steal given the quality of the food, face time with the chef, and overall experience. Without doubt the best sushi I have ever had and also one of the most educational dining experiences of my life I can only judge the night in the context of my limited experience but with that said Sushi Taro certainly did “blow me away” and I cannot fathom returning to DC without rushing back.