My husband and I visited Bar Charlie last week and had undoubtedly one of the best meals I have had in a long time. Chef Hiro excels in combining textures and flavour profiles, with a restrained use of modern cooking techniques which compliment rather than overshadow the intricate kaiseki cuisine.
After being seated by the attentive hostess (she swapped my white napkin for a black one, to match the colour of my dress), we opted for the 14-course ’spontaneous’ kaiseki – a selection of dishes selected by the chef that showcases seasonal produce, with an emphasis on the ocean.
First up was a Tai (snapper) with white and black grapes, black grape purée, celery confit, celery stock reduction and micro greens (pictured above). The tai was exceptionally fresh, with clean flavours of the sea that paired perfectly with the sweetness and acidity of the grapes, and the slight bitterness of the micro greens.
This was followed by Iwashi (sardine) with watermelon, sea grapes, yuzu sorbet and celery marinated in miso and yuzu. I was not so keen on this, as unlike B (who adored this dish) I am not a huge fan of sardine sashimi which I find a bit too ‘fishy’ for my liking. However the sea grapes in the dish were a revelation – a string of tiny salty green pearls that combined harmoniously with the sweet watermelon and sour yuzu. This balance of flavours was a recurring theme in Chef Hiro’s cuisine, and when we commented on this he agreed that it was something he strives for in each of his creations, and that it is this balance which determines the success of a dish.
Next up was Chu-toro (tuna belly) sashimi, accompanied by a lightly steamed roulade of tuna (taken from the same fish as the chu-toro), tea-infushed dashi and seawater foam, petit sorrel, confit of nashi pear and an umeboshi, grapefruit and lime sauce. Both the chu-toro and roulade were melt in the mouth, the foam intriguing and delicate in flavour, and yet again the different taste components were well represented in this dish – saltiness from the foam, bitterness from the sorrel, sweetness from the pear and acid from the sauce. Incredible.
A vegetarian dish followed – Heirloom Tomatoes with compressed cucumber rind, tomato skin chip, hijiki and dashi sauce, tomato foam, hijiki dust and avocado semifreddo. The bright flavours of the tomato sang against the lighter, subtler accompanying elements.
As we awaited the next dish we returned to watching the chefs work deftly in front of us behind the bar. Throughout the meal chef Hiro would pause sporadically to explain the more unusual cooking processes – as he did with the foaming technique employed for the next dish, which creates a foam that holds its shape even when hot items are placed on it.
This stunning dish featured the Spot Prawn – the body was left raw while the head was coated in freeze-dried raspberry and matcha powder, then fried. These, together with a shellfish pannacotta, tarragon and matcha bubbles and fresh raspberries, sat in a sea of vividly hued raspberry consommé. The consommé which was infused with taihitian vanilla, vinegar, green cardamon, pink peppercorn and lemongrass had a sharp twang which perfectly offset the oiliness of the head and the sweetness of the raw flesh. I am re-living the fantastic taste sensations as I write this and I have to say if pressed to pick, this would be my favourite course of the evening.
We return to tuna in the next course with a Blue Fin Tuna tartare, hijiki and squid ink purée, cucumber ribbon marinated in miso and turmeric, juiced and diced daikon. The tuna of the texture resembled a mousse as it has been worked to almost a paste. Although it was good, it dulled in comparison to the earlier stand-out tuna offering (perhaps I was distracted from fully appreciating the tartare as Charlie Trotter himself popped in to greet the chefs mid-dish).
As Chef Hiro sets the next course down he tells us that traditionally every kaiseki course tells a story, and this one follows (from the right to the left of the plate) the life of the trout – Tasmanian Trout roe vinaigrette, Trout Skin Jelly Ravioli filled with ricotta, Roulade of Trout Belly, Fennel Salad, Smoked Trout Ice-cream and Trout Skin Crisp. All the individual components of the dish were delicious, with the exception of the ravioli which was rather bland and had a strange texture.
The next dish was Squid Dumpling filled with Lemon Custard, Textures of Squid (raw in ribbons and tempura) , purple carrot salad, thai chili infused carrot purée, pickled carrot and basil oil. The soft pillowy texture of the dumpling was a delightful surprise (a savoury mochi of sorts) and the small dose of heat from the chili really brought the dish to life.
Our last ocean inspired course for the evening was a Seared Scallop accompanied by braised turnip with ponzu coffee gastric wrapped in its own leaf, spinach puréed and sautéed, flexible chocolate and konbu. The unusual combination of coffee and turnip came about one morning when Chef Hiro, who happened to be having his morning coffee while prepping sous-vide turnip, tasted them together and thought it to be a great pairing. It was indeed, and the dish both looked and tasted spectacular.
Although the focus of the kaiseki was on seafood there were two meat courses on the menu. The first of these was Kurobuta Pork Belly, cooked sous-vide for 48 hours with hibiscus and soy gastric, tomatillos and jalepenos, shiso, thai basil and coconut salad, red wine braised pearl onion, with red and green curry.
The second was Wagyu Beef with pineapple curd, yakitori grilled pineapple, pineapple relish with rendered wagyu trim, popping candy, veal jus and micro shiso. By this point of the meal we were bursting at the seams and were really struggling with both dishes, despite them being very tasty indeed. I particularly liked the succulent wagyu which worked exceedingly well with the tangy pineapple that cut through the fattiness of the meat.
A palate cleanser of Greek Yogurt granita, cantaloupe sorbet and parma ham kicked off the sweet courses, all of which, although well-executed, paled in comparison to the savoury courses. The Green Tea Sponge with peach bruleé, peach tapioca, sour cream sorbet and crystalised ginger was pleasant but unexciting, and if I were to be honest, the sponge was a tad dry.
The Basil semifreddo with strawberry sorbet, olive oil ice-cream and fresh strawberries, although visually appealing, was equally uninspiring. As was the flourless Dark Chocolate cake with hazelnut praline and banana sorbet that followed. The highlight of the desserts was definitely the mignardise that came with coffee at the end – Maple Syrup Truffles, Cherry Geleé, Honey Nougat, Cinnamon Almond Dragées and my favourite, Condensed Milk Caramels.
It's a shame I live in London, I am itching to go back already! If you are ever in Las Vegas this is an absolute must. Seriously. So Good.