Sit right down and pour a drink, pal. It took 4 hours to eat this meal, and it'll probably take almost as long to read this post. (g)
When I got an email from Abbylovi awhile ago, gloatingly entitled, "In Japanese, Jewel Bako means galleygirl has died and gone to sushi heaven", I didn't exactly leap...It doesn't take much to bring me to sushi or sashimi heaven. A glistening slab of achingly fresh fish, preferably marbled with fat, and I'm pretty much there... The Nobu-fied tiers of mayonnaise-aided construction do nothing for me. Pureed, prettified, layered, labored, manicured, manipulated, molded and gold-leafed don't do it. I *like* it naked, you don't have to dress it up for a masquerade party. As my local nighborhood guy frowns, when I point to something he's been asked to make for someone craving a designer concoction, "Not so Japanese".
So, I thought this was gonnah be more of the same, like the tasting menu at Bosto's Clio that left me wondering why there was no straight fish involved...Oh, because the more you touch it, the more you can charge. I was the only one of my party who didn't think that was a fabulous deal, at >$200....Oh yeah, I'm cheap, too. (g)
The unrivaled freshness and uniqueness of the four-hour cavalcade of exquisitely prepared tidbits that Jewel Bako served up changed my way of thinking. This was everything I ever imagined a chef in Japan would tender in an omakase to a respected guest.
Abby, Yumyum and I sat at the sushi bar, a prerequisite for showing the chef how much you appreciate his offerings, and encouraging him to shower more upon you (g). A bottle of Onino Shita Burui, or "Devil's Quivering Tongue" sake, began our evening. As we sipped, an amuse-bouche of slivered octopus in young miso on seaweed appeared. The octopus seemed damned young, as well.
We started with a salad (this was vertical, but I forgave them when I tasted it) of peppery radish sprouts, watercress, and green-tea soba noodles, sprinkled with pine-nuts and surrounded by poached mizuni mushrooms. There was a smattering of ponzu dressing.
A bamboo treasure-chest revealed a pressed cake of wild mackeral roe, threaded with a line of seaweed. Mild and chewy, its pungence was brought out by a sprinkle of bonito flakes. It was paired with a bamboo cup of slivered raw jellyfish in ponzu. The jellyfish was milky-colored when raw, and reminded me of the texture of raw squid.
The next offering was a group of sashimi. With freshly grated wasabi. My first time....I was overjoyed. Of course, (isn't it the way,) with this fish, I barely touched soy sauce or wasabi, because I was so wary of corrupting a single mouthful.
Red snapper, and Parrotfish, the King of the snappers, according to our gregarious host, Jack.
Gruntfish, a rich white fish that reminded me of Chilean sea bass, hit with a swipe of the blow-torch. Enough to render some of the fat, and infuse it with a lovely smokiness, but not enough to even raise the temperature of the flesh.
White Pacific salmon. It made chewing redundant, and it had the butteriness of pink salmon, with a much more ethereal flavor.
3 types of hamachi, an embarassment of riches. He told us the names, but all I remember is that they evolved in their fattiness, and mellownesss.
Toro and Otoro, tasting of blood on my tongue.
Live Boton Ebi, shrimp served with the antennae still twitching with excitement...Oh wait, that was *me* twitching with excitement...The tail was a transparent mouthful of sweetness, coiled around the body, opened to reveal its tomalley (what *do* you call shrimp tomalley?) to my assiduously delving chopsticks. Slightly bitter, not as rich as lobster.
And----drumroll here--- the amazing fire-fly squid!!!!! They glow in the dark, they're the size of your little finger from end to end, and, as Jack assured us, "Men had risked their lives for them, as they are only available for harvesting during the tsunami."
"God bless those brave men," sighed Yumyum.
While I can't vouch for the phosphorescence, the squirt as you bit down was the taste of the richest squid ink pasta sauce you've ever eaten, distilled down into one tiny bite. (My #3 fave of the nite.)
They next placed before us a foil-packet of mushrooms steamed in their own juices, with a hint of lemon. The shitaki were meaty, the nonapi(?) flavorful, but the enoki tasted like the sweetest, juiciest scallop on its shell. I nursed each nibble along.
A clear bowl of broth was pure bonito, garnished with angel-hair strands of scallions and lemon zest...Two yellowtail "matzoh-balls" were just barely steamed, so the juiciness of the fish wasn't sacrificed to the kitchen gods.
At some point here, a second bottle of sake, Kira Honj Yozo, known to us as "Gorgeous Devil", was needed. Well, what would you do?
The sushi part of the meal commenced, but sushi is a bit of a misnomer here. The teaspoonful of savory rice under each sliver of fish was more a further seasoning than a carbo-cake. I'm sure it was mixed with some kind of rare Rice Vinegar, aged in oak caks in a monastery tended by celibate blind monks, harvested under the full-moon of the Cherry Blossom season, or some such thing, but I didn't think to ask...Silly galleygirl!
Seared tuna had been previously marinated for 3 hours in three different citrus oils and soy sauce, also distilled in the dark of the moon under mysterious astrological conditions..(g)
This was paired with my #2 fave of the nite (I think), although it won hands down as the most amazing. The morsel of rice was covered by a swarm of raw, baby sweet shrimp from Japan...Each a half-inch long, of a size, freshness and flavor to make the best amaebi blush with shame over their old, ungainly, sagging flesh. They burst in your mouth with snap and sweet tension.
But even sweeter was the Santa Barbara uni. I love uni, but this was closer in flavor to cool, sweet cream gelato than the mild essence of the sea we know and love. I had no idea it could be like this. (NB; If you love uni like I love uni, announce it assertively to the chef when you sit down...The group next to us did, and they were served a heap of the glistening roes, as opposed to our single sushi serving...Not that I'm complaining, but if I had known...Now you know.)
I know this is getting ridiculous, but what would you have me leave out? If I stopped here, I couldn't tell you about the Mystery Sushi, or "You eat, then I tell you"....I had part of it right; Jack Mackeral, shiso leaf, sesame and scallion, but I would have never guessed it was bound together with sweet white miso. In fact, if not for the glint of silver in the transparent paste, I would have never guessed this was the strong fish that's usually served seared or marinated.
The use of the miso, here, and in the dipping sauce for the Firefly squid, did much, in my opinion, to let the essence of the fish shine through, and allow a creative approach to the whole omakase that seemed more Japanese in its lightness than the ubiquitous mayo.
The torched gruntfish made its second appearance as sushi, then a piece of Hamachi belly, brushed with special soy sauce....Hamachi BELLY!! Oh Lord. But the Tops of the Pops for me, the morsel that blew my dress up right over my head, was the Anago, Sea Eel, poached so low and light that the flesh didn't seize up a bit, didn't need a bit of sauce or grilling, but just melted right away. Sea Eel oil must be the King of the Fats!!
By then I would probably have eaten a cigarette butt if they put it in front of me, I was so totally smitten with love for fish, for the chef, even for Jack's Hermes belt-buckle (well, maybe not me, but I know some who were...) So I hate to say it, but their version of tamago (egg custard sushi) was a waste of calories. I'm sure some would love the sponge-cake texture they were aiming for, but I wasn't one of them...They quickly redeemed themselves with a lichee-nut/coconut sorbet, packed with slices of lichee, topped with a fingerling "Japanese churro" and accompanied by an infinitisimal cookie centered with peanut, and baked in Kyoto..It was getting hysterical, but I couldn't stop. So when they placed the Payard cream-pastry down, something I would ordinarily never eat, I struggled on courageously...Some fruit died for this pastry, goddamit...But at this point, I don't remember quite what it was..There was tartness, I think there was mention of quince paste, it DID, as promised, morph into different tastes as one delved through its depths. But I had to admit defeat. I could not go on, vanquished by the spectre of a designer dessert...
I sipped the excellent gen mai cha tea. In fact, if I had realized how excellent it was, I would have been sipping it all evening long. Green and vegetal, it was as definitively Japanese as the rest of the evening had been. The succession of fresh fish, sought out and served at its peak. Simply prepared, perfect morsels, lovingly presented on beautiful rough-hewn pottery, at a pace that let me explore the "zen" of each mouthful and eyeful, made this the ultimate sushi/sashimi meal. It perfectly epitomized what I dream of finding when I am lucky enough to eat omakase in Japan someday.
(Budget concious note, since I am currently not employed in the manner to which I am usually accustomed, i.e., clients throwing themselves at my feet, at $80 for food, another $21 for those lovely sakes, this WAS a bargain...I don't regret a penny.)