I returned to Urasawa on Thursday night, after being gone for over a year and a half. What can I say? It's been far too long!
(My first report is here: http://www.kevineats.com/2006/11/uras...)
1. Junsai - Called "water shield" in English, junsai is a summer delicacy in Japan. The plant is a member of the water lily family, and grows in clusters sometimes large enough to cover large bodies of water, hence the name. The most prized part of junsai is the slippery, gelatinous layer that covers young sprouts. Here, it was mixed with summer vegetables, shrimp, vinegar, scallions, and gold flake and was taken as a shot. The junsai had a slimy, slick texture that made the dish slide easily down my throat. Taste-wise, I was reminded of bitter vegetables, eventually giving way to a sweet brininess.
2. Nasu - Japanese eggplant from Osaka. The nasu had a softer, spongier texture than I expected from eggplant. Furthermore, it had a slightly sweet taste, which is in contrast to the bitterness I thought it would have. We were instructed to dip it in soy, and the eggplant gladly soaked up the sauce.
3. Yamaimo Nikogori - "Nikogori" refers to gelatins extracted from cooked fish. Here, it was prepared with grated yamaimo mountain potato, shiroebi from Toyama, uni, shiso, and topped with wasabi and gold. The yamaimo, in concert with the uni, gave the dish a soft, mucilaginous texture that proved interesting in the mouth. The flavor was light on uni, but instead, the shrimp came to the fore first, which then led to hints of shiso on the lingering finish. Very complex.
4. Hotaruika - From Toyama, with ginger and soy. We were told to eat these in one bite and chase with sake. Upon chewing, I experienced a burst of brininess in my mouth, which then turned into bitterness. Once sake was added, the strong flavor of the squid was tempered, giving way to a slight sweetness.
5. Sashimi - Toro from Spain, tai from Kyushu, and buri from Toyama, garnished with grated white daikon, grated green daikon, cucumber flower, seaweed, red cabbage, and wasabi. The toro was a fairly light example, with the richness and oiliness only coming to the forefront upon mastication. Meanwhile, the tai was very mild, and I actually preferred it sans soy, to really let the flavor of the fish stand out; it was my favorite of the triplet. The buri was extremely clean and crisp, and less fatty than your typical hamachi.
6. Yamaimo "Chawanmushi" - There is a proper term for this dish, but unfortunately I don't remember it. In any case, the steamed yamaimo here was served with uni, tai, ebi, eel, and gingko, all topped once again with gold. We were told to mix everything together before consuming. Another very complex dish, the potentially dominant flavor of uni was tempered by the yamaimo, which resulted in a harmonious interplay of flavors and textures. One of the stronger dishes of the night.
7. Ebi Tempura - A tempura of shrimp, along with uni, shiso, and black truffle. I ate one piece plain and one bathed in tentsuyu sauce and daikon oroshi. Perhaps the best tempura I've ever had, there was a clear base of shrimp, while the shiso and uni elevated the dish. I would've liked the truffle essence to have been stronger however.
8. Seared Toro - Before this dish was served, napkins were laid on the bar to protect the surface from the splattering of oil from the fish. This was a fitting precaution, as an intense, rich, oily essence of toro filled the air as soon as the fish was placed on the hot stone. Afterwards, we could see how the oil had stained the Cypress; there was a clean line between the bare wood and the napkin-covered portion. This was perhaps the oiliest example of toro I've ever eaten, so fatty, so unctuous, so melt-in-your-mouth! This literally disintegrated in my mouth; and the slightly charred surface made it even better. A highlight of the night.
9. Shabu Shabu - Expectations were high, as this shabu shabu was one of our favorite courses on our last visit. This time, the ingredients were the amaebi from above, hotate, Wagyu beef from Hokkaido, and foie gras. The various items were actually cooked for us. First in was the foie, since it would take the longest to cook. The shrimp went in next, and was only submerged for a few seconds; the resultant flesh was perfectly cooked and delicious. Next, the beef and scallop went in together for a brief dip. Again, although both could've been eaten raw, cooking them ever so slightly made them arguably even better. Finally, it was time for the foie gras to come out. The resultant liver had a slightly rubbery texture and incredibly mild flavor that was completely unlike any other foie I'd ever eaten. It was fantastic, along with the rest of the course.
10. Kombu Broth - After we finished, we all drank the resulting kombu (kelp) broth. It was delectable and quite heartwarming, though rather hot.
11. Toro - Very, very nice. This was a quintessential example of toro, smooth, rich, and oily (but not as much as the seared toro above). It is rather pointless at these rarified levels, but if pressed, I will still have to give a slight edge to the $30/piece toro at Kyubey however.
12. Seared Toro - The slight cooking seemed to tenderize the meat even more. Brushed with soy and yuzu, the meat just breaks apart on your tongue. Excellent.
13. Buri - Based on looks alone, I initially mistook this wild yellowtail for kanpachi. I actually preferred this preparation to the sashimi above. This was so much more refined than the yellowtail you typically find at sushi restaurants in the US (see I Love Sushi).
14. Tai - Compared to the sashimi version above, this had a tougher, crisper texture, which some preferred. The addition of yuzu elevated the fish to another level. Delicious.
15. Aji - Spanish mackerel from Kyushu. All of the signature mackerel flavor was here, but without any harsh fishiness that can often time overpower the fish. I'd say this was at least comparable in taste to the famed Seki aji, which I had at Go's Mart.
16. Shiitake - On my last visit, I was surprised by the sight of shiitake nigiri, but was glad to see it here again. This preparation really brings out the character of shiitake, its earthiness, its smokiness, and even a bit of bitterness. Urasawa is the only restaurant I've seen attempt something like this.
17. Uni - From Santa Barbara. I was once told that good uni should look like a cat's tongue. If that's true, then this was some really good uni! Actually, it was just really good anyway. It's also interesting to note that the uni was not served in the typical gunkan-maki style (wrapped in nori).
18. Shima Aji - Striped jack or yellowjack. Wonderful. So subtle, yet so complex, it's almost indescribable. If pressed, I might have to say that this was the strongest fish of the night, significantly better than the version I had at Kyubey.
19. Ika - Ika itself doesn't have a strong flavor, so the addition of salt and yuzu really added a nice kick to an otherwise monolithic taste. Perfect consistency too, firm, yet giving way to a rich creaminess.
20. Kohada - Gizzard shad with yuzu, wasabi, and soy. Kohada is related to mackerel, and thus has a somewhat reminiscent flavor. Compared to the aji, it was milder in flavor yet oilier. Nice.
21. Maguro - A fine example of standard tuna, with an absolutely beautiful ruby color. This was more flavorful than most, but even so, was overshadowed by some of the bolder fishes here. Perhaps we should've eaten this before the toro.
22. Mirugai - This was geoduck with wasabi, soy, and yuzu. A very firm texture gave way to an intensely briny flavor backed by a subtle sweetness.
23. Awabi - Like the mirugai above, this was quite firm, but not as crisp. Nice, but the awabi I had at Go's Mart is still the strongest to date.
24. Sayori - Unfortunately, Urasawa-san didn't twist the needlefish into an intricate design like he did on our last visit. Nevertheless, the fish was still superb. For me, this was one of the top pieces of nigiri.
25. Minced Aji - This was chopped Spanish mackerel mixed with shiso, Kyoto miso, ginger, and scallion. I thought this was fantastic, with the aji taste yielding to a mild sweetness, which was then overcome by the tang of scallion. I can't imagine many other places other than Urasawa attempting this.
26. Amaebi - Sweet shrimp garnished with shrimp brain and soy sauce. As I chewed, an initially crisp texture turned into something much creamier, while the brains gave the shrimp a slightly metallic twist on top of a prototypical sweetness.
27. Wagyu - Sushi made from the same Hokkaido beef above, topped with yuzu and soy. Urasawa-san smoked the beef for about 10 seconds before serving. One of my dining companions exclaimed that he wanted to eat "a big platter" of the stuff! I'd tend to agree. Beef doesn't get much better than this.
28. Hotate - Scallop topped with yuzu and a sauce Urasawa-san jokingly referred to as "chocolate sauce." (I almost believed him too!) The yuzu gave the scallop a nice tartness that added a contrast to the otherwise mild flesh.
29. Anago - Sea eel garnished with the same sauce used in the hotate above. Also added was yuzu and kinome (leaves of Szechwan pepper). Compared to the unagi we typically get, this was leaner, with a slightly cleaner flavor.
30. Tamago - Unlike most versions, the tamago here was closer to a sponge cake than egg. Quite sweet and dense. Nice, but my favorite tamago is still at Natori.
31. Grapefruit Geleé - With goji berry, gold leaf, and more grapefruit. A great palate cleanser, the geleé itself was quite good, but eating it along with the grapefruit at the bottom made it even better. This dessert really gave me a taste of the true essence of grapefruit. Absolutely lovely.
32. Goma Aisu Kurimu - I'm generally not a huge fan of sesame ice cream, but this was something else. The sesame flavor was strong, but didn't overpower. Eating it with the red bean and sesame seeds resulted in a very mature flavor that was simply marvellous.
33. Matcha - Matcha is a powdered green tea often used in Japanese tea ceremonies. In fact, drinking this reminded me of such a ceremony I participated in on a trip to Japan. The tea itself was a bit gritty, with a lean bitterness.
34. Hojicha - A roasted green tea, hojicha is less astringent due to the loss of catechin in the roasting process. I thought this was excellent, and must have drank about four cups. One of my dining companions, who normally doesn't drink tea, drank eight! Our cups kept getting refilled as we chatted with Urasawa-san at the conclusion of our meal.
To sum things up, Urasawa once again reaffirms its position at the top of the sushi hierarchy. In my opinion, it's really without peer in Southern California, perhaps even the country. I can think of no other restaurant where the chef puts so much of himself into each and every dish.
Full report with tons of photos: http://www.kevineats.com/2008/05/uras...