I came late to Ginza Sushi-Ko. None of my friends would spend the $350 or so for dinner there until I went myself, scouted it out, and came back with such rave reviews that I must have gone three times in various pairings in the couple of months before Masa, his sous-chef and his girlfriend, the hostess, departed for New York.
For the past year or so, I've tried to get some of those friends to try Urasawa with me. But it finally became apparent that I would once again have to do some reconaissance work first. My mission: to find out whether Masa's former sous-chef, Hiro Urasawa, could maintain the highest standards for sushi and other Japanese dishes.
With that goal in mind, I telephoned Urasawa yesterday at 310-247-8939 and asked when I could come in. Actually, his assistant told me that after a couple of very busy weeks they did not have any reservations for last night. If I came, I could have Hiro to myself. Bingo! No more calls, we have a winner.
The cost, I was informed, is $250, down 20% from the $300 Masa started at. I told Hiro's assistant that Masa sometimes went a bit fast for me, that I wanted to go slowly and pace myself. I also told him I wanted to write down each dish and its ingredients. No problem. In fact, he would even help me.
So I gave him my credit card number and arrived for a 7:30 dinner. The decor of the restaurant has not changed. It is still simplicity itself, with its sleek, precise, beautiful lines and the light maple wood of the sushi counter. Hiro's assistant, a charming young man who introduced himself as Mitzu, brought me to the one place setting at the sushi counter, gave me a very hot wet towel, and took my drink order. Not much for sake, I ordered a large Asahi and a bottle of Evian, my usual from GSK days, and Mitzu poured a few sipsful of the Asahi into a small, opaque glass with an irregular (not smooth) surface. Really lovely.
After I had a few minutes to get settled and take a sip or two of beer, Hiro Urasawa came out and introduced himself, asked me whether there was anything I didn't like. Nope, I'll eat anything! Unless you have an allergy to something in particular, I would suggest this is the one restaurant in L.A. where you would want to try anything the chef offered, no matter how exotic.
Hiro told me that whereas Masa's style of cuisine is more Tokyo, his is Kyoto style cuisine. The fish he uses arrives on Mondays and Thursdays from Japan, allaying any fear I had had that Monday would not be the best night for fish. He told me he buys almost all his fish from Japan, with the exception of giant clam and maybe one other, which together with some vegetables are the only things he buys locally.
He explained that everybody else in town buys primarily local fish, even Nozawa and the others who receive high marks for sushi from some. This corresponds to the quotation attributed to Katsu to the effect that he buys half of the day's freshest local fish and "Trust me buys the other half."
Hiro said that, notwithstanding last night's private performance, business has been quite good of late, and that in fact he has had more customers many nights than what he considers optimal, which is four. Any more than that, and the experience is just a bit less personally tailored. I hope he really is doing well.
He mentioned that the only changes he plans to the facilities are to perfect the maple wood, which he said (though I could not detect it) has thinned a bit over the course of the past decade or so, and to redo the walls, which with their aquamarine color are not, to his taste, sufficiently Japanese.
A word about Hiro: He is an absolutely adorable young man, with a reverence for tradition, simplicity, beauty and perfection, but without any stuffiness. He was also, with just a bit of effort on my part, a willing conversationalist. As nice a man as Masa is, and as gifted, he did have a bit of a gruff exterior and is not what one would call one of the great conversationalists of our time.
With that, on to the meal. Hiro told me that because it was just me last night, and because I was willing to try anything, he would do more of the Japanese dishes for me that precede the sushi than he usually does. I expressed my appreciation and assured him he need hold nothing back.
1.) The first course was a little opaque shotglass filled with a concoction of junsai (water shield), a summer fruit from Kyoto, in sweet vinegar with wasabi and yuzu juice. Hiro told me to chug it like a shot, then chew it in my mouth, and that it would prepare my stomach for the meal to come. Delicious!
I told him I hoped he didn't mind my asking him to repeat the ingredients. Far from it, he instructed Mitzu to write the Japanese words in my little notebook for me. That was the case with...
2.) Hamban-zuke (hamo fish), which is a bit like a long eel. It's one of the most expensive fish in summer time, sort of the vernal equivalent to blowfish (fugu) in winter. The hamo fish was deboned, deep fried and sauced with sweet rice vinegar. Out of this world.
3.) Next came a little cup and tiny little spoon, for a course of hamo fish eggs sauced with sweet sake, ginger and dachi (bonito flavor). Tiny little white eggs and millions of them! Wonderful texture.
4.) Next came a chilled Japanese eggplant topped with two items: one, a dark green paste of Kyoto miso mixed with shiso leaf (Japanese mint leaf); the other, uni (sea urchin), and all served with Japanese red turnip natural in color. The cold eggplant played beautifully off the warmer uni and paste.
5.) Goma tofu: a very healthy sesame seed tofu topped with Beluga caviar and gold leaf and sauced with dachi, ginger and sweet sake. You've never head tofu like this! It tasted more like foie gras than tofu. Stunning.
6.) Tarano-Me with miso, a Japanese vegetable with a strong taste and a meaty, substantial flavor. Hiro told me, "I was testing you with this one," but I must have passed because another little test was to come in course #8.
7.) Karasumi fish eggs, a Japanese caviar congealed or solidified into an aspic-like substance, slightly gelatinous, a bit salty, but a true delicacy. Mitzu told me this was his favorite dish, and compared it to caviar, foie gras and truffle rolled into one. I don't know about that, but it was fascinating.
8.) Another special dish for me, this time salty squid, or Ika no Shiokara, marinated in squid guts and topped with shavings of yuzu skin. This too may have been designed as a test, but I absolutely love squid sushi and the like. Yummy!
9.) And I hope you get to see the beautiful presentation of this one, a rock garden with a hand-carved ice sculpture and little flowers, with a little indentation holding two pieces each of halibut, Japanese sardine, and toro. Hiro told me to place just a smidgen of wasabi on each bite. Fabulous. By the way, one of the little yellow flowers turned out to be a Japanese cucmber that was absolutely delicious!
Hiro then gave me a lesson in proper use of chopsticks. I've been using them serviceably all these years, but Hiro prefers a method in which the first stick is placed between the thumb and forefinger and rested atop the ring finger, so that the three top fingers all move with the top stick. I had been putting my middle finger alongside my ring finger and using only the thumb and forefinger to move the top stick. Ah well, live and learn!
10.) A steamed dish called Hanzen Mushi, an egg custard with soy milk and soy milk paper, to be eaten with a spoon, atop which unagi (fresh water eel) with wasabi and gold leaf, all in a starchy sauce based on a bonito flavor, with sweet sake, soy sauce and salt. Needless to say, I lapped this one up. It tasted almost like, I don't know, wonton soup in unagi broth? Mmm...
11.) Three big pieces of scallop liver, boiled with dachi and ginger. If you like liver, you will love this dish. The texture is enough to blow your mind, just so rich and succulent.
12.) Buta no Kakuni, Japanese pork belly boiled with sake, sweet sake, soy sauce and ginger and topped with a dab of spicy yellow mustard. "Good for the joints," Hiro said. Delicious, said I. There's more to life than just fish!
13.) Toro No Ishiyaki, seared toro marinated in sweet sake and sou sauce, with a tosazu dipping sauce. You sear the toro for yourself on an extremely hot stone placed before you, holding each facet of the toro to the stone for just a few seconds. Really delicious.
14.) Kobe beef, real Kobe beef from Japan, not the waugu Kobe beef (a combination of Kobe and Black Angus) that some pass off as Kobe. Hiro went on at length about the life of the Kobe cows: they drink beer and are massaged each day; classical music is played for them and their only exercise for three years is to walk around, resulting in a delicious beef that is marbled with fat. In conclusion, Hiro noted, "I want to come back in next life as Kobe beef." Gee, he is cute. He grilled the beef with natural charcoal and dabbed it with wasabi and a drop of yuzu juice, then instructed me to dab it in the house-made salt he placed before me. This was one of the very best dishes all night.
15.) Finally, his one concession to Masa, and a dish that (along with Masa's patented toro tartare and caviar cocktail) Hiro said the Iron Chef had copied directly from Masa for his Philly boite Morimoto, shabu shabu of foie gras and, in this case, hamo fish. Masa made his with foie gras and lobster, whereas in wintertime Hiro replaces the hamo fish with scallop. Mitzu went ahead and cooked the pieces for me, leaving each in the shabu shabu pot for thirty or forty seconds, rolling them up with some bright green scallions, before leaving them for me to taste. I can never get enough of this dish. Mitzu told me to take just a sip or two of the flavorful broth remaining in the shabu shabu pot with the large soup spoon he had brought, a nice piece of advice that Masa never thought to give: you don't want to fill up on broth with all that sushi still to come.
Finally, Hiro began to serve me sushi, accompanied with real ginger he had prepared himself, young Japanese ginger boiled with rice vinegar, lemon and natural sugar "from Whole Foods." In order...
17.) Shimaji fish, a fish from the mackerel family that tastes a bit like Spanish mackerel.
18.) Japanese halibut with soy sauce (which Hiro makes himself, mixing it with seaweed, sake, sweet sake and bonito, to be milder than the soy sauce we find on our supermarket shelves) and yuzu juice.
19.) Angawa, or halibut fin, with soy sauce and yuzu juice. Remarkable texture.
20.) Kensaki squid, with salt, yuzu juice and shavings of yuzu skin. I remember this from meals with Masa and it's one of my favorites. Just the essence of the ocean itself.
21.) Uni (sea urchin) with soy sauce.
At this point, Hiro and I chatted for a moment about Masa. He made a few interesting observations about Masa and his new restaurant in the nature of, oh, shall we say, constructive criticisms, which I won't repeat here, but also told me Masa was coming into town next week and the two of them will sit down for a reunion meal. My only question is, who's cooking?
22.) Iwashi, a Japanese sardine, with soy sauce.
23.) Kohada, a Japanese herring, with soy sauce.
24.) Needlefish with soy sauce and yuzu juice. Very interesting texture.
25.) Saba, a mackerel from southern Japan, with soy sauce and yuzu juice.
26.) Next, Hiro brought out a live shrimp, which he ripped open while alive. He first gave me a piece of shrimp sashimi, with a little wasabi, and told me to dip it into my little saucer of his soy sauce. He then removed the shrimp guts into a cup, added soy sauce, blended them together, and placed the blend on the remainder of the shrimp meat. All I could say was that our cute little friend had died in a good cause.
27.) As Hiro turned to the side, I noticed he had been grilling a shiitake mushroom (Bea Arthur on "The Golden Girls," "correcting" some of the notations on her injured student's cast: "And we'll just make this 'Mrs. Zvornak eats shi...itake mushrooms.'") on his little Japanese charcoal throughout the sushi courses. He took it off the grill, dabbed it with a little wasabi, soy sauce and yuzu juice, rolled it up, and added a drop more soy. Simple, pure, exquisite.
28.) Shiso (Japanese mint leaf) rolled up with sushi rice to form a gorgeous sort of green rice, upon which Hiro put pike mackerel (sanma), which he seared with red-hot Kanagushi sticks, the entire roll then cut up into pieces, drizzled with yuzu skin, and half given to me. Astonishing.
29.) Salmon eggs sauced with sweet sake, soy sauce and dachi, in hand-charcoaled seaweed. The essence of salmon.
30.) Salt water eel with nitsumei, Japanese eel sauce.
31.) Small shrimps with soy sauce
32.) Scallop sushi. Hiro was debating between soy sauce or nitsumei for this and went with the nitsumei. I dare say he may have erred; I think it would have been better with the saltier flavor of soy.
33.) Awabi, or abalone, with salt and a little yuzu juice. EXTREMELY crunchy, which if you love it, more power to you. Personally, I prefer the squid; it's still crunchy, but not quite so dominantly so.
34.) Radish with shavings of yuzu skin.
35.) Grilled Kobe beef sushi with soy sauce and yuzu juice. Oh my stars.
36.) Grilled toro with soy sauce and yuzu juice. Mmm hmm.
37.) Three (out of six) pieces of Kampio roll, with boiled squash. Unbelievable; if he hadn't told me what it was, I would have assumed it was another fish!
38.) Toro-scallion roll for me to dip into my little saucer of soy sauce. Again, "three pieces for you, three pieces for kitchen," Hiro smiled. No argument here; I was truly nearing the breaking point.
39.) Umaku hand roll, of cucumber, shiso paste and sesame seed, again for dipping.
40.) After the sushi, Hiro gave me a piece of his egg custard, with shrimp, mountain potato, sake, sweet sake, salt, soy sauce and dachi: "So many things I put into it. Takes so long to make." But so worth it; incredibly rich and delicious. He offered me a second piece and I would just never have been able to come back from that.
41.) Watermelon sorbet with red beans.
42.) Soy milk jello with red bean paste and gold leaf. Served with it, a liquified or emulsified pure green tea powder as vivid in color as a sea green Crayola crayon.
43.) Green tea roasted by Hiro himself.
Hiro told me to be sure to come back between late January and early February, when blowfish sperm sac was in season. If not then, then certainly sometime during fugu season. He then pronounced me an "Honorary Japanese": "Some people take a bite of one of my dishes and their faces shrivel up. I don't like to see that. Everything makes you say, 'Mmmmm...'" True!
Finally, it came time to pay the piper. $250 for the food, plus the beer, bottled water and tax brought the tab to $290.11 before tip. What can you say? If you have a moral objection to paying that much for a meal, fine. But if you don't, then you really do owe it to yourself to come to either Urasawa or Masa in NYC. As I said, the number of courses I had last night was undoubtedly atypical, due to the unusual circumstances (a lovely review on gayot.com refers to a dinner of 29 courses), but still it came to about eight dollars all in per course. And what an experience!
There's no question of whether the food is good. It's the freshest around, and certainly Hiro (and Masa) put more thought, time and effort into EVERY aspect of their food and your dining experience than anyone. The only question is whether you like the tastes. And I love them, and I love the exploration. (Hiro says they change the menu "bit by bit" every month.) The service is impeccable, the setting otherworldly, and the food like nothing else. And what I wouldn't give to find an adorable little Hiro-san for myself...