I ate at Urasawa in April. This is what I thought.
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Irashaimase! This is the traditional welcome with which Hiro-san greets the guests that enter his eponymous Los Angeles restaurant.
It is a restaurant with a short story that starts with a notorious Japanese chef who, born in Tochigi, moved to Tokyo to work at the legendary Ginza Sushi-ko. In 1980 he left for LA and, after a few years there, he opened, with his former mentor’s permission, his own Ginza Sushi-ko. He became the most famous sushi chef in America with a reputation for superior sourcing – much of his ingredients were flown in straight from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market – and for superior prices. He soon gained a name, fame and widespread following. One fan was Thomas Keller, who happened to be opening a second venture in New York City’s new Time Warner Centre and, through an agreement with the site’s developer, was able to hand pick which chefs would be permitted to share the building with him. He was Keller’s first choice and, in early 2004, was convinced to trade in Beverley Hills for Manhattan and a spot conveniently doors down from Keller’s Per Se. His name was Masayoshi Takayama (affectionately known as Masa). However, Masa was unable to manage two residences, so sold his former sushi-ko to his former ‘sous chef’. His name was Hiroyuki Urasawa.
Originally from Tokyo, where he grew up in the kitchen of his father’s Chinese restaurant before going onto Kyoto to learn the art of Kaiseki, Hiro-san immigrated to America in the early nineties. His first job was as Masa’s second and lasted until his mentor moved on and he bought the place, which to this day remains his sole professional address in the States – and where he claims he is ‘staying forever’. As chef-patron, he changed the name and expanded the menu from straight sushi to kaiseki-sushi, but continues to hold immense respect for his former teacher, proudly telling diners ‘Masa is most expensive restaurant in the country’ and regularly revealing, ‘this is where Masa worked’, as he points to where he presently stands himself, adding, ‘…and that is where I was’, as he points to his left, where his silent number two now toils. This happens to be his brother-in-law, Ken; it is actually a family affair as his sister handles the service with even their mother getting involved, bringing over ingredients unavailable in America when she visits. It is his mother, in fact, whom he describes as his favourite chef. Hiro-san has earned a reputation as an exceedingly passionate and skilled itamae, as well as a great host – humble and welcoming, gracious and generous, guests only ever have good things to say about him. In 2007, Urasawa was recognised by Michelin, who awarded him two stars. Interestingly enough, of all the congratulations that came his way afterwards, he kept just one, a letter from Keller, who has not yet eaten at Urasawa, but did go to Ginza Sushi-ko whilst Hiro-san was assistant (although they never spoke) – his esteem for this chef is circuitous proof of the regard that student still retains for teacher. He admits that ‘food is my life’ and is clearly dedicated to his discipline, which has even led him to run-ins with the law. He is one of only two cooks licensed to handle fugu in the States (it is easy to guess the other…), but the fish has been banned in California; Hiro-san served it nonetheless and, when fined, continued to offer it under an assumed name until he was fined again and threatened with the closure of his business.
The restaurant resides at two Rodeo Drive. There is no discernable proof of its presence until one enters the elevator that is required to reach its spot sitting atop an underground parking complex and high-end shopping centre; Jimmy Choo, Gucci, Smythson, Tiffany et al. have to share the first floor, whilst Urasawa holds the whole of the second by itself. A winding corridor wends its way to a dimly lit reception where, in the far corner, pearly noren curtains punctuated only by black kanji calligraphy, just about betray a sliding wooden door. Inside, the entire interior is immediately visible. Seating is limited to ten and available by reservation only – Hiro-san wants to ensure he does not over-stretch himself – with a small private room to the left that caters for four more. Glossy, brushed, aquamarine green walls; light elm wood ceiling; irregular pastel navy quadrilaterals tiling the floor; and a large window along the right wall, frame a space dominated by the actual sushi bar. This honey-hued, L-shaped counter of cypress is surrounded by dark blue satin cloth-covered chairs in front and a colourful, traditional takenomo behind. Within it, Hiro-san, dressed in charcoal grey haori and wooden clogs, works on the left, where a considerable chopping board can be found as can the itamae’s custom-made Japanese blade; seafood sits on ice on the right or in a tank under the counter; and the beef, tamago and small notepad in which the chef records guests’ names, rests on the table that runs along the back of the bar. Beyond the far wall, a surprisingly spacious kitchen is partitioned off. At each place setting, there is but a white linen napkin laid with chopsticks and little porcelain rest plus a lacquered black box of carved toothpicks and dark bamboo coaster. The crockery that comes later has been specially selected by Hiro-san during return trips to Japan with some pieces hundreds of years old. Although clothed on this visit, when undressed, names may be seen attached to the back of the chairs – these belong to special members who invested in the business when it was just beginning.
The décor has not changed much since Masa’s day. Neutral, natural and minimalist, it forms a tranquil and functional environment that allows diners to focus on eating and on the experience. Light floods in from the large window, but as it lies behind guests, one still feels detached and apart from the city outside.
There is no menu. This is omakase dining – the chef will decide, depending on what was best at the market that day, what will be served that evening. There are several amusing anecdotes around including one of Ricky Martin’s manager begging on the phone for a spicy tuna roll to be added to the menu and another of Janet Jackson leaving when refused a spider roll. Hiro-san does not make such concessions. He simply asks whether there is anything one cannot or will not eat. And it begins.
Kaiseki 1: Toro-senmaizuke maki. Two bundles, each assembled with a slice of seared toro, wrapped around a sliver of ankimo, scallion and shiso leaf and enwrapped with strips of senmai-zuki, were both crowned with Oscietra caviar and sitting in a pool of shallow ponzu sauce in a suspended bowl of gold. Crisp, pickled shoguin kabu or Kyoto turnip complimented the fatty tuna belly, whose flavour had been enhanced by the gentle application of a little heat. These contrasting textures were mimicked within by the crunchy scallions and creamy monkish liver, which was reminiscent of foie gras. The caviar added a brininess that was balanced by the citric sharp sauce which, with the maki consumed, was finished straight from the plate.
Kaiseki 2: Goma dofu; Kyoto style. A large dumpling, plaited at its crest and topped with hand-grated wasabi from Shizuoka and twenty-two carat gold leaf, was stuffed with sea urchin from Hokkaido and set in its traditional sauce. Goma dofu, meaning sesame tofu, is a Buddhist temple, or shojin-ryori, recipe that actually involves no soy, but is instead made from water, ground sesame paste and thickened with kudzu root powder. The result is a surprisingly light, yet thick consistency and subtle, delicate taste. The rich uni within offered sweetness, whilst without, the fresh wasabi’s enlivening effect worked well. The urchin was also highlighted by the salty, sweet and faintly fishy flavours of the soy, mirin and bonito dashi, which was again cool and delicious.
Kaiseki 3: Sashimi; kanpachi, toro, uni. Amidst a tray of mixed stones rested a circular ice sculpture with diagonally winding serrated edges, hewn that very morning by Hiro-san himself, holding an orchid leaf layered with a pair of kanpachi fillets from Toyama, a couple of tranches of toro and sea urchin tongues from Santa Barbara. The itamae had arranged the sashimi, whist his assistant, Ken, assembled the condiments and adornments – more fresh wasabi from Shizuoka (its legendary origin), red cabbage, Kyoto carrot, nori, daikon leaves and an ivory orchid flower, its leaves tinged with crimson. Starting with the lightest fish first, the pristine coils of amberjack, in ascending hues of pink, from alabaster to cerise, were tender and light; the Wakayama (where it was first created) soy sauce supplied separately and sweet and spicy wasabi came in handy here. Then, firm, coral pink tuna belly resembled well-marbled steak and was very tasty. Finally, very intense and very creamy, the uni was incredible.
It was during the last course that Hiro-san expressed his dissatisfaction with my chopstick technique. Although my own style had suited me effectively for some years already, the master proceeded to show me the correct method; not at all shy, he manoeuvred my fingers into their rightful positions with his. I was just glad we were alone at the sushi bar…
Kaiseki 4: Yuba chawanmushi. Hiro-san’s rendition of this classic Japanese savoury egg custard was a treasure trove – an unusually translucent skin revealed the custom-made cup to be crammed full of hairy crab, sea urchin, red snapper, shrimp, shitake, mitsuba, yuba, squash and gingko nuts, all in a half-egg, half-dashi blend flavoured with ginger, soy sauce and mirin. After allowing a few photographs to be taken, Hiro-san stirred the cup through himself, breaking the jellied surface and mixing it with the liquid dashi and underlying contents. The resulting soup was hot, syrupy and gelatinous with the eclectic elements making each spoonful a different and dynamic one. The shellfish was meaty and distinct with the hairy crab, a Shanghai delicacy and considered the finest and purest flavoured of its species, standing out especially. Drawing further on Chinese culture, the chef, in order to counter the cooling effect (yin) on the body that this crab is considered to have, used ginger, a yang ingredient (with warming properties), whose gentle spice settled nicely with the subtle smokiness of the bonito broth, sweet mirin and refreshing, bitter mitsuba. The gingko nuts and yuba made the dish as texturally interesting.
Kaiseki 5: Tempura; spring vegetables. Three flaky, golden yellow nuggets of assorted tempura arrived upon a burnished dish lined emphatically with white paper and accompanied with a mini mound of grated daikon, tipped with ginger, besides a decorative bowl of tentsuyu sauce. The seasonal selection consisted of taranome (Japanese Angelica) in uni paste; fukinoto (butterbur) with Kyoto miso; and take (bamboo) root in a blanket of shrimp purée. Hiro-san showed the way once again, reaching over the counter, lifting the daikon-ginger stack with his chopsticks and depositing it in the soy, mirin and dashi dipping sauce before stirring it through. Every piece was flawlessly fried – although this fact was already evinced by the still-stainless paper padding the plate. The thick cut of taranome had a slightly bitter flavour that found its precise counterpoint in the sweetness of the sea urchin and batter. The same balancing act was repeated just as skilfully with the couplings of fibrous fukinoto-white miso and crunchy bamboo-shrimp. The vegetables were all exceedingly fresh and each symbolic of spring’s onset; this applied especially to the butterbur, which in Japan, is considered an essential omen of the coming season, whilst angelica is also thought to be the best exemplar of tempura. The single most memorable detail of this dish was the consummate structure of each morsel; the tender vegetable at the centre was coated in crisp, brittle batter whilst in betwixt these two there remained a succulent, pasty layer that though cooked through, was left untouched by the oil. The fantastic effect of this redefined my understanding of what tempura ought to be and it would not be hyperbole to assert that I now accept that I have never eaten serious tempura before eating it at Urasawa.
Kaiseki 6: Hoba Yaki; wagyu, takenoko, Santa Barbara spot prawn. A portable hibachi was set up on the counter for this meibutsu from Takayama; upon it, over warm coals, lay a large, umber hoba leaf laden with a cube of Kagoshima black beef, block of bamboo shoot tip and candy-striped Santa Barbara spot prawn, all immersed in amber tama miso. Immediately, the magnolia, often described as the aristocrat of the plant world, emitted a welcoming scent whilst its bounty was already ready to eat. The beef, from cattle stock raised on a diet of sweet potato and spirits, rich in fat with creamy almost sweet taste, was an excellent specimen. It was followed by bamboo shoot that had almost melted into grainy thickness and whose sweetness was testament to the quality of Hiro-san’s supply lines – takenoko starts to turn hard and somewhat bitter as soon as it is dug up – and finished with the semi-cooked shrimp that remained sapid, firm and juicy. As good as these were though, the real brilliance here subsisted in the almost hollandaise-like (but much better) sauce of Kyoto miso, egg yolk, soy, sake, spring onions and mirin. Intense, spicy-sweet, salty-rich and with a nice sake hit, this velvet syrup was simply delicious.
Kaiseki 7: Shabu shabu; hotate, wagyu, goose foie gras. The hibachi stayed for the succeeding course, but the hoba leaf was substituted for a small steel basin bearing kombu dashi; a bowl of scallion-infused tosazu sauce as well as raw scallop, Kagoshima black beef, goose foie gras and kombu also appeared alongside. This was the shabu shabu course. Story has it that this dish was first conceived of over seven hundred years ago by none other than Genghis Khan so that he might feed his Mongol Horde; Hiro-san, as an homage to his mentor, still serves Masa-san’s shabu shabu and, in fact, it remains the only ever-present on his menu. Incidentally, if the reputation that precedes Masayoshi Takayama is to be trusted, this may well not be the first time his and Genghis’ names have found themselves in the same sentence.
Daniel-san did the decent thing and accepted responsibility for the actual cooking. First into the hot broth, the amount of which the chef adjusts according to the size of the diner, he lowered the foie gras; this is always the initial ingredient in as it requires the longest time to cook whilst also enriching the stock and thus, the subsequent scallop and beef with its own flavour. Some kelp and the shellfish were added next, with the latter removed merely moments later and placed in the tepid soy-vinegar-bonito-mirin sauce; evenly cooked, it was smooth and supple. The thin slice of A5 grade beef followed; this was swirled through the dashi – so inducing the onomatopoeic sounds that the shabu shabu takes its title from – quickly warming the well-marbled wagyu to melt-in-the-mouth malleability. It was a nice contrast to the firm, clean hotate. Finally, the foie was lifted out. Soft and buttery, but still intact, the flavour was startlingly subtle. Its livery intensity had been exchanged for the soup’s savoury richness, but not lost – beads of foie oil essence floated visibly in the broth. So that nought ought to go to waste, a spoon was called for and, with the tosazu poured in, it made for a hot, salty, sharp and satisfying drink of umami.
The end of the kaiseki and start of the sushi was signalled by the setting of a lacquered wooden board between the itamae and myself and the appearance of gari. These tasty thin strips of young ginger that had been marinated in sugar and vinegar by Hiro-san, in house, were spicy, citrusy and refreshing; they were provided as a palate cleanser to be enjoyed between nigiri.
For his sushi, Hiro-san likes koshihikari rice, a Japanese super premium short-grain strain noted for its unique consistency, aroma and natural sweetness. He also likes less of it, claming to use only one-hundred-and-eighty grains with each nigiri – which though seemingly too specific a figure to be sincere, such is the chef’s skill and meticulous technique that one is obliged to think twice before questioning it – and thereby increasing the tane-shari ratio in favour of the former.
In his preparation of every sushi piece, Hiro-san does all the work for the diner. Taking the topping, applying crucial cuts with his custom knives, he fuses it with the warmth of his hands to the rice he takes a portion at a time from the continually refilled hangiri sitting close by and adds a smear of wasabi, splash of soy or shred of yuzu skin – each tane needs its own unique blend of these condiments to bring out what is inherently best about it. The primed morsel is presented before the guest with the minimum of effort left for them to exert before they can enjoy it.
Nigiri 1: Otoro. If one imagines tuna belly to be divided into three parts, this is from the lowest and fattiest segment and so considered the tastiest. A pretty shade of rose, this was as fresh as it could be and, served cool instead of cold, simply melted away on the tongue.
Nigiri 2: Kama toro. Cut from the tuna’s collar, this seared specimen was doubly special; the collar makes up less than a single percentage of the fish’s entire body, making this rather rare; and as it is from an area that regularly receives a lot of blood flow, it is naturally rich in meaty flavour. The cooking left the meat creamy with a faint crust, whilst citric yuzu and salty soy worked well with its light chariness.
Nigiri 3: Kanpachi. Shimmering, semi-see-through section of Amberjack, bright rouge diffused through and embellished with a skinny border of silver, was refined and delicate with unexpected bite.
Nigiri 4: Seki Aji. Fruity and spicy horse mackerel had some oily richness, but was well balanced by a bit of wasabi heat. Its texture was pleasingly firm.
Nigiri 5: Tai. Shingled ripples of milky muscle were rimmed with florescent pink and peppered with bright yellow yuzu rind, which enlivened the mild savour of this so-called ‘king of fishes’ whilst its dense and sleek yet sinewy, cartilage-like consistency was very interesting. This breed is at its best in spring.
Nigiri 6: Maguro. Bluefin tuna is a favourite and sushi staple across the world. The radiant crimson was creamy and had robust, beefy flavour refreshed with a trace of soy sauce and the buzz of wasabi.
Nigiri 7: Shima aji. Two ethereal, translucent layers of lustrous pearly-blond skin, reinforced with reddish meat, were slightly sweet and slightly oily.
Nigiri 8: Shitake. The mushroom sushi was something of a surprise, but welcome indeed. A shitake mushroom, smoked over open charcoal until its ivory flesh coloured goldenrod, was then sprinkled with yuzu and sliced into two; each half crowned a triangle of pearly rice. Meaty, smoky, earthy and aromatic, these moist morsels were very tasty.
Nigiri 9: Kohada. Silver, glossy gizzard shad, its surface slit repeatedly to reveal pastel pink as well as to allow the tane to sit comfortably atop the rice, was tender in texture and strong in taste, though tempered with citrus. A cousin to herring and mackerel, it is a fishy-flavoured variety that requires curing with salt and washing with rice vinegar, however this preparation was applied with pleasing subtlety.
Nigiri 10: Shiro ebi. These tiny white shrimp, totalling about twenty per tane, are a speciality from Toyama Prefecture. Once on the tongue, the cluster disentangles and dissolves into a sweet, shellfish paste.
Nigiri 11: Mategai. To prove its freshness, Hiro-san stretched the razor clam flat out upon the wooden worktop then tapped it. It stood to attention and then attempted to curl itself up again. Supple with bite, the flavour was sweet and citrusy.
Nigiri 12: Sayori. With sterling skin and lucent meat sandwiching a ribbon of rosy red dermis, the slender, narrow needlefish was wrought into an intricate coil inside a small bow. This lovely example had great texture and a subtle savour that was sharpened with a little soy sauce. Sayori is very seasonal and another sign that spring is coming.
Nigiri 13: Toro. Tuna belly is widely considered the king of sushi ingredients and often serves as a benchmark with which to compare one sushi-ko to another. Hiro-san’s pretty pink piece was thin yet fatty and carried considerable flavour.
Nigiri 14: Saba. A Kyoto special, metallic mackerel has serious fishy flavour, accentuated with only with a touch of wasabi. This specimen showed off the itamae’s skill as its oily flesh breaks apart easily as it is cut.
Nigiri 15: Uni. Two tangerine tinted tongues of Santa Barbara sea urchin superimposed this sushi. Meltingly soft, surprisingly sweet and superbly rich, the uni was utterly yummy.
Nigiri 16: Mirugai. The geoduck clam, seasoned with soy, yuzu and wasabi, carried skinny straight cuts that had been made to tenderise the stiffer meat. The result was a fibrous crunchiness that bore subtle, briny sweetness.
Nigiri 17: Awabi. Hiro-san, taking the whole mollusc, meticulously whittled it down until a single sliver remained; after carefully shaping the piece and criss-crossing its surface with his sharp blade, he applied some soy sauce and yuzu to it. Although tenderised by the scoring, the abalone had some crunch, though less than the mirugai before it. The flavour came mainly from the zesty citrus.
Nigiri 18: Hotate. Lightly etched scallop, creamy and soft, was drizzled with a little anago no tsume and yuzu. This sauce, a nitsume, is a sweet glaze made from the broth used to poach sea eel, soy sauce, sugar and mirin. Rich and thick, this delicious syrup was a pleasing contrast to the clean scallop and tart yuzu.
Maki: Hotate-negitoro maki. First, Hiro-san demonstrated his deft knife work once again by carving a perfect line off from the circumference of the scallop in a single, seamless motion as he wheeled the shellfish, upright on its side, along his cutting board. He then carefully prepared the hosomaki, adding rice, the hotate, toro and finally scallions to the nori wrapping before rolling the makisu and dividing the entire cylinder into six even sections. Each light, dainty roll tendered an assortment of textures – pasty, creamy, soft, grainy, leafy, crunchy – with satisfyingly firm scallop and fatty tuna.
Nigiri 19: Aji no tataki. Spanish mackerel was not readily available in old Edo, thus it had to be enjoyed as tataki or sashimi and aided by extra condiments to freshen its flavour; here Hiro-san continues this custom, dicing his aji and binding it with Kyoto miso to scallion, shiso and ginger. The oily richness of the fish was cut with the anise-tang of the shiso as the ginger’s spice worked well with the mackerel’s strong savour whilst miso added complexity and a little sweetness.
Nigiri 20: Gyu tataki. Kagoshima black beef was sliced thinly and laid over a brazier for literally moments before being given a lick of yuzu. The amaranth ration of adipose mingled with a little muscle was meltingly good like beef butter with an underlying wasabi warmth and citrus zing.
Nigiri 21: Toro suji. A flaky, meaty seared serving of tuna belly sinew was scrumptious; the heat had softened the fat and tendons and left behind a toothsome smokiness that complemented the innately concentrated beefy flavour of the belly.
Nigiri 22: Anago. Another ingredient that is at its best in spring, sea eel is an excellent indication of the itamae’s ability, but also taste as each sushi-ko prepares, cooks and serves it slightly differently. At Urasawa, parboiled then grilled, it arrives already ready from the kitchen; Hiro-san subsequently un-skewers the meat and applies the same tsume that was tasted on the scallop and a little grated yuzu. The result was rich, sticky, sweet and hot. Cooked and heavy, this moreish morsel was bittersweet as it signalled that the end was nigh.
Nigiri 23: Atsuyaki Tamago. And indeed it was. Tamago is the last of Hiro-san’s sushi treats. Composed primarily of egg with the addition of sugar, mirin, shrimp paste and possibly yam or bonito broth or both and cooked for several hours, the outcome was excellent. From the makiyakinabe it was baked in, with surgical precision Hiro-san removed a small, square sponge; thanks to its dense, compact bright crumb and curving, tanned top coat, one may mistake it for kasutera or Madeira cake. It is smooth, silky and misleadingly light yet strongly sapid with subtle, complex sweetness. Tamago is a traditional test of the itamae’s talent.
Suddenly, a gasp from Hiro-san. He had realised that he had forgotten one nigiri.
Nigiri 24: Amaebi. Presenting the candy-striped Santa Barbara spot prawn still alive, Hiro-san swiftly separated its head from its body. This specimen, considered the finest shrimp on the West Coast, was laced with a little soy as well as a special sauce made from the shrimp’s cerebral matter. The many filaments that made up the spot prawn gave the tane a teasing initial crunch that soon turned into a tender, milky sweet paste. Having been swimming in an icy bath, the cold meat contrasted nicely with the milder shari.
Out of sight, out of mind. The chef stores those shellfish underneath his counter, so the fact that he had failed to remember it was understandable and also forgivable as it afforded me a second sample of the tamago.
Nigiri 25: Atsuyaki Tamago. Still tasty.
A bright blue plate bearing the first dessert was brought out. It was an awkward moment. I was having too much fun and was not ready for dessert. Unsure of what to do or whether I would indeed be offending in some way, I decided to sound out Daniel-san before saying anything to Hiro-san. After telling the latter that ‘I want more’, his advice was straightforward – ‘tell Hiro’. So I did. ‘What would you like’, he asked. ‘Take it from the top’…
Nigiri 26: Toro.
Nigiri 27: Kama toro.
Nigiri 28: Kanpachi.
Nigiri 29: Aji.
Nigiri 30: Tai.
Wondering what nigiri to serve me next, Hiro-san stopped, smiled and asked, ‘you like uni, yes?’ I nodded involuntarily.
Nigiri 31: Uni.
Nigiri 32: Mategai.
Nigiri 33: Maguro.
Nigiri 34: Shima-aji.
Nigiri 35: Kohada.
Nigiri 36: Shiro ebi.
Nigiri 37: Awabi.
Nigiri 38: Toro suji.
Nigiri 39: Gyu tataki.
Nigiri 40: Amaebi.
Nigiri 41: Atsuyaki Tamago. A third taste of tamago and desserts were allowed to start.
Dessert 1: papaya with jelly grapefruit; yamamomo. Pink jellied grapefruit, forming immaculately set ersatz crowns atop semi-sliced segments of a wedge of yellow papaya, lay upon dark green, tear-drop orchid leaf alongside a maroon Japanese mountain peach cooked in citrus and honey, on an undulating azure blanket-like rhombus. The smooth grapefruit and ripe papaya pairing was sweet and sour, reflecting the inherent contrast in savour within the juicy yamamomo. This cleansed the palate whilst aiding digestion – papaya contains the enzyme papain that helps the body process proteins.
Dessert 2: Goma Pudding; organic matcha tea. A small bowl, its contents composed of a maroon canvas speckled with chestnut crumbs and topped with sesame seeds and twenty-two carat foil, was accompanied by a chawan several times bigger that bore frothy matcha tea of bright, pastel shades. The goma grains beneath the gold leaf gave away what had been buried under the azuki bean paste – the agreeably grainy an, sweet and nutty, struck a common note with the crunchy chestnut, and silky, toasty sesame pudding below. The tea, prepared with ritual and routine by Hiro-san – after adding warm water to dried, ground tencha leaves, he deliberately blends the brew with a bamboo chasen until a uniform and desired consistency is reached – balanced the sweetness of the pudding with bitter vegetal earthiness.
Cha: Hojicha. A second, light tea ended dinner. Roasting the green tea leaves, which Hiro-san does himself, leaves the hojicha with less astringency than the matcha before it with toasted and nutty notes that stirred up the lingering savours of the sesame dessert. The process also lowers its caffeine content, making this a customary after-meal tea.
Arriving at two Rodeo Drive, the suspense and excitement at what awaits is immediately felt. The ensuing enlistment of an elevator, hardly everyday, elevates one’s emotions, as well as of course one’s self and already hints that what follows will be anything but average. Reaching the right floor and forced to find one’s way to the actual entrance only lifts the level of anticipation even further. In a far corner, beyond hanging noren curtains, one is beckoned by the opening of an opaque glass door.
To enter the restaurant physically is to enter another realm ethereally. Busy and brassy, pressured, superficial, complicated and unclean, all that is urban LA is left behind and without. Once within, one is in Hiroyuki Urasawa’s world. Serene and clean and fresh, elemental and organic, honest and real. The contrast is simple and complete yet so innate and intuitive that it can be unappreciated.
Hiro-san waits behind his sushi bar. He smiles and genuinely greets you. Introducing himself, he asks your name, which he notes down so that he shan’t forget it later. A touching gesture. It is the start of the relationship that enriches the omakase shimasu – ‘I leave it to you’ – experience that will come. From then till dinner’s end, one is in Hiro-san’s hands.
Trained in traditional kaiseki back in Japan, before joining Masa’s sushi-ko, the itamae is equally well-versed in either style and therefore is able to offer a hybrid of both by incorporating nigiri into a contemporary and cosmopolitan kaiseki framework. The latter was developed over five-hundred years ago by Buddhist priests in Kyoto so that they would not take their tea on an empty stomach. Initially following the ichiju sansai formula of one (miso) soup and three additional plates, it evolved, effectively, into Japanese haute cuisine; formal dining featuring several choreographed courses, composed of seriously local and seasonal produce prepared precisely and presented beautifully, served in succession by reverent servers to guests in intimate, private rooms. The cuisine is all-consuming; it is about more than just taste, it is about aesthetics and emotions also. The food ought to move the diner, changing their state of mind and improving their well-being. Thus the same attention applied to the ingredients upon the plate is also paid to the plate itself – crockery is carefully selected and commonly consists of antiques that have passed down from generation to generation. The cooking asserts the season and the ceramics, as well as the garnishes that embellish them, adhere to it. As an entertaining aside, during the seventies, when the most influential French chefs of the day, including Bocuse, Senderens, Guérard and les frères Troisgros, visited Japan and discovered kaiseki, it became their inspiration for the menu dégustation.
Hiro-san still depends on the fundamentals of kaiseki ryori, but has also introduced the sushi bar interaction between itamae and eater into the dining equation. Although he has fused these two schools together, each is delivered with reverence to ritual and in classical custom, with the best of both defining his own style.
It is staunch seasonality that shapes and freshness that shepherds one’s Urasawa experience. Ingredients change constantly depending on the market and time of year – as it was April, this dinner boasted such symbols of spring as sayori, tai, hairy crab, fukinoto and even taranome, whose shun lasts just a fortnight or so. Hiro-san gets almost daily shipments of supplies from across the world, but Japan in particular; one can find the finest soy from Wakayama, best wasabi from Shizuoka and authentic Kobe beef here. However, he does not overlook localness and its importance within kaiseki. Hand-picked fish specially set aside for him, he picks up from International Marine Products and favours, for instance, spot prawns and uni from Santa Barbara. The chef claims that the sea urchins from here are of fairly similar standard to those from Hokkaido, but once the transport time from Japan is accounted for, the local variety delivers better. In fact, whether it be fish, meat, herb or leaf, the itamae is able to inform you confidently and proudly of its provenance.
Presentation is principal: each dish and detail is deliberate and material; excess is non-existent; there is eloquence in the empty spaces. The very first plate – toro-senmaizuke maki – sent a message. Sakisuke – the first impression – and hassun – the overture – in one, this spoke, suggested, enchanted and satisfied. The advent of April coincides with the blooming of the cherry blossom (sakura), immensely iconic in Japan, and this dish served as an immediate reminder of the flower and that fact. It was the pale pink colour of the seared toro strips that struck me as a remarkably subtle yet mightily evocative reflection of the flowering cherry. The aesthetic impressed further. In Japan, pink is often paired with yellow to signify spring and so the carnation colour of the meat was matched with the blond bowl and brightness of the ankimo within both maki. The green leaf was yet another patent prompt that it was April. Aside from the time of year, this was also an intimation of what the meal would entail. Actually, more than even that, it was an education in kaiseki. It taught of ceremony, courtesy, grace, beauty, skill, finesse and delicacy, of elegant luxury. And deliciousness.
Incidentally, although absolutely intentionally, the seasonality on one’s plate also persists physically throughout the restaurant. This was manifest, for example, by the half-a-dozen cherry blossoms sitting in a small vase in one corner and the display adorning the takenomo that mirrored the months – today golds, yellows and greens naturally dominated whilst a bushel of deutzia or utsigi took centre-stage (April’s equivalent in old Japanese was Uzuki, a short form for u-no-hana-zuki, meaning ‘when utsugi blossom’).
The subsequent goma dofu was sweet deception. Unassuming and modest in appearance, seemingly dependent on gold foil to excite the eater, it was in fact an indication of the itamae’s effort and dedication, having taken long hours of labour to grind the sesame into such light paste. Indeed it was found doubly-devious as the humble dofu had, inside itself, a hidden treasure trove of indulgent uni.
Each course revealed something more: the first offered an introduction, a signal of the season and bait to whet my appetite; the second, quite in contrast to the former, showed the chef was as capable working with a sow’s ear as he was initially with silk; but the third – the mokozuke – bodied forth freshness. The previous plate already succeeded in proving Hiro-san’s readiness for hard work, therefore, for this dish, that success served as the base upon which to build further. Literally. Every morning the chef carves a block of ice into an artistic pedestal for pristine pieces of sashimi. His produce was the most evident testament to ‘freshness’, but the total effect was exaggerated by an entire aspect that was remindful of nature with the incorporation of ice – practical, picturesque and denotative – plants and pebbles all poetically reinforcing this thought and adding illusive life. Already articulated seasonal colours were also repeated with the almost progressive manner in which the kanpachi, toro, red cabbage and orchid flower fulfilled the range of shades lying between red and white, especially attractive.
Over the remaining courses, the continuation of the earlier-established themes – such as pink, yellow and green being seen either in the crockery or what it carried; and the recurrence of flora as functional – is easily obvious. Additionally, having already revealed Hiro-san’s tempura as redefining, described the utter tastiness of the Kyoto miso and mentioned the creative and interesting inclusion of foie gras in the shabu shabu, my own thoughts on what followed have been disclosed and need no further note.
When the sushi starts, the sushi bar becomes a stage and dinner develops into drama. This is when one has the best opportunity to observe Hiro-san; already artist, sculptor and chef, he is now also actor and showman – roles he seems to relish or, at least, effortlessly adopt.
Nothing is pre-prepared. Seafood is chilled on large blocks of ice, whilst some shellfish are kept alive until seconds before being served. Every nigiri is made immediately and Hiro-san allows you ten seconds to eat it. His creations are consistently delectable, but there is nearly equal delight to be experienced watching their assembly. He is a perfectionist and a master and, if only for a few hours, the patron’s eating pleasure is his sole purpose. The care, attention and respect the chef shows his produce and, by extension, his guest is gripping.
At Urasawa’s level, sushi is about sensitivity and subtlety with merely marginal, nominal nuances separating one itamae from another. It is a cuisine of intricate equilibrium with stasis constantly sought; a balancing of the vinegar and sugar in the shari; its stickiness and solidity; between the warmth of the rice and cool of the topping. Once one factors in the speed needed, adaption to diners’ preferences and own paces and, of course, those sharp, sharp knives, it is no surprise that many sushi chefs are serious and sombre. Not Hiro-san. He is a smiler. And a comedian. Over time, many of his jokes have become catchphrases and today it was over nigiri that he had excuse to exercise a favourite, calling out across the counter, many times, ‘ten dollars each photo!’
I read somewhere that he used to ask for only five.
One of the most interesting and emotive aspects of a meal such as this is the interaction between itamae and diner; there is a direct relationship, a real connection. After warming the rice in his palm, adding the tane and dressing the morsel, he offers it, almost straight from his fingers into yours – a powerful, intimate gesture, rich in meaning. As he feeds you, there is a brief, unconscious bond. Whether one realises it or not, dining here is very personal: Hiro-san crafts every dish; selects every ingredient; every cut made is made by him. He freshly grates the wasabi; has his own soy sauce formula; chisels the sashimi’s icy platters; makes the salt and picks the flowers that dress the restaurant himself. Even the countertop, formerly maple but recently replaced with cypress, he sands smooth and shiny daily. There is a tender focus and consideration to each detail and everything is executed with the same exacting level of care, diligence and devotion. His touch, his character and his personality are everywhere. Urasawa is Hiro-san.
Deep down I must admit that I feel kaiseki and sushi purists may less than appreciate the mingled model served here; they may also object to the itamae’s sourcing of ingredients from all around the world rather than from immediately nearby or his inclusion of ‘Western’ Oscietra caviar, truffles and foie gras. However, what they would deride as incorrect and tergiversant, I would argue well done and done to the benefit of the diner. I, for one, thought my meal tremendously exciting and enjoyable with the kaiseki-sushi fusion and inclusion of classic/exotic (depending on which world is yours) items, creative, challenging and delicious.
At the end of the meal, with cheque in one hand and my final cup of hojicha in the other, my gaze settled on the cherry blossoms in the corner. My mood at that minute was, rather fittingly if melodramatically, one better expressed and understood in Japanese than English. Mono no aware is a concept that illustrates the ephemeral nature of things and a bittersweet appreciation of the transience of life and all within it. Those flowers are the very incarnation of this emotion in Japanese culture. It was a poignant moment – the evening, which having commenced with those maki so suggestive of the sakura, now concluded with their very image. It was a most beautiful roundabout to a most memorable evening.
Thus indeed did dinner end bittersweet. There was sadness in the fact that it had finished and also because of the certain difficulty I would face coming across anything of similar standard at home – but then again, I already knew that Urasawa had ruined me for many other Japanese restaurants. Nonetheless, I was grateful for the opportunity to appreciate and contemplate what I had just enjoyed. And there was hope too: tonight, I had been given a glimpse of what I would discover, of what awaited me, farther west…
However, until then, I have found my sushi Hiro.