Sunday, April 27, 2008

Urasawa - World-Class Excellence in L.A.!

I had first heard about Urasawa thanks to Chowhound and the *stunningly beautiful* Review and Pictorial by Dan Paik / rvd72 (if you haven't seen / read it, you need to :). I was blown away by what I read and saw and from that point on (with additional prodding from russkar, J.L., SauceSupreme and many others), it was my mission to try Urasawa at least once. Since then it is also only one of three L.A. restaurants to receive a Michelin 2 Star rating.

Having just come back from a two week gourmet vacation in Japan (Tokyo & Kyoto), I just had to try out Urasawa immediately (partly to see how it compared to the Modern Kaiseki, Traditional Kaiseki and amazing Sushi I had in Japan, and partly because I already dearly missed the great Japanese food I experienced and was hoping Urasawa could match that). Last night, I took one of my longtime friends (and Sushi Hound) to try out Urasawa. And even after the experiences I had in Tokyo and Kyoto, the mastery and amazing dishes that Chef Hiroyuki Urasawa prepared for us was truly mind-blowing, and simply *amazing*!

As a quick FYI, Urasawa has no menu: He serves whatever he can source that is fresh and seasonal (and he asks if there are any particulars the customer cannot eat). I was worried Hiro-san might be one of those quiet masters that would be unapproachable, or just too busy, but from the moment we stepped in, it was obvious that we were in for a truly remarkable and engaging experience. Hiro-san welcomed us with a humble smile and after finishing up a dish he was in the middle of preparing for the other guests, he turned his attention to us and started chatting away. Hiro-san is so approachable, down-to-earth, warm, and funny, and it's clear that he's truly concerned about his guests and makes sure we're enjoying whatever we're eating or drinking. We began with:

Mozuki - Okinawan Seaweed topped with Pure Gold Flakes.

The Okinawan Seaweed and the sauce was simply divine! Simple and refreshing.

Next up was the Kinuta Maki: Shrimp, Red Snapper and Shiso Leaf, served with fresh Radish.

The Shrimp and Red Snapper were extremely fresh and tender, and the ponzu-based sauce worked nicely, along with the crisp crunch of the fresh Radish.

The 3rd course was Uni Nikogori: Fresh Uni, Amaebi Shrimp, served atop Yama no Imo (Japanese Mountain Yam), topped with Pure Gold Flakes.

This was just ridiculously good. The combination of the natural sweetness of the Uni and Shrimp and the freshly-grated Japanese Mountain Yam with the sauce Hiro-san prepared was perfect!

The 4th course was Toro Tataki: Ohtoro lightly seared on the outside, with Kiku Flowers and Shiso no Hana (Flowers), topped with Pure Gold Flakes.

I've had Maguro Tataki before, and many variations on Toro, but Chef Hiro's dish was in another league. The Kiku and Shiso no Hana flowers added a touch of beautiful springtime fragrance to the mouth-watering, extremely tender Ohtoro, and the light searing transformed the Toro's flavors to a combination of the best of fresh, raw Toro with the fragrant taste that one can only get from searing fatty Tuna.

The 5th Course was Hotaru Ika.

The Squid came in a nice marinade, and Hiro-san bade us to eat each bite of the Hotaru Ika with some Sake. We started with a Kubota Manjyu Dai Ginjo Sake, which was simply one of the best Sakes I've ever had. The combination of the Kubota Sake with the Ika really was delectable and unique. The Hotaru Ika was really tender and had a great texture, and it wasn't "chewy" at all.

At this point, during one of our conversations with Hiro-san, we were talking about favorite restaurants, and Hiro-san mentioned that he loves going to Sea Harbour (Rosemead) and that it's his favorite Chinese restaurant. :) It was a nice surprise that someone of Hiro-san's stature thought so highly of a Chowhound favorite (and my favorite) Dim Sum restaurant. I also found it amusing and cool that Hiro-san would be kicking back, waiting in line to get Dim Sum on any given weekend at Sea Harbour. :)

Our next course was Fresh Sashimi served on a block of Hand-Carved Ice, paired with 2 Types of Seaweed.

The Sashimi consisted of Ohtoro (flown in overnight from Spain), Tai (flown in from Kyushuu, Japan), and Kanpachi (Japan). We started with the Tai, which was very good. Fresh and naturally a firmer fish, so it was a little chewy. The Kanpachi was wonderful. It was also fresh and the knifework by Hiro-san really showed through. It was a cut above Sushi Zo's Kanpachi (which was my previous favorite). Finally, the Ohtoro was excellent. Complete melt-in-your-mouth goodness as only great quality Ohtoro can deliver.

Next up was a Yuba Chawanmushi, the classic Japanese steamed egg custard, but elevated with a nice mixture of Yuba, Daikon and Pure Gold Flakes (in addition to the classic Ginko Nuts and other ingredients found in normal Chawanmushi).

It was perfectly steamed, and the delicate Yuba combined well with the Chawanmushi foundation, and the perfect balance of seasoning and salt. The best Chawanmushi I've ever had.

The next course was Asami Age, a delicate "sandwich" of Fresh Bamboo, Shrimp Paste and more Fresh Bamboo, then perfectly fried:

The Fresh Bamboo was SO tender and when combined with the Shrimp Paste (which wasn't anything like the traditional Southeast Asian-style heavily-salted Shrimp Paste), and the perfectly fried outer batter, made for an amazing dish! What was probably the greatest aspect of the Asami Age was that it was fried at the right temperature (so that it didn't soak up the oil and get too oily / soggy), and that the oil was *fresh*. You can taste the difference and know that Hiro-san used a fresh batch of oil to fry up this dish for this evening and changes it out every meal.

Following this came arguably the most amazing dish of the evening (as if they all weren't already :) - Hoba Yaki, with Fresh Shrimp, Tofu, and Grade A5 Hokkaido-Gyu (Hokkaido Beef) in a Miso Sauce.

The dish was literally being lightly-roasted in a giant Hoba Leaf, and with just a couple minutes over the coals, the waitress removed the Hoba Leaf from the coals to prevent overcooking. The Tofu combined with the amazing Miso-based sauce was great. Soft and tender and fresh (with no soy aftertaste that may accompany tofu at times). The fresh Shrimp was perfectly cooked, still very tender and lightly (naturally) sweet, and when combined with this Miso sauce, was another star in the dish. But *nothing* could've prepared us for the Grade A5 Hokkaido-Gyu, a wonderfully marbled cut of Beef flown in from Hokkaido. The Grade A5 Hokkaido-Gyu was RIDICULOUSLY, Pure, Melt-In-Your-Mouth GOODNESS. It was honestly like eating a piece of *Toro* (Fatty Tuna), but this was *Beef*! There was no gristle, no tendon, no "chewiness" at all. This cut of beef was better than any other cut Beef I've ever had in my life.

Hiro-san, seeing my expression, then half-jokingly whispered to me that it was a little known secret to most people outside Japan: That certain cuts of Hokkaido-Gyu are just as amazing as the much more famous / popularized Kobe Beef. He wasn't joking, this was truly... wow.

Our next course was Shabu Shabu with Amaebi, A5 Hokkaido-Gyu, and Foie Gras.

The waitress took each piece and placed it into the heating bowl, and removed each piece when it was cooked the right amount. First up, we had the Fresh Shrimp which was lightly poached. When placed in the Ponzu-based dipping sauce, it made for a nice, citrusy, slightly sour and savory flavor, that balanced well with the natural sweetness of the Shrimp. The Shrimp was perfectly cooked and tender. Next up was the Grade A5 Hokkaido Beef which was unbelievably good (still) in a Shabu Shabu preparation. Still as buttery tender as before and amazing! The last piece was the Foie Gras, which was as good a piece of Foie Gras as I've ever had (restaurants in Paris included). Very rich and buttery smooth! Finally, the waitress gave us a soup spoon and we were asked to try some of the Shabu Shabu broth, which was wonderfully light and full of flavor (especially after the Amaebi, Hokkaido-Gyu and Foie Gras were cooked in it).

After this, we began the Sushi portion of the dinner, and Hiro-san warned us that we should eat the Sushi within 10 seconds of plating, or else we'd start losing the freshness and the taste would start changing. (Forgive the blurriness of the photos, I was snapping as fast as possible so as to enjoy the Sushi and eat it the way Hiro-san had asked us to try it.)

First up was Kanpachi. It was extremely tender, and the cut of Kanpachi was amazing! The knifework and the cut we were presented was the best Kanpachi I'd ever had, surpassing Zo's easily. It should be noted Hiro-san only uses a special kind of Koshikari Rice from a prefecture in Japan (I forgot the name in the course of our epic dinner and sake "festival" last night :). But suffice to say the rice was excellent and had a noticeably different texture and taste from what I've had at nice L.A. Sushi-yas like Zo, Mori and Sasabune, etc.

Next was Ohtoro (flown in from Spain). As with the previous pieces, it was simply divine! Wonderfully buttery and super-tender goodness.

After this, we had a Seared Toro (the entire Toro piece, not just the outer border as with the Toro Tataki). It was amazing and I enjoyed it just a touch more than the regular Ohtoro.

Next up was Tai, presented with some light Sudachi (Japanese citrus fruit) shavings:

This was one of the few missteps in an evening full of excellence. The cut of Tai had some "gristle / tendon" in it, which made for an overly chewy experience. My Sushi Hound companion also had a similar experience.

Next up was Aji (Japanese Jack Mackerel), flown in from Kyushuu, Japan.

The Aji was very good and fresh, and I liked the cut and texture better in this piece than what I had at Mori's.

The next piece was Ika (Squid):

Ika is usually a challenge, having the characteristically "chewy" texture that's inherent to Ika. But since my visit to the Michelin 3 Star-rated Sushi Mizutani in Tokyo, I now realize what Ika can truly be. Hiro-san's Ika was excellent, truly the best Ika I've had outside Japan, with a wonderfully creamy texture at times, but it still had a chewiness throughout. Normally, this would still be amazing (the creaminess and nice cut he gave us), but after having tried Mizutani's mastery, this falls short.

As an aside, I asked Hiro-san if he knew Sushi Mizutani and he was impressed that I knew the place and that I was able to get reservations (it's usually 1-3 months backlogged). He told me all about Mizutani-san and how he trained with the oldest and most revered Sushi Master in the world (Jiro-san), etc. It was a really nice conversation. :)

The next piece was Mategai (Razor Clam):

I've had a variety of various shellfish (and especially the amazing, rare types at Sushi Mizutani), but I've never had Mategai before. This was a nice welcome treat. The Mategai that was presented to us was a wonderful cut, with a nice toothsome texture that was still very tender and nothing like the more common Mirugai (Geoduck). Excellent.

Next up was another nice, unique dish: Shiraebi (Fresh, Tiny Shrimp (about 20 of them) on one piece of Sushi!).

The Shiraebi was flown in from Toyama prefecture and is a specialty of theirs. This was the first time I've ever had it, and it was SO good! I love Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp), but the advantage of these tiny Shiraebi shrimp is that they have the inherent sweetness of Amaebi, but the texture of something more akin to Toro(!). Simply wonderful.

The next piece was Roasted Shiitake Mushroom Sushi.

Hiro-san had been tempting us 15 minutes prior with the fresh Shiitake slowly roasting in the background behind him (over the traditional open-roasted coals). We could smell the wonderful fragrance of the Shiitake way before he presented this piece to us. :) The Shiitake was perfectly cooked, and had such a wonderful, deep Shiitake Mushroom aroma that it pervaded every bite! Very nice.

The next piece was Uni (from Santa Barbara):

Uni is always a challenge, as its "decay time" can be measured in minutes/hours instead of days for other seafood. While it was fresh, it had just a tinge of the "sea water / fishiness" that took away from perfection (which is really hard to get). I'd give it a ~99.3% (the best I've ever had was a perfect 100% at Mizutani (and once at Nozawa)). It's still far better than most Sushi restaurants (which I would say hover in the "50%" rating (really fishy and gross)).

The next piece was Kohada (Japanese Gizzard Shad):

The Kohada was ~Ok. I felt the cut of Kohada that we got was good, but not great. The Kohada at Mizutani was definitely a level above this one.

The next piece we had was Skipjack:

The Skipjack was excellent. A really nice cut, and it paired really nicely with the rice grain (more noticeable on this piece than on others).

The next piece (we were definitely struggling at this point :), was Aoyagi (Round Clam) flown in from Hokkaido.

The Aoyagi was another piece of excellent knifework from Hiro-san. Really nice texture and the preparation made this Aoyagi my new favorite version of this dish (easily surpassing Sasabune and Zo). It was more tender and interesting in texture than Mirugai, lightly "chewy" (but not in a bad way), with a more delicate flavor than Mirugai as well.

The next piece was a special roll that I unfortunately forgot to note as I was talking with Hiro-san about some restaurants in Kyoto. I do remember that it contained Kyoto Miso, Shiso, and Negi (Green Onions), mixed with at least 2 types of seafood. It was delicious and a nice break from the simpler flavors of the nigiri we had prior to this.

The next piece was Mirugai (Geoduck Clam):

It was smartly executed, with a nice crisp texture that was never chewy. I felt it edged out Mori, but Sushi Mizutani was a cut above.

Next was Awabi (Abalone):

The Awabi was amazing. A really nice cut and with a good, toothsome texture that exceeded any Awabi I had outside Japan. But Mizutani's Awabi was better (both in quality of shellfish and knifework). It was still truly great Abalone, but I'm noting this for comparison purposes.

The next item was one of my favorites - Amaebi (Live Sweet Shrimp)! Hiro-san ducked underneath and pulled out the Live Giant Sweet Shrimp from a tank beneath his cutting area! The Amaebi were still moving and he quickly dispatched them and prepared our dish.

The Amaebi was SO fresh (of course :), and the meat and cut were top-notch! The sweetness of the Shrimp and the nice creamy, yet slightly muscular texture was the best I've ever had anywhere.

The next item was something I thought I'd never see again outside Japan: Akami (Special Portion of Tuna next to Chutoro).

This was a cut of Tuna that I had first experienced in Tokyo, Japan, and had never seen it before that. Imagine my surprise when Hiro-san presented us with Akami! It was excellent and was more enjoyable than the usual Maguro cut found in most restaurants. The Akami had just a bit of the fattiness (due to its proximity to Chutoro), and still had the great texture one finds in a good cut of Maguro, only slightly more tender. This was very good, but the Akami at Mizutani had this beat by a touch (freshness and the cut that we got from Mizutani-san).

The next piece was an Ohtoro Roll with special Pickled Daikon (Radish):

It looks so simple, but the pieces of the Ohtoro Hiro-san used, combined with his special Pickled Daikon (it was SO good and better than most of the Tsukemono flavors I've had prior), really made this standout. The saltiness and intense pickled daikon flavors were truly the perfect foil for the buttery creaminess of the Ohtoro, especially combined with the negi, rice and the nori.

Next up was a welcome return to... A5 Hokkaido-Gyu (Hokkaido Beef) Sushi:

He had lightly seared it on the open coals and quickly presented it to us. Like the previous presentations (Hoba-Yaki, Shabu Shabu), it was amazing! I enjoyed all the presentations of Hokkaido-Gyu, but would probably rate the Hoba-Yaki and then this Sushi preparation as my top 2 favorites; but truly, they were all SO wonderful.

Next up (we were beyond struggling at this point, but Hiro-san's dishes were so good (^_~)) was Anago (Conger Eel):

Perfectly roasted, and the quality of the Eel was very good. Definitely the best Anago I've had outside of Mizutani. The sauce Hiro-san used for this dish was just a bit too much and too heavy, when compared to the preparation by Mizutani-san, but besides Mizutani, it was the best Anago I've ever had.

Then we saw the Tamago (Egg). Finally! We knew that signaled the end of the Sushi, and a welcome relief from the wonderful array of fresh fish. :)

Tamago is always a nice test of the skill of the itamae, and the Tamago was nice and light and fluffy. Very well executed, and normally amazing, but it didn't come close to Mizutani's Tamago (which some people go to Mizutani's *just* for his Tamago(!)). But still very, very good.

Our dessert courses came at this point, starting with Fresh Papaya and Papaya Jelly, with Shiso and Ume (Japanese Plum).

The Fresh Papaya was perfectly ripe, and each "tip" of the Papaya that was cut, had a perfectly-formed piece of Papaya Jelly to complement it. The Jelly had a beautiful, delicate flavor that was a nice gradation from the actual Papaya fruit, and then the Shiso and Ume were really herbal and slightly sour, respectively, and fresh. A nice combination of different tastes that woke up my taste buds after having so many savory dishes.

Next, Hiro-san prepared some fresh Matcha for us! Matcha is a finely powdered Green Tea, and usually found in Tea Ceremonies in Kyoto.

The Matcha was really fresh and intensely flavored, but a bit milder than the Matcha I had at Hyotei (Kyoto, Japan). I prefer Hiro-san's Matcha, but really like the one at Hyotei depending on my mood. :) It was a nice treat to get this here in America.

At the same time, he brought us the final dish of the evening, a Sesame Ice Cream (Non-Dairy), with Azuki (Red Bean) and Pure Gold Flakes.

I've never had Sesame Ice Cream before and when combined with the Azuki, it was really, really nice! I normally find most desserts too sweet, but this Sesame Ice Cream had a really nice, nutty, complex flavor that was more fragrant and unique as opposed to pure sugary sweetness. It was an excellent ending to an excellent evening. The total came out to be $550 U.S. per person (including Tax & Tip), and it was worth every penny. (FYI: It's $300 per person, but we had multiple bottles of Kubota Manjyu and Senshin Sake - both excellent! - which brought up the cost.)

Having experienced some of Japan's best cuisine, and now having tried Urasawa in Beverly Hills, I can confidently say that Urasawa provides a true taste of Japanese gourmet mastery in Southern California. Having tried the amazing Michelin 2 Star-rated Modern Kaiseki cuisine of Ryugin in Roppongi, the wonderful knifework and skill of Sushi Mizutani (Michelin 3 Star-rated) in Ginza, and the stunning beauty of traditional Kyoto Kaiseki cuisine at Hyotei (which Hiro-san highly respected as we talked throughout the evening (he said Hyotei is a 14th Generation, Family-owned establishment! Wow.), Chef Hiroyuki Urasawa is forging his own path of excellence, essentially a *great* hybrid experience of an intimate Sushi restaurant with a sushi master, with Kaiseki cuisine. While I enjoy aspects of Mizutani, Ryugin and Hyotei more (and I enjoy aspects of Urasawa more), it's impossible to truly compare the entire experience of Urasawa to those restaurants that focus on a specific style.

Besides an intimate sushi bar with a master like Mizutani-san or Jiro-san, I have never been to a restaurant in the world that has the quality and amazing coursework and preparation, combined with the *intimacy* (he only seats 10 people per night!) and direct, humble, funny, interesting interaction with the chef, like what we have in Urasawa. In addition, Hiro-san is so humble and approachable. You *never* feel like you have to shut up and just admire what he's doing (unlike some other highly-rated Japanese restaurants), for example, Hiro-san asked me if I followed the Lakers, and wanted to know how they did that day (I told him they crushed Denver, and he was so happy :). Hiro-san is a true master, and I'm so happy to find a level of Japanese Cuisine excellence that is on par with the best in Tokyo and Kyoto, here in Southern California. Urasawa is easily in my Top 5 Best Restaurants I've ever eaten at (from L.A., N.Y., Paris, to Tokyo and Kyoto). Highly recommended!

Rating: 9.8 (out of 10.0)

218 North Rodeo Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Tel: (310) 247-8939


Anonymous said...

OMG! Great great great great review. This restaurant is pricy, but seems well worth its price. Boyfriend and I really want to go to Urasawa, but we just don't have this kind of money to spend. So we've decided to try to save up for a whole year then have a super fancy meal toward the end of the year. If we save enough, definately will be going to Urasawa. ^^

Exile Kiss said...

Hey eileen,

I replied to you on CH, but forgot to here. (^_~) Thanks for your kind compliments.

I think you'll have a great time with your BF at Urasawa. Let me know how it goes.

kevinEats said...

Nice job! This is probably the best Urasawa report I've seen, next my own of course lol. ;) (

But seriously, I'll be going back next week and your post gives me a tasty preview of what I can expect. I notice a lot of similar items from my last trip, but many new ones as well. I'll be sure to blog about it!

Exile Kiss said...

Hey kevinEats,

Thanks! I LOVE your reviews - I still remember drooling over your CUT review last year. (^_~)

Epicuryan said...

Very nice Urasawa review ExileKiss!

Hey Kevin try not to let your colossal ego take up all the space at the bar, there are going to be 9 other people sitting there with you this week.

Same review less pretentiousness :-P

Exile Kiss said...

Hi tangbro1,

I remember reading your review a while back! Nicely written and I love your pictures for the Sushi portion. (^_^) It's even more amazing considering you must've snapped those within the "10 seconds" that Urasawa-san demands from his patrons, hehe. :)

Can't wait to see how your & Kevin's 2nd visit to Urasawa will be like. I can't wait to go back myself.

RVD said...

Excellent review exilekiss. I'm glad you liked my review.

The first time I went there, I said I would just try it once. It's been 4 trips already for me...


RVD said...

oh yeah...that sesame ice cream is sublime. it has just that right mix of nutty, sweet but not too sweet, and creamy but not too creamy.

Exile Kiss said...

Hey RVD,

Thanks! (^_^) Once again, it was all due to your wonderful review and pics that blew me away the first time I heard about Urasawa. The rest is history. :)

Epicuryan said...

Hey exilekiss,

I must admit I couldn't sleep comfortably until I got this review done.

Craig Clemens said...

Definitely the best urasawa review I have read, and I have read a lot!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Craig,

Thanks so much for your compliment; I'm just trying to write about my experience and hope it was interesting to read. (^_^; Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I finally ate at the fabled Urasawa last night. To say this was a great meal would be highly understated. Definitely one of the top meals I've ever had in my life. 30+ courses, with specialty ingredients flown in from all over Japan and the world. One would be hard-pressed to find such an assembly of fine ingredients prepared so masterfully by an amazing yet humble & pesonable chef like Urasawa Hiro.

Not an inexpenisive meal by any means so I'm glad I bought my own bottle of Kubota Manju! Definitely worth it though.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for the report back! I'm so glad you enjoyed your experience at Urasawa. (^_^) Chef Urasawa is definitely a master, and it sounds like he continues to delight the customers with his amazing dishes. I'll have to go back soon. (^_~)

Anonymous said...

Yes, dining at Urasawa is more of an event rather than just a meal. He is so approachable and his technique is amazing to behold. Although the restaurant was full that evening I arrived first and basically spoke to him the entire time I was there as if I was the only person seated at the Hinoki wood counter. It was fun to use my limited Japanese (as I remember it despite studying it over a decade ago!). We even discussed the merits of the The Dotch Ryori Show which we both agreed was one of our favorite TV programs.

I, too, would love to go back someday (after I replenish the coffers!)

tjy57 said...

What happened to your review on Sushi Zo? Looks like the link to it is gone.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi tjy57,

I just haven't reviewed Zo yet (I had a review of the place about 2 years ago, but didn't take any pictures (it was before this blog), so I need to revisit Zo again sometime :). I'll update all the references / link when I have something. Thanks.

tjy57 said...

Just a followup comment... Looks like you just reviewed Sushi Zo. Great write-up and photos! Thanks again. Just a side note, I am a cancer patient undergoing chemotheraly and radiation. I use to crave/love sushi but have lost my sense of taste for the last 8 months. I am living vicariously through you right now. It really helps! But you never expected that from your reviews.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi tjy57,

Thank you so much for your kind words; I don't deserve it. (^_^;

I am humbled that these posts would be something you've enjoyed. I wish you the best and pray for your recovery.

Take care~

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