Saturday, May 17, 2008

Shark Fin Ramen?! - Torrance's 2008 Mitsuwa Umaimono Gourmet Fair

As previously mentioned, I visited the 2008 Mitsuwa Umaimono Gourmet Fair in Costa Mesa, CA. However, according to the promotion, not every Mitsuwa Market had the same vendors, with the Torrance branch of Mitsuwa Market having at least one restaurant not featured in Costa Mesa (Chibakiya and their Shark Fin Ramen!). Intrigued, I stopped by the Torrance Mitsuwa to see how their version of the Umaimono Gourmet Fair was.

We arrived early to beat the crowds (around 11:00 a.m.), and the first thing that was different was just the space: The Torrance Mitsuwa is larger overall, and as a result, the vendors are able to have a more spacious layout. There were also a few more food booths in the main hall section, but one less vendor in the restaurant area compared to Costa Mesa.

The first thing we tried was Takoya Kukuru's Takoyaki (Octopus Pastry Balls). It was extremely disappointing at the Costa Mesa location, but I wanted to give them a 2nd chance (and see if the cooks at the Torrance location were any better). This time, I also specifically asked for the Takoyaki Sauce on the side, to try and minimize the loss of the crispy, flaky outer crust. We got a freshly made order, and sat down to try them immediately.

The idea worked like a charm: The Takoyaki turned out to be much more appetizing (and not the gooey mess like last time). There was a *slight* crispy/flaky exterior, but not enough to make it stand out. The Bonito shavings and a dip in the Takoyaki Sauce made the 2nd try a much more enjoyable experience. The Ueno Park vendor still has this one beat easily, but it was pretty tasty and better than anything in So Cal.

(Revised) Rating: 7.0 (out of 10.0)

Next up, we had to try the (in)famous "Shark Fin Ramen"(!) that's been getting a lot of attention since its announcement a few weeks back. We entered the main Food Court area and found the vendor: Imagine my surprise when I found out it was THE Chibakiya Ramen-ya that I had wanted to try on my last trip to Tokyo! Although it was written on Mitsuwa's website, I didn't put two-and-two together to figure out that this "Chibakiya" was the same one from Edogawa-ku (Higashi Kasai) that Silverjay was always mentioning.

That was encouraging news, and it helped reassure me (a bit) when I plopped down the $18(!) for one bowl of their Kaisen Fukahire Ramen (Shark Fin Ramen). Their Shark Fin Ramen is a Shio Aji base, with "loads" of Collagen(!) and a Chicken Broth mixture.

After a few minutes our order arrived:

Upon initial glance, the Fukahire Ramen looked like it was sitting in a crystal-light broth normally found in a Shark Fin Soup preparation at traditional Hong Kong Seafood restaurants. Looking at the Shark Fin that was used and it was easy to see that it was a lower-quality Shark Fin (of course it's only natural since higher grades of Shark Fin can push the cost of a serving to 3-5 times the price that Chibakiya was charging). First was a light sip of the soup. Delicious.

Chibakiya's broth was wonderfully light, yet rich in flavor, and still refreshing! Their highly-touted Collagen-infused homemade Chicken Broth Shio-Aji Base was apparent. The Negi (Green Onions) combined very well with the broth. I could drink the broth all day long!

Next was a bite of the Shark Fin with their Ramen noodles. What came next was a sensation of happy satisfaction and disappointment all at the same time: Their Ramen noodles were *great*! A nice toothsome bite, yet still tender; definitely great, fresh Ramen that they were using. I liked it more than Santouka's Ramen noodle. However, the disappointment came with the simultaneous tasting of their Shark Fin: It was a really low-quality Shark Fin (which is still rare and a delicacy), but it was inconsistently cooked, and with the nature of a lower grade of Shark Fin, its texture was a lot more rough and hard at times. Of course it isn't fair to compare the Shark Fin to the wonderful bliss I experienced at the Shark Fin specialist in Taipei and amazing, grand "Seafood palaces" in Hong Kong, but if the bowl of Ramen is selling at double the cost of what a bowl normally goes for, and it's because of one ingredient - Shark Fin - then of course there are certain minimum expectations for that star ingredient.

Overall, the wonderfully light and fragrant Chicken-Collagen-Shio-Aji Broth and good Ramen noodles made for a distinctive and interesting bowl of Ramen, however a few factors made it disappointing, namely the star ingredient, the Fukahire (Shark Fin)'s quality. In addition, the broth itself, while really nice and light, was definitely something more akin to a pairing of traditional Hong Kong / Cantonese-prepared Shark Fin Soup, instead of what one would normally expect from a Shio Ramen Broth, but it was a nice change of pace. Given the $18.00 price for the bowl of their Fukahire Ramen, it's just not worth it. If money is no object, it's nice to try it once, if for nothing else than the experience and ability to claim that you've eaten Shark Fin Ramen. (^_~) (And again, the Noodles and Broth were excellent.)

Lastly, after the meal, it was really nice to discover that Chibakiya's head chef, Chiba Kenji-san, was in the kitchen preparing each bowl of Ramen! I chatted with him briefly, and he told me that this Fukahire Ramen was only for this 2008 Mitsuwa Gourmet Fair, and that he wasn't serving this back in Japan! He gave me his personal business card and thanked me for trying the Ramen today, and for visiting his store in Tokyo on my next trip. :) I still have to try his famous Gyu-tan (Beef Tongue) Ramen in Tokyo soon, but it was really cool seeing Chiba-san in person! (^_^)

Rating: 7.5 (out of 10.0)

Given the success of the 2nd try Takoyaki, we decided to try a few more flavors of the Korokke (Croquettes) from Hokkaido's Kuriyama Korokke. In looking at Kuriyama's booth at the Torrance location, it definitely benefited from the larger space:

They had enough room to separate and keep each type of Korokke warm. We tried out the Kuro Edamame (Black Edamame), Kabocha (Pumpkin), Hotate (Scallop) and Kani (Crab) Korokke. While the Costa Mesa location's Korokke were decent and enjoyable, the Korokke were on another level at the Torrance branch! The Kuriyama staff at the Torrance branch had excellent execution in each Korokke we tried: A perfectly crispy exterior (that was fried at the right temperature to prevent excessive oil absorption) was wonderful, and each inside was piping hot and tasted fresh. The Black Edamame filling was probably the best one: Fragrant, simple vegetable goodness, combined with the potato filling to make a great croquette. The Kabocha (Pumpkin) version was also a nice complement and filled out each bite with a wonderful mixture of two different starchy ingredients (in a good way). The Scallop and Crab Croquettes were the most disappointing: There just wasn't enough Scallop and Crab in each one to really enjoy their flavors. Nearly every bite was mostly potato filling with just a small hint of Scallop (or Crab); it was almost non-existent.

(Revised) Rating: 7.2 (out of 10.0)

We then went around to visit the other vendors that weren't at the Costa Mesa branch. First up was a booth from Yamagata Prefecture - Anchindo - selling Deka Kintsuba (Large Cube of Azuki Red Bean Dessert). I've never seen this type of dessert before and they were making them fresh, so we decided to try it.

The Deka Kintsuba is sold in two flavors: Regular (Azuki Red Bean), or With Chestnuts.

The Kitsuba dessert was interesting: Its visual look was more appealing than the actual taste. It was as described: A large cube of Japanese Red Bean (Azuki) in a paste / gelatinous form. It isn't very sweet (a good thing), and if you're a fan of Azuki, then it's worth trying. Otherwise, their other desserts were better executed.

Rating: 6.7 (out of 10.0)

Next we tried the Inari Okawa also from Yamagata Prefecture in Japan. Inari are the deep-fried Tofu Skin and this presentation has each one filled with different ingredients. It was sold at the Costa Mesa branch's Food Fair as well, but we didn't get to try it last time.

Each package of the Inari Okawa came with 5 different types. At this point I was really full, so I let the rest of the group eat them. :) I sampled a bit of the Azuki (Red Bean) Inari, and it was competently done. A bit too sweet for my tastes, but not bad.

One of the dining companions has a love for Konnyaku, so we tried out the special Tama Konnyaku, a famous dish from Yamagata Prefecture as well:

And at $1 per stick of 3 Dangos (3 Balls of Konnyaku), it was a bargain. It looked just like regular dessert Dango, so I was expecting something sweet, but it turned out to be a wonderful savory dish, long-stewed in a broth of soy sauce, mirin, octopus and a few other ingredients. It was surprisingly complex for being made out of pure Konnyaku, and it definitely reflected the long-stewing process that the Tama Konnyaku were put through. They also served it with a dab of Karashi (Japanese Mustard) which was a surprisingly wonderful contrast of flavors that worked well with each bite. With its high fiber content (often seen as a "health food"), and simple, light taste, it was a nice item to try at the food fair (especially for only $1).

While I was pretty full at this point, my companions still wanted to try other items, so we continued on: Next up was the classic Yaki-Imo (Roasted Sweet Potato) cooked over heated stones. They had this at Costa Mesa as well, but we didn't get to try it last time. The Yaki-Imo was being served from Cadeau de Chaimon a dessert specialist in Ginza, Tokyo, that is a branch of Chaimon from Kyoto (all part of the Shirohato Food Corporation in Japan). This Sweet Potato was being touted as Kanmitsu Annou "superior sweet potatoes", and with their pedigree of Ginza and Kyoto, I was excited.

We bought one and sat down to try it: Sadly, it was overcooked. It was only around 12:00 Noon on Saturday (so it was prime lunch hour), but our sweet potato was dried out and overcooked. The flavors that were inside were nice, and tasted different from regular sweet potatoes found in the local markets, but with such a pedigree and their advertising, it should've been better than this.

Rating: 4.5 (out of 10.0)

Shirohato Corporation also brought their La Poppo line-up of the (sweet) Potato Apple Pie and a unique dessert made of their Yaki-Imo, but with Cream and in a pastry, called "Yaki-Imo Sweet Potato." We didn't get to try it, but it definitely had beautiful presentation:

What was also really nice about today's experience was that many of the food vendors were offering samples of their products, which allowed for a good taste of what was being offered (and to see if it meets your fancy). With the sampling, I was able to hold off on buying Mochi from Furuya Koganean, based out of Shibuya, Tokyo. I've always known Shibuya as being fashion-crazy, but known for their Mochi Desserts? I'm not sure of that (maybe for trendy, pretty-packaged dessert items (^_~)), but it was nice to sample the Kinako (Toasted Soy Flour), Matcha (Fresh Green Tea) and Goma (Sesame) flavors which were good, but nothing mind-blowing. I was too full at this point and held off. Maybe next time. :)

The last item that we tried today was Kome Dango. The sales lady was touting their Dango (normally made with Mochiko) as being made from a simpler Rice Powder mixture, which would make the Dango less chewy and softer to eat. I'd never tried Kome Dango before, so we picked up one order.

Each package comes with 5 flavors (we only tried the Black Sesame and are saving the rest for later :) - Mitarashi (classic), Sakura (Cherry Blossom), Black Sesame, Azuki (Red Beans) and the last flavor I'm not sure of yet.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect was that the Kome Dango was just as chewy as regular Dango made from Mochiko, but there was definitely a bit more of a rice grain flavor. The Black Sesame was OK, nothing special, but I'm used to fresh Dango in Japan, so I might be biased. :) It suffices in terms of trying out what Dango are like, without having to fly to Japan, but it's not a "must-try" item.

There were quite a few other items that looked delicious to try at home. These items were all flown in from Japan just for this Gourmet Fair. Here are some pictures of a few of the items. Fresh Bamboo, Sakura and items to put over a bowl of fresh steamed rice:

Here's some tasty-looking "Umi no Kagayaki" ("Brilliance of the Ocean") Bento (Lunch) Boxes:

Overall, I'm glad that Mitsuwa Markets put this event together. The 2008 Mitsuwa Umaimono Gourmet Fair had its Hits and Misses, but it was an interesting experience overall. For next year, it would be nice to be able to accommodate *all* the vendors in each location, so that the Costa Mesa and Torrance (and San Diego) branches of Mitsuwa Market could host the same experience (and so that die-hard food lovers wouldn't have to drive to multiple locations to try out all the vendors (^_~)), but regardless of that, it was a good effort. In the future, I'm hoping the invitees can somehow raise the overall quality of their food at the fair, but I realize it's asking a lot for some food categories (like Ramen with perfecting a broth on short notice for a simple weekend fair; and just working in a foreign kitchen with limited time / access to ideal ingredients). The Mitsuwa Gourmet Fair continues through Sunday, May 18 at the Costa Mesa and Torrance branches of Mitsuwa Market. It's a fun time if you're in the area, but probably not worth a long drive.

Mitsuwa Market
21515 Western Ave.
Torrance,CA 90501
TEL: (310) 782-0335

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