Monday, April 13, 2009
Sensory Overload: The Urasawa Experience
If Urasawa is not what a perfect dining experience should be, then I doubt anything else in LA could be. Granted, the cost is prohibitively expensive, and if I were to come back more than once, it would weigh more heavily on my review. But for a one-time visit, I felt good dropping $540 for the six-hour dinner. I suppose the cost just didn't bother me because I knew exactly what I was getting into fully anticipated handing over my paycheck to the Urasawa Corporation.
Hiro in intense concentration
The most common response I receive when describing my meal is always, "Was it worth it?" To most people, the idea of paying this much for a dinner is outrageous. But to them I reply that it is precisely that type of thinking that makes it so expensive. It isn't just a dinner, it's an experience. Why would you pay for a concert when you can download the song for a dollar? On the surface, if you view dinner as just a form of sustenance, you're doing yourself a disfavor. A life of subsistence is not a life worth living. People take pleasure in different ways; this happens to be my vice. But hopefully I can convey to those who don’t already know the multi-faceted pleasures of eating.
Throughout the night, I constantly found myself rubbing my palms and fingers against the silky smooth blonde wood of the bar. The attention paid to this counter was indicative of the meal to come. No varnish, no sealant, this wood was sanded daily to a soft finish. It was a theme I noticed throughout the night, elegance in simplicity. All ingredients served a purpose; the experience was sensory on all levels. Whereas most use of gold leaf is ostentatious and completely unnecessary, its effect as a visual stimulant spoke to the complete sensory arousal in this meal. Too often sushi is too flashy, especially in American rolls, monstrous creations often appropriately named Godzilla. Elegance in simplicity comes with care and expertise, not with a squirt of rehydrated “eel sauce” and hastily battered tempura. Our first course had the weighty responsibility of setting the standard for the night, but the toro senmai-maki demonstrated a graceful interplay of seared tuna belly wrapped monkfish liver, garnished with shiso, topped with caviar and dashed with ponzu. Layer after layer of flavors hit me, as each ingredient harmonized yet played its own melody. Like the successful concerto, culminating in rich euphony, this was a great way to start the meal.
First course: Toro Senmai-maki
Even if it's not his intention, Chef Hiro Urasawa is an entertainer. The fact that this is dinner and a show helps to soften the wallet blow. With your seat in front of the master himself, you are privy to watching the exquisite knifework and attention to detail. Had I not been seating in my prime spot, I wouldn't have enjoyed the experience at quite the same level. He answered our questions cheerfully, and I could tell when he took out his prime Ichigin junmai daiginjo sake that his passion is really in his craft. Our Cristal failed to impress him; he’s seen all manner of victuals over-hyped. It was Brian’s bottle of Nihonbashi 2007 Gold Medal winner sake that made Hiro’s ears perk. I would’ve scoffed at any hip hop glamorizing this bottle, but it was music to my ears to hear Hiro exclaim “so good” after a taste. That was how the entire evening felt; he was enjoying it right along with us, talking, joking, sharing.
Hiro displaying his Ichigin Sake
While there were several dishes I've never encountered before, most of the menu was fairly familiar for a regular Japanese food consumer. Of course, it was the highest quality examples of said items. I didn't mind that there was nothing so rare I would find no where else. The Saga beef, wagyu from the Saga prefecture was unique enough by itself. No Kobe here; I’m convinced now that Saga is the only way to go. The beef, whether seared lightly on top of sushi or braised for three-days with snow pea, had tenderness without sacrificing meaty flavor. Carved from the block of cow behind Hiro, the meat could be chewy in one moment, and melting the next. Texture influences so much of the sensation of flavor that we too often forget that the touch of your lips, tongue and teeth are integral to the eating experience.
Seared Saga Beef Readied for Sushi
Three-day braised Saga beef
I'm certain that the menu would be quite different coming here at another time during the year. For our early Spring dinner, the variety was not quite so extensive. One seasonal difference—the shabu shabu course of amaebi, Saga beef and foie gras came in metal bowls instead of the summertime paper. A quick dip in the broth and the shrimp was ready. Sweet as is, a splash of dashi helped bring out flavor depth. The unctuous beef and goose liver inundated the soup, making the resulting broth richer than many French stocks and so full of umami that I hesitated to swallow, lest one mouthful be gone. As indescribable as umami is as a flavor, I would direct you to Urasawa’s shabu shabu for a demonstration of its full potential.
Individual shabu shabu
The orchids along the wall are supposedly hand-picked by Hiro. I’ve heard of chefs personally picking the fish for the day, but Hiro goes beyond the food. He knows that he has staked his reputation on more than just the food; he has to make everything beautiful. While “stunning” is not usually a word used to describe Japanese food, the hand-carved ice block with Spanish toro, Kyushu tai and Toyama kanpachi flanked by a clean white orchid and bright orange slivers of Kyoto carrot was much more stunning in person than in the pictures. Colors abound, the taste almost took a backseat to visual appeal in this course…almost.
Most of the night was marked by a myriad of aromas, sometimes in front of me, sometimes wafting in from behind the curtain. The smell of the shiitake mushroom, grilling on the back-counter made me anxious for the renowned shiitake sushi, the only place I’ve heard it served before. Though the flavors of the fungus and the rice were slightly incompatible, the smell of wood permeated my nose. Yet this course paled in olfactory indulgence compared to the kani miso korayaki grilled hairy crab innards topped with uni. Each diner got his own hibachi with a simmering shell. Each bursting bubble sent waves of crab aroma into the air. My favorite course of the night.
Simmering hairy crab
We got to walk behind the bar after dinner and witness a huge kitchen for such a small front. I was somewhat dumbstruck by the massive mechanism behind the scenes, pushing forward twenty-six dishes or so to ten anxious diners. Come to Urasawa with an open mind and ready body. Hiro’s dishes hit all your senses, putting your body at ease so that your mind can enjoy. With your head floating in the Nirvana of culinary delight, you can truly forget the weight of your wallet.
Special thanks to Yoko for providing the photographs. Thanks to Kevin for his notes and borrowing his kick-off phrase. To all else who joined me on this adventure, I appreciated you sharing it with me.
For the play by play, please visit Kevin or Kung Food Panda's blogs.
218 N Rodeo Dr,
Beverly Hills, 90210
$350 omakase pp