Crazy Ingredients and Exquisite Preparation at Urasawa

I spent part of last week in the LA area for work and had the opportunity on Thursday night to go to dinner at Urasawa with Chuck of Chuck Eats (and Drives).Urasawa was opened seven months ago by Chef Hiroyuki "Hiro" Urasawa, former student of the famed Chef Masa Takayama, who's ultra-exclusive Ginza Sushi-ko previously occupied the space upstairs from some of the ritziest boutiques in Beverly Hills. The bar seats ten and there are a few small tables, but on the eve of our dinner, we had Hiro's full attention for the first few hours of our dinner.We sat at the pristine, unfinished pale maple counter directly in front of the Chef's work area and the small but well-stocked display case. The case had a tall block of ice upright in the far end, which was both visually striking and, presumably, keeps the fish cool. The Chef began by asking if there was anything we would not eat. This is a surprisingly difficult question for me to answer. Yes, there are things I can't say I actually eat, but often that's because I haven't tried them yet. I don't like to look like a picky eater, but the moral objections that caused me to become a vegetarian at a very young age have not exactly disappeared. So what wouldn't I be willing to try? I left it with an expressed uncertainty about foie gras. Everything else was fair game. He seemed pleased. We started with a bottle of Urakasumi "Hiyaoroshi" Tokubetsu Junmai Nama unpasteurized fresh sake. 16% alcohol. Short fruit start with a strong, clean and hot aftertaste. Pleasant and a good complement and palate cleanser with the complexity of many of the dishes. Chef Hiro began his preparations as soon as we sat down. Here is the meal that unfolded over the next several hours. I didn't take a camera this time, but this Gayot writeup has some excellent photos.1. Fugu Salad 3 WaysBlowfish meat, liver, and diced intestine mixed with chrysanthemum and a light yuzu sauce and topped with gold flakes. This dish had an amazing balance of textures and flavors, with the tang of the yuzu cutting the richness of the liver. The Chef joked that he has only killed two people with blowfish, but we were not in the least concerned with his deft handling and sampling of absolutely everything before serving. I was a little nervous about the liver and intestines, but this dish was one of my favorites of the evening.2. Egg Custard with Uni, Sweet Shrimp, and Marinated Salmon RoeThe uni was buriedin the center of the custard and surrounded by the shrimp. The custard was then topped with a layer of the bright salmon roe and gold foil. The Chef also mentioned a vegetable in this dish that I couldn't identify. I had never actually had uni before, but it had a good salty flavor that was not overpowering and the texture was no issue with the custard. I usually don't like roe very much, but this was delicious: not too strong, fresh, with a great juicy burst. This dish was perfect! 3. "Bento Box" of Sushi Roll of Snapper and Shiso Leaf in Seaweed Paper, Tofu with Miso and Small Shrimp, Dried Snapper Row, and Pickled RadishThe shiso overpowered the other flavors in the roll for me. The beautiful seaweed paper looked like variegated green and white bark. The shrimp and miso blended with the bright soy flavor of the slightly warmed, decadently creamy tofu for a subtle but delicious bite. The dried bora snapper row--"the most expensive row"--was also slightly warm and a little like what I imagine beef jerky to be: dense, a little flaky, and very dry. The pickled radish looked more like a rosy ramp with slightly blooming layers and a crisp bite. The flavor was strong in an appealing way and not at all harsh. 4. Seared Toro with Radish and Turnip Puree and ScallionsThis has an intoxicatingly rich smell. The seared fish was topped with a fine, mellow-flavored puree of radish and turnip which was in turn topped with slivered scallions and gold flakes. The plate itself was beautifull white porcelain with a black circle mostly covered over with gold. I could eat this all day, every day.Hiro tapped the abalone with a single wet finger and it quickly closed up before it began reaching up the side of the case again. I had horrible waves of guilt and had to look away whenever I glimpsed the abalone moving.5. Ice bowl of Toro, Shima Aji, and UniThe serving piece was an elaborately fan carved ice bowl set over pebbles with two white double daisies. The bed of vegetables beneath the fish had frozen to the bowl by the time I reached them. The Toro, from Boston, had vivid pink and white stripess. This was not the pale-colored, melt-in-your-mouth Toro I've usually found, but despite the tendons and slight chewiness, it had a rich fatty flavor. The Shima Aji from Southern Japan was much better than any other I've had, with no fishy taste whatsoever. The Santa Barbara Uni (the first time I've tasted Uni on it's own) tasted like cold salty custard. Hiro commented that the Santa Barbara Uni is as good as that from Hokkaidoo, but much better when you factor in the 3 day transport time from Japan. Also in the bowl: a small ball of mustard-colored pickled cabbage and freshly grated wasabi.6. Cooked Abalone with Boiled Shiuji Intestine, Uni, and BonitoThis smelled almost like barbecue to me with a smokyrichness. The meat resembled a slightly undercooked shitake mushroom and was almost interminably chewyand without much flavor. Swallowing was all the more challenging as the still-intact abalone was at this point literally climbing the wall next to it's shell and looked intent on slithering out of the restaurant alive. Slightly cooking the Uni mellowed the fresh sea taste.7. Fugu Kala-AgéLightly battered and fried blowfish on the bone. The meat was only on the top side. Served with a very juicy lemon wedge. This had a delicious, complex and meaty flavor that was still very light. Another of my favorites of the night.8. Toro on a Hot RockA paper napkin was spread across the immaculate wood bar, then set with a plate with a thick salt cover and a round black stone radiating massive amounts of heat. Accompanied by a dish of 3 pieces of the highly variegated fatty Toro and a bowl of soy sauce. With only a few seconds of cooking the edges of the fish developed a caramel-like flavor.9. Shabu Shabu of Live Lobster, Live Scallop, and Foie GrasThe broth flavored with scallions came in what looked like thick paper folded into a bowl over a strainer basked set atop a very hot little coal fire pot. The lobster put up even more of a fight than the poor beast at Saws and actually splashed me as he flung about. Once on the block though, Hiro carved him more delicately and with deep attention. Some of the meet went back onto ice for later. Hiro had actually opened the scallop when the Fugu Kala Age was served and let it rest on the block. I had only one piece of the foie gras, though it was about the size of a slice of fish on Nigeria. I cooked it in the broth for about fifteen seconds, which rendered it tender, like butter, and just as rich. In the process of learning to eat meet, I am definitely NOT up to foie gras yet. I won't be having it again anytime soon. I did only slightly better with the lobster and scallop. I cooked the scallop for about 10 seconds and it was rather boring. (Chuck got my second slice.) The lobster meat had the usual translucent quality but was a bright peachy, rosé color. It had no smell and cooked quickly, but again didn't have a very exciting flavor to me and the second piece went to Chuck. I think I like my lobster with lots of butter and lemon. The remaining broth, flavored with the meats, was near boiling hot and delicious.10. Toro NigiriOne of my big complaints with sushi is often that the fish and rice are too cold. This was not the case here and the full flavors of both were open and delicious. Again, this was a darker pink Toro with greater variegation than I usually see but all of the richness I love in good Toro.We moved onto a small pitcher of another sake of which I unfortunately didn't get the name.11. Shima Aji NigiriVery tender, excellent fish.12. Grilled Toro NigiriBarely cooked through, tender, rich, and smoky.13. Bluefin Maguro NigiriThe sauce slightly overpowered the fish here, but still an excellent piece.14. Red Snapper with Grated Yuzu Rind and WasabiVery strong shisu flavor on this unusually mild, slightly sinewy fish. 15. Lobster NigiriWith even the cooked lobster here and at Saws being a challenge, the raw meet remains exceptionally difficult for me. 16. Kansaki Squid Nigiri with YuzuAgain, an almost overpowering yuzu flavor that didn't last as long as the gummy, chewysquid. I usually like (cooked) squid, but the texture of this one did not suit me.17. Live Giant Clam NigiriThe clam was scored diagonally. Very crunchy and chewy This ranked up there as one of the most difficult items for me to get down.The Nigeria all came in very quick, almost too-quick progression as Hiro started to anticipate the arrival of his other guests. On discussion of etiquette, he mentioned that you should eat the Nigeria within ten seconds of having it set in front of you. I tried to keep pace but did not always manage. We asked for a small break before continuing.18. Sea Cucumber IntestineI've always been a little afraid of sea cucumbers. Are they a vegetable? An animal? Edible? Well, apparently their intestines are not only edible, but an extremely expensive delicacy. The slimy brown, slightly stringy goo is incredibly salty. The sake definitely helped, though I liked the sake just fine without the sea cucumber intestine. I think this may be an acquired taste, though Chuck took to it quickly. 19. Baby Shrimp from Japan"Nobody has these in the US." Tender and sweet but weird in a way that's hard to describe.20. Live Scallop with YuzuTender and mild under the yuzu, which took on almost a balsamic quality?My daring was a bit worn out at this point and I was getting fully, so Chuck continued on without me for two courses:21. Kohada Japanese Herring Nigiri22. Saori (Needlefish) NigiriBack in the game:23. Grilled Shitake Mushroom NigiriThe smoky mushroom was very much like meat. 24. TomagoThis actually tasted a little like the Uni to me, with a salty, sea-like quality and subtle yuzu flavor. Amazing airy texture and subtle sweetness.And a few more just for Chuck:25. Pike Mackerel NigiriOutside seared with almost glowing-hot iron skewers.26. Uni27. RoeAnd for both of us:26. Half a Fuyu PersimmonPerfectly ripe so the inside was like jelly. 27. Sesame Ice Cream Topped with something I couldn't identify and gold flakes. This tasted almost like a creamy peanut butter, though not quite as thick and with a distinct sesame flavor. Creamy and not too cold. This was intriguing and very good. 28. Omacha Green TeaVivid wheat-grass green with thick foam on top. Very tannic and somewhat hard to drink.29. Roasted TeaSaddle-colored and moderate toasty flavor, but still strongly tannic.Hiro commented that he usually gets shipments from Japan on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, and sometimes on Monday too. He pays about $100 in shipping alone. On the night we were there, the day's shipment was divided among seven people. Considering the quality of the ingredients and the near private meal, the "standard" 29-course price tag of $250 (without tax, tip, or alcohol) doesn't seem unreasonable.I would happily go back to Urasawa if the opportunity arose--and I'm not sure I'll have much of a choice if my very-sorry-to-miss-it husband has a say--but I would do so with more confidence in what in Japanese food I won't enjoy eating. Perhaps my current preferences will evolve as I get more experience as a non-vegetarian, but for now, despite Hiro's extraordinary efforts and attention, some things (like food that can walk off the plate) just aren't for me. Still, I am rather proud to say I've tried things like sea cucumber intestine and still rank this as a wonderful experience with some truly delicious dishes.Urasawa218 North Rodeo DriveBeverly Hills, CA 90210310-247-8939