This is a write-up of one of my very first meals at Urasawa. Since then, we have been back many times, but it is often the first impression that sets the tone for later meals.
Dinner at Urasawa started at 7:30 and ended around midnight. We were a group of 4. Besides the four of us, there was one other couple – just 6 of us for a night of adventure and incredible fish. A word about Hiro Urasawa’s fish – pristine is an over-used word and many times when you read that this or that sushi bar has the best fish, it is often an over-reach. But Hiro’s fish is really incredible, most of which has been flown in from Japan. None of his fish is pre-cut or displayed in a glass case. His fish sits on ice in a far corner of the sushi bar to be sliced, prepared at the moment to ensure that it retains this pristine quality. Only the toro was not quite the equal of Masa. Also, chefs talk about cooking seasonally, but Hiro pushes the envelope in this regard. Every fish, every garnish, every ingredient is in tune with the season. There isn’t one wrong note – this is harmonious food.
Hiro told us on our first visit that he is not going to have an assistant. He wants to pay very special attention to each of his diners so he is limiting Urasawa to 10 per night. Hiro is still limiting the seating to a maximum of 10, but he now has an assistant, his brother-in-law.
At Urasawa service is much more than serving wine and placing dishes. A first time visitor may be surprised that the guest is not supposed to take any dish from the chef. The server places each dish in front of the guest. Mako, our server, was very perceptive. She noticed that one of our guests was left-handed and set the table accordingly the whole night.
As the clock neared 11:30 when the parking attendants leave, she asked John for his parking ticket and some money. She went to the garage, paid for the parking, tipped the attendant the $ 2.00 she and John agreed on and moved the car to a space where we could exit at our convenience.
The look of Urasawa is much the same when it was Ginza. This is a calming space – the décor is simplicity; the light maple wood of the sushi counter has been lovingly taken care of. There is a superb flower arrangement in the open space behind Hiro, which sets the seasonal tone. On this night there were large bright yellow chrysanthemums arranged with driftwood throwing a splash of fall color into the room.
Hiro asked if there was anything we didn’t like and it doesn’t take a genius to realize what our answer was. Hiro is unassuming, shy but eager to please and he actually beams when he sees how much you are enjoying yourself.
Now for the details.
Fugu or Japanese Blowfish. A room temperature broth with small pieces of blowfish flesh, its liver, intestines and skin. The broth had chrysanthemum petals and shiso flower infused into it. Topped with 24 carat gold leaf. The extraordinary thing about this dish was all the different textures of the blowfish.
Goma tofu, Kyoto-style. A delicate pressed ball of tofu made entirely with sesame seed in a chilled liquid of mostly dashi seasoned with soy and mirin. Topped with Iranian Beluga Caviar and 24 carat gold leaf. This had an almost soufflee quality to it and my friend remarked that the taste sensation seemed to be front, middle and back in mouth-feel. The first photo shows the dish as first presented. Note the chopstick rest in the lower left hand corner which in color and shape is a reflection of the season.
Sashimi Sampling Served in a Hand-Carved Ice Bowl. Kama Toro from the cheek with shiso bud and micro purple basil, Sea urchin placed in a manila clam shell and “Nana-to-madai”, a firmer version of Japanese Sea Bream. It was explained that this fish was over 10 years old (John labeled it a 10 year old vintage) and came from waters with a very strong current thus a stronger fish with firmer musculature.
An ornately carved single Japanese turnip stuffed with cod fish cake and sweet shrimp. It was steamed, then chilled. It was served in a delicate bonito dashi thickened with starch and flavored with more chrysanthemum. Topped with 24 carat gold leaf.
Three Toro cubes marinated briefly in soy and sake and grilled on a hot stone that had first been “oiled with a piece of toro fat. A sauce of soy, bonito, vinegar and mirin was presented for dipping. The blazing hot stone is first presented. We were shown the correct way to grill our toro and then each diner is on his/her own.
Toro sizzling away on the stone.
On the brazier again… An inverted Hokkiado crab body filled with its crabmeat, “brain”, and roe. Generous sea urchin tongues were laid on top and then it was moistened with some bonito dashi. We were instructed to allow it to all come to a simmer and then eat the contents with a spoon.
Deep-fried piece of fugu on the bone with fresh grated yuzu.
Slice of dried mullet roe is given to chase a small glass of an artisanal sake whose distillery had just been destroyed in the recent earthquake.
Our server proudly presenting the sake.
A nabe, almost shabu-shabu like, with fugu, its liver, skin, Japanese turnips and matsutake mushroom.
Sashimi and Sushi now starts. Homemade ginger pickle, fresh wasabi and housemade soy are presented… Notice the fish to rice ratio. Hiro is of the school that 260 grains of rice per nigiri is the correct amount so the ratio is more fish, less rice.
Maguro, for contrast.
Steelhead roe brined and then cured in sake.
It is then presented with the finest toasted nori and rice. A separate sauce is presented of mostly dashi perfumed with soy, sake and mirin.
Nana-to-madai, the muscular sea bream on sushi with more yuzu and sansho leaf.
Thin slice of Kobe Beef warmed quickly over the brazier with homemade seaweed sea salt and fresh grated yuzu. For some reason I don’t have a photo of this.
Madai, Japanese sea snapper or sea bream nigiri
Japanese squid with yuzu juice and zest, house-made salt, presented as sashimi
Akagai, Japanese clam nigiri
Aji, or horse mackeral, cured in salt for 5 minutes presented as nigiri with more yuzu.
Akagai, Japanese clam Nigiri.
Otoro Hand roll
Kuruma ebi, or shrimp, cooked nigiri.
Shiro ebi, or tiny white sweet shrimp nigiri with yuzu.
Anago, fresh japanese sea eel nigiri. Great sauce.
2 fat pieces of Kobe beef quickly seared on the brazier with more yuzu
Sea urchin nigiri.
Big chunk of toro marinated in soy this time and then grilled. A souce of equal parts soy and mirin. It was interesting to compare the actual Kobe beef with the meaty quality of the toro.
Toro hand roll with scallion.
Hiro preparing the shitake mushroom nigiri.
Shitake mushroom nigiri served slightly warm.
Japanese cucumber with plum paste norimaki. Seasoned with shiso leaf and sesame seed.
Tamago (egg) with shrimp and grated mountain yam with soy and mirin.
Hiro having a much needed glass of wine. For some reason, I don’t have a picture of the next dish.
Fuji apple injected with Honey on a skewer.(no picture)
Urusawa excels in seasonality and creativity. This is a kyoto-style kaiseki meal that has all the elements of being carefully orchestrated. Artful presentation is essential which is even evidenced in the serving pieces; each one is specially selected. All the garnishes – even the real chrystanthumums surrounding the ice bowl – are selected to mirror the ingredients and heighten the seasonality of the meal.
Hiro’s kaiseki meal is a carefully composed symphony where the diner, as audience, is by turns charmed, calmed, surprised and satisfied. Hiro, as the showman not only chooses and prepares the food, but expresses his personality through its artful presentation. There is a very real connection between the diner and the chef. This is not passive dining or a traditional Western tasting menu. Much of the meal is dependent upon this “give and take” between you and the chef.
At Urasawa you are truly an “honored guest”. Hiro Urasawa does not over reach, over book or over promise. This is no haughty, celebrity chef or panderer to the “stars”. Hiro is glad to have “regular people” at his bar. Every guest is treated to the best of the best. And, he reveled in our pleasure, savored our wines and catered to our every need.
Our final assessment is that this was one of the finest Japanese meals we have ever had.