When I called to make my reservation at Urasawa, the tiny and ultra-exclusive Rodeo Drive Japanese kaiseki restaurant of Hiroyuki Urasawa during my recent visit to Los Angeles, I was asked if I had any allergies or if there was anything I wouldn't eat. I sighed and responded, “bluefin tuna.” Bluefin tuna is one of the most delicious foods on the planet and Urasawa has a reputation of getting some of the best and doing it extreme justice. The problem is that bluefin has been simply too delicious for its own good and by most credible accounts appears to be close to extinction due to overfishing from extreme demand and extreme value and slow reproduction. I sighed because bluefin is, or had been, one of my favorite things to eat. Because of its precarious state and a perhaps overly optimistic hope that by not eating what is left of it, the stock may rebound enough that my children and grandchildren may someday be able to enjoy it in good conscience, I choose to not eat it. Ordinarily, I would simply avoid a restaurant that serves it, but I was curious to experience Urasawa and to see whether it would still be a great experience even without this ultimate delicacy. The response on the other end of the phone showed a touch of surprise, but no condescension. I would hope not, because even though I would be forgoing the costliest items of the meal, the price I would be paying would not be any less.
Bluefin otoro, but not for me.
I arrived to find only one couple seated at the bar. Frequent visitors to Urasawa, that night they happened to be celebrating an anniversary. We struck up an easy conversation, but before we did, I was greeted warmly by Hiro=san behind the counter. Asking me once again to confirm if I had any allergies or things I wouldn't eat, I repeated with some sorrow that bluefin tuna was the food I would forego that evening. That made no difference to Hiro-san, though I squirmed occasionally with regret and envy when he served it to the couple as well as two young men who came in some time after me to celebrate a promotion to partner. Eying the succulent and rich meat of one of the most beautiful predators of the sea, there was no question that I was missing some amazing morsels, but as the evening unfolded, I regretted my resolve less and less.
My first course of the kaiseki was one that Hiro-san usually makes with bluefin toro. In my case, however, he substituted Japanese mackeral. Though I've not had the original to compare it to, the substitute dish did not beg for a different treatment. Like toro would have been, the mackeral was rich and full of sea fat. Like the original dish, this was stuffed with monkfish liver, shiso and scallion, wrapped with senmai-zuke or pickled Kyoto turnip and topped with ossetra caviar and enlivened by a small pool of ponzu sauce. The presentation of the dish left no doubt that this was going to be an evening of luxurious dining. From the intricate gold plate to the briny caviar and everything in between, this was an opulent and thoroughly decadent way to start a meal. The visual, gustatory and tactile senses were instantly energized. The flavors were salty, tangy, sweet and rich. The textures varied from creamy soft to crisp and the pop of the top quality caviar simply brought everything together. Though not altogether innocent from an aquatic conservationist perspective even without the bluefin, I quickly learned that I would still be in for a special meal.
As I was alone and would be driving in a relatively unfamiliar city, I chose to keep my alcohol intake to a minimum. With assistance from the extremely attentive yet unobtrusive waitress, I chose a small bottle of Green River "Snow-Aged" Sake and didn't regret it's crisp palate that worked well throughout the meal. That it was poured into a beautiful and elegant, etched blue glass didn't hurt either.
As with the gold plate and the blue glass, the service ware at Urasawa is not simply an afterthought. Each piece is chosen by Hiro-san himself in Japan. His next dish of okra, abalone squash, tofu and japanese mountain potato was served in a rustic pottery bowl that aesthetically matched this deceptively rustic dish to a tee.
Gold leaf is a common adornment in Urasawa's kaiseki dishes. Perfectly edible (gold is actually a treatment for severe rheumatoid arthritis though it is typically given as an injection and does incur risk of side effects). The first dish I had with it was the Hokkaido Salmon Roe with Shiro Ebi (small white shrimp from Japan), shiitake mushroom, mizuna and edame tofu. I didn't even know they had salmon in Japan anymore let alone roe of this quality. This was a sensational dish on every level. They did not need to rinse out my bowl to clean it afterwards. The gold certainly increased the opulence of the dish, however, it's richness went well beyond it's lavish metal content.
Hiroyuki's dedication to every little detail of service is legendary. Each day he personally arranges and prepares the flowers and other details of the room. In addition, he carves an individual ice block for every diner. The block is used as a base to serve exquisite sashimi. I was served a variety of fish including amberjack and some wonderfully creamy uni from Hokkaido. Garnishes included freshly grated wasabi from Shizuoka, soy, red cabbage, carrot, seaweed and several varieties of daikon while the platter was accented with an orchid leaf,a chrysanthemum and river stones all set atop a dug out wooden platter. I could have just kept on eating this all night and would have been happy.
I was just as happy, if not more so, though, to keep exploring the variety of dishes the itamae would prepare for me. Ossetra caviar from Russia is another one of those luxuries that put a toll on one's conscience, though. Hiro-san served some with some true Kobe beef tartare and pickled radish in a one bite spoon. Perhaps it was my strained conscience, but this proved to be my least favorite dish of the evening. It wasn't that it was bad in terms of taste or texture. It most certainly wasn't, but then I didn't find the combination to be nearly as compelling as I would have thought.
More gold leaf and conscience strain followed with Shark Fin Chawan Mushi with Codfish Eggs, Shiitakes, gingko nuts, mizuna, ginger, bonito. Despite my misgivings about the shark fin and unlike the previous dish, this chawan mushi was spectacular. The soft custard was lacd with elements of various textures and sublime flavors. There is a reason why demand gets high enough to effect supply sometimes.
Based upon my own experience at Urasawa, it is clear that Hiro-san is a master of most if not all Japanese food preparation techniques. His tempura of cod sperm sac was simply perfect – ethereally light, greaseless and crisp on the outside with a meltingly soft interior. Dipped in the soy that was also the receptacle for a bit of special radish, it was at least the equal of any other tempura I have ever had.
My next course was happily guilt-free. Broiled lobster with Uni paste and pickled ginger shoot managed to provide luxury, great flavor, texture and beauty. Lobster and sea urchin are two of my favorite things to eat. This did not disappoint.
Some might have pangs of conscience eating foie gras. Knowing that good quality foie gras does not come from poorly treated birds, I have no such qualms. Ducks and geese are anatomically and physiologically different than humans. To anthropomorphize here just doesn't make sense. That's not to say that some gavage methods may not be problematic, however, they are likely to result in inferior product. Urasawa just doesn't serve inferior product. The foie gras and scallops along with the rest of the shabu shabu course was simply marvelous.
The shabu shabu course marked the end of the kaiseki portion of the meal. From there, Hiro-san led me into the realm of top flight sushi. The balance of rice, protein and condiments was always extraordinary. Watching him handle his knives. his hand and his brushes was a real treat. Here was a master totally in his element. From taking a live abalone, disgorging it from its shell and then cutting it so that it's texture was not just edible, but sublime, to his molding of the tiny shiro ebi or white shrimp into a morsel that practically dissolved in my mouth to varieties of piscine perfection that included hamachi, Japanese mackerel, squid, lobster, geoduck clam, unctuous uni and electrifying eel to grilled shiitake mushroom to aji no tataki – Spanish mackerel with scallion, shiso and ginger, all was a tour de force of flavor and texture.
Urasawa's atsuyagi tamago, a deceptively complex dish, announced the end of the savory portion of the meal. This was followed by dessert and a couple of different kinds of tea. Chez Panisse developed a cult reputation for serving immaculate fresh fruit for dessert, but it has nothing on Urasawa in this regard. I ate the most perfect and most delicious persimmon that I could imagine. It's flesh was a beautiful, unblemished orange and its texture was like a custard. The level of sugary sweetness was sheer perfection. Balanced by an organic matcha tea, this was an ideal course for this stage of the meal.
I still wasn't done, though, as the perfect persimmon was followed with a lovely truffle ice cream and hochija tea. I was sated and mostly happy. It was a truly great dining experience in just about every respect. Not having bluefin tuna did not diminish the experience one bit. Hiro-san's skills and the quality of his product are such that he need not rely on any one ingredient to produce a profound dining experience. Alas, my decision to forego bluefin was a bit hypocritical as bluefin is but one, albeit the most visible protein served at Urasawa that involves challenging one's ethical resolve. Urasawa is a restaurant that trades in luxury and treats product in such a way that makes one understand why that product is considered a luxury in the first place. However, one of the hallmarks of luxury is scarceness and rarity. Certainly not all, perhaps not even the majority of product prepared at Urasawa falls into the category of threatened the way bluefin does, but there is enough that does that dampens my enthusiasm for the chef's truly spectacular skills. I have never had a finer Japanese meal, but since I have become aware of some of the concerns regarding the direction of some of the world's maritime resources, I have not engaged in a meal with so much gilt and as much guilt (and that doesn't even include the guilt over spending as much money as I did on the meal).