Having traveled and dined among Europe's best establishments, it often makes me not easy to eat and have favorable reviews on the US restaurants I've visited (Just to name a few, I've been to per se twice, Alinea, Joel Robuchon, Jean Georges etc). However, there is an exception and this belongs to my favorite dining place in the United States - Urasawa. The exceptional dining experiences I had at Urasawa have been tested over times as I have been there thrice in the last 3 years. They're consistently great. I will be more than happy to return there whenever I have a chance. This review will share my 2nd and 3rd meal I had at Urasawa (2010 & 2011).
When his master Masa Takayama moved to Time Warner Center - New York, Masa's sous chef and protege Hiroyuki Urasawa purchased and took over the small restaurant that's located in the heart of Beverly Hills, near the posh shopping complex of Rodeo Drive. The restaurant, formerly known as Ginza Sushiko , is more like a sushi bar, seated 10 fortunate guests every night and there's a table for four as well. The setting has simple design - the flowers and banners at the chef's background may change seasonally; the place itself is nearly spotless and comfortable. There is only one menu: the omakase that is known as sushi kaiseki. The chef would ask your preferences/diets and personalized the menu for the guest based on the many luxurious and freshest ingredients available that often flown daily from Japan. Without further delay, here are the dishes I ate at the LA's culinary temple
Summer Vegetables - Drink in one gulp, it was fresh and nice. You can taste vinegar dressing, yam, tomato, junsai, potato and radish. Most of the veggies are from Japan
Toro-Senmaizuke Maki - Urasawa's signature dish consisting of seared Toro, monkfish liver (Ankimo), pickle kabu turnip and caviar with Yuzu dressing. A balanced course: fatty tuna mixed well with creamy liver and caviar's brininess, the sauce is light enough not to dominate the dish
Goma Dofu (2nd visit) - Another famous dish at Urasawa, essentially it's a traditional Kyoto dish that mixes water, sesame, Matcha, Uni, and a bit of wasabi & gold flake. At first, you will taste the light sesame/green tea, then come the sea urchin's creaminess in the next layer. Don't forget to zip the Dashi (soup stock) for more depth, the wasabi would add a little heat. Not sure about the purpose of the golden leaves ...
Goma Dofu (3rd visit) - It is very similar to the previous dish except without any green tea element. The "tofu" made from Kudzu powder and sesame paste looks like a 'pillow' that encases sweet Uni. It's rather dense but somehow soothing to the palate; add a bit of freshly grated wasabi on every bite for better finishing .. seriously
Taka Maki - Cooked Sea Eel wrapped in squashed cucumber served with sweet mygo vegetable and sauce made from vinegar, sake and bonito. I generally enjoy any cooked eel while the cucumber gave the roll a clean taste to balance the eel with slight yuzu dressing below
Sashimi (2nd visit) - It consists of Toyama Kampachi (Yellow tail), Spanish Toro (Fatty tuna) and Hokkaido Uni served with Shizuoka wasabi. The Kampachi is of high quality (balanced of fat and flavor), the fatty Tuna is heavenly, and the sea urchin is sweet and creamy
Sashimi (3rd visit) - It consists of Kyushu Sima Aji (Striped Jack), Boston Toro and Hokkaido Uni (Sea Urchin) served with red cabbage, sea weed and wasabi. The Sima Aji displays a nice fish texture, the Toro is oily and palatable, yet delicate while the Uni is creamy and intensely sweet, typical Japanese sea urchin
Wagyu Tartar - Matsuzaka Beef Tartar served with Russian Caviar, Pickled radish and Red bell pepper. Arguably my favorite dish from the last visit and one of the best bite in my life. The beef is sweet and decadent supported by generous portion of caviar's saltiness, the pepper is enjoyably tangy. We're fortunate to have this dish since nowadays it's nearly impossible to legally import Japan's wagyu beef to the US
Tai - The Red Snapper, steamed with sake, along with seaweed wraps around Ebi, uni, Shiitake mushroom and scallion served with ponzu radish sauce. The clean and mild Snapper balances the shrimp and urchin sweet flavor; the sauce shows temperature as well as flavor contrast - another dish that's almost always served at Urasawa
Tempura - California Abalone was boiled in sake for a few hours before prepared in tempura style resulting in succulent dish. It has a wonderful crunchy and chewy texture with some salt and citrus flavor on it. Chew it as long as possible for maximum enjoyment :)
Chawan Mushi - This time the luscious Egg custard is served with Ikura (Salmon roes), shrimp, mushroom, Ginko, squash, gold leaf and Italian summer truffles. This dish is not only beautifully presented, but also very tasty - the texture is smooth and silky, rich but not cloying, complex with some tang and briny elements while the truffle is not too bad
Houba Yaki - The Magnolia leaf consists of Santa Barbara shrimp, Hokkaido scallop and Kobe beef served with Tama miso (grilled sesame paste with sake & sugar) sauce. The rich and delectable beef goes perfectly with the miso's flavor, the prawn is juicy and crisp, the scallop is delicate. The sauce is pleasantly sweet, but be careful it's really hot and can burn your tongue
Shabu Shabu (2nd visit) - The famous dish here consists of Hamo (King Eel), French Foie Gras, Toyama Squid and Kobe Beef. The server would do the cooking for us fortunately. The hamo is meaty and soft, duck liver simmered the longest is mild yet unyielding, the beef is flavorful as expected with sufficient fat and the squid is rather rich, can still taste a bit of its 'ink'
Shabu Shabu (3rd visit) - This signature dish consists of large and thick Sea Eel, Sweet shrimp and Duck liver. The dashi soup is quite good, the foie gras is my favorite this time - tender and creamy. The Hamo has an interesting texture while the shrimp is sweet and a bit firm surprisingly
Dessert 1: Peach jelly served with Goji berry. This is a decent palate cleanser
Dessert 2 (2nd visit): Goma pudding served with red bean paste, gold foil and sesame seeds. Hiro-San apparently loves anything relates to sesame ingredients. It's sweet, nutty and earthy. There is also a bowl of organic matcha tea (the tea powder is blended using a bamboo chasen)
Dessert 2 (3rd visit): Sesame ice cream served with Summer truffle and gold flake. The ice cream is rich and creamy, worked well with the earthy truffles. Possibly my favorite dessert at Urasawa
O Toro (Tuna belly fattiest part) - The best way to begin a parade of nigiri sushi. The toro is rich, marbling, smooth and melting in my mouth
Seared Kama Toro (Tuna Collar) - The fragrant fish is tender, buttery and a bit smoky
Kanpachi (Amberjack) - Tasty and creamy with pleasant texture
Seki Aji (Horse Mackerel) 2nd visit – This premium aji from Kyushu is delicate, mild and may melt in the mouth
Sawara Aji (Spanish Mackerel) 3rd visit - Another beautiful fish ... It's flavorful, little oily and still quite tender. Nice application of wasabi here
Tai (Red Snapper) - The clear fish is delicate with right addition of yuzu zest, fine texture
Maguro (Blue-fin Tuna) - Quite enjoyable though it's rather ordinary when compared to the previous fishes
Shima Aji (Skipjack) - Mild and crisp, one of the fishes with the most distinct texture
Ika (Squid) - Subtly sweet, smooth, silky and chewy. The addition of yuzu citrus works well
Mirugai (Geoduck) 2nd visit – The giant clam is firm and crunchy with a hint of sweetness. Chew slowly and enjoy it
Mategai (Razor Clam) 3rd visit - The sushi texture has been increasingly more chewy. The flesh is firm and crunchy with a hint of sweetness
Shiitake Mushroom - Grilled mushroom combines with vinegared rice producing earthy and delicious piece of sushi
Negi Toro Maki - The rolls consist of minced toro, crunchy radish, leek and fresh scallion. Decent ... I don't mind replacing this one with Ikura sushi actually
Uni (Sea Urchin) - Uni is better served as sushi than sashimi and along with Otoro, it's my favorite piece. Soft, creamy and sweet - perfect with warm sushi rice
Seared Gyusashi (Kobe Beef) 2nd visit – With some zesty flavor, this beef is sumptuous and to die for. Urasawa may no longer prepare this anymore …
Hotate (Scallop) 3rd visit - The mild and clean scallop is topped with yuzu and tasty 'brown' sauce
Chu Toro (Medium Fatty Tuna) - Most sushi chef would serve this after/before O Toro to show the slight contrast. It's lighter and less-marbled, nevertheless still very good and smooth
Shiro Ebi (White Shrimp) - A collection of several small shrimps makes up this soft and mildly sweet piece of nigiri. Some of the ebi may coat in your tongue
Awabi (Abalone) - The Japanese abalone is scored to make it more tender. Eating awabi is not so much about the taste (subtly sweet), but more into its firm & chewy texture
Ama Ebi (Sweet Shrimp) 2nd visit – It is sweet but clear & clean in the palate; the sauce, madefrom the shrimp innards, is good
Botan Ebi (Spot Shrimp) 3rd visit - Very pleasing to the eye! Freshly killed and prepared in front of us, it's garnished with its brain and soy sauce - sweet, somewhat crunchy and savory. Thumbs up ..
Aji No Tataki - Chopped Spanish Mackerel served with zesty ginger, scallion, earthy miso, and shiso. Complex with many complimentary flavors yet balanced. I've never had this outside Urasawa
Anago (Sea Eel) - Moist, succulent and rich, integrated well with the sweet glaze
Tamago (Egg) - A good sushi chef can simply be judged from the quality of his tamago, and Urasawa-san passed with high mar. This moist sweet egg custard resembles a rather spongy-cake with right amount of sweetness
Urasawa has selective wine/sake selection, relatively few but many are of good qualities. Some sake bottles I could remember of: Juyondai from Yamagata and Katsuyama from Miyagi (both are junmai-daiginjo, mainly made from white rice and koji). The wine lists include: '90 Chapelle Chambertin and '98 Dom Perignon Rose. For myself, I only ordered a small sake served in Tokkuri (flask) - Kubota Manju from Niigata prefecture. I love it, probably one of my best; the sake is delicious, smooth & silky in the mouth. It has a hint of dried orange aroma and a perfect dry balance. For the 3rd visit, I did not drink since I was driving. As far as the hospitality is concerned, actually Hiro Urasawa himself is the ultimate host. He's always friendly, gracious and accommodating to all guests, whether you are a regular or first timer. I considered myself blessed that I've always been seated in front of Urasawa-san including the last visit with my wife even though we're about an hour late (we reached there almost 8 PM). When I ate alone, he would happily initiate a conversation. Additionally, he would not let any guest go to the restroom or leave the restaurant without having someone open the door for him/her. It may seem like a small gesture, but this kind of thoughtfulness (besides the delicious food) is the very thing that create a memorable dining experience. The rest of the staffs are alright, but do not expect to engage to many conversation with them.
Hiroyuki Urasawa is a perfect example of Japanese master chef who is very devoted to his work and constantly in pursuit of excellence. Everyday, he works hard to perfect his skills of balancing precise execution and artistic plating in order to produce flawless dishes that are both beautiful and palatable. As you can see from the pictures, each course is divine and meticulously crafted. The chef will let the natural flavors of the ingredients to shine, inter-connect and speak for themselves. Nothing will be taken for granted - guest will also enjoy a distinguish balance of texture, temperature and freshness. Urasawa truly loves what he does and he does not mind sharing his experiences. He is really detailed and particular about his cooking. For instance, he uses about 180 grains of rice for sushi; he would patiently explain that he forms the rice differently for various cuts of sushi. Similar to many high-end sushi places in Japan, guest will not need to add any wasabi or dipping sauce here since the chef would put and brush the optimal amount of wasabi & soy directly on the fish/sea food before presenting them to the diner. Despite what he has achieved, Hiro-san is a humble gentleman. No matter what compliments you give him, he will usually respond by saying that his mentor, Masa is still a better chef. Possibly this is part of the Asian culture to never elevate his own status higher than his teacher. After having a few sumptuous feasts at Urasawa that usually last approximately four hours, this is arguably the best place to dine in the entire US - at least it's true for me.
Please follow the link below for the pictures, https://picasaweb.google.com/118237905546308956881/UrasawaBeverlyHillsUnitedStates2nd3rdVisit
Food (and Wine): 96 pts
Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts