November 9, 2013
White. Pristine. Pure. That's the impression you get when you walk in the door of this beautiful modern restaurant. All clean lines, white linen, sparkling glass. This spare room is a stage for the food: you sit down and wait for the curtain to rise.
The menu announces "The Autumn Collection: Evolve with the Forest." So we're in fashion territory, as much as food. And here is how we are wearing our bread and butter today:
The bread (well, to be honest, one of many fantastic breads) is baked right at the table, in a little stone crock. It's wonderful stuff, chewy, laced with one of the Japanese lemons, and you take one bite, and then another, chasing the flavors until it's gone. The butter – dusted with charcoal, rolled in "moss" is irresistible too.
There are many dream-like courses. This langoustine appears, clearly vying for the title of world's best-dressed crustacean. Lovely as it is, it tastes even better.
Then there is the amazing squid, which is dressed at the table in a nitrogeon vinaigrette, all showy misty, steam that slowly evolves into a wonderful sauce. (And as soon as I figure out how to embed video in this blog, I'll show you how it begins with solids spooned onto the hot seafood, and deliquesces into a little river of the most delicious sauce.)
Then there is a soup, the intense broth made with this wicked creature, who proudly struts his stuff along the runway of the table, terrifying everyone:
The broth has soft chunks of bitter melon that melt in your mouth, and fatty, chewy and yet somehow crisp chunks of pork.
Next came beautiful plates, each holding a package, tied up like a gift. Servers prance around the table, opening each one so that vaporous mist rises through the dining room, perfuming it with the scent of tilefish, matsutake mushroom and the turtle essence in which its all been cooked.
Then the meat appears, a fashion statement, a vision in black.
It is quickly whisked away, to return wearing a new outfit:
Can you see the stripes of fat? It's an amazing piece of beef, adorned with what may be the tastiest little piece of onion I have ever tasted.
Cheese is next; when did the Japanese start making cheese this good? There's a washed rind cheese that reminds me of Epoisses – dense, runny, funky – and a cheddar-like cheese as well. Best of all? It comes with this bread:
After all this, you're expecting the dessert to be the bridal gown of this fashion event, and it does not disappoint. It comes to the table in a flash of shape and color, and everyone gasps. They're gorgeous, these little pastries – although to be honest, they're made more for the eye as the mouth.
Les Creations de Narisawa. If you go to Tokyo, go. As they say in France, vaut le voyage.
November 5, 2013
This is not the Tokyo of Lost in Translation, with its towering buidings, neon skyline and efficient transportation. This is the Tokyo of your dreams, a tiny restaurant on an alley lined with charming old-fashioned houses.
Inside, the chef sits, surrounded by his guests, an actor on a stage as he performs an ancient food ritual, pulling one pristine piece of crisply fried food out of the bubbling pot in front of him, and then another. Each is perfectly cooked, completely grease-free, and each morsel speaks with its own voice.
It is a long, langorous, gracious meal. The chef's mother pours sake, brings dipping sauces, an acolyte in service of the dining experience. Before the performance itself begins, she sets a plate of sashimi before you, perfect buri (large yellowtail), sweet, cold, rich. And then the show begins as chef Hitoshi Arai takes his seat and begins to cook.
A few highlights, among many:
Sweet, tiny fried shrimp, which put every other version I've ever tasted to shame.
Tiny crabs, all crackle and crunch.
Cured squid: funky, intense, a flavor that stops you in your tracks and resonates in your mouth.
Got milt? Yes indeed. A substance unlike any other: imagine a custard contained in a cloud, something soft, tender, gentle. Think of tofu, of an almost melted marshmallow. The flavor: rather sweetbread like. Wonderful stuff, this fish sperm.
Ginko nuts. In season now. Soft. Subtle. Irresistible.
Fried fresh ginger. The perfect palate cleanser.
This melon has ruined melon for me forever. I've never tasted any fruit so perfect.
Ice cold. Juicy. Fragrant. Pure. It reminded me of what Durrell said of olives: "A taste as old as cold water."
November 3, 2013
Walking down the cramped, narrow stairs to Sushisho Masa, a 7-seat counter in Tokyo, I have no idea that this experience is going to forever change my standards for sushi.
But as I inhale one extraordinary slice of fish after another, I begin noticing nuances of flavor I've never before experienced. Chef Masakatsu Oka is a pleasant, modest man who bends over the fish with a tender expression, intent on his work, but you can taste his passion in every bite. He's proud to answer every question: where was this fish caught?, how long was it cured?, why? I notice that he's not wearing the standard sushi chef's apron, but that of a sumo wrestler. A message?
I'm not going to go through every course of a dinner that lasted 3 hours and included at least 35 different varieties of fish. But I'll mention a few favorites.
Sea grapes – a seaweed from Okinawa – that is among the most refreshing palate cleansers I've ever encountered. Each little bubble pops in your mouth with a burst of brine.
Wild octopus – remarkably tender, with a creamy custard-like layer just beneath the crisp tentacles. I've never tasted anything quite like it.
Uni from Hokkaido. I've always thought Santa Barbara sea urchins were the best in the world. I was wrong.
Sanma. I wish I were a better photographer; this was so beautifully cut. And pure pleasure in the mouth. It was followed by the same fish, lightly grilled.
Tiny shrimp, each one no bigger than a fingernail, each one so soft and tender that it seems impossible it contains such depth of flavor.
Karasumi – Japanese bottarga – the mullet roe cured to an entirely different taste and texture than any Mediterranean variety. Soft without being sticky, the surprise is that it is not in the least bit salty. If you close your eyes, you might be eating candy.
Fluke – and its liver. I expect the liver to resemble ankimo, the rich monkfish liver that is the foie gras of the sea. But it is entirely different: softer and much more subtle in flavor.
Anago – sea eel – is a pure astonishment. It looks like every other piece of eel I've ever eaten, so I'm utterly unprepared for the almost fluffy texture of the fish. Or for the way it simply vanishes, melting in my mouth like so much snow.
Trout roe, which explodes in my mouth in a way you always wish caviar will, a tiny flood of flavor. The surprise here is, once again, that it is not the least bit salty. Just the pure essence of fish. Hiding underneath is a small ball of Mr. Oka's rather amazing rice, which he mixes with four different kinds of vinegar.
I'm skipping so many wonderful fish: small herrings, kohada, fantastic tuna, a tiny grilled fish I eat in one bite. But at the end there is this roll:
Toro, along with a strip of its own fat (Japanese lardo), and some finely julienned member of the onion family. Wrapped up in rice and seaweed, it makes me think of the motto of Prexy's, a long-gone New York restaurant: "the hamburger with a college education." It's a very elegant translation – and one of the most delicious things I've ever tasted.
At the end, of course, there is tamago, a tiny square of mirin-enriched egg that is the perfect final flavor. Then we're bowed out the door and up the stairs, and into the raucous Tokyo night.