Once there was a very famous Japanese restaurant in Beverly Hills called Ginza Sushi-Ko. The restaurant’s chef/owner, Masa Takayama, was probably the most famous Japanese omakase chef in America. Masa’s legend was twofold: first, he was famous for sourcing the absolutely best ingredients available, flying in many of them from the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. But superb ingredients alone couldn’t do it. The price of the meal, a then-unheard of $250, caused a great deal of commotion in the foodie community, and a cult following developed. But then one day Thomas Keller, the chef/owner of The French Laundry, and a fan of Ginza Sushi-Ko, convinced Masa to trade in his Beverly Hills address for a location in New York City’s Time Warner Center. Whatever the incentive Keller held out, Masa decided to take it, and he is now ensconced in a space just down the hall from Keller’s Per Se. Sayonara Chef Masa.
But the story doesn’t end there. Fortunately for Los Angeles sushi lovers, Masa had a second at the restaurant, the very talented Hiro Urasawa. Hiro realized that Los Angeles would remain a strong market for omakase-style dining even after Masa left town. Rather than close his doors, Hiro bought the restaurant from Masa. So there I was a few weeks back, riding up the elevator to the second floor of 2 Rodeo Drive with two friends, formerly regulars at Masa and now devotees of Urasawa, and a well-known American chef who is a friend of ours and a sushi fanatic.
When the elevator doors open, you are in what could be any other office building. The only indication that you aren’t there to meet with your family’s investment counselor or to buy fabric for curtains is a small sign that tells you to turn right if you are going to Urasawa. After walking down a 20-foot hallway with a few sharp turns, you come upon a set of noren curtains, which serve as the entrance to the restaurant. Parting the curtains and walking inside, you find an L-shaped sushi counter with three seats on the short side and six seats on the long side (the direction Urasawa faces when he works). There is one table for four behind the three-seat side of the counter. Urasawa, dressed in a formal Japanese robe, stands behind the counter. The only other person in the restaurant is a server who is also in charge of pouring beverages and clearing the plates after each course. My friends introduced me to Chef Hiro, and from that point on and for the rest of the evening he called me “Steve.” Whenever I needed anything, he would tell the server, “David, please pour Steve more wine.” Immediate friends.
There were three other people who were eating at Urasawa that evening. That’s the entire service for the night. Seven people. One wonders how a chef can make a living in that environment. But if you do the math, at $250 a head, that’s $1,750 worth of covers. We brought our own wine, but some people buy expensive sake off the house list. So his only costs are ingredients and those associated with operating a business. I guess one can make a tidy sum on sushi given that business environment.
The other group of diners had already started their meal when we got there at 7:45. I would say that they were four to five courses ahead of us, a gap that Hiro would eliminate by the time he was ready to serve sushi. When it was all over, he had served us 28 items, one course at a time, and it was 11:45. The notes on these dishes were taken by one of our foursome, who has eaten countless meals at Masa and now a few at Urasawa. I will add my some of own comments about the meal at the end.
"We started with scallop and seaweed from Okinawa with freshly grated wasabi and sudachi (Japanese lime) which was important in bringing out the flavor of the scallop. Then Hama fish eggs, yama kaki, shiso, and uni that had been bound with gelatin and then pressed into a cake using an Oshizushi box. I forced myself to eat it slowly so I could notice the different texture and flavor components. Then we were served a gift box containing eggplant with sweet white shrimp, marinated tai with pickled daikon wrapped in white nori seaweed, and roe that had been cured in sake and lightly smoked. This last piece was so good—resmbling bacon but not at all salty. Then sashimi which consisted of toro belly, uni, red snapper with shiso buds, curled carrots.
Then they presented a bowl containing small rocks that had been heated, and suspended above the rocks was a mesh screen holding two slices of red snapper. Hot sake was then poured through the screen and onto the rocks to create steam. They cooked the fish by covering the bowl for about thirty seconds. The first slice was terrific, but the second slice was a bit overcooked and stuck to the mesh. Part of the problem was caused by a service flaw. Hiro's sister usually does the serving but she wasn't working that night. She usually anticipates Hiro's needs and requirements but her replacement lagged three steps behind what Hiro needed and we ended up with a slightly overcooked snapper as a result. Fresh water eel with a smear of white miso and shiso with pickled bamboo was next. The combination was extraordinary and even the bamboo was a key element in this dish. Next up was Kobe beef sprinkled with citrus juice and wasabi. This wasn't the Wagyu beef that many restaurants now serve, it was the authentic Kobe flown in from Japan and the difference was noticable immediately. Then Shabu-Shabu with a paper cup holding a bonito-less dashi, and a plate with slices of Foie gras, hama hama fish, and kobe beef on the side. As we watched Hiro expertly slice the fish, we asked him about his knife. He said it is the same knife that Masa had bought for $1,000, but he paid $2,000 for it. He then said with a laugh, ‘I got the better knife.’
Served as sushi: Blue Fin Toro - fatty tuna; Maguro – regular tuna; Shima Aji – striped jack; Tai/hamachi; Ika – Squid; Sayori – Needlefish; Shrimp; Anago – salt water eel; Uni – sea urchin from Santa Barbara; Aji – horse mackerel; Tojadi – herring; Aoyagi – Yellow round clam; Mirugai – Long neck clam; Scallop; Fresh sweet water white shrimp; Abalone liver; Abalone nigiri; Spot Prawns – the prawns were alive and kicking; Grilled Shiitake Mushroom; Cherrystone Clams.”
We drank some delicious wines. 1995 Salon des Mesnil Champagne, not as good as the ’85 or ‘90 but still excellent, 1988 Corton-Charlemagne from Delarche, but unfortunately I didn’t catch the vintage, good but not special, and a 1998 Frederic Magnien Bonnes Mares which was just superb.
I thought it was a top-notch meal, but not really exceptional. As is typical with Japanese omakase chefs and the meals they serve, I find that there isn't enough cooked food for my taste, and I often find the cooked food to be a bit on the plain side. Based on an earlier meal that one of our party posted on the Opinionated About forums, I expected Urasawa to be a change from the standard omakase format, with more cooked food included in the meal. But those dishes weren’t served on the night I was there, and the meal seemed to be more traditional than the one I read about. One of our party speculated that summertime is not the best season for Japanese ingredients. In fact, when we asked Hiro about it, he said the fall was the best time for ingredients from Japan.
Another thing about the meal was that it was agonizingly slow, exacerbated by having to sit in what I think are uncomfortable stools. (I actually stood for long periods of time and ate a good portion of the meal that way.) I find this whole business of preparing one piece of fish at a time rather tedious, both from a time and dining perspective. There must be a good 3-4 minutes between each piece of fish, and after that wait, you get a single piece of jack mackerel or needlefish. Don't get me wrong, the quality is excellent and Hiro is a super chef and a super guy. But for someone who can burn as much hyper-kinetic energy as I can, the pace is dreadfully slow. We got there at 7:45, and it was 11:45 when we left.
When we were leaving, Hiro came out from behind the counter to shake our hands, bow and say good night. Having had a number of important omakase meals at places like Masa, Jewel Bako, and now Urasawa over the last year, I wondered how these restaurants stack up against Sugiyama. I used to visit Sugiyama fairly regularly, but haven’t been in about a year and a half. But I think it is time to return so I can do a mini ranking of these restaurants. A-