I've recently returned from a very brief visit to LA. Naturally, I scoped out somewhere decent to eat, in fact I scoped out somewhere that I was reliably informed was outstanding, one of the finest meals of my life. I was warned though that dinner at Urasawa would be unlike anything I'd experienced before. This wasn't just going to be sushi, this was going to be bespoke-Saville-Row-Rodeo-Drive-super-sushi. I was going to eat, over the course of three hours, Japanese food that was unrivalled. I was going to be feted by the chef, the revered Hiro-san, and I was going to be shocked and awed along with the other nine diners lucky enough to have secured a reservation. Not much to live up to then.
I had been looking forward to this meal for a long time. I've eaten in good sushi places, ranging from fantastic quality kaiten establishments to star-studded Nobu, but never in somewhere that had been deemed trully outstanding. Unfortunately, my trip to LA was slightly overshadowed by things going on back at home and frankly I was in a funk for most of my trip. It meant that when it came to the day of my meal, I wasn't quite as keen on the concept of shelling out a small fortune, to eat by myself in a deeply intense atmosphere, a menu that was entirely at the chef's discretion. Nonetheless, I decided to go ahead with it, especially as I had had a lengthy discussion a week prior to my booking with the restaurant explaining that I couldn't eat shellfish and meat. To which the person on the other end of the phone said "Oh, like kosher?" I was suitably reassured.
As I had been warned it turned out to be a deeply strange experience. My conversation with the kashrut-knowledgable telephonist had either not been communicated to the chef, or had fallen on deaf ears. I'm assuming it was the former because not only was chef Hiro one of the nicest and most accommodating people I've had the pleasure of meeting, but there was a cock-up in my booking. When I arrived at 8pm they were as surprised to see me, as I was to learn that this restaurant really is very little more than a sushi-bar with ten places, in the middle of which the chef works his magic. It turned out that they thought I'd cancelled my booking (this was an omen) and they didn't have any space at the bar. Rather than express righteous indignation that I'd made the booking, reconfirmed a week before, put down a deposit and was prepared to pay a small fortune, but still they cock it up, I got rather embarrassed and agreed to sit a table, set back from the bar, by myself, until a place became available at the bar. Don't get me wrong, they were very nice about it, very apologetic but it is a complete disgrace and made me feel very uncomfortable. A feeling stuck with me for the duration of the meal. My humour was not improved by a deeply obnoxious party of four who spent the evening either discussing how much money they were making, taking calls on their pink and diamond mobile phones or clicking their fingers at the waiters. Whereas everyone else was sitting there in awed silence.
Anyway, onto the food. It was sublime. I've found it hard to describe exactly what it was about it that made it so good, except to say that there was a savoury depth to it, unlike anything I've eaten before, in dish after dish. In the early days of my courtship with Silverbrowess I introduced her to the delights of sushi. Her one question before we sat down was "How many different things can you do with tuna and salmon?" A sweet, innocent comment that betrayed her provincial roots. She is now a sushi obsessive and was deeply peeved at not being with me to try out Urasawa. Once I tasted the tuna, I realised just how upset she'd be and just how versatile this fish is. All of the tuna from Urasawa comes from the best cut - the belly - of the best fish. The value of the belly is that it is lush with fat. I've had toro before, but never anything that had such depth of flavour. The sashimi was fantastic, lightly dipped in soy sauce. The saltiness of the dip, marrying well with the fattiness of the fish. The same was true for Ishiyaki: hunks of tuna, marinated in soy and sake that I cooked myself, on a hot rock laid out in front of me and that were then dipped in tosazu (soy, bonito, vinegar and sweet sake) dipping sauce (below left). The salt, the sour, the fat, the melting in the mouth. It was great.
There were other similar other-worldly dishes. Such as the tofu (above right) that had been marinated in a reduction of some kind. I haven't a clue what it was and forgot to ask. It managed to be sweet and savoury at the same time. It was one of a number of dishes that immediately felt right. It was blindingly obvious that these ingredients were far more than the sum of their parts and when put together in the right proportions by an alchemist, you have gold.
Unfortunately, a whole host of the dishes I was served came up with enormous quantities of just the things I had forewarned I would not eat. As the night wore on and more of these dishes arrived, I became unbearably uncomfortable. This was despite the beautiful sake, which I think was Kubota Manju sake from Niigita Prefecture. A drink that I'd only ever drunk, no gagged, when it was hot. When ice cold, I now know we're talking about an entirely different experience. Although rice based, it tasted distinctly plummy and went down very easily.
But back to my unease. The ante was only increased further when something came up and I had to leave. In a restaurant of only ten people, slipping out quietly is not easy. But I paid up and didn't feel fleeced for doing so, maybe because of the pleasure I'd had whilst I was there, maybe because I was a bit pissed, probably because I'm stupid. However, those who had warned me were right. This meal was a strange experience and Urasawa is not the place to go if you can't eat a large portion of the menu, especially when there isn't really a menu to speak of, you eat what you're served.
Despite these serious limitations, my meal had a profound effect on me. In particular it raised the question of whether one can keep kosher and still eat out at top-end restaurants. I have begun to wonder whether I need to compromise my love of eating in good restaurants, for my beliefs. There is no question of me doing it the other way round.
The more I've got into cooking the more I understand how things are cooked, what the hidden ingredients are, or should be and therefore how I might be breaking things I believe in. And I'm getting more and more uncomfortable with that. I know that for a lot of people my eating in non-kosher restaurants is a total anathema and means I have no right to describe myself as kosher. I tell them to go stick a roast chicken up their ass. I don't tell them what they're doing is right or wrong, so leave me to make my own mistakes and find my own way. Nonetheless, I might be coming around to their point of view. I'm not saying that I won't eat out, but I know that eating at restaurants of true quality - as a guide, however flawed lets use Michelin-starred restaurants - poses real problems. I know that if there is a dish on the menu with a sauce, that sauce is likely to have a meat stock, probably veal, as its base. I know that there is no-way the cheese will have vegetable rennet, I know the dessert might well have gelatine. The more I immerse myself in food, the less I can write-off to blissful ignorance. How I manage these issues is something I'm going to have to decide upon in the coming months. Yet my experience at Urasawa proved the point that eating at a restaurant of this quality teaches you new things about ones attitude towards food.
This soul searching really sums up my meal at Urasawa. It's made me fundamentally assess the way I view food, which has got to be a good thing. It also allowed me to taste some of the simplest yet finest food I'm ever likely to enjoy. Hiro-san reaches the apotheosis of the old adage that flavour comes from the best ingredients, not the way they're cooked. How simple is it to serve up a bit of tuna and some soy sauce? You may have tried this at your local sushi-bar, but I'd be willing to bet next month's mortgage (because I need to get it from somewhere) that it never gets anywhere approximating what I had.
So for this multitude of reasons I've given the restaurant my ranking of five stars. Because of the reflective mood the food has put me in, I have to give this restaurant five stars. It has altered my outlook of food and how I eat and for these reasons it deserves the stars. It has also made me realise that to fully appreciate food I need to eat in other top-end restaurants but this poses problems given my current state of religious guilt. Nonetheless, I do now fully appreciate the argument of those who say that one learns the most about food at the highest reaches of dining. That's not to denigrate simpler forms of cooking, it's just appreciating that only at the very top that the chefs have the access to the best ingredients, the full understanding of the essence of their ingredients, the flavours and textures and the marriages that work.
So I feel if I've got any hope of really improving my own cooking I need to go on a long food journey: I need to experience as much of the finest cooking as my taste-buds and waistline will allow whilst being true to my beliefs. This balancing act will not be easy and it is something I need to make peace with. I think the journey is going to be long and I know it's going to be expensive and challenging, but it should be quite fun.
Urasawa, 218 North Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210, USA
Tel: +1 310 247 8939
What others think
Gayot.com - Urasawa lets the flavors of his organic ingredients - many of which have arrived that day or the day before from Japan - speak for themselves.