Friday, March 21, 2008

Little Hokkaido (Minamiuonuma, Japan)

Little Hokkaido
117-1 Muikamachi, Minamiuonuma-shi, Niigata 949-6626
Fri 03/21/2008, 08:05p-09:50p

We had an opportunity to dine at Little Hokkaido on a brief side trip to the Hakkaisan sake brewery, which is located in Niigata prefecture, about two hours north of Tokyo via shinkansen. Minamiuonuma-shi is a small city located in a valley area known as "snow country" due to the large snowfalls present in winter. It was interesting to see the contrast between this countryside town and the bustling megapolis of Tokyo.

Little Hokkaido is located on what seemed to be a major thoroughfare in Minamiuonuma-shi. Nevertheless, the area was quite sleepy when we visited.

The restaurant consists of a bar, along with a few tables. However, we were shown our own private dining room for our party of about 18 people.

We were able to try three types of sake from Hakkaisan: a ginjo, a junmai ginjo, and a daiginjo. The daiginjo was special in that it used an even more polished rice than the normal daiginjo (35% I believe), and isn't available for sale. I enjoyed all three, and thought that they compared favorably to my old favorite, Kubota Manju. The last bottle is a plum wine, which served as sort of an after dinner drink.

1: Tsubu
Upon first glance, I thought this rather intimidating looking thing was snail. However, upon biting into the flesh, I found a firm texture, slightly briny and unlike any escargot I've had before. After researching it a bit more, I think this is tsubu, or whelk, a marine gastropod mollusk. Taste- and texture-wise, the closest thing I can think of is abalone.

2: Beef Shabu Shabu
This definitely wasn't as marbled as the beef I had at Imahan the night earlier, and thus wasn't as good eaten raw, though it still was quite tender and flavorful. It made for a nice shabu shabu. Unfortunately, I neglected to take photos of the actual hot pot.

3: Crab Legs
Simply grilled, with a touch of lemon to heighten the flavor. Though extremely difficult to eat, it rewarded diners with a soft, sweet flesh that left me wanting more.

4: Sashimi
• Toro - The oiliness was there, but the flesh lacked the melt-in-your-mouth goodness that a really good toro has (such as the one I had at Kyubey a few night earlier).
• Ama Ebi - A decent example, though unfortunately I don't think the shrimp was deveined.
• Tako - This was the first time I've had octopus prepared like this. Usually octopus is cooked somewhat, but this was totally raw, which gave the meat an extremely chewy texture.
• Sake - Good salmon flavor, but the flesh was firmer than I prefer. It also came with the skin on, which I found distracting.

5: Baby Squid & Octopus
The squid were close in appearance and flavor to those I had at Imahan. The octopus was very similar to the sashimi above, meaning it was extremely chewy and gave my mouth a good workout. Both pieces were bathed in a tart, citrus-y sauce, along with some sort of seaweed.

6: Chawanmushi
A nice example of chawanmushi, an egg custard flavored with soy sauce, dashi, and mirin. In this case, shrimp and gingko seed were found in the mixture.

7: Horse Sashimi (Basashi)
Raw horse meat, also known as sakura (cherry blossom, because of the meat's color), was perhaps the most interesting thing I had on this trip to Japan. We weren't told what this was before eating, but after I took one bite, I somehow knew immediately that this was horse. The lightly colored pieces on the right were from the neck; they was rather crisp in texture and didn't have much flavor. On the left, we had cuts from the rump, which I found pretty lean, with a taste not unlike venison. Overall, I thought horse to be not particularly tasty, though not offensive either.

8: Broiled Cod
The fish was served with what I believe is a stalk of myoga, which had a ginger-like tartness to it. I don't normally eat much cod, but found the meat tender, juicy, and flavorful. Quite nice.

9: Tempura
Crab, prawn, zucchini, shishito pepper, with tentsuyu (dashi, mirin, shoyu) dipping sauce and daikon oroshi (grated daikon radish). A great selection of tempura. I enjoyed all the pieces, especially the crab.

10: Sushi
• Tamago - Mixed with scallions, the tamago had a sweet/salty interplay going on, which I enjoyed.
• Uni/Ikura - I've never had a mix like this before. The two types of eggs were good alone, but I'm not sure I understood the pairing here.
• Hotate - Nice texture, with a subtle sweetness, though it was a bit overpowered by all that rice.
• Sake - Rather creamy for salmon, I felt it was lacking the fish's signature flavor.
• Ika - A prototypical example of squid sushi.

11: Soft Serve
This was a bit of a surprise. Soft serve is something I'd expect for dessert after a meal at Hometown Buffet, not an adventurous Japanese meal such as this. Nevertheless, this was probably the strongest example of soft serve that I'd ever tasted. I later found out that Hokkaido is somewhat known for its "softcream," so I guess this dessert makes sense.

I definitely felt that the food here was more "rustic" in nature, as in not as refined as I'm used to for Japanese cuisine. Though some of the items we had were definite misses, I'd say that this was the most interesting meal of the trip, in terms of pushing the boundaries of my culinary comfort zone.


Blogger Aaron said...

Ah, horse sashimi. I'll need to do a culinary tour of Japan one day

Monday, March 16, 2009 10:31:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

While you're at it, see if you can taste whale. That's one that I would've liked to have tried over there.

Monday, March 16, 2009 1:23:00 PM  
Blogger Lex said...

I had kujira-no-nigiri a few weeks ago at the Tsukiji fish market, whale sushi. It tasted a bit like beef, not very special.

But basashi is one of my favorite Japanese dishes, I eat it at least twice a week when I'm in Japan - I love the dipping sauce!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 8:05:00 AM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Lex, what's the dipping sauce? I don't think that we were provided any.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 3:34:00 PM  
Blogger Lex said...

Soy sauce with grated ginger and garlic and some green onions, really delicious!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009 8:33:00 AM  

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