Sunday, December 30, 2012

Yamakase (Los Angeles, CA)

Yamakase Restaurant
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Sun 12/30/2012, 07:00p-12:30a

What do you get when you cross Totoraku with Urasawa? I've often pondered about that unholy matrimony myself, but it turns out the answer is Yamakase ("mountain wind"), a semi-secret, invitation-only, fusion-meets-sushi omakase joint that opened last December in Palms near Culver City. It's the work of 48-year-old Chef/Owner Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, whom you may recall from The Hump in Santa Monica. Yama-san has teamed up with partner Stan Liu, who also serves as GM for the lilliputian eatery. The Hong Kong-raised Liu, for his part, was the founder of Kronos Digital Entertainment and Atomic Bullfrog, and was formerly VP of mobile content development at Walt Disney Internet Group before starting Kronos Games Online.

I was fortunate enough to get an invitation to dine at Yamakase, and jumped on the opportunity. Interestingly enough, we were joined tonight by none other than Chef Ludo Lefebvre of LudoBites fame, who made for a great dining companion, one who really appreciated the artistry going on here. As far as Yamakase's menu goes, there is none per se. Rather, you can expect a kaiseki-ish progression of about 20 courses--both cooked dishes and sushi/sashimi--priced at around $200 or so. To imbibe, thanks to the restaurant's new liquor license, there's a selection of sake, beer, and wine available, but part of the draw here is clearly the liberal BYOB policy with no corkage fee; it's a great excuse to bring out the trophy wines.

2002 Taittinger Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs Comtes de Champagne
For this final blowout meal of 2012, we took the opportunity to bust out some of the good stuff, starting with the 2002 Taittinger Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs Comtes de Champagne. This was a delicious sparkler, showing off an earthy sweetness initially, leading to a nice toastiness on the midpalate and finishing long with some great bread-y and mineral-y nuances. Light, bright, and very well integrated.

Jamón Ibérico with Caviar
1: Jamón Ibérico with Caviar
Our first course I found very reminiscent of a dish called "José Taco" that I'd eaten at the fantastic é by José Andrés in Las Vegas. We had here shards of jamón ibérico, finished with a small mound of caviar. The ham was fatty and nutty, with a rich, round flavor that was deftly accented by the sharp, focused, lingering saltiness of the roe.

2: Jellyfish
Jellyfish was wonderfully snappy and slippery, with a mild relish that was perfectly complemented by the use of earthy sesame, while the dish's acidic broth and cucumber cut through some of that heft. Probably the best jellyfish that I've ever had.

Japanese Butterfish
3: Japanese Butterfish
Japanese butterfish was stupendous as well, showing off a great texture and clean, delicate flavor, duly enhanced by the fish's sweet-ish dressing and thin strands of fruit. Loved the tiny baby peach hidden underneath, too.

1999 Moët & Chandon Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon
For my contribution, I pulled a magnum of 1999 Moët & Chandon Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon from my cellar, which, interestingly enough, I also brought on my second visit to Urasawa. I found the wine superbly well balanced, with a lovely acidity and minerality, set off by a subtle undercurrent of citrus zest and creamy toast.

Corn Soup
4: Corn Soup
Next up was probably the most luxurious corn soup ever, containing black truffle, uni, scallop, and a "special" scallop that comes in a triangular shell (I'm guessing tairagai, or pen shell clam). The key here was the sweetness of the corn, which paired well with the bittersweet urchin and mild scallops, all while the truffle contributed an earthy veil to the dish.

Kusshi Oyster and Quail Egg
5: Kusshi Oyster and Quail Egg
Here, Yama-san presented Kusshi oyster and truffle-infused quail egg in two forms. In the front, we had a preparation with crab innards sauce and yuzu, and it was delightful, with the weighty kanimiso enhancing the oyster's inherent brine beautifully, all while the yuzu provided a light overtone of citrus. The version with blue crab-sesame cream was delicious as well, with a sweet, rich, enveloping savor that paired especially well with the egg.

Homemade Tofu with Chicken
6: Homemade Tofu with Chicken
The Chef's homemade tofu with chicken breast, young potato, bamboo, and mushroom soon arrived, garnished with a dab of salty-sour umeboshi sauce. These were hearty, satisfying bites, with the chicken adding a superb savoriness to the dish, while the other ingredients provided further complexity and made for some great textural variation.

Vegetable-Mentaiko Aspic
7: Vegetable-Mentaiko Aspic
We had here what amounted to a terrine of spicy cod roe, asparagus, and baby tomato, set in a black pepper-yuzu dressing. This was a gorgeous amalgam of disparate elements, a deft mélange of salty, sweet, and bitter flavors encased in gelatin and taken up another notch by the lingering, peppery sauce. One of Ludo's favorites.

2004 Taittinger Champagne Comtes de Champagne Rosé Brut
For our third bottle of bubbly, we had the 2004 Taittinger Champagne Comtes de Champagne Rosé Brut. This one was surprisingly hefty for a rosé, full bodied with expected notes of berry fruit and an intriguing earthy character to it, bound by a countervailing minerality.

Yama-san Spooning Uni
Here, we see Yama-san scooping up some tiny tongues of Japanese uni for our next course.

Baby Snow Crab
8: Baby Snow Crab
Set in the smallest carapace I'd ever seen was a mound of snow crab meat, topped with the aforementioned uni and chunks of crab roe. It was a wonderful dish, with the pure, sweet, saline essence of the kani proudly displayed, augmented by the bittersweet brine of sea urchin while the roe added further complexity and depth to the dish. Ludo reveled in the sheer simplicity and beauty of the course.

9: Chawanmushi
Up next was the most luxurious, and perhaps the best chawanmushi that I'd ever had, one featuring gingko, halibut, truffle butter, seared scallop, shark fin, squid, sea urchin, and hairy crab. It was hot, hearty, and undeniably satisfying, a real celebration of the various seafood elements, all tied together by that egg custard. Delicious.

1979 Pierre Bouree Fils Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Les Cazetiers
With the Champagnes dispensed with, we moved on to the reds, starting with the oldest bottle we had, a 1979 Pierre Bouree Fils Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Les Cazetiers. The Burgundy was definitely on the mature side, with an earthy, vegetal nose and a dry, peppery character with a pretty strong acidity on the palate.

Yama-san Grating Salt
For our next course, Yama-san grates his 600 million year-old Himalayan rock salt, a gift from a former customer.

Halibut and Halibut Fin
10: Halibut and Halibut Fin
Paper-thin, translucent slices of halibut were joined by meatier cuts of halibut fin. The fish was so fresh, so clean, with a delicate taste that was beautifully perked up by fine pinpoints of saltiness. The engawa, meanwhile, conveyed a great touch of chewiness, and paired swimmingly with the salty caviar and whisper of citrus in the dish.

1985 Château La Fleur St. Émilion Grand Cru
Moving on to some Bordeaux now, we had the 1985 Château La Fleur St. Émilion Grand Cru, a well-integrated wine, surprisingly young tasting and restrained, with delectable berry nuances and some appealing tannins.

Marinated Tuna
11: Marinated Tuna
Cuboids of blue fin tuna from Spain were cured in soy and wasabi and served with pine nuts. The fish was lean and supple, with a fantastic depth of flavor courtesy of the marination process, while the nuts added a well-placed textural contrast.

Dewazakura Yukimanman 'Snow Country'
Next, we delved into sake with the Dewazakura Yukimanman "Snow Country", a daiginjo from Yamagata Prefecture that's been aged for five years. I quite enjoyed it, finding the sake sweet, rich, and viscous, with some marked fruity flavors balanced by a delicate touch of alcohol.

12: Needlefish
Needlefish, or sayori, is fairly hard-to-find, so it was great to see it offered tonight. The fish was paired with a miso vinaigrette, and I loved the zestiness of the shiso as well as the dish's citrus-y brightness.

2009 Maison Ilan Charmes-Chambertin Aux Charmes Hautes
Returning to Burgundy now, Ludo brought along a bottle of Ray Walker's highly sought-after 2009 Maison Ilan Charmes-Chambertin Aux Charmes Hautes for us to enjoy. This was a weighty one, rich and meaty and delicious, with a deft blend of smoke and berry fruit along with a slight herbaceous character. Quite nice.

Needlefish and Mushrooms
13: Needlefish and Mushrooms
The needlefish made a second appearance, this time in cooked form. Firm, dry, and fishy, the sayori melded well with the maitake and shimeji mushrooms, while the dish's viscous, peppery dressing did wonders in integrating all the various elements together.

Ham and Eggs
14: Ham and Eggs
And now, for something completely different, Yama-san served us breakfast in the form of an egg and jamón ibérico scramble atop toast. It was as straightforwardly tasty as you'd expect, with the salty ham pairing in classic fashion with the fluffy egg. Humorously, Ludo even likened this to a "white trash tartine!" Yum.

1990 Château Potensac
Back to Bordeaux we went with the 1990 Château Potensac from the region's Médoc appellation. This one was nicely structured, with notes of smoke and pepper laced with undertones of currant and dark fruit. Quite fitting with the beef to follow.

Yama-san Presenting Beef
Yama-san shows off the star of our next course: some beautifully-marbled Kagoshima beef.

Kagoshima Gyu
15: Kagoshima Gyu
We had here some real deal Japanese wagyu tenderloin from Kagoshima Prefecture, marinated in Macallan 21, dressed in a soy-Maui onion sauce, and garnished with a smear of yuzukosho. It was maaahvelous, the best steak I'd eaten all year and probably one of the best I've had, ever: ridiculously tender and fatty, with a profound depth and beefiness that was perfectly augmented by the meat's concentrated, sweet-ish dressing. I even loved the salty, spicy tang of the yuzukosho, too. Interestingly, during this course, Ludo mentioned that he'd also made a whiskey-marinated steak before at LudoBites 6.0, and indeed, that was quite simply the best steak that he'd ever served as well.

Kagoshima Gyu
Yama-san then gave us a "bonus" course consisting of the scraps and fat from the steak above. Fantastic!

Akitabare Suirakuten 'Heaven of Tipsy Delight'
Our next sake was a daiginjo from Akita that had been aged for two years, the Akitabare Suirakuten "Heaven of Tipsy Delight". I found it rather enjoyable and eminently balanced, with a delectably juicy fruitiness that played perfectly off of the smooth, rice-y notes in the drink.

Toro Sashimi
16: Toro Sashimi
Here was a small sliver of pink toro, buttery smooth and velvety on the tongue, with a keen fattiness that was deftly cut by the small dab of wasabi present.

Special Scallop Sashimi
17: Special Scallop Sashimi
Next was a cut of the "special" scallop mentioned above--mildly sweet and saline, with a fantastically firm, yet pliant consistency.

Yama-san Making Sushi
At this point, Yama-san began with the sushi, formed using rice made with the Chef's own recipe incorporating red vinegar.

Maguro Sushi
18: Maguro Sushi
A cut of lean tuna was just about perfect: silky and slick, with a superb, subtle brine and a wondrous contrast from the shari.

Mirugai Sushi
19: Mirugai Sushi
Geoduck was excellent as well, with an incredibly satisfying chewiness and a marked salinity adroitly tempered by the use of yuzu and shiso.

Kohada Sushi
20: Kohada Sushi
Gizzard shad was similarly flawless, one of the best preparations I've had in fact. Marinated in vinegar, the kohada arrived firm and oh-so fishy, but well-moderated by a touch of yuzu zest.

Toro Sushi
21: Toro Sushi
Rose-colored tuna belly was delightfully rich, with a mouth-watering taste that was elevated by a brush of soy sauce. Again, I just loved how the red vinegar rice worked in the course.

Butterfish Belly Sushi
22: Butterfish Belly Sushi
Our parade of nigirizushi ended with a cut of hard-to-find butterfish belly. Stupendous--clean, light, and refined, but with a certain gravitas to it.

Kokuryu Tokusen 'Crystal Dragon'
The third and final sake of the evening was one of Yama-san's favorites: the Kokuryu Tokusen "Crystal Dragon", a ginjo-class tipple from Fukui Prefecture. Although not as refined as the previous two sakes, it was still delicious, with fresh notes of tropical fruit contrasted by a base of boozy goodness.

Yama-san Making Hand Rolls
Here, Yama-san prepares our hand rolls.

Toro-Kani Maki
23: Toro-Kani Maki
The first temaki combined the holy trinity of toro, crab, and crab guts. It was phenomenal, quite possibly the best hand roll I've ever had, with the tuna and crab faultlessly augmented by the ocean-y intensity of the kanimiso, all while shiso and cucumber provided a touch of levity to things.

Ume-Kyuri Maki
24: Ume-Kyuri Maki
Our next roll served as a sort of palate cleanser, with plum and cucumber making this a light, refreshing course.

Yama-san Pouring Scotch
Yamakase has a small selection of single malt Scotch whiskies, which Yama-san and Stan kindly shared with us. Here we see the Chef pouring a bottle of Port Charlotte PC6.

Glenmorangie Signet The Old Malt Cask Macallan 20 Year Douglas of Drumlanrig Macallan 21 Year
Some of the restaurant's rare, pricey bottlings included the Glenmorangie Signet and two single cask selections from independent bottler and blender Douglas Laing & Co: the Old Malt Cask Macallan 20 Year and Douglas of Drumlanrig Macallan 21 Year.

Maguro Don
25: Maguro Don
Our final savory course brought us blue fin tuna and crab innards over rice, a hearty, satisfying conclusion to the meal. I wanted a bigger bowl of the stuff!

Young Peach Sorbet
26: Young Peach Sorbet
And finally, the Chef's bracing young peach sorbet for dessert.

My last meal of the year was undoubtedly one of the best. Yama-san's doing great things here, serving up some truly awe-inspiring Japanese cuisine featuring pristine, luxurious ingredients and an uncommon talent for incorporating Western techniques and influences. Amazingly, even at $200+ per head, this meal was a superb value, delivering an Urasawa-esque experience for half the cost. And let's not forget the generous BYOB policy, the gracious service coordinated by Stan Liu, and the sheer intimacy of the whole experience (and I do emphasize experience). I think Yamakase's going to be the next big thing on the Japanese scene here in LA, and I almost didn't want to write this post lest reservations become harder to secure in the future! I'm already thinking about my return trip--it's that good. Seriously though, if you care at all about Japanese dining, you owe it to yourself to give this place a try, if you can get in of course.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Sushi Murasaki (Santa Ana, CA)

Sushi Murasaki
2901 W MacArthur Blvd, Santa Ana, CA 92704
Fri 12/28/2012, 06:50p-09:15p

Named after a slang term for soy sauce, Murasaki has been on my OC sushi to-eat list for a while now. Opened in April 2007, the restaurant is owned by Tsutomu Saito (Tomu-san) and Daisuke Tamaki (Dai-san), who are also the two main chefs. I don't make it to Orange County too much these days, but a trip down to my wine cellar in Irvine gave me a good excuse to pop in for a visit.

Sushi Murasaki Interior
Inside, swaths of purple abound, fitting given that murasaki is also the Japanese word for the color. The decor is interesting, sort of a traditional sushi bar-meets-Pottery Barn aesthetic. There are a handful of tables available, but the real action is in front of the two chefs at the 10-seater counter.

Sushi Murasaki Drink List Sushi Murasaki Drink List Sushi Murasaki Seasonal Sake List
If you sit at the bar, you'll bypass the main menu (with its chicken teriyaki and other bagatelles) and go straight for an omakase experience. There's not really a set price, so the chefs will keep going until you tell them to stop basically. Our tab came out to a rather reasonable $106.95 a head for 25 courses, not including tax, gratuity, or beverages. Speaking of the tipple, you'll find your typical selection of beers, a few wines, and a decent list of sakes and shochus; I'd pay special attention to the seasonal sake offerings. Click for larger versions.

Kyuri Tsukemono
Along with the requisite gari, a small bowl of kyuri tsukemono (pickled cucumber) was placed before us.

Wakatake Onikoroshi 'Akino Ki-Ippon'
To drink, we ordered up a bottle of the Wakatake Onikoroshi "Akino Ki-Ippon" [$44], a tokubetsu junmai namazume sake from Shizuoka Prefecture. It was delicious, very fresh, and very smooth, with a distinct, yet delicate fruity character over a subtle base of savory complexity. Yum.

1: Kuromaguro
Our gauntlet of sushi got off to a strong start with this glistening, ruby red cut of blue fin tuna. The fish showed off a surprisingly satisfying depth, with a delightful, creeping brine countered by the zing of wasabi.

2: Hirame
A serving of halibut was light, pillow-y almost, with a mild relish accented by the fish's tangy sauce and a bit of heat on the finish.

3: Hamachi
The ubiquitous yellowtail I found spot on: fatty and beautifully complemented by soy sauce, with a good wasabi burn toward the end. I quite appreciated the cross hatching pattern inscribed on the fish here as well.

4: Tai
I'd never had a red snapper quite like this before. The fish itself was on point, but the crux of the course was the application of pepper sauce, which added a fantastic, lingering savoriness on the midpalate that really took the fish to the next level. Excellent.

Seared Hotate
5: Seared Hotate
The seared scallop was outstanding as well, with the sweetness of the bivalve playing gorgeously off of the bitterness of the char, all while wasabi gave the bite a tinge of heat on the close.

6: Kanpachi
Amberjack was tarted up perfectly by a dab of yuzukosho, which added a salty, spicy counterpoint to the undeniably clean, focused flavor of the fish. Delish.

7: Ebi
I would've liked some amaebi somewhere in the meal, but a cooked presentation of jumbo tiger shrimp certainly didn't disappoint. The snappy, springy texture of the ebi was much appreciated here, but the key was that intense, earthy, garlicky sauce on top, made using the liver of the crustacean.

8: Aji
Next up was a prototypical presentation of horse mackerel. The scallion and ginger combo really contrasted the intensity of the fish here, but was actually a touch strong for me, as I would've liked the aji to have shown through more.

Seared Sake
9: Seared Sake
The seared salmon belly was another standout of the meal: lush and fatty, and just bursting with smoky, savory, oily flair, all accented by a wonderful char and crunchy pricks of salt. Oishii desu.

10: Toro
Tuna belly was just what I expected, conveying an unabashedly soft, melty consistency, loaded with fishy goodness and perfectly counteracted by the application of soy.

11: Awabi
Abalone I found delightfully crunchy, with a stark, saline savor that was nicely accentuated by the umami-rich relish of the nori.

12: Mirugai
The geoduck, meanwhile, had a marvelous bite to it, simultaneously crisp, yet yielding, with a great brininess to boot.

13: Anago
Murasaki's sea eel was truly something special, arguably the best presentation of the fish that I'd ever had in fact. The key was what my dining companion described as a "multifaceted salinity," a deft combination of salty, ocean-y flavors that worked perfectly in concert with each other. Loved the crisp "crust" on the eel, too.

14: Uni
The sea urchin was cold, creamy, and sweet, with a lovely counterpoint in the form of the nori, but there was a bitterness on the finish that I wasn't too keen on.

15: Wagyu
Tonight's wagyu was from Kagoshima Prefecture, and was pretty amazing, with the rich, luxurious nature of the beef deftly balanced by the astringent char as well as a lovely piquancy from its acidic dressing.

Dassai Daiginjyo
With our first sake all drunk up, we opted for a small (300mL) bottle of Dassai 50 Daiginjyo [$21] to conclude the meal with. Compared to the "Demon Slayer" above, this one was heftier, with an almost sticky sweetness and round, viscous body and an undercurrent of rice-y and alcoholic notes.

16: Kaki
Oyster sushi utilized Kusshis, one of my favorites, and was delicious, with a great mix of sweet-saline flavors tempered by the use of scallion and momiji oroshi. During this course, we started talking with Dai-san about oysters, and ended up suggesting that he look into Shigokus, which I'd first had at Ohshima. Interestingly, Dai-san mentioned that Ohshima's owner had just eaten at the restaurant days prior--it's a small sushi world.

17: Engawa
Halibut fin was a real treat as well, with its chewy consistency on proud display here. Lovely flavor too, with a nice tartness and sharp pinpoints of salt.

18: Ika
Squid was next, and conveyed a creamy, mouth-coating consistency and a mild relish set off by the use of shiso and ginger.

Wagyu Steak
19: Wagyu Steak
At this point, Tomu-san brought out a beef course that he'd created on the fly. It was a hefty dish, with loads of bovine goodness and a lovely earthiness courtesy of the mushrooms, all accented by a kick of wasabi. I would've liked some more acidity here though, to balance out the intensely savory, salty flavors at play.

20: Kohada
Moving back to sushi now, the gizzard shad was quite nice, firm in texture, with a great fishy character that was adroitly moderated by a small sliver of shiso.

Seared Toro
21: Seared Toro
You can't go wrong with seared toro, and this was no exception. As expected, the tuna was wonderfully rich, oily, and yes, unctuous, with a superb char bitterness and a cool center, which made for an intriguing contrast in temperatures.

Spicy Blue Crab Temaki with Habanero Masago
22: Spicy Blue Crab Temaki with Habanero Masago
Here was Murasaki's take on the classic blue crab hand roll, and it was pretty amazing. The cool, sweet relish of the watarigani certainly made itself known, but the heat from the capelin roe was a really smart move, serving to counteract, yet not diminish the natural flavors of the crab. Loved the astringent bite of the greens here, too.

Toro-Takuan Maki
23: Toro-Takuan Maki
Next was a hosomaki filled with toro and takuan, with the weight of the tuna nicely offset by the crisp, tangy nature of the pickled daikon slices.

24: Tamago
The standard finisher of egg omelet was right on the money: dense in body, with a cool, sweet, hammy flavor.

Sushi Murasaki Dessert Menu
At this point, we were offered our choice of sweets off of the dessert menu. Click for a larger version.

25a: Pannacotta
The soymilk panna cotta I found nice enough, with the light, subtly-flavored cream serving as a foil to the tart, tangy berry reduction up top.

Smooth Pudding
25b: Smooth Pudding
Last up was Murasaki's signature dessert, which is almost like a Japanese flan. As the name implies, the custard was certainly smooth, with a mild vanilla flavor that played perfectly off of the sugary nuances of caramel present. The dollop of cream on top was a fitting touch as well.

Tsutomu Saito, Daisuke Tamaki Tomu-san, Dai-san
Chef/Owners Tomu-san and Dai-san are two wild and crazy guys.

I'm certainly glad I gave Sushi Murasaki a go. The food was largely delicious, with just a few minor quibbles here and there, and the lighthearted approach of the chefs was a welcomed change of pace as well (vis-à-vis the almost uncomfortably serious, stoic environs at a place like Kasen). It was definitely one of the better sushi experiences I've had in Orange County (and a good value too), and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it for all my sushi aficionados out there.