218 N Rodeo Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
There are a multitude of reviews on Urasawa all over the Internet, and even more great photo streams minutely detailing each and every course. Instead of a full review, replicating what others have already done a fantastic job of, I wish to take a different approach. While i will discuss my experience there, I want to discuss it within the context of discussing the power of food, and how a single meal can shift your entire paradigm. Awaken the spirit. Sometimes, a dining experience is so pure, and so perfect, it transcends sustenance. It transcends art. It becomes a defining moment in your life.
First, some quick background. Urasawa is the restaurant that was formerly Ginza Sushi-ko, the Beverly Hills restaurant that Masa Takayama cuts his teeth on. Lured away by Thomas Keller to join him in NYC in 2003, Masa Takayama packed up his knives and left. His apprentice, Hiroyuki Urasawa, took over. Other than a slight change in approach, everything else stayed the same. The space, the price, and the quality. While many people were concerned about whether the apprentice could step into his master’s shoes, in short order, he proved he was more than capable of providing the same kind of transcendent experience.
Hiroyuki Urasawa is a chef classically trained in Kaiseki, and he has brought this influence to his restaurant. While both men serve an Omakase meal, Ginza Sushi-ko was a traditional Sushi-ko, while Urasawa serves part Kaiseki, part sushi. A meal at Urasawa will consist of around 30 courses. Some cooked dishes, and a lot of nigiri. Show up hungry, as the three hour extravaganza has defeated many lesser appetites!
So i first went to Urasawa in February, 2007. A significant, life-altering event had recently occurred, and it had managed to permeate its way into the rest of my life. I found no solace in work, friendships, or food. This was quite the departure for me, as my passion for food has been one constant through my entire life. However, over the previous 6 months, i had been growing increasingly discontent with the food i had been eating. No matter where you went, it was the same restaurants serving the same food – or trying to. Sous-vide this. Braised shortrib of some animal. Foam this. With varying degrees of success. There was no originality. Creativity. No one was doing anything inventive – nothing inventive in terms of a fresh approach to food anyways. Chefs would play with their food. But i wasnt interested in foams, gelees, or other food comme science project concepts they were developing. I recognized the importance of their work. I just didn’t want to eat it on a daily basis.
My brother and I had been talking Urasawa for a while. I finally decided to pull the trigger. I called him up, pushing the Urasawa agenda.
“LA, it’s not that far”. “$400 bucks isn’t that much for a meal”. “The experience of a lifetime!”
I’ll be honest. I wanted to get away. And do something fiscally irresponsible. It was the safest form of self-destruction i could manage. My brother, feeling sympathetic, agreed to tag along for the ride. A much greater pragmatist than I am, he did check with me to make sure i knew what i was doing. I didn’t really know, but i wouldn’t let on. I’m stubborn that way.
I call to try and make a last minute reservation. Surprisingly enough, Hiro-san picks up the phone. “No reservations for the day you are requesting… maybe a different day?”. I mention i am flying down to LA specifically to eat at his restaurant, and those two days were the only ones available. He seems surprised, but still cannot do anything for me. I hang up, disappointed. My brother consoles me – many other places to eat after all! I think he’s secretly relieved at not having to fork over the cash.
The next day, I get a call back from Hiro-san. Apparently, they’ve had a cancellation, and he remembers my desperate plea. I hadn’t left my number with him, because he said there was no chance we could squeeze in on short notice. Yet he called me back anyway. He can squeeze us in. Late seating. Non refundable deposit required. We’re in!
On the day of, my brother and I show up at the appointed time. The entrance is discrete, and provides little foresight into the experience that lies behind the Urasawa curtain. We are greeted by name as we enter, and taken to our seats immediately.
My brother had brought a couple of excellent bottles of wine with him, and they were taken and put on ice. We were brought some nihonshu menus, and they looked too good to turn down as well. We ordered a small bottle. Service was impeccable all evening. Quick, quiet, efficient.
When everything was ready to go, we were slowly served our dishes, one at a time. Hiro-san was serene. Friendly. Very accommodating. He moved like a dancer, quietly, and efficiently, prepping the meals for all the diners. A few words of instruction. A quick description. Back to his knife. Something about his presence, and demeanor, struck me as different. He was not a sushi nazi (Sushi Nozawa), nor was he insincerely humble. He loved what he did, and it showed.
Later that weekend, he confided to me that while he is doing ok, he is not really in a position to take a vacation. While he charges a lot, his overhead is tremendously high as well. A prolonged shutdown would require him to close the restaurant. He loves what he does – he lives to prepare food. And he cooks food the way he wants to, and that is his reward in life. This is the kind of man I want to feed me. He’s not in it for the glory. Nor for the money. But for the love of it. “No time for relationships” he laughs. “I work out to ensure i can deliver a quality meal day in and day out, and i cook”. Single-minded dedication.
The dishes come out at the same stately pace. Long enough to appreciate. Not long enough to get bored of waiting for the next dish. Agedashi Tofu. Uni. Shirako. Gold leaf. Foie gras. Lobster. Beef. Toro. Fish of all kinds. Shellfish. Ingredients of the most amazing kind and quality. All delivered with a clear purpose and flavour. “Do you have kanpachi?” he is asked? “No. Not the best season for it. Best in summer.” He serves what is best, when it is best. A very Japanese approach.
Dish by dish, I am blown away by the simplicity, yet sheer power of each flavour. Texture, flavour, size, all perfectly balanced. Everything is taken into account. And with each subsequent moan of pleasure, each bite exploding with pure flavour, I feel myself, awakening. This is how food is supposed to be. It’s so simple really. Just like life. Why must people make it so complicated?
By the end of the meal, I’m a little more than tipsy. Partly on the wine, but mostly on the experience. I was shown a new way of understanding food. Simple was better. A clear purpose. Great, quality ingredients shouldn’t be manipulated into something we didn’t recognize, but allowed to speak for themselves. There was an entire world out there of places that were trying to reach for this ideal. The small, simple dishes. This was what I had been looking for, and didn’t even know it. I loved food again. And i was ready to attack this new challenge with vigor. A whole new way of looking at the food i ate. And a whole new way of appreciating it.
My brother gets into an argument with Hiro-san over the best Dim-sum in LA. We’re invited to Dim-sum on Sunday so Hiro can prove his point. He’s right, of course. My brother grudgingly agrees. “This is better.” Of course, does dining with an all-star chef mean we get better food? Perhaps.
We part on polite terms. I don’t believe he knows the impact he has had on me – i probably don’t understand it at the time either – but it doesn’t matter. He left an indelible mark on me. Long after my memory fades, and my memories of each dish are ancient history, I will always remember one thing: his passion. Through his food, he was able to rekindle my passion, and adjust the way I looked at dining. My curiosity and adventurous spirit was back. I was ready to tackle food again, with a born-again perspective on taste.
I have dined at Masa, Tsukiji, and a multitude of restaurants all over Japan, and i have to tell you, Urasawa is better. Sure, it was a vulnerable time for me. And yes, clearly, there must be places that do it better with fresher ingredients in Japan. But the entire situation was a perfect storm. I have had no better restaurant experience in my life, and if you can feel half of the elation i feel regarding this meal, then i know you will have had the most amazing experience. As far as i’m concerned, $400 is a small price to pay for the experience of a lifetime. There is no price you can put on the value of happiness, and a renewal of something you are passionate about. And if I had to do it all over again, at twice the price, I still would.
Dinner at Urasawa is not dinner. It’s an experience. I have no wish to go into a blow by blow on each dish, but I don’t think it’d be fair not to mention a few dishes. I’ll leave you with some of my favorites.
The traditional kaiseki sashimi course, served on an ice block. The most perfectly marbled o-toro on the left, the best Tai i’ve ever had in the centre, and amazing ama-ebi on the right.
Shabu Shabu with freshly killed lobster, Wagyu Beef (i believe this beef was from Yonezawa, from the Yamagato prefecture), and Foie Gras.
The true test of a Japanese Sushi Chef’s skills lie in the Tamago. And surprise, surprise, Hiro-san passes.
His cooler of “goodies” – purchased fresh from the market every morning that he opens. Urasawa opens by reservation only, so there is never anything leftover from day to day. He orders what he needs, nothing more.
Im hungry. Off to eat!