Umi (Tokyo, Japan)

Umi
3-2-8 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-0062
Dining date: 10/29/12

umi exterior

While I’ve had a fairly smooth experience dining by myself at various sushiyas around town, I’ve largely been missing out on a lot of the interaction and dialogue. It’s a key part of the experience, so I was excited to finally go to one with a Japanese-speaker (granted, I still didn’t understand most but at least got some translated).

My friend Tomo was in town for part of my stay and picked out a restaurant for us to try – Umi, a non-descript small Michelin two-star sushi spot in Aoyama. What separated Umi from other restaurants in the guide was the fact that it scored well on Tabelog, Japan’s Yelp-like user review site (which is supposedly more reliable).

The sushi chef hails from Hokkaido so, naturally, much of the fish he chooses comes from this seafood-centric region. Even in Los Angeles, the area is well-known for its shellfish, so there were no complaints here. Impressively, the chef recalled the exact weight and locale for many of the fish prepared on this evening. There were no stated prices or a menu, but the omakase was ¥21,000.

Real wasabi is much easier to come by in Japan.

wasabi

marinated ginger

marinated ginger

beltfish

beltfish

Cooked but served cold, this was a denser fish with an onion and dashi (I think?) complement.

chutoro

chutoro

Often one of my favorite cuts, this was expectantly very tender with a nice fatty content.

raw cod roe

cod roe

Soft and almost mushy in texture, I thought the roe had an interesting naturally subtle smoky flavor.

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sardine

sardine

aoyagi clam

aoyagi clam

This was the first of a bunch of shellfish on this night (particularly clams). Two different parts of the clam were served, one with sea salt and one dipped into soy. The first was very chewy while the second was much sweeter and tender.

kawahagi/filefish

kawahagi

liver with ponzu

This was an interesting one, served with a dip of its own liver and ponzu. The sauce was mixed together and the fish dipped in, yielding some very delicious bites.

tsubugai/whelk sea snail

tsubugai

Slightly chewy with a clean flavor, complemented by a choice of soy or sea salt.

I’m a sucker for green tea, especially when it’s iced. When I saw some some neighboring diners consuming it, I had to have it. Only…this was matcha green tea and shochu. Apparently, tea and shochu is a common thing here (oolong tea works SO well). Green tea and shochu? Not quite as well…the green tea wasn’t strong enough to balance out the alcohol.

matcha shochu

abalone

abalone

Just a little bit of a crunch, though still tender, with a nice sea flavor.

oyster with sudachi

oyster

This was a huge oyster – talk about a mouthful. From Hokkaido, it was cool, creamy and delicious. A little bit of citrusy sudachi made a perfect duo.

shiokara/squid in its internal organs

shiokara

Salty with just a little bit of heat – loved the texture.

ikura

ikura

Something else from Hokkaido, I thought this was excellent. Cool, refreshing and not at all salty, it was served atop some warm rice.

smoked bonito

bonito

This was one of the best bites of the night, a gently smoked bonito dipped in a sauce made of soy, ginger and onion. The fish was rich and fatty; the imbued smoke flavor just went so well with it.

shishamo/smelt (pregnant female)

shishamo

daikon with miso

daikon

Crisp and fresh with a bit of a bite; I thought the miso was a welcome savory accompaniment.

yellowtail heart

yellowtail heart

This was a unique one. Chewy and soft, it had a texture very similar to beef heart without as much of a meaty flavor. I liked it.

karei/flatfish

karei

Soft and tender with just a little bit of citrusy yuzu zest.

squid

squid

octopus

octopus

kisu/sillago

kisu

kohada/gizzard shad

kohada

Rich and full of fishy flavor, this was a nice kohada.

saba/mackerel

saba

Another one that was really flavorful and kind of fatty in a good way.

uni/sea urchin

uni

As expected, this uni was from Hokkaido and also excellent.

akagai/ark clam

akagai

This was another clam – not sure I’ve had it before. It was definitely chewy and less sweet than the previous ones, but with a richer sea flavor.

hokkigai/surf clam

hokkigai

Another variety of clam – less of a chew but sweeter.

botan ebi

botan ebi

ebi roe

Sweet and kind of spongy, I really enjoyed this. Loved that the roe was served too, displaying a nice texture and additional flavor dimension.

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otoro

otoro

Soft, silky and fatty – an excellent example.

akami

akami

We went leaner here and this was still excellent. It still had very tender flesh with good flavor.

anago

anago

Some yuzu zest was sprinkled to offset the richness and sweetness of the eel and sauce, respectively. Melt-in-mouth texture…another excellent one.

cucumber maki

cucumber maki

Beautifully cut, the cucumber was sliced so thinly to get a very nice crisp texture.

fried shrimp head

ebi head

The shrimp returned, fried. Crunchy.

miso soup

miso

This was supposed to be our last dish of the evening. However, while chatting the chef revealed he’d been curing some bottarga and showed it off. When the patrons inquired about it, he let us all have a piece of the rare treat!

bottarga

bottarga

bottarga full

I don’t think I’ve ever had bottarga in this way. It had a soft, yielding texture that was almost gelatinous. There was a lingering salinity and a subtle sea flavor, washed down with a bit of sake (the chef said bottarga had to be consumed with sake).

The atmosphere at Umi was lively and pretty chatty. It was probably the most easygoing of any of the sushiyas I’ve been to so far; I just wish I knew more Japanese. Food-wise I thought Umi had some of the best fish quality I’ve tasted on this trip, but what really separated this experience was the variety of fish, particularly shellfish. I counted about 30 different fish/cuts on this night, by far the most varied on this trip. Highlights for me were the filefish dipped in its own liver and ponzu, oyster, smoked bonito, uni, botan ebi, anago, and bottarga. This won’t be a meal I’ll soon forget.

Other sushi in Japan:
Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi | Sushi Dai | Sushi Daiwa | Sushi Kanesaka | Sushi Yoshitake

Beige Alain Ducasse (Tokyo, Japan)

Beige Alain Ducasse
Chanel Ginza Building 10F
3-5-3 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Dining date: 10/28/12

beige exterior

In between bowls of soba and ramen and countless plates of curry rice, tonkatsu, yakitori, sushi and sashimi, I’ve scattered a few French meals into my itinerary. This was the second (after L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon). Beige Alain Ducasse is a collaborative effort between the chef and Chanel, located on the top floor of the Chanel building in Ginza. The Michelin two-star restaurant is Ducasse’s only upscale venture in the country.

beige interior

beige interior

Having been in Tokyo for just over three weeks now, I can confidently say it’s a fantastic food city (but we all knew that…).  While Japanese food is the obvious dominant player, French food plays a prominent role in the food scene from casual to high-end. Notable French restaurants and chefs have been coming to Japan for some time now (both to eat and to open restaurants); the legendary La Tour d’Argent opened a Tokyo outpost almost 30 years ago. Many notable French chefs have opened up outposts here including Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, Michel Troisgros and even Paul Bocuse. I don’t think any city in America has matched that (Las Vegas may come the closest); when considering the multitude of Japanese that have studied French cooking in France (and returned home to cook), it’s easy to see why it has become a significant presence in terms of Western flavors.

I originally intended to dine at Beige during lunch and sit on the rooftop terrace overlooking Ginza. However, the dinner menu looked much more interesting to me, so I ended up making a dinner reservation. Unfortunately, it was a rainy evening so the view of Ginza wasn’t nearly as good as it could’ve been. Staff at the restaurant apologized for the rain at least a half-dozen times throughout the evening, reflecting the culture and service standards in Japan.

beige view

A tasting menu (¥22,000) was available, as well as 4- and 5-course prix fixe meals (¥12,000 and ¥17,000, respectively). I had my eye on some dishes in particular, so I went with the 5-course menu.

ham on focaccia

ham focaccia

The first thing to come out of the kitchen was this little bite. I suspect it was some kind of fancy European ham, but the type was lost in translation. Simply served atop a piece of soft focaccia, I found the overall bite to be on the dry side. The richness of the fatty ham did come through a bit, but the bite needed something more.

crab, celery, melon paste, consomme

crab, celery, melon paste, consomme

Progressing in portion size, the kitchen sent out another amuse bouche. Cool crab was paired with the textures of diced celery and carrot, topping what I think was a shellfish consomme gelee. Crisp flavors of the sea were complemented by the vegetables.

Bread service was fine, though it paled in comparison to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon.

bread

roasted hen pheasant, giblet crostini, baby salad leaves

roasted hen pheasant, giblet crostini, baby salad leaves

The first proper course was this roasted pheasant. The pheasant was cooked well, though I felt it was lacking a more flavorful sauce. It was kind of boring. However, the foie gras and giblet crostini was a highlight, with a delicious seared offal flavor coming through with the crispy toast. Excellent!

poached blue lobster, au gratin macaroni, cooking jus

poached blue lobster, au gratin macaroni, cooking jus

Next up was lobster, which I thought was perfectly cooked with tender, yielding flesh. The shellfish cooking sauce was pretty tasty too. I enjoyed the al dente macaroni gratin, while a little bit of spinach provided some balance. I thought the dish was everything it said it was going to be, but nothing more.

seared kyushu beef, oven-baked vegetables, bordelaise reduction

seared kyushu beef, oven-baked vegetables, bordelaise reduction

The last savory course of the evening was maybe the one I was most anticipating. Japan has some of the best beef anywhere, and I’d been craving a good chunk of it for some time. The beef was cooked to a nice medium rare, exceedingly tender and pretty juicy. A great piece of meat, especially with the rich bordelaise sauce. The vegetables (onions, carrots, snap peas, and I think daikon) were simply prepared and tasty.

petits fours: dark chocolate biscuit, lemon tart, caramel macarons

petits fours

Some sweets came to the table to introduce the dessert part of the meal. All were solid, but I thought the caramel macarons were fantastic. They had a perfect chewy consistency and a rich caramel filling – I wish I could’ve taken a bunch home.

chocolate-praline CHANEL square, hazelnut ice cream

chocolate-praline CHANEL square, hazelnut ice cream

Next was the main dessert and a signature item of the restaurant. Loved the presentation, with the golden-chocolate square at the bottom and sugar art rising up at least a foot into the air. Flavor-wise, it was a satisfying dessert with strong chocolate and nutty flavors; I thoroughly enjoyed the hazelnut ice cream with the chocolate.

CHANEL chocolates and madeleine

CHANEL chocolates

madeleine

Lastly, I was served a warm madeleine and some Chanel-branded chocolates (white and dark). It was almost sugar overload at this point, but I gobbled them down.

My meal at Beige Alain Ducasse was about as expected, though not as good as hoped. There was nothing wrong with anything; the meal was well-executed and delivered exactly what the menu stated. However, it was nothing more than that – I was hoping it would be more interesting, that the ingredients would be elevated more. It may have been due to what I ordered (reflecting what I was craving), but I’m not sure about that.

Restaurant service in Japan is better than America at every level. As expected, it was superb here. As for the Chanel side of the partnership, the soap in the bathroom was probably some of the best-smelling I’ve come across. Also, the seats were extremely comfortable with soft pillows to provide back support, fluffed every time someone got up to go to the bathroom.