Ginza Okuda (Tokyo, Japan)

Ginza Okuda
Carioca Building B1
5-4-8 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Dining date: 11/3/12

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Japanese kaiseki meals are akin to Western high-end dining in that there are typically a large number of small courses. Plating is thoughtful and intricate, and the food is highly seasonal. Like a sushi bar, counter-dining is prevalent, allowing the diner a front-row seat into the action. There aren’t too many restaurants in Los Angeles that serve a meal like this; the first half of Urasawa and n\naka are the only ones that come to mind (but I am sure there are others). However, these are more modern interpretations of a kaiseki meal – in Tokyo I sought out some of the more traditional ones.

Chef Toru Okuda has two restaurants in the Ginza area of Tokyo (in the same building actually), both highly acclaimed. He established his reputation at his first restaurant (Kojyu opened in 2003) and opened up Ginza Okuda last year. I had read that he cooks at the Michelin two-star Ginza Okuda during lunch service and heads to three-star Kojyu for dinner service.

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I opted go to Ginza Okuda for lunch since I figured Okuda-san would be there, and it was a relatively more reasonable way to go price-wise. Three set menus were available at ¥10,000, ¥15,000 and ¥20,000 – I went for the middle one. Okuda-san was not around this afternoon but I was placed in the capable hands of Shun Miyahara for the duration of the meal. Coincidentally, his English was quite good.

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crab, seaweed, vinegar jelly

crab, seaweed, vinegar jelly

The first dish featured a generous portion of cool, sweet crab bathed in a vinegar jelly. Luckily, the jelly wasn’t too tart or acidic, balancing out the sweetness of the shellfish. Seaweed and okra provided the greens.

fried matsutake mushroom, sudachi, sea salt

fried matsutake mushroom, sudachi, sea salt

Fried matsutake mushrooms arrived next. It was fried to a crisp, leaving a tender earthy mushroom; sudachi citrus was an ideal accompaniment to brighten things up.

fish dumpling, katsuo dashi, mushrooms

fish dumpling, katsuo dashi, mushrooms

Next was a katsuo dashi soup with a fish and shrimp ball swimming in it. The fish and shrimp were pretty tasty, and I liked that there was a bit of citrus in the broth. More mushrooms helped to balance the flavors.

The sashimi course came next.

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chutoro & akami (medium-fatty and lean tuna), tai (red snapper), ika (squid)

sashimi

All three of these were solid. I loved the tuna and its luscious, mildly-fatty bites. The tai had a fresh, clean flavor with a bit of chew while the squid was very tender though a bit on the slimy side.

grilled barracuda and unagi, sweet potato, mushroomsgrilled barracuda and unagi, sweet potato, mushrooms

grilled barracuda and unagi, sweet potato, mushrooms

grilled barracuda and unagi, sweet potato, mushrooms

grilled barracuda and unagi, sweet potato, mushrooms

Next up was a duo of fishes, freshly grilled. The unagi had moist flesh and a crispy skin, though I found the skin a little chewy at times (paled in comparison to the unagi at RyuGin). The barracuda was cooked through; I wouldn’t say it was overcooked but I thought it could’ve been more moist. The ginkgo nuts, sweet potatoes and mushrooms were fine, but the focus was clearly the grilled fish…a bit disappointing.

fried root with mushrooms

fried root with mushrooms

The next course was some kind of fried root with mushrooms. The root had a very creamy interior but the fried batter quickly became soggy in the earthy gravy.

ginger beef donburi, matsutake mushrooms, soybean curd miso, pickles

ginger beef donburi, matsutake mushrooms, soybean curd miso, pickles

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The last savory course was this beef donburi with miso soup. Tender pieces of marinated beef topped the rice bowl as well as slivers of matsutake. Frankly I found it rather boring and not really better than the average beef donburi. Compared to the unagi at RyuGin and red snapper rice bowls at Ginza Toyoda, this one paled in comparison.

azuki bean ice cream, azuki paste, mochi
grapes and pears in jelly

dessert

azuki bean ice cream, azuki paste, mochigrapes and pears in jelly

Dessert was a two-parter – the azuki bean ice cream was nice, while the “cone” gave each bite a little bit of crunch. Sweet grapes and slices of pears sat suspended in a cool clear jelly, providing a light ending to the meal.

I found Ginza Okuda to be a bit of a disappointment. Nothing was wrong or bad per se, but given its 2-star rating and $200 price tag I was expecting more from my lunch. Nothing really stood out, and I thought the kitchen relied too heavily on matsutake mushrooms. I get that they’re in season, but the mushrooms became repetitive.

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.

Sushi Kanesaka (Tokyo, Japan)

Sushi Kanesaka
Misuzu Building
8-10-3 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Dining date: 10/21/12

sushi kanesaka

There are so many sushi restaurants in Tokyo, it’s a daunting task trying to choose which ones to go to. However, the fact the I would be dining solo for most of the meals, and speak very little Japanese, helped to filter down the options. Sushi Kanesaka came onto my radar due to other blogs as well as its two-star rating in the Michelin guide. The fact that the restaurant was English-accessible and its Ginza location was walking distance from my apartment easily brought this up my list.

Shinji Kanesaka is a rather young sushi chef (40) but has already achieved much success. He trained at well-known Kyubey before opening his flagship in Ginza. Along with the 2 Michelin stars, he has already opened up a popular restaurant overseas (Shinji by Kanesaka in Singapore).

kanesaka chopsticks

In Ginza, there is one large bar serving 14, with one sushi chef serving each group of 7 diners. My sushi chef for the evening was Takashi Usuba (not sure where Kanesaka-san was this evening). Usuba-san, as well as most of the staff, spoke surprisingly good English. It made it fairly easy to get a little bit of dialogue going; the atmosphere was actually pretty lively and engaging, not like other quiet and uptight sushiyas I’ve heard of.

Two omakase meals were available for dinner – a ¥20,000 and ¥30,000 menu; I opted for the first one.

green tea

Hokkaido Oyster

oyster hokkaido

The meal started off with a simple oyster from Hokkaido. Unfortunately I didn’t catch what species this was, but it was a big fella. It was a good oyster, cold plump and juicy.

Sea Bream Sashimi

sea bream

Next was a sea bream sashimi with choice of two different dipping sauces, soy or sea salt. I tried both and liked the added depth that the soy provided, but the fish itself was extremely tender and fresh.

Hairy Crab

hairy crab

This was my first taste of Japanese hairy crab during this trip, which I believe is in season in the winter months. A cool, subtly sweet meat was delicious on its own; a light vinegar dipping sauce was available as necessary.

Katsuo (Bonito) Sashimi

katsuo

This fish was superbly tender with a delicate flavor, paired simply with wasabi and soy; I felt like I could’ve eaten this all day.

Steamed Abalone

steamed abalone

A six hour steamed abalone arrived next; expectantly it was tender with just a slight chew. It was tasty though the flavor was somewhat subtle, reminding me of the 10-hour simmered abalone of the night before.

Seared Blackthroat Seaperch

blackthroat seaperch

Another cooked fish was the next dish, the nodoguro fish. It was very moist and light, paired with a cool grated radish. Pretty delish!

Sushi service began next.

sushi chef

Shima-aji (Striped Jack)

shima aji

Slight chew, mild flavor.

tuna cuts

Beautiful.

Chutoro (Medium Fatty Tuna)

chutoro

Always a favorite.

Otoro (Fatty Tuna)

otoro

This was expectantly fatty but not overly so, with a very slight chew.

Ika (Squid)

ika

Also tender with just a little bit of chewy mouthfeel, it was topped with lime juice and sea salt. The rice was a little bit on the firm side here, but I liked it.

Aji (Horse Mackerel)

aji

Complemented by shiso, scallions, and ginger.

Akami (Lean Tuna)

akami

This tuna was lightly marinated, though I’m not sure with what.

Kurumaebi (Shrimp)

ebi

Served warm – this was a sweet, plump bite with strong wasabi flavor coming through.

Ikura (Salmon Roe)

ikura

Shiso and soy complemented the salmon roe; I thought this was an excellent example. It was very well balanced flavor-wise, with the crisp nori providing nice texture.

Hokkaido Uni (Sea Urchin)

uni

The uni was nice and cold, and the textural contrast of the nori and warm rice went well with the uni. Good clean flavor.

Mirugai (Geoduck)

mirugai

Soft chew with a slight salinity and sweetness.

Anago (Sea Eel)

anago

Warm and soft with a lingering sweetness from the eel sauce.

Tamago (Egg)

tamago

I thought this was a very good tamago finisher – cold, light and moist with a subtle sweetness and very nice creaminess. Apparently baby shrimp were ground into the batter (not-so-secret ingredient?).

I thoroughly enjoyed my meal at Sushi Kanesaka. It was clear early on that the fish was very fresh and of high quality, that much was to be expected. Early on in my Japan trip, it’s easy to say this was some of the best sushi I’ve ever had. The warm atmosphere really helped the overall experience, as well. If there was one sort of downside, it was that I thought the variety of fish was pretty ‘typical.’ With the exception of the hairy crab, there wasn’t any fish I hadn’t had before (most many, many times)…I was expecting a little more variety. And, I don’t think it was because I was a foreigner, since neighboring locals followed the same meal progression. Having said that, it was still an excellent meal and a great way to get my feet wet in the high-end sushi scene.

The walk back to my apartment was a pleasant one; here, Ginza at night.

ginza

Other Tokyo sushi:
Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi
 | Sushi Dai | Sushi Daiwa | Sushi Yoshitake | Umi

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (Tokyo, Japan)

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032
Dining date: 10/15/12

exterior

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon was on my list of Tokyo restaurants early on, largely because I’ve had fairly consistently good meals here, but also because I think it’s been fun to compare them across the world (I’ve been to the Las Vegas, Paris, London and now Tokyo locations). For a sort of welcome dinner for our team in Tokyo, I was tasked to find a suitable restaurant. Ultimately this was the choice, given its English-friendliness (the Roppongi area is frequented by many foreigners) and approachability to Western tastebuds.

The restaurants present Robuchon’s refined cuisine in a more casual setting, full of counter seating. I think I read somewhere that Japan’s sushi bars were the inspiration behind the counter-centric nature of L’Atelier restaurants, so it was interesting to see it come together in Tokyo. Similar to the London and Paris locations, the Tokyo restaurant shares a Michelin two-star rating.

counter

counter2 counter3

A tasting menu and an a la carte are available, as well as a number of prix fixe menus with a variety of options. Most of us went with the latter; the below captures some of the other dishes but I’ll only comment on the ones I ate.

Pork Rillette on Crostini

amuse

We started with an amuse from the kitchen. Even though the description was in English, we still couldn’t quite capture what this was. It was sort of a pork rillette simmered with white wine. Simple yet tasty.

I’ve always enjoyed pretty strong bread service at Robuchon establishments, and this was no exception.

bread

Next up were the first courses, including this impressive presentation.

Le Saumon tasmanian salmon tartare with shiso flower buds

Le Saumon tasmanian salmon tartare with shiso flower buds

Le Crabe snow crab served with an avocado mousse and apple

Le Crabe snow crab served with an avocado mousse and apple

I went with this dish, a light starter with sweetness of the pear and crab mellowed by an avocado mousse. The shellfish gelee was a nice touch too, providing a lot of depth.

Next were the second courses.

Le Bulbe de Lys lily bulb cream soup with vanilla accompanied with a stuffed shrimp

Le Bulbe de Lys lily bulb cream soup with vanilla accompanied with a stuffed shrimp

Les Ravioles foie gras ravioli in a warm chicken broth with herbs and spicy cream

Les Ravioles foie gras ravioli in a warm chicken broth with herbs and spicy cream

Les Ravioles foie gras ravioli in a warm chicken broth with herbs and spicy cream

I couldn’t resist a foie gras ravioli, my first bites of the liver since the California ban. A rich chicken broth with herbal shiso accents provided the backdrop to the ravioli with its delicate chew and creamy unmistakable foie gras interior.

Next up were the main courses.

Le Boeuf sliced wagyu beef ribeye with wasabi flavored spinach and harlequin vegetables

Le Boeuf sliced wagyu beef ribeye with wasabi flavored spinach and vegetables arlequins

Le Boeuf wagyu ribeye with truffled mashed potatoes

Le Boeuf ribeye with truffled mashed potatoes

Le Caille caramelized foie gras stuffed free range quail served with mashed potatoes

Le Caille caramelized foie gras stuffed free range quail served with mashed potatoes

I opted for the quail, which the waiter said was a specialty across Robuchon restaurants. I’m glad I did, as this was an outstanding dish. The quail itself was moist and succulent, complemented by a subtly sweet glaze. The breasts were separated from the bone and stuffed with a creamy foie gras filling – so luscious. Delicious. Robuchon’s trademark uber-rich potatoes came along with it, while some herbal greens brightened things up a bit.

Lastly, we had the dessert courses.

Le Raisin fresh grape covered with a red wine jelly served on a light mint cream

Le Raisin fresh grape covered with a red wine jelly served on a light mint cream

La Tendance Chocolat araguani chocolate ganache served with a cocoa sherbet covered with bitter biscuit powder

La Tendance Chocolat araguani chocolate ganache served with a cocoa sherbet covered with bitter biscuit powder

I didn’t realize it when ordering, but I had something really similar to this at the London location earlier this year. My thoughts on the dessert remain unchanged; it’s a fine dessert, sure, but I found it rather one-note on the chocolate.

A plate of mignardises completed our meal, but we were too full to finish all of it.

mignardises

I found this to be a very good meal, highlighted by the quail stuffed with foie gras. In fact, I enjoyed the food here more than my London experience, though Paris remains the clear standard-bearer for me. I found service’s attentiveness to be rather inconsistent during this meal, with some courses brought to the table without a description and our server seemingly changing mid-meal without notice. Service-wise, I expected something more from a two-star. Still, this was an excellent starter meal for our stay in Tokyo.

Melisse (Los Angeles, CA)

Melisse
“Foie for All”

1104 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Dining date: 6/30/12

melisse exterior

June 30 was the last day to legally serve foie gras in California (although some loopholes do exist). Melisse has been at the forefront against the ban and, combined with the fact that it’s one of the best restaurants in the city, I thought it would be the ideal spot to do a ‘last meal’ of sorts. For a number of months now, Melisse has been offering a “Foie for All” tasting menu featuring the ingredient in about 8 courses. Knowing that others would likely follow suit (and indeed, it did appear to be a full house), I made this reservation in the beginning of April and eagerly awaited this dinner.

We ordered a few drinks to start (pictured from left to right, top to bottom). We previewed the new cocktail menu (consulted on by Pablo Moix) at the 5×5 Collaborative Dinner in April, so it was interesting to see the final list here.

Pimm’s Rickey pimm’s, fresh pressed lime, topped with soda
Cameron Coup jameson irish whiskey, famous grouse scotch whiskey, orgeat almond syrup, lemon juice
Citrine el tesoro plata, aperol, grapefruit and lime juice

cocktails

citrine

My favorite of these was probably the Citrine with its grapefruit/lime flavors balancing out the aperol nicely. The Pimm’s Rickey tasted slightly watered down.

Grape, Pistachio, Goat Cheese

amuse

We began with Melisse’s signature amuse. The juicy sliced grape, covered in a thin layer of goat cheese and pistachio, was a well-balanced bite – sweet, savory, nutty. The spherification of grape juice provided the same flavors, albeit in a very different vehicle.

Bacon bread, olive bread, ciabatta, brioche and french breads were on offer this night. My first serving was of the latter two.

breads

bread butter

Foie Gras Cromesquis

Foie Gras Cromesquis

Next up was another small bite, our first of foie gras. It was a crispy croquette filled with a warm foie gras liquid. Warm and comforting, it was very similar to the one I had at the LudoBites foie gras dinner.

Foie Gras Royale Blackberry Gelee, Foie Gras, Caramelized Buttermilk Mousse

Foie Gras Royale Blackberry Gelee, Caramelized Buttermilk Mousse

Next we had a layered treat with blackberry, foie gras and buttermilk. We were instructed to get a little bit of each layer in every bite and were awarded with sweet notes from the blackberry complementing the foie gras mousse. Subtle but present flavors.

Terrine of Foie Gras Seasonal Flavors and Toasted Whey Bread

Terrine of Foie Gras Seasonal Flavors and Toasted Whey Bread

I really enjoyed this terrine with its creamy foie gras and a layer of sweet cherry. While the flavors were ones I’ve had before, they really seemed to shine on this plate. I liked being able to add my own salt & pepper to taste, as well as the nuts for texture. These were all spread onto the toasted bread to make some tasty bites.

Truffled Foie Gras Agnolotti Crisp Chicken Oyster, Summer Vegetables, Toasted Pistachio Consomme

Truffled Foie Gras Agnolotti Crisp Chicken Oyster, Summer Vegetables, Toasted Pistachio Consomme

The pasta was very nice with a slight chew and creamy foie gras center. The broth had a subtle nuttiness, and the grilled summer vegetables were a nice accompaniment. Even with the foie gras, this plate managed to feel rather light and really showcased the season. Beautiful colors too.

True Day Boat Scallop “Rossini”

True Day Boat Scallop “Rossini”

True Day Boat Scallop “Rossini”

Scallops, foie gras, and black truffles sounded like a dream team on a plate. While the combination of components was good, I don’t think they all came together in the ideal way. The scallop was on the smaller side and was slightly overcooked, while the one sliver of shaved truffle got lost in the mix. Still, the foie gras was seared perfectly and I liked the charred cipollini onions; the truffle and leek puree was a nice accompaniment too.

Foie Gras and Dover Sole Sweet Corn Pudding, Porcini Mushrooms, Brown Butter

Foie Gras and Dover Sole Sweet Corn Pudding, Porcini Mushrooms, Brown Butter

This was an excellent dish with a sweet corn pudding being topped with a light sole and poached foie gras in a brown butter sauce. The flavors were well-balanced and really worked well, but I found the textural interplay to be strong too between the silky foie gras, meaty fish and creamy corn pudding.

Liberty Duck Breast Cured and Whipped Foie Gras, Leeks, Peaches, Hawaiian Heart of Palm, Toasted Macadamia

Liberty Duck Breast Cured and Whipped Foie Gras, Leeks, Peaches, Hawaiian Heart of Palm, Toasted Macadamia

potato mousseline

Our last savory dish of the evening was a duo of duck, if you will. The duck breast was cooked a nice medium-rare, juicy and tender. Small bites of duck confit, hearts of palm and the creamy mashed potatoes were all excellent. The difference-maker was the foie gras though. It was whipped and frozen in a long tube form, and grated like truffles onto the plate. Pretty cool. The liver slowly melted when in contact with the heat of the duck and sauce, permeating the dish with its flavor. Again, I enjoyed the side of salt and pepper to play with the seasoning.

“Strawberry Shortcake” Foie Gras Ice Cream

"Strawberry Shortcake" Foie Gras Ice Cream

Our last proper course was a play on strawberry shortcake. Two layers of thin cake sandwiched a foie gras cream and fresh sweet strawberries. The foie gras was present but not at all overpowering, blending seamlessly into the dish. The foie gras ice cream was very subtle in flavor; balsamic vinegar gelee provided sharp acidity.

Canelés and Chocolate Chip Cookies

canele chocolate chip cookies

Tropical Tea Macarons and Foie Gras Macarons

foie and tea macarons

Lastly, we were presented with some sweets to close out the meal. My favorite was the tropical tea macaron, exuding a flavor similar to a passion fruit iced tea with a perfect chewy texture. The foie gras macarons were a nice touch too, indeed bringing the foie flavor one more time.

Overall I found this to be another good meal at Melisse. While we had 9 different tastes of the ingredient, at no point did I feel tired of foie gras, a compliment to the varied preparations. The liver was incorporated in a way that it didn’t dominate any single dish; rather, it was worked into each plate in tandem with the other principal ingredients. Flavors were, for the most part, bold and well-balanced and the execution was also strong (though not perfect).

I suspect foie gras won’t be too difficult to obtain in California even though the ban is now in place, but I still found this to be a very fitting send-off!

Other recent foie gras dinners:
LudoBites: Best of Foie Gras
C.H.E.F.S. Dinner @ The Royce