Monday, April 27, 2009

Sushi Ota: Did it deserve to win the Top Food Title for SD in 2008? (San Diego)

Outside Sushi Ota

Sushi Ota from all aspects (along with online reviews) is the best available sushi restaurant in San Diego. Even though I recently had experience sushi nirvana at Urasawa, my brave friend still added Sushi Ota on our food agenda for that day. Yes, brave would be the word since I did not plan on eating sushi for 3-4 months after Urasawa. Since we just munched on some carne asada fries, pollo asada burrito, and rolled tacos earlier at Super Sergios, we were just going for a "light" snack at Ota.

Kumamoto Oysters (w/ponzu sauce, grated daikon, and scallions)

Being a fan of raw oysters, especially the Kumamoto oysters, this was a must order. The kumamoto oysters, native of Ariake Bay in Kumamoto Prefecture, on the southern island of Kyushu were fresh and delicious. The ponzu sauce added a nice touch to the dish, along with the grated daikon and scallions. This dish actually exceeded my expectations, and I was ready for the upcoming sashimi and sushi orders.

Sashimi duo of Hamachi (Yellowtail) and Sake (Salmon)

Closeup of the Hamachi

What else is better to test out the freshness of the fish used at a sushi restaurant than trying out their sashimi? We went with the hamachi (one of my favorites) and sake combo. The hamachi sashimi was fantastic, one of the better versions I've had. The fish was buttery, fatty, and the richness was enhanced with a slight dab of wasabi and shoyu. Although the salmon is a fairly common cut of fish at any sushi restaurant, the cuts served here also impressed. Both the hamachi and salmon pieces were great. Not much more to add other than fresh cuts of fishes will always get thumbs up from me!

Ankimo (Monk Fish Liver)

Ankimo, another one of my personal favorites, but, it's also something that I'm a bit more stringent in grading. The steamed monk fish liver pieces were served in ponzu sauce, with grated scallions daikon, similar to how the kumamoto oysters were served. To me, and to many others, ankimo is the Japanese foie gras, but just not as rich as the authentic item. I enjoyed the ankimo offered at Ota, and like with many I've had previously, the ponzu sauce was an important complement to the dish.

Spider Rolls (Foreground), Ebi Sushi (background)

I don't have too much to comment with these 2 items. I didn't try the ebi (shrimp) sushi, as I've never been interested with it, and the spider roll was fairly pedestrian, but enjoyable. Wrapped in tofu skin, it contains nori, rice, fried soft shelled crab, avocado, cucumbers, and imitation crab meat. This wasn't the hightlight of the meal, but it wasn't too shabby either.

Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp) Sashimi

Another shot of the amaebi

One of the reasons I don't care too much for the ebi is due to my love of the amaebi. My take is, why eat the ebi (shrimp), if I could have something better in the amaebi (sweet shrimp). The presentation and the freshness (I'm using this word too damn much!) of the amaebi impressed me. The shrimp was so fresh that its antennas were still moving during the time the plate was in front of us. Along with the antennas, the eye(s) of one particular shrimp was also moving. Eating these shrimp reminded me of eating some freshly cut up octopus back in Japan that were moving continuously on the plate, which didn't stop even as it was going down my throat. The amaebi was the highlight of our meal and I enjoyed every aspect of it, including the fried shrimp head (as shown below):

Fried Amaebi Heads

All in all, I was quite pleased with Sushi Ota. I was fairly skeptical at first, especially seeing most of the clientele were *ahem* non-Asian, gwai-lo/bai ren. Most of the time, that would have sent up red flags in my brain, especially us experiencing the worst boba we've ever had in our lives earlier in the day made by a *ahem* non-Asian, a hak gwai/hei ren. Even after eating at Urasawa the week before, I can still confidently say, although the price isn't cheap, Sushi Ota serves some pretty decent cuts of fish. I recommend this place if you're down in the area looking for some good sushi.

*Note* Thanks again to my special friends that took me down to San Diego for the day. Yes, I will forgive you for taking me to that horrible boba place on Convoy :)

Final Grade
  • Taste: 4 out of 5
  • Decor: 3.5 out of 5
  • Service: 3.5 out of 5
Sushi Ota
4529 Mission Bay Drive
San Diego, CA 92109
(858) 270-5670
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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Half and Half Tea House: Was it the "Best Boba in the U S of A?" (San Gabriel)

In Front of Half & Half Tea House

A few months ago, some idiot (Ya, that idiot was me) proclaimed Half & Half to be "The Best Boba in the U S of A." Well, fast forward to the present day, do I still hold the same opinion? Or was my infatuation with this specific tea house similar to the crazy Angelinos believing Kogi Tacos is the best thing out there since sliced bread?

Pudding Ice Milk w/honey boba ($4.58)

What I would say about Half & Half is to try their ice milk drink with honey boba and either their grass jelly, coffee jelly, or pudding. It's their signature drink, where I've yet to find anywhere else in the SGV. Truthfully, their boba milk teas are really just OK. I prefer the boba drinks at Ten Ren/Tea Station much better.

Hot Taro Milk Tea ($4.38)

Like I said earlier, the milk tea here isn't anything special, and that carries over with the hot version(s) as well. Just as FYI, you're able to get pretty much any cold drinks here, hot. For me, the tea based drinks are slightly lacking in the tea flavors that I like and can be a tad too sweet. (Of course, you can also ask for less sugar when you order)

Sweet Butter Brick Toast ($2.50)

Sweet Butter Brick Toast w/Almonds ($2.50)

The above 2 are the various types of brick toasts you'll find at any Asian tea place. I personally feel the ones made here are top notch, and at $2.50/each, it's one of the cheapest in the area. I'd stick with the regular sweet butter version, as sometimes, when chocolate, or strawberry syrup are added, it makes the dessert just a tad too sweet.

Taiwanese style Shaved Ice ($6.99)

In addition, they do have TW style shaved ice at Half & Half. This is one of my favorite desserts, ever! It's one of my regular orders when I'm back in Taiwan or some sort of post dinner dessert at Sin Ba La. Honestly, the version here is OK. I was pretty gung ho about it at first, since they do use those damn delicious honey boba, and brown sugar in the shaved ice. Yet, after comparing to a few places I frequent for this stuff, I prefer the much bigger (and cheaper) version at Sin Ba La and *gasp* Shao May. Honestly, for the price you pay for the shaved ice here (~$7), it's not a good deal.....

So, to answer the title of the post: No, Half & Half does not have the best boba in the U S of A. Although it has some nice flavor options (Lavender, rose flavored milk tea), in an area of tough Asian food competition, it really doesn't stand out to the pack. My recommendation is that, if you do venture out in the SGV in need of something sweet, come here for 2 things: The ice milk (my favorite is the pudding one), and the brick toast. Trust me on this one.

Oh, as a side note. Don't get the food here. I just don't recommend it.

Final Grade
  • Taste: 3.5 out of 5
  • Decor: 4 out of 5
  • Service: 3 out of 5
Half and Half Tea House
120 N. San Gabriel Blvd.
Unit H
San Gabriel, CA 91775

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Urasawa: Simply, was it "worth it?" (Beverly Hills)

(Entrance) *Picture Courtesy of Right Way to Eat*

As a kid growing up watching various sports, "The U" to me has always been the Miami Hurricanes (my favorite College football team previously). As we fast forward ten, fifteen years to today, "The U" stands for one thing: Urasawa, the mecca of Japanese cuisine. Urasawa was formerly run by Chef Masa under the restaurant name Ginza Sushi-ko. In 2004 Chef Masa sold the restaurant to his sous-chef Hiro Urasawa, and thus, this legendary restaurant in Beverly Hills was born. Since moving to Los Angeles 3 years back, Urasawa has always been called my "Good-bye to Los Angeles" meal if/when I move back to Nor Cal, but as I've grown to love life down here, I decided to squash that plan and join a group of foodies in the So Cal area for a meal to remember at Urasawa.

Located in the heart of Rodeo Drive, you'll see many high end stores, and cars in the area, along with its abundance of tourists visiting the sights and sound of the area.

Upon entering Urasawa, you'll step into an immaculate restaurant. With various fresh ingredients in front of your eyes, we were assured of the great meal ahead.

The picture on the above shows the various fresh fish that will be used for our dinner tonight. Can you tell I'm already salivating over the big chunk of toro seen on the lower left hand side?

The picture on the right shows the different knives Hiro-san will be using in the background, while in the foreground, fresh wasabi and yuzu fruit.

Chef Hiro San preparing our first course

1. Toro Senmai Maki

This first course consists of ankimo (monkfish liver), shiso (Perilla leaf), and scallions wrapped in seared toro and senmai zuke (salt pickled turnip from Kyoto) topped with caviar in a light ponzu sauce. The initial taste of the ponzu sauce and the senmai zuke matches well with the creaminess of the ankimo, and the seared toro, while the shiso leaf almost serves as the palate cleaner. This was a great starter.

2. Goma Tofu (Kyoto Style Tofu)

The second course was a "tofu" made of sesame paste, kuzu powder with uni (sea urchin roe) stuffed inside. It was served with nano hami (a type of Spring Vegetable), wasabi, and topped with a gold leaf. The goma tofu dish was slightly rich of sesame flavor, but still light on the palate. The wasabi added a nice kick to the subtle taste of the tofu and the nano hami reminded me of the Gan Lan (橄欖), a type of Chinese vegetable that is slightly bitter to the taste. All in all, a wonderful dish.

1979 Lanson Champagne Brut (50/50 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir)

3. Hotari Ika (Squid)

Our third course complemented with the bottle of magnum Will brought for us all to enjoy. Hotari Ika, a specialty of the Toyama Prefeture is enjoyed by taking a piece of the ika while drinking a bit of the Champagne Brut. The sweetness of the champagne meshed beautifully with the ginger flavors of the squid.

4. Sashimi (From Left: Toro from Spain, Tai (Red Snapper) from Kyushu, and Kanpachi from Toyama)

As Hiro-san and Ken-san (sous chef) were preparing for the sashimi portion, I was anxiously awaiting for the toro that was to be served. The presentation of the sashimi dish was magnificient. Served on a wooden "boat," the ice block was on a bed of rocks and presented with various orchids, cucumber flower, wakame (seaweed), and of course, wasabi (from Shizuoka). The toro (from Spain) served was melt in your mouth good. Rich, yet not overpowering, the taste of the toro, with a slight dab of the wasabi and shoyu really made it work. The Tai (from Kyushu) was pretty much the contrast of the toro. Light, yet still flavorful, the freshness of the tai was clearly shown from the taste. Finally, the Kanpachi (from Toyama). I've had kanpachi a few times before, but this was probably the best cut of kanpachi fish I've ever had. The freshly cut of fish was tender and sweet, after using the wasabi and the shoyu. All three fishes from the sashimi dish was delicious, and the cuts of toro were as good, if not better, than I had imagined.

5. Chawanmushi

Chawanmushi (steamed egg), a simple dish that I've had many times at various Japanese, Korean, and even Chinese restaurant. The version served by Hiro-san was far from "simple" as I stated in my previous sentence. The dish had a slightly thick texture, almost gelatin-like than anything else. The collection of ingredients used in this small dish was stunning (yuba (tofu skin), mitsuba (vegetable), uni (sea urchin), tai (snapper), ginko nut, hairy crab, shrimp, and shitake mushroom). However, even with the flock of ingredients used in the chawanmushi, the taste was not complex. It was simple, savory, and delicious. I don't' know how I could go back and eat a "regular" chawanmushi in the future.

6. Spring Vegetable Tempura

Shrimp tempura? Yam tempura? Seriously, those are the type of tempura that we've have known to love over the years, but at Urasawa, Hiro-san doesn't serve anything that we've become accustom to over time. There were three different types of spring vegetable tempura served. From left, it was a vegetable called taranome served in a uni paste. The vegetable was slightly bitter, but the uni paste was a good match to the bitterness of the taranome. The second tempura (middle) was the fukinoto with miso from Kyoto. A fascinating mix, as the sweetness of the miso complemented well with the buds of the fuki plant. Finally, on the right, it was the bamboo (one of my personal favorite vegetables) with shrimp paste. As with all tempura, the accompanied dipping sauce made of dashi and shoyu, with the grated daikon (radish) was served. This dish was quite imaginative, and no less delicious as well. Hiro-san, using the various vegetables in season, created something quite amazing.

7. Kani Miso Kora-Yaki

When you have a dish that combines hairy crab meat from Hokkaido, Uni, and Kani Miso (crab brain) served in a shell (kora), how can it NOT be delicious, right? Well, the answer to that question was a simple "Wow" from my taste buds. The smell and the taste of this dish was amazing. Forget the rise in cholestrol after the consumption of the kora-yaki, this,was truly to die for, or dare I say, an orgasmic experience. Hiro-san could have served me 30 servings of this and I'd leave Urasawa a happy man.

8. Saga Beef

This dish was made of Wagyu beef from the Saga Prefecture on Kyushu Island. Cooked in shoyu and sake for two days, the end result is shown in the picture above. Served with scallions, daikon and snow peas, this piece of meat was "melt in your mouth" good. I know a lot of times people have said previously that this specific melts in your mouth. Well, ladies and gentleman, I'll state for the record, the saga beef at Urasawa was indeed, "melt in your mouth" good. The tastes here, perfect.

Hiro-San and Ken-San preparing the amaebi for the shabu shabu portion of the meal

9. Shabu Shabu (From left: Amaebi (sweet shrimp), saga beef, foie gras)

The shabu shabu course was one that I was prepared for at Urasawa. From looking at Kevin's blog in the past year, this was one course that was consistent in his 3 previous trips there. Hiro-san and assistants instructed us to cook the above three items. The first one to go into the pot was the amaebi. A quick dip a la shabu shabu was all the amaebi needed to cook. A dip into the ponzu sauce was all it needed. The second item to go in was the saga beef, and again, a quick dip was all it needed. Dipped in the ponzu sauce, the sweetness of the sauce and the tenderness of the beef meshed beautifully as shown below:

Finally, the last one to go into the pot, was the foie gras. It needed a bit of cooking time, but as it cooked, the fat started to dissapate into the soup broth. As a so called foodie, it was actually my first experience with foie gras, in what I call a sad, pathetic admission to most at the restaurant that night, I bet. (OT: Thankfully, I will experience foie gras overload at Au Pied de Cochon, next month in Montreal). The texture of the foie gras to me was similar of pork blood that I've had many times previously, but the taste of it was indescribable rich and creamy, yet subtle. Fantastic!

10. Shabu Shabu Broth

Not just any broth. The broth used for the shabu shabu was something that Hiro-san tried in a shot glass all night long. At first, I thought he was either taking shots of sake or some sort of vitamin/supplement. It wasn't until we inquired later on, was when we found out he was checking on the taste of the broth for the shabu shabu. With the addition of the amaebi, saga beef, and the richness of the foie gras, I finished every last drop of the soup. This was a great close before the upcoming sushi course.

Before starting the sushi portion of the menu, Will and Brian of FD generously purchaed the "special" sake on the alcohol menu. The sake was actually a bottle Hiro-san's mother brought to him from Japan. The bottle purchased was a Eikun Ichigin, brewed in Kyoto Prefecture, it has won 11 consecutive gold medals at the Japanese National Sake Competition. (referenced from Kevin's blog). For $350, it definitely wasn't a cheap bottle. Thanks guys!

With the ginger appearing before us, we knew it was time for the start of the sushi portion of the dinner. *Note* That ginger was like crack. Freshly made, and not sharp as what I've experienced before. It was simple, yet delicious.*

11. Toro (tuna belly)

What else really need to be said with toro? Rich, delicious, served with a slight brush of ponzu sauce. It's sushi heaven! The toro served here is the best I've had.

12. Seared Kama Toro (Tuna collar)

The taste of the meat from the collar was tender, rich and fat. Simply delicious. With the smoky flavor from being seared with a touch of yuzu juice, a wonderful mix of flavors.

13. Kanpachi (Amberjack)

A simple fish like kanpachi, the taste was light, yet flavorful. Not strong compared the first 2 pieces, the kanpachi was wonderful, nevertheless.

14. Aji (Spanish Mackerel)

Another common fish to those that frequent sushi restaurant. However, unlike some place, where the fish has a strong "fishy" taste. The aji served here was mellow, yet delicious. Good texture, good taste. I like this piece a lot.

15. Tai (Red Snapper)

I'm not even sure what to say about each individual pieces as they're all delicious. The yuzu zest on top of the red snapper was refreshing. I loved it!

16. Hon Maguro (Blue Fin Tuna)

A simply tuna sushi, but made with the highest grade tuna available. Simple, delicious.

2006 Aubert Chardonnay

2000 Louis Roederer Champagne Cristal Brut

The two bottles shown above are bottles Kevin generously shared with the group from his private collection for the sushi courses. Although I'm no wine conneisour, the Aubert was quite crisp and refreshing, a good choice for the nigiri sushi that were served. The Cristal, what can you say about this alcoholic beverage made popular by the hip hop world? It was sweet, bubbly, and a damn fine choice for the sushi pairing in my opinion. Thanks again Kev!

17. Shima Aji (Striped Jack)

This fish had great texture and all in all, a very light tasting fish. A fresh and well cut piece, of course.

18. Shitake Mushroom

Shockingly, this was probably one of my favorite piece of the night. The shitake, grilled to perfection to bring out its earthy, "mushroom" flavors, and contrasted very well with the rice and wasabi. It's a shame that it wasn't a big piece served.

19. Shiro Ebi (Tiny Shrimp)

This was first time I've had something like this. I'm used to eating a big piece of amaebi sushi with its head fried given in a separate plate. I think I've seen a similar sushi in the manga (comic book) series, shota no sushi (Ya, I'm comparaing real life to manga), it's pretty interesting trying this sushi in person.

20. Seki Saba (Japanese Mackerel)

Very good piece of fish. I personally enjoyed the taste of this particular saba and the flavor and texture is a bit different than a regular saba (mackerel) sushi you'd find at any other sushi restaurant.

21. Awabi (Abalone)

Usually, I'm only used to abalone with Chinese cuisine, and the texure can be a bit rough if not cooked correctly. In terms of being used on a sushi, I believe it's the first time (If I had it before, it was just that non-memorable) I've had it served this way and I wasn't sure what to expect. With a slight hint of yuzu on top, this was great. The abalone wasn't tough and the combination of the two flavors was a marriage in harmony.

22. Mirugai (Gooeyduck)

Gooeyduck, aka giant clam was something I've seen, yet never tried. There was a slight crunch in texture, but the sushi itself, worked out well.

23. Aji no Tataki (Chopped Spanish Mackerel)

This piece consisted of chopped up aji mixed with scallions, kyoto miso, ginger and shiso. What else can I say, but it was a wonderful mix of flavors. The mix of aji, with the taste of miso and the strong bite of shiso, worked out well.

24. Gyusashi (Beef)

From the picture above, you're able to see Hiro-san prepare the beef sushi for us. Lightly grilled, the beef comes off as tender, but yet flavorful with the yuzu shavings on top of the sushi. Being a fan of beef, Hiro-san did a marvelous job preparing this cut of beef relative to the way this cut of beef would have been prepared at a steakhouse.

25. Negi-toro maki

This was a simple roll made of: toro, negi (leek) and a pickled daikon. I really enjoyed this roll, so much so, Hiro-san gave me a 3rd piece :)! I'd have to say, toro will always be #1 in my book!

Kimura ($110)

Meursault 2005

Time for a "liquor break." The above two bottles were some of the accompanied alcohol we had during the sushi course of the meal. We first purchaed a bottle of the Kimura sake. A solid bottle, no complaints from my end. The second bottle was a bottle of Meursault (2005) that Brian brought for us to share. Both bottles went well with the various sushi pieces we were served, along with the previous 2 bottles of drinks discussed earlier.

26. Anago (Sea Eel)

I've had unagi, unagi don numerous of time, but this was the first time I've had anago, the less fattier cousin, quote on quote. This is similar to the unagi sushi I've had in the past, but it's a bit lighter, probably due to the yuzu zest Hiro-san put on top. FANTASTIC idea, I'd have to say! The meal was coming down to an end, as the eel represents the heavier, cooked fish to contrast the raw fish served earlier in the course.

27. Tamago (Egg)

The tamago has always been one of my favorites, as in the past I'd love the one served at Kanpachi in Gardena. However, the tamago served at Urasawa takes the cake, literally. Light, fluffy, much like a pound cake, but the heavy egg flavor, with its sweetness really made this piece into a dessert for me. I really loved the tamago at Urasawa. Although this symbolized the end of the sushi course of our meal, it was indeed, a "happy" ending.

28. Papaya w/grapefruit jelly and Yamamomo (Japanese Mountain Peach)

Hiro-san doesn't mess around with even the dessert. The sweetness of the papaya, matched with the grapefruit jelly was delicious. I've had yamamomo a few weeks ago actually, and it's quite delicious actually. Slightly tart, it complemented well with the papaya dessert. I'm wondering where I could score a box of the yamamomo....

29. Sesame Pudding

This was a simple dessert of sesame pudding on the bottom layer (as shown above), covered with a layer of red bean paste, chestnuts, sesame seeds, and of course, that lovely gold foil. This was a delicious capper to the meal.

30. Macha

Stong, and bitter green tea. This went with the dessert given above served as a good balance. This was not your standard light green tea.

31. Hoji Cha

This was a good solid, roasted tea, as we officially closed out the meal and chatted amongt ourselves and Hiro-san.

Hiro-san was showing us the sharpness of this particular knife ($2000) that he only uses to cut one fish (sea eel) that's in season during the season. Wow, talk about going all out!

Speaking of going all out, our final tab wasn't pretty, but the meal was indeed memorable. The 6+ hour meal consisted of many memorable experiences that were truly mind blowing. Going in, I thought this was going to be a once in a lifetime meal and didn't envision a return visit. However, in due time, I do plan on returning to Urasawa (probably in another season for a different variety of fish served), as it's truly a great experience. Would I say this meal was life altering? No, I think that's going too far. Yet, with the food, experience, and the impeccable service (the waitress waited by the entrance when I went to the restroom so she could welcome me back in, in addition, a warm towel was awaiting for me as well. Simply awesome! I don't think my water cup was left any less than 3/4 full the entire evening.), the dinner at Urasawa was easily the best meal I've had in my life. Although that could change as the time moves along, this was simply a great experience. I honestly don't think I could eat any regular sushi for a long time, or at least, not comparing it to Urasawa.

Lastly, I have to thank Aaron for hosting this wonderful dinner, as well as to Will, Brian, and Kevin for sharing many bottles of alcohol from your private collections. As well as an addition thanks to Kevin for his notes and in depth details on each item and alcohol served that night. Again, this was truly a great experience, and I doubt any meal in 2009 could top this one. Thanks to Hiro-san and his staff, he made our night a special one.

I probably went a bit overboard with the post, especially with the pictures, but again, a truly memorable meal deserves a post like this. Now, one of my friends used to ask me "was it worth it?" My answer to that question, stolen from Choisauce would be a, "Hellz Fucking Yes!"

Final Grade
  • Taste: 5+ out of 5
  • Decor: 5 out of 5
  • Service: 5+ out of 5
*Note* I don't think I could give Urasawa any less than a perfect grade. The service and the food were terrific. The ambiance was clean and refreshing. Definitely, the best sushi experience EVER!

Also check out some of my fellow Urasawa companions' reviews:
Aaron of Food Destination and Kevin of kevinEats

218 N. Rodeo Dr.
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

Urasawa in Los Angeles