August 30, 2012

A weak performance

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I did something unforgivable last week: I stood someone up for dinner.  I had made plans to check out the Japanese restaurant at the newly-opened Okura Hotel in Taipei for some tempura, and was really looking forward to that dinner - or so I thought.  I ended up changing my return flight from Hong Kong to the day of the dinner, but was too scatterbrained to remember that I had an engagement…

So as my friend sat in the restaurant wondering where I was - and getting no joy trying to raise me via phone or text messaging - he was smart enough to check on Facebook to see that I had just checked in at the Hong Kong International Airport minutes before our appointed dinner time.    Fortunately he was able to call someone on the spot and avoided the disaster of dining alone.  I, of course, only discovered my terrible deed upon landing and seeing the missed calls and texts.  Needless to say I apologized profusely…

Still wanting to get together for dinner, I asked to try out some place new for sushi, so my friend suggested that we meet at Shunsai (旬採).  He was, in fact, at the very same restaurant yesterday when we made plans to meet up, but he was kind enough to accompany me tonight for dinner.  I was looking forward to discovering yet another quality place in Taipei.

I arrived to find my friend already seated at the counter, sipping a glass of beer.  I decided to join him while my bottle of sake is being chilled.  We discussed our budget with the chef, and happily waited for food to come our way.

Amuse bouche - raw scallop with sesame sauce, served with diced cucumber and kiwi, along with a sprinkle of chrysanthemum petals.

Olive flounder wings (縁側) - wrapped around large crystals of sea salt from Seto Inland Sea (瀬戸内海), with a dab of citrus.

Striped jack (縞鰺) - aged for 4 days.

Alfonsino (金目鯛) - served with some ground sea salt and a dab of sudachi (酢橘) juice.

Greater amberjack (間八) - from Kagoshima (鹿児島).  Apparently the fish was bled immediately upon capture, so the flesh is more translucent.  Aged for 5 days.

Japanese whelk (螺貝) - served in chunks instead of slices, with perilla (紫蘇) flowers, sudachi and plum salt (梅塩).

Oyster (牡蠣) - from Kushiro (釧路) in Hokkaido (北海道).  Served with sudachi lime juice.

Geoduck (海松貝) - from Aichi (愛知). Sea salt and sudachi lime.  Very strong flavors of the sea.

Glass shrimp (白海老) - served over a bed of akamoku seaweed (アカモク, ギバサ) from Akita (秋田) along with some perilla flowers.

The seaweed was really crunchy, and sticky like sticky mashed Chinese yam (山芋とろろ).

Small horned turban (姫さざえ) - cooked with a little sake to counter the bitterness, although it still tasted pretty bitter to me.

Sea urchin (雲丹): 
Purple sea urchin (紫雲丹) - on the right side, from Hakodate (函館).  Big and creamy.
Japanese green sea urchin (馬糞雲丹) - on the left side, from Rishiri Island (利尻島).  Slightly sweeter than the purple sea urchin.

Mackerel (鯖) - marinated and done in the box sushi (箱寿司) style of the Kansai (関西) region, with a thin piece of marinated kelp (昆布) on top.  Apparently the fish had its nerves removed so that it will preserve better...

Pacific saury (秋刀魚) - my first taste of the season.  Very yummy, full of fatty flavors.  Aged for 1 day.

Futomaki (太巻き) - this is a pretty giant "fat roll" indeed!  I couldn't believe my eyes at first…

This is got to be the first time I've had a futomaki made with conger eel (穴子)… which I felt was a little wasteful.  There were also two different types of spongy egg, sweet pickle, marinated tofu skin and perilla leaves.

Butterscotch mushroom (滑子) - marinated in a little vinegar, and yes, they are a little slippery thanks to the gelatinous coating...

Tofu (豆腐) - marinated in miso (味噌) for 3 months, turning it into a block of paste like Chinese 腐乳.  Definitely umami (旨味) here, along with a little yuzu (柚子) flavor.  The chef gave us a little taste of this to go along with our sake.

The chef started to serve us nigiri sushi (握り寿司):

Seki horse mackerel (関あじ) - this is horse mackerel from the waters off Saganoseki (佐賀関) in Oita (大分).  Very yummy.

Grouper (羽太) - this was wild (not farmed) from Ehime (愛媛).  I've never had this raw, so it's a pretty interesting.  Pretty chewy texture with lots of bite.

Yellowtail (鰤) - yummy.

Olive flounder wings (炙り縁側), lightly grilled - with a little volcanic/sulfuric salt.  Yummy thanks to the grilling softening and tenderizing this up a little…

Mackerel (鯖), grilled - once again, a 箱寿司 with marinated kelp.

Salmon roe over rice (いくら丼) - topped with lots of chopped spring onions.  Very fresh and yummy.

Grilled rice ball (焼きおにぎり) - made from marinated sushi rice and lightly grilled, with plum sauce (梅) filling and wrapped in perilla leaf and seaweed (のり).  Very different taste because of the rice.

Miso soup with ribbed little neck (鬼浅利) - very nice.  The clams were bigger versions of Manila clams.

Dessert time, and we were first served a little bit of fruit…

…then I had persimmon sorbet, made with preserved persimmon (干し柿).  Pretty yummy and interesting.

Finally, we were given a piece of chocolate cake that the chef made for another client.  This contained some nuts and raisins made from white grapes that had been marinated in brandy.

I brought a bottle of sake to apologize for standing my friend up, but the two of us were complete wimps… After a long dinner, we found ourselves with slightly less than half of the bottle left!  That was weak enough that even the customers sitting across of us - one of whom knows my friend - took jibes at us.  We did share some of the sake with the chef, and eventually we managed to finish it…

Rihaku Daijinjo Tobingakoi (李白大吟釀斗瓶囲い) - loooove this limited production sake.  Initially I didn't get much out of the nose when drinking out of traditional sake shot glasses, but later the chef brought us glasses from Riedel, which made things a lot better.  Definitely some of that familiar fermented rice (酒釀) notes, with some pineapple and definitely kinda alcoholic on the palate.

We were very stuffed, thanks to my friend telling the chef that he needed a lot of rice.  It was a pretty good meal, and the chef was clearly very particular when it comes to sourcing his ingredients - from the origins of the seafood to the large variety of salt used.  The chef also was particular about how long he would age the various types of fish to achieve the optimum texture.

Two little faults to nitpick - the first being that the sushi rice was a little loose and not packed firmly into a ball.  It was always in danger of falling apart, which is not something you want from your nigiri.  The other issue was that the seasoning was a little on the boring side.  There were quite a few pieces of fish seasoned with a little salt and a dab of sudachi lime juice, and these were served one after another.  That gets boring after a while.  If would have been better had these been mixed up a little.  One of the reasons why I love Gyodoike (魚道生) so much is the chef's creative seasoning.

Still, I think this is a place worthy of return visits - especially in terms of value for money.  If only I had more time left in Taipei...

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