June 25, 2020

Mitsuboshi-mae

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DaRC pinged and asked if I wanted to join them at The Araki.  Apparently they had booked out the entire counter, so there wouldn't be none of those weirdos and fuckwits that I seem to run into every.single.fucking.time I go to Sushi Saito (鮨  さいとう) in Hong Kong.  I thought about it for a little, and figured that this was an itch I kinda wanted to scratch.

Araki Mitsuhiro (荒木水都弘) needs no introduction.  Having picked up 3 stars for Araki (あら輝) in Tokyo, he closed shop and moved to London, where he opened The Araki and plucked another 3 stars.  His decision to leave London resulted in the restaurant being demoted from 3 stars to none - something that would never happen to a 3-star French restaurant anywhere in the world.  Some of us thought that he would be going back to Tokyo, but somehow he ended up in our little corner of the globe...

The reviews have been pretty mixed - some think it's the best sushi in town since the master himself is here, while others bitched about paying an arm and a leg but getting local ingredients.  I went with no pre-conceptions and a very open mind.  I did find it disappointing, though, that although we were asked about our dietary preferences, I was told that my request not to have any tuna was denied because, well, Araki-san's specialty is tuna.  This was kinda the argument I had with Sushi Tokami (鮨とかみ) that resulted in me never stepping foot inside that place again.  But this wasn't my booking, and I didn't want to be a dick, so I let it go.

We started with the otsumami (おつまみ):

The first ingredient to come out was a pair of abalone from Australia which have been steamed with sake for 6 hours.

After stripping out the organs, these were sliced to the correct thickness...

Abalone with fish maw and bird's nest - the sauce was made with dashi (出汁).  Honestly, I didn't care for the fish maw as it hadn't been cooked enough to my liking, and still retained some of the chewy texture instead of the collagen just melting in the mouth.  It also hadn't absorbed enough flavors from the sauce since, well, it's just dashi.  And the this country bumpkin thought he was eating snow fungus (銀耳) instead of bird's nest...  The yuzu (柚子) zest was nice, though.

Gotta say that the abalone was pretty tender.  But then again, I would expect nothing less.

Local eel (鰻) - RAW Bro Yeah thinks this was first steamed before being finished on the charcoal grill, which would explain how juicy and succulent it was, and the almost total absence of muddy flavors.  Nice and smoky flavors, and crunchy underside.

Local sea bream (真鯛) - steamed with sake on kombu (昆布), drizzled with some of the same sake with a few drops with nikiri soy sauce (煮切り醬油) infused with spring onions.  "Garnished" with Japanese green sea urchin (馬糞雲丹) from Rishiri Island (利尻) - we were told "Rishiki".

FAIL.  While the spring onion-flavored soy sauce reminded us of Cantonese steamed fish, unfortunately the fish was grossly overcooked - by Cantonese standards.  I can understand that this would be perfectly acceptable in Japan - especially if it were grilled - but this was worlds apart from the dish that almost made me cry last year.  And I didn't quite understand why the sea urchin was there...

To cleanse our palates before the main event, a cup of chilled soup made with dashi and local sweet corn.  I thought the hint of smokiness might have come from katsuobushi (鰹節) but the finer palates around me thought it would have been the grilled corn.

So now we have the nigiri zushi (握り寿司) portion of the dinner. Before we could start, we had to get a few things straight...

First, we had to be given a lesson on how to properly eat our sushi. I can appreciate that the restaurant - like Sushi Saito - gets a wide variety of people coming through their doors, and not everyone is a well-travelled foodie.  But anyone who has had experience with any of the top sushiyas in Japan - and that would be all of us tonight - would be accustomed to picking up the pieces with our hands, and also to have been previously told that ideally one should have to neta (ネタ) touch the tongue first instead of the shari (シャリ).  In fact, it's printed in many books including the one from Sukiyabashi Jiro (すきやばし 次郎).  But I understand why they feel the need to do it.

We were also asked whether we would prefer the "regular size" or "lady size" for our nigiri.  A couple of the ladies were quite happy to cut down on intake, so they chose the smaller "lady size".  We were also told that should we change our minds regarding the sizing, they would try to accommodate to the extent possible.

Araki-san began slicing the neta, which started with a 72kg bluefin tuna netted off the coast of Niigata Prefecture (新潟県).  After it was all done, he began making the nigiri for us, starting with the ladies...

For those of us visiting for the first time, we stared at the first piece placed in front of the ladies and thought: "IS THIS A JOKE?!"  The "lady size" was sooo tiny and cute that they looked like little toys found in Kappabashi (合羽橋).  To be perfectly honest, even the "regular size" was smaller than what we are normally used to.

Lean tuna (赤身) - the acidity from the red vinegar (赤酢) in the shari was front and center, and the shari itself was pretty warm.

Here's where I ran into issues.  While I was taking in my first piece, it was observed that I wasn't properly executing the suggested dictated three-finger technique.  So I had to be told how I was doing things wrong.

If there's one thing I really hate, it's being told how to eat my food.  I'm not some fucking idiot submerging my sushi in a pool of soy sauce with gobs of fake wasabi from a tube.  I don't need you to come and adjust my angle of attack for me.  I am able to enjoy my sushi just fine.

Medium fatty tuna (中トロ) - this came in a pair, with the first piece being leaner than the other.  The placement of the two pieces depended on whether one was left- or right-handed, which was a nice touch and must be applauded.  The acidity was definitely high, and the neta was so tender it just melted in the mouth.

Fatty funa (大トロ) - more marbling, and the temperature of the shari was correspondingly higher.  Once again, the second piece would be more marbled than the first.

Rosy seabass (喉黒) - the shari was very warm and also very well-seasoned... more salty than expected but still within tolerance for me.  The neta had good texture, and still a little springy.

Baby sea bream (春子鯛) - apparently this went through a 4-step process: first salted, then cooked in sake with the skin side down, marinated with red vinegar, and finally kobujime (昆布締め).  Good acidity in the neta with a touch of yuzu, and very, very tender.

Swordtip squid (白烏賊) - from Fukuoka (福岡).  Very, very tender... which was amazing.  I could taste the wasabi in this piece.

Squid wings and tentacles (ゲソ、耳) - with a little shichimi (七味) on top.  Not exactly standard fare at an edomae (江戸前) sushiya, but I like it.

Next Araki-san started to make something tataki (タタキ)-style in a bowl.

Horse mackerel (鯵) - from Kagoshima (鹿児島).  Very fragrant with the spring onions and toasted sesame.

Glass shrimp (白海老) - from Toyama prefecture (富山県).

Fatty tuna back - this came from the part of akami that was next to chutoro.  Marinated for 5 to 15 minutes in soy sauce.  Now this mouthful was also salty in addition to being acidic, so the flavors were very strong.  The neta showed a more springy texture.

Scallop (帆立貝) - first steamed with sake, then hand-shredded and marinated in the same sake overnight.  The tsume (ツメ) on top was made with a reduction of clams (蛤) and manila clams (花甲) with sake, mirin (味醂), and soy sauce.

Torched fatty tuna (炙り大トロ漬け) - thick cut and scored.  The saltiness from marinating was nice and brought out the flavors, and of course you've got smokiness here.  The warm temperature of the whole thing was very nice.

Conger eel (穴子) - with a choice of 3 "toppings", and I chose "salt and yuzu".  The texture was soft like cotton balls, and the crispy underside was really lovely.  The salt was nice, with a little bit of yuzu to perk things up.  Really, really awesome.  One of the most memorable pieces of conger eel sushi I've ever had.

Moments before I swallowed this wonderful thang, I was just admiring how pretty DaRC's piece of conger eel was... folded and shaped like gassho (合掌)-style farmhouses of Shirakawa-go (白川郷).  Meanwhile, he was eyeing my piece with envy because... well, he got the tail of the eel while I got the belly.

Kanpyo roll (干瓢巻き) - could taste the wasabi.

Egg (卵焼き) - made with Japanese yam (山芋), glass shrimp, abalone, sea bream, and local honey.  More dry than expected.  Not a fan...

The gang was discussing what extra goodies to add on, and I was seriously contemplating getting another piece of conger eel, but somehow we ended up with the signature hand roll for everyone.  The sous chef began chopping up a mix of chutoro and otoro for 7 portions... or so we thought.  After Araki-san made the first 3 rolls, he quickly realized there wasn't enough tuna to go around... so starting with my serving, the "topping" became sea urchin instead of more tuna.  Oops.

Chomolungma (チョモランマ) - Araki-san had used an extra piece of nori (海苔) and placed it at the bottom, perpendicular to the tube.  It now looked like an inverted "T", or Kylo Ren's lightsaber.  Or something else entirely different...

Photo courtesy of Hello Kitty
I quickly realized why the second piece of nori was needed: the "topping" at the tip of the roll kept falling off, and the nori was put in place to catch any strays.  This was pretty sinful and certainly filling.

We had arranged to bring 2 magnums while ordering something off the restaurant's wine list.  It was a reasonable amount of alcohol, but I was pretty restrained tonight.

Jacques Selosse Rosé, dégorgée le 5 novembre 2018 - plummy, yeasty, mineral, strawberries.  Good depth on the palate.

2011 Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne, en magnum - very big and toasty nose, with plenty of flint, and surprisingly ripe on the palate.

2005 Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne, en magnum - much more caramelized, very fragrant, with straw and pretty subdued toasty notes underneath. along with vanilla.  Very ripe on the palate.

Masuizumi Toyama Junmai for The Araki (満寿泉 富山純米) - served warm.  Lots of fermented rice flavors.


This was certainly sushi at a very, very high level.  A number of beautiful and stunning pieces. although I didn't think much of the otsumami.  The problem is... bluefin tuna is such a big part of the offering here that, for someone who normally avoids it for environmental reasons, I just don't feel I can justify coming back here.  I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to come tonight and enjoy myself, but I would be much happier going somewhere else willing to accommodate my request to not have any tuna.

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