Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hirosaku, Shinbashi (ひろ作)

Baron Destructo. Deliberately ignoring the basic research that would remind us where this nickname came from (and he came pre-named; it's not an EOITwJ thing), let's just say it's been in a year since his last visit to Japan. He's maintained, errrr, contact, with things Japanese in the interim (sorry) and here we are again for a rematch with one of Tokyo's finest.

Hirosaku ranks 5th of 2,000 in the Tabelog kaiseki rankings for Tokyo, if that means anything. It must mean something. The only things above it are (going up): Hanamura in Sakura Shinmachi (SSM?!), Kikunoi Akasaka (no thank you), Kohaku in Kagurazaka (oh hello! September reopening, this is Ishikawa's daughter store), and Kurogi in Yushima. [Note to self, with all these Setagaya/Chiyoda locations, someone is going to get invited to one.]  It almost doesn't matter what the system is, does it? For some reason, this is one of the best places in Japan. Lessee...

I'll just get this off my chest: Don't go here. Don't go here unless someone else is paying, especially your company. This is a place for presidents and board members to take friends and clients. Don't intrude. We paid the price. Don't ask. It was an experience. Really, don't ask.

What does this sign mean? Either way, it's a good header for the message "Shinbashi, in addition to having an uncomfortably high number of Chinese women on the streets offering to massage you after dinner, has tons of restaurants, almost all Japanese, in all price ranges. A serious student of the kappou could get lost here and end up flat broke in 2 weeks."

In the southern reaches things mellow down, leaving various quiet, barely-marked doors like this one. Hirosaku. Some of the similar places, while they don't offer a menu outside, at least do you the service of listing 'Japanese food' on the sign. No such concessions here; you have to know where you're going and why, and be booked in advance. Hirosaku received one star in the the new 2011 Michelin rankings (and another note to self, avoid Michelin-ranked places). This almost looks like the kind of place I'd poke my head into on a whim. That would be funny, considering the exclusivity.

As usual, 'this is where the magic happens', and the magic is this guy. His wife does some plating, but I imagine nothing comes from the kitchen without being his sole creation. His sourcing is really amazing, his cooking is extremely subtle. I'm never going to see him again, so I won't trouble to learn his name.

For a place right at the top end....well, at any rate, this is a reminder that greatness and costliness in Japan need not be associated with glamor. Quiet elegance, or sometimes just quiet exclusivity, are all that's needed, and most people wouldn't call this place 'tidy' or even 'clean' (although I'm sure it is). The okami was a little shy; after I sat at the counter talking to the staff and master for 10 minutes, she told me she couldn't speak English at all, as if that was going to be a problem. Her hair was like that of my dear departed grandmother, or the mama at Miyoshi.

We roosted upstairs by ourselves. There are two rooms (horikotatsu) up, and one semi-private space across from the small counter downstairs. It's a converted house, and it's tiny - with the two kitchen shots and this, you've seen most of it. Like a lot of high-end Japanese things, there's less attempt at beautification than you expect...at least to these ignorant Western eyes.

Here the The Baron and The Terrable are fronted by the first dish. I got momentarily excited and thought this was going to be another pottery-heavy meal but it wasn't. At least not to these ignorant Western eyes.

And here's the interior shot. This is a good chawan mushi, with some excellent pieces of grilled cheese. They were really delicious, with a strong, cheesy flavor and rich texture. It's a little more puzzling when you consider that they were fugu shirako, and then it's disturbing that it tasted so much like cheese.

Looking back at the pictures, just about everything was excellent. This was the first salvo of awesomninity - Ichizen crab from Kanazawa, terrific leg meat on top of mounded body meat. With jelly made from crab brains. As with many of the dishes, I could have eaten 4 of these.

A rarity for this course - monkfish liver that's been heated and covered with teriyaki sauce. Good, not as excellent as you'd hope if you were an ankimo fanatic. Stop me if you know this, but the leaves on top are kinome, from the (prickly ash?) tree that gives us sansho (eel topping, mapo tofu ingredient, makes your mouth all shibi-shibi).

The sushi was excellent, just great. Engawa, or sorta flounder fin (from right under the fin; the same way that tategami isn't exactly the horse's mane), has a texture that Canadians seem to find challenging, but this was top quality and delicious. The tuna, it goes almost without saying, was from Oma - fresh, never frozen. Line-caught.

The provenance of the abalone went unremarked, but if this is the sort of taste and texture that people are looking for when they eat abalone, I now understand why they would want to eat it. Wow, was that good. The greenish-brown strip bottom right is tofu made from abalone liver, and would have been better unremarked or even unincluded.

Interestingly, we cycled back. Actually it's not surprising, is it? With 10 or fewer diners this evening (I think 7), Hiro's not going to buy a big range of fishes. What you want at a place like this is: While other chefs are busy making up marketing copy about how they "Source only the freshest fish from Tokyo's prestigious Tsukiji market," Hiro is making a deal in a back room that gives him the best 5 fish of the day before the suckers even knows the boats are in. Or he locked in that deal 30 years ago. This crab was again toppest quality, and the flounder meat was terrific texturally and tastually (which again made it weird for foreigners).

Grilled bits of prepared okoze, scorpion fish (prepared in the sense that it was sliced partially; and Joe, they do look like lion fish). Nice rare fish, sensitively grilled and sauced. Thick, fatty skin almost like eel, and very tasty. The grilled bit was probably matsutake stalk, while the spinachy thing had some chrysanthemum petals mixed through it for color (and I like the weird flavor of them too).

Snapper, kabura-mushi style. Why is it called kabura-mushi? Is it because with the grated radish on top and the molded dome-y shape it looks like a turnip? Probably. Subtle, elegant, some would say tasteless, all would say "I could eat 4 of these". The sea urchin was awesome if you separated it a bit and tasted it on its own. Otherwise, lost in the mix.

They specialize in soba too. In fact, they have a grinder sitting on the floor downstairs by the fridge (this is how unpretentious it is). This soba was, frankly, meh, although the tsuyu was terrific.

It still seems wrong, but strawberries get earlier and earlier every year. It's mid-December. Winter starts now. That's not the season for Spring fruits. But these are Amao's, big as life, from Fukuoka (there are different types from different regions, and the Fukuoka/Saga ones are famous). Really terrific strawberries, with matcha and lemon jellies. Hiro likes his jellies, doesn't he?

Phew, I almost forgot to say something about how simple and humble this was.

The Baron descends the stairs, where the dreaded bill was awaiting us. The staff all came out to wish us a good night, and at these prices they damn well oughta.

Don't ask. Don't go, and don't ask.

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