Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending a food blogger dinner at Manhattan Beach sushi hot spot, Sashi Sushi + Sake Lounge. Also in attendance were Fiona of Gourmet Pigs, Kevin of KevinEats, Javier of Teenage Glutster, Matt of Mattatouille and Sonja of Active Foodie. Equipped only with the knowledge that Sashi's Chef Makoto would be preparing a tasting menu of his signature dishes paired with sake, I went with relatively little idea of what to expect. It was nearly five hours and 22 masterful courses later – when I was caught in a battle between my palate saying "yes" and my stomach saying "no" – that I remembered Chef Makoto's mantra: "What's possible?" That night anything was possible and we were all fortunate to bear witness.
A bit about Chef Makoto: Growing up in Nagoya, Japan, Chef Makoto began his career in the kitchen at age 15. For over 10 years, he trained in the classics under Master Sushi chef Makoto Kumazaki, gaining centuries of knowledge with tradition and discipline. Passionate to keep growing, he moved to New York where Chef Masaharu Morimoto recruited him. The opportunity was eye opening. Under Morimoto's direction, Makoto learned to meld classic Japanese cuisine with cooking styles from all over the world. During his six years with Morimoto, Makoto opened new restaurants in Manhattan, Washington D.C. and Tokyo. Morimoto Tokyo earned a coveted Michelin star. Chef Makoto also performed as a sous chef in 13 episodes of the Food Network's hit show, Iron Chef.
Simply put, Chef Makoto's cuisine is stellar. His discipline, training and dedication to his craft is clear; but what pushes Makoto over the edge is his freedom to explore new-Japanese techniques in his own kitchen. As a result, guests experience dishes through more than just their eyes and palates. That experience extends to Sashi's decor, which within the restaurant (not the bar) is a celebration of simplicity and nature. Shelves of rustic driftwood and moss contrast against a neutral back splash of beige glass tile, bringing a diner's attention to the chef's work rather than the decor. Reserve that attention for the bar area, which is dimly-lit and almost obtrusively loud from the antics of, dare I say it, cougars. And I don't mean of the"Big Cat" variety.
My sincere thanks to Chef Makoto, Greg and Cary for an all-around delicious evening.
1. Amuse Bouche | Airbread, clam chowder infusion, Manila clam, truffle oil. A perfect way to start our evening. One bite into the thin airbread resulted in an explosion of warm, comforting clam chowder. The Manila clam was melt-in-your-mouth good, topped with a generous helping of truffle oil. As a truffle lover, I found it wonderful.
2. Edamame 2 Ways | #1 - Steamed edamame, cinnamon, black pepper, sea salt, chili, mirin, nutmeg. #2 - Hot edamame, sea salt. An interesting spin on traditional edamame. The spices did not overpower the taste of the bean, providing just enough kick to keep one going back for more. The sea salt edamame was a standard alternative.
3. Crispy asparagus | Beer battered asparagus, nori aioli. A hit at our table, the asparagus was fried to perfection. The crisp, flavorful coating of tempura hid a perfectly steamed asparagus. The nori aioli was an provided a cool, creamy contrast to the hot crunch of the tempura.
4. Lemon Oregano Mushroom | Char grilled shitake mushroom, oregano pesto. Large shitake mushrooms bathed in an earthy, oregano pesto. While the dish had great flavor and texture – shitakes are one of my favorite mushrooms – the larger size of the mushroom made it difficult to bite and chew.
5. Sashimi & Vegetable Lettuce Wraps | Tuna, salmon, yellowtail, red snapper, surf clam. Cucumber, shiso leaf, bean sprouts. Dip trio: wasabi soy, spicy chili and miso aioli. Our table literally fought over this dish. The freshness of the fish and crisp chill of the vegetables made it impossible not to enjoy. The trio of sauces lent a variety of bold flavors to each bite, giving even the most serious of sashimi lovers permission to play with their food.
6. Gindara | Alaskan wild black cod, sweet miso marinade. Miso black cod is one of my favorite dishes, but Sashi's robata version would have benefited from less time on the grill. It had a fabulous miso flavor and crunchy exterior, but the cod's interior flesh was a bit too soft, bordering on mushy even. The marinade was so wonderful it negated the housemade sauces for me, but they were a nice touch.
Housemade mustard, sweet vinaigrette & garlic ponzu sauces.
7. Steam Bun | Roasted kurobuta pork belly, pickled cucumber, kewpie slaw, scallion. The pork belly was cooked to smoky perfection; its delicate texture practically melting in your mouth. The pickled cucumber and kewpie slaw gave the dish a great crunch and wonderfully tangy flavor, while the bun itself could have been less dense. A lighter, fluffier bun and this would have been flawless.
8. Toro Tar Tar with Caviar | Fatty tuna, soy dashi broth, wasabi, paddlefish caviar. The toro's presentation was gorgeous, with a custom ice mold made and tableside pouring of the soy dashi broth. Individual spoons were laid on the icy foundation, making them the perfect icy temperature for scooping the toro. The toro's richness was cut nicely by the wasabi's heat and smooth, yet not overly salty, taste of the glossy paddlefish pearls. Japanese plum served a garnish.
9. Sashi poke 2010 | Tuna, avocado, cucumber, pistachios, sweet lime chili vinaigrette, truffle aioli, wonton chips. Opinions were mixed about the poke. Some felt the pistachios in this dish were overpowering, but I absolutely adore nutty flavors. That said, this dish was wonderful. The textural contrast between the buttery ahi, the crunch of the pistachios and the crisp of the wonton chips was excellent. A faint dusting of chili powder on each wonton likened it to a Lay's BBQ-flavored potato chip, leaving a pleasant amount of lingering heat on the lips.
10. Black Tiger Prawn Tempura | Tempura battered black tiger prawns, wasabi aioli, baby frisee salad. Unfortunately, a too-generous helping of aioli overpowered the shrimp, taking away from their crisp texture and sweet flavor. A bit less aioli and this would have been great.
11. Lobster with Crispy Onion | Lobster sashimi, chili oil, ponzu sauce, crispy onion. The sweet, succulent lobster sashimi, peppery micro greens, hint of citrus ponzu and natural sugar from the crisp onions made this a beautiful dish.
12. King Crab Claws "Corn Dogs" | Tempura batter crab claws, lemon thyme, sea salt, lemon grass dipping sauce. Incredibly innovative and fun, if not frustrating, to eat after the first magical bite. Frustrating in a good way, as you'll do everything possible to extract every last bit of meat from the crab claw. Chopsticks don't work? Use your fingers. Fingers don't work? Break the claw into as many pieces as you can and dig into the sweet flesh of the crab. The lemon grass dipping sauce was a perfect accompaniment, but many of us abandoned it after the first bite, preferring to go straight for the sumptuous crab meat.
13. Tai with Uni | Japanese snapper, sea urchin, yuzukosho, shiso salad. One of my favorite dishes. Supple snapper topped with rich, creamy uni and shiso/nori slaw. Fantastic.
14. Chicken Teriyaki Pizza | Red onion, shishito peppers, nori aioli, parmesan cheese, teriyaki sauce. This was surprisingly good, if not a bit heavy on the teriyaki. Clumps of Japanese mushrooms gave the pizza a great earthiness and the sweet red onions were a lovely compliment to the smoky grilled chicken. The crust would have benefited from fewer toppings, allowing it to maintain its structural integrity.
15. Tuna Sashimi Pizza | Tuna carpaccio, cilantro, cherry tomato, red onion, black olives, jalapeno. A perfectly light dish. Farm fresh, crisp vegetables, jeweled ahi and a cracker-like crust made this a winner.
16. Wagyu "Hot Rock" | Japaneese Wagyu beef prepared tableside on a hot rock. One simply cannot go wrong with high-quality Wagyu. Marbled gorgeously, the beef cooked within seconds on the sizzling stone. Each bite was increasingly rich and satisfying.
17. Ishiyaki "Crafted Tableside" | Spinach, namul, pickled dikon, carrots, Jidori egg, jasmine rice, hamachi. I love this spin on Bimbimbop, traditionally served with beef or pork. Slices of hamachi were gently lined against the sides of the scalding bowl, given a chance to cook while the attendant broke apart the Jidori egg and combined its glorious yolk with the rest of the ingredients. I could have eaten much more than my alloted 1/7 of the bowl.
18. Kalbi | Short ribs marinated in house special sauce. Cut against the grain for a more practical, meat-filled bite, the Kalbi were an interesting alternative to traditional Korean short ribs. The smoked flavors were robust, but per usual the short rib meat was a bit too tough for me.
19. Foie Gras | A-grade Hudson Valley fois gras, sweet shiso marinade. A perfect sear encrusted the delicate fois gras, and while I was getting very full at this point, one bite was perfect. The fois gras was incredibly rich and buttery and I found a tiny dip in the ripened raspberry coulis to be a great complement.
20. Taiwan Ramen Noodle | Nagoya-style spicy noodle soup. Beef, pork, asian chives & dried red chili. I wish this had come earlier in the evening because it was at this point that my dinner experience became a "(Wo)Man v. Food" event. The Taiwan Ramen Noodle soup was, in a word, amazing. The epitome of asian comfort food with ground pork, beef, perfectly slurpy noodles and a strong kick from the dried chili flakes, the soup was a show-stopper. I've been craving it ever since.
21. Toban Yaki | Bananas, pineapple, fuji apples baked in toban pot. Passion fruit white chocolate sauce and coconut ice cream accompaniment. There's just no two ways about it, this was awesome. Imagine ripe, juicy tropical fruits jumped into a passion fruit and white chocolate jacuzzi, then invited coconut ice cream to cool down the party. It was hot, tart, sweet, rich, creamy goodness. And the tagine presentation was a great touch. Yum.
22. Bamboo Cup | Chocolate orange mousse, cinnamon crumble, green tea ice cream, Cointreau foam. Eating this was like digging to the center of the earth, if the earth was made of layers of chocolate mousse, cinnamon crumble and green tea ice cream. The complex flavors, hot vs. cold and creamy vs. crunchy contrast was great, and the citrus Cointreau foam cleverly hid the subterranean delights.
23. Japanese Frozen Yogurt | Calpico yogurt, mango passion fruit sorbet, fresh berries. A light alternative to the other two desserts, we were encouraged to make a mess of the presentation. Take your spoon, break down the ice cream cone into the sorbet and berries and mix it up. The result is a refreshing spoonful of ripe berries, frozen sorbet and a slight crunch from the cone.
1. Junmaiginjo Jokigen | Beautifully soft with aromas of pear, apple and slightly acidic finish.
2. Hana Hou Hou Shu Sparking | Sparkling and infused with rose petals and hibiscus. My favorite sake of the evening.
3. Ama no To Tokubetsu Junmai "Heaven's Door" | Slightly dry with an earthy aroma. A sip revealed an essence of fruit and sweet finish.