Place of Honor
Twelve rounds between Hiroko Shimbo and Tyson Cole
I met Hiroko Shimbo when she was on a book tour promoting her first cookbook, The Japanese Kitchen, the seminal English-language work on Japanese cuisine. She was teaching at Central Market Cooking School in spring 2003, and I had the opportunity to meet her and spend some time chatting with her about her culinary tours in both New York City and Japan, her role as a recipe and restaurant consultant, and her career as an author of cookbooks and numerous magazine and newspaper articles (www.hirokoskitchen.com). The sold-out class was engaging and illuminating, the food she prepared was exquisite, and the class hung on every word. Over the years, we stayed in touch via e-mail, and when she told me about the sushi book she was working on, I immediately added it to my cookbook review list, knowing it would be excellent.
I loved her sushi book, and when she told me she would once again be on a national publicity tour and teaching at Central Market, I made sure I was on the reservation list. I also contacted Tyson Cole, executive chef/owner at Uchi (www.uchiaustin.com), to set up an omakase (chef's tasting) dinner after the class for Hiroko and me. She and Tyson know each other professionally, and she had never had the opportunity to dine at Uchi, one of Austin's premier restaurants and its top sushi venue, with a national reputation for brilliant and creative Japanese-fusion treatments of the freshest from farm and ocean.
Hiroko's class at Central Market on April 28 was predictably sold out; Hiroko's reputation preceded her, and these folks were fired up. Her demeanor is reserved: She is petite with clear, penetrating eyes; a broad, welcoming smile; and jet-black hair. When you notice the Japanese chef's cooking chopsticks protruding from the left arm pocket of her chef's coat, where a Western chef would keep pens and thermometers, you begin to realize you're in for an authentic experience.
Hiroko's knowledge is encyclopedic. The class was crammed with information, beginning with the importance of rice. One would imagine that cooking the rice in a top-flight sushi restaurant would be a mundane task, relegated to a lower-rung employee. But as the basis for many dishes, it is one of the most important components and is prepared by the master. Only an experienced rice connoisseur can distinguish between the daily changing moisture levels of the rice, which will determine how much water needs to be added in the cooking process. Is the rice "new crop" or freshly harvested or has it been stored for a while? What is the starch level of the grain, which will determine the final amount of stickiness? Certain varieties are used for different dishes; it is an art.
Freshness of the seafood is critical, and there was an illuminating discussion of the harvesting and storage of the fish. All smaller species of fish for sushi are line-caught and never netted, then killed immediately in an ice bath or kept alive in holding tanks. Very large fish are humanely killed: the tail, gills, and intestines removed immediately and the carcass carefully packed upright in ice. Everything is done to limit any buildup of lactic acid (a result of thrashing muscle activity and stress), which can negatively affect the taste and texture. Certain species taste better with a slight degree of rigor mortis and taste maturation. There are specific markets that deal with seafood for sushi, primarily in Japan, and the care provided and the shipping can drive up the cost astronomically.
As with her first Central Market class, the food she prepared was delicious. We sampled an uramaki inside-out roll filled with crisp, thin batons of fried sweet potato, simmered shiitake mushroom, asparagus, sesame seeds, and sushi rice; the textural combination was superb, and the blend of flavors complex. It was accompanied by a wonderful Rihaku Nigori "Dreamy Clouds" sake, a cloudy, fruity sake from the first batch of that spring's fermentation; think of it as the Beaujolais Nouveau of rice wine. Next was an oshizushi (pressed sushi) with eel: sushi rice, rich eel, cucumber, sweet pickled ginger, with a light dusting of sansho pepper on top, delightful when popped into the mouth all at once.
The easiest form for anyone to learn is the chirashizushi, or "scattered" sushi. Think of it as a delicious sushi salad, this one composed of rice, sweet omelet shreds, diced cucumber, shrimp, shiitakes, eel, toasted walnuts, shiso leaves, and feta (substituting for braised tofu knots), topped with plump salmon roe. This was served with a Yuki No Bosha ("Cabin in the Snow"), end-of-production, pure-rice sake which was rich, assertive, and strong. Dessert was inarizushi: a sweet simmered tofu bag stuffed with rice, cashews, walnuts, pistachios, raisins, pickled ginger, dried apricot, and sesame seeds: the perfect finish.
A few days later, Hiroko and I convened outside of the Uchi entryway and walked inside to shouted welcoming greetings of "Irasshai!" and "Maido!" from Tyson and his gang of chefs behind the sushi counter. Even at that early hour on a weeknight, the restaurant was already packed. I was ready to take notes on Tyson and Hiroko's first encounter in some time, but they are both fluent in Japanese, while I remained clueless. I could tell that a mutual admiration existed; that much was quite evident without knowing the language.
Tyson escorted us to a back table. While he and Hiroko engaged in more conversation in Japanese (which she pronounced as "very fluent and natural"), a French Pinot Noir wine was ordered from our excellent waitperson, Jodie, and I explored the Tyson-Hiroko connection further.
Hiroko was hired as a culinary consultant awhile back by the P.F. Chang's restaurant chain to help develop their new Japanese tavern concept, and she set up a test and evaluation kitchen near Phoenix where several highly promising chefs from around the country were invited to come in as development partners chef-owners, if you will. Tyson was one of those invited chefs, and he worked side-by-side with Hiroko for several days before deciding that he would pass on the opportunity. It was a little too corporate for his blood, and he had his own very successful restaurant in Austin where he could make creative decisions without interference.
Uchi does an amazing business. From the moment the doors open to well after closing, they are full every night. The crowds are there to enjoy great drinks, socialize, and sample Tyson's fare. About 70% of their food sales are from sushi, with the majority of that being sales of sushi rolls. But the omakase tasting dinners are Tyson's pride and joy, with the meals generally designed for two diners and the price market-based (figure in the $70 to 85 per-person range, for a 21/2 hour or so feast of many small courses).
Ours began with an amuse bouche of a grapefruit sorbet with micro fennel greens and candied orange peel, perfectly balanced and refreshing. First up: madai, and a very interesting choice to send out. Madai is red sea bream, Japan's favorite white-fleshed fish and one that is extremely perishable. If ever there were a fish for Tyson to lead with to show his prowess, this was it. The name in Japanese also sounds like the word for "happiness," so it is a fish that is prized for congratulatory occasions.
It was luscious: delicate sweet slices served with orange oil, orange supreme, garlic, Chinese broccoli blossom, and san bai zu (a sauce of dashi, shoyu, vinegar, and sugar). A heady beginning indeed, and Hiroko pronounced it as extremely fresh, while appreciating the bow to tradition.
Next came a silky aji horse mackerel plated with ponzu dressing, dice of sweet yellow bell pepper, thin slices of local okra, snow-pea shoots, Red Crystal" lettuce minigreens, a sheet of crisp apple coiled around a brunoise of grapes. It was a wonderful combination of flavors that showed Tyson's skill at marrying Japanese and local ingredients.
Course three drifted further away from Japan: sweet succulent seared Maine diver scallops, composed with earthy summer truffle slices from Burgundy, rich and toothsome house-made duck prosciutto, poached quail egg, shaved asparagus salad with microwatercress, and asparagus coulis. Every component stood out but all smoothly contributed to the whole. A very Japanese concept for a decidedly un-Japanese dish.
Course four was Tyson's nod to paella: a composed bowl of langoustine, Maine mussels, sautéed African rouget fish (a red mullet), with sautéed squash blossoms in a langoustine bisque and risotto, made not with traditional arborio rice but with sushi rice. The dish was topped with a mildly spicy foam of Piment d'Espelette, a Basque smoked red pepper. Complimentary flavors one and all, with the fish and langoustine moist and perfectly cooked. Hiroko appreciated the sushi-rice risotto, and having traveled and consulted extensively in Spain, the whole concept of the dish.
Course five was toro, bluefin fatty tuna belly, with white shiro soy, grapes, baby shiso leaves, Spanish Marcona almonds, caramelized slices of garlic, currants, and golden raisins. Hints of an almond gazpacho from Málaga but the one dish that could have used a little more balance; we wanted a little more acid than the raisins and currants provided.
Now's a good time to illustrate how wonderful it is to eat with an expert with a highly educated palate, someone who can provide a running commentary on the detailed history, culture, and nuance of the cuisine. When the toro arrived, Hiroko whipped out her notebook and launched into a drawing of a tuna from the side, dividing the fish into sixths, with names for each section in Japanese and a breakdown of their various uses, their desirability, and their costs. Seasons and areas of tuna harvest were delineated, and methods of harvest and processing discussed. It was an instant minidiscourse of all things bluefin. Surprisingly, this particular tuna was sustainably farmed in the Croatian Adriatic.
Course six arrived as a work of art featuring juicy Moulard duck breast, white-wine reduction with mustard seeds, rabbit confit, sautéed baby turnips, chunks of roasted Fuji apple, fresh morel mushrooms, and nicely spicy, robust kaiware daikon sprouts. The duck was perfectly seared to medium rare, with enough of the fat left in the skin for succulence.
Course seven was a playful ode to fish and chips with a spectacular cold-smoked (over apple wood) hamachi (yellowtail) paired with crisp chips of yucca root, micro fennel greens, and lemon zest, dressed with shiro white soy-citrus vinaigrette. I could have eaten my rather considerable weight in the buttery, smoky yellowtail; again, it was an excellent combination of flavors.
Course eight was a return to the world of sushi: anago (sea eel), glazed with a rich blend of soy, sake, mirin, topped with freshly grated young ginger. What elevated this above the standard is that the eel was fresh, not the frozen, preglazed, heat-and-eat eel found in most sushi restaurants. The luscious flesh was perfect and melted in the mouth.
Course nine was saba (mackerel), another fish that must be impeccably fresh due to its rapid degradation and a showcase of the sushi chef's skill to properly balance the robust taste and oiliness of the flesh with the perfect amount of acid and salt from a brief marinade in a bath of rice vinegar and salt. Tyson's mastery showed up in the perfect balance of flavors, paired here with long-stem green onion.
It was at this point that Chronicle photographer John Anderson was scolded by Hiroko for trying to grasp the slippery mackerel with chopsticks. "Sushi is finger food," she said. "Grasp it with the thumb and the third finger, and contain it with the pointing finger. If you're dipping into soy, dip the fish and not the rice. You don't want to insult the chef by making his rice fall apart." Luckily, he made the mistake before I could.
Course 10, a scallop shell containing more of the madai (red sea bream) drizzled with hazelnut oil and san bai zu. Wonderful. Followed at 11 by a round of luscious fatty salmon belly meat, impeccable after a bath in a little soy.
Course 12 emerged as a pan-roasted slice of foie gras with crisps of caramelized burdock root, hazelnut brittle, hazelnut emulsion, and a puree of cauliflower and truffle. Sinfully succulent, the foie gras was overkill after the ultimate adult baby food of the puree. I could eat a bucketful of that puree all by itself.
Tyson and sous chef Paul Qui created a spectacular meal that showcased the freshest of Japanese sushi combined with a much more adventurous blending of seasonal local ingredients and seafood from all over the world. Call it new American or Japanese fusion or whatever you like, but I'll just call it wonderfully creative food prepared with the best of ingredients in a way that lets the quality shine through with balance and brilliance.
Now it was time for pastry chef Philip Speer to shine. Jodie arrived table-side with coffee in individual French presses and a massive tray of what appeared to be small jewels among a chessboard of assorted desserts. The jewels were crystalline globes of tarragon jelly with honey caviar, next to miniscoops of yogurt sherbet, candied kumquats filled with kumquat marmalade and yuzu greens, scoops of sensuous brown-butter sorbet in a pool of ginger consommé with candied peanut, and lastly, if I got this right, a jizake crème caramel flavored with sake. All dishes tasted as good as they looked. It was simply a masterful, jaw-dropping presentation of dessert talent and visual art, and the molecular cooking skills with the tarragon jelly jewels did not go unappreciated.
When all was said and done, Hiroko was very impressed with what we had been prepared and served by Tyson and his team. "I appreciate his culinary talent and his respect for the ingredients. A lot of our dinner wasn't Japanese in the classic sense, but it was based on Japanese training, used the freshest seasonal ingredients like the Japanese do, and had clean flavors in the Japanese way. His meticulous and careful attention to create beautiful presentation is astonishing. I am really glad that I got to experience Tyson's food."
The chefs wanted pictures with each other, so Tyson beckoned Hiroko behind the sushi counter, a place of honor, as John snapped a series of shots. My Japanese is very rusty, but I'm pretty sure that I heard Hiroko say, "Itadakimasu!" which translates as, "Thank you, and all who made it, for the delicious food." I'm certain that I heard several "Oishi!"s (Delicious!) and "Gochisosama!"s (That was a feast!) thrown in, as well.
I'm just glad that I had the presence of mind to interject myself in the middle of that Tyson Cole-Hiroko Shimbo mutual admiration society. I got to witness a true omakase feast meant to impress prepared by the master chef and his talented staff and eat at the side of a true culinary sensei and feast on her knowledge.
The Japanese Kitchen review, Dec. 13, 2002
The Sushi Experience review, Dec. 8, 2006