Sushi Taro 2.0
I know I already wrote about Sushi Taro, but since then, it has received an expensive renovation and menu makeover. What was once my favorite neighborhood spot has transformed into a fancy, fine dining establishment (complete with the accompanying high price tag). My friend Jeff and I had decided to go on a whim after deciding we “deserved it” on Monday and making a last minute reservation for Wednesday. We really wanted to try the special omakase (literally translated it mean’s “it’s up to you” but really it ends up being the chef’s choice of what he’d like to serve you with an occassional suggestion from you) tasting menu. The general consensus is that ordering a la carte is a total ripoff and you should def go for one of the tasting menus (ranging from $60-100/person). After some initial confusion (apparently omakase can only be eaten in the private sushi bar in the back), we had our reservation but were still somewhat unclear of “the rules.” We were told that when seated at the back bar, you have to order at least $100 worth of food or else they charge you the difference. Butttt, it’s a tasting menu? Isn’t the point of a tasting menu to pay one price and then eat your face off? We were perplexed. It sounded like some sort of hybrid a la carte/tasting menu deal.
After 30 seconds of deliberation, we decided that we didn’t care. We were already super pumped to just have gotten a seat in the back room and there was no turning back now! With a burgeoning singer/songwriter career in the works, Jeff was unfazed by this small bump in the sushi road. We vowed to learn the rules before we started eating to avoid a massive bill. Clearly, that didn’t happen.
The moment we crossed the threshold from main dining room to private VIP sushi bar, we were sold. Hypnotized by the soft music and swaying bamboo garden, we completely forgot to ask about pricing and dove headfirst into our sushi education. Chef and owner, Nobu Yamazaki, was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable teacher. He knew everything! He was like a Japanese Rain Man. In the middle of the meal, he pulled out a stack of half a dozen boxes, and rattled off 30 different fish names along with place of origin, flavor notes and a couple of fun facts. Unbelievable.
I won’t go over the whole meal, since we ate at least 20+ different things, but there were some definite highlights and lowlights. The first thing set in front of us was this:
Sesame Seed “Tofu”
This was called sesame seed “tofu” but the texture of it didn’t resemble tofu at all despite its namesake. Because its made from a root vegetable, the starchiness produced a smooth but elastic finish. The broth was made of bonito and kelp and it was topped with sea urchin, soy beans and pepper leaves. Eaten together, it was the perfect marriage of flavors. I had never tasted anything like it before. This type of play on textures/flavors was prevalent throughout the meal. The Japanese love sticky/gelantinous/jiggly things.
This was a shot glass full of these tiny plants that were surrounded by a jelly-like membrane. I guess they have to pick the plants at just the right time to get them with the membranes, and the result is a dish that was in between liquid and solid. At first we suspected it should be eaten in one shot (a la oyster shooters) but soon realized that would be impossible unless we wanted to choke. The wooden spoon was used to scoop out the jelly balls, but they were slippery little suckers and it was pretty difficult to eat. The fish ball was poached and super delicate with a mild flavor, and the colorful balls were made of turnips, providing a little flair as well as crunch. The resulting culinary experience was less about the taste (which was briny and complex) and more about the textures. This was also the case with the shrimpy Jello Jiggler, which was entertaining to eat but didn’t blow me away taste-wise. It basically just tasted like gelatin. With a shrimp trapped in it.
The shrimp Jiggler was served as part of the cooked portion of the meal, which followed the sashimi part. Basically, during the sashimi part, they display like every fish possible and tell you to pick whatevs! It was so overhwelming. Everything we ate was awesome, but the standout was definitely the Wagyu Kobe beef “sashimi.” The beef is displayed in the same case as the tuna and is virtually indistinguishable from the fatty toro because of it’s intense marbling. Anything that has lived its life being massaged with sake is going to taste MONEY, and this beef didn’t disappoint. The overwhelming flavor and complexity of the meat was phenomenal. It was buttery and smooth like the fatty toro (which we ate just before it) but meaty and amazing. Here’s a little photo montage:
The full slideshow can be viewed here in all of it’s yummy glory. [Sidenote: If you watch it in a slideshow, be sure to click "Show Info" so you can see the captions.]
The one lowlight of the meal came during the soup portion. We tried both the Fish Ball Soup and the Turtle Soup. It tasted exactly how I imagined it would taste if I slaughtered a Ninja Turtle and cooked it up for dinner. It was grisly, tough and the textures were … unfamiliar. Don’t even get me started on the shell. Apparently, like soft shell crabs, the turtles used for Turtle Soup are also soft shelled. It had like a fatty, oily mouthfeel and was slimey.
I mean, I’ve eaten worse. But after eating a couple of hefty bites, I was picking turtle gristle and bone bits out of my mouth (lovely) for a good 10 minutes. But like one out of 20+ dishes that were a win is a pretty good record. And for $100, they really stuff you. Definitely like 75% into the meal, I was comfortably full. For the last quarter I had to eat thru the wall. And by the time dessert came out, I was like busting. Since most times dessert is a pretty uneventful affair at Asian restaurants (usually some fresh fruit or complimentary mints on top of the check), I wasn’t expecting much. BUT! The two things we ordered were SO GOOD.
Hojicha pudding and SALTED CHERRY BLOSSOM ICE CREAM. Seriously, both were total standouts. Hojicha is just roasted green tea and imagine that flavor infused into an airy, amazingly light pudding. Mmm mmm mmm. The ice cream was salty with flowery notes from the cherry blossoms. It was definitely one of the most interesting flavors of ice cream I’ve ever tasted (and I’ve tasted alot). Asians are usually pretty adventurous when it comes to ice cream flavors. The Flips have a corn and cheese ice cream which is pretty popular (it’s tasty, I swear), and in Japan they love black sesame ice cream (I wasn’t a huge fan). Salty Cherry Blossom, FTW. So good.
Snarky’s Final Thought: In the midst of a recession, it seems foolish for Taro to raise prices when they had already built a solid customer base of rabid fans (like myself). We are the people who rushed there after work to try and get in without a reservation. We packed the tiny stairwell, waiting and waiting, for the sweet sound of our names being called out. What people need to realize is that Sushi Taro is dead. Part of me wishes they would just rename New Sushi Taro because it’s hard not to compare the two. It’s like trading your old boyfriend for a hotter one that resembles your ex and creepily has the same name. It just seems wrong.
Yes, the meal was ridiculously expensive. Was it worth it? Absolutely. But, I don’t think I could justify spending that much on a meal unless it was a special occassion. Sushi Taro 2.0 is one of those restaurants that you’ll probs go and try once, have an epically life-changing meal and never go back. I probably will, but most people won’t. My suggestion if you go: don’t even bother NOT doing the private omakase option. If you’re spending that much on a meal, you might as well go all out. And the theatrical fanfare that comes with a perfectly paced and interactive meal is definitely worth the price tag (and high tip). I tried so many things I’ve never had or would even think to order. Not to mention, I got all of the knowledge and anecdotes that Nobu, a sushi master, had to offer. In terms of the rules (which Nobu explained after we got the check that just had a flat charge of $100/person), basically the sushi chef keeps a mental tab of how much you’re eating. If you choose to eat kobe beef all night, probs you won’t be having alot more to eat. And if you order something super special (they have fresh lobsters sometimes, and some other seasonal items), they will tack on anything you eat that surpasses your $100 quota. It sounds kinda shady, but Nobu was nothing but super friendly and helpful. Also, we ate for THREE HOURS so I’m not sure how much someone has to eat to go past the $100 mark.
If you’ve got the dough, it’s but a small price to pay to reach epicurean utopia. You’ll leave with your palate enlightened, a full stomach, and a much lighter wallet.