Once-in-a-lifetime Tsukiji Dinner

I count myself extremely lucky and thankful for having been invited to a dinner last Friday at Tsukiji on Arnaiz Ave. (formerly Pasay Road) with a group of slightly older and much more successful friends (role models, even). Each is a consummate professional and I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to meet them over the past year.
Tsukiji is arguably, or more appropriately, unarguably, one of the three top Japanese restaurants in the country, with the freshest, top grade produce flown in more than once a week. We started off with a platter of nigirizushi. Even the sushi rice is imported from Japan in Tsukiji, and you can tell the difference. The nigiri were much larger than the normal fare at lesser Japanese restaurants, and the seafood was first-class. Best of all, we had freshly grated wasabi to add some kick (and according to traditional Japanese belief, guard against the bacteria that raw fish could be harboring).
With the nigiri we finished what was left of the Domaine Tempier Bandol Rose we opened while waiting for the rest to conquer the Makati traffic. I will not pretend to know the first thing when it comes to writing about and really critiquing wine, but I found this quite enjoyable, and a perfect de-stressing agent to help me relax again after a cramped drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic for over an hour. The only roses I’ve tried, I found cloying and more akin to juice. I was surprised to find this light yet substantial and still fruity. The 2009 vintage was described by the resident wine guru (from whom I stole all these photos, by the way) as serious and intellectual, and I would tend to agree.
I mentioned earlier that Tsukiji flies in their seafood several times a week. This premium-grade uni (sea urchin) came from the sea and caught a plane to Manila, landing just that morning. Notice the vivid orange-brown color and contrast that with your sickly pale yellow sushi. It’s thicker and not as slippery as the more run-of-the-mill uni I’ve tried. The only word I have to describe the latter is uhog, but because I’m nice, I won’t ruin appetites by translating that term for those who don’t speak Filipino. The uni lands on your tongue with a rich of flavor and quickly melts away, leaving you salivating for more. It’s simultaneously delicate and intense, like my ideal woman; and I mean that in the most complimentary, politically-correct, non-chauvinistic way.
We also had these fresh oysters in ponzu sauce. These were humongous, not like the sad, shriveled poor little things one can get locally-sourced. They were juicy, literally bursting in my mouth, highlighted by a hint of brine and the slight citrus of the ponzu. One could say that this is the Japanese version of kilawin or ceviche. As long as you get ultra-fresh seafood, just a little bit of acid is enough to come up with an unparalleled gustatory experience.
Hotate sashimi was also served. Again, it’s rare to find scallops of such size in the Philippines. I enjoyed this, but personally, I prefer my scallops seared in butter for a melt-in-your-mouth texture similar to steak fat. That may not sound right, but it definitely tastes much better. Compared to the other dishes we had, the scallops lagged behind, but a silver lining awaited. More on that later.
If I were to pick the highlight of the evening, I would say that this would be it. Hontoro is the appellation on Tsukiji’s menu, referring to prime grade bluefin tuna belly. I don’t know if it’s the same as o-toro, which is the highest grade of tuna belly, taken from the fattiest part of the fish; or if it is somewhere in the middle of o-toro and the less fatty, less expensive chutoro. In any case, trying this was a life-changing experience. I literally got goosebumps when the tuna touched my tongue, sending both my nerve-endings and taste buds into a frenzy, synapses firing and relaying to my brain that it doesn’t get much better than this. The texture was extraordinary, with the toro laying gently on my mouth as its oils and juices seeped out, washed over by a bit of soy sauce and a kick of wasabi. Chased down with chilled sake, and I know my life is forever changed. Yes, toro is life-changing. I thought Jeffrey Steingarten was kidding, and that Anthony Bourdain was exaggerating when they wrote of toro with such reverence. I was blissfully ignorant, and now that I know what they are talking about, I have to live my life with the burden of knowing that I cannot have this unparalleled bliss everyday. But such is life.

The first few dishes to come out were paired with this exceptional sake, Kinryo Kirameki Junmai Daiginjo, and an old reliable, Rogue’s Morimoto Signature Imperial Pilsner. Most sakes I’ve tried had a bit of plastic in the finish, but this one was pleasant and throughout with a subtle sweetness I hadn’t theretofore experienced in a sake.

As for the beer, who am I to argue with an Iron Chef? Developed and endorsed by Masaharu Morimoto himself, the Imperial Pilsner is perfect with the delicate flavors of sashimi – providing a backdrop for the fresh flavors of the seafood to come to fore, while at the same time crisp enough for cutting through the fattiness and natural oils of some of the other dishes.

The exercise was simple enough: take a bite of your choice of sashimi, sushi or whatnot. Savor. Swallow. Follow with a sip of the sake or beer. Repeat. Rejoice.

Another highlight was the Ohmi wagyu sashimi, thinly sliced sirloin again, flown in from Japan. Ohmi was, according to Tsukiji, the official Wagyu brand of the Japanese Imperial household (as compared to the the more famous Kobe, and Matsusaka, the difference being mostly regional, I think). This was another life-changing experience. I’ve tried top-grade USDA Prime Ribeye, and I’ve also tried wagyu pretenders and cross-breeds, but I was not prepared for this. The marbling was just intense, as can be seen in the picture. I’m not sure where that would rank on the marbling rating scale, but I’ve never seen beef that shade of pale pink. The meat was more white from the marbling and fat than your typical red.
What makes wagyu special is that it has more unsaturated fat compared to other beef. So what? Well, butter is high in saturated fat, hence it is solid at room temperature. Therefore, wagyu – with its lower ratio of saturated to unsaturated fat as compared to other steaks – literally and scientifically has its fat melt in your mouth. Oh wow. That’s why this was so good eaten raw as sashimi, and just dipped in their special sauce with garlic, ginger and onions. You don’t need to have to cook it for the fat to render out and impart flavor, because your body heat, and even room temperature is enough. They say that aside from the five basic flavors (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and the more recently-accepted umami), fat has its own unique flavor as well. I found that hard to believe until I put tasted the Ohmi sashimi. Instead of going, “Mmm, beef,” I went “Mmm, fat…” Not only does it impart a different texture than your typical beef, even the closest basis for comparison – steak tartare, but the fat and marbling in the wagyu really has its own unique taste that is far from the beefiness one gets from other breeds.

The Morimoto Black Obi Soba Ale was brought specifically to pair with the wagyu sashimi. This beer was also conceptualized by Rogue with Iron Chef Morimoto, with soba, or buckwheat added to the malt bill. It was still relatively light-bodied, yet with a full-flavored roastiness and a hint of soba. Very interesting and unique. I may probably not drink this beer alone, as it reminds me too much of slurping zarusoba (which is not in itself a bad thing), but I would much rather pair this with food instead. In the case of the Ohmi, the pairing went quite well as the beer was robust enough to stand up to the fat and cut through it, while being light enough in body to let the delicate flavors come out.

Now, on to the cooked food. Being classic Pinoys in a Japanese restaurant, we had to have ebi tempura. A crisp, light batter yielded tender prawns beneath. Nothing extraordinary, but then again, it’s “only” tempura. At a restaurant of this caliber, the minimum one can expect is that it’s perfectly cooked, using fresh ingredients – and Tsukiji definitely met this expectation. I’m sure that if this was the only thing I had eaten, I’d be raving about the best tempura I’d tried here, and it probably was. But then the typical tempura had to take a back seat to everything else.

Grilled hamachi head was also served. The fish was perfectly cooked, with a good crisp char on the outside and soft, juicy flesh beneath the skin. I particularly enjoyed digging into the eye and feasting on the gelatinous fat from within the head.

The biggest surprise of the night, and the silver lining to the scallops earlier mentioned, were these “scallop guts” served on a half-shell. The traditional scallop we know as food is actually the adductor muscle – that which connects the scallop itself to the shell. Since scallops are active swimmers, their adductor muscle is more developed than those of other shellfish, and therefore much larger. The rest of the scallop then, or rather, the scallop itself, was also served to us, sauteed quickly in butter, I think, before being returned to its shell. It was large and meaty, a bit chewy, like your everyday mussel on steroids. I’m starting to wonder now what a geoduck would taste like. This was definitely one of the more unique and interesting new things I’ve tasted of late.

This Kikusakari Yamahai Genshu was one of two sakes from Kiuchi Brewery which we opened after downing the first bottle. Not quite as refined and smooth as the Kinryo Kirameki, but enjoyable  nonetheless.

And if you thought the term “Kiuchi” was familiar, it’s because it’s the same brewery that produces Hitachino Nest. The reliable White Ale is a classic with sushi and pretty much any Japanese food. However, I think its sweetness may be a bit overpowering for the more delicate sashimi we tried. The aforementioned Morimoto Imperial Pilsner, on the other hand, was just subtle enough to let the seafood star. I loved the White Ale with the grilled hamachi head and ebi tempura, though.

We ended the night with toasts of this 2007 Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Beaucastel and a Freixenet Reserva Real Cava. At that point, I was too overwhelmed to take mental notes on the wines. All I can say is that they were much better than the cheap stuff I’m used to.
The night was still young, and so were we, so we moved to a nearby hotel for more drinks. While I won’t get into detailing the later events anymore, I will close with this: what I took home from that dinner was enough inspiration to get me through the difficult months of bar review and years of junior associate life ahead. If I study hard and work hard, hopefully I’ll be where these friends are ten to twenty years from now.

Damn. That was probably the best meal I’ve had to this day.

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7 Responses

  1. Noel says:

    "I'm starting to wonder now what a geoduck would taste like."That is easy to arrange.You write very well, Eli. Apply that talent to your pleadings and I have no doubt that you will go very far.

  2. Dullwhite says:

    It's like you died and went to heaven over and over during this meal. LOL DAMNIT I'm so jealous!!!

  3. Eli says:

    thanks guys, hehe

  4. Noel says:

    Eli,I asked my sis-in-law (she's Japanese from Tokyo) about "Hontoro". She told me that she knows "Honmaguro" is the "highest grade tuna caught near Japanese shore", and sent me a link that indicates that, gradewise, as you suspect, "hontoro" is in between the lower "chutoro" and the top "otoro".I've had otoro a few times (not here though) and, honestly, can't really tell much of a difference vis-à-vis the hontoro we had (chutoro is a different matter). That said, my wife recalls that the otoro we had at the Ginza (the premier Jap restaurant in Bangkok many years ago) was much better.Best,N

  5. jim araneta says:

    What 10 to 20 years? In 5 years we expect you to treat us :-)

  6. Noel says:

    Hahaha! Pressure!

  7. Eli says:

    Hahaha I will definitely treat you guys out soon enough. What I meant was I'll be your age in 10-20 years :p

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