Saturday, July 23, 2005

Umenohana

090105 update. I am sad to report that Umenohana closed yesterday. At least me and my mother got to try it together!

There must be precious few restaurants outside Japan that serve kaiseki, the formal and exalted cuisine characterized by fresh seasonal ingredients and a rigorous order of small dishes. Luckily, we now have Umenohana right here in Beverly Hills [433 N Camden Dr, 90210 - (310) 274-6114] serving kaiseki with incredibly good tofu as the centrepiece. I'm pretty sure their kaiseki has been tailored somewhat to the non-Japanese palate, and certainly there is a California-inspired section of the menu that I would personally never entertain. Despite this, the "kacho" menu of tofu kaiseki is one of the best meals I have ever eaten. Each dish is a little wonder and you'll love the many varieties of freshly made tofu:

Tofu salad. Silky tofu is hidden under immaculate salad fixin's.

Dairy tofu topped with miso and steamed soybeans.
Extremely creamy - can this really be called "tofu"? - this dairy custard was like a savoury panna cotta that blended very well with the soy toppings. Ian's favourite dish all night.

Three drawers (veges + shrimp, beef rolls, halibut sashimi). One aspect of Umenohana that is true to kaiseki is the simple cooking of very fresh ingredients. These dishes were a good example.

Hikiage yuba. Certainly the main event of the meal, this is freshly prepared tofu skin made by cooking tofu milk on an induction burner on one's table. The waitress comes around periodically and scrapes the skin off the soy milk into a small cup, to which one adds grated fresh ginger and soy sauce. It's marvellous, and the fact that only one serving was made at a time made it even more of a special treat (our party of six was supping on yuba throughout the second half of our kaiseki meal).

Tofu steak. On a hot plate on a sizzling plate with miso sauce.

Rice/miso soup (dark miso)/pickles. A welcome traditional touch, what's not to like about Japanese pickles? Miso soup is very different to the old standby from food court-level sushi.

Tofu creme brulee, green tea tiramisu, panna cotta, chocolate hazelnut mousse, sesame ice cream. These arrived from the kitchen without prompting - my inclination with a large group is usually to run the dessert menu so there were no complaints! Everything was delicious, but my favourites were clearly the sesame ice cream and especially the magical tofu creme brulee.

Umenohana doesn't come cheap but at $48 for the kacho menu (second cheapest kaiseki) it's extremely affordable for the ultra-high quality and unique experience. Don't forget to go to the bathroom, there are Japanese toilet/bidets with "oscillate" and "pulse" functions, which I left well alone!

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