Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Uosue Lunch (うをすえ)

Today my family were off at school, doing errands, and whatnot, so I had lunch alone. I decided to try Uosue, a little hole-in-the-wall kaiseki place just east of Karasuma-dōri, one block south of Shijo. It’s a little hard to spot if you’re not looking for it, it’s so small, but we’d heard that it’s very good and has an inexpensive two-level lunchbox set (niju bento). You can also order a full-on omakase meal, where they prepare what they think is good today, and that’s 3950¥, but the lunchbox set is only 1050¥, just a hair less than $10 US.

The atmosphere in this tiny place is very homey and informal. The guy at the end of the bar was cracking jokes with the fish-cutting guy, and the businessmen who came drifting in for lunch were treated politely but warmly, which doesn’t go without saying around here. They were nice to me, and welcoming. It all seems to be one family: the fish-cutting guy and the older lady in the back appear to be married, and the young guy who was making dashi referred to the old lady as “mother,” and so on. I think there’s a brother in the back doing hot things. So it seems to be pretty much a little family business, and it’s very good: unpretentious, friendly, informal, but with excellent food.

You can see what I got in the picture. One level is rice, and the other has (clockwise from the front) a little sashimi, some nimono (煮物, vegetables simmered in flavorings), and a little pickle. In the back, in the white cup, is chawan mushi (茶碗蒸し, steamed teacup), which is a sort of light savory custard, made of egg and dashi (出汁), steamed in its little cup. In the black bowl is miso soup.

Eating this meal and thinking a bit about blogging, it occurred to me just how difficult this is going to be. I mean, you can’t really say, “I had sashimi.” It was sashimi, yes, but what fish? Having seen him cut it, I’m pretty sure it was katsuo (
, bonito, or skipjack tuna), but if I hadn’t seen him I’d be guessing unless it was something obvious like maguro (, tuna steak). I have an awful lot to learn—but I do have some time!

(Incidentally, I should perhaps note in passing that I am providing a lot of kanji, Chinese characters, for things I eat. This isn’t showing off—I get the stuff from dictionaries, not from memory, mostly—but on the other hand it’s not really how Japanese people do this. If you see maguro for sale, almost invariably you will see it written
マグロ, ma-gu-ro, instead of as . The thing is, I did Chinese for a while, and it’s in many respects easier for me to deal with the characters. What’s more, the characters translate across East Asian languages pretty effectively, which the syllabary doesn’t. I’m also indicating my little private protest against the de-kanjification of Japan. Anyway….)

Okay, so the sashimi was very good, and the wasabi (
山葵, a character-pair I have not seen yet in Japan, but which means “mountain hollyhock”—what’s so hard about that?) was the real thing. As you may not know, the green wasabi paste you get in any but the highest-end sushi places outside Japan is not in fact wasabi at all: it’s horseradish dyed green. Wasabi itself is very expensive, because it only grows in clean mountain streams and requires intensive cultivation. You can get it here in the supermarkets if you look, but it’s pricey, and the root is about half the size of a horseradish root. You don’t use much, and you grate it immediately to order, and I’m told it doesn’t store well—all of which are good reasons why ordinary folks even in Japan don’t generally shell out for it. If you have it, you’ll know, because (a) the texture is not completely smooth, since it is hand-grated, and (b) it has a milder, sweeter taste than horseradish, to which it is not related. In any event, the shiso leaf underneath, which you can barely see, and the shredded daikon underneath that, were the usual. Yes, that is curly parsley, I don’t know why.

The nimono... this is the tricky bit. What were those lovely things? I can identify some of them, but with others I’m guessing a bit. Okay, so let’s start with the long skinny thing. I think this was very young bamboo shoot, though I’ve never seen it this thin. It had that mild, slightly creamy flavor, though, and was just yielding. Due south of that is what I thought was a circle of eggplant (the little narrow kind that are very popular in Kyoto in this season), but it turned out to be sato imo (
里芋), the white taro I had as tempura at Honke Owariya. It was good, I thought, but not especially remarkable to my unsubtle palate. Southwest of that is a little red square. This was a cube of something firm and gelatinous, like very rubbery Jell-o. If this were China, I’d have been absolutely sure this was a cube of gelatinous pork blood, but this being kaiseki in Japan I knew for damn sure that wasn’t it. In the end, I have no idea what it was. It was good, flavor-wise, but I have never been a big fan of the rubbery gelatin thing, so the texture didn’t work for me.

Continuing around clockwise, there is a little cake. I am pretty sure this was primarily kinpira gobō, i.e. burdock root and carrot simmered a long time together, somehow made into a cake and simmered some more, like the fish balls in oden. I’m also pretty sure this was not a fish ball, but it might have been so subtle that I couldn’t tell. Now kinpira gobō has never been a favorite of mine, and you may recall that my wife’s kinpira rice burger at Mos Burger still leaves me in a cold sweat at the memory. But this was wonderful. I’d eat five more of these in a heartbeat. I’m just hoping this is something you can get in oden, because once the weather turns cold I’m going to Nishiki market to see if I can find these things. Wish I knew what it was....

Next up, a perfectly-turned little potato. I’ve never actually seen a perfectly-turned potato outside of photographs. This is something that people like Jacques Pépin had to learn to do when they worked at the highest-end Paris restaurants, but nobody does it much any more. Well, here they do. As to flavor, it was very mild. I was expecting something stronger, because since potato has very little flavor of its own I’m used to having it “spiked,” as it were. But I did actually get some rather refined potato flavor from this, which was rather pleasant and home-like.

Above that, in the corner, is a piece of eggplant with some kind of slightly sweet sauce on it. Wow! Along with the kinpira cake, this was my favorite. Soft and yielding, but still with a little bite—perfectly cooked eggplant. The sauce was I think mostly miso and mirin or sake, with a small amount of sesame on top. You usually see this combination broiled: you split an eggplant, put it on a flat stick that’s like a bamboo fork, spread thinned miso paste on the top, and run it under a broiler. This was much the same flavor, but simmered. Excellent!

Top right, a roll of tamago yaki, the rolled egg omelet. I used to hate this, because it’s usually sickly sweet, but in Kyoto they just use dashi and no (or very little) sugar. It was good, I thought, but I can’t say it knocked me over. Just in front of that is a piece of fish that I cannot identify. Mackerel, maybe? Saury? I don’t know. It was nice, whatever it was. And on top of that is a little rainbow-striped leaf-shaped cake of this spongy stuff I’ve seen several times here, which turns out to be kōya-dōfu (
高野豆腐), a kind of freeze-dried tofu invented centuries ago at Kōyasan.

The pickle in the back right corner was actually a bit spicy, and I suspect it was the local green pepper which, unlike most Japanese peppers, is mildly hot. But I’m really not sure.

The chawan mushi was truly excellent. I’ve never entirely understood this dish until now. Basically it’s just dashi with egg whisked in thoroughly, steamed gently until the egg is just barely set. You put a few things in the bottom, like maybe a shrimp, a little vegetable, or whatever, and then as you eat the custard you keep turning up these little treasures. Now I’ve had this a number of times before, and I’ve always thought it was sort of mediocre: salty, bland, and pointless. Today I figured it out. The whole thing is about the dashi, not the egg at all. The egg doesn’t taste like much, and the little treasures are pretty simple, but the whole point is that everything is offset by the dashi. In a way, it’s a method of showcasing the flavor of dashi, whereas usually dashi is used to help amplify the flavor of something else. Because Uosue is a real kaiseki place, albeit an inexpensive one, they’re quite hard-core about their dashi. As a result, their chawan mushi is fabulous. Of course, the texture of the egg was creamy and all that, and the little pieces of kamaboko (fish cake) and some sort of unidentified fish were perfectly good, but the dashi was wonderful. I finally got it!

The miso soup, just to finish up here, was perfectly good, but I didn’t notice anything particularly special about it one way or another. It was the usual kind, with a little wakame seaweed, not clam or something like that. I liked it, but after the chawan mushi and some of those nimono, it was pretty unremarkable.

All in all, I’d give Uosue a big thumbs-up. I got a fabulous lunch, which incidentally was much more filling than I’d have expected, for under ten bucks. Each little thing was very good in its own way, and they also went together very effectively. One of these days I’ll come back here and try an omakase dinner for 3950¥, and I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

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2 comments:

Maryellen said...

Have you considered joining a CSA there?

Chris said...

Maryellen,

I'm working on a reply to this. The short answer is "no," but the reasons have to do with various differences between the Japanese and American systems of food distribution, agriculture, and the like. I figure you'll want the fuller answer...