Hatchi with Makoto Okuwa
Chef Makoto Okuwa first came to my attention when I heard about a six course tasting he was presenting at his Manhattan Beach restaurant, Sashi.
Six chefs were each presenting one course in this “All Star Culinary Experience” and the talent in the kitchen that night was stellar. Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, Top Chef champion Michael Voltaggio, Sonny Sweetman (Executive Chef of Wolfgang Puck), Waylynn Lucas (Executive Pastry Chef of Patina), Noriyuki Sugie (Executive Chef of Ironnori) and Makoto Okuwa himself. Of course the dinner was sold out.
Who was this guy?
Turns out he was Morimoto’s protégé for six years, helping him open restaurants in Manhattan, Washington DC and Tokyo, and also served as Morimoto’s sous chef in 13 episodes of Iron Chef. And the dinner was to coincide with his very own Iron Chef Battle Uni against Michael Simon.
I watched that episode and was immediately impressed by his inventive treatment of the mystery ingredient, uni (or sea urchin). Now uni can be an acquired taste but rather than mask it like Michael Simon did, Okuwa put uni front and center and I wanted to reach through the television and devour his plates. Unfortunately he lost, err, was robbed by a judge who admitted he didn’t like the taste of uni and preferred dishes where its taste was hidden. I really wished Jeffrey Steingarten was there to lay some major smackdown on his unsophisticated ass!
But as luck would have it, I had my own opportunity to taste Makoto Okuwa’s cuisine when he guested at Hatchi at Breadbar soon after that episode. Rather than uni, the secret ingredient for the night was miso and every course contained it, from bread through to dessert.
Well, perhaps not every course. Thankfully the cocktails were miso-free. I started the night with a Shiso Mojito. Here shiso was used in place of mint, yuzu augmented the limes, and cachaca accompanied the rum, with a dried plum and sesame seed rim. A pretty good mojito, perhaps a little lighter than usual, although the nuttiness that the sesame seed rim imparted didn’t really work for me. I did enjoy chewing on the sugar cane stick though.
As has become customary at Breadbar, the meal started with their epi bread with miso butter. In fact, three varieties of miso butter of varying strengths. I enjoyed the strongest red miso butter, with the other two tasting rather mild in comparison.
The first course was a Miso Butter Poached Loch Duart Salmon, with Feta Cheese, Micro Basil, Tomato Foam and Pesto Powder. The salmon was beautifully butter poached old school (well, old school as opposed to sous vide) and the rather odd combination with the feta cheese really worked for me surprisingly. Who said you should never mix seafood with cheese? The tomato foam lent a refreshing acidity to the dish although I did feel the pesto powder unnecessarily complicated the dish.
Next up were Asian Donuts Peach “Tacos” with Smoked Lobster, Miso Frozen Yogurt and Paddle Fish Caviar. Dried yam shells replaced the usual tortillas, making these bite sized “tacos”. Taken as a single mouthful, the sweetness of the miso peach yogurt totally dominated the dish and had I not known that it contained smoked lobster, I would have been hard pressed to identify its presence, but for the texture it lent. The caviar somewhat balanced the sweetness of the yogurt with its brine but this was an overwhelmingly sweet dish.
This was followed by California Baby Squid and Tuna Sashimi “Nuta” style, with Pickled Scallion and Wakame Seaweed Chips. One of my favorite courses of the night, the squid was stuffed with blue crab and sliced, almost like a cut crab roll. The squid ink miso was, in my mind, the best application of miso of the night and perfectly briny, salty and bursting with umami. The cube of tuna sashimi was good, as expected, but didn’t add much to the dish and its taste was overshadowed by the rest of the plate.
Next was the Taiwan Miso Ramen Soup, Ground Steak, Bean Sprouts, Red Hot Chili and Crispy Egg Noodle. What came out was actually a slider between noodle “buns” and a separate soup. The question was whether to eat the components separately, which I did, or add them to the soup, which one of my dining companions did. For me, the slider exhibited good flavor but the egg noodle “buns” lacked structural integrity, making it a messy bite. The broth didn’t quite stand up to the bolder flavors of the slider and the overall dish lacked cohesiveness.
The fifth course was Sushi Rice Salad “Shikai Maki” Cucumber, Prosciutto, Tuna, Fontina and Miso Emulsion. Another fish and cheese combo that threw me but it was an exceptionally beautiful plate. And the accompaniments to the shikai maki – a wonderful miso emulsion and the prosciutto – made this dish.
The final savory course was a Dengaku “Trio” of Braised Wagyu with Summer Truffle, Crispy Tofu with Kinome, and Polenta with Chorizo. The miso glazed wagyu was the single best bite of Okuwa’s whole menu. Rich, gamey, with a one-two umami punch of miso and truffle. The tofu was mild in comparison, almost a palate cleanser before the delicate polenta accented with a smoky chorizo.
Another cocktail was in order before dessert. This time the Nihon Teien made from Grey Goose Le Citron, agave, apple juice, fresh cucumber and cucumber foam. The cucumber lent a refreshing lightness to the cocktail. A good palate cleanser.
The first dessert was the Caramel Miso Cream, Almond Cinnamon Crumble, Apricot Sorbet and Butter Milk Foam. One of the highlights of the meal, the saltiness of the miso paired perfectly with the sweetness of the caramel to create a umami-heavy salted caramel ice cream. The butter milk foam was wonderfully tart and airy, the apricot sorbet refreshingly sweet, and the cinnamon crumble added both earthy depth and texture. One of the best miso-based desserts I’ve ever tried.
The final dessert course was the Pliable Yuzu Curd, Candied Raspberry, Chocolate Sponge, Dry Miso Powder, Sweet Miso Chips and Coconut Sorbet. Looking almost like string cheese, the yuzu curd was bitingly citric and sour, offset by a more calming coconut sorbet. The raspberry provided sweetness, the cookie pieces textures, the miso chips crunch and the miso powder flecks of flavor. For me, there were a few too many things going on in this dessert and it seemed rather confused. Rather than coming together as a whole, it seemed more like a tasting plate of desserts.
So did Chef Makoto Okuwa live up to my Iron Chef sized expectations? There were certainly high points, and points for creativity and plating design. I did feel there was a tendency to add a few too many elements to each plate and, while inventive, this tended to cloud the clarity of his vision. The sum of the parts was sometimes greater than the whole. But still, a challenging, creative and bold exploration of the different tastes and textures of miso and a great showcase of its versatility.
And I’d challenge Michael Simon to do a better job with miso.Hatchi at Breadbar with Makoto Okuwa
10250 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90067