Saturday, February 17, 2007

The End (Honmura An)

My friends J & D are definitely trustworthy when it comes to food. And so, months ago when the suggested that I try Honmura An, I should have headed down there for my very next meal. But, it never quite happened. And then, it was announced that Honmura An would be closing on February 17. D & J got reservations for twice in the final week and I got to go with them for the last night (I was a stand in for D's parents who have been going, regularly, for 15 years, but weren't able to make it in for this weekend).

We went with the set menu and from the very first bite, I realized that I would spend the rest of the evening in a conflicted state. I was totally excited that I was getting to have this experience. And totally depressed that it would be my last opportunity (unless I head off to Tokyo, where there will be one in Roppongi - and I do believe that flight would be worth it).

The first course had three very different dishes: Deep fried rock shrimp, a mountain yam dish with uni, ikura (roe) and okra, and seaweed with sesame.

The deep fried shrimp was good - the tempura coating the best part of it. The yam with uni, etc. was awesome - and I usually don't like mountain yam (it's a texture thing). But in my mind, the best of the three was the seaweed. It's such an easy dish, and yet, so few places do it well. Their version was pure perfection - it was the right balance of sesame and seaweed. It was magic in my mouth.

The next course was sashimi. It included some wonderful tuna and some truly fabulous uni. Now, I love uni. And this was good uni. Really good uni. Really, really good uni. D suggested wrapping the uni in the leaves (those leaves that you always get with sushi/sashimi), which I had never tried - and it was a great suggestion. The sharp taste of the leaf worked with the earthiness of the uni.

While we had ordered the set menu, D&J had a few things that they wanted (given that this was their last chance!) and so we got a few 'bonus' plates. The first two to arrive were the O-shinko (pickles) and Tamago (egg). My favorite pickles are those made with daikon (white radish) and these were so good. They were more tender than most pickles - still crunchy, but not as hard. I could have eaten a whole daikon worth (and they're big radishes). The tamago dish is one that often gets short shrift as just a random sushi set offering. But well done tamago is much more than just a filler. It's a light layering of scrambled egg, with plenty of flavor. To get the best view of this, it helps to eat the tamago with shredded daikon and soy sauce.

Our next 'optional' dish was deep fried chicken meatballs. This is another of D & J's favorites and is a great take on the more (to my view) traditional tskune, where the meatballs are just barbequed (it would be hard to convince me that there are things that don't taste better deep fried (if you try to argue things like Twinkies, my argument would start with the fact that they don't taste very good plain, so, while I've never tried them deep fried, they've got to taste better that way)). And hot mustard does make most things just that little better anyway.

At this point, we got back to the menu. It was a grilled sea bass. Now, normally, I don't really order flakey white fish - it's usually just pretty bland. This version was not. Decidedly not. D guessed that it had been flavored with mirin and I think he's right. It had that slightly sweet overtone that really worked with the flavor of the fish. And, it was in fact, grilled to perfection. The fish was so moist it made me question whether I've ever actually had well cooked flakey white fish in my whole life (seriously). It was at this point (as I was wishing for a second piece) that I started to realize that I might have trouble finishing this meal (quantity-wise).

The next course was Chawamushi. Now, the first word that struck me as this was placed in front of me was - natsukashi. (This is a Japanese word which is translated roughly as 'nostalgia', but I believe that I can better explain it by showing an example of usage (Let's say that you're having a Fudgesicle. You take one lick and say 'Ah, natsukashi!', as you are transported back decades, thinking: Man, this reminds me of when I was 12 and used to get a Fudgesicle every day up at the pool on those sunny, 80 degree days as I had nothing else to do, but just hang out with my friends, swim in the pool and enjoy myself. Boy do I love Fudgesicles. - that's what natsukashi really means) - Japanese has a lot of great exclamatory words like this.) When I lived in Tokyo, the sushi restaurant that we used to go to almost once a week had this as part of the Sushi Lunch Set. Of course, this one had Alaskan King Crab mixed in, making it a little richer than the one in my memory. But it's really tough to separate my enjoyment of the dish from the enjoyment of the memory.

I had heard that Honmura An was famous for their tempura. And it turned out that this fame was totally justified. It's pretty easy to deep-fry things, but it's also pretty easy to do it badly - which I believe is in large part why people think such negative things about deep frying (when, see the chicken meatball description for more detail, it seems to me to be unjustified). The batter was so light and crispy - it was perfection. We got one large prawn, as well as a whole bunch of vegetables: kabo-chan, another squash, mushroom and asparagus. I saved the squash for last, it was so sweet and crunchy, it was the perfect end to a great course. And, unlike many Japanese restaurants in the states, they had great dipping sauce. (Most restaurants in the US don't bother with the shredded daikon in the sauce - seriously undermining my enjoyment, but the ones you really need to stay away from are those that let you 'dip' tempura in soy sauce.)

And then we got to the course that I was most looking forward to: Seiro Soba. This is a dish of cold buckwheat noodles dipped in a cold broth mixed with wasabi, green onions and grated daikon. It's one of my favorite dishes. But I almost never get to eat it because I can't stand non-handmade soba. I used to live right near a soba shop that made handmade noodles every day. Going there multiple times a week, I quickly learned that the difference between handmade and non-handmade soba is the difference between night and day. Handmade soba is a delicious treat. Machine-made soba tastes square (I know that's not technically a taste, but really, the square-ness of the noodles overwhelms any flavor. It just doesn't work). And so, I almost never order soba, because it's just not worth the disappointment (this is even true in Tokyo, where most places don't make their own soba). But this was handmade soba. This was good soba. This was soba that made me want to keep eating until I couldn't move. It was perfectly balanced flavors. And, if that weren't enough, they served it with a little square pot of hot water - this is something that most soba places (again, even in Tokyo) don't even bother doing. After you've finished the noodles, you pour the water into the dipping sauce and then it's like the broth of a normal hot soup (and one that is flavored with wasabi and has a little of the onion and daikon still swimming in it). It's a great way to end a soba meal.

At this point, I seriously considered that if I ever had to choose my last meal on Earth, that it might be this one. And then D mentioned the Uni Soba. And we threw caution to the win. We were already full, but knowing that you may never again have the chance to eat something is a huge incentive to push it just a little further. And so we decided to share an order of Uni Soba (that was passing for restraint at this point). Again, this was a cold soba (though served in the broth, not as a dipping broth). And while this dish doesn't allow the same communing with the purity of the noodles; it does help raise the noodles to a new level. The earthiness of the uni just fills out the flavor of the buckwheat noodles. The flavor combination really works. I enjoyed every bite - ignoring the whisper that I had to as it was my last chance; I just concentrated on each bite. And while my mouth could have kept eating noodles (maybe alternating between the plain and the uni) until they physically forced us out of the restaurant, I was now so full that it wasn't really possible (and the whole scene of being strong-armed out would have been somewhat embarrassing given the crowd that was there).

And so, we moved on to dessert. I wasn't too worried about fitting dessert in - it's not generally my favorite part of a Japanese meal. And yet, here again, I found some of the best Japanese dessert dishes I have tried. We each ordered one of the mochi and then we got the cheesecake and the green tea cake to share. Now, I'm fussy about my mochi (yeah, I know, I'm fussy about most things) - I don't really like street mochi from a cart, but do love the little mochi raviolis filled with bean that people used to bring back as souvenirs from Kyoto. This was much closer to the latter. And with an apricot filling - that was just sweet/flavorful enough to be delicious, without overwhelming the flavor of the mochi.

I had pretty much written off the other two as I now felt like the Blueberry girl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and I don't love cheesecake and firmly believe that green tea belongs in a tea cup, not in food. But I knew my duty and took a bite of each. I actually liked the cheesecake (strongly cheese flavor, and how can that be bad). But, even more surprisingly, I loved the green tea cake (and that's cake, which we know I don't love, plus green tea - not in a tea cup). And yet, it was really, really good. It had that nice mustiness of good green tea, with a very gentle sweetness - and it was moist.

As good as this meal was (and it did come pretty close to perfection), it was bittersweet. To find it on the last night it's open is almost cruel. I wouldn't have missed tonight for anything and yet... But it's just one more reason to take a trip back to Tokyo.

And since I don't have any trips planned in the near future, I'm going to do what I should have done months ago (i.e., when Honmura An was still open). I am going to focus on exploring the Japanese options in NY. If I missed this, what else am I missing. I need to start pushing to find the places like this that capture the tastes and atmosphere that I really miss. So, note to my friends - I'm game for any Japanese food you want to try.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I just stumbled into this blog and it just broke my heart to read about your experience at my restaurant during its very sentimental last days. I am/was the proprietor of Honmura An in New York. Thank you so much for your comments; its just brought back the wonderful energy and memory of the restaurant. I have just opend a new Honmura An in downtown Roppongi in Tokyo. Please come visit us. thank you, koichi

3:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Koichi,

This is Dean from New York. My parents and I were long time customers of Honmura An. This is my friend's blog and she came with me when my parents could not make the trip from Pennsylvania. We miss you and Honmura An very much. I hope all is well in Japan and I know that the restaurant in Roppongi will become a great success.


5:03 PM  

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