When Food & Wine magazine's Editor-in-Chief Dana Cowin set out to gain a better understanding of Japanese food, she visited a handful of restaurants that specialized in a few of the fundamental concepts of traditional Japanese cuisine: tofu, robata, yakitori, soba and kaiseki.
Reading through her self-guided journey, I was intrigued. Notably I was curious about the concept of robata, which is a uniquely Japanese method of grilling. With robata grilling, a variety of food items from Japanese yam to whole fish are skewered and fashioned around a fiery pyramid shaped construction of binchotan charcoal, which imparts a subtle smoky flavor to the food. To satiate my curiosity with this cooking method, my husband and I visited the restaurant, Aburiya Kinnosuke, for our own lesson on traditional Japanese cuisine.
As a starter we began our dinner with homemade tofu, which was simple, and silky with a delicate soybean creaminess. Accompanying the tofu was a trio of salts: wasabi, ponzu and kelp, which brought out subtle nuances in the tofu. The whisper of flavors reminded me of what Dana wrote on her experience with tofu, "The delicacy of Japanese flavors made me work harder to understand them." In my view, it is this type of exercise that is necessary to truly appreciate the beauty of traditional Japanese cuisine.
We followed with karaage, which are minute pieces of chicken marinated in soy and ginger sauce and deep-fried. This entree closely resembles popcorn chicken. I can see why this might be appealing but I thought the chicken was rather dry.
Our first item from the robata grill were sliced Japanese sticky yam accompanied by wasabi and nori. While the flavors were bland against a subtle smoky canvas, the texture of the yam was a novel and interesting experience, yielding a delicate and sticky crunch.
We continued our sampling of small plates with roasted duck, which was served cold and tasted very similar to roast beef in both flavor and texture. It was accompanied by razor thin slices of scallions completing the dish so simply and deliciously.
While waiting for additional robata grilled items, we snacked on ribbons of burdock chips, which were similar to potato chips sans the potato flavor.
Tsukune, ground chicken with teriyaki sauce grilled on a wooden paddle over the robata and served with a lightly poached egg was one of the more interesting grill items. The flavor and textures are similar to the stuffing of a meaty egg roll.
Also from the grill was sea eel served with its bones deep fried to a crisp, accompanied by wasabi and lemon. In my view, fish is where the robata grill technique excels, creating succulent soft textures against a sheet of crisp and smokey flavors. The eel bones were also quite good, and best described as a seafood chip.
Our last and final entree from the robata grill is one of the most ferocious fish of the sea - the barracuda, which was excellent for its freshness and like to the sea eel, wonderfully succulent and smokey. If you've never had barracuda, it's very similar to mackerel, which has a moderate briny fish flavor.
All in all an interesting experience that I am looking forward to revisit.
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