Hiro: Taste of Japan

Contrary to what you may think, St. Louis has only mediocre - at best - Japanese food. And, as I've mentioned before, there's a whole world of Japanese cuisine that's never even touched down in St. Louis. Chef Hamamura (or Hama-san, as he's more commonly called) has long been touted as St. Louis' best Japanese chef, working at Sansui, Wasabi, and United Provisions. When Hiro Asian Kitchen announced that they were going to be doing a "Taste of Japan" dinner with Hama-san, I jumped at the chance to go - I wanted to see what a chef trained in Osaka, possibly the greatest food city in the world, would do.

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The first course was a duo: Green Tea Soba and Sushi Tataki. A single bite of the soba and my hope for the meal shot into overdrive. It was excellent. The noodles were cooked perfectly, sitting over a pool of outstanding broth. Sweet, hints of bonito - too good. If the bowls had been shaped differently (and I wasn't in public) or I had been provided with a spoon, I would have finished every last drop of it.

The sushi set, which I think should have been called aburi, not tataki, was an example of the perfect simplicity so much Japanese food aims for. Salmon, white tuna, scallop, and tuna, each with a different topping, rested on a bed of sushi rice. The favorite at our table was the spicy mayo smeared scallop, followed by the salmon filled with strands of pear.

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While the dishes were pure Japanese, the portions were pure America. The second course was a softball sized salmon bon-bon, essentially a salmon salad encased in thin slices of avocado. The salad was tossed in a light soy vinaigrette, leaving the taste fresh and vibrant, letting the ingredients do the talking. I shouldn't have eaten the whole thing, but I did.

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I had my fingers crossed that the third course, fugu karage, would not result in the demise of all of us diners. Wild fugu, also known as pufferfish, has a poisonous liver, and only those trained to remove the liver can serve it. These pufferfish were farm raised and, missing out on whatever plant they eat in the wild, not poisonous. Or so Hama-san said. I took a bite of the fried fish and hoped that I wouldn't be part of the Jonestown Massacre, part 2: sushi edition.

The fish was good, but this was the weakest course of the evening. We were the last table to be served, so perhaps not everyone had the same issue, but we found the fish to be fairly oily and the breading lacked any crunch.

This isn't the first time I've had fugu and been generally unimpressed with it. I went to a fugu-only restaurant in Tokyo. The waiters brought up the still live fish to show us, then returned again a few minutes later with the now deceased fish skinned and filleted, making sure to point out that the livers had not been ruptured. The meal was memorable - every part of the fish was used - with courses including fish skin 'chips', fried fillets (like this dish), broiled ovaries and sperm (not good), and hot sake infused with fish fins (also not good). The fish is hyped because it can kill you - its flavor is quite mild, though.

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By this point, I could feel my stomach expanding, my love handles inflating, and my body preparing to just curl up and go to sleep. Pressing onwards, I attempted to take down the Smoked Duo of tuna and duck. The first picture has the tender duck, topped with goji berries and foie gras, in focus. The opposite end of the plate was thinly sliced smoked tuna. I was not able to put much of a dent into this one.

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This dessert was a masterpiece. Purple yam mousse with chantilly cream and figs over a perfect caramel with slices of fresh mango, flanked by a choux pastry swan swimming through cream and chocolate. I couldn't help myself from eating most of the dish, resulting in a mix of euphoria and a painfully distended stomach.

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The meal was not only the best Japanese meal I've ever had in St. Louis, but one of the best Japanese meals I've had period. Japan included. Chef Hama-san showed why he is deserving of so much praise. Rumor has it he may be holding another dinner in the coming months. I'll see you there.