Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Symphony of Garden Flavors - Yukawatan at Karuizawa

Every now and then you found yourself the luckiest person on earth when you came across a meal that made you cry. Our dinner at Yukawatan in Japan's Karuizawa was one of them.

The hotel uses every opportunity to remind us the award Chef Noriyuki Hamada just won - this is found in the hotel lobby

The restaurant was located in Hotel Bleston Court in the Hoshinoya resort complex in Karuizawa - northwest of Tokyo and about 1.5 hours away by Shinkansan on the edge of Nagano prefecture. The young chef Noriyuki Hamada has gained quite a reputation with its interpretation of French cuisine using local ingredients and traditional Japanese cooking style since he became the head chef of this fine-dining restaurant almost 3 years ago. Last month at the 2013 Bocuse d'Or cooking contest - considered the equivalent of the prestigious Olympics in the culinary world - he beat out 21 other chefs from different countries and won the bronze medal, just behind contestants from France and Denmark. In fact Chef Hamada-san became only the second non-European medalists in the competition's 25 years history. This is the main reason why we made some twist and turn in our travel itinerary to fit in a stop to Karuizawa so we can pay a visit to the restaurant.


Exterior of the restaurant - sorry for the poor quality. That was the best I could pull off amid the heavy hailstorm as we entered the restaurant in a hurry.

The weather started to turn bad just as the sun began to set - first it's light rain, which turned into a heavy hailstorm - just at the time we had to walk through a dimly-lit, narrow stone path to the wooden cottage which houses the restaurant. I am sure on a normal day that 30 meter walk would have been a romantic stroll, but tonight it's something I could do without. Well, at least the champagne and the pre-meal snack of tuiles made with local cheeses quickly settled us down, and the messy hailstorm slowly became very lovely light snow flying across the window as the evening progressed.

Interior of the Restaurant - 9 tables, 24 seats
Our dinner was a 5-course seasonal menu, as part of the hotel's room and board package - with choices for soup, main and dessert. The menu changes regularly, taking advantage of many local ingredients found in the region at different time of the year. At the time of our visit they were also running a special Bocuse d'Or menu which showcased the award-winning dishes that Chef Hamada made at the contest - they certainly took advantage of his newly found fame.

Amuse Bouche
We were speechless when the amuse bouche was presented. It's in the form of 6 finger food served on top of 6 stones in different colors sitting on a wooden platter. "An introduction to tonight's menu by a mini six course dinner", as our waitress came to explain about the dish. In the order just like a formal meal, we began with a pork belly sandwich as appetizer, then salmon wrapped in radish, an onion "au gratin" soup (which was a spherified onion consomme), a carp and cream cheese roll, a croquette with wild boar meat, and the "dessert" of chocolate truffle with foie gras. Each piece was made perfectly, and no little details were overlooked - even the stones on which the food sat on were prepared at different serving temperature. For example, the salmon was on a slightly cold stone, while the soup and croquette were in warmed stones, and chocolate were served with a chilled one.


Bread and butter - House-made baguette roll, and tofu spread
"Can something possibly look so good and so delicious, like we have never seen or tasted?" - This is unarguably the most impressive amuse bouche dish I have ever experienced and that's a question I still wonder every now and then ever since. Just as we were at awe over the display of amuse bouche, the waitress brought us the bread and a tofu spread (there's regular salted and non-salted butter as well)
 
Entree: Tartar of snow trout and yuzu, with a hint of Spring (信濃雪鱒のシャルロット)
We were equally impressed with our first course of tartar of snow trout and yuzu, with a hint of spring. Snow trout (Shinano Yukimasu) is an indigenous river fish commonly found in the region. The meat was diced and marinated in yuzu juice, on top was the snow trout roe and edible flower petals plated like a spring garden. On the sides of the tartar were mountain yam julienne, and at the bottom, a chrysanthemum puree with sakura salt sprinkled on the plate. An emphatic hint of Spring with such a refreshing and colorful and visually pleasing dish.


Soupe: Parsnip Soup with Cumin
Poisson: Iwana Mountain Trout with Spring Harvests (安曇野産大岩魚のコンフィ 白ジャガイモのエクラゼと共に)

We continued our journey through the best local ingredients in stunning presentations with our next two courses of soup and poisson (fish). First up was the parsnip soup was served with a dash of cream and sprinkles of cumin, in a wide coffee cup. It was followed by the fish course of Iwana mountain trout from the nearby town of Azumino, which was poached and served with seasonal vegetables and herbs on a bed of mashed potatoes with mustard and onions. The fish was firm and light but the flavor was greatly enhanced by the presence of fresh herbs and greens.

Viande: Boudin Blanc and Salted Pork Pot-au-feu (ダボス牧場の伊藤さんが育てた高原豚とカスレ)
My main course is pork in pot au feu style. Pork tenderloin was cooked sous-vide, shoulder poached, giblets turned into a boudin blanc, and all these were served with a medley of spring vegetables including bamboo shoot, carrots, broccoli and peas, with a reduction of pork consomme poured in. There's additional consomme on the side and condiments of yuzu kosho (yuzu chili paste), mustard and wasabi to go with the pork. Once again, Chef Hamada left the ingredient itself do most of the talking with very little seasonings and accompaniment which was there only to empower the taste of the pork, not to overtake it. The result is a simple yet delicious dish that made me drop to tears, almost.

Viande - Choice #2: Various Parts of Shinshu Chicken, "Mother and Child" Style (大沢さんが育てた信州地どり真田丸 トリュフのリゾットに乗せて)
Charlotte ordered the other main course, which is called "Various parts of Shinshu Chicken served Mother and Child Style". Chicken breast was sous-vided, then cartilage deep-fried, egg yolk was slightly cooked and served with a thin slice of cheese, the thigh was grilled then on top is a liver cooked en croute, then kidney and heart done yakitori-style, and with a chicken consomme reduction which brought everything together. This is similar to the way yakitori was made and Chef Hamada somehow turned this into a main course dish.

Dinner like this called for a elegant Burgundy. They have a very precise (i.e. short) wine list but with great choices - there are some local ones, then mostly old world wines. Our 1999 Domaine Heresztyn Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru Les Goulots didn't disappoint, with its medium body, slightly herbaceous, peppery and red fruit palate worked perfectly well with the light dishes we had.

Fromage: Local Cream Cheese with Condiments
After our main course with wines to spare, we decided to add an additional cheese course which was not on our original menu. Needless to say, the cheese came from a local ranch and freshly made. It's a cream cheese with a texture of yoghurt-like curdle, and with an interesting combination of condiments included shallots, chives, chili flakes, salt, honey and almond oil. I found the cheese works best with honey and a drizzle of almond oil. It's probably a little too light to my liking - just like any Japanese cheeses we have tried before - but we still quite enjoyed the dish as we continue to indulge ourselves in such peaceful ambiance in this comfortable dining room.

Dessert: "Ensemble Yuzu" with an air of champagne jelly (柚子のコンポジション 香り豊かなシャンパーニュのジュレと共に)
I debated the choice of my dessert a little bit, between a mont blanc with chocolate and coffee glaze, and a "Yuzu Ensemble", as hazelnuts and yuzu are both my favorites. At the end I picked "Yuzu Ensemble" because I think that worked more coherently with the rest of the dinner menu. It's served in a hollowed yuzu fruit, with champagne jelly and yuzu sorbet inside, and on top, yuzu meringue and mint leaves as garnish. There's less of a surprise factor in the dessert, but nonetheless, the presentation was amazing and it's refreshing and taste great.

Petit Fours and Tea
Our dinner started with a bang by a stunning display of six mini bites of amuse bouche sitting on six colorful stones, and it ended with yet another stunning display of not six this time, but eleven different mini desserts that spread across our table. On a wooden platter there are seven - a pear tart, a yuzu macaron, caramelized tangerine, matcha mousse, miso chocolate truffle, sugar-coated apple mousse and tiramisu served in a straw. Then there's a cone of hazelnut cream, and sakura icecream on a skewer on wood log stand. Lastly there were also a lollipop and a white chocolate coated cherry leaf (yes the leaf is edible too)

We were so busy trying to decide where to start and we almost didn't dare touch them as they were so beautiful and like an art masterpiece. We salute to the pastry chef who pulled this magnificent petit fours off. There's no better end to a fine dinner than this. Oh yes, the tea we had was made with grape leaves - Shinshu grapes were another a specialty of the region and considered one of the best in Japan. The tea made by their leaves tasted and looked like a rooibos tea.

All in all we love everything that was prepared for our dinner - the combination of ingredients, cooking, ambiance, service and presentation made this a great symphony of spring garden flavors. Unlike classical French cooking which often uses butter and heavy sauces, Chef Hamada-san attempted to bring the best of the ingredients themselves by utilizing light sauces and minimal seasoning, similar to traditional Japanese cuisine. That in a sense reminds me of Alice Waters and her food at Chez Panisse - the more celebrated disciple of the local food movement on the other side of Pacific.

This evening, the fish courses at the beginning were no doubt exquisite, and our pork and chicken dishes were definitely an eye-opener. Of course that and the stunning presentation of our amuse bouche and petits fours made this a memorable meal and the highlight of our long trip across the Honshu heartland in Japan. We didn't regret making a detour to come to Karuizawa to visit Hotel Bleston Court and Yukawatan, and hopefully, we will do that again in the future. 

More pictures can be found on my flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/sets/72157633123862774

When? March 25 2013
Where? Yukawatan, Hotel Bleston Court, Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, Japan
Menu highlight: Amuse Bouche and Petit Fours
Drinks:
2005 Grand Cru Cuvee Millesime, Champagne Patrick Soutiran
1999 Domaine Heresztyn Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru Les Goulots
Web: http://restaurant.blestoncourt.com/


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