Friday, October 4, 2013

One off the bucket list - Tokushima's Kokin Aoyagi

A few years ago, I came across a book written by Chef Hirohisa Koyama about the fundamentals of Japanese cuisine. It was eye-opening and I learned so much more in terms of appreciating Japanese cooking in a fuller spectrum. Since then I have always wanted to visit Chef Koyama's restaurant in Tokushima myself - so we have put this top of our agenda as we travelled through the four prefectures of Shikoku, including Tokushima being our first stop, in our recent Japan trip.

Chef Hirohisa Koyama is the 3rd generation owner of Kokin Aoyagi, currently located in the northern coastal town of Naruto, some 45-minute car ride away from Tokushima town center. We wanted for an early dinner so we have more time to rest after the meal (and the need for a long drive back to Tokushima) so we started at 6pm.

The restaurant is located inside the Naruto Park Hills resort complex - consisting of a small hotel, a western restaurant, a bar/lounge and a spa, about 15 minutes away from the major sightseeing spot of Naruto Park. The restaurant was housed in a separate building at the far end and has a rather elaborate but cozy setting once we stepped inside - there are a few private tatami rooms and the main dining area with proper tables and chairs, and plenty of space both inside and outside of the house. We were seated in the main dining area by the window, and were later joined by another group of local diners at the table behind.

The dinner began with the presentation of a platter of small dishes on a bright red plate, known as "hassun". Each of those dishes - a tiny bowl of kani miso, vegetables lightly marinated with ponzu sauce, maki-roll with crab roes, shrimp with sudachi jelly and daikon, dried sea weed with mild Japanese peppers, slow-braised octopus, roasted sweet potatoes - presented their own unique flavors, and I felt like the chef was trying to present all possible pleasant tastes known to men at one time.

The hassun appetizer was followed with "nimono-wan" - a light, simmered dish of shrimp dumpling in clear broth served in a lacquor bowl. I love the firm texture of the minced shrimp and the fresh unami taste, and the surprisingly intensity from the clear dashi broth mainly made of kelp and shaven bonito. Dashi is considered one of the most fundamental base components for Japanese cuisine which consists of only a handful of ingredients and that every chef should know by heart how to make, but Chef Koyama mentioned in his book that it took him 5 years of repeated trials to perfect his. It's amazing being able to finally try that in person after reading all about it.

We then moved to the main attraction of the dinner. The town of Naruto - where Kokin Aoyagi is located - is known for its tai fish, or sea bream caught off the Naruto Strait. The change of tides combined with the geography of the narrow strait guarding water between Seto Inland Sea and the Pacific Ocean created this unique phenomenon of whirlpool twice a day. It's said that since the fish has to fight against the sheer force of the whirlpool daily, they were especially delicious with firm texture.

"Naruto-tai" was considered the best of its kind and Chef Koyama is an expert of preparing this regional delicacy. We enjoyed 3 courses made of Naruto-dai this evening - first is the Naruto-tai sashimi served with pickled vegetables. The firm texture was apparent and it's very tasty. The main dish of Naruto-tai was done 2 ways and served with lotus roots and peppers. One piece was deep-fried with bones - we were surprised there's not a hint of oiliness even though the fish was cooked so crispy - God knows how he did that. The second piece was char-grilled with the skin scored in beautiful patterns which involved excellent blade skills and it has good texture, juicy meat and a trace of smokiness from that of the charcoal fire and charred fish skin.

The third course was a bowl of rice served with naruto-tai and scrambled eggs served as the final savory course. Everything's only slightly seasoned so the tastes came out in its most original form. It's such a comforting end to a meal. Before the rice we also had a bowl of stewed vegetables which was nice as well. We had two desserts this evening - grapes in jelly and a cute baked azuki bean cake known as taiyaki because it resembled the shape of the tai fish.

The day we went was a Sunday in the middle of a Japanese long weekend holiday, and because of that we didn't expect Chef Koyama would be around. So we were pleasantly surprised when he stopped by our table as we finished the meal - and even more surprised when he told us he would be in Hong Kong 2 weeks later for some cooking demonstration. Hope we will see him then and have an encore of the great dishes we had this evening.

More pictures on my flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/sets/72157636045792394/
If you can read Chinese, here's my blog about Aoyagi on my Chinese blog: http://atime2eat.blogspot.com/2013/10/blog-post.html

Where? Kokin Aoyagi, 1-1 Aza-Nakayama, Oshimada, Seto-cho, Naruto-shi, Tokushima Prefecture, Japan
古今青柳 徳島県鳴門市瀬戸町大島田字中山1-1
Menu highlights? Naruto-tai done two-ways 
Drinks? Housui Tanen Ginmai Ginjo 芳水酒造淡遠純米吟釀 - 德島縣 芳水酒造
Web:
(Relais & Chateaux) www.relaischateaux.com/en/search-book/hotel-restaurant/aoyagi/
(Restaurant Website - Japanese) www.kokin-aoyagi.jp/‎

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