Sunday, August 10, 2008

Kuroson Browbeating Gives New Meaning to "Tataki"

When I was researching on Katsuo noTataki in Kochi, I frequently came across the name of Izakaya Kuroson. Bloggers aplenty had cited Kuroson as serving the best tataki in Kochi. After eating some wonderful Katsuo no Tataki at Yairo-tei in Hirome Ichiba the night before, I was dying to try the dish at Kuroson.

The afternoon after eating at Yairo-tei, I visited Hamakawa Brewery the maker of Bijofu and Shintaro sake, in Tano-cho, in southern Kochi by the Pacific Ocean. The president (shacho) of the brewery was youngish looking man in his 50's, who took over his family business several years ago. He was a down-to-earth and easy-to-hang-out-with. After showing me his brewery and leading me through a tasting of their sake, he asked me what I was going to do afterwards. I told him that I made reservation at Kuroson. His voice changed as he asked me, "by yourself at Kuroson?" He continued, "the food is fantastic, but...." His manner had me curious. "What do you mean by... 'but..."?, I asked. He hesitantly described the nature of owner. Apparently, he barks and yells at customers. He said that even he was a bit scared by him. My face was half-frozen. "Should I go there?," I asked. He said, "I am sure you will be fine, but I will go with you anyway."

Kuroson is located a narrow alley behind a Mos Burger (a Japanese fast food chain). They don't have a menu. You eat what you are served. Their sake list consists soley of Hamakawa Brewery's sake. The taisho (owner) is in his late 50's or early 60's, with short peppery hair and with high energy and spirit. His wife works as a waitress and they have been in business for 20 years or so.

First, we were served a huge plate of sashimi with five or six varieties of fish including, snapper, sea
bream, squid, and octopus. The sashimi was the freshest fish could possibly be, and the cut was very thick. It was neither gooey nor chewy, they had a springy yet soft texture, bursting with freshness. It was incredibly delicious and I enjoyed it but, the portion was beyond generous and I was beginning to get full before I'd even had the tataki for which I had come. I was eating slowly and chatting with Hamakawa-shacho when the taisho started to yelled at me. "Hayaku Tabenka! (eat quickly)!" I thought he was joking, but soon realized that it was no joke. He was dead serious.

Next came the tataki which was sliced very thick. With crispy skin and reddish pink meat inside, it was served with sliced garlic and wasabi. I bit into one of the huge pieces. It was heavenly! The fish was very fresh and texture was crispy outside and soft inside. The skin was so crunchy and flavorful that I could have been happy just eat the crispy skin for my snack. The skin was crispier and smokier than Yajiro-tei, and the slices were thicker and more tender. I felt the tataki was better at Kuroson.

As I was sipping my sake, savoring the tataki, and talking with Hamakawa-shacho we were accosted again by the owner, "Shaberazu tabero (don't talk, just eat)!" Trying to appease him, I looked up and begged him, "I am eating, I am trying."

I wanted to ask the taisho if I could take pictures of him and his restaurant, but I had become apprehensive about asking him anything. Sweating and waiting to be scolded by the taisho, I took a quick photo of the tataki.

It was then that I noticed that the couple next to me was also having trouble with the taisho. They had asked for a menu, a salad, and rice. It seemed that they were being a bit demanding and it was clear that the taisho and his wife were getting irritated. I spoke with the couple and learned that they were visiting Kochi from Hiroshima.

Suddenly, I heard the taisho yelling at me again, "Sassato tabenka (eat now)!" This time, it wasn't just him harassing me. His wife was also giving me a nasty look! My stomach had expanded to the point where I had no room for any more food.
My dilemma was that the tataki was so delicious that I wanted to clean my plate, but the fish was so rich that I couldn't finish eating it. No matter how many times I was yelled at, my stomach was stubbornly refusing to accept any more food. No amount of barking and yelling could make my stomach accept more. Eating was no longer a pleasure, it had become a demanding ordeal. Kuroson was no longer a restaurant. It had now become a battle zone.

Hamakawa-shacho felt so bad for me that he started to help me finish the dish. I needed to drink more sake to wash down the sashimi and tataki,
but the wife told me I couldn't order any more sake. Hamakawa-shacho and I were speechless. We felt so unwelcome that we decided to leave Kuroson immediately.

Hamakawa-shacho was very apologetic even though it wasn't his fault that we were thrown out. It was me who made them grumpy. No matter how nasty and abusive the owners had been, I still felt that it was the best katsuo no tataki I had ever had and was willing to overlook the browbeating that I had endured to eat it. I had never dreamed that the word "tataki" which can mean "to beat" would relate something about this experience other than what was served on my plate.

Afterwards, Hamakawa-shacho and I, joined by his wife and a co-worker, went to a nearby bar to drink more and to commiserate about the self-sacrifice that comes with eating the best katsuo no tataki in Kochi at Kuroson.

3-4-18 Honmachi
Kochi City,
Kochi 780-0870

Phone: (Japan) 088-873-2624

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Katsuo no Tataki in Kochi

Katsuo is Japanese for bonito, a species of mackerel. When Japanese people hear "katsuo," they immediately think of Kochi prefecture. Annual consumption of katsuo in Kochi is nearly four times that of other prefectures. Between 2005 ~ 2007, the national average was 1351g/ 3 lbs per two person household, but in Kochi it was 5183g/ 11.4 lbs!

Before my recent trip to Japan, I was longing to eat the REAL Katsuo no Tataki in Kochi
. The origin of Katsuo no Tataki is not well documented. Legend has it that Yamauchi Kazutoyo (or Katsutoyo) (b.1545- -d.1605), who became feudal ruler of Kochi in 1600, forbade eating fresh katsuo due to the possibility of food poisoning. To prevent illness, he ordered people to grill the katsuo before eating it. The origin of word "tataki" is also not well defined. The word "tataki" or "tataku" means "to beat," "to slap," or "to pad" in Japanese. Therefore tataki is known to be a cooking technique where a blade is used to pad the fish with salt to tighten the flesh giving it a desirable texture.

When I was daydreaming about Katsuo no Tataki while working at SAKAYA (our sake store), I had a customer from Kochi city. As soon as I learned that he was from Kochi, I asked him where to go to find the best Katsuo no Tataki. He recommended that I visit Yairo-tei at Hirome Ichiba.

Hirome Ichiba (market) is a kind of food court, but it is a place where there are about 65 shops including green market, fish markets, butcher, souvenir shops, sake retail shops, snack shops, takeout food shops, bars, and izakaya jammed into a huge building. It opened 10 years ago to promote local products and business. With its casual, down-to-earth atmosphere, you can order a dish from any of the vendors and then eat at the centrally located tables.

Yairo-tei is a small izakaya-style shop next to a takoyaki shop. When I arrived it was around 6pm, and people were already drinking and eating in front of Yairo-tei. I peaked inside and saw two salarymen sitting at the bar drinking. I decided to sit at the bar, so that I could have better view of the taisho (the owner chef) cooking the tataki. I then ordered a cold beer to keep from salivating too profusely while waiting for my tataki to be served.

I learned that in Kochi, Shio Tataki (salt tataki) is the norm. The more common or well known version of Tataki is the Tare version where the tataki is served with a special tataki sauce (soy sauce with vinegar and citrus). In Kochi, Shio Tataki is the more popular type, slightly grilled over a straw fueled fire.

At Yairo-tei, I ordered Shio Tataki. The taisho took out the katsuo and started to place the straw in the handmade grill box. Slowly the place became smoky and as my eyes started to burn, he placed the fish on the grill. He seared the fish quickly and placed it on a cutting board.

With quick and rhythmic strokes, he sliced the tataki, and served it on a plate with sliced daikon, garlic, sudachi (type of citrus), and wasabi. Without a moment's hesitation, I picked up a piece with my chopsticks and put it in my mouth. It was delicious! It was sublimely tasty; slightly smoky, meaty in texture and super fresh. I could imagine it as being popular alternative to tuna steak. Crispy on the outside and rare on inside, it was tender and toothsome with just enough fattiness to stand up to the garlic and wasabi condiments which added just the right amount of complimentary kick to the dish. I savored every piece, hoping to secure the experience in my sensory memory as how the best katsuo no tataki should taste.

Yairo-tei at Hirome Ichiba was just what the SAKAYA customer promised. It was casual, homey,inexpensive, and made great katsuo no tataki! When I left Yairo-tei, I vowed to come back someday with Rick to have the katsuo no tataki and try some of their other food. And, to drink more too!

Hirome Ichiba

2-3-1 Obiya-machi, Kochi
Kochi 780-0841 (Japanese only)