Paolo Tullio: Cooking up a spectacle
The recent disaster in Japan has left many of us with a profound respect for the forces of nature and an understanding that our hold on the surface of this planet is tenuous at best. What has been extraordinary is the quiet dignity, the stoic resignation and the civic order among the people most affected by tragedy. Japanese society is a model of good manners and respect for others.
Apart from their work ethic, they are lovers of art and beauty, which they manage to combine in their gastronomy. A few months ago, I watched Rick Stein organise a banquet in the Japanese ambassador's residence in London. He decided to start it with fresh Cornish sardines and, since he was going to travel to London from Cornwall, he decided to bring them with him.
He ran his idea for the starter past the resident Japanese chef at the residence, presenting him with a beheaded sardine on a small plate. The Japanese chef was delighted with the fresh fish, but said rather delicately, "We would present it differently in Japan". He took his sashimi knife, skinned the sardine, removed the fillets and, with a few deft slices, transformed the fish into a visual delight. It's that attention to detail that makes Japanese cuisine world-class.
It's been a while since I met up with publisher Kevin Flannagan. Kevin is, he may even say so himself, a quintessentially urban man. He lives in the city centre and works in the city centre. He is also a major foodie, so when he told me he'd found a good Japanese restaurant I was keen to try it out with him. It's called Mitsuba and you can find it on Parnell Street, just off O'Connell Street.
It's a new restaurant and you can see at once from the interior that money has been spent on it -- a sign I'd suggest, of optimism for 2011.
The room is long and narrow, an awkward space, but it's been well-designed so it feels comfortable. At the far end of the dining room is a teppanyaki table, and Kevin and I took chairs at one corner of it.
Japanese cuisine is often divided into various techniques, and that's how it's done on the menu. There's sushi, sashimi, tempura and teppanyaki, which is the most recent addition to the Japanese culinary canon. Teppanyaki is a combination of theatre, juggling and cooking, where the chef cooks at the table and uses theatrical techniques to entertain the diners, as well as feeding them.
Standard parts of the repertoire are spatula work, using it to catch eggs mid-air, flipping food across the teppanyaki table and shelling eggs mid-air. Then, there's juggling with sauce bottles, using the cooking utensils as percussion instruments and, lastly, the actual cooking of the food.
But before the theatrical part of the meal, we decided to start with a mixture of sushi and sashimi. The difference between these is rice -- sushi comes with rice, sashimi does not. We had a mixed platter of tuna and salmon sashimi and eel and prawn sushi. We also had a California roll of avocado, crab and cucumber, which we dipped into a mix of soy sauce and wasabi. Those tastes, the classic accompaniments for sushi -- wasabi, soy and pickled ginger -- are a perfect combination. This generous platter for two was €21.
Now, this really is plenty for anyone as a starter, but Kevin and I were in full foodie mode and decided that what we really needed next was a plate of tempura, which is vegetables deep-fried in a very light batter.
If you should order this, a word of warning: a piece of bamboo, carefully split into thin hairs, was also dipped in tempura and deep-fried for decoration. I repeat: for decoration only.
With these dishes gone, it was show time. The teppanyaki chef came out, oiled up the now-hot table and went to work. He began by cooking mixed vegetables, spreading them, then gathering them using the spatula and re-spreading them until they were cooked. Every now and then, he splashed on soy sauce, sweet chilli sauce and fish sauce.
After that, came some egg tricks, which culminated in making an omelette, rolling it up, then using the spatula, cutting it into small pieces while flipping them on to the pile of rice at the other end of the table -- a neat trick -- to make our egg-fried rice.
Then, in fairly quick succession, we got scallops, salmon, jumbo prawns and rib-eye beef, all cooked on the table before us. All this food was, I have to admit, verging on the gluttonous, but each part of the process was so good and such fun to watch that we continued eating long past the point of satiation.
We'd had a couple of Tiger beers while we were eating and plenty of mineral water, so really we had come to standstill. We thought about desserts, but ice cream figured on every one of them, so we decided we had eaten enough.
We both wanted an espresso and so we ordered two. It was only afterwards as I was looking at the menu again that I noticed a single espresso was €3.95. I couldn't resist, I asked our waiter if he sold many espressos. "Not many," came the reply. Not surprising really at that price.
It made me look again at the menu, where I made another discovery -- water is more expensive than beer. More specifically, a 750ml bottle of Ballygowan was €5.25, while a bottle of Tiger beer was €4.30. I did have this conversation with the owner before we left, so it's possible those prices may change.
Apart from my observations on the cost of coffee and water, I thought Mitsuba was very good. The service was excellent, the food was good and the theatrical element was a lot of fun. I also felt that our bill of €106.95 was good value for the amount and the quality of the food we'd eaten. Dublin is not well served with Japanese restaurants, so Mitsuba is a welcome addition.