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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Images from a Dinner with Koji...

Koji, as in the ingredient from Japan, a fermented rice product, that is increasingly finding it's way into many Japanese cook's tool box. A traditional ingredient, enjoying a resurgence, I had the opportunity to be a guest at an incredible dinner featuring this ingredient, at what I consider to be one of the best restaurants in San Francisco, Bar Tartine.

A bit about the chef, Nicolaus Balla is doing some amazing stuff, bridging his experiences from the Midwest, Budhapest and several stints in Japan, with amazing techniques and ingredients. Anytime I can dine here, I jump at the opportunity, this time, he was joined in the kitchen by a chef from Japan, who specializes in Koji, and a chef from Los Angeles, who would make a hand made soba for the dinner.

Special thanks to my friend Laiko Bahrs if Epicuring, for letting us know this was going on. On to the food.

Yes, that is 17 course, they were small...

Sadly, I did not get good shots of everything, but, I will show what I have. Koji creates an incredible umami flavor, like all fermented foodstuffs, it creates that 'fifth' flavor. It also offers health benefits, totally offset by gluttony.

Rice Porridge Toast, Karasumi, Butter, Radish

Karasumi, salted mullet roe, blah! I was tricked! Actually, this dish was amazing, easily as good as any dish that night, and it was toast. Next!

Wild King Salmon, Sweet Pea Kasu

I am not really sure what sweet pea kasu is, as kasu is the lees from sake making. Somehow that and sweet peas are involved. And yes, that is salmon sausage. I really don't like salmon, but, the sausage and sweet peas were great. Next!

Dry-aged Ribeye tartar, Nagaimo, Shingiku, Broth

Now we're talking beef. Raw beef, with a foam, nagaimo, once again, a taste and texture (slimy) element I normally detest, but, it was very good in this dish. It was very good. I find that I am bad, very bad, at picking up nagaimo with hashi.

Kazunoko Salad

More challenges to my limited palate. Kazunoko is herring roe on seaweed, I love seaweed, I hate herring roe. Yet, again, in this presentation, I had seconds. Since each dish was presented family style, there was an extra bite or two of most of these dishes.

Duck Tataki, Grated Radish, Negi

A barely seared duck breast, really getting at the essence of the duck, just a little koji was apparent in this dish. But, it was still very good, and something quite out of the norm for an American palate.

Satsuma Imo Korokke

Sweet potato croquette, nothing hard about eating this, totally a friendly dish. The mayonnaise as a sauce, the sauce on top, which appeared to be Tonkatsu sauce had a surprising bite, rich and spicy, a great counterpoint to the sweet and crunchy.


Although I have never heard it called this before, clearly this was a chicken and green onion yakitori. Classic izakaya food, classic comfort food. The chicken gets an added dimension of flavor from being marinaded in Koji. Another old friend in a challenging menu.

Kohlrabi in Broth

Clearly, this dish was meant for soup bowls, but, since none were forthcoming, the kohlrabi, not your normal root vegetable in Japanese or California cooking, was eaten with the mushrooms. Then, I drank from the bowl. No way that broth is going down the sink. Delicious.

Simmered Pork with Gobo and Egg

Ah, back to the things I like less, I am not a fan of gobo, the woody root that was a foundation of many stews and soups in grandma's cooking. Oddly, I found none in this bowl, someone beat me to it. Darn. Sort of. This was amazingly rich and served four, my cholesterol is fine.

Now, oddly, there are several courses, in which the photos were just unusable. It got dark in the restaurant, and I refuse to shoot with a flash. Bad enough I am shooting pictures of my food at all. Yet, there is this shot.

Barley and Koji Ice Cream, Shochu Cake

Yes, a semi-sweet ice cream, featuring barley and fermented rice. And it was delicious. I really wish the soba shot and the Wild Nori Yaki Onigiri shots had come out. The crispy rice ball was so good. Hand made soba, something pretty special still.

As always, my frequent dining companions Rob, Kevin and Michael were along, to geek over the food, joined by Michael's wife Wendy and a celebrity guest, Chef Hiroo Nagahara (the Chairman food truck and HN^2 Pop-ups),  and his girlfriend Wei Wei. It was fun sitting with Hiroo and getting his viewpoint on the food, his being from Japan, a shared heritage of food, and of course, his point of view as a chef, such insight and fun.


  1. That all looks amazing, especially the Salmon. Thanks Bob.

  2. Wouldn't everyone be bad at picking nagaimo with hashi? (assuming that it's the foam-looking thing next to the beef)

  3. Mai, the Nagaimo are the white slices, you know it as củ mài. Thanks Mark, I didn't eat any of the salmon. :-P

  4. ohh... and it was served raw? (I'm used to nagaimo in shaved (mài) form to make okonomiyaki, which looks exactly like that foam :-P )