Warning: the following review has a high superlative count. Those with a nervous disposition regarding gushing compliments should look away now.
Have you ever been in a situation where you knew that something was too good for you? Maybe you fluked your way into a relationship with someone way out of your league. Perhaps you stumbled into a handsomely paid job for which you were grossly under-qualified. What do you do in these situations? You keep schtum and hope that you don’t get found out.
This was precisely why I sat in Ginza Ashibe in Meieki, quieter than a church mouse who had taken a vow of silence at the Squeakless Monastery for Particularly Quiet Mice.
Ginza Ashibe is regarded as one of the best dining experiences in Nagoya, particularly for impressing on first dates. As someone more used to burgers and beer (I rely on wit and charm rather than ambiance on dates. I am rarely successful), I was way out of my comfort zone amongst the plush finery and decadence. Fortunately I was set at immediate ease by welcoming restaurant manager Oya-san.
The first dish for which I was undeserved was an obanzai selection, traditional Kyoto cuisine, simply made with seasonal seafood and vegetables. Like good home cooking, as Oya-san explained. There were five dishes in total: fried eggplant boiled and baked in sake; burdock with carrot and konyaku; sweet ayu fish boiled in soy sauce and eel and yam baked in yuba tofu curd. And in the centre of it all was popcorn shrimp. This was nothing like home cooking as I know it (sorry mum!).
Now I feel I should add a disclaimer. Eggplant and konyaku are pretty high up on my ‘foods not to be touched with a barge pole’ list, so I gave those dishes an initial wide berth, opting instead for the shrimp that was lightly curried and so immediately addictive that I was unable to stop at three. The ayu was next and the sticky sauce only served to exponentially enhance the sweetness of the fish. I followed this with the yuba wraps that were also sweet and oozing with a yammy goodness that was elbowed slightly by the subtlest hint of eel that was neither overpowering nor undersold.
At last I approached the burdock and konyaku combination that, spicy and a little smoky, caught me totally off guard. Emboldened I dived in to the aubergine which knocked my socks off with such force it nearly sent my converse skittering across the elegant room such was the gentle flavour created by the delicate sake.
To cleanse my palette Oya-san brought out a veritable forest of chilled salad sticks to be dipped in a gorgeous bagna càuda (Italian garlic and anchovy dip). I scooped mountains of the stuff with celery and carrot, finishing the whole pot on my own despite it being a sharing dish. Bad, gluttonous Mark.
I presumed I would be back on more comfortable territory with the sushi, but again the mango and salmon California rolls were not like anything I had encountered before. The subtly sweet mango gave the salmon a rounded flavour, but what really set them apart was the sublime butteryness of the avocado that juxtaposed so delightfully with the puchi puchi texture of the fish roe, a new sensation to me that was as revelatory as it was moreish. I ate three. Bad, bad, gluttonous Mark!
Then came the pièce de résistance: Ashibe’s world-famous wagyu steak. Less marbled than Japanese wagyu, the grilled shinshin steak was just how I expected: red and bloody within, subtly charred without, and to say it melted in the mouth is as clichéd as it is inaccurate. This steak dissolved on the tongue, it evaporated, it broke down to a molecular level. It was simply transcendental.
Well, that was me done, and again I was cowed into silence. But this time it was nothing to do with being overawed by the low-lit decadence around me, nor was it to do with being undeserving of such a dining experience. Instead, my church-mousery was simply a result of my senses – both taste and touch – quivering in a gastronomically induced wreck.