Japan- Wa Yamamura- ✪✪✪

Nobuharu Yamamura's Wa Yamamura was a close-to-perfect chef's counter kaiseki experience in Nara, Japan. Nara is famous for tame deer who bow when you give them snacks, gorgeous temples with enormous buddhas that have pillars so big it's a rite of passage to crawl through them, and tons of other beautiful sights from Nara's days as the ancient capital city. Nara is off the beaten path a touch but it's worth a spending a day. Tucked back down some very plain-looking residential streets you'll find Wa Yamamura, a small oasis of simple beauty with a chef and staff who are working exceptionally hard. 

 Wa Yamamura Interior

Wa Yamamura Interior

NARA, JAPAN

SERVICE: 8.5/10

FOOD: 8.5/10

PRICE PAID: $180 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 9.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

We were lucky enough to be seated right at the bar, which was a vital and busy display of chef, server, bartender, and other associates moving at great speed through their tiny space. The restaurant had a feeling of being overstaffed, but everyone moved fluidly around each other and there were few collisions (but definitely at least one).

A few quick words on service- our seat was absolutely prime for watching the head chef do his work, including assembling the sashimi dish into fully-iced-out bowls (video below). If you go, ask to be seated on the far left of the counter, since most of the interesting stuff happens there. Every single member of staff was pathologically friendly and helpful, and the menu was translated into English for us by hand. The chef, with an enormous flourish, signed said menu at the end of the meal with three different types of ink. 

 First Bites: Crab + Abalone, 9/10

First Bites: Crab + Abalone, 9/10

 Great Knifework on the Abalone!

Great Knifework on the Abalone!

For our first bites, a small bowl of crab with abalone. Clean, firm crab taste comes through perfectly. The abalone had tiny microcuts along the side for ease of consumption and tenderness, and I found that it massively improved the normally-rubbery texture of the fish. Amazing panoply of textures and flavors. A strong start. 9/10.

 Course 1: Dashi Soup, 8/10

Course 1: Dashi Soup, 8/10

 Course 1: Dashi Soup, 8/10

Course 1: Dashi Soup, 8/10

Check out the gorgeous ceramic bowl this dashi soup arrived in- like most of the pieces used in this restaurant, they felt to my amateurish eye to be close to museum-quality. The soup was thick, with the approximate texture of egg whites. The shrimp was extremely fresh and surrounded by cloudy, starchy dough. The broth had flavors of pine smoke, and the tiny turnip serves as a great visual set-piece as well as crunchy and tasty in its own right. Great soup. 8/10.

 Preparing the Ice Bowls

Preparing the Ice Bowls

 Hand-Assembling the Tuna

Hand-Assembling the Tuna

Next, we had the good fortune to get front-row seats to watch the chef assemble the sashimi into a custom-made ice-bowl. 

 Course 2: Sashimi, 10/10

Course 2: Sashimi, 10/10

The shrimp's flavors are almost buttery it's so fresh. The flat fish is chewy, and the fatty tuna (otoro) is orgasmic good. Ground by hand right in front of us using a shark-skin grater, the wasabi is fiery-hot. 10/10

 Course 3: The Smorgasbord, 8/10 Overall

Course 3: The Smorgasbord, 8/10 Overall

Next, an insane smorgasbord of different dishes with a riot of colors arrived. I'll describe each component in turn; overall the course was an 8/10.

 Course 3A: Mackerel + Conger Fish Cake + Beans, 7/10

Course 3A: Mackerel + Conger Fish Cake + Beans, 7/10

The enormous green beans are surprisingly brittle; they break apart immediately, and have a flavor just like a fava bean; hearty and earthy. Beautifully hand-cut, the curls of radish and carrot helix have flavors that pair perfectly. The mackerel is oily and a touch fishy, it's probably been in the fridge a few hours too long. The cubes are conger eel with fish paste, which are super fun and taste a bit like not-sweet vanilla cake. 7/10.

 Course 3B: Black Beans + Tiger Prawn + Karasumi, 7/10

Course 3B: Black Beans + Tiger Prawn + Karasumi, 7/10

These black beans are bigger than previous restaurants, with more smoky flavors and less blueberry. The pickled honeydew (on the left) has extremely interesting combinations of savory and sweet. The prawn is a touch dry, and the karasumi isn't my fave, per usual. 7/10.

 Course 3C: Anchovy + Abalone, 8/10

Course 3C: Anchovy + Abalone, 8/10

The anchovies are crunchy and slightly sweet; they're dipped in a soy sauce of some kind. Abalone is unyielding but flavorful. 8/10.

 Course 3D: Sesame Tofu, 9/10

Course 3D: Sesame Tofu, 9/10

This sesame tofu is slippery and spongy, and very satisfying to eat- soy and wasabi speaks nicely to the previous course. 9/10.

 Course 3E: Cod Roe, 9/10

Course 3E: Cod Roe, 9/10

Last, a dish of soft cod roe in vinegar that looks like a slimy brain and is creamy, warm, and totally delicious 9/10. 

 Course 4: Sea Urchin Soup, 9/10

Course 4: Sea Urchin Soup, 9/10

This sea urchin soup is made with eggs, lily bulbs, and ginkgo nuts that give it an extremely interesting texture contrast. The thick starchy soup goes great with creamy Uni texture; the lily bulbs are the approximate size and shape of garlic cloves, but with a mild potato-like flavor. 9/10.

 Course 5: Butterfish, 9/10

Course 5: Butterfish, 9/10

The ceramic dish this course of Butterfish is served on is incredible- a soaring bird, complete with features. The flavors of the fish are, well, quite buttery and rich, and this makes for an excellent main course. Perfectly cooked and tender. 9/10. 

 Course 6: Scallop + Lemon Vinegar Jelly, 7/10

Course 6: Scallop + Lemon Vinegar Jelly, 7/10

This fantastic scallop dish is interesting, because the flavors and textures of the scallop itself are unremarkable- the jelly is full of lemon and citrus flavors along with a savory note from the vinegar elements, and those strong flavors carry the dish. It's a little odd, I will admit, to have a dish that consists of jelly garnished by scallop as opposed to the other way around. 7/10.

 Course 7: Vegetables, 8/10

Course 7: Vegetables, 8/10

Taro, tofu, carrot, burdock root and bamboo shoot showed up next with two small garnishments of Japanese Pepper leaf. The starches are crunchy-fresh and the flavors are soft and subtle- easing the transition towards dessert. 8/10. 

 Course 8: Rice in Tofu Skin, 8/10

Course 8: Rice in Tofu Skin, 8/10

This next dish was really amazing- tofu skin (also known as Yuba, or bean curd sheet) is milky and cheesy and is full of rice, with a light dash of significantly-less-spicy wasabi on top. 8/10. 

 Course 9: Strawberry Jelly + Pear + Orange Juice, 9/10

Course 9: Strawberry Jelly + Pear + Orange Juice, 9/10

Desserts in Japan are always a subtle affair- some places like Chihana just give you a glass of orange juice- but Wa Yamamura's was both understated and a total delight. Strawberries preserved in gelatin are delicious, but the Asian pears are particularly amazing- soft and sweet. A fantastic end to a fantastic meal!