Category Archives: Japanese

Posts about Japanese restaurants in Tokyo, written by Rebekah Wilson-Lye for Ichi for the Michi.

Sushi Sora, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Tokyo

Sushi Sora view

A sushi dinner in the lofty environs of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, paired with sake from a menu compiled by a champion sommelier: my expectations were as high as the restaurant’s 38th floor location.

Sushi Sora had enjoyed a blitz of media coverage throughout the summer, with superlative laden ‘reviews’ illustrated with beautifully composed images gracing the pages of advertorial magazines and “pay for content” international travel blogs. As tempting as it seemed, the cynic in me was not so easily swayed – I know a marketing push when I see one. Despite my reservations, Sushi Sora had the endorsement of my sushi senpai, Ninisix, who had enjoyed several lunches there and was keen to return for a dinner omakase with lashings of sake. Needless to say, I leap at the chance to join her.

The restaurant certainly delivers on wow factor. This is the epitome of lux-dining. With a swish of the sliding door, you are drawn into an elegantly conceived space with dark onyx walls and a sweeping view across the Tokyo skyline. But for me, the star attraction is not the illuminated spectacle of nearby Tokyo Skytree, but the elegant 8-seat blonde wood counter top made from a 350 year old cypress tree.

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Yuji Imaizumi (pictured) is the chef in charge of operations at Sushi Sora. Unfortunately, as the restaurant was fully booked, we were only able to secure seats in front of his assistant, Hironobu Sato, who seemed to be lumped with serving the foreign contingent. Our chef turned out to be a very friendly chap who, despite his apparent youth, had an impressive resume of experience; beginning in the kaiseki kitchens of Kyoto, before apprenticing at elite Ginza sushi shops Tsubaki and Ookawara.
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A present? The menu? Neither, in fact. I unwrapped the origami creation to discover a napkin. An elegant detail.
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The assistant manager, Kaoru Izuha, was the recent winner of the Kikizakeshi (sake sommelier) World Championship – an enormous feat for someone so young. She has used her impressive knowledge to compile sake list of 25 labels that pair best with sushi. I was interested to see that she had chosen to arrange the list by sakamai rather than grade – a nice touch given that rice is as fundamental to sake as it is to sushi.
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Sadly, she was not working the night we visited, but her well-trained staff were well versed in the range, and very generous with complementary tastings.

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We settled on the Masami ‘Sanka’ Junmaiginjo (Yamada Nishiki 45%), Miyasaka Shuzo – Nagano. 真澄 純米大吟醸「山花」(山田錦 45%), 宮坂醸造 – 長野  The complex fragrance of fresh green herb and ‘mountain flowers’ followed through in clean, refreshing flavour.
2013-07-29 09.56.39-1The vessel you drink from not only has an enormous effect on your enjoyment of sake, but also your perception of its taste. However, apart from specialist bars and izakaya, sake still is almost always served in tiny ochoko cups. While these are perfect for liberals sips and top-ups around an izakaya table, they do justice to the beverage they hold; their small dimensions restrict aromas from developing on the surface and make it difficult to impart the subtleties of refined grades. So it was nice touch to be offered a choice.
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There are three courses available at dinner (¥15,000~¥25,000), or you can order a la carte – as the blinged out baby oligarchs were doing to our right. After conferring with the chef, we decided on the ¥25K omakase, the only course that uni was offered in, with a request to focus on cured white fish, hikarimono and ‘red meat’ fish.
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In Japanese the word sora means sky – a fitting epithet for a sushi-ya with sweeping views of the Tokyo skyline. Sora is also used in the name of the Japanese fava bean, soramame, as its pods grow in the direction of the sky. As a cute tie-in with the shop’s name, we began with a chilled soup of soramame dashi. Velvety smooth, with the delicate sweet flavour of the bean supported by a subtle smokiness from the katsuobushi and kombu dashi. A delightful and refreshing start.
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Mizunasu (water aubergine) begins to appear on menus in the summer months, when it is enjoyed as a raw crudité. Ours was served with its traditional accompaniment, sumiso; a sauce made with white miso, sugar, vinegar and mirin. A fresh taste of the season.
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A heavenly fragrance filled the air as our chef grated fresh Shizuoka wasabi for our next course.
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An assorted tsumami plate of shiroshita-garei (marbled sole/flounder), from Oita, and iwashi (sardine cured in vinegar). The garei was exceptionally good; cured to perfection so that the tight sinew in the meat had softened and the kombu had imparted a soft fragrance into the flesh. The iwashi, however, was ghastly. Despite being cured in vinegar it had a funky, off fish smell. Shudder. At least we had solved the mystery of the unpleasant odour in the air.
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Shiroshita-garei no kimo (flounder liver), engawa (not pictured) and tako no ashi (braised octopus legs). Disaster! I was so engrossed in our conversation with the chef that I forgot to document the plate! Seeing the stricken look on my face, the chef kindly tried to find another piece of the engawa that I had scoffed, but alas, ours were the only pieces.

Engawa is the thin muscle of the dorsal fin which is located on the either side of spotted sole/halibut. This part of the fish gets more of a workout than the rest of the body, so the texture of the meat is chewier; the flavour more developed. It also has a higher fat content which makes it a prized delicacy at sushi-ya. At Sora, the fatty ribbons of engawa had been braised in sweet soy marinade, so that the meat unbelievably soft and more concentrated in flavour.

I have a particular fondness for fish liver, so was delighted to try the rich, silky smooth kimo of the garei we had enjoyed earlier.

The simmered octopus tentacles were less delightful. I found their slimy, gelatinous texture and the overly sweet marinade off-putting.

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Our final tsumami course consisted of Meiji maguro aburi (Aomori) and aji (Nagasaki). I am probably one of the worst offenders of eating unsustainable fish stocks, but even I had a quick intake of breath when I learned that the weight of this baby tuna was a mere 6 kilos. That’s a ‘throw back’ in my books. Sadly, this poor little creature had died in vain; the sinew was taut and difficult to chomp through and I was left an unpleasant, congealed fat aftertaste, which makes me think it was served too cold. There were definitely some problems with storage/refrigeration here. The aji, on the other hand, was very good.
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While the tsumami courses had been a bit hit and miss, Ninisix assured me that their nigiri was very good. The koshihikari rice they use is aged for 2 years, and seasoned with a blend of old red vinegar and kasuzu (vinegar made from sake lees).
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For the nigiri section of the meal we changed to a tokkuri of Hokusetsu Junmai (Gohyakumangoku – Kōji: 55% – Kakemai: 65%), Hokusetsu Shuzō, Sado Island, Niigata. 北雪 純米 (五百万石 – 麹: 55% – 掛: 65%), 北雪酒造 – 新潟県佐渡市.

Its restrained aroma, crisp and refreshing flavour followed by a clean, dry finish make it unmistakably a Niigata sake. I’m not particularly drawn to the tanrei-karaguchi style, but it does pair well with sushi.

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Shinko (baby kohada) from Shizuoka. Unlike ‘promotion fish’ like buri, gizzard shard decreases in value as it ages – a ‘demotion fish’ if you will. The fish of the spring season’s shinko causes a flurry if activity in sushi-ya, and the huge demand and limited supply means that prices are astronomical. Sato-san arranged the tiny butterflied fillets before us, each were the about the size of a small lime.
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Beautifully presented in intertwining ribbons, the shinko was soft, fragrant and delicately flavoured. Sadly, we found the shari to be overly soft and, again, the temperature too cool.
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While the foreigners next to us, who were eating the standard nigiri course, were being served magurozuke (marinated akami), our tuna was cut fresh from a block of hon-maguro, landed near Aomori.
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The akami was rich and fragrant, though my appreciation of it was slightly let down by the memory of chef clumsily dropping the nigiri on the counter as he was forming it.
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A seasonal offering of kisu aburi kombujime. Lightly seared (aburi), the whiting had been marinated between sheets of kombu (kombujime) to impart a delicate sweet flavour in the fish.
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We were the only customers eating the omakase course, so all eyes where on us when a box of Ezo murasaki uni (purple sea urchin), from Yagishiri Island, Hokkaido, was presented for our inspection. The ‘中’ kanji refers to its middle size while the ‘1’ denotes its grade (the highest). It may just be internet rumor, but I have read that Sushi Sora uses the same uni supplier as Sukiyabashi Jiro.
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My hastily snapped photo does not do justice to the glorious flavour of this uni gunkan. Meltingly soft, rich and creamy, it was the highlight of the meal.
We were once again offered to choose our preference of neta for the final round. However, as we were underwhelmed by the rice, we opted to take the rest of the course as tsumami. For a nigiri maniac like Ninisix to opt out of continuing the sushi course, was a clear signal that things were very much amiss.
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The kuruma-ebi kimizu oboro zuke (Japanese prawn cured in sweet vinegar with minced egg yolk), was pre-cooked and served cold, so lacked the juiciness of prawns prepared à la minute. The awabi (abalone simmered and finished with a brush of tsume sauce) was good; the kohada okay. All in all, a fairly lackluster finish to an expensive omakase course.
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It must be said that throughout the evening our food was served on a wonderful array of plate ware. The final savoury offering of miso and junsai broth, was served in an elegant urushi-nuri (lacquer coated) bowl.
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We finished with the Dassai 39 Junmai Daigingō (Yamada Nishiki 39%), from Asahi Shuzō, Yamaguchi. 獺祭 純米大吟醸 磨き三割九分 (山田錦 39%), 旭酒造 – 山口県 – my favourite of their range. Befitting a sake of this refinement, we chose to have it served in champagne flutes. Lightly fragranced with notes of banana, melon and nashi pear, it has a clean, balanced flavour with an elegant dry finish.

For a sake menu that professes to be a selection of the best sake from small, family run kura (that explanation was only written in English, by the way), I had to laugh when I saw Kubota – the largest sake producer in Niigata – on the list. It’s also worth noting that Dassai, Masumi and Hokusetsu, which are indeed a family run kura, focus a lot of their sales on overseas markets. In fact, most of the sake on their list is readily available abroad. For example, Hokusetsu is the exclusive supplier to Nobu’s international franchise. I wonder if the Mandarin Oriental uses Izuha’s selection as the template from which to purchase sake for all of its Japanese restaurants. That would certainly explain why we were paying New York prices for our sake in Tokyo.

2013-07-29 00.35.39And finally, dessert: hakumomo (white peach) compote with hakumomo and lemon yōkan (a thick jelly made from bean paste, agar, and sugar).

Having billed itself as one of Tokyo’s premier sushi destinations, Sora failed to live up to its own marketing hype. While the omakase’s ¥25,000 price tag (substantially more once the sake was factored in) was on par with some of the city’s most elite sushi-yas, the food and execution were rather ordinary, and the inconsistent serving temperature of both the fish and the rice was cause for concern. The acclaimed sake list fell short of the mark too – very few options by the glass, no seasonal offerings, and the mark-up on price was criminal. It’s such a shame, as the service was very good indeed. Imaizumi-san and his staff were friendly, attentive and showed genuine care for their customers’ dining experience. I wonder if Sushi Sora’s problems are due to the hotel location. Generally, the hotel sushi-yas do not rate highly; even the hotel branches of esteemed names like Kanesaka and Kyubei are the weakest performers of their group. I think this may be due to the need for the shops to be open 365 days of the year, and to comply with the hotel’s food standards and procedures. Whatever the reason, something was definitely amiss, and I shall from hence forth be seeking my sushi and sake fix closer to terra firma.

Sushi Sora

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Izakaya Dining Worthy of a Shiny Star: Sakanaya Ajisen 肴や味泉

The spirited sake of summer was followed by a double whammy of autumnal hiyaoroshi and fully matured sake releases – what a heady few months it’s been. All my diligent ‘research’ has come at the expense of creative output, so forgive me while I play catch up with some long overdue posts.

Given my particular fondness for shitamachi neighbourhoods, it’s a wonder I don’t venture out to Tsukishima more often. Having escaped damage in both the Great Kanto Earthquake and blanket bombing of the Great Tokyo Air Raids, the back streets still retain much of their yesteryear charm. These days, what draws people here is the abundance of monjayaki shops which line Nishinaka-dori – it is so popular there is even a Monjayaki Information Centre to help you navigate the 75 specialist restaurants in the area. But there would be none of that sloppy, teppan grilled pancake on the menu tonight. What brought me here was the promise of top-class food and sake at the counter of local institution Ajisen.

Ajisen

By the time we arrived for our 7pm booking the room was already packed with white-shirted salarymen, whose flushed cheeks and akimbo ties suggested their end of the week revelries had already begun in earnest. The aesthetic is quintessential izakaya: cluttered tables and slightly worn furnishings enclosed by walls liberally plastered with calligraphied squares of yellowing parchment promoting the day’s specials; the air hums with animated conversations and the frequent clanking of drinking vessels. But that’s where the similarity to a standard izakaya ends. What keeps the crowds coming is Ajisen’s reputation for excellent food – a rarity for izakayas, where food tends to play a secondary role to the liquid libations. In fact, it’s so renowned for the quality of its fare, that it forced the Michelin inspectors to put down their polished cutlery for an evening and deign the shop with a visit. The result was a bright shiny star – making it one of only three izakaya to be recognised by the red guide.

Ajisen otooshi

Otsukaresama deshita!” Warmly greeted by our hostess, and squashed into our seats at the counter, our night began with the usual suspects: a nama Yebisu beer and otooshi.

From our seats at the counter we could peer into the kitchen where chef and owner Shinichi Araki was busily expediting and preparing the food. As he worked for years in a fish market, and given the shops close proximity to Tsukiji, it’s no surprise that the seafood here is extraordinarily good. On any given day there are around a dozen different fish on offer; each available in a variety of preparations: sashimi, grilled, simmered. A handwritten menu lists their perennial offerings, but you would be best advised to look to the walls for the seasonal specials. In addition to seafood, there are also a variety of proteins and vegetable dishes; all listed with the area they were sourced from.

Ajisen sake

But what my eyes were immediately drawn to was the shelf of sake bottles above the counter, which was a veritable who’s who of well-regarded jizake labels. (They serve shochu too, if that’s what floats your boat.)

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If you see Juyondai on the menu, order it. And if you see it one the menu at Ajisen, order it immediately, as it’s no doubt a hard to find variety and it’s bound to sell out fast. The evening’s offering was the Juyondai “Ginsen” Ginjō Namazume (Banshu Yamada Nishiki 50%), Takagi Shuzō – Yamagata. 十四代 「吟撰」吟醸 生詰* (播州山田錦 50%), 高木酒造 – 山形県. Big, upfront ginka fragrance, complemented by the refined, sweet rice flavour and round texture that is so quintessentially Juyondai. All of the elements harmonised to create a perfectly balanced whole. Hashtag bliss.

*Sake that has been bottled as unpasteurized sake. It is pasteurised once for stability after being bottled. It’s similar to hiyaoroshi sake, which is pasteurised once after brewing, but foregoes a second pasteurisation after being bottled.

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Food takes a while here, so to tide us over we made do with a warm bowl of salty edamame…

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…and longing glances of our neighbour’s enormous iwagaki (wild rock oyster, from Ehime).

Friday night and a full-house, the kitchen was slammed. While Araki-san was battling his way through the fish orders, his assistant was diligently pumping out dishes from the fryer. So in spite of ordering in a logical sequence: sashimi, vegetables, grilled fish and fried food to finish, our meal was served in a slightly hackneyed order – a little frustrating when you’re attempting to order sake to match each course, but understandable given the pressure on the small kitchen.

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A substantially portion of handmade satsuma-age was first to arrive. Made with pounded whiting and studded with vegetables and pinenuts, this tasty fish cake was standard izakaya fare elevated to another level.

The delicate ginjō was a little overwhelmed by the savoury flavour of the satsuma-age, so I hurriedly ordered a tokkuri of Orouku’s Takemichi Junmaiginjō Muroka Nama Genshu (Organic Higashi Izumo-cho grown Yamada-Nishiki 55%), Orouku Shuzō – Shimane. 王禄 丈径 純米吟醸 無濾過生原酒 (東出雲上意東地区産無農薬栽培山田錦 55%), 王祿酒造 – 島根県.

It’s dignified, muscular and tight bodied with an abstruse & complex flavour. Named after its toji, Ishihara Takemichi, this sake exemplifies his uncompromising brewing philosophy: he only brews junmai sake made from chemical free, locally grown rice, bottled from single tanks. None of Orouku’s sake is blended, filtered, diluted or pasteurised. The result is sake with plenty of personality and vivid impact – making it a favourite of the nation’s junmai fanatics.
(I forgot to document our bottle, so here is a shot of the back label I pulled from the net.)

On first sip, my companion bellowed, “Umai!” and went about silently devouring both it and the satsuma-age. Another convert to the joys of this stellar Shimane kura.

Ajisen croquette

Next, crispy golden orbs of potato croquette. Light and fluffy, they were the antithesis of the stodgy stomach liners that one usually encounters at izakaya.

Just as I was about to send out a search party, the sashimi arrived on a wave of apologies. Any grumbles about timing were forgotten as I took in the glorious selection before us. Clockwise from top left: Tairagai (Aichi), hon-maguro chūtoro (Sannicho-oki, Tottori), shime-saba (Tokyo), shimeaji (Tokyo), murasaki uni (Rebu Island, Hokkaido), magogarei, tai (both from Awaji Island, in the Seto Inland Sea), with suzuki (sea bass) front middle, and a pretty pink kinmedai (both from Choshi, Chiba) in the rear. All were of exceptional quality, but the curing of the shime-saba was particularly memorable, and the soft, creamy, richly flavoured murasaki uni was without a doubt the best I’ve had at an izakaya.

I headed south with my next sake: Azumaichi Junmai Ginjō (Yamada Nishiki 49%), Gochōda Shuzō – Saga. 東一 純米吟醸 (山田錦 49%), 五町田酒造 – 佐賀県.

Mild aromatics with a smooth, clean mouthfeel, and the sweet, rich flavour of Yamada Nishiki rice. Its light expression & balanced acidity made it a perfect pairing to the sashimi.

For my companion, I ordered another offering from Orouku: “Kei” Junmai Ginjō Namazume (Higashi-Izumo grown Yamada Nishiki 55%), Orouku Shuzō – Shimane. 渓 純米吟醸 生詰 (東出雲上意東地区産無農薬栽培山田錦 55%), 王祿酒造 – 島根県.

Aptly named “Mountain Stream”, its soft flavour travels across the palate in a fresh, undulating wave. Light and clean with a subtle sweetness and gentle umami notes – it’s an elegant expression of Orouku’s distinctive style.

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An order of anago is de rigeur at Ajisen – it’s what they are most famous for. This nutritious freshwater eel is a summer staple in Japan. When eaten during the hottest days of summer, it’s believed to invigorate ones constitution and stave off natsubate – crippling summer fatigue. We opted for the shioyaki over the richer mushi-anago, to better enjoy the flavour of the wild Matsuyama caught eel that Araki-san uses – “It’s the best you can get”, he says.  Grilled to perfection, the texture of the meat was delicate and buttery. Eel of this quality requires very little embellishment – just a small dab of wasabi to offset its rich fatty flavour. The perfect stamina reviver for a hot Tokyo night.

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By now pressure on the kitchen had eased and I was able to strike up a conversation with the master as he worked away at this station.

Charming and easy to engage, he generously answered our questions about the menu. When he gleaned my interest in sake, his face creased into a warm grin and he disappeared to the “other” sake fridge to retrieve an offering he thought would suit me. And he was spot on:

Amanoto Junmaiginjō Natsuda Fuyuzou Akita Komachi Once Pasteurised (Akita Komachi 40%), Asamai Shuzō – Akita. 天の戸 純米大吟醸 夏田冬蔵 酒こまち 一回火入れ (秋田酒こまち40%), 浅舞酒造 – 秋田県

The softness and grace of this sake was just heavenly – perhaps unsurprising given it’s made by a kura called “Heaven’s Door”. Its refreshing and subtle fruity fragrance was followed through in the delicate sweet flavour. Light and sweet on first approach with a bright acidity and faint bitterness coming later. A sweet rice and umami swells across the palate before ends with a smooth, quiet finish. A most elegant and refined sake.

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While sakana (魚) means fish in Japanese, the “sakana” (肴) in the name actually means appetisers; the kind of flavour packed small plates that drive your thirst on a night out drinking. We went for an izakaya classic: morokyu – miso fermented barley served with chilled, decoratively cut cucumber & eschalot.

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My fondness for tofu misozuke is well documented on this blog. I don’t know what happens during the fermentation process, but the funky, cheese-like result is a beautiful thing. I adore it. Ajisen’s was deliciously creamy and packed with umami flavour.

Had we not been so heat zapped we would have finished with an onigiri, tsukemono and akamiso soup – the later I’ve heard is amazingly good. Oh well, next time.

Our sake glasses emptied, we sat back in the warm afterglow of a great meal. Ajisen’s reputation is well-earned. The quality of the food and sake are exemplary; the atmosphere convivial; and the service is warm & attentive… albeit at times a little slow. As we reluctantly bid our farewells, I found myself wondering for the second time that evening, “Why don’t I come here more often?”

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Tokyo Sushi: Daisan Harumi – An Edomae Sushi Education

In the current climate of obsessive Michelin star collecting and “The Best Top 50″ check-list eating that has taken hold of the foodie community, you could be forgiven for thinking that there are just five venues for superlative sushi in Tokyo: the starry constellation of Saito, Yoshitake, Mizutani, Sawada and, of course, Sukiyabashi Jiro. It’s such a shame as there are thousands of sushi-ya in Tokyo, and many of them are excellent, but are overlooked by visitors because they lack the potential brag factor of Michelin endorsed names. This trend also seems to highlight the huge discrepancy between what foreigners and Japanese perceive to be the city’s best sushi.

Daisan HarumiWhile Ono-san, thanks to that great vanity piece “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”,  has undoubtably brought a renewed international interest to Edomae sushi (and paradoxically filled his counter with the very foreigners he despises), it is the itaemae of a non-starred Shimbashi sushi-ya that is domestically acclaimed for being one of the true guardians of its traditional techniques. It’s also a favourite of my ‘sushi otaku‘ friends, whose opinion carries far more weight for me than étoiles.

Sushi - By Kazuo Nagayama

Kazuo Nagayama has been converting customers to loyal devotees for 45 years. What makes Nagayama-san standout in a crowded field is his scrupulous, bordering on maniacal, attention to detail and obsession with quality. His refusal to compromise his high standards has gained Nagayama-san legions of fans, evidence of which can be seen in glowing tabelog reviews, where Daisan Harumi consistently places in the top 20. (For what is worth, Jiro is currently ranked #53rd, his son’s Roppongi shop is languishing around 296th). He is also renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of fish, and has written several books on the topic –  his bilingual “Sushi” being an essential purchase.

Daisan Harumi - Kawashima-sanWhile the master was not present the night I visited Daisan Harumi, his presence was everywhere: from the ceramics that he makes himself and the wasabi grater of his own design, to the detailed, beautifully calligraphied shinagaki – a labour of love that takes him 90 minutes to write each day. But, it is most obviously felt in the skill of his able assistant, Kawashima-san, to whom he entrusts the shop to on Saturdays.

Daisan Harumi menu

Kawashima serves an abbreviated menu with two options: a nigiri set ¥7000 and a nigiri omakase ¥10,000 (lunch and dinner are the same price). The plan had been to order the standard nigiri course, however, my companions immediately succumbed to desire and opted for the omakase instead. Fearing I would struggle with the extra pieces, I stuck with the nigiri course. A decision I would later woefully regret.

Daisan Harumi Shinagaki

For a sushi geek, Nagayama-san’s painstakingly detailed shinagaki is a sight to behold. Along with the evenings fish & seafood selection, he lists the provenance (right down the beach and port), fishing method (the awabi was collected by Ama – female divers) killing technique (ikejime or hamajime), its weight, as well as the how it was prepared for service. In fact, he devotes this same level of detail to all of his ingredients: the nori, salt, vinegar, soy sauce, wasabi, eggs, sake… The minutia is mind-blowing. Pictured is the evening’s shinagaki which I was lucky enough to be gifted by Kawashima at the end of service.

Nagayama-san may be the master of many skills, but interior design is not one of them. The black tiled walls, vinyl covered bar stools and counter affixed with long refrigerator units give the place a dated feel, with Nagayama-san’s pottery adding to the slightly hokey aesthetic. It’s a far cry from the sleek, refined environs that one associates with elite sushiya. But we were here for food, and my companions, all of whom are staunch Daisan Harumi devotees, assured me I was in for a treat.

The Nigiri Course

Daisan Harumi - Edamame mousse

We began with a delicate creation of chilled edamame mousse, dashi jelly and slivers of sweet kuruma ebi.

Daisan Harumi - Magochi nigiriLine caught in the waters near Nagasaki, this magochi (flathead) was our entrée to the nigiri course. The light flavoured fish had a slightly chewy texture that reminded me offugu. Its inherent sweetness was nicely enliven with the a swipe of freshly grated wasabi.

The Rice

The first piece always gives me a gauge on the size of the shari and its ratio to the neta. At Daisan Harumi both are generously sized and in proportion. A little too generously sized for me. It was at this point that I made the first of two requests for a slightly smaller shari – the second of which resulted in a marginal decrease in size. Nagayama-san is a stickler about serving his nigiri the proper way, I am told: his way.
It seems that his trusty assistant is just as hardarse.
Daisan Harumi - Torigai nigiri

They say the uglier the fish, the better the taste – an adage which is certainly true in the case of this plump and delicious torigai. Superb!

By the second piece I had a better impression of the rice and it’s seasoning. The organic koshihikari rice, which comes from a small producer in Fukushima, is firm with a nice juiciness and elasticity. Nagayama uses komesu (white rice vinegar), Izōshima sea salt and soft brown sugar to prepare the su-meshi. I understand why a man who has dedicated his life to fish would want to keep the seasoning restrained so as to focus one’s attention in the neta, however, I personally prefer the richer flavour of red vinegar, and more a piquant acidity in my shari.

Daisan Harumi - Aori ika nigiri

Next, aori-ika (bigfin reef squid) which had been line-caught off Kanagawa’s Sajima coast. Nagayama-san was also thoughtful enough to include details about how it was killed – hamajime style – but I’ll save you those details in case you are eating as you read this. The aori-ika’s opaque, thick flesh was seasoned with a light brushing of nitsume. It had a wonderful texture: firm, yet soft and milky. The clean flavour becoming progressively sweeter with each successive chew.

Daisan Harumi - Tamago-yaki

Tamagoyaki made a surprisingly early appearance – I’m more accustomed to eating it as a penultimate course. Served piping hot, I followed the advice of my companions and let it cool – this is the one course of the evening where the “eat immediately” rule does not apply. More savoury than sweet, with a little smokiness from the dashi, the perfectly cooked egg was moist, fluffy and moreish. I much prefer this omelette style tamagoyaki to the sweet, castella-like tamago that is served at Kanesaka and Sukiyabashi Jiro.

The Tuna

According to the menu, tonight’s tuna was a 90.6kg “Shibi” nama hon-maguro (fresh adolescent yellowfin tuna), net-caught near Maizuru, a small inlet on northern coast of Kyoto. Nagayawa-san aged the hara ue no niban cut for 5-6 days to optimise the flavour. More dizzying details on all things maguro can be found on his epic post on the subject. (Japanese only)

These days, most are familiar with the basic tuna cuts: akami, chutoro and ootoro, however, the area from which the loin is taken from that ultimately affects the quality, and asking price, of the fish.

Maguro is basically cut into three sections: kami (near the head), naka (the middle) and shimo (near the tail). These sections are further divided into se (the back area) and hara (the underbelly). Just to complicate things even further, these sections are divided again into graded cuts. Hara kami is therefore the underbelly area closest to the head, and the ni-ban section, which Nagayama-san uses, is cut from the middle of that loin. It is considered the best cut for chutoro and ootoro because of the high fat content and lack of tough sinew. It is, of course, also the most expensive.

Daisan Harumi - Akami

The ruby-red akami had a lovely fragrance and flavour – much milder than the red meat of fully grown maguro. It was a clean and fresh taste of the new season.

Daisan Harumi - Chutoro nigiriThe chutoro was much more unctuous, aromatic and meltingly soft. From here onwards, the subdued flavour of the shari started to make sense. It harmonised beautifully with this topping. I think I may have swooned at this point.

The Sake

Umenishiki Tsuuno HonjozoOnly one sake is served at Daisan Harumi: Umenishiki “Tsuunoshu” Cedar Barrel Honjozo (Yamada Nishiki 70%), Ehime-ken – (梅錦「つうの酒」本醸造 樽酒 (山田錦 70%), 愛媛県). And as you would expect, Nagayama-san rigorously tested it to find the perfect combination of sake grade, length of aging in cedar barrels (14 days) and temperature (50 degrees) to best draw out a flavour that would match his sushi. After gathering his findings, he asked the kura to supply him a sake which fit his exact specifications. You can read his long and assuming account of this process here. (Japanese only)
While it would seem counterintuitive to drink atsukan (hot sake) on a humid summer evening, I must admit the sake paired perfectly with the nigiri. Dry, with a refreshing aroma and taste of cedar. Nagayama-san’s attention to detail certainly paid dividends in the glass.

Daisan Harumi - Kohada nigiri

Hikarimono, literally “the shining ones”, refers the family of shimmering blue-backed fish which thrive in the waters of the Japanese archipelago. Hikarimono are an essential part of an Edo-mae sushi experience, but kohada, or Japanese shad, is perhaps the most iconic neta of them all. Because of its high oil content kohada, like most hikarimono, has a propensity to spoil quickly, so is cured in salt and rice vinegar before being served. Sounds deceptively simple, but I can assure you it is not. A sushi chef must take into account such variable factors as the season, the size and fattiness of the fish, and even the area it was caught when deciding on the timing and shio:komesu ratio employed in the curing process. Finding the balance that will draw out the best harmony of flavours in the fish is a true test of an itaemae’s skill – it’s what separates the good from the great.

And this was great. The piquancy of the red vinegar cured kohada and the restrained umami flavour of the shari were in perfect balance here. The harmony of fragrance, taste and texture was sensational.

Daisan Harumi - Kuruma-ebi senbei
“Ebi sembei” provided a pleasant textual contrast. Flash grilled over charcoal then served over crackling hot chunks of sea salt, the head and shell of the kuruma-ebi were a wickedly crisp. An amusing play on “shrimp crackers”.

Daisan Harumi - Kuruma-ebi nigiri

Tennen kuruma-ebi, or wild Japanese prawns, from the waters near Isshiki, Aichi-ken.

The flash-boiled flesh had clearly delineated stripes of bright vermillion and white – the sign of premium quality wild prawns. The chef’s precise timing was evident here: the meat was firm and tight with a slightly raw center so that it retained its moisture and natural sweetness. Biting into the toothsome body, its warm, sweet juiciness flooded my mouth and sweep me away in a private moment of ‘yum’.

Daisan Harumi - Ikura gunkan
Next, we plunged into a gunkan of Hokkaido ikura. The vividly coloured spheres dissolved upon the lightest of pressure in my mouth, releasing their gloriously rich and briny oceanic flavour. Daisan Harumi is renowned for the Asakusa nori it uses – and for good reason. The light and crispy nori was quite exceptional. As I ate, it melted in my mouth, and gave off a faint aroma of the sea.

The Nori

Asakusa nori was the original seaweed used in Edomae sushi. Sadly, it disappeared from the Tokyo Bay area about 40 years ago, and is now so rare that Asakusa nori is classified as a “critically endangered”. In fact, the variety that is consumed in sushi-ya today is invariably Susabi nori, which came into dominance post WWII, because it grows bountifully and its resilient character makes it more suitable for mass-production.

Nagayama-san is part of a small movement which is trying to revive Asakusa nori production and bring its taste back from the past. He sources his nori from Takeguchi Kiichi, a fisherman who still uses the traditional, labour intensive technique of sun-drying to prepare his seaweed. Because Kiichi-san eschews the use of any additives, it is rougher and less lustrous than commercial nori – and the reason why it would be regarded as second grade quality if it were available on the market. However, Nagayama-san believes him to be “the master of nori making”, and praises the fragrance and flavour of the product he makes.

Daisan Harumi has now been the exclusive buyer of Kiichi-san’s Asakusa nori for over 20 years. It’s available for purchase by appreciative patrons, but low yields and high customer demand mean that there is a two-year waiting list for this most coveted seaweed. Good things come to those who wait, I guess.

Daisan Harumi - AnagoMushi anago (steamed then lightly grilled conger eel) brushed with a yuzu flecked tsume. Velvety soft and buttery, it simply dissolved in my mouth. The subtle taste of the eel was amplified by the tsume so that the natural flavors were center stage. I often find anago overwhelmed by overly sweet and heavy-handed saucing, but this was pitched perfectly. A testament to 45 years of fine-tuning.

Daisan Harumi - Hamaguri Hamaguri is an Edomae sushi classic which stars on menus during the summer months. Declining numbers mean that these bivalves are increasingly rare, and highly prized by sushiya. This evening’s were gathered from the inshore beds of Kusama, Mie-ken, an area famous for its hamaguri.
Butterflied, simmered and then marinated in its own juices to intensify its natural flavour, the cooled bivalve was then formed into a nigiri and finished with a brush of sweet tsume.
The satisfying flavour of the plump and tender hamaguri belied its fairly unlovely appearance.

Daisan Harumi - Chutoro temaki
The finale came in the form of a generously proportioned chutoro temaki. Urged to eat it without delay, I chomped into the crispy cone with childish glee. Delicious.
While the temaki signalled the conclusion of the meal for me, my companions, who had wisely opted for the omakase continued on with four nigiri: mirugaiaji (horse mackerel), hatsu-gatsuo (first of the season skipjack), and a gunkan of Hokkaido murasaki uni. Each piece elicited moans of delight, with the aji and uni receiving the most rapturous praise – much to my chagrin. A word to the wise – always order the omakase.
Was it the best sushi I have every eaten? No – but, to be fair, the reduced Saturday menu is not the meal to measure Daisan Harumi on. However, ¥7000 for a dinner course of this quality must surely be the best cost performance in town.

Over the weeks following this meal, I spent hours pouring over Nagayama-san’s long, detailed notes on the Daisan Harumi website; every fish, every ingredient, every process was explained with such depth and passion that I soon found myself becoming as obsessed as the author. Ultimately, what came out of this meal wasn’t just a pleasant food memory, it was an education par excellence. And while I have still not yet eaten in front of the master himself, Nagayama-san has indirectly enriched my understanding of Edomae sushi and imparted knowledge that I will be able to utilise in all my future sushi adventures. For that, I count myself as one of the converted.

So heed my words: put down that guide-book folks, get yourself schooled, and always order the omakase. Always!

Daisan Harumi
03-3501-4622
 

Tokyo Sushi: Under the Radar @ Sushi Zen

Sushi Zen is as delightful as it is enigmatic. But don’t go looking for it amongst the hallowed names on the Michelin Guide – it’s not there. A tabelog search will produce a bare bones listing proving its existence, but little else. Even a google search will only generate a couple of accurate hits – the rest bring red-herrings that will try to direct you to a sushi chain with the same name.

Why the mystery? Well, it would seem that Sushi Zen is not a place that one finds, it’s one that finds you.

It was a tip-off by a fellow Chowhound that first brought this sushiya to my attention. Their description of a sushi meal that focused less on nigiri, and more on an extended course of high-quality, skillfully prepared sashimi, paired with a superb array of premium sake, sounded… well, it sounded pretty much like my idea of gastronomical nirvana. I had to investigate.Sushi Zen

Owner and itaemae, Kenjiro Imaizumi, earned his stripes at Fuji, an introduction-only sushiya, in Akasaka, before going on to establish his own shop in 2009. While Sushi Zen is not as prohibitive to first-time diners as his former workplace, it does seen to operate under an informal referral system which ensures a discrete environment for his loyal customer base of media-types and well-known faces that work in the area. Keeping the shop under the radar seems to be an effective business strategy, as the counter was still full with diners when I arrived for my late seating on a Monday night.

The first thing you notice upon entering is how friendly and relaxed it is. Imaizumi-san’s face crinkled into a welcoming smile as he gestured me to my seat at his small L-shaped counter. The other patrons, obviously curious about the foreign female who had entered their midst, also acknowledged my arrival with a round of head-bobs before returning to their animated conversations. It was such a contrast to the stilted, formal air of most high-end sushiya, where customers sit in hushed, almost apologetic silence.

Once Ninisix had extracted herself from the impossible labyrinth of the new Shibuya Fukutoshin station, and taken her seat at my side, we asked Imaizumi-san to pick us out a sake to start on. And I must say, his first recommendation couldn’t have been more perfect.

Isojiman 2

Isojiman Junmaiginjou Nama Genshu (Premium A-Grade Yamada Nishiki: Koji 50% – Kakemai 55%) – Isojiman Shuzo, Shizuoka.
磯自慢 純米吟醸 生酒原酒 (特A地区東条産 特上特米 山田錦100%: 麹 50% − 掛 55%) – 磯自慢酒造、静岡。

More than any other sake, Isojiman holds special significance for me. My first home in Japan was a tiny hamlet on Shizuoka’s Izu Peninsula, and it was there that I had an epiphany that would ignite my insatiable curiosity for nihonshu: a glass of Isojiman Junmaiginjou. What a revelation! Even now, after so many years of tasting, slurping and swilling, a glass of Isojiman transports me back to that first taste experience and fills me with both comfort and nostalgia.

This pristine and beautifully crafted jungin epitomises the seemly flawless brewing style that Isojiman is so renown for. It’s refreshing and fruity ginka, overflows with aromas of white stone fruit, rock melon and green pears. Delicately sweet, with clean acidity and well-balanced flavour, this elegant sake is not only wonderful as an aperitif, it also has enough oomph to stand up to a variety of foods.

Imaizumi-san

It’s worth noting that there is no written menu or drinks list. Instead, Imaizumi-san presents the seasonal seafood he has on offer, and after confirming your preferences (for us: hikarimono, red fish, shellfish, not so much white fish) and mood (nigiri for the hungry Ninisix, rice in liquid form for me), he goes about tailoring a food and drinks course to suit. I suppose you could call it okonimi-omakase style dining.

Be warned: no menu means no prices, so make sure you bring plenty of cash, especially if you’re drinking. Exclusivity doesn’t come cheap.

Torigai
Thwack! Our meal began with Imaizumi-san slamming a torigai (giant cockle) down onto the wooden cutting board, where it immediately began to curl and contort itself like some strange alien blossom. My knowledgeable companion, who was obviously quite accustomed to this spectacle, leaned over and calmly explained that the itaemae was releasing the muscle to improve the texture. Once the torigai had finished its macabre little dance, it was then chopped into two parts and placed delicately onto counter, where it was quickly dispatched into our awaiting mouths. Late spring/early summer is the best season to enjoy this fugly cockle, and ours, caught off the coast of Chiba, were prime specimens: beautiful glossy black with thick, succulent flesh and a delicately sweet flavour.
With the mercury in the low 30s, the accompanying palate cleanser of finely ribboned, pickled kyuuri was a refreshing alternative to gari.
Juyondai
Juyondai Kakushin Junmaiginjou Hon-Nama (Dewasansan 80%, Yamada Nishiki 20% – semaibuai: 50%) – Takagi Shuzo, Yamagata.
十四代 角新純米吟醸 本生 (麹米:兵庫県特A地区東条産山田錦20% – 掛米:太古活性農法米出羽燦々80% – 50%), 高木酒造 – 山形県。
Next up on the hit parade: Juyondai, a producer of artisan sakes which are as beautiful as they rare. Almost transparently clear with an upfront fragrance that brings to mind images of melon and ripe grapefruit. A beautifully composed sake that combines the fresh vibrancy of a shinshu with the distinct elegant fragrance and sweet rice flavour that is characteristic of Juyondai. Finely textured with a taste that lingers and reverberates in the palate – this is a sake to be savoured.
Tairagai
Two thick slices of tairagai (the abductor muscle of a pen shell) made an appearance – though not for long. The milky white meat was firm and crunchy, with a mild umami flavour. A dab of freshly grated Shizuoka wasabi further enhanced it’s delicate sweetness.
Kohada
For our edification, Imaizumi-san served a luminous duo of kohada (caught near Nanao, Ishikawa) which had undergone different lengths of curing: prepared on the day (left) vs. one cured three days earlier (right). The fresher kohada was noticeably plumper and soft, with only a slight tang in its flavour. In contrast, the three-day cured pieces, which had lost much of their oil content during marination, were denser in texture and had a deep, satisfying taste that elicited loud mmm’s of appreciation from Ninisix and myself.
Nabeshima
Nabeshima Aiyama Junmaiginjou (Aiyama 50%) – Fukuchiyo Shuzo, Saga.
鍋島 愛山 純米吟醸 (愛山 50%) – 富久千代酒造、佐賀県。

“Do you have any Nabe…?” Without missing a beat, Imaizumi-san dipped below the counter and reappeared cradling this purple labelled bottle, a knowing smile spread across his face. Limited in production and hard to obtain, this “Lovely Label” is a rare treat. Its luscious fruity scent gives an impression of ripe pineapple, which follows through in the mouth. On first sip, the sumptuous rice flavour and gentle sweetness spreads across the palate, then slowly fades out with clean finish. A refreshing, pure and thoughtfully brewed sake.

Kuruma-Ebi
Next, Imaizumi-san presented a pair of wild kuruma-ebi (Japanese tiger prawn), that had been caught off the coast of Oita, for our inspection. A few minutes later, they were elegantly draped across the counter before us, still steaming from their brief bath in boiling water. The meat was firm, sweet and… a tad overcooked. It was no match for the delectable juiciness of the kuruma-ebi I had experienced at Daisan Harumi, a few weeks prior.
Ebodai Shioyaki
We continued with a simple dish of ebodai (Japanese butterfish) shioyaki. The skin had been grilled to a thin, salty crust while the white flesh remained soft and buttery beneath. Just magic with a spritz of fresh sudachi lime.
Hiroki Jungin
Hiroki Tokubetsu Junmai Namzume (Yamada Nishiki 55%), Hiroki Shuzo Honten, Fukushima.
飛露喜 特別純米 生詰 (山田錦 55%) − 廣木酒造、福島県。
There is plenty of buzz surrounding this small Fukushima kura, and for good reason: Hiroki consistently produces outstanding sake. Unfortunately, its massive popularity combined with small production levels has resulted in scarce supply and elevated prices. No wonder it’s called “the second Juyondai”. But it’s not just hype; evidence of its greatness can be found in a glass of this beautifully composed junmai. It has a restrained fragrance and a light, sweet rice flavour that sweeps across your mouth in a soft wave, then recedes with a clean, dry finish. While is was delicious straight out of the refrigerator, the flavour become much more compelling as it warmed to room temperature.
Aji
This aji (Japanese jack mackerel), from Kagoshima was a knockout. Despite being the start of the aji season, the flesh was exquisitely rich and fatty with a soft, smooth texture. The garnish of fresh ginger and finely chopped asatsuki (Japanese chives) added a dash of colour and fragrance that further enhanced this flavourful fish.
Hon-maguro 2
Let’s just take a moment to contemplate the magnificence of this spectacle: a 1.5kg cut of line caught hon-maguro (bluefin tuna), caught off the coast of Sado Island, Niigata. As hon-maguro is caught in Japanese coast waters, it can be immediately sent to market without freezing, which accounts for why it is both highly prized and outrageously expensive.
Akami/Chutoro

This was my moment of sushi zen. Imaizumi-san cut the maguro in a long cross-section so that our slice of sashimi contained both lean akami meat (on the right) and fatty chutoro (on the left). By cutting it in this manner, Imaizumi-san was effectively reducing the number of portions he could yield from the fish by half – though, he more than makes up for it with a healthy price supplement.

The flavour was out if this world! So good in fact that we greedily ordered up another slice.

Hatsu-gatsuo

Hatsu-gatsuo (the first bonito) is a delicious harbinger of the summer season. The flesh of this north migrating katsuo is lean, rich and softly textured. The lack of fattiness means that one can really appreciate it’s minerally flavour. Served in thick slices with ponzu, grated ginger and a scattering of asatsuki, it was simply outstanding.

When we enquired about its provenance, Imaizumi-san whipped out a map and showed us the exact location it was caught from. He then proceeded to give us a masterclass on the migration patterns and routes of katsuo– a most entertaining education.
Suigei Jungin 2
Suigei Junmaiginjou Ginrei (Matsuyama Mitsui 50%) – Suigei Shuzo, Kochi.
酔鯨 純米吟醸 吟麗 (松山三井 50%) – 酔鯨酒造、高知県。

It had been a few years since I last tried the jungin of this popular Kochi kura, but it was just as approachable as I remembered it. It has a fairly restrained nose with hints of sweet fruit that continue through in the flavour. Its complexity, refreshing acidity and dry finish make this sake a good companion to a wide variety of food. It paired particularly well with the umami packed flavours of the katsuo tsumami.

Michizakari
Michisakari “Junmai” Daiginjou (Matsuyama Mitsui 45%) – Michisakari Shuzo, Gifu.
三千盛「純米」大吟醸 (松山三井 45%) – 三千盛酒造、岐阜県。
Michisakari, a historied and much celebrated shuzo, was championing a dry style of sake long before the big brewers in Niigata kicked off the karaguchi boom in the mid-seventies. Their junmai daiginjou firmly maintains the integrity of the kura‘s early vision by bucking the trend for a highly aromatic and fruity expression of junmai daiginjou and delivering a dry, sharp taste which cuts through your palate like a samurai sword. A perfect match for the sushi that was to follow. Served chilled the flavour was a little tight, but after it warmed in my hand more mellow rice and umami flavours came to the fore. I’m look forward to revisiting this as kanzake once the temperature starts to cool.
Hatsu-gatsuo nigiri
While I was distracted in a conversation with our amiable neighbours, Ninisix ordered a short course of nigiri of hatsu-gatsuo, kohada, shiro-ika (white squid) and akagai (ark shell clam). Her expression gave little away, but she admitted later that is was good, but not great. This reinforced our view that Sushi Zen is more of a destination for a sashimi degustation rather than a traditional nigiri course.
Nakaochi maki
I joined my companion in the final course of nakaochi maki. The fatty maguro filling is meat scraped with a spoon from between tough strips of suji (connective tissue). Sounds frightful, but tastes delicious. The maguro was wickedly rich, but its glorious flavour was let down by somewhat by underwhelming rice.
Tomizou Jungin
Hatsukame Junmaiginjou “Tomizou” Organic (Organic Yamada Nishiki 50%) – Shizuoka.
初亀 純米吟醸 「蔵」オーガニック (有機山田錦 50%) – 初亀酒造、静岡県。

There were 7 sake available on the night (the selection and quantity changes weekly), and I was determined to try them all. To my delight, our host served another sake from Shizuoka to finish on. Well played!

Named after the kura‘s founding father, Tomizou is a limited edition label (released just twice a year) from Shizuoka’s Hatsukame brewery. Their sake tends be sharp and dry, but this organic jungin indicates the kura is heading in a new direction. It is the pet project of the young toji who aims to invigorate the brand by marrying traditional brewing with new technology and high quality organic rice. It is crystal clear and perfumed with the aromas of honey and soft flowers. The light and elegant flavour spreads smoothly across the palate, revealing notes of sweet rice and crisp Meyer lemon. Yum!

By now our glasses were drained and our appetites replete, but yet we lingered on, reluctant to bring an end to what had been a most pleasurable evening.

Imaizumi was a consummate host, deftly predicting our every need and pacing the service of food so that one never felt rushed or left wanting. His affable character put everyone at ease and set the tone for the room: along the counter, strangers had become drinking companions and the room hummed with lively conversation.

The informal atmosphere, free from the stifling codes of behaviour that usually apply at exclusive sushiya, is really that makes Sushi Zen the kind of place you want to return to every night… and I’m told many of his customers do – lucky sods.

It’s food experiences like this that make me seriously consider giving myself over wholly to gluttony.

Sushi Zen
非公開
(Private message me for contact details)

Tokyo Sushi: Sushi Kanesaka, Higashi-Ginza – 鮨かねさか, 東銀座

It was their penultimate day in Tokyo, and despite spending five (sleepless) days in constant pursuit of flavours, knowledge and inspiration, the boys from Maaemo still had one regret: not eating any high-end sushi. Being one of the lucky few who were treated to their superlative creations during a two night pop-up event at Fuglen, I knew there was no way the local foodie community could let these wunderkinds leave without enjoying such an experience. However, with less than 12 hours before service started at Tokyo’s starred sushiya, securing a booking was going to be neigh on impossible.

If there was one man who would be sympathetic to my pleas, it was Shinji Kanesaka, the chef of the eponymously named two-starred sushiya; a man highly regarded not only for his exceptional skill, but also for his amiable nature.

The call was placed, negotiations made, and voila! He would open dinner service two hours early for us (and two lucky dinners whose reservation had been languishing on the waiting list). What a gentleman.

At the appointed hour, our motley crew of eight bundled into the tiny 14-seat restaurant, located a stones throw from Tsukiji market, in Higashi-Ginza. Despite its diminutive dimensions, Kanesaka’s atmosphere is open and relaxed, a feeling reinforced by the warm and welcoming staff. Taking our seats in front of Sanpei-san at the gleaming shiroki counter, we were visibly apprehensive, but the chef’s disarming personality quickly put us at ease, allowing us to sit back and savour the experience that was about to play out before us.

Sushi Kanesake only offers their Edomae sushi as omakase, so while there is no menu, you are able to state your dislikes and preferences – in my case, a smaller shari to allow me to eat a full course without discomfort.

At lunch, the omakase prices range from ¥5,000 (sushi only), ¥10,000 to ¥15,000, while at dinner, prices hike up to ¥21,000 and ¥30,000 – the latter offers a couple of extra otsumami (entree) courses and higher grade cuts. Given our time restriction, we were only able to order the ¥21,000 dinner course, which consisted of 6 ostumami dishes and 10 sushi, but due to the early hour and our hungover condition, this proved to be just right.

Sitting in quiet reverence to the man and his craft, we began: perfectly seasoned and subtly sweet shiro-ebi (white shrimp), from Tottori-ken.

Nama-gaki (fresh oyster) from Hokkaido. Lightly seasoned as if it had been washed over by an ocean wave. Milky. Fresh. Divine.

Katsuo (skipjack tuna) is a fish that I usually associated with summer, but Sanpei-san informed me that in autumn, when the fish migrate south from Russia, they have a layer of fat which makes the meat more tender; at which point he pointed out the faint white streak that coloured the edge of the fish. Paired with negi ponzu and grated ginger, it was sensationally soft and delicious.

Charcoal-grilled anago (sea eel) with momoji (grated daikon with seven spice) and ponzu.

From a large ceramic pot, the chef fished out a huge whole awabi (abalone), which had been simmered in its own stock. I think shock and awe must have registered on my face at this point – I haven’t seen a specimen that big since my childhood days in New Zealand, where paua (as it is called there) is something of a national treasure. I adore the distinct succulence and pleasant al dente texture of awabi, but I was even more impressed with the sliver of its own flavoursome liver that it was served with. A highlight for me, but for my companions, this was the least enjoyable texture and flavour of the meal.

Salt grilled tachiuo (scabbard fish) served with a simple garnish of daikon. With fish this good you hardly need any embellishment.

Kanesaka has a small selection of sake from reputable kura. I chose the Kudoki Jozu ‘White’ Bakuren Dry Ginjo (くどき上手 超辛口吟醸 白ばくれん – Yamada Nishiki 55%), a light tasting, clean sake with a sake value meter of +20 – this is about as dry as it gets. A perfect foil to the unctuousness of the maguro that was to follow.

The rice was called for, and the sushi course commenced with a balletic display of knife skills and graceful hand-eye coordination. First, shima aji (striped jack – a close relation of aji and hamachi).

A note about the rice, Kanesake uses only akazu (red vinegar) and salt to season his rice. No sugar is used in the process, which results in a more savoury, slightly firmer texture. This is a point that has some reviewers divided, but as I have a predilection for salty flavours, I thought it was spot on.

It is also worth mentioning that Sushi Kanesaka use the same fish as three-starred, and the current #1 sushiya on tabelog, Sushi Saito. The reason: Shinji Kanesaka is a part-owner of his former apprentice’s restaurant. Every morning, all the fish orders arrive at Kanesaka, where they are broken down and portioned, before being sent on to Saito for the day’s service.

Akami

Chu-toro

O-toro

The anticipation was palpable when the chef pulled out a tray of glistening maguro cuts. Here come the big boys!

Akami

I regret that I had quickly dispensed with my cumbersome camera and only used my iPhone to document the sushi course, as I was not able to adequately capture the rich, jewel-like colours of the tuna.

Chu-toro

O-toro

One of the more keen-witted amongst us noticed that the rice used for the o-toro was slightly warmer than for the previous pieces. The reason, I was told, was because the warm rice helps to melt the fat and release more flavour. And what a flavour: the rich marbled flesh completely dissolved in my mouth and left a wonderfully lingering after taste. I discovered in post-meal enquiries that the Holy Trinity of tuna was not part of the ¥21,000 course, it was Sanpei-san’s expression of respect to the Maaemo chefs.

Ika (squid) seasoned with sadachi lime.

Kohada (herring). Lightly cured in salt and mirin, this was the star of the night.

Karuma-ebi (imperial prawn) stuffed with ebi-miso (its own entrails). The men in our group were served theirs whole, but Kanesaka-san thoughtfully cut each piece in half for the women, so that we could, errr… keep it classy. I found the ebi slightly overcooked, which seems to be something of a common occurence in Japan.

Another standout of the evening: Aji (jack fish) with negi (leek). By now, the chef noted the Norwegian’s affinity for aozakana (silver fish), and was interested to discover that both cultures used similar preparations for curing it.

 

Deconstructed sushi. Glistening corals of Hokkaido uni, with a side of ikura (salmon roe). Sublime. From here the conversation took on comic proportions as I was given the unenviable task of translating the Norwegian name for uni, kråkebolle, into Japanese. Sanpei-san quickly got the joke and diffused my awkwardness by declaring, in English, that these were indeed very “tasty balls”.

A semi-sweet treat to end on: again, we were served grilled anago, but this time with a sweet tare sauce and sancho pepper seasoning. It was followed by a thick slice of the most perfectly formed tamago-yaki. Sweet, spongy and custard-like, this was an inspired finale.

Fabulous food and an equally fabulous dining experience. Sanpei-san executed a meal that was not only technically impressive, but also wonderfully composed. Throughout the course of the meal he took time to give detailed explanations of the fish, as well as graciously answer our questions of how each was prepared. His ability to seamlessly transition from quiet, masterful chef to jovial host – cracking a few jokes in his limited English – made the evening infinitely enjoyable.

But above all, that Kanesaka was able to turn ‘Maaemo Dreams of Sushi’ into a reality, is something for which I will always be indebted.

Sushi Kanesaka

03-5568-4411

Tokyo Sake: An Epic Tasting @ Akaoni – 赤鬼 – UPDATE

After a long absence from sake, Asomaniac and I made up for lost time in the most spectacular fashion. What follows are the tastings notes of a sake session which was impressive in both quality and quantity.

All sake is nama and made with Yamada Nishiki rice, unless otherwise stated. The percentage figures are the level of rice refinement.

We started off with the Akaoni Private Bin Juyondai Junmai Daiginjo (赤鬼PB十四代純吟原酒 – 50%) and, on the manager’s suggestion, compared it with the Juyondai drip pressed Junmai Ginjo (十四代 中取り純米吟醸 – 40%). Both were wonderfully smooth and clean, but the refreshing and lively palate of the Akaoni made it our favourite of the round.

 

My esteemed companion believes that when drinking it’s better to start with the best quality and work your way down, as your palette and mind become fatigued. So, in keeping with this rule, we ordered up a round of the star players: Juyondai’s premium label Soukou Daiginjo (十四代 大吟醸 斗瓶囲い 双虹 – 35%) and the Ryuugetsu special brewed Junmai Daiginjo (十四代 特別純米大吟醸 龍月 – 40%). Sadly, the Ryuugetsu was sold out, so in its place we chose the standard daiginjo (十四代 大吟醸 – 35%)  – and what an inspired decision it was! The ‘regular’ daiginjo was our hands down favourite; fragrant, refined and beautifully balanced.


We departed from Yamagata and headed down to the other end of the country for our next round, sampling the refreshing, fruity bouqueted Kannihonkai Daiginjo (環日本海 大吟醸斗瓶囲い – 35%), from Shimane, and the Dassai 23 Junmai Daiginjo (獺祭 磨き二割三分 純米大吟醸), from Yamaguchi. Self proclaimed sake experts love to diss Dassai for being overly refined, feminine and too widely available. Apparently, real connoisseurs only drink the austere, earthy varieties of obscure kura. Well, they can keep their unfiltered yamahai, I am an unabashed fan of the sake produced by this innovative Yamaguchi kura. Having enjoyed their 50, 45, and 39, I had high expectations of the 23 – the highest level of refinement on the market. And, as I expected, it was outstanding; smooth, elegant flavors combined with a delicate honeydew melon aroma. Superb!

 

Just when I thought I had tried the cream of the crop, Asomaniac informed me that there is actually an even more select 23 which is pressed using central frugal force. Nakamura-san confirmed this by whipping out his keitai and showing us an image of the high-tech piece of equipment used in the process. It looked a little something like this:

For or my erudition, Aso-san ordered two varieties of his favourite sake, Yuki No Bosha, from Akita. A bit of post-session research revealed that Saiya Shuzoten – the brewery that produces Yuki No Bosha – was the very first kura to be certified as organic. Furthermore, all of their sake is unfiltered genshu, made with Akita Komachi rice.
Back to the tasting, we drank #66 (from a batch of 300) of the limited edition Yuki No Bosha Daiginjo (雪の茅舎 大吟醸 生酒原酒 第六十六番 – 35%) . It was a revelation: a mild, melon fragrance, that harmonised beautifully with its full, balanced flavour. Stunning! The Yuki No Bosha Freshly Pressed Junmai Ginjo (雪の茅舎 しぼりたて 純米吟醸生酒 – 55%) was also fantastic. It had a refreshing aroma reminiscent of fruit, and a light, elegant flavour.
I was less enthusiastic about the amber hued Hakuyocho Daiginjo 18BY (伯陽長 大吟醸 – 35%), from Tottori. At 5 years old, it had the viscous mouth feel and musty earthy, sherry-like notes of a koshu sake. You can’t win them all.

As fan of Isojiman, I was disappointed to see that it was not listed on the menu – sold out, apparently. Instead, we opted for another well-regarded Shizuoka sake, the Special edition Kaiun Daiginjo (開運 大吟醸 伝 波瀬正吉 – 40%), named in honour of the former toji, Hase Shokichi. Beautifully crafted, with the floral bouquet, harmonious flavour, and crystal clear finish that I so readily associate with Shizuoka sake.

There was food, but nothing of note. The sashimi moriawase that I had pre-ordered was mediocre; the uni inedible. Basically, don’t come here to eat. The one success of the night was the yuzu kosho tofu misozuke, which I had enjoyed previously. Aso-san went nuts for it, ordering plates in triplicate until we had exhausted the kitchen’s entire stock.

I’m fortunate to live a short walk from Kagataya, one of the best little sake shop in town. Its owner converted me to the joys of Nabeshima, from Saga, and it’s purple labeled junmai ginjou is one of my summer staples.  The Nabeshima Nakakumi Muroka Junmai Ginjou, made from Gohyakumangoku rice (鍋島 中汲み純米吟醸 五百万石 – 50%) had mellow base notes, with a heady fragrance and smooth finish. Equally impressive was Asomaniac’s pick, the soft and slightly sweet Miwasakura Junmai Daiginjou made with Omachi rice (美和桜 純米吟醸 生原酒 雄町 – 50%), from Hiroshima. 

I could have been because of the sheer volume that we were drinking, or maybe it was just Asomanic’s boyish charm, but the service we received throughout the evening was exceptional. Nakamura-san and a lovely female staff member took their time to answer our questions, and give a little background on each sake. Once he was familiar with the styles that we preferred, we handed the selection over him and sat back to reap the rewards.

On the left, Sakunohana Muroka -non-charcoal filtered- Junmai Ginjou (佐久の花 純米吟醸 無濾過 生原酒直汲み – 55%), from Nagano, which was made with local Hitogokochi rice. It had a pleasant fruit fragrance, and a slightly sweet flavour, that was balanced out with a nice amount of acidity and astringency. On the right, from a small Aichi kura, the charming Chouchin ‘Newspaper Series’ Junmai Ginjo, (長珍 純米吟醸  新聞紙シリーズ 生 無濾過 – 50%). It had fresh aromas, lively acidity and a deep flavour which really opened up as it reached room temperature. An idiosyncratic feature of this sake is – as its name suggests – that it’s packaged wrapped in newspaper to protect it from heat and light.  No info on which newspaper they prefer, but you know I tried to find out. #geek.

For our last round, Nakamura-san selected a couple of gems. The Orouku Takemichi Junmai Ginjou (王禄 ‘丈径’ 純米吟醸 無濾過生原酒 – 55%), is another sake named in honour of its toji – Ishihara Takemichi. Using only organic Yamada Nishiki rice, this young Shimane kura has created a lovely full-bodied sake with a lively, clean finish. Finally, from Shiga, the Sakamatsu Junmai Ginjo (さか松純米大吟醸 生酒 – 50%): a soft, restained fragrance, with a pleasantly refreshing, yet rich flavour. Done!

With minds and palettes worn out, and the effects of the sake kicking in, most sensibly minded people would have headed home for a cuppa tea and a lie down. That, however, was not to be. We rallied with a battle  cry of, “Rum and Cuban cigars!”, settled our bill, and wobbled off into the night to continue the revelry.

A plea to foreign visitors: Please be mindful that this is a busy izakaya. If you are not proficient in Japanese, then out of respect for the staff, please consider going with a Japanese speaking friend.

Akaoni
03-3410-9918

 

Tokyo Food: Sushi Shin, Kawasaki – 鮨新、川崎

“You need to eat more,” admonished my adoptive Japanese mama. I knew where this was comment was heading, so instead of getting defensive I sucked in my cheeks for effect.
“Let’s have dinner.”
Yes! 
Dinner with mama meant one thing: Sushi Shin.
Situated on a sleepy residential street in Hirama, 10 minutes drive from both Musashi-kosugi and Kawasaki stations – ‘location, location, location’, this is not. Sushi Shin is so well and truly off the gourmet map that tabelog fails to even register its existence. Not that the owners care. Why would you when your 10 counter seats and upstairs tatami rooms are packed with regulars, friends and family 364 days a year? Their success doesn’t come down to a slick business plan, aggressive marketing, or even the food – which I hasten to add is pretty good, but rather to the enduring relationships they have within this tight-knit community. Here, everyone knows everyone else’s business, they gossip, laugh and celebrate life’s milestones, as well as mourn its sorrows. Sure, its suspicious of newcomers in a “this is a local pub for local people” kinda way, but once you have earned their respect (usually by getting in amongst it and sharing a drink with your neighbours), you are rewarded with warmth and generous service that can rarely be found in the slick sushi-ya of Ginza. 

Cheers, Mama! The interior could be described as homely, that is if your home has a wall mounted TV and fluroscent lighting.

One of the few interior embelleshments is this sumo calendar; a gift from patrons, Kitanoumi, former yokozune (ranked third best until he was usurped by Asashoryu) and Sumo Association Chairman (until he was demoted after his Russian wrestlers were caught with funny-shaped ‘cigarettes’), and his lovely wife, Tomoki. It’s definitely advisable to brush up on the sumo bansuke rankings before attempting to engage anyone on the subject.

The shop is run by a comic duo; the owner, Sato-san, who plays Hardy to his sous-chef’s Laurel. A gregarious pair who prepare dishes and humor guests with warmth and slap-stick humour. They do, however,  take their sushi very seriously, as it is the backbone of the business. Throughout the night trays of sushi were dispatched to the course menu dinners upstairs (set price ¥5000), and huge platters were prepared in laquerware containers and delivered, by the owner on his ramshackle motorbike, to takeout customers. That said, regulars seem to stick to the standard washoku fare available a la carte. A quick peek at the specials menu reveals the kind of oyaji-friendly items on offer: Shirako (cod sperm sacks), dried and grilled shishamo (saltwater smelt) andくじらベコン (I won’t translate that in case it causes offense). Mama tells me they also do a good イルカ stew (I definitely won’t be translating that one, either). Hmm, maybe not the best dining option for paid-up Sea Shepard members then. 

Our saisho biru came with the standard ootoshi of nira and clams in a sweet white miso sauce. By the time I had captured this little vignette on film mama had already gulped back her beer and called out for her shochu bottle, which is kept stored behind the counter. “You need to drink more!” she barked – a pattern that would continue through out the course of the evening.

A varitable bouquet of sashimi moriawase came presented on a wooden sushi board. From left: kanburi (winter amberjack), ika (squid), Hokkaido winter crab, a fatty and well cured shime saba (mackeral), chu-toro, kamaboko (herring eggs with kombu), tako (octopus) – in front, awabi (abalone) – behind. All of very good quality and extremely generous portions – this was a serving for two people, after all.

Mama left me to finish off the lion’s share of the moriawase, and instead focused her attention on a hearty slice of slow roasted pork belly, which even this devout pescatarian had to admit looked and smelled delicious.

Thanks to Mama’s concerns about her cholesterol intake, I got to greedily enjoy this gargantuan serving of ankimo ponzu all by myself. Bearing no relation to the processed ‘mystery meat’ ankimo sausage that it so often dished up at izakaya, this homemade variety fell apart into little nuggets of liver, which were smooth, fatty and delicious – I scoffed the lot. Yum!

While Mama and Papa (who had just joined us having returned from overseeing his pachinko shop interests in Fukushima) stuck to their bottle of mugi shochu, I made head way through the limited selection of sake. There are always 6 standard honjozo on offer: Hakkaisan, Kubota, Kudokijouzu and the other usual suspect brands, but a quiet enquiry to the owner will often result in something a little more interesting making its way across the counter. Tonight, Sato-san ‘found’ a 300ml bottle of Suijin super dry junmai (水神純米大辛口) from Iwate. Fragrant with a robust rice flavour and, as the name suggests, very dry.

I didn’t photograph the くじらベコン and natto handrolls that Papa ordered up from the kitchen; the former was a matter of principle, and the latter was because they were scoffed down too quickly by my surrogate parents. I did get a shot of one of the day’s specials; the curiously named ebi-imo, a taro variety that neither looked nor tasted like a shrimp – just starchy and sticky like all of the other imo I have had the misfortune to encounter. 

Mama said the raw young spring onion with miso dripping sauce tasted spicy, and ordered another round. I said it tasted like raw onion with miso, and moved seats. 
I had more success with the baby bamboo which had been liberally coated with homemade mayonnaise before grilling. Finger-licking good.
By now the shop was buzzing with activity and lively banter. The counter was filled with locals who regularly changed seats to chat with friends and ply each other with drinks. But be warned, an evening of such merriment at Sushi Shin has only one possible conclusion: Karaoke. Before I could voice a protest, phone calls were made and within minutes a slick haired, white polyester suit dressed man appeared in the doorway: The enka pro. Holy-moly, these old folks mean business!
After an hour of sing-a-longs, it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be allowed to depart without performing a song for the crowd. Dutifully, I massacred my go-to enka standard, appropriately named “Izakaya”, and was then allowed to escape into the night. 
So, should you go? Well, I can hardly say that Sushi Shin is a shop you would cross town for, and, as I have never seen nor paid a bill, I can’t comment on it’s relative cost-performance. But, if you ever find yourself on the sleepy backstreets of Kawasaki I would suggest you pop in, as you’d be hard pressed to find such generous food and service anywhere east of the Tama river. 
044-522-3903

Tokyo Food: Otafuku, Iriya – お多福、入谷

November 23rd, 2010

After 8 hours of indulging my inner Edo-ko at the Tokyo Edo Museum, it was time to get back to reality – time for some food. The Ryogoku location gave us a prime position to make a strike on some of the famous, and sometimes infamous, eateries of the shitamachi area. Given that it was November and the evening air had begun to bite, oden was the call of the day – Luckily, I knew just the place.

Otafuku has been well documented in the Tokyo foodie blogosphere, and plenty of column inches in the local press have been devoted to its long and storied history, but if you are unfamiliar here is a quick summary: Otafuku is a well-established oden specialist, in shitamachi heartland, just north-west of Asakusa. Currently run by the 4th and 5th generations of the Funadaiku family, Otafuku has been dishing out its hearty treats from the same location since 1916. While the surrounding area has surrendered to the developers and their uninspiring variations of grey concrete, the wooden structure of Otafuku has been rebuilt and preserved by the family so that it retains the essence of its Taisho era origins.

The entrance is marked by a large cochin paper lantern, beyond which lies a small garden with stone lanterns and ornamental shubbery. Walking up the smooth stone path & ducking through the noren screen, we found ourselves in a large space that could best be described as well-loved and cozy. The lighting casts everything in sepia tones; the yellowing paper which lists the days special, the warm wooden accents & ikuyo-e prints evoke a feeling of shitamachi nostalgia.

Our polite hostess attempted to usher us to a table in the rear tatami room, but I was having none of it – I wanted one of the coveted seats at the counter in order to observe the proceedings and chat with the chef. My stubbornness paid dividends, when after a short wait we were seated in front of one of the Funadaiku sons and his oden pot, which, from the look of its condition, must be a surviving relic from the original store.

Along with oden, Otafuku has a selection seasonal dishes and drinking snacks to complement the main attraction. A tasty ootoshi gave us something to snack on as we deciphered the pretty a la carte menu.

As it was winter, an order of kan-buri sashimi, from Toyama, was a given. Any misgivings I had on the virtue of ordering sashimi in a shop which doesn’t specialise in raw produce were quickly dispelled when a daintily arranged plate of unctuous yellowtail was placed before us. Divine.

The sake list is fairly straight forward: hot or cold, yet I still managed to muck up my order. My reflex was to order the Hakusuru nama-zake, thinking it would be of superior quality, but when the twist cap bottle was presented I immediately regretted my decision. Looking along the bar, other diners were drinking Hakusuru from the cask, which was served warm in attractive pewter jugs & an accompanying masu box – stuff the taste, that’s what I wanted!

Needless to say, with my second round, the problem was quickly remedied.

I had it on good authority that Otafuku specialised in Kanto-dashi oden, however, my bubble was quickly burst when Funadaiku-san responded emphatically in the negative; they serve Kansai style oden – hear that Robbie Swinnerton! To further illuminate the difference between the two styles we were treated to a mini tutorial on the preparation of Otafuku’s oden: Kansai dashi is made from the second brewing of a katsuodashi and kombu stock (the first brew is deemed too strong, so is discarded), which results in a light, delicately flavoured stock; where as shoyu and sugar are added to Kanto dashi, which creates a darker, more robust broth. Another point of difference is the cooking techinque: the ingredients in Kansai oden are par-boiled seperately before adding them to the oden pot to ensure that each ingredient is cooked to the correct texture and retains the integrity of its flavour; all of the ingredients in Kanto oden, however, go into the pot at the same time.

Lesson learned, we turned our attention to the pot and put our newly acquired knowledge to the test with a round of yuba maki (tofu skin), daikonnegi-maguro (tuna and spring onion) and otanoshimi obukuro (literally a ‘bag of enjoyment’ in which the ‘bag’ is grilled tofu skin and the ‘enjoyment’ is the tangle of konnyaku noodles, spring onion and duck meat nestled inside). All perfectly cooked and retaining their individual flavours.

Our second round consisted of ninjin (carrot), iwashi tsumire (sardine dumplings), hotate (scallop), iitako (baby octopus). 

We quickly followed up with an order of gobo maki (burdock root wrapped in fish cake), uzurano tamago (quail eggs) and ika ashi haite ita (squid stuffed with its own legs). The squid, despite being rather perverse in concept, was the unanimous favourite of the night – an absolute revelation.

Hearts and bellies warmed after a pleasant night of good food and conversation, we settled up our bill (about ¥4,000 per person), and reluctantly stepped out into cool mid-winter evening. As we neared the garish neon signs and cacophony of Ueno Station, our pace slowed – it was obvious that after a day full of culture and history we were loath to return to the 21st century. But at least there was some comfort in the knowledge that an escape from the reality of our modern lives could be found in the heart of Tokyo’s shitamachi, over a plate of oden, at Otafuku.
03-3871-2521 (Reservations recommended)

Tokyo Food: Oden Kappo Hide – おでん割烹 ひで、渋谷

October 20th, 2010
Oden, such a humble dish, yet it seems to have a polarizing effect; you either love it or hate it. I am firmly in the pro-oden camp. I love the heady aroma of dashi with base-notes of cabbage, which emanate from percolating oden pots chock full of daikon, egg, tofu and sundry fish by-products. Mmm…
I was first initiated into the joys of oden while living in South Korea, where odeng (오댕) is street food eaten cheek by jowl with strangers from little carts, or out the back of a battered Hyundai ute. In the brutal -25C winters, a hot snack of skewered fish cake dipped (and invariably double-dipped) into the communal bowl of chili spiked soy sauce, along with a paper cup filled chaser of murky dashi broth, was literally bliss on a stick. Given this humble introduction to the dish, it is of little surprise that I am no snob when it come to oden; a styrofoam cup of insipid 7-Eleven oden is a-okay with me – a sentiment that makes most foodies recoil in horror. 
Aware that a re-education was needed, I took it upon myself to investigate the finer oden fare available throughout the country, along with the differences in regional preparations. With this mission in mind, I chose Oden Kappo Hide, which specialises in Kansai-style oden, as my starting point. Located amongst the garish love hotels of Maruyama, Shibuya, Hide is a throw back to the Showa-era, before neon and instant sexual gratification took over the area. The shop was originally a teahouse where customers were entertained by geisha trained in the art of dance and witty conversation. Post-war, with clientele declining, the shop had to diversify to survive; the front parlour was turned into a small kitchen enclosed by a tiny 8 seat counter, with the tatami rooms, at the rear, providing seating for larger groups.
Stepping over the threshold, we were warmly welcomed by our kimono-clad hostess and, amongst a flurry of apologies for the cramped space, squeezed into our perches at the counter. 
The focal point of the kitchen is the master’s pot, which bubbled away enticingly before us. Hide’s chef is obviously very house proud, as his stainless steel pot was immaculately clean with each ingredient neatly ordered into compartments. Throughout the evening I marvelled at his ability to multi-task; preparing the various fresh, grilled and fried dishes with the efficiency that comes with years of practice, all the while keeping a keen eye on his oden pot, which he tended to with utter devotion. 
However, there were some appetizers to get through before we could hit the main attraction. We began our meal with an otooshi of goma-tofu, which is always something of a textual delight, washed down with a bottle of Asahi. 

There is no menu as such, rather, wooden plagues with the names of food and drinks are hung on the wall behind the chef. Big West immediately spied ‘shirako’ listed amongst them and, to my chagrin, ordered up a plate for us. While he had been successful in converting me to the joys of ankimo, I was less enamoured with the prospect of boiled sacks of fish semen. However, in the name of research, I tried a bit, and concurred that it was, err… creamy. 
Relief came in the form of freshly boiled asparagus, which I chomped on merrily as Big West dispensed with the fishy love bags. 

Things got back on track with the arrival of the pretty sashimi-moriawase of katsuo, hotate (scallop) and shako (mantis shrimp). It was my first encounter with shako, a purple-backed crustacean, and I must say that I was underwhelmed; the flavour was unremarkable and I found the texture oddly chalky. 

Hide has a limited range of drinks on offer: beer, shochu, umeshu and a couple of 500ml bottles of honjozo. The reason for this, the hostess explained, is because they have such a small turnover of of seats that they can’t afford to keep stock of the larger bottles of sake that I they are required to order from suppliers. Fair enough. We made do with a bottle of Urakasumi (浦霞) honjozo… in hindsight, we should have just stuck to beer. 
To go with the sake, I ordered these little guys: hatahata (sandfish) from Akita. Dried overnight, then grilled, the flesh was firm and chewy – in a good way – and the meat was packed with salty, umami flavour. A great little drinking snack. 

Now for the main event. We gave up on referring to the wooden plaques for the names of oden offerings, and instead went with the master’s (non-meat) recommendations: (Clockwise from left) Tofu with a dollop of chunky miso, Tokyo age (‘Tokyo’ fried tofu), daikon (underneath the age) and an egg. All were delicious and cooked to perfection. I was interested to note that it was served without the smear of karashi (hot mustard) that usually accompanies oden. Upon tasting the rich flavour that the dashi had imparted on the ingredients, it was obvious why – it was completely unnecessary. The standout of our selection was the Tokyo age, which had been marinated overnight in dark Kanto soy sauce before being fried and then simmered in the pot. Yum!

Plates cleaned, it was time to dip back into the pot for more. “Tsumire, please!” “Would you like it from the pot or freshly made?” came the master’s reply. Despite the 15 minute wait for it to be prepared, we opted for the later, and our patience paid dividends; the minced sardine meat was studded with yuzu peel, which gave a wonderful citrus flavour to the tsumire and its accompanying broth. Stunning!
It was an enjoyable evening, facilitated by the charming service our hostess, who utilized her geisha training to keep everyone engaged and amused. By the look of the steady stream of couples that replenished the seats at the counter, the food and service have certainly made Hide a popular place for a certain demographic: Middle-aged salarymen and the women who may, or may not, be their wives. 
It is worth noting that the prime counter seats can’t be reserved, and I am told that they are usually full from 5pm until closing, so it pays to call ahead to be assured a place. That said, from the peals of laughter that could be heard emanating from the rear rooms, all clients seem to be well catered to. 
With our tummies filled (bloated) with the warmth of good food, and our desire for better drinks urging us onwards, we settled up and headed into the cacophony of Shibuya. As we headed down the street, congratulating ourselves on stumbling upon such a hidden gem, I turned and saw that our hostess was still in a deep bow, warmly farewelling us and inviting us to come again. It really was one of those, “Only in Japan” moments. 
03-3461-1701

Tokyo Izakaya: Owan, Ikejiri-Ohashi – いわん、池尻大橋

September 13th, 2010

Nestled snuggly amongst the stylish eateries that line a quiet street in Ikejiro Ohashi’s residential area, is Owan. From the street the shop has the appearance of a gallery; the glass frontage perfectly frames shelves of elegantly displayed urushi lacquerware and an interior accented with ceramics.

Upon entering its threshold more details come into view, which reveal the shops true identity; a rustic hand-joined U-shaped counter dressed with natural linen place settings, and, most tellingly of all, a charcoal grill. This is an eatery, a ko-ryoriya to be exact, where chef patron Kondon-san prepares seasonal dishes with passion and elan.

Talking to the master, he says the starting point of the menu is nihon-shu. From there he selects seasonal ingredients to construct dishes which best compliment his favourite tipple. I like his style. So, what’s with all the tableware? Does he have side-line in home interiors? Not quite. To properly enjoy nihon-shu, his wife, a professional food stylist and author, has assembled a selection of urushi, ceramics, glassware and pewter. He believes the feel of the tableware heightens one’s sense of the food and sake. Such attention to detail is admirable and conveys the thoughtful approach Konda-san takes towards his customer’s dining experience.

Taking our seats at the wide counter, we relaxed into our first round of tall drinks and an otooshi of warm, homemade tofu & simmered watersheild seasoned with katsuobushi, while we perused the handwritten washi menu.

The dishes are mostly washoku classics; humble and simply prepared, but with a few flourishes of modern flavours. These contemporary interpretations of home-style cooking bring to mind the fare of a restaurant just a few blocks away. This is hardly surprising as Kondo-san, in his previous incarnation as the head chef, spent many years developing and perfecting his dishes in the kitchen at Kan.

As per usual, we began with the sashimi-moriawase of shime saba, meiji maguro and kochi, minus the basashi (horse meat) – that’s way too surf & turf for my liking, thanks. All were excellent, though the fatty shime saba was the unanimous favourite.

Another favourite, Isojiman Junmaiginjou from Shizuoka, was ordered to wash it all down. Poured from an urushi bowl into chilled glass chokkos, the clean, fresh finish was a nice counterbalance to the richness of the fish.

A side dish of oshinko, which I generally order as a matter of course, was notable only for the inclusion of smoked daikon, which Kondo-san smokes himself using a mix of aromatic teas and cedar wood.

As it was now officially Autumn, though no one seems to have notified Mother Nature about that fact, we ordered sanma shioyaki. From our perch we watched as our dinner was skewered and slowly roasted over the charcoal fire, before arriving, perfectly grilled, on a rustic ceramic platter. The flesh was fatty and rich with a lovely smokiness from the from grill – nothing like the defrosted, tasteless varieties one encounters at less discerning establishments around town.

Potato salad is a dish my eyes immediately skip over when perusing a menu, but my companion insisted – so who am I to stand in the way of a man and his starch? While the inclusion of ham meant that I couldn’t partake in its tasting – (Oh, dear. How sad. Nevermind), I did enjoy taking this pretty little dish’s photo.

Crunching through it’s crispy shell, the filling of the ebi puripuri (fresh & springy) harumaki, studded with sweet shimp & mentaiko (pollack roe), was as fresh and springy as the name would suggest.

From the drinks menu, which stocks a nice selection of shochu, wine and a dozen good quality sake, we ordered Dassai 39 Junmai daiginjou. Sake from this well regarded brewery are pretty prevalent on sake lists these days, thanks to an effective promotion & distribution strategy – but that doesn’t discount the good quality of their brews, which are consistently good. The 39 was fresh and dry, with a nice fruity body and a polished finish – and by ‘polished’, I mean we polished it off fairly quickly and immediately ordered up another round.

Two of the house specialities are: black pork shumai; juicy and delicious, he tells me; and a yuzu infused uni & pumpkin dumpling in a light dashi broth – velvety smooth & delicious.

Kondo-san selected the Soukuu junmai ginjou, from Kyoto for our ultimate round. Light, refined and with the soft flavour profiles one comes to expect from a Kyoto sake.
I hardly need to identify the next dish. It was overindulgent to order it, as we were both fully sated, but I was keen to compare Kondo-san’s karasumi daikon with the dish I had enjoyed previously at Kan. While the dish was indeed pretty and the daikon was cut into perfectly geometric rectangles, the karasumi itself was rather bland and dry. The only bum note of the night.
[I’m cheating here a bit, as this next dish was ordered on a subsequent visit a week later, but had we stayed – and not decamped to Julip for a couple of rounds of aged rum – then I’m sure we would have ordered this hearty meal of grilled sanma and new season matsutake takikomi gohan. It was moreish and perfectly cooked – but, be sure to order it at the start of the night as it takes a good 30 minutes to prepare.]
Overall, the good food, a gracious host and a pleasant ambience made for a thoroughly enjoyable evening. The service matcha and mizu-yokan were the perfect sweet note with which to finish on. Nicely played, Kondo-san.
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