Category Archives: Edomae sushi

Posts about Italian 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.

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.
A present? The menu? Neither, in fact. I unwrapped the origami creation to discover a napkin. An elegant detail.
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.

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.

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.
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).

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.
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.
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.
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


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

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.


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.

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 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.
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.
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 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.

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.
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.

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 (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.

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
(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.




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


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.



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