Category Archives: sashimi

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

03-3270-8800

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?”

03-3534-8483