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.
While 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.
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.
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
We began with a delicate creation of chilled edamame mousse, dashi jelly and slivers of sweet kuruma ebi.
Line 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Only 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.
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.
“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”.
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’.
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.
Mushi 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.
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.
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!