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.
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.