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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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!
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.