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.

Imaizumi-san

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.

Torigai
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
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.
Tairagai
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.
Kohada
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
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.

Kuruma-Ebi
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.
Aji
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.
Akami/Chutoro

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

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.

Michizakari
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
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9 thoughts on “Tokyo Sushi: Under the Radar @ Sushi Zen

  1. Uncle Yabai

    Wekabeka: Yabai de Gozaimasu. Yoroshiku onegaitashimasu. Going tonight with Aso, but he didn’t give me the address! Where is it? Domo domo.

    Reply
  2. Martineau Robert-Gilles

    Isojiman!
    Ah and ach!
    Great sake, although too “perfect” for my own taste!
    I know Mr. Teraoka personally. The problem is that he can’t drinl much, whereas his spouse does!
    Actually Isojiman has never won a contest in Shizuoka Prefecture!
    But it is a good sake. I would go for their Tokubetsu Honjozo with any meal as it is the only “macho” sake they make!
    An interesting piece of information:
    The water does not come from their own well but it is tap water!
    BUT………………………….!
    The water comes from a well dug by the city 150 metres deep in Negishma, Yaizu City!
    The inhabitants don’t even realize that they drink the best municipal tap water in Japan!
    Mr. Teraoka explained me that they just need to filter it for surety!
    Best regards,
    Robert-Gilles

    Reply
    1. admin

      I agree that Isojiman can be “too perfect”. I also prefer the more punchy flavour and approach of the tokubetsu honjozo – it’s great with a wide variety of food – but, for sentimental reasons the junmaiginjō has a special place in my heart. Thank you for the details about the water – I’m not surprised, as my tap water in Izu-Nitta was far superior to the bottled water from the supermarket.

      Reply
  3. stella pericleous

    Hi,

    I have been finding your blog fantastic. I really like that you dont only focus on the ‘IT” restaurants. We are from australia and my husband used to live in Hokkaido. We love japanese food but dont want the 5 star experience. Would you recommend sushi zen or daisan harumi or any other place for someone with only limited japanese language?

    Regards Stella
    I

    Reply
    1. admin

      Hi Stella,

      Thanks for your comment. The chef at Daisan Harumi doesn’t speak English, but non-Japanese speakers can get by there. If you want to interact with the chef, your best option would be Tokami.

      Rebekah

      Reply

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