For the first time since I moved to Japan I committed to exploring the world of Tokyo’s high end sushi restaurants, or sushi-ya as they are referred to in Japanese. For the uninitiated, sushi restaurants in Japan are roughly divided into three categories: affordable kaitenzushi (conveyor-belt) sushi ($10-$20 per meal per person), a bit pricier alternative serving sushi sets ($30-$50 per meal per person), and high-end traditional Japanese sushi-ya where sushi making is elevated to the form of art with chef demonstrating superb knife skills, unique food preparation techniques and so much more. Meals here can cost as much as $150-$400 per meal per person. If you watched a wonderful documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” directed by David Gelb, then you know what I am talking about. Traditionally, it takes 10 years of on-the-job training and apprenticeship to become a sushi chef, or Itamae, of the highest calibre.
Among thousands of sushi restaurants in Tokyo alone, there are only a handful that truly stand out and have become highly acclaimed. Japan’s own version of TripAdvisor – Tabelog – currently lists three Michelin-starred Sushi Saito as number one sushi restaurant in Tokyo. Other popular sushi-ya include Sukyabashi Jiro, Sushi Kanesaka, Sushi Mitzutani, Sushi Yoshitake, Sushi Sho, and a few others. While we visit our local conveyor-belt spot every week, and I visited Tsukiji Market a number of times for sushi breakfast, I thought it was time to indulge in a proper sushi meal. Since it is nearly impossible to get a spot at Sushi Saito, I opted for Sushi Ya, one of the hottest spots in Tokyo. This cozy 8-seat restaurant tucked away in the unassuming alley of Ginza is helmed by Takao Ishiyama, a young chef who previously trained within Sushi Kanesaka and Sushi Saito. Compared to his peers of the same age, he has gained significant popularity due to his excellent technique. He also speaks English and is communicative and friendly, which makes the dining experience at his restaurant even more pleasant.
Naomi and I arrived at noon and the sweetest hostess invited us into a tiny space and seated us by the counter. We were joined by 6 other diners, and Ishiyama-san promptly started preparing the fish. We were amazed at the amount of work and attention to detail that he poured into the preparation of each morsel.
We both opted for omakase lunch, which basically means that you give chef the full liberty to serve you whatever he deems to be the best that day. Our meal had a distinct flow, starting with a succession of exquisitely seasoned otsumami (starter snacks), followed with classic nigiri prepared and served one at a time.
From the otsumami, the clear stand out was incredibly rich and flavorful Katsuo (skipjack tuna) – smoked, lightly seared, and served with mustard soy sauce. Cooked tuna cheek served in ponzu sauce was absolutely divine – with fatty melt-in-your mouth texture. I also didn’t want my monkfish liver lightly covered in yuzu zest to end, and the squid served in yuzu sauce was tender and rich in taste. I equally enjoyed the signature Kanesaka-style otsumami – kegani, or hairy crab from Hokkaido. The crab was succulent and rich in umami, and its sweetness balanced very well with the vinegar sauce on the side. Last but not least, seasonal saba-zushi (which is a Kyoto style sushi) was fantastic. The perfectly cooked and seasoned rice paired so well with flavorful cured mackerel and pickled seaweed wrap. Honestly, I would happily return to Ishiyama-san for his delicious otsumami alone. Here’s a chronological flow.
After ten courses of otsumami, we proceeded to 14 pieces of nigiri (yes, I ate it all). Again, rice was cooked to the point, served at perfect body temperature, and came in perfect harmony with the fish. Alas, I wished to have tasted a tad of more vinegar in my rice. Although this is very subjective to the palate and it certainly didn’t impede me from enjoying my nigiri overall. If I had to pick the favorites, I’d go with buttery medium fatty tuna, creamy uni, and kohada (gizzard shad). The latter is supposedly the test of the quality of a sushi-ya, and it definitely passed with flying colors and had a slight sweetness to offset its curing in vinegar. The aji (horse mackerel), and the salt water eel also stood out. Here’s the full progression (missing a photo of sea eel).
We ended the meal with tamago, and what a wonderful tamago it was. It certainly didn’t taste like an omelet. Light, smooth and custardy, it had a wonderful sweet finish. So so good! I chuckled a bit when Ishiyama-san asked me at the very end if I was sufficiently full. He showed me what a real sushi should taste like, and there is no going back. He certainly set the bar high for my future high-end sushi endeavors. Now, if only I could book a spot at Sushi Saito. #determined
P.S. Special thanks to Naomi for being such an awesome dining companion and for sharing some of these shots for my blog.
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