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Sushi Revelations

My first stop in Tokyo is a series of pleasant surprises
Photo by: Harvey Steiman
Sushishou in Tokyo would be easy to miss, but it grabbed the attention of Alain Ducasse.

Posted: Sep 6, 2012 3:05pm ET

Alain Ducasse loved it. He picked it recently when Bloomberg News asked top chefs around the world where they loved to eat. Most of them listed famous restaurants owned by famous chefs, but Ducasse waxed lyrical about this chef’s "perfect knowledge of the Japanese terroir." He loved "the refined ingredients, delicate taste of the sushi and the subtle tableware," adding, "I had to share my discovery with you, as you will not find it in any restaurant guides."

Well, maybe not any guides in English. The sushi mavens of Tokyo sure know about the restaurant. Reservations must be made two months in advance, according to my new friend, Jun Yokokawa, a professor on the faculty of Tourism and Hospitality at Bunkyo University in Tokyo who is also a respected restaurant critic. (His e-mail domain is "@junandfoodies.com.") He booked it for me, my first sushi experience for my week here in Tokyo, and it was as Ducasse described.

Sushishou, tucked away on a side street two blocks from the Yotsuya rail station in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, seats 11. I counted six guys in white chef's jackets and traditional soda-jerk hats bustling around chef-owner Keiji Nakazawa, who once competed against Morimoto on the Japanese Iron Chef TV show. This high ratio of kitchen to customers, often a barometer of great restaurants, showed in the careful, thoughtful preparation of each ingredient in a 90-minute parade of 30 morsels. Also in the bill, which came to $250 per person (which I assumed included the cost of four extraordinary servings of microbrewed sake chosen by Nakazawa, who, Yokokawa explained, was also a certified sake sommelier).

Sushi has fascinated me since my first taste of pristine hamachi at a tiny sushi bar in San Francisco’s Japantown 35 years ago. Nakazawa is known in Tokyo as an innovator who went back to what sushi was 200 years ago and reinvented it in modern terms.

While most of us expect fish for sushi to be spanking fresh, some types are better if they are aged. Top sushi bars routinely age tuna as long as a week. Nakazawa seasons, salts or macerates other fish in sake or mirin (a sweet sake) for two to five days. To demonstrate, he placed two slices of pearly white fish on the ceramic tray before me. It was sashimi of hata (grouper). He instructed me to add a tiny dab of wasabi and dip the fish in a minuscule bowl of fine sea salt, no soy sauce. It was revelatory. The first slice had been aged four days, and it tasted sweet and pure. The second, aged one week, had a firmer bite, almost crunchy, deeper in flavor. 

A sip of sparkling, slightly cloudy, fresh-tasting sake completed the picture.

Nakazawa also used three different preparations of sushi rice, matching them with different fish. The first nigiri sushi (the long oval-shaped bites most Americans think of as standard sushi) rice tasted sharply of vinegar with very little sweetness, a nice contrast to the sweet, creamy Spanish mackerel slice on top of it. Another dish was a slice of squid body stuffed with sushi rice that had the typical balance of sweet and vinegary, but mixed with tiny specks of pickled vegetables. Nakazawa said that dish was very traditional, more than 200 years old. Then he switched to rice made with red wine vinegar for chu-toro, the medium-fatty version of tuna belly. The extra kick of the rice did indeed balance the richness of the fish.

Nakazawa used the red-vinegar rice (which looked for all the world like brown rice) a bit too often for my taste, but the wide variety of fish and seafood he used was astounding. Very few of them were familiar to me. Among my favorite discoveries: hamaguri, a large clam similar to, but less crunchy than, mirugai (what we call geoduck); uni from Kyushu, in southern Japan, a fantastically large, mild and creamy-textured sea urchin roe; pink shrimp, freshly cooked and still-warm, topped with yellow tamago (the ubiquitous egg custard) chopped extra fine and sprinkled on top; and a creamy and subtle slice from a rice-free roll of Tokyo Bay sardines and shiso.

There was no soy sauce on the table, no little bowls to try to dip our sushi into without it falling apart. Instead, Nakazawa painted a little soy sauce onto each piece that needed it just before serving it. (This, I am given to understand, is a relatively recent and welcome innovation that many of the best sushi chefs have adopted. I have also seen it done in New York.)

I liked the other sakes I tried as well, including a crisp, clear Keinkonichi, until Nakazawa insisted I finish with a sip of one from the 1975 "vintage." It was brown and tasted like madeirized wine to me, a red that had lain in the cellar for, oh, 20 or 30 years too long. But that was the only downer in an evening full of highs. 

Next on the agenda: where smart Japanese sushi lovers go when they don’t want to spend a fortune for good sushi, and a sushi chef who used to work in New York and brought back some American ideas to his Tokyo restaurant.

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  September 6, 2012 6:30pm ET
Harvey, this sounds like a great experience. I'm also a fan of sushi (the aged items are very intriguing), but personally a little slow to embrace sake, thus far. Do you feel that any of the sakes offered the ideal/defintive pairing with the sushi? Put another way, do you think it's possible to achieve (or have you experienced already) just as interesting/effective of pairings with lighter grape-based whites such as gruner veltliner, albariño, chenin or sauvignon blanc, e.g.? Thanks.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  September 7, 2012 9:31am ET
I favor Champagne with sushi, but I certainly liked the lighter rainwater style of daiginjo sake with most of the sushi at this place. For a non-sparkling wine, I prefer more neutral flavors, such as dry Chenin Blanc or Sylvaner.
Shannon
Woodinville, WA  —  September 11, 2012 11:50pm ET
Harvey, I agree with you on dry Chenin Blanc with sushi. I had the opportunity to pour our 2011 dry Chenin Blanc at three great sushi restaurants earlier this year in Tokyo, and it was a great pairing. Also, the absence of soy sauce and chopsticks at the table (everything was eaten with your fingers) makes for an incredible experience. Look forward to hearing more about your trip.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  September 12, 2012 12:30am ET
Mot of the best sushi chefs today brush the right amount of soy sauce onto nigiri sushi just before serving it, so you don't have to struggle with dipping just the fish into a saucer of soy sauce.

It's certainly appropriate to eat sushi with your fingers; it was originally street food, after all. But everywhere I have been has provided chopsticks. The trick to eating sushi with chopsticks is to slide them in parallel along the surface on either side of the bottom of the sushi lengthwise. A gentle squeeze is enough to let the sushi ride up to your mouth neatly.

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