Differences between sushi in Japan and sushi at home are getting clearer as I try a few of Tokyo’s thousands of options. Restaurants that specialize in one thing (such as tempura, sukiyaki, even eel) are more revered than those that offer a wider menu. Sushi is at the top of the food chain.
Even down-market restaurants are like that. I had very good sushi at one popular place in a busy subway station. Sushi bars with a conveyor belt winding through carrying little plates of prepared sushi exist in the United States, but the expectation for delicious, high-quality fish and rice would be low. At Numazu-Ko in the Shinjuku Station, the busiest rail and subway station in the world, I ate outstanding toro and excellent aji made on nicely done rice.
It surprised me just how good restaurants can be that you can’t even see from the streets of Tokyo. Warrens of underground restaurant rows spread out from urban train and subway stations here, or simply under big buildings. In New York, quality would be highly suspect in anything attached to a subway station (an exception being the multi-level city that once existed below the World Trade Center, or the big restaurants at Grand Central Station) but here corridors brim with full-scale restaurants, bustling with commuters and folks just out for lunch or dinner.
At Marunouchi Brick Square, underneath Mitsubishi’s corporate headquarters, I ate some terrific katsu-style swordfish, but I could have chosen from restaurants that specialize in grilled chicken patties, ox tongue, yakitori or sushi. At ground level, Joël Robuchon’s café makes crêpes and a sprawling pizzeria turns out brick oven pizzas.
The secret at the conveyor-blend sushi restaurant is to ignore the plates going by. “You don’t know how many times they have been around,” said my friend Jun Yokokawa. Instead, order off the printed menu directly from the sushi makers stations around the place. Even those who can’t read Japanese can point to a picture on the menu (a common practice in Tokyo, even in some of the better restaurants). He ordered chu-toro (as good as any I've had) and mirugai (horse clam, respectable). I grabbed a couple of things off the conveyor belt: shrimp a little dry but maguro (tuna) would pass muster in most neighborhood sushi bars in L.A. I can see why this is a place that Tokyo residents like for sushi without spending a fortune.
At the high end, literally, up an elevator near the top of Roppongi Hills, Masao Yamazaki’s cozy Yamami seats but a dozen who come to revel in his unique re-thinking of what sushi can be. Sashimi becomes carpaccio and the texture of the rice grains is reminiscent of risotto.
I was enchanted with Yamazaki’s work at Yamami, partly because I love Italian cuisine and was delighted to see that sensibility so deftly incorporated into otherwise traditional sushi. One example was the way he cut paper-thin slices of chu-toro and grouper off the tops of the fillets (see my video), draping them over a small pile of shredded daikon radish. Cutting them this way increases their exposure to air, and softens the texture, the chef explained.
The next course looked like a clam sundae, the classic dark sweet sauce for eel drizzled over a tiny bowl of baby clams cooked in sweet wine (see my other video). Mustard made fresh with Italian red wine vinegar substituted for wasabi, and deliciously. Sometimes he used ground black pepper or a mixture of salt and nori (the dried seaweed) as seasonings. Yamazaki’s signature dish featured tuna, the slabs blanched quickly in water then soaked in soy sauce for four days, sliced into batons and tossed with arugula and extra-virgin olive oil. The rest of the 14 courses explored the nuances of diverse fish and seafood. One favorite offered three different types of sardines, one right after the other.
For upscale sushi most English-language guidebooks tout Kyubey, hidden behind a clean, modern stone façade in Ginza, around the corner from some of most fashionable stores in town. Of the places I have been so far on this foray, it will remind Americans most of what they are accustomed to at home.
Owner Yosuke Imada speaks English (he recently taught for a week at the Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus in California). He presides over an empire of seven sushi bars, many in high-end hotels, and even a department store take-home sushi shop. He offers a small list of French wines, unusual for a sushi bar in Japan. I could have eaten at the branch below my hotel, but I wanted to try the home base, popular with American VIPs.
Unfortunately, we were shuttled across the street to an auxiliary sushi bar. It was a beautiful room. The others seated around the sunken counter clearly were regulars, but no one there spoke more than a word or two of English. I ordered the omakase (chef’s choice), a lovely sequence of 12 familiar sea creatures. Nearly all were served as nigiri sushi (the familiar slice draped over a bite-sized oval-shaped wad of rice), and the chef deftly squeezed drops of yuzu juice over some and seasoned others with grated yuzu zest or sea salt, brushing others with soy sauce.
My favorites included pristine ama-ebi (live shrimp), hokkigai (a large clam, also still twitching) and especially anago (sea eel) in the only preparation that showed creativity. An entire fillet of the cooked eel was wrapped around two nigiri sushi, each cut in half, the thinner half finished only with sea salt, the other with the traditional sweet dark sauce. I don’t know which I liked better, but the difference was dramatic. Quality throughout was impeccable, but less thrilling than my experiences with more creative chefs, such as Yamazaki.
Unfortunately, we did not see Imada, who is famous for greeting every customer, until our meal was over. I was frustrated that I could not communicate to anyone that I wanted some of the interesting looking sashimi preparations served to the regulars. They knew to order the “kaiseki” menu. I had taken the term literally (a ritual progression of dishes, some cooked, others raw), preferring to focus only on what sushi bars normally do. Kyubey, however, employs the term to imply some preliminary courses of creative sashimi and sushi, not just nigiri. If there’s a next time, I’ll know.
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