A week in Tokyo drove home the point that the most venerated sushi restaurants there only serve sushi. They don’t also make tempura. They don’t deal in teppanyaki. You can’t get ramen or soba noodles in the same place. They devote 100 percent of their efforts to making rice, finding great fish, butchering, aging, cooking and curing the seafood properly, then serving it simply.
And charging a heck of a lot of money. If you love sushi, you better have the yen for it.
Sushi is not the only specialty food craft that’s treated with such specificity and luxury. In the span of 24 hours I experienced what many believe to be the very best specialists of three of these foods, steered in the right direction by Masuhiro Yamamoto, author of several books on sushi and what he calls “cuisines de terroir” of Tokyo. He noted that Tokyo’s current food culture emerged in the Edo period (18th and 19th centuries) from hawkers who lined public areas, each preparing one thing, constantly and perfectly. Tokyo never lost its taste for this kind of specialization, even as those preparing the food moved into nicer surroundings.
Yamamoto suggested we meet for lunch at Nodaiwa for grilled eel, then dinner at Mikawa Zedenkyo for tempura, both of these on the day before my lunch at Sukiyabashi Jiro (featured in the recent documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi). “They are the top of the mountain for these three specialties of Tokyo,” he said. “You must try.”
Besides, he pointed out, Akio Kanemoto, the 84-year-old owner of Nodaiwa, has been visiting France for 30 years and has a serious passion for French wine. He believes he has found the perfect match for his classic unagi dishes (which he also serves in a Paris branch along with his four in Tokyo).
The idea of a restaurant that serves nothing but grilled eel, and charges ¥10,000 (about $130) for lunch, may strike many Americans as preposterous. But this isn’t exactly the same eel your local sushi slasher pops into a toaster oven and wraps around a wad of rice. It’s the same species, the river eel known as unagi, but at Nodaiwa it’s all wild-caught, not farm-raised, and cooked according to centuries-old techniques.
The house specialties grill the filleted eel two ways. The first, shirayaki, comes seasoned only with salt, with two condiments: freshly grated wasabi and a ground seasoning we know better as Sichuan peppercorn. The other, kabayaki, is dipped in a dark, sweet soy sauce mixture several times as it grills so that the flavors permeate the fish, not just glaze it on top. The cooked fish is presented elegantly in a single layer in a lacquered rectangular box to keep it hot.
Before that we got a taste of Kanemoto’s own invention, the result of fascination with France: bits of grilled eel suspended in a gelée made from eel broth. We also sampled eel liver yakitori, about a dozen of the tiny livers threaded on a stick and browned; they tasted sweet, without a hint of the bitterness liver can have. All of the dishes made a great fit with Heretier des Comtes Lafon Mâcon Chardonnay Clos de la Crochette 2009. The varying levels of sweetness and intensity played changes on the wine, which could taste crisp and refreshing with one dish and suave and elegant with the next.
Yamamoto brought an interesting wine of his to try, a Tempranillo from Hungary called Weninger Agere Tinta 2008. Its soft, grapey, rustic character picked up some steel against the sweeter, dark-sauced eel.
Tempura chef Tetsuya Saotome opened his present restaurant, which seats exactly nine around a counter (plus a private dining room upstairs), in 2009 after 31 years in another location (which still exists). A giant copper fedora sculpture (see my video) hangs above his head as he cooks, using old-fashioned techniques. He stirs the batter with giant chopsticks carved from single branches. He measures nothing, not even the temperature of the oil, bubbling away in a bowl-shaped pot. But the frying is impeccable, and the sushi-quality ingredients shine.
Yamamoto was especially keen for me to try the anago (sea eel), as contrast to what we had for lunch and what I would taste the next day at Jiro. It was phenomenal, like the best fish and chips imaginable. The frying process seems to make the fish milder and sweeter. The same thing happened to a lovely sandwich of shiso leaves around uni (sea urchin roe). Prawns, first the body then the head, came out sweet, without a hint of greasiness, each main ingredient with just a lacy veil of crispness around it.
The dipping sauce was also different from what we see here with tempura. Its flavor was similar, but the color was green. There was also a little mound of sea salt, a dab of which made better music with the purity of the flavors. Yamamoto brought two bottles of wine from Grace Winery (one of Japan’s oldest) made from the pink Koshu grape. The white was steely and edgy, but the rosé had more character. It reminded me of bayberries, the soft fruit often included in obento boxes, and it was especially good with the eel.
I spent the next morning with Jiro’s son Yoshikazu at the vast Tsukiji fish market as he selected abalone, clams and bonito, in the kitchen with the cooks as they prepared the ingredients and the rice, and at the counter in front of Jiro-san as he formed everything into textbook perfect sushi. More about that next time, and there is much to tell.
Richard Gangel — San Francisco — September 17, 2012 1:13pm ET
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