Sushi is the perfect embodiment of Japanese aesthetics: simplicity and minimalism hide immense complexity and richness. Japanese sushi shokunins have turned this fast food that used to sell in Edo streets into the ultimate art of gastronomy. As some of them like to emphasize, shokunins are not chefs, they are artisans, dedicating their whole lives to their craft, from the time the fish is bought at a market from trusted vendors (with whom lifelong relationships are developed) to the moment a nigiri is put into your hand to be eaten in one bite to capture the ephemerality of the moment. Rare is a morsel of food with the potential to be so rewarding (or disappointing) as a piece of sushi. While there is no room for mistakes, there are surprisingly countless possibilities for creativity despite the Edo-mae sushi-making tradition of using only a few ingredients- fish and rice, vinegar, wasabi or soy…
This October I had a chance to visit four sushi shops in Tokyo. Each—except for Harutaka, which sadly, was disappointing this time—were special in their own way.
Let’s begin with Sushi Saito, probably the most desired and most impossible sushi shop to book in Tokyo. This time I didn’t reserve myself, but joined a friend for his birthday. He had booked the whole counter and the atmosphere was like nothing I’ve ever seen there. Despite having had a few sips of champagne, Saito-san was as focused as always delivering the best quality of otsumami and sushi. I don’t know many chefs who can assure the same top-notch quality each time. Maybe that’s the reason for Saito-san’s success. His signature abalone and octopus ostumami and aji (horse mackerel) sushi were the “stand out” pieces.
My next stop was (Nihonbashi Kakigaracho) Sugita, who has moved to a new location since I last visited his former shop Miyakozishi. I heard some people saying that Takaaki Sugita is currently number one in Tokyo. If tabelog.com is to be believed, it is currently number two after Saito, but as hard (if not harder) to book. I’ve met Sugita-san quite a few times before and I had an opportunity to “shop” with him at Tsukiji for the filming of Foodies: the Culinary Jet Set documentary.
Sugita-san doesn’t speak any English, but he is incredibly charismatic and a pleasure to be around. He is a shokunin “with a soul.” His techniques are impeccable, but Sugita-san is also able to bring emotion to his cooking. Like an ancient warrior, Sugita-san gracefully manipulates the knife as if he was born with it. There is no show or showing off, just a kind of meditation between you, the master, and the food.
The omakase at Sugita included so many beautiful bites. A few of my favorites were: an ankimo (monkfish liver) with slightly sweet ikura (salmon roe) and sake pairing; iwashi (sardine) roll; sweet and almost translucent Hokkai shrimp (Shima ebi); buri (yellowtail) divided into two thin layers; and Sugita-san’s most famous kinmedai (golden eye snapper) nigiri. It was bursting with fattiness and umami that had been brought out through slightly searing the fish.
For anyone curious how I managed to get into Mitani, as at Sushi Saito, I didn’t book Mitani myself this time. It’s currently listed at number three on tabelog.com in Tokyo and has to be booked years -as in the case of my friend who booked the whole counter, two—in advance. Personally, I would never book a restaurant so early in advance; who knows where I will be in two years? But it’s certainly very nice when someone else does and invites you to join their reservation at the last minute.
Tokyo has changed a lot since I started going on my little eating expeditions almost ten years ago. There are so many more foreigners heading there to eat, which makes booking restaurants even harder. Moreover, most of the foreigners can’t even get into places like Saito, Sugita and Mitani anymore as regular Japanese clients always book their next visit the day they go for lunch or dinner. Which explains why foreign visitors now have to plan months, if not years, in advance if they want to get into particular places.
Like Sugita, Sushi Mitani recently moved to a new location at Tokyo Garden Terrace Kioicho. I wonder how many people get turned down trying to walk in, given this uber sushi shop’s location in a very public and commercial space.
Aside from its years-long waiting list, Mitani is also famous for its wine and sake pairings. I am still not convinced the wine pairing was really necessary or worked, but it didn’t do any harm.
I learned that master Mitani-san had recently a bypass surgery, which explained why he was not standing behind the counter himself. He did come to say hello to everyone and was very warm and gracious. Mitani-san’s signature style is to serve sushi directly on your palm. Serving sushi like this preserves the airiness and the temperature of the rice. It felt as if the sushi was dancing from the hand of the sushi chef to my mouth. Out of many, one of the most incredible nigiris was iwashi (sardine). This is the season when this fish is at its fattiest and I believe it was slightly aged, which brought out stunning umami flavours.