Sushi Oono -
Address:  1F, Nanou Building, 7-2-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Date and time of the meal:  Saturday November 22, 2014 18:00 (Dinner)
Michelin stars: 1
URL: http://tabelog.com/tokyo/A1301/A130101/13024790/

***Here are the elements that my overall rating will take into account: (1)How great the quality of the chosen rice stood against what the other sushi shops of this trip have offered  (2)How harmonious or spectacularly bold the work of the seasoning of the rice is achieved while remaining complementary of its topping (3)How delicious and how perfected (temperature/precision of the knife skills/work of the textures) were the sushis compared to the other sushis of this trip (4)How far the sourcing was pushed and how far it revealed a profound understanding of the subtleties of the produce (it is one thing to have top ingredients, it is a different story to pick that precise ingredient from that specific region which on a given point in time will allow your craft to express itself at its best).

Sushi Oono (1)Sushi Oono was one of the two ultimate (the other one was Sawada) sushi meals of this trip. By then, the other Sushi shops that I have tried have been Sushi Mizutani, Sushi Sawada, Sushi Sho, Sushi Iwa, Sushi Aoki  and Daisan Harumi. At Sushi Sho, Sushi Iwa, Sushi Aoki  and Daisan Harumi,  I was with a tour guide so I spent most of my time talking to the person rather than bothering about reviewing my meals but I’ll still provide my opinion about those meals. I know some people hate comparisons and indeed, comparing is always an exercise of imperfection, but such is the nature of any opinion anyways and at the end of the round, unless the matter does not interest you or you are trying to play the ‘diplomat foodie’, you still have personal preferences. And preference, like it or not, that implies comparison.

Quick recap on the sushi shops visited during this trip:

So, Sushi Mizutani was the benchmark Sushi shop of this trip, Sawada was my preferred Sushi meal (eventhough some aspects of the food did not float my boat, but again food appreciation is subjective/personal so consider that when you peruse my review).

Sushi Sho ages his seafood and I was curious to see how I would appreciate it…alas, my palate got to the conclusion that although some seafood are fine when you age them (tuna, for eg), most could have been more exciting in mouth without the aging method (I know, it’s supposed to be the opposite, but for my palate that theory is at its best on paper), especially for sushis. I was born and raised in a fishermen village of the Indian Ocean and I do have fond memories of people rushing to the shore to avoid missing the freshest pieces of seafood that those fishermen were so proud to have snatched from the ocean floor just moments before and I am trying to imagine myself telling to my fella fishermen ‘hey Buds…take all your time…there is no rush..anyways we’ll age your seafood instead of enjoying it in its freshest state so you may as well let it rest for a while on the boat…”’….. A long time ago, aging seafood was indispensable by necessity, but that does not mean you should age all seafood. You need to know what seafood truely shines when aging it and that is where my problem lies: not ALL seafood are at their best when aged!!! Naturally, fans of the fad of aging fish won’t like to hear this kind of opinion but as loud as they are, we’ll have to agree to disagree whenever they will cross my path.

Daisan Harumi: interesting focus on the historical and educational importance of the sushis as I had fun learning a bit more about virtually everything that was flirting with my palate. Surprisingly, the flavors were not as ‘challenging’ and ‘old fashion’ as I was anticipating (for eg, no overly strong /brutal flavors, etc). When I was in Tokyo, I thought my meal at Sushi Oono was better and I was not that impressed with my meal here, but with time, it’s Daisan Harumi that is winning my heart. Daisan Harumi is not competing with the highly refined sushis of Sawada or Mizutani, it is not even trying to challenge Sushi shops of his rank (for eg, mid range Sushi shops like Sushi Iwa and Sushi Oono), but that does not matter as it is has its unique identity, doing things the way it deems worthy of its very own standards. The freshness of some of the seafood at Daisan Harumi did, at times, brought back memories of my tender childhood growing up on the shores of the Indian Ocean (minus the full-bodied maritime flavor of seafood fished in warm waters, obviously). Therefore, a very special place for very personal reasons.

Sushi Iwa: the most refined sushis of my mid range Sushi shop experiences in Tokyo, for now, and the best of that category, during this trip, for me. Some online accounts argued that it was good but not at the level of the top tier Sushi Shops of Tokyo. Well, that is comparing apples to grapes as Sushi Iwa is a mid range Sushi shop (second tier) establishment.

-Sushi Aoki (Ginza): the tastiest and preferred sushis of my mid range Sushi shop experiences in Tokyo, for now.

The review of Sushi Oono:

Sushi Oono (one of the better rated Sushi shops of Tokyo –with a score of 4.15/5 — on the major local restaurant rating web site Tabelog http://tabelog.com/tokyo/A1301/A130101/13024790/) came as an alternative to Sukiyabaki Jiro in Ginza + Sushi Saito (impossible to book for the normal diner / by normal diner I mean any anonymous/normal person who calls a restaurant and wants to book a seat without the need of having contacts, or being a regular patron, or having the status of a poster-diner, etc), as well as Sushi Yoshitake (willing to find an availability for me but the schedules did not match).

The food ->

Sushi Oono - See eal-Sea eel was excellent both in flavor and texture. Nicely sourced and paired well with the judicious quantity of fresh grated root wasabi that it was flavored with. 8/10

Sushi Oono - Uni-Sea urchin (uni) is of the tiny type (as so oftently found at  most Sushi shops in Tokyo), those I was having being decent (the taste of the sea urchin, dazzling at Sawada, great at Mizutani and sublime at the other Mid level Sushi Shops I tried in Tokyo….were muted, here), no more. A top Sushi shop in Montreal, on a good day, can surprise with far better uni, trust me. 6/10

 

-Squid – Tenderized enoughly for palatable comfort, while allowing enough chew to remind ourselves that this is squid, not a mousse (friendly reminder: be careful when you assess the texture/consistency of seafood….as tenderness or firmness does not mean the seafood is better or not…knowing how your seafood tastes/feels/smells like in its natural state will help avoiding many inaccuracies). For this level, Good 7/10

Sushi Oono - lean tuna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Tuna: there was no otoro (fatty), but just akami (lean) –picture that’s on the left — and chutoro (medium-fat) tuna on the day of my visit…the lean tuna was great,but it was easy to find great akami everywhere else. Chutoro featured decent texture, the quality fine enough. 7/10

 

Sushi Oono - CrabCrab – Sizable portion but very ordinary crab,dry, lacking the exciting crab flavor I am expecting at this level. 5/10

Sushi Oono (3)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mackerel- Fish of good quality for the standing of its Sushi shop. The Chef keeping it fresh and almost unaltered , no obvious extended work of the flavor apart a subtle flavor intensity coming from the GENTLE curing of the fish. Newer generations of diners seeking excitement might call this ordinary, but Sushi is not a show, it’s fish that you either source well or not, slice well or not, season well or not, nothing less, nothing more. Was that exceptional sourcing? No. Exceptional sourcing was what I have enjoyed at Sawada. Was that good sourcing? YES. For those who are curious about the subject, this meal was just slighly superior to a Good Sushi shop in the US/ Very good Sushi shop in Canada, certainly not vastly better ( I do not understand some of the online suggestions that the mid and some of the lower range Sushi shops of Tokyo are far better than anything found outside of Japan…well, I would not systematically bet on that) 7/10

Sea snail had limited flavor,  its typical natural chew kept unaltered . I prefer sea snail with more maritime flavor, but such feature depends heavily on the natural habitat of the seafood. This was still decent.  6/10

Sushi Oono - Gizzard chad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gizzard shad – Precise with his knife skills, the fish fine in quality. I had spectacular examples of the Gizzard shad during this trip, and this was not one of those, but still….Very good for the standing of this shop (nice sourcing, timely cured) 7/10

Sushi Oono - Octopus and abalone Octopus and abalone were both served at the same time:

Octopus – Same principle as with the squid, they have tenderized it not too much so that enough of the natural chew of the octopus remains present. Not bad, tasty enough,just not as dazzling as at other places I have tried during this trip  6/10

Sushi Oono - Cod milt-Cod milt was ordinary, not the best, not bad neither but I had creamier, tastier ones in Tokyo during this trip (to my Canadian fellas who might find this too exotic, not to worry…cod milt is not disgusting at all, it can be very enjoyable actually…not akin to foie gras as some have suggested…more like scrambled tofu). 6/10

Abalone – Good, rather than excellent, timely steamed to a consistency balancing between the firm and enough tenderness for proper chew.7/10

Sushi Oono - Plum custard-Plum soup egg custard: balanced flavors, the custard executed  properly. Good rather than delicious / exciting (some versions of this, tried right here in Tokyo,  at lesser eateries, were far more delicious) 7/10

Sushi Oono - Miso soupMiso soup was of the fine sort, with balanced seasoning (not too salty) and tasting good. Having had my share of misosoups in Tokyo, most of the finer kind, you realize that food is just a question of perception, often times, as people whoclaim they have tried miso soups in Japan, then in Montreal, would add that those in Montreal get nowhere close to those in Japan. Well, that is wrong. A great bowl of Miso soup in Montreal is as good and taste as authentic as the good bowls I have just enjoyed here in Tokyo. Anyways, a really good bowl, this one at Sushi Oono 7/10

Sushi Oono - Tamago-Tamago (in its cake version) featured good texture but lacked the fresh eggy flavor and enjoyable sweetness (it was bland) that I prefer and that was better expressed at the other Sushi shops 6/10

PROS: his pickled vegetable items were very enjoyable (there were plenty of those in between their sushi servings). I found the pickled items to have been the strong point of this meal.

CONS:it is the same problem as everywhere else in Tokyo…..it is hard for the mid level Sushi shops to find the finer produce that a top tier Sushi Shop like Sawada or Mizutani can get.

It would be flawed to compare Sushi Oono, a  1 star Michelin  and mid-range  Sushi shop  to top range  Mizutani and  Sawada, alas …even within the mid -range shops,  I found my meal at Sushi Oono a bit too safe /clean / linear. If there is one thing I  dislike it’s a performance that  errs on the side of caution (no bold seasoning, no spectacular marination, no outstanding curing technique, etc).  I appreciate that Sushi Oono is doing well enough for a mid-range sushi shop in Tokyo, but I am not exactly enamoured with such overall non risk-taking experience.

 

(1)How great the quality of the chosen rice stood against what the other sushi shops of this trip have offered – The work of the rice at those high-end sushi shops of Tokyo is serious, but no more,meaning the sourcing is good, the rice cooking achieved with care but none of those sushi rice standing as spectacular as what some of the raves may suggest. So at Sushi Oono, there was no exception to that rule: he would flavor most  of his shari with a blend of white based vinegar, one of last sushi  had its rice  flavored with red vinegar on this evening, the consistency more hard than soft, but pleasant in mouth. No bold seasoning of the rice. The rice is of course of good quality, but its flavor very discrete so that the fish pairs well with the rice   (2)How harmonious or spectacularly bold the work of the seasoning of the rice is achieved while remaining complementary of its topping – No bold seasoning here. Nothing spectacular neither. Just good sushi rice that does not taste strong  (3)How delicious and how perfected (temperature/precision of the knife skills/work of the textures) were the sushis compared to the other sushis of this trip- great knife skills for a Sushi shop of its standing. Work of textures and control of temperatures were flawless during this meal, the sushi enjoyed at proper body temp  (4)How far the sourcing was pushed and how far it revealed a profound understanding of the subtleties of the produce (it is one thing to have top ingredients, it is a different story to pick that precise ingredient from that specific region which on a given point in time will allow your craft to express itself at its best). Sourcing was decent, not a highlight as it was oftently the case at most Sushi shops of  the 2nd tier level.

Sushi Oono (2)

 

 

Verdict: 6/10 (Categories: Second tier Sushi Shop in Tokyo, Mid range Sushi Shop in Tokyo): At Sushi Oono, I was extremely lucky on the dining experience front as the other patrons were super friendly, the Chef humble and the overall experience highly enjoyable. It is on the aspect of the food that I felt I needed to get a bit more for my money , especially in light of the reputation of the house (in the top 10 Sushi Shops of Japan, etc). Virtually everything was fine (decent quality of the tuna, decent work of the rice), but no more (no outstanding work of the flavor of the mackerel, no outstanding quality of the produce, etc) . That said, it’s not a reproach to Sushi Oono at all as in general, I found that the Sushi-shop ‘system’, in Tokyo, regulates itself by clearly allowing the 1st tier Sushi Shops to have access to fish that the second tier will have to fight really hard for. Kinda logic/expected, indeed.

風雲児  Fuunji > ramenya > 2 Chome-14 Yoyogi Shibuya-ku, Tokyo-to

Fuunji 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dropped by Fuunji, a shop regarded by most local ramen connoisseurs as a top tier ramenya of Tokyo, with a near perfect score of 97/100 on the major local ramen guide ramendb (http://ramendb.supleks.jp/s/12119.html).

Fuunji 4

 

 

 

 

 

The rage in Tokyo, for almost a decade now, is to have both the noodle and its broth served separately (tsukemen).

 

Fuunji 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

You dip the noodle in the broth and you slurp. I can’t see Montrealers embracing this trend as the fear of the broth cooling too quickly could discourage many, though in Tokyo you are offered hot stones to keep the broth warm. The other problem is an issue of perception: I suspect that Montrealers may find the presence of two  bowls for 1 serving of ramen to be a bit too much on their table.

The tsukemen I picked featured noodles of perfecty mastered bouncy-ness, the noodles holding up just fine in the broth.  It’s indeed in the complexity (depth ) of the work of the flavors (mix of chicken and fish) of that broth that a shop like this one does have the edge over lesser local ramenyas.  It also, naturally, takes a good palate as you won’t get to identical results simply by relying on the notion of slow cooking. That said, although this was perfectly executed ramen (I have to give that to them: there is depth, there is complexity, there is mastery, there is even a good palate because it is still tasty), the flavor was just fine…no more….not ‘licking good’ as experienced with some other ramens.

Fuunji 2Was this ramen one of the very best I ever had? Certainly one of the better executed as far as technique goes. Do I get  the raves? It’s food, therefore subjective by nature, so Yes, absolutely…nothing is bad, nothing is good, there are things you love, others you do not. Was this the most exciting ramen I ever had? Obviously,  Not! Will I recommend Fuunji? Well, they do not need my recommendation…they have hundreds of diners lining up in front of their doors twice a day! But Yes, I recommend you try it as it is one of the very best ramen you’ll get to enjoy in terms of the sophistication/technique. Hopefully, you’ll find the flavor dazzling too.

Verdict: 7/10  (Category: world class ramen).  I am somehow having hard time with   some of the most successful food in Tokyo. It is not about expectations based on the raves as I do not have expectations when I dine out … I just want the food to storm my palate. Take this very popular bowl of ramen: it is certainly well done and it is rare to  have home-made noodles and a broth done this well in North America, BUT I can think of many bowls that have tantalized …right there in North America, whereas this bowl did not. Again, really  well done, tasty for sure, just not as exciting in mouth as I would have liked.

What I think a week later: My ratings have nothing to do with whether a meal was great or not, they are simply tools to convey, in the best way I can, how excited the food fared to me. Which, as ever, is of course utterly personal/subjective. So, keep that in mind when you’ll consider the rating above. I hope you got this right, though: Fuunji ramen’s, whether it excited me or not, is a world class bowl. I insist on the later assertion because you won’t  oftently find such technically expertly conceived bowl of ramen even in Tokyo. This is a bowl that — whether you’ll enjoy it or not at the first slurp — will certainly grow on you.

Sushi Mizutani
Type of restaurant: Sushi shop
Date and time of the meal: 21-11-2014 11:30
Address: 8-7-7 Ginza | Juno Building 9F, Chuo, Tokyo Prefecture Phone:03-3573-5258
Tabelog: 4.37/5
Michelin stars: 3
Tabelog link: http://tabelog.com/tokyo/A1301/A130103/13016524/

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NO PHOTO RESTRICTIONPicture taking is forbidden to normal diners as/per the house, therefore  no pictures were taken. No note-taking neither as I did not know whether that would offend the house’s staff, so I made a mental note of my appreciation of some of the sushi pieces which assessment was determinant in my overall rating of this meal.

***Here are the elements that my overall rating will take into account: (1)How great the quality of the chosen rice stood against what the other sushi shops of this trip have offered  (2)How harmonious or spectacularly bold the work of the seasoning of the rice is achieved while remaining complementary of its topping (3)How delicious and how perfected (temperature/precision of the knife skills/work of the textures) were the sushis compared to the other sushis of this trip (4)How far the sourcing was pushed and how far it revealed a profound understanding of the subtleties of the produce (it is one thing to have top ingredients, it is a different story to pick that precise ingredient from that specific region which on a given point in time will allow your craft to express itself at its best).

Mizutani-san has worked several years at the stronghold of the legendary Jiro Ono (Sukiyabaki Jiro in Ginza), then parted ways and opened his own sushiya which was awarded 3 Michelin stars several years ago. He was among  the very first sushi masters, along with Jiro, to have earned 3 Michelin stars. For those who are ‘allergic’ to Michelin star rating, rest assured that even the local foodie scene holds Mizutani-san in high esteem as his shop has a high score of 4.37/5 on Tokyo’s major  local food restaurant rating web site Tabelog: http://tabelog.com/tokyo/A1301/A130103/13016524/  . Some of this globe’s most experienced diners argue that Mizutani is even better than Jiro but I wouldn’t know as  my hotel concierge could not secure a reservation for me at the legendary Jiro, but Mizutani seemed to fit with what I was looking for:  elaborately crafted classic  sushi pieces by an  experienced Sushi Master of Tokyo.

FOOD REPORT:  As it was the case at Sawada, I did not take notes, fearing that the no photo restriction could also imply that the house would shower me again with other restrictions regarding, this time, perhaps, note-taking. I do not go to restaurants in order to fight with rules, so I took no notes of each single item but I’ll try to remember some of the key elements of this meal, the elements that weight  in my overall score for the food performance .

Sea urchin – The sea urchin,  of top quality as expected , bettered only by the exceptional sea urchin served at Sawada.  Sawada handled their sea urchin exceptionally well to the extent that you’d think the sea urchin was snatched from the floor of the ocean and served immediately. Mizutani’s did not have an intense  oceanic flavor but they were clearly of very  high quality, though of the tiny kind (two types were served: bafun and murasaki sea urchin). 8/10

The common trio of tuna (lean, medium fat, fatty)  ranging among the finest of this trip in Tokyo, their quality  simply startling. If you ever  think that good sushi tuna is just good sushi tuna, well ..NO!  I am not saying this  is a case of Wowness (though, I find  the raves about the Otoro not exaggerated at all;p )…I am not implying that this is  unparalleled— I am just insisting on the fact that the quality of the fish is really really high. Just try most of the medium and low level Sushi shops of Tokyo and you’ll better understand what I mean.  9/10

Steamed abalone showcased some world class seafood steaming technique as the texture of the flesh retained  the nice natural chew of the abalone’s flesh while allowing enough tenderness for palatability, but in a way that’s technically hard to achieve consistently well because timing and exceptional  know-how are as crucial as ever to get to this  sort of toothsome. A benchmark steamed abalone.  10/10

Prawn (8/10) and needlefish  (9/10) nigiris were  tastier than the  versions enjoyed at the other  sushiyas,but prawn killed right in front of your eyes (done at some of the other sushiyas, but not here) always add a “special” dimension that this prawn —although admittedly of the highest quality and execution — was missing .  As for the needlefish, Mizutani-san did sweeten it, on this instance (I have no clue if he always do that), which is usually not a feature I favor with seafood, but this was needlefish of superb quality. Mackerel (10/10) was  superior to  those I had at the other Sushi shops of this roundup, better prepared, better — though not boldly  –seasoned, better handled, better cured (the timing of the curing  simply perfect) than anywhere else.

Gizzard shad  (10/10) is, of course, the common affair of the Sushi Chefs,  a bit like crème brulée for a Pastry Chef, so that is exactly where I want to see the better Sushi Masters to distance themselves from the rest and on this meal, they did just that:  salting and soaking it in vinegar is what all sushi cooks do, but the proper timing and proper know-how are grounds that are  not that easy to cover.   Mizutani covered those grounds, his Gizzard shad tasting  better and fresher than his direct competitors of this trip, and those folks are unarguably  the best sushiyas of the globe , so imagine! And yet, there was still room for a little bit more excitement (nothing that would make me change my mind about its 10/10 score, though) : bolder vinegary flavoring of that Gizzard shad  would have been the ultimate blast, lol.

Squid was of stellar quality, with perfect chew , its looks glamourous (spectacular transluscence), with dazzling chewy texture. Some ppl judge a Sushi shop by the quality of the  tamago. But for me, it  is items like squid, mackerel, gizzard shad that count the most. A benchmark squid. 10/10.  Salt  water eel nigiri is one of those sushi pieces you rarely see offered in its prime, outside of Japan and here in Tokyo, there are clearly many rivers to cross between the salt water eel of the Mid-level  Vs top tier Sushi as the quality of the anago at Sushi Mizutani was only slightly bettered by Sawada and yet, this was a benchmark piece of anago, its tsume sauce as delicious and  carefully prepared as it gets. 10/10

Repeat sushis were the chutoro and otoro nigiris, which were as great as the earlier ones.

The fabled tamago (folded omelette cake), which at first glance looked less pretty than, say, the one I had at Sawada, but tasted far more DELICIOUS! 10/10 for the tamago.

PROS: 1.The most challenging (to handle and  prepare) seafood items were better executed here than anywhere else…that is all I needed to know  2.It is amazing to see a sushiya place demonstrating utmost care in selecting even  the non seafood items like eggs (the secret of his superior  tamago).

CONS: (1) The sea urchin, although of top quality, paled a bit in comparison to Sawada‘s “ocean breeze” sea urchin.(2)At this level, not one single nigiri should crumble under the slightless pressure of my sushi sticks….well, it happened twice, which again is not a major problem….just not what should be experienced at such high sushi mastery. Because, YES…as you would have guessed by now, the craftmanship is of the highest level  (3) Also, this is..as you might expect, dauntingly expensive…so ensure you do really care– this much  — about the quality of your Sushi. I do and did not regret —and even found this to be a bargain compared to another Sushi shop, a mid level one, that did charge me as much for lesser quality sushi —  but you’ll have to keep that in mind.

So,
(1)How great the quality of the chosen rice stood against what the other sushi shops of this trip have offered? At first glance, Mizutani could be accused of playing it safe as the rice seasoning is not strongly vinegared, and if you are not into details, you’ll be tricked into believing that it’s just your common good “nothing special’ sushi rice. It’s certainly not a common /nothing special sort of sushi rice as the work of the texture was generally of a high level of ‘engineering’ (the inside, impossibly soft, the outside is SEMI-soft). I wished I could tell you that we were  ages ahead of the laughable crumbly pieces of sushi that sadly abound at sushiyas outside of Japan …but life always ensures to contradict you, lol: the rice of two nigiris crumbled, to my surprise, under barely no pressure from my sushi sticks. Regardless, this is a work of rice of very high level.

(2)How harmonious or spectacularly bold the work of the seasoning of the rice is achieved while remaining complementary of its topping?
No  strong flavors here, but a focus on anything that most palates would interprete as deliciously rich, for eg the eggs of his tamago is richer in flavor than the eggs of the tamago that’s offered at the other elite sushiyas. His fattier piece of tuna belly had more marbling than the fattiest ones at the other elite sushiyas, the rice tastes a bit rich, not strong, etc. In general, his style allows  an impression of harmony between the rice and the topping.

(3)How delicious and how perfected (temperature/precision of the knife skills/work of the textures) were the sushis compared to the other sushis of this trip? Not as  ultimately  spectacular  in shapes and colors as I’d imagine exceptional sushi to be (Sawada was –overall —  a less convincing meal for me, compared to Mizutani’s, but Sawada‘s sea urchin + trio of tuna were visually far more spectacular than at Mizutani , but certainly close-to perfect. That said, Mizutani has certainly  delivered the most delicious  sushis of this trip. As for the control of temperature, most of the sushis were served following the classic notion of controlling sushi temperature (for eg, rice at body temp, most of the seafood at room temp), and as it seems more and more common with his peers in Tokyo, he would sometimes leave a piece that’s thick in consistency, therefore one that takes a bit longer to reach the temp he deems proper,  resting to hit room temperature (A Sushi Master  does this in frontof his patrons s because he wants  you to  you see how concerned about proper temperature he is  — just adding this because some online reports on this matter have misinterpreted that part, suggesting that it is not normal. This is Normal as some pieces take more time to reach ideal room temp and when it’s not done before your eyes, then they did it in the kitchen ).
(4)How far the sourcing was pushed and how far it revealed a profound understanding of the subtleties of the produce (it is one thing to have top ingredients, it is a different story to pick that precise ingredient from that specific region which on a given point in time will allow your craft to express itself at its best)?
He is the most experienced Sushi Master that I have visited on this trip  and that showed: he knows his produce like few can pretend as he is who digged deeper in the potential of his ingredients, extracting as much as he could from them. He did that and it worked thanks to his  exceptional  skills and long familiarity with the fruits of his soil.

Before my meal at Mizutani, I have heard it all:  better than  Jiro (which,to me, is like comparing a private club to a normal restaurant catering  to a normal public as places like Jiro is…like to hear this  or not…nowadays effectively a private club available only to some happy few)  according to many well-travelled connoisseurs, but also the total opposite (for eg, the suggestion that the work of the rice is  better at  plenty of the lesser Sushi shops in Tokyo  —well,  you may as well suggest that  conveyor belt sushis are better while you’re at it, lol , — or  that the standard of the food seemed to have slipped, etc). Regardless of those contradictory suggestions, I can only trade  in  facts  I know:   the “trickiest” seafood  (gizzard shad, mackerel,squid), those that do require the toughest efforts and sharpest skills, happened to be challenging  in the hands of all the other  Sushi Chefs of Tokyo whose food I have sampled during this trip (some aging their seafood to the point that is not enjoyable/palatable  anymore, so more style than substance,others were so inconsistent or playing it safe….). That is where Mizutani san stood out. The work of the rice is important, and I wished I did not have those two pieces of nigiris crumbling under barely no  pressure, but the more important is that the generally mastered softness of the texture of his rice as well its subtle flavor allowed for a better interraction between the neta and the shari.   For sure, do not expect  miracle,  this is not walking on water,  this is not landing on the moon, this is not saving lives, this is sushi  (generally) perfectly  well crafted  at the highest level possible, so ensure you  sync your expectations to what can realistically be crafted.  It is expensive,indeed, but it all comes down  to one very simple  choice to make: you either feed on tons of average sushis (that you could actually replicate at home with patience, time and practice)  or eat less of those and save for sushis this great. Keep in mind that this is classic sushi , so not for you if you are looking for fanciness.

Overall score for the food – 9/10  (Category: top tier Sushi shop in Tokyo) in comparison to my meals, during this trip, at  the other   Tokyo sushiyas. The sea urchin, although of top quality,  left me feeling somehow indifferent (in light of what I am expecting at this level), BUT the most important for me (which explains the well deserved overall food score of 9/10) is that Mizutani-San managed to outperform his peers in many  aspects (deep understanding of the rice/seafood harmony, textures of (generally) benchmark refinement by world class sushi standards ).  Deserving (in general) of  its great reputation, I thought.

01What do I think a week later: To the contrary of what is widely suggested online, the majority of Sushi shops in Tokyo (from the mid level Sushi to the lower end) are generally NOT that superior to a good Sushi shop in Canada or the US. They do have a wider variety of seafood but nothing much. The top tier (which is no more than acouple of Sushi shops) Sushi shops are those that truely standout with a quality of ingredients you’ll have hard time finding outside of Japan. As for the work of  the rice, it is true that there is more thought/care that is invested in it, but much of the praises pertain to urban legend: everytime I hear that a Chef integrated X amount of grain of rice in his sushis…I do discretely take one of his nigiris, run to the gents room and discretely count the grains. It is never even close to the amount of grains advertised. Furthermore, although well done, the work of the rice is not as spectacular as it could be. That said, Mizutani san’s craft is hardly matched outside of Japan.

Sushi Sawada -
Type of restaurant: Sushi shop
Date and time of the meal: 20-11-2014 12:00
Address:  MC Building 3F, 5-9-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku  Phone: 03-3571-4711
Tabelog: 4.28/5
Michelin stars: 2
URL: http://tabelog.com/tokyo/A1301/A130101/13001043/

NO PHOTO RESTRICTION

Picture taking is forbidden to normal diners as/per the house , therefore  no pictures were taken. No note-taking neither as I did not know whether that would offend the house’s staff, so I made a mental note of my appreciation of some of the sushi pieces which assessment was determinant in my overall rating of this meal.

***Here are the elements that my overall rating will take into account: (1)How great the quality of the chosen rice stood against what the other sushi shops of this trip have offered  (2)How harmonious or spectacularly bold the work of the seasoning of the rice is achieved while remaining complementary of its topping (3)How delicious and how perfected (temperature/precision of the knife skills/work of the textures) were the sushis compared to the other sushis of this trip (4)How far the sourcing was pushed and how far it revealed a profound understanding of the subtleties of the produce (it is one thing to have top ingredients, it is a different story to pick that precise ingredient from that specific region which on a given point in time will allow your craft to express itself at its best).


Chef Sawada Koji‘ has long established his credentials as one of Tokyo elite Sushi Chefs, his  Sushi shop  is   a top  rated  restaurant  on Tabelog, Japan’s most important online community for local foodies.  Restaurant Magazine’s web site adding, and I’ll quote: ”’those in the know rank Sawada alongside better-known three-starred joints such as Mizutani and Sukiyabashi Jiro”.  I went there to enjoy the place and despite my generally less than enthusiastic report about the food, I could see why Sawada is highly regarded (It is, at this moment,  one of the  toughest restaurant reservations, as hard as Sukiyabaki Jiro Honten as/per  my hotel concierge — the concierge was ultimately not capable to book me a seat at  Jiro, but Sawada was indeed a really tough reservation ) :  it offers a relaxing journey that most of the other  elite Sushi shops failed to  deliver during this trip, the produce was generally of exceptional mention even by the high standards of its competition.  For those reasons, and only for those,  this dinner was my  preferred  ‘sushi experience’ in Tokyo. Had the food impressed me as much,  this would have been life shattering. This meal at Sawada was one of the last meals of  this trip,  therefore easier to compare to the earlier performances at the other sushi places.

FOOD REPORT:  Quick rundown of some of the many items that were offered (I did not take note of each of them, there were too many and I was  more busy enjoying my food rather than stopping all the time to reflect on them):

The highlights of this long meal (there were far more items than at the other Elite sushi shops) have been the sea urchin, which quality was easily the best of this trip (I have long familiarized myself with all sorts of sea urchin sourced from all corners of this globe and shall observe that those from Hokkaido –which Sawada San did serve of this evening — do rank among the most spectacular examples of sea urchin you’ll get to enjoy at a Sushi shop): Bafun sea urchin (less sweet than some of the finest sea urchin of California, but rich in taste, its vivid orange color so easy on the eyes, the taste divine), Murakasi (This sea urchin of mustard yellow color is one of my preferred sea urchin, its sweet taste so fresh in mouth). 10/10

Another highlight was the trio of tuna, in part because Sawada-san thought about the right way to stand out from his direct competitors: the tuna had more concentrated flavor as he has better aged his tuna. A beautiful touch was that   he did slightly grill his fattiest piece of tuna, where most of  the other elite sushiyas of this trip would offer it raw, allowing for the expected spectacular mouthfeel that rarely fails to come from grilled fat. 10/10

Ark shell clam (Akagai ) was  beautifully sourced (Sawada-san had, in general, the best produce of this trip with some items truly exceptional), elegantly  butterflied in typical upscale Sushi shop fashion. It is in the work of items like the Ark shell clam that you can really appreciate the vast difference between the finer vs lesser Sushi shops of Tokyo as the former’s extra efforts (in refining the texture) is admirable. This was almost as skilfully crafted as at the other elite sushiya of this trip,Mizutani,  the only reason I am not rating it with the ultimate score has to do with the fact that the  salinity of the rice stood, for me, as clashing a bit with the clam     8/10

Salt water eel (anago) tasted great, timely simmered, and its  quality I found even better than at Mizutani  (I won’t stop repeating it: the sourcing, here, is, in general, second to none and we are talking about this globe’s finest Sushi shops, so imagine!! ), Sawada’s preparation putting more emphasis on the natural delicate sweetness of the specimen’s flesh, keeping it simple,  whereas most of the other Sushi shops did add a bit of flavor intensity (for eg, at the other Sushi shops, the Salt water eel would  taste more of the tsume sauce that generally accompanies anago sushi, but at Sawada it’s the taste of the eel that stood out). As I prefer my seafood as unaltered as possible, Sawada’s approach suited me fine. However, I found, again, the white vinegar/salt portion of the sushi rice overpowering in a way that its saline intensity distracted from fully appreciating the salt water eel in its full glory. This was certainly – on its own —a great piece of anago, but it is also a piece of nigiri, which means the interaction between the rice and its topping should have been judicious.  7/10

Cuttlefish – Piece after piece, I was floored by the quality of his produce. As if he has suppliers that even the other Sushi Masters of this trip are not aware of. The quality of the cuttlefish was stellar, this time Sawada-San letting the cuttlesfish expressing itself at its best, the texture soft, the flesh retaining a nice chew. One of the best cuttlesfish nigiris of this trip. 8/10 (could have been a 10/10 had the slicing being as impressive as, say, Mizutani...there was also  the vinegar taste of the rice that clashed a bit with the cuttlefish in a way that it made the cuttlefish/rice blending tasting a tad superficial for my taste, but I’ll forgive  that one…it was lovely, highly enjoyable regardless of the downsides ).

Gizzard shad – Talking about exacting sushi pieces, this is another great example of just that. Gizzard shad is a demanding piece as each step of its preparation, from the curing, its slicing, having to cope with its strong natural flavor, everything should be flawless. It’s a fish that can be as rewarding as it can cruelly let you down. The thing about Gizzard shad preparation is that most won’t notice how great it is when it is well done, but one single mistep and you realize how challenging it can be to work with this fish.  As with all the seafood served during this meal, the Gizzard shad at Sawada was of superb  quality, but the effect of its preparation felt unimpressive to me as it tasted just a tad better than any other average Gizzard shad I have sampled in Tokyo, and certainly less spectacular than the one I had at Mizutani (At mizutani, the vinegar  flavor was so fresh and spectacular that it lifted the taste of the fish to palatable triumph, here the Gizzard shad  did not taste  as exciting) + the slicing of such fish should be precise,  but instead, a big part of the edges was almost dented! I am not saying that it is always like that at Sawada, I would not know as it’s my sole visit here, but that was the case during this meal and there’s no excuse for that at such level. 5/10

Hamaguri clam – The consistency springy as it should as/per hamaguri classic sushi prep standards, but the nitsume sauce a tad cloying and less enjoyable than at the other Sushi shops of this trip. The texture not vivid as those I had at the other shops in Tokyo (obviously a consequence of the prep method he used, which is most likely the aging of the clam). Take hamaguri clam, which in its traditional sushi preparation needs to be boiled. Then smoke it a bit, then let it rest at room temp and you’ll get to the exact same feel of my Hamaguri clam. Again, did he smoke it? age it? I did not ask as I do not want to sound / appear impolite to my Sushi Chef. I have heard about the tendency  of an increasing number of Sushi Chefs to age their seafood, and they do age some of their seafood at Sawada too. Alas, for my taste,  seafood’s texture and flavor is generally —-save for some sparse relevant examples  such as tuna/bonito  —, better expressed raw, especially for sushi. A long time ago, they were aging food because they had no choice, nowadays we find the idea attractive because we basically just love trends. Aging beef is a trend, nowadays, but it has its known limits (is meat still  enjoyable upon, let us say, 80 days ++ of aging??For me as well as for many serious Master tasters, it is not)  which, fortunately, most steakhouses are aware of. Aging seafood is sadly a theme that’s applied in a nonsensical fashion at most Sushi shops (around 90% of the aged seafood I tried at Sushiyas, even here in Tokyo,  epitomized the problem of trends:  too much style, little substance. It is one thing to know what seafood to age, it is disrespectful to the hard work of the fishermen  when you age every single seafood they have proudly ‘snatched’ from the floor of the ocean for you to appreciate the mother of all food –the seafood–  in its full natural glory….. ) . 5/10

Abalone was timely steamed to ideal palatable consistency (tender enough, with a nice chew), but Mizutani did better (7/10), bonito tasted great and was timely smoked although its quality was similar to what I had at the other places and honestly, it’s hardly a challenging piece (7/10), quality mackerel but which marination and seasoning failed at lifting its powerful flavor to the heights of palatable enjoyment attained at the other sushiyas (another exacting item where the genius expected at such high level needs to make a difference – Mizutani-san nailed this, alas not Sawada-san who had  not just one chance, but twice, as I had a smoked as well as a raw version of this piece of fish), a 6/10 for the mackerel (I had mackerel tasting as great at lesser Sushi shops in both the marinated as well smoked versions),  salmon roe (better than at the  other places 8/10).

Prawn – properly boiled and avoiding the common error to overcook the prawn –yep, I easily caught couple of   sushiyas  making this mistake in Tokyo—, BUT not as precisely sliced as Mizutani. Regardless, the quality of the prawn was superior at Sawada.  9/10

Omelette’s based cake (Tamago) in its ‘ sponge cake’ version – The elite sushiyas of Tokyo had in common this feature that  the refinement of their   tamagos is   simply unmatched outside of Japan.  But even better, the 2nd tier sushiyas that I  did visit in Tokyo  barely approached the 1st tier when it comes to  perfecting the texture and taste of the tamago. Excellent  texture and consistency of the cake and I can see why, some ppl,  judge some Sushi Chefs  by the tamago (if you go all your way to perfect such an apparently simple cake, then there is nothing more to add about your obsessive sense of perfection, lol –  A 9/10 for that tamago, but I’d give it a 10/10 had I not been a tad more impressed by the delicious tamago of Mizutani an (to set the records straight, Mizutani’s  tasted better  but Sawada’s had finer  texture).

Pros:  Leisurely and incredibly intimate ambience +  the fabulous sourcing of the ingredients (yeah …even by the high standards of the elite Sushi shops of this trip)!

Cons: At this level, I expect the most ‘challenging’ pieces of seafood, those that rely heavily on the best curing preparation/marination/knife skills/seasoning to express themselves authoritatively. That is exactly what Mizutani-san did. That is not what I have experienced at Sawada.  Furthermore, the precision in slicing seafood items like mackerel, gizzard shad,  and cuttlesfish  is a matter of the uttermost importance at this level. 

So,
1)How great the quality of the chosen rice stood against what the other sushi shops of this trip have offered?  – Shari (sushi rice) comprised of a mix of white rice vinegar, as well as the usual salt and sugar. The problem is that the ratio of the salt was misjudged as the white rice vinegar mixed with the salt did, for my taste, impart  an ‘unatural’ kind of saline flavor to some of the seafood toppings, the anago nigiri being a perfect example of just that. This might sound nitpicking and most won’t play attention at such details, but restaurants of  this level, charging  those prices, do exist essentially for their patrons to be able to appreciate such subtleties (or else, just eat your sushi at any random entry level sushi shop).  Another quibble is that the rice was ‘one-dimensional’ in its construction (firm consistency throughout, on my visit), compared to what the other Elite Sushi shops have crafted, in the sense that the other Sushi shops did oftently offer an appealing (to the touch as well as on the palate) elaborate firm exterior/soft interior contrast that I did not experience during this meal at Sawada.  The sourcing  of the rice is uniformly exemplary at those great Sushi shops of Tokyo, Sawada’s is no exception, but I’ll stand by my observation about the seasoning of the rice and lack of complexity in the sushi rice (shari)’s construction.

(2)How harmonious or spectacularly bold the work of the seasoning of the rice is achieved while remaining complementary of its topping? See previous point #1
(3)How delicious and how perfected (temperature/precision of the knife skills/work of the textures) were the sushis compared to the other sushis of this trip?
Sawada-san can is certainly talented, or else he would not be considered as one of the best in Tokyo, and there are certainly plenty of other sushi shops in Tokyo that are doing worse . That said, Sawada-san is also considered as a world class  elite Sushi Master. Consequently, I’ll compare my appreciation of  his craft to those standards. And at such, solely on the back of this meal, I did not find his slicing skills to be as consistently precise/impressive as his peers, and I was left with the same impression about  his work of the textures (which were at times glorious, indeed,  but not always). On the bright side, he was consistent in maintaining  a perfect control of  the temperature of his food: during my meal there, he essentially went by the book, which means almost uniformly using body temp for the rice, room temp for the seafood topping. As for the taste, the overall was not as delicious as, say, the consistently mouth watering meal I just had at Mizutani but rest assured that everything tasted good (just not as consistently  delicious  as what came from the kitchen of some of his direct competitors, the mackerel –in particular—should have been the perfect opportunity to storm my palate, as the others did, but it was a non -happening during my visit).
(4)How far the sourcing was pushed and how far it revealed a profound understanding of the subtleties of the produce (it is one thing to have top ingredients, it is a different story to pick that precise ingredient from that specific region which on a given point in time will allow your craft to express itself at its best)? Even by the already exemplary standards of those elite sushi Shops of Tokyo, some of his produce was exceptional.  Some of the other top sushi Masters of Tokyo can envy him for his beautiful produce. But for me, during this meal, he generally failed at extracting the most out of  his  exceptional produce in a way that his direct competition has managed to do,  during this trip.

””The sourcing is world class, but in the end, my meal at Sawada did not manage to leave an impression in the way that Mizutani did. To the contrary of many people, I do not mind Genius cooking (which is what sushi performance of this level, price tag and world class reputation, is supposed to be – Genius, in this case,  meaning an overall craftmanship that’s way above the standards that already exist and NOT some surreal /out-of-context vision of what food can’t be) to follow the course of hits and misses, but it has  to, ultimately, awe  me with an ‘impression of the spectacular’ that is capable to wipe all the misses and dominate the hits. That is what Mizutani-san did. Alas, Sawada-San did not walk in his steps (I was obviously not floored by Sawada’s seasoning + work of the texture of the rice as well as some of his sushis). At least the finer  sushis  managed  to convey how ingenious, often witty, the Master can be in his prime. I just wished he would express it more  consistently. Still, regardless of some of my severe observations, I fully enjoyed my time here and the journey remains one to never forget as the charisma of the Chef, coupled with a sense of place  and exceptional sourcing do  suffice in explaining why Sawada is oftently regarded as one of world’s finest Sushi shops”’. Obviously, and hopefully, my high  rating of  8/10 (see the section ‘overall food performance’) is a testament to my latest assertion.

SAWADA3

Overall food performance: 8/10  (Category: top tier Sushi shop in Tokyo)  in comparison to the other Sushi meals of this trip to Tokyo (for eg,  I prefered my meal at Sawada to those I had at Daisan Harumi/Sushi Oono/Sushi Sho/Sushi Iwa, but the meal at Mizutani had the edge). The essential is already written above (the section in red), so I’ll just add that  you SHOULD NOT start comparing my score of Sushi Sawada to — to take an example —  the scores of my Sushi meals outside of Tokyo –  we are in a completely different set of expectations and circumstances.

What do I think a week  later: In Tokyo, the ‘sushi shop spectrum’ regulates itself….the best produce are for a handful of elite shops like Sawada,Mizutani, Jiro,Saito. The second tier shops and the rest will  have to fight hard to get good seafood, rice, etc. The huge advantage of Sawada is that a journey under this roof  does  boot with spectacular produce. That, alone, explains why many have been impressed by Sawada.

Restaurant: Dons de la Nature
Address: 104-0061 Tokyo, Chūō, Ginza, 1 Chome−7−6, B1F
Phone:+81 3-3563-4129
Cusine: Steakhouse (serving only one type of meat: Purebred Wagyu)
Date/Time of the meal: 19-11-2014 18:00
Michelin stars: 1
URL: http://dons-nature.jp/

dons de la nature  5

Dons de la Nature is widely considered  as one of Tokyo’s finest steakhouses. Which means that, here, you are exempt from the laughable mis-identification of the meat, a sad recurrent feature  at plenty of steakhouses around the globe. At Dons de la Nature, when they tell you they have Kobe beef, then it is the real one that  comes from Kobe in Japan (and not from elsewhere),  and when they say Wagyu,  then it is TRUE PUREBRED Japanese beef and they will tell you from what region in Japan.

dons de la nature 1

Traceability is taken seriously here. Wagyu beef is  usually (usually, I wrote, not always) fed on rice straw which is essential for achieving the high level of  intramuscular fat as well as whitening the marbled fat. The slaughter occurs in between 23 to 28 months.

THE FOOD:

I took no starter, fearing that the steak would be filling.

dons de la nature  2

The steak available on the day of my visit is the 400g (14 oz) Wagyu from the Oki Islands, (there was a choice of a highly marbled sirloin,  as well as tenderloin — for my taste, Sirloin features the  characteristics I am looking for when eating Wagyu as it’s not lean like tenderloin, the flavor certainly more expressive compared to tenderloin).

dons de la nature  3

Oftently, in Tokyo, steaks are cooked on an iron griddle (teppanyaki), but here, at Dons de la Nature, they grill it over charcoal (my  preferred cooking method for steak), no ordinary charcoal that is (they use the highly praised Binchōtan charcoal) ,  inside a kiln.  From such steakhouse, there’s not much to say about the basics (as expected, they get the requested doneness right, medium-rare in this case, the seasoning, although simple — a bit of salt — is judicious, the nice crust on the outside that most steak aficionados favor nowadays is achieved beautifully , and the kitchen  clearly knows how to delicately handle a meat of such extensive fat marbling ),

dons de la nature  4

so what I was looking for was how far the extensive marbling could impress in flavor. Unexpectedly,  the umami  kick  so praised –in the medias — about Wagyu continues to elude me (this was the 3rd Wagyu tasting of this trip, having tried Matsusaka Wagyu a day prior, then sanda) .Well, YES the umami dimension is  definitely there (afterall the effect of the marbling has to be ultimately felt)  but I get more exciting umami with most   40 to 45 days perfectly dry aged prime Black Angus steaks.  I also do not get the comparision to  foie gras (a common comparison) that I oftently hear about. It’s  quality red meat, that is for sure,  the fat much more delicate in taste and texture in comparison to a fatty BlackAngus cut, but at the end of the count …it is just not as flavorful.   I admire the  quality of Wagyu beef, but for the enjoyment part ..nah,sorry…I (my palate) just do not get it. This was a  6/10, at best, for me  (Grade: A5/  Breed: Japanese Black Wagyu from Oki Islands, 30 days of wet aging  + 30 other days of dry aging )

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The Chef’s wife has suggested to pair the steak with a glass of Camus Père & Fils Mazoyères-Chambertin Grand Cru 2001. This wine was not decanted enough,   none of its basic characteristics having a chance of developing (for eg, barely any bouquet). Furthermore, the wine was way too  dry to  be enjoyable. As for the pairing to the steak, it simply  never worked.

Pros:  Wagyu is so praised outside of Japan that there are no shortage of marketing manipulations to call pretty much everything that looks like meat… Wagyu.  You therefore really appreciate the moment when you get to enjoy the real thing on its very own land, which is exactly what Dons de la Nature offers.

Cons:   Wagyu,Wagyu…………..you are not for me!

How influential is buzz (buzz about Wagyu is obviously..epic ) and  scarcity (it goes without saying that, at those prices, it is impossible for the most to enjoy Wagyu on a regular basis) in your enjoymentof your food? No one will ever know, and only people with interest in the industry should care about such questions. The only thing that I know is that Wagyu,  the real thing… any meat lover should try it at least once as it  is  one of those rather unique experiences that you’ve just got to  try. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy it better than I did….

Service: Very intimate, very very friendly. The wife of the Chef is very enthusiastic. It is much more informal than at most of the steakhouses that I have been to.

My verdict and conclusion:  I won’t rate this house as I do not want my aversion to Wagyu to influence my opinion about Dons de la Nature.  But Wagyu, you my friend….even at the same cost as my favourite Black Angus steaks, there is simply no way I could appreciate you. I respect your legendary reputation but for me, it is clear  that your scarcity creates your value. Yes, you are beautiful to espy (I have rarely seen marbling of such striking beauty), but for my palate, you are not even half as flavorful as an expertly dry aged prime cut of Black Angus. And I just gave you 3 chances right here on your own lands! I even  ensured to lower my expectations (I had none, to tell you the truth) and I did erase  any notion of price from the equation so that the assessment’s  focus is on what matters most:  the flavor!!!.

Umaya, Tokyo

Posted: November 19, 2014 in Uncategorized

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I went eating at Umaya (Addr: 〒160-0013 Tokyo, Shinjuku, 霞ヶ丘町14−1 2F  – URL http://www.jrfs.co.jp/umaya/restaurant2s/shinjuku, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/akasakaumaya.shinjuku?fref=ts ) for their Kagoshima pork shabu shabu.

The restaurant is new (opened in August), and clean. The service was impeccable during my visit. It’s styled as a contemporary bistrot  and you can watch the Chefs cooking through an opened kitchen.

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The Kagoshima pork shabu shabu I was having did not impress: I am not too sure about pork being an ideal choice for  shabu shabu. It just tasted flat / ordinary during this meal. 05The broth was nothing to  rave about neither: it lacked subtlety and tasted bland.  There was a choice of a spicy and non spicy sauce in which to dip the pork. Those were properly made and tasted good, but dipping the pork in both  sauces could not erase the souvenir of that average shabu shabu from my mind.  In Montreal, a place like Shabu Shabu Kagayaki offers shabu shabu that I found far tastier.

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Rounded my meal with couple of  yakitori /grilled chicken items: gizzard,  liver, hip. They were decent enough (no dry meat, no over-seasoning, etc), but they lacked the exciting palatable dimension found at some other yakitoris (the other places had more exciting marinade, their meat more flavorful, etc) that I have tried in Tokyo.

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Verdict: 5.5/10 I need to try their other offerings in order to have a definitive opinion about the place. It’s a place I wished I could love as the service was superb and you can see that they  try really hard to ensure that the experience is mesmerizing (for eg, the  theater around the shabu shabu presentation is appreciated). But food in general, shabu shabu in particular,   needs to never fail at being delicious.

 

Restaurant: Ishikawa
Address: 〒162-0825 東京都新宿区 神楽坂5−37 高村ビル1F
Date and time of the meal: 18/11/2014 17:30
Type of cuisine: Kaiseki
Phone:03-5225-0173
Tabelog: 4.33/5
Michelin stars: 3
URL: http://www.kagurazaka-ishikawa.co.jp/

Ishikawa (1)Kagurazaka Ishikawa is a well known kaiseki house in the area of Shinjuku (Shinjuku is vast, though, so keep in mind that if you stay close to the Shinjuku JR station,  Ishikawa is really NOT in the vincinity….;p). They have been operating for 11 years now. Chef Ishikawa explained that he comes from a part of Japan where the rice is of exceptional quality (yagata?? I am not familiar with Japanese names but it sounded like that), so he plays particular attention to the handling and preparation of  the rice (at a place like Ishikawa, you realize that rice is an ingredient that we, in the West,should  take seriously as great rice is not … just rice, indeed). The service here is world class (couple of waitresses and some few chefs) and the decor tasteful.    I tried to discretely take the pics of my food, discretely I insist  as  Japanese do not like that sort of distraction, especially in such intimate settings (in some of the restaurants that I will visit later on, photo taking is banned— at Ishikawa they are so nice that they won’t tell you anything,  but play close attention at the behavior of the other patrons and you’ll get what I mean ) , so as I usually do, out of respect to the privacy of other diners, I refrained from taking pictures of the room when it was full of patrons.

Ishikawa (2)Kaiseki is my favourite type of Japanese meal for its strong focus on all sorts of seasonal produce. It is also the kind of meal that I do approach with a lot of anxiety (positive / constructive anxiety that is),  because I remember that I, too, come from a country with food of deep and extreme nuances/subtleties/complexity , therefore condemned to be oftenly  mis-interpreted / mis-judged because as diners, we  mostly have no time with how things are supposed to be,  rather interested to expect things to be what we want them to be . I remember, couple of years ago, inviting a long time food journalist/cook/experienced foodie to eat a dish of cassava leaves cooked in coconut milk. A dish of the kind that I like a lot since its description is ordinary, its execution pertains to a totally different registry. In facts, you need to find the proper cassava leaves, cook it for at least 6-7 hrs with the right amount of quality coconut milk (popular in some African cuisines ) and its final taste will depend on your palate and ability to keep enhancing the flavor with as little as coconut milk, water, garlic, onions, salt , your leaves and deep understanding of how fire can impart sublime taste to your food. I ensured that a long time experienced cook, a granny actually, cooked it, because I wanted that friend to start with a version of that dish cooked  by “hands and a palate ” of considerable  experience. That friend/foodie/cook’s verdict on that day was straightfoward: it’s bad, it is just leaves that he  would have boiled, nothing more and that all the attention to details and long time cooking was pure Bullshit. The granny was upset and accused that dude of ignorance.  Both reactions were expected, but  I simply asked my friend to try, as much as he could, to remember that supposedly ‘disgusting taste of simple boiled leaves’ but …since he loves food…. to keep his mind open and give a chance to that dish, wherever he finds it. But more importantly, to do it himself and try replicating that exact memory of taste. 10 years later, this is the dish that my friend admires the most, cooks the most, etc. Of course, this sounds like a fairy tale   — I know, i know …. we are ALL mostly pessimistic by nature,  and tend to be  bored with  nice stories lol — but there’s a reason I brought the “fairy tale” here:  Kaiseki suffers from the same faith…its complexity, its depth, its purpose  is not always  evident, especially for non Japanese palates/tastes.  Even for someone like me who has cooked seriously for almost two decades, and have  studied and practiced a lot with the nuances of Japanese fares for the past 3 years (it was  important for me to spend some time learning/understanding/practicising with one type of cuisine before starting to assess it) , I had to go out of my way in understanding one important element:  the work of the texture and exceptional focus on the details  is for the Japanese leading Chefs far more important than how it is valued elsewhere.

The food report:

-Blanched blowfish tossed with Japanese herbs, grated white  radish sauce.  Basically a julienne of  veggies with morsels of blowfish. Tasty, but not a testament to high level kaiseki cooking  ( ordinary for a restaurant of this reputation) as it lacked a sign or two of restaurant quality brilliance (anyone could pull out this sort of ordinary flavors , in an effortlessly way ) . 6/10

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-Deep fried shitake mushroom with minced Japanese duck,sliced duck breast, dried shitake mushroom: the quality of both the duck and the mushroom was impressive, but there was more. There was technique (the cooking of both the duck and the mushroom superbly achieved in letting the deep meaty flavor of the duck expressing itself, the mushroom timely roasted so that its earthy flavor is left unaltered while the mushroom is cooked enough and nicely seasoned to spectacular mouthfeel ) and an inspired touch (it is easy to extract decent flavors out of  duck and mushroom, but harder to  get duck and mushroom complementing each other this well. Exciting 10/10

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-White miso soup with savory rice cake. The quality of the ingredients continues to be, as I’d expect from a restaurant of this reputation, of the highest order. Such comment also applies to the technical execution of the food: as mastered as it gets ,meaning the balance of flavors is spot on, seasoning judicious (never too salty, never bland). The beauty of great kaiseki cooking is to extract the most out of the least, and that is what they’ve accomplished successfully: deep ,  balanced, delicious  and complex flavors out of a simple rice cake and miso soup. Miso soup is one of those things that escapes attention when done well but which failure you will quickly notice, so it is easy to take such great work of this soup for granted . Excellent Miso soup like this one I was sampling is a rare treat,even in Tokyo, as I came to realise. 9/10

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-Sea bream sashimi . I am not too sure what one should expect from seabream. There’s no exceptional seabream flesh, there are just great and bad ones. This was of the great sort. The quality of the seaweed high. As great as ..great fresh seabream flesh tastes.

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-Seared Ise Lobster with vinegared soya sauce – quality lobster, one piece served raw (sashimi), the other seared. The quality of an ingredient is always half the battle/ the quality of this lobster was high. There was  a true fresh taste of the sea when eating the raw lobster, which was a reminder that no ordinary lobster was served. Then you had the charcoal grilled piece, which did not fail to remind that quality seafood cooked using a flavor-enhancing cooking method like charcoal grilling does ultimately water the mouth. Delicious as one would expect,the soya sauce is,of course, of the non ordinary sort  8/10

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-Charcoal grilled horsehead snapper flavored with salted bonito innards sauce is a technique that I will steal from them as I love charcoal-grilling fish at home (using a hibachi charcoal bbq grill) but I was looking for new ways to enhance the natural flavor of charcoal grilled seafood. Bonito innards sauce is exactly what I was looking for: a distracted palate would think that you’ll get the same palatable impact using just salt .Well,no…there is indeed an impression of  ‘that is easy to replicate’ when flavoring fish with salted  bonito innards sauce, but the level of the  complexity of the resulting flavor is not that easy to emulate. This sauce matched beautifully with the snapper.  Whether it is street food or fine dining, I do not have  unrealistic expectations when it comes  to charcoal grill seafood. I just expect an exceptional understanding of what makes a simple piece of fish ..tasting great! Which is what they did. Superb  9/10

-Gluten bread with walnut and dried sea cucumber . The sea cucumber oceanic flavor, striking (in a very very good way). I am usually accused of being very conservative about drying / and or dry-aging seafood, but that is because I find that seafood drying   and/or drying aging is oftently misunderstood (you really need to know which seafood is truely enhanced by such process ). This sea cucumber was timely dried, the exciting mouthfeel and aromas are a testament to its high  quality and this is an instance where drying seafood  adds — rather than substracting — to the pleasure of eating food.  8/10

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-Fresh water eel was flawless in all aspects: top quality eel, the tsume sauce highly enjoyable both in texture and taste, the mashed taro packed with vibrant fresh earthy flavors. As it is the case with all the other offerings, the ingredients are complementary BUT in an inspired/thoughtful/witty  way (only the 1st offering tasted and felt like an ordinary assemblage of food items). Flawless. 9/10

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-Hot pot of snow crab, tofu and seasonal vegetable. That the ingredients would remain of very high quality was not a surprise anymore,  so it’s in the work of the broth that I had high expectations. They were met: the broth had depth/complexity, its taste exciting.  A world class hot pot, with a benchmark tofu (I am a huge fan of tofu as it is one of those little things that is easy to overlook but that can marvel when executed masterfully ….the tofu,here, impossibly soft, its taste not bold at all and yet so revealing in subtleties) . 10/10

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-Steamed rice, seabream paste and pickled vegetables. I won’t rate this dish as my opinion is sadly..biaised.Biaised because the seabream paste was reminescent of our canned tuna in the western world, therefore I am unable to appreciate that seabream paste as I wished … because I can’t genuinely get excited about flavors and texture of this sort. Needless to stress that there is no fault here (it’s one perfect legit version of a  seabream paste), just a clash with a personal perception. What I will do,though,is NOT to overlook the star of this dish, the rice. Again, the Chef seemed to have mentioned Yagata (???) — correct me if I am wrong — as the place of origin of his rice. This, to put it boldly, was spectacular rice with superlative flavor and texture. That he steamed his rice like a master at his craft is not the sole reason behind that incredible bowl of rice  (10/10 for that benchmark rice). At some point, they transformed the dish into their take of the ochazuke dish (combination of green tea/steamed rice) which, on this instance, combined the spectacular rice, a perfect broth, nori, the seabream paste and sesame seeds. The overall was tasty.

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-Sweet red beans,Yuzu citrus ager and cream cheese with toasted wafer featured quality red beans which sweetness is not overwhelming but judicious, the yuzu citrus ager flawless in texture and adding necessary acidic balance, the cream cheese is a far better version of the standard cream cheese as its soft consistency coupled with superb lactic mouthfeel did stole the show . It is easy to overlook simple ingredients like those (red beans, cream cheese) as  they are oftently taken for granted, therefore we tend to be uninvolved when we use them. This dessert was a reminder that doing so (underestimating such humble/common   ingredients) is a mistake as cream cheese/red beans/yuzu citrus ager  done this well and tasting this good can be exciting.   8/10

 

Verdict: 8/10  Kaiseki cuisine (in this case, Chef Ishikawa’s take on it) is very simple in appearance, thefore it can sometimes  gives the wrong impression  that it is hard to get excited about,  but  its  subtleties can  reveal a lot more than what its first impressions may suggest. Ishikawa was about that, and much more: great service , a sense of place, ingredients of the highest quality and more importantly …. a great sense of taste. Ishikawa has an understanding of flavor combination that floats my boat (always that little inspired touch that imparts either surprise or joy in mouth,for eg the rice cake of the miso soup –not the classic texture of rice cake, rather a texture close to marshmallow and it happened to be more effective than the other sorts of rice cakes in its intent to surprise/please. Or a zest of orange skin that tentalized and added a thoughtful kick to the snow crab’s broth ). I loved Ishikawa.