I’m in Tokyo to eat.
It’s my second food-centric visit to the concrete jungle of culinary obsession and for the next three days, I’m ready to throw myself – body and soul – into every smell, taste and texture I encounter. I believe every trip to Japan begs for at least one indulgent, no-holds-barred sushi dinner. I’m talking about real deal omakase. I’ve had epic sushi in Tokyo before, but nothing like this meal at Michelin-starred Sushi-ichi, an otherwise-unassuming second floor restaurant in Ginza.
I’m at the end of a five-week expedition – a sometimes grueling and ever-hilarious 5-country film shoot for my new food and travel web series. Originally Japan wasn’t on the schedule, but I thought, “we’re already in the neighborhood – how can we not include culinary adventures in Tokyo?” That’s like taking a kid to Orlando for the first time without stepping into the Magic Kingdom.
And yes, to me, Tokyo is a magical food kingdom – a place I constantly dream about. This may have something to do with my sushi affinity/obsession. If I go too long without it, I feel parched. I become sullen and fixated on perfect slices of shimmering seafood over vinegar rice. Because we’d be “in the neighborhood,” filming plates of Cambodia’s crunchy tree ants, I insisted on a sushi detour to Japan, then booked a not-so-neighborly 12-hour multi-leg redeye from Phnom Penh.
The Food Guru
When it comes to choosing restaurants in Tokyo, I defer to my personal food guru and friend, Shinji Nohara, the self-appointed “Tokyo Fixer” with whom I’d feasted on bowls of steaming ramen, crispy pork tonkatsu and more than twenty dizzying sushi courses on my last culinary romp through Japan. Shinji works with gastronomes and journalists, expertly guiding them through Tokyo’s intimidating maze of countless (estimates range from 80,000 to 150,000) eateries.
The fact that Sushi-ichi possesses a Michelin star means little to Shinji, who dismisses the rating system when it comes to Japan. According to him, it would be impossible for Michelin inspectors to fully and fairly cover the city’s 100,000-odd restaurants, even if the organization dispatched an army of eaters. Because resources are limited, stars can be political and, according to Nohara, are often mis-assigned by French palates ignorant of Japan’s culinary lineage. The fact that Sushi-ichi serves top quality sushi means everything to Shinji, who has led me here, along with camerawoman and co-producer, Suze, an omakase virgin.
A Secret Door
“The password,” says Shinji, “is ‘sushi rice.’” We’re standing in a back alley somewhere in Ginza, and Shinji pulls aside a low-hanging curtain to reveal a recessed wooden door. Suze trains the camera on me as Shinji instructs me to press the buzzer and say the magic words. I have a feeling I’m being punked, and it wouldn’t be the first time the food guru has pulled my gaijin leg. I do as I’m told, leaning into the intercom, “errrrr…sushi? Rice?” Nothing. I look back at Shinji and Suze, a little mortified, okay – you got me. The door slides open before I’m forced to ring again, and we’re swept upstairs to our seats at a blonde bamboo counter.
A welcome message on Sushi-ichi’s official website reads, “The spirit of our fastidiousness lies in the quality of our ingredients, service, the creation of a comfortable space and our hospitality.” capturing the essence of the tiny, 14- seat restaurant in a nutshell — laid back, with a desire for culinary perfection, most evident in two prized specialties: line-caught Oma Bluefin tuna, acquired from “Hicho,” one of the top-rated sellers at Tsukiji, and my personal favorite, uni – sea urchin. This is reason alone to make a culinary pilgrimage to Sushi-ichi – you won’t find better uni anywhere else in Tokyo. Here, the sea urchin is always purchased at the first auction of the day. This is the sushi version of the NFL draft pick – uni for the big leagues, at any price.
Count me in. Oh yes.
The Zen of Omakase
I think of Omakase, or “chef’s choice” dining, as the culinary answer to meditation. Leave your brain at the door and bring your tastebuds to the table. Omakase is more than a tasting menu, it’s the act of relinquishing control to the chef, allowing them to guide you down the culinary path of their choosing, replete with cinematic drama. Like a story, the meal moves fluidly from bite to bite, through flavor highs, textural challenges and the occasional surprise plot twist.
At Sushi-ichi, you’re in the gifted hands of head chef Masakazu Ishibashi. His omakase style reminds me of a kaiseki (Japanese imperial cuisine) dinner I once ate in Kyoto – each moment of the meal is deliberate; every bite is part of a larger story, peppered with meticulous details down to restaurant’s 9 cm cutting boards and handcrafted ceramic chopstick holders.
We begin with an amuse bouche, a tiny clear cup filled with some kind of micro-seaweed or watercress broth dotted with tiny pink flowers, flanked by sashimi of sweet shrimp and translucent fluke. I scarf it all down, impatient. Hungry. Across the counter, another diner is sinking into otoro bliss. I want that so badly, I can’t see straight. I’m a sushi rookie, still trying to find my “omakase zen.”
Here We Go…
Chef Ishibashi presses his thumb down on a piece of pink ginger, slicing it sideways with a large knife, flicking the blade towards his palm. I watch, wincing, knowing full well if I tried that, I’d probably cut off a finger. I can smell fresh wasabi as he grates it, twisting the green root into sharkskin mounted on a wooden paddle.
A slab of tuna hits the counter — it’s the belly — and I know what’s coming next. But no, wait, what is THAT coming out of the kitchen? If this meal were a movie, the Hokkaido hairy crab that emerges, regal, on a bed of twigs would be the Oscar-winning role. The red, spiky crab is presented to us and gently prodded with a wooden stick. It begins to move; yep, it’s alive. I could swear it even smiles at me and waves a claw before being spirited away, back to the kitchen.
The crab may have momentarily distracted me, but I haven’t forgotten about the otoro sashimi, now being eased — perfect, pink and marbled — onto my plate. This fatty Bluefin belly is one of Sushi-ichi’s claims to Michelin-starred fame. I pop one of the thick rectangular slices into my mouth, whole, and boom! White-out. My brain turns to television snow. My neural processors are so busy focusing on my tastebuds, the rest of me goes blank – fade to white. This is it. I found my zen.
All conversations come to a halt and I’m eating in slow-motion. The fatty tuna dissolves down the sides of my tongue. I rock back and forth, gripping the counter, wondering if this moment could just please. Last. Forever. No one wants to come down from a food high like this. I knew I probably wouldn’t taste otoro like this ever again, or at the very least, not tonight.
We proceed with several courses of sashimi. I bite into thick, firm slices of yellowtail amberjack. A silver-skinned mackerel is a rockstar, barely brushed against charcoal flames, its rose-colored flesh spiraling in a circular grain like wood.
Every bite is the best bite.
When a white bowl of grilled tuna steak appears, it’s a surprise. I wasn’t expecting my epic sushi dinner to be so…cooked. The fish is sliced diagonally and topped with shaved daikon. I take a bite. Fireworks. On the outside, the barely-grilled bluefin is warm and salty. On the inside, it’s as rare as sashimi and intensely flavorful. The only other time I’ve tasted tuna as sublime was under the full moon on a Sicilian beach one hot summer night. Another outstanding cooked dish follows: crispy-skinned sablefish – similar to a sea bass – the color of an ocean pearl, cradled in a curved stone dish.
Our friend the crab is back, and he’s been steamed. Chef Ishibashi grabs a cutting board and slices into the crab legs with a sharp knife, extracting chunks of steaming white meat. The knife makes a decisive double crunch as it passes through the shell. Crack-crack, crack-crack. The crab legs are placed over pressed rice, served as nigiri.
When we think of “sushi,” nigiri is usually what comes to mind: small, hand-pressed bricks of vinegar-ed rice topped with strips of raw fish. In traditional omakase, the sushi is presented one piece at a time; the rice slightly warm against the cool fish. It should be eaten immediately, lightly pinched between the thumb and forefinger and shoveled into the mouth. Unless instructed otherwise, the sushi should be consumed as is, in one bite, for the best balance of flavor and texture. The chef will season the sushi while making it, so there’s no need to drag your fish through a muddy puddle of wasabi and soy sauce — sushi sacrilege! Highly-trained sushi chefs will custom-press nigiri according to the size of the customer’s mouth so the whole piece will fit comfortably in a single bite.
It’s a good thing I have a big mouth.
One after the other, I pop the nigiri into my mouth and close my eyes, trying to savor every moment. Two stools down, I can hear Suze losing it. “I’m freaking out!” she exclaims. I plunge through yellowtail, kanpachi, then a silver and pink Japanese jack mackerel.
As we’ve been throwing back nigiri and losing grip on our sushi bar decorum by allowing audible moans and sotto voce expletives to escape our lips, another crab dish has magically appeared. The chef has removed and shredded the remaining meat, topping it with a dollop of kani-miso, or guts. It is sublime.
Chef Ishibashi places a large, 12-sided bowl with a red interior onto the counter. At first he scoops white rice into the bowl. What happens next is positively shocking. I watch as he takes a tray of uni — rich, golden sea urchin — and dumps it into the rice. All of it, so much of it! — maybe a pound. I feel like we’re breaking some unspoken universal rule of extravagance. This precious sea urchin — the number one draft pick! — is being stirred into the rice. With a wooden spoon, the chef scoops out what now looks like a risotto the hue of yellow ochre, and packs it into the empty crab shell. This is wrapped in foil and taken away to be grilled.
If the Hokkaido crab plays the lead in this cinematic meal, the torigai, up next, is our comic relief. Its name translates to “large cockle,” and it looks like a flat, grayish alien. The chef lifts the torigai above his head and slams it down on the wooden prep area, where it begins to MOVE. It’s literally rippling along the counter. “What is that?” I ask. “It’s moving. Is it alive? It’s alive!” Suze grabs the camera. “Oh my God,” she says, “it’s like the Walking Dead!” The torrigai is chopped into four parts as it wriggles down the bar, each slimy, silver-gray section still curling and contracting as it’s placed onto the rice and lifted to our mouths. The top of the torigai is firm, while the underside is creamy and smooth, dissolving on our tongues, salty and sweet at the same time. Not bad for zombie sushi.
We plunge through more nigiri: dense white squid, lean maguro and medium fatty chūtoro tunas. Then, a wooden box is placed in front of me to examine, like one of David Copperfield’s illusions, but this box is no stage trick – the yellow tag marked “01″ says it all – this is the best uni in Tokyo, and I’m about to taste it.
Suze is waiting to be converted. She’s never liked uni, but I tell her she’s never really had it. So much of the sea urchin we see in take-out joints is old, frozen and tastes like rotten beach. Fresh uni is completely different, indescribably sweet and rich. We both bite into the number one uni, allowing the heady flavor of sweet ocean to wash over us. Suze is officially a fan.
The next course is a katsuo tataki, made with seared bonito, or skipjack tuna. It reminds me of a ceviche, or Hawaiian poke, slightly vinegary and topped with fresh ginger and spring onions.
We’ve come to the edgier part of the meal, beginning with an umaboshi (salty-sour pickled plum) hand roll followed by nigiri of bitter shiroebi, a tangled pile of tiny translucent shrimp, and the bawdy ark shell with its anatomically suggestive orange and pink flesh curled just-so over the rice.
Our crustacean superstar, the pièce de résistance, is back on the bar. The chef peels back the aluminum foil to reveal the grilled uni rice. He chops it into square sections, and serves it to us, still in the shell. The rice has solidified, warm and dense, infused with both the sea urchin and the flavor of crab drawn from the shell.
After a sampling of two kinds of eel, we dig into what I like to call, “the greatest dessert of my life.” In a small bowl, the chef tops white rice with liberal amounts of fresh uni and ikura (salmon roe). Two of my favorite foods together — my brain is definitely going to explode.
‘That’s it,’ I think to myself, ‘the grand finale,’ but there’s still one course remaining.
Like many premature goodbyes, I was wrong about the otoro. I would encounter it again tonight. A square of nori — dark green seaweed paper — crackles between the chef’s hands as he unfolds it to wrap our final course, a toro and scallion maki (sushi roll.) We each get four pieces, small and perfectly round. As I raise the final piece of maki to my lips to taste the otoro, music from an imaginary orchestra swells with the score to this edible farewell kiss.
The bill comes and it’s as steep as expected, perhaps even a little steeper. The thing is, sushi like this doesn’t come cheap, especially in Tokyo where the ingredients are of the highest quality and meticulously sourced. Would I eat like this every day? No. Would I allow myself one bank-breaking omakase blowout every few years? Yes. Absolutely. This meal is among the very small handful of meals I’ve considered to be life-altering.
Suze is no longer a stranger to Omakase. Breathless, happy, and full, she turns to the staff (who are bowing to us in their formal kimonos) before heading out the door and in her best Japanese, shouts, “Nihon e iku!” (Go Japan!)
Okura Annex 1F, 4-4 Ginza 3-Chome, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, 104-0061