Sushi may be the most famous Japanese food but I had really good sushi just once during the year I lived in Japan when my boss took us out one night. Sushi, sashimi, and raw fish are not hard to find though; it’s everywhere, actually. I could easily pick something up at the supermarket, kaiten sushi (conveyor belt “fast food” sushi places), or at depachika (department store basement food halls). But good quality sushi in Japan, as one can imagine, is expensive.
With serious concerns over radiation and contaminated waters after the tsunami in Japan, I thought that most Japanese would shy away from eating raw fish. But I actually found the locals (at least my friends) are quite relaxed about it, trusting that the government put enough safety measures in place to keep the population healthy. They do, especially my friends who are also Moms, look to see where their produce comes from but for the most part, they are living their lives as they have always done. What choice do they really have though? They couldn’t all just leave the country… although my friends tell me some did move farther down south to Okinawa, for example.
My friends in Korea on the other hand, were infinitely more worried that I was spending so much time in Tokyo and advised me to stay away. Korea being so close to Japan and the Korean diet relying so much on seafood, it seems that the threat of contamination is constantly discussed in the media. There is a strong bias against Japanese produce for sure (Korean government has recently banned fish from Fukushima and seven other prefectures), but the Korean fishermen and seafood industry as a whole has suffered a great deal since the accident because Koreans are simply refusing to buy fish. Some larger Korean markets now have employees standing by the fish counters with devices that measure radiation to reassure the customers that their seafood is safe to eat.
So it may sound totally insane and absolutely bonkers to have an all-out, full-blown, four-hour long raw seafood meal in Tokyo. But when an opportunity to have dinner with my dear friends at one of their favorite sushi places in Tsukiji (the famed fish market in Tokyo) presented itself, I took it without a moment’s hesitation.
After a few glasses of those, we headed out and walked down the street to Tsukiji. As with most of my memorable meals in Japan, the restaurant of choice is down some dark alley or in a basement of a nondescript building without a sign. Tonight was no exception. A few days later when I returned to the neighborhood during the day, I could not, for the life of me, locate this restaurant again…
This place wasn’t one of those fancy schmancy sushi restaurants where the air is thick with tradition and respect, where the chef is the master and you eat and behave as you are told. Don’t get me wrong, I like those places too and that is also a one of a kind experience in Japan. But this night, we were greeted by a gregarious and easygoing chef who engaged with us in conversation and entertained us the entire evening.
We took our seats around the counter, facing the chef and the display of what was on offer today. He wore a name tag that said 市川 Ichikawa; for the next few hours Ichikawa-san took us on a culinary journey. We thought… should we look at the menu and pick something out? No! We decided to just trust the chef and go with the flow. Let the sushi feast begin!
We also didn’t want to choose between 日本酒 nihonshu (what we call sake) and beer, so we went with both. It may appear that the glass next to my beer is filled with water, when in fact, it is all sake. I know, crazy kids. And let me just add a comment here that the Japanese have perfected the art of pouring the most gorgeous glass of draft beer…
Shredded beef cooked in soy, mirin, sugar, and sake, with eggplants and potatoes. They brought out this large bowl of the beef (left), which I looked at and said “I can’t eat all that?!” T laughed and told me it was enough to serve the entire restaurant, everything the kitchen produced of the dish that evening. I got just a ladle-full in a little appetizer sized dish (right).
Then came assorted vegetable tempura, including fried avocado. Crispy on the outside, soft and creamy on the inside, with a tiny sprinkling of pink salt and a squeeze of lemon.
Now we start the main event: rather than getting our sushi all at once, we asked the chef to give us one piece at a time. We began with fresh sardines, iwashi.
Now that we are sufficiently schooled in tuna parts, next up – bluefin tuna. From left to right: akami (literally means red meat), 中とろ chūtoro (medium fatty tuna belly), 大とろ ōtoro (the fattiest, the most expensive part of tuna).
After seeing me click away with my iphone the entire evening, Ichikawa-san decided that he would help me make my photos look prettier. He put some colorful garnish around the tuna sushi for me. And then struck a pose for me as well.
And then proceeded to make wasabi maki.
Tada! Wasabi maki.
Now we’re done. How do we feel about our meal?
Definitely a sushi meal to remember. During dinner a nice couple happened to sit to my right, who turned out to be from Manhattan and lived just a few blocks away from my old apartment. A little shout-out to Keiko & David, it was nice meeting you!
Tsukijitadori Bekkan 築地虎杖 別館: 4, Tsukiji Neighborhood Building , 4-1-16, Chuo-ku, Tokyo (map); 東京都中央区築地4-10-16 築地4丁目町会ビル1F
Website in Japanese: www.itadori.co.jp, info in English here, phone: 03-3543-1244. Make reservations for dinner, as we saw a number of people being turned away during the evening. But walk-in’s are welcome.