ONE thing you learn after having sushi for lunch and dinner several days in a row in Tokyo - apart from niggling thoughts about the levels of mercury and microbes in one's digestive tract from all the raw fish ingested - is that there is cheap and good sushi, and there is good sushi, and never the twain shall meet.
It's a concept that the local Japanese understand completely, but which the visitor to Tokyo will not, especially those who think that scoring a table at Daiwa in Tsukiji is the equivalent of achieving sushi nirvana. For the locals, cheap and good means just that - the fish is fresh, you get large portions of it, but it's still lower quality fish. No matter how hard you try to prove that really good sushi can be had for a fraction of the price of super high end sushi restaurants, the truth is - sushi nirvana costs a minimum of S$300-$350 a person, and only at dinner time. Don't bother trying to scrimp and go to these restaurants at lunchtime - it's still good, but the difference is like night and day.
This sushi odyssey was inspired by a common refrain found on foodie websites along the lines of 'Kyubei (Tokyo's most famous and expensive sushi joint) is over-priced. You can get sushi that's just as good at such-and-such restaurant for a fraction of the price'. For sushi aficionados who want to find out for themselves if this is true, the best way is to sample sushi from one end of the price spectrum to the other. The conclusion will be the same - you can get good quality sushi within any price range, but you will never find Kyubei quality at Daiwa prices, period. But that doesn't mean your journey of discovery won't be delicious at every stop.
Stop 1: Tokyu Supermarket
SO you swear by the sushi at Meidi-Ya supermarket in River Valley? You ain't seen nothing yet. While the likes of Tokyo's Isetan and Takashimaya boast takeaway sushi in their newly refurbished food halls, Tokyu supermarket retains its original frenetic self complete with fish vendors trying to out-shout each other to attract customers to their displays of gleaming red slabs of tuna and other freshly cut seafood. Enticing displays of sushi in various permutations call out to shoppers who fill their baskets with dinner for the day. The prices are amazing - fat slices of fish on rice can be had for around 980 yen (about S$13), while roughly cut tuna sashimi went for about 900 yen.
Bear in mind that the sushi has to survive the subway or taxi ride back to your hotel before you can tuck in (the Japanese consider it rude to eat in public so don't rip open your sushi in a corner of the supermarket to guzzle it - be patient) but you'll still find the quality superior to that of Meidi-ya's. Even then, you can tell from the taste and texture that cheap cuts are used - the tuna sashimi had a slightly stringy texture and lacklustre flavour. Cheap rice is used for the sushi, and while the fish was pretty fresh, stringy veins, too hard or too soft textures dominated. These qualities are not really something you notice when eating sushi in Singapore, but as you continue to try better and better quality fish in Tokyo, your palate soon learns to tell the difference.
Stop 2: Sushi Daiwa, Tsukiji Fish Market
YOU may have long given up on the idea of ever getting into this tiny little restaurant that is as famous as the fish market itself. There isn't a single foodie website that doesn't recommend it, which means long lines for sushi breakfasts as early as 5 am. If you're not able to wake up in time with the rest of Japan's tuna, take a chance and go there at around 1 in the afternoon. The market itself would have closed by then but if you're lucky, it will be almost closing time at Daiwa and hardly anyone will be lining up to get in.
That means you might be able to squeeze in with the last diners of the day, at a counter where you sit shoulder-to-shoulder with both locals and non-Japanese in a claustrophobic ambience. But you hunker down and ignore your discomfort as you mutter 'setto' (set) to the amiable chef who immediately starts plonking down fat hunks of toro (tuna belly) on your plate.
Refined elegance is hardly what you get in Daiwa. It's just chop shop service with roughly cut chunks of fish slapped down on rice with no finesse whatsoever. But yes, the fish is fresh and in generous portions - the toro was more of a slab than a slice, albeit so icy that its clean and milky texture was dulled in the mouth. They pay no attention to temperature or presentation, but compared to the other sushi joints in the area, you can't beat Daiwa in terms of value-for-money. A couple of notches above Tokyu, Daiwa is tops in its category. But is it the best sushi you'll find in Tokyo? Not by a long shot.
Stop 3: Midori Sushi, Ginza
7-108, Ginza Korida-dori 1F.
LISTED in the Luxe travel guide, Midori is located in the trendy Ginza Corridor, joining a long row of restaurants just below the train tracks. Long queues can be expected, but they thin out closer to the end of lunch time (one thing you notice about the Japanese is that they eat lunch and dinner pretty early) and boasts some of the largest slices of fish or eel on smallish balls of rice one has ever seen. It's probably Ginza's equivalent of Daiwa - where quantity dominates quality but the sheer size of its set meals is enough to make you forget about the cheap quality (albeit fresh) of the fish.
Set meals can be had for as low as 2,190 yen - a large platter of mixed sushi which includes tuna, sea eel (anago), sea urchin (uni), yellowtail (hamachi), salmon roe, shrimp and omelette (tamago), and a small chawanmushi and crab liver salad. If you're hungry, you can really fuel up on one of these sets. Have one of these and you could probably set off on foot from Ginza to Roppongi Hills without the need to refuel. But if you want to expound on the finer qualities of uni sushi, this place would fail. Sure, it's value for money but not value for your palate. But where mass market dining is concerned, this is definitely one of the better places.
Stop 4: Seamon Sushi Restaurant, Sakaguchi Bldg.
6F, 5-5-13, Ginza, Chuo-ku.
Tel: 03-5537-0010. www.seamon.jp.
NOW that you know what 'cheap and good' sushi tastes like, it's time to raise the stakes a little at this very appealing sushi joint that marries modern design aesthetics with Edo-mae (pre-Edo)style sashimi and sushi. Step into a tiny lift which brings you to an equally tiny restaurant that looks more like a really cool bar where patrons sit either at a long sushi counter or mould themselves to fit into the tiny tables that seem to have been scooped out of the adjacent wall.
Lunch sets are affordably priced from 2,940 yen to 6,825 yen. Try the 4,725 yen Seamon set lunch for a delicate and delicious peek into what the restaurant offers. Quality-wise it is several notches above the likes of Daiwa and Midori - and you're eating in stylish surroundings where as much emphasis is placed on the crockery used as the ingredients themselves.
The set starts off with a seaweed and vegetable salad and a homemade sesame tofu square topped with a tiny wafer of dried fish and wasabi. A super fresh oyster is served in its shell with a well-tempered soy vinaigrette, followed by the prettiest shrimp sashimi - sliced thin and fanned out on a rock slab, served with julienned slices of kelp which you roll with the shrimp and squeeze a drop of yuzu juice on. The head of the shrimp is deep fried to a crunchy crisp that you eat whole.
A good selection of sushi is artfully presented one after another - sea bream, tuna, squid, toro, horse mackerel, crunchy baby scallops, and a comforting bowl of salmon roe on top of warm seasoned rice that was exquisite. Sure, it's more expensive than Daiwa or Midori, but affordably so, and you enjoy a better ambience, presentation and yes, higher quality fish.
Stop 5: Sushi Nakata, Mikuni Ginza Building.
5F, 6-7-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo.
Branch: Imperial Hotel
IF Kyubei is said to be among the top sushi restaurants in Tokyo, Nakata is said to be just one level below. While there is a more convenient outlet at the Imperial Hotel, the original outlet at the Mikuni building offers better quality in a more authentic setting. Mind you, the prices here are not cheap - it's pretty much Kyubei pricing although the standard is definitely a notch lower, which makes one conclude that it is rather overpriced. But if you want to explore the various levels in sushi quality at the top price level in Tokyo, Nakata is a good example.
Authenticity is its selling factor - that's assuming you're open to the idea that nobody here speaks a word of English, and it's patronised completely by locals. It must be, given the looks of surprise that you get when you open your mouth and no Japanese comes out. That doesn't stop the sushi chef from rattling off at you in Japanese earnestly, perhaps in the hope that if he speaks long enough, you'll understand something. He was so earnest that you feel bad about not understanding, so it was a stroke of luck that the waitress turned out to be from China, so some mangled Mandarin later and all was well.
The sushi here is large, so large that the chef kindly cuts each piece into two for easier eating. There was blood red maguro, squid, clam, sardine, grilled anago, and some lovely broiled toro sushi. It wasn't a lot of sushi, and a bill of S$300 for two left a lump in our throats. But the quality was definitely top notch, which you can tell from the sweetness and odour-free uni, which you only get at restaurants of this level. Lunch here was a far sight better than the average quality sushi at the Imperial Hotel branch, which serves to show that so long as one restaurant has branches, it's always best to go to the original.
Stop 6: Sushi Kyubei,
8-7-6 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo.
SUSHI nirvana is close at hand at the original location of this 71-year-old restaurant run by owner Yosuke Imada for the past 30 years since he took over the reins from his father. Kyubei is known for inventing gunkan-maki - the style of sushi where seaweed is wrapped around sushi rice and topped with roe or uni.
With several branches across the city - and one just across the road from the original - Kyubei has been expanding at an amazing rate, while enjoying enormous press coverage and an A-list clientele from around the world. All this threatens to take away the charm of the restaurant, especially at lunch, when the well-priced sets (about 4,000 yen upwards) are served assembly line style by a chef who slices his fish in advance before fashioning them into sushi and distributes among the six people or so he is attending to. The quality meets standards but is hardly memorable. But go for dinner and it's a different story altogether.
Super milky chutoro sashimi, a beautifully bouncy/crunchy slice of hirame, silky shiroko (whale sperm) so fresh it just needed a light dressing, crunchy deep-fried sea eel bone and mind-blowingly tender steamed abalone - it all sent memories of Daiwa and Midori disappearing into oblivion. It's here that you will truly understand the concept of fine sushi and why it is impossible to get good and cheap sushi that is of this quality and of such high cooking standards. It's the quality of the rice, the temperature of the fish, the way they parboil shrimp to perfection and the expertise of the chefs that make it such a fine dining experience that's well worth the $300 price tag.
Not to mention that owner Mr Imada personally shows up towards the end of the meal to greet and chit chat with customers, passing out copies of an interview he did with the Wall Street Journal. There's no denying that his PR machine is in overdrive as he builds what the WSJ calls a sushi empire, but with sushi this good, he can be forgiven.
Stop 7: Sushiko,
6-3-8 Ginza, Tokyo.
IF the hype around Kyubei isn't quite your cup of tea, you are guaranteed of an equally good, if not better, sushi meal at the less-publicised but equally venerable Sushiko, also in Ginza. This personal favourite has been around for about a century and is run by a fourth-generation owner, with a quieter, cosier ambience where the focus is more on the food than the hype.
There are two floors of counter seating which fit 11 people each. Fortuitously, we ended up in the coveted second floor, where chef Hirata and his more than adequate English and sommelier skills ensured that we had a memorable meal.
Like most restaurants of this ilk, there is no menu to speak of, and they literally feed you until you tell them to stop, probably at the $350 level. An interesting range of starters included a clean-tasting fresh crab salad, exquisite clam in sake, and an amazing melt in the mouth tuna sushi with absolutely no sign of veins or stringiness. This is achieved by a chef who painstakingly cleaves layer after layer from a slab of tuna, removing all the sinews until he is left with pure, fatty ambrosia that he slices and mounds over perfectly cooked rice. You just can't get enough of this silky smooth mouth feel, and with superb uni, broiled tuna and more, you truly feel that you have achieved the ultimate in sushi dining - if you have to scrimp on other meals, do so, because a meal like this you just cannot miss.
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