Friday, March 21, 2014

"through the narrow door" | Sushi Yoshitake - 鮨よしたけ - Tokyo

Perhaps it was over-ambitious to have made a dinner reservation for the evening of our arrival in Tokyo, after about seventeen hours of travel. But it seemed foolish to miss any opportunity. As it turned out, we had just enough time to retrieve our bags from the airport carousel, hop on the train, transfer to the subway, get lost in the Shinbashi Station, find our way (with some assistance) to the hotel, check in, drop our bags, splash some water on our faces, and hail a taxi to Sushi Yoshitake in nearby Ginza.

When we arrived, our driver pointed up to make sure we understood that the restaurant was on the third floor of what appeared to be a nondescript office building. After exiting the elevator, we spotted the kanji that matched the picture our hotel concierge had provided us, fumbled with the door,[1] and then nearly stumbled right on top of six diners seated along a wooden counter in a room smaller than many walk-in closets. A hostess politely shooed us back outside, then directed us across the landing to what appeared to be a cupboard built into the wall. We assumed she was going to put our coats away there. Instead, she opened the door and beckoned us inside.

We stepped through the narrow door, crouched into a tight passageway, and emerged into an even smaller room - if the first one was a walk-in closet, this was a broom closet - which was our private little sushi den for the evening. So this is what a Michelin three-star restaurant looks like in Tokyo.

(You can see all my pictures in this Sushi Yoshitake flickr set).

The chef,[2] in halting English, asked if we had any dietary restrictions. "We eat everything." That was put to the test immediately. The first course, our first bite in Japan, was a chawanmushi topped with fugu shirako. I fully processed these words[3] only after having taken a couple bites. "Fugu" is pufferfish - potentially lethally poisonous if prepared improperly. "Shirako" is milt or "soft roe," i.e., the fish's, er, laden male genitalia. The shirako is one of the most sought-after delicacies from the fugu fish, and February, it turns out, is high season for both fugu and shirako in Japan.[4]

Blistered from a quick sear on the grill, the shirako was warm, creamy and subtly oceanic, its texture and flavor nearly blending into the silky, dashi-inflected custard on which it rested - a warming welcome on a cold evening. It was neither as gross as you might think nor, frankly, so delicious as to warrant risking death.[5]

Several rounds of sashimi followed. Octopus, cut in big blocks, had three distinct textures - the thin membrane and suckers with an almost crispy pellicle, beneath which a delicate, gelatinous layer surrounded the main part of the tentacle, which was tender with just a bit of pleasing chew to it. Next, stacked slivers of pink-hued amadei (tilefish), just the skin seared, were served with a soy sauce infused with the fish's bones.

(continued ...)

A few more sashimi items followed. Thickly cut planks of abalone were simmered to retain a delicate hint of their bouncy texture, and napped with a rich, thick moss-green sauce of the abalone's liver. Bonito (a/k/a katsuo) is a fish not often served raw as it spoils quickly,[6] but this was impeccable - barely seared tataki style, doused with a bit of soy sauce, and topped with a mound of finely minced green onion and ginger. Picked crab meat - some big pieces, as well as finer shreds mixed with minced daikon radish - was soft, briny and sweet. Each of these was excellent.

Everybody asks when you come back from Japan, "Was it the best sushi you ever ate?" Of course the answer is yes. But why? To me, the answer is three-fold:

1. The raw ingredients. This is the most obvious factor. And yes, both the quality and variety of fish and seafood exceeded what I've experienced at any sushi bar on this side of the planet.[7] Good sushi restaurants in the U.S. source much of their product from Japan, but there is still a difference between having direct, immediate access to suppliers (and for the top restaurants, the ability to choose from the best of their wares), and having an order sheet filled by someone several thousand miles away. This kinmedai (golden eye snapper)[8] was a good example - more richly marbled with fat than any other I've had.[9]

2. The rice. Sushi snobs will tell you that sushi is really about the shari (the rice), not the neta (the "topping"). Well, that's kind of bullshit. If it was about the rice, you'd eat a bowl of rice and be happy. To me, what it's about is the combination of rice and neta, which depends on ideal temperature, texture and seasoning of the rice. And this is where, in my experience anyway, many sushi bars that buy good fish still fail: the rice too often is cold, gummy, clumpy and under-seasoned. Yoshitake's rice is seasoned with akazu vinegar (made from sake lees), which gives the rice a reddish-brown hue and a soft, almost sweet tang. It is also served just faintly warm - maybe a smidgen over room temperature, and is just sticky enough to hold together without camouflaging the texture of the individual grains.

3. The knifework. This, I think, is the most underrated of the differences between a great sushi experience and a good one. Sometimes it may be purely aesthetic - everyone seems to have fun making designs with the shiny skin and pinkish-red flesh of kohada (gizzard shad) and other hikarimono (silver-skinned fish) - but other times it clearly enhances the eating experience. The ika (squid) at Yoshitake was given a series of diagonal cuts in a cross-hatch pattern maybe a couple millimeters apart. These had the effect of softening and tenderizing the raw flesh, making it possible to savor the sticky, almost milky quality of the raw squid while minimizing the chewy, sometimes bouncy texture.

A triptych of tuna followed - (1) magurozuke, a lean cut of the loin, briefly marinated in soy sauce; (2) chu-toro, medium fatty tuna, tender, with a richness almost like prime beef; and (3) o-toro, the finely marbled, fattiest cut of the belly, cut here in a braid pattern. Unfortunately most toro comes from bluefin tuna, which I try to avoid eating because of concerns that overfishing is depleting their stocks - but I did not follow this rule while in Japan. For a number of reasons - language, politeness, and perhaps selfishness - it was difficult to turn down.

Hikarimono, or silver-skinned fish, are among my favorites, and of those, kohada (gizzard shad) is perhaps at the top of the list. A smaller fish with somewhat firm flesh and dramatic shining skin striped with black spots, it is usually pickled in vinegar as it tends to spoil quickly. Yoshitake's was among the best I've ever had, still having the taste of fresh fish rather than being overwhelmed by vinegar. The underside of the fish was dabbed in dried shrimp powder before being shaped into nigiri - to enhance the sweetness, according to the chef. It was followed by a variation on Osaka-style "saba battera," traditionally a roll of saba (mackerel) pressed with rice in a box and topped with pickled kombu. Yoshitake's version folded in a shiso leaf, which provided a complementary note of herbaceous brightness.

Akagai, or ark-shell clam,[10] is an item I'd never had before but which we encountered often throughout Japan. It had a pleasingly snappy, firm texture and clean, oceanic flavor similar to other larger clams I've tried, like mirugai (geoduck) or aoyagi (orange clam). Once again, the knifework - the slashes across the "wings" of the clam that give it even more of an appearance of something out of "Alien" - is essential, as otherwise I suspect this could be like chewing on a gigantic pencil eraser.

Most of the sea urchin I've eaten in the U.S. comes from Southern California, mostly around the Santa Barbara area. It's a very good product. Sometimes you will also find uni from the Hokkaido region of Japan, which are typically smaller, firmer "tongues." (You can see them side by side in this photo). Not surprisingly, in Japan, Hokkaido uni is much more prevalent, but there was also a wider variety than I've ever seen before. At Yoshitake, this gunkan maki was filled with two different types of uni - both the smaller types I'm accustomed to, and larger ones at least three times their size.[11]

While this luxury item is often doled out somewhat parsimoniously, the chef at Yoshitake was prodigal in his approach. It seemed as if he was in a contest to see how much uni could be crammed into one bite. Layer upon layer of the smaller tongues were nestled within the nori wrapper, then crowned with as many of the larger tongues as he could balance on top. It was ridiculously indulgent and absolutely wonderful.

The kuruma ebi, or striped tiger prawns, are also clearly a point of pride - they came toward the end of our meal when sushi chefs tend to save their heavy artillery, and were presented whole (and live) before being boiled a la minute and prepared for sushi. And yet I didn't fully understand the appeal, finding the prawn somewhat stiff in texture and muted in flavor. The unagi (eel) which followed was a delight, though, tender, fluffy and light, with a sweet soy glaze that was concentrated without being cloying.

Tamago typically marks the conclusion of a sushi meal - but while the coda was often the same, the style in which it was played was different at each place we ate. Yoshitake's tamago was dense and sweet, almost like a custard. Meanwhile, a light clear broth, infused with citrus and specked with fresh herbs, was a soothing final grace note to our dinner.

As we wrapped ourselves in our coats and headed to the elevator, I saw our itamae dashing out the door. As we came out on the ground floor, he was waiting there to see us off for the evening. When was the last time you saw a chef at a Michelin three-star restaurant bound down three flights of stairs so he could open the door to your taxi?

No doubt jetlag was a factor, but the whole experience - the tiny entranceway, the spare but elegant private dining room, the procession of such pristine seafood, the incredibly gracious send-off - felt like something out of a dream, or like a moment in a Murakami novel when the universe has suddenly been subtly but significantly altered. I want it to stay that way.

Sushi Yoshitake - 鮨よしたけ
3F Suzuryu Building 8-7-19 Ginza Chuo-ku Tokyo

[1] Having been on the ground in Tokyo for all of about thirty minutes, we'd not yet figured out that many restaurants - whether for aesthetics or due to space constraints - have sliding doors.

[2] Since Chef Yoshitake was in the main dining room we stumbled upon, we were served by one of his assistants.

[3] I am generally terrible with foreign languages - except for food words, with which I am a savant.

[4] For information on seasonal specialties, as well as so much else, we found Yukari Sakamoto's Food Sake Tokyo to be an invaluable resource. For puerile fish milt jokes, stick around here, because there's more where that came from.

[5] Though that risk is presumably part of the attraction to fugu, it is also seemingly somewhat overstated. Those hoping to play up the drama note that tetradoxin, the neurotoxin concentrated in the fish's liver and ovaries, is more potent than cyanide, and that several people supposedly die from fugu poisoning every year. But they usually don't mention that virtually none of those poisonings are the result of consumption at restaurants (rather, it's apparently usually fishermen consuming their own catch or amateur home chefs). An incident at a Michelin 2-star restaurant garnered some press a few years ago, involving a diner who requested to be served the fish's liver (which Japan has banned serving since 1984).

[6] It is, however, ubiquitous in Japanese cooking in the form of katsuobushi, the dried, smoked and shaved fish flakes that are used in making dashi.

[7] Though I don't claim anything close to comprehensive experience with the top-end sushi temples of L.A. or N.Y.

[8] Also known as "splendid alfonsino," which would make for a great rap name or porn pseudonym.

[9] This is also in part a seasonal thing - kinmedai put on fat in the cold months and are considered at their best in the winter.

[10] Also called red clam or blood clam for the hue of the flesh, apparently attributable to a high hemoglobin content.

[11] You can see this larger uni before assembly here.


  1. Consider, for a moment, that great sushi restaurants all have pristine fish and other toppings. At the highest level, this is a given. What, then, differentiates one sushi-ya from another? The rice. Thus, sushi is a rice dish with fish, not a fish dish with rice. At least that's how I've always thought of it.

  2. Thanks for the kind words about Food Sake Tokyo, published by The Little Bookroom. Glad you like our book!