How long after you try something amazing, do you forget about it? I’m writing this almost one year after we visited Sushiya in Tokyo, and I still remember the taste, the tenderness, the aroma of the otoro as if I was there, touching it. The same neurons that were firing up in my brain are making me salivate again today.
I also recall us arriving 10 minutes early and being asked to return 10 minutes later. Precision with everything. Then we realised that there simply was no space to wait around while they were preparing things. The entrance is extremely well hidden. There are no walk-in customers, so it doesn’t really matter, but even when you use your phone to get you there, you’re still left wondering if the entrance can really be hidden in that dark, super tiny alley (yes, it is).
We sat down in 2 of 7 seats at the bar. Minimal decoration, very quiet, yet casual and friendly. Chef Takao Ishyama makes you instantly feel at home – and his English is very good. Ishyama has worked in some of the finest sushi places in Tokyo, including Sushi Saito. For the last 5 years he is the head chef at Sushiya Ginza. He starts getting the fish from the wooden boxes that they store underneath the counter and working the rice from a free-standing bowl off the counter. The atmosphere is quiet but relaxed, and we start enjoying our sushi.
Basic math: 17>14>10. (Also, usually: 22≠17)
You can chose 10- or 14-piece sashimi. Or a 17-piece omakase with either sashimi or mixed sashimi/nigiri. We order the giant omakase – by the way, did you know there is a condition called FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out? I think I have that.
The chef starts cutting fish and preparing amazing nigiri pieces. Each nigiri piece was a little joy to watch. Every single piece entailed the exact same movements and that extreme precision. The way that he flicks his wrist and fingers is flamboyant and ceremonial, from balling the rice with his right hand, to shaping it with both hands, then adding the (freshly grated) wasabi and finally brushing the soy sauce on top. He has a particular way of cutting the fish, with deep reverence, especially the fatty tuna. You can see him angling the knife a certain way and then adjust it when he reaches the different layers of fat and flesh. The final step in cutting involves a decisive vertical cut that brings the blade down to the board. I also admire the way he keeps track of seven guests with different orders and two more staff behind the curtains. They bring things in and out with just a few words spoken. Extremely well-orchestrated.
Time for our first bite: Nigiri, flounder and yellowtail (hirame and hamachi). Glorious taste. Moist, complex, deep, light. Right afterwards, one of our favorites for the day, medium fatty tuna (chutoro). More tender than the lean tuna, but not as overwhelming in fatty flavor as the otoro.
Then we had otoro – fatty tuna. This was the best piece of sushi I have ever eaten in my life. It’s just something that you must try. In this city, it’s one of the best delicacies you will come across. The combination of the tuna taste with the fat, just makes your taste receptors extremely happy 🙂 We proceeded with lean tuna (akami), from the same fish, but cut from near the back. He had cut this fish after we first sat down and let it marinate in soy sauce about 25 minutes. This is called zuke – it concentrates the flavor and is a traditional preparation before refrigeration existed (in Edo style sushi). It was slightly salty and very new to me.
Another favourite was squid (no soy here). Perforated along the top with the knife blade (lenght-wise). Served with a dash of salt (coarse) and a squeeze of a mini lemon. We proceeded with another new item (for me), shirako, which is fish sperm of cod. He had grilled it on skewers and gave it a rough chop and served it in a bowl with a dash of pepper on it. It looked like a cat brain (doesn’t sound exciting, I know), it was creamy and soft, but it did have a sense of structure. It’s in season in winter and I would definitely order it again.
We next had pickled sardine, sishamo and kuruma-ebi (raw tiger prawn). Sishamo is worth a special mention. It is lightly grilled and served whole. This is not a common sushi fish. You eat it including the head and the bones but they are quite tender. It’s about 13cm long, in season in autumn from Hokkaido. Was slightly salty and very light flesh. Previous experience eating whole small fish required. The raw tiger prawn was served with green roe on top. Amazing. Soft and melty.
Next up, aji (horse mackerel) with a pinch of dried seaweed on top of the rice and green roe on top of the fish, and then grilled sea eel served with a spicy paste. And then bonito – roe underneath, garlic on top. Garlic was quite powerful – fish tasted a bit smoky. I’ve had sushi served with garlic before, but this was the first time I tasted the correct balance of garlic with sushi. The garlic was much weaker than usual. Apparently this is seasonal in the winter when the aji swim from northern Japan to the S. Pacific. Mildly smoky, slightly salty, rich flavor and texture. And then a baby shrimp – a pile of it served on the rice ball! I don’t know how they didn’t fall all over the place when he served it, or more miraculously, when I picked it up to eat it! There must have been some gelatinous substance keeping them together. It tasted quite strong, (fishy), more than other shrimps/prawns I’ve had. The texture was so soft, you didn’t even have to chew it, just mash it with your tongue. Then we had a bowl of salmon roe (ikura), like a big sake cup. It was served with lemon zest on top. He zests the lemon and then brushes it on top of the sushi. And then sea urchin (uni) which is again, not so easy to find.
I have to note here, we are already at 16 pieces (if you’re counting) and our order is starting to seem too big, we’re getting really full! We continue though, with an amazing sea perch, seared, wrapped around grass-like mini green onions and in a bath of ponzu. This was a true delicacy. I’ve never had this before. Very well cooked (probably grilled), great aroma, super fresh. The mini onions were an excellent crispy contrast to the perch’s squid-like texture. Notable was also the small wooden box (like a cigar box), where the grass was arranged perfectly aligned and straight. We thought we were finished but there was also crab, very fresh, sprinkled with a few drops of mini lemon, and then nigiri of eel – topped with salt and lemon zest, miso soup (since when is this served at the end?), and then –as a dessert– a piece of maki with pickled winter melon and a piece of omelet to finish things off. Total of about 22 pieces, a marathon of sushi.
Sushi Guide Verdict
Just like a marathon though, the reward when you finish is unique. This has been one of the best sushi experiences I’ve had, and I still remember how happy I was that day. Everything was ‘just right’. The atmosphere, the taste, the decoration, the fish, and of course the rice. You can’t go wrong with Sushi-ya Ginza. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!