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Friday, Oct. 17, 2003



An altar in the temple of fresh fish

Why does sushi have to be so expensive? Granted, a modest meal at your neighborhood sushiyashouldn't involve too great an outlay. And when it comes to the mass-produced offerings that chug around conveyor belts on color-coded plates, you will never want to eat enough of them to seriously dent your wallet. But if you want the real, no-holds-barred sushi experience, then you have to be ready to pay for the privilege.

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Chef Maki Isogai prepares another prime morsel at this classic sushi shop in the heart of Tsukiji Uogashi.

An evening at a premium sushi shop can set you back at least 15,000 yen a head (considerably more at the most exclusive Ginza establishments), and lunch may not be much cheaper. Why should this be so? Obviously, the quality of the fish -- its provenance and freshness -- is crucial. So too are the skills and experience of the itamae, the man preparing it. All too often, though, you feel you're paying for a prime address, haughty service and surroundings that are scrubbed so clean they feel aseptic.

It doesn't have to be that way. It certainly isn't at Sushi-bun. Push aside the indigo noren emblazoned with its two massive kanji characters, and slide open the well-worn wooden doors. You will find yourself in a space as homely and modest -- and as reasonable -- as a workingman's cafe. Which of course it is, since it lies right in the middle of Tsukiji Uogashi, the largest fish market in the world.

This may not be not the most famous of the Tsukiji sushi shops (that honor currently goes to its near neighbor, Daiwazushi, which is now so popular you can wait in line for hours to get in), but few other places in the city can boast a longer history. Sushi-bun has been here for as long as the market has existed. Before that it was at the old fish market in Nihonbashi, which was destroyed in the Great Tokyo Earthquake. Founded more than 150 years ago, this could be the oldest sushiya in the world.

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The top-of-the-line course at Sushi-bun features premium seafood, including three grades of tuna, at market workers' prices.

It was the great-grandfather of the present owner, Koji Isogai, who started the family business, though it is his son Maki who actually stands behind the counter. After five generations in business, they could be forgiven for putting on airs. But their welcome is gracious no matter who squeezes through the door, be it a grizzled fishmonger, a nearby office worker or some camera-toting foreigner.

Sushi-bun is a classic hole-in-the-wall operation, with barely room for a dozen to perch elbow-to-elbow on stools along the narrow counter. Isogai keeps everything spotlessly clean, though, and needless to say his fish is of the best quality -- it could hardly get much fresher.

That is why most people start by ordering the sashimi mori-awase, a selection of prime cuts from whatever fish is at the peak of its season. This is what we were served last week: chu-toro, the wondrously marbled belly-flesh of premium bluefin tuna; ineffably creamy and succulent, this is the ultimate -- you need look no further. Maguro, the blood-red flesh of the tuna; maguro is bland in comparison with chu-toro, but because it was not frozen, this still had a deep flavor. Thin slivers of pure white ika (squid), firm but not chewy. A couple of slices of fresh, sweet scallops. And buri (yellowtail), rich fatty cuts from the belly, almost white in color and rivaling the chu-toro for sheer luxury.

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The lines form well before lunchtime outside sushi shops in Tsukiji Market.

Like all the fish at Sushi-bun, this was caught in the wild, not reared artificially. The difference in taste is outstanding. Sashimi like this cries out to be paired with premium nihonshu. But in keeping with their blue-collar roots, the house sake is basic Ozeki; your only choice is whether you want it warmed or chilled.

When you are ready for your sushi, the easiest option -- and the most economical way to sample the range of Isogai's fish cabinet -- is again to order one of the set combinations. Unless you are seriously watching your budget, do not miss the top-of-the-line 3,500 yen omakase tasting menu.

Isogai works with the concise speed and efficiency of a sushi master. He rocks to and fro as if following the steps of an ancient dance, as he fashions each individual morsel, before setting it down on the leaf of green sasa bamboo spread in front of you.

First off, three grades of tuna -- regular red maguro; pink chu-toro, the same as was served as sashimi; and pale o-toro, the fattiest cut of all, the Rolls Royce of all sushi. To be able to sample these side by side is a rare chance to educate your palate; it is also a supreme pleasure.

The rest of the sushi course follows in quick succession. More yellowtail; silver-skinned aji (horse mackerel); a round, nori-wrapped gunkan ("battleship") roll piled high with tender kaibashira (scallop holdfasts); another gunkan roll, this time heaped with bright orange uni (urchin) that's so sweet and fresh it will make a believer of anyone; a long pink shrimp; and the specialty of the house, broiled anago (sea eel) slathered with thick, brown tare sauce.

To round off the proceedings, you get a thick wedge of tamago-yaki omelet; three pieces of a thin nori roll containing shellfish and thin-sliced cucumber; and a small bowl of piping-hot miso-shiru, the savory broth providing a counterpoint of taste every bit as effective as the gari ginger.

This is about as good as sushi can get -- at this or any price. If there is a drawback, it is that Sushi-bun follows the market schedule and takes down its noren at 2:30 p.m. So if you still want prime sushi for your dinner, you'll either have to go to bed early, like the market workers; or bite the bullet and pay top dollar somewhere else in town.

Chuo Shijo Bldg. No. 8, 5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku; tel: (03) 3541-3860; www.sushibun.com
Open:5:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; closed Sunday, holidays and market holidays (these often fall on Wednesday)
Nearest stations: Tsukiji (Hibiya Line) and Tsukiji-Ichiba (Oedo Line)
How to get there:From Tsukiji Station, cross Harumi-dori and walk past the stalls of the outer market. Turn left at the gas station and enter the market proper. After about 200 meters you will see several rows of small shops and eateries. Go down the fourth row (counting from the Harumi-dori end) and you will see Sushi-bun on the left almost immediately. From the Oedo Subway Station, leave by exit A2, cross the main road and enter the market through the main gate.
What works: You'll never taste better fish at these prices.
What doesn't:It's a long walk to the nearest restroom.
Number of seats: 12 crammed in at the counter
BGM: Sometimes the TV, mostly just the murmur of conversation.
Price per head:Sushi sets at 2,000 yen, 2,500 yen and 3,500 yen; mixed sashimi platter 2,500 yen
Drinks:Beer from 500 yen; sake 500 yen
Credit cards: Cash only
Language:English menu available; English not spoken.
Reservations: It's first come first served.

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