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Friday, June 10, 2005
TOKYO FOOD FILE
There's nothing to fear in naturally good sushi
Entering an old-school Edomae sushi shop for the first time can be daunting -- even for the most self-confident of us. The welcome is often so vocal it verges on the aggressive. The cedarwood counters look scrubbed to the point of sterility, the gleaming bright interiors afford little sense of warmth or familiarity, and there is minimal cover for taking stock of your situation.
There is also the question of where to sit. Position yourself at the counter and you may feel pressure to engage the itamae (sushi chef) in conversation, to display your savvy and demonstrate that you cannot be palmed off with second-rate cuts of seafood. Yet to retreat to a table off to one side is to miss the visual pleasure of watching a sushi master at work, fashioning your nigiri with the barest flick of his fingers.
And then there is the cost factor. Few sushi shops post their prices, at least for individual orders, and enjoyment of even the finest quality fish can be impaired by the gnawing uncertainty of what the final tab will come to.
From the outset, Sushi Ouchi dispels much of this concern. The hand-dyed linen noren across the door; the farmhouse interior of blackened beams and antique tansu chests against fresh white plasterwork; the mingei knickknacks on the walls: Everything is reassuring. Were it not for the array of fish in the glass-fronted counter, you could almost be in an old-style gourmet coffee shop.
This is no ordinary sushiya, and the master of the house, Hisashi Ouchi, is far from the typical itamae. He prefers indigo work clothes to a stiff white chef's jacket. A native of rural Fukushima, he is cheerful and garrulous. And he holds very pronounced views on the quality of his ingredients.
The criteria, stated prominently on the menu as well as on a placard outside the front door, are stringent. He only serves fish caught from the wild; rice from organic farms; naturally brewed rice vinegar, shoyu, miso and mirin; sea salt sun-dried in old-style saltpans; and fertilized eggs from free-range chickens. His water is carefully filtered. And since the day he opened this shop, 22 years ago, he has shunned all artificial additives.
Here we eat in the secure knowledge that we will not be served hamachi (yellowtail) or anago (conger eel) reared on fish meal and antibiotics in intensive fish farms; that there will be no chemical colorings or preservatives in the pickles; and that the sushi rice has not been doctored with MSG (at around 80 percent of all sushi shops, it's in the vinegar they mix into the rice).
In 1983, when Ouchi first hung out his noren, such an approach would no doubt have got him labeled as ganko (obstinate, gung-ho). These days it's starting to seem totally sane. Though he fervently cites Rachel Carson's classic treatise on the dangers of agrochemicals, "Silent Spring," there's no hint of doctrinaire intolerance (even of smoking, except at the counter). His warm smile and cheerful demeanor are the best advertisements possible for his philosophy.
Bottom line, he doesn't want inferior flavors or chemical tweaking to detract from his primary concern: Putting the freshest, least adulterated sushi in front of you. The range of seafood may be slightly narrower than at other sushiya, though it's every bit as fresh as it should be. But it is with the garnishes and side dishes that Ouchi's quality standards become most apparent.
The home-pickled gari ginger is a wholesome yellow-brown color, not the usual livid pink, and has a gentle piquancy rather than the sharp burn of low-grade vinegar. Meanwhile, his tamago-yaki is a revelation. Invariably we find regular sushiya omelet cloyingly sweet and we tend to stay clear. But here it is sweetened so delicately that the rich flavor of the eggs (from rural Tottori) shines through.
Besides the usual a la carte selection, detailed on the menu with the provenance of the day's catch, there are also set courses (all with prices clearly marked). A selection of mixed nigiri and norimaki sushi, arranged beautifully on a hand-thrown earthenware platter, can be yours for as little as 2,100 yen (less at lunchtime). These come in four levels of complexity, from simple to superb, and if you want slightly more volume, just ask for ittengo-nin-mae (a one-and-a-half-size portion).
Those with serious appetites, or perhaps celebrating a special day, should investigate the top-of-the-line, multi-course 13,000 yen doppo ("peerless") set meal. But, for most people, the middle-range omakase tasting menus (for 9,000 to 10,000 yen) are the best place to start. These comprise just two separate stages. First comes a good helping of seafood sashimi, which here is referred to as tsumami -- a "snack" to nibble on, preferably with a flagon of his excellent jizake, of which there are 10 to choose from, including favorites such as Gonin Musume from Chiba and the all-organic Shizengo junmaishu from Fukushima.
Once you have finished your drinking, you move onto the actual sushi, which comes with a lacquer bowl of delectable miso soup and as much agari (green tea, organically grown, of course) as you can drink. But we noticed as we left that we had far less of a thirst or craving for sweets than usual after a sushi meal -- always a sure sign that our palates were unburdened with MSG and other artificial flavors.