July 20, 2007
In all my trips to Tokyo over the past few years (this was my 8th trip in 8 years), I've never tried a high-end sushi restaurant (I went to Nobu Tokyo once, but I don't think that really counts). Not having a reliable local guide
to take me, I've always thought the mysteries of haute sushi dining is most likely out of my reach because at that level, the interaction between the sushi chef and the customer is so important (and as it turned out, it did prove to be a problem this time). Plus, I am more than satisfied simply trying the multitude of affordable dining options in Tokyo. The relief on my wallet (in an otherwise expensive city) is a welcomed side benefit.
I still don't know any local foodie (or anyone, period, who lives in Tokyo, actually), but I decided it's time for me to dip my toes into the realm of fancy Tokyo sushi joints. For my first foray into this world, I decided upon Kyubey (久兵衛), supposedly one of the most famous sushi restaurants in all of Japan. Incidentally, they are the inventor of gunkan-maki ("battleship wrap")—the technique of wrapping sushi with a loose topping like ikura or uni with a strip of nori. I figured since they are that well known, they are likely as equipped as anyone to deal with foreigners.
Dinner reservations are only available between 5 pm to 7 pm and it's first come first serve after that. I arrived promptly at 7, hoping to score a seat at the bar and was told there would be a seat at 8. No problem, I went shopping for an hour while I waited.
This being Tokyo, the 70-year-old Ginza restaurant has expanded upwards over the years and is now five stories tall. Each floor is only big enough for a sushi bar or a couple of private rooms.
I was seated at the bar on the 2nd floor, where there were about 10 other customers (all Japanese) besides me and four sushi chefs (only one of whom spoke a little English).
I went with the ¥24000/US$194.65 "Bizen" course, the middle in terms of price of three choices for dinner.
As I expected from a top Tokyo sushi restaurant, everything was superb. I had possibly the best toro I've ever had anywhere. Ditto the uni.
Even the abalone (pictured above), which I usually don't care for, was good. The typically chewy creature was unexpectedly tender.
What surprised me were the number of things I've never seen before. Thinly sliced white fish sashimi that you wrap around thin scallion stalks was a revelation (pictured above). Another white fish wrapped some sort of mousse made from anago. Two thinly sliced pickled daikon sandwiched a shiso leaf with a dab of wasabi and sesame sprinkles was simple yet delicious. And of course, the baby scallion sushi at the top of this page.
Anago featured heavily on the menu that night. Aside from the anago mousse served with the white fish sashimi, I had fried anago bones, anago liver pâté (bitter!), grilled anago, boiled anago with a yuzu-based sauce and anago in clear soup (pictured above).
Quite a few items (like shrimp sashimi for example) were meant to be eaten with salt only, to highlight their natural taste. They provide a small dish of coarse sea salt along with the usual soy sauce as part of the table setting and you were instructed when to use it.
Rather disappointing was the fact that the sushi chef decided to serve me toro three separate times (once as sashimi and twice as sushi). I could almost overlook this if it was once as sashimi and once as sushi since he might feel that the toro was that good that night (and it was). But twice as sushi? Terrible. Like I said, it's amazing toro, but I did not want it three times. I think this is where the language barrier came into play. He had no idea what kind of experience I had with sushi so he went with the safer, more pedestrian pieces (at one point he even gave me a laminated sheet explaining what each piece is called like you see in American Japanese restaurants). The only reason I had the funky negi sushi (the baby scallion one pictured at the top of this page) was because I saw it served to someone else and I asked for it.
So it was not as amazing a meal as it could have been, but I can see its potential if you were a regular or at least if the sushi chef didn't think you were some dumb foreigner.
For more pictures, see my "Kyubey 久兵衛" set on Flickr.
7-6, Ginza 8-chome, Chuo-ku, Tokyo