On walkabout in life and technology

The Best Sushi

If you love traditional Japanese sushi, not the Western or Californian styles, then I have found the best sushi place in the world. But you had better hurry of you want a chance to eat there, the sushi chef is getting old.

Getting There

The restaurant is in Kanazawa city on the Japan Sea side of Japan, about 450 km north-west of Tokyo. Getting there is easy if you take a shinkansen (bullet train) about half the way and an express train the rest of the way, give yourself 5-6 hours of travel from Tokyo.

Aside: Of course we had to do it the hard way. We only had two days in Kanazawa and the restaurant was closed on our planned second day of stay. Which meant we had to do it on our first day. Unfortunately, we were flying into Narita from Sydney that morning. So, we had a nine hour flight from Sydney, landed in Narita at 6:05 AM and raced to the Narita Express to get to Tokyo, then the shinkansen, then the local express, arriving in Kanazawa station at 1:30 PM for a 2:00 PM reservation. (And yes, the travel was worth it).

The Place

It’s called Komatsu Yasuke (小松弥助) and it’s the restaurant that the top sushi chefs in Tokyo go to eat and study the best. Its situated on the ground floor of a hotel in an unremarkable building in an unremarkable street in Kanazawa, about 15 mins from the main station by Taxi.

You need to book early. We called from New York a few months ago to get this reservation. The couple sitting next to us were regulars who travel from Tokyo to spend one night in Kanazawa and have lunch here. It was full when we arrived, it was full when we left.

It’s small, brightly lit, modern and clean, with an L-shaped counter supporting 9 seats. There is one additional table in the back. Unlike most Japanese sushi counters, there’s no fish displayed behind glass, that’s in a large covered wooden box at the left hand of the chef. There’s just a raised counter, some chopping blocks, the current work in progress, some sauce bowls and the box of fish.

There are some nice small touches with the service. You wait in the hotel lobby with a tiny cup of tea. The hostess seats you when the chef is ready. The tea arrives quickly, and they change the cup instead of refilling it as the meal progresses. Quiet conversation between diners, and between dining groups seems the norm. And the payment process at the end is also handled quietly and with dignity outside the restaurant in the lobby afterwards.

The Chef

There are only two people behind the counter, the chef and the apprentice. The current apprentice is probably the last in a long line of apprentices and he’s very good. He’s quick to predict what the chef needs and he sometimes finishes the plates and serves them.

But the dining experience here is all about the chef and the food. He’s a very short man with big eyes twinkling behind his glasses, a kindly face, barrel chest and stubby fingers that are in constant motion. And he’s over 80 years old. Yet he makes each and every bite in the restaurant, from opening to closing, every single one.

The way he makes each bite is mesmerizing to watch. He moves like he’s in a comfortable slow dance, he gently flourishes his arms, he solidly thumps the fish down, the onion dances as he chops it, his cutting motions are sure and sharp, his right hand reaches out and always pulls out the perfect amount of rice for the bite being made. He never stops moving, cutting, preparing, serving or cleaning, all with the smooth motion of long practice and never in a hurry.

Left hand out, into the box, pulling out the next fish. Thumps it on to the cutting board, and with quick motions he grabs a knife, cuts just the right sized pieces off, cleans the knife, fish back in the box. Right hand out, dipping onto the rice bowl, grabbing the rice, dash of wasabi, places the fish on top. Then he adds salt with a flourish, squeezes the yuzu manually, or dabs the chosen sauce with a flick. It’s like he’s been doing this forever. And he maintains a small smile in the corners of his mouth and eyes the whole time.

We also watched him prepare some of the ingredients before we ate. He placed a thin sheet of squid, maybe only 5 mm thick on the cutting board and without looking, picked up a big knife and sliced it evenly and cleanly into 1.5 mm sheets, then chopped it into tiny slivers. He takes a block of tuna and generates, with grace and economy of motion, a set of cubes to be marinated. All the while keeping up with the individual meals being served.

Each bite is served on it’s own plate, and either he or the apprentice tells you what it is and how to eat it. Often, he makes a bite, places it before you and then, with that small smile, quietly watches as you reach out and pop it in your mouth. As soon as he sees the joy the taste gives you, his smile twitches wider and he dances on to make the next bite for the next customer.

And when he makes a sushi roll, it gets personal. The eel is grilled in preparation, the ingredients chopped and ready. Right hand, out with the seaweed, on with the rice. He snaps up the ingredients with his left hand, pops them onto the rice and rolls it closed in a one-handed quick motion. Then he leans over and passes you the roll, hand to hand, personally, making eye contact, like he’s giving you a gift, personally. Pauses, then dances back to make the next roll.

The Meal

We got to sit right in front of the chef and started with omakase, the chefs choice, and it was amazing, so amazing we missed noting all the bites we had, but here are the more memorable ones:

  • Thinly slivered squid on a button of rice with a dash of salt and yuzu, somehow it stays together, and clears your palate for the next.
  • Lightly seared fatty tuna, just enough to open up the oils and add a smokiness to the fish, draped over rice with yuzu and salt. It explodes in your mouth as the juices flow.
  • Ama ebi, two tiny raw prawns so fresh you cannot smell them, on a button of rice with soy sauce, tastes firm and sweet.
  • A large slice of red tuna zuke, scored and marinated, with a dash of shichimi, starts mild then hammers your taste buds with the pepperiness.
  • This is followed by a large piece of mizu nasu (water eggplant), thick, juicy green eggplant, lightly pickled, on its own, to clean your palate after the spice assault.
  • A slice of hirame (fluke), a white fish, with a dollop of dark red ume (japanese plum) concentrate on top, moves you back to old school subtle Japanese flavors.
  • Then you get a bowl with red tuna, tororo (finely grated yama imo - mountain potato), uni (sea urchin) and seaweed, a mix of flavors from the tart marinated tuna, the creamy uni and the balanced tororo.
  • And the omakase finishes with his grilled marinated unagi (freshwater eel) in a hand roll. He grabs the unagi straight off the smoking hot grill onto the rice with his bare fingers, adds a dash of crushed goma (sesame seeds) and hands it to you, warning you that its hot. The roll vibrates in your hand as the eel continues to cook inside the roll in your hand. The smokiness and the taste is amazing.

We then added a few more dishes, as you do:

  • The daily special was ara (kelp grouper), draped over rice with a dash of salt. It just melted in our mouths.
  • Since he had some, we also had anago (salt-water eel), also on a button of rice dipped soy sauce. Anago tastes so much better than unagi, you could really taste the eel without the grilling or marinade.
  • And we finished with the greatest negi toro (onion and fatty tuna) roll I have ever tasted. Fresh fatty tuna belly from Tsukiji in Tokyo, diced in big fat chunks with white Japanese onions and barely squeezed into a hand roll. The smoothness of the fatty tuna with the sharpness of the onions was delightful.

All in all, this was the best Japanese sushi meal my wife and I ever had. If you get a chance, go to Kanazawa and try the sushi at Komatsu Yasuke (小松弥助).