Ode to My Sushi Chef

“Everyone has a guy, a go-to sushi chef, after spending sometime in Tokyo,” said a Turkish friend of mine who has lived in Japan for a good number of years. (Hi E!)

In early 2013, I was just coming out of a sushi-relationship with my then staple sushi chef, or itamae san. J-san was charming. Friendly. I watched him intently, as I always do when chefs prepare each slice of fish, and he watched me intently for my reaction to each of his creations. He adored making sushi for me, and I adored his food. With limited fluency in each other’s first language, we chatted endlessly, usually about fish, while he slips extra treats to my meals. “Come with me to Tsukiji,” he said handing me his business card. “I will show you Japanese seafood. But,” he said, his eyes twinkling, “we will not eat sushi there, we will eat tonkatsu, as all the chefs and fishmongers do.”

Alas, that relationship was not meant to be. J-san worked at a well-known franchise, and they moved him from Ginza to the more crowded Shibuya branch. He tried within the confines of the more is more business model of Sushi no Midori, but the quality of the produce could not be compensated by his skills. I visited him at his new branch a couple of times, but the magic in the food was contrived and I decided to stop going.

That was when I started frequenting another shop introduce by Ula’s parents. We have explored a range of sushi restaurants (some for pleasure and some for business), but this one shop in Ginza was an easy crawl on a lazy weekend and despite its quality, value and prime location, not many people knew about it.

Michelin-starred shops are interesting experiences sometimes, but different from having a comfortable home; a dependable sushi base was important to my Japan experience. At this shop, the quality of the fish far exceeds its price. It became just a regular haunt. Until I met M-san.

There are usually five to seven chefs behind the long, L-shaped counter. (We always sit at counters and near the corner where the head itame san traditionally stands.) We found a few chefs we liked and sat in front of him if the seats were open. The maître d and the chefs recognize regulars and greet us with a smile. One downfall of this shop is that you can’t reserve your favorite itamae. It’s a first come first serve system. Once we got a younger chef who over-salted everything, and we did not return for weeks.

Then, one day, we were seated in front of M-san. I had seen him before, a young, quiet chef. I did my usual routine and ordered otsumami (snack/small dish/appetizer before the nigiri). Ankimo ponzu and lightly grilled shirako. We ordered an ichigo of hot sake each—an Ula family tradition, so the sake stays warm longer—and enjoyed our otsumami.

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Shirako otsumami

“Nigitte kuda sai,” I asked. (Literally, please knead for me or start the nigiri zushi) We were ready for the main event. (Many of the Michelin-starred sushi experiences will have an even number of otsumami and nigiri. But we come to sushi shops for the nigiri—Ono Jiro would approve.)

I asked for the recommendation for white fish.

He made the recommendations for the day, barely making eye-contact. We were just coming into spring; the seasonal fish were changing. I ordered a few pieces. There were not many white fish then. I ordered my favorite kinme no kobujime (Golden Eye Flounder preserved in Kombu.)

He recommended medai, then emphasized that it was prepared in the kobujime style. But I had their medai kobujime a couple of times and it was just so-so.

I skipped shellfish like I normally do and moved on to the oilier, fishier silverback fish (hikarimono, or things that shine). I usually only have a piece or two of those.

I then asked for ebi. They were out of kuruma-ebi, my favorite, so I settled for botan-ebi. Everything he prepared was delicious, and I wanted more. I asked, “Ato osusume arimasudeshouka?” (What other recommendations do you have?)
He looked around and recommended medai again, with conviction. I begrudgingly agreed. And it was good. I added it to my list of must-do fish. I’ve had hits and misses at this shop. There was no instant chemistry with the chef, but that day was a good day, and all week I looked forward to going back.

Medai

Medai, prepared kobujime style. Kobujime produces a distinct saltiness/savory flavor best described as ‘umami’

The following week, I was seated in front of someone senior. I ordered medai. It tasted different, was cut different. It was not as good. How could the quality of the fish change so much in a week? It was an ordinary meal and I left, saying bye to some of the chefs. Not M-san who had his head down as usual.

A week later, I was back. In front of M-san by chance again. I did my usual, ask for recommendations and chose. He said “Shari shou?” before I had a chance to tell him. He remembered I liked smaller rice with my sushi. As he placed each piece on my dish, he announced the ingredient and his salting method. Most of the pieces he used yuzu-shio (yuzu salt) because I had asked for yuzu-shio on my ika (squid) the previous time. And he remembered. His sushi was sincere.

Every piece he put out was excellent, leaving me craving for more. Medai was recommended again. We ordered it, and there it happened. That wonderful, buttery, melt-in-your mouth texture that impressed me the first time resurfaced. We looked at each other. This guy. He’s got talent. At this same shop, the same fish under different hands, had tasted so different. I knew then that I had to explore his sushi more.

It was only after the 3rd time dinning with him that I got his name. And every time after that, I would specifically ask for M-san. If his counter space was full, I would wait. We barely spoke except to order, but I watched him work with anticipation and admiration. He was becoming my sushi chef.

The 4th time, at the reception, I had forgotten his name. But I saw him from afar, and we made eye-contact. The host noticed this and seated us in front of him again. This time I expressed overtly how wonderful his sushi was, and he turned bright red without a word, his eyes disappearing in his smile. I asked for his name again, and the rest is history.

We have become his customers. Everyone at the shop knows it, and he knows it. Once, while he was serving us, it was his break time, and his relief came up to take his place. He told the other chef to come back later. He wanted to see us through to my ebi course at least. With him, I exceed my normal amount of sushi.

Normally I would be full after 9 pieces, but with M-san, every piece is a delightful piece of art. He quietly surprises me each time, and I only realized later, how much deliberation he put in to add minute-details that make every single fish stand out. After eating 13 pieces, I was stuffed, but I looked at him with gluttonous anticipation, and he scrambles, running back and forth along the long counter, looking for something to feed me.

“I think he has run out of things to feed you with,” Ula says to me.

“He will find something.” I am confident.

And he always does. He adds special garnishes to every piece of sushi, bearing in mind this is not a high end, Michelin starred shop, but M-san crafts his sushi carefully, creating art. I noticed he is much happier serving serious eaters than heavy drinkers, too trashed to notice his efforts.

One day, he broke his usual silence just as we were getting up to leave.

“I will think of new sushi for you,” he said bashfully.

He knows I rarely eat raw shellfish, but cautiously recommended mirugai to me one day. It was in season, and very good.

“If you say so, I’ll try it,” I said. Of course, it was perfect.

This guy obviously loves what he does – A chef without a big ego to juggle can focus 100% on feeding his customers.

It has been over a year now that I have my weekly visits exclusively with M-san.

I no longer talk about fish. He is the boss of what I have for the day and I trust him. I eat whatever he places on my plate (my mother would be impressed. I was/am quite a fussy eater.) His perfection rate is 100%. There hasn’t been a thing he has fed me that wasn’t good. Maybe there are a couple of things I did not quite like (like menegi) but even I could tell the quality and execution is excellent. I just do not like onions that much. He exposed me to things I would never have ordered. He is the master, I am just learning to eat sushi by eating, forget the rules and etiquette. The only rule is he decides. We have progressed to talking about other things, like how he likes beer. Asahi Super Dry.

When we rave about certain fish, other customers sometimes ask to order the same.

“They give him free reign,” the other chefs tell their customers. And he nods, suppressing a smile.

I collect photos of his sushi, and decided to dedicate a gallery to some of his craft here.
There are pieces like Engawa that are missing, I shall update as I go along.

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Hotaru Ika (Firefly squid) seasonal in the Spring I think

Fatty winter Buri (Yellowtail, the smaller ones are called hamachi)

Fatty winter Buri (Yellowtail, the smaller ones are called hamachi)

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Saba topped with nerumi and negi (Mackerel)

Kinki, an oily fish. One of my favorites. (Deep sea perch)

Kinki, an oily fish. One of my favorites. (Deep sea perch)

Kisu, braided (Japanese whiting)

Kisu, braided (Japanese whiting)

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Shirasu (Japanese anchovy whitebait)

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Sayori (Japanese halfbeak) One of my favorite silverback fish.

Grilled Sayori skin

Grilled Sayori skin

Squid Mouth

Squid Mouth

Kinki again!

Kinki again!

Tako (Octopus)

Tako (Octopus)

Grilled toro, upon fresh toro

Grilled toro, upon fresh toro

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Kawahagi with liver (Thread-sail Filefish, with its fatty liver)

Hotate topped with crab, uni and ikura

Hotate topped with crab, uni and ikura

Grilled stick of shellfish

Grilled stick of shellfish

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Maguro no zuke (soy marinated tuna)

Hamaguri (large orient clam)

Hamaguri (large orient clam)

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Scallop grilled whole

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Large-octopus-suction-cup sushi. He was in a creative mood.

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Shiro ebi, garnished with uni and ikura (white shrimp, with urchin and cod roe)

Shiro ebi, garnished with uni and ikura (white shrimp, with urchin and cod roe) This dish is like a seafood dessert. Light with the sweetness of the sea.

Botan ebi (shrimp with cod roe and shrimp brains)

Botan ebi (shrimp with cod roe and shrimp brains)

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Shiro ika (squid with preserved squid liver)

Shiro ika (squid with preserved squid liver)

Yarui ika

Yarui ika

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Kani Miso soup + Asari Miso soup to end the meal (crab miso + shortneck clams miso)

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Aji (Horse Mackerel)

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Nishin (Herring) light for a silver fish, and quite fatty.

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Hata (Grouper)

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Grilled Anago (Conger eel)

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Tako (Octopus) prepared in a way that is chewy but soft

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Kawahagi again

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Shako with roe (mantis shrimp)

Shako with roe (mantis shrimp)

Kinmei no kobujimei (Golden eye flounder preserved in kombu)  Then lightly scorched with a blowtorch.

Kinmei no kobujimei (Golden eye flounder preserved in kombu)
Then lightly seared with a blowtorch to bring out the fat and leave a slight smokey scent.

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Squid leg

Squid leg

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Sayori (Japanese half-beak)

Sayori (Japanese half-beak)

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Hmmm.. I cannot remember what this is! Looks like Sanma to me (Saury)

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Ankimo maki (monkfish liver roll)

Ankimo maki (monkfish liver roll)

Toro taku maki  (Tuna and takuwan - yellow pickled radish)

Toro taku maki (Tuna and takuwan – yellow pickled radish)

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