Our second dinner in Tokyo was one of my most anticipated meals of the trip. It was at Kyubey Ginza (another info page here), one of Japan's most famous and arguably best sushi restaurants. (Based on my very limited knowledge of Japanese romanization and my vague memory, I thought it was spelled Kyubei, but their little pamphlet said Kyubey, so whatever.) It has a few shops now in Tokyo, but the Ginza location is the original, established in 1936. Kyubey supposedly also invented gunkan sushi, the technique of rolling a layer of seaweed around sushi rice and placing Good Stuff on top, which is the way you usually find uni or ikura served.
I went to Kyubey once many years ago as a young teenager, and it was the most defining and epiphanic sushi meal of my life. It was at that point that sushi became my favorite food group, and my interest in all things gastronomic started to take off. To that very first Kyubey negitoromaki, I owe much.
Kyubey is tucked away to the side of the main Ginza avenue. It has a small, unassuming storefront that would be easily missed by the average passerby. Inside, however, is a 5 story sushi temple, with a maze of different rooms and sushi counters. Our party of 11 took up almost a full counter, with a Japanese businessman and 2 ladies filling the last few seats.
Immediately noticeable at Kyubey is the beautiful unlacquered wooden counter, incredibly smooth to the touch and pristinely clean (here's a view of the counter). The quality of the counter is something my dad taught me to look for in sushi bars a long time ago, and you won't find one nicer than the counter at Kyubey. We always joke about how long it must take to clean the soy sauce stains from our clumsy gaijin spills. Tourists need not worry though, as Kyubey is quite friendly to us, and there seems to always be at least one chef behind the counter that is very eager to practice some English. All of the chefs are very friendly and clearly good at what they do (action shot of toro nigiri, and another action shot of uni gunkan maki).
The first thing served when we sat down was this suzuki salad - small strips of suzuki sashimi with a touch of wasabi and some ponzu-type sauce. Very light flavor and a pleasant start to get the night going.
Next came something I'd never tried before. We couldn't really figure out what it was exactly, but we think it's some kind of weird seaweed. The whole thing has a gelatinous texture, and the little things buried inside had the texture of a thick vermicelli. The whole thing had a very light sea flavor, but not much taste to speak of. We saw some of this stuff at Tsukiji when we went later. Can anyone identify it?
Next was a much more common seaweed salad with scallions. Dressed with some vinegar, this was like a leafy green salad for the sushi bar.
We got started right away with some otoro. Like all fancy sushi places nowadays, Kyubey puts a bit of whatever sauce you need on your piece of nigiri before handing it to you, so you don't have to do any dipping yourself. One side effect of this is that the soy sort of covers the color of the fat; just believe me, there was lots of it. This toro was melt-in-your-mouth fatty and just plain delicious. The rice had just the right temperature and just the right vinegariness.
Hirame, aka halibut or flounder or fluke, was much leaner and lighter. Served with some finely chopped negi, this was the perfect refreshing white fish.
At this point, I turned off the flash on my camera. I'm still not sure what to do sometimes. It's hard to get good focus when the flash is off. Oh well, I hope the rest of the photos are alright. Shimaaji, we were told, was just perfectly in season. Like hamachi but richer and more refined, the piece was sliced thinner than a typical piece of yellowtail, but had a stronger flavor.
Cooked toro is all the rage these days. I've had seared toro at a number of places, but this was the first time I'd seen it grilled. When it came out, my dad and I were both a little scared at how cooked it looked, but those fears went away when the thing simply collapsed on the tongue. Not burnt at all, the toro was as silky smooth as seared foie gras.
The uni was truly spectacular - creamy, sweet, and everything in between. Not much else to say.
Black abalone was in season too, and though we sort of ordered this by accident it turned out great. Extremely tender and delicate.
Like the foie gras of the sea, this version of ankimo had a relatively light texture and flavor. I think I prefer Ino's more intense foie gras imitation.
The fried vertebrae of some fish, this thing was kind of like a long dense chip. An interesting change of pace to munch on.
I hope I heard this right, because I've definitely never seen this before. This eel liver had a very strong, slightly bitter livery taste, and probably won't appeal to most people out there. I found it interesting, at least.
Nice, clean tasting, tender ika. I've grown more fond of this in the past year or so. It was served with a dash of salt, which was less overwhelming than soy.
A beautiful specimen of aji, both refreshing and very sea-flavored. The slicing of this was a beautiful sight.
Anago was delicate and flaky, with a nice bit of tasty skin. They also cut it in half to make it easier to eat. One piece was came with salt, the other with a sweet sauce. :)
I guess the chefs thought we were finishing up now, and started giving us a couple veggie-type things. This eggplant had a pretty sharp tang - a little too strong for me, but others seemed to like it a lot.
This was something I'd never tried before either. The daikon and shiso provided a cool, refreshing feeling, but again the plum sauce had a bit too much tang for my taste.
Of course we were far from done. Here is the first of two delicious negitoro hand cones, with a filling chopped to the smoothness of butter and seaweed so crisp and fresh that the mere possibility of sogginess sits far at the back of the mind. They even do little cuts into the seaweed, dividing the roll into 3 ideal bites. Just awesome.
People started to bow out by now, but some of us had to keep going and get a few seconds. I think this uni picture came out a little better.
Round 2 of otoro was even better than the first - maybe they were pleased with us eating so much! I've always found it interesting that toro and beef start to look like each other as they increase in quality. The fattiness of this toro was incredible.
Round 2 of grilled toro looked better than the first, but tasted pretty similar. I think the piece was bigger though because of the lighter hand on the grill, leaving less of the tuna melted off.
Anago round 2, also as good as the first. And again, better picture I think.
Finally, tamago, my dessert sushi. They say that tamago is ironically the ultimate test of the sushi bar. It's usually the cheapest item on the menu, and yet it takes a lot of time and preparation to make, which means that often in the U.S. you find pre-made versions of the stuff. To serve a good tamago, a sushi chef has to spend a lot of time with little economic reward. Kyubey's passes the test. Countless layers create a soft, delicate texture, almost like a dense custard, all with a perfect subtle sweetness. And that was it.
With our party of 11, the bill came out to just over ¥20,000 per person, making it about US$200 a head. This was quite a bit less than expected. I had literally 7 toro items (3 otoro nigiri, 2 grilled toro nigiri, 2 negitoromaki), plus 2 or 3 uni and all the other stuff above. Some of the stuff pictured I had 2 of. With all that in mind, it was a pretty good deal. Then again, I did eat the most out of everyone, so the others probably brought the average down a bit. I must have been around $250 at least. Still, that's not a bad deal considering how much you can spend on sushi (in the US for example), and that Kyubey is the best of the best.
You can eat there for less, too. They offer omakases at a range of prices, and I think you can go in for lunch for a good deal. I feel like if we got a 20,000 yen omakase, I probably wouldn't have eaten as well. I just can't imagine them including that much toro in it... Still, with less people I think omakase would be a cool route to go. Every piece of fish we had was good, so I don't think you can go wrong at this place. Get there ASAP.