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In a state of hibernation. My backlog has long become unsustainable. Will probably tweet more and write less full-length stuff.

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Wednesday
Sep092009

Sushi Kanesaka - 鮨かねさか

One of my goals going into this Japan trip was to evaluate the newly-minted Michelin Tokyo guide. On my last trip, Michelin had not yet ventured into the Far East. When the Tokyo guide made its debut in 2008, there was controversy over the ratings (as usual for any new city that Michelin enters), and questions arose over whether French guys could actually evaluate Japanese food. Despite the fact that Tokyo collected the most total Michelin stars of any city in the world (including Paris), many questioned whether the Japanese needed or wanted Michelin around. In response to the critics, Michelin reportedly changed its Tokyo team from 3 French inspectors and 2 Japanese inspectors for the 2008 edition to 5 Japanese inspectors and 1 French inspector for the 2009 revision. The result was 9 three star restaurants (trailing only Paris' 10) and 227 total stars (still tops in the world).

We were most curious to see how this played out in terms of Japanese cuisine. Old school stalwarts like Kyubey and Sazanka are not mentioned in the guide at all.

 

Sushi is my favorite food, and so we decided it was most certainly worth spending 2 meals to check out Michelin's choices. Our first meal was a lunch at Sushi Kanesaka, one of six sushiya that earned 2 stars. (Two earned 3 stars - Sushi Mizutani and Sukibayashi Jiro. We ate at Mizutani the next night, which I'll report on though without pictures.) I chose Kanesaka based on a few pics and good reports I found online.

Tucked away in the basement level of a Ginza office building, Sushi Kanesaka is a tiny, 14-seat establishment with a startlingly clean wooden counter. You'd never find it without looking for it, which seems to be a trend with these quality sushi joints. Kanesaka-san, who appeared to be about 35-40, was welcoming and downright friendly. Although one of his young apprentices was cutting our fish for us, Kanesaka-san constantly came over to check up and practice his English as well as his limited Cantonese. The place had a surprisingly open and relaxed atmosphere - there was none of the rigidity or formality that one might expect in a traditional sushi place. I enjoyed the pressure-free environment.

Sashimi/sushi and sushi-only lunches are offered at various price points, starting at ¥5,000 and topping out at ¥20,000. Prices rise a bit during dinner. We opted for the top sushi-only lunch at ¥15,000, and off we were.

 

SEAWEED SALAD - onions, green onions, sesameThey started us off with this lightly-vinegared seaweed salad. The thinly-sliced onions were bright and refreshing.

 

KAREI - flatfishAll it takes is one bite to realize that sushi in Japan is on a different level. First, the fish quality is impeccable. Karei, a flounder related to hirame which you find more commonly in the US, was bouncy and fresh. Second, and just as important, the rice here is a whole different ballgame. Kanesaka judiciously uses salt and akazu (a red vinegar made from sake lees) for his rice, resulting in a very gentle taste of vinegar and perfect texture. Here, more than any other sushi establishment I have ever been to, I could feel the separation of individual grains of rice in my mouth. It was astonishing.

Also, it's worth mentioning that rice was made and brought out literally a handful at a time. Every 2 rounds of fish or so, a tiny batch was brought out from the back and put into the rice container at the counter. You just can't beat freshness.

 

SHIMA AJI - striped jackShima aji, also known as striped jack or yellow jack, was delicious. Sort of like a cross between aji and hamachi, this was like a firmer, leaner version of your typical yellowtail.

 

CHEF AT WORKHere's a shot of Kanesaka-san's young apprentice in action - he had to be younger than me! But he clearly knew what he was doing. He's prepping a trio of tuna here. Check out the beautiful wood on the counter, and the raised cutting board.

 

BLUEFIN TUNA TRIOI thought you might enjoy this closer shot of the tuna. Check out that slab of otoro - how could you not get excited?

 

CHUTORO #1 - bluefin tunaThis was the first piece, the leanest of the three. Beautiful, smooth texture.

 

CHUTORO #2 - medium fatty bluefin tunaThe second piece was quite a bit more marbled, as you can see. I liked this one the best out of the three, as it struck the perfect balance of flavor, body, and oilyness.

 

OTORO - extra fatty bluefin tunaOtoro was literally bursting at the seams with butteriness. Total luxury!

 

IKA - squidIka is one of the things I rarely order in the US, as it often suffers from a chewy texture and fishy taste. I've always maintained that the first thing a sushi-eater needs to realize is that good sushi should never be "fishy." When someone tells me they don't like sushi because of the fishiness, I get all heated about it. It's a quality problem, not a sushi problem. So all you sushi-haters out there, keep trying it! Ika is probably the best example of the bad fishy sushi phenomenon which scares people away. At Kanesaka, the squid was served with just a pinch of salt, and had a wonderfully tender texture with clean flavor.

 

SHIRA EBI - baby white shrimpShira ebi, which I first tried at Gari in NYC, is one of my favorites. It's like a more delicate version of ama-ebi, and unfortunately I don't see it much back home.

 

AJI - horse mackerelAji, a perennial favorite of my dad's, was rich and oily. Served with a pinch of ginger between the rice and fish, and a touch of seaweed on top.

 

SABA - mackerelSaba, another oily fish. Kanesaka's version had a light, delicate marination.

 

KOHADA - gizzard shadSometimes translating sushi is pretty useless. Gizzard shad? Does anyone actually know what that is? Why not just call it kohada? Anyway, it's a small, shiny, herring-like fish, served with skin on. A nice littly bit of tang and slightly chewy texture.

 

AKAGAI - ark shellAkagai, a beautiful red clam, is another item that often suffers horribly due to low quality in America. The akagai at Kanesaka was pristine, with a bouncy, almost crunchy texture to it, and a subtle clam flavor.

 

AKAGAI HIMO - ark shell "mantle"The most prized piece of akagai is the himo, a little piece that connects to the main body. Yeah, it looks pretty savage. It has a nice crisp/crunchy texture.

 

KATSUO - bonitoKatsuo, most often dried into flakes and used for dashi broth, is also delicious as sushi. Leaner than tuna but intensely flavorful, the katsuo here was cooked slightly at the edges and left to sit in a soy/ponzu marinade for a little bit before being served. The narrow portion was particularly tasty.

 

KOBASHIRA - adductor muscle of bakagaiKobashira, which looks like little bay scallops, is actually the muscle portion of bakagai, also known as a hen or round clam. They tasted like firm little scallops. They must be in season, because we would later see them used at both RyuGin and Sushi Mizutani. Funny enough, learning about kobashira at Kanesaka earned me a lot of street cred with Mizutani-san the next day, when I was able to quickly identify it as he was prepping it. He was probably surprised that a gaijin like me knew what it was. Thanks, Kanesaka-san.

 

IKURA - salmon roeIkura is, to be honest, not one of my favorites. I often find it has been sitting in vinegar for far too long, with a sour taste that overwhelms. This version was tremendously delicate. Probably the best ikura I have tried.

 

UNI - sea urchinUni is probably second only to toro among sushi delicacies in my book. This perfect specimen from Hokkaido was creamy, sweet, and slightly briny. Top-notch.

 

SHAKO - mantis shrimpShako seems to be fairly common in Japan. It's usually cooked and has a slightly chewier texture than ebi.

 

ANAGO - sea eelAnago, the saltwater cousin of unagi, is another Che family favorite. Kanesaka's version was soft and flaky.

 

MISO SOUP - baby clamsThe arrival of miso soup signalled that the meal was starting to wind down. This soup had the cutest, tiniest little clams in the world.

 

TEKKA - tuna rollThey finished us off with a couple of maki - first this simple tekka roll, which had a very clean flavor to balance out all the exotic stuff we'd just eaten.

 

MAKI ACTION SHOTHere's a maki action shot - nothing too fancy going on here, just some straight up negitoromaki.

 

NEGITORO - fatty bluefina tuna with green onionMy favorite thing of all, negitoro. Buttery and flavorful, this is truly the epitome of sushi.

And there you have it. The meal at Kanesaka was incredible, and it was hard to imagine the difference between a 2-star sushi joint and a 3-star one. It really doesn't get any better. A couple of things to point out:

1) Value. This meal was ¥15,000 per head - about $160, tax/tip included. For the level of quality, that's ridiculous. You can drop $160 easily at many sushi places across the U.S. and not even come close to what we had here. I've still not been to Urasawa in LA, but I can imagine a meal like this costing much more. It's amazing to me that you can get some of the best sushi in Tokyo (and thus, surely some of the best sushi in the world) at such a bargain price compared to LA/Vegas/NYC.

2) Modernity, in a few senses. The rice is a little bit different than the truly traditional - with more grain separation and less vinegar. The intimate setting is open and pleasant, and lacks the strictness and rigidity that one might expect of the most traditional Japanese institutions. For this, I highly recommend Kanesaka to visitors. Kanesaka-san is extremely welcoming to foreigners and genuinely excited to serve us non-Japanese folks. Sukibayashi Jiro allows only Japanese into their main shop, and diverts foreigners to a secondary (and supposedly inferior) place in Roppongi. You'll see nothing of the sort at Kanesaka.

That's about it. It was interesting to compare to 3-star Mizutani (as well as former champ Kyubey), but I'll write about that more in the Mizutani post coming up. Kanesaka was absolutely top-shelf, and surprisingly easy to get in to. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a proper sushi experience in Tokyo (and really, that should be the #1 thing on anyone's list of to-dos in Tokyo).

Reader Comments (11)

Hi Arthur,
Nice to see your site back up and running. Great posts and pics.

I was wondering, what's your opinion on sustainable fishing? In London, places like Nobu are considering doing away with serving Bluefin because of severely depleted fish stocks leading to possible extinction. Any thoughts or comments on this?

x
Thursday, September 10, 2009 at 6:32AM | Unregistered CommenterPandaeyed
Hi Pandaeyed,

Thanks for visitng - I am glad to be back.

The sustainable fishing issue is one that I'm very conflicted about. I've never been one to claim a high moral ground on the environment, especially when it concerns food. I'm staunchly against PETA and the anti-foie gras movement, though that's a separate issue from sustainability. At the same time, I'd obviously like to minimize the damage I do to the environment. I'm just not sure how much I'm willing to sacrifice in terms of lifestyle. It's a selfish mindset, I know, but hey... it's the truth.

Toro is, simply put, my favorite ingredient in the world. I haven't quite figured out how to give it up yet. Some things are easy - for example, I've basically given up shark's fin without much of a thought. Not so much for animal cruelty issues, but more for the combination of the animal cruelty stuff plus the fact that I just don't love it that much, and can do without it. But toro is different. Though the sustainability of the fish is reaching a boiling point, it hasn't gotten me to give up eating the fish yet. I'm not sure what it would take for that to happen, and I'd be lying if I preached that bluefin sustainability is more important to me than my love for toro, as my actions would surely refute that statement.

As far as restaurants taking bluefin off their menus - that is their decision and I fully respect it. It would never stop me from going to a restaurant, as any place that serves (or I guess, once served) quality toro probably has some other stuff going for it as well.

The glimmer of hope, to me, is that Kindai bluefin they are raising at Kinki University in Japan (there's an SFGate article about it at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/05/21/FDI910LR9P.DTL ). I first tried it with the guys at Sushi Sebo, and it tasted great. The best possible outcome is that the good folks at Kinki Uni succeed tremendously at their Kindai project, and that farmed bluefin becomes a viable and plentiful alternative to the real thing before the real thing runs out. If that doesn't happen, I'm not sure what I'll do.
Thursday, September 10, 2009 at 4:08PM | Registered CommenterArthur Che
Oh, don't get me started on the PETA and their anti-foie misinformation campaigns.

I'm interested to see how Mizutani compares. I went to both on my last trip and, while the sushi at both places was excellent, I found Mizutani a little too austere compared to Kanesaka's more jovial atmosphere.
Friday, September 11, 2009 at 11:10AM | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Mallozzi
Thanks for the mouth-watering pics and the write-up! hopefully I can make it there next time I visit Tokyo.
Friday, September 11, 2009 at 1:55PM | Unregistered CommenterG
This is your best post ever. Bring me stationary AND sushi....Chutoro and Uni please.
Friday, September 11, 2009 at 4:29PM | Unregistered CommenterJanet
Joseph: During my blogging hiatus, I actually saw a foie gras protest crowd in front of Lark in Seattle while eating dinner. I was tempted to order foie gras to go at the end, but they had already dispersed by the time we finished.

The jist of Mizutani for me was that both had advantages - I too preferred the jovial atmosphere of Kanesaka, and I actually liked the Kanesaka rice more. But Mizutani had superior otoro, and the tamago was out of this world.

I actually didn't find your blog and Japan recap until I had already arrived in Tokyo. We ended up going to many of the same places, and if we'd stayed longer our itinerary probably would have been nearly identical to yours. Your comparisons were a great resource.

G: DEFINITELY worth a visit on your next trip.

Jan: I have 2 Midori letter paper pads next to me right now. No chutoro though...
Friday, September 11, 2009 at 4:41PM | Registered CommenterArthur Che
I'm on the foie gras hotline. Whenever protesters show up, the restaurants give me a call and, if I'm free, I'll head on over and order up foie gras. If I've already eaten, I'll order foie for anyone else in the restaurant who happens to be up for it. Interestingly enough, foie gras sales actually go up during protests.

BTW - Your pics are gorgeous. I'm heading back to Tokyo for two weeks in late November and already have the concierge at The Peninsula booking restaurants for me. What would you say was your most memorable meal while you were there?
Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 8:57PM | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Mallozzi
I think you summed up the eating-sushi-in-Tokyo experience perfectly. Urasawa is $350+/person and it is probably not quite as good as what you had (although it is the closest, besides Masa NYC, that an American will get.) Mitzutani, Sawada, & Haratuku are slated for my trip next month.
Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 9:46PM | Unregistered CommenterChuckEats
Joseph: That is the most awesome idea I've ever heard. I should pick a few places to do that at. Surprisingly, I've never seen anything remotely close to a foie gras protest here in SF. I guess the foodie-ness of this town overpowers the hippie-ness!

I wish I could give you some suggestions, but you basically went to every place I did during your trip. I'd say RyuGin was the most interesting, and obviously you feel the same way. I also had a memorable lunch a Ristorante Aso - an Italian meal with one mind-bender of a pasta course and great food all around. That could be worth a visit, and I'll post some pics soon. Really though, I don't think you can go wrong just touring more of the top sushi spots.

Chuck: You definitely have more experience with the top-end in the US, as I've tried very little of LA and NYC. To be honest, Urasawa and Masa NYC have probably priced themselves out of the top of my LA/NYC must-try lists, and I don't see myself going to either any time soon. There are a vast number of non-Japanese restaurants I need to try in both cities that aren't exactly cheap, but also don't break the $300 plateau...

I saw your report on Sushiso Masa, and hope to try it my next time in Tokyo. One thing I noticed was they seemed to do a lot more grilling and other more diverse preparations than both Kanesaka or Mizutani, both of which were basically very straight-up.

Looking forward to your reports on Mizutani/Sawada/Haratuku - according to the prices in the Michelin book, Sawada seemed to be the most expensive place, with no lunch sets available under ¥20,000 if I remember correctly. Will be interesting to see what changes the added cost brings.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 11:22PM | Registered CommenterArthur Che
I love the photos of the sushi. Looks divine and jealous that I haven't had the opportunity to eat at this restaurant. jen
Tuesday, February 8, 2011 at 11:02AM | Unregistered Commenterjen
Jen - it was every bit as good as it looks. :) Hope you get the chance to visit some time.
Monday, February 28, 2011 at 10:15PM | Registered CommenterArthur Che

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