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).
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.
They started us off with this lightly-vinegared seaweed salad. The thinly-sliced onions were bright and refreshing.
All 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, 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.
Here'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.
I thought you might enjoy this closer shot of the tuna. Check out that slab of otoro - how could you not get excited?
This was the first piece, the leanest of the three. Beautiful, smooth texture.
The 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 was literally bursting at the seams with butteriness. Total luxury!
Ika 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, 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, 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, another oily fish. Kanesaka's version had a light, delicate marination.
Sometimes 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, 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.
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, 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, 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 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 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 seems to be fairly common in Japan. It's usually cooked and has a slightly chewier texture than ebi.
Anago, the saltwater cousin of unagi, is another Che family favorite. Kanesaka's version was soft and flaky.
The arrival of miso soup signalled that the meal was starting to wind down. This soup had the cutest, tiniest little clams in the world.
They 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.
Here's a maki action shot - nothing too fancy going on here, just some straight up negitoromaki.
My 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).