For dinner after Ukai Toriyama, we had planned one of the main highlights of the entire trip – Sushi Mizutani. One of just two sushi places to receive 3 stars from Michelin, Mizutani carried the weight of some incredible expectations. The other place that received 3 stars, Sukibayashi Jiro, was far more renowned when the Tokyo guide came out, and Mizutani was a bit of a surprise choice for the top honor. After reading various reports (special thanks to Exile Kiss), I was more interested by Mizutani than Jiro. Mizutani has a reputation for its no-nonsense, intimate vibe, and a truly personal experience with the chef. Also, the flagship Ginza location of Jiro apparently does not accept non-Japanese speakers, who are sent instead to the gaijin-friendly outpost in Roppongi (supposedly not as good). So Mizutani it was.
After our stellar lunch the day before at Kanesaka, I was very curious as to what the difference would be between a 2 star and a 3 star. In my experiences in France, I did feel there was a subtle difference between the two, but top French restaurants have a little more room for differentiation in cooking than Japanese sushi houses. I was thus pretty resigned to the fact that the sushi could not possibly be much better than Kanesaka, and tried to temper my expectations accordingly.
Mizutani is even more tucked away in the basement of an office building than Kanesaka was, requiring you to navigate through a tiny elevator and hallway before you see any trace of its existence. The little sliding door reveals just 1 tiny room containing a 10-seat counter and a small table in the back used more for coat storage than anything else. The bar is so small that Mizutani just serves everyone himself, with only one assistant visible behind the counter helping to prep ingredients. His wife and a couple others help with service and more behind-the-scenes prep. It’s a well-oiled but absolutely tiny machine – a staggering contrast to the scale of Western 3 star operations like Guy Savoy or the French Laundry. Think new iPod Nano vs. Apple 30" LCD.
Unfortunately, the first thing to happen after I sat down was that one of the young servers came over and said “no cameras.” I don’t think I’ve ever really posted about any place without pictures, but I think Mizutani merits discussion, so I’ll still go through what we were served. The dinner we got was, to our surprise, just ¥18,000 (about $200) – but I get the distinct feeling that the final price vs. what you are served is probably at Mizutani-san’s whim.
KAREI (flatfish) – Another pristine experience of this very light fish.
SHINKO (baby kohada) – Very rich and oily, with a gleaming layer of skin.
After 2 pieces, my dad, aunt Agnes, and I were fully into comparison mode already. Mizutani’s rice uses a more traditional approach, with a slightly less vinegary flavor and a brighter white color. We all decided we preferred Kanesaka’s rice, because of the way the grains felt so individually separated in the mouth. Mizutani didn’t quite match that, but it’s more a stylistic difference than a qualitative one. I can see myself flip-flopping quickly based on which version I ate last.
IKA (squid) – Perfect, clean flavor. Yet again, I was reminded that the humble ika is completely different in Japan than in America, perhaps moreso than any other sushi fish.
AKAMI (lean tuna) – A beautiful, deep red, with a smooth but meaty texture. Tastier than your typical maguro.
CHUTORO (medium fatty bluefin tuna) – Leaner than Kanesaka’s version, still delicious.
OTORO (extra fatty bluefin tuna) – Kanesaka had better chutoro in my opinion, but Mizutani’s otoro was a step above. The marbling was more evenly balanced throughout the entire piece, and this bite blended together with the rice into buttery perfection.
I should mention that Mizutani speaks very little English, and doesn’t really have any employees that speak it well either, so communication was a little more difficult. That didn’t stop us from trying. At the beginning of the meal, Mizutani was a little stoic and reserved, but at this point of the meal we could tell he was opening up a bit. It probably helped that we were watching his every move and eating every bite with the excitement of 8 year-olds opening really awesome Christmas presents.
AKAGAI (ark shell clam) – Crisp, bouncy, wonderfully fresh. On this and many others, the difference from Kanesaka was marginal at best – both used absolutely prime ingredients.
TAIRAGAI (pen shell or razor clam) - Another clam, slightly chewier than the akagai, just as delicious.
KOBASHIRA (bakagai muscle) - Delicate little pieces, very close to Kanesaka’s. I really have to give a shout out to Kanesaka-san here, because it was at this point of the meal that Mizutani-san accepted us as serious sushi eaters. I anxiously blurted out "kobashira" as I saw Mizutani-san whip out his stock, and he gave me a total WTF face, clearly thinking in his head "how the hell does this English-speaking Chinese-looking kid know what kobashira is?" And I really had no idea what it was... I just knew the word because Kanesaka-san had told it to me about 30 hours earlier. From this point on, we officially had street cred at Sushi Mizutani, and he seemed totally pumped about serving us.
MIRUGAI (geoduck) - Another victim of low quality in the US, mirugai is something I rarely order in the US. This was the best specimen I've had.
SAYORI (needlefish) - This was served in a way I've never seen before. A strip of the bright white flesh and silvery skin was coiled up into a little circle, and topped with some kind of slightly sweet paste. No dice on a translation, but it was delicious. Really wish I had a picture of this one.
EBI (cooked prawn) - Not normally a fan, but this was very good. Meaty and flavorful, as opposed to the usual rubbery nothingness of ebi.
SABA (mackerel) - Excellent rendition, with a very light vinegar touch.
AWABI (abalone) - Simply perfect texture. Amazingly tender, no rough chewiness at all.
UNI (sea urchin) - Top shelf from Hokkaido, as expected. Nothing reminds me of the sea quite like uni.
ANAGO (sea eel) - A little better than Kanesaka's, I think. Very nice balance on the flavor, with just the right amount of sweetness.
TAMAGO (egg) - Okay, now this one was an absolute showstopper. It's sometimes said that tamago is the ultimate test of a sushi chef, as it requires tremendous amounts of preparation for an item that is usually the cheapest on the entire menu, kind of like egg fried rice with Chinese chefs. If that's the barometer, then Mizutani-san must be the best freakin' sushi chef in the whole damn world. His tamago is absolutely leagues about any other that I have ever tried. Light, moist, fluffy... it was nearly custard-like, with a more solid composition. Tremendous "essence of egg" flavor. Mizutani is worth a visit for the tamago alone.
At this point, he was basically wrapping up. My dining companions were clearly getting full, and I had already been double eating on behalf of my grandma, who ducked out a few rounds ago and got the tamago early.
TORO MAKI (fatty bluefin tuna roll) - Interestingly, Mizutani-san chose not to put any negi into his toro maki. It was different but delicious, and the quality of the toro really stood out.
The funny thing here is that he cut this into 8 pieces and gave me 6 and my dad 2. Of course, my aunt Agnes motioned that she was DEFINITELY still in for a round like this. So he jokingly grabbed one of my dad's 2 and gave it to her, instead of grabbing mine. I guess I am the Che family glutton. Ultimately, I had to concede and spread the wealth.
AKAGAI HIMO MAKI (ark shell mantle roll) - Never tried it in this form before, and it was quite unique and tasty. It gave the maki a bit of a crunch inside.
OTORO x 2 (extra fatty bluefin tuna) - By now everyone was really done, but after everyone egged me on I admitted I wouldn't mind another bite of toro. He gave me 2. It was awesome.
KANPYO MAKI (dried gourd strip roll) - He had one little final bite for us, and at the time we had trouble identifying it. He showed us these little long brown strips which he rolled into a maki and cut up. He didn't know the word and was having some trouble describing it. After tasting it, none of us could figure it out... it tasted like some vague kind of Japanese pickle - refreshing and tasty but unidentifiable.
He asked the 2 Japanese businessmen next to us in hopes for an explanation, but they didn't know - all we knew was it WASN'T any kind of eggplant. He turned to one of his backroom assistants, and thought we finally got a translation, but it turned out his explanation was simply "vegetable," which caused a laugh around the room. A few minutes later, he finally whipped out an electronic Japanese-English dictionary, and our answer was found. Turns out it's pretty common even over here in the US... I just never order it.
By the end of the meal, Mizutani-san had seriously warmed up to us. I'm predicting that after 1 or 2 more visits, he'll hopefully recognize me and like me enough to let me bust out the camera. Cross your fingers! At the end of the meal, he did offer to take a group photo for us. So here you go - instead of delicious food pics, you'll have to settle for some sushi-filled happy people named Che: dad, aunt Agnes, Grandma Che, and yours truly. Sorry it's not as mouthwatering.
And there was our second epic sushi meal. As expected, I didn't find Mizutani to be "better" than Kanesaka. I preferred the rice at Kanesaka, and most of the fish was about equal, but Mizutani had the edge with otoro. I wish I'd tried Kanesaka's tamago, but I guess they didn't serve it as a normal part of lunch. Mizutani's tamago was out of this world. I think I'll start calling it Platonic.
Though we didn't go to Kyubey on this trip, my memory of it doesn't match the meals we had at Mizutani or Kanesaka. The intimacy and personal interaction of the smaller sushi bars put them over the top for me, and reports are that food quality at Kyubey has gone downhill. In any case, the final takeaway is that top-end sushi in Tokyo is simply an incredible experience. I encourage everyone to try it. The value is amazing, and it's pretty damn hard to go wrong.