To say that I was a sushi snob before… An anonymous doorway in Nishiazabu, seven bar seats, no menu, and thirty-five plus courses of sushi nirvana changed my rules of sushi engagement.
As the number of choices in the US dwindle due to inconsistent or inadequate quality;1 I was very curious, and skeptical, if sushi (and raw fish in general) was “that much better” in Japan. The fish is not necessarily fresher since many high-end places air ship it from Japan; what does it matter if the fish is sitting in a restaurant waiting for dinner, or on a plane? Since business connections are made over many years in Japan, was it possible that native practitioners had access to higher quality ingredients? And what of the sushi itself – could its art form be more elevated from the highest expressions on American soil? Time was at a premium, and there were many non-sushi places to try, but I ear-marked Sushiso Masa as “the place” based on a friend’s (offline) report.
This was the third sushi meal, the last in a survey of Tokyo sushi at different price points. Kyubei, one Michelin star, was a surprising value for lunch ($75 US/person) but the quality was no better than Sushi Yasuda. Dinner is more serious and others have reviewed it to high praise. A lunch spot, the name I forgot, in Ginza was another surprise value for $25 US/person – nothing was extraordinary – but everything was of high quality. My expectations for Sushiso Masa grew since it promised to compete on a higher level.
The ingredient quality defied description, particularly for American taste buds. Piece after piece changed my conception – taste and texture – of the fish being served. There are complexities and arcs in the taste that are rarely found in the US. Ingredients like wild eel and octopus bore faint resemblance to their namesakes, a feat repeated the next day at RyuGin. The effect is not unlike eating at Chez Panisse for the first time, where one’s eyes are opened to the true possibilities of the ingredients. This was but one meal and one wonders what revelations other seasons might produce when the fish change waters.
The meticulousness of the sushi was on par with a Masa (NYC) or Urasawa, but more consistent throughout the meal. The rice was warm, seasoned, where each grain could be distinguished in the mouth. One might say it was risotto-like once bitten into. As good as the fish was, the rice stood up and complemented the fish, the two symbiotic. Thirty-five pieces were passed, many of them white fish, but their taste and texture never repeated.
But the stars of the night may not have been raw – the grill was turning meat into gold. Etxebarri (Axpe, Spain) gets international accolades for his grill skills, but, while very good, most of his dishes come off very smoky. Sushiso Masa’s grill man took a more deft approach: the fat in between the charred skin and “cooked raw” meat of a swordfish gave way like melted butter, a pike conger eel had hints of sublime smokiness; and a shrimp shell had the redolent taste of a faint char.
The pictures throughout this post are in completely random order.
While I rarely discuss price on this blog, this meal was cheaper than eating at top-tier places in the US; and the quality was an order of magnitude better. It was nirvana. The memory of the sushi beckons me.
Michelin lists a handful of sushi restaurants – Mizutani (3-star), Sawada and Kanesaka – and while Sushiso Masa is not listed, there is no question it would at least fall into the 2-star level, based on the pictures I’ve seen (and, of course, the meal I ate.) I would give it three without hesitation. There are probably dozens of sushi bars reminiscent of Sushiso Masa in Tokyo, hiding in plain view, catering to the highest levels of taste and perfection. Seek them out.2
Phone: 03-3499-9178 (note: you must speak Japanese)
1 – After eating at Sushiso Masa, it’s hard to validate eating sushi in the US – I would rather forgo sushi and let the fish procreate. However, if I’m in the mood and in the right area, I would eat at these places: Sawa, Urasawa, Kuruma, and Masa. Sushi Yasuda is also recommended but it can be maddeningly inconsistent. There are probably a few more places throughout the country that are worthwhile, but certainly just a few.
2 – Here are a few reviews I have found: