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Sushiso Masa (Nishiazabu, Tokyo) – Nirvana

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)

- chuck

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:

  • http://www.epicures.wordpress.com Michael

    Chuck,
    The photos are great. One can see the quality of the fish in them. I can only imagine the taste. Three questions: How does one eat the salmon roe and sea urchin? What does one drink with this? Was there a non-fish dish at the end? Soup or fruit?
    Michael

  • will-smith-but-not-that-guy

    I am soooo jealous you had this experience…but thanks for this gorgeous photo essay (again!), and why IS the sushi so weak on our home shores? Sounds as if even the best American sushi places you’ve been to pale in comparison, and that doesn’t seem to make much sense. Why is this the reality?

  • http://josephmallozzi.wordpress.com Joseph Mallozzi

    Ah, the Japanese take their eating very seriously. From their yakitori to their sushi, you’ll be hardpressed to find their equivalent anywhere in the world. In fact, it’s been close to ten years since I first sampled kobe beef and I haven’t enjoyed a North American steak since.

    Also, if you’re a dessert guy, head on over to Tokyo Midtown and try the matcha opera cake at Sadaharu Aoki’s patisserie. I still cry myself to sleep thinking about it.

    Joe

  • chuckeats

    Michael – i believe we had a small spoon for both. I drank sake but beer was also available. The tomago was the last dish served – there are two different varieties in that picture – one slightly savory and the other very sweet. I think you need to re-visit Japan :)

    Will Smith – My main beef with most American sushi is the substandard fish quality. However, in most cases too, there is usually something wrong with the rice too (not warm, improperly seasoned, clumpy, etc.) Then you’ve got to find a place that takes both elements seriously (only Masa and Urasawa in my American travels.)

    Joseph Mallozzi – I had one wagyu meal (which will be posted at some point) but I think I prefer American beef overall; possibly because it’s dry-aged longer and that obviously impacts its taste considerably. Nonetheless, when I bit into that wagyu steak, I was all smiles!

    I think I’ve been to Sadaharu Aoki in Paris but it was a few years ago. That was sandwiched in between JP Hevin (nearby) and some others so it all became a blur. Will put the matcha opera cake on the list for the next Paris or Tokyo trip.

  • http://gastrosontour.wordpress.com Laurent

    Hi Chuck,

    I’m in Tokyo until today and i have experienced one of my best meal ever at Sushi Shintaro yesterday.

    It seems this place remains voluntary discrete (almost nothing on internet, he refused to be in the guides) the chef is a close friend of Testuya in Australia), and is prodiving a top class sushi experience.

    Hidden in small street, not far from L’Osier in Ginza. It was for lunch, we just took a small menu of 14 sushis + rolls, served by the chef himself and its apprentice.

    The place is located underground, 8 seats, we were the only customers there : pure heaven. At least 2* stars too, but it was for me such an experience that it can almost not being ranked as too emotional and unique – i’ll post it in a couple of days.

  • chuckeats

    Thanks Laurent – it sounds similar to Masa and I bet there are many more in basements across the city.

  • http://blindtasting.twoday.net/ Alex

    Hi Chuck. Terrific meal! Great Pics! Your post reminded me of my visit at Bar Masa. After my meal I could hardly assign the accurate fish variety to each picture. It was so good I only concentrated on taste and the few seconds I thought about what exact Tuna varietal I had in my mouth didn’t help me later on. I suppose it must have been the same for you with this meal ;) . Hope I can go to Tokyo one day and experience this, Masa was good already compared to the sushi I had before, but I understand from the pics and your experience that this really must ne Nirvana! Take care, Alex

  • http://subnaught.org/cgi/blog Arjun

    Wow, beautiful pictures as usual. I imagine capturing them in the few moments available can be quite tricky.

    Aside from the food, were there any major differences in the overall dining experience compared to American sushi?

  • chuckeats

    Arjun – the experience was quite similar to Masa (NYC) or Urasawa, more so Urasawa since the chef was friendly and the meal lasted 3.5 hours.

  • stephen

    do you know what the stuff that looks like green roe is? and how was it?

  • http://thegourmetpig.com The Gourmet Pig

    Chuck,

    I used to feel embarrassed to knock down average sushi joints, and wound up eating many terrible sushi meals with friends who were ‘craving sushi’ as a result. Thanks to your writings, and especially reviews from Japan such as this, I just don’t eat that crap anymore. Thanks for another beautifully-shot account.

    JF

  • chuckeats

    stepen – the “green roe” was actually a plant that had the same textural quality as roe. if i remember correctly, it was quite salty but delicious.

    gourmet pig – my friends know that they can’t crave sushi around me :)

  • http://iitokorone.blogspot.com/ Jon

    The green stuff is ‘sea grapes’, umi no budou. I’m pretty sure it usually comes from Okinawa. http://www.go-ya-s.com/contenst/umi_budo.html

    This does look really nice, the fish is beautiful. I’m surprised there’s so much seared stuff, but not complaining!

  • ann

    Thank you for a lovely vision of a meal.
    In Houston, we had a Japanese Grocery that sold fish for sushi; it spoiled us and has kept us from pretty much all sushi joints.
    It’s probably not fair to ask a specific in such a presentation, but I love shrimp. Do you know if they let their shrimp purge themselves before they are used? That very lovely shrimp doesn’t appear to have had the ‘vein’ removed unless it was pulled out leaving the back in tact.

  • chuckeats

    ann, i assume the vein was pulled from the back.

  • Laura

    Did you have to make reservations? If so, how far in advance? Thanks!

  • chuckeats

    Laura – there were only 8 seats so reservations are a must – a month in advance to be safe. They speak minimal English so it’s best if you can get someone that speaks Japanese to make them for you.

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  • pivote

    This looks unreal – thank you for the writeup.

    I will be in Japan next month but i can’t find any info about this restaurant. Is there a website or maybe a phone number you could share? Thanks!

  • Phil

    Chuck-
    I will be traveling to Japan soon as well. Do you mind sending me the contact info?

    Thanks for your insightful reviews.

  • chuckeats

    Phil, I added the phone number to the listing – you will need someone that speaks Japanese make the reservation for you (or your hotel’s concierge.)

  • Phil

    Chuck-
    Thanks so much for this great review and recommendation. My wife and I had the good fortune to experience Sushiso Masa a little over a week ago. Our hotel made the call with a few days notice and we were lucky to get a 9:30 reservation on a Saturday night. Dining out later is not a problem for us, but it appears this is very late for dining in Tokyo since it seems most restaurants start cleaning up at 9:30 and close by 10:00. When we first arrived, a small group was settling their bill and we were the only patrons in the restaurant. From the perspective of not wanting to feel rushed, I was glad when two other Japanese couples arrived several minutes later.

    Even though we were the last seating, the service was impeccable. Two Sushi chefs worked hard creating morsel after morsel for the six patrons present. They were wonderfully nice to us. I believe one was the owner. We ordered Omakase from the chef which lasted for over three hours and probably similar to your experience. Even though we visited four sushi restaurants in Tokyo of differing price points that were all fantastic relative to what we have available in Chicago, Sushiso Masa was like climbing the stairway to sushi heaven.

    Thanks again, Phil

  • http://rodpelosse.typepad.com/ rodolphe

    Dear Chuck
    I just come back from Tokyo few days ago. And one of my best remember is SUSHISO MASA. What a wonderful experience, and it looks like ou had the same. So I know what you are talking about. If anyone find this place, please enjoy and remeber…. More here : http://rodpelosse.typepad.com/rodbook/2009/08/jadoooore-ces-sushis.html
    Regards
    Rodolphe

  • JL

    o-m-g. fantastic pics and write up. i’m salivating right now. must go there next year.

    should i leave my non-raw-fish-eating spouse in the hotel room and go alone?

    do you tip sushi chefs in tokyo? or is it like other asian cities where it’s a no-no?

  • chuckeats

    JL – it’s possible your spouse may like it – this is unlike anything in the US. w/r/t tipping – i don’t remember – but i did whatever the guide books told me to do.

  • Andrew

    Hi There:
    What time do they open? Also what was the price point per person? Did they also have a big selection of beers/sake? Do they allow you to offer the staff a drink? address? Thanks…looking forward to eating there later this year.

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  • Jeff ramsey

    Yes, this is my absolute favorite sushi ever>

    The pictures do not describe the taste in the least, the taste of the fish is beyond expectations of perfection. I never knew sushi could be this good, and I made sushi for 8 years of my life professionally, some of the time in Japan. hands down the best…

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  • tchad

    Hi Chuck,
    Might you know if it’s possible to forego omakase in favor of a la carte?
    Thanks for the review.

    Chad

  • chuckeats

    tchad – i honestly have no idea – it’s a hard place to read. regardless, i think the journey here is part of the adventure (more so than the other high-end places) so i’d highly recommend doing the omakase.

  • Roy

    You might want to try Sushi-Sho in Tokyo too. It is where the chef at Sushiso Masa used to apprentice. The chef at Sushi-Sho is the chef from the sushi challange at Iron Chef a few years ago. His name is Keiji Nakazawa.

  • chuckeats

    thanks for the information Roy – will add it to the list

  • BrettPahk

    If you say with such conviction that the fish quality isn’t as good in the States, and have to refer to places like Urasawa and Masa, then you’ve probably never delved into the quality of seafood available in the Pacific Northwest. The quality of fish in several high rated sushi establishments around the Seattle bay far exceed what I experienced at Urasawa myself (with personal pictures to prove). And based on the marine biological habitat of the coastal region, it comes as no surprise.

  • himtsu

    What is the price per person?