I have an age-old habit of recounting things in chronological order. I have to present things sequentially. It’s rather like a form of reassurance for myself, that I haven’t left anything out, and also because I’m a stickler for build-ups and dramatic climaxes.
For the better part of the last three months, I’ve been putting this off. This was, after all, the last – but most memorable – meal I had in Japan, so it has to come after I’ve blazed through a total of three cities’ worth of blog posts, because Tokyo was my last stop. Right?
But I can’t wait. I ache, and pine, and yearn, and crave. Perhaps writing it out will soothe the gaping maw that Sushi Kanesaka has left in my chest ever since, as if being lovesick from Japan isn’t enough.
Sushi Kanesaka is a two-starred Michelin restaurant, located in the Ginza district of Tokyo. It is, almost by definition of being a famous sushi restaurant, invariably excruciating to find. So what if it’s Michelin-starred? Before the rampaging Michelin people started sweeping across Japan, these sushi joints were already popular among locals, cleverly squirreled away in basements, near car parks, office buildings, and the like. You’d need to be local to know where these ninja restaurants were.
Googlemaps is useless. Heck, Googleman, is useless. After anxiously circling blocks of buildings in Ginza, and already late for our reservation, I had to phone up the restaurant for directions. Truthfully speaking, even after that, if one my of travel companions hadn’t been able to read the Hiragana on Kanesaka’s red banner, I’m certain we would have given up and sat on the sidewalk, and I would probably have been in tears.
We even wandered down into a tiny warehouse because my frazzled brain was convinced we’d be dining among crates of fruits and sake, which doesn’t sound half bad, but unfortunately wasn’t Kanesaka. A kind Japanese man had to lead us gaijin out and point us in the right direction. Boy was that hilarious.
Perhaps calling it a sushi ‘restaurant’ isn’t quite as accurate as describing it to be more of a sushi bar. It isn’t as tiny as Sushi Saito (7 seats), but still rather small at 14 seats. To put things into perspective, I almost walked right into my seat when we slid open the wooden, rice-paper entrance door. Yep, you read it right. I opened the door, and less than an arm’s length away, was my seat. Perfectly convenient. The three of us had to shuffle around each other to get comfortable. I was also almost responsible for injuring a French customer after I sent a chopstick flying through the air in the narrow confines, but that’s another story.
Our reservation was made about 3 months in advance, done by a friend (thank you Edward!) who was doing an exchange in Japan, and who could speak the language. We had to settle for lunch instead of dinner because of our flight to catch in the evening.
Sushi Kanesaka serves their Edomae-style sushi only as omakase – a phrase which very literally means “I’ll leave it to you”, and which also means that you entrust your stomach, and wallet, into the capable hands of the chef. There is no menu. You will not know what you will get. It is a gamble, except that you can be certain that it is, at the very least, skewed in your favour at Kanesaka. I do believe that it is this silent agreement, rather like a leap of faith, that enriches the dining experience and forms an intangible bond with the chef almost immediately from the moment you quote your price. It is personal.
Their lunch omakase go for a range, at ¥8,000, ¥10,000, ¥15,000. Prices may vary according to what ingredients are available that day, but not by very much. I’ve seen other posts on Kanesaka on the web quoting different prices. Lunch will, however, always be around ¥10,000 cheaper. That’s about S$170 cheaper. My travel buddies went for the ¥10,000, while I went all out with the ¥15,000.
I won’t lie, sushi omakases are a pricey affair. Be prepared to drop at least S$150. This was a meal I had saved up, apportioned, and reserved a sum of my travel budget for. This is also, after all, a two star restaurant, not that the sushi chefs in Japan actually give a flying rat’s ass about European culinary grading or anything.
This is going to be a picture-heavy post, and possibly my lengthiest one ever, but I’m sure you’ll understand since I have 18 courses to cover. You might also want to brace yourself and grab a cup of tea or two.
I was expecting to be served by Kanesaka-san himself, but he was tending to the other side of the restaurant, clearly where the more important people were. Nevertheless, it was still quite a pleasure to be served by Sanpei-san, who spoke a fair amount of English, and who politely asked with a knowing smile if ‘the restaurant was difficult to find?’. I’m sure my weak grin said it all.
It is normal, and very courteous, that sushi chefs inquire if you have any preference for ‘Sushi? Sashimi? Mix?’. An omakase is also about having it your way, and they do a better job than Burger King any day.
Wide-eyed and eager, I asked for a mix, and off we went.
Lunch Set: ¥15,000
Before I lead you into a headlong plunge into the 18 courses, I have something to say about the rice. Yes, the rice. I have never eaten rice like the rice at Kanesaka. Rice elsewhere in the other starred sushi restaurants are all fantastic, I’ve heard, but since I’ve only eaten at Kanesaka, this was very clearly the best rice I’ve ever tasted. No soy sauce – it is redundant. Each grain is cooked perfectly, is sticky enough to hold the shape of a sushi ball, but simply disintegrates into individual grains in the mouth. The taste is exquisite – sweet, salty, nutty, fragrant, and it has umami. The rice is also cooked in small batches to maintain its quality, and is brought out occasionally in small wooden buckets.
The sushi rice at Kanesaka uses only salt and akazu (a type of red vinegar produced as a byproduct of making sake). There is no sugar added to the process, so what you’ll get is rice that is saltier, firmer, and less acidic than most. Thank you Ice for the info!
1. Baby Ebi
First up were some baby ebi. These tiny shrimps were so pale that my camera had trouble focusing. These were also probably the sweetest, most delicate shrimps I’ve ever had. Glistening and pink, these simply melted on the tongue with a cool finish.
2. Wakame Salad
Wakame is best known as the slimy, slippery seaweed commonly found drifting about in miso soups, and are often left stuck forlornly to the bottom of the bowl. This wakame however, was such a brilliant shade of dark jade, paper-thin, crunchy, and clean-tasting. If Sanpei-san had told me that these had been plucked from the depths of the ocean just that morning, I’d have believed him. Behind the mound of wakame was some shreds of daikon with a zingy dressing.
3. Awabi (Abalone)
I was rather surprised when this got laid on my black lacquered plate. I’m familiar with the braised versions served with vegetables and such in Chinese restaurants. This was my first time eating it raw, unadulterated, no chicken stock, no braising liquid, no nothing, and it was delicious. It snaps cleanly between the teeth, tastes subtly sweet, meaty, and gives a pleasant chew.
4. Grilled Anago (Saltwater Eel)
Unlike unagi, anago is less oily and has a subtler taste. This was charcoal-grilled lightly till crisp on the outside, and came with soy sauce with chilli slices on the side. It was oddly chewy, but had a mild sweetness that went well with the dipping sauce. This might have been a different type of anago from the one I got nearer to the end of the meal. This was chewier.
5. Maguro no hohoniku (Boiled Tuna Cheek)
We saw Sanpei-san carving out thick slices from a slab of what looked like beef (third picture above), and just had to ask: “What is that?”
He glanced at us and gave a wry smile before stating “Wagyu” and burst out laughing when we gasped in surprise (horror?). “No. Tuna cheek,” he said, finally, before chuckling to himself.
Fish cheeks are, perhaps, the best parts of a fish, and is very probably the most expensive part of what must be bluefin tuna. It’s the wagyu of the ocean. This one was just barely boiled, and so incredibly fatty that you can see the glistening bubbles of oil on the surface of the sauce. It’s served simply with a bit of sweet daikon to counter its richness. This is, after all, tuna cheek with extensive fissured marbling, so texture wise, the blushing pink flesh just melts and disappears with a flourish, leaving behind a light tang of salty and sweet.
6. Hirame (Flounder)
Arriving after the fanfare and red carpet of the cooked dishes was the humble flounder, brushed with a hint of soy sauce and perched atop a perfect mound of rice. Hopefully the picture is sharp enough to capture the semi-translucency of the slice, which I thought was astounding. Its texture was even more so, with a slight crunch, and a light springiness. My dining partners adored this. I practically inhaled it.
7. Hamachi (Yellowtail)
I doubt that I’ll ever see another slice of yellowtail as smooth and sleek as this, and of such pristine freshness. Shaped snugly around its ball of rice, this fit perfectly in my mouth.
8. Chutoro (Medium Fatty Tuna Belly)
I promise that all the post-processing I did on this photo was merely to clean off some drops of water on the black plate. I did not touch the saturation or hue dial at all. All it had was a gentle brush of soy sauce on top. This was as violently red as I saw it, could have been mistaken for raw beef, but was really the thickest, most succulent slice of tuna belly ever. I just want to eat my screen now.
And speaking of tuna, both my travel buddies who would never touch tuna in Singapore because of the sour, metallic tang, jumped at almost every opportunity to order tuna in Japan. The tuna there swim in magical waters I swear.
9. Otoro (Extra Fatty Tuna Belly)
I am pretty sure this is otoro. It might be another cut of chutoro though. I forgot to go about my religious ‘Kore wa nan desu ka?‘ (what is that?) that I ask for each course because I was too enamoured with the sight before me. Feel free to correct me if this isn’t otoro, but it sure felt and looked like it, what with how it simply drapes itself over the rice. It was creamy, fatty, and melded with the rice in my mouth like liquid velvet (you must excuse me, I get all poetic when I’m trying my best to squeeze out descriptions).
The bulk of the difference between the ¥10,000 that my friends went for, and my ¥15,000 were essentially the cuts of premium tuna I got, from the tuna cheek to both the otoro and chutoro. The baby ebi, grilled anago, abalone were also only part of my omakase.
10. Ika (Squid)
I have learnt that squid is not cheap, slimy filler for sashimi sets or something to wrinkle your nose at. The ika in Japan are ethereal creatures, I’m inclined to believe. They are not stubborn slices to give you a jaw workout. This squid was served with a sprinkle of salt, and a few drops of lime juice on top. Each crunch, and slight chew was punctuated with beautiful sweetness. It almost snaps softly, and certainly doesn’t require any furious chomping.
11. Aji (Mackerel)
This was a surprising favourite of one of my dining partners, and truthfully, it was one of mine as well. Mackerels and their characteristic fishy odour aren’t that appealing to me, raw or cooked, but some aren’t all that bad. This one was devoid of any of that, smelled and tasted fresh, and was stellar with a tiny ball of leek (it could have been grated spring onions, Sanpei-san had trouble translating). The pairing was exceptional.
12. Katsuo (Skipjack Tuna)
Katsuo is most commonly used to make bonito flakes, the brown paper-thin sheets on top of takoyaki. I was expecting a hint of fishiness, surely. Look at it draped languidly all over the rice, and I dare say this was a generous, thickly-sliced, and luscious portion that tasted very fresh.
13. Clam Soup
A simple but very flavourful bowl of miso soup, with a hint of sweet and bitter from the tiny clams at the bottom.
14. Ikura (Cured Salmon Roe) Gunkan
I used to absolutely loathe ikura. It is slimy, repulsive, and horribly fishy.
Having had a few ikura gunkan (battleship) prior to this meal though, and finding out how raw salmon roe is cured, I was already beginning to taste the beauty of such alchemy.
I was fidgeting impatiently, watching Sanpei-san deftly create the humble ikura gunkan and then set it on my plate. As I was still busy snapping pictures, my dining partners, who had already shoved theirs into their mouths, were already moaning and on the verge of throttling me to just eat it already. And so I did.
Crackly seaweed (freshly roasted in-house), faultless rice, and a riotous explosion of creamy sweet and saltiness that sent my eyes rolling to the back of my head. Oh lordie how I crave it now. It deserves an award. It was maddeningly sublime.
My dear ikura, can we put all that in the past? I am terribly sorry for maligning you. Please?
15. Uni (Sea Urchin)
I remember grimacing, and reaching immediately for a glass of water when I had my first sea urchin somewhere in Singapore. It was vile, briny, and slimy.
Obviously I have to make amends with yet another poor, maligned sea creature. Now, remember I said that tuna cheek is the wagyu of the ocean? Uni, would be the foie gras.
I was just a tad disappointed that the uni wasn’t served gunkan-style (battleship-style), like the above ikura, since I have a newfound respect for gunkan sushi and their stunning textural experience. It would have been heavenly. Nevertheless, this was a winning pairing with the rice – luscious, rich, delicately sweet, and just the best darn uni I’ve ever had.
I’m not quite capable of gushing politely anymore.
16. Anago (Grilled Saltwater Eel)
This was the last of the nigiri, and it certainly ended grandly. This had me covering my face with my hands in utter disbelief from the moment it entered my mouth. A quick peek at my dining partners assured me that I wasn’t the only one clutching on to something in sheer bliss. This was paper-thin crispness on the outside where it was grilled, and almost fragile on the inside. It melted.
I apologise that I am out of synonyms. I shall try again: It was light as air, and almost felt like it shattered into the rice. Shattered.
17. Tamago (Sweet Omelette)
The arrival of a slice of tamago on your plate is as good a signal as you’ll get that your omakase has ended.
Kanesaka’s tamago is a departure from the fluffy norm. It’s more of a dense custard, lightly sweetened. One of my friends didn’t take a liking to it, so I helped myself to her slice. It’s interesting, really, but I’d personally still prefer the layered, rolled sort.
18. Kanpyo maki (Sweet Gourd)
This sweet gourd maki was the final note of our languid lunch, or the ba-dum-tsss, so to speak.
I could write an ode to the omakase experience, really. I’ll admit, I was deathly worried that my travel buddies wouldn’t find Sushi Kanesaka worth the price, and I was nervous about spending so darn much. But not only did they love it, they would gladly return without batting an eyelid, and the same goes for me.
The quality of seafood is unlike any other, and the sushi chef’s mastery of his knife is an artistic performance worthy of his years of training. You are watching both a show, and dining like royalty. You get personal attention that is sincere and without snobbery. As the customer, you are king. Each piece of sushi is tailored to fit your mouth at one go.
I’ve also learnt to appreciate wasabi. Sanpei-san’s skilled portions of the green, usually aggravating stuff were so precise that instead of having needles explode in my brain, I relished a sweetness, and only a slight rush that paired sensationally with the fish. It is still your choice to have wasabi included or not.
For the experience, and the amazing number of things I’ve learnt about Japanese cuisine, culture, and food preparation, this was worth every cent.
And despite being foreigners, getting lost while trying to find the restaurant, being late for our reservations, they were extremely accommodating. We got to say hello to Kanesaka-san when Sanpei-san called him over after finding out we were from Singapore. He asked if we’ve been to Shinji by Kanesaka (to which we said no), and told us that he set up a branch in Singapore so that he could “go to the casino, because Japan no casino” which had us laughing. That was a joke by the way. Kanesaka-san is rather adept at English, and a bit of Mandarin and Cantonese, or so I’ve heard.
Just in case you do intend to visit Sushi Kanesaka, here is how it looks like on the outside, because the agony I had to go through to find it was hardly worth it. See the red drapes? It’s just down the stairs. Told you, ninja restaurants.
I’ve included a scanned image of the name card that I was given with a map of the restaurant at the back. Hope that helps!
Truly, Sushi Kanesaka is my most memorable meal yet.