It had always been a dream of mine to have an omakase set meal in one of Tokyo’s vaunted sushi temples, but unfortunately, things were a lot more difficult than I expected. You see, booking a restaurant in Tokyo is a tricky ordeal, especially if you want to get into one of the more prestigious restaurants in the city, or if you are a foreign customer. Ideally, to get into places like Sushi Saito, Kawamura and Kaiseki temples Matsukawa and Kyoaji, you need to be Japanese, knowledgable about the local cuisine, and most importantly, you must be invited by a previous customer who is on personal terms with the chef. If you are a foreign visitor, the level of difficulty increases, much like tilting the sliders on a video game. You must be accompanied by a Japanese speaker who has previously dined in the restaurant before, and you must be willing to eat anything and everything that the chef serves on your plate, such as sea cucumber ovaries, puffer fish milt, and the gelatinous shell of a suppon (soft shell turtle). All this, plus a wallet with a fat wad of cash inside (Meals in these gastro-temples can easily exceed JPY50,000 (HK$3500), especially if seasonal ingredients like Matsutake mushrooms or zuwagani (snow crabs) are involved) meant that it was near impossible for me to dine in one of these restaurants – and trust me, I tried, to the extent where I even paid for an online concierge to book me into Sushi Saito (Spoiler Alert: it did not work). Thankfully, Tokyo is the best dining city in the world, and for every high-end, members only restaurant, there is another serving food of similar quality that is much more accessible and tourist-friendly. Sushi Kanesaka is one of the latter.
Located in the basement of some nondescript office building in Ginza, Sushi Kanesaka, on the surface, seems like the stereotypical high-end sushi restaurant in Tokyo – with blond wood counters, monastic ambiance, and serious looking chefs dressed in the whitest of linens, wielding some of the sharpest blades known to man. But appearances are deceiving and first impressions can be misguided, as Sushi Kanesaka is commonly regarded as one of the most tourist-friendly Michelin starred sushi restaurants in Tokyo. The staff are welcoming, polite to a fault, and speak a good amount of English. Furthermore, the chefs here are willing to accommodate the dietary requests of customers, and will tailor each individual omakase menu accordingly. While this does not sound like much, one must be aware that most Japanese restaurants are notoriously uncompromising, and I dare anybody to walk up to the legendary Jiro Ono and demand him to change his menu due to whatever ridiculous paleo, low carb, gluten-free diet you might be on.
Most importantly, despite being very serious and quiet, the atmosphere in Sushi Kanesaka is very relaxing and, dare I say it, chilled out. This is a stark contrast to many of the city’s more renowned sushi restaurants, where the entire dining experience is a solemn, almost lifeless affair, devoid of any laughter, emotion and human interaction. One small misstep, and you risk being expelled from the restaurant like a petulant high school student. The pleasant atmosphere in Sushi Kanesaka meant that diners, particularly foreign diners like you and I, can fully relax and enjoy the meal in store for us. And oh, what a meal it was.
A meal in a high end sushi restaurant is a bit like having a front row seat for an award winning drama performance, say Hamilton, or a graceful ballet dance recital. It is a ticket to a masterful performance, where the sushi master utilises every ounce of his skill to ensure that every piece of nigiri is pristine and perfect. You watch as he delicately slices the fish, slowly, cautiously, so that each individual slice is the same exact thickness; then with a few elegant hand motions, a small handful of rice is transformed into a beautiful lozenge and placed in front of you. All you have to do is pick it up with your hands, tilt the nigiri on the side so that the fish comes into contact with the tongue first, and enjoy. As you are presented with piece after piece of sushi, you are so mesmerised by the entire show that you lose track of time, and when the curtains close and the show ends, you are left craving for one more piece of perfect nigiri.
As each omakase progresses in a specific order determined by the chef, here are the pieces I had for lunch at Sushi Kanesaka in chronological order. Both my girlfriend and I opted for the most expensive omakase sushi course, priced at JPY15000 (HK$1058), but should you feel like splurging, there is a 25000 yen course available, complete with a selection of otsumami (appetizers usually consisting of expensive seafood).
Tai (Sea Bream Snapper)
Usually in high end sushi shops, cuts of fish are aged so that the flavour compounds develop and the proteins soften. The ageing period is determined by the chef, and it is by this ageing process, along with the seasoning of the rice, that separates the premier sushi chefs from the mediocre ones, as the best chefs squeeze every single drop of flavour from the fish. Here, the Tai – usually a cheap cut of fish, is aged to absolute perfection, with the flesh rendered succulent and soft from the ageing process, and the fish’s natural sweetness shone through.
Buri (Japanese Yellowtail)
This was one of the standout pieces of the meal. Dubbed as ‘White Toro’ by the Japanese, Buri, or Hamachi, is one of the more luxurious fishes used in sushi. After one bite, it is easy to see why, as the fish was so succulent and full of fat it melted in the mouth. This was a stark contrast to a lot of the Hamachi found in Hong Kong sushi shops, where the proteins have long disintegrated and all flavour is lost.
Akami Zuke (Soy Marinated Lean Blue Fin Tuna)
In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Jiro Ono scoffs at people who clamour for otoro (the fattiest cut of the bluefin tuna), and claims that people who truly understand sushi will go for akami, the lean, ruby red cut of the fish, as it is the part with the most flavour. And indeed, this was an intensely flavourful piece of meat, rich with that lovely metallic tang that people so love. This particular piece of Akami was briefly marinated in soy sauce to give it a salty, aggressive kick.
Chutoro (Medium Fatty Bluefin Tuna Belly)
Out of the three cuts of tuna, this was probably my favourite piece – I’m not sure really, maybe I really should go back to Sushi Kanesaka again to find out – as it was the perfect blend of succulence and meatiness. Chutoro has much more flavour than the Otoro, which can sometimes be overwhelmingly fatty, yet it is much more luxurious than Akami. Here, the Chutoro was so soft and tender it melted in the mouth without any effort
Otoro (Fatty Blue Fin Tuna)
Otoro is the fattiest part of the tuna, and is regarded as the Rolls Royce of sushi. As the fish itself is already as good as it can possibly be, the difference in quality lies in how the fish is aged and sliced. It should be free from sinew, and when you put it in your mouth, it should be at just the right temperature so the fats begin to melt and the entire piece disappears, leaving only an intensely rich aftertaste of fish. Prior to sampling the toro in Japan, I never could have fathomed that a piece of fish could melt on the tongue like the finest beef. Yes, I know Bluefin tunas are an endangered species, but when something tastes so good, it is hard to tell people to stop.
Kuruma Ebi (Japanese Imperial Prawn) with Ebi Miso
Just one day earlier in Tempura Tsunahachi, I proclaimed the live kuruma ebi tempura I had during that fantastic lunch as the sweetest and most intense piece of crustacean I have ever sampled. But that piece of prawn paled in comparison to the kuruma ebi I had in Sushi Kanesaka. Perfectly poached so that the proteins are set and glistening, these prawns are served warm on top of a dab of Ebi miso, the creamy, umami rich stuff found inside the heads of the prawn. It is luscious and sweet, with a lovely briny flavour coming through. A little slick of soy sauce adds a touch of saltiness, completing the entire piece into one perfect bite.
Shiro Ebi (White Shrimp)
Shiro Ebi are rarely found in Hong Kong, due to the fact that these tiny white shrimps need to be served at their freshest state, and that they are extremely difficult to procure. Luckily, Japan is the best place in the world for seafood thanks to the mighty Tsukiji market, and these shrimp were as fresh as can be, luscious, sticky and subtly sweet, with a faint, musky aftertaste.
Sumi Ika (Squid)
Squid has always been one of my least favourite sushi ingredient, as the cephalopod can be bland and chewy, with a unique stickiness that can be overwhelming at times. Here in Sushi Kanesaka, the squid was tender and buttery, with a subtle sweetness coming through. Still, it was a touch bland, and was less exciting as some of the other pieces of sushi served in the lunchtime omakase.
Kohada (Gizzard Shad)
Kohada is a tiny seasonal fish that packs an intense flavour. In fact, the fishiness is so strong that most sushi chefs will cure the fillets in a mix of salt, vinegar and mirin, and in some instances, you can actually over season the fish. Here, the level of curing was pitch perfect. You get that intense flavour of fish, but not to the degree where it becomes offensive. It also had an adequate level of chew, and the glistening silver skin made this one beautiful piece of nigiri to look at.
Aji (Horse Mackerel)
“It tastes like sour cream and onion chips!”
That was what my girlfriend exclaimed after devouring her piece in one bite. Feeling a bit skeptical, I followed suit, and indeed she was correct. The horse mackerel, served with a dollop of chive puree on top and a smear of ginger underneath the fish, really tasted like the finest sour cream and onion flavoured potato chips. All kidding aside, the firm, oily flesh of the fish meshed perfectly with the condiments, creating a refreshing, clean piece of sushi, and both of us agreed that this, alongside the decadent otoro, was the standout piece of the meal… At least until we had our next two pieces of sushi.
Torigai (Japanese Cockle)
Torigai are in season during April and May, and our lovely sushi chef proudly told us that these torigai were some of the best shellfish found in Tsukiji this morning. When my girlfriend, bless her, informed him that she did not eat shellfish, he looked a bit crestfallen, and reiterated how she really ought to try these lovely cockles, as they were at their peak deliciousness. Well, her loss, for the torigai was the highlight of the meal for me. First, the chef whisked out a small box containing perfect cuts of the mollusc. “Still living”, he smiled, and without a second word, gave the poor shellfish an almighty smack. Instantly, the flesh of the mollusc tensed up and curled upwards, forming the shape of a crane. It is no wonder that the torigai means ‘bird’s shell’ in Japanese kanji. This piece of torigai was intensely sweet, and was soft and tender like no other shellfish I had before. It was so good that I instantly ordered an encore. What makes Japanese food truly special is how the chefs respect the seasonality of the ingredients and make use of them when they are at their best, and this torigai is a fitting indication of that.
Sayori (Japanese Half Fish)
As my girlfriend refused to have the torigai, she was served a nigiri of sayori instead. Sayori, another seasonal ingredient, is one of the most difficult fish to prepare. But when done right, it is a beautiful, elegant piece of fish. The Sayori nigiri at Sushi Kanesaka was served with shredded shiso leaves and grated ginger. While I did not get to try the fish, the missus said that it was very light, and rather palatable.
Uni (Sea Urchin)
I have always loathed the phrase ‘foodporn’ (As you can read here). But I must concede and say that the Uni nigiri was as pornographic as food could possibly get. I have never seen uni as plump and as vividly orange as this before, and it was so gorgeous it took me a few moments to stop ogling, gather myself, and place the nigiri on my tongue. Let me tell you, this particular uni, sourced from Hokkaido, tasted every bit as good as it looked. It was luscious and sweet, with a strong musky – almost sultry – aftertaste. Simply sublime.
Anago (Sea Eel) and Tamago (Egg Custard)
The arrival of Anago and Tamago signalled the end of the omakase, the last crescendo of flavours before everything turns quiet and the curtains close. The anago, steamed before being grilled on top of bichotan coals, was succulent and pillowy, where the buttery fish fell apart at the slightest touch. The Tamago was done in traditional Edomae style, made with grated mountain yam and tiny shrimp. In Sushi Kanesaka, as well as many other high end sushi restaurants, Tamago is always the last course on the menu, as it is very sweet and functions as a dessert of sorts. Here, the egg was silky smooth, and was as soft as the finest of puddings.
Kampyo Maki (Maki Sushi Rolls with Dried Calabash)
Contrasting to the luxurious ingredients found in the previous pieces of nigiri, our omakase lunch ended with a humble maki roll of dried gourd. While I normally do not like Japanese pickles and preserved vegetables, the kampyo served in Kanesaka was rather tasty, and the nori seaweed sheets were delicate and tender.
Prior to this meal, I never knew that something consisting simply of fish and rice would have such depth of flavour and intensity. And more impressively, everything, from the ageing of the fish to develop stronger umami flavours, to the temperature of the rice in each nigiri, to the slick of soy brushed on top of the fish, is calculated so that the entire piece of sushi is in perfect harmony. The fish did not overwhelm the rice, and the acidity from the red vinegar, rather than masking the delicate flavours of the fish, actually enhances it. For the first time in my life, I truly had no complaints after a meal. It was THAT good. This was definitely the best meal I had in Tokyo, and probably one of the best meals I have ever had in my life.
Sushi Kanesaka is a great starting point for foreigners to venture into the world of high end sushi in Tokyo (apart from being one of the easier ones to actually venture into). The atmosphere is amicable, and you don’t have to auction off a kidney to afford the omakase set. While some have accused of Kanesaka-san for being too preoccupied with his foreign venues in Macau and Singapore (Michelin demoted this Ginza branch from two Michelin stars to one), him and his brigade have truly served me a truly incredible meal. Yes, this was probably one of the most expensive meals I have ever paid for in my life (and completely contradicts the ethos behind Wong Eats Hong Kong), but it is a front row seat to a masterful performance and is worth every single penny.
Sushi Kanesaka (Ginza Honten) – B1/F Misuzu Bldg, 8-10-3 Ginza Chuou-ku, Tokyo
*Reservation Policy: As the website says, Sushi Kanesaka does not accept individual reservation requests from foreign tourists. Simply go to your hotel concierge and ask them to make the booking for you, and do stress that you will eat everything and that you will be on time.
**There are other Sushi Kanesaka branches in Tokyo, but always go for the main branch. And if you do go for dinner, you will probably run into Kanesaka-san.
***If you cannot travel to Tokyo, Kanesaka has a restaurant in Macau called Shinji by Kanesaka, as well as two outposts in Singapore. All three restaurants are recipients of one Michelin star and are regarded as some of the best Japanese restaurants in their respective locations.