Archive for May, 2009

Sushi nirvana at Shinya

Monday, May 25th, 2009


There’s no other way to put it—sushi at Shinya will ruin you for any other sushi in town. Other places may offer more refinements or delicacies found only in Shikoku tidal pools during a full moon. Other places may, like Shinya, prepare their own shoyu and get their fish every morning from Tsukiji market. Those other places, though, don’t have Katsumi Shinya himself.shinya-room

Shinya-san says his secret is simple: he wants people to enjoy eating his sushi. Part of that pleasure comes from the tasteful atmosphere of his small shop. A pale cypress counter seats 10 and the two tables, one in a lovely tatami alcove, each seat just four. Here and there, a discretely placed raku-ware vase blossoms with a floral arrangement of binchotan charcoal branches which are meant to cleanse the air, but also calm the spirit. Two framed calligraphic pieces also catch the eye. One depicts nigiru, to grab; and the other depicts te, hand—the action and the tool of making sushi.

shinya-working2Another part of Shinya’s “secret” is his physical genius. His sushi-making movements are a thing of beauty. His hands move in a graceful, practiced dance—each time exactly the same. No flourishes, no wasted movement, until a little piece of heaven is placed on the counter before you.

But it’s not just his movements that make Shinya’s sushi unforgettable. The edomae-sushi tradition involves preparing the fish, doing something “a little extra“ to it, and finally presenting it. Shinya’s “little extra” can be anything from a drop or two of freshly squeezed juice from the lime-like sudachi, a hint of salt, a dab of ginger, to a touch of “pesto.” It’s this extra something, plus the balance and harmony of tastes, that puts Shinya’s sushi on another level.

As a first time guest, Shinya-san will ask you if there‘s anything you prefer not to eat. Tell him anything is okay. It’s not uncommon for people who can’t stand uni (sea urchin) to find themselves ordering another. And for people who usually pass on shiokara (salted squid) to ask for an omiage to take home. When he asks whether you’d like to be served ikkan or nikkan, go for the ikkan “one piece at a time“option. You can try a wider variety of tastes that way and you can always ask to revisit a favorite.

There is a menu, but most people give Shinya a free hand. As he serves you, he will balance rich with light, oily with vinegary, or offer you variations on a theme: maguro with a touch of grated ginger, then maguro with a dash of wasabi, followed by a bit of maguro briefly seared on one side.shinya-maguro

On a recent visit, Shinya started with kohada, the young konoshiro, or gizzard shad. The finishing touch on that silvery blue fish was a translucent shaving of kombu (kelp) adding a subtle taste of the sea. Exquisitely fresh uni was paired with strips of ika (squid) and held in place with a belt of nori. That little masterpiece caused frissons of joy along the counter and exclamations of “oishii!” and “umai!”

shinya-anagoThe anago, conger eel, was wrapped like a mink blanket around its tiny bed of rice. A few drops of fragrant sudachi gave a lively citrus accent to the richness of the eel. The aji (horse mackerel) from Awajijima came with a dab of green “pesto”—shoga, shiso, and hime negi onion. And the toro, carefully cut from between the membranes, was served unadorned. Common reactions to the toro are eyes closed in pleasure and heads shaken in wonder.

Monetarily, the price for this sushi nirvana, including beer or sake, is usually about 10,000 yen per person. The culinary price is that you won’t want to eat sushi anywhere else. The Michelin Guide gives three stars to those places worth a special journey, where you can eat extremely well. After eating at Shinya, the special journey out to Musashi Sakai will become a regular commute.

shinya-futomakiOrder a futomaki to take home with you, and watch how carefully it is made, wrapped and tied in dried bamboo leaves.

Shinya: 2-11-21 Sakai, Musashi Sakai, tel: 0422-36-1555. About a 5-minute walk from the north exit of Musashi Sakai station on the Chuo line.

Sembei in Sendagi: Kikumi Honten

Monday, May 4th, 2009


Kikumi has been making rice crackers for 133 years. Over the years here in Tokyo, I’ve sampled sembei from all over the city, but these are my favorites. The big square crackers pack a hearty crunch with a full “ricey” savor balanced with a delicate shoyu glaze. The togarashi, red pepper-flavored crackers will start a slow satisfying burn in your mouth that begs for a cool beer extinguisher.kikumi-sembei-counter

For the sweet tooth, Kikumi makes a green matcha-glazed cracker and another enameled with white sugar. The large glass globes contain an array of nibble-sized crackers in various sizes, shapes and degrees of crunch.

kikumi-sembei-exteriorKikumi is at the bottom of a long lazy slope leading up to the Yanaka neighborhood. Yanaka survived the destruction of the Great Kanto Earthquake and the fire-bombings of the Second World War and is rich with temples, shrines, and shops.

The neighborhood is perfect for an afternoon walk. Seek out Tennoji Shrine, Yanaka Cemetery and the Asakura Choso Museum. Asakura Fumio is considered Japan’s Rodin and is rightly famous for his bronze statues. He was especially fond of cats and the museum’s feline bronzes are particularly lovely. The museum comprises his Japanese-style home, atelier, and enclosed water garden. His roof garden is wonderful.

Kikumi Sembei Sohonten, 3-37-16 Sendagi, Bunkyo-ku. 03-3821-1215. Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Mondays.