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February 15, 2012

Tokyo - Day IIS

Who Doesn't? Dominic Armato

*beepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeep*

Crap. Ohhhhhhhh, crap. Crapcrapcrapcrapcrap. Okay. Hoo, boy. Okay. Does it really make a difference if I get there at 4:40 instead of 4:50? Ten more minutes. Yes. Ten more minutes.

...

*beepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeep*

Ahhhhhh, crap. Already? Okay. Sushi. Kick ass sushi. Get up. You can sleep in a couple of days. Get up. Get up. Okay. Getting up. Here we go. Getting up. Crap. Okay. UP!

And thus started day two and a half.

Even if I'd been in the mood to drop $400 on one of Tokyo's legendary sushi bars, this particular trip came together rather quickly and getting into, say, Jiro on short notice wasn't happening. Plus, y'know... $400. But legendary doesn't always carry so hefty a price tag, and as much as I usually try to make a habit of avoiding places that have been overhyped to the point that getting in means fighting a huge crowd (except Hot Doug's... the lines came after I started going, damnit), Sushi Dai sounded about right. Plus, it's not like I have any real sleep patterns to speak of even when I'm home, much less on the other side of the planet. Why not drag myself out of bed at four in the morning after having crashed just two hours earlier? Plus, I figured I'd have a leg up on the competition. We stayed a ten minute walk from Tsukiji and the metro doesn't start rolling until about 5:00 AM, which is when the doors at Sushi Dai open, so how many people could possibly be in line if I got there are quarter 'til?

Cheery FellasDominic Armato

Twenty-one is the answer, at least on this particular dark, frigid morning in the world's largest fish market. And with only twelve seats crammed into a restaurant the size of an Escalade, that means I'll have to wait until the second turn. Bummer. Still, there are worse places to stand around killing time. Tsukiji's just hitting its stride at this hour, and even the outskirts of the market are bustling. Shopkeepers set up for the day across the narrow aisle, grizzled truckers grab some breakfast. a cup of coffee and a smoke at the shop next door while their rigs are being loaded, carts of fish come rolling through as wholesalers take their purchases back to small processing houses to prep them for sale. One of the proprietors of Sushi Dai comes walking through, checking to see whether we'll be selecting the smaller set menu or larger omakase, while handing out scalding hot cups of green tea to the shivering folks standing in line. I can't possibly agree more with the cup's sentiment, nor with its contents. Though I'm the only foreigner in line (now pushing 40 deep), it seems that there's some kind of student group in front of me. Domestic tourists from another city, perhaps? I understand Sushi Dai attracts quite a bit of them. Mercifully, Sushi Dai is a no-frills establishment that does little more than feed you, and half an hour after the doors open, folks from the first seating start filtering out. It can't have been more than an hour when I'm finally beckoned inside.

OtoroDominic Armato

Suddenly, everything is bright, warm and above all, cozy. I've been in elevators that could accommodate a dozen people more comfortably, but it's a good kind of crowded, a bit of a jovial buzz amongst those seated at the counter, shoulder to shoulder, overlapping elbows, tended to by three incredibly cheery itamae, slicing and chatting, both amongst themselves and with the patrons. I survey the case in front of me and am immediately confronted with some shocking otoro, ribbons of fat passing through the flesh in thick, pale pink layers. Now the wait gets torturous. Green tea makes a reappearance, as does miso soup, served here with miniscule button-sized clams lurking in the bottom of the bowl. It's an appropriately briny variation that helps everyone to shake off the cold. Just a few minutes after being seated, the first piece appears, a long, thick slab of otoro that's meltingly rich and tender, served atop rice with just a hint of sour and sweet, still warm from the itamae's hands. It's an unimpeachable piece of fish, and it's almost surprising to see them unload the big guns right out of the gate. It's a confident move. "What, you think it can only go downhill from here? Think again." And after I've savored this piece as much as I can, lingering over it and extracting every last mote of flavor, it's off to the races.

Wow Dominic Armato

There's a thin slice of tai, red snapper, that manages to be both far more tender and far more flavorful than what I've come to expect. There's a slab of delicate and sweet kinmedai, a bit of its skin left behind, like an iridescent racing stripe. I adore uni, but there's uni and there's uni, and this is the latter. Next is sawara, a luscious sort of Spanish mackerel, with a hint of fishy character that stops short of plunging into funk. Before the hokkigai hits the counter, the itamae winds up and applies a sharp *SMACK* to its surface, which causes its feathered edges to undulate like a little wave, its freshness duly demonstrated. Aji, horse mackerel, is usually enough to put one off mackerel for life back home, but here that fishy funk is, instead, a complex depth, its deep flavor set off by the sharp sting of shredded scallion. At the opposite end of the spectrum is tamago, a block of dense, sweet omelet, warm and almost creamy. Looking almost comically like a small brain, an entire school of tiny shiro ebi, white shrimp, are packed together, riding the rice, and they go down sweet and sticky. Magurozuke dodges lean tuna's plainness by taking a bath in a soy-based marinade, adding sweetness, depth and interest to what is usually an unremarkable piece of fish. Growing up, anago was the chewy eel choice, but here it's creamy bordering on milky, a level of freshness that I've not previously encountered. Though it could be considered pedestrian next to the rest, there's something comforting about a small roll, nori on the outside, tuna and cool, crisp cucumber within. When it comes time to select my bonus piece, I don't care that hotate is one of the cheapest on the menu. I can't get enough of raw scallop, and if it were all this good, I'd be that much more insatiable.

At this point, I resist the urge to keep adding more, and weeks later, I'm regretting it. There are no surprises, but it's like the ultimate benchmark experience, providing the tastes against which everything else you taste for years to come will be (unfairly) judged. I'm not a breakfast guy, but if I had regular access to breakfast like this, I'd do it far more often, even if it meant hauling myself out of bed at four in the morning (heck, half the time I'm still up at that hour). Sushi Dai is completely no-frills, as classic as they come, and a spectacularly good value for the quality, the omakase coming in at about $50-$60 depending on where the exchange rate sits at the moment. By the time I pay that relatively modest tab and step back out into the cold, morning is breaking and the line is now around the corner. Apparently getting up in the middle of the night was the right call. But so long as I'm up and out, I see no sense in heading back already. So I go back to hit a favorite shop from previous trips.

AmaebiDominic Armato

Sushizanmai is Sushi Dai's opposite, a local chain in the shopping area just outside the market proper, where all manner of foodstuffs that might conceivably be paired with fish are sold. It's a large restaurant, kind of flashy, with a hawker out front pulling people in off the street (something that probably would have kept me away on previous visits). There's a large bar, but the rest of the room looks like it could seat close to a hundred, mostly empty at this early hour. In contrast to the boisterous late night crowd I remember from visits past, at this hour the counter seats a few grizzled workmen, tended to by a small cadre of equally grizzled itamae, most of whom look like they've been doing this four decades or more. I'm not looking for much, but there are a couple of choice pieces I need to have before calling the morning done.

Aburi ToroDominic Armato

I'm a sucker for amaebi, sweet shrimp, and it's so dependent on freshness (as if the rest isn't) that I want to have a couple of pieces before heading back. That raw spot prawn flavor, sweet and... almost starchy tasting?... it's difficult to describe. But it satisfies. What I'm really after, however, is the aburi toro, a piece of fish that I've been anticipating for a long, long time. The concept is simple enough. A slice of fatty tuna is set atop the rice, dusted with salt and then torched before, in this case, being topped with fresh chives and a spot of ginger. But this belies its genius when it's on, the fat from the toro quickly melting and sizzling, creating a kind of salty slick glaze that coats the fish as well as your tongue when you bite. I think I ate twenty pieces of this stuff across three visits on my last trip, it made my Deliciousness of 2006 and has haunted me for every year since. To say that I'm vibrating with anticipation would be a gross understatement. And yet when it's set in front of me and I finally get the taste I'd been craving for years, I'm... extremely disappointed. I'm not sure why. The richness isn't there. The sizzle isn't there. The salt isn't there. I mean, all of those components are present, but the magic is gone, perhaps illustrating how a subtle touch can make such an enormous difference in a dish that seems dead simple. Though it's been a long time, I'm certain it isn't me. It's the fish. Deflated, I pay the tab and head back out to the market.

Bonito Dominic Armato

On previous visits, I've always spent my time in the market proper, wandering the narrow aisles, gawking in total amazement at what seems like an infinite variety of seafood, both fresh and live, that goes on for miles. But there's a surrounding neighborhood packed with vendors that sell all sorts of other foodstuffs, and on my last visit, I resolved that when I returned, I'd spend my time in the outer market for once. So that's what I do. I encounter vendors selling thirty different varieties of beans. Others have giant vats of miso, from which they'll unceremoniously scoop some into a plastic bag for you to take home. Produce vendors have stunning greens, perfect mushrooms and piles of fresh wasabi root that make me wish I were bold enough to challenge customs on the way back. One of the stands ends up being highly educational, displaying grades of shaved bonito lined up in order of quality. On one end, it's haphazardly shredded and dull grey in color. On the other, huge, light flakes are a vibrant, bright pink and let off an intense, lightly smoky fragrance. Every time the vendor shuffles some of his product around, the air becomes momentarily laden with the scent of fresh bonito flakes, and I end up lingering long enough to earn me some looks. So I move on, stopping at a produce vendor to buy a whole yuzu and tearing it open to slurp out a bit of the tart flesh. I hate that a week ago, I could barely remember what fresh yuzu tastes like, and I want to hold onto it for a moment, trying to sear the flavor into my brain for what will probably be a long drought ahead.

Seafood PancakeDominic Armato

I resolve to nab a little street food before returning to the hotel. Giant blocks of tamago filled with all manner of ingredients seem to be popular, but I'm not quite feeling that. Another stand sells two dozen varieties of onigiri, the fillings within the triangular packages of rice identified by colorful stickers on the plastic wrap encasing them. Another one of the recs from my enormously helpful reader is a tempura place just a couple of blocks away. I don't have high hopes at this early hour, but so many businesses in the area cater to people whose workday is just ending that I decide to check it out anyway. Sadly, it's closed. But across the way there's another street food vendor selling some manner of seafood pancake. I've seen this before, but I don't know what it's named, and I figure it's time to try one. It's a mix of seafood, primarily shrimp, blended into a thick paste, mixed with sliced scallions and some other seasonings, and fried into a dense, chewy, kind of oily puck, the crudeness of which belies its deliciousness. After a morning packed with delicate, raw seafood, it seems kind of brutish to end my visit to Tsukiji with this. But I don't care, because it's completely fabulous. I munch contentedly while walking back to the hotel. Streets that were completely deserted a few hours ago are now packed with people heading to work. The city's waking up. But I'm going to go grab a couple hours of sleep.

Tokyo - Day I   |   Tokyo - Day II   |   Tokyo - Day IIS   |   Tokyo - Day III   |   Tokyo - Day IV

Sushi Dai
Tokyo-to, Chuo-ku
Tsukiji 5-2-1
3541-3738
Sushizanmai
www.kiyomura.co.jp
Tokyo-to, Chuo-ku
Tsukiji 11-9-4
3541-1117

Comments

Great stuff, Dom. I can't wait for the rest of the trip.

(you know me better by my LTH handle...The GP.)

Hi Dom.

As I mentioned on Twitter, your write ups on Tokyo couldn't have come at a better time, as Carla and I are here for a week. Interestingly, I didn't get a chance to read this installment until after we went to the Tsukiji Fish Market to watch the auction, we were walking around looking for a place to eat. Following the rule I've seen in many guide books, we went to the only place that had a line. We waited for about 30 minutes to get in, but man was it worth standing in the cold. Everything was just as you described. I'll have some shots up on my blog after I get back. Forgive me if I use your writeup as crib notes.

Cheers!

Ha! That's hilarious!

Well, I'm glad my tardiness didn't keep you from the place. It's pretty outstanding, and a fun experience all around.

And thanks, Mary... I mean to bring most of this back to LTH as well... just trying to get through my brain dump before I start forgetting things.

Oh man. This sounds like a perfect day to me. I'm going to get Heather to read this post & see if it hastens my first trip over there! :)

Dom is Sushi Dai strictly a omakase experience? Do they just roll in seatings of the set progression all day? Impressive if they do.

Anon Man... That's a good question. They have a full menu, translated even, as well as the traditional placards on the wall. So presumably you can go a la carte if you want. But not a single person I saw there did.

Thanks, Dom. And, scallops is one of my favorite orders too. The sushi place I frequent is one of two Japanese diplomat hangouts in the DC area. The scallops are awesome. And touching on a previous post, my usual meal there ends (after scallop sushi among the mix) with a spicy scallop roll, a roll that even the itamae (almost all imports) admit is the only roll they eat. Key ingredient list: scallop, hot sauce, bonito, MAYO. Yeah, it's the most awesome maki I've ever eaten.

Anon Man... I'm not big on mayo maki, but a spicy mayo scallop roll is one I'll order every time I see it. We're operating on the same wavelength here :-)

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