June 12, 2017
When I last visited the Japanese capital in 2008, the first edition of the Tokyo Michelin Guide was just released amid much controversy, like it always does in markets outside of France. But most people, including the notoriously snarky Jay Rayner, agreed Tokyo more than deserved its 191 stars.
Even back in the days it was almost impossible to get into the most celebrated sushi and kaiseki places, many of which only offered a few counter seats. Fast forward to 2017 and the situation only gets worse now that Tokyo boasts a whopping 304 stars (170 more than Paris) and many of the most established restaurants have a policy of not serving first timers without invitations from past patrons. Some simply refuse to entertain foreigners anymore. Want a seat at Saito or Sugita? Booking your stay at a 5-star hotel like the Park Hyatt doesn’t work anymore. Time to ring your rich friends to see if they have any connection.
I tried the most straightforward approach — find the restaurants that are either willing to take online reservation or at least pick up the damn phone from outside the country. Sushi Masuda is one of the few high-end sushi joints that takes online reservation through the agency Pocket Concierge — the price is ¥31,000 (US$1 =¥113) for an omakase meal including service charge and drinks, about 15% more expensive than the regular price.
Chef Rei Masuda works under the tutelage of Jiro Ono for nine years before opening his own shop in 2014. He was rewarded with a second Michelin star in the latest guide but garners much less rapport among the most enthusiastic online food personalities. After quickly opening shops in Vietnam and Kyoto, Masuda’s reputation as a businessman outpaces his identity as an itamae. All these information doesn’t matter much to me, not yet at least, as I am a novice to the dining scene in Tokyo and I just want to get my feet wet.
Our flight was delayed for two hours, causing us to be 30 minutes late and adding another case of the unreliability of rude foreigners. I did phone the shop on the airport bus and they seemed understanding of my situation. The tiny restaurant was full on this night; we were seated at the sushi bar with four locals while the two tables in a private room at the back were filled with groups from Taiwan and the States.
For omakase meals most sushiyas serve otsumami (snack) before the main items, the number and variety differ in each place. Unlike Sukiyabashi Jiro where there is no otsumami and a meal lasts for only 20 minutes, Masuda works at a more leisurely pace with several small dishes to begin, the first of which was abalone in a sauce made with abalone liver. It was tender with strong flavour from the sauce.
Next up were rockfish and horse mackerel sashimi. The lean rockfish was eaten with spicy grated daikon and ponzu. On the other side of the fishiness scale is the horse mackerel — chef garnished it with scallions to balance the strong taste. The beautiful pink flesh was crunchy and very fishy.
Three grilled fish came in succession — spotted halibut, barracuda and beltfish. Each was only slightly seared on the surface but had very different flavour and texture. The halibut was firm and meaty; the barracuda was raw inside and oily; the beltfish was flaky and tasted mildly salty.
Chef Masuda was responsible for the counter seat area while his assistants focused on the other guests. As sushi is served from a progression of mild to strong flavour, often flounder, the mildest fish, is served as the first piece. Beyond the fish, which was expectedly chewy and tasteless, this piece served the purpose of forming an impression of the chef’s sushi rice (shari). Masuda’s decidedly follows Jiro Ono’s method; its sharp sourness was a shock to the system at first bite. Masuda seasoned his rice with komezu (rice vinegar), salt and a little bit of sugar.
This ordinary looking squid turned out to be the night’s best piece. Incredibly fresh and crunchy. Only the freshest squid has the konjac-like texture that can be cut off completely in one bite.
Sandfish is a scaleless fish that resides in the sandy ocean bed off the coast of Akita and Yamagata prefectures. It was clean, firm and slightly sweet.
The best ark clam is found in Hokkaido between January and May. Even though slightly off season, this one seemed to check all the boxes: decent size and shape, sharp colour and good crunchiness, but regrettably was very subtle in terms of flavour.
A decent piece of chutoro later was tiger prawn. It was skewered on a stick and boiled in water with sugar and vinegar, then cooled to room temperature before served. Exceptionally sweet but slightly overcooked.
Masuda really has a way with cephalopod. His cuttlefish was my second favourite piece of the meal; chewy but not rubbery and almost as sweet as the tiger prawn.
Followed by sea bream and gizzard shad, and then it was the ever popular sea urchin. From Kyushu, the uni had all the right attributes, fresh, firm, good colour, creamy and sweet.
After a piece of chopped scallop we had our last piece of the night, the sea eel. After it was simmered and all the bones picked out, it was dressed with a thick brush of unagi sauce. Like the flounder that began the meal, anago tastes similar in most shops, with a soft texture that melts in the mouth.
Although most sushiyas conclude with egg pudding, almost every shop has its own variety. Masuda’s was slightly sweet with a sponge cake-like texture.
The meal totalled six otsumami and thirteen pieces of sushi including the tamago. It was consistent with a few truly good pieces. I warmed up to the indistinguishably sour shari by the midpoint, and it really shined at the end with the strong flavour pieces like uni and anago. But for this price, which is on par with the top tier restaurants in Tokyo, I feel Masuda falls a little short. There wasn’t any low point, yet very few peaks either. Beyond the shari there is nothing that distinguishes Masuda.
Address: B1F, BC Minamiaoyama Property, 5-8-11 Minamiaoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Opening hours: 11:30 – 14:00, 17:00 – 23:00; closed on Sunday