June 15, 2017
When we apologized to chef Takao Ishiyama for being late because of how hopelessly lost we were, he simply nodded and said that happens often. Even by Tokyo standard Sushi Ya, located on a back alley in Ginza 6-Chome, is a tough find. Despite its popularity it is however very accommodating to foreigner; I was able to secure a reservation simply through the phone three weeks prior.
Much has been said about the age of Chef Ishiyama. At 32 year old he is one of the youngest high profile itamae in Tokyo. His previous stints include Saito, but it is Kanesaka where he cut his teeth and received the financial backing to manage his own unambiguously-named shop. His demeanor was serious but friendly.
The eight seater was 87.5% full, with two local ladies and a family of three from Hong Kong. All the others ordered omakase. We went with the 15-sushi set.
Before our meal began with the familiar flounder, our attention was captured by Ishiyama’s amplified movements in forming each and every piece of nigiri. Inheriting Kanesaka’s tradition, he also appears to view sushi as a form of theatrics. He constantly moves around, from picking up a piece of neta to shaping the shari to seasoning the nigiri. He grips each piece of nigiri no less than a dozen times, with some movements so splashy he almost resembled an Olympic gymnast. His attention was unwaveringly focused on the negi and shari in his hands.
The mild flounder was the perfect piece to test the shari, seasoned here with komezu (rice vinegar), akazu (red vinegar) and salt. My first impression of Ishiyama’s shari was highly-seasoned — it was a little too salty for a mild-flavoured fish like flounder but fared much better with neta like uni and anago.
A side note on the history of shari — during the Edo era, komezu (rice vinegar) had to be imported from Kansai, so the cheaper alternative of using akazu, fermented using lees left over from sake production, was essential to sushi-making.
The third piece, following amberjack, was otoro the fatty tuna belly. I didn’t expect this expensive ingredient to be included, especially so soon in the meal for a relatively strong-flavoured neta. A simple piece of fatty goodness.
I started to notice the pace was strangely uneven, due partly to the one chef to seven patrons ratio and partly to his practice of serving otsumami concurrently with nigiri to the other two parties who had ordered omakase meals. One moment it was grilled fish, but a piece of nigiri later it was back to another plate of cooked food. Sipping on our green tea we became unrelated bystanders until our next nigiri appeared ten minutes later.
Even more surprising and frankly of slight concern was the moment when I saw the chef picked out two slices of salmon from the fridge. It is common knowledge Japanese don’t eat raw salmon; although this aversion has soften up in recent past, most high-end sushiyas still tend to avoid it. This version was masu salmon from the Pacific near Japan; it was not the overtly fat and oily stuff found on conveyor sushi belt, but I have never been a fan of salmon’s distinguished oiliness when eaten raw.
Back in the Edo era tuna was considered a highly undesirable fish, especially the oily belly which was often discarded. The king of sushi back then? Hatsu-gatsuo, the first catch of skipjack tuna in early summer which inspired the tongue-in-cheek saying that men were willing to pawn their wives for a taste of the delicacy.
The craze has long faded, but katsuo remains an important ingredient for all aspects of Japanese cuisine. Instead of nigiri Ishiyama prepared for us an oshizushi, a specialty of Osaka where the sushi is compressed inside a wooden box. The fresh seaweed balanced out the otherwise intense sourness and provided a distinctive crispy texture to the piece.
Another observation — chef seems to expect his patrons to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of sushi — out of the blue he spelled out to us the katsuo oshizushi after going silence over the first few pieces of common neta such as hirame and otoro.
If not for a lingering scent of bitterness this would be a perfect piece of tiger prawn, a rare case of not being overcooked by a sushi chef.
My mood began to sour since the salmon. Sadly the next four nigiri only deepened my doubt. Squid was slimy; horse mackerel wasn’t particularly fresh; gizzard shad and katsuo were both excessively marinated with vinegar.
Just when I began to wonder if the katsuo oshizushi would be the only memorable piece of this meal, the turning point appeared in the form of a seared kinmedai (Golden-eye snapper) nigiri. Extremely rich and tender. The Bafun uni from southern Hokkaido that followed was fresh, creamy and sweet.
By now chef had completed the orders of the other patrons and could focus solely on ours. Hard clam had the texture of bamboo fungus and taste of the sweetest geoduck. The reliable sea eel, from Kanagawa, and two unassuming kanpyo maki rounded off our meal.
After finishing the pudding-like tamago-yaki, I sipped on my remaining green tea while pondered what I had just consumed. There were several warts, especially around the midpoint when both the quality and pace were inconsistent, but Ishiyama’s best in the latter third of the meal was exceptional.
I highly recommend our ¥10,800 15-piece lunch set, which is around 40% of the ¥25,000 omakase meal (100 yen = 7.1 HKD). For the latter I would probably opt for a more experienced hand, though in due time I am sure someone who cares about his craft as much as Ishiyama does would become one himself.
Address: 6-3-17 Ginza, 1F Yugen Bldg., Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Opening hours: 12:00 – 14:00, 17:00 – 22:00; closed on Monday