Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sushi Isshin, Asakusa (鮨一新)

Had to work today, afternoon meeting plus some cleanup that finished around 5:30. After that, went up to Asakusa and discovered that it was Sanja Matsuri on the day, one of old Edo's big 3 festivals. Another of them is Monzen Nakacho's Hachiman Matsuri, which is so f-in awesome that it's only held every 3 years. The focal point is these portable shrines or omikoshi. At Sanja  there were 4 making the rounds (at least on this day). In Monnaka, there are 60. (The big festival is August 2011 though, so your gonna hafta weight.)

But more may not be better, and the real draw of Sanja should be that the omikoshi parade down Nakamise dori, the souvenir shopping street of Asakusa, as well as assorted alleys nearby. It's terrific to stand squeezed against rice crackers and fake samurai swords and watch people in old-fashioned clothes humping these things along while chanting frenetically. The food stalls are also well beyond what you get at any other festival (except maybe the famed and fabulous Karatsu Festival later in the year, in Kyushu).

My colleague Volleyball told me ages ago about this sushi place, and I liked the web site a lot. Plus I've been curious about what high-end sushi is like, and this place is Michelin starred, as if that's a good indicator for sushi.  Well, after walking around Asakusa for only a few minutes I suggested forcibly that we should call to see if we could get in, and we could.

We had to sit at the single two-top table since the counter was already full; it's basically a counter where the master serves everyone, while a waitress helps with the drinks and some hot dishes, and there's a cook in the back too. Mr. Isshin was hard at work, but I didn't hear a lot of banter. He seemed to be in the polite-but-not-friendly mold. On the other hand, the three 70-year old grade-school classmates from Hokkaido that were having an impromptu reunion at the counter next to us were very eager to talk. One of them spent a couple years in America for work...before I was born.

Here's how sushi works, if you haven't been to a place like this. When you get the chef's recommended course, they'll bring you a bunch of nibbles, cold, hot, cooked, not. The pictures aren't really in order, because Picassa did the mosaic-ing automatically - I post too much stuff to worry about the order of the pictures! Going clockwise, then. Raw white shrimp with a little soy and fresh wasabi, delicious (one more time, folks. If you haven't had fresh wasabi, you're missing out.).  Junsai (water shield, but you can just think of them as the weird underwater plants with crunchy gel sacs on their branches) in light dashi, also among the best I've had due to their freshness. Roasted squid, stuffed with something that probably included its tentacles (imagine alien invaders eating 'roasted human, stuffed with a medley of its limbs'?). Raw bits of torigai, a kinda squishy clam that I don't like much, and kobashira, which I think are called bay scallops, and at any rate are the littler, crunchier ones.  Boiled octopus, delicious, delicious, my how we do love our boiled octopus. If you still think octopus is gross, you should close your eyes and eat something like this. Or I'll simmer some octopus in tomato sauce for you. It's like chicken, but different. Katsuo, purty good, and I've had some bad katsuo in my short life. Some kinda flounder (makokarei, I think) cut up. I love how transparent the slices are; this was the highlight of the starter parade.  After this, 6 people left the counter simultaneously and we were allowed to move over there for the sushi portion.

I dunno, I felt guilty taking a picture of every nigiri; I think it's obsessive and not really instructive - they all look like sushi, no? Still some cool pictures came out. Going from left to right in rows, to confuse you: Here's the view from the counter where we sat; Isshin is minimal to the point of being drab. The gray plexi-brick wall really threw me off because it was so much like the exterior of a crappy pre-fab Japanese building, and the lighting seems a bit dim and flourescent too. The little green pot was neat though - that's Isshin's hibachi, full of hot charcoal perking away nicely, and all of the searing gets done on there, including the eel filets (not pictures) which had an awesome taste as a result of being grilled on top of wet bamboo leaves that dried out and smoked a little bit. I was also overjoyed to see the Gimp Festive Pepper make another appearance!  Akagai, good but not extraordinary; I've had this some times where it's soft but weirdly firm and crunchy and it's like the sea squirts out of it, and that's the right way for it to be. This wasn' that. Some kinda squid, I didn't hear. Sayori, a great fish on the day. Soy-sauce-pickled tuna, which was decent and also followed by another piece of tuna that was unpickled and a little better, but where were the luxury ingredients in this course? No fatty tuna? Kohada, which is herring or something, lightly pickled. Shrimp, probably kuruma ebi, just steamed and presented. The right-hand piece, which was the body end of the tail, was excellent.

So I left out a couple pieces of sushi, but that's it. The roll at the end was kanpyo, for god's sake, just pickles!  This is Michelin-starred, high-end, maybe-famous sushi, a type of restaurant I've been meaning to try for a while. Now, I know I've read reviews by people that have gone to places twice as expensive as this and rhapsodized about them, but that's frankly nuts (and, had we had higher-end tuna and other things, this would quickly have gone into that class).  All I can say about this class of restaurant, and the highest-end of Japan in general, is that it's more-money-than-sense-style dining (did I mention the place my colleague went recently for work, $900 per person for food only?). In the words of the guy sitting at the counter next to me with his girlfriend 'Sure, write out a receipt to my company. Say it was three people.'  For this money, since it was my money and not the company's, I would go to Daizen 3 times (BYO!), or Sushi Zanmai 5 times.  Or, he said with a flash of insight, go to Tsukiji early Saturday afternoon and buy two of those massive blocks of toro tuna for $20 each and have a party...a tuna party.

Fortunately there's always something nice to see outside.  Say it again, the northern reaches of Asakusa bear a lot more exploration. And a reasonable taxi ride home for me - closer than Ginza even.

You win some, you lose some. Sometimes you lose a lot.


  1. So what's up with Volleyball for a name? Becca says her tour guide in Israel is named Shabbat. We should introduce them.

  2. Ironically, Volleyball is Jewish too. However he's also married with 18 kids or something. He plays volleyball a lot, and his big bald head is shaped like one too. (Sorry man. Lunch is on me next time.)