Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dai San Harumi Sushi, Shinbashi (第三春美鮨)

First sentences of reviews of top sushi places should include the words 'hidden' or 'unassuming' (or if you're an American writer, please use the phrase 'sushi joint'. And if you're reviewing Kyubei, please include "more money than sense" also.). Look, I worked them in! Dai San Harumi is fairly described as a top place with its big Tabelog score, but to me it has a normal entrance with some actual signage and a menu, and is not at all hidden. It's in a perfectly good alley one block off Sotobori Dori in Shinbashi, home of other really scary places.

This is a top recommendation from a very serious eater, my newish friend Check. The normal appearance of the coolers belies the seriousness of everything in them. Nagayama san, at left is really intense about his food. Pleasantly though, his attitude wasn't at all overbearing to me. I decided long ago that when Japanese chefs tell you how to do something, it's because they care - they've tried it and figured out the best way, so leave out the experimentation for once and just roll with 'em. Nagayama sam is serious enough that his menu (handwritten daily, A2-size, at least 3 copies because that's how many he gifted our party) tells you where every fish came from, how much it weighed, and how long he's had it (the 55-kg Kagoshima tuna, for example, was aged three days for optimal flavor). And the farmer who produces his organic Koshihikari rice. Likewise his enormous wasabi. In fact, if you like this sort of obsession, and I do, Nagayama san could fairly be said to have an enormous wasabi.

He makes his own pottery too. Not every piece, but the cup pictured here, and most of the flatware (the platters that the nigiri are served on, the shoyu dish below, etc). He does not make his own sake...but he does contract someone to do it, and he does direct them to age it in cedar for 16 days, because that's the flavor he likes from his Edokko youth, and the assistant said we could have it any way we wanted, but he chimed in from across the counter with "Warm is best!" and we went with that.

He also said Victorious looked like a pro wrestler. (I bet he was a kid during the Rikkidozen period, drinking that taruzake.) This is a surprising statement to make about a senior IT executive from a major multinational...but entirely fair. It's in the style of Asian comment that my friend Crazy remarked on while hiking through Laos and inner Thailand (he was just getting over Dengue and we were sipping wine with his new wife on the balcony of l'Elephant at the time, old boy). "It's not at all rude," he said, "to look at a foreign person, start laughing, and say 'You have a huge nose!'"

Separate pictures of every piece of fish you eat at a 'sushi joint' are a bit much; so I collaged these up. For starters, some delicious wasabi shoots and leaves, blanched and lightly pickled. Nothing says Spring like these. (Or maybe warm weather. And I think I heard about some kinda tree...with flowers...that people also associate with Spring in Japan.)

The squid was veeery nicely cooked; hard to tell if it was cooked or not in places, so firm but soft, stuffed with tentacles and squid eggs. That's not very appetizing, now that I think about it.

Two plates of grilled stuff followed (did you know that sushi meals go this way? The salient point is that the nigiri, what you might think of as 'the sushis', come last). Top is squid legs. Bottom is mirugai on the left (geoduck in English, in theory, but who the hell knows a geoduck?), again with some eggs attached, and on the right delicious 'white-grilled' sea eel, very firm and flavorful.

DSH isn't chef's-choice only; I took away from their attitude up front that you could get whatever you want, but with two big, talkative, Japanese-disabled Americans (three, I suppose) finishing off a business trip that had seen them pass through high-speed, high-volume destinations including Mumbai, Delhi and Dalian and come out firing, I didn't feel like trying to specify a course on the fly. We got omakase, including sashimi.

DSH is famous for the quality of the mackerel; you must know by now that I rely on mackerel to determine a shops's quality. I don't hold with the "how good is the omelette" idea - the mackerel is a humble fish that can be heart-stoppingly good is it's sourced and pickled well (and a healthy slug of luck is on your side too; I mean, who knows how a fish is going to taste until they taste it?). This was as good as any mackerel I've had, product quality and pickling. The tuna was too (although Check says you can get better tuna elsewhere). The mirugai made another appearance here (and not its last); the texture of these isn't for everyone, but this was clearly top notch. With the 'hard' clams (including, e.g., akagai), there's a feeling you get sometimes, where it's sort of crunchy but there's a little spurt of oceanic flavor when you bite into it. I think that's an indication of top quality. What do I know?

De, we moved on to nigiri. The rice really is very good here. It's cooked firm, it's warmer than most places serve it, and it's flavored strongly (again, compared to my low-to-mid reference set). It's kinda of an equal partner to the toppings, which is rare.

Pretty sure these are in the order they came (the shrimp heads were not all the way at the end, but were also not right after the shrimp, for example. If memory serves, they are:
- Houbou, a firm and chewy white fish (that's red and brown and black and pretty darn ugly, if you see them whole), a cut above other times I've had it
- Shin ika, again good quality
- Shrimp, distinguished from all other places by being freshly-boiled and still warm...but you know, the cold one at Hashiguchi is going to stay with me for a long time. He made separate nigiri out of the front and back of the tail, and the part up by the head was it.
- Mirugai, charcoal-grilled this time (and this may have been my favorite way)
- Hamaguri, no particular opinion except that I have found hamaguri to be gross in the past when grilled (my main thought has been "these are covered with mucus", right or wrong)
- Shrimp heads, still some meat left inside, really delicious, but the sharp bits poked your mouth painfully

- Kohada, not as distinguished as the mackerel
- Cured snapper, which was too mild for me - to me, part of the point here is how the seaweed sucks out the moisture and leaves the fish chewier; this could have been cured more and/or sliced thicker.
- Uni, probably reference quality, awesome taste that sort of burst in your mouth...but again I had to think about the late-season Nagasaki uni at Hashiguchi.
- Anago, definitely the best I've had. Either the fish or the cooking is superior (like the shirayaki above), because the texture was very different. And great. And the spike of yuzu in the sauce makes you sit up and take notice. Well, me at least. Nagayama san seemed happy to hear comments about the food, like "Unnn. Yuzu good."

- It's too bad if the tuna is better at other shops, because the toro here, in sashi above and then in hand roll, was terrific. You'll notice two different rolls here...that's because we had to get another round, despite the vigorous cleaning that the shop was already getting by this time.
- The egg was probably reference-quality too, as much as an omelette can be. I thought the sweetness and fishiness were very well-judged. If you were judging the shop by the eggs, you'd be impressed, but I think the range of quality is narrower than it is for fishes.

After that it was all over except the simple, humble dessert - which is thin squares of kudzu-based jelly in brown-sugar syrup. It's textural, and tastual too if you like brown sugar (as much as I do).

We were last to leave and also hung around too long, taking pictures with Nagayama san and the staff, generally making foreign asses of ourselves. I'd like to think they wouldn't mind if I came back some time, but it's punishingly expensive (thank you again, Victorious), so I'll stick with the weekend special event treatment.

Unfortunately, I have to conclude that the highest-end of sushi is just not for me. Another way to think of this meal is "two full courses at Merveille," (per person) and that sounds way better to me.


  1. Oh, man. My father's got a lot to answer for.

  2. Please take me~。