Sushi at Ichikawa

This is the first of my sushi restaurant reviews, but I am hoping to add all my past experiences eating at other ones in Tokyo, Sapporo and elsewhere too!

Ichikawa Sushi is a fascinating 1* Michelin restaurant in  Nakamachi in Setagaya (Kaminoge Station), a pleasant suburb of Tokyo. The restaurant has been well-ranked in the sushi reviews in Tokyo. Personally I had seen a couple of different high end sushi restaurants that seemed interesting (and innovative!) and the chef’s past experience made me curious about his sushi style. It is located on the bottom floor of a residential building, and as soon as you step into the door, you see the large room with the beautiful wooden counter, light brown walls and only a couple of seats curved around the counter. The only chef – Ichikawa-san – trained at the famous kaiseki restaurant Kikunoi in Kyoto, and then followed on to apprentice at the 3* Michelin Araki in Tokyo (before it moved to London) before setting up his own sushi restaurant . He has a very quiet personality and he is definitely very focused on his work, and I couldn’t be more appreciative for the serene atmosphere in the restaurant as it lent more attention to those wonderful snowy-red piles of rice covered with perfect slices of the best fish in Japan.

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You can see Ichikawa-san preparing the first course for our group of diners.

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The first course was ‘くえ'(Kue/Longtooth Grouper) from Nagasaki, a nocturnal fish that is prized among chefs as being difficult to catch and expensive to buy. It had a pleasant firm flesh with a light taste and no oily aftertaste. Cut into four pieces, it was placed on the wooden surface before being lightly dipped in soy sauce (so as not to spoil the taste of the fish). Two servers moved seamlessly behind the diners, refilling tea and water, as well as bringing out the huge bottles of sake and pouring them into tiny flute neck bottles.

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The next course was lightly seared/smoked  ‘かつお'(Katsuo/Bonito) which is usually smoked over hay giving it that blackened exterior, while keeping the flesh inside red and juicy. It comes from the same family as tuna and yet the taste is a bit more oily and smooth. This one was slightly thicker than sashimi style, cooked perfectly and the flesh was tender, sweet and fresh.

I did not take a photo of the next course (too busy marveling at the skill of the chef) however it was the best’あわび’ (Awabi/Abalone) and abalone liver I have ever had. This is usually a very common addition to high end sushi courses around this time, as we went in the summer and abalone are big and tender in season. Served side by side, the abalone liver was a new addition for me, and it had a pleasant richness that is compared to the ‘foie gras of the sea’ and it accented the mild abalone flavour well. So far no personal favourites, but the all the fish were of impeccable quality and the attention that Ichikawa-san brought to each slice truly showed his devotion to the craft. There may have been little-to-none conversation, but each taste just had to be individually appreciated.

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A sushi course at a high end sushi restaurant like this one does not usually stick to simple sashimi and sushi for its courses. To bring out the skill of the chef and the best possible way of presenting the fish, some courses are lightly steamed, cooked, or smoked over hay like before with the bonito. I personally love this aspect of fine sushi courses as it varies the different courses and shows the knowledge of the chef in both raw and cooked preparation styles. This juicy, fatty part of the ‘のどぐろ’ (Nodoguro/Blackthroat Seaperch) was cooked lightly behind the chef on a grill using long metal skewers known as ‘ぐし’ (gushi) which were adequately splayed out to only pierce the smallest of sections of the fish. This thick, sweet oily taste would appeal to those who are used to more oily fish like mackerel, but would like something more unique. The fish was covered in a sweet light sauce of soy sauce and mirin (I believe).

Also, look how wonderful the plate is! Each utensil was carefully thought out and chosen (usually by the restaurant owner and chef) to accent the fish and the season.

Usually after a few courses showing the flair of the chef (not restricted to sushi) the chef will move onto the main event- those little mounds of rice and fish that the West has now come to adore. Many people don’t actually get to see the most impressive sushi techniques and variety of fishes available in Japan because they don’t go to places like these, and they really are missing out! Ichikawa-san’s skill and attention to fish is really incredible, and the following sushi courses only proved that further.

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This was a repeat of the first course on the menu, only this time the fish was scored all across, placed on a bed of しゃり (shari/’sushi rice’ term) and gently placed onto the wooden surface before I swooped on it. The ‘Longtooth Grouper’ had a pleasant firm texture and a sweet, fresh taste that really showed how it is one of the best fish to have in summer. The chef also swept the fish with a light brushing of soy sauce which is only brewed for him. Most high end sushi restaurants prefer to choose or brew their own soy sauce and red vinegar (for the rice) so as to bring out what they believe to be the best taste in the fish.

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The next was the ‘きすのこぶじめ’ (Kisu no Kobujime/ Japanese Whiting marinated in Kombu) which was light and fresh in flavour, again accented with soy sauce. This fish is especially good in the summer, and is usually a staple without kombu in edomae-tempura, however it is equally good raw. I had never tried it before and it was surprisingly sweet and light.

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This lightly grilled perfection was ‘たかべ’ (Takabe/Yellow-striped Butterfish) and it was very flavourful and oily. Half of the flesh was raw and only the outer sections had been seared and broken, revealing the pink flesh inside. It had an interesting slightly bitter aftertaste which really brought out the flavour of the rice.

The next three courses are a staple in sushi courses and compromise of the crème de la crème of the Japanese fish world- ‘まぐろ’ (maguro/tuna). The sequence is usually the same and commences with the ‘あかみ’ (akami/lean tuna), followed by the most prized ‘ちゅとろ’ (chutoro/medium fatty tuna), and completed with the fattiest and most luxurious piece- おとろ (otoro/fatty tuna). Each chef chooses what kind of aspects of the tuna they would like to highlight, and Ichikawa-san’s was tuna pieces were all surprisingly light and fresh, melting on the tongue, with a briny flavour.

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The best akami pieces are bright red in colour and are slightly firmer than their counterparts. There should also be no metallic blood taste for the fish- it should be flavourful and fresh. I have luckily never tasted any fish which tasted bad in Japan, however tuna elsewhere leaves a lot to be desired. This piece was savoury and the soft rice really brought a pillowy addition to the smooth, lean flesh.

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This piece of chutoro was wonderfully soft and light, with barely any fatty taste. This was truly different, as most chutoro pieces at other restaurants taste slightly deeper and fattier, and are less savoury. This attention to the fresh fishy taste of the tuna was a nice addition, as the fattiness is sometimes a bit too much!

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The otoro here is more similar to chutoro in terms of taste. It was wonderfully soft and fell apart in the mouth. It was so full of flavour! The picture really doesn’t do it justice- it was a marvelous piece of tuna and definitely one of the best pieces of sushi in this course.

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The pattern on this ‘しろいか’ (shiro ika/ white squid) was literally the most visually pleasing in appearance. The chef sliced both criss-cross patterns all over the squid, and the rope-like pattern was so beautiful! It had a light citrusy taste from the lime and yuzu and was touched with just a hint of salt, no soy sauce. The ‘ねた’ (neta/sushi topping) fell apart as soon as you ate it, and the flavours were soft and fresh.

Some sushi pieces are not meant to be eaten with soy sauce or wasabi, and at Ichikawa-san’s there is no extra soy sauce on the table. This stops soy-sauce heavy people to overdip the sushi and ruin the fish.

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This was the best course of the whole dinner! アじ (Aji/Horse Mackerel) is a common silver-backed fish that usually peaks in freshness during the summer. The criss-cross now emblematic, the mackerel melted apart in the mouth and was incredibly soft. All the rice pieces were very soft and were only packed in very gently, so that the sushi fell apart instantly.

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This course was my partner’s- ‘うに'(uni/sea urchin) with rice and a touch of wasabi, as I chose not to have any. According to him it was very smooth and briny, and summer sea urchin is usually sweeter in taste. Uni is always something I choose to miss, preferring to go for other delicacies like ‘いくら’ (ikura/salmon roe) or whatever the chef recommends.

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This was an unusual addition to the course- a fourth piece of tuna just for me! This ‘まぐろずけ'(Maguro Zuke/ Marinated Tuna) was very soft and lightly marinated, and tasted sweeter than the previous pieces.

The next piece proved to be a welcome part of interaction between guest and sushi chef, as the piece was so soft that it literally had to be handed to each individual diner. The ‘はまぐり’ (Hamaguri/ Common Orient Clam) is one of the shellfish usually served during a sushi course. It was soft and had some briny juices hidden in its whorls that were a welcome addition, sweetening the sushi.

The next two courses are a standard finish to the sushi meal as the courses come away from fishy, soy-soaked flavours to a sweeter, lighter end to the meal. The ‘あなご ‘ (Anago/Fresh-water Eel) was very fluffy and soft, more similar to a purée or a mousse, with only a lightly accenting sweet soy sauce. Eel served in rice bowls as part of ‘unagi-don’ are usually covered in a thick glaze, however the importance of the fish is highlighted most at Ichikawa by not putting on a thick sauce. Some sushi restaurants do serve eel with a stronger sweet sauce, but this was not the case here.

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The eel glaze always covers the whole sushi and was only gently tinted here- the eel juice was already very flavourful and didn’t need additional sweetness.

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Each sushi chef has a different technique when preparing the ‘たまご’ (tamago/egg omelet), usually learnt from their previous mentors. The egg omelet here was light, not too airy and spongy, somewhere between an Western egg omelet and a castella cake. It was a perfect finish to the course and I didn’t feel too full after the meal had ended.

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As an extra addition to the course, the chef usually allows the customers to order more sushi, and most customers go for a ‘てっかまき’ (tekka maki roll). In this case the toasted nori was filled with chopped chutoro. It was savoury and lightly seasoned with wasabi, which gave it a welcome kick of heat.

To conclude this amazing meal- the chef was extremely courteous with the service of the sushi, and made an effort to translate nearly all the fish he served during the meal! It was also very intimate, as there were only a few other diners and the chef was the only one behind the counter, not counting the stealthy apprentice who handed certain pieces of fish or cleaned utensils to the chef without a word. Although the restaurant may be sparsely furnished, it has a very rugged beauty in its earthenware plates and cups, and the shiny surface of the counter reflecting the light (almost like the sea…?) gave it a harmonious look overall. I may be getting a little poetic over here, but what doesn’t good food make you do…

The chef waited for everyone to leave and personally said goodbye to them at the door. Truly incredible. I really do appreciate an exceptional meal (especially when so much of the food in Japan is incredible already!) and this was certainly one of these. A romantic walk back to the station ensued with the characteristic ringing of the cicadas in the trees.

I am going to attach the Tabelog link here, and if you have any questions about sushi or eating in Japan in general, please leave a comment below.

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