Copied below is a piece I wrote for another group after my first brief visits to Japan about three years ago. One of my favorite places in the world to eat sushi is Sushi Iwa in Kyoto, which is referenced in the piece.
(I have done very limited editing to correct a few misspellings and awkward phrasings, but have let the green, eager, gawking tone stay.)
Enjoy your visit to Kansai. Kyoto truly is heaven on earth and I hear Nara is even better.
Last night I had the pleasure, for the second time, of spending an evening in a sushi shop in Kyoto. I live in Bangkok but spend a fair amount of time in Seoul, which is a mere two hour flight from Osaka. From there, it is only an hour by JR Haruka express to Kyoto, one of the most beautiful urban spots on earth. How, then, can I resist taking monthly weekends in Kyoto?
On my first trip, I had only about 24 hours in town and arrived at the hotel after the concierge desk had closed. Knowing absolutely nothing about Kyoto, I resigned myself to eating in the sushi shop of the Granvia Kyoto. To my pleasant surprise, the food was a revelation.
I've been eating sushi weekly for nigh on fifteen years, including some authentic and memorable meals in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Still, as good as those meals were, they were as far from my first meal in Kyoto as they were from some of my more misguided attempts to find a sushi fix in various small towns in the US.
What was it that was so different? Surprisingly enough, it was not the neta but the shari that was such a revelation. Sure, there were elements of the toppings that were radically different from what we see in the States (or Asia ex-Japan, at least in my experience). But what really set the sushi apart was the exquisite flavor of the rice.
The immediate and lasting impression is one of sweetness, but a sweetness completely different from the cloying flavor that we Americans are so attached to in much of our food. I remarked to someone several hours after that meal that I could still taste the rice when I licked my lips.
Yesterday, I managed to arrive in Kyoto a little after noon and get a recommendation from the concierge. She sent me to a small (aren't they all?) shop called Sushi-Iwa that is located cater-cornered from the Kikoku-tei Gardens. The proprietor there, in addition to being friendly and chatty, speaks English like a native speaker. Given that my Japanese is limited to a pretty good food vocabulary and the basics required for politeness, it provided an unexpected opportunity to talk about sushi. When I mentioned my reaction to the rice, he explained that the western portions of Japan, of which Kyoto is a part, have a
style of shari that is sweeter than that preferred in the eastern portions, which include Tokyo. In addition, the itamae in Japan have spent years learning the most basic elements of their art, years that seem to lend a certain texture, flavor and consistency to their rice. What a welcome find after one and a half years eating flavorless Korean and highly variable (and long-grain) Thai sushi rice.
I am curious, those of you who know much more about Japan, its culture, and its food -- how doesthis fit with your experience, in terms of both quality versus the US and seasoning versus eastern Japan? What other regional quirks should I be aware of and seek out?
Top notch sushi isn't cheap in Japan, but I believe that's true anywhere. You don't always get what you pay for, but you never get what you don't pay for. For those of you who are interested, here are the menus and tabs:
Granvia Kyoto -- Total = 13,300 yen
2 beers (small bottle) 1,500
2 pieces Akami 800
2 pieces Hirame 1,200
2 pieces Aji uncharged
2 pieces Katzunoko 1,200
2 pieces Engawa 1,200
2 pieces Kaibashira 800
2 pieces Saba 800
2 pieces Ootoro 2,400 (ouch)
2 pieces Uni 1,600
Tax and Service Charge 1,832
The highlights were ootoro (so rich it was on the white side of pink and as pleasantly unctious as ankimo) and engawa (served plain, not with the ponzu that normally tops it in the States). I was surprised that the engawa was the same price as the ordinary hirame. In the States, I have always been charged a premium for engawa.
I know I made a pig of myself but, revelation that the meal was, I just couldn't make myslf stop.
Sushi-Iwa -- Total = 9,500 yen
2 beers (large bottle)
2 pieces Hamachi
2 pieces Akami
2 pieces Iwashi
2 pieces Tako
1 piece Chuutoro
1 piece Kazunoko
1 piece Karuma-ebi
I couldn't really list highlights here. The akami and chuutoro were both cut from hon-maguro from the Sea of Japan and the chuutoro was as rich as anything I've been served as ootoro outside Japan. The iwashi had a freshness and a slight brininess that reminded me directly of the sea in a way somewhat similar to the best uni. The tako was unlike any octopus I've ever had before and better than any except maybe nakji bokkum in Seoul. The karuma-ebi were served odori and
were as sweet as most ama-ebi I've tasted. The head was roasted robatoyaki-style rather than fried, and reminded me of sucking crawfish heads in Louisiana, except that they were roasted not boiled. The natto was more flavorful and no more odorous than any in the States. (The itamae said he likes natto and gets enough Tokyo customers that it's worth stocking it, even though most locals don't
Like many small sushi shops, Sushi-Iwa doesn't present an itemized bill, just a total. Although my Thai friends who scrutinize every item on every bill would be horrified, that doesn't bother me. Anyone who has enough pride and enough concern for his customers to get the best, freshest fish isn't going to risk it all just to pad bills. I suspect they may be adjusted down for a regular, but not up for a
stranger. While I enjoyed my first meal (at the Granvia), the entire meal at Sushi-Iwa was a highlight film.
- I was surprised at the size of the neta at both meals. They were much larger than I had expected, but, given the more flavorful shari, each piece was still in balance. Question for our experts -- Is neta size a regional thing? Even though the Granvia shop bills itself as Edo-style, the flavour of the shari and general proportions were the same as at Sushi-Iwa. (Perhaps Edo-style just means they focus on nigiri-zushi and not battera-, oshi-, chirashi-zushi, or some other regional specialty.)
- I have had fresh wasabi a number of times in the US, but I was reminded again how much better it is than the ubiquitous green powder -- much more mouth presence, rather than being 99% in the nose. It seemed even better in Japan, but I don't know if that's because of Japanese mountain streams or if I imagined it because I wanted it to be better. (Please understand that I am a Matt Kramer devotee and a terroiriste of the first order about all things to do with food and
- Anyone who is self-conscious about sushi etiquette should not be. A group of Japanese men near me at the counter were fairly sousing their nigiri with murasaki, almost to the point of disintegration. There are plenty of good reasons not to do that -- taste being the most important -- but don't ever be intimidated about what to do if there's no chopstick rest or whether you've got goma in your teeth. Many Japanese don't have any more of a clue than we do. Just be
polite and pay attention to what you're eating and why it has the taste and texture it does. If you understand and respect the food you eat and the people who make and serve it, you'll seldom do anything too grossly wrong.
- The Japanese are just as curious about what we have done with their food as we gaijin are about what the real thing tastes like. One customer enthusiatically asked me what was in this Tiger Woods roll she heard had heard about and I was rather pleased to be able to answer honestly that I had no idea. That drew a smile from itamae-san but disappionted looks from two thirty-something Japanese women seated next to me at the counter.
That's it for now and I'm eager to hear other peoples' reactions to their first visit to a sushi shop in Japan.