Graham Reid | | 8 min read
Situated in the basement of an office building in Tokyo's Ginza district, the critically-acclaimed restaurant Sushi Mizutani is a nine-seat sushi bar – a very simple room without fuss. The food experience is by far the most interesting I have had. And it was put further into context as I had eaten at The Waterside Inn, also a three Michelin star dining room in the village of Bray in Berkshire, the previous week.
Frankly, I couldn’t get my head around how a sushi bar could get three Michelin stars: great raw ingredients and incredible knife skills didn’t quite add up to a dining experience I imagined would interest Michelin.
It took me a couple of months to get a reservation – I called from the UK and couldn’t communicate so eventually I contacted my hotel in Tokyo and asked if they would make a booking for me. Sushi Mizutani came back a couple of days later with: 5pm on the 26th, cash only, don’t be late and if you don’t show you will be charged 20,000 yen (about NZ $250).
I wasn't sure how they were going to get the money out of me if I didn’t show, but I suspected they might find a way.
Luckily I headed for Ginza three hours before I was due to dine as it took me an hour and half to find the building -- and then another 20 minutes to find the entrance to Sushi Mizutani. I was greeted by Hachiro Mizutani and told (in sign language) to return at 5pm.
When I walked in the door at 5.05 I was warmly greeted by Mizutani-san, his wife (who takes the money and runs front of the house) and three assistants. There were only two seats left at the sushi bar. My fellow guests included an old Japanese guy I sat next to who spoke no English but we managed to communicate through gestures and laughter. He watched over the way I ate and ensured I got the experience. There were also a couple from Spain, three Americans of Japanese origin and two other locals.
Through Mizutani’s apprentice (who was probably 28 and spoke a few words of English including “All Blacks”) I managed to convey my interest in Mizutani putting food (sashimi unless stated) in front of me until I said stop. Here is a run-down on dishes I remember:
Fin of Flounder: never seen this on offer before, great texture and flavor.
Flounder: had an amazing texture and a clean mouth filling taste.
Snapper: the least interesting of the offerings, fresh and sweet – just like we get in New Zealand.
Mackerel: I've always looked on mackerel as bait, but obviously Mizutani knows where to get the freshest fish ,and this was terrific. There seemed two textures in the fish so I guess it had something to do with Mizutani’s knife work.
Abalone: not tough and/or chewy or rubbery or firm – melted in my mouth! It was soft, had a wonderful texture and was the highlight of the night.
Abalone liver: never seen this on offer before (didn’t even know abalone had a liver!). Rich, earthy taste. Outstanding.
Tuna: dark blood red – apparently he ages this tuna for up to 10 days – wasn’t fishy at all.
Squid: not tough, chewy, rubbery – just creamy and crunchy. Bloody amazing! Got the (cute) Spanish girl next to me to try it (she told her companion she hated squid and he was nonplussed when she agreed to try it on my recommendation). She was gob-smacked. The second best piece I ate that night.
Tuna: another cut of tuna (think I had three different cuts). It wasn’t fatty, but richer in flavor and deep red in colour. Not sure whether this was aged or not.
Tuna belly: fatty with that amazing rich flavor – once again not sure if it was aged or not.
Ark shell: I think this was the muscle of the shellfish, firm and rich. Similar texture to mussel.
Cockle: much bigger than the cockles in New Zealand, not fishy in taste with a firm texture but not rubbery or tough. Sushi.
Geoduck clam: weird looking but the flavor was clean and fresh – very hard to explain the taste but very much underlines the fact you don’t eat with your eyes. Sushi.
Prawn: sweet, perfectly cooked with a firm texture. Sushi.
Sea Egg: I've only ever eaten the roe so wasn’t sure what to expect – no salty seawater taste, just a rich clean flavor. In a nori cup.
Eel: think it was conger and not sure how to describe it except it was sensational. Sushi.
. . . Wanted to stop here but Mizutani insisted I had the egg which I generally steer clear of as it is usually too sweet and stodgy for me . . . but
Egg: light, fluffy and not overly sweet. As I write this I can taste it. Would never believe it could be so different from what I've had in the past. Served with cold green tea which was incredibly refreshing.
Just watching was interesting: The rice is kept at blood temperature and there are trays of fish in bamboo trays sitting on the bench – the apprentice cleans up each piece of fish and then passes it to Mizutani to prepare and serve. Wasabi was freshly grated to order and the soy was light. Sushi is not dipped in soy and is eaten with your fingers and there is always a damp towel on hand.
The knife skills were astounding – quick and assured. Mizutani has been doing this for over 40 years at most of the best places (Kyoubashi Yosino, Sukiyabasi Jiro, Yokohama Jiro then Sinbashi Mizutani)
With each dish Mizutani had his assistant show me a book with a picture of the fish and where the cut came from. There was much hilarity around the bar, including Mizutani and his assistants at my outpourings of ecstasy. I asked one of the Japanese-Americans to tell Mizutani I had been at The Waterside Inn a couple of days earlier (he dismissed it as being too expensive and technical) and said in the morning I was going to the famous Tsukiji fish markets, which auctions 2000 tonne of fish a day, sells over 400 species of seafood and employs an estimated 60,000 people through the various onsite businesses.
Mizutani told the guy he would meet me at the bus stop outside the market at 7am next morning. I couldn’t believe it.
I asked for the bill (NZ$300), said goodbye to my newly acquired friends and headed home to bed. The experience had taken me an hour and 20 minutes . . . and the bill included just one beer.
The next morning I headed to Tsukiji at 5am. The trains were packed. The station I was staying near moves two million people a day, seven days a week. Headed straight for the tuna auctions at 5.30am to find row upon row of huge tuna laid out with numbers on them. The buyers check out the fish and then bid using hand signals. New Zealand apparently supplies some of the best tuna to these auctions and gets huge money for them.
I went to the wholesale area where the fish from the auction is cleaned and portioned and watched two guys take apart this beautiful tuna with five-foot knives. One guy did all the donkey work of cleaning, holding etc and the other guy was art with a knife. Walked round looking at all this (mainly live) seafood, guess it must be five square miles of trading and dining. Hadn’t seen half the stuff on show before.
Met Mizutani as he got off the bus all dressed in Burberry - everyone else at the market was in rubber. His assistant rode up on his bicycle and we headed into the market. I may as well have been walking with a topless Halle Berry – this guy was a rock star. The only words I understood were “New Zealand” and I was included in all of the purchases. Mizutani has all of his special outlets and at each of them produce would appear from “out back” that a mere mortal couldn’t buy. He paid for everything in cash and was deferred to by everyone we met.
The apprentice then told me that “the Boss” wanted to take me for breakfast. We went off to a hole in the wall (there is a massive dining area at the market) and the apprentice put the fish into the basket on the front of his bike and cycled back to the sushi bar.
Apparently Mizutani has known the woman serving us since she was a child (seemed about the same age as he was). He ordered and as we waited we drank large bottles of ice cold Kirin (been many years since I drank alcohol at 8.30am). He ordered breaded deep-fried pork cutlet, with shredded raw cabbage, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce, some raw tuna and a couple of large breaded prawns. He showed me how to eat the pork with a bit of hot mustard and Worcestershire sauce.
He managed to convey that he comes to the market six days a week, buys from the same wholesalers and has been doing so for over 40 years. Most of his seafood comes from Japanese waters; he knows the areas that each fish is caught and where it is in its life cycle. The waters surrounding Japan have been cleaned up so all his shell fish is Japanese grown.
I was with him in the restaurant for an hour and we managed to communicate through a love for food and a liking for cold Kirin. It seemed like we had known each other for years.
Subsequently I read he only bought fresh tuna that was caught by one fisherman. These tuna would be put down immediately after they are caught. They would be cut on the gills and the tails to drain out the blood. This method is the most important measure to prevent the fish from smelling bad. The process is called "Ikejime" and then the tuna are put into ice. After Mizutani buys it from the market, he ages it to perfection (for around 10 days) under carefully controlled conditions. His tuna has a wonderful degree of maturity and he takes very good care of the aroma of the fish.
Not sure that I can compare the experience between Waterside Inn and Mizutani and buggered if I can work out how the Michelin guys do. I know that given the choice I would go back to Mizutani tonight and I can’t ever see myself going back to the Waterside Inn.
Mark Rose -- who also contributed this article to Other Voices Other Rooms -- is a longtime restaurateur in New Zealand who has advised many restaurants on menus and wines, has managed luxury hotels in New Zealand and abroad, and is currently manager at The Rees Luxury Hotel and Apartments in Queenstown, New Zealand (see here) which Elsewhere unequivocally recommends.
An exceptional venison recipe by The Rees' award-winning chef Ben Batterby is at Recipes from Elsewhere here.
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