Thursday, September 8, 2011

Sushi Breakfast at Tsukiji

Of course, no visit to Tsukiji is complete without a sushi breakfast (or so the guidebooks tell me). Although there are several places to eat in the outer market, two places in particular have become the “biggies” that attract all the attention.

This picture doesn’t quite do the crowds justice, as the line breaks off after a certain amount of people, and continues around the corner.

Finding places to eat while travelling can be an interesting process. On the one hand, you want good food, which usually means following some kind of recommendation, whether from friends, friends of friends, guidebooks, online forums, etc. Often a few places rise above the pack and end up getting repeated by everyone – which presumably ends up being a testament to the quality of the place. On the other hand, I often question the real value of going to said "must-visit" places. Is this place REALLY so much better than the others? I have this perpetual instinct to try to find the "undiscovered" gems instead, rather than following the previously trodden path of so many others. At a crossroads, I’ll sometimes err on the side of risking a bad experience for the opportunity to stumble on an undiscovered gem, rather than following the crowdsourced advice of "tried and true".

Thus I was of a mixed mind about where to eat. On the one hand, I only had 48 hours in Tokyo, and precious little time (and stomach space) to waste on a so-so meal. On the other hand, I had heard that most of the places in the market were of fairly comparable quality, which seemed to resonate with me. I mean, they’re all getting their fish (purportedly) from essentially the same source (i.e., 20 yards away) – what could make them so different anyway? Ever the bargain hunter, I decided to eschew the long lines in front of the “biggies” in favor of finding a less-touristy, potentially cheaper option.

The sushi bars must be in collusion, though, as there didn’t seem to be a cheaper option to be had. Apparently using lower prices to draw more customers in isn’t the practice here. Despite the fact that almost every sushi place, save the biggies, was practically empty, they pretty much offered the same options: various set menus starting around 2100 yen (at the time I was traveling, about USD$25-30) and up. Suddenly my options seemed to be 1. wait in line with everyone else to have the iconic experience at Daiwa Sushi or Sushi Dai, or 2. take my chances on one of the other places that seemed essentially deserted.

Standard offerings

Overwhelmed with indecision (as I am wont to do), I finally ducked into Ryu Sushi (i.e., not one of the “biggies”) on a whim.

I wish I could say that my gamble paid off. I wish that I could tell you to head over to this place on your next trip to Japan, rather than those too popular for their own good biggies. I wish I could say that the sushi set I ate made me feel like I had died and gone to heaven, and included the freshest fish I had ever tasted. Lord knows that’s the prescribed formula for most travel writing.

Looks great, but is it tasty?

Like the time I got a free “student” haircut and ended up with much too short bangs instead of shelling out the cash for a real live professional stylist (now that I think about it, actually, I’ve done that twice…), however, my sushi experience was only kind of so-so. Truth be told, aside from the novelty of being in Japan, at Tsukiji, and not entirely able to communicate with my restaurant staff, the sushi I ate was fairly forgettable. While undoubtedly fresh (as in, I couldn’t smell anything off about it), most of the fish I ate was distinctly tough and chewy. Not the end-all, be-all of sushi eating that I had heard legends about.

Much-prized "toro", or high-grade bluefin tuna, on the right

Surprisingly, the most enjoyable parts of my breakfast involved eating things that I don't normally enjoy eating. Like eel.

Whether sliced in rounds and steamed with some soy sauce and ginger, or lathered with sauce and broiled in the form of unagi, I just don't like the texture or the taste of that snakelike sea creature. And yet the eel here was (here’s the travel writing formula kicking in again, though I say this without any exaggeration) a revelation to me. It melted in my mouth with just a hint of sweetness from its accompanying sauce, something slightly thicker and sweeter than soy, but definitely not the usual unagi iteration.


I was taken aback to have actually liked an eel dish. Just to be sure I was actually eating eel, I pointed to the empty dish, then made an undulating motion with my hand. Drawing upon my memory of those visual placards found at almost every sushi restaurant in the States outlining sushi types and their names, I tried to remember the word for eel.

“Ana?” I asked.

“-go” the sushi chef responded, nodding. I had left off a crucial last syllable, but had essentially identified my breakfast species correctly. Who knew that I could like eel?

Wasabi is another thing I can generally do without while eating sushi. Part of that comes from my relatively low tolerance for spicy things. Though, as I've gotten older, and especially in more recent years, I've been starting to enjoy more spicy foods, recognizing that they impart something more than just heat on the tongue, watery eyes and cleared sinuses. I'll usually just put a small dab of wasabi in my soy sauce dish (for some reason it just looks odd to me without the wasabi. Childish, even), and give it a little swirl, though I do cop to swiping off the wasabi-tainted rice that sneaks into my nigiri.

The wasabi at this sushi bar came from a fresh wasabi root, however. Unlike with the industrially produced, reconstituted green paste that one usually associates with sushi, eating this wasabi was like discovering a new side of the sushi world. Though I've had fresh wasabi before, it hadn't been the revelation for me then that it was here. I don’t quite know how to articulate it, but this wasabi was complex and layered, with flavor and piquancy hitting at different parts of my mouth in contrast to the simple, smooth, straightforward sashimi. I was tasting several different things at once, not just a mustardy spiciness that shoots up your nose. For the first time in my life, I actually appreciated wasabi.

Don't mess with the guy with the knife

After finishing my meal at Ryu Sushi and feeling full but not impressed, I did (and still do) wonder if I should have bit the bullet and waited in line with the other tourists for the iconic Sushi Dai or Daiwa Sushi experience. I’ve seen and read various reports by friends that indicated that it was well-worth the experience, and perhaps I missed out on an amazing, life-changing meal. Then again, what’s the fun of travelling if not to take some risks and make your own path, for better or for worse? No regrets, just more reasons to go back.

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