Saturday, November 6, 2010

Kyubey in Ginza


Michelin superstar Sukiyabashi Jiro is almost impossible to reserve at short notice, but at Kyubey, you can get a seat and pretty good sushi.

Whenever I get a hankering for really good sushi, I hie off to Kyubey before you can say “o-makase kudasai.” Kyubey is one of Tokyo’s, if not Japan’s, top sushi restaurants.

It started out in 1936 as a local joint (and for many Ginza denizens, it still is) but word of its sublime sushi eventually spread and today its name is spoken with almost quivering reverence by many self-respecting Japanese gourmet.

Kyubey now has four branches in Tokyo, including one at the Hotel Okura. For great atmosphere and an educational glimpse of traditional Japan trying to mesh with the 21st century, however, I recommend a visit to the main restaurant housed in its own little building in a quiet corner of Ginza.

Doing sushi solo

One day, waking up with a sushi craving, I recently visited the Ginza restaurant by myself (yes, that’s the nice thing about fine dining sushi – you can actually go alone and no one will give you a second look) for lunch at 11:30 AM, which is the only reservation time they will accept.

I arrived there at 11:26 AM, after being politely but rather pointedly told to come on time. Since the lights were still out and there was no evidence of any other eager diners around, I decided to go for a three-minute walk.

When I returned in just under four minutes, like clockwork the place had completely opened for business and I actually found myself in the middle of a procession of well-dressed men and women either being ushered into the ground floor counters (the regulars’ domain) or packed into a single tiny elevator for the upper floors (myself and the other ordinary mortals).

Second floor for the ordinary mortals

I was assigned a place at a counter table on the second floor, where our “group” sat on tatami mats with a sunken foot area and ate sushi straight off built-in black stone slabs in front of four sushi-making stations.

Each station was manned by a chef equipped with a long spotless cutting board and two shamefully-shiny knives. It may not be the best seat in the house, but, frankly, I like this floor best because it’s very relaxing, and tastefully decorated with calligraphy scrolls, lovely pottery and a beautiful flower arrangement.

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My meal began with an appetizer of seaweed and shredded daikon and a perfectly fatty piece of chu-toro (tuna flank), the latter being an unusual and confident way for a sushi restaurant to start. The main event quickly followed: eight different kinds of delectable sushi -- all made with just the faintest hint of vinegar and soy to enable a full appreciation of the freshness and quality, and served at exactly room temperature so that neither heat nor cold interfered with the taste.

The katsuo (bonito) was brushed with garlic and served with shiso (green perilla), the aori-ika (broad-mantle squid) came with salt rather than soy, the ikura (salmon eggs) were firm and a beautiful pale orange color, and the anago (sea eel) was cut into half and each piece was brushed with salt and sauce so that one could enjoy it both salty and sweet. Everything was wonderful, each sushi whispering rather than shouting its goodness and reminding me again of why a meal at a restaurant like Kyubei appropriately costs five to ten times more than one at the neighborhood conveyer belt sushi place.

Sushi as entertainment

In between sushi, there’s lots of entertainment. It’s always fascinating to watch the masters in action, and the show at Kyubei is organized to such perfection that the place can probably run on automatic pilot with the chefs in blindfolds.

There’s very little conversation -- in fact, it was so quiet I could hear a toothpick case rattling at the other end of the room -- but somehow each ingredient the chef needs from the kitchen (grilled eel or a cooked egg, for instance) arrives at exactly the right time.

And, like clockwork, just as at the start of the meal and regardless of what each customer ordered, we all stood up close to an hour later (I looked at my watch and it was 12:29 pm) and headed for the elevator. The bell had rung and school was out for the day.


WHAT TO EAT
Take the o-makase menu (10,000 yen). For a sushi restaurant of this caliber, it’s reasonably-priced and a good way to sample a decent variety without having to re-mortgage the house.

WHAT TO DRINK
This restaurant has a lot of sake that is selected particularly to be enjoyed with raw fish. It’s best to consult with your sushi chef (there will be one chef standing within your vicinity and working on your sushi) on which sake is most appropriate for the raw fish you will have that day.

WHERE TO SIT
Kyubey is housed in its own small building and it has five floors for counter diners and private groups. First-timers will not notice it but this restaurant sits diners in order of importance on the food chain. Japanese regulars and VIPs (and foreigner with long legs) have the ground floor counter seats with chairs, where Imada-san, the head chef and proprietor, himself makes sushi, while unknowns and large groups have to contend with a slow lift and a seat somewhere in the upper floors. If you’re a large group, you can book the private room adjacent to a mini-gallery displaying pottery by Rosanjin Kitaoji, one of Japan’s famed potters and connoisseurs of the good life, who also loved the sushi at Kyubey.

HOW MUCH DID IT COST?
Between 25,000 yen and 30,000 yen should cover dinner and drinks for two.

WHO GOES THERE?
The whole spectrum of Japanese society, from politicians, business titans and showbiz personalities to ordinary employees working in the area and young people simply hankering for honest-to-goodness good sushi.

WHO TO ASK FOR
Mr. Imada is the restaurant master and Mrs. Imada handles the customers. But, frankly, all you need here is a confirmed reservation because, once you’re seated, your sushi chef will take care of helping you out with food and drinks.


INFO
KYUBEY
Ginza 8-7-6
Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Tel. (03) 3571-6523

This was written by The Frequent Flier, and it originally appeared in her Fine Dining column in the Tokyo Weekender Magazine.


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