November 3, 2013
Walking down the cramped, narrow stairs to Sushisho Masa, a 7-seat counter in Tokyo, I have no idea that this experience is going to forever change my standards for sushi.
But as I inhale one extraordinary slice of fish after another, I begin noticing nuances of flavor I've never before experienced. Chef Masakatsu Oka is a pleasant, modest man who bends over the fish with a tender expression, intent on his work, but you can taste his passion in every bite. He's proud to answer every question: where was this fish caught?, how long was it cured?, why? I notice that he's not wearing the standard sushi chef's apron, but that of a sumo wrestler. A message?
I'm not going to go through every course of a dinner that lasted 3 hours and included at least 35 different varieties of fish. But I'll mention a few favorites.
Wild octopus – remarkably tender, with a creamy custard-like layer just beneath the crisp tentacles. I've never tasted anything quite like it.
Uni from Hokkaido. I've always thought Santa Barbara sea urchins were the best in the world. I was wrong.
Sanma. I wish I were a better photographer; this was so beautifully cut. And pure pleasure in the mouth. It was followed by the same fish, lightly grilled.
Tiny shrimp, each one no bigger than a fingernail, each one so soft and tender that it seems impossible it contains such depth of flavor.
Karasumi – Japanese bottarga – the mullet roe cured to an entirely different taste and texture than any Mediterranean variety. Soft without being sticky, the surprise is that it is not in the least bit salty. If you close your eyes, you might be eating candy.
Fluke – and its liver. I expect the liver to resemble ankimo, the rich monkfish liver that is the foie gras of the sea. But it is entirely different: softer and much more subtle in flavor.
Anago – sea eel – is a pure astonishment. It looks like every other piece of eel I've ever eaten, so I'm utterly unprepared for the almost fluffy texture of the fish. Or for the way it simply vanishes, melting in my mouth like so much snow.
Trout roe, which explodes in my mouth in a way you always wish caviar will, a tiny flood of flavor. The surprise here is, once again, that it is not the least bit salty. Just the pure essence of fish. Hiding underneath is a small ball of Mr. Oka's rather amazing rice, which he mixes with four different kinds of vinegar.
I'm skipping so many wonderful fish: small herrings, kohada, fantastic tuna, a tiny grilled fish I eat in one bite. But at the end there is this roll:
Toro, along with a strip of its own fat (Japanese lardo), and some finely julienned member of the onion family. Wrapped up in rice and seaweed, it makes me think of the motto of Prexy's, a long-gone New York restaurant: "the hamburger with a college education." It's a very elegant translation – and one of the most delicious things I've ever tasted.
At the end, of course, there is tamago, a tiny square of mirin-enriched egg that is the perfect final flavor. Then we're bowed out the door and up the stairs, and into the raucous Tokyo night.
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