From a first glance, sushi appears deceptively simple. However, simplicity doesn’t equate easy. Little do people realize that it takes longer to become a trained sushi chef than it takes to become a doctor in Japan! When working with minimal ingredients, there is nothing to hide. This increases the complexity of technique as even the most minute mistake will be magnified. This is why sushi trainees do repetitive tasks (i.e. wash rice, sweep floors) for many years before graduating to making sushi rice, then scaling and fileting fish, and finally making sushi for customers. The purpose is to gauge their patience and meticulousness. Only the cream of the crop will be selected to apprentice under the master chef. Chef Rei Masada has trained under the legendary sushi master Sukiyabashi Jiro for nine years before embarking on his own restaurant. Albeit young, he already has two Michelin stars under his belt.
His restaurant only seats six guests, along with a private dining room. Reservations are practically impossible if you’re a foreigner, so I recommend letting your hotel reserve a spot or using an online concierge system. We ordered the omakase lunch meal, which included five appetizers and fifteen nigiri courses of traditional Edomae sushi.
Out of the of the appetizers, I particularly adored the firefly squid (hotaru ika), marinated horse mackerel (aji), and ocean trout (masu). Firefly squid is a very seasonal item, appearing on the verge of spring and quickly disappearing during the later summer months. The roe exploded with the concentrated essence of umami, while the texture sticky with miso and collagen. The horse mackerel was exceedingly fresh. The slivered ginger and scallions mellowed out its strong taste, while the shiso added a touch of minty fragrance. Even the sea trout, an item I don’t usually care for was excellent. Raw smoked with straw, the smokey flavor cut through the oiliness of the fish. At this point, Chef Masuda began grating wasabi against a shark skin board, hinting the initiation of nigiri courses.
The first few nigiri courses were the lighter tasting white fish. Starting with flounder (hirame), proceeded by squid (ika), whiting (kisu), needlefish (sayori), and sea bream (madai). Everything was tender and delicate. The one exception was squid, which had a pleasantly toothsome but not rubbery texture. Chef Masuda’s sushi rice was heavy in vinegar, something I’m not accustomed to. At first, I was slightly taken aback. Gradually though, I’ve become to appreciate the strong tartness as it brings out the flavor of the toppings (neta). The texture of the sushi rice was on point. It was soft, yet had a bite. Every individual grain of rice was intact.
The second act featured stronger tasting seafood. Shellfish began to appear, along with tuna (maguro). Torigai, a Japanese cockle with a purple sheen was intriguing. Initially bitter on the palate, it released more sweetness the more I chewed. Contrary to the belief that good sushi always uses the freshest seafood, this isn’t always the case. Some seafood such as shellfish and sea urchin taste best fresh, yet tuna taste better when it’s aged. This allows the protein to break down and new amino acids such as glutamate to appear. Moisture levels also decrease, therefore increasing the concentration of flavours. The fatty bluefin tuna (otoro), aka Rolls Royce cut of fish had a tender texture, but less flavour compared to lean bluefin tuna (akami). However, there was a small piece of unremoved sinew in the otoro, which interrupted its smooth texture. The otoro at Kitcho was far superior. The next piece is the most classic Edomae sushi; gizzard shad (kohada). It’s initially cured in salt, then preserved in vinegar. I’ve tried kohada many times before but never liked it. Chef Masuda really changed my stance this time! It’s still intense and robust, yet he preserved it long enough to tame its overpowering aroma. The tiger prawn (kuruma ebi) was freshly boiled and deshelled. It was succulent, unlike the underwhelming prawn fillers in North America. I don’t remember the name of this fish, and after some research, I’m pretty sure it’s either golden eye snapper (kinmedai) or Japanese amberjack (buri). This was one of the best pieces! Silky smooth on the palate with a buttery texture. Hamaguri or orient clam is another seasonal item. Lightly poached, it was chewy and slightly crunchy. The tare sauce that was brushed on accentuated the natural sweetness.
The sea urchin (uni) hailed from Hokkaido. Its pristine waters and kelp rich environment produce some of the best sea urchins in the world. The uni was very sweet and custard-like. Fresh uni has a faint ocean smell, but it’s definitely not fishy. The sea eel was another exquisite piece. Slowly simmered in shoyu, it was feather light. The whole thing disintegrated once it touched the palate, leaving behind a rich eel flavour. The maki rolls were filled with toro and scallions. The iconic tamagoyaki signified the end to the courses. It’s also the final sushi test all apprentices must succeed. In the documentary of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, it’s revealed that apprentices only learn how to make tamagoyaki ten years into their training. Quite simple looking, but the process is incredibly arduous and technically challenging. The ingredients vary, other than the obvious eggs, shrimp and ground yam. Sounds basic, but the proportion of ingredients and baking time are altered daily. This course was stunning. Sweet and savoury, light yet dense. It resembled more a sponge cake than omelette. Perhaps that’s the intention, to finish off with a “dessert”.
Other than using top notch ingredients, good sushi is about harmony. The balance of sushi rice to topping, with the blend of savoury, sweet, and sour notes. It should be served at room temperature, as this allows the nuances of flavours to be more pronounced. Chef Masuda although serious, has a humble and friendly demeanour. During the meal, he frequently revealed interesting facts that showed his observance. For instance, he makes different rice portions for different customers. He pointed out that he packed more rice for my dad, and less for me. He also noticed that my dad’s left-handed, so he placed sushi on the left side of his plate. It’s details like this that separate him from the competition. Sushi Masuda is not a restaurant I would recommend to sushi novices or those who are squeamish about seafood. In order to appreciate the subtleties of the meal, having a somewhat trained palate is very helpful. Although incredibly stressful to reserve a spot, it was all worth it! Based on what I’ve tasted, Chef Masuda could very well be anticipating another star in the future.