On my third night in Tokyo, I went out to dinner by myself. It was one of the best meals of my life. Sushi is better in Japan. You go out to a restaurant at the famous fish market (Tsukiji) or a local place, and chances are the guy behind the counter has been cutting fish for 15 years. He buys the best fish available for the price point of the restaurant. But the experience that I had the other night was not the same as what I have experienced several times on this trip. It was at another level. Really, another level to every meal I’ve ever had. I’ve had the good fortune of eating (and cooking) at quite a few of the world’s “top restaurants”. In those temples of gastronomy, a team of cooks, stagiers and chefs make your food. At Sushiso Masa, the master himself, cut and cooked every piece of fish I ate. A few days later, I ate at a three michelin star restaurant (the second of my two splurges in Japan), and the attention to detail, the direction connection to the food and the chef had nothing to do with what I had experienced at Masa. Really what I’m trying to tell you is if you like to eat, and if you have the chance to go to Japan, you need to try food at this level.
I entered at 7pm and was seated next to the guy who invented the smartphone (or so his friend said). Immediately I was served two slices of braised octopus along with some sea grapes. From there it was two and a half hours of attentive “cooking”. One course was even served directly from the chef’s hand. Masa knew what was in season, when the best time to eat it was, and could respond to his customer’s pace of eating and the types of fish they were enjoying more than others. There were 7 of us, but he cooked for each one of us separately. I know, I sound like a disciple, but I am converted to what sushi can be. I don’t know if i can eat it the same again. Most people think that with raw fish, the fresher the better (as in at Tsukiji), that’s not always the case. At Masa, they age the tuna 4-5 days, their mackerel 24 hours, and the others somewhere in between. I personally have had the experience of eating sushi, and not being able to differentiate between a whole host of species. At Masa, i tasted their age, their fat, their diet… each bite was a wave of the sea, balanced and changing as it melted in my mouth.
Beyond articulating that a meal of just fish and rice had more firework’s and surprises than The Fat Duck’s liquid nitrogen and foie gras with chamomile, I want to share the value of less is more. Japan eats too much fish, the US eats too much meat. People love to hate on bluefin tuna and corn-fed beef. But these two products are delicious — they really are. The belly of tuna melts in your mouth, and an aged and broiled American steak has a succulence not to be matched. But these foods are for special occasions, for a blowout meal while visiting Tokyo or a birthday celebration in Chicago. We’ve grown accustomed to having them when we want, whenever we want. I think this is wrong. And I know, because you are reading this website, that you probably agree with me. I reject bluefin constantly, but at Masa, I ate it. At every restaurant I’ve been to in the last five years that sells it, I’ve expressed my concern (and of course haven’t ordered it). But at Masa, there are no choices, you eat until you are full — literally, the Chef asks if you are full, and he will keep feeding you until you say no. Maybe I’m trying to justify my experience. But I think maybe to eat something once in 5 years, to experience it, to enjoy it in all its rarity, and deliciousness and sadness… is only somewhat lamentable. I was part of a dinner created by someone who cares, who knows where his fish comes from, who caught it, and the best way to serve it. He serves bluefin, and eel, and octopus. Nothing I’m proud to have recently eaten. But yet, it was so perfect, and honorable, and the best money I’ve ever spent on food.
* if you want to hear more about the actual food I ate, its relatively similar to the meal my friend Chuck had there a couple years ago. Read and look HERE. He also recommended the restaurant to me in the first place.