A solid 30-minute drive to setagaya-ku, we arrived to a discrete wooden doorway on a main road. I was wondering why is this restaurant in the middle of nowhere, but it’s not. Tokyo is a huge metropolis and Setagaya-ku is a popular residential neighbourhood.
When we opened the restaurant’s door the chef is right there – wow I felt caught off guard yet remained composed. It all seemed a little odd a first, unnerving, there was an older Japanese women staring at us. She was taking notes, looked dazed yet intrigued by the whole show.
The chef politely directed us to our two seats without blinking, we sat and started to take it all in. An old-fashioned look, with some touch-ups, Japanese 1970’s retro with a worn hinoki counter. Surprisingly the wooden counter was tattered and scratched by customer’s watches, rings and had more than general wear and tear. Most people are not aware of the sensitivity of hinoki wood, and or the cost. However my guess is the owner/chef has a wabi-sabi way, the acceptance of transience and imperfection and that’s what he is used to.
An L shaped counter this young chef doesn’t look like a typical sushi chef, if there’s a sushi chef look. He had his hair slicked, a white jacket and wore a pair of blue jeans. When we arrived the chef was in he middle of working, and seemed fixed in a fugue state, almost tranced cleaning an oversized fish loin.
No doubt he’s classically trained, as he meticulously places his hocho after each cut, carefully placing the blade’s sharp edge away from clients. This is a traditional martial arts respect that isn’t understood by everyone, and few chefs have these habits. After each cut, his hocho gets a signature wet wipe, and a second with a dry-clean cloth.
The atmosphere is still, almost silent, the lighting old-fashioned fluorescence above, recessed lights cast a bright annoying light onto the counter. His cutting board typical of a century old chef, worn from the multiple repetitive hand maneuvers the chef makes each time he cleans his board. There is a tread-mark with hues of orange-red likely from ebi miso, a deep coloured red that have left their stained pigments behind.
Chef Ichikawa diagonally scores (in both directions) all the fish multiple times and I heard of a myth why. Some chefs believe that by scoring some fish, it rids itself of a parasite called anisakis, which is commonly found on the surface of squid. But many sushi chef’s also score fish for other reasons: soften hard fish that are otherwise difficult to chew, and most use knife scoring to “open the taste” enhancing the flavours of the sea. It is easy to understand with certain fish, as the flesh below is more fatty and rich tasting. This is a theory is in part based on:https://mesubim.com/2013/12/17/mirepoix-stock/
I ask the chef about photos and he is not anxious to have people taking photos. It is possible, but only fish he serves you. Unfortunately I did find this out the hard way after snapping a photo of him working before asking. He looked up and glared at me, with a cutting expression. My wife said, “you are in trouble” and I knew what she meant.
Chef Ichikawa is quiet and seems serious, perhaps too serious but not for us. Dedicated to his work, like every counter chef, he manages the flow, making sure each client is served in sequence. When we called for reservations, the time slot was early, and I realized that he likely prefers clients coming at 18h00 and not much later.
He is omakase 100%, and you don’t have a chance to discuss this. He is sensitive to allergies asking if we have any issues. But he has his very style, his way similar to a strict French chef. He changes things up and serves some cooked dishes that accompany his nigiri. He would disappear into the back of the house, something I see more and more with younger chefs. However most sushi chefs have cooks who manage the “cooking” and their foucs is raw. The chef grilled fish opposite us in a salamander directly behind his working counter. I watched as did the other clients at times when he used kushi (metal skewers) to prepare fish for grilling.
One of the first dishes served was abalone, which was cooked whole in the shell and dissected into 3 parts. The shell was so hot you could see the chef struggling, as my wife whispered, he likely has limited feeling in his fingers. This was not what I expected in a sushi counter to eat steaming hot abalone.
So in the beginning he offers salt, shoyu and wasabi – those three. He politely says as he reaches to pass a small charred fish grilled, “please use salt or shoyu” and we are set to go.
The first few sashimi are intricately prepared, as he still seems focused on adding the finishing touches to his loin of buri. It is then skewered and taken away into the back where he chars it.
I am not sure how, and it seems that he uses a blow torch but I am not sure. I didn’t hear any swish from a blow torch so perhaps sumi-binchotan, but I doubt it.
The most surprising aspect of the entire evening was the chef’s gari (ginger) which was most unusual. I have never seen anything quite like it – and it was not pickled at all. Almost totally dry and it had zero sweetness and wasn’t very appealing although I understood his message. While his rice seemed to be influenced by using a particular gunma red wine vinegar, it has a distinctive reddish colour and is essential to his work.
He still works as he scores the oversized loin and he makes himself the center of focus. I felt like I was at the theatre and in a way there is a theatrical aspect to his sushi. You can sense some tension as the chef likes his stage to go perfectly, and right down to the placement of sushi. The theatre goes on when the nigiri first comes, his server appears suddenly to remove the shoyu and salt. You are now under his full control and the chef uses his nikiri to set the tone.
The sake is served medium cold, not blistering cold, obviously the way he likes it. The server is young, obedient and in appears to be typical of a subservient type person in training. He moves quietly, asks for permission as he bows out of respect, fitting for this sushi atmosphere. The sake is served in elegant ceramics and its clear that Ichikawa has an interest in Japanese culture and tradition.
The fish is for you to judge, below pictured are the three cuts of bluefin tuna: akami-zuke, which is marinated quickly with some shoyu, it can be up to 5 minutes. Akami “red” refers to lean red-coloured tuna meat. This is the most common cut and is usually in the medium price range but you can judge a tuna from the akami. The Akami comes from the top half of the fish and is connected to the chutoro. There are three different grades of akami, corresponding with the different parts of the fish. Remember any akami that is bright red akami is probably treated with carbon monoxide.
The second photo is chutoro, this cut I believe comes from front part of the fish belly nearer and below the belly from the cheek back to the underside. Any “toro” is melty, and often includes fatty tissue, quickly melting in your mouth that many young Japanese love to eat. But here the texture of the chutoro and the otoro have a greasy look compared with: https://mesubim.com/2016/04/28/almadraba-hon-maguro/
The section where the Ichikawa’s otoro tuna (seen below) comes from the belly and since it is close to the gills and there is more blood flow to the muscles in this area, it soft but has a more striated-concentrated fat, and isn’t comparable to middle section cuts of the otoro from the belly. Sometimes nicknamed the “kama toro”, considered by some more tasty but I find it greasy and just too heavy in taste. For foreigners they love it, and melt themselves whenever they taste otoro. But frankly speaking the best otoro is much more complex in taste, and should have a delicate side to the balance.
You have little choice but to watch him work, he is methodical and his pace is medium to slow yet comfortable and relaxed. The light is on center stage, as he cuts with microscopic precision, it seems a little contrived. It is something you need to see, a chef with his own well-defined style but perhaps obsessed with cutting every fish.
Then kohada and at this time of the year is not considered the best season as the fish are larger than before. The season will change in a few months when shinko, the smaller kohada will appear. It is quite rare and isn’t on the nifty list: http://homepage3.nifty.com/maryy/eng/sushi_glossary.htm
The uni was unusual, I watched him scoop it off a tray instead of from a box. My guess is he prefers a more natural type sea urchin prepared without the use of any alum: https://mesubim.com/2014/05/05/alum-uni-texture/
However in many cases I am more used to classical high quality bafun uni from hokkaido pictured here: https://mesubim.com/2014/12/16/uni-bafun/ and when I was learning about sushi, I was always told firmness is a key factor.
Ichikawa san is not a speaking type chef, and he sees everything that’s going on right down to the detail. The last dish seemed obvious as the final dish, a fish on top of rice and it symbolizes the end to a new sushi experience.
1F, 4-27-1, Nakamachi, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
Open hours: 18:00