Sunday, 20 July 2014

Sushi Tanabe, Sapporo, Japan - 11 June 2014

My first post from my June trip to Hokkaido is about my meal at Sushi Tanabe in Sapporo. Sushi Tanabe is one of four restaurants to be awarded 3-Michelin stars in the one-off Michelin Guide 2012 for Hokkaido. Sushi Tanabe is located in Susukino, which happens to be one of the largest red light districts in Japan.  Sushi Tanabe is not the easiest restaurant to find due to its small signage, so make sure you have a map and directions with you. Otherwise you may find yourself surrounded by pink parlours and soapland stores...

This takes me to a short story that I wanted to share that makes my meal at Sushi Tanabe memorable for all the wrong reasons. After the meal, I was approached by a man as soon as I emerged onto the street, who spoke to me in Japanese. I had no idea what he was saying exactly, but I had a pretty good idea what he was up to. So I kept walking briskly towards Susukino station, shaking my head and saying no to him. But this man wouldn't give up easily and kept following me, continuing to speak to me in Japanese. After a while, when he finally worked out that I didn't understand a word he was saying, he asked me, "Do you want sex?" It wasn't til I sternly told him to go away did he get the message that I was not interested. Does every guy wandering around the streets of Susukino on their own at night come to Susukino for sex? Can't they be here for sushi?

The sushi counter, which seats around 12 diners
Any way, back to the restaurant. The head chef and owner of Sushi Tanabe is Masashi Watanabe, who previously had a sushi restaurant at the luxury hotel Windsor at Lake Toya (which houses the 3-Michelin star restaurant of French master chef, Michel Bras). Sushi Tanabe is different to other high end sushiyas in that there are three sushi chefs rather than one masterchef that serves the entire restaurant. My sushi chef for the night was Daisuke Fujiwara, who spoke fluent English.

Like other sushi bars, diners are seated around a wooden counter, where the chefs prepares the sushi in front of you. For me this was one of the joys of this meal, it was like theatre. I was enthralled by the sushi chefs' skills through the entire meal. From the meticulous knife skills on display to slice or score each fish to the almost flowing hand motions of the chef when he moulds each nigiri sushi into shape. This was as beautiful as any work of art, I reckon.

Sushi chef, Daisuke Fujiwara
The menu includes a nigiri set menu, three different omakase courses and a la carte choices. For the best experience I went for the large omakase course (16,500 yen excluding tax) that consisted of an appetizer, 5 kinds of sashimi, grilled dish, 12 pieces of sushi, miso soup and dessert. You can choose to replace dessert with "rare fish food", which I opted to do since I was here to indulge in as much seafood as possible (you don't go to a sushi restaurant for creme brulee, right?).
My drink of choice for the night was yuzu umeshu. This was so good; I ordered at least three because yuzu (my favourite citrus fruit)! Refreshing, aromatic and not too sweet.   
So how was the sushi? It was without doubt the best sushi that I have ever eaten in my life (although I haven't had the opportunity yet to eat at any of the 3 star sushiyas in Tokyo)! It helps that Sushi Tanabe is in Hokkaido, the home to some of the best seafood in the world!

Not only was I blown away by the extreme freshness of the seafood, it was the tremendous variety that captivated me the most. This kind of variety is something that I have not encountered anywhere; back at home in Sydney, it's mostly salmon, tuna and kingfish.

Condiments to enjoy with sashimi: micro shiso, lime, sea salt, fresh wasabi
But at Sushi Tanabe, I was served over 20 different items, featuring Hokkaido crab, octopus, Hokkaido oyster, medium fatty tuna, abalone, sea urchin, sea eel and much more. Oh boy, each piece was orgasmic (I mean delicious) in their own way! The progression of the meal and how one course led to another was phenomenal and for me made this the ultimate tasting menu experience!

Then there are the things that the chefs do behind the scene. Each fish is expertly prepared to get the most out of each specimen. Some were served raw, some aged for a few days, some marinated in vinegar and/or salt, and others steamed or boiled. Then the chef would season each piece to perfection with the right amount of tare (sauce), freshly grated wasabi, salt, or lime juice. The level of care and attention to detail was evident with each bite.

And the shari (vinegared rice)! I love eating well cooked rice, and this was no exception. The rice had a wonderful balance of vinegar and sweetness and was served at body temperature. The chef moulded each nigiri into shape so the rice just holds together and collapses in the mouth, such that I could taste each soft, fluffy grain. The combination of the shari with the neta (topping) was sublime; I was in heaven with each bite!

The sushi chef's business card
At the conclusion of the meal, Daisuke-san gave me his business card and asked me to come back to Sushi Tanabe the next time I'm in Sapporo. You can pretty much guarantee that I will be back at Sushi Tanabe if I ever return to Sapporo based on this experience! This meal really opened my eyes to the art of sushi in Japan and the world of high end sushi. I would love to come back to Japan and try other high-end sushiyas like Sukiyabashi Jiro, Sushi Saito or Sushi Sawada to experience more perfection.         

Highlight: Hokkaido seafood at its finest: crab, abalone, sea urchin, oyster, octopus... the list just goes on!
Lowlight: The dude that tried to sell sex to me and wouldn't give up easily as I was making my way back to Susukino station.
Overall: My meal at Sushi Tanabe is easily the best sushi I have eaten so far. The freshness and variety of seafood and the progression of one course to the next absolutely blew me away. This meal was most definitely a 3-Michelin star experience, worthy of a special journey.  9/10 (Outstanding)

Now you can feast your eyes on the best seafood I have ever eaten in my life :)

Appetiser - shrimp, bamboo shoot, scallop, and cold soup with junsai. The shrimp was sweet and a beautiful springy texture. It was served with its head, so I could enjoy all of the goodness inside. The scallop was slightly chewy. I love the texture of junsai: slippery, gelatinous and bursting in the mouth. 

Hokkaido crab (kani) - The first course of the night was one of the best of the night! This was some of the best crab that I have ever eaten and it was clear why Hokkaido is so famous for its crabs. The strands of crab meat were sweet and delicate. The crab was served with its roe, which was rich and so flavoursome. 

Flounder (hirame) - Very mild tasting fish with no overpowering flavours. The flesh was firm and slightly chewy. The freshness of the fish was very apparent with no hint of fishiness.  

Octopus (tako) - Another one of my favourites. The octopus was very tender and not chewy at all. The octopus is massaged for some time during preparation to tenderise the meat. Not only was it sweet, the octopus also had a deep rich flavour that I had never tasted before in an octopus. A Japanese wine jelly was served with the octopus for acidity.       

Spanish mackerel - Strong tasting, oily fish that was served with chives and pickles to cut through the richness of the fish.    

Hokkaido salmon (sake) - served with its skin and layer of fat attached, the salmon had a silky almost buttery texture as it melted in the mouth.

Hokkaido sardine, eggplant, shirauo - The sardine was grilled and filled with its roe. The eggplant was pickled. The shirauo was served as a thin, crispy cracker.  

Hokkaido oyster - The oyster was gently steamed. Whilst I usually prefer oysters served natural, the flavour of this oyster was amazing. It was sweet, briney and a lovely oceanic taste. 

Chawanmushi - This is probably the best steamed egg custard that I have ever eaten. It was smooth, silky and slightly soupy. The dashi stock was unbelievably good: sweet and filled with delicate umami flavour. And there were strands of delicious crab inside the egg custard. 

Grilled baby squid - This was the 'rare fish food' that I opted for over creme brulee. It tasted like the dried squid snack.

Squid (ika) - The flavour was sweet and delicate. The squid was scored to tenderise the flesh, which made the squid almost milky in texture.  

Medium fatty tuna (chu-toro) - Check out the marbling of this specimen. Almost like wagyu beef! The medium fatty tuna had a wonderful, well-balanced flavour and melted in the mouth. I'm in heaven now! 

Gizzard shad (kohada) - Strong in flavour like the mackerel, medium oil content, and soft texture. Yum! 

Sweet shrimp (ama-ebi) - Sweet, lovely creamy texture that melts in the mouth. Just divine!

Horse mackerel (aji) - Classic nigiri topping. Fresh, pristine quality, fatty, rich in flavour and  without a trace of fishiness. Amazing!  

Surf clam (hokkigai) - Mild ocean aroma, flesh was soft and chewy. Delicate in flavour and the sweetness of the clam became more evident with each bite. The clam was seared slightly to give a nice smoky flavour.

Snake shell (tsubugai) - Oceanic flavour with mild sweetness and crunchy texture.

Abalone (awabi) - Easily one of my favourite pieces of the night! The abalone was steamed, was so tender whilst retaining a slight bouncy texture and had an incredibly deep flavour. The abalone's liver was pureed to create a dark green sauce that was rich, creamy and paired beautifully with the abalone.

Sea urchin (uni) - I was salivating at the sight of the chef carefully topping the oblong block of rice with tongues of sea urchin. The rich, creamy texture of the sea urchin is heavenly in the mouth. A heavy sweetness and aroma of the sea urchin filled the mouth as I ate it. What else can I say besides, best!  

Salmon roe (ikura) - Oh my goodness! The bursts of umami with each roe bursting in the mouth together with the slighty sweet and vinegared rice and crispy nori sheet... I am lost for words. So good!   

Miso soup - Delicious miso soup with an excellent dashi stock, served with slippery,earthy mushrooms. Supposedly aids digestion of fish at the end of the meal.   

Sea eel (anago) - The sea eel was so soft and melting in the mouth, almost souffle like. Delicious with the sweet, umami sauce and topped with specks of lime zest for acidity. Another highlight! 

Egg omelet (tamago) - This "dessert" piece marked the end of the omakase course. The tamago was light in texture, almost like a sponge cake. The flavour was slightly sweet and wonderfully savoury. Best tamago I have ever eaten!

Kuruma shrimp (kuruma-ebi) extra 1,000 yen - I decided to order another piece from the a la carte menu despite being quite full. I love the bright red rings that form after the kuruma shrimp is boiled. The shrimp was well cooked: sweet in flavour and a nice bouncy texture. I would have liked the flavours from the shrimp head to be incorporated in this piece.   

Sushi Tanabe
Address: 3 Minami 5-jo Nishi, Chuo-ku| New Blue Nile Bldg. 2F, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan 
Contact no: +81 11 520 2202