I’ve eaten a lot of great food in my lifetime. I’ve blown $60 on a burger before. I’ve eaten signature dishes by 10 of Vancouver’s best restaurants in a row. The Dot Com Pho Crew and I even managed to eat out of a toilet. However, I can honestly say that yesterday was one of my favorite meals…ever.
I know this is long, detailed and there are lots of pictures…but bear with me. This restaurant is epic.
There are lots of amazing sushi restaurants in Japan but Sushi Dai, located in the famed Tsukiji Fish Market is the Mecca of sushi, somewhere that all raw fish enthusiasts (I’m sure that’s an official thing…) should make a pilgrimage to at least once in their lifetime. However, expect to wait a long time in line as others like us have made the same spiritual journey. There are many others in the same area in Tsukiji. In fact, Daiwa Sushi, which is three or four stalls down from Sushi Dai, had a long line as well but apparently Sushi Dai is the sushi restaurant.
The whole place is no bigger than my apartment. There are only about 14 seats at the counter where three sushi chefs prepare your meal right in front of your eyes.
I woke up at 5am due to anticipation…and necessity. Tsujiki opens early in the morning with the fish auction starting at about 4:30am. Most restaurants in the market open at 5am as well and close at 2pm, just after lunch service. This means unbelievably fresh fish brought in the same morning. I set out at about 6:30am to meet Ms. Danielle, who was in Tokyo for the day before heading out to the rest of Japan.
Not surprisingly, I got lost…twice. Once when trying to find Danielle’s hotel and again when we were trying to find the market, which is a 15 minute walk from the nearest JR line station. As Danielle quickly found out, Tokyo streets are nearly devoid of all signs and after asking some folks on the street how to get to one of the city’s biggest attractions (Tsukiji Market), I could tell she was starting to believe my theory that even the locals don’t quite know where they are.
Upon arrival at about 9:20am, an Astro Boy looking dude greeted us and brought the bad news: the wait would be about two hours. Since we came all this way, there was no chance we were turning back then or going to one of the other sushi restaurants. No, we were determined that this was the one.
About two hours of standing around and getting to know nearly everyone in line, we finally got inside. The restaurant is cramped but has fantastic ambiance as all the sushi chefs greet you loudly. Even though it’s a huge tourist attraction, it feels like a neighborhood spot.
Let’s get started with the food. Danielle and I both ordered the “trust the chef” meal. I’m sure they mean chef’s special. At 3670 yen for a 11 pieces plus one roll, it’s not exactly cheap but we’re not scrooges.
We got the tamago (sweet egg) first. It was served hot, which is a bit different from the usual cool ones. It was quite good but I wasn’t blown away. It’s difficult to do too much with the most basic of sushi toppings, though.
However, those guys really know how to start with a bang. o-toro (fattiest of the fatty tuna) was next and it was the best tuna I’ve ever had. The whole piece melts in your mouth. If it wasn’t for the rice, I wouldn’t even need to chew. It tasted fresh and rich in flavor. We don’t get this kind of tuna back in Vancouver…with the gorgeous color and marbling. A beautiful piece of fish.
Next up was suzuki (sea bass). I’ve had sea bass before but not as sushi. I watched as the chef prepared the fish, squeezing a bit of lime juice before giving it to us, specifically telling us “No sauce.” The lime juice gives the delicate fish a great zest, which is sort of a different sushi experience. At this point, I ditched the soy sauce altogether…as I’m sure any would just be a disservice to the caliber of fish we were being served.
Tai is red snapper. There’s a big difference when snapper is done properly and when it’s not. Tai that isn’t quite fresh or has been frozen for quite awhile tastes fishy and has a strange, rubbery texture. None of that here. The fish doesn’t melt like the o-toro but it is still extremely good.
There were three stand-outs in the meal for me. The o-toro is one. The uni (sea urchin) was the second. I’ve NEVER had uni this amazing. While sea urchin at a lesser degree of freshness tends to be overly mushy, taste a bit rank and looks like it’s covered in a sort of mucus, this was sweet with a very…uh…”ocean-y” taste to it. Amazing uni. By far the best I’ve ever tasted. No preservatives. Never frozen. Just pure awesome.
Next was a piece of magurozuke, which is marinated tuna. The sauce is a sort of sweet soy and the fresh tuna has incredible texture. It doesn’t have the fat content of the o-toro so it won’t melt but this old school way of preparing the fish still tastes great.
The akagai (red clam) was the third stand-out for me. It was so fresh it was still moving! I’ve never had a clam this delicious in my life. Clams are usually very chewy but this was as soft as chewing through the egg. I was so blown away by this that I almost ordered it rather than the o-toro for my last piece.
I’m not usually a fan of aji (mackerel) as when it’s not perfectly fresh, it tends to have an intense fishy taste. This piece was still intense but not fishy at all. It had a great aroma too. Our chef told us that this was a great time for fresh mackerel and it shows. A fantastic taste to this fish when it is as fresh as possible.
Some fellow foodies told me about the shiraebi (baby shrimp) beforehand. I didn’t know what to think since I’ve never had this before and assumed that it would be the same as regular shrimp but I was really wrong. The texture is slightly gloopy but they have a strong, fresh sweetness.
Kajiki (swordfish) is another fish I’ve eaten before but never as sushi. I can’t really put the taste into words but it is delicious. No, the chef didn’t mess up the rice…I did that because I was so eager to eat it that I forgot to take a picture before picking it up with my chopsticks.
The roll came next. The first is a sort of shellfish with cucumber and the second is diced chu-toro (mid-range fatty tuna, with o-toro being the best and toro being regular fatty tuna). I couldn’t taste much in the shellfish, honestly but the chu-toro was awesome. Dicing it just makes it melt in your mouth faster.
The last was anago (sea eel, steamed…I think). The flavor is nearly the same as unagi with the same sweetness from the fish and the sauce but the texture…it’s so soft that it just disintegrates. The light and fluffiness is incredible.
For our last piece, the chef lets us pick whichever piece we wanted. Danielle and I both went with the o-toro, even though I was so torn between that, the clam and the sea urchin. I was almost sad at this point as the meal was ending but I couldn’t be happier that I was eating such incredible, epic-win, ultra sushi. Danielle and I even discussed the possibility of ordering another $37 meal but we felt sorry for the folks standing outside in the sweltering heat so we snapped a couple more shots and left.
At $37, this isn’t the cheapest way to get sushi. Heck, if you want to order by the piece, each ranges from $3 (for most) to $7 (for the o-toro…with the good stuff like uni and akagai at around $5) per piece. However, it is BY FAR the best sushi I’ve ever had and probably the best place on the planet…period. I honestly don’t see how it could get better and fresher as the source is mere feet away from the restaurant and the chefs are masters, incredibly hospitable and one even spoke some English!
This was a near spiritual experience for me and I’m sure it would be for anyone that loves sushi. If you come to Tokyo, you MUST go. Don’t even think about it (as so many people outside in line were)…just trust the chef and go with the set meal. They’re not always the same things as the menu changes depending on the seasonal ingredients but they’re always guaranteed to be good. I was amazed by the freshness of the ingredients.
Even the miso soup (with chunks of fish…in Danielle’s. All I got was bones) was great. I was on the verge of tears, the meal was so good. I wrote a lot here but my words simply can’t do justice to the outstanding food served at Sushi Dai. As I still have another month and a half here in Tokyo, I will be back again…at least once.
I just don’t know how I’m going to deal with not having this place once I go home…I don’t even want to think about it.