There is a restaurant in the Nakano neighborhood of Tokyo that you need to visit if you go to Tokyo. We didn’t see it in any guide book or site; we just happened into it one day. And then we came back twice more, despite the fact that Nakano wasn’t near much that we wanted to see. It was that good.
We discovered it on a Sunday. We got to the Nakano area in the late afternoon, hoping to see the famed Nakano Broadway mall of geeky things <link coming>. Hungry, we hit up one of the first places we saw, a standing sushi bar that looked cozy. The cut-up fish was all laid out in a clear counter, so you could see what the options were and what looked good. There were three sushi chefs back there, and they all seemed quite expert. For example, they washed their hands between sushi orders; at a different spot, we saw chefs wiping their hands on towels between sushi, which is less sanitary. They offered us two spots at the counter, where we went through the normal rituals of Japanese eating: pouring green tea powder into the cups on the table and filling them with hot water from the hot water taps; ordering a sake; receiving a hot, wet towel to wipe our hands with; and getting a plate, which was – in this case – a long, green bamboo leaf. For each item we ordered, the chef marked a box on a white order sheet with his thick, red pencil; at the end, the people up front tabulated our items and gave us our bill.
They had an English menu, though we’re big enough sushi fans that we know the Japanese words for the fish we like. We ordered salmon, tuna, yellowtail, and scallops, all of which were fresh. The menu said that the restaurant was one of a few with special bidding rights at the local seafood markets, so that made sense. We struck up a conversation with one of the sushi chefs, who spoke English well. He asked where we were from, and he started doing an omakase for us. That’s a chef’s choice menu, where the chef gives you different things without you ordering them, just based on what’s fresh or what he’s good at making, or what he thinks you may like. We got to try some delicious things, we got to be surprised, and we got to feel special. The price for all this bounty was incredibly low, so we tumbled out of there fully and happy.
The following Sunday, B had to work, but I was free. I was tired of feeling frumpy around all of the neatly-dressed Tokyo folks, so I decided to buy a new, nice shirt or dress. A quick search turned up this article about a cheap shopping area, which happened to be near Nakano. (Spoiler alert: it was a bust), so I decided to stop for lunch on the way.
When I got there, I hesitated to go in alone. The others eating there during our first visit had been locals, and I was afraid there might not be room for me during the busy lunchtime rush. But I went in, and there was plenty of room for me. The same sushi chef and waitress served me, and I ordered scallops (called hotateh) and extra fatty tuna (called oh-toro) again. Each order consists of two pieces of nigiri, or fish placed on top of rice. This combination can be quite filling, so I was getting full. Just as I was contemplating ordering one final two-piece of yellowtail, the chef asked me if there was anything I was allergic to or didn’t like. Not so quick on the uptake, I said no and went back to ogling yellowtail. And then the omakase began.
The chef placed a two-piece order of yellowtail in front of me, before I even had a chance to order it. He’s a mind-reader, I thought, and happily ate my nigiri. Before I had a chance to do more than drink some tea, he had placed an order of boiled squid in front of me. It was cooked and fairly bland-tasting, I was surprised to find. Glad I had tried something new but quite full, I started to straighten up my area, in hopes of hinting that I was done. This was not an effective strategy, I found, as I looked up to find an order of sea bream (called tai) on my leaf-plate. The chef let me know that this is the most popular Japanese sushi fish, though this chart seems to think that honor belongs to fatty tuna (called toro). Unfortunately, I find tai to be rubbery-tasting, but I appreciated the chance to try to imagine myself as a local. Thoroughly full now, I worked up the courage to make a motion to take my bill, which rested on the counter above my plate. The chef clearly didn’t understand. Perhaps he thought I wanted him to update my bill or that I was worried about the mounting cost of all of this sushi. Either way, the flurry of sushi continued.
He served me an order of red fish roe (ikura). An order of cooked eel (anago) followed. Generally, it is considered best to eat your nigiri as soon as it is made, with some chefs claiming that for each second you let it sit, the flavor worsens – kind of like a car depreciating in value the moment you drive it off the lot. But after this much sushi, I was so full that I needed any tactic I could get to stop the onslaught. So, I ate slower. And yet, more nigiri appeared before me. Between all the food and the hot tea, I was now burning up and at a loss for how to politely extricate myself from this situation. I finally rubbed my now-bulging belly and said I was full, hoping he didn’t misunderstand that to imply I was pregnant. (Though I had a large food baby, there was certainly no real baby in there.)
Luckily, he understood, and I finished the last order and took my order sheet to the front to pay. The man who rang it up didn’t speak English, but his register said that I owed an amount equivalent to $8. I gave him a confused look and pantomimed that I had eaten a lot (puffed-out stomach again), but that the bill was so small! After all, my extra fatty tuna alone should have been between $2 and $4, and that was 5% of what I had eaten! No amount of math got me to a total of $8. The man at the register called back something in Japanese to my sushi chef, who replied with one or two words. The cashier nodded that the $8 was correct, and all I could do was say “thank you very much” in Japanese to both of them and pay. (After all, tips are considered rude and not accepted in Japan.) I walked out feeling grateful and uncomfortably stuffed.
Why did he only charge me $8? I don’t believe that this was the actual price for some magical set menu. Perhaps my sushi chef felt bad for me, because when he had asked where my husband was, I had told him that he was working? His act of kindness seemed even more unusual when I returned home and discovered that this restaurant was actually part of a chain! (If we had chain restaurants like this in the US, I would never eat anywhere else.) After all, don’t chain locations have to follow corporate policy, leaving them unable to make exceptions like my meal must have been?
Whatever the case, even at the full price that B and I paid on our first visit, this restaurant was fresh, delicious, authentic-feeling, and inexpensive. I’m not sure if the location in the busy Shinjuku neighborhood is anywhere near as good, so if you have the time, head out to the Nakano location of Uogashi Nihon Ichi, about a block north of the Nakano metro station (on the Chuo line). Say hi to our favorite sushi chef for us!