Hashiguchi

Hashiguchi was, a few years back, my first experience of the world of fancy sushi. It will always have a special place for me. I remember that on the day of my first visit I was anxious to get the “etiquette” right, having read so much about the severe environment and rigid rules of Tokyo sushi restaurants.

Looking back now I can laugh. First of all, despite what you read online, anyone with even a moderate amount of self-awareness will be just fine in a Tokyo sushi restaurant. All that you need is to be respectful, willing to eat what is put in front of you, and open to having a good time and there is nothing at all to worry about.

Second, Hashiguchi is maybe the last sushi shop where you would get a frosty reception. The vibe is calm and understated in the extreme, almost sleepy, which I really don’t at all mean as a criticism. The pace of things inside the restaurant a notch slower than in the real world outside, and the husband-and-wife team are truly lovely and quick with smiles and laughs. The counter here is relatively spacious, and unlike shops that serve a regimented two full seatings a night, here there is one seating per night and starting times are staggered. This makes things a bit more personal and tailored, as is the case at Sushi Take. Photography is not allowed: this is between you and the chef, not the outside world! With such a welcoming environment, I couldn’t have asked for a kinder, gentler introduction to the cuisine that immediately got me completely hooked.

Comparing the sushi itself to other restaurants, the taste of the sushi matches the demeanor of chef Hashiguchi perfectly. You will be asked at the start of the meal whether you want a sashimi and sushi course, or just sushi. Either is good—when I’ve had the sashimi course, it included some fantastic shellfish like mirugai that the sushi course did not feature, and when I’ve had the sushi course only I got a couple of really outstanding maki rolls at the end since I was still a bit hungry after the nigiri sequence. If I had to pick I would say go for the full set with sashimi to take full advantage of the day’s produce.

Those nigiri, by the way, are large in size, with a simple, clean flavor on the shari that lets you taste the ingredients in a direct, unfussy way. Other shops favor shari with a more noticeable and intense vinegar flavor, and that is delicious too, but the taste here matches the humble nature of the restaurant and really has its hooks in my memory. I’ve found the hikarimono nigiri particularly good here: iwashi, kohada, and aji all stand out, the subtle oily nature of those fish really framed perfectly by the understated shari. The big difference that choices like these make to the overall impression of the meal is something I find really cool about sushi.

Popular opinion has this as one of the most highly regarded sushi restaurants in town, an impressive feat considering that it is not a place chasing hype or with an Instagram hashtag churning out photos of the food. Reservations are difficult. However, the “secrecy” here is, refreshingly, not about elitism or creating some mystique, but rather just about keeping things relaxed and simple. It’s simply a great meal in a cozy environment, to be enjoyed without worrying about anything else.

Hashiguchi 1 Chome-5-20 Motoakasaka, Minato City, Tokyo 107-0051, Japan

Standard Fare

Standard Fare is the very ideal of a lunch spot. Right down the block Third Culture in West Berkeley—making for an irresistible one-two punch—this place is bursting with freshness and taste. I seriously don’t know how they manage to make everything on the daily-changing lunch menu so packed with flavor.

On paper it’s simple enough, with soups, sandwiches, salads, and sweets that at first made me think I knew what I was getting in for. But wow, things here are really so much more than how they seem on paper. How many sandwiches have you had for lunch in your life and how many really stand out? I am a huge sandwich fan and I have really strong opinions about sandwiches, so I hope you believe me when I say that Standard Fare’s sandwiches are in the very top tier I’ve ever had. There are other sandwich places I love, to be sure, with distinct styles and therefore distinct places in my heart. But what distinguishes things here is the whack of pure flavor. The common thread among the ever-changing offerings is the bright, tangy, acidic, herb-y punch (seemingly delivered in a different way by different ingredients each time) that elevates all of them to another level. Every day there is one vegetarian and one meat or fish sandwich, and I have never been let down by any of them. A special place in my memory is reserved for examples built around line-caught lingcod and around garlicky kale, but I could go on.

It’s certainly not all about sandwiches though, and I’ve been more than happy with the daily lunch plate specials and the salads as well. This is a super casual spot, easy to eat at regularly, with lots of seating outside to enjoy some nice East Bay weather. There are few places I know of that work both as an everyday spot if you are lucky enough to live or work nearby and also as a really satisfying reason to make a special trip from slightly further in the area. Standard Fare is definitely one of them!

Standard Fare 2701 Eighth Street, Berkeley, CA, 94710

Try: any sandwich

big king

big king is that place that I will always drag you to if you’re in town. Partly because I really want other people to love it as much as I do—and partly because I selfishly will use any excuse to go. This is a restaurant very dear to my heart!

This restaurant is chef James Mark’s second one in Providence, and took over the location of his first one, north. But things look a bit different these days. When that wonderful restaurant got all grown up and moved to its new spot in the Dean Hotel in downtown Providence, its tiny space got an absolutely beautiful redesign. It’s downright classy. As you enter, there are a few counter seats in front of seafood prep, and moving down the narrow space a few seats at the bar counter. Behind the bar are a some cool, small shelves with extremely tempting whiskies on display. Center of attention—and almost exactly dead center of the whole small room—is the long row of big sake bottles on the bar counter, a mission statement right in your face. At the end of the counter, two booths to fit four people each close around a small table, and beyond those the walkway to the kitchen, through which chefs will come bearing gifts all evening long.

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New sign, who dis?

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The food menu is handwritten daily in a notebook, which, if you’re the curious type, lets you travel back in time by flipping back through the old pages. As you might guess, things here are swift and seasonal. There’s typically two sets, one four dishes and one six, and a few a la carte dishes. Nothing is heavy or hard to eat so you can really go for it with the menu. I could go on and on about the amazing things I’ve eaten here. Cabbage or spring onion or chicken hearts off the charcoal grill. Nigiri with mackerel, or sardine, or live scallop. A dish of tempura potato with Japanese curry that spawns addictions. Astonishing sauces and dashis. The soufflé cheesecake that is one of the best desserts I ever had.

Sitting in one of those booths, in a place so small it feels like you’re in on a secret, sharing a bottle of sake with friends, plate after delicious plate hitting the table—it must be the most comfortable place in the world. I’m trying hard not to use the word “intimate” here because it seems like such a cliche, but when something this good is so humble and relaxed, when your hosts are all so positive and talented, when everything feels personal, it seems alright. I guess I’ll forgive myself in this case.

I’ve been lucky to have had many fun evenings with friends at big king. But I still get excited before every visit. I still try to find a way to order everything on the menu every time, and I still find the conversation getting louder and happier with eat bite and sip. Like a kind and generous friend, this is a place that you want to hang out with whenever you can.

big king 231 Carpenter St, Providence, RI 02903

Bonbori

This casual spot near Suitengumae serves a pretty distinctive version of oyakodon that I thought was really tasty. This was one of those dishes that has a lot of food but is really easy to eat. There is a rich flavor that had me eating bite after bite with hardly a pause, but it’s not too heavy so that I (mercifully) didn’t suffer too much for my gluttony. I ate it on a drizzly Saturday for lunch before heading to a baseball game and it fit that kind of day perfectly.

The chicken here is cooked over charcoal and comes out smoky and, unusually, quite dry. That means that this isn’t a silky smooth oyakodon with juicy chicken and barely-set eggs. This one is much more like a contrast between the textures of the chicken and the egg. I think it works. The smoky char of the chicken holds in flavor in a really interesting way and goes great with the rich dashi on the eggs. The effect is a bit like American barbecue, where a good charred meat and a rich barbecue sauce go together perfectly. It’s the same kind of principle here—with completely different flavors, of course!

For a neighborhood place, Bonbori is surprisingly spacious and bright inside and it has a pretty stress-free vibe. If you happen to find yourself in the area, I think this is a nice place for a cheap, delicious meal.

Bonbori 1-chome-5-1 Nihonbashikakigaracho, Chuo City, Tokyo

Last visited: Summer 2019

Tips: seems to be busy during the week but much quieter on the weekend

Hakkoku

Hakkoku is a cool place. The interior of the restaurant is spacious, airy, and mellow, with three six-seat sushi counters, spacious and separated by shoji screens, and kind of new-agey ambient music playing in the background. The decor is elegant and classy. It’s almost like an exclusive spa in some ways—which feels weird to say, but there we are!

The food, by the way, is remarkable. The course here is (notoriously) fully thirty nigiri with some palate cleansers mixed in—no otsumami here. It’s kind of relentless, but in a good way that I really enjoyed. So many of the nigiri are unusual, or surprising, or simply more delicious than I’m used to, but there isn’t too much time to reflect before it’s on to the next. Despite that I didn’t find it overwhelming though, but instead an amazing crescendo that swept me along in a memorable way. It had the effect of harnessing everything to the beautiful shari that keeps the whole course together and is more than delicious enough to support it.

Mushiawabi, botan ebi, and ankimo were among the ingredients that took on a new profile for me as nigiri rather than their more common guise of otsumami. On the drinks side, I left sake selections up to my hosts, and was rewarded with several great glasses. All around, this was a very satisfying meal that I would happily eat again and again.

The fact that there are three counters makes this restaurant perhaps a bit more accessible than other places in town. I sat with Chef Hiroyuki Sato at the first counter—he is a great host, open-minded and wryly funny with a calm demeanor that fits the vibe perfectly. His Instagram account is a fun one as he is often traveling on his so-called “world tour” to bring Hakkoku’s sushi to far-flung corners of the world, and sometimes posts live video from the Toyosu fish market for a fun behind-the-scenes look at the world of Tokyo sushi.

I think the things that make Hakkoku a little different are exactly the things that make it worth visiting—I found the ethos to be clear, consistent, and self-justifying, with nothing done simply for its own sake. The quality and ambition are second to none, and that’s a very impressive thing indeed!

Hakkoku 3F, 6-7-6, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo

Last visited: Summer 2019

Vækst

There’s no shortage of amazing food in Copenhagen but Vækst really sticks in my memory. When I visited Copenhagen there was a heatwave that locals assured me was seriously unusual. The setting at Vækst is a beautiful, airy greenhouse-like space that, under the circumstances, turned out to be a perfect spot for lunch on my first day in town.

The vibe of the place is light and casual, matching the setting. I ordered the vegetarian lunch menu and both on paper and when it arrived to the table it also looked consistent with that theme. But I was totally surprised by how it tasted! Dishes with pea greens and asparagus at their base had a really great depth that made them both fresh and strangely rich. It’s always fun to be humbled by superficially simple-looking food, and I definitely had that feeling here. Vegetables, herbs, grains, and oils added up to something really satisfying. I really felt like I could taste each ingredient distinctly and together at the same time.

As an added bonus, this restaurant is relatively affordable—by Copenhagen standards at least! It’s true what they say about the cost of visiting here, but it’s well worth it. By the way, I thought the Design Museum was excellent, if you like that kind of thing!

Vækst Sankt Peders Stræde 34, 1453 København, Denmark

Visited: Summer 2018

noda

One of my favorite places to be in the world is at the dramatic semi-circular counter at noda. I absolutely love eating here, a place where I feel both comfortably at home and the thrill of something special. When I walk outside after a couple of hours of escape from the world, I feel a warm glow that I can carry with me for a few days.

I’m a hopeless sushi addict, and the food at noda is a perfect match for me. I find everything so easy to enjoy—the food is unfussy and just the highest quality, the kind of food whose deliciousness really gets under your skin without bragging about it. Saba bozushi, komochi yari-ika, ankimo, shiroebi… I could go on and on about things I’ve eaten here that stand out in my memory. The nigiri has a neatness of texture and flavor that makes it easy to enjoy and easy to love.

The level of hospitality here is so high that it all feels a bit hard to believe. I’ve had a great time chatting with the wonderful people here, the friendliest, most personable hosts you could possibly ask for. Chef Shigeyuki Tsunoda is quite literally at the center of attention during dinner, but his generosity is mirrored everywhere you look. Combined with the unusual setup—the restaurant has a beautiful and extremely well-curated bar in which to wait before the meal and, if you like, enjoy after dinner drinks—the overall effect is to feel like you’ve been welcomed into a place where you don’t have to worry about a thing. Just let your spirit be refreshed!

noda 6 W 28th St, New York, NY 10001

Last visited: late Spring, 2019

Mr. Taka

Mr. Taka makes some of my favorite bowls of ramen. My recommendation is the spicy miso, which always gives me the unusual feeling of being both totally stuffed full of food and ready to jump up and get moving. The “stamina” ramen is also great. Both come with a generous helping of delicious ground pork, culprit number one for the totally full feeling.

The thing I love about this place is that each individual part of the bowl of ramen is right up there with the best in its category. Particularly off-the-charts is the beautiful chasu, perfectly seasoned and perfectly charred for the quintessential melt-in-your-mouth experience.

I find it really hard to resist ordering an Orion on draft when I’m eating a bowl here—I love food that goes hand-in-hand with a particular drink and these two are hard to separate now in my mind! Particularly on a crisp New York winter day, there’s nothing in the city I crave more than that pair.

Right next door to Mr. Taka is the excellent Bluestockings Bookstore, by the way, if you feel like grabbing a book after lunch!

Mr. Taka 170 Allen St, New York, NY 10002

Try: spicy miso or stamina ramen with a frosty glass of Orion

Sushi Take

The ika nigiri at Sushi Take in Ginza, Tokyo was one of the most surprising things I’ve eaten in a long time. Ika in all of its forms is high on my list of favorites at sushi restaurants, and so I have had many types and many preparations over the years, but here it was something truly special. It had the signature gentle crunch of ika and that subtle, sweet flavor, and yet it tasted like something new in a way I can’t define. Eating it, early on in the meal, was the moment my love for Sushi Take went to the next level. When my course ended, there were lots of things I asked for extra portions of, but top of the list was humble old ika. Isn’t that perfect?

The vibe in the restaurant is just the way I like it. It’s particular but not fancy, serious but not stuffy, relaxing but not ordinary. Sushi Take runs a staggered seating system rather than set times for the whole counter to start eating. This means things feel more personal and flexible than at some other sushi restaurants. Despite the top-level food, the restaurant feels more like a neighborhood joint than a sushi temple. The signboards behind the counter indicate today’s menu, but also a deeper connotation that this is place where it’s fine to ask for and discuss what you want to eat rather than simply leaving it to the chef, as at most other high-flying Tokyo sushi restaurants.

Chef Fumie Takeuchi is a delight to chat with. We chatted about various things—despite the language barrier with each of us trying our non-native tongues—and she and her sous chef gave me a couple of nice recommendations for bars and lunch spots. Delightfully, the restaurant shares its floor in an unassuming Ginza building with not one, not two, but three karaoke bars, and we shared some laughs at the… ambitious singing that occasionally made its way through the walls. See what I mean about a neighborhood vibe?

This is a restaurant that really suits me. The nigiri is really among my favorite in Tokyo. The taste of the food, the atmosphere, the personalities of the chef and her staff, and the feeling of intentionality and ethos behind the restaurant all combine to make this a place that I remember with the fondest memories.

Sushi Take (鮨竹) 7 Chome-6-5 Ginza, Chuo City, Tokyo 104-0061

Last visited: Early summer, 2019

Third Culture

I won’t say how many times I’ve visited Third Culture Bakery‘s Berkeley showroom. As addictions go, it’s not the worst one to have. It has the most delightful sweets, the happiest vibe, and some fun and surprising drinks to boot.

The first time I had a Third Culture mochi muffin was at Asha Tea in San Francisco. I needed something sweet to go with my tea, and because it was late in the day there was only one thing left in the case. Obviously this was fate. Afterwards I went back to ask what it was I’d just eaten that was so delicious and new, and that was when I learned about the Third Culture phenomenon.

The HQ has several flavors of mochi muffin, several flavors of mochi donuts, specials like mochi waffles, drinks, and swag. At first I was all about the mochi muffin—chewy and toasty and rich and addictive—but I have been fully converted to deliciousness of the donuts too. The icing on the donuts tastes bright and bold, and there are great seasonal specials. Really though the way to go is to fill a box with anything that catches your eye and sample it all.

I’m also all the way addicted to the ceremonial matcha, iced with sparkling water. The first time I tried the combination I wasn’t convinced, but something compelled me to try it again, and I crave it all the time now. It is a super refreshing pick-me-up and totally worth a try if you like matcha.

Everyone at the showroom is super friendly and the whole place radiates the kind of good vibes that the best bakeries and sweets makers have.

Third Culture Bakery 2701 Eighth St, Berkeley, CA 94710

Try: a box with a few flavors of donut and a mochi muffin or two; ceremonial matcha with sparkling water