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

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

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