Wednesday, April 1, 2015

First Taste of Aomori

Before Easter, we set off on a week-long journey to Japan and this time, to the Tohoku region in the northeastern part of Honshu, Japan's main island. Our first stop is Aomori prefecture in the most north, just off the strait from the island of Hokkaido.

Like many, apple is the first thing that came to mind when I thought of food from Aomori, for it being the prefecture's most famous export, but this time, I am more interested in checking out their seafood, given its unique location as a gateway between Sea of Japan and the Pacific, getting the best from both sides of the ocean as far as fish produce goes.

Perhaps the most famous of all is the bluefin tuna caught in Tsugaru Strait (津輕海峽) near the seaside fishing village of Omamachi further north in Aomori Prefecture. Oma Honmaguro (大間本鮪), as it's commonly known, was considered the best type of all (and often commanded the highest price in the market). Of course we would not pass on the opportunity to try it at where it's originally from.

While researching for our travel itinerary, I found the website of this local sushi-ya called Sushi Suzume not far away from the hotel we were planning to stay in Aomori City, and the restaurant seems decent and reasonably-priced. So I asked the hotel reception to help us make a dinner reservation as we checked in earlier in the afternoon and glad they could accommodate us in a rather short notice.

The restaurant is located on a side street not far away from the major thoroughfare in town, a comfortable 15 minute walk from our hotel in this mild but slightly chilly evening. Given the large entrance and shop sign, the restaurant was smaller than I thought - with 6 seats across the counter (two of them occupied by us) and then 2 tatami rooms right behind for larger parties. Chef Yasuteru Nagao and his apprentice handled the cooking and a waitress took care of everything else in front.

Menu was simple with various combinations of tsumami and sushi based on local seasonal selection at different price points. Wanting to sample the best the chef could offer we asked for the Oma set which had the most number of dishes (and the priciest). We also picked up a small pitcher of Junmai Ginjo sake made from a local brewery using indigenous rice species called "Hana Fubuki" (華吹雪), which I thought was crisp dry and rich with a pleasant floral aroma.

We started with a series of tsumami courses served in sequence, beginning with some Kitamurasaki Uni (purple sea urchin), halved and served in its own shell. It took a bit of effort to carefully remove the sea urchin tongues still attached to the side of the shell but I loved that sweetness combined with the subtle, clean taste. The dish was then followed by Yari-ika, or spear squid. It's steamed and served with a dashi soy sauce. The texture was soft with rich flavors.

Next up were 2 additional hot dishes served on a small plate. The thickly sliced cooked tako (octopus) was tender and infused with the rich marinate, and the tsubugai (whelk clam) was combined with shiitake - both thinly sliced and grilled in the shell with sweet soy sauce. It's a bit salty but thought it went well with our glass of sake.

Then we were each given a rather large piece of freshly shucked rock oyster (iwagaki) from Akkeshi on the south coast of Hokkaido. It's plump and juicy with a mild sea water flavor.

A few pieces of sashimi were served on a long ceramic plate, of which my favorites were easily the two pieces of o-toro (fatty tuna) and the saba (mackerel). Both had a balanced flavors and good in their own ways. I reckon the rest of the sashimi were quite decent as well, just that none particularly stood out.


Well, we weren't done with tsumami dishes yet - in fact we have three additional ones before moving onto the sushi part. Mizudako (Water Octopus) tentacles were diced, deep-fried and served with a gentle sprinkle of citrus zest. They were fresh and crunchy with a thin batter. A few pieces of broiled shirako (cod milt) was then handed to us in a ceramic dish. It's steamed and served with only a pinch of salt, and the intense umami flavor just burst into your both as you bit through the "skin" - except I thought it's slightly overcooked, leaving a trait of rubbery texture on the surface. The third dish was Namako (sea cucumber), another Aomori specialty. It's thinly sliced and served with a light vinegar dressing in a bowl, just as it's normally prepared. I love this interesting combination of being crunchy and slimy and filled with an unique seawater-fresh flavor.

Nigiri Sushi
Our dinner included seven pieces of sushi, all served at once to end our meal. On top were a trio of oma honmaguro, starting from the leanest akami, the chu-toro and then the fattiest o-toro. They were largely prepared without much marinate or seasoning allowing the neta - the fish - to reveal their original fresh flavors. They were all very good - but if I must name my favorite, I thought the o-toro was pretty spectacular, with every bite combining the fatty oil and the rich, almost meaty flavor. Nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch) was a prized fish species found on the Sea of Japan coast. The one we had was almost as oily as the o-toro with good flavor to show forth too. The rest included the meaty hokkigai (arctic surf clam), the zuwaigani (snow crab) and ikura (salmon roes) - all from the neighboring region. While I thought the fish (or the neta) was excellent and consistent, I personally did find the rice (or the shari) a bit too cold and firm for me - not bad, but I wouldn't go around and rave about it.

Well I thought the meal turned out to be better than expected, and it's good to have a brief introduction of the local catch for a first taste of Aomori. While the place was not about flawless execution with pinpoint accuracy, this is still a very enjoyable dining experience.

When? March 21 2015
Where? Sushi Suzume, Hashmoto 1-9-22, Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture, Japan
鮨処すずめ 青森市橋本一丁目2-11
Drinks? Kamekihi Junmai Ginjo (亀吉純米吟醸 - 青森県 中村酒造 )

(Part of the Japan Rail Trip 2015 Series - check out the rest of our journey by clicking on the link! More to come!)

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