Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Small fish in a much bigger pond - Isana Sushi Bar

I resorted to what must have been the most authoritative source of dining reviews, the Gentlemen's Quarterly (aka GQ), for ideas on new Japanese restaurants to try in Tokyo, and they pointed me to this sushi-ya in Roppongi, which was rated one of the best new sushi restaurants by the Japanese edition of the magazine recently.

Isana Sushi Bar - with Isana literally means small fish - is located behind a trendy serviced apartment building near Roppongi Hills and a few steps behind the famous tourist magnet Gonpachi Izakaya. It's owned by the Tokyo-born Junichi Onuki, who opened this late last year after a 10 years' stint in London (notably as the sushi chef at Zuma at Knightsbridge) followed by 3 years at Roku Roku of Grand Hyatt Tokyo since returning to Japan.

This evening I went for the omakase menu with all-you-can-drink option - so I could experiment pairing different wines with sushi, something which was difficult to do if you are by yourself. I started with some sake before moving to a glass of Chilean chardonnay as the evening progressed, before finishing off with a glass of ume-shu on the rock.

From left to right: Top: Saba, Katsuo Tataki; Middle: Kasago, Kaki; Bottom: Mirugai, Kawahagi no kan tsuke
The menu followed a typical order of a modern-style sushi meal - starting off with otsumami, then a few sashimi pieces and finish off with nigiri sushi. The otsumami was presented in three small dishes - Tsubugai (cockle), ankimo (monkfish liver) and eggplant marinated in ponzu sauce, and they were pretty decent. Then Chef Onuki began preparing the sashimi pieces and served one by one, including kasago (scorpian fish), saba (Spanish mackeral), katsuo tataki (skipjack tuna), kaki (oyster from Iwate prefecture), kawahagi no kan tsuke (filefish served with liver) and mirugai (giant clam - slightly grilled on the outside). Nothing really stood out above others but I would say the kaki and kawahagi were ones that I loved most with the clean, fresh flavors which required little seasonings.

The "main course" of the meal was grilled buri (yellowtail) - I got a piece of near the belly part and another piece at the tail, and I love its flavorful oily taste enhanced by drizzles of citrus juice on top, followed by a small cup of chawanmushi topped with shirako - steamed egg custard with cod sperm milt. This week in Japan I almost had shirako on a daily basis since it's in season, and while this wasn't the best I have had, I loved this interesting combination of creamy shirako on top with soft egg custard at the bottom.

Matsuba Kani Sushi - I must say this is not the prettiest sushi I have ever seen...
I then moved on to nigiri sushi - for which I would say I had mixed feelings. Chef Onuki looked a bit uneasy at times as he's making sushi for everyone... I hope it's not my big camera and many questions that I had threw him off. I did raise my eyebrows when a few pieces were placed in front of me - nothing wrong with the taste - in fact all of them tasted very decent - but just looked a bit messy and hmm.. unfinished. But then in between them there were a few surprisingly good ones. There were also minor issues with the pace of the meal - it's a bit inconsistent when some dishes took forever to arrive. I wondered if I had become such an annoying sushi snob for slightly bothered by these nitty-gritty details.

But what lacked in fundamental skills was compensated with the amount of sushi that was served. I have eaten 10 pieces that evening - starting with the simpler white fish (hada?), to a piece of superb in-season buri belly (yellowtail served with its liver), then akagai (arc shell), matsuba kani (snow crab from Kyogo Prefecture), kuruma ebi (giant shrimp), aburi kinmedai (grilled golden eye snapper), chutoro (fatty tuna), ikura (salmon roes), uni (sea urchin) and ended with anago (sea eel). This is sumptuous, and out of which I probably loved the buri belly and aburi kinmedai most - I guess I was more into fatty fish that evening. I then quickly finished off the meal with red miso soup, and a scoop of sweet potato icecream.

I quite enjoyed my meal and being able to share a little chat with Chef Onuki during the course of the dinner. He served every customer with a smile and was happy to talk to you. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the ingredients and quantity as well given the dinner was very reasonably priced. I reckon this is not Michelin star caliber (yet) but obviously a notch above those on the top floor of department stores. I could see the appeal if you happened to be in the neighborhood and wanted something casual, or you enjoyed the company of a friendly chef fluent in English and could strike a good conversation with.

Moving to a new place and re-establishing one's reputation was never easy, and I am hopeful that give this some more time Chef Onuki will eventually find its niche in this much more competitive landscape, to strive as a small fish in this much bigger pond in Tokyo.

Where? Isana Sushi Bar, Hotel & Residence Roppongi 1F 1-11-6 Nishi-Azabu Minato-ku Tokyo Japan
細小魚 東京都港区西麻布1-11-6 ホテル&レジデンス六本木1F
Menu Highlights? Just go with omakase
Drinks? Jokigen Tokubetsu Junmai Karakuchi 上喜元 特別純米 からくち

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