Is it just me or is there really such a disproportionate number of intimidating Sushi Chefs in the world? I am not sure if it is just the language barrier or the fact that they are holding a sharp knife just within stabbing range, but I often find myself having to put on my best behavior in order to eat at certain Sushi joints.
When my friend Hisato-San brought me to his favourite Sushi haunt in Tokyo last year, he gave me the stern warning that I was not to talk or use my camera until he gave me the green light. He said that he needed to gauge the mood of the Chef before I attempted anything other then sitting there, enjoying the sushi and giving a perfunctory bow and uttering the occasional “Oishii des!”
He wasn’t kidding either. The Sushi place he was bringing me is an unlisted eatery which doesn’t even have a signboard. Hisato-san told me that he had to be brought there several times by a friend in the first year before he was able to make his own reservations and it was only after the 2nd year that the Chef started talking to him! Now of course, he can strike up a conversation with the Chef, but the sense of conviviality is still held in tension by a sense of fear that a wrong word might mean certain excommunication with the restaurant.
During my trip to Tokyo, I had initially planned to visit the legendary Sukiyabashi Jiro. But Hisato-san assured me that anyone can eat at Jiro as long as they make reservations ahead of time, but this place is more exclusive as I can only get to eat there if he brought me. He told me that they don’t accept anymore new customers and that he, in his mid thirties, is the youngest customer there.
There were only the three of us in the restaurant that night. Chef, Hisato-san and myself. The tiny restaurant was simply a Sushi bar with space for maybe 10 persons and Chef was the only one working in the restaurant. Yes, the ONLY one. There wasn’t even a lady in kimono to pour tea for us! Chef Yazawa had previously run a 5 star Sushi restaurant, but closed that down in order to focus on his craft. Here in his own cave, he labors to achieve Sushi perfection in solitude, only breaking the silence to attend to pilgrims seeking Sushi enlightenment. It was austere, unpretentious and very authentic. There were no fancy plates and no fancy plating. Everything was served simply and simply served.
After introductions and presenting the Chef with my book, I proceeded to sit down quietly in anticipation of epiphany. Chef looked into his fridge, pull out some Torigai and started to open the clams in front of us. He washed it, cut it and placed it in front of us. Torigai is usually served already cooked in Singapore because it needs to be absolutely fresh and you probably recognize it by its familiar red and white colour. When it is raw, it is purplish black.
After a period of warming up, Hisato-san motioned to me and said it was ok for me to pull out my camera. BUT, he told me I had to quickly snap my photos or risk admonition. There was no menu in the restaurant and no price list. You simply sit down, eat and pay at the end of the meal. Chef pulled out an entire half head of Tuna and start scraping off the meat from the neck then proceeded to roll it into a maki and place it on our plate. This was Sushi – unplugged.
I am telling you all this because my experience at Sushi Meii reminded me of this little episode in my short Sushi life. Sushi Meii is not fine dining Sushi like what you get at Tatsuya or Hashida. Instead, it is small place where it’s you, the chef and fresh seafood. It is blue collar Sushi where the fish is chunky and the ball of shari (rice) substantial. Don’t expect your sashimi to be placed on ice with a Sansho leaf and microgreens. If you want to eat Salmon, he’ll slice you a slab that is as thick as your thumb and place it on the plate in front of you. However, it won’t be the common farmed Norwegian Salmon, but a wild Canadian King Salmon which he imports specially for guests who insist on eating Salmon. (Salmon aka Shake is not considered traditional Sushi fish) The rest of his seafood is sourced directly from a market in Kyushu where the fish are caught locally.
Chef Hong is quite infamous in his own right. He is well known for turning Singaporeans away during his time helming Marui Restaurant at Cuppage Centre. The door to that little 14 seater Sushi bar was perpetually closed and you had to know someone in order to get in. Even food guru, KF Seetoh was unceremoniously shooed away. He is a little more mellow nowadays. But I was told that my friends Wahcow and OMark took quite a few visits before they were allowed to take photos.
Chef Hong had spent a few years working as a Sushi Chef in Tokyo in the early nineties. That was where he picked up Japanese and made contacts with the local fish suppliers. Now that he is back in Singapore, it’s the relationships that he had forged in Japan which keeps his supplies of fresh fish coming in from Kyushu four times a week.
Chef tells me that he prefers to import his fish from Kyushu instead of Tsukiji because unlike Tsukiji which brings in seafood from all over the world, Kyushu only sells fish that have been caught in local waters. Most of them also tend to be wild rather than farmed fish.
Uni season starts around September and if you visit Meii Sushi during that time, you will be treated to a Uni feast. But even in June, he had two types of Uni on hand. The first one we tried was the Bafun Uni, so called because of its resemblance to horse poop (photo above). It’s tongue like gonads were about the size your thumb and it is denser and firmer than the more common Murasaki Uni. Chef presented it in a cup with Nori, sake with a soft boiled egg (tamago onsen). Needless to say, I was in Uni heaven.
Chef presented his Murasaki (purple) Uni, gunkan style with rice that has been topped with Otoro scrapings which have been blow-torched to melt the oil and bring out the aroma. I found this batch of Murasaki Uni to be sweeter than Bafun Uni although it really depends on seasonality. The texture is softer and creamier than Bafun uni. This was his pièce de résistance and resistance was futile.
The rest of the sushi here is very good. Each piece is sushi is chunkier than normal, so you do get full quite quickly. I am, however, ambivalent about the shari (sushi rice) here. It doesn’t have the umami and sweetness of the best sushi rice I have tasted elsewhere. The Kohada was also a little too harsh for me. The Akagai was very interesting as Chef combined two slices together. One from Kyushu and the other from Tokyo Bay. He did this because the one from Kyushu had a nicer texture while the one from Tokyo was sweeter. By combining both, you get the best of both worlds.
Reviews on Meii Sushi have been mixed and I can understand why. If you try to compare them with a top end Sushi joint, then they will fall short of expectations as Chef has opted to keep the prices low by making some compromises eg he uses US Koshihikari rice instead of Japanese. The setting is also simple and austere. Meii Sushi is for those looking for fresh, seasonal seafood that is presented simply. By cutting out all the bells and whistles, Chef is able to present just the most important part of the Sushi, viz the seafood at attractive prices. Our Omakase lunch meal which included otoro, two servings of Uni and enough chunky sushi to fill the tummy came up to $140. For those looking for a more affordable lunch, their lunch sets starts from $28. 4.25/5
Update: 3 Sep 2015