Sushi is one of my favorite foods in the world, but I must confess that for most of my life I have prioritized value over quality (Costco salmon sashimi, anyone?). This is in large part because whenever I tried better sushi restaurants in the US, it rarely ever felt like the quality justified the price, so I just couldn’t afford to keep looking for good sushi where I lived (which were admittedly not very good sushi towns to begin with… Phoenix and DC). So our hopes in Tokyo were to experience (1) quality sushi the way it was intended it to be, and (2) the best value sushi we could find. I think we didn’t do too badly… even with a toddler in tow.
Let me start where sushi begins… at Tsukiji Market. I felt lucky to have a chance to visit this historic place, because it is very likely to be gone soon. In fact, when we visited last September, there was a lot of talk that the (inner) market would be closing by the end of the year and relocating to somewhere farther out. Last I heard, the move has been rescheduled to 2016 (check out this piece for more info on the move, as well as the market’s history). Even though the new market will have much larger and better facilities, it’s definitely sad that such an iconic piece of the city will no longer be the way it has been for the past 80 years.
Our journey as sushi-loving parents to a toddler in Tokyo also began at Tsukiji Market…
And here, I must digress: First, I should point out that Japan is actually incredibly child-friendly, with a lot of child-friendly restaurants… but sometimes the more child-friendly places are not exactly what you travel to a foreign country to experience (and sometimes, happily, they are — like the depachika with rooftop gardens!). So we did our best to see and do as much as we could without pushing the limits too far. I do think that Tokyo was our most challenging experience in dining out with a toddler, though part of that also has to do with age (when we went to Paris, E was only 9 months old and, while plenty vocal, was not as mobile). But the other reason is that there are so many teeny tiny restaurants in Tokyo, many of which are quiet places, many others of which may be more lively but also smoky. Again, there are a lot of places that are more kid-friendly, and we did visit a number of those as well, but there were also a couple places we wanted to try that we were more nervous about but thought we would give a shot anyway.
In the end, I was emboldened by the advice of my Japanese mom friend in Beijing, who told me just to go for it. She said to speak English and make it obvious that I was a foreigner, and if something was really not allowed, someone would tell me so. So I shed some of my self-consciousness and did a few things that I normally would not have the guts to do, but I mostly have to thank my husband for that because he was born with reporter instincts and loves going where he’s not supposed to be and furthermore being completely nonchalant about it. :) As a general rule of thumb, though, I tended to avoid restaurants that were really small, quiet, and with counter-seating only — but looking back now (and especially since we just came back from our second trip to Japan) I wouldn’t say that those factors alone should deter anyone with a small child. I think it’s more about how formal a place is, and we didn’t attempt to go anywhere super fancy, with maybe the one exception I’ll go into below.
So: Tsukiji Market. A lot of people will say don’t bring small children here. The market’s official site says no strollers (also printed on a sign at the market entrance). But I saw children there. I also saw a stroller. We decided to snap E into an Ergo carrier (we’ve always preferred that to strollers anyhow) so he wouldn’t run around. And I’m so glad we gave this a go, because Tsukiji Market is really something. It is like a little city within a city, with roads, traffic, traffic conductors, streets and alleys, and its own system of operating. And it is extremely busy.
We had no aspirations to witness a tuna auction at 4:30am. And we actually were not planning to even eat at Tsukiji Market. But it just so happened that as we were walking around, little E fell asleep in the carrier, which is always prime time for us to go and do something quiet for as long as that lasts. :) So we got into a short line at a place called Nakaya. They seemed surprised that we had a baby with us but let us in and even gave us a corner seat (people often tried to give us corner seats, and that was really helpful). Squeezing down that very narrow aisle behind everyone sitting at the counter while you have a baby attached to you is no easy task (kudos to my husband). I definitely do not recommend trying to eat at one of these places in the market with a small child unless that child is asleep and immobile and has no intention of waking up for a good 30 minutes.
This was our first sushi meal in Tokyo, and I must confess that it was slightly anti-climactic. Maybe it’s because I had high expectations for Tsukiji Market. Keep in mind, too, that we did not go to Sushi Dai, Daiwa, or Bun, which are the three most famous restaurants in the market, so I don’t know if it’s attributable to that. The sushi was perfectly fine… it just felt like it could’ve been eaten at any sushi restaurant in the world, not necessarily in Tokyo, and not necessarily at Tsukiji Market. Furthermore, when I sent my sister this photo, she (being a designer and a huge fan of Japanese design and architecture) pointed out how lacking in finesse it looked, and I do have to say the bowl does look a bit sloppy. This all sounds so terribly nitpicky, and it’s really only because we’ve come to know Japanese craftsmanship to be so refined and precise. But then again, they are probably making a million of these sushi bowls in there and shuttling tourists in and out every few seconds… But maybe that does mean that it’s mostly tourists who eat at Tsukiji Market. According to the article linked above, the writer says the Tsukiji restaurants are not that great (he also says not to bring children…). And it’s possible that some of the highest quality fish goes to restaurants in town rather than to these market stalls.
Nakaya Tsukiji 5-2-1 building #8, 03-3541-0211; www.tsukijigourmet.org.jp/46_nakaya/index.htm
On to better news. Now here is a place that is totally doable with a small child (still a bit cramped, but very informal in setting) and, whether you have a child or not, has excellent, affordable sushi. Both our AirBnB hostess and my Japanese friend in Beijing mentioned Midori Sushi, which has a few locations in Tokyo. It’s very popular with locals and is known for its generous portions (just look at that piece of eel). Their assortment sets range from about $9 to $30 US, and they also have à la carte items. Just as important, the sushi is of excellent quality. We actually much preferred this meal to the one we had at Tsukiji market. The only downside is that the restaurant often has a very long wait. But we went shortly before they opened at 11am, and although we missed the first seating, we didn’t wait very long after that to get a table. Midori sushi also has takeout, as well as delivery if you can speak Japanese. This meal was definitely a highlight, and we only wish we had time to go back again. (Sorry for the terrible iPhone pics… the sushi looked way better in person!)
Midori-zushi, Coridor-dori 1F, 7-108 Ginza, Chuo-ku, tel. +81 (0) 3 5568 1212, Open Monday – Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 4:30-10 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. www.sushinomidori.co.jp; check website for other locations [map]
When it comes to fine dining, the possibilities are endless in Tokyo, and that’s not even limited to Japanese cuisine (Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any city in the world). We don’t typically go to many high-end places, but, sushi being one of our favorite foods, we felt like thus far we had been lacking in some standard by which to judge sushi (because the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet just doesn’t cut it), and so if it were possible to find this Plato’s cave of sushi ideal, if only just within the realm of our personal experience, it would be worth trying to do so.
Sushi masters are artists, and dining at one of their restaurants — many of which are tiny, intimate, counter-seating only, hours-long affairs — is like getting an exclusive art gallery tour with the artist himself. Sukiyabashi Jiro (of Jiro Dreams of Sushi fame), Sushi Sawada, and Sushi Kanesaka are some of the names that came up frequently as I was looking into sushi bars. Some of these places can cost hundreds of dollars and require jumping through a number of hoops (like prepaying in cash) even after you manage to secure a reservation weeks/months in advance. But many of these can also have quite reasonable lunch sets for somewhere between $50-100.
After a bit of digging, I finally narrowed it down to one sushi restaurant that gets consistently excellent reviews but seems a bit more accessible to tourists, and that restaurant is Kyubey (sometimes spelled Kyubei). My husband has the rare gift of loving to talk to strangers (what would I do without him?), so he brushed up on his (nonexistent) Japanese and called to ask if it’d be ok to bring a small child there. Surprisingly, they said it was fine, and so we made our reservation. I was really nervous about this but was rather relieved when the time came and two other babies also showed up in the room where we were seated (maybe they have a designated room for sticking all the families with children in?). We fed E beforehand and then settled him in the corner next to us with various forms of entertainment. He got a bit antsy toward the end but overall did really well. (A note here: At the time, E was just a few weeks shy of turning 2. At almost 3 now, I can’t imagine bringing him to a place like that at his current stage!)
Unlike many of the famous sushi bars, Kyubey is not tied to a specific sushi master. For some, that is a drawback, and this is one of the reasons why sushi connoisseurs sometimes refer to it as being more institutional, especially since it is a large, multi-story restaurant. But in reality, Kyubey consists of a number of individual small rooms, each with its own bar and a limited number of seats — they feel like separate little restaurants of their own. So in reality a dining experience there still feels intimate and attentive, and the sushi is widely praised as being top-notch. To top it off, Kyubey is tourist-friendly, and for our purposes this trip, that was a real plus. This great blog post by Tiny Urban Kitchen really convinced me that Kyubey was the perfect choice for us, and I highly recommend reading it as a primer on sushi!
The lunch set options at Kyubey ranged from around $40–84 USD. We were planning to try the omakase set, but then we realized that the lunch set below that, the oribe, was virtually the same, save for a couple small things, so we went with the oribe set instead, which was $50.
Sadly, I could not document this meal in detail. After the chef had to re-brush my first piece of sushi with soy sauce because I had left it sitting while I took a photo, I decided it was more important to have a proper meal and be a good diner (especially since I was already bringing in a toddler). So here I give you my one real photo of the meal… the chutoro, or medium fatty tuna.
I did, however, take a few notes, so this is what our oribe set meal consisted of that day: chutoro, squid, white snapper, shrimp (so fresh it jumped off the chef’s counter as he was preparing it), uni, scallop, bonito, toro, eel, daikon sandwich, 1 piece each of 5 rolls (tuna, cucumber, and 3 with pickled fillings), salmon roe, tamago, and a clam miso soup.
What I Learned
Our meal at Kyubey was our first time having omakase-style sushi, when the meal is left entirely up to the chef, who is working right in front of you. A few things struck me. First was the personal interaction between diner and chef, who serves only a limited number of people in front of him. You are watching a master at work, and it is very much an entire experience. He is attentive to each diner, as evidenced by him rebrushing my sushi when I did not immediately put it in my mouth. You’re encouraged to talk with the chef, learn about what you’re eating, interact. But we were juggling too many things to take that on this time. Second, sometimes every piece of sushi can be like a whole dish in and of itself, consisting of not just fish and rice, plus the exact amount of wasabi or soy sauce that the chef believes the piece should have (you are not supposed to request more), but there are also all these other little fine, delicate flourishes, such as a little grating of yuzu zest, a sliver of seaweed, a sprinkle of salt, a touch of ginger — all adding an extra note of flavor to enhance that little nugget of sushi. (I think at some places they keep it more spare, to highlight the quality of the pure ingredients, but I enjoyed the small accents here that didn’t detract from the fish or rice.) Everything was so precise, and we were definitely not disappointed with the Japanese standard of perfection as we had been in our Tsukiji restaurant experience. Third, ever since eating sushi in Japan (as well as at a couple good Japanese places in Beijing), I’ve come to recognize the quality of sushi by not only the quality of the fish but of the rice as well. If you’re like me, you might be familiar with the phenomenon of leftover rice on your plate at sushi places that try to fill you up on the starch. I’ve come to realize that when the sushi is really good, the vinegared rice actually complements the fish, and when I eat sashimi now I surprisingly find myself missing the rice.
One last note on sushi: Before our trip, I read up on sushi etiquette. Then I walked into Kyubey and promptly forgot all of it. Such as, eat the piece of sushi in one bite. I am a slow, savor-your-food kind of eater, so I eat my sushi in several bites. I was quickly corrected on my first bite of sushi, when the chef motioned for me to put the entire piece in my mouth. The other tip I did not remember was that you should eat nigiri upside down, with the fish touching your tongue, so that you are first tasting the fish, not the rice. It wasn’t until I got to the toro, wondered why I wasn’t tasting much toro, that I remembered and regretted it. Lastly, I have come to love eating sushi with my hands, which is encouraged. I love the practicality of it, as it keeps your piece of nigiri intact and makes it easier to dip and eat fish-side-down. But what I love most is that it feels completely natural and makes me feel closer to my food. I realize how completely and utterly ridiculous that sounds, but it’s true. :) Eating with your hands always makes the meal more experiential and just a lot more real and fun.
We didn’t get too much opportunity to sample this in Tokyo other than from the basement food hall at the Isetan department store. But I wanted to highlight this here, particularly after returning from Hokkaido and Kyoto a few days ago, where we ate a lot of supermarket meals. In short, supermarket sushi is good. And it’s cheap. Use common sense, of course, and seek out stuff that looks fresh. But sushi is prepared the day of, so it’s supposed to be fresh. If you go at the end of the day, say, around 6 or 7, you’ll see the discount stickers coming out, and as it gets closer to closing time, the deals only get better. Supermarket sushi is perfect for parents of squirmy toddlers but also for travelers on a budget, all of which we are. I also love supermarket sushi because there isn’t anyone telling me how it should be eaten, and I don’t have to worry about offending anyone’s sensibilities. :)
I think I have to say that, after Japan, it’s hard to eat sushi in the same way. (Same with ramen.) But, as our experience above indicates, you can have less than stellar sushi experiences in Japan as well, and I’ve also since had some really excellent sushi elsewhere (Vancouver! and there are some pretty great sushi places in Beijing as well that fly the fish in from Tsukiji). Raw fish seems like such a simple thing, but it’s amazing the different textures and flavors you experience from one type of fish to another, and from one locale to another. Add on fresh wasabi, a good soy sauce, well-made vinegared sushi rice, and you’ve got something pretty complex out of such spare yet fine ingredients.
I thought it only appropriate to end this post with little E’s felt sushi (made by Auntie Becca!) that he serves up in his play kitchen, occasionally in his sushi chef attire. I finally managed to find a wooden tray for it (from Daiso). :)
For more on what we ate in Tokyo, see the first post in this series, Eating in Tokyo.