You know how this works. There’s a template to attracting the sushiphile: a single dominant chef – the itamae (plus the occasional assistant), a hush hush environment where pin drops are considered excessively loud, and hinoki wood everywhere – just in case you forgot what country you’re in. Rules are aplenty: don’t make sudden movements, don’t talk, don’t smile, don’t take photos. Just eat. Of course, the sushi has to be good, great, awesome – life changing. That’s just the way it is.
I jest about some of those last few points, but such is the stage that would be familiar to those who make a habit of eating at high-end Japanese restaurants. Ichikawa is one of them.
Date Last Visited:
Address: 東京都 港区 南麻布 2-10-13 OJハウス 101
Highlight Dishes: awabi, maguro-zuke, chu-toro
Price Guide (approx): 43,000JPY (~$520AUD at time of writing)
Let’s talk about the chef: Katsumi Ichikawa. Like most chefs, his past could not have predicted his present. Originally a kaiseki chef by trade, Ichikawa spent seven years at the 3 Michelin-starred Kikunoi in Kyoto, widely regarded as one of the most influential restaurants in Japan. The sea change happened when he shifted gears for a stint at Sushi Araki – also a triple-starred restaurant – which has now relocated to London. Sushi was apparently the calling, as Ichikawa (the restaurant as well as the person), despite relative youth in the space, already has a Michelin Star to its name.
For frequenters of sushi-ya, the drill is, well, drilled in. Dietary requirements notwithstanding, the meal is figuratively and literally in the hands of the itamae. Frightening perhaps, for some. However, it’s not so much giving control than it is to be freed from the tyranny of choice.
Ichikawa, like most other sushi itamae that have dedicated their lives to the craft, worked with finesse: fish are transmogrified into edible pleasure bombs with a level of precision, care, and speed that continue to bedazzle anyone who hasn’t witnessed sushi-crafting of this level. There is a reason why counter seating is always the default, and in many cases – only – choice.
The first act consisted of five otsumami (starters/appetisers), each playing their part in waking up the taste buds. Tai sashimi, with bitey flesh and light profile made for a sensible start. A surprising hit too, given it’s not a summer fish. This was followed up with four pieces – two raw, two lightly-cooked – of shima-aji, incredibly fatty, fully capable of eliciting a toro-like response: ecstatic eye-rolls to the back of the head. Awabi off the waters of Fukui perfecture was, as I described it at the time of the meal ‘mad chunky, so flavoursome, great texture!’ Oh, happy times – especially with its umami-rich liver sauce.
A miso trout stumbled a bit, as it wasn’t near as buttery as I’ve come to expect of its preparation. That it got somewhat tougher towards the middle hindered more than it helped. Well, 3/4 ain’t bad.
And then there’s act II.
It was an awkward start: akami, a supposed specialty at Ichikawa, was slightly off-balance with respect to ratios of akazu shari (red vinegar sushi rice) & fish. It also lacked some critical seasoning, but its off-al dente texture and room temperature warmth was spot on.
Two pieces of chu-toro (how’d you know I’d want a second?) quickly made up for it: a better balance between fish and shari, plus a more appropriate level of shoyu on the fish itself made for two very satisfying bites. Sinewy jabara ootoro was Ichikawa’s choice for showing off the crème de la crème (with a side of more fat) of tuna, eschewing the arguably more approachable shimofuri (upper belly toro) that’s all butter but no texture. I personally like both; one of each piece wouldn’t have gone astray.
The rest of the meal went off without a hitch. Shiro-ika fulfilled dual promises of being zesty & sweet whilst maintaining that trademark chewiness – any consternation that I’d be eating a car tyre was quickly quashed. Kohada was akin to a more acidic shima-aji, with the highlight texture of an almost crunchy, resistant skin. This was followed by actual mackerel in the aji, whose texture was almost jelly in its softness.
Texture expectations were reset with takabi, a firm number (and a first for this blogger) with cod-like texture and charred ends adding smokiness to the fray. A second reset then with buttery uni maki, which could have used an extra dash of shoyu but was otherwise the usual sell: an otherwordly trip into creamy umami town.
The best piece was actually one of the last: a stunning maguro-zuke, expertly pickled. The intensity and unctuousness of this piece continues to be remembered like it was just yesterday. Unfortunately, that didn’t give the hamaguri that followed much room to shine. That it was overly sweet didn’t help. Anago made for a welcome penultimate piece, though a particularly prickly bone marred the experience somewhat.
Tamagoyaki, of the light, sweetish castella-style datemaki (as opposed to the denser dashimaki) style signalled the end of the meal. Traditional, functional, expected, delicious.
Japan has an odd phenomenon that seems to seldom exist in other countries. Some restaurants – partly by virtue of barely being able to accommodate a large family, and partly due to an almost ungodly level of fame – have been vaunted into stratospheric echelons of exclusivity such that – inevitably – they become all but impossible to book for the average, unconnected, but desperate foodie. Don’t pretend, fellow Japanophiles: we’ve all been there.
Here’s the thing: in Japan, great sushi (and indeed great anything) is a dime a dozen. You’ve heard it all before: when even kaitenzushi is upheld to a standard that would embarrass many sushi-ya in other countries, it doesn’t take much sleuthing – or spending – to indulge in the very best of edible aquaculture.
By definition, not everyone can be the ‘best’. Experienced sushi fiends would be able to tell Ichikawa’s movements were sometimes still a little slow, sometimes a little awkward, with results that are reflected in a couple of pieces, as noted in the tuna. Despite this, the sushi is mostly solid – hallmarks of quality are there, at some cost in finesse. But most importantly, it’s actually accessible enough to score a seat without sacrificing a whole bluefin tuna to the reservation gods.
There’s just one other snag: the price. At over $500AUD, this is one of the pricier sushi-ya in town. Ichikawa’s got gall to charge this price, but then he’s also got skill. However, at this stage, the two do not yet meet in the middle. He might one day deserve to command that price, but not yet.
Watch this space.
This post is based on an independently-paid visit to Ichikawa
- Sushi with world-class potential
- Sushi that is not yet world-class
- An overly subdued dining environment
- A debatable value proposition
Would I return:
F7.5 | S3 | A2