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Raw homecoming: Sushi masters return to Japan
A pair of Japan's finest sushi masters explain why they honed their skills in New York and London
Legendary sushi chef Naomichi Yasuda loves hamming it up for the camera.
When I asked him to pose for a photo, he rolled up the sleeve of his immaculate white uniform and flexed his biceps, Popeye-style.
It was impressive. At 52, Yasuda is fit and solidly built.
“I thought about being a personal trainer when I came back to Japan,” he said.
I let out a laugh, but he assured me that he was serious: He’d been certified as a trainer in the United States.
This tidbit of information was almost as surprising as the fact that Yasuda, a Chiba native, spent 27 years working in New York City before last year opening Sushi Bar Yasuda, his 14-seat restaurant, in Tokyo’s Minami-Aoyama district.
While it’s common for Japanese chefs to spend a year or two working abroad, the best part of three decades is an awfully long time.
In Manhattan, Yasuda had been at the helm of Sushi Yasuda on East 43rd Street, one of the city’s most talked-about restaurants.
The chef’s fame was on par with some of his most notable guests. Rock stars like Bono and Elvis Costello -- as well as celebrity chefs like Marcus Samuelsson (Aquavit) and Daniel Boulud (Daniel) -- were fans.
After critic William Grimes awarded the restaurant a three-star rating in the New York Times, Yasuda was hailed as a genius.
His purist approach set him apart from the countless sushi chefs serving California rolls and chunky, inelegant slices of fish.
News of his departure made it into major papers such as The Wall Street Journal and food-centric sites like Grub Street.
New York’s sushi cognoscenti mourned.
Keeping the promise
Halfway through my meal at Sushi Bar Yasuda, I asked why he’d decided to come back.
“It was like a promise to myself,” he said, placing a piece of lightly broiled anago (eel) in front of me.
“I told people that what I was teaching was authentic Japanese sushi, but I’d never served sushi in Japan.”
As a young chef, he’d trained at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo, but says that he’d only been allowed to cut the fish at that time, never to serve or handle the rice.
“Rice is the most important part of sushi,” he said.
Yasuda is renowned for the careful attention he gives to rice.
It’s clear from my first piece of nigiri-- a thin veil of flounder atop a ball of rice that conformed perfectly to the inside of Yasuda’s palm -- that the chef hasn’t lost his touch.
The vinegared rice, which comes from his brother-in-law’s field in Chiba, was perfectly steamed and packed lightly.
The overall sensation in the mouth was airy, while the individual grains retained their chewy integrity.
After a palate-cleansing piece of nigiri topped with menegi green onion shoots, Yasuda gave me a brief lesson in seafood geography.
A side-by-side comparison of purple sea urchin sourced from Russian waters (savory and earthy) and Japanese red sea urchin (sweet and custardy) was fun and enlightening.
Yasuda says that business is still slow. But on the night of my visit the counter seats were full, the atmosphere lively.
The chef was in his element, cracking jokes in Japanese and English with the largely bilingual customers, who spoke to each other across the room.
Among the guests was one of his former regulars, a Japanese national based in New York, who had flown in earlier that evening for business.
“Do you ever miss your life in the states?” I asked.
“No,” Yasuda replied. “This is semi-retirement for me, and ...”
His voice trailed off as a peal of laughter caught his attention. Then, the sushi chef turned to the group at the end of the counter and joined in the fun.
I thought of Yasuda’s late homecoming again the following week, when I stumbled upon Isana Sushi Bar, a new restaurant that had recently opened in Nishi-Azabu.
Isana’s young (39) owner and chef, Junichi Onuki, had also been away for an extended period of time -- 10 years in London -- before returning to Japan.
It was a moment of déjà-vu. Biting into a fatty slice of tuna sashimi, I wondered if this phenomenon was particularly common among sushi chefs.
Like Yasuda, Onuki had distinguished himself abroad. Before becoming head chef at the upscale Japanese-fusion restaurant Ozu, he’d been the sushi master at London’s trendy Zuma in Knightsbridge.
Though less inclined toward the puns and dad-ready aphorisms that are Yasuda’s signature, Onuki is an affable host with an easy laugh. The atmosphere at Isana is relaxed and welcoming.
“I’m not a scary sushi chef,” he said, chuckling at the thought.
Originally from Tokyo, he’d become a chef because he had wanted to travel and experience different cultures.
Ironically, working in London gave him a deeper appreciation and understanding of Japanese cuisine.
“I was responsible for telling people about Japanese culture,” he explained. “I felt that I had a very important role.”
Although he had trained as both a sushi and a kaiseki (traditional Japanese haute cuisine) chef, Onuki describes most of the food he was making in London as “hybrid” cuisine. In 2009, he decided that it was time to head home.
“Suddenly, I really missed my culture and wanted to see authentic Japanese cooking. I really felt that I had to go back to Japan,” he told me.
At Isana Sushi Bar, great emphasis is given to freshness and simplicity.
It was late October, and Onuki served an array of seasonal seafood: meaty slices of houbou (sea robin); kawahagi (filefish), lightly brushed with soy sauce and dotted with a paste of its own rich liver; tiny bowls of rice topped with bright orange salmon roe.
Each plate was beautifully presented. Gracefully butterflied pieces of akagai (ark shell) blossomed like flowers against a nest of finely shredded myoga (Japanese ginger) and shiso buds.
Silver-skinned sanma (saury) was scored and fanned out to reveal its blushing pink flesh.
Although sushi is the main focus, Onuki also offers small plates of traditional steamed, grilled, and simmered dishes, inspired by his kaiseki background.
Considering the quality of the ingredients and the caliber of the chefs at both Isana Sushi Bar and Sushi Bar Yasuda, the prices are extremely reasonable.
Ten-piece assorted sushi sets are ¥4,500 (US$55) and ¥3,200 (US$39) respectively.
Whatever forces conspired to bring these chefs back to Japan, Tokyo sushi lovers have reason to rejoice.
After dinner, I talked with Onuki about his future plans.
“Is this it for you? Are you home for good?” I asked.
He paused for a moment and then grinned.
“Who knows?” he shrugged, looking off into the distance. “We’ll see.”
Sushi Bar Yasuda, 4-2-6 Minamiaoyama Building 426 B1/F, Minato-ku, Tokyo; +81 (0) 3 6447 0232; open Tuesday-Saturday 6-10:30 p.m. (last order), reservations required; sushibaryasuda.com
Isana Sushi Bar, 1-11-6 Nishi-Azabu, Hotel & Residence Roppongi 1/F, Minato-ku, Tokyo; +81 (0) 3 6434 9194; open Monday-Saturday 6-11:30 p.m. (last order); www.isanasushibar.com
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