Making a reservation to some of Tokyo’s most coveted high-end sushiyas can be a difficult and somewhat daunting experience. Most require a minimum of 1 month’s notice to secure a booking, while industry bigwigs such as Sushi Saito, Sugita and Amamoto only accept regulars and are now nearly impossible to book. And unless you reside in Japan, you may not have even heard of introduction-only, underground sushiyas that are known to just a few adventurous foodies.
But not all hope is lost in the pursuit of dining at the temples of Tokyo’s sushi gods. Plenty of Michelin-starred and under-the-radar sushiyas, tucked away in the streets or basements of anonymous buildings in the capital, welcome foreigners and first-time diners. Many of these sushiyas are currently run by former apprentices of revered sushi shops. One such restaurant is Sushi Iwa いわ, a 1 Michelin-starred sushiya by respected owner-chef Hisayoshi Iwa who learned the ropes at Sushi Kanesaka – a celebrated institution that has produced a legion of sushi masters, including Takashi Saito of Sushi Saito.
As Iwa-san mainly serves regulars and speaks only Japanese, we were served by Iwa-san’s English speaking, second-in-command Tsunoda-san when we visited in February 2017 (lunch). The chef not only patiently explained each course, but engaged with us in casual banter and conversation about our trip as the meal progressed and drinks piled on. Thanks to Tsunoda-san, the experience at Iwa was certainly one of the more relaxed, high-end meals that we have had in Japan so far. (We hear Tsunoda-san is known to be popular among Iwa’s English speaking guests and has his fair share of fans!)
A specialty at Iwa is the aged tuna – a process that allows moisture levels to reduce and the flavours of the maguro to develop and deepen, resulting in a more complex flavour profile. The trio of maguro – akami, chutoro and ootoro – was the highlight of our 13-course lunch, and was comparable to the quality of tuna served at other high-end sushiyas. I have especially fond memories of Iwa’s last maguro course – a tuna temaki roll comprising a generous portion of chopped fatty maguro and warm shari rolled in crisp seaweed – which I ordered a second helping of. The additional temaki roll had even more generous toppings of fatty maguro – simply sogui すごいね！
Each neta course (particularly the rich tasting maguro) was also consistently and beautifully paired with warm, akazu (red vinegar) seasoned shari, which gave the sushi rice its reddish brown hue and a tinge of sweetness.
On the contrary, a few of Iwa’s neta, such as the tai (red snapper), hirame (fluke) and seasoned hotate fared less spectacularly than the other sushiyas we visited during the same trip. They lacked umami (complexity in taste) and had milder flavours. A variety of reasons can affect the quality of neta – including a less premium grade of fish used – but since it was our first visit to the restaurant and we did not enquire much about the neta used, it would not be fair to be presumptuous about this.
Despite the slight inconsistency in neta quality, the relaxing lunch at Sushi Iwa (our last meal in February!) proved to be a sweet ending to our trip. The affordably-priced lunch omakase sets are a plus point, which starts from just under ¥5,000 for 10 courses – making it one of the most valuable high-end sushiyas you must visit in the glitzy Ginza neighbourhood. Coupled with warm service by the affable Tsunoda-san, foreigners and first-time diners can eat comfortably and begin fulfilling their innermost sushi conquests – one delicious morsel of zushi at a time.
A few other lovely pieces we had:
Sushi Iwa いわ
Reservation: 03-3572-0955 (Call via a hotel concierge if you are a tourist)
8-4-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Lunch = 12:00-14:00 (¥4,860-24,840)
Sunday & Public Holidays 12:00-20:00
Dinner = 18:00-22:00 (¥24,840)
Closed mid-August, late December-early January and Mondays
UPDATE SEP 2017: We hear from the Chowhound community that Tsunoda-San has left Iwa to join Sushi Sho at The Ritz Carlton (Honolulu)