Shigeyoshi 重よし revisited – Tokyo, Japan

I have said this before and I will say it again.  Shigeyoshi, an elegant 40 year old restaurant in the heart of Tokyo, is my favorite restaurant in the world.  While I have been fortunate enough to experience numerous meals all over the world that have blown me away, this is the place that I always come back to, and look forward to returning to the most.  It’s not just the attentive yet unobtrusive service- that is almost a given in any restaurant in Japan.  It’s not just the highest quality ingredients that represent regional specialties and seasonal offerings.  It’s not just the consistency of astoundingly delicious meals, plate after plate, course after course.

It is Chef Kenzo Sato, the quintessence of the soul of traditional Japanese cuisine, that attracts me to this quaint 2 Michelin star haven.  He is humble and unassuming, doing it all for the simple and pure love of food and people.  He has kept the same loyal staff at his side for the majority of the 40 years (and they have happily remained by his side), knowing the importance of consistency, especially for his regulars who depend on it. He pours his heart and soul into each and every plate, and it comes through in his beautiful presentations and unforgettable flavors.

My first experience at Shigeyoshi was 6 years ago, and I will never forget the magical feeling that I had on that fateful night.  Sitting at the pristine wooden counter, directly in front of this chef who immediately drew me in with his bright smile and charisma, I remember watching his every move with wonder as he skillfully prepared each course.  It quickly became apparent to me that this man absolutely loved his restaurant and his craft, and I could taste it in every memorable bite.  His food is exciting, but also comforting, and always saturated with love and care.  At Shigeyoshi, there is no thinking, critiquing or analyzing.  One just feels, and that feeling is pure- ‘delicious’.

That extraordinary feeling has brought me back to Shigeyoshi every year since then, and through every successive meal I have fallen more in love with this amazing chef, the tranquil space that he has created and the exquisite food that has changed my life.

Every meal at Shigeyoshi is a testimony to the beauty of Japanese cuisine.  There is something so incredibly wonderful about the simplicity and sensitivity of Japanese aesthetics.  Sayori sushi, layered with a slice of perfectly pickled Kyoto turnip senmaizuke and neatly wrapped with a kombu seaweed ribbon, was served with a side of nanohana brassica lightly dressed with sesame paste- nothing more, nothing less, and it was perfect.

Coarsely chopped Japanese kuwai potatoes and arare rice crackers were made into a shinjyo, deep fried and served with warm dashi broth and spinach for a comforting earthy dish with just the right balance of moist and crunchy textures.

Matoya oysters from Mie prefecture, a staple on the Shigeyoshi menu, are famous for being sterile and bacteria-free through a special method of breeding and harvesting.  These oysters had a clean crisp cucumber finish, pairing especially well with the Dom Pérignon Vintage 2000 that we brought that evening to celebrate Chef Sato’s second Michelin star, a well deserved recognition.

The tempura course featured two delicious items- shirauo, little tiny ice fish that were still alive and kicking when they were tossed in the hot oil, and kansouimo, dried sweet potatoes from Ibaraki prefecture with a chewy and dense texture.  A smidgen of sea salt accentuated the freshness of the delicate fish and brought out the intense caramel-like sweetness of the satsumaimo potatoes.

One of my favorite courses at every Shigeyoshi dinner is the chinmi mori, an assortment of Japanese delicacies that serves as the ultimate complement to chilled sake.  This time it was sweet luscious Hokkaido uni, tender namako sea cucumbers with ponzu, sweet amaebi shrimp with its eggs, asari clams with bitter butterbur sprouts, and an unohana of shime saba, pickled mackerel coated with soy pulp.

The futamono course, a ‘lidded dish’ of warm soup and hearty seasonal offerings in ornate lacquer bowls, usually signals the halfway mark of a traditional kaiseki meal.  In stark contrast to the simplicity of his signature suppon turtle soup that he usually serves every year, this time Chef Sato presented a bold and dynamic dish of hongamo duck shinjyo topped with warm mochi and garnishes of baby turnip, thinly sliced daikon and carrot.  The shinjyo was like paté, rich, airy, buttery and divinely delicious, but Chef Sato insisted that it was only made from duck meat.

Tai sashimi (red snapper) from Naruto at its fattiest winter peak was served with thick seaweed and a rare vegetable called kanzou no me, a Chinese medicinal plant that tasted like licorice.  One of the charms of dining at the counter at Shigeyoshi is to be able to see all of the action in the kitchen, including Chef Sato’s swift and skillful hands breaking down the whole majestic tai into a beautiful sashimi plate.

Young tender bamboo shoots from Kyushu, the southern part of Japan, lightly seared and dusted with katsuobushi, were served with braised butterbur sprouts in a gorgeous black lacquer bowl for a simple aromatic mountain vegetable dish.  These fresh takenoko bamboo shoots, which don’t resemble their canned counterparts in the slightest bit, were crisp and vibrant with a slightly sweet milky flavor.

No part of a perfect red snapper goes to waste, especially when it’s a beautiful specimen from Naruto, Japan.  After we enjoyed the sashimi course, Chef Sato prepared a traditional tai no nitsuke dish with the fish head, briefly simmering it in a soy ginger sake broth.  While slurping up the gelatinous coating around the fish eye and nibbling every tender morsel of meat and skin off the bones, I realized that this is exactly what sets Shigeyoshi apart from all other restaurants for me.  Michelin star or not, it is not about complicated technical artistic plates with multiple components that aim to impress and ultimately overwhelm.  It’s about what sings to the soul, and this expertly seasoned and perfectly executed dish of braised fish head, while not sexy nor fancy, was one of the most delicious things that I have ever eaten.

Echizen gani, a type of crab that is often called the ‘king of winter food’, was served with a side of its tomalley, the savory creamy green innards that I personally find to be the best part of the crab.  These large snow crabs, whose season runs from November to March, are sold at auctions with special yellow tags on their right claw to distinguish their supreme brand.  Sweet, moist and light, this prized crab meat was particularly delicious paired with our cold sake.

For the final savory course at Shigeyoshi, the diner is always given multiple options to accompany rice, tsukemono pickles and miso soup.  In the past I have enjoyed traditional Japanese comfort dishes of kaki furai or breaded deep fried oysters, ebi ten don or shrimp tempura rice bowl, kaki age don or mixed tempura rice bowl, and oyako don which is simmered chicken and eggs over rice.  At Chef Sato’s recommendation (‘I got the most amazing toro this morning from Tsukiji!’), I ordered toro sashimi, thick tender marbled slices of buttery heaven that effortlessly melted in my mouth.

A simple dessert of intensely sweet grapefruit wedges was the most perfect way to cleanse our palates and end our wonderful kaiseki meal.

For the past 40 years Shigeyoshi has continued to maintain the same level of quality and service, staying immune from fickle trends and unnecessary pretentiousness despite its recognition as one of the best restaurants in Japan.  Shigeyoshi has it all- the finest seasonal ingredients, perfect execution, beautiful presentation, heartfelt service and memorable food.  The special added touch is the chef’s character, and the intimate experience that he has with each diner through his food, which is an extension of his soul.  His food satisfies my palate, and also conjures up tender memories from childhood and a strong sense of comfort and peace.  Dining at Shigeyoshi always reminds me of what food is ultimately about- to nourish.  I look forward to going back to Shigeyoshi on my next return home to Tokyo, where Chef Kenzo Sato will be waiting for me with that same warm welcoming smile.

Shigeyoshi 重よし                                                                                                             6-35-3 Corp Olympia 1st floor                                                                                 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku Tokyo                                                                                            Tel 03-3400-4044

Crab trivia- did you know that the Japanese Spider Crab, which is known to be the biggest crab in the world, is also the oldest, the most deep-living, and with the highest longevity (they can live for more than century)?

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Gastronomic nemeses

I have cracked open suckling piglet skulls to eat its creamy brains and brainstem.  I have sipped on warm turtle blood, poured straight into a cup from its jugular.  I have chewed on live octopus legs, its powerful tentacles tightly gripping onto the insides of my cheeks.  I have drunk warm camel’s milk, freshly hand milked from the teats of a West African desert camel.  I have devoured whole sparrows, crunchy beak, skull, wings and all.  I have relished whale blubber, deliciously cold smoked in the dead of winter.  I have slurped creamy fish sperm sac, perfectly seasoned with a dash of ponzu.  I have noshed on charred armadillo flesh and mystery primate limbs.  Bugs, amphibians, mold, reproductive organs and appendages are no sweat for me.  In fact, every such unique culinary experience I have thoroughly enjoyed, licking my chops at the end of the meal.

My humanitarian work and travels have taken me all over the world, to countries some people may have heard of, but have no idea where to locate on the world map.  New types of animals, novel methods of cooking and interesting dining rituals have opened my eyes to a whole new way of appreciating food.  What may seem strange and bizarre to one can be a delicious afternoon snack in another country.  What may be perceived as animal cruelty in one place may be the only mode of survival and a long standing tradition with great historical significance in another.  Through sampling various types of foods all over the world, I have enjoyed learning about other cultures.

Opening your mind to trying local delicacies also means opening your heart to accepting the people and the customs of that particular culture, and for that reason I never turn down an exotic bite, no matter how strange or gory it may appear.  I will try anything twice, and as long as it tastes good, I will do it with an enthusiastic smile.  But even I, an adventurous eater with a strong stomach, have my Achilles heel- something that will bring me to my knees and leave me begging to be put out of my misery.  I have finally met my match, and my nemeses come in two forms: first, the French andouillette.

‘French, pork, tripe and sausage’ seem like a no-brainer. A culmination of all of my favorite things should automatically make it into my Top 10 favorites, but strangely enough, it is one of the most repulsive foods I have ever encountered.  A course grained bulky sausage stuffed with pork chitterlings, pepper, wine and onions, the andouillette is a French delicacy that dates back to 877 AD.  I’m still perplexed as to how I, an offal loving eater, cannot make peace with andouillette, but it is that distinct foul odor of dirty urinals that makes me shudder with disgust and defeat.  My first experience was in Paris as a teenager, completely sickened by this mound of innards that as a culinary icon holds a formal title: AAAAA, for Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique.  My second experience was 2 years ago in a well known bouchon in Lyon, one of the regions famous for andouillette (the other is Troyes).  Again, that distinct stench of locker room bathroom urine and feces made me wimper and recoil in fear, as I watched my dining partner roll his eyes in ecstasy as he savored every morsel of what he claimed was one of the best French inventions.

My other nemesis is a Japanese delicacy.  Funa zushi is a traditional and sacred Japanese dish, said to be the oldest sushi in history dating back 1200 years. Fresh female funa (Crucian carp) from Lake Biwa is scaled, then gutted through their gills to preserve the integrity of the body and the roe sack.  First it is cured in salt for 6 months, then rinsed and dried.  Then it is stacked inside a wooden barrel with cooked rice, allowed to ferment for up to 3 years under layers of salt, water and heavy stone weights until full maturation. As the mixture rots and ferments, it produces enough carbon dioxide to topple a 70 pound boulder off the top of the barrel.  The result is a well fermented piece of fish, rotted down to its bones and cartilage which have become soft enough to render the entire fish edible.  Some liken this extremely rare and valuable delicacy to Roquefort cheese.  I, an avid Roquefort fan, disagree.

Many years back, this seemingly harmless slice of fish with an impressive stuffing of bright orange roe, drove my body into sensory shock.  It wasn’t the initial sour smell or the doughy sticky consistency of rotting flesh that surprised me.  With the first bite, a caustic fume of ammonia-like gas shot straight through my palate into my eyes and my brain, precipitating massive tearing, temporary blindness and a strong gag reflex.  In the presence of important company, I forced myself to swallow and keep silent.

My second experience came, ironically, at the same restaurant with the same company- again, as I vow to try everything at least twice, I took a bite.  The funa zushi was just as horrible the second time around, its putrid smell and rotted flesh taking me back to anatomy class in medical school.  My dining partners, who were more accustomed to this highly prized delicacy, slurped up their sushi with joyful tears in their eyes as I held back my urge to hurl.

Andouillette and funa zushi have traumatized me for life, but I am determined to continue eating the world and not letting anything else come in the way of my appetite and my desire to connect with other cultures.  At least for now…until I’m faced with Cambodian fried tarantulas and decomposed walrus meat prized by the Inuit.

Where will your culinary adventures take you next?