Omakase sushi is the dream meal for someone with attention deficit disorder. This particular thought kept running through my head, as piece after piece of sushi, each unique and enthralling, was placed before me by the hands of a master, and self-proclaimed “sushi mensch,” Chef Naomichi Yasuda. Each bite-size piece commanded my absolute full attention, activating a different combination of tastebuds–translating into a different taste profile–from the next piece. Many will know Chef Yasuda as Tony Bourdain’s good friend and sushi mentor from Tony’s visit to Tokyo on his Parts Unknown show in season 2. Others will recognize Chef Yasuda’s name as the legend behind his longstanding and wildly popular, eponymous Sushi Yasuda in NYC.
In 2011, in an effort to regain his creative culinary voice (amongst other reasons), which seemed to have been stifled in the day-to-day administrative duties at Sushi Yasuda, Chef Yasuda bid farewell to New York after 27 years, and moved back to Tokyo. Quietly, he opened a small 8-counter seat sushi bar, Sushi Bar Yasuda in Minami-Aoyama. It was here that he reclaimed control over all aspects of his restaurant–his menu, the staffing, the service, the ingredients, his food, and the culture. And this is exactly where we wanted to have our first real omakase sushi experience in Tokyo.
Booking on a Monday, we were able to get a reservation for that same Friday evening at 9:00 pm. You can make a reservation via a request form on the website. The form will ask you for any flight info, to accommodate those coming from abroad. Incredibly, Chef Yasuda emailed me back personally, asking if pushing back my requested time of 8:00 pm on Friday to 9:00 pm would be OK. Sure, I responded, after checking to see that the restaurant closes at 11:00 pm, giving us ample time to go through the courses. Chef Yasuda then emailed back with the menu, of which there are two options: a 14-piece minimum omakase menu (chef’s choice), customizable based on personal preference and level of hunger, or a 14-piece fixed-item sushi assortment. Details and cost are outlined in an email below:
We arrived 15 minutes early, and descended (the restaurant is in the basement of an office building) toward sushi promiseland. With a quiet nod, Chef Yasuda welcomed us. As the 3 staff members prepared our seats at the counter, we sat and waited briefly at a small table, used for additional diners. Which, by the way, I do not recommend sitting at, because you will miss the full experience. The restaurant was bright and warm, made so by the blonde furnishings and white walls. We sat at the counter, next to the only two other diners in the restaurant–two guys visiting from New York–and who had obviously dined many times previously at Chef Yasuda’s restaurants.
In hushed voices, Mr. S and I both selected the omakase, sake (from Chef Yasuda’s home, Chiba prefecture) for me, and a beer for Mr. S. The heavy silence of the restaurant made us feel a palpable intensity at first, which soon was allayed, as Chef Yasuda started to chat with us, immediately firing out a series of jokes, putting us at ease.
Below, in pictures, is what we ate, drank, and enjoyed with abandon over the course of two hours. Be warned it is a ridiculously gluttonous amount of food–between Mr. S and myself, we tasted a total of 31 different kinds (56 pieces total) of nigiri and maki sushi. As Chef Yasuda paced us through each and every delicious component of the evening, he explained what each piece was, and answered all of our questions in his near-fluent English. Some pieces were just good, some outstanding, and some that completely turned upside down any notions I had of what “good” sushi was because these were so f**king delicious.
A word about Chef Yasuda’s rice. It is quite possibly the best quality sushi rice (shari) I have had. Plump and slightly toothsome, each glistening grain of rice is seasoned with a mixture of tangy vinegars. “The rice is 90 percent of sushi,” Chef Yasuda proudly states, a belief held by most respected sushi chefs. His particular rice, of which he has everything to be proud of, is from his hometown of Chiba. Throughout the evening, his hands worked so fast to mold each piece of shari–to prevent heat transfer. A perfect mouthful, each ball of rice was packed, but not densely, so that it gave way in the mouth to reveal a wonderful acidity and sweetness.
2. Hamachi #1 (Yellowtail)
3. Steelhead Salmon
4. Amadai (Tilefish)
5. Sake (King Salmon (Chinook))
6. Engawa (Fluke Fin)
7. Hon-maguro (Lean Bluefin Tuna)
8. Hamachi #2 (Yellowtail)
9. Toro (Fatty Tuna) / Ireland
10. Shioko (Amberjack Yellowtail)
11. Sake (Salmon) / Norwegian
12. Uni #1 (Sea Urchin) / Hokkaido
13. Maaji (Horse Mackerel horse)
14. Uni #2 (Sea Urchin) / Russia
15. Hirame (Fluke)
16. Mackerel Eggs
18. Iwashi (Sardine)
19. Ayu trout (Sweetfish)
20. Himo (Inner portion around an Akagai)
21. Aka ebi (Red Striped Shrimp)
22. Kaki (Oyster) / Toyama Prefecture
23. Hotate (Scallop) / Hokkaido
24. Ika (Squid)
25. Otoro (Fatty Tuna) / Japan
26. Squid “face”
27. Ebi (Shrimp) / Mexico
28. Uni #3 (Sea Urchin) / Northern China
29. Menegi (Green onion sprouts)
30. Anago (Saltwater eel) / Aichi Prefecture
31. Tamago (Sweet Egg Omelette)
As the counter started to fill up again after 9:30 pm, we dined throughout the rest of the night with five other English speakers–two visiting from Singapore and three visiting from the U.S. We watched “the sushi man” in action as he conversed and joked with each of our groups, and often, all of us at once. This is what is unique about dining at Sushi Bar Yasuda, as compared to other high end sushi bars in Tokyo. Chef Yasuda is highly interactive, loves to talk and teach, and has a wicked sense of humor. From what I can remember, there were jokes thrown around through the evening about jigalos, and comparing a uni maki roll to rolling a “Dutch Master,” amongst others…We laughed, learned more than we ever expected, and savored everything from the food, the drink, the company, and the conversation.
At the conclusion of our evening, around 10:50 pm, we watched as Chef Yasuda broke down his mise en place, and took off his cap and chef’s happi coat, revealing a burly body-builder’s torso, ripped arms, and thick neck and shoulders–a product of years of weight-lifting and bare-knuckle Kyokushin karate. He is famous for his signature pose if you ask him for a photo: a bicep flex and a gleaming smile.
Our bill was reasonable for the sheer amount of food we both had, the time we spent there at our leisure, and the priceless sushi lesson we received. For 56 pieces of sushi total, 2 sakes, and 1 beer, our bill was ¥40,100 (about $320 dollars). This is a virtual steal compared to other sushi tasting menus, some starting at ¥31,500 per person (for about 20 pieces). I’ve read some other diners’ reviews stating there is better quality sushi at other restaurants than what you get at Yasuda. As a reviewer, I readily acknowledge to each their own. I however, can only speak for our experience that night, and we could see and taste how Chef Yasuda intended for each piece of fish or topping (neta) to complement his excellent rice. As you can see from above, he adds and adjusts seasonings to create a balance of flavors in each bite, depending on the fish’s innate oils, sweetness, fat, and texture.
There is no dogged adherence to tradition here. Chef Yasuda is a cowboy of the sushi landscape in Tokyo, a land of unwavering adherence to sushi dogma. Because of this, he is well loved and respected, and at the same time, criticized by traditionalists. I can’t comment as to which is better or worse, right or wrong. What is apparent however, is that Yasuda enjoys doing things his own way, and the result is a massive following of loyal customers. The proof is in the pudding…or more appropriately, in the sushi.
We thanked Chef Yasuda for our full bellies and the sushi lesson, and vouched to return very soon. Which we will happily do, time and time again.
Sushi Bar Yasuda, 4-2-6 Minami-aoyama, Minato, Tokyo
Hours: Tues–Sat 6:00 pm to 11:00 pm (Last order 10:30 pm) / Notice of Summer 2015 closings here.