In the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which has not yet hit town, the subject is an 85-year-old sushi master, Jiro Ono, who runs a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Tokyo. The film chronicles the way quality and consistency shape a great restaurant, and Jiro’s visits to Tsukiji—the famed Tokyo fish market—make great theater.
A pull-out-all-the-stops dinner at Sukiyabashi Jiro costs $400-$500 per person, the amount one might spend at BarMasa at the Aria, our deluxe sushi restaurant. Sure, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but who can afford it? Besides, you’ll never get a seat.
Sushi fanciers, take heart: I bring good tidings. For the same amount you might pay at one of our many Taiwanese- and Korean-owned sushi bars—places that serve clots of improperly cooked rice, shaved, frozen fish and artificial wasabi squeezed out of a tube—you can eat at Kabuto, an 18-seat sushi-ya in China Town’s Seoul Plaza (about to be re-named Tokyo Plaza), a mini-mall that already boasts Raku, Nakamura-ya, Big Wong and Monta.
Kabuto is so new there is no sign, just the Chinese character for “samurai helmet” (what the restaurant’s name means) just inside the front door. It’s mostly blond wood in here, with a 10-seat counter set with elegant paper place mats and pink porcelain hashi-oki chopstick holders, and a small floral display behind the sushi men. (Two tables of four make up the other eight seats, but the counter is the real show.)
There are just two sushi men here, bantering in Japanese as they work in tandem. So far, the clientele has been largely Japanese, but that can’t last. When word spreads about Kabuto, it will be the toughest of tables—maybe the toughest reservation in the city.
Why? Consider what you get here. Nigiri sushi—individual clumps of vinegared rice topped with perfectly cut, perfectly fresh sea creatures—starts at $3 per piece and tops out at $6. You can order a la carte, but most people, so far, have opted for a multi-coursed affair. The nigiri option is composed of an aperitif, an appetizer, 10 pieces of sushi served one-by-one, a hand roll and a dessert. For $40. Double that gets you the omakase (chef’s choice), which adds sashimi, grilled fish and the house soup, usually miso. It is, by any standards, a remarkable dinner.
I had the nigiri menu, served by a team of charming Japanese ladies and, naturally, the two chefs. First, a hot o-shibori towel arrived, then a tiny thimble of pineapple sake on the rocks, as a refresher.
The zensai, or appetizer, came in a lacquered bowl—stewed bamboo, firefly squid, and kombu, or sea tangle, a richly flavored seaweed. The parade of sushi followed, starting with shima-aji (that’s striped jack to you, pally) and finishing with tamago-yaki, omelet-like squares made of cooked egg. Oh and P.S., that’s freshly grated wasabi you’re eating.
In the middle, there was bluefin tuna from Spain, sea eel, fatty tuna and other delicacies. Each individual piece was perfectly brushed with soy sauce, the soy never touching the rice (a major no-no), edible works of art that I wanted to frame almost as much as eat. Dessert was a choice of mochi ice cream or a multi-layered crepe filled with strawberry cream.
I didn’t describe every piece I had in between, because the fish selection changes daily based on availability and freshness. Jiro, watch your back.