Zombie Sushi


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September 30th 2016
Published: September 30th 2017
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The alarm rang at the ungodly hour of 4:15 AM, stirring us from the most superficial of slumbers, the kind of mediocre sleep you often get stuck with after a long travel day across more than a dozen time zones. It leaves you exhausted, as it simply isn't possible to have a proper rest under these circumstances. Dazed and confused, something just didn't seem right, as we lay in bed, staring at the ceiling ... did last night actually occur, or was it the most horrific of nightmares? Surely, it must have been a dreadful dream, because what we experienced is simply impossible in Japan ... however, we slowly pieced things together, and to our combined dismay, realized that the tragic events of last night were in fact real, when we descended into the twisted depths of the Tokyo Twilight Zone, in an episode entitled Zombie Sushi.

After our lovely stroll down Ramen Street last night, and by the time we sorted out our Japanese train pass and made it to the hotel, it was pushing 8 PM, with severe jet lag starting to kick in, erasing our original plans of hitting up Shibuya for a stroll and some all-you-can-eat shabu-shabu. Instead, a walk around Shimbashi was the consolation, a lively yet seemingly non-touristy part of Tokyo. Feeling a tad peckish, despite our earlier ramen gorge-fest, a light snack was in order, and there is no food better for this purpose than sushi, perhaps the most quintessentially Tokyo food. The quality of Tokyo sushi blew our minds on the first trip here, raising the bar to heights previously unknown - Calgary sushi is typically average, and our prior gold standard was Vancouver sushi, until sampling Tokyo's offerings.

Sushi was never the same after that, and we now find ourselves forever comparing any sushi we have with that standard - so with great excitement we sat down at a kaiten sushi counter, where little plates of goodness circulate on a conveyor belt. Now, these places are normally known for having some of the worst-quality sushi in Japan, but that can be subjective - when you are in the land offering the best sushi in the world, the worst can still be pretty damn good! Perhaps it was plain old luck, but the one time we tried kaiten sushi in Tokyo, it was on par with, or better than, some of
Chewy Fatty Tuna ...Chewy Fatty Tuna ...Chewy Fatty Tuna ...

.... this would normally melt in your mouth, but this piece was far too chewy for our liking. While the taste was still good, especially the rice, it was not a great start to Dai's Omakase.
Vancouver's excellent sushi establishments, so we expected to have something at least decent - but no, good sushi can never be had when it is Zombie Sushi in the Tokyo Twilight Zone!

There's no rational explanation for what we sampled last night - how is it even possible to have such shockingly-horrific sushi anywhere in Japan, let alone Tokyo, the Mecca of maguro, the bastion of bluefin??? It was utterly baffling, and could only be explained by some nefarious supernatural force incomprehensible to the human mind ... not only was the taste lacking, but the appearance was atrocious - some of the toro looked like it had been sliced with not just a butter knife, but a dull, rusted one laced with barnacles and tetanus! It simply could not compare with some of the truly beautifully-sliced and prepared sushi typical of Tokyo, pieces of art so precisely cut that it could only have been done so with a katana forged by a short hairy-footed samurai in the fires of Mount Doom, the steel heated by lightning bolts from Gandalf's staff, and struck with Thor's hammer.

The rice was hard, cold, and bland, not warm and soft like quality sushi rice
Simply-Prepared Grouper ...Simply-Prepared Grouper ...Simply-Prepared Grouper ...

... only salt and ponzu were used, allowing the flavour of the fish to shine through. Like the fatty tuna, the grouper was a tad chewy, but it was acceptable in this case, as that is likely the natural texture of the grouper.
should be, and it was completely devoid of the subtle sweetness and tang imparted by some top-notch rice vinegar. I'm surprised that the Emperor of Japan would allow such an abomination to procreate in his country, one with such a storied history of culinary delights - it's surely only a matter of time before he tracks down these chefs who produce this Zombie Sushi, forcing them to commit seppuku to atone for their sins! What happened after our meal was a blur, and the next thing we knew, we were wide awake, lying in our hotel room's Japanese double-but-is-more-like-a-North-American-single bed, wondering how we got there. Was last night real, or was it a jet lag-induced hallucinatory episode of a Zombie-like trance? Does such appalling sushi even exist? Were we really in an episode of Zombie Sushi, or was it all just the most terrifying of nightmares?

As we left the sanctuary of our hotel, we harboured fears that we would find nothing but deserted streets in Tokyo, the thriving metropolis reduced to nothing more than a post-apocalyptic wasteland, save for the odd zombie and three-eyed fish walking around. Thankfully, while the streets were quite empty at 5:00 AM, Tokyo's population was
Golden Eye Snapper ...Golden Eye Snapper ...Golden Eye Snapper ...

...this was a new type of sushi for us - our favourite piece so far, and one of the best of the meal.
still alive and well, as we made our way to the Tsukiji fish market, our reason for rising at such an early hour. However... the Zombie Sushi nightmare of last night did not end, and it was the result of our own doing - having had the most sublime sushi at Tsukiji market during our previous visit to Tokyo, we decided to take it up a notch, and try for one of the two most famous restaurants there. Both Sushi Dai and Sushi Daiwa were closed last time, due to the New Years holiday, so visiting either one was never an option for us.

But this time would be different, since the market was open as usual, and we even chose a hotel within walking distance of Tsukiji, so that we could simply stroll over and get there by 5:00 AM, as Tokyo's metro doesn't even run at an early enough hour to ferry the tourist hordes there. Of course, it never was my intention to actually try for Sushi Dai, by far the most popular place with tourists at Tsukiji, because the lineups have gotten out of hand - though it opens at 5:30 AM, people actually start lining up
Uni ...Uni ...Uni ...

... never been fans, as the ones we get in Calgary are quite fishy - not this one, which was sweet, luscious, and creamy. They always say that fresh seafood should smell like the sea - well, this must have been as fresh as it gets, because the taste and smell were entirely reminiscent of the sea. Dai certainly deserves props for their tasty seaweed, which had a nice toasted flavour. This was one of the best pieces of the day - positively shocking, considering that neither of us are uni connoisseurs.
as early as 3:00 AM to get one of the first seats!!!! I was happy to "settle" for Daiwa, though I harboured hope that we would miraculously stroll straight into an empty Dai. But Daiwa is a better bet, with its much shorter waits, as it holds far more diners - it seems that if you arrive early enough, 30 minutes to an hour is enough for the chance to satiate any sushi cravings.

Even that seems pretty stupid, but us tourists can do some pretty stupid things in the quest for unforgettable travel experiences, and we justified today's moronic episode by the fact that we were so jet lagged that we'd be up early with nowhere to go, counting down the seconds until Tokyo's attractions opened up. It was probably the Zombie Sushi hangover, because against all better judgment and rational thought, we decided to get in line for Dai, partially because of a nice, persuasive chap from Taiwan - "The wait won't be too bad, trust me ..." My gut kept telling me not to queue for Dai, but I ignored even the most basic math - Dai only seats a dozen people, with each meal taking about
Omelet ...Omelet ...Omelet ...

... good, but not great. But what would you really expect from an omelet? We had a brief flashback to the movie "Jiro Dreams of Sushi", and the scene were an apprentice had been making four tamago a day for nearly four months, about 200 in total, before his masters finally told him he had made an acceptable tamago that was suitable for serving to guests.
45 minutes to be served. While the line didn't look that long, there were at least four dozen people ahead of us, so we were looking at a three-hour wait! Pure foolishness, but still being in our Zombie-like trance, we waited ... and waited ... and waited ... for four and a half hours!!!!

Even if Dai served up the best sushi on earth, there is no way that it would be worth standing outside well before dawn, and waiting nearly five hours for. I would never wait that long for any meal ever again, unless I was seated in a luxurious shiatsu-massaging recliner the entire time, surrounded by big screen TVs showing the greatest Super Bowl games ever, while being massaged and doted upon by Japanese supermodels dressed up as all of the Sailor Moon characters (Tuxedo Mask included), and fed $14,000-a-bunch grapes and slices of $300 musk melons by a real-life Pikachu, one that was genetically engineered into actual existence by Dr. Moreau. But logic be damned today, as zombies like us simply are not capable of rational thought ...

Nearly all the online reviews rave about how Dai serves the most amazing sushi in Tokyo, the undisputed Mecca
Surf Clam ...Surf Clam ...Surf Clam ...

... never been a fan of this one either, as it is normally a tasteless piece of rubber. This version was far superior, much more tender and flavourful - but in the end, it's still just a surf clam!
of sushi, so by extension, this would have to be the best sushi in the world. Reviewers boast of lining up at 3:00 AM, brag of six-hour waits as if it was a badge of honour, but I wondered - could any sushi be worth that much time and effort, or have people only justified it in their minds after the fact, in an attempt to convince themselves that they aren't fools for waiting so long for something that didn't live up to the billing? There are piles of positive reviews dating back years, so there must be something good about Dai - but digging a bit deeper, you will find a handful of negative reviews, which can also be questioned. Was it actually the best sushi in the world, but the reviewer didn't acknowledge this, because of the excessive and unpleasant wait? Of course, when you come across reviews seemingly written by locals that more or less say "We don't understand why tourists line up for two to three hours at Dai, when you can find the same quality elsewhere in Tsukiji without any wait", you start to wonder ...

In the end, everyone's experience at Dai is different, and
More Tuna ...More Tuna ...More Tuna ...

... with a bit of ginger. Good, but nothing special. It was interesting to note that the bluefin tuna, the king of all sushi fish in Japan, was so ordinary at Dai.
if you are happy waiting hours on end for sushi, more power to you. But for us? The adjective I would use to describe the sushi at Dai, sadly, is overrated. There still were a number of positives, however, and credit where credit is due - most sushi masters would say that great sushi is about 80% the rice and 20% the fish, and Dai's rice is about as good as it gets. It was slightly warm and almost comforting, seasoned perfectly with rice vinegar; the rice was soft, yet had a slight firmness to it, and it beautifully gave way with each and every bite. The seaweed quality is also top notch, perfectly roasted, resulting in a wonderful toasted aroma. Another reason for props was the presence of a female sushi chef, which is exceedingly-rare in Japan's traditional world of sushi making - it has long been the domain of men, due to an established belief that women's hands are too warm to make sushi, as it would disrupt the delicate and harmonious balance of flavours. Of course, if you ask me, that was probably just a chauvinistic excuse to keep women out of the sushi making business ...

As
Tuna Rolls ...Tuna Rolls ...Tuna Rolls ...

... never been a big fan of these either, but Dai's were excellent, largely due to their wonderful seaweed and perfectly-prepared and seasoned rice. I couldn't help but wonder if some of their lesser pieces of sushi would have been better off prepared in this manner. Sure, it's almost sacrilegious to suggest wasting high-grade sushi fish in a roll, but this would have definitely masked some of the deficiencies.
a whole, our experience today at Sushi Dai was a mixed bag - perhaps it was just an off day (though you could argue that with its reputation, there should never be an off day), but only a few pieces were truly outstanding. Our top two choices were actually ones that we had never had the pleasure of sampling before - the Golden Eye Snapper, and the Saury, a shockingly-tasty fish that seemed to dissolve on our tongues, leaving only the sensation of pure deliciousness and bliss. During our first visit to Tsukiji, we had the fortune of sampling a few pieces of truly sublime sushi, and today's Saury was reminiscent of that experience. Of the remainder, some of the sushi was excellent, but they were mostly either good or decent - overall, we were fairly happy with the experience, provided that we didn't consider the excessive wait time, but as a whole, it's definitely not an experience that we would care to repeat. Don't get me wrong - if we could waltz into any sushi joint and get a meal of that caliber, we would choose to do so each and every time, but not if there was a
More Great Seaweed and Rice ...More Great Seaweed and Rice ...More Great Seaweed and Rice ...

... I find roe to be fairly nondescript, and though these were quite good quality, it was the seaweed and rice that shone through. In all fairness, I probably wouldn't even know what amazing roe would taste like, so am not the best judge of it.
significant wait.

Today, it seemed that the myth of Sushi Dai has grown disproportionately with each glowing review or blog, a case of sushi style over sushi substance, where the high level of effort required to eat here has been confused with a high level of taste. It was a bit surreal sitting at Dai's sushi counter, as the clientele is comprised completely of tourists, with nearly all of them being foreign - it's quite contradictory, as travelers typically seek out establishments busy with locals, as it's nearly a sure bet on high quality. Normally, we do everything possible to avoid a restaurant packed with tourists, yet every day that Dai is open, we happily line up to eat with other tourists. It defies logic, yet it is commonplace at Dai, and makes you wonder - how exactly did Dai obtain its reputation as being the best in Tsukiji? Is it because it happened to be featured in a guide book once upon a time, and with each passing year, the legend continued to grow among tourists who didn't know any better?

What about Daiwa? It seems to be regarded as the second-best sushi spot in Tsukiji, but is that really
Anago ...Anago ...Anago ...

... although unagi is one of our faves, it didn't show up on any sushi menus, leading us to wonder if it was out of season. Instead, restaurants were serving up anago, the salt-water version. Though tasty, the texture was far too mushy for our liking, and the chefs didn't remove all the little bones - definitely not what you would expect from a restaurant with the reputation of Dai.
true, or is it because it just happens to be next to Dai, making it a logical alternative when Dai's lineups grew too long? There's no right or wrong when it comes to this type of experience, and the lengths people will go to in order to find it - while it's interesting to ponder, there are no absolutes when it comes to people's tastes and how much they value their time and effort. I do have to say, that whether or not you eat at Dai or Daiwa, the experience of eating a sushi breakfast at Tsukiji can be one of the most memorable parts of any trip to Tokyo, and one that we will happily do any chance we get - as long as it doesn't come with a wait longer than an hour ...


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Customer's Choice ...Customer's Choice ...
Customer's Choice ...

... a nice aspect of dining at Dai is the fact that at the end of the omakase, they allow customers to choose their last piece of sushi - it could be anything previously eaten as part of the omakase, or a new selection. Crunchy Yellow Jack was the choice here - again, we had a nicely prepared piece of sushi, but there wasn't anything overly memorable about it. Firmer, crunchier types of sushi just don't do it for me.
Bonito ...Bonito ...
Bonito ...

... the addition of ginger and green onion to certain pieces of sushi was an absolute revelation - it elevated the fish's natural flavour beautifully and unexpectedly. Sushi joints in Tokyo seem to do this for smaller fishes that are served with their silver skins on, such as horse mackerel and saury. Unfortunately, it didn't do as much for this piece of bonito.
Stowaways ...Stowaways ...
Stowaways ...

... Dai can only seat 12 at a time, so the Buddhas had to hide underneath the sushi counter, out of view from the Sushi chefs and waitstaff. This miso soup was actually one of the highlights - absolutely delicious, with tasty chunks of fish. One of the great pleasures of dining in Japan is miso soup, and something we thoroughly relish while traveling here - most miso soup we have outside Japan seems to have an instant soup-like quality to it. Almost every bowl you get in Japan has the richest depth of flavour imaginable, and is the epitome of umami.
Our Taiwanese Friend ...Our Taiwanese Friend ...
Our Taiwanese Friend ...

... though we never learned his name, we felt like we truly bonded with the guy, after suffering through a traumatic 4.5 hour wait together. He managed to get in just before us, just in time for him to eat, and get back to his hotel to check out. He actually had to get his Japanese friend to call the hotel and extend his checkout by an hour, as he didn't plan for such an extended wait at Dai.
Edomaki ... Edomaki ...
Edomaki ...

... a thin spongy egg pancake spread with a fish paste, and rolled onto a pinwheel. A couple of these, along with a granola bar, was the only sustenance we had during the 4.5 hour wait for Sushi Dai.
Not Your Ordinary Wasabi ...Not Your Ordinary Wasabi ...
Not Your Ordinary Wasabi ...

... with Tsukiji being the mecca of sushi, you must be able to get some high-grade wasabi here, in order to cater to all the sushi restaurants. It's an underrated part of the sushi experience in Japan, but you can definitely identify a difference with the quality of fresh wasabi - most sushi overseas is served with kind of an instant wasabi powder, or comes prepared inside of a tube.
Golden Gai ...Golden Gai ...
Golden Gai ...

... a very unique bar district in Shinjuku, where the bars are about the size of an average walk-in closet! I kid you not - I don't think any of these places can hold more than six to eight people, and are comprised of little more than just a counter top with a few stools.
Pancake Pandemonium ...Pancake Pandemonium ...
Pancake Pandemonium ...

... the Japanese are crazy for pancakes, and the latest and trendiest version are these soufflé pancakes served up by Cafe Gram, which are only available at certain times each day. We missed out when we showed up at 14:45 for the 15:00 time slot - they can only make so many at one time, and a number of them had already been ordered before us, so ours wouldn't be available until 16:00. That was way too long to wait, even though we could've killed time exploring Harajuku and returned when they were ready - instead, we ordered off the regular menu. They looked pretty awesome as we watched the couple next to us dig in - they are famous because they jiggle and wobble when you shake the plate.
A Rare Occasion ... A Rare Occasion ...
A Rare Occasion ...

... it's not usual that the food you receive in a Japanese restaurant doesn't appear as perfect as it does in the menu pictures, but that happened with these tiramisu pancakes. We've had incredibly light and fluffy pancakes in Japan before, but these were shockingly lacking - dense, tough, and chewy, I would've taken a plate of McDonald's or Bisquik pancakes over these any day. Even worse was that the tiramisu pancakes really weren't tiramisu - instead of a layer of nice fluffy mascarpone in between pancakes, it was just whipped cream. I also didn't notice any real coffee flavour - these pancakes were just a complete fail on every level.


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