|

Sushi Iwa: High-end Michelin-starred sushi at a medium price

by Robbie Swinnerton

High-end sushi in Tokyo can be memorable and uplifting, even revelatory for those trying it for the first time. But it can also be intense and uncomfortable sometimes, what with the formality and etiquette, the inevitable language barrier and the hefty price tag.

And then there’s the stress of actually finding the place. Most premium sushiya are tiny places, often holding 10 seats or fewer, tucked away in basements or on the upper levels of anonymous buildings.

Sushi Iwa makes things easy. For a start, the entrance is at street level. Better yet, it is immediately recognizable from its classic wabi-sabi (tea-ceremony style) look, hempen noren curtain, bamboo trellis window and small iron lantern at foot level. Inside, it feels relaxed and, with a counter only big enough for six, surprisingly intimate.

Owner-chef Hisayoshi Iwa is still in his late 30s and looks even younger than his years. But the deftness of his hand movements and the quality of the sushi he fashions with them show that he is already a master of his trade, and well worthy of his Michelin star.

From his rich, fatty chū-toro tuna to the outstanding uni (urchin) flown down from Hokkaido that same morning and the lighter but perfectly prepared kohada (shad), each piece is presented as a miniature gem of seafood perfection.

Before launching into the sushi, be sure to order a few rounds of his tsumami, the catchall term used for the seafood appetizers served at sushiya. Iwa will lay a few slices of superb sashimi on the metal-framed platter in front of you. Then a few more. Then perhaps some cooked tidbits.

His abalone is sublime, cooked so soft you can almost cut it with your chopsticks. In winter there will be dishes of crab and grilled shirako (cod milt). In summer, the specialties include excellent scallops and anago (conger).

Iwa learned his skills at Tokyo’s highly respected (and Michelin-starred) Sushi Kanesaka. When he finally went independent in September 2012, it was perfect timing: He moved straight into the Ginza premises recently vacated by one of Tokyo’s top kaiseki restaurants, Kojyu. It is this combination of setting and great sushi that makes Iwa special.

One more reason, too: Among all the high-end sushiya clustered in Ginza, Iwa remains one of the most affordable. A simple sushi lunch (10 pieces) costs less than ¥5,000, and while a full-course dinner with tsumami and sake (a very good selection) or wine will be over ¥20,000 a head, that is still considerably less than at other more vaunted names in the neighborhood.

Sushi Iwa has a branch in Hong Kong, which means Iwa himself is often away for as much as a week each month. But his second-in-command (a good English speaker) holds the fort with no discernible drop in quality.

8-5-25 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-3572-0955; open 12-2 p.m., 6-10 p.m. (Sun. and holidays 12-8 p.m.), closed Mon.; nearest station Shinbashi; no smoking; lunch from ¥4,725, dinner from ¥18,900; major cards OK; no menu; English spoken. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.