Nanaezushi: Quality, affordable neighborhood sushi

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

Nanaezushi, on Shichijo Street in Kyoto, occupies that middle ground between the gimmick and conveyor-belt joints and the high-end places where you can expect to pay ¥20,000 for an atmosphere that’s often as much fun as a funeral, however good the sushi itself might be.

At Nanaezushi, most nights you can still grab a seat at the counter without a reservation and expect to eat sushi that is both deeply satisfying and reasonably priced. The nigiri sushi comes served on a geta, reminiscent of the old-school sandal of the same name, and prices range from ¥300-¥900 for servings of any specific item. The bulk of the menu is around the ¥300 mark, which is where we did most of our fishing.

Chef Uemura is a second-generation sushi chef; his father started the restaurant and it has a dated, well-worn feeling. A beautiful deep-blue naka-noren (interior curtain) embroidered with fish and crustaceans hangs over the counter. Running parallel to the counter are half a dozen tables. It’s a small family-run establishment of the kind that are slowly growing scarce. Sadly, Uemura’s brother, who also had a sushi restaurant less than a kilometer away, closed up shop late last year. Age and finding a replacement to learn his craft proved too much of a barrier to keep on going.

Close by, almost in smelling distance to Nanaezushi is Kyoto’s fish market, a smaller equivalent of Tokyo’s Tsukiji, but bustling nonetheless. Uemura gets all his fish from Yamasada, a famous fish wholesaler that supplies most of the top restaurants in Kyoto and is located across the road from Nanaezushi.

The octopus tentacles we started on, painted with a delicate layer of soy sauce using a calligrapher’s grace and bound with a single layer of laver, was so good that we ordered them again toward the end of our meal. Uemura or his younger apprentice had massaged the tentacles, so that the toughness had been worked out of the meat. It offered almost no resistance and was delicious.

Understandably the menu changes depending one the season and the day’s catch, but you can expect standards such as tuna, squid and fish eggs. Half the fun with sushi is the choice: the picking and mixing of flavors and textures that mean no two experiences are alike.

The tobikowasabi (flying fish roe dyed in wasabi) would win any “Instagram your sushi contest.” The tiny fish eggs, no bigger than full stops on the page, are bright green from the wasabi. There’s more bite in the ikura (salmon roe) served with wafer-thin slices of cucumber. With the aji (horse mackerel), Uemura tried to tone down the strong flavor with a smidgen of grated ginger and a translucent layer of kombu seaweed. It looked stunning, but there was no holding back the overwhelming taste of the horse mackerel.

In short, Nanaezushi is a little treasure, an authentic holdover from a time when sushi was neither an expensive fetish nor a gimmick but instead a quotidian delicacy made by specialists who cared about the food they made yet wouldn’t charge an arm and a leg for it.

Open 5 p.m.-11 p.m. (L.O. 10 p.m.); nigiri sushi from ¥300; Japanese menu; Japanese spoken