OSAKA - For the 90 minutes that lunch played out at Sushi Chiharu, the smallest upscale-sushi restaurant I’ve ever eaten at, there was a steady stream of jazz hits underscoring the sushi shokunin (artisan) who catered to the full house.
There were seven of us, seated close together, wrapped around an L-shaped counter. Besides a knife and chef’s hat bearing the logo of Insyokujin College framed on the back wall, there was little else to look at. And so we watched our chef as he molded nigiri sushi, sliced squid and placed paper-thin translucent layers of konbu seaweed atop mackerel. As I admired the spectacle, I hoped that Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” or Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” would play: Our chef had rhythm.
As well as being small, Sushi Chiharu is busy. I suspect that’s because for ¥2,800, this is one of the best-value sushi lunches in Osaka. Lunch starts early at 11 a.m. and there are two sittings, the second starting at 12:30 p.m. Dinner has three sittings and runs to 11 p.m. The chef changes regularly and at the pace they work at, they need to. Despite this, the 11 course lunch — comprising eight servings of nigiri — never felt rushed: Our chef had timing.
Lunch opened with a bowl of chawanmushi (savory egg custard), delightfully light and topped with a sprig of rapeseed and fish cake in the shape of a cherry blossom. From here we moved onto a short concert of nigiri, each one molded as we looked on.
The first piece, ika (squid) nigiri, was a riot of flavors. Between the strips of buttery squid and the shari (sushi rice) was a sprinkling of ground sesame, while the squid was topped with a deliciously subtle drop of lime. Somewhere in the mix there was a dash of salt. It sounds busy, too busy for one bite, yet everything was so delicate that the result was a perfectly balanced fusion of flavors: Our chef had finesse.
Next came maguro (tuna) that had been marinated in soy sauce for hours, before being cut into sushi-sized strips and crowned with a dot of mustard.
With the shime saba (cured mackerel), the surprise came in the form of a strip of translucent konbu. To pry the strips of konbu apart and layer them on the mackerel took a level of dexterity that was beyond most of us and, in the end, the flavor was fleeting. But that’s what makes good sushi so memorable.
For the uni (sea urchin), our chef ditched convention and put the sushi rice, which was excellent, into a bowl seasoned with freshly-roasted nori flakes and a splash of vinegar, both of which beautifully complimented the briny taste of the urchin.
Later on, there was sweet shrimp stuffed with rice, and conger eel painted over with soy sauce. Even the final, simple bowl of miso soup, leek and taro root potato was distinguished in its flavor.
Our meal was perfection.
Closed irregularly; lunch ¥2,800, dinner ¥3,500-7,000; English menu; some English spoken