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Izuu: Where 230 years of practice makes perfect mackerel sushi

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

If you’ve read it once, you’ve read it countless times: Kyoto is Japan’s “ancient capital.” Often, that adjective — ancient — feels like lip service, a cliche that follows Kyoto around, like snap happy tourists trailing maiko and geiko (geisha). But every now and then you get lucky, and stumble across vestiges of this “old Kyoto” that are still in existence.

Sushi restaurant Izuu is one such place. It opened in 1781 and specializes in saba-zushi, cured mackerel pressed on to vinegar-flavored rice and wrapped in thick sheets of konbu seaweed. More than 230 years since its opening, the recipe and the ingredients have hardly changed.

Kyoto’s relationship with mackerel predates the opening of Izuu by hundreds of years to the Heian Period (794-1185), when the fish were transported on foot from the Japan Sea on a route that became known as the Saba Kaido — the old mackerel road.

Though cured mackerel isn’t always a crowd pleaser in the same way that salmon or tuna is when paired with rice — mackerel is a strong-tasting, meaty fish, and it can be hard to tame — when done well, it is exceptional. That’s why it’s worth being picky with where you try it; at Izuu, they have it all figured it out.

The key is balance. Where Izuu’s mackerel roll beats the crowd is in the harmony that exists between the fish, the konbu and the rice: no one flavor dominates, as so often happens with salted fish. When the saba-zushi arrives, it is covered in deep-green konbu from Hokkaido that is used for both flavor and structure — though is not to be eaten — and is cut six ways.

You’ll notice there’s nary a drop of soy sauce to be found anywhere in the small but cozy restaurant. In this style of sushi, soy sauce is a contaminant and would trample all over the wonderfully delicate flavors of the sushi. A single bite flits between the brininess of the mackerel and konbu, and the acidic undertones of vinegar that seep through from the rice. It’s an exquisite combination.

Be aware, this is not cheap sushi. The house specialty, the sabasugata, the mackerel sushi roll, is ¥2,430 for six pieces. It’s also one of the cheaper options on a menu that’s limited to about a dozen dishes. It is luxury sushi, with prices to match.

As a contrast to the mackerel, try the tai-zushi, or sea bream sushi (¥2,916 for six pieces). It comes wrapped in konbu — again peel off and discard — with the fish pressed into rice. For this, they use a subtly different variety of konbu, lighter to match the flavor profile of the tai. While less meaty than the mackerel, it is equally as delicious.

The restaurant seats about a dozen, and there’s a constant stream of locals popping in for takeout. The staff are brusque, in that “old Kyoto” way, but this is a top of the range sushi joint and all that really matters is the taste.

Sushi from ¥1,600; English menu; some English spoken