Regarded by many – and justly – as the best Japanese restaurant in Hangzhou, Isamu’s Sushi restaurant is every bit the culinary experience we expected it to be. There is in fact very little we need to add by way of compliment or commendation; and so, with no offense to the many fish past and future whose flesh makes Isamu possible: this food is off-the-hook outstanding.
One note might carry lightly and gracefully the entire weight of this review. We had arranged for owner and executive-chef Zhang Peiyong to be on-site the afternoon of our review, in order to field the sorts of queries one feels nearly compelled to ask when anticipating a bill two or three times heavier than one will reckon with from competing establishments. Heaven knows that diners at Isamu deux are not paying for fancy furniture or stunning atmosphere. Your dishes do not arrive in genuine pre-Meiji Restoration porcelain. You are not hand-fed with silver chopsticks by a virgin from Kozujima. They do not use Hermes kerchiefs as toilet paper. Surely not by accident, Isamu is designed to keep one focused on the dishes, and the lay-out does not really facilitate conviviality: outstanding for two, satisfactory for three, and just barely tolerable for four diners who intend to make conversation an essential ingredient of their repast. Beyond two-pairs, and the extra effort needed to support gregariousness will compete with and distract from the food.
This is because Isamu focuses on the dishes, and eating here is and should be a quietish meditation upon craft and taste. Roland Barthes’ observations regarding chopsticks come immediately to mind. Do not come here for a charged dining experience – Creative Sushi, reviewed elsewhere in this issue, will support spirited groupishness much better. Come here for the food.
Here, now, the noble sacrifice:
Ice Lettuce and Sea Grape Salad: 20RMB
Salmon Sashimi (3 pieces): 18RMB
Horse Sashimi (5 pieces): 80RMB
Not as un-PC as whale, but some might bridle at the very idea of it. We’re assured the flesh is from horses raised for the table and not for the stable, and either way we have not saddled ourselves with guilt. Lovely.
Wild Snapper Sashimi: 25RMB
Indian Ocean Tuna Sashimi (3 pieces): 35RMB
Very likely the finest tuna sashimi we’ve ever had, anywhere.
Woo-don Noodle Soup 20RMB/small bowl, 38RMB/big bowl
We had 4 small bowls.
Argentina Shrimp Sushi: 25RMB/one piece
Egg Sushi: 12RMB/one piece
Salmon Sushi: 15RMB/one piece
Conger Eel Sushi: 38RMB/one piece
Quickly Cooked Mackerel Sushi: 20RMB/one piece
Quickly Cooked Salmon Sushi15RMB/one piece
Braised with a blowtorch.
Pickle Rolls 12RMB
Cucumber and Eel Rolls 25RMB
Ramune lemonade 25RMB
At the end of the meal we were each offered an oblong of egg sushi – nothing remarkable to look at, and something sushi eaters have surely had before. Chef Zhang introduced the dish thusly and pardon our translation cum paraphrase: if the fish is fresh, any competent chef should be able to send-out tasty sashimi and sushi. A good cut of fresh tuna will taste like fresh tuna, and likewise for a good cut of fresh salmon, swordfish, or snapper. But to take the simplest, humblest, and least mischievous of items and impart to it a distinct flavor, that is the mark of a master.
Our neat little rectangle of yellow demonstrated his point with the sort of dizzying efficacy that makes one blush, and smile.