There are hundreds, no, thousands of sushi shops to chose from in Tokyo. So many, in fact, that first time visitors can be absolutely overwhelmed by the options. Should they try to book a reservation at a legendary shop like Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten or Sushi Saito? Should they wait in line for four hours in front of Sushi Dai in Tsukiji? (tip: don't do it, it is not worth it!) Or maybe settle for the convenience of a chain like Sushi Zanmai or Sushi No Midori? The choices really are endless. Personally, I always recommend Sushi Iwa as a perfect introduction to Tokyo Edomae sushi.
Sushi Iwa, owned by chef Hisayoshi Iwa, has not been around for long. Iwa-san worked as an assistant chef at Sushi Kanesaka for many years before opening his own shop in 2012. In only three years he has been able to establish quite a good reputation as a top Ginza sushi-ya, delivering high quality meals while keeping prices at reasonable levels.
As a pupil of Kanesaka, Iwa produces a similar omakase experience: delicious otsumami, and wonderful nigiri-zushi, with rice that is similar to Kanesaka’s rice; not strongly vinegared, but still at perfect body temperature and consistency. His tuna is a particular highlight, it is always aged to perfection and warmed to room temperature before it is served. I also greatly enjoyed Iwa’s hikarimono on my last visit, particularly the aji and saba on offer that day.And the setting is classic Ginza sushiya: very intimate (only 6 seats at the bar), with a beautiful light-colored wood bar and sparse but elegant furnishings.
So, yes, the food at Iwa is great, and the bar’s setting quite nice as well. But that’s the case with hundreds of sushi spots in Tokyo. So what makes Iwa such a good place for first timers?
In my mind, a number of factors make this shop the perfect introduction to Tokyo sushi:
If you go for the full omakase course with otsumami and nigiri-zushi, expect to pay about ¥22,000 per person with drinks, which isn’t that cheap, but still reasonable considering the quality. For a truly remarkable deal, though, come for lunch and ask for the 10 piece (¥4,860) or 13 piece nigiri set (¥8,000) - you’ll be hard pressed to find many shops offering the same level of quality at those prices.
Iwa-san speaks some English, and is very friendly. His sous-chef Shigeyuki Tsunoda , who is nearly always at the shop (even when Iwa is out of the country tending to his other store in Hong Kong), speaks very good English, having gone to school in San Mateo, California for a number of years. I was sitting with Tsunoda-san on my last visit, and found the quality to be as good as ever. His knife work and attention to details is as precise as Iwa’s.
Many Ginza sushiya are located in back alleys, often in basements or upper floors of office buildings, and with very little signage, making them a nightmare to locate. Iwa, however, is located on the ground floor of a building. It even has its own entrance, and is on a well-lit street. It is one of the easiest Ginza sushi shops to find, which can be a lifesaver for the jet-lagged traveller.
- Ease of booking
Sushi Iwa is well respected and very popular, but still fairly easy to book. If staying at a hotel that offers concierge service, I would recommend having the concierge make the reservation, but one can also book this restaurant via phone, in English, by requesting to speak to Tsunoda-san. Three to four weeks advance notice is usually more than enough time to secure a reservation.
- Rice seasoning
Quite a few traditional edo-mae sushi restaurants strongly flavor their shari with vinegar. Although this is my personal preference, it is an acquired taste and can be a bit jarring for those who are new to Edo-style sushi. Iwa uses akasu (red vinegar made from sake lees) in the shari preparation, but the level of vinegar used to flavor the rice is quite muted compared to many others, so even though the rice is excellent, the flavor profile will be more familiar to a westerner's palate.
Both Iwa-san and Tsunoda-san are friendly and welcoming to foreign customers. The atmosphere at Iwa is not rowdy by any means (it is after all a serious Ginza sushi shop!) but one can still relax and enjoy a nice chat with the chefs. On my last visit I was offered some delicious, complimentary aged sake (called "Koshu") - in this case a lovely 2005 Mizuho from Fukumitsuya Brewery. A lovely gesture of welcome.
Other recommendations for Tokyo first-timers: Sushi Tokami offers world-class sushi and great deals on lunch sets. Head chef Hiroyuki Sato speaks English. Note that he uses a LOT of akasu (red vinegar) in his rice preparation, which might be jarring to newcomers. Kyubey is a well-known institution: a large shop (five floors!) that is easy to book, decently priced, and accustomed to foreign guests. The sushi (and atmosphere) is not quite as great as Iwa's or Tokami's, but still delivers.
Sushi Iwa 8-5-25 Ginza, Chuo-ku,Tokyo, Japan Tel: 03-3572-0955