I was walking around in Simbashi, not too far from the station, and had 30 minutes to kill when I saw that familiar neon Sushizanmai sign.
As any hardcore Sushi Geek™ would, I decided that a quick snack was in order. I mean, how could I resist Kiyoshi Kimura-san's welcoming smile and open arms on that massive neon sign? I HAD to go in for a snack!
Some background information regarding Sushi Zanmai: it is one of the largest and most successful Tokyo-based sushi chains around. It has something like 50 branches throughout Tokyo, and 1300 employees. It is known for serving pretty good quality sushi at very reasonable prices. Kimura-san, the head of the company, is also well-known for bidding ridiculous amounts of money at Tsukiji's first tuna auction each and every new year, in what is always a very successful publicity stunt.
I've been to various Zanmai locations probably a dozen times in the past few years. I've had some good meals at the honten (main branch) in Tsukiji, but have also had some disappointing ones at other locations. For example, I found the neta at the kaiten (conveyor belt) Tsukiji bekkan (annex shop) to be of significantly lower quality than what was served at the honten, just a block away.
So... I didn't go in with particularly high expectations. But hey, I had 30 minutes to kill, and there are worse ways to do so than indulging in some cheap sushi.
Lucky me, Zanmai was running a "15th anniversary customer appreciation event", with five pieces of maguro priced from a ridiculously low ¥1,500 down to an even more ridiculous ¥1,280. Five pieces of tuna, including o-toro, chu-toro, akami, maguro aburi, and minced negitoro gunkanmaki - for about TEN US DOLLARS. Too good to be true?
I decided to order the five tuna deal, plus a piece of aji (in season!) and a piece of kohada (not in season but my favorite neta).
First up: my five tuna nigiri spread. The rice was severely underseasoned and too cool. Cold even. The tuna wasn't bad, but didn't have much flavor to it. The most enjoyable piece was the aburi (on the right) because the "flame thrower" managed to draw out some of the oils, making the piece more flavorful. The nori used for the gunkanmaki was a little soggy and lacked any crunch.
Same sad story for the aji: bad rice, tane lacking in flavor, poor temperature control. You can see from the photo that the aji is dried out. This is probably due to the fact that most of the neta at Zanmai is pre-sliced hours before being served, then placed back in the cold case for storage.
Temperature control and moisture control are critical aspects of sushi preparation. At a good sushiya, the itamae will take an ingredient out of the cold box, then slice it into individual neta typically 15 to 20 minutes before serving. The sliced neta then sits on the counter for a while and rises to its optimal serving temperature which most often is room temperature. Sadly, at a big "factory-like" operation like Zanmai, nearly all the neta is pre-sliced many hours in advance, causing the neta to be dried out and too cold when served. Moisture and temperature control are not given much thought.
And look at that rice! It looks all squished together. Grains don't retain their individual shape. It's an unappetizing, mushy mess. Yuk.
The out-of-season kohada, sadly, didn't fare any better. Let's face it, if the rice is not tasty the nigiri won't be any good. Nice effort on the braiding, though.
So, would I recommend Sushi Zanmai to others? Well, if you're on a budget, the honten in Tsukiji serves decent sushi at very affordable prices. Also, Zanmai is a good option for those with children, the shops are kids friendly. But there are so many much better options for great sushi on a budget in Tokyo. Some quick suggestions: the very nice ¥2,200 set at Yoshino in Nihonbashi, the ¥2,200 "Matsu" set at Bentenyama in Asakusa, the ¥5,000 lunch set at Iwa in Ginza... Three out of literally dozens of better options available. What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that you probably shouldn't waste your time eating at any old Zanmai branch... unless you happen to have 30 minutes to kill and nothing better to do.
1-12-10 Shinbashi, Minato, Tokyo