Sushi Arai is massively popular these days - not only with Tokyo residents but also with foreign visitors. So popular that Arai opened a second counter a few months ago. I’ve received at least a dozen messages in the past few months from readers regarding Arai - asking how to book the main counter (you can’t), or asking whether or not the second counter is worth a visit. Hopefully this post will help answer some of the questions that people have regarding the second counter.
I returned to Sushi Arai for a second visit on a recent trip to Tokyo, after having had a great lunch there last year. You can check out my review of that experience here. Unlike my previous visit though, this time, I only managed to book a seat at the second counter - which I’ve dubbed “the tourist counter”. I was a little apprehensive about it, but it turned out to be an enjoyable (albeit expensive) lunch. It should be noted that the first counter with Arai-san is now almost exclusively reserved for regulars. Foreigners, by all accounts, are only able to book the second counter. Also, only one option is offered to foreign tourists at lunch, a ¥20,000 lunch that includes both otsumami and nigiri. A pretty steep increase in price, since last year my lunch (which, to be fair, was nigiri-only) at the first counter with Arai-san was only ¥10,000!
So, how’s the experience? And more importantly, how's the food?
The second counter, which is manned by a young chef by the name of Watanabe-san, is very tiny and intimate, seating only five. During my visit, I lunched along with two chefs from Australia, and the three of us had Chef Watanabe’s undivided attention for the duration of the meal. Watanabe-san, who speaks English quite well, quickly warmed up to us and was funny and entertaining.
I’m happy to report that overall, the quality of the food at Arai's 2nd counter is very good. Watanabe-san's nigiri molding technique is maybe not quite as refined as a top echelon chef like Arai-san (see images of nigiri below) - but this had a fairly negligible effect on the flavor of the sushi. Also, I assume that the super-rare cuts of maguro (like senaka akami, a cut from the back of the tuna just under the dorsal fin) that Arai has recently become famous for are only served to Arai’s regulars at the main counter. The maguro I was served, from Aomori prefecture, was very good but not particularly memorable - and it certainly was not a particularly rare or prized cut. Other than these few issues, the food is outstanding. Just like at the main counter, I found the nigiri to be delicious - bold shari that is strongly seasoned with a blend of komesu and akasu, and uniformly high quality neta. The shari really stands out, it is sharp and sour, and works really well with the neta.
I wouldn’t say that the meal, priced at Y20,000, is a great deal, but I do feel that the pricing is fair considering the amount and quality of the food that is served. I greatly enjoyed my lunch with Watanabe-san and would return for another lunch at the second counter without hesitation.
A note about the “tourist counter” concept: this is a concept that other sushiya have adopted as well (Iwa, for example, frequently groups foreigners together at their second counter). I’ve seen a lot of comments online from people who think this is a racist practice. I’d like to provide some explanation as to why sushi restaurants in Tokyo are adopting this practice.
One of the important aspect of the sushi dining experience is the interaction between chef and customers. If a chef doesn’t speak much English, it it very difficult for him or her to engage foreign customers in conversation in a meaningful way. This places stress on the chef, who not only feels that the foreign customer is being neglected, but also feels that it affects the experience for their regulars as well. The vibe definitely changes if half of the customers at the counter don’t speak Japanese. Therefore, if they have a capable chef on staff who is more fluent in English, and the space for a second counter, the idea to open a second counter starts to make a lot of sense. Foreign customers are then able to fully enjoy the sushiya experience, chatting with a chef who can understand them. To these restaurants, the second counter exists not only to keep their regular Japanese customers happy, but also to improve the experience of foreign customers.
It should also be noted that foreign customers very frequently misbehave in sushi shops in Japan. I’ve personally witnessed this many times. I’ve seen shocking behavior from foreign customers at counters of well-known shops (women doing their makeup at the counter, men playing games on cell phones and picking the rice off their nigiri... ) - no wonder then that a separate counter for foreigners becomes even more appealing under these circumstances.
Below you’ll find a gallery of photos taken during my lunch at Arai’s second counter, with items shown in the order they were served.
Sushi Arai 8-10-2 Ginza, Ruan Building B1F, Tokyo