Tomohiko Sato, Sushi Hinata
DREAMS OF SUSHI
EMERGING LOW-COST FLIGHT ROUTES AND WAIVED THAI-JAPAN VISA REQUIREMENTS HAVE INTRODUCED BANGKOKIANS TO A NEW STANDARD OF SUSHI WHICH THEY NOW DEMAND BACK HOME.
From the age of five, when he first saw his uncle making sushi, Masato Shimizu knew he wanted to be a sushi chef. "He was so cool!” says the Tokyo native. “That’s when I knew what I wanted to be. And I never changed that dream. My uncle told me, ‘Don’t go to college, all you’ll do is make friends and then graduate—you should start to become a sushi chef.’ And so I followed him. I left school at 18 because I wanted to be around sushi. From then, I trained for seven years, working every day, 100 hour weeks for 20 bucks a day.”
At 29 years old, while working in the kitchens of Jewel Bako in New York, Masato became the youngest head chef in NYC ever to win a Michelin star.
Now, he lives in Bangkok. While our city counts some 3,500 Japanese restaurants, it’s taken an incredible transformation of that scene for it to finally welcome a handful of venues capable of attracting and retaining a chef of Masato’s calibre. Whether you chalk it up to our rising living standards or Japan waiving visa requirements for Thais, the high-end sushi scene has reached a whole new level in the past three years.
After moving here to be with his Thai wife at the end of 2015, Masato opened the doors to his own, tiny new restaurant on Sukhumvit Soi 31. You won’t see any signage outside the eponymous Masato beyond a single lantern, no more than 15 inches wide, on which is written two syllables: “su shi.”
Walk inside, through a cosseting network of compact corridors and indoor rock gardens, and you’ll find yourself at the most in-demand sushi counter in the city. Six nights a week, a team of three chefs serve 20 or so courses of omakase sushi--a meal where the chef selects the courses--to the nine customers lucky enough to get a seat. As we write this in April, the restaurant is fully booked until the end of August.
Masato is just one of a growing wave of Bangkok sushi restaurants which have taken the city’s Japanese dining scene far beyond all-you-can eat salmon buffets and onto a plane which some say now rivals the best sushi restaurants in the world. At places like Sushi Hinata, Ginza Sushi Ichi, Tama Sushi and Umi Sushi, fish arrives at the restaurant every day from Tsukiji, Tokyo’s sprawling wholesale fish market widely regarded as the best place on the planet to buy fresh seafood. In fact, many of the restaurants won’t even do business the day after a Japanese holiday—if Tsukiji hasn’t been open, they won’t be open.
The Michelin Guide, although highly controversial in Japan, serves as a practical reference to mark the arrival of top-level sushi restaurants in Bangkok. The first was Ginza Sushi Ichi, opened in 2014 at Grand Hyatt Erawan shopping mall. The name Sushi Ichi comes from a one-Michelin star restaurant in the swanky Ginza district of Tokyo, headed by chef Masakazu Ishibashi.
Three young Thai entrepreneurs, Gavin Vongkusolkit, Siradej Donavanik and Supachai Wongvorazathe, brought Masakazu to open Ichi in Bangkok, which now operates with him as executive chef while an all-Japanese team of four—that’s a ratio of roughly one chef for every five customers—heads the kitchen here. The chefs in Bangkok rotate with the ones in Tokyo and Ichi’s other branch in Singapore to ensure no single branch can lay claim to more qualified staff.
"Obviously our fish is flown from Tsukiji Market every single day,” says Siradej. “Basically Masakazu, who is in Ginza, personally goes to the market at 5am to buy the fish both for his restaurant and our restaurant. It comes from exactly the same source, and he has built relationships with those suppliers for years so we don’t have to compromise on the quality at all.”
This, says Siradej, puts them in a more enviable position than other restaurants which need to rely on third party suppliers, but it also means their costs are incredibly high. “The margin is not attractive at all compared to lower-end sushi,” he says. “Even compared to Tokyo, our costs are higher because we have to import yet we sell to the customer at the same price.”
The experience at Sushi Ichi is uncompromising, though Siradej does say that he chose the brand because, unlike other legendary sushi restaurants like the three-star Mazutani, Sushi Ichi does not turn up its nose at customers taking photos or having spirited conversations.
There are two rooms, each with 11 seats and blanketed floor to ceiling in hinoki wood. All diners sit at the counter, where the chef presents their meal, one piece of nigiri after another, at an officious pace, moving through light and fresh white meats onto the heavier, metallic tastes of fatty tuna and through rich, decadent flavors like uni and Hokkaido crab.
Like many Bangkokians, Siradej grew up eating at the city’s many Japanese restaurants, but he also made regular trips to Japan from an early age, and knew that what was served here didn’t stack up against the sushi he ate there. Asked why restaurants such as his all began arriving in Bangkok around 2014, he looks to links between the two nations which were happening at that time.
“In the last three years you’ve had Japan really opening up to Thai tourists,” he says. “Thais no longer need a visa to travel there, which has meant there are now also many low-cost flight deals. For sure that has helped. We opened right around the time when the government eliminated the visas for Thais and so in that respect it helped enhance the notion of what proper omakase is.”
Randy Noprapa, a Thai national who has been making sushi since the age of 16 and, around the same time as Siradej was opening Ginza Sushi Ichi, opened his own omakase restaurant, Fillets, on Langsuan, agrees.
“I have been traveling to eat at Japan’s best sushi restaurants my whole life. Eight or nine years ago you would see no Thais in these kind of restaurants in Tokyo. Jiro, for example [the restaurant which starred in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, David Gelb’s hit 2012 film about omakase sushi], I’ve eaten there for years, but it would always be just Japanese people eating with me. But then five years ago I definitely began to see more Thais in these kind of places. I was like, wow, so we are actually beginning to appreciate the proper art of sushi.”
One person who has for a long time been traveling to Japan to eat at the most acclaimed sushi restaurants in the country is Chavanos Rattakul, a businessman whose portfolio includes several Bangkok sushi restaurants on top of real estate. Chavanos’s sideproject is an Instagram account called @puppup_foodguru, on which he documents his time eating at the best restaurants in the world—mostly in Japan. With his last trip to Tokyo in March taking in such hallowed sushi ground as Kyoaji, where the wait to get in can take up to a year and the chef turned down the Michelin inspectors, it’s fair to say that not many, if any, Thais have eaten at more of the world’s best sushi restaurants than he has.
“I am so proud of how far proper omakase has come in the few short years it’s been in Bangkok. Now people actually want to eat proper sushi and not those stacks of truffle and foie gras on top of nigiri—that is ridiculous!” says Chavanos, alluding to the bastardized form of sushi still found in many of the city’s most expensive Japanese restaurants, where the piling up of luxury ingredients goes completely against the less-is-more, centuries-old history of proper Edo-mae (traditional Tokyo-style) sushi.
“It’s a slap in the face for that culture and I am so glad people have started to eat proper food and appreciate the craftsmanship of the chefs,” continues Chavanos. “After just a few years we have seen huge progress with omakase; people can actually differentiate between the styles now and we have that variety on the market. Not long ago no one even knew what the word omakase meant and now it’s common among even mass consumers.”
He uses the example of Tama Sushi, a restaurant on Sukhumvit Soi 49 run by chef Seiji Sudo, a former chef from Ginza Sushi Ichi who now specializes in the Sho style of sushi, in which meals aren’t limited to nigiri but rather switch in delicately plated courses like conch, iwashi roll, grilled mixed rice with hairy crab meat and uni and Seiji's signature sushi soup.
“The Sho family in Japan has only like five restaurants,” says Chavanos. “Many people never get to experience this style of sushi, so I am excited that people here in Bangkok can now compare these varying styles—strong, mild, sour. From not knowing omakase to this is a long way to come.”However, Chavanos’s enthusiasm for Bangkok’s high-end sushi scene is tempered by a warning to not exaggerate the standard of sushi here compared to other big cities in the world.
“Every big city will have three or four good sushi restaurants on this level, whether it’s Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, New York or LA,” he says. “We are lucky that we are relatively close to Japan and so we get to source good ingredients, but there is no reason to say sushi in Bangkok is exceptional.
“OK, so the fish was caught yesterday and flown to Bangkok within one day. Already the flavor has changed,” he says. “In Tokyo you can serve it within an hour of buying it, so it’s very hard to mimic those standards. The water also makes a big difference. Water in Japan is so clean unlike water in Bangkok, so that has a big affect on cleaning the fish and making the sushi rice. Then there’s humidity, which is so much higher here than in Japan or in Europe, which affects the aging of the fish.”
Sushi chefs working abroad know this, and have developed methods to counter the affects of not being able to serve fish straight from the market. Tomohiko Sato is the master sushi chef at Sushi Hinata, another of Bangkok’s earliest upper-tier omakase restaurants, opened along with the luxury shopping mall in which it sits, Central Embassy, back in 2014. He explains the process of kaimin katsugyo—“live fish sleeping soundly.”
“There is a way to kill the fish without actually killing it,” says Tomohiko. “Usually in Japan when you catch a fish you completely kill it. But our supplier for this restaurant uses the kaimin method. Instead of cutting the spinal cord and letting all the blood run from the fish, they just hurt the spinal cord. It is not completely cut, just injured, and so the blood will let slowly. The body is not dead when the fish arrives in Bangkok. That’s the only way to keep the meat as fresh as possible.”
He goes on to clarify people’s understanding of the value of freshness to sushi. “Freshness is always necessary to begin with, but people often misunderstand why freshness is important. People believe fresh tastes better with sushi but it actually depends on the fish, whether it needs to be marinaded or needs to be cooked. Some fish do taste better with aging, maybe hours or days depending on the species.”
That doesn’t mean that it’s fine to just throw some fish on a flight to Bangkok and not worry about them reaching the city as if they were just plucked from the ocean. What matters, say the sushi chefs, is how you control that process of aging.
Masato Shimizu explains. “The style at my restaurant is always to think, ‘what’s freshest today?’ That is the best way for omakase and the best way for the customer. But some fish do have to age, just like beef, and I think that makes me a little different from other restaurants. Tuna I wait sometimes a week. That is when the umami is properly coming out. If you eat before it is a little chewy and the umami is not ready.” Umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness. It is the savoury flavor found in rich meat stews, miso, Parmesan cheese--and MSG.
Masato also elaborates on why it’s so important that fish should come from Tsukiji market in the first place. “At Tsukiji there are so many grades for everything. They will tell you everything: weight, when it was caught, who caught it, where it was caught. I am very curious to use some local fish but the freshness is just not good enough. I went to a couple of markets here and the smell of ammonia was just… no, no, no. And they’re using regular air-conditioned trucks to carry the ice. You open them and it’s already melting. I don’t know how this is not making people sick.”
Conversations like these are just the tip of the iceberg for how complicated sushi can become. While the cuisine relies on just two core ingredients—fish and rice—it’s the extremes to which sushi chefs have perfected that simplicity which, in many minds, makes sushi so special. And that appreciation, says Chavanos Rattakul, is still what the Bangkok sushi scene is sometimes lacking.
“We are still a niche group who really appreciate good sushi,” he says. “I think with the arrival of Sushi Ichi, it was great for Bangkok, but most people started to go there for the status, and now it’s the same with Masato. As soon as a restaurant is hard to get into, everyone wants a seat to keep up with the trend. That’s good in a way, but I wouldn’t say that everyone appreciates the food.”
Take your seat at the counter of Masato however and you might come closer to yourself having that appreciation for sushi. With the former New Yorker being able to converse casually with diners in English, and his right-hand man, chef Shige, speaking fluent Thai, you leave the restaurant with a crash course on everything you’ve just eaten, from sashimi cured using the Edo-period aging technique of kobujime to dainty cups of shirako—red snapper sperm.
One need not be an expert to be awed by the levels of craft and detail that go into sushi done right. Given the scandals plaguing the Thai seafood industry, we can only hope these venues will subtly influence our dining scene, and encourage chefs to demand similar standards from local produce. In the meantime, savor the unintended consequence of a regulatory change in visa procedures, which, ironically, allows to enjoy top-notch sushi without booking a flight to Tokyo.