April 18, 2023

Japan Michelin tour 2023 day 4: Kokuramae-style

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On our third morning in Fukuoka, we decided to take a break from having French breakfasts so I could enjoy another tamago sando (たまごサンド) from a convenience store. These days it's my favorite breakfast while in Japan.

I decided to take us out of Fukuoka city for lunch. We haven't had any sushi so far in Fukuoka this year, and I wanted to try a sushiya that serves it Kyushumae (九州前) or Kokuramae (小倉前)-style. As this trip only materialized a few weeks ago, nagging a seat at Tenzushi Kyomachiten (天寿し京町店) was simply out of the question. I settled instead for Sushi Tsubasa (寿司つばさ), which is well-regarded and earned themselves a macaron in the last published edition of the red guide for the region.

A trip from Hakata Station (博多駅) to Kokura Station (小倉駅) in Kitakyushu (北九州) takes only 15 minutes on Shinkansen, and from there it's a short stroll to the restaurant with just 8 seats at the counter. It's been more than 3 years since I was lucky enough to get my first experience of Kokuramae-style sushi at Tenzushi Kyomachiten, and I was looking forward to trying this. Chef Otan Tsubasa (黄丹翼) trained at Sushi Morita (寿司 もり田), whose master trained at the original Tenzushi (天寿し) run by the elder Amano (天野) brother.

Yuba tofu with purple sea urchin (湯葉豆腐  紫雲丹) - the sauce was starchy and thick. The yuba (湯葉) was nice and fluffy.

Clam (蛤) - topped with finely-shredded cucumber and myoga (茗荷). The sauce came with a surprising acidity, but it worked well with the clam.

Shime mackerel (締め鯖) - this was essential a bozushi (棒鮨), where the beautiful mackerel was wrapped around some shari (シャリ) and perilla leaves. There wasn't much acidity here as I had expected, and actually was on the sweet side because of what looked like oboro (朧). The kombu (昆布) wrapper was actually pretty thick, and very tasty.

Flying fish (アゴ) - very crunchy with lots of bite. The flying fish was meant to be wrapped with some shiokombu (塩昆布) and wasabi inside.

Chawanmushi (茶碗蒸し) - with new onions (新玉葱), glass shrimp (白海老), and a starchy sauce (餡掛け).

I can't begin to describe how much I love any kind of shrimp that's been deep-fried... and these were just wonderful together with the fluffy egg custard.

Marinated lean tuna (鮪漬け) - the tuna from Japanese waters (本鮪) was marinated and came with some marinated sea cucumber innards (海鼠腸). The latter was very salty and very strong. The tuna itself was very soft and I thought maybe it had gone through a few more days' of aging, but Otan-san said that was not the case.

Sea noodles with sillago (海素麺  鱚) - served along with tomato and perilla flowers. The tomato provided some sweetness and fruity flavors, while the ponzu (ポン酢)-based sauce added some nice acidity into the mix. The flowers added their lovely aromatics.

But the noodle-like seaweed known as sea noodles (海素麺) was the most interesting part. The texture was so interesting that I almost thought these were manmade noodles infused with seaweed, as there was certainly a level of chewy, springy bite.

Then we began the nigiri (握り) part of the meal. It is interesting to note that in addition to the usual pickled ginger (ガリ) that sits in little ceramic jars, they provide lightly-marinated cucumber that we couldn't stop eating...

The other interesting note is that some soy sauce is still used, not just salt and citrus juice. In fact, on some pieces Otan-san brushed so much soy sauce on top that it dripped down onto his hand and also onto the serving plate.

Neon flying squid (赤烏賊) - done in the signature style of Kokuramae sushi, scored and very lightly cooked to achieve this look. There was a big kick from wasabi and a hit of acidity from the vinegar and kabosu (かぼす). Topped with some tiny trout roe, sea urchin, sansho leaves (木の芽), a pinch of salt, and a few drops of kabosu juice.

Spotted halibut (星鰈) - with some spring onion wedged underneath the neta (ネタ), and a drop of kabosu juice on top.

Striped beakfish (石鯛) - with perilla leaf beneath the neta. Very thick cut and gives a nice crunch.

Tilefish (甘鯛) - pressed by hand onto a metal grill with skin side down to impart that smoky flavor.

Rosy seabass (喉黒) - this was, again, grilled. Very, very soft and fatty and melted easily in the mouth, but it was topped with a very thin slice of pickled radish, which added some sweetness along with slight acidity to help cut the fat from the fish. Really nice balance.

Sillago (鱚) - some yuzukosho (柚子胡椒) was added along with wasabi. Also a few drops of kabosu juice after adding the soy sauce on top.

Marinated lean tuna (鮪漬け) - contrary to what Otan-san said earlier, this was obviously aged a little as the color was brownish on one side. This was soooooo soft and fluffy, with higher acidity to balance the fat. The style seemed to be that of Tenzushi as even the angle of service was similar.

I was surprised to see that the prawns were not fully-cooked, but were actually mi-cuit in the middle. To be fair, Tenzushi serves their prawns barely cooked.

Japanese tiger prawn (車海老) - I actually liked this doneness better. Maybe more sushiya could serve their prawns mi-cuit...

We got our prawn heads later...

The soup wasn't some simplistic version made by stirring miso into hot water. This actually had lots of fish flavors along with ginger, as well as lots of sliced eggplant and spring onions.

Mactra clam adductor muscles and pink sea urchin (小柱と赤雲丹) - the sea urchin was very pale in color and very creamy.

Ark shell skirt (赤貝ヒモ) - this was interesting... and not something I think I've ever had as a neta. Naturally kabosu juice was used to cut the very strong flavors of iodine. Nice and crunchy texture.

Conger eel (穴子) - very soft and almost mushy, much like a castela (カステラ) that comes with a crunchy underside.

Summer vegetable roll (夏野菜巻き) - with Japanese yam (山芋), okra, salted plum paste, and shaved katsuobushi (鰹節).

Tamagoyaki (卵焼き) - nice like a sponge cake, more like a castela.

Watermelon juice - the watermelon came from Kumamoto (熊本), and this was really, really sweet. Apparently this was pure and had no sugar added to it.

Pretty interesting meal. While this was obviously not at the same level as Amano-san, there are certainly shades of the very best in Kokuramae-style and I still enjoyed coming here.

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