Picture, for a moment, your favorite neighborhood bar. Not a fancy place, just the kind of establishment you might drop by after work for a beer and a few bites. Now, imagine that it’s run by a tough as nails sushi chef, her semi-professional bowler husband, and their awesome punk rock daughter. It’s an unusual place, especially given that female sushi chefs are a rarity in Japan. But what keeps me coming back is not the novelty but the warmth of the Fujisawa family and their insanely satisfying and comforting food. Moreover, the shop has been around for thirty years, as noted on the noren above (おかげさまで三十数年 – “thank you for thirty years”). They must be doing something right, no?
(Before beginning, I should note that the owners’ daughter, Chifumi, is a friend of Steven’s and mine. Even if she weren’t, we’d still eat at Sushi Ten, and I’d still write about their food.)
When you sit down at the narrow wooden counter at Sushi Ten, someone will bring you a glass of water and the otōshi. This dish — a snack, really — comes with the sitting fee that most izakaya charge their customers. On a hot summer’s day, you might be served a tiny dish of crunchy, vinegared cucumbers and tiny, chewy squid tentacles, brightened with some snippets of dried red chile.
In cooler weather, you could expect a salty-sweet nimono (simmered dish) of daikon, carrots, onions, and potatoes stewed in dashi, mirin, and soy sauce.
The menu, which is handwritten on slips of paper tacked to the wall, can be challenging to read. If you’re confused, just order the basic sushi set and watch as chef Fujisawa pats the seasoned rice into ovals for nigirizushi. As her small, quick hands work their magic, she’ll place the sushi directly onto the wooden counter in front of you. Here we have tamagoyaki (sweet omelet), maguro (tuna), sake (salmon) topped with ikura (salmon roe), ika (squid) wrapped with shiso, ebi (shrimp), tai (sea bream) and more maguro in the form of makizushi.
Even if you’re completely stuffed by this point, you’ll also receive a generous slice of futomaki, a large roll stuffed with kanpyō (strips of dried gourd), cucumber, beni shōga (red pickled ginger) and tamagoyaki. A decadent inarizushi (a deep-fried, sweet tofu skin stuffed with sushi rice) comes embellished with a mayonnaise-bound salad of carrots and cucumber, the richness offset by shiso and the salty pop of ikura.
Somewhat incongruous but still delicious, a kushiage (fried skewer) of eggplant, green pepper, and chicken is also included in the sushi set. For added oomph, you can dip the ketchup-drizzled skewer in sweet Japanese-style mayonnaise.
Of course, no meal of sushi would be complete without miso soup, cloudy and complex in its lacquer bowl. A tiny dried anchovy head lurked at the bottom of this particular bowl – a giveaway that the stock was made from scratch. The soup’s intensely briny flavor indicated as much, too.
While Steven invariably orders the aforementioned set, I usually forgo Sushi Ten’s namesake offering and instead choose a variety of small dishes, mostly vegetable-based, from the ever-changing wall menu.
The best way to start, in my opinion, is with garlic, fried whole in its skin and garnished with sea salt. A quick bath in hot oil transforms the somewhat bitter raw cloves into silky smooth, sweet morsels – the perfect accompaniment for cold Japanese beer.
Next, juicy asparagus wrapped in pork belly, grilled, and simply seasoned.
Then some seafood. Just-cooked shrimp, their sweetness balanced by bitter bits of fried garlic, the warmth of toasted red chiles, and a splash of lemon juice.
A plate of summer vegetables blistered in butter with seared scallops and salmon belly is large enough for two.
Now, some fried vegetables for richness. First, insanely crispy maitake mushrooms, their nutty flavor enhanced by a sprinkling of sesame seeds in the tempura batter.
Second, panko-crusted fried avocado – a completely over-the-top dish saved by the piquancy of freshly grated Nagano wasabi.
For something lighter, a gingery wonton soup garnished with plenty of julienned leek and sliced scallions, is a good choice.
Finally, the pièce de résistance, and my absolute favorite dish at Sushi Ten: cubes of chilled silken tofu, quartered cherry tomatoes, wedges of fried eggplant, and mizuna in a spicy vinegar sauce laced with sesame oil, the whole thing crowned with a mess of chopped scallions and katsuobushi (bonito flakes). I could eat this every night and never become bored of its sharp flavors and wonderful marriage of textures.
Even if the food at Sushi Ten weren’t great, I’d probably still return. Why? Well, how could you not love a place run by people as friendly as these folks?
A huge thank you to the Fujisawa family for your endless hospitality, for allowing me to snap your photo, and of course for the all the wonderful meals. We’ll be back soon!
Nagano-ken, Matsumoto-shi, Chūō 1-25-3
Tel: 0263-32-4313 · www.geocities.co.jp/Foodpia-Celery/4370