Shuraku Sake Bar & Bistro –
I didn’t know what I was thinking. How could I have expected good nigiri sushi at Shuraku Sake Bar & Bistro? It is an izakaya; which is essentially a gastro-pub. And even the best Japanese gastro-pubs in town, such as Kingyo, are not known for producing good, traditional nigiri sushi.
I guess I was so hungry today that I wasn’t thinking straight. I had an extra-early breakfast at 6:30 AM and by the time my wife and I arrived at Shuraku for lunch at 12:45 PM, I was beyond starving. For some reason, I was also craving raw fish. So instead of ordering something filling like pork katsu or one of the donburi bowls, my wife and I ordered two appetizers, a spicy tuna roll, and an assortment of nigiri sushi.
The first appetizer that arrived at our table was the spicy agedashi tofu.
This dish was a very nice start to our meal. It came piping hot and one bite of it temporarily satiated my eager appetite. The spicy dashi ponzu sauce was very flavourful. The breading of the tofu ensured that an adequate amount of sauce was absorbed. Each piece of tofu exploded with the flavours of the sauce on every bite. To make up for the sauced-up breading which was no longer crispy, crunchy strings were included with the dish. Having the strings with every bite created a beautifully crunchy/tender textural contrast that was as enjoyable as the nice flavours of the sauce.
After the satisfying spicy agedashi tofu, our meal began it’s downward descent into unpleasantness. It started with our second appetizer, the standard gyoza (as opposed to the ebi gyoza).
The skin of the gyoza was too tough. Instead of being able to break through the skin by applying slight pressure on my teeth, I had to close my jaw and grind my teeth together to break apart the skin. There was also way too much oil on the skin. Without even biting into the gyoza, the inside of my mouth was covered with an unappetizing oiliness. When I did manage to break the skin to taste the fillings, I was unimpressed with the flavours that I encountered. The aromas that the filling gave out were akin to that of a half-eaten dumpling sitting out in room temperature for several hours. I felt like I was tasting the unpleasant beginnings of the fermentation process. I was hungry so I did manage to finish the dish by holding my breath and basically swallowing the gyozas.
Luckily, I did not have to hold my breath when I was eating the nigiri sushi and the spicy tuna roll.
We ordered anago (saltwater eels), toro, hamachi, sockeye salmon, suzuki (sea bass), bigeye tuna, albacore tuna, amaebi (sweet shrimp), and ankimo (monkfish liver). The sorry piece of nasty blob they called ankimo was almost inedible. It was dry, rubbery, and had none of the delicate textures and flavours that I usually got with ankimo. It was like they cut up a piece of rag, put it on top of rice, and wrapped it in seaweed. The included ponzu sauce also did nothing to enhance it’s non-existent flavours. This was the worst piece of liver – from any animal – that I’ve ever had.
The sweet shrimp was almost as bad as the monkfish liver. It had a pungent fishy aroma; a sign that indicated the fact that the shrimp was not fresh. It would have been better if the shrimp was fried like the included well-fried shrimp head. The head had a nice flavour and I actually felt safe eating it. This was unlike the shrimp, which left my wife and I worried for our intestinal well-being after ingesting it.
The sushi rice that resided beneath the shrimp was also poorly made. In fact, the sushi rice residing below every piece of nigiri sushi we had today was inexcusably bad. The grains of rice were cold and hard, resembling the worst of supermarket sushi. There was also too much vinegar in the sushi rice. This gave the sushi rice such an overwhelming flavour that I was barely able to get any flavours from the other varieties of fish I ordered.
The bigeye tuna was supposed to have a bold, almost-bloody aroma but all I could taste in the bigeye tuna nigiri was the sushi rice. The same can be said for the hamachi, the sockeye salmon, the albacore, and the suzuki. The only two pieces of fish that I could get flavours from were the toro and anago. I could taste the anago because it was pre-sauced. And the only flavour that I gleaned from it was sweetness. Other than that, I got nothing in terms of flavour.
The toro didn’t have any sauce on it, but it’s high fat content managed to break through the vinegar-ness of the sushi rice. It’s unctuousness was really enjoyable for a second, but it’s thiness prevented any enjoyment beyond that. As if non-existent flavours were not enough, they had to be cheap with the cuts of fish they offered.
The only thing that they didn’t mess up with the fish was their textures. The textures of the hamachi and sockeye salmon both felt firm and fresh. The albacore was it’s usual mushy self. The suzuki was almost squid-like rubbery, which meant that it was quite fresh. The anago was rougher than freshwater eels, and exhibited a more fish-like texture than the freshwater unagi.
The textures and flavours of the spicy tuna roll were also nothing special. Again, they were on par with the spicy tuna rolls you would find in the sushi counter of your local supermarket. If I didn’ t know any better, I would even venture to guess that they were actually bought at a supermarket.
The sushi that my wife and I had at Shuraku was no better than what one could normally get at their local supermarket. The only difference is that the sushi is much more expensive at Shuraku. But I guess that is the whole point of the izakaya. They serve liquor, but at a higher price than the local liquor store. They serve gyoza and agedashi tofu, but at a higher price that what it would cost you to make it at home. They serve sushi, but at a higher price than your local supermarket. The upcharge is for the ambiance of the pub. The ambiance induces you to drink more. And when you’re suitably drunk, food that is otherwise crap tastes like a slice of heaven. The izakaya/gastro-pub: the best restaurant business model out there.