Tsuiji-Han: Top Don In The Two-For-One Special Dish Game

Tsuiji-Han: Top Don In The Two-For-One Special Dish Game

One of the many pleasures of traditional Japanese cooking is that there are a number of dishes that transform, during the course of a meal, into something completely different — these are (for lack of a better description) “two-for-one” specials, and I love them.   The most classic example is Hot Pot a.k.a Onabe (or Chanko if a Sumo Wrestler makes it!) in all of its wonderful variations.  At its heart, Hot Pot is simple — a shared cauldron of bubbling kombu (or other) broth into which you cook seasonal vegetables, meats, poultry, and seafood.  When the various items are cooked, they are dipped into a bowl of broth and sauce (most typically yuzu or sesame).  By the time the various proteins and vegetables are all eaten up, the broth has become a savory amalgam of everything that had been cooked in it.  This is the point that you cue the second act of the meal: to this heady soup is added udon noodles, soba; or perhaps rice and an egg.  What started out as a spare, elegant study of individual flavors becomes a rich, filling noodle soup or eggy rice porridge.  It is the best of both worlds.

Similar to Hot Pot, Sukiyaki also gets the double-meal treatment: after all the high priced beef and onions are devoured in the sweetish sukiyaki broth, thin, gelatinous yam noodles are added for a winning finale. Shabu Shabu is similar to hot pot — the variance being that the fish and meat are cut so thin as to cook with two swipes in the hot liquid; thus the creation of the onomatopoeia (such a fun word to say) shabu shabu — the sound of deliciousness swishing in broth.  It too gets the noodle or rice addition.  To a lesser degree, I have eaten very expensive live shrimp in a sushi restaurant and later the heads were fried to a delirious crispness and served to me.  There is one unagi restaurant I often eat at and when you finish the unique flesh of that mysterious animal you are served a broth of eel guts (tastier than it sounds!).   Many wise and knowledgable Japanese diners will eat half of their grilled salmon with rice, pickles and the usual accompaniments;  they will then signal for green tea, pour it over the rice and flake the remaining salmon over the top for a lusty dish of ochazuki.

Recently I heard, through the previously touted “Tokyo Food Map,” tale of a great two-for-one dish served at Tsuji-Han.  So, on a quiet Sunday, I grabbed my kids and we headed off to Kagurazaka in the Shinjuku ward.  Tsuji-Han has a few locations.  The original is in Nihonbashi, but I heard that all of the sister restaurants maintained quality.   Unsurprisingly, there was a fairly substantial line to get in; while waiting a waitress came out and gave us menus.  This is a one-dish restaurant serving kaisen-don a.k.a. sashimi donburi — meaning a bowl of raw seafood over rice.  There is a basic bowl for about $12; a bowl with the basic fish plus uni and salmon roe for $20; and then a KING SIZE super-bowl for $30.  You can also add (for a price!) extra uni and salmon roe.  We chose the $20 bowl and waited.  And waited.  At the point when hunger started causing little flares of temper between the three of us, we were let in.

Tsuji-Han is beautiful.  Serene, quiet, decorated in natural woods and blessed with discreet lighting.  There are no tables, only a large counter behind which one chef works and a waitress bustles bringing green tea, water and helping to plate and clear.  We were given a dish of yellowtail sashimi bathed in a dark sesame and soy sauce.  Having been warned ahead of time, we tasted just one bite of this dish, preparing for future pleasures.  Our kaisen-don arrived,  a glorious pile of raw seafood — small pieces of squid, thin slivers of cucumber, shrimp, two different kinds of shellfish, tuna belly and tuna — all sort of pressed together with sweet uni and salmon roe cascading over the top like some sort of oceanic hot fudge sundae. This was stacked over a perfectly cooked serving of warm rice, licked with a touch of vinegar and dotted with sesame seeds.  A small jug of thick, heady soy sauce served on the side.  We poured that soy over the top and mixed in wasabi.  Using an elegant little spoon, I dug in.  I have eaten a lot of sashimi over rice in my life, but this was a completely different experience.  At Tsuji-Han, the flavors of the seafood combine into a glorious whole with bright flashes from the salmon roe and a touch of bitterness from the uni.  Similarly, the textures of the various elements blend together, with pops of tobiko to keep things interesting.  And, like that hot fudge sundae, you want to devour the whole thing in seconds; however, I watched as my fellow counter-dwellers lifted their bowls, sashimi devoured but a portion of rice remaining, up onto the counter-top.  When my fish was done, I too followed suit.  The chef took the bowls and asked if we wanted more rice (I said no, but my son — ever-hungry — said yes).  The waitress took those bowls and added to it a ladleful of long-simmering, hot sea-bream broth and topped it with a  small pile of green onion and a grating of fresh yuzu.  Ahh…yes.  The broth was rich and hot and the citrus notes of the yuzu the perfect counterpoint to that collagen laden goodness.  Remember that sashimi we started with?  Well, here is where it comes into play: I dropped that into the hot broth, poaching it just a touch.  Sublime.  I lifted up the bowl to my lips, draining every last drop, scraping the stray grains of rice into my mouth.  My son, unfortunately, blessed with a familial legacy of simply filthy language softly intoned, “Holy shit that was delicious.”

The two-meal-in-one special.  You might just have to curse.

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