Was in Shinagawa, Tokyo recently and had a hankerin’ for sushi but as I’ve never known Shinagawa as being famous for sushi I thought I was in for a small trek to some place more familiar and closer to home.
That was when I came across Ushio, a sushi bar located just inside the mouth of Shinagawa Station’s eastward gate. It was easily noticeable from its nicely designed shop entrance and cheap lunch menu, so I decided to stop in for a bite.
Ushio is a tachizushi bar in which customers are made to stand while ordering and eating. Back in Fukuoka where I used to live, I had an experience with another tachizushi bar and really liked it. Tachizushi bars in Japan aren’t really that much different from other sushi restaurants. Ushio was clean, somewhat small, adorned with wood and beer posters and the help was quite polite and cheerful. However, it wasn’t until I stood at the counter that I noticed what made Ushio unique and made me regret eating there.
Ushio has a pretty extensive menu with lots of variety of nigiri but not much more than that – they do have kaisendon and some makimono (wrapped sushi). However, Ushio’s real uniqueness is its ordering system. Instead of calling out to the chefs behind the bar or having a hostess write down your orders, there are” coins” with menu items printed on them. The coins (and most things in the restaurant) are written in Japanese and English, (which I thought was pretty neat) and when ordering, you pick up the coin with the sushi you want and place it in a little white dish upon the counter. The chef will acknowledge your order and proceed to make the sushi fresh for you. The cheapest coins were 90 yen while the most expensive (non-lunch set) coins were 750 yen. Mind you, each coin is 1 piece, not 1 plate (of two pieces) you might be used to at kaitenzushi or some sushi restaurants. The coins stay in your coin dish until you’re ready to leave. This also helps you to remember what you ordered and how much you’re paying in case you get started on a serious sushi binge.
Unfortunately, my coin dish wasn’t so full – I only used one coin during my visit. It wasn’t because I ordered a Nigiri Set or “Sushi lunch plate” which required only the one specially marked coin, but it was because I thought the sushi itself wasn’t on par with what I have come to expect as a sushi lover. Believe me, if I thought otherwise, I’d have filled my dish with at least a couple more coins.
First things first, the sushi rice was very plain tasting and seemed to come straight from an electric rice cooker. It didn’t have that distinct faintly sour-sweet fragrance or other qualities that struck me as anything but the Japanese equivalent of “Minute Rice”. Also, while each piece of sushi on my platter was molded with care and looked picture perfect prior to being anywhere near my mouth, it would take even longer to reach it as almost every piece was molded very loosely and fell apart soon after my chopsticks grasped them. A couple times, half the rice of one piece of sushi fell into my soy sauce with dozens of individual rice grains floating about like shipwrecked sailors. I’ve been eating sushi a long time and this had to be one of the most frustrating times I’ve had – with or without chopsticks. The businessmen next to me also seemed to have a hard time keeping their sushi together and soon I was done playing “man overboard” and just used my hands (which didn’t help that much). So the rice wasn’t that good, and the sushi were fragile – yeah, it happens sometimes you might say, but this was getting ridiculous at Ushio. Let’s move on to the fish.
Laid out before me was a 13-piece sushi lunch platter that had:
- 1 nigiri (molded sushi) piece each of chuutoro maguro (semi-fatty tuna), salmon, kohada (Gizzard Shad), ika (squid), ni-anago (flavored eel), tamago (egg omelet), binchou maguro (some relative of tuna), ebi (cooked shrimp), hirame (flatfish) and what I believe was akagai (red clam)
- 3 pieces of makimono, which was maguro
- a fair portion of gari or pickled ginger
- the meal also came with a complementary cup of green tea and a bowl of miso soup
I ate each piece with care and anticipation hoping that Ushio would show me something in substance to match its unique and customer friendly menus coins. Rice having already been explained above, was half the problem that made me a dissatisfied customer. The other half was that no piece of sushi on my platter tasted fresh nor had that much taste at all. I at least expected the salmon to retain its unique fatty attributes but it did not come through – all the fish used was plain and uninteresting. Of course, each sushi had its own texture, but that was about it. Nothing laudable in relation to the ingredients used. Wait, the kohada was actually quite good, but that’s because I had never had it before and my taste buds were probably put on red alert for the incoming of a strange fish. IMHO, Ushio missed the mark with its most important asset, its sushi.
I scarfed up my sushi one by one, finished my tea and miso soup, paid and left. From placing my order to stepping out the door it was about 25 minutes, which I thought was good timing even though it was in the middle of lunchtime. It could very well be that it’s such an unpopular place that only curious poor saps like me eat there – but, Ushio has been there for about 2 years (according to the hostess) so they must get a fair amount of business at other peak times (evening quittin’ time, weekends, etc.) It might be a totally different scene and level of quality that I didn’t have the good fortune to experience.
- Good points: easy to order and fast, cheap, easy to find
- Bad points: poor taste, felt like a jaw exercise, its basically all nigirizushi, have to stand the whole time
While I wouldn’t recommend this place for those who already like sushi, as a “practice” place, it might serve you well. The reason being, you order by the piece and the cheapest pieces go for 90 yen, which is pretty darn good – if you are still experimenting with eating sushi, you might not want to do it at an expensive place downtown – so it won’t cost you too much at Ushio for being a tad adventurous.
Below is a final photo of the menu-poster they used to advertise their sushi lunch sets.