May 1, 2018

Over 145 Years Old Sukiyaki in Tokyo - Ishibashi (いし橋)

Not too familiar with "sukiyaki," a Japanese beef dish that is served in a shallow pot with sauce mainly consists of soy sauce, sugar, and mirin. I did try such cuisine few times outside of Japan, but never felt the authenticity of it, somehow they seemed localized to suit the foreign taste. 

I had to try the real thing during my visit to Tokyo, and Ishibashi  (いし橋) was my first, actually my only candidate on the list.

Rumor or fact, it seemed hard to get a reservation at Ishibashi, especially this place doesn't open during weekends. Thanks to my local friend who helped making a reservation for me weeks ahead.

By the way, reservation is required at Ishibashi, and cash only. So please come prepared.

Ishibashi might be the oldest sukiyaki place in Tokyo. Look at the exterior, a two-story petite building covered in wood panels.

As we entered the restaurant, shoes off and straight to the second floor to our tatami room.

Described it as our dining space, but the whole vibe felt more like a Japanese grandma's cozy family room in the countryside.

There's also an old school heater in the corner that I have never seen before. The restaurant swapped it out with a giant ice cube during summer time. The melted water drips down from the ice to the box below, making a soothing melody that comes with a cooling effect. Perhaps I should revisit when the weather gets hot and see it myself.

A donation box on the other side of the room, similar to the ones inside a temple. So Mister and I threw in some coins and made a wish when the waitress was gone. We were shy.

Felt the history in every corner, but ancient doesn't mean it's old and broken. The entire place was very clean and dust-free. However, the most interesting place was actually the restroom. Both female and male restrooms were in the same space, just that there was an extra door for the ladies. Squat style of course, you pull down the bamboo shaped water releasing mechanism to flush. Not the most pleasing way to let go of yourself in this modern world, but trust me, even for the restroom, it was spot free. I double checked.

As for the guys, it had a footstep thing next to the urinal. I wasn't sure if the guy had to step on it or situate the feet inside the ceramic mold thing. Either way, I didn't bring my camera to the restroom. 

I got so excited and urged Mister to try the restroom. It'll be fun to see his expression afterward. He came back with twisted expression and question marks above his head. Of course I bursted into laughter and tears started dropping down my cheek. No pictures, save the surprise for your own eyes in the future if you plan to visit Ishibashi.

Back to the topic, so while making a reservation, the restaurant also check which part of beef you would like to try. My friend picked the marbled fillet for us. During our visit, the beef used were the top quality wagyu beef from Kagoshima.

No menu here, if you want something, just ask. Or per my case, with gestures and expressions. We also asked for a small bottle of sake. The waitress only checked which temperature we would like to enjoy the sake, hot or cold, and didn't inquire about what type or brand of sake.

Drink responsibly. We walked and took public transit back to hotel after dinner. By the way, it was still cold in March, so we asked for hot sake.

Some cold dishes to start off the meal.

Firefly squid, some veggies with grated radish, and sticky rice ball.

Also a bamboo seaweed dish.

All these were lightly seasoned, gentle and no one element was over-powering or stealing the spotlight. Seemed like an intentional setup for the heavy tasting sukiyaki coming up.

Kagoshima wagyu fillet for two.

Check out the marbling on that thing, my friend gave such fine quality wagyu a nickname, something like flower-pattern fabric. Indeed, beef can be just as beautiful.

Unlike the not so authentic version I tried from other places, the beef slices here at Ishibashi were actually slightly thicker, which will make a big different soon after.

Don't forget about the veggies.

So to eat sukiyaki, the cooked ingredients are dipped in beaten raw egg, just think of beaten egg as a type of thicker sauce to eat along with. The main seasonings are generally consist of soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. Not much difference among restaurants since the main components are the same. It's slightly similar to peanut butter and jelly back in the states, every family has their own way of making it, just the proportion and preparation are different.

The patterned bottle contained sweet and salty sauce. The plain bottle got water inside, which was used to dilute the sauce if customer prefers a lighter taste. 

If every family can make sukiyaki, what makes Ishibashi standout? What makes it great? Answer lies in fine details.

Our waitress prepped the meal for us. First she took a piece of beef fat to evenly coat the bottom. Then she poured in some sukiyaki sauce.

Once heated up, she picked out the largest piece of beef into the pot. Meanwhile, she asked which guest would like to taste the food first before she reached out to the bowl with raw egg inside. While waiting for the meat to be cooked, she beat the egg and set it aside.

Wait! This was wagyu beef with very high fat content right? Are we supposed to cook it for so long? I remember while eating yakiniku or shabu (hot pot), steak or slices, these wagyu beef were only cooked for a very short moment, sometimes just seconds. Is it ok to just let the beef "boiled" in the pot?

The key lies in Ishibashi's choice of beef slices. 

First, they were thicker compared to the other sukiyaki joints I've been, even though they might not be as authentic. Second, the marbled fat throughout didn't melt away. Well, in a way it did release some fat into the pot, but not causing the meat slices to collapse. The shape was still intact, and seemed like such big piece of wagyu was well coated with its own fat throughout.

The waitress even flipped the beef and continue to let it cook in sukiyaki sauce. Never knew wagyu beef slices could endure such long cooking time in highly heated pot.

It blew my mind, especially after I bit into the meat. I thought the whole thing would just melt in my mouth. It did, but with seconds of resistance first. It was such a large and thick piece of beef, so I had to give it a few chews. While chewing the meat, the marbled fat started to melt away then the whole thing just oozed into sweet and savory matter in my mouth.

It was more than just eating wagyu, more than just enjoying that melt in your mouth sensation. In the other hand, I also got the pleasure of "eating meat." Such fuller bite, and much greater satisfaction came right after.

Waitress continued to cook some of the other ingredients.

Some might think that the sukiyaki sauce was too salty or too sweet. But it was the result of careful calculation. A bowl of beaten raw egg was provided, once the cooked ingredients are coated with that beaten egg, everything made greater sense. The egg rounded out the heavy tasting seasoning, provided a gentle touch, similar to whipped cream served along side lemon tart. Hope my analogy makes it easier to relate to. 

So if possible, never ask the waitress to dilute the sauce with water. 

Back to my earlier question, what makes Ishibashi standout from others? I think the fine balance among the beef slices, the sauce, and the beaten egg hold the key to their success. That's not something every family can recreate easily.

Wagyu beef might be the key here, but other ingredients can possibly overtake that halo after basking in the sukiyaki sauce and beaten egg. Take clear noodles served earlier for instance, all the sauce clung around each noodle, once into my mouth, it was like a flavor punch. Also the onion tasted like pear, you have to try it yourself, it seriously tasted like sweet fruit.

After rounds of beef and veggies, waitress brought over some tsukemono.

It's time to fully utilize all the essence left in the pot. She added rice then poured generous amount of beaten egg over.

Lid on, the rice will finish cooking with trapped steam.

It's not zosui, a more common way to end a hot pot meal, instead, it's called おじや (ojiya). Similar to zosui, but slight differences on texture and seasonings. But as Ishibashi's famed dish, it can't be just a regular ojiya, it's 焼きおじや (yakiojiya). With one extra step, the rice on the bottom gets cooked and gently seared to brownish color. By the way, some hot pot varieties finish off with udon or even risotto instead.  

The waitress made sure my camera is ready before she opened the lid.

Fluffy egg on top, but once cooled down, it flattened out a bit, just a wee bit.

The yakiojiya was portioned like a pie into triangles. 

Very mild but provided such warmth to end the meal. The grains on the bottom were darkened due to condensed sukiyaki sauce, don't forget all the flavors dripping away from the wagyu and veggies were there too. Not as hard as the bottom rice from a Korean bibimbap, more like in between regular steamed rice and bibimbap.

Thought that whole pot of yakiojiya was too much to tackle. Perhaps due to its gentle flavor, it was gone in minutes.

Fruits came afterward.

Also our bill, such old school looking bill. Scanned through the items, surprisingly the hot sake we got was less than 1,000 yen. The beef portion was good, compared to the price, it was actually very reasonable and can even be considered as a bargain.

As we left our tatami room and got our shoes on, other waitress brought over a rock. Just like flint and steel, she hit the two together to create fire sparks behind customer's back. A tradition to repel evil things, just think of it as good luck. A kind gesture from Ishibashi.

Fun in a way, but the kind thought behind was one other thing that separate Ishibashi apart from other sukiyaki joints.

The waitress even knew to pose and smile for the camera. 

Ishibashi currently holds one Michelin star status.

Ishibashi いし橋

3 Chome-6-8 Sotokanda
Chiyoda-ku, Tōkyō-to 101-0021, Japan

Opening hours:
Monday to Friday 5:00 p.m. ~ 9:30 p.m.
Saturday, Sunday, Holidays off

*Cash only

*Reservation required

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