Sukhumvit Soi 31 is no stranger to Bangkok food writers. Some of the city’s best restaurants are found there – Appia, Harvest and Baa Ga Din to name a few – but the best on the block is a place few have seen, and even fewer stepped inside.
Nestled just off the main road, shrouded in between clusters of parked motorcycles and graffiti-laden concrete walls, sits Sushi Masato – arguably the most exclusive table in town.
While Gaggan, the two-time reigning champion of “Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants”, requires one week to get in the door, Sushi Masato is booked for months at a time – as of writing, the restaurant is completely reserved for 2016 and won’t start taking reservations again until the end of the year – and it’s been this way since the grand opening in January.
It’s so in-demand that celebrities like Vuthithorn “Woody” Milintachinda and Patcharasri “Kalamare” Benjamas have live streamed their experiences eating the restaurant’s 20-plus-course omakase menu.
The cause of that buzz is undoubtedly the knife-wielding sushi master behind the counter, Chef Masato Shimizu. The Japanese chef rose to prominence in New York while running the sushi bar at the renowned 15 East Japanese restaurant in Manhattan – it won a Michelin star during Masato’s tenure, and lost it after his departure to Bangkok in 2015 to live with his Thai-Japanese wife.
Our evening started with four appetisers – a bowl of fresh ikura (red salmon roe), sliced sanma (Pacific saury) in sudachi juice, hamo (pike eel) in plum sauce and finally a Japanese-style tomato with a pinch of fleur de sel (top layer hand-harvested sea salt).
The ikura, in a light dashi broth with yuzu zest, was pleasantly savoury and sour with a salty emphasis from the roe.
The sanma was slightly bitter and spicy thanks to the sudachi juice and slice of fresh ginger.
The hamo eel in plum sauce rounded things off with delicate steamed flesh and a subtle sweetness. By the end, your entire palate is awake and ready for the courses to follow.
And with that, the wave of sushi begins. Masato’s ability to slice, chop and meld pieces of fish into beautiful nigiri at breakneck efficiency is a thing to behold. Each piece has a feeling of individuality as he slaps it down on the bamboo tray in front of you – usually accompanied by a dash of sushi history.
“This one is to quiet the sushi snobs,” he jokes while placing a kohada (gizzard shad) nigiri at the table. As one of the original Edo sushi ingredients, Chef Masato explains that most sushi purists in Tokyo evaluate the quality of a sushi restaurant based on how the kohada is prepared. That preparation involves delicately filleting, curing and marinating the fish to bring out the flavours just so – in this case, a firmer texture and refreshing acidity.
As Chef Masato intends, the entire meal is a roller coaster of delicate flavours and contrasting textures. From the buri (wild-caught yellow tail) with butter-smooth flesh and piercing dash of freshly-grated wasabi to the uncured iwashi (Japanese sardine) – a traditionally salted fished Chef Masato proclaims is uncured this time because “That’s my style!” – every item on the evening’s menu is unique, fresh and memorable.
There were a couple of standouts, however. Masato’s uni (sea urchin), a dish he was famous for in New York, is sensationally light and creamy with just the right amount of briny salt developing on the tongue over time. It’s a bit of a mouthful served with rice on a spoon, but definitely one you crave for again.
His signature dish, anago (sea eel) from Tsushima Island, Japan, was the highlight of the night. When asked what makes it his signature, he smiles. “Eat it. You’ll understand.” The eel is so soft it practically needs no chewing, but is much less oily than uni and slowly uncorks a wave of sweetness as you eat. In terms of the evolving texture and flavour, the anago was certainly dramatic, memorable and unexpected.
“Now you know,” Chef Masato smiles again.
Nailing down what makes a meal at Sushi Masato so memorable is hard to do. The food is exceptional, the menus are thoughtful and, indeed, surprising and Chef Masato has a personality to carry the show. But even the restaurant’s leader has a hard time explaining the widespread admiration of his work.
“I do my best. I’m not trying to do anything special. It’s a very basic thing to do what I do every day, but the customers like it, and that’s it. I don’t know,” he laughs. “Of course, I take what I do very seriously, but for me [making sushi] is just a simple, normal task.”
That’s probably it right there. Sushi Masato doesn’t try to be bold, brash or make noise. The sole purpose driving the establishment and its owner seems to be perfecting the “normal tasks” needed to make sushi shine, which is why, both figuratively and literally, it’s a one-of-a-kind dinner experience, and well worth the wait.