Pros: Eccentric atmosphere, ample portions
Cons: Limited seating, solo service
After several misses, we found the place: a doll-sized Japanese restaurant nestled on a hill between the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and Belleville. Ducking through the split noren curtains, we entered the cozy quarters of Mr. Kawaguchi, lone proprietor and sushi chef, who seems to have not gotten out and about much over the past 22 years, judging by his French-language skills. “Bun sway!” he said as he welcomed us with a noble bow, sporting smudged glasses, a white-and-blue happi coat and a paper chef’s hat scrawled with “SUSHIYA” in blue felt-tipped pen.
The decor is quirky: yellowed Japanese newspaper-cum-wallpaper, a pinboard of postcards and baby photos, hanging wooden slats with Japanese calligraphy, a spread-eagled kimono, Noh masks, a woodpecker toothpick dispenser, origami mobiles and wind chimes dangling from the wooden ceiling. And, as if to belie all clichés, a Pippi doll. At the back, a tiny plastic window stuck over with chopsticks at odd angles afforded a blurry view into the kitchen. Green and red folding chairs at brown Formica tables seat only 10, canteen-style.
Ours was next to the small front sliding window, blocked mostly by wooden shelves holding teapots, trinkets and origami that appeared to be the work of keen customers rather than old hands. Two men arrived shortly after us and took their place within elbow-rubbing distance, having pre-ordered their platters, which were ready and waiting. They bantered casually with the chef and – once he was out of earshot – admitted to us that he was a little hard to understand. A young couple then arrived with an infant that merited baby talk from the chef himself each time he flitted between la cuisine and la salle.
A complimentary pot of green tea arrived and turned out to be bottomless. No wine is on offer, just beer, sake or Coca-Cola, although the menu condones a BYOB policy. A choice of three main courses is on offer: assiettes of sushi, sashimi or futomaki, plus a small selection of à la carte sushi and maki. For starters, it seemed to be a toss-up between miso soup and fresh tofu, but when we asked about the latter, Mr. Kawaguchi told us it would be overly ambitious of us to order it.
Sage advice. My sashimi plate was copious: tender slabs of salmon, luscious slices of chinchard (saurel), pearl-gray slivers of mackerel, pinkie rounds of octopus and goldenrod layered cubes of omelette on a nest of crispy cabbage. My companion’s sushi platter, equally generous, ranged from crevette to cod’s roe and included a large futomaki of salmon, omelette and cucumber, plus a temaki cone about 4 inches long with white asparagus spilling out the wide end. The gari (ginger), chopsticked in between, had nothing canned about it and cleansed the palate with a sweet pickled bite. Savoir not savvy fare, making a key virtue of Omega-3s, vitamins and protein – and for €25-29.50 per person, excellent value.
Should anyone feel squeamish about eating Japanese food in the wake of the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, food for thought: the fish no longer comes from Tokyo Bay – as it did in the Edo period, when modern “fast food” sushi was invented – or even Japan. The salmon is mainly imported from Norway, Alaska or Ireland, the dorade (sea bream) from Greece. As for other ingredients, the tofu comes from the United States or China; the rice vinegar from England; the rice itself from California, Spain or Italy; and the seaweed from Brittany. If there remains a doubt, why not add a little more wasabi? – the piquant green paste made from the Wasabia japonica plant has potent antimicrobial properties and reduces the risk of food poisoning.
By the time the bill was delivered, we were on a first-name basis with the chef: “I’m called Taschichi,” he said, chuckling, “In English it means ‘Tasty’.” Indeed. I searched for a phrase my Japanophile nephew had taught me: “Gochiso-sama” (“It was a feast”). What a blessed relief from the samey sushi bars and chains scattered throughout Paris – and Taschichi is actually Japanese! I’ll definitely be parting those noren again.