Since returning from a recent trip to Kyoto and Osaka, I’ve been busy telling anyone who’ll listen (or ‘annoying’ anyone who’ll listen, more to the point) about the fantastic food, and fantastic approaches to food, in Japan.
I pulled prawns sizzling from skewers. I watched cartoon-like pufferfish wriggling in markets. There was sweet and airy tempura. There was mollycoddled Wagyu beef – its web-like marbling melting on contact with the grill. There were heart-warming broths, punchy pickled vegetables to mix with your rice, and reams of local specialities like Osaka’s okonimiyaki (‘grilled whatever you like’).
Japanese cuisine tends to be served simply and prettily on the plate (as with sushi, for example). It contains lots of seasonal ingredients, and very little fat. After chomping my way through two cities, I think I may even have lost weight.
There’s nothing like the zeal of the returned traveller. I arrived home with chopsticks for the kids, turned the kitchen into a Laboratory of the Rising Sun, and have been digging through markets, delis and eateries in Dublin ever since. I’ve found several more Japanese restaurants than I’d remembered, too.
Yamamori and YO! Sushi are best-known – the old reliables. Yamamori has three locations doing sushi and sizzling ramen noodles, not to mention warm sake and cool Asahi beers, so it’s a great spot for a group meal. YO! Sushi is a zippy little chain, where you can pluck colour-coded dishes off a conveyor belt… playing to the Japanese love of fresh food and funky-yet-functional technology.
Then there’s Ukiyo, the frisky bar and restaurant on Exchequer Street, where you can kick off with a Bento box, hit the basement karaoke booths to crank it up a gear, and wind up boogieing into the wee hours on the restaurant floor.
Musashi, a noodle and sushi joint on Capel Street (pictured above), was my favourite new find. We arrived without a booking at 5.30pm on a Saturday, but found the staff super-friendly, moving chairs to free a table, replacing dropped chopsticks almost before they hit the ground, and serving with the smiles and bows so beautiful in Japan.
The room is long and thin, a tight space where you need to be careful not to rock your neighbour’s ramen. Low lighting, smooth wooden tables and cushioned, bench seating makes it feel like a slick canteen, and the crowd is cool and comfortable – a table of friends here, a couple of chatty girlfriends there.
The sushi (served with rice), and sashimi (served without), were both fresh as raindrops: buttery slivers of salmon, prawn and pickled mackerel were sharpened with a spot of soy sauce, or a dash of wasabi. The only thing I blew cool on was the tuna, which wasn’t a patch on the pink, fatty cuts I’d tasted in Osaka.
The highlight at Musashi was the tempura. The batter was excellent – light as a feather, and just sweet enough to play with the prawns, aubergines, asparagus and other treats it enveloped, without detracting from their texture and punch.
Next stop was Michie in Ranelagh (pictured below, and top of page).
Hidden away down Chelmsford Lane, a sliding door here ushered us into a box room with chilli-red and green walls, a mere handful of tables, and a constant stream of locals collecting takeaway.
It has all the hallmarks of a no-nonsense, neighbourhood secret. Picking up a copy of John & Sally McKenna’s 100 Best Restaurants on the counter, I read that Michie is ‘the only show in Ireland when it comes to sushi’. No pressure, then…
Six of us had dinner here, and we ordered widely. Highlights included a tightly wrapped roll of soft shell crab with rice, avocado, flying fish roe and spring onion; a side of crispy tofu and aubergine topped with sticky-sweet miso sauce, and the sushi. Nigiri of salmon, prawn, seabass and octopus were all demolished.
Less impressive was the seafood yaki udon, which came with nice, slithery noodles and snap-fresh vegetables, but after all of that sushi, the well-cooked chunks of salmon and tuna just seemed dry, pasty and lifeless.
Nothing beats the real deal, of course, but it’s refreshing to see this super (and super-healthy) cuisine buoyed up by rising foodie tide in Dublin.
What’s big in Japan can be big on this island too!
Dinner for two at Musashi came to €27.90, without drinks. Dinner for six at Michie came to €111.61, with three beers. Tips extra.
Musashi – 15 Capel Street, Dublin 1; 01 532-8068; musashidublin.com.
Michie – 11 Chelmsford Lane, Ranelagh; 01 497-6438; michiesushi.com.
This review originally ran in The Irish Examiner.