There was a time when ‘vegetarian sushi’ meant you were limited to a sad plate of kappa maki (cucumber rolls) at conveyor belt joints and a rare few high-end (read: bank-breaking) omakase restaurants that were willing to accommodate those who couldn’t eat seafood. This is no longer the reality, with Tokyo catching up to accommodate vegans, vegetarians and plant-based dieters in an increasingly conscientious world, both socially and environmentally.
On top of dairy-free ice cream parlours and herbivore-friendly ramen joints, vegans and vegetarians now have access to a quintessential Japanese dining experience known as omakase sushi. Typically, this is a showcase of the chef’s recommendations featuring the best catch of the day and a few popular delicacies like fresh uni or abalone. For many seasoned sushi chefs, a crate of fruit and veg could never live up to a freshly caught bounty of seafood, but Hisashi Udatsu sees things a bit differently from his culinary contemporaries.
In a gallery-like space, chef Udatsu adds a fresh, modern perspective to a Japanese native cuisine
Hidden away on a quiet residential street in Nakameguro, Udatsu Sushi is built on a concept of combining traditional Edo cuisine with contemporary art by Japanese artists. Ergo, the restaurant is all about embracing new ideas while staying true to traditional roots.
Fish-free sushi may deviate from what we consider to be Edomae omakase, but chef Udatsu wholeheartedly welcomes the challenge of devising plant-based alternatives if it means sharing his passion for sushi with more people. With a solid foundation acquired from years at a Michelin-starred sushi restaurant in Ginza, chef Udatsu incorporates unconventional ingredients and techniques to give diners an experience unlike any other.
Inventing plant-based sushi isn’t just a matter of swapping out fish for veg
Vegetarian cuisine has evolved from using vegetables as mere substitutes for meat to celebrating vegetables as ingredients in their own right. The same can be said about chef Udatsu’s inspired approach in vegetarian sushi.
He takes pride in the relationships he has with all his vendors. This aspect is essential in securing the best fish from the veteran fishmongers of Toyosu as well as getting the weekly shipments of produce from Kajiya Farm, which grows pesticide-free herbs and edible flowers for some of the top restaurants in the country. Because of the chef’s respect for the produce and the people who provide them, these vegetarian alternatives are not stand-ins for conventional sushi. Instead, they are a new take on sushi that’s born out of Udatsu’s appreciation for the unique flavour and characteristics of each ingredient.
Fish-free dishes are anything but boring
As other diners tuck into morsels of otoro (fatty tuna) and nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch), vegetarian diners will instead be served grilled pieces of prized matsutake mushroom and golden nuggets of corn tempura lightly smoked with applewood.
Some dishes, like Udatsu’s signature nori rolls of cured mackerel, call for subtle changes like paper-thin strips of daikon in lieu of fish. Other dishes, however, require a higher level of ingenuity. In place of the crispy amadai in broth, for instance, chef Udatsu serves his vegetarian guests a mouthwatering platter of delicately fried fig in a richly flavoured dashi topped with grated daikon.
There's finesse in every piece of nigiri
When it's time for the nigiri, chef Udatsu uses rice mixed with a special blend of three vinegars to expertly craft pieces of shiitake, aubergine and okra sushi. This is served one-by-one to match the pace of the regular omakase course. Most of the vegetable nigiri reflect a purist approach of letting the ingredients speak for themselves, doing little to alter their flavours aside from a light brush of soy sauce, mirin and sake glaze.
One piece, however, is given a modern twist with a topping of tempura battered seaweed and guacamole – a playful nod to the restaurant’s next door neighbour and tequila bar, Faramarz.
At ¥16,500 a head for the vegetarian sushi course, Udatsu is not the casual go-to sushi joint where one would drop in for a quick bite. However, the restaurant’s warm atmosphere makes it easier for newcomers and novices to feel relaxed as they sample Udatsu’s virtuoso creations. After all, sushi – like art – should be for everyone.
For reservations, see Udatsu’s website or contact the restaurant via Instagram DM. The vegetarian omakase course must be requested two days in advance. As Udatsu Sushi only serves omakase courses made with seasonal ingredients, course offerings may differ from those mentioned in this article.
This article was originally published on September 10 2021 and updated on July 25 2022.
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