A few years back, the best chefs in the world descended upon Kanazawa, Ishikawa: a mecca of culinary freshness. The chefs had come for a competition known as “Cook It Raw.” Each year the masters of savor are required to forage their own ingredients from a natural landscape. Ishikawa’s reputation throughout Japan – and now throughout the world – as having the freshest ingredients of both land and sea make it an informed choice for the competition and anyone interested in Japanese cuisine.
Ishikawa is a rural, peninsular prefecture that juts into the Sea of Japan’s depths. Neighborhoods on the peninsula are surrounded by rice fields and veggie gardens. Ocean canals cut across the peninsula and are lined with fishing boats. The boats take to the sea early each morning in order to bring fresh fish to Ishikawa’s supermarkets and Kanazawa’s restaurants each day.
Each of the three restaurants visited in this article are located in Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa. In each, the integrity of the ingredients is held to an Ishikawan standard; that is, if it is good enough for the world’s top chefs, it is good enough for you. Though the prices of these restaurants vary – from cheap to a high-end, and somewhere in between – each serves up authentic Japanese cuisine and atmosphere. Try all three and you will have an excellent taste of what Kanazawa, and the Ishikawa peninsula as a whole, has to offer.
Sushi at Benkay
Sushi is what everyone who visits Japan expects to eat, and, yet, when you do, the experience is like nothing you could have expected, especially if you get a chance to eat at Benkay. Benkay is on the sixth floor of the Nikko hotel, located just across from Kanazawa Station. Benkay is billed as a “Japanese restaurant,” and the menu does serve up a variety of set meals to choose from, but I recommend heading straight to the sushi counter. There are several sushi courses to choose from as well, ranging from 14,000 to 20,000 yen, before alcohol. This, of course, is not cheap, but if it is that once-in-a-lifetime, sushi in Japan experience you are looking for, Benkay will provide it.
I recommend that at a restaurant of this caliber with the masterful sushi chef, Shinji Hamamoto, behind the counter, it is best to utter the word, “Omakase (お任せ).” This word loosely translates to chef’s choice, and by leaving the choice to Hamamoto, you are ensured to eat the season’s freshest catch. My most recent visit’s favorites were Toyama shrimp garnished with blue shrimp eggs and crab brain, steamed blackthroat seapearch, and the mackerel sashimi wrapping vinegared rice. Also, be sure to allow master Hamamoto and his staff to pair your sake. The sake list is extensive and full of local flavors. If you are able and willing to taste all Japan has to offer, Benkay will not disappoint. The service goes beyond the high serving standards of Japan and the cuisine is the best you can find.
Yakitori at Kushisakaba Daisho
There are internationally renowned Japanese staples that must be tasted in Japan: sushi, tempura, Kobe beef. But the lesser-known, comfort foods of this great culinary nation should not be missed either. Kushisakaba Daisho serves up the tradition in an easily accessible, very affordable, seat-less bar. Many restaurants in Japan dedicate themselves to skewered meats known as yakitori, but few of them are as generous with their portions as this place. My two personal favorites are Gyurosu (牛ロース); beef roast and Umesasami (梅ササミ); grilled chicken tender garnished with a line of tangy plum sauce.
The restaurant also serves up fried skewers known as Kushikatsu. These are large slices of veggies, meats, seafood, and cheese that are fried, skewered, and served with a thick Worcestershire sauce. I personally like the Renkon (レンコン); lotus root and mochi (モチ); gooey, rice cake. Note that the Kushikatsu veggies will change with the season, so be sure to pick something fresh. Besides the skewers, several home-cooked dishes are prepared on the spot, right before your eyes. The yakisoba (焼きそば), or fried noodles, is a summertime fireworks festival favorite and is fantastic at Kushisakaba. Or have a yaki onigiri (焼きおにぎり); a rice ball grilled to a crisp on the outside, but steaming with sticky Japanese rice on the inside and served alongside pickled veggies. And even though you do not get to sit down while you eat, the beers on tap are the cheapest in town – 280 yen!
The restuaruant does not actually appear on google maps, nor is there a website, but it is right next to this Spanish restaurant:
Local fish and vegetables at Goishiyatsuu
Japan and its food run on tradition and this family run Izakaya, now well into its third generation, lives up to the Japanese standard. But another reason I recommend this restaurant is because it is a great place for both the adventurous and less adventurous eaters in your group. There is an English menu that has consistent, year-round favorites, including salads, sashimi, and garlic butter potatoes. But as Japanese is a cuisine of the seasons, the real fun is spelled out in chalked kanji on blackboards above the kitchen. If you do not read kanji, there are often staff members that speak English, but even if there are not, this restaurant is very foreigner friendly and will do its best to help you understand. If you are an adventurous eater, you cannot go wrong. Just ask for a recommendation and go with it.
Goishiyatsuu specializes in never-before-seen fish and vegetables, at least for those of us that do not hail from the Ishikawa peninsula. For a walk on the local side, try the kinjiso. It is literally known as an Ishikawa vegetable and is said, by the locals, to have medicinal benefits. This goes well with the huto-kyuri, a somewhat rare cucumber that is served with homemade, miso dipping sauce. The prices prove the versatility of this restaurant; you can snack on some cheap appetizers or spend 8,000 yen on the freshest, in-season, perfectly-prepared fish on offer. But even the fish going for under 1,000 yen will leave you satisfied. My last visit, I enjoyed the Kinmedai ichiyaboshi: golden eye snapper dried for 24 hours and grilled over charcoal; a traditional dish dating back to the 6th century that can be tasted at Goishiyatsuu for 800 yen.
Found right along the main drag of Katamachi’s back alley drinking area, Goishiyatsuu is a great place to kick off a long evening.