Tucked away in Maruyama, Sapporo, Sushi Sohei is a wonderfully cheerful place to savor sushi on the far north island of Hokkaido. The chef is a standout among sushi artisans with solid language skills adding international flair to a career that has seen him wield his sushi knives from Hawaii to Hong Kong.
Sushi Sohei is located away from the Sapporo city center in the leafy, upmarket neighborhood of Maruyama. Close to Maruyama Park, famous for its breathtaking cherry blossoms, the chef hopes to make this neighborhood a sushi destination alongside nearby popular restaurants Sushi Miyagawa and Sushisai Wakichi. The distinctively modern Japanese interior is the definition of minimalist, with only a solid timber counter and wooden icebox preserving fish to perfection by harnessing the cool airflow from blocks of pure ice.
There is no background music or works of art; the counter is a stage dedicated to the star here – sushi. Down lighting points to the fingertips that transport the sumptuous morsels to be devoured as cheerful shouts fly about the restaurant space. While some high-end restaurants have a stiff, serious feel, guests will surely enjoy the chef’s energy here, inherited from his years of training at Sushi Sho.
An equation of subtraction: removing superfluous elements, accentuating umami
Sushi Sohei has one omakase degustation course served in two sittings each day. Delectable seasonal seafood enters the stage as seven appetizers and around ten nigiri sushi pieces. Hoping to retain the fun and excitement for first-timers of dining somewhere new, the chef does not allow guests to take photographs of the appetizers. The nigiri component begins with squid and white-fleshed fish and moves to maguro and silver-skinned fish, known as hikarimono, before proceeding to lusciously rich sea urchin and plump shrimp. Anago conger eel is the distinctively Edomae sushi closing nigiri, followed by the simply delicious yet deceptively complicated egg omelet.
Chef Matsukura carefully eyes his seafood to find the perfect timing for service, waiting patiently for peak balance in the umami components of inosinic and glutamic acid. With tuna, for example, akami lean meat and marbled otoro are both typically aged for two weeks. The chef then chooses the preparation that matches his rice for each bite’s perfect burst of umami. He distills foods to their most natural, simplest form, removing all unnecessary toppings and additions. This subtraction equation can sometimes be confused with corner-cutting, but the two are nothing alike. Success in the equation of subtraction demands alignment of high-quality seafood, an innate sense of timing, and skillful preparation, allowing guests to focus entirely on the pure seafood umami.
The Sushi Sho philosophy shines through in the key nigiri sushi element of rice, flavored with red vinegar for aged, richer flavors and white vinegar for more delicate seafood toppings. Matsukura’s arduous search for the best rice led him to a variety nicknamed “phantom rice” because of how little of the crop makes it out of its native Gifu Prefecture. Not available until November, in contrast with most rice crops marketed from September or October, the rice is called Hatsushimo, meaning first frost – a reference to its late harvest time. The steady ripening process yields large grains with a sweetness that negates the need for sugar in the seasoning.
Matsukura’s specialty is, without a doubt, nishin Pacific herring. Brought into port at Abashiri on the east coast of Hokkaido, the chef explains how the flesh is different in nishin varieties from the west and coast of the big island. The eastern type has fattier flesh balanced perfectly by curing in salt and vinegar – the former to remove unwanted oils and moisture, the latter to imbue the fish with a satisfying, refreshing aftertaste. In this Edomae treatment of Hokkaido fish, all that remains is a delicate yet luscious flavor.
For now, seafood arrives at Sushi Sohei from Japanese ports near and far, but ultimately, the chef aims to serve an entire Edomae sushi course using only Ezo seafood, a reference to Hokkaido’s former name. There are two main styles of sushi: one involves fresh seafood toppings served as-is atop shari vinegared rice ovals; the other applies toppings of meticulously marinated, cured, or pressed seafood to rice ovals typically flavored with akazu red vinegar. The latter is the Edomae sushi style. Hokkaido sushi trends lean toward the fresh seafood form, but Matsukura will soon embark on a challenge to apply Edomae techniques to exclusively Hokkaido seafood. This contribution to local production for local consumption holds great significance for a Tokyo-born chef shaping sushi in his adopted home of Sapporo.
Sushi Sohei’s carefully curated seafood selection arrives direct from seafood masterminds around Japan: Oyama Sengyo-ten in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, is famous for its shinkei-jime preparation in which the spinal cord is severed to preserve freshness and umami; and Sasue Maeda Sakana-ten in Yaizu, Shizuoka, is known for individual preparations to suit chef’s needs. Chefs all over the country are desperate to source from these suppliers. That Matsukura can secure such premium ingredients is a testament to a career polished at the best sushi restaurants and outstanding communication skills.
Local Hokkaido fish and shellfish include nodoguro blackthroat seaperch fished by the family of Chef Matsukura’s wife in Yubetsu, Hokkaido, on the Sea of Okhotsk. As you hear the stories of the seafood’s origins, the decision to go independent in Hokkaido and the goal of exclusively serving Hokkaido seafood begins to make sense.
SAKE and GLASSWARE
Besides the cuisine, Matsukura pays special attention to his sake collection, which contains approximately 17 varieties at any given time. His love for the drink is evident when you see the specialized sake cellar and careful temperature management. The collection, featuring brewers from all over Japan, contains sake for pairing with appetizers and nigiri, all personally tasted by the chef. This includes the hard-to-find Hiroki and Jikon, as well as Yoshidakura u — a new series by a longstanding brewer inspired by the natural wine movement. From orthodox to rare and powerful styles from traditional breweries, the full range of styles may leave guests fretting about how they can try everything that piques their interest. But the chef is one step ahead. He has a half-tokkuri (90 ml) size on the menu precisely for guests who wish to capitalize on this opportunity to try multiple styles.
The sake passion extends beyond the liquid into cups as well. Chilled sake is served in order-made Horiguchi Kiriko faceted glassware. The Edo Kiriko style has been designated a national traditional craft. Within that, Horiguchi employs a revolutionary design that Matsukura had his eye on since his training days at Sushi Yoshitake. The stunning glassware sits at the intersection of tradition and modernity and adds to the delightful sushi and sake dining experience at Sohei. Matsukura special-ordered the tea cups from Takuma Murakoshi, a Shigaraki potter making wares in Kyoto. With a strong presence and thickness so great, the tea’s heat does not transfer to the touch; the cups feel so exquisite that they meld into diners’ hands. From the opening appetizer to the closing sip of tea, there is joy to be found at every turn at Sushi Sohei.
- The price includes our booking fee of ￥8,000
- The price includes our booking fee of ￥8,000