Many visitors to Sapporo are familiar with the Susukino nightlife district, but Sushi Tanaka beckons you a little away to a quieter place of unmatched individuality. A food lover from childhood, the chef has been singularly devoted to sushi since his teens. He is fascinated by sushi as a uniquely Japanese culture and driven by the challenge of how far he can take his own style in the incredibly simple cuisine combining only seafood and rice. There is nowhere to hide—the artisan’s skills are on full display in every bite.
Tanaka's pure love for sushi does not mean he mimics every Edomae sushi tradition. Only the counter feels traditional—a single plank of straight grain Sitka spruce, where the chef and guests interact on the same level. The distance between the chef and guests is purposefully limited so guests can witness the artisan at work and then listen without distraction to the menu descriptions. Every interior element was carefully chosen so guests could enjoy Tanaka’s sushi to their hearts’ content.
Sushi Tanaka is spacious with plenty of room to relax, like the living room of a luxury vacation home. It is minimalist and unadorned, with a warm, modern feel afforded by the surrounding timber. Guests remove their shoes and step up into the dining area in another touch intended to evoke the sense of relaxing in a holiday home, designed by a residential home specialist with generous gaps between seats and open space on both sides of the counter.
There is even enough room for a wooden Steinway grand piano, which takes pride of place to the guests’ left. A seemingly unusual decoration choice, the 1970 piano fuses beautifully with the interior thanks to its warm timber structure. The only one of its kind in Japan, the piano was an impulse buy, so charmed was Tanaka by its beauty. There must be an incredibly romantic atmosphere when a pianist performs at private parties or on the restaurant’s anniversary — a real sense of escape from the everyday.
A sushi artisan
Tanaka calls himself a sushi artisan, not a chef; guests should not come in pursuit of his cuisine but his sushi. He initially served tsumami appetizers, bowing to an assumption about guests’ desires. But then the pandemic taught him that we cannot predict what might happen. Thus, he determined to pursue his vision of switching to sushi alone four years later. The first high-end sushi chef in Hokkaido to bet everything on sushi, Tanaka maintains his pure sushi format despite losing some reservations when prospective guests learn there are no tsumami. The goal is to prove that his sushi offers total satisfaction without needing anything else.
The Sushi Tanaka course is all sushi for fifteen delectable mouthfuls. Pressed sushi, hand-rolled sushi, sushi steamed in a yuzu cup, and of course, nigiri sushi. Incorporating Kansai sushi culture in the form of oshizushi pressed sushi makes for an original menu not found elsewhere in Hokkaido. The shari seasoned rice ovals that carry the seafood toppings make or break a sushi dish, and Tanaka’s rice is seasoned with just vinegar and salt, no sugar. His rice is supplied by a contracted farmer in Niigata Prefecture whose rice is not for sale on the general market. The original koshihikari strain, not an improved varietal found more commonly, Tanaka had the chance to taste the grains before going independent. He was shocked and delighted to discover the rice – full of innate sweetness and with consistent shape – because he wanted to make his shari without sugar. He washes it with electrolyzed water to wash away oxidized rice bran and unearth its pure flavor. As the rice will later soak up vinegar, Tanaka cooks the rice on high heat to remove as much moisture as possible and evenly fluff up every grain. So high is the flame that a layer of rice sticks to the bottom of the pot.
For the first three years, Tanaka used only akazu red vinegar until a stunning encounter that changed all his preconceived notions of rice vinegar. Whereas akazu lifts the sushi flavor with forthright umami, rice vinegar takes a step back, allowing the seafood topping to shine. So now he makes both varieties and alters the shari to match the topping, shaping sushi with as few touches as possible to avoid squashing the rice and impacting the seafood flavor. To hold the rice, Tanaka uses a sawara cypress timber tub stored inside a woven basket to prevent the transfer of stainless steel odors. These are just some of the countless choices Tanaka makes to perfect his sushi. And he recommends that guests devour each bite at its peak within ten seconds of service.
Maguro tuna, kohada gizzard shad, and anago conger eel are shipped from Toyosu Market, but everything else is from Tanaka’s native Hokkaido. Some come from markets, and many others are sent directly by fishermen who happen to be Tanaka’s friends. The dealings proceed in a format that all, including the fishing cooperative, are happy with. He spends as much time as possible by the seaside, sometimes boarding fishing boats to learn more about the current conditions, building relationships with the fishermen and securing high-quality seafood in the process.
Tanaka is incredibly particular about maguro—the star of sushi – placing regular orders with the most trusted Toyosu tuna supplier, Yamasawa. Tanaka’s relationship with the wholesaler began during his Tokyo training years when he was awestruck by how different the maguro was. He decided that if he could not secure their tuna for his restaurant, he would not serve it at all. The size of choice for Tanaka is around 150 kilograms: big enough for good flavor but not so big that the flesh is too firm or muscly. Tanaka installed an ice box to keep the fresh fish fresh and prevent oxidation. He is prepared to do whatever it takes to offer the best maguro, even ordering specialty knives and chopping boards just for that ingredient, to overturn the misconception that you cannot find delicious maguro in Hokkaido. His mission is to prove how good it can be even outside Tokyo.
Sushi Tanaka serves just one sake brand – from Shimane Prefecture. The no-compromise proprietary brewing methods result in unfiltered fresh and unpasteurized sake bottled for storage and cold aged. The brand includes about ten types of sake, from Honjozo to Junmai Daiginjo, and the affinity for Tanaka’s sushi is exquisite. The wine list comprises champagne and Burgundy whites, and there is a range of fruit liqueurs, like one made with raw honey, and a selection of soft drinks on offer.
While most sushi restaurants serving an omakase chef’s course provide no menu, at Sushi Tanaka, guests can learn more about their meal from a simple three-point menu showing the sushi topping name, origin, and which of the two varieties of rice oval are nestled beneath. Chef Tanaka also presents all the toppings in beautiful display cases in the order they will be served, building expectations for the meal to come.
- The price includes our booking fee of ￥8,000
- The price includes our booking fee of ￥8,000