Extraordinary Sushi, Unexpected Place: The Airport Food Court

As I made my way through Terminal 1 of Tokyo’s Narita International Airport on a recent layover en route to Seoul, my eye caught a cheerful sign bearing the word sushi hanging between a duty-free shop and Gate 33.

I have a weakness for airport sushi, which I eat to avoid the gluey prepackaged sandwiches that have replaced in-flight meals. Airport sandwiches remind me of death, whereas airport sushi just reminds me of better sushi. And now I will never eat airport sushi again -- except at Narita.

The interior of this mystery restaurant was less than auspicious: a simple bar on the right and, on the left, a row of seats by a window that looked out on a runway -- like an aquarium, except for jets. The sushi in the to-go case by the cash register, however, was something else entirely: crisply cut, the colors beautifully deep. The orange of the salmon glowed. The tuna was a crimson that bordered on maroon. Inside, I saw diners, both foreign and Japanese, eating with a silent pleasure bordering on reverence. I wondered if I had stumbled onto something that was not only good but also extraordinary.

’The Best in Tsukiji’

I found an empty seat and settled in. On the menu, finally, the name of this place: Sushi Kyotatsu. On offer that day: “Wild Blue Fin Tuna.” And below that: “From Wakayama, Arrive From the Ishimaya Store, One of the Best in Tsukiji.” This is a bold claim, like an airport wine bar claiming to offer 1996 Krug Clos du Mesnil by the glass without showing the bottle.

My father ran a fisheries company in Portland, Maine, back in the 1980s, and he would sometimes take me to see the bluefin tuna catch. I remember staring at the massive bodies as they bled onto the warehouse floor, in awe of their beauty, even in death. My father’s greatest hope for those fish was that they would be sold at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, whose tuna is widely considered the best in the world; in 2013, a single bluefin sold for a record $1.8 million.

I had cut way back on sushi after the discovery that many American restaurants practice “fish switching” -- serving a much cheaper species than the one on the menu. In a 2013 Oceana study, surveyors ordered Alaskan cod, Chilean sea bass and sockeye salmon; DNA testing on the fish later revealed that 74 percent of sushi restaurants were misrepresenting on their menus what they were putting on their plates. Was a restaurant on a runway really serving the world’s best fish?

Memories of the Market

I’d had tuna from Tsukiji once before. In 1999, my brother was working in Tokyo for a private-equity firm and his benefits included airline tickets for family visits, so he wouldn’t leave out of loneliness. He took me to many fine meals there, but our Tsukiji pilgrimage was the climax. We arrived around 4:30 a.m. and walked the warehouses that were big enough for planes, past massive tuna gleaming like gunmetal in the pre-dawn dark, mussels big enough to mask my face and innumerable other sea creatures that I, an oceanographer’s son, had never seen before. Afterward, we drank beer and ate a sushi breakfast, with that incredibly fresh tuna. I’ve eaten sushi from Los Angeles to Paris to Shanghai since, but that meal remains my yardstick.

All this went through my head as I contemplated the word Tsukiji on Sushi Kyotatsu’s menu. If there’s even a chance they are lying to you, you should leave, I told myself. But if there was even a chance they weren’t lying, I knew I should stay.

Silent Pleasure

I took that chance. I ordered a simple nigiri plate, the bluefin included. When it arrived, I understood the silent pleasure I had seen from the door. The salmon hit that perfect midpoint between firm and soft, like a peach slice. The uni had the wonderful stickiness that makes it unlike anything else on the planet. And the bluefin reminded me of how tuna is supposed to taste: a little like cold iron, with none of the mealy blandness I’d come to expect.

I could taste not only the fish but also some of the life it had lived -- that light sweetness the ocean paradoxically imparts to the flesh that inhabits its salty waters. As I marveled at this ineffable quality -- and the texture and the rice -- I realized I was excited by these fundamentals because I was no longer accustomed to them. I had eaten so much mediocre sushi that I’d forgotten what sushi is.

Keeping It Rare

There was a rumor in 2005 that a Japanese delegation was preparing to make a sweep of American sushi restaurants and crack down on the substandard food being passed off as Japanese. I recall fervently hoping they’d come. My meal at Sushi Kyotatsu was a reminder that sushi should be rare -- that just because it now can be served everywhere, doesn’t mean it should.

I still hate airport sandwiches. But these days, I prefer them on principle to fish that has been mishandled, mislabeled or both. Tuna, the most ubiquitous of sushi offerings, is disastrously overfished, with populations down 96 percent since 2000, according to a report from the Pew Environment Group. And if I’ve learned one thing from the fish-switching scandal, it’s that the craze for sushi has made us into people willing to be lied to.

So until that Japanese delegation shows up, take back a little honor on your own. Help save the oceans, protect yourself from fraudulent fish and join me in my vow: Eat sushi only when it’s extraordinary -- starting with Kyotatsu.

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