Outside of Japan, Taipei is probably the best city in the world to get authentic Japanese food. There are at least a dozen sushi restaurants in Taipei that are cooking at Michelin-level. I had to pick wisely. So why NOMURA?
Chef Nomura Yuji is dedicated to the craft of making Edomae-style sushi. Edomae-style sushi refers to the way sushi was made in Tokyo when the city was still called Edo. It simply means nigiri zushi made with shyari (vinegar-rice) and neta (ingredients on the sushi), and the seafood items are sourced from waters near the Bay of Tokyo. Obviously the last regional requirement would be difficult and expensive outside of Japan, and in this age of localvorism it is often treated as a general guideline rather than a strict rule. Nomura trained at Tokyo’s Sushi Ikkyu (鮨逸喜優) – a restaurant that adheres to the Edomae style – under the tutelage of Chef Ogihara Tatsuya. In 2007, Nomura came to Taipei to manage Tatsuya’s Taiwanese outpost, No Edomae Zushi (野江戶前鰭). During his time at No Zushi, Nomura further honed his skills as the head chef and generated a large cult-like following, which eventually lent him enough momentum to hang out his own shingle. NOMURA, his eponymous sushi restaurant, came to fruition in 2011.
NOMURA was nestled in the alleyways of Taipei’s ritzy East District. Even though the address was premium, the appearance of the restaurant was hidden and understated. One could easily walk past NOMURA without realizing that there was a restaurant there. The front yard of the restaurant was rustic and charming. The statute of the little girl was random but whimsical. I felt as if I were stepping into Chef Nomura’s personal nostalgia and homage to the Japan of his childhood.
I arrived at the restaurant nearly half an hour before my reservation (which was when the restaurant was supposed to open). The friendly seating hostess / waitress kindly invited me to wait inside and enjoy a cup of tea while the chefs prepped for lunch service. I was able to see Nomura grating fresh wasabi for the service. This was a sight hard to capture in the US. The dining room continued the rustic design from the courtyard; the atmosphere was tranquil and relaxing. All the tableware were obviously handmade and gave off that vintage and boutique feel. This was a small operation as there were only 12 seats in front of the counter and two additional small tables to the side. The restaurant doesn’t turn tables, and so there were only 14 customers for the entire lunch service that day, tiered into three time slots. There were two types of menu – omakase and a la carte. It turned out that everybody ordered omakase, with minor allergy / dislikes adjusted for individual diners. It wasn’t long before 5 more customers showed up, completing the first seating tier, and so our lunch started shortly after noon.
The appetizer was squid in mozuku-su. The squid was cooked perfectly and chilled to have that “give” to the bite. The mozuku-su had a fluid and almost gooey texture (which Asian gourmets treasure but might be off-putting to western palate). The vinaigrette had a pleasant umami and sourness. This worked well as an appetizer.
NOMURA’s lunch omakase focuses almost exclusively on sushi. Overall, I thought the shyari was well executed – warm, moist, with each grain of rice separate and evenly coated with vinegar. The density of the rice was also pleasant. As it was of Edomae tradition, no neta was served plain – all were seasoned or marinated with salt, sauce, wasabi, or other flavoring agents.
The first piece was kodai. This was the only fish of the meal that was caught from Taiwan’s coast. The waitress explained that Taiwanese kodai tasted sweeter than Japanese kodai. The chef skillfully scored the fish with precise knife work. This was usually done to either infuse flavor or cut loose any connective tissues in tougher fish. The chef grated some ginger on top as well. The sweetness of the neta was made even more obvious by the ginger.
Then came hirame. The fish was marinated with konbu (Japanese kelp). On top of the neta was grated lime zest and a drop of nikiri (a light soy-sauce-based sauce made for raw neta). Light and refreshing.
Next was otoro. The neta was marinated in nikiri and then dried on towel. This was not as marbled as otoro should be, and it didn’t really have that melt-in-your-mouth feeling that otoro should give. Don’t get me wrong; it was competently prepared and tasted good. But honestly if Nomura didn’t tell me this was otoro, I would have thought this was chutoro.
A trio of tekkamaki was presented. I’m usually not a fan of tekkamaki because akami just doesn’t interest me. However, this was textbook execution! The light crisp of the nori, the ratio of tuna and shyari, and the amount of nikiri applied all came together beautifully.
Amaebi was next. Two shrimp were wrapped together with nori. I have never had this duo presentation before, and I was not complaining! The neta was brushed with nikiri, and the sweetness of the amaebi was intense. This was as good as it gets.
A bowl of chawanmushi interrupted the progression of sushi. I wasn’t sure why this was served at this point. Regardless, it was competently executed with much umami. The dark color of the custard indicated the quality of the egg used was high. There was a thin layer of dashi floating on top of the custard, which was unusual. Perhaps it was added on intentionally to give more flavor, because if not, then it would have been an execution error.
Next was ishidai. I had never even heard of this fish before in the US. Apparently, this kind of fish (which the Japanese loosely grouped under the snapper family) is usually only found in Japanese waters. They hide in corals and are hard to catch, which means that they have a price to match if ordered a la carte. The Chef simply brushed the neta with nikiri before serving it. It had a give to the bite that other snappers didn’t. Different but pleasant. I was glad that I got to try it.
The sous chef then gave us a bowl of ikura-don. Usually donburi is not served until all the sushi are served, and so I thought the meal was coming to an end. Thank Buddha it was not. The ikura-don was simple but good. Rice was really a strength at NOMURA.
After the ikura-don came saba. Saba in the US usually has a fishy taste that could get unpleasant. But not the ones at NOMURA. The neta was topped with scallions, grated ginger, and nikiri – a classic combination that worked perfectly. The saba itself was extremely fresh and had a clean flavor profile that I didn’t know the fish could possess. This was the best saba sushi I’ve ever had and easily the best piece of the day.
The sous chef then brought us a piece of uni gunkan. In Chicago, most sushi restaurants use uni that have preservatives, which give uni an unpleasant metallic aftertaste. It’s slowly changing now because uni has become a more popular item that has a reasonable turnover. NOMURA’s uni, sourced from Hokkaido, obviously didn’t have preservatives. Fresh and lightly briny, chilled to the ideal temperature, this was simply divine. I’d also like to point out that the nori had a pleasant crunch – just goes to show how detail-oriented NOMURA was.
Next was akami – a rather odd choice towards the end of the meal. Unlike toro, this was from the back of the fish. It was executed similarly as the otoro piece earlier – marinated in nikiri and dried on towel. Saturated red and glistening like a ruby gemstone, this was seductive looking. Again, I never find akami particularly interesting, but this was quite good as far as akami goes.
A trio of ika-kyu maki was presented. The contrasting textures worked well.
The waitress brought out a bowl of miso soup. The shrimp heads in the soup were from the amaebi earlier, which added even more umami and sweetness. Very flavorful.
Usually soup would be the last savory course. So when the chef asked me how I wanted my anago (shio or nitsume), I was slightly shocked. I picked shio because after the miso soup, I didn’t want the sweet and viscous nitsume sticking to my palate. The coarse salt highlighted the fluffy texture of anago. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Usually sushi chefs would serve a piece of tamago-yaki (Japanese omelet) to signal the end of sushi service. Such was not the case here. Nomura simply asked me if I was full and if I wanted more food. I could eat more; but I was comfortable. For lunch, this was perfect portioning. So I declined the Chef’s kind offer. Thus came the dessert, which was house-made cheese curd with sesame sauce and crumbled pecan. The cheese curd had a texture similar to tofu. The sweetness was subtle and elegant. This was a great dessert.
Service was friendly, polite, and professional. There were two waitresses and two itamae chefs, all directly interacting with the 14 diners. Needless to say, each of us got a lot of attention and was well taken care of. The sous chef was especially social, as he was making jokes to the diners sitting on his side of the counter. I was sitting on the side of Chef Nomura, who was less verbose, presumably due to his Chinese skills. Nevertheless, Nomura had learned enough Chinese to introduce the fish to us. However, since the majority of my sushi experiences were in the US, I couldn’t really understand the names of the fish in Chinese. Sensing that Nomura didn’t speak much English, I asked him to explain the fish to me in Japanese. This intrigued him (as well as my fellow diners) and became a source of conversation later.
After the meal, the restaurant was in no hurry to kick any of us out (as NOMURA doesn’t turn table for lunch or dinner), and so most of us stayed and chatted with the chefs. With me in my broken Japanese and Nomura in his broken Chinese, we were able to have a pleasant conversation with occasional translation by the bilingual waitress. It quickly became clear to me that much behind-the-scene effort was invested into this project. No detail was spared. Nomura traveled to Japan personally to deal with purveyors and picked out all the handmade tableware used in the restaurant. Even the nori and soy sauce were sourced from prestigious producers in Japan. I was impressed.
Yet NOMURA was not perfect. The progression of the meal was in a somewhat unusual order. I think Nomura was trying to pace himself and inserted courses in the middle of sushi service so that customers didn’t have to wait too long. Personally, however, I would rather wait than have an odd progression of the meal. Moreover, when Nomura made the nigiri-zushi for each tier of customers (6 in mine), he made all 6 shyari first and then made the sushi with the neta. I would have preferred him to combine the neta after each shyari was made and gave the sushi to the customer one person at a time. My preference was not only because I wanted every piece to be freshly made, but also because I wanted every piece to be personalized. To wit, I was the only person eating with my fingers that day; everybody else ate with chopsticks. For the integrity of the sushi, experienced itamae would usually make the shyari looser for diners using fingers and more dense for diners using chopsticks. Obviously, when a chef makes all shyari indiscriminately at the same time, this personalization becomes unlikely.
Despite the imperfection, this was still one of the best sushi meals I’ve ever had. There was something special about NOMURA. It was relaxed, slow-paced, and totally comfortable – not something you’d always find at sushi restaurants. I felt as if I were visiting a friend’s home in the countryside. Of course it didn’t hurt that Chef Nomura’s techniques were spot on – the knife works were precise and the resulting sushi had gorgeous shapes. I haven’t had sushi of this caliber since I ate at Kuruma Zushi in New York 2 years ago. NOMURA was clearly aiming to become the best. All the seafood was flown in fresh that very morning. Except for the Taiwanese kodai and the Hokkaido uni, everything else was sourced from Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. Chef Nomura personally made every single piece of nigri-zushi, while the sous chef made the maki and the gunkan. This was chef-driven at its best. And guess what? All this cost under $40, service charge and tax included. This is simply unfathomable in the US!
For a restaurant that opened less than a year ago, NOMURA exhibited unusual finesse and maturity. From the atmosphere, décor to the food and service, every element came together harmoniously. If Michelin ever comes to Taipei, there’s no doubt in my mind that NOMURA would snatch at least one star. I will remember this meal for a long time. When I return to Taiwan next time, NOMURA will undoubtedly be part of my itinerary again.
Anhe Rd. Section 1, Alley 78, No.34, Taipei / 台北市安和路一段78巷34號