Have you ever had “powerful rice”?
The question hadn’t occurred to me in the moments just following my first stellar omakase at Hiroki, when my mind was still lingering over the more obvious pleasures of the 20-course feast.
The meaty hunk of red tilefish that was panfried with its scales still on so that they rippled across the firm white flesh with a feathery crunch. A morsel of cucumber carved with such impossible precision that it uncoiled like a miniature green slinky over a pom-pom slice of marinated squid. The parade of rare wild Japanese fish. The tongue-coating richness of grilled Wagyu beef. The soothing interlude of sweet miso soup. The procession of subtle yet remarkably different sakes ...
“Yes, but what did you think of the rice?” asked a woman who’d been sitting at the sushi bar with her husband, with whom I’d fallen into conversation shortly after the meal, as we took shelter from a sudden torrential storm at nearby Pizzeria Beddia. She was a Japanese American raised in Tokyo who’d worked in sushi restaurants in New York before moving to Philly. She gave me her instant verdict: “It was very powerful rice — the best I’ve had since Japan.”
There are much flashier aspects about Hiroki that anyone could more easily admire, the kind that make its case as a luxury haven, a special-occasion restaurant charging $135 for its 20-course tasting menu. Even the act of finding its discreet location delivers a sly in-the-know frisson. It’s tucked behind Wm. Mulherin’s Sons on Fishtown’s unexpected new restaurant alley, Lee Street, and the barrel-shaped dark wooden door made of torched cypress beckons like a mysterious portal through its brutalist concrete facade.
Inside, the soft-lit, 26-seat dining room is fitted with finely milled white-oak counters and teak floors, live-edge cypress beams and, at the sushi counter, molded walnut stools cushioned with tufted ivory Vachetta leather. The plaster walls are hung with striking photos inspired by Japanese figures. Delicate Zalto crystal stemware lends the fine wine and sakes a luminous sparkle. Even the electric Japanese toilet springs to life with an open-seat salute when you open the restroom door — confirming no expense was spared when Mulherin’s parent company, Method Co., converted this old cinder-block machine shop into Philly’s posh new omakase oasis.
But something as elemental as rice? That’s the kind of litmus test sushi obsessives care more about than any fancy throne. And the restaurant’s namesake, chef Hiroki Fujiyama, proves himself a master of such details in more ways than one.
I don’t have the travel experience of my new acquaintance to make such a bold global pronouncement. But I’ve eaten enough Japanese cooking to recognize that rice is the hidden heart of exceptional sushi, where the quality, temperature (preferably a little warm), texture (firm distinct grains, neither hard nor mushy), and the right balance of salt and vinegar can elevate the same piece of fish from good to sublime.
Eating sushi off artlessly prepared rice is like listening to music through a transistor radio. Powerful rice offers the possibility of tasting in high-fidelity. So every subtle note of that exceedingly rare slice of nodoguro — a blackthroat seaperch from the Sea of Japan that Fujiyama lightly torched to bring all the oils to the skin — literally painted my lips and tongue with a buttery savor and smoky singe I’d never experienced from a pale-fleshed fish.
Kyoto-born Fujiyama, 47, who was the head sushi chef at Morimoto for most of his nearly 15 years there, uses naturally sweet rice from Yamagata Prefecture, then seasons it with a blend of three kinds of vinegar (mellow malt, tart rice vinegar, and pricey red kohaku made from sake lees) to unify the flavor. But the lingering impression of his rice, when tasted solo on a subsequent visit, is the savor of the Japanese salt from Ehime Prefecture.
It brightens the character of everything it touches — like turning up the volume. But Fujiyama remains the essential equalizer, artfully adjusting for every piece of fish with a lightning dab of fresh wasabi root grated on a sharkskin paddle, the blink-fast touch of warm hands molding each morsel into a one-bite gem, and then a light brushstroke over top from one of the four nikiri soy glazes he makes to add a shine of kelp-rounded sweetness or citrusy perk for balance.
The resulting 12-piece nigiri course unfurls in vivid colors. The kinmedai big eye snapper has a delicate depth edged by a bright stripe of luminescent orange skin. The inada yellowtail blushes pink. A soy-glossed slice of torched barracuda pressed into a box shape exudes an earthy swagger. The saba mackerel is dusky and fish-forward. Three shades of tuna shift from the lean and ruby akami to the pale-striped richness of otoro belly. The deep coral of a sea urchin plume, perched over rice and an open band of nori, melts away with creamy marine-tinged sweetness.
Philadelphia’s sushi scene, which had been slow to embrace the high-end since Morimoto pioneered the gold standard in 2001, has been on an omakase streak of late, with four bells for Royal Sushi & Izakaya as well as some worthy new “budget” versions.
Hiroki pushes the luxury envelope a bit further as the most expensive omakase in town now by $5. But it’s not out of line considering its ingredients, setting, and astronomical prices for similar experiences in New York. It’s larger than many, but a seat at a banquette in the dining room does not compare to the theater of watching these master chefs work their shimmering knives from the 12 stools at the counter.
The servers are serious and a little stiff — but also well-informed, especially with an extensive sake/wine list highlighted by an intriguing $60 pairing flight of six pours that glides from true Champagne to myriad styles of sakes. The round and citrusy Dassai 50 Otter Festival, earthy Tengumai Yamahai, and surprisingly pretty, unpasteurized junmai ginjo from Kura made in Brooklyn(!) were favorites.
At just a couple months old, Hiroki perhaps did not yet consistently stoke the every-bite magic and personal warmth of Royal Sushi.
But Hiroki may well loosen up and get there. It bolsters its distinction by the fact that its omakase is more than sushi. A “Zensai” appetizer course brought four little dishes with unique flavors, like the spice of sancho pepper paste against a pale nub of steamed abalone, or the vegetal crunch of braised bamboo with mustard miso, or the crackle of a tiny sawagani river crab fried whole that snacked like Old Bay popcorn.
The sashimi course is a chance to explore different angles of the same fish, like the two cuts of tsumu-buri rainbow runner, one sliced from the leaner quarters, the other with deep-pink flesh striped by thick bands of buttery white fat. Or the katsuo skipjack at my next visit, torched crisp on the skin so that each slice, still raw through the middle, delivered a single bite with three different textures.
The Japanese tilefish seared with its scales on — a technique that requires 24 hours of brining, then drying beforehand — was like the ultimate fish-in-its-own-chips. There’s a red-meat payoff, too: grilled American Wagyu highlighting the tenderizing, flavor-deepening powers of marinating in koji, a Japanese mold used for fermentation.
Then, if the dozen morsels of nigiri sushi don’t fill you up, there’s a luscious helping of chopped bluefin tuna wrapped in a cone of crisp nori seaweed, with a warm soup of sweet white Saikyo miso from Kyoto to wash it down. (The dessert course of a strawberry roll cake, though, was underwhelmingly mundane considering the rest of the meal.)
But first, a small, moist slice of tamago cake made of sweetened egg braced with shrimp paste, served beside that handroll, reminded me of Hiroki’s pedigree. I had a very similar tamago cake recently when I returned to Morimoto for a checkup meal, but it was so dry and bland, I could suddenly understand why chef Morimoto-san resisted moving Hiroki to another restaurant for so many years — because he was so crucial in helping that venerable pioneer hum through the decades consistently.
Morimoto’s undulating room is still stunning. And I ate some of the same beautiful fish. But Morimoto’s house-polished rice — long the local beacon for what sushi rice could be — this time tasted too hard and dry, its seasoning flat, the temperature fading fast. The fish draped over top was still pretty, but it lacked spark.
Has Philly’s new sushi guard begun to set a new standard? According to my newly calibrated Rice Power Index, at least, a shift is underway.