Kiro Sushi: Ginza in Rioja?

I had heard rumors, but the rumors became a roar when Kiro Sushi received a Michelin star in November of 2017. “What’s so extraordinary about it?,” you might ask. Yes, we do have some starred Asian restaurants in Spain—mostly in Madrid and Barcelona—but this was different. It was a traditional sushi bar with just 10 seats and it was… in the heart of Rioja!

Kiro Sushi is the brainchild of Félix Jiménez, a native of Alfaro, the Rioja village with the most hectares of vineyards in the whole of the appellation. After spending many years working in different places and learning about sushi in Tokyo, Jiménez returned to his region to pursue his dream. Open in October 2015, Jiménez calls his restaurant a little piece of Japan in the center of Logroño, and it is indeed a little sushi bar that could very well be in Tokyo—or anywhere else in the world! The decoration, atmosphere, attention to detail, obsession about quality and the food served are no different. Which makes it unique in Spain, and rare to find it in Logroño.
Félix Jiménez, a true itamae sushi master from Alfaro.

It is a pure, no-fusion, no-tempura, no-nothing restaurant, a traditional sushi bar that I didn’t believe existed in Spain until now. (Certainly not at this quality level.) Of course, Logroño is nowhere near the coast, so the sourcing of ingredients and the local availability of world-class fish was the first question that came to my mind. 

As I have to visit the wine-producing region every 16 months or so, I knew I’d have an opportunity soon, but the challenge was to secure a reservation. As it’s always fully booked with the recent publicity and press appearances with the Michelin star, it was almost impossible. But I was lucky—one single seat was available on one of the nights that I was in town to conduct a very intensive tasting of Rioja wines. 

One seat. Not two. Or three. So I went on my own. Impossible to get seats for more.
The acidity of the Savagnin, especially in a sharp cold vintage like 2013 in the hands of Jean-François Ganevat, was a great match for the food.

It was raining and I arrived early and soaked, even though the restaurant was only 800 meters away from my hotel. I hate being late and I like to talk to the chef and find out a little more about him and the restaurant beforehand. And I had been a bit naughty and found a bottle of Savagnin from Ganevat and wanted to see if it was possible to drink it with dinner. 

Right now the drinks menu is very short and only includes Japanese beer, white wine, Champagne and sake. I wasn’t expecting much more, but for me wine is almost as important as the food in a restaurant. I was hoping for superb food, so I also wanted superb wine. They do not accept BYO or corkage, but the chef was gracious to let me drink the Ganevat, which I explained I believed would be a very good match for the food, given the acidity of the Savagnin, especially in a sharp cold vintage like 2013 in the hands of Jean-François Ganevat. And it was not just any Ganevat, it was one of my favorites, the 2013 Savagnin Marnes Bleues, which with its citrus freshness cleansed the palate and left it ready for the next bite.
There are some Japanese beers on the drinks menu, like this floral and refreshing Ginga Kogen.

As I had been tasting wines all day—mostly reds—I was ready for a beer. I opted for the floral Ginga Kogen Beer, light and refreshing, ideal as an aperitif until food started arriving and the Ganevat was uncorked while talking with the chef.

Of course, one of my first questions before the rest of the customers arrived was about the sourcing of the fish; here, no expenses or efforts are spared. “I have one local supplier here, and then fishermen in Galicia or in the south where they get the prawns for me. They know exactly what I want, how I want it, and the secret is that I never argue about the price. They send me the fish packed and prepared exactly as I want it, and I have it in the restaurant 24 hours after it was caught.”

“I air-ship hamachi from Japan and frozen sea urchin from Canada, which to me is the best, as getting fresh sea urchin is almost impossible unless you are right by the sea where they are,” he explained. Hamachi, the Japanese amberjack, is a mild-flavored fish ideal to start any sushi menu as intensity should increase as the menu progresses.
Hamachi, a Japanese amberjack, is flown in from Japan. Its mild flavor is ideal to start the menu.

That’s how the show started, because it’s not only the food, it’s also the ritual. The L-shaped bar seats 10 people, and the chef prepares the food behind the bar, in front of you, slicing the fish, preparing the nigiri, and giving it to you straightaway to be consumed immediately. Only 10 people, the maximum number in a restaurant of this kind, and what he considers perfect because you cannot serve more than 10 people properly. The ceremony had started.
The grilled pieces had a subtle smokiness, like this salmon.

Every detail counts. The rice is the Japanese koshihikari variety, wasabi is freshly grated on a shark-skin grater, which has a sandpaper-like texture that creates the paste, as the grating is finer than with most other graters. “We only use a small touch of some condiments, like Himalayan salt, bergamot and green lemon, but not all food is the same, some is grilled, some marinated, there are different preparations and it is a lot of work. But I only make sushi—traditional sushi.”
Lightly-marinated horse mackerel, as good as it looks.

For many, the real difference in a sushi restaurant is in the rice. Of course, the main one is the fish, but once you’ve secured the best fish possible—and in Spain it’s certainly easier than in other countries—the focus is on the rice. How to maintain the temperature and the moisture is critical. It might be easier when you start the menu, but how to keep it up during the whole service? Jiménez was very clear: “I also use red vinegar, which makes the rice look a little darker. It is higher in quality and more expensive, and now, not many people use it. Most use rice vinegar. But for me quality is the sum of many small things, and what defines a sushi restaurant is its rice, where the vinegar is part of the secret.”

At first it was all very quiet, nobody spoke and it was a bit tense with silence, everybody watching how the chef meticulously sliced the fish and made the rice balls with his hands, delivering the pieces to each party of one, two or three people sitting in front of him. As the following nigiris flowed, people relaxed a little, and I guess the sake, beer and wine also did their part to lubricate and ease the tension; we started to quietly talk to our neighbors. Sea bass, squid and tuna followed.
Tuna is used to measure the quality of a sushi restaurant; this is the chu-toro, part of the tuna belly. It was outstanding.

It is said that the level of a sushi place is measured by the quality of its tuna, and here it was exceptional. I got no less than four different pieces—different parts, cuts and techniques. Chu-toro, and o-toro, the fatty part of the tuna belly were just otherworldly. It was amazing, even though a favorite of mine is always the eel, which in this case was so tender that it literally melted in my mouth. Eel is typically served at the end of the meal as it has strong flavors.
Eel tends to be served towards the end of the menu, as it has strong flavors and the sequence is a progression in intensity.

All the flavors were pure, clean and very intense, sometimes with a smoky touch from embers, a little salt, some citrus, but always very subtle and keeping the original flavor, just amplifying it in a way. Even the nori seaweed used for the rolls had a particular flavor and crunchy texture, because it had only been in contact with the fish for a few seconds and definitely because of its quality. I believe it had been lightly roasted.
Even the nori seaweed had a distinctive crunchiness and lightly roasted flavor.

I’m not much of a fan of desserts in Japanese restaurants, and the two dishes that I enjoyed least were the last two, a black pumpkin sushi and a Japanese omelet which was something between an egg cake and an omelet. I would have happily eaten a couple more pieces of fish and gone to bed without pudding. (But that’s me.)
Carabineros, or scarlet shrimp, a strongly flavored purple prawn from the Mediterranean.

“Hiroyuki Sato, who has a starred restaurant in Tokyo, was here cooking with me a few weeks ago and it was a fantastic experience. I learned so much, and we exchanged a lot of recipes and tricks. He was amazed and told me I was more Japanese than him!” It’s true, Jiménez has really soaked up Japanese culture and adopted sushi as a way of life. “I have decided to dedicate my life to sushi, to my restaurant and my customers,” he told me. “I go to Japan and go crazy buying ingredients and stuff. I know more and more people and I can go to incredible places to eat and also to cook in some of them, which is not the same as having your own restaurant in Japan, but it’s as close as it gets.”
The fattier part of the tuna belly, o-toro, is served in a gunkan-maki, where the nori algae is used to hold loose or finely chopped ingredients.

At the end of the meal they offered some matcha green tea, but I decided to finish the last drops of the delicious Ganevat. The chef’s omakase menu—the only one offered and the same for all diners—cost only €70, drinks separate, a true bargain compared with any other traditional sushi restaurant of this quality level. It’s not as strict as the finest and more traditional sushi bars in Tokyo, where “no photos, no perfume, no credit card” is the common mantra. Other than that you could very well think you were having dinner in Ginza.

I came out completely converted and convinced. We have a true sushi star in Logroño, where the words passion, precision, perfection and balance take on new meaning. And I have the feeling the best is yet to come, as Jiménez is hungry to learn and improve. Could he have been Japanese in a previous life?

Hero image courtesy of Kiro Sushi. 

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