As the world attempts to return to normal and the Haru basho rolls towards its dramatic conclusion, we’ve received word from New York City that famed sumo hotspot Azasu (the bathroom of which is pictured above) has pivoted amidst the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. We previously covered the location – a mecca for fans of Sumo in American’s northeast – on these pages, and are very sad to learn of its demise.
According to the restaurant itself, “we struggled with the impact of the pandemic, and we determined the need to reinvent ourselves and to adapt to a new environment.” Sadly, we have been informed by Tachiai reader Lydia that all of the sumo paraphernalia and decor has already been removed amidst the rebranding as Azasu now merges with sister shop Yopparai.
Azasu was previously a rare location in the States for sumo fans to not only enjoy food but also watch televised sumo. Hopefully, some of the staple food offerings will at least remain. While we wish the restauranteurs every success in their attempts to thrive in this unparalleled environment, we also hope that another sumo themed location will rise to provide fans outside Japan with an opportunity to enjoy the sport on a night out. As Japan remains closed to visitors and those of us outside its borders do not have the opportunity to visit Chanko Ho or Kirishima’s spot, fans need all the options we can get.
For our New Year’s Eve dinner this year, my wife made chanko! Chanko is the core of sumo cuisine. However, there’s not one stock recipe. Ours featured shrimp, sausages, chicken meatballs, shiitake and shimeji mushrooms, and assorted vegetables on maroni- noodles, served in a seafood broth. In a special move, she also included mochi kinchaku (purse).
Shiitake mushrooms are probably the most famous variety of Japanese mushroom, a giant container of which is usually presented to the yusho winner. Fitting, then, that it was the first mushroom I ever ate…in my 20s. I had been afraid of those button mushrooms one finds in salads and on pizzas, as if all had been irradiated in Chernobyl. They just seem so, plain. I became much more open to trying new things when I lived in Japan, perhaps because every time anything was prepared, it was done to the best of the cook’s ability.
So, when I tried my first shiitake (the mushrooms with dark, broad tops) I was surprised that it tasted good. I wouldn’t say “great” but certainly edible. That opened me to at least trying more types of mushrooms. I don’t like enoki. They’re little, thin, white mushrooms with tiny tops, and usually doused in butter. They’re certainly thinner than these shimeji mushrooms, which I found to be the best part of this chanko – even better than the yummy sausages and meatballs.
This was the first time I ever ate a purse. I did not know this was a thing until now. The outside is agedofu, that horrible stuff that they sometimes fill with sushi rice at rather disreputable establishments. Here, it was filled with sticky mochi…and not much better. Maybe since it had been boiled, the texture wasn’t as revolting as when it’s filled with too-hard and too-sour sushi rice. The mochi inside was quite good…but not as good as agemochi…which I suddenly need right now. Overall, tonight’s chanko was a fantastic warm-up for tomorrow’s osechi which I will bring to you tomorrow.
Longtime readers of the site will know that I find food to be an integral part of the sumo adventure. Of course, we all know that chankonabe forms the backbone of the rikishi diet, and many folks are aware that yakitori is mass produced at Kokugikan as a staple of the sumo-going experience.
But the Ozeki and Yokozuna bento boxes which are sold at honbasho are extremely popular as well – and sell out most days of the tournaments. The NSK is rigid and brutal when it comes to their application of the rights afforded the high rankers and their bento: Takakeisho’s recent injury-driven demotion from Ozeki meant that there was no Takakeisho bento for sale at the Aki basho, although this will surely return in November now that he has sealed his re-promotion. And despite the overwhelming desire for all things Kisenosato, the 72nd Yokozuna’s bento was taken off the shop lists following his intai.
With this in mind, and seeing the declining state of the health of Ozeki Tochinoshin, I had to try the Tochinoshin bento box before it was too late. He will of course get a chance to put this back on shelves (and restore his rank) with 10 wins in Fukuoka – but in case that failed to transpire, this particular box could be lost to the annals of sumo history.
Let’s crack it open, shall we?
Umeboshi (or as it’s listed on the menu, “dried pickled sour Japanese plum on the rice”)
“Sauce of beef shiri served with paprika and kidney beans”
Pork roll of asparagus and cheese
Tatsuta fried Pacific saury
At ¥1150, this is, like most food items for sale in the Kokugikan, a very good deal. $11 in an American stadium probably wouldn’t get you half as much food, and it is a very filling meal.
This was solid. The rice was actually good, it was very fluffy and a good temperature. I felt it was of a higher quality than in the last rikishi bento I reviewed, from Takakeisho. Perhaps our reviews have been read!
Umeboshi is normally shaped as a bed of rice with the dried sour ume in the middle, and typically made to resemble the Japanese flag. From a creative standpoint, perhaps they missed a trick here by not using 4 ume and attempting the Georgian flag as reference to Tochinoshin’s nationality. That would have certainly made it special!
I only knew the beef (located at the top of the above photo) was beef at first because of the sign – it looked to me like the odd sort of damp excess fried parts of chicken karaage. Pulling it apart revealed more beef-forward contents. It was good and flavorful, if a little strange. I think I prefer chicken to beef in this format.
The fried Pacific saury (bottom right) was surprisingly delicate in nature, and moist: a really good bite. It was served with ponzu sauce on top. It did, however, contain very small, edible bones.
The rolled pork katsu (bottom left) was much of a muchness. I don’t know that I really need cheese in my katsu. I wouldn’t say a massive fan of asparagus but given that this bento was a little low on vegetable options, it was good for them to slot it in.
The macaroni salad choice was very successful. Mixed with a healthy dose of kewpie mayo, the carrots, corn and pasta offered a fresher, sweeter bite.
I would have left out the “minirare omelet” – the fluffy presentation was very inviting but the odd flavour left a lot to be desired. I’ve eaten a lot of tamagoyaki in my day but this lacked the sweetness that I was looking for as a complement to many of the heavier proteins.
I felt the ratatouille was surprisingly good. It was extremely flavorful, and while I thought it was kind of a bizarre choice for a bento, it was an inspired and well seasoned choice. Four fish/meat offerings felt a bit heavy handed, and I think the box might have benefited from moving the ratatouille centre stage and dropping the beef or katsu in favour of another lighter option.
Overall Tochinoshin’s bento was much like the man himself: hearty. It’s a filling box and a great value, but I wouldn’t call it a standout when compared to the others on offer at this level of competition. The biggest remaining question is: will it be back on the shelves in 2020? Perhaps this is one of the only meals in the world that’s going to require a good knee to make.
With Takayasu now the kadoban Ozeki in the Fukuoka basho, we’ll look forward to examining his bento in the next tournament!
The growth of sumo in the western world has led me to a few interesting and exciting spots over the years. Here at Tachiai we have covered the Sumo Stew event that has dotted various parts of America – so when a friend asked if I’d like to check out the sumo-themed izakaya Azasu on a recent trip to New York, I jumped at the chance.
Azasu is located on Clinton Street in NYC’s Lower East Side, and is the sister restaurant to New York sake bar Yopparai. A fairly unassuming locale from the outside, one step inside vaults you into a world of ozumo-related goodness. The walls are covered in tegata from famous rikishi past and present – including famed Yokozuna such as the great Takanohana – and the front of the store boasts a merchandise store that practically doubles as a sumo shrine.
The restaurant presents ample opportunity for novice banzuke-readers to practise locating the names of favourite rikishi. An old banzuke from a Nagoya basho past hung framed in the front of the venue, which provided a nostalgic moment to see retired Yokozuna Haramafuji’s shikona on the rankings list once again. But even the toilets at Azasu provide this unorthodox type of reading material: indeed, the bathroom walls are lined with old banzuke!
I’ve been told that Azasu also doubles as a venue for viewing live sumo. Unlike the Sumo Stew events which sometimes display replays (owing to the hour of the event), Azasu apparently has a commitment to live sumo for patrons. During my visit, the restaurant happened to show highlights from the latest Nagoya basho – which was a great time to discuss the physics of Enho and Chiyomaru with fellow diners.
As for the menu staples, I have to say I walked away impressed. While I swerved on the chankonabe options, this izakaya offers a number of hot pot selections to cater to punters with various dietary needs and restrictions, and the nabe comes recommended for parties of 3 or more.
My dining companions and I opted for a kushikatsu-forward selection and were not disappointed by the perfectly grilled and fried skewers which came accompanied by a heavy miso-dipping sauce which reminded me of the famous Osaka chain Daruma. We topped it off with the restaurant’s “chanko salad” – a very liberal interpretation on the “everything but the kitchen sink” concept that was notable more for its sumo size, and the intriguingly named “kinboshi tofu,” a wonderful tofu dish topped with an egg yolk and copious piles of bonito shavings.
Visitors who enjoy engaging in alcoholic delights will also be keen to note the izakaya’s extensive library of whiskey, shochu and sake.
All in all, as somewhat of a washoku connoisseur and a committed sumo fan, I have to say I walked away impressed and fulfilled by the visit. If I’m ever in New York during a basho I plan to make Azasu a staple of my trip – and our readers would be remiss not to do the same!
Azasu is located at 49 Clinton Street in New York City.Hat tip to Tachiai reader Lydia for the recommendation!