It’s long been known that the sardine cuisine at Iwashigumi in Kanazawa is delicious, but how delicious is it actually? Is it just obvious that any sardine specialty restaurant can prepare delicious sardine dishes? Some people think so, but I recently had the chance to visit a famous sardine restaurant in Tokyo. I met one of my teachers from 30 years ago for lunch at Kappo Nakajima in Shinjuku – yes, the super-famous sardine restaurant that earned a Michelin star.

According to the woman who met us at the door, the regular Kappo Nakajima fare is served only in the evening; at lunchtime the young chefs in training get practice in the kitchen using less expensive materials. Nevertheless, the lunchtime menu became a great hit with the public. As a result, the number of first time customers increased, causing trouble for the regular cutomers. The woman was somewhat apologetic, but we were in fact among those troublesome first time customers. We should have apologized to her. The restaurant is indeed popular; we had a 30-minute wait out in front before we could get a table.

Looking over the menu, I saw many kinds of sardine dishes. My expectations increased. As we walked to out seats, I felt a sense of luxury. Several young chefs were working intently with serious looks on their faces. Yes, this really did feel like a top class restaurant.

Because we were there to explore the sardine dishes available, the three of us arranged to order a little of everything on the menu.

Sardines are “fast” (the freshness fades quickly), so a top restaurant will never allow a fishy smell. There are many things, wise and unwise, that might be said, but in this competition between a high-class restaurant with a Michelin star (Kappo Nakajima) and another “izakaya” with only a Michelin Bib Gourmand ranking (Iwashigumi), the decision should simply come down to the preparation of the sardine dishes themselves. By that simple standard, Iwashigumi wins, hands down.

The master of Iwashigumi has been specializing in sardines for 30 years, while the Kappo Nakajima dishes we tried were prepared by young chefs in training. The difference is obvious and clear.

A sardine is just a sardine, but something wonderful can be created – at Iwashigumi.