The bells rang precisely at 5 a.m., and groups of black-booted men formed into neat lines on various standing platforms around the auctioneers, who took their places within the cold warehouse to begin the bidding.
As the auctioneers shouted and gesticulated at the fishmongers at Tokyo’s iconic Tsukiji Fish Market, the tuna, their shiny, rotund bodies stacked in perfect rows on wooden platforms, awaited their fate. The specimens were fished out of both Atlantic and Pacific waters, and each would be sold for thousands of dollars and then flown to some of the world’s top seafood restaurants, everywhere from New York to London.
I was taking in the organized chaos firsthand on a recent fall morning in order to see the sale of a particular pair of tuna—their final destination a restaurant you’ve never heard of. That’s because the Tsukiji Fish Room is neither in a posh city center, nor is it in any Michelin guide. This new restaurant is located in United Airlines’ Terminal C at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, and it has a direct line to the market and to some of the best quality sashimi you’ll find in America. What I especially love: If you’re one of the close to 40,000 travelers who pass through Terminal C each day, you can eat that sushi at prices that are easy on the traveler’s wallet (an eight-piece set is $12.99), and it’s available from the first flight of the day to the last.
Tsukiji Fish Room is the brainchild of OTG Management, the company that has been making waves in recent years with its original airport dining concepts and user-friendly experiences at a growing number of U.S. cities. OTG had invited me to Tokyo to take a look behind the scenes as they and their suppliers help OTG to pull off this culinary feat on a weekly basis. The company’s collaboration with Tokyo-based supplier True World Japan is the first partnership of its kind with any U.S. airport restaurant.
According to Eric Brinker, the vice president of experience for OTG, the company is challenging the idea that the airport dining experience can’t be as fresh and exciting as what you might eat in top restaurants across the country. “What we are creating in United’s terminal in Newark is sushi in an airport, not airport sushi,” says Brinker. “Being in an airport is no excuse for mediocrity. These are real restaurants—they just happen to be in the airport.”
It sounded too good to be true when I heard it. A couple of times a week, up to 300 pounds of fish costing as much as $50 per pound—including the prized bluefin tuna, but along with such other sushi staples as Pacific yellowtail, mackerel, tile fish, octopus, sea urchin, and scallops—go directly from the fishmongers onto a United flight and land at Tsukiji Fish Room in Newark’s Terminal C. The goods are dispersed throughout the terminal’s restaurants, but the best stuff stays within Tsukiji Fish Room.
Brinker took me around to see the various vendors who supplied different types of delicacies to Newark’s Terminal C. We weaved through Tsukiji’s vibrant inner market, sliding past trays of slithering eels and bundles of ruby-hued octopus. Fishmongers in their turret trucks deftly whizzed by us sleepy, bleary-eyed visitors like we were obstacles in a real-life Frogger match. We visited the sea urchin vendor, who displayed a rectangular box of the harvested spiny shellfish, which would find their way back to Newark that week. OTG’s order sat next to other carefully selected boxes that were headed for other major restaurants around the world.
And then finally, we found the fishmongers who had won a bidding war earlier that morning and had procured the very tuna that would board our same flight home. It was hard to believe that just days later, those same gleaming fish would appear—completely intact and worthy of some of the world’s best seafood restaurants—in a restaurant that’s helping to change the way we look at airport dining.
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