Date Visited: December 25, 2013
Price: ¥32,000 per person
Over 1.5 years ago, Grace and I came across a documentary titled ‘Jiro Dreams Of Sushi‘ by David Gelb. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend clicking on the link. That moment changed our view on sushi forever and it has been a dream of ours to one day venture to this 10-seat shrine hidden inside a basement of the Ginza Metro Station in Tokyo. The feature is on 88 year old Jiro Ono, a shokunin, who has dedicated nearly his entire life to perfecting the art of crafting sushi. He would sometimes have visions in his dreams of how to make sushi even better than the previous day in his relentless pursuit. Even today, he shows no signs of slowing down and will continue to work for as long as he is physically able. He has been consistently awarded 3 Michelin Stars since its inception in Japan and is even considered a “National Treasure” by the Government. A meal there only lasts 30-40 minutes with 18 pieces of sushi and is one of the hardest reservations to secure in the world. It will also set you back anywhere from $300 – $400 per person depending on the selection of the day (no substitutions, only sushi).
Before even attempting a trip to Japan, we had to learn to appreciate sushi. Of course that meant foregoing all traces of California rolls and other Western-created “sushi”. We sought out to eat at some of the top Itamae sushi restaurants in the US, which helped develop our palate to distinguish the quality of the rice and fish. One such restaurant was Shiro’s in Seattle where former senior apprentice Daisuke Nakazawa (the one who cried after making the egg omelette correctly from 200 attempts in the documentary) had a brief stint and made our sushi. We learned that good sushi must focus on the rice and not just the fish in order to create “umami“. It’s the balance of the flavors among the vinegared rice, soy sauce, and fish that brings out this taste sensation. Towards the end of 2013, we were ready to venture on our ambitious 2-week culinary journey to Japan that consisted of 41 meals. First and foremost, we had to secure a reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro, which proved to be no easy feat.
Before reading recommendations online on how to secure a reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro, we went directly to the website. They actually provide good information in English on the basics of getting a seat. Reservations are only taken for the following month so if you wanted to go in December, the reservation has to be made in November. The hard part is getting through on the telephone when thousands of people from across the world are calling in at the same time on the 1st of the month at 9:00 AM local time. You must be fluent in Japanese or they will not take your reservation, so the best course of action is to go through a top tier hotel concierge. Even when going through a hotel concierge, you could risk losing the reservation or be pushed off to his younger son’s shop in Roppongi since they prefer that you attend the meal with a friend/colleague who is fluent in Japanese. If you book through a Japanese friend or yourself, they will require a cash security deposit of ~¥20,000 to ensure that you will show up. Is it starting to sound painfully hard yet? Nothing in life worth having comes easy. For full disclosure, The Palace Hotel helped us get a reservation; we were very flexible in timing over a 2-week span and planned most of our other meals during the trip around Sukiyabashi Jiro. It was the perfect Christmas present as our meal was booked on December 25, 2013 at 5:30 PM.
Sukiyabashi Jiro Inside the Basement of the Ginza Station
A few days before our meal, we scouted out the place in the Ginza Metro Station so that we wouldn’t end up lost and miss our reservation time. Restaurants in Japan are not easy to find, especially if you can’t read Kanji. Thankfully, we depended on the directions of other food bloggers and photos of store entrances. I hope this proves to be helpful. Specifically for Sukiyabashi Jiro, it is located behind glass doors at the C6 exit and next to a 1-Star Michelin yakitori restaurant named Bird Land. Call us crazy but we ate a second dinner a couple of hours after Sukiyabashi Jiro at Bird Land.
I was quite nervous upon entering Sukiyabashi Jiro. One of the 2 apprentices led us to our counter seat and gave us a hot towel along with a copy of the menu. To my pleasant surprise, the living legend himself was standing 1 foot away, putting together the sushi right in front of us. We literally got the best seats in the house; the experience was surreal. I could tell that Jiro was serious about his profession with a stern look on his face and zoned in the whole time. I didn’t speak a word and bowed my head in preparation for the upcoming meal.
Most of the labor and work have already been done prior to this point; Jiro steps in as the performer behind the counter. Every morning in the wee hours, Jiro’s son Yoshikazu visits the Tsukiji Fish Market to meet with trusted specialists, each with different seafood focuses. Jiro even has a specialized rice dealer who claims that he only sells the rice to Jiro because only he knows how to cook it. Apparently, it is a complex process to cook perfect rice and it takes a tremendous amount of skill. The laborious tasks are then handed off to the apprentices, who begin making preparations for the day.
The order of the sushi is an important element. In traditional Japanese cuisine, there is a progression in how the dishes are served. The heavier flavors tend to be near the end of the course. It took Jiro 10 years to figure out the current ebb and flow of the menu. Without delay, we were given our first piece of sushi within minutes of sitting down.
We started off with Hirame. I used my fingers throughout the entire meal and noticed that the rice was warm, as expected, and not completely firm so that it fell apart with every bite. It was by far one of the best rice I have ever tasted. The vinegar was well balanced in my opinion and just the right amount of soy sauce was applied with no drippage. The quality of the fish was immediately apparent.
In the past, I’ve had Sumi-Ika that was too rubbery. That is always my fear with eating Squid. However, the Squid at Jiro’s was soft with a “crunchy” bite. From the documentary, we learn that the apprentices massage octopus for 45 minutes in the morning; perhaps the same technique is applied to the Squid to obtain this texture.
Buri (adult yellow tail) was in season during the winter, a tradeoff from Inada (young yellow tail).
From this piece onwards, we noticed that Jiro started placing personalizing the direction of the sushi depending on whether you were right-handed or left-handed. Although he was looking down most of the time, he had a keen observation and knew exactly what was going on behind the counter. I also noticed that my pieces were slightly larger than Grace’s since I was a male and it was assumed that men could eat more to achieve the same level of fullness.
The next 3 pieces were the holy trinity, Tuna. Jiro ages his Tuna for 10 days and really sets the gold standard. We’ve never had Tuna like this in America where it could be a bit flavorless. The Akami (lean tuna) is particularly interesting because Jiro believes that the flavors there are more subtle and sophisticated, whereas fattier tuna is simple and predictable.
A strongly cured Kohada can taste very strange, but this was well balanced.
It’s been about 12 minutes into the meal at this point, although it feels a bit longer. In the back of my mind, I knew that we were almost halfway done.
This piece was beautiful and delicate. One of my favorite so far.
Before the Kurumaebi was cut in half and served, Yoshikazu presented it to us as a whole piece for a photo. I thought that was really nice of him. The colors on the prawn were vibrant and looked like a work of art.
I’m not a big fan of Mackerel. It was a bit chewier than I would’ve liked and had a strong vinegar profile.
It was clear at this point that Sukiyabashi Jiro operates at a very high level of efficiency. There are no breaks with 1-3 minutes total time between pieces. You simply have to be prepared. The Hamaguri was complex as it combined sweet and savory flavor profiles together in parallel to the sauce. It worked wonderfully.
I’ve admittedly never seen Iwashi on a sushi menu before so this was refreshingly nice. From having canned sardine in the past, I imagined it to have a fishy taste. But that was far from the truth. There wasn’t an ounce of fishiness.
The richness of the Uni was perfection. The creamy morsel from the ocean floor slid right down my throat. I haven’t had better Uni anywhere else. At lesser quality sushi restaurants, especially in the US, there are strong hints of funkiness in both the smell and taste. Be careful!
The Kobashira and Ikura were equally good. The baby scallops were glazed and had a firm texture. The salmon roe was larger than “normal” with a decent amount of juice pleasantly squirting out of each individual egg.
The Anago was sweet with all of the small thin bones picked out. It was so creamy, giving off a melt-in-your-mouth experience.
I was looking forward to the Tamago ever since I had a taste of it at Shiro’s in Seattle from former senior apprentice Daisuke Nakazawa. The egg omelette is complicated and takes a lot of skill to get just right. In fact, it took Daisuke 200 attempts before it was approved by Jiro. It had a moist spongy, custard-like texture and tasted sweet similar to a cake.
After 35 minutes, we were finished with the sushi portion of the meal and led to one of the side tables to have one final course, muskmelon. There are digestive benefits to melon, which is why it is served at the very end, accompanied with a cup of tea and hot towel. The melon was ripe, juicy, and incredibly sweet. The flesh came right off the rind with no effort, having almost the same feel as a moist pear. It was no ordinary melon.
There was no pressure once we sat down at the table so we took our time to reflect on the significance of the meal and the incredible amount of willpower it took to get an opportunity to eat here. I’ve come to truly appreciate the thought that went into the flow of the menu. I noticed that the variations in fish and shellfish were timed so well that I didn’t even realize it until I was finished with the meal (half of the menu was not fish). Well done!
Jiro Ono has lived up to my insanely high expectations and delivered one of the world’s best sushi meals before my eyes. He was kind enough to have his picture taken with us as we left. To conclude, I quote Jiro’s famous words.
I fell in love with my work and gave my life to it. There is always a yearning to achieve more. Even though I’m eighty five years old, I don’t feel like retiring. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.
Tsukamoto Sogyo Building, Basement 1st Floor
2-15, Ginza 4-Chrome, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Lunch: 11:30am – 2:00pm
Dinner: 5:30pm – 8:30pm
Closed Sundays, Public Holidays, Saturday Evenings, Mid-August, and Year-End Holidays