Jiro Ono is small in stature, but he towers above everything when he’s behind the sushi bar. Now an international celebrity thanks to the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Jiro has worked with a singular focus on sushi for more than 70 years. Heading to eat at his three Michelin starred restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, involved a mix of excitement and nervousness. We had crammed in articles and reviews from magazines, tv shows, and blogs, but still weren’t entirely sure what to expect. Would it really be that good? Would he talk to us? We expected and experienced sushi made into an art form. But we never expected to witness a very pissed-off Jiro and his son, Yoshikazu, get angry at another customer.
Like the unassuming appearance of its owner, the location of Sukiyabashi Jiro tends to disguise the restaurant’s merits. It sits in the basement of an office building, accessed through a series of corridors in the Ginza subway station. Walking there, I became more and more nervous that Jiro himself wouldn’t be there. After all, he had just turned 88 years old a couple days before. And to make matters worse, I had made the reservation “Facebook official.” What would people think if I was “only” served by Jiro’s son? Thankfully any worries were misplaced. We rounded the last corner and saw the master himself reclining in one of the booths. The restaurant wasn’t open yet, so, I let out an excited squeal and scurried off. Anything to avoid being a weird American loitering at the entrance.
The restaurant opened and we were seated. It was impossible for me not to seize up with nervousness. Jiro and his eldest son Yoshikazu worked on prep behind the 10-person counter, going about their business with a minimum of customer interaction. The waiter, for lack of a better term, was one of Jiro’s young apprentices. He showed us to our seat, presented us with a dual Japanese/English menu. He told us sushi photography was allowed, but it wasn’t ok to take photos of the staff at work. Finally, he took our preference for the one choice allowed for the evening – beer or sake. All the sushi for the evening is fixed.
At a certain point, without a word, Jiro reached out and placed a piece of sushi directly on my plate. The meal had begun.
The best place to sit at any sushi restaurant is the bar. Watching the chefs at work carving the fish adds a bit of spectacle to the experience. Sukiyabashi Jiro commits fully to this by doing away with any seating other than the ten seats at the sushi bar. The fish is prepped in the back kitchen and comes out separately from the rice. Yoshikazu makes the cuts and Jiro himself forms the rice and presses the fish into it with precise and practiced hand motions. If you’ve seen the documentary, you instantly recognize the signature pressing – “as if it were a baby chick.” There’s definitely a bit of Hollywood gleam at work in how we felt, sitting across from Jiro and watching him at work. But watching a master exercise his craft is a magical experience. There isn’t a single movement wasted.
Despite the popularity and difficulty of securing a reservation, our particular seating at Jiro’s was sparse. The only other two customers were an older British man there with a younger Asian man. It quickly became clear that neither of them spoke any Japanese. It’s not a requirement to speak Japanese in order to eat at Jiro’s, but it’s strongly recommended. None of the staff speaks more than a few words of English from what we saw. However, they were getting by fine for the time being. Since they had come in just ahead of us, they provided us with a nice preview of what fish was coming next.
The sushi from Jiro’s is like the Platonic form of sushi – fish and rice whittled down to their tastiest essence. It’s like something pulled into our world from some kind of supreme Fish Dimension – too perfect to exist more than the few seconds it takes to admire it and then pop it in your mouth. We ate the sushi directly from the plate with our hands, as recommended to us by a great sushi eating master (ahem, Anthony Bourdain). It was smoother and more tender than any sushi I’ve had before. Also, the rice is served warm, at body temperature. As mentioned in the movie, Jiro’s rice is one of the secret weapons of his restaurant, a closely held secret strain only sold to him. It’s pillowy and perfectly formed, with the warmth accenting the rice’s flavor.
However, at this point, we noticed something was amiss in the kitchen. Yoshikazu was speaking to Jiro in agitated tones and looking at the other two customers. Very suddenly, he rushed to the end of the bar and began speaking angrily at them in Japanese. We all looked around bewildered for a moment. Emily had made it clear earlier that she spoke Japanese, and I saw Yoshikazu turn to her and clearly ask for translation help. He said a few sentences and pointed at the two men. Emily nodded her understanding and looked over at the plates of the other people there. Unsure what was going on, I followed suit.
When we saw their plate, it became clear what was wrong. The older man had taken his piece of tuna and plopped it directly down in his soy sauce plate. The rice had soaked up so much sauce, it was damn near black. He was also taking the ginger, typically a palate-cleanser between courses, and placing it directly on his fish. He looked at us bewildered. Emily went very easy on him.
“Ok, they’re saying that you shouldn’t put the sushi so deeply into the sauce. Only dip it in, and only on the fish side. Also, the ginger shouldn’t be put on the fish itself.”
The man pronounced apologies and looked around sheepishly. Jiro came over to talk to Emily. He said a few sentence, and one didn’t have to be fluent to tell he was annoyed. Emily nodded and asked a question. Jiro and Yoshikazu both smiled and laughed at her reply. She later gave me an approximate translation.
Jiro: “I can’t believe he comes here and eats sushi like that. Doesn’t he know anything? He should do some basic research or stick to rotation sushi places if that’s how he’s going to eat.”
Emily: “Oh… do you want me to tell him that?”
Jiro, smiling and chuckling with his son: “No, you don’t have to.”
After a moment, the customer looked over at Emily and thanked her for her help translating. He asked about their followup questions as well.
Man: “So what did they say? Something like, ‘Stupid Westerners’?”
Emily: “Ummm… something like that!”
Overall this was a pretty minor event, but it was a nerve-wracking experience to see Yoshikazu lose his cool for a moment. It does somewhat beg the question of whether someone should be allowed to eat sushi however they want, even if it’s at a place where they’re spending hundreds of dollars and made a reservation months in advance. I believe it’s reasonable to expect a balance between the preferences of the diner and the will of the chef. I wouldn’t go into Per Se and ask for a salt shaker midway through. However, I could certainly specify my meat cooked as I pleased. The difference here is that this situation wasn’t diner preference; it was diner ignorance. Soaking your sushi to the core in soy sauce and obliterating the flavors with ginger ruin your own dining experience, and would certainly anger me if the last 70 years of my life had led to the moment of my presenting you with that perfect piece of sushi.
Things settled rapidly and the meal continued apace. It’s difficult to pick out highlights when everything is of such tremendous quality, but there were a few standouts. The “chu-toro” (semi-fatty tuna) literally melted away in your mouth, down to a delicious kind of fish butter that lingered on the tongue. There were a few tuna courses and they were all stunning, darkly red, and with a depth of flavor like no tuna I’ve had in the states. Another interesting tuna take was bonito. Normally you see this in its fermented, dried, and smoked form, and used for things like ramen broth, a flavoring additive, or cat treats. Jiro’s dispatched with the fermenting and drying, but kept the smoke. The resulting sushi is rich with umami flavor, and smoky like the best barbecue.
Some of the more unusual things we got included shako (mantis crab), a strange crustacean somewhere between a shrimp and a lobster. Emily claims she saw this guy on TV years ago and sagely declared, “Imma eat that one day!” Here we were. The taste… wasn’t my favorite. It had a strange grainy texture, although the taste was nice enough – somewhere between a shrimp and a lobster itself. The tamago (egg) that is the subject of so much frustration on the part of the cook in Jiro Dreams of Sushi tasted worth the effort. Almost more like a soft block of pound cake, the tamago left a smile on the face of everyone that night.
Once you’re done with the sushi, Jiro’s apprentice asks if you want seconds of anything. We got more semi-fatty tuna, more bonito, and another piece of mackerel. We were then led to one of the few booths lining the side of the restaurant for dessert. A simple piece of melon was brought out and enjoyed by us both.
In total, we ate 21 pieces of sushi and a piece of melon, along with a bottle of sake. At around $750 for both of us, the math works out to around $30-35 per individual piece of sushi. That seems insane, but we left feeling totally sated, and the total price was less than half of that of Per Se. Of course, the time in the restaurant was less than half of Per Se as well. We had the early seating and were informed during the reservation process that we had a maximum of an hour and 15 minutes before we had to turn the table over. We were conscious of time to some extent, but the pace never really felt rushed. If I took too long with a photo, Jiro would load up my plate with another piece of sushi, but things never became more backed up then that. Occasionally Yoshikazu encouraged us to eat because a certain piece, like the mantis crab, was intended to be eaten warm.
We took our picture with Jiro on our way out, a courtesy offered to all restaurant guests (though notably ignored for our barmates that evening). We left feeling the elation that comes from an experience that was truly world-class, and one we’re not likely to repeat.
A note about reservations for would-be travelers:
Sadly, there is no OpenTable nor an equivalent in Japan yet. In fact, most higher-end restaurants in Japan, including Jiro’s, do not take reservations from anyone with a foreign address, either over phone or email. The issue seems to be a large percentage of no-shows over the last few years.
The main way of accomplishing Japanese reservations is through your hotel concierge. Most mid-to-upper scale hotels in Japan will have a concierge desk that you can email once you have a room booked. All of the places we stayed at in Japan were happy to help, and I emailed very frequently, often with questions about 3-4 restaurants in a single email. For Jiro’s, if you have a native friend, they can secure your reservation in person. However, I’ve heard that they require a fairly large cash downpayment.
Sukiyabashi Jiro accepts reservations for a particular date starting on the 1st of the month beforehand. So for instance, if you wanted to go on May 30th, you want to have your hotel concierge ready to call on April 1st. Instead of going directly with our hotel’s concierge, I used the concierge service provided by the American Express Platinum card. I can’t say whether this particular choice had anything to do with the difference between success and failure here, but it worked for me. Whoever you use, you will likely get a big email warning you that reservations are hard to come by, and informing you of the Roppongi location. Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi is literally a mirror image of the Ginza location, run by Jiro’s other son, Takashi. By all accounts, it is a marvelous meal as well. It’s hard to argue with being served by the master himself, though.
If all else fails, there are some enterprising private citizens who have forged relationships with the staff and will help you out for a fee. Brian MacDuckston runs the excellent ramen blog Ramen Adventures, and has had some success (and some non-success) at scoring reservations for a fee. See his page here for more details and please read the specific note about Jiro further down the page. For those with (much) higher budgets, Shinji Nohara offers his services as the “Tokyo Fixer” and can plan out any experience from a single meal to a multi-day itinerary.