March 20, 2014

Tokyo 2014: Jiro

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So the moment has finally arrived.  The whole raison d'être of this Tokyo trip.  Dinner at Sukiyabashi Jiro (すきやばし 次郎), with Ono Jiro (小野二郎) - the man whose mastery was documented in Jiro Dreams of Sushi - serving me sushi.  Of all the destinations and appointments on this long-overdue trip back to Tokyo, this one was paramount.

The Wommer booked us for the early seating, which starts at 5:30 p.m.  As he was only flying in today, I was a little worried that he wouldn't make it on time.  Another friend had earlier recounted his experience of being a no-show at RyuGin (龍吟) some time back, as he was also flying in on the same day as dinner and his flight was massively delayed.  I joked that if the Wommer and his wife couldn't show up on time, I was just gonna invite a couple of friends from Tokyo to take their places...

...aaaand this morning the Wommer pinged me from the airport.  His flight was delayed.  I jokingly threatened to put a post up on Facebook and see who wants to go to Jiro with me, and the response from the other end felt like a hundred flying daggers coming at me.  They didn't take the joke very well...

Fortunately they arrived safely and during daylight hours, and as it turned out, it was my excursion during the day that threatened to make us late for dinner!

We showed up at the door just after 5:20 p.m. and found it shut.  They were still prepping and so we dutifully waited for them to be ready to receive us.  Of course I ignored what it said on the sign and took a photo anyway, and I think someone inside did see me committing the crime...  Strike one.

We entered a few minutes later, checked our coats, and were led to the first 3 seats at the short end of the L-shaped counter.  Another group of youngish tourists from Hong Kong came in next, and the 7 of us would command the attention of the master for the duration of this shift.  I asked politely if I could be allowed to take pictures, and was told to keep the photography to the sushi, but not anyone or anything else inside the restaurant.  This was as expected, and is what I would have done in the first place.  Rubber mats were laid next to my soy sauce dish for me to rest my camera on.

The service here is famously fast, and I was still trying to set up the white balance on my camera, and the flip side of our souvenir hankies turned out to be pretty handy for this purpose.  I laid it out on the board where my sushi will be served so I can get the correct lighting conditions, and took a shot to establish my baseline white.  Next thing I knew, the hankie went flying down to the lower level of the counter, as Jiro flipped it off the serving board when he came over with my first piece of sushi.  Obviously the hankie wasn't supposed to be there, but thankfully he didn't get upset and yell at me... yet.  Strike two.

The sequence of today's sushi was already printed as individual menus for each of us, with English translation.  I wonder if we got the tourist version...

Marinated rapeseed flowers (菜の花) - in dashi (だし).

Flat fish (ひらめ) - the olive flounder was a pretty good start.  Firm and slightly crunchy.

Squid (すみいか) - this was really good.  Thick enough piece to be substantial, and you'd expect it to be a little hard, but actually soft and yields to the pressure of one's teeth.

Striped jack (しまあじ) – certainly not like any I have ever had.

Tuna (あかみ) – for someone who has decided not to eat any tuna that could be potentially be bluefin, I had already made the decision to break my personal ban on this trip. If I had to have bluefin tuna just a few more times in my life, then this was certainly the place to do it. Plain old akami is the measuring stick by which I would judge a sushi chef, much like how I would use har gau (蝦餃) to judge any dim sum chef. Besides, it would simply be rude for me to refuse the tuna selection, and it would have been as inconceivable as Mr. Ho refusing to eat chicken feet at elBulli.

Oh by the way, this akami was fabulous. I’m still having trouble deciding whether it’s the best or second-best I’ve ever had.

Semi fatty tuna (ちゅうとろ) – that delicate, subtle marbling…

...glistening under the light.

Fatty tuna (おおとろ) – back when I was still eating tuna sushi, I had always preferred the full fat version, with that amazing marbling. I think tonight the 大トロ had barely edged out the 中トロ… Heavenly.

Gizzard shad (こはだ) – I do like gizzard shad when it’s done well, and this was certainly a beautiful specimen. While the acidity in the rice was already very prominent, I didn’t mind the softer acidity coming from the marinated fish.

Cockle shell (とりがい) – O-M-G. This blew my mind. I am typically not a fan of the shell category when it comes to sushi, and have only begun to appreciate them on a limited basis in recent years. This piece of sushi was by far the best example of shell or clam sushi I have ever had, period. This was so far above anything else, in fact, that I felt it was simply magical.

I typically find most shells either too crunchy, or have too much of the combination of fishy and disinfectant flavors. This was neither. It was simply a piece of smooth velvet in my mouth, but with just enough springy and bouncy texture to put up some resistance to the bite. Nothing short of perfection.

Octopus (たこ) – the only disappointment tonight. Grilled and sprinkled with a little salt, this was still a little too dry and chewy.

Ark shell (あかがい) – a very delicious ark shell. Far better than any other I have ever had.

Jack mackerel (あじ) – very interesting because it was cut in a way unlike any other I have ever had, and I’ve had my share of this fish. Once again, this was probably the best aji I have ever had.

Boiled prawn (くるまえび) – our eyes popped open at the sight of these giant tiger prawns. At the risk of sounding like a teenager, they were gi-normous! The last time I had prawns that were this size was at the Aberdeen Fish Market in Hong Kong.

Cutting the prawns in half revealed the wonderful roe on the back of the prawns, and there was plenty of delicious tomalley in the head. Most definitely the very best tiger prawn sushi I have ever had. And boiled to the point where the texture was firm enough without being tough.

Mackerel (さば) – I have always loved the way mackerel is marinated in Japanese cuisine, and that acidity/sweetness balance tonight was just…

Clam shell (はまぐり) – a very big clam nicely butterflied. I’m not really used to having hamaguri sushi, so perhaps this was the best simply by default. Then again, maybe not…

Sardine (いわし) – we joked about the “hairs” that we found on our sushi, but the truth is I love sardines in any shape or form. This was just… wow!

Sea urchin (うに) – good raw sea urchin would be sweet to the taste and be soft and velvety in your mouth. This one simply liquefied in my mouth. If this weren’t the best uni sushi I have ever had, it would certainly be number two. Magical and heavenly.

Baby scallops (こばしら) – I love it when Japanese chefs use kobashira, as they are just very different from regular scallops texture-wise.

Salmon roe (いくら) – this is my favorite sushi from childhood, and done impeccably tonight. Perfectly seasoned, and membranes popped with the right amount of pressure.

Sea eel (あなご) – what a beautiful piece of conger eel! Soft, velvety and melt-in-your-mouth, with deliciously sweet tare (たれ) dripping from it.

Egg (たまご) – always the best way to finish up. Velvety and springy sponge cake-like.

By now we were very full, after 20 pieces of sushi with reasonably sized balls of rice. But there was always gonna be room for a little more… so I went after some of the most magical pieces this evening in hopes of a second climax.

Cockle shell (とりがい) – just as magical at the first piece I had. The reflection from the glistening surface was simply gorgeous.

Squid (すみいか) – although many dismiss squid as a lowly, cheap piece of sushi, a good piece of ika can be magical, too. This was definitely worth repeating.

Sea urchin (うに) – my third and last piece of 追加 would have to be that sea urchin that turned out to be liquid gold, quite literally.

When we could eat no longer, we moved to one of the tables on the side and took our after-dinner fruit.  Not surprisingly, we were given a slice of Japanese musk melon (マスクメロン), which was so incredibly ripe that the juice came out with the lightest touch.  Really sweet and delicious.

When we were finally ready to leave, we asked for the obligatory group photo with Jiro - who is very used to this by now.  I went out the door of the restaurant and immediately headed for the group of stools outside Birdland, as I didn't want to put my bag and jacket on the ground.  That's when Jiro chided me for my poor manners - again - as he didn't want to hear any complaints from the Birdland people.  Strike three.

But Jiro softened up in the end, put his arms around us and smiled for the photos.  I was happy.  I rarely took photos with chefs - didn't even get one with Ferran at elBulli - but this was one time where I was happy to play the tourist.  Yattaaaaaa!!!

A few final words...

We all expected to be done within about 30 minutes or so, and consciously tried to drag out dinner by pausing between the pieces of sushi.  In reality, since I snapped a few pictures of each piece (I'm conscious of chefs disliking people who spend too much time picture-taking, so I'm usually very fast) it did take me a little longer to eat each piece.  Ordering three extra pieces at the end also delayed our departure, and in the end we stayed at the restaurant for about an hour - after finishing the melon.  Yes, this was probably the most expensive meal ever, if measured on a per hour basis...

The neta (ねた) was certainly amazing as expected, but it was the shari (しゃり) that surprised all of us.  The rice was a little hard in the middle, almost al dente.  The acidity level here was also unexpectedly high, and I found out after the meal that they actually sell the vinegar they use.  This wasn't something that I'm used to, and is apparently very old school, but I kept an open mind and enjoyed it as is.  Occasionally the wasabi (わさび) would also be a little sharp, so our noses and sinuses were kept clear...

The first reaction I put up on social media after the meal contained the words "best fucking sushi"... and it was.  This was by far the best sushi I have ever had.  The f-word was needed there for emphasis.  It had so many magical moments that every other sushi meal paled in comparison.  In the same way that I knew immediately that my dinner at elBulli was gonna to be - and stay - the best meal of my life, food-wise, I knew after tonight that no other sushi meal would likely top this.  This was the pinnacle.  I was at the summit of Everest, and everything else would be downhill from here.


gary s said...

Great stuff! And yes, that's probably true that "everything else would be downhill from here..." At least until next time you go there. =)

Anonymous said...

Blows my mind that this man alone runs circles around countless (high level) others who produces more or less the same Edomae style sushi.

Despite the generic repertoire, the impersonal pace of the meal, the stoic countenance, his age etc...I could still feel the vigorous passion for excellence and innovation and perhaps a secret eagerness to please. For me this emotional element was missing at other technically excellent places such as the Mizutani.

scubagolfer said...

Although I've enjoyed high quality Edomae sushi at his eldest 'deshi' Mizutani's & at his son's place, this is an itch I have to scratch soon! Thanks for the thorough post.

Peech said...

Mizutani post coming up in a couple of days...

At Mizutani, the sushi was technically good, but there were very few, if any, magical moments. My meal at Jiro was filled with them.

Will comment on Jiro vs. Mizutani in my upcoming post.

SC, you may want to scratch that itch very very soon!

Anonymous said...

Will a lesser mortal be able to tell the difference between Jiro and say Mizutani, the price gap notwithstanding?

Peech said...

I am nobody special, and the difference was pretty obvious...

Jin said...

Hi Peech! Have you been to Sawada and Yoshitoke? Going on a trip soon and would like to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

Peech said...

Sadly, have never been to either Sawada or Yoshitake...


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