February 10, 2015

Tokyo Michelin tour day 6: Yoshikazu

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On my trip to Tokyo last year, I had an epiphany when I had the privilege of dining at Sukiyabashi Jiro (すきやばし 次郎) for the first time.  At the time I said it was the "best fucking sushi I've ever had", and I knew then that everything would be downhill from there.  A few days later I was totally unimpressed with my lunch at Sushi Mizutani (鮨 水谷), and sure enough, it was downgraded by Michelin from three stars to two at the end of last year.

Naturally I wanted to go back to Jiro on this trip, but somehow we just had a lot of trouble getting a reservation through our usual (yup, Amex is pretty useless) channels.  Finally I asked a friend with connections to help out, and in the end he managed to get me just one seat at lunch, for myself.

I can't even begin to describe the comments I got from my jealous friends, who were clearly miffed that they were left out in the cold.  I would have gladly offered my seat to the Great One so that she could have a chance to try it, except that I was told that this reservation came about as a favor from the restaurant...

So I checked out of the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo and moved myself to the Peninsula Tokyo, because the reservation came about thanks to the concierge team there.  It was in the middle of my discussions with the concierge when I made a horrible realization...

In addition to having a dress code, Sukiyabashi Jiro also requests that guests refrain from wearing strong perfume.  Normally this wouldn't be a problem for me, as I'd stopped wearing any fragrances when I started drinking wine more than a decade ago.  But while at the Mandarin Oriental this morning, I had applied some Bottega Veneta lotion provided by the hotel to my face.  The scent was very, very strong.  I was horrified at the thought of offending Jiro-san, so I scurried to the restroom to wash the lotion off my face.  Alas, the Bottega Veneta shampoo and shower gel all carried the strong scent, so I was kinda screwed...  Damn you, MO Tokyo!

I walked the short distance to the restaurant's location in Ginza, and arrived about twenty-some minutes before noon.  The familiar sign was out front, informing customers that they were still getting ready and for people not to take any pictures.  I go to the restroom again to try to wash the remnants of lotion off my face...

I finally decided to walk in about a quarter to twelve.  After checking my jacket and bag, I was led to my seat at the counter.  I set my white balance quickly using the warm, white hand-towel, and I was ready to eat.

Yoshikazu (禎一), Jiro's eldest son who has been groomed to succeed him, came out.  I was the only customer at this point, and he quickly put the first piece of sushi in front of me.

So I guess Jiro-san isn't in the house today.  I had heard that he wasn't in the restaurant several days ago, and that usually only happens when he's not feeling well.  Maybe he hasn't recovered.

Flounder (ひらめ)

Golden cuttlefish (すみいか) - wasabi was a little strong.

Yellowtail (ぶり)

Lean bluefin tuna (あかみ)

It's now 12 noon, and at this point Jiro-san walks out to behind the counter.  Maybe he doesn't come out any earlier?  I am relieved to see that he is well, and look forward to having him take over from Yoshikazu.

But he doesn't.  He immediately starts to serve the other customers, who arrived after I did, but my sushi is still made by Yoshikazu.

At first I felt a little upset.  Why was I the only one not getting served by Jiro?!  Yes, I was a gaijin customer with a big camera, but I was quiet, polite, spoke Japanese, and followed the dress code of the restaurant.  There were four other gaijins at the other end who were wearing jeans and T-shirts.  Why did they get better treatment?!

Medium fatty bluefin tuna (ちゅうとろ)

Fatty bluefin tuna (おおとろ)

Gizzard shad (こはだ) - acidity of the neta is higher than usual, and also a little more chewy than usual.

By this point I had come to terms with not being served by Jiro-san.  What I saw in front of me was father and son working side-by-side.  Of course they had been working side-by-side for years, with Yoshikazu preparing the neta (ねた), then handing them to Jiro-san for the final touches of putting it on top of the shari (しゃり).  But now Yoshikazu was doing everything - prepping the neta both for his father and for himself, and also molding the shari for my sushi.  I was witnessing Jiro passing the baton to Yoshikazu, and that gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Octopus (たこ) - sprinkled with salt on top, still warm, and very chewy.

Red clam (あかがい) - beautiful, but Yoshikazu brushed too much sauce on top... so that when I put it in my mouth, the excess sauce dripped onto my chin.

Japanese horse mackerel (あじ)

Clam (はまぐり) - once again this is the best clam I've ever had anywhere... but again this came with a little too much sauce...

Mackerel (さば) - love the acidity.  Texture was a little more firm than I expected.

Japanese tiger prawn (くるまえび) - loved it just as much as I did on my last visit...

...except there wasn't the same innards (みそ) as last time...

Halfbeak (さより) - I don't think I've ever seen needlefish cut this way...

Sea urchin (うに) - Jiro serves the creamiest sea urchin...

Mactra abductor muscles (こばしら)

Salmon roe (いくら)

Conger eel (あなご) - a little too much sauce... again.

Grilled egg (たまご) - I loooove this style of grilled egg, where the texture is like a sponge cake.  Even though there is Japanese yam (山芋) and shrimp added to the mixture, this is served like a dessert.

I glanced at my watch as I bit into this, my 20th and final piece of sushi.  Twenty-five minutes had elapsed since I picked up my first piece.  As I was dining solo and had no one to chat with, I was eating at the "regular" Jiro speed today... especially since I didn't take as many pictures as I did on my first visit.  A visit to Sukiyabashi Jiro is basically speed-eating...

I debated about whether or not I wanted to order more pieces (追加), because I was really pretty full.  But in the end I couldn't resist...

Clam (はまぐり) - OK, this was just swimming in sauce... ridiculous.  But delicious.

Sea urchin (うに)

I was ushered to one of the side booths to take my Japanese musk melon (マスクメロン).  Not that I needed to shove anything of that size into my stomach at that particular moment...

I looked around on the wall next to me, and I was bummed that on this second visit, I still could not see the famous drawing that the President of Disney Japan presented to Jiro-san - featuring Mickey, Donald, and friends sitting at the counter being served by Jiro-san.  Maybe one day I'll see it with my own eyes...

I gotta be honest here... my lunch today wasn't as good as my dinner last year.  It is clear that Yoshikazu isn't at the same level as his father, but then again, nobody else is.  I don't think anyone expected that he would become as good as his father - it's the unfortunate fact of being the son of a legend and forever living in his shadow.

However, I was observing Jiro-san today and thought that even the man himself might be slipping a little... perhaps as a result of his health.  After all, he is 89 pushing 90.  I noticed that once in a while, he would leave stray grains of rice on the cutting board after molding the shari, which the assistant would clean up.  I also wondered whether he still had his strength, as he seemed to require a few more presses with his fingers to put the neta and shari together.

In spite of all this, I felt privileged to have been able to pay father and son a second visit, and perhaps witness the baton being passed down to Yoshikazu.  I hope I will have the good fortune of paying them more visits and watch father and son working side-by-side.

P.S.  While I was paying the bill, I noticed that they are now selling copies of the new book Jiro Gastronomy, which had just been published last year.  What's more, the copies in the restaurant are signed by Jiro-san himself, and some copies are also signed by Masuhiro Yamamoto (山本益博) - the co-author of the book.  Of course I bought a few more copies...

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