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Monday, 24 September 2012

The Tokyo series: Sukiyabashi Jiro


This lunch took place a mere week ago. At the beginning a mere blur in my memory, elapsed time seems to be making wonders in cataloguing this into my memory bank. The original draft was written sleep-deprived and reminiscent on a plane; since then, there have been several rewrites to accommodate my taste buds and returning memory.


This place requires no introduction. This eponymous theatre, where Head Sushi Chef Jiro Ono works his skills and art, was the showcase of the documentary movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”. Should you not have watched this motion picture on sushi (and it comes recommended), be well prepared for the food cravings during and post-watching.

Sukiyabashi Jiro shot to fame following its recognition as the first sushi place to be awarded three stars by the Michelin guide. Then came the motion picture that brought worldwide recognition to the uninitiated public.

This is not a restaurant where you can walk in without prior reservation. In fact, rumour has it that Sukiyabashi Jiro is one of the most difficult restaurants to get a reservation at. Some blogs have even mentioned the difficulties for non-Japanese speakers in securing those slots. Lady Luck might have been favouring me as I sneaked in a lunchtime reservation on my actual birthday (: The booking was actually made 3 weeks prior to the day.

The menu is straightforward: omakase. Based on seasonal and fresh products on the day, the chef would tailor-make the daily menu: 18 pieces of sushi and fruit as dessert.  The price is steep at ¥30,000 when compared to other very good quality sushi places in Tokyo (and Tokyo has a good number of those).

The eating experience at Sukiyabashi Jiro was something that I looked forward to throughout this trip. The opportune event that this was going to be my last meal in Tokyo before a flight back to Hong Kong provided the possibility of a big bang exit to Tokyo.

Copious amount of press coverage and blog reviews have covered the dinner’s experience; the documentary provided glimpses as well. The serious atmosphere would be the most common denominator. There has also been the odd writing about poor service towards non-Japanese speakers.

I had been particularly anxious about the latter. Reassuringly the very instant I walked in, one of the apprentices came over and conversed in English. Omakase it is confirmed, no food allergy on my side and I eat anything and everything – good to go, the show now belongs to Jiro-san, Yoshikazu-san (Jiro’s elder son) and the kitchen.

Should you have watched the documentary, you will find the place totally recognisable. The setting, decoration and plating are unchanged. Counter seating for 8-10 persons, side tables for post-sushi tea and fruit.

The experience. I left dazed with a blurred memory and strong indecisiveness. When I originally started writing, I was on a plane mid-way between Tokyo and Hong Kong; seven hours of pondering and collecting my thoughts together (unsuccessfully I should mention) had passed. In hindsight, one word to describe it all: intense. On the plane, my thoughts were simply incoherent – the most expensive fast food, what the heck, wow, euh. Sukiyabashi Jiro had blown me away – but what exactly had provoked such a dishevelled state of mine left me clueless.

The details. I walked in early for my reservation time at 12.25. I left at 12.55. 30 minutes, 18 pieces of sushi, fruit for dessert and green tea, damage ¥30,000. Factor in the actual eating (and picture taking) of 15 minutes for sushi. No wonder I was left in a daze. If you were wondering, the other 15 minutes saw me sitting on a side table enjoying a slice of melon and tea – but more importantly pondering what high speed train hit me.

Upon arrival, I stowed my phone away (no phone allowed at the counter seats) and politely asked permission for picture taking. The kind staff specified that only pictures of the sushi were allowed. The movie does a great job - better than I could possibly imagine photographing – at capturing the beauty of the individual pieces of sushi. Why take pictures when you can enjoy the first hand experience of seeing the kitchen at work? The knife skills, the defined organisational roles and production chain in arranging together the sushi that shortly will be tingling your taste buds, Jiro’s artful skilled fingers (and he has got beautiful fingers) and the finished product contrasting nicely against the black granite. As incoherent sounding, I can recall each of the above-mentioned in sharp and clear detail – is that the magic of this place?

This kitchen is passionate about the art of sushi making. You can feel the passion. You can feel the seriousness in ensuring that each piece of sushi is perfect. Many have pointed out this seriousness and ensuing uncomfortable dining experience (no chit-chatting around et cetera). For one of the most difficult restaurants to book, I was surprisingly the only customer at lunchtime. Dining alone without any other customer at lunchtime was quite the daunting and stressful experience. I admit to feeling the uncomfortable and scrutinising eyes of both Jiro Ono and his elder son, Yoshikazu while they wait for me to take a picture and eat before they proceed on making the next piece of sushi. Yet it does not take anything away for me; it shows a polite pacing of the sushi such that it reaches completion by the time you are ready to eat it. Or maybe they were very interested in me making faces while eating. The whole eating might have been fast-paced but I remember my face showing smiles of contentment and hand gestures showing appreciation and delight. Their attention to detail might have rubbed onto me in that I remember specific details.

Despite all the seriousness in the air, there also exists a down-to-earth and human interaction and attention. I remember that for the clam sushi, Jiro re-positioned the sushi such that the more photogenic side was pointing towards me for the picture. For the prawn sushi, I got slightly reprimanded by Jiro (in Japanese) and Yoshikazu (in English) about the tail end – they thought I would eat it as well, I had a good chuckle here. While it might be hard to break a smile out of Jiro and Yoshikazu (most probably due to my lack of Japanese language skills), the chef responsible for the tamago was easier towards a smile. At the end, Yoshikazu offered a picture taking with Jiro-san – I dared not decline.

Enough of the dining experience. Time for the crux of the show – the sushi. Pictures might be worth a thousand words; they might be making you salivate a bit. They are now making me crave to go back and reminisce the taste and texture of every single piece of sushi. Sadly the pictures cannot show the balance of each component in the sushi, the precise construction and finally the combination of the whole that enhances the flavour. I completely bypassed the soy sauce for most of the sushi and rightly so.


The daily menu


Overall the freshness, quality and flavour of the seafood stand out. Nothing more to say.

The Oo-toro was simply melting - amazing. This has always been my go-to comparison – here I found a piece that might never be surpassed.

The anago was just mind-blowing. That very same morning, I was served a very good one at Sushi Dai, Tsukiji fish market; however Jiro’s is a few steps ahead and a real regal. I could have more and more of this.

The ten-year tamago. Fluffy. Airy. Slight sweetness. Perfect. Maybe I had an out of body experience here but I remember tasting the full richness and flavour when the air pockets were burst open.

Hindsight is making me value this dining experience more and more. The more time that passes by, the more I relish this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Fast-paced, serious kitchen, attention to detail, the balance of the individual sushi but also the gentle and thoughtful menu and service – intense is the one descriptor that comes to mind. So many emotions, flavours and sights experienced in such a short time.

This is far from the dining experience you would hope to experience at a three star restaurant. Gone is the chilling out and enjoying the moment and experience. You are in for a rough ride but come away with plenty of good memories in hindsight. Maybe this is what makes Sukiyabashi Jiro such an experience – it is growing on me, days and weeks after my meal.


Jiro insisted I take the receipt and keep it as a souvenir!


Ending questions
- Worth trying? Yes, for the ride of a lifetime.
- Will I go back? I would like to. I want a second opinion and experience (after preferably refining my sushi knowledge) while Jiro is still at the helm. I will definitely be back when Yoshikazu takes over and creates his own personification (or more subtly refinement) to sushi.
- Best sushi? Some amazing stuff but since I have not tried every sushi restaurant, I shall reserve judgement. This is by far the best I have had so far.
- Advice? Forget the money, enjoy the short moment and open your eyes. And maybe forget the camera!

Trivia
My failed attempt at attending the fish auction at Tsukiji market got me lost within the public-restricted areas. And there and then, was Yoshikazu Ono finishing off his morning seafood shopping and riding away on his motorcycle (it is no more the bicycle as in the movie – he got an upgrade).

1 comment:

Le garçon avec les lunettes, said...

Love those pictures... they are so gorgeous!!!

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