The only sushi restaurant in the world that needed no introductions. It was awarded 3 Michelin Stars, and the chef is the oldest one alive with that accolade. The Japanese government recognized him as a living national treasure. Its reservations are known to be one of the toughest in the world to get. It was on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list at some point. It was featured in a segment in Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. It even had its own documentary movie. And the list goes on and on…
The thing is, coming to Tokyo and travelled all this way, you don’t just go to a random sushi joint to earn the “I had sushi in Japan” bragging right. You spent all that hard earned cash to come here to have the best in Tokyo, possibly the world. Such a quest compelled me in making a reservation at the main branch of Sukiyabashi Jiro in Ginza.
I arrived 20 minutes before my reservation to scout out the location because I’ve heard the location is very non-descript. Sure enough, it is just through a doorway to a office building basement to the side of a subway exit. Sharing the same space is another Michelin Starred izakaya Birdland and a dental office. Seeing how I got the location secured, I decided to take a stroll around its surrounding neighborhood of Ginza. On the way out…a familiar figure emerged from the stairs toward me. It’s the Jiro himself! I never thought my first meeting with this legendary figure would be in a dusty fire escape in a random office building in Tokyo.
When it was time, I slid open the wooden sliding doors and entered the zen like interior of the restaurant – a stark contrast to the dreary space outside. The mood was like entering an exam room, it was so quiet and serious. Perhaps it was the aura being emanated from this revered figure? One of the apprentice pulled a seat out as I nervously settled in front of the grandmaster himself. At his side, his son, Yoshikazu, greeted me as I sat down. I politely asked if I could take pictures, and an apprentice bought over a mat so I could put my camera on. After asking me if I have any allergies, which I have none and will eat absolutely everything, the course began.
Honestly, I don’t remember the taste and texture of every piece, but I’ll make comments as I see fit. Sorry!
Karei (Sole Fish). The course began with the light Karei, a relatively bland fish but did have a firm bite. I immediately noticed that the rice the fish was resting on was warm, one of the hallmarks of this restaurant.
Sumi-Ika (Squid). The light tasting appetizers continued. Unlike the bland, rubbery squid that had wasted my time in Vancouver, this piece was tender, but firm, and carried a noticeable squid flavor.
Inada (Yellow Tail). Moving on to the beginning of fishes that had bolder tastes, the Inada had a mushy texture and was glazed with soy sauce. It was so fresh and tender but I was unable to comprehend it fully because of the heavily vinegary rice.
Akami (Tuna). The first of a progression of tunas, I mentally prepared my palate to be tested to their limits. The tuna’s flavor was highly concentrated, and from this I could understand why tuna is much more popular here in Japan than in North America. The taste here was subtlety complex, whereas the same in North America is bland and tasteless. However, I was distraught by the strong vinegar rice, which threw me off a bit.
Chu-Toro (Semi Fatty Tuna). Continuing my mini tuna tasting menu, I stretched my taste bud to detect the subtle textural change of this cut. Wonderfully tender, it was again the vinegar rice that threw me off.
O-Toro (Fatty Tuna). The fattiest tuna on the menu, this was tender but not quite melt in your mouth, unlike the same I had at Sushi Dai the day before.
Kohada (Gizzard Shad). One of the most beautiful looking piece, its dagger shape with spotted shiny silver surface was like a work of art. Again, I was a bit turned off by the strong vinegar taste, although the taste of the fish did got filtered though.
Torigai (Cockle Shell).
Tako (Boiled Octopus). According to Dreams of Sushi, this was the famous octopus that was massaged by the apprentice for 45 minutes. Sure enough, it was tender and and the taste of the octopus revealed itself, although it was subtle.
Aji (Jack Mackerel). A great looking piece of nigiri so beautiful that Jiro himself moved it at an angle for me to take a picture before moving it back to its default position. Tasted insanely fresh.
Kurumaebi (Boiled Prawn). Uniquely served in two pieces, its vibrant colors and meaty chewiness was the star. The difference in freshness was incomparable to those stale and tasteless imitations in Vancouver.
Akagai (Ark Shell).
Sayori (Needle Fish).
Hamaguri (Boiled Clam). The size of this thing was staggering, and so was the taste. While it was a bit chewy, each bite was satisfying and was enhanced by the sweet glaze.
Uni (Sea Urchin). The creamy, ultra fresh uni more or less melted on top of the signature warm rice. Unlike the uni I’ve had on the other side of the Pacific, the whole piece was intact and tasted like it was snatched from the ocean floor.
Kobashira (Baby Scallops). Perfectly cooked, the intricate pieces of scallop had the melt in your mouth tenderness.
Ikura (Salmon Roe). While salmon is a staple of any Japanese restaurants in Vancouver, this was probably the only thing remotely resembled salmon that I’ve had in Japan. Combined with Jiro’s legendary rice, every bite I took, the gooey salmon juices just exploded in my mouth.
Anago (Sea Eel). One of my favorite pieces, this reminded me that the Japanese can still do top quality eel after my disappointing experience at Nodaiwa. One of the few nigiri without vinegar, I liked the tender texture and the sweet glaze.
Tamago (Egg). The yellow, fluffy block of egg signified the course was almost over. It was like sponge cake, sweet and moist. While I do traditionally like tamago even before I came to Japan, this just pushed my expectations to another level.
Honeydew Melon. After the menu was over (and after I requested an extra Uni), I was ushered to one of the tables in the back to enjoy the dessert, a slice of Honeydew Melon. This was juicy and sweet, absolutely refreshing after such an intense “education” in sushi.
The pace of the meal was incredible fast. The entire meal took about 30 minutes, and could be faster if I didn’t take any pictures. There were quite a few instances where I wasn’t even finish with a piece, and Jiro-san was already there ready for the next one. Compounded with the solemn atmosphere, I actually felt somewhat uncomfortable because I was pressured to keep up with the pace.
Service was worthy of 3 Michelin Stars. My tea cup was consistently full, counter was wiped frequently, and everybody was extremely accommodating despite the serious nature of the restaurant. I was presented with a copy of the menu and the receipt as a souvenir. As I exited the restaurant, pretty much everybody was at the entrance to bow and thanked me like I’m some sort of VIP. This level of service was not something I’m used to.
While I ate, a couple of annoying Caucasian tourists snooped around the entrance and tried to take pictures of the interior with their, of course, iphones. One of Jiro’s apprentices promptly chased them away, repeatedly. At the end of the day, it’s all about respect. How would you feel if while you’re eating or doing #2, an iPhone appears in the window and starts snapping? Nonetheless, it was quite entertaining to watch the ignorant tourists getting a scolding from Jiro’s apprentice.
This place was built for the true connoisseur with a sophisticated palate, not for a layman that just wanted some sushi after watching Dreams of Sushi. Though I was a bit annoyed by the vinegar in most of the nigiri, quite a few pieces was unmemorable. I don’t know if I was distracted by the camera, or the pace of the meal, or my palate was just not calibrated well enough, but I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t “get it”. Nonetheless, the experience itself was remarkable and greatly enhanced my understanding of the level of depth for sushi.
Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations Segment:
Dreams of Sushi Trailer:
JAPAN™ Ratings: The average food and service quality in Japan far surpass the same we have in Vancouver, it is only appropriate that they should be rated on a different scale.