Made absurdly famous by the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Sukiyabashi Jiro Ginza is arguably one of the best-known Three-Stars in existence. The film, touching and artfully created, tells the story of a father (Jiro Ono), and his sons (primarily Yoshikazu Ono, the eldest who will one day fully take over this father's enterprise), and the lifetime of difficult work they've invested in creating a culinary temple. To be kind, I would say that my experience here did not fully live up to the ideals described in the film.
PRICE PAID: $275 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 4.0/10
To start, a few logistical issues really got in the way of a smooth meal. My reservation was confirmed by my hotel for February 4th at 12:00 noon. For some reason, whether the concierge's mistake or the restaurant's, they had me on the books for the following day, February 5th. I explained that I didn't have plans on the 5th, so I was happy to come back, but the junior staff member told me: "my boss says you can eat now if you like." In an attempt to be accommodating that apparently didn't come across the way I wanted, I offered to come back tomorrow if that made things easier for them. The gruff response I got: "Either eat today or eat tomorrow." I agreed to eat today.
The whole meal felt a bit like sitting down to dinner with one of your parents angry at you for leaving your new bike out in the rain. Yoshikazu, taking the lead in Jiro Ono's absence, made no attempts to greet me or be polite in any way. Within thirty seconds of sitting, he was thrusting pieces of sushi onto my plate. In Edo-style sushi, there is a decidedly rushed tone- the art arose at seaside stands where buyers would quickly eat a few bites of fish with a brush of sauce, wipe their hands on a nearby curtain, and then vanish- but even by those brusque standards this was an unfriendly meal. Judging by the experiences of my Japanese neighbors- with whom he made eye contact, asked questions, asked for feedback, etc. - his attitude towards me was extremely cold.
First, a delightful slice of flounder (Hirame) served just above room-temperature on a bed of rice, with a dab of wasabi. Hirame is seasonal from November-March in Japan, and is known as the “king of the Winter Whitefish,” alongside sea bream. With a soft, delicate flavor, this is an excellent starter as it helps ease into the experience with mild flavors and soft texture. 9/10.
Next, Sumi-Ika, also called golden cuttlefish, a type of squid. Like most squid I enjoyed during my trip, this is firm and with an extremely pleasant taste, slightly stronger than the Hirame. Cuttlefish are enjoyable mostly for their texture- very firm initially but then quite yielding as you bite down- and this was an outstanding example. 9/10.
Inada (Juvenile Yellowtail Tuna) followed. This course is meant to introduce strong colors, and the flavors are clean and bright. 8/10.
Next, Akami tuna (lean bluefin) is the lean version of Maguro. When Edo-style sushi originated hundreds of years ago, there wasn’t any refrigeration, so the fattier chunks of tuna had to either be thrown away or preserved in soy sauce in a process called zuke. Jiro prepares his Akamai in a similar way- a soy marinade- that contrast’s the fish’s acidity against the savory and salty soy sauce perfectly. Good bluefin tuna is what Edo style sushi is all about. 9/10.
Then, Chu-Toro (Medium-Fatty Tuna) was plated in front of me. Strong umami flavors. 9/10
Then, in what (in my mind, at least) is the crown jewel of Japanese sushi, the Otoro (fatty tuna) was served. Jiro’s best tuna comes from a Tsujiki market dealer named Fujita, who is known for his preference of excellent marbling as well as good fragrance in his fish. Most of their tuna comes from a fisher called Oma; basically the Mercedes-Benz of tuna fisheries in Japan. Even from the best fishery, Jiro claims that only 1 in 100 tuna fish meet his and Fujita’s exacting standards. Truthfully, this had an excellent aroma much stronger than the other otoro I had consumed during my trip, so I am inclined to agree that his high standards have a payoff. 10/10.
Next, Kohada (gizzard shad), which is well-known for being difficult to prepare. Normally, the fish is marinated for a very specific amount of time in vinegar to bring out its best flavor, but the problem is that if you marinade too long the flavor becomes oily. There’s only a small window when the flavors aren’t under-emphasized and are not yet oily that the sushi chef must time perfectly. Jiro is known for his unique preparation style for this fish as well- the slightly twisting style is meant to imitate the feminine sitting position. 9/10
Right around the mackerel course, for no reason I could ascertain, the chef announced "No photo." Not sure why he felt that way, since everyone around me was still taking them, and from the blogosphere it's quite clear that taking photos have been okay in the past, but I didn't feel like arguing with this asshole. They generously let me keep a copy of my menu, and I'll describe a few of the standouts below.
The Aji (Jack Mackerel/ Japanese Horse Mackerel) had an incredible, almost chocolatey note in the meat of the fish that I found outstanding. It has a rich, oily flesh that can quickly develop an odor if it isn’t prepared and consumed promptly. This is the first fish that Jiro’s place processes when it gets its seafood shipments- they wash it in ice water and quickly refrigerate. I was encouraged to eat this one fast, too, as soon as it landed on my plate. 9/10.
Akagai Ark Shell/Red Clam) are another difficult-to-serve dish, if only because you can’t tell how fresh they are until they’re shucked- and these are shucked just before service, so there’s some risk in serving this fish. Mine was perfectly fresh and not as rubbery as most red clam I have experienced- truly awesome. 9/10.
Sayori (Needlefish/Halfbeak) are in season November-March; quite fatty, slides easily on the tongue. 9/10.
Kuramaebi (Boiled Prawn) - With a delightful tiger color, this prawn was served with head and tail intact. Like an amateur, I bit off the middle and was quickly encouraged to eat the head as well- “that’s the best part,” said Yoshibashi, in what could be characterized as our only neutral-to-positive encounter. I didn’t agree, but I kept that to myself. 7/10.
Saba (Mackerel) is marinated in vinegar for about a week before serving- brings out very savory flavors in the fish. 9/10.
Hamaguri (Clam Shell)- briefly cooked over the fire and then seasoned with sugar, soy, and a special-recipe broth. 9/10.
Uni (Sea Urchin) - you may have seen the cup-shaped “warship rolls” of seaweed that these are served in before- the seaweed is roasted over a hay fire to bring out the subtle flavors, and this particular Uni tastes exactly like eating a bowl of whipped cream or cream cheese (let’s say halfway between the two). One of my favorite courses.
Kobashira (Baby Scallops) - these look like baby scallops, but they’re actually the open-and-close muscles from particularly large clams. Once again served in a warship roll made of roasted seaweed. It was earthy and decadent- the texture of bubble-tea-balls, with the richness of Uni. 8/10.
Ikura (Salmon Roe) this is the only dish that Jiro does not serve fresh- the eggs are frozen because salmon only produce eggs in the fall, and Jiro prefers to serve this dish year-round. The texture and flavor were very smooth- not quite like fresh chicken eggs, but close. For the first time ever, the salmon roe I tasted here didn't have the classically fishy taste that I normally associate with larger roes. Fresh and zingy, they tasted more like caviar than not. 8/10.
Anago (Sea Eel/Conger Eel)- Broiled and simmered, this eel had an exceptionally delicate texture that falls apart like paper once eaten. Heavily sauced; maybe too much? 6/10
Tamago (Egg) - the final sushi bite- egg cake- served by itself in what tastes like a block of sweet omelette. There’s clearly either honey or sugar added to give it sweetness, and it is a most subtle dessert.
After this last sushi bite, for some reason I am hustled over to a table to enjoy a small dessert. I have no idea why I am displaced- it’s either part of the program or they needed my seat at the bar for the next patron. It doesn’t contribute to my ability to enjoy the dessert, so I’ll just mark it down as yet another awkward moment in my meal at Jiro.