Japan- Yukimura- ✪✪✪

In a quiet neighborhood on the third floor, you'll find one of the most bizarrely uncoordinated and unsure-how-they-got-it Three Stars on the planet. The journey began with an (even by Japanese standards) confusing juxtaposition of Google Maps' directions, advice from locals, and a sense of following one's nose going totally wrong. Up the third floor of what appears to be a concrete-blocked apartment complex is, in fact, Yukimura. Welcoming, eh?

 Yukimura Main Entrance

Yukimura Main Entrance

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 5.5/10

FOOD: 5.0/10

PRICE PAID: $351 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 2.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 4.0/10

Service here was a complete disaster, full stop. At several points, the chef became so visibly frustrated with his own crew that he would banish certain kitchen staff members to the seating area and force them to watch his technique from afar, or bus tables. Several different staff members who appeared far from prepared took on some of the primary prep roles, and at one point the chef just straight up walked out for about thirty minutes. Best guess is that he wanted a cigarette. The whole place felt totally out-of-control, and at 4 hours for less than 10 courses, I was utterly unimpressed with how they managed the experience.

 Yukimura Chef's Table

Yukimura Chef's Table

I have many nice things to say about the space- unique to Japan's Kappo Kaiseki restaurants I visited is a Yukimura's semi-circular physical layout that surrounds the chefs at work, giving full visibility to every step in their process and making the kitchen feel open, friendly, and engaging. This is probably the high point of the review. 

 First Bites: Roe + Burdock + Minnow + Abalone + Licorice, 7/10

First Bites: Roe + Burdock + Minnow + Abalone + Licorice, 7/10

 First Bites Opened up

First Bites Opened up

A group of different roe's (fish eggs), including herring, cod, and some dried ones from a mullet fish. Roe is almost never my fave, and today is no exception. Sweet black beans, a staple of most kaiseki restaurants on my trip, makes an early appearance. A handful of raw fish round the group out.

Though this is gamely presented in a full shell and I'm certain pushes a lot of Japanese culinary buttons, roe is really and truly not Not My Thing. The other ingredients are good to snack on, but I'm missing the initial story here (which, I'm sure, is 90% my fault). 7/10.

 Course 1: Snow Crab + Honmaroko Minnow, 5/10

Course 1: Snow Crab + Honmaroko Minnow, 5/10

Some actually pretty decent snow crab, accompanied by Honmaroko minnows from Lake Biwa, one of the twenty oldest lakes in the world. The crab has fantastic texture and is super fresh, but the minnow tastes extremely salty and preserved. An odd pairing. 5/10. 

 Course 2: Tempura Vegetables + Bamboo, 7/10

Course 2: Tempura Vegetables + Bamboo, 7/10

Next, some fairly plain but serviceably delicious tempura of vegetables and bamboo. Light and crispy, but no better or worse than something you could make at home with about ten minutes' prep. 7/10.

 Course 3: White Miso Soup, 8/10

Course 3: White Miso Soup, 8/10

Full of soft rich mustard flavors, this prettily-presented soup had a pleasantly thick texture, and the vegetables added some crunch. 8/10.

Yukimura (10 of 23).jpg

And then, rather unexpectedly, came the portion of the meal that can only be described as almost two full hours of crab murder. 

From the back of the house, the chef produced an enormous spider crab, still very much alive and upset, and split the thing wide open right for all to see. He chopped off the legs, and, still alive, then took the head, flipped it over, and cooked it over the fire until its innards formed a broth. This was the cruelest thing I've ever seen happen in a restaurant. 

This was met, rather immorally, with a bunch of "oohs" and "aahs" from my dining compatriots.

He repeated this time-consuming process for every table, only ever cooking one crab at a time. It was absolutely. Fucking. Interminable.

Don't get me wrong- the crabs were pretty good- but two of the pieces I got were decidedly undercooked, and I'm fairly sure I got a light case of food poisoning afterwards. This is, for sure, the first time such a thing has happened to me at a 3-star restaurant anywhere in the world. Not a great first. 

Claws and body were served next. They were, if anything, overdone, most likely a factor of the head chef, the sous chef, and the young apprentice changing out the task of grilling the crab over the fire as their schedules saw fit. This course was a lengthy, uncomfortable, bad-tasting disaster. My first 0/10. 

 Course 5: Buckwheat Soba Noodle + Spicy Radish, 5/10

Course 5: Buckwheat Soba Noodle + Spicy Radish, 5/10

An underwhelming, starchy dish of spicy soba buckwheat noodles with radish. The spice was overpowering and the soba texture felt very al dente. 5/10.

 Course 6: The Rest Of The Crab, 5/10

Course 6: The Rest Of The Crab, 5/10

The coup de grace for the pool ol' crab was a final dish of crab innards mixed with rice and spices to create a boiled gelee of some kind. The flavors were fresh but I'm not sure that everything that ended up in this dish is normally meant to be eaten- strange muddy flavors and lots of flecks of hard shell throughout. 5/10.

 Course 7: Japanese Onion + Radish Soup, 2/10

Course 7: Japanese Onion + Radish Soup, 2/10

An inexplicably bland soup, with what felt like a mix between an onion and a potato as the starch- turned out to be Japanese radish. I ate about half of it and didn't find any of it refreshing. 2/10. Getting exhausted by this meal at this point. 

 Course 8: Rice + Aduki Beans, 7/10

Course 8: Rice + Aduki Beans, 7/10

A somewhat interesting Aduki bean and rice mix came next. It was mercifully bland and edible compared to some of the most recent work. 7/10. 

 Course 9: Blancmange of Strawberry, 9/10

Course 9: Blancmange of Strawberry, 9/10

With extremely good fortune, we ended on a fairly high note. The chef, after a long smoke break I mentioned earlier, presented his interpretation of a blancmange with strawberry and coffee grounds. The vanilla, strawberry, and coffee flavors and textures worked together really well. 9/10.

 Course 10: Sugar Candy, 8/10

Course 10: Sugar Candy, 8/10

I have no idea what these little sour candies were, but they felt handmade and they were extremely sugary (a rare treat in Japan) so I give them an 8/10.

Japan- Sukiyabashi Jiro Ginza- ✪✪✪

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. 

 Sushi Jiro Main Entrance

Sushi Jiro Main Entrance

TOKYO, JAPAN

SERVICE: 2/10

FOOD: 7.0/10

PRICE PAID: $275 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 3.0/10

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. 

 Jiro exterior- a very humble underground office/restaurant area near the subway

Jiro exterior- a very humble underground office/restaurant area near the subway

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. 

 Course 1: Hirame, 9/10

Course 1: Hirame, 9/10

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.

 Course 2: Sumi-Ika, 9/10

Course 2: Sumi-Ika, 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.

 Course 4: Inada, 8/10

Course 4: Inada, 8/10

Inada (Juvenile Yellowtail Tuna) followed. This course is meant to introduce strong colors, and the flavors are clean and bright. 8/10.

 Course 5: Akami, 9/10

Course 5: Akami, 9/10

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.

 Course 6: Chu-Toro, 9/10

Course 6: Chu-Toro, 9/10

Then, Chu-Toro (Medium-Fatty Tuna) was plated in front of me. Strong umami flavors. 9/10

 Course 7: Otoro, 10/10

Course 7: Otoro, 10/10

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.

 Course 8: Gizzard Shad, 

Course 8: Gizzard Shad, 

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 Menu

The Menu

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.