Sukiyabashi Jiro, the misunderstood.
After watching the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, reading the book Jiro Gastronomy and doing all the research I could do about sushi (or so I thought), I went to Jiro in the summer of 2016 for lunch. I could not have been more ready. I wore a jacket, I had the money to pay in cash, I was there right on time, I visited the Tsukiji tuna auction early that morning and barely ate all day so that I would be hungry enough to eat sushi served at a very fast pace. I even had a box of Ladurée macarons for him as a gift.
And then, 12 minutes later, my 20 pieces of sushi were gone. I was the only guest at that particular moment, which further increased the speed. I did not think it would be this fast. Even though the sushi was impeccable, I felt disappointed. To this day, I can only remember a few of the pieces. The mantis shrimp, the chutoro, the kohada (so flavorful), the uni (so sweet), the tamago, and the melon (so juicy). Everything else is a blur.
I felt like my money had disappeared too fast. I did not admit it to those who asked about my experience, but I felt disappointed. I thought eating the sushi would make me cry.
6 months later, I had the uncontrollable urge to go back. In the winter of 2017, I was back at Jiro, this time for dinner. By then, I had more Tokyo sushi experience behind my belt. Also, I had been to Jiro now. I knew what it was about. I did not have to go back if I did not want to. I could have chosen other restaurants, which is what most people do. Most food bloggers never go back to Jiro. They say that even though the sushi is great, the whole experience is not fun, turned off by the speed.
Sukiyabashi Jiro offers something truly unique. They claim that they replicate the old way of eating sushi, which was sold on the street and eaten quickly, on the go. Nevertheless, I believe that the speed has more to do with the true nature of what Jiro offers: a sushi orgasm. A constant, non-stop, short experience unlike anything else. This time, I had to accept that it would disappear instantly, that you can only be in the moment, and that once it is over, all you will remember… is that you remember it was incredible. And that you will want more.
I find it puzzling that the most famous sushi shop on earth is also the most misunderstood, both by tourists, locals and food bloggers alike. Tourists go there in the hope of having the world's best sushi, but of course, this is a matter of taste with no right answer. Therefore, they are mistaken about that. On the other hand, locals and food bloggers are suspicious of the Michelin publicity, documentary and tourists, thinking that it probably overrated. For example, it received only a bronze Tabelog award in 2017, which is ridiculous. In any case, I cannot emphasize enough that the best sushi is a question of taste. All of the high-end sushi shops have the best fish and integrity, what differentiates them is the vision that they offer, not quality in an absolute sense.
My second time at Jiro was everything I wanted it to be the first time. I am so glad I went back. I had the chance to be there for dinner and Jiro Ono was present. Perhaps it is because I looked for too long at his book Jiro Gastronomy, but I find Jiro’s sushi to be the most beautiful of all. Everything about his sushi, their size, the shape of the fish, their shine, the way they are cut, the look of their rice, is for me the gold standard against which to assess others in terms of aesthetics. Say what you want about the taste, I do not think any other sushi is more visually perfect.
It is meant for those who want a truly unique experience: sushi at the fastest pace. In fact, at my second visit, at times I was almost hoping it would be faster. I think that for some people who perhaps are a little more intense, this way of eating sushi is the only way. I had a sushi lunch in the same week and it felt so slow, so anti-climatic. The fast pace is not for everyone, but if it is for you, there is no other way to eat sushi.
In my opinion, first-time tourists would have a better time elsewhere, for example at Sushi Sho Masa. I am nevertheless glad to see that Sukiyabashi Jiro is currently ranked 4th best sushi in Tokyo on Tabelog by the locals.
I wish to rectify a misconception that Jiro serves his sushi in a rapid pace to be able to sit more customers and make more money. This is absolutely not true. When I first went to lunch, I was by myself at the counter for all of my meal. I believe the restaurant's alumni and the man himself when they say that Jiro is not trying to make money. Asked about what he learned from training at Jiro, chef Masuda said:
"It is a professionalism, whether on work or a way of life. Honestly, I think that anyone can cook sushi if trained as long as a year or so. However, Jiro always thinks about how to make customers eat his sushi better and how his sushi can become more delicious. Even now when he turned 92 (as of November 2017), I think his attitude is really amazing. It leads to the current reputation of Sukiyabashi Jiro. There are various kinds of chefs in the world, and I think some people are doing for money, but Jiro has no intention of making money. He just likes to work. He just wants to see the customers’ happy face. In short he is an old-fashioned “artisan”. I really wish to become an artisan like Jiro."
The chef of Torishiki shared a similar feeling in an interview: "I am willing to be grilling yakitori throughout my life. Just like Mr. Jiro Ono of Sukiyabashi Jiro, who still makes sushi at the age of 90. I highly respect his style."
I also wish to rectify another misconception, which is that Jiro's hospitality is poor. Although the lack of greetings and the somewhat rushed pace can feel like they are not hospitable, I do not believe so. This is part of the experience he chooses to offer, not who he is. He has an endearing laugh and after your meal is over, he is friendly. He serves his closest friends with the same stern look that he serves you, as you can see him serve the chef of Mikawa in this video.
I think that Jiro-san knows that those who were meant to go in the first place will come back. The whole experience is initially a shock, but months later, I understood, and I was ready to go again. Perhaps, like the experience I claim it replicates, the first time is not meant to be the best.
Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten: Exit C6 from Ginza Station
Reservations: There is no need to stay at a 5-star hotel to get good concierge services. I suggest the 4-star Park Hotel Tokyo. I also found a 3-star hotel that was able to get a reservation, the Shiba Park Hotel. The more days in Tokyo you have, the luckier you may be. I would say that actually Jiro is not a particularly difficult reservation to make, compared to restaurants such as Sugita (never mind the introduction-only restaurants). It is very welcoming of foreigners in my experience. Finally, it is likely that you will be given a lunch booking on your first visit, and it is likely that Jiro Ono will not be present at lunch. It is necessary for men to wear a shirt with a collar, as well as a jacket.
You can read about my third visit here.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
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Sushi Sho Masa
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Park Hotel Tokyo
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