My trip to Tokyo would be best described as Sandi Dreams of Jiro Dreaming of Sushi. As the 2nd most difficult restaurant in the world to get into, going to Sukiyabashi Jiro may be the biggest accomplishment of my life. And I had to have a lot of help to get there.
We started thinking about a trip to Tokyo in July. My husband used to live there and my friend Sandra is living there now as an expat (whenever anyone tells me that they’re an expat all I hear is “living like a Kardashian”). For someone who loves food, fashion and bathrooms as much as I do, Tokyo is pretty much Mecca.
Getting a reservation at Jiro’s, especially as a foreigner, was no small feat. From eater.com:
With three Michelin stars, an acclaimed documentary on the chef, and limited space, it’s no mystery that it’s tough to get in. What makes it nearly impossible to pull off, though, is that no one on staff speaks English, and that they tend to not welcome foreigners without a Japanese host. “If they detect an accent, it’s likely that they’ll tell you nothing is available,” says A Life Worth Eating’s Adam Goldberg, who had trouble getting in for quite some time but has since managed to dine there on multiple occasions.
For this we elicited help from Sandra’s friend Meg, whom I’ve never met but who, as far as I’m concerned, must be a mythical creature with superhuman powers to have gotten us a reservation. Attempt #1 was in September, where Meg was told that she could not make a November reservation until October 1.
On October 1, Sandra ventured over to Meg’s to commence the reservation-making. She dialed. And dialed. And dialed….and on the 100th try, got through:
Meg, a native Japanese speaker, made the reservation for us, under San-do-ra. San-do-ra was to bring a deposit of 20,000 yen at least a week before our reservation.
On November 14th, San-do-ra (not a native Japanese speaker) styled her hair like mine and did a reconnaissance trip, appearing at Jiro’s to bring the deposit. San-do-ra’s Japanese had clearly degraded between the time she made the reservation and the time she brought the deposit, but she had cash so it was okay. Even though she had her son with her as well as Flat Stanley.
On the morning of Monday, November 19th, we practiced asking if it was okay to take pictures, and then did photo drills (since the sushi should be eaten immediately after it’s made) where we pretended that a bunch of cheese was the sushi and I had to take photos and eat in rapid succession. I was also instructed to say, “Konichiwa, San-do-ra des” (“Hello, I am Sandra”) after which, as a non-Japanese speaker, I would be able to say nothing else and it would be clear to the staff that San-do-ra had a serious language-debilitating condition.
We arrived early to the Ginza district and we did a practice run to the restaurant, followed by some brief shopping and a return about 10 minutes in advance of our reservation. We approached the door tentatively and were waved in by one of the apprentices, and after announcing my “San-do-ra des”, we were the first ones seated of the 10 seats in the restaurant.
Behind the counter were Jiro, his son Yoshikazu and an apprentice. I’d heard that Chef Ono is stern and the atmosphere is intimidating, but I didn’t get that feeling at all. It felt respectful, and focused. I didn’t mind the quiet so much.
We were presented with the day’s menu, which was listed in Japanese as well as English, and asked if everything looked okay:
- Sole fish (Karei)
- Squid (Sumi-ika)
- Yellowtail (Inada
- Tuna (Akami)
- Semi-Fatty tuna (Chu-toro)
- Fatty Tuny (Oo-toro)
- Gizzard Shad (Kohada)
- Abalone (Mushi-awabi)
- Jack Mackerel (Aji)
- Clam Shell (Hamaguri)
- Needle fish (Sayori)
- Prawn (Kurumaebi)
- Ark Shell (Akagai)
- Bonito (Katsuo)
- Squilla (Shako)
- Sea Urchin (Uni)
- Baby Scallops (Kobashira)
- Salmon Roe (Ikura)
- Sea Eel (Anago)
- Egg (Tamago)
I hid my camera (actually, San-do-ra’s camera) under the counter until my husband asked in Japanese if it was okay to take photos. They said that it was fine — sushi photos only — and actually provided a little orange mat for my camera to live on. I noticed as the meal progressed that others were taking photos too so I felt slightly less weenie-ish about it.
Yoshikazu cut the fish and Chef Ono assembled and shaped the sushi, brushing it lightly with soy sauce just before serving. First up was the sole. It was presented, as were all the other pieces, with a side of ginger, which I never used. The first thing I noticed was the delicious vinegared rice, which had a firm and decisively lively texture where you could feel each of the individual grains. The wasabi was, as was the case in each of the pieces, assembled into the sushi itself. Delicious.
I wasn’t a very experienced squid sushi eater, so have limited basis on which to compare this one. What surprised me about the squid was that the initial contact was crunchy – followed on by a chewy, cushiony texture.
Next up was a tender yellowtail:
And then the tuna. The lean tuna was the most beautiful piece of sushi I had ever seen. It had a breathtaking hue and it glistened as it awaited consumption. It didn’t disappoint – it was unexpectedly tender and a smooth, warm flavor, and it’s amazing that anything with low fat content could taste like that. The semi-fatty tuna was soft and smooth as well. The fatty tuna was like butter. That’s a very good thing.
The gizzard shad had quite a fishy flavor, reminiscent of sardines:
A tender jack mackerel:
After this one Jiro gave us lean tuna again — at which point his son and the rest of the staff starting yelling, “ah ah ah ah!!!” — he had given us another guest’s tuna! He laughed and apologized and gave the tuna to the rightful eaters, we all had a little laugh amongst ourselves. The mood was a bit more relaxed after that.
And this gorgeous clam:
In the film, Jiro says that he makes smaller portions for women, since sushi is meant to be eaten in a single bite. I didn’t observe this to be the case with me, but perhaps they perceived me to be large-mouthed. In any case, when I saw this one, I was little worried about how I was going to consume it in a single bite.
I was right. As soon as I put it in my mouth, I realized that there was no room for the manipulation involved in chewing. So I started to breathe deeply in the completely silent restaurant, telling myself do not gag, do not gag, whatever you do do not gag…and eventually my saliva must have broken it down a bit because I was able to chew. All this to say that I have little memory of how this particular one tasted since I was mostly focused on not being horribly offensive. I do recall that it was firm and that the sauce complemented it nicely.
Needlefish, which reminded me of squid in flavor:
Yoshikazu prepared the prawn and placed it in front of me. I gawked at it, six inches in length, and was trying to think of a way to eat it in a single bite without asphyxiation, until Yoshikazu started pointing at my camera and saying, “Photo! Photo!”
“Oh!” I said (very articulate) and laughed and snapped a picture. To my relief he took the prawn back after the photo and cut it into manageable halves. It was lovely, soft and lobster-like.
Ark shell had a snappy texture and flavor of a clam (since it is a clam):
The bonito to me was the star of the show. It had an unbelievably delicate texture, with smoky and scallion notes, balanced by a sauce that just made it all incredible. More bonito! I wanted to shout. More more more! But I just ate it and nodded as much like a Japanese person as I could.
The squilla, or mantis shrimp, surprised me. It was gritty and dry in texture — not at all what I expected. Hard for me to judge the quality of this one since it was my first time consuming squilla, but it was not my favorite.
The uni, or sea urchin, however, was divine. It completely melted in my mouth…like ice cream.
The baby scallops looked delicious. And they were. Again, this one was quite big: as you can see it’s taller than the other pieces, wrapped in some seaweed and topped with the scallops. I decided this was going to be a two-biter.
After bite #1, it totally fell apart. I tried to eat the fallen parts surreptitiously when Yoshikazu said, “One bite! One bite!” (Mental note: get mouth enlargement procedure before next visit.)
The salmon roe was divine: smooth, delicate and perfect:
By the time the sea eel came around I was pretty much drunk on food and started taking blurry pictures. It had a nice light sweetness to it from the sauce.
Last piece was the egg (tamago), which was perfectly evenly cooked all the way through, with a touch of sweetness like a very light, airy cake:
After the tomago we moved to a table away from the counter to have dessert, which was a sweet, incredibly juicy musk melon:
This is what someone looks like after eating all of that:
Here’s me with Jiro:
Just kidding. That’s Jiro with Katy Perry. I don’t think he’d ever let me get that close.
We went to pay and chatted with Yoshikazu about the release of the movie (they had posters and flyers by the door). Apparently Japan is the last place the film is being released. He was friendly and we had enough Japanese and English between all of us to have a pleasant exchange.
Then we exited and disappeared into the Ginza night.
Thank you to San-do-ra and Meg without whom this would never have happened!