Whittling down the mammoth eat list for our recent Tokyo trip was an arduous task – the staggering number of starred restaurants in the capital and our desire to cover all facets of Japanese cuisine in 9 days made it near impossible. Especially difficult was settling on which sushi restaurants to visit, but after watching the breathtaking trailer of David Gelb’s film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” including Sukiyabashi Jiro was a no-brainer.
Declared as a national treasure, Jiro Ono has devoted most of his 86 years to perfecting the art of sushi and his 10-seater restaurant in Ginza was the first ever sushi-dedicated establishment to garner three Michelin stars. With such accolades to his name you can imagine the anticipation as we arrived at the small humble sushi-ya tucked in the basement of a non-descript office building (where incidently 1* yakitori restaurant Birdland also resides). We were ushered to a waiting area and served tea which we sipped while watching an existing trio at the counter finish their sushi flight.
A few minutes later the three diners were done and we took their vacated seats for our lunch which began almost immediately. First up was a translucent piece of Karei, a flatfish from the flounder family, which was mild in taste and firm against the tongue.
Next was the Sumi-Ika, a thick gleaming piece of squid that possessed a pleasing bite but was still tender, with a nice clean creaminess – B thought it one of the best pieces of squid he has ever eaten.
Inada (young yellowtail) was soft, verging on mushy. It was very subtle taste-wise and we both thought this and the Karei were overpowered by the rice – Jiro’s sushi-meshi has quite a high vinegar content in the seasoning, possibly a touch too much for our liking.
The Akami was fresh and clean – the epitome of a fine piece of lean tuna (akami translates to “red meat” but in sushi terminology always refers to tuna).
Chu-toro, a slightly fattier cut had a velvety texture but was considerably less marbled than your typical medium fatty tuna.
Oo-toro lived up to the name (toro means “to melt”) with its decadent melt-in-the-mouth unctuousness. It is really hard not to love a good specimen of this glorious cut.
Gleaming silvery Kohada was sharp from vinegar yet not so much that the full and strong flavoured fish failed to shine through. A poorly cured Japanese shad, no matter how fresh, can come across fishy but this wasn’t in the slightest. We did however find once again that the highly-vinegared rice threw things off kilter a little.
The peach-hued Akagai (ark shell, or red clam) was excellent, with a snappy crunch and subtle sweetness.
Tako, boiled and simply salted, had great depth of flavour but required a bit of chewing to get through – I had expected it to be more tender as Jiro’s apprentices famously massage the octopus for 45 minutes to soften it prior to cooking.
Aji, or horse mackerel, was soft with a delicate sea-fresh taste.
New to us was the Torigai, a Japanese beak-shaped cockle (hence the name of “chicken clam”) that had a pleasant mild flavour and was not at all rubbery or clammy.
Kuruma-Ebi was sweet and meaty, with a freshness only obtained from the prawn having just been killed and cooked mere minutes before eating.
My favourite of the molluscs was the Hamaguri (hard-shelled clam) which was perfectly accentuated by a slick of sweet sauce.
Saba is almost always salt-cured then rinsed with rice vinegar (mackerel deteriorates quickly so only just-caught specimens can be served raw) and the acid works well to cut through the oiliness of the fish. Jiro’s preparation however was more vinegary than I’m accustomed, and that coupled with his sushi meshi completely overwhelmed the natural taste of the fish.
In a different league was the Uni – possibly the best I’ve ever had. Cold, fresh, sweet and creamy it collapsed seductively onto the nori-wrapped rice. In this instance the vinegar in the rice was a perfect foil to the rich sea urchin.
Kobashira, also encircled with deep green nori (the seaweed was of excellent quality – crisp with a beautiful sheen and tasting faintly of the sea) didn’t enthrall as much as the cluster of small scallops weren’t as sweet as expected.
The nori unfurled from the Ikura nigiri while I was taking my shots and Ono senior told off his son (Yoshikazu was at his father’s side prepping fish for each piece of sushi and wrapping the gunkan) who quickly reached over to correct his work. It was a nice bite – the eye-catching orbs of salmon roe bursted pleasingly on the tongue.
Anago was meltingly tender but the sweet glaze overshadowed rather than complemented the delicate sea eel.
To finish, a golden rectangle of Tamago that was sweet, spongy and custard-like. Egg eaten, Jiro nodded at us, we in turn thanked him for the meal then were swiftly led by Yoshikazu to a side table to partake of dessert (an impossibly juicy slice of honeydew melon) as four well-groomed ladies arrived to perch themselves at the counter.
Jiro clearly likes to stagger the seatings so he can take care of groups individually which although commendable was a double-edged sword. Yes, it was good to have his dedicated attention but he works at lightning speed and we felt terribly rushed – as each piece of sushi met our lips, another was set on the lacquered slab before us. 25 minutes and our JPY30,000 (£230) a head lunch was done. Of course the fish was as fresh as they come, the sushi expertly made, and being served by such a legend was certainly awe-inspiring. But service was hurried and joyless, and aside from the spectacular uni the 18 pieces of nigiri alone weren’t life-changing enough to warrant the hefty price tag.
Two days later we lunched at Sawada in a ritzier part of Ginza. The private beautifully fitted 6-seater restaurant boasted a far lovelier atmosphere and we were served just as many pieces of equally fine nigiri as well as an array of exceptional sashimi for the same price. The meal was enjoyed at a much more leisurely pace (the husband and wife team take only one sitting for lunch, and turns over once at dinner) and Chef Koji Sawada took time to introduce each fish, even cracking a few jokes with his limited English. It was the best dining experience of our trip and my only regret was heeding the “no cameras” sign in the restaurant so I can’t share it visually with you all.
Tsukamoto Sogyo Building, B1F
4-2-15, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
t. +81 (0)3 3535 3600