Jiro Ono rolled the rice in the palm of his hand and slipped a slice of fish on to the vinegared mounds, wordlessly working his trade behind the counter. His eyes darted quickly from one customer to another, keeping tabs on how they were progressing with their meal.
As soon as he saw an empty plate, the grand sushi master would promptly place the next course of sushi on it, quietly urging diners to eat up, leaving hardly a moment for chitchat or a sip of sake.
Throughout the half-hour or so that he stood behind the sushi counter, Jiro (89) himself remained silently focused on the job at hand.
At Sukiyabashi Jiro (すきやばし次郎), there is none of the spirited banter that is widely associated with eating sushi in Japan. After all, it was the bustling Edo merchant culture, which gave rise to Tokyo’s fast-food style of sushi, known as Edo-mae, after the capital’s original name.
But with 3 Michelin stars to its name, a Medal with Yellow Ribbon from the Japanese government and a documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” Sukiyabashi Jiro can afford to do things his way.
After the 19 courses of nigiri that comprised the evening’s tasting menu had been quickly but quietly savored, the dessert melons had been consumed and the guests had paid their bills, Jiro emerged from behind the sushi counter.
He thanked each guest at the door and graciously posed for photos by the noren (the short curtain over the entrance that usually displays the store name), simply marked “sushi.”
Jiro did everything that we had been led to expect, except the one thing we had gone to his famously hard-to-book restaurant for.
He did not serve us.
Much to our dismay, when we finally sat at the sushi counter where luminaries, from Joel Robuchon to Barak Obama, have eaten, it was not in front of Jiro, but his son, Yoshikazu.
Out of the 8 guests that dined there that evening, luck would have it that my husband and I were shown to seats at the far end, beyond the reach of the bald, diminutive sushi chef and his legendary skills with sushi.
Needless to say, the disappointment marred our meal.
My husband had managed to book two seats for us at Sukiyabashi Jiro through a rather circuitous route after repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to make a reservation the usual way – that is, by calling them.
We had almost given up trying after being greeted by a busy signal one time too many.
Fortunately for us, my husband discovered that an acquaintance was a long-time patron of Jiro’s, commuting almost daily to his sushi bar years before anyone had even heard of him.
And so, with the help of this former securities broker, who had a different, private, phone number, we secured a highly coveted evening booking a full two months away.
The culinary experience at Jiro takes place in a corridor-like room that looks and feels like a place that has been left behind by time.
The sushi counter, which dominates the room seats just 10 people, although there were only 8 of us that evening. The bar stools are upholstered in a dark brown material that feels like fake leather. Jiro makes no concession to ambience.
Diners are required to eat the omakase tasting menu (Y30,000) and, if that turns out to be insufficient, can order more at an additional cost. Although Jiro firmly believes that sushi is best eaten with tea, it is possible to order beer and sake.
The pace of service is fast. As soon as the drink orders have been taken, the sushi starts appearing on a flat, black plate set on the counter in front of each diner.
Our meal began with flatfish, which I found rather bland.
The squid, which followed, was better. I am not fond of squid, but this was tenderer and tastier than anything I have ever had and was really, very good.
The same can be said of the other normally chewy seafood we were served that evening, such as steamed abalone, boiled clam and boiled prawn.
Everything was tasty and very tender, no doubt as a result of the meticulous and time-consuming work that goes into preparing each ingredient. The octopus, for example, is massaged for an hour before being served, according to one interview with Jiro.
The portions were also more generous than usual. The prawn, in particular, was huge and succulent.
Three types of tuna arrived in succession. Sadly, the akami, or red tuna, was again, rather bland. The semi-fatty tuna was not fatty at all and the fatty tuna was just right. Jiro’s tuna is chosen to work gently on the palate, rather than overwhelm.
My favourite was the sardine, two-thirds through the course, which practically melted in my mouth.
Everything else that followed was easy on the palate and seasoned just enough that I did not feel the need to use the extra soy sauce provided on a small plate. I did skip the egg, however, which I could tell was a sweet, mushy custard and not to my liking.
By Jiro’s own admission, Yoshikazu, who is practically a carbon copy of his father, only slightly fuller and more robust-looking and with just a tiny bit more hair lining the base of his head, is effectively the master chef at Sukiyabashi Jiro.
He has been in charge of everything from procuring the fish to seasoning the rice and preparing all the ingredients, Jiro notes in the book, “Sukiyabashi Jiro talks of Sushi,” by Shin Usami.
When it comes to nigiri, Yoshikazu is almost as good as his father, and may even be deemed better at makimono, or sushi rolls, Jiro says.
“The taste of Sukiyabashi Jiro, is Yoshikazu’s taste,” according to Jiro.
Such pronouncements were little comfort to us as we sat in front of the man who clearly was not the star of the evening, privately pondering whether to ask Jiro for at least one nigiri by his own hands.
Towards the end of our meal, we witnessed a scene that made a slightly uncomfortable situation even worse.
Jiro’s son, Yoshikazu, began verbally abusing one of the assistants for failing to consult him on some matter. It was not a quick and discreet admonishment but a prolonged harangue that was enough to extinguish any pleasant feelings we may have had of the place.
Jiro’s sushi may inspire awe in some diners.
But for us, the sushi was not as impressive as what we had at Mizutani, a graduate of the Jiro school of sushi, who has set up shop on the other side of Ginza.
Still, we did ask the grand sushi master for a photo op, even though he did not serve us. After all, returning with a prized memento was the least we could do to make up for the evening’s disappointment.