Tuesday, September 18, 2012

From Dream to Reality - Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi

“Is that THE restaurant featured in a movie?”
“Oh, you have seen the film, haven’t you?”
“How was it? Was it really that good?”

That’s usually how the conversations started when people heard that I just went to Sukiyabashi Jiro in a recent Tokyo trip.

Work brought me back to Japan for a second time this year, and with more time to plan this time around, I decided to take full advantage and try out more restaurants around Tokyo. I was excited when my dinner reservation was confirmed for this small restaurant with only 8 seats. Okay, it’s not the original one owned by the legendary Sushi maestro Jiro Ono per se, but many would still consider its Roppongi branch – one managed by his younger son Takashi and with 2 Michelin stars to show forth – a close second.

And in case you were wondering, yes, I saw the movie a few months ago - and have been craving and dreaming for some good sushi since then. For those who haven't seen the movie, my recommendation is don't watch with an empty stomach.

Anyway, I opted for an early dinner on Saturday evening at 6pm and actually I was their first customer of the evening. The restaurant is located in a quiet corner on the quieter side of the trendy Roppongi Hills, away from the main shopping mall and the crowd. I was seated on one end of the counter, and was soon joined by an American tourist couple from Texas and more local customers at the counter and table as the evening went along.

Soon after my cold sake arrived, the chef suggested that I started with some sashimi first and moved on to sushi, which I obliged without a blink. Three types of sashimi were then presented in quick succession, starting from the lighter-flavored hirame (flounder), to awabi (abalone) and saba (Spanish Mackeral) Out of the three, saba was by far the one that stood out. My impression of saba has always been the type that is dry and with rather fishy taste often masked under salt and heavy vinegar pickle juice, but not this one – it’s firm, rightly seasoned, fresh with hint of sweetness and mineral tastes coming through, and an absolute delight as I put them into my mouth.

As my evening continued, countless number of sushi was placed in front of me, one after another. I was too busy listening to chef's explanation, jotting down notes and taking pictures. I think I probably even missed a couple photos because I just couldn't wait before I put it into my mouth. Once again, I progressed from lighter ones such as Kinmedai (snapper), then Sumi-ika (baby squid), to the richer chu-toro and o-toro. My favorite ones of the evening went to the two that followed the melt-in-your-mouth otoro - both Kohada and Aji were right in season and I am intrigued by the depth of flavors and the delicate yet firm textures of both. They were so fresh that I can almost feel their body warmth as they were served, and with the right amount of fat that lingered on your palate.

I then moved on to some shellfish - including kuruma-ebi, uni, hamaguri, torigai (cockles) and kobashira (baby scallops) - out of which I love uni the most, as I would have expected. If I remember correctly, the other ones being served that evening included katsuo (bonito), anago (sea eel) and ikura (salmon roe) - late summer/autumn marked the beginning of the fishing season and I think I came at the right time.

It’s evident that the chefs were well-trained – every piece of sushi was presented in perfect, almost identical shape and form; and I particularly like the rice here. Different sushi chefs – even among the top ones - prepare their rice differently and some even varied based on season, using different vinegar proportion, cooking with different texture or doneness, and serving at different temperature. According to the movie they even have an exclusive rice dealer that only supplied to them. I don't know exactly which one is the main reason, but I think everything is just so well balanced and I love it.

I ended the meal with a piece of tamago yaki. I was drooling when I saw that in the movie, and yes, it’s as good as I have imagined – so spongy and fluffy and tasty and full of flavor that I asked for a second one, this time with rice. I was reading other blogs about the restaurant and many commented that their dinner hardly lasted 30 minutes in a hurry but it wasn't the case for mine. I never felt rushed and was able to eat at my own pace, enjoying every sight and every bite of the food as they came along.

I guess I still haven’t answered the question – “was it really THAT good?” – and this is the question I have been struggling to answer to this date.

Trust me, as I am writing this, trying to recollect the memories about this meal, I really wish I could sound more enthusiastic – after all this could as well be the most expensive meal I have ever paid for and naturally I wanted to make my every penny worth – but to my surprise, I wasn’t as excited as I thought I would be. Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that I was disappointed; as a matter of fact this is a perfect meal in every sense – top-notch ingredients, presentation, chef techniques, service and atmosphere; I even quite enjoyed the limited interactions with the chefs and random conversations that I had with the couple that sat next to me.

But I guess part of me has (secretly) expected a sense of achievement after a meal in this legendary restaurant that everyone’s been talking about, but that feeling just wasn’t there as I walked out of the door. Nonetheless I felt satisfied, not by having been to this restaurant at last, but by enjoying the amazing food that was served this evening. That's what's important - let what you put in your mouth do the talking, not the fame, the hype or anything else.

So, was it really THAT good? I think my answer would be - "Taking away the hype and overblown expectation you might have, it's still great on an absolute scale". But given its hefty price tag, whether I will return any time soon would be another story.

when? September 8 2012
where? Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi, Roppongi Hills, Tokyo
menu highlights? Everything
drinks? Kamotsuru Tokusei Gold Daiginjo
web: www.sushi-jiro.jp

Full set of pictures can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/sets/72157631566002288/

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