My wife and I were determined to eat at Sukiyabashi Jiro during our recent honeymoon in Japan. Jiro's is the sushi restaurant made famous by the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a film that literally appears on every "Because You Watched" list on Netflix. The restaurant's owner and head chef Jiro Ono's life-long dedication and insane work ethic was rewarded with three Michelin stars, the highest honor bestowed by the legendary restaurant guide. Jiro is thought by many to be the greatest living sushi chef, and his restaurant to be the finest in the world. So, naturally, my presence would end up defiling it entirely.
It was the best sushi I've ever eaten. After experiencing the sushi gamut, ranging from the finest in Miami to Jeb's Discount Sushi & Tire in Tallahassee, I can now only truly recommend Jiro's to someone that wants to taste the best parts of the ocean. It just sucks that during this exclusive, once-in-a-lifetime experience, I embarrassed myself in front of the greatest sushi chef in the world, and I'm also pretty sure he, his son, his apprentices, and a guy sitting next to me started talking shit about me in Japanese to my face.
But it really was a lovely experience.
Jiro's serves what's called an omakase tasting menu. The chef dictates what guests will be eating that day, and what we eat depends on what impressed Jiro at the fish market that morning. The meal consists of 20 pieces served one at a time, all within about 20 minutes. Each piece is to be eaten seconds after it touches on our plate. That part is very important. Jiro believes those precious first seconds after the sushi has been served are when the flavors are at their peak. I've eaten supermarket sushi seven hours after I bought it and it was still pretty good. But whatever. He's the three-star chef. I won't lecture him about how eating the fatty tuna within seven seconds instead of five won't make it decompose like a time-lapse fox corpse.
The place is just a counter. On one side are the patrons hoping the expensive meal they're about to eat is worth it; the master sushi chefs who walk around like they've got 10-inch dicks because they know it's worth it are on the other. It feels personal. There's an intimate connection between the chef and the guests. But since my wife and I don't speak the language, we don't get to experience this connection as deeply as, say, the guy to my left, a seemingly filthy-rich local who looked like a regular. He was chumming it up with Jiro and his son, Yoshikazu, from the second he walked in. He's a Japanese version of Norm from Cheers. He took his seat like he owned it.
I was nervous. It's who I am. I'm a bundle of anxiety barely held at bay by the magical shield of fake confidence I cast by subvocally chanting "You're a cool dude. They all want your hog" again and again. We had intentionally starved ourselves in the lead up to the meal. It wasn't necessary, because as soon as the reality of eating in front of a world-renowned chef whose smile muscles were sold to a crossroads demon in exchange for magic sushi powers set in, my appetite ninja vanished out of my body in a puff of smoke.
My anxieties went turbo when I remembered my eating pace. I take a bite, and then I wander. I try to parse the individual ingredients, then quickly swirl them back together to be enraptured by a flavor symphony in my mouth. I eat like I'm formulating a genius idea and when I speak it aloud, the world will never be the same.
The wait staff is just one 20-something apprentice who'll graduate to making rice in a year, and will spend the next quarter century mastering rice until he and only he can taste the difference between it and any other pot of rice in the country. He will graduate to making sushi when he hits retirement age. He handed us the menu, and I only say "menu" because "guide for the miracles performed by Godking Jiro" is too long to keep repeating:
Before we could crack open the menu, Jiro and his team began their flurry of work. Knives and cutting boards were placed on the counter with mechanical timing. Their movements looked choreographed, a dance rehearsed thousands of times. This isn't just experience. This is mastery. I watched someone who does something so well everyone else who attempts it looks like a flailing incontinent idiot by comparison. All the online guides to eating at Jiro's suggested we not use the dish of soy sauce they provide. I conclude that it is a psychological test to see how long it would take until our American instincts kicked in before we dipped our sushi into a wasabi and soy sauce slurry like a tortilla chip in salsa.
Within 90 seconds of taking our seats, the sole fish hit our plates. We grabbed it by the sides with the middle finger and thumb, exactly the way all the sushi etiquette videos on YouTube told us, and popped it in our mouths. It's just rice, a little wasabi, and a little strip of fish, but, like, Jesus, man. As my tongue tried to take in the information, my brain was furiously rewriting its definition of what sushi could be, on the fly. This happened for every bite, for every piece. What is a "Luis Prada?" I'm no longer sure.
The squid, which had a chewiness I normally don't care for, melted in my mouth. So did the striped jack. And then the tunas. Tuna, followed by semi-fatty tuna, and all culminating with the fatty tuna, one after another. It was all so good, and it came fast. Before I could swallow, a new piece was already set to hit my plate. Watching how Jiro and Yoshikazu's hands moved from making one piece to the next forced me to adjust my Chews Per Minute rate. I was probably at a leisurely 25 to 30 CPM, so I jacked it up to 45 or 50 to keep pace.
The gizzard shad. The steamed abalone. The jack mackerel. Each one took 10 to 15 seconds longer to swallow than the one before it. Then the ark shell came, and I giggled because it's a vagina.
I was still chewing the ark shell when the needlefish hit my plate. The needlefish sat there for longer than the chef's recommended few seconds. My adrenaline spiked. A fine sweat mist formed on my forehead. Terrible thoughts started sneaking out from their dark caves. I was just barely half-way through. My nerves had killed my appetite, and if I swallowed this ark shell, I was certain that I was going to puke it and nine other pieces of world-class sushi all over the counter of the greatest sushi chef in the world and make international headlines.
I was in a full-on fight-or-flight panic. I didn't know what to do, but I knew that I couldn't stop eating. This was the most expensive meal that I was ever going to eat. An eighth of our entire honeymoon's budget was invested into this one lunch. And then there was Yoshikazu and the 90-year-old sushi master, who were visibly annoyed that my pace had brought his well-oiled machine to a grinding halt. I couldn't disrespect their craft. I couldn't embarrass us. Nothing in the world would've made me happier than to quit right there, but I couldn't. I couldn't and it was killing me.
I realize, to some of you, none of this seems too disrespectful. But I assure you, right then I may as well have been shitting on Jiro's cutting board. If Jiro has a hatred of stupid Americans who are only eating there because they watched his documentary on Netflix while in their underwear eating Little Debbie snack cakes on a Saturday afternoon, I was 1000 percent contributing to the calcification of that hatred as I struggled to swallow a piece of sushi only a little bigger than an Advil.
I finally got the ark shell down. And I somehow managed to get the needlefish down, too. And then came the boiled prawn. It's meaty. So meaty Jiro's son had to split it in two pieces. For a second, I delighted in the thought that he might divide the halves between my wife and me. I was just about to tell him to give my wife the bigger piece, because, first and foremost, I'm an incredible gentleman who only happened to have a steamy geyser of vomit ready to spew from every hole in his head, when both pieces landed on my plate.
I've been chewing that first piece of prawn ever since. Every night before bed, I remove it from my mouth to brush my teeth and then put it back in to continue chewing in my sleep. At this rate, I project a full swallow by mid-May. This prawn was going to do me in. My fear turned into a full-body tick. I started rocking back and forth in my seat. Fitting for Arkham Asylum: not such a good look in front of a three-Michelin-starred sushi master. I was trying to work off the nervous energy but I also think I was trying to slide the prawn down my throat the way you shake an hourglass when the sand gets stuck. In my fevered peak of fear, I flashed back to 2004.
My friends and I are ordering sushi a la carte from our favorite local sushi restaurant. My eyes are bigger than my stomach. I can't finish all I that I ordered. As per the rules of the house, I'm not allowed to leave with a doggy bag. I have to finish my plate or pay an additional fee of $10. My lowly after-school job at Pottery Barn ensures that I don't have that additional $10, so I get crafty. I start cramming the extra sushi into my pockets, mashing fish, rice, and seaweed into my car keys. But at least I don't have to pay $10. My pants loaded with sushi, I walk out with the swagger of George Clooney at the end of Ocean's Eleven. Finally, the guy with his pants filled with sushi comes up the winner.
Drawing on my previous successes, half-way through my meal at Jiro's, I gave serious consideration to jamming the world's greatest sushi into my pants. Of course, I didn't. But I did take a few seconds to read the room to see if I could get away with it. That warm, comforting personal vibe I was so in love with earlier? It ruined my master plan. With Yoshikazu two feet in front of me, Jiro about five feet to my left, and the 20-something apprentice hovering somewhere outside my periphery, I didn't know how I was going to clandestinely shove an entire lunch into my khakis. At that point, I was honestly thinking about running and escaping into the forests of Japan, where I would remain, for the rest of my life, as "Jiro's Shame."
Left with no other choice, I soldiered on -- for two more pieces. By the time I swallowed the clam shell, my wife was being served the baby scallops. She pulled ahead of me by three pieces and was threatening to overlap me. When she finished the meal, an apprentice asked if she wanted more. Meanwhile, I was so full that the only thing left to swallow was my pride. Yoshikazu, recognizing that I am pathetic, said something to the 20-something waiter who translated it back to me.
"The chef would like to know if you are finished eating," he asked while handing me a verbal seppuku dagger to gut myself with.
"Yes," I said, accepting the dagger and spilling my intestines all over the counter to the delight of the chefs. "But it was amazing," I offered as a consolation prize, even though I'm sure no one heard it or would have cared if they did.
Yoshikazu said something to Japanese Norm. Every Japanese speaker in the room started laughing, Jiro included. I didn't speak the language, but I understood: they were making fun of me. My wife gave me a sympathetic look. She lives with Jiro now.
When my wife was done, we were scuttled off to a small booth near the entrance where we were treated to dessert, a quarter of a melon and a warm cup of green tea. The melon was mostly water and I could get it down with ease, but not without wondering if Jiro and his son were looking at me, thinking, "Oh, but he has plenty of room for melon!"
As we made our way out, a deep humiliation settled into my stomach. It's still there as I write this. I didn't finish the meal, but getting to watch a master at work made up for it. That's what we were really paying for -- the small expert touches, all of which began as revelations that sprang from Jiro's work ethic and artistry. Whatever nuances separate good sushi from the world's best were on full display. I don't think my palate is as refined when it comes to sushi, so I can't verbalize what those nuances are. Still, I know what I ate was incredible. I know it because with every bite, my brain said, "This is different. This is better. They all want your hog."
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