Last week, President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had dinner at Sukiyabashi Jiro, considered by many to be one of the best sushi restaurants in Tokyo, if not the world.
It’s certainly the most famous sushi spot on the planet thanks to the 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” The three-star Michelin restaurant is located in the basement of an office building near the Ginza station, with a modest wooden counter and only 10 tables in the entire establishment. 89-year-old master chef Jiro Ono serves a tasting menu of roughly 20 courses, for a total of 30,000 Japanese yen (just under $US300).
But some people question if the experience is actually worth the money.
While there’s no question that diners are eating some of the freshest and most perfectly prepared fish available, the meal is often rushed. The Michelin Tokyo Guide warns “don’t be surprised to be finished within 30 minutes.” That’s the equivalent of spending 1,000 Japanese Yen — or $US10 — per minute.
Andy Hayler, a food critic at Elite Traveller who has dined at every Michelin three-star restaurant in the world, had a less-than-stellar experience at Sukiyabashi Jiro in 2008. “It was very rushed, and I gather has become even more rushed since,” he told Business Insider. “A well traveled American friend went recently and timed it in and out in 28 minutes, his wallet several hundred dollars lighter.”
(For those curious, Obama’s visit lasted for one and half hours, three times longer than the typical meal at Sukiyabashi Jiro.)
There are a few reasons for Chef Ono’s fast pace. Connoisseurs believe that the highest quality sushi is served within five seconds of being prepared, and that diners should not let a bite of sushi rest, but consume it immediately.
Plus, eating those 20 sushi courses over the span of hours could ruin the customers’ appetites as they become increasingly full, and they would not appreciate the later courses. Chef Ono’s meal lasts less than a half an hour, so there’s not enough time for diners to start to feel overly full (it takes about 20 minutes for our body to recognise that it’s satiated) and they can better enjoy every perfect bite of sushi.
In addition to the fast pace, however, some people claim the service itself can be hit or miss at Sukiyabashi Jiro depending on who you are and who you’re with. Foreigners who don’t speak Japanese, known as gaijin, have a hard time getting a reservation at Sukiybashi Jiro in the first place and an even harder time being served. Since Chef Ono doesn’t speak English and his son speaks very little, their explanations and any diner questions or requests are often completely lost in translation.
Bringing along a friend or guide who speaks fluent Japanese is not only highly recommended by every reviewer, but often necessary. Some reviewers even describe a hostile relationship between Chef Ono and foreigners, with some going so far as to claim discrimination.
From the moment we sat down, the old gentleman who runs the place, and the chef who served us, regarded us with barely concealed contempt. They spent their time glowering at us throughout. The fish came at a very fast pace, and when at one point my wife stopped for a few moments towards the end and explained (via our translator) that she just needed a moment, they just took her sushi away regardless. “The customer is always right” is not a concept that has caught on at this place.
Many of his readers agreed with his assessment of the service in the comments section, describing their own experiences with Chef Ono. One man even said he and his brother were almost kicked out during a 2011 visit:
As my brother and I entered the restaurant, my brother removed his jacket and placed it on a rack. Before I could reach for my scarf, my brother’s jacket was — literally — shoved back into his chest, and he was being pushed in the back towards me and told, “Sorry, no foreigner.”
My wife, as yet unseen, suggested she try herself — being Japanese — and sure enough, she was treated as if a new guest had come in. When she confirmed our reservation and learned our table was ready, she beckoned us in. They were startled to see us re-enter the restaurant with her, although no apology was forthcoming.
Despite these negative reviews, not everyone experiences poor service at Sukiyabashi Jiro, and most people still agree that the food itself is superb. Obama called it the “best sushi I’ve ever eaten,” and Hayler agreed, telling Business Insider that he thought his meal was “objectively good,” but that it still did not compare to other Tokyo establishments such as Sushi Saito, Yoshitake, Mizutani, and Sawada.
So if you are comfortable with feeling rushed throughout a $US300 meal and potentially poor service, then it’s worthwhile to visit Sukiyabashi Jiro and try Chef Ono’s truly amazing sushi.
But Japan is filled with fantastic restaurants. Jiro Ono’s spot isn’t even in the top 30 sushi restaurants in Tokyo by Japanese diners on Tablelog, Japan’s Yelp equivalent.
And for those looking for a more affordable and low-key sushi meal in the U.S., New York is now home to Sushi Nakazawa. Owned by Jiro Ono’s former protégée Daisuke Nakazawa, the entire meal lasts for two hours and costs only $US150 a head.
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