Taiken Japan

Dreams of Jiro

Photo: Leon Brocard on Flickr

Dreams of Jiro

Jon Vincent

Although the Ginza branch was the star of the documentary, “Jiro: Dreams of Sushi”, I chose the Roppongi branch operated by Jiro’s younger son, Takashi Ono. A reservation is allowed on the first of the preceding month, reservations beyond such time are not permitted. The restaurant requests at least one Japanese native attend with any foreign guest, and another phone call to the restaurant is required the day before for final confirmation of the reservation. The dress code is to the level of “not bothering other customers”.

With two kitchen staff and his protégé, Mizukami, standing behind the counter, Takashi effortlessly juggles between English, Japanese, and other Asian languages in joking about himself and explaining the sushi. The overarching theme of the night reflects Jiro’s perfectionism as he emphasizes that “those unable, will be always be unable” (できないやつはいつもできない, dekinai yatsu wa itsumo dekinai). Takashi’s mercurial temperament shows as he switches between scowls at his staff for a stray grain of rice on the cutting board or the next ingredient being prepared too late or early, while ensuring his eight seated sushi counter is enamored at his every word.

Mizukami-san with Giant Scallop

Mizukami-san with Giant Scallop

The meal includes a total of twenty pieces of sushi, with a call for further orders prior to serving the legendary tamago (egg). The order of the food is such that each piece of sushi represents a three course meal in succession - appetizer, main, and dessert.

My experience below is only for the for the August seasonal menu:

1. Flounder (まこがれい) - In the excitement, I find it difficult to recall apart from it being very tasty.

2. Squid (あおりいか) - difficult to describe however I believe the squid has been prepared to avoid the overwhelming briny flavors typically found in raw squid.

3. Scallops (ほたて) - Jiro specifically chooses the largest scallops possible without sacrificing quality.

4. Lean tuna (あかみ) - Jiro typically ages a 100 kg of tuna for 7-10 days checking each day to ensure the quality. The reason for such, I assume is for the moisture to escape the tuna so as to concentrate flavors. Ice is used to ensure the tuna stays fresh. The result is a tuna of nigh impossible textures and flavor. The lean tuna starts the trio with a clean and appropriate amount of wasabi that acts to clear the senses. The flavors are still bold enough to match the wasabi intensity.

5. Medium-fatty tuna (中トロ) - once again the tuna is aged but sets the stage for the main act. The tuna is perfectly cut such that no muscle or other strain is evident. As such, a perfectly uniform texture is found throughout the piece. The textures are soft and the flavors concentrated and more forward than the lean tuna.

6. Fatty Tuna (大トロ) - truly the highlight of the tuna trio. In absence of the rice, one would not even need to chew. The fatty tuna literally melts on the palate with and a mere swirl of the tongue is all that is needed to dissolve the tuna. At the same time, the aged tuna flavor remains on the palate and lingers upon the finish as the palate is coated in the tuna’s flavors.

Fatty Tuna

Fatty Tuna

7. Gizzard Shad (こはだ) - beginning the cycle anew, the fish is marinated in salt and vinegar. The salt overcomes the savoury flavors left by the fatty tuna with the acidity of the vinegar acting to prolong and emphasize flavors. The texture is smooth and the shiny appearance is inviting to the patron.

 Gizzard Shad

Gizzard Shad

8. Blood Clam (赤貝) - the flavors are much more subtle but I assume this to be as this piece is more a textural dish - firm yet soft enough to chew and enjoy.

9. Horse Mackerel (しまあじ) - this piece is prepared with ginger such that the sweetness of the ginger combines with that of the horse mackerel. The textures seem to take a background position for the flavors.

10. Salmon Roe (いくら) - Given the sweetness of the previous piece and the slow build up in intensity of flavors, the salmon roe culminates at its apex. The seaweed has been previously roasted or smoked to give it a savory flavor whilst a dry texture. The rice is also prepared as with all pieces with a certain savory flavor. Both elements in combination with the salmon roe culminate in a climax of savory flavor. Easily the most intensely flavored piece of all.

Ikura

Ikura

11. Sardine (いわし) - Breaking the cycle so as to begin anew, Takashi returns to a sweet fish combination in using a sardine marinated in salt and vinegar. However, this piece adds the additional element of being impossibly smooth and soft. I had to consciously chew lightly because the texture was so soft, I had passed through the piece without noticing. Once again, the vinegar emphasizes and prolongs the sweet flavors. I recommend cleansing the palate with ginger and water before moving to the next dish.

12. Imperial Prawn (くるまえび) - beginning the cycle as an appetizer and entrance to the next piece, this is the only two part piece sushi. The first part being the tail.  Both pieces are bereft of wasabi so the subtle flavors of the shrimp can be appreciated. Once again building in stimulus, the next piece is the head. The head brings more intense savory flavors yet reined back so as to not to subtract from the next piece.

13. Sea Urchin (Uni) - The sea urchin is given in a generous amount; this is done because the texture is so soft that a large quantity must balance the texture of rice. The flavors are incredibly rich, with the foie gras-like richness flavors of the sea urchin in combination with the savory seaweed and rice ending with a harmonious note of wasabi to complete the piece.

14. Bonito (かつお) - the bonito is smoked to remove the fish smell. As such, while maintaining the bonito texture, the flavors imitate those of smoked bacon. This piece is finished quickly with no linger on the palate so as to welcome the next piece.

15. Giant Clam (みるがい) - as this piece is seasoned, the giant clam continues the savory flavors. The texture is firm yet soft enough to give a give a good chew and cause the patron to chew longer and cleanse the palate.

16. Sea eel (あなご) - ending the cycle with sweetness, this piece is unlike any eel I have tried. The texture is incredibly soft, coming part immediately upon hitting the palate. Chewing is barely required for this piece. The flavors are balanced between the sweet unagi sauce and the natural sweetness of the eel itself. Yet this sweetness is never out of place as it is balanced again by the savory rice.

Steamed Abalone

Steamed Abalone

17. Abalone (あわび) - At this point, we have moved into the seasonal menu which is at the selection of the customer. A customer is given a choice of any previous or seasonal specials before finishing with the finale chosen by Jiro. Given the naturally savory flavors of abalone, Takashi explains abalone’s hard and chewy texture is an issue. Hence, the abalone is steamed to soften the texture without sacrificing the flavor. The soft texture in comparison to normal sushi is definitely shown and the intensity flavor is still comparable in every way.

18. Manta Shrimp (しゃこ) - another seasonal piece at the customer’s choice. The textures play an essential role in this piece. The softness of the rice compliments the light powdered texture within the manta shrimp while the manta shrimp’s outer shell acts as a crust to hold in the savory flavors of the shrimp that combine perfectly with the savory sushi rice.

19. Dried Gourd Shavings (かんぴょう) - another seasonal dish at our choice. The dried gourd shavings had been marinated in soy sauce and sugar to be akin to the savory and sweet flavors found in teriyaki. These flavors in combination with the dry seaweed and the chewy gourd shavings contrast upon each other to create another textural piece.

Tamago

Tamago

20. Egg (たまご) - Perhaps most famous in the documentary, Mizukami explains that it takes any person approximately one thousand times of repetition to master making the egg. The egg is finale of this culinary journey. When presented the egg seems to take the appearance of cake rather than any type of sushi. It is a brilliant mango yellow with a thin and even brown crush lining the sides that have been in contact with the pan. The aroma is still distinctly of egg. Upon the first bite, the texture is akin to that of a sponge cake - soft, delicate, and chewy. The flavors are perfectly balanced between the savoriness of the egg and the sweetness of the mirin used.

You can read all the reviews but is Jiro truly worth all the attention? The question can only be answered once again by retouching a topic that Takashi discussed earlier in the meal. I asked him - what is the difference between sashimi and sushi? He replies, “Even if I explained it to you, you would not understand. You either understand it or you do not.