Many of you have probably heard of the award winning documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Other than exposing many of us to the practice of traditional sushi making, the documentary also captures the Japanese work ethic and the strive for perfection. The film left me feeling inspired, yet very curious. What sets this Michelin star sushi restaurant apart from a sushi go-round place? After all, how much better can raw fish, rice, nori and a dab of wasabi be?
After doing research on Sukiyabashi Jiro, I became aware of the many obstacles that Jiro had put in my way. First of all, it didn’t seem like he welcomed foreigners. Some restaurant reviews revealed unpleasant dining experiences saying that they felt uncomfortable under Jiro’s watchful eye. To avoid this hostility we decided to try the Roppongi branch, which is under the same name and has earned two Michelin stars. Jiro’s youngest son Takashi runs this twelve seater restaurant (We heard that he was friendlier than his father). I’ve also always wanted to dine at Sushi Mizutani, a three Michelin star restaurant that is run by Jiro’s ex-apprentice. Similarly to Jiro, Mizutani has earned the respected (and intimidating) title of “sushi master” in Japan. Mizutani does not speak any English so we had the hotel concierge call to make reservations for us three months in advance.
Comparing these two restaurants has taught me a lot about Japanese culture and the art of sushi making. Takashi and Mizutani represent different generations, yet both show equal dedication to this craft; performing at the highest level in different styles. Unfortunately, Mizutani didn’t allow me to take any pictures, which I am actually thankful for. Ironically, I remember my experience at Mizutani more vividly than my experience at Jiro’s because I wasn’t so distracted. Here is the break down of my meal at Sukiyabashi in Roppongi Hills in Tokyo along with commentaries comparing some courses to Sushi Mizutani.
After reading more reviews than I should have, the thought of going to Sukiyabashi Jiro really intimated me. I wasn’t alone- my dad was tossing and turning in bed all night and woke up about two hours before his alarm went off. Worried we were going to be late, we left unnecessarily early and ended up arriving at the restaurant about an hour before our reservation. Luckily, the weather was perfect so we enjoyed a nice walk, which gave us time to take a few deep breaths before lunch.
When it was finally time, we walked into the restaurant and were greeted by a poster of this familiar face. This reminded me that my pilgrimage to Sukiyabashi Jiro was more than just lunch, but a way for me to pay homage to the sushi master himself. I think I even almost bowed but was (luckily) interrupted by a man who took our coats and seated us at the counter right in front of Takashi.
Takashi’s assistant spoke a little bit of English and asked if we wanted to start with sushi or sashimi. I assumed that Takashi couldn’t speak any English, but when I made my best attempted to ask if I could take pictures in Japanese, Taskashi smiled and said, “Yes.” As he served us the courses, he would say the names of the nori, smile and watch. I could tell that we felt more welcomed and at ease in the presence of Takashi in comparison to Mizutani. Takashi told us (through a translator) that he wants to teach foreigners about sushi, unlike other sushi masters who prefer to keep their knowledge a secret.
Flounder and Cockle sushi to start off the course.
Smoked and seared sashimi. This beautiful fish had a vivid red flesh that was tender and had a slight iron flavor. The smoky flavor was so strong that I felt as if I was breathing out fire through my nostrils.
Also, I would like to point out that the ginger here was thinly sliced and was crunchy and sweet. I preferred the pickled ginger at Mizutani because it was incredibly delicate.
A delicate and light fish that did not hold a hint of fishiness whatsoever. It had a firm bite to it and I found myself chewing more than I thought I had to due to it’s fibery texture. Although the fish was delicious, I couldn’t get over how wonderful the rice was! The rice was cooked to perfection and seasoned with vinegar, (just enough to give a hint of saltiness) and was served slightly warmer than room temperature.
Fresh, crunchy and sweet. Squid tastes best after a day of aging because it is sweetest just as it loses its translucency.
Half Beak (Needle Fish)
Soft and delicate. When Mizutani prepared this fish for us, he had to fold the fish over the rice because it was close to a foot long!
An intense iron flavor with hints of blood. The texture is less delicate than the fatty tuna.
Medium Fatty Tuna
Softer and oilier than the lean tuna. It was delicate but had a stronger smell of the ocean and the fat was smooth and seemed to melt in my mouth.
This fish was cured in salt and vinegar which gave it a stronger flavor and a stringier texture than the other courses.
Thin, delicate, fresh and sweet.
Strong fishy smell with a tender texture.
This course changed the way I looked at Salmon Roe. The succulent eggs burst of salty and slightly sticky liquid.
Geoduck (Giant Clam)
Crunchy in texture and was refreshingly sweet. Freshness is especially important with clams because you can tell if it is not fresh by the strong odor it gives off.
Japanese Tiger Prawn
They are usually cooked live in boiling water containing salt and vinegar. The white and vivid red are signature to this sushi. It was firm, rich, sweet and served slightly warm.
I thought the one I had at the Tsukiji Fish market was good but this one blew that out of the park. This Uni sushi was much sweeter than any I’d ever tasted before. I watched as the Takashi scooped it from a small wooden container and plopped it onto the rice. It was creamy and had a fresh, clean flavor. The Uni was served at a cool temperature which complimented the warm and slightly salty rice. With Uni, freshness, form, appearance, and color offer no clues to its freshness, it is all in the flavors.
This fish is usually lightly cured with vinegar and salt before served. It had an oily flavor due to it precious fat, which also made it incredibly tender.
The Eel itself had almost a mushy texture because it was incredibly delicate- so delicate that it almost instantly dissolved and fell apart when I put it in my mouth. A sweet, salty and umami caramel-like sauce was slathered on top which made this the tastiest course of the day.
This was not part of the course meal, but we ordered it as an extra at the end of the meal. As full as I was, I couldn’t resist the beautiful marble of fat on this fish. The fish melted in my mouth almost like butter on a warm pan and dissolved so beautifully, leaving behind a slightly oily coating on my tongue.
This was the only disappointing course because I couldn’t help but compare it to the close to godliness Tamago at Sushi Mizutani. It also made me realize that I’ve been having “fake” Tamago my whole life. While everywhere else in the world makes this sweet egg like an omelet, Mizutani’s resembles a delicate custard- soft and sweet like a cake which was appopriate that it was served last like a dessert. The exterior was caramelized and browned with a slight umami flavor while the center was subtly moist and to-die-for.
Throughout the meal, I learned a lot from Takashi. He told me that the sushi counter was measured to a specific height for the customers. He also told me that you should lift your sushi by picking it up and balancing from the bottom, not pinching it because it will fall apart no matter what. One of my favorite tips he gave me was how to use the ginger as a brush to apply soy sauce to sushi. He says he can tell that a woman is refined if she does this, so I’ll be doing that from now on. I enjoyed both my experiences, but if I could pick one place to revisit I would go to Sushi Mizutani just for the Tamago!
Sukiyabashi Jiro: ６丁目-１２-２ Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo 106-0032, Japan
Sushi Mizutani: ８-７-7 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0061, Japan