Grace Lee, who runs video promotions ops at Columbia Records and works with guys like Beyoncé and Juicy J, is a friend of my wife Tamar. If it isn’t clear, Grace is really damn cool. So we were having dinner one night at a Korean restaurant when she casually mentioned that she would be flying to Tokyo explicitly to eat at one of the Jiro Ono restaurants, Ono being the chef featured in the award-winning documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi.
It's a wonderful film and anybody who has seen it thinks about traveling to Japan to participate. But few go ahead and buy a plane ticket, especially with no reservation. Lee wanted my advice landing just that, so I figured the easiest way was to email the film’s director David Gelb. Always friendly and helpful, Gelb wrote back right away:
Hi Matt and Grace. To get a reservation start by asking you hotel concierge to make the reservation for you. If your trip is set far enough in advance you can probably get in. Jiro specifically asked me not to ask for favor reservations so there really isn’t anything I can do. Good luck!
Well, the luck was on Lee’s side and she ended up with a table, though at the Roppongi location, not the original in Ginza. But, when the reservation line at a restaurant is busy for four days straight, luck still very much played into the equation. I asked her about her Bourdainian food pilgrimage.
Why was it so important to visit a Jiro restaurant, enough for a dedicated trip to Japan?
I saw Jiro Dreams of Sushi last fall, and decided as I was watching it, that I needed to make a pilgrimage. I knew I was going to be in Seoul in March, so I made a side trip to Tokyo especially to experience the wonder of Jiro myself.
How did you score the reservation?
I had my friend who lives in Tokyo call and get some intel. I found out that they start taking reservations the first of the month, the month prior to when you want to go. As I was going to be there in March, I would need to call on February 1st. So on February 1st Tokyo time, I had my native Japanese speaker friends mobilized to call — a couple people in Tokyo, and one in New York. The line was busy for FOUR DAYS. By the time they got through, of course all of March was booked. Of course, this made me even more determined to score a res. After a few other desperate attempts failed, I finally had my hotel concierge in Tokyo call. They got me in, but to the Roppongi branch, not the original one in Ginza.
Who did you go with? Were they excited?
This was a solo mission. I think my excitement was enough for five people.
What was the rice like. I mean, watching the movie, damn is it handled with care.
It was absolutely exquisite. Perfect texture, with a little touch of sweetness and vinegar.
OK, some highlights from the meal…course by course.
Well, when you sit down, they ask if you want to start with sushi or sashimi. Clearly, I went sashimi (it only seemed right). From there, you just accept what they give you, since omakase is the only way to go. Highlights were the ika/squid (I asked for another piece at the end), and the tuna progression, from lightest to fattiest. There were several pieces of fish that literally melted in my mouth — no chewing necessary! I ended the meal with tamago sashimi. It feels weird to me to eat tamago as sushi, but it’s a matter of personal preference!
What was the mood like in the room? Was it difficult to order given that you do not speak Japanese?
Jiro Roppongi is one sushi bar that seats 10 and two tables that seat 4. When I walked in, there was one group of two and one other solo diner. At one point, I was the only person there. I felt like I was in a temple or something — it was so quiet and peaceful. It wasn’t difficult to order, because you actually don’t order — it’s omakase and the only option is sushi first or sashimi first.
Did you see Jiro? What did he look like? Dude is OLD.
I actually did see Jiro, even though I didn’t get to go to the original restaurant. I was shopping in Ginza and I remembered that the original Jiro is in that neighborhood, so with a little Google map sleuthing, I was able to find it. I just wanted to have a little look, but as I approached, I saw that Jiro was actually sitting inside reading a newspaper. There was a sign outside the door that presumably said the place was closed, so I didn’t bother knocking, but I did get a look at him and that was exciting enough!
Where is the next pilgrimage?
San Sebastian. Maybe sometime later this year.