We’ve been wanting to go to Kai Zan for over a year, but much of the year I was pregnant and wasn’t supposed to be eating raw fish. We passed it up for my birthday and finally got there last night for Dallas’s birthday. We both got the omakase (chef’s choice), which was $60 per person for about 14 small courses. Some were literally one bite and some were a little bigger. We also had to get the hamachi kama, because we love it and can never pass it up when it’s available!
The omakase at Kai Zan was great. It lets you try things from all over their menu. About half of the courses were raw and about half were cooked. We also loved the hamachi kama. We got a nice, big meaty piece that was grilled to perfection and served with ponzu and daikon. Kai Zan has a cool vibe going on inside. I really liked it. Also, it’s BYO so you can cut down on costs by bringing your own booze. We both really liked our experience there and I think we’ll be back. Especially since it’s just a few minutes drive from our house!
Where to begin with Sukiyabashi Jiro and Jiro Dreams of Sushi? Begin at the beginning? We first learned about Sushiyabashi Jiro and its chef, Jiro Ono, by watching a documentary about the restaurant, Jiro Dreams of Sushi (movie trailer above).
And then we saw Anthony Bourdain go there on his show, No Reservations. We were amazed!
Sukiyabashi Jiro is a three-star Michelin-awarded restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo. For reference, one star is “very good cuisine in its category,” two stars is “excellent cuisine, worth a detour,” and the rarely awarded, coveted three stars means “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” At 86-years-old, Jiro Ono holds the Guiness record for being the oldest chef to be awarded three stars! He was also the first sushi chef to be awarded Michelin stars. Famous chefs like Joel Robuchon, Eric Ripert, and Anthony Bourdain consider Jiro to be the world’s best sushi chef, Sukiyabashi Jiro as the world’s best sushi restaurant, and the country of Japan considers Jiro to be a national treasure. I mean, all this is just to say that Jiro and his restaurant are the shit!
There are so many crazy stories from the documentary and that we heard from friends in Japan. That Chef Ono, when he scoops the rice out of the container to make the sushi, always has within a few grains of 50 grains. In the documentary we saw how hard the apprentices work. They might stand in the kitchen and wash dishes for months before ever getting to touch anything else. One guy made tamago (kind of like an egg omelette) for months, 200 times and every time it was not good enough for Jiro. When his tamago was finally approved, he cried like a baby! For most apprentices it will be years before they are allowed to stand behind the sushi bar, helping Jiro. Jiro’s son, Yoshikazu, rides his bike every single morning to Tsukiji Fish Market to buy fresh fish for the restaurant. (This was the market we’d visited the day before.) Not only is the fish as fresh and as best quality as can be gotten, the rice is a big deal too. Jiro Ono has a special rice dealer who only sells his best grains to him. To this rice, Jiro adds his own blend of vinegar to get the perfect sushi rice taste.
Sukiyabashi Jiro has been noted as one of the most difficult reservations to get in the world. After watching the documentary and booking our flights to Japan, Dallas and I half joked about trying to go. It’s too much money, we’d say. And then we’d think about how Jiro Ono is 85 years old.. and we may never go to Japan again.. and how it’s the best sushi restaurant in the world! We were at Rory’s birthday party when Dallas mentioned it to Doug and Naoko. Turns out that Naoko, who is from Tokyo originally, knew someone who knew someone from the restaurant! She was able to make some calls and after a week or two we got an email with some rules (don’t wear perfume and don’t you dare be late) and instructions on what to do. We had to have our friends Tandy and Chris, who live in Tokyo, call the restaurant to give contact information. And not only that, they had to make a cash payment to hold the reservation! It was all so elaborate. I could hardly believe that we had the reservation. I half thought we’d show up and they’d have no idea who we were!
We arrived in Ginza way early and found our way to the restaurant, just to make sure we could find it. The restaurant is located in the basement of the Ginza station and can be difficult to find, but luckily we found this blog post where the author took photos of the path to Jiro’s! Also, Tandy had been there to make our “down payment,” so she gave us tips. With time to kill, we walked around Ginza a bit to take in the sights. When it was time, we went back to the restaurant and arrived promptly at 11:45 for our noon reservation. We sort of were just lingering outside, not sure if we should go in early or what. We actually saw Jiro Ono walk past us and into the restaurant. He was wearing a suit. We decided to go in early.
We were greeted by nice older lady cashier and then seated at the bar by a younger apprentice. Jiro’s oldest son, Yoshikazu, was behind the bar making sushi. There were three other people eating, they were near finishing their meals. The restaurant was tiny – just ten seats at the counter and only a couple tables. And it was absolutely quiet, aside from the noise of a water fountain somewhere. It was so quiet that Dallas and I whispered to each other! We were asked if we had any food allergies or if there was anything we didn’t like and we said no. We were all in for whatever they wanted to serve us! We were given the 19-course menu and whatever we wanted to drink. The choices were beer, sake or water. We got a warm towel to wash our hands and approximately two minutes after we entered the restaurant we were being served our first piece of sushi! There’s no messing around here.
I was a bit disappointed because it was Jiro’s son making the sushi. I mean, I’m sure it would all be freaking fantastic, no matter, but half the reason we were there was to get served by the 86-year-old sushi master of the world! Luckily at 12:00 exactly, Jiro came out with his chef’s coat on and took over for the son. It was interesting to see the transition. They took away the son’s knife, his cutting board. Out came all of Jiro’s special equipment.
I didn’t take photos of every course, just because I didn’t want to be annoying and also, I didn’t want to get behind. I’d read one place online that someone had taken a photo of every course and had gotten behind and missed out on some pieces! That was not happening to me. haha. So, I took photos of maybe half.. or less of our pieces just so we could remember how beautiful they were. Another reason for not too many photos is because when Jiro sets the sushi in front of you it is prepared to the exact right temperature and everything.. you’re supposed to pick it up (with your hands, not chopsticks) and eat it within seconds! I’d also only brought my point and shoot camera because I thought it would be more discreet if the restaurant was opposed to people taking photos, but they seemed to be quite open about it. They even gave me a little rubber mat to set my camera on in between shots.
Here is the whole menu of what we had and the photos that I did take:
1. Karei (Sole Fish)
2. Sumi-ika (Squid)
3. Inada (Yellow Tail)
4. Akami (Tuna) – The beginning of the tuna pieces!
5. Chu-toro (Semi-Fatty Tuna)
6. Oo-toro (Fatty Tuna) – The semi-fatty and fatty tunas were so tender and delicious. They just melted in your mouth.
7. Kohada (Gizzard Shad) This was the prettiest sushi. Dallas loves fish skin and loved this piece.
8. Torigai (Cockle Shell)
9. Tako (Boiled Octopus): I’m not usually a tako fan because of it’s consistency (kind of chewy), but this was very good. Supposedly Jiro has an apprentice massage the octopus for 50 minutes prior to serving!
10. Aji (Jack Mackerel)
11. Kurumaebi (Boiled Prawn)- Two-pieces: one head, one tail.
12. Akagai (Ark Shell)
13. Sayori (Needle Fish) – also very pretty!
14. Hamaguri (Boiled Clam)- BIG bite!
15. Uni (Sea Urchin) – This was the sushi I had the hardest time with. I didn’t like uni when I first tried it about 6 years ago or so, but have sort of come around on it when I’ve had it in Hawaii. The uni at Jiro was huge though! Dallas ate his first and was saying how briny and good it was. Then I went for it. And struggled a bit. Dallas said my face looked so horrible he was praying Jiro wouldn’t turn around at that second!
16. Kobashira (Baby Scallops)
17. Ikura (Salmon Roe) – Always fun!
18. Anago (Sea Eel) – I really liked the eel. I always do. I wished I’d gotten a second piece of eel!
19. Tamago (Egg) – This was so good. A bit sweet. Dense, but light at the same time. It was fun knowing the back story on how perfected the tamago is.
Dallas was really adement about eating the sushi as soon as it was set in front of us. I was having a hard time keeping up just eating, not even taking photos. I kept asking him to at least wait til we both were served before he ate, but most times he was chewing and almost done before Jiro even set my sushi on the plate! PLUS, in the back of my head I was kind of tallying how much we were paying for the amount of time. The meal is notoriously short and notoriously pricey, so I would have liked to drag it out a little more!
It is kind of bizzaro how you watch the documentary and then you go to Sukiyabashi Jiro and exactly everything you saw on TV is happening in front of you. Half of the joy in this meal was just watching Jiro do his thing and knowing that he’s been honing his skill and working his craft for something like 75 years, since he started apprenticing at a sushi restaurant at just 9 years old! I’m not a huge rice fan and when I kept reading and hearing about how this rice was different than other sushi rice you’ve ever had, I was sort of “whatever,” but I must say I was totally shocked when I took my first bite and tasted that rice. It’s definitely the best sushi rice I ever had. You could really taste how it was more vinegary, but not so much that it overwhelmed the fish. And also, it is not cold. It’s somewhere around body temperature, which really did make a difference.
At the end of our meal we were asked if we wanted more of anything. I got one more piece of the semi-fat tuna and Dallas got both the semi-fat tuna and the fatty tuna. So, all together we had 20-21 pieces of sushi each. Filling!!!
When we were done, we were lead away from the counter to some booths on the side, where we were served hot green tea and a slice of super juicy musk melon. You might be like “melon, whatever!” but I read that melon is Japan is super expensive and that a single melon can go for anywhere between $50 – 400! And, of course, it was really good melon. Only the best for Jiro! As we were eating our dessert we heard another customer ask if they could get their photo taken with Jiro. An apprentice called out to the back and Jiro came out and obliged. So, when we were done, we did the same.
Funny story – We were lined up Jiro, Dallas, me and Jiro made me switch with Dallas so that I was standing in the middle. He looked back, behind us, to make sure that you could see the sign for the restaurant, and then he signaled for the apprentice to take the photo. Then he bowed and thanked us, we bowed and thanked him. And that was it.
Overall, I would say that Sukiyabashi Jiro lives up to the hype. What a great experience and great meal we had!! Definitely something we will remember for the rest of our lives. Yes, it was very expensive, but when you have a once in a lifetime chance to eat at the best sushi restaurant in the world, you should do it. Even if we ever go back to Japan, chances are that Jiro may not be around. Also, the bill was a little easier to swallow since we flew to Japan using miles, not money! Our meal was way less than two flights to Japan and back would have been. We are definitely grateful for this experience and do not regret it one bit!
One of the places we knew we for sure wanted to visit while in Tokyo is the Tsukiji Fish Market. This is a huge, bustling market that sells all kinds of fish and seafood. Not just that, but the market turns over 2,000 TONS of “marine products” every single day, making it the world’s larget wholesale fish market! And if you get up super early .. like 4am… you can get to the market in time to see the live tuna auction. Earlier this year one of the tuna set a record when it sold for $1.76 million. For one fish! The auction seems like it can be really exciting, but the number allowed in is very limited and you have to get up so early.. we were fine with skipping it and just visiting the markets.
The way Tsukiji Market is set up does not really accomodate all of the visitors that come every day to see the action. We read that it will be moving in the spring of 2016 and that it will be designed to have “viewing areas” for visitors. So, we for sure wanted to see the market before it moved and changed so drastically.
As we exited the subway and walked over to the market, we first encountered the “outer market.” The outer market is catered towards the public and has a ton of stalls with things for sale and even a few small restaurants… if you count 4 stools at a counter as a “restaurant.” haha. You can also buy a ton of food-related goods like knives and dishes. All of these stands are crowded along narrow walkways and jammed into just a few blocks of space.
You have to go to Tsukiji Fish Market early in the morning or you will miss all of the action. The fish sells out and the shops close up. Since everyone’s there so early, and the fish is so fresh, one popular thing to do is have sushi breakfast. We read about some of the most popular sushi restaurants at Tsukiji Market (like Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi) and how they already have a line of an hour or two at 6 a.m.!! Um. Not happening. We stumbled up on Sushi Zanmai and decided to give it a try. I think this is actually a chain, but the Tsukiji Market location is the original. It was conveyer belt style, so you just pulled off what you wanted and paid by the plate at the end. I think we had 11 plates total and it was only $30! And everything, of course, was so fresh!
The inner market is where the wholesale business and the tuna auctions occur. We got there a little late in the morning and a lot of stalls were packing up, but still go to see some really interesting things. It’s kind of crazy inside the inner market. So many people are running around and on motorized dollies zooming around.. you have to be careful not to get run over and not to get in anyone’s way! Remember, this area is not catering towards the public. These people are trying to get their fish sold or trying to get their fish for the day to sell in their stores and restaurants.