Tokyo trip continued: Lost in translation

So the last two days have been emotional, let me tell you. A veritable roller coaster of foody feelings going on. I feel a little bit used, even, a little bit dirty. Like some of the city’s finest chefs have had their wicked way with me and then just tossed me away onto the street, unsatisfied. No peck on the cheek, no cuddle afterwards, I even put on my best frock, just wam bam thank you man! Admittedly, Pierre Gagnaire was better and more thoughtful than the others. He took things slow, took me out to see a movie, wined and dined me and was overall very gentle and loving. But he’s French, so that’s kind of a given.

You expect that from the French. The youthful Japanese chef last night was also quite caring and showed me a good time. But today, two elderly local gentlemen really abused me. “How was it for you chef?”. “Just leave the money on the dresser and get out!”.

Ok, I can see from the look on your faces that you are confused by my metaphor. So let me explain. Days 2 and 3 of my Tokyo gastronomic uber tour have most definitely been a mixed bag. Four restaurants totalling 9 Michelin stars between them. Plucked from the Internet after a long period of research, these places have been raved about around the world as some of the best restaurants in Japan and even, the world. Maybe even the universe.

So I kicked things off with lunch in my hotel at the 2 Michelin star Pierre Gagnaire restaurant on the 36th floor with views of Mount Fuji, I am told, on a clear day, if the wind is right and you have an enormous radio telescope similar to that which they use to study the rings of Saturn….or Uranus (snigger snigger). I had my concerns after I was sat at a table facing out of a large window with views of the city below. That sounds great I know, but not when the sun is glaring directly at you to the point that you need to sit in the restaurant wearing sunglasses a la Kanye West.

Also I was sat with my back to the entire restaurant, which I hate. I want to see what everyone else is eating and leer at people’s wives and girlfriends. And they had also put another table of one directly behind me also with his back to the restaurant only he had his view of the city obscured by the back of my beautiful head. It was weird, he was directly behind me like we are sat at the cinema. Awkward. The food, however, was great. Very French and very nom, nom, nom. A selection of small appetizers included champagne sorbet, chestnut soup, smoked quail with lotus and saffron, salad of choucroute and also some tasty canapés. I decided to go a la carte and order some fish as I think if you are going to eat fish, then Tokyo is the plaice (geddit) to do it. The first dish was a selection of different shellfish fresh from the market that morning. Delicious, plump scampi with pigs trotters and lentils was surrounded by individual dishes of sea snail, giant clams and oysters. I then opted for a composed cheese course of Roquefort custard with Banyuls reduction and some epic runny Brie de Meaux with fresh pear. Dessert was a perfectly executed vanilla soufflé. All washed down with a bottle of Margaux 2005. So off to a great start, my tummy was very happy.

The hotel had recommended the restaurant for that evening, saying that it was a small counter operation again with only 8 places. The chef was young and was a rising star in the Tokyo food scene having just been awarded his first Michelin star. So off I trotted to Nagazumi. It was a much more relaxing experience then the previous nights tempura. My server spoke a little English and the chef was young, friendly and generally a lot more smiley, making me feel a lot more comfortable. A procession of dishes came one after the other, all of which were delicious. The chef was cooking using broths which he was continually tasting and adjusting the seasoning. He also used a traditional charcoal smoke box to add extra flavor to some of the fish and meat. One thing that did make me smile was that instead of the traditional Japanese instrumental plinkey plonkey music being played in the background, we were being treated to Adele, and not just award winning album Adele but live at the O2 Adele. So every now again, in-between Hometown Glory and Set Fire To The Rain we would be treated to occasional shrieks of “Awwwwite Lahndahn! Less ‘av it!”. All in all a good experience and a good food day.

The next day, however, was different entirely. I had been booked into two of the best sushi restaurants in town. World renowned places. One was called Sushi Sukiyabashi Jiro and had been documented by Anthony Bourdain in his TV series No Reservations as the best sushi in the world. The other was Sushi Mazutani who being a former disciple of Jiro had set up on his own a similar style place. Both have 3 Michelin stars. This was going to be my opportunity to try to get my head around how a simple sushi counter can be awarded the ultimate accolade in cooking. My first experience for lunch was brutal. I don’t know how the Michelin inspectors hear about these places and even how they find them. Sushi Jiro is located in the basement of an unmarked multi story buiding in the Ginza district. From the street, it looks like a delivery bay for an office block.

No signage for the restaurant, not even in Japanese. Down a grim flight on stairs to the basement I went. I had been asked to arrive at 11.30am for my seat and not to be late. A bit early for me to attempt to eat 20 courses of sushi but I was sure as hell going to give it my best shot. Walking into the silent restaurant, I was greeted by a lady who showed me to my seat at the counter. I was the only person in the place except for the 3 chefs behind the counter. Two elderly gentlemen, one of whom I guessed to be Jiro himself, and a younger assistant. No smiles or even nods of approval from the chefs, just looks of distain at the stupid foreign geijin.

I sat down feeling extremely uncomfortable, and then the meal began, without a word. Sake was brought over for me and after waiting for someone to pour I quickly realized that it was fine to pour for myself. What followed was definitely the best sushi I have ever eaten with some incredible fish. But, the way it was being served I struggled with. The assistant would pass the whole chunk of fish to the younger of the two chefs, he would then slice off one piece for the sushi and pass that to Jiro who would form the rice from a wooden bucket next to him, place the fish on top, brush it with his chosen dressing and place the single piece on a rectangular plate in front of me. All three chefs would then place both hands on their chopping boards, lean slightly forward and stare at me impatiently while I popped the morsel in my mouth. As I was still chewing and swallowing the sushi, the next item would appear in front of me. It soon became clear that this was going to be a quick meal. With no time to take a breather in-between bites, and at still only 1145 in the morning, after 8 pieces I was beginning to struggle. I tried to slow the pace by ordering some water to sip between pieces of sushi, but sitting there on my own staring at the blank wall infront of me with the chefs staring at me and the next piece of fish waiting for my attention, I just had to plough on. By piece 14 I was really struggling and was seriously concerned that I might be sick. Each piece I had to chew very carefully and try not to swallow too much of it at a time for fear of triggering a gag reflex. It was quite stressful really. At last another guest arrived and was seated next to me which took the pressure off a little. At piece 18, I had to stop, and making the international sign for ‘I’m pregnant’ with my two hands, it was over. Not 50 minutes after it had begun. The chef shook his head disappointedly at me and shouted something to the server who then brought over some green tea with my bill. So less than an hour after I had walked in, I was back on the street 30,490 Yen worse off, wandering what the hell had just happened. I felt like I had been mugged or the victim of an elaborate con. Yes the sushi was great but the experience as a whole was horrific and I walked away disillusioned and disappointed. I can’t understand how fish on rice with what basically amounts to terrible service can warrant 3 stars. It’s a tricky one. The difference between a basic French bistro and a 3 michelin star French restaurant is vast but I am not sure if the difference between ok sushi and great sushi is enough to be dishing out 3 stars. Its something that I am not qualified to give judgment on so can only offer my opinion. For the price of that 50 minute meal I could have visited the Fat Duck twice and enjoyed a 3-4 hour gastronomic extravaganza. It just doesn’t seem right and fair. But it was very nice sushi.

As you can probably guess, I was not especially looking forward to dinner which would be in the same style. Dinner at Sushi Mizutani was actually a lot better.

I mean the overall experience. The chef, although still not speaking any English could at least smile and make me feel welcome and valued as a customer. There were a few other guests seated around the counter so the pace was alittle slower giving me time to digest. It was exactly the same fish in exactly the same order but I felt that the rice was better and easier to eat. Also, drinking beer instead of sake seemed to help things along. The bill came and was 10,000 Yen cheaper than lunch for escentially the same product, but I left a little happier. The fish that was served at both places consisted of: Kohada or gizzard shad, ark shell clam, tiger shrimp, halfbeak similar to herring, hamaguri clam, mackerel, sea urchin, scallop, salmon roe, saltwater eel, octopus, squid and of course about 5 different preperations of the best tuna money can buy.

So all in all, day 2 and 3 in Tokyo have been a mixed bag. I am looking forward to what the rest of the week will bring.

I would like to add that having read this blog back to myself a few times i was debating wether or not to make changes as the more i have eaten in Tokyo, the more i am becoming aware that i am very much a visitor to a completely different culture. So i don’t feel completely comfortable being quite so negative about one of my experiences. And i don’t want to sound disrespectful to chefs who are clearly masters of their art and highly revered among the Japanese. I am just writing from my point of view and from my individual experience. I am still pondering the ins and outs of the Michelin system and trying to work it out in my head. Anyway, on to my next exciting adventure which will include eating Fugu (potentially deadly blow fish) with a Japanese Buddhist priest. Can’t wait.


achefabroad x

One comment

  1. I have to admit that I’ve never actually been to a Michelin-starred restaurant, but I certainly don’t think you should feel bad about slagging them off!

    In the case of Pierre Gagnaire, the fact that you were given a panoramic view makes it seem like they were treating you more as a tourist than a foodie, which seems odd, and the kind of thing you would expect from a much less upmarket establishment. One can only assume that Pierre himself has never taken the time to actually sit in the window seat and eat a meal there.

    As for Sushi Mazutani – and indeed the tempura place from your previous post – who you go with is also pretty vital. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Michelin guys are accompanied by an interpreter or someone with a bit of local knowledge, which in the case of a small restaurant in Tokyo is even more important than in, say, London, and could make the difference between a great night out and a thoroughly average one. I’ve read Bourdain’s account of going to – I think – the same restaurant, and because he a) has a mate with him and b) goes in the evening, he has a fantastic time.

    The whole thing kind of makes me think of clothes shops, in the sense that I would much rather go to Primark than a posh Bond Street boutique, because regardless of whether or not they’re expensive or sell a good product, the latter just make me feel self-conscious and entirely disinclined to buy anything.

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