Yoshikazu Ono runs his thumb over the exposed surface of an abalone, a grimace spreading across his face. He thinks the shellfish is too small, and it feels too firm. “Not good. I don’t know if we can serve abalone today,” he mutters in Japanese. “It should be plump. And darker. These are yellow.”
Ono, 52, is responsible for buying the fresh fish each day for Sukiyabashi Jiro, the 11-seat sushi bar where he makes sushi shoulder-to-shoulder with his father, 86-year-old Jiro Ono. They were featured earlier this year in the film documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
A week in Tokyo drove home the point that the most venerated sushi restaurants there only serve sushi. They don’t also make tempura. They don’t deal in teppanyaki. You can’t get ramen or soba noodles in the same place. They devote 100 percent of their efforts to making rice, finding great fish, butchering, aging, cooking and curing the seafood properly, then serving it simply.
Sushi is not the only specialty food craft that’s treated with such specificity and luxury. In the span of 24 hours I experienced what many believe to be the very best specialists of three of these foods, steered in the right direction by Masuhiro Yamamoto, author of several books on sushi and what he calls “cuisines de terroir” of Tokyo.
Differences between sushi in Japan and sushi at home are getting clearer as I try a few of Tokyo’s thousands of options. Restaurants that specialize in one thing (such as tempura, sukiyaki, even eel) are more revered than those that offer a wider menu. Sushi is at the top of the food chain.
Alain Ducasse loved it. He picked it recently when Bloomberg News asked top chefs around the world where they loved to eat. Most of them listed famous restaurants owned by famous chefs, but Ducasse waxed lyrical about this chef’s "perfect knowledge of the Japanese terroir." He loved "the refined ingredients, delicate taste of the sushi and the subtle tableware," adding, "I had to share my discovery with you, as you will not find it in any restaurant guides."
Well, maybe not any guides in English. The sushi mavens of Tokyo sure know about the restaurant. Reservations must be made two months in advance, according to my new friend, Jun Yokokawa, a professor on the faculty of Tourism and Hospitality at Bunkyo University in Tokyo who is also a respected restaurant critic. (His email domain is "@junandfoodies.com".) He booked it for me, my first sushi experience for my week here in Tokyo, and it was as Ducasse described.
Jason Lett has been working on a project, tasting through every single bottle of Eyrie Vineyard’s library wines, then recorking them. The collection represents one of the true treasures of American Pinot Noir, hundreds of bottles that testify to the longevity and quality possible in Oregon.
On a recent visit to the Eyrie winery, an old dairy in McMinnville, Ore., Jason opened some of those bottles for me and we talked about the direction he sees for Eyrie since his father died in 2008. He does have his own ideas. In particular he likes a significantly more prevalent tannic backbone in his wines than his father did. He also is willing to risk natural yeast fermentations, which his father never wanted. In short, he wants a little more going on in the wines, even as they remain in the lighter end of the stylistic spectrum.