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.
On a sweltering Tokyo morning in September we are standing in the midst of more than 1,000 fishmonger shops at Tsukiji, the busiest fish market in the world. The shops that cater exclusively to the restaurant trade set up their tanks, coolers and cutting surfaces six or seven deep along a half-mile-long arc. It is 7 a.m., only an hour since the rapid-fire auctions that distribute the day’s catch. The fish here could not be fresher.
But today, Ono’s favorite abalone supplier has not met his exacting standards. He leaves the abalone behind and weaves his way through the maze of fish, passing tiny sardines, massive tuna and shellfish from shrimp and abalone to tiny clams and gigantic geoducks. He rounds a corner and greets his younger brother. Shopping for his own restaurant, Takashi mentions another seller who might have better abalone.
But first we stop at a stand selling clams. Next to a box full of foot-long pan shell clams, which look like humongous mussels, is a trove of black, frilly ark shell clams. They are big and round. Ono fills a plastic bag with a dozen or so. “We only buy what each vendor does best,” he explains. He pulls cash from his belly bag, pays on the spot, and we move on.
“My father believes in paying cash,” Ono notes. “We could let them bill us and pay once a month, but the suppliers appreciate that they get their money right away. They often hide their best fish for us.”
Next stop is for bonito, the plump red-fleshed fish that looks like a small tuna. The fish monger fillets and quarters each fish for the Ono brothers to inspect. “You can’t tell from the outside how good a bonito is,” Takashi points out. “Sometimes we only buy one quarter of one fish and half of another.” The fish monger patiently cuts open 10 or 11 identical-looking fish, and each brother selects three quarters from several different fish.
Next stop is to buy the day’s supply of bluefin tuna, about one-quarter of a 200-pound fish which will be aged for several days before being cut into the glistening ruby maguro, the plush-textured chu-toro and ultra-fatty layered o-toro. We move on to the other abalone seller. “Ah, these are good,” Yoshikazu says, nodding. “See how the surface feels fuller? Abalone this big are six or seven years old.” As he chooses eight abalone, I leave Yoshikazu at the market to finish his rounds and head with my interpreter to Sukiyabashi Jiro, five minutes away by taxi.
At the restaurant, three apprentices have been at work since 7:30 a.m. on ingredients delivered earlier, mostly the small, whole fish such as sardines, an in-season mackerel known as aji, and kohada (gizzard shad). After trimming the 4-inch kohada, one apprentice arranges the fillets on a large, flat basket-weave mat, sprinkles them with salt and sets a timer. (See my video.) How long? “Exactly 15 minutes, 30 seconds,” he says, seriously. “Then we put them in vinegar for exactly 15 minutes, 30 seconds.”
Yoshikazu arrives and the apprentice sets to work on the ark shell clams, also known as akagai, or red clams. He raps his short, thick knife against the shell and pries it open, extracting the muscle draped in red. A few deft cuts to remove the muscle, cut it almost all the way through, open it out flat, and only then is it ready to be made into sushi.
Meanwhile, Yoshikazu sits by a brazier in the hallway, quickly dragging sheets of nori over the coals to crisp them delicately, tucking them away in a lacquer box to be ready for lunch. He piles dried rice stalks in another vessel and gets them smoking, holding the quarters of bonito in the smoke to infuse it with the flavor without allowing the center of the fish to cook.
When we go to a sushi bar, we see the sushi chef cut a slice or two of fish from a block, or wrap a shrimp around a wad of rice. But before he gets to that point, someone had to butcher the fish, trim it carefully, maybe marinate it or treat it like the kohada. Some are best served cold, others at room temperature or warm. The rice had to be cooked to just the right doneness and seasoned with the vinegar mixture, then kept lukewarm until just before serving. Getting it right produces great sushi.
That’s what the best sushi bars in Tokyo do every day, including Sukiyabashi Jiro. Of course, sushi aficionados appreciate how deftly Jiro takes the slices of fish from Yoshikazu and forms them around the rice, matching the size to the patron. He is careful to say, “What I do is the easy part.”
Some, including me, wish he would slow down. His theory is that a piece of sushi is never better than the moment he places it down on the shiny black surface in front of us. He expects us to pick it up and eat it right away, by which time he is already making the next one. Jiro also does not indulge conversation. If the guests aren’t paying full attention to the food, he has been known to walk away, leaving the rest of the meal to Yoshikazu.
There were 18 pieces to my lunch, and even though he gave me time to write a note or two on each one, the performance still only lasted about 30 minutes. I did have time to note how pillowy the texture was on each grain of rice, and that his rice was more tart than others’. The sharp vinegar flavor reacted in different ways to each fish, contrasting with young, sweet squid, then lending delicate support to the richness of chu-toro and o-toro. The vinegar-marinated kohada, which followed immediately, created an explosive tang, like the clash of cymbals after a lush chord.
The abalone, poached for five hours, kept changing as it rolled around in my mouth with each chew, as complex as wine. Warm tiger shrimp created a similar effect. The tart rice made a fabulous contrast with rich uni (sea urchin) and the crisp nori that wrapped it. But the big winner, for me, was the smoked bonito. The richness of the fish, barely warm, hauntingly redolent, somehow managed to combine the best of the sea with a meaty texture and layers of flavor.
I had closed my eyes while eating that one. When I opened them, Jiro and Yoshikazu were watching me intently. Yoshikazu said something to my interpreter. “He says that one must have been your favorite,” she said. And how.
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Domaine Drouhin Oregon — Dayton, OR — September 24, 2012 2:59pm ET
Ken Uchiyama — Aiea, HI Honolulu — September 25, 2012 2:22pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — September 25, 2012 2:32pm ET
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