I Dreamt Of Sushi…

oo-toro (fatty tuna) that absolutely melted in my mouth. (Photo: Ivan Yeh)

By Ivan Yeh
Former Hapless Intern 


“What defines deliciousness? Taste is tough to explain, isn’t it?”


These were the words that stuck with me after watching “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” a David Gelb documentary depicting the life of sushi master Jiro Ono, the 86-year-old head chef at the Michelin three-star restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro.


Despite his fame, Ono still runs his renowned sushi counter from the basement of an office building in the Ginza district of Tokyo, and prides himself on only serving perfection to each of his guests. There are no theatrics here; Ono lets his ingredients speak for themselves. As I watched the film’s many montages of exquisitely crafted, minimalist pieces of nigiri, I knew that in order to truly understand deliciousness, I had to first experience how quality ingredients can elevate a dish from good to great. Problem is, a seat in his 10-seat restaurant is almost impossible to come by, as bookings have to be made one month in advance and the call must come from within Japan. Despite these challenges, I was determined to have what many believe is the best sushi in the world, and after months of trying, my dream came true.

Sukiyabashi Jiro is located in the basement of a Ginza district business building. (photo: Ivan Yeh)


I admit I was quite nervous as I took my seat at the narrow booth. Ono and his apprentices were standing behind the counter, all with stern expressions on their faces. I found myself wondering, “Do they ever smile?” But before I could come up with an answer, the 20-course, $400 meal began.


No research or experience could prepare me for what was to come. For the next 35 minutes, I was presented with a beautiful arrangement of diverse textures, flavors and sensations that made me forget all about my nerves. For every piece of sushi, Ono presses a large cut of fish around a small portion of fluffy, vinegared rice to highlight the freshness of the main ingredient. A small dab of wasabi, light but not overpowering, is hidden between the layers to freshen the palate.

Ono slices a large, boiled clam right down the middle to make this hamaguri nigiri. (photo: Ivan Yeh)


The meal began with a chewy cut of flatfish followed by a slippery slice of squid and a trio of tuna, each one softer and more buttery than the last. A firm bite of abalone is countered by a soft piece of jack mackerel with the slightest hint of spring onions. Then came freshly-boiled prawn, a cut of bonito with a meaty taste that was immediately balanced by the sweetness of a giant boiled clam, and uni (sea urchin) that brought the icy, salty taste of the sea to my mouth. Crunchy baby scallops served as the prelude to ikura (salmon roe), bursting with saltiness in each, tiny orange egg:

Each individual salmon roe popped crisply in my mouth. (photo: Ivan Yeh)


The last item is a small cube of tamago, or grilled egg. Many sushi experts say that one can judge the skill of a sushi chef by the quality of his tamago, and Ono definitely doesn’t disappoint in this regard. With a color of golden honey and a slightly browned surface, Ono’s tamago is sweet and firm like a sponge cake; the structure of its layers retained even after I took a bite out of it. Without a doubt, this was the best tamago I had ever tasted and made the perfect ending to a stunning meal:

honey sweet tamago with a spongy texture (photo: Ivan Yeh)

As I was led from the booth to a side table to enjoy a dessert of honeydew and matcha green tea, two old men wearing tweed jackets and black bowler hats entered, and Ono’s expression changed instantly. He greets them with a low bow and a huge smile, and starts service immediately. For the next 10 minutes, Ono shared jokes and stories with his two customers and never stopped smiling as he prepared the sushi. This is when I realized that Ono really doesn’t care about the fame and recognition. What he wants is simplicity; to hone his craft and share his expertise over an intimate dinner with people whom he sees not as his diners, but his friends.


Looking back at my experience, I feel truly grateful to have been served by a chef who loves every moment of his job. While it is rare to be able to experience the deliciousness of some of the world’s purest ingredients, seeing Ono smile was the real treat for me.

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