Sushi legend Jiro enlisted in bid to wow president

by Mark Thompson

Staff Writer

After arriving at Haneda airport on Wednesday evening, U.S. President Barack Obama was whisked to Ginza for a “casual dinner” with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the modest yet widely revered sushi restaurant  Sukiyabashi Jiro.

In terms of entertaining visiting heads of state, it was clearly a step up from 2002, when former U.S. President George Bush dined with then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at Roppongi’s Gonpachi.

The humble Jiro’s, located in a basement next to the subway Ginza Station, doesn’t compare to the retrofitted Edo style of Gonpachi, but it makes up for that with sushi that has garnered the highest gourmet accolade.

So whose choice of venue was this?

In 2009, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama appealed to the president’s fond childhood memories of matcha-flavored ice cream. The Abe administration could have set up a feast of Kobe beef, another Obama favorite, but that might have introduced awkward moments related the prickly trade issues of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Perhaps they saw the photo-op value of having POTUS enjoying Japan’s finest sushi fished from local waters?

Or could it be that Obama happened to see a TV program in which celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain genuflects before the man the Guinness World Records recognized as the world’s oldest Michelin three star chef? Or did he perhaps watch the well-received U.S.-made documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”?

If Obama had, he would know that the 88-year-old proprietor, Jiro Ono, is a true artisan, and a stubborn man of few words. He would also know that Ono did not gain global fame with showy techniques or eccentric sushi rolls. The sushi at Jiro’s is sublimely understated and stubbornly traditional. It’s all about fresh-as-possible ingredient, expertly prepared and — as Bourdain once observed — exactly the right time.

Master chef Joel Robuchon has called Sukiyabashi Jiro one of his favorite restaurants and visiting foodies put it at the top of their culinary pilgrimages. Not surprisingly, a number of A-list celebrities, such as Tom Cruise, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, have pulled up to the counter, which seats only 10, to partake of the meticulously prepared “nigiri” sushi, served by Ono himself.

The famous set price per person, not including drinks, is ¥30,000 (almost $300). That covers more than a dozen “courses” in roughly 20 minutes, though it’s very possible that Ono might bend his rules for these particular guests.

Is it worth the high price? “Purely in sushi terms, Jiro is the yardstick by which all others are measured,” says Japan Times food columnist Robbie Swinnerton. “If you calculate satisfaction by the amount of time you spend at the counter, then you may well feel short-changed. But that will not be a consideration for Obama.”

Overall, given Japan’s pride in UNESCO’s designation of “washoku” (Japanese cuisine) as an Intangible World Cultural Heritage, Sukiyabashi Jiro appears a wise strategic choice.