I am a great believer in the theory that where the brain experiences complexity, it creates simplicity, and its parallel, that confronted by simplicity, it makes complexity. That’s both the appeal of a Bach Cantata with five voices, and Phillip Glass. That’s the appeal of a sushi master, and a great masala as well. You don’t taste everything that is going on in the masala, and you probably taste more than is going on in the fish.
Still, the film “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi”, about an 85-year old sushi master, Jiro Ono, and his relationship with his son and successor, managed to distill everything I find annoying about pretentious self-styled gourmets such as my colleague, the buffoonish Mr. Curtas.
No doubt Curtas would claim that Sukiyabashi Jiro, the Three Michelin Star sushi place located in the basement of a Tokyo office building, would be a transcendent experience, if he ever crossed the Pacific. He certainly makes a lot of noise about Bar Masa in Aria, a chef I literally discovered when he ran Ginza Sushi-Ko in Beverly Hills, before he left to find fame and fortune in New York, and eventually open in Vegas.
But it’s my contention that he wouldn’t really be able to appreciate it the way a Japanese can, nor can I, for that matter. A Japanese gourmet has a different palate than we have. Their taste range is narrower, and they are capable of more subtle gradations. This was demonstrated to me once when my ex-wife went all the way to Odawars to get one of their famous kamaboko fish cakes. When she plunged it into her dashi, it tasted, to me at least, a shade better than the rubbery fish cakes at the 7-Eleven in Shinjuku.
“Why did I marry an American?,” she lamented. Needless to say, it wasn’t a marriage made in heaven.
Similarly, when I brought a Chinese gourmet to Tokyo, his response to a Three Star meal, not at Sukiyabashi Jiro, was “everything tastes like soy sauce”. The Chinese eat a notoriously eclectic diet. He was, in that case, simplifying.
Because the naked truth is that we all have our own biochemistry, and thusly, our own biochemical biases and limitations. I by no means wish to diminish the craft or artistry of Jiro-san. He is a remarkable chef and teacher. But he boasts that his 30,000 Y courses can be eaten in fifteen minutes by a fast eater, making his “the most expensive place to eat in the world by the minute”. Hey, that’s almost $400. For that kind of money, I want to see God.
The film is illuminating. It shows you how quality and consistency determine a great restaurant, and Jiro’s visits to Tsukiji, the famed Tokyo fish market, are fascinating, But the master laments the disappearance of many types of fish, and his insistence on the best, in some cases no longer available, means he no longer serves many favorites.
When I lived in Japan, ninety percent of the sushi was vegetarian. That was all I could afford. Yes, great sushi is a memorable experience, but it is also exclusionary, for that 1 percent. More than 99 percent of Japanese people will never taste such Olympian fare, and populist that I am, (you don’t believe me, I know), makes me skeptical.
The Armenian composer Khachaturian is best remembered for Sabre Dance, as the actor Alec Guinness is for playing Obiwan Kenobi in Star Wars. But, to paraphrase the great composer, “in the body of my life’s work, Sabre Dance is just a button on my shirt.”
That’s how I feel about sushi as relates to Japanese food, although it’s all most foodies know about. So see the film, and then go eat in Cafe De Japon or Raku instead. Curtas does understand that food, I’ll give him that.
“Jiro Dreams Of Sushi”. Directed by David Gelb. Most of the plangent score is by another minimalist, Phillip Glass. We get it, Mr. Gelb, we get it.
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