UPDATED: A Jiro: Dreams of Sushi-Inspired Meal at Kata Robata Disappoints
The Sushi Club of Houston helped sponsor the film and a dinner afterward at Kata Robata. I was not familiar with the Sushi Club, and became a member so I could get a spot at the dinner and understand what the club does. There are 4,213 members, and 45 were at the dinner (which is apparently very high for an event); there was also a sold-out crowd at the film.
Carl Rosa introduced the film and spoke about founding the Sushi Club of Houston and serving as director of the Japan-America Initiative. Carl is very knowledgeable about Japanese culture and food and is more than willing to share his knowledge with Houston. He talked about the differences between real wasabi and the green horseradish we are usually served, and how the dunking of rice in a paste of soy and that horseradish is a terrible faux pas.
Carl told us about the time he was lucky enough to dine at Jiro's, but -- because Jiro is totally about quality, not quantity -- left impressed but hungry. The next part of his story stunned me -- he said he went around the corner to a McDonald's for a Big Mac so he would feel full. I appreciate Carl's knowledge and experiences; however, I cannot fathom being a foodie, in Japan and in a McDonald's. Granted, Carl had just dropped $350 at Jiro's, but I bet he could have afforded some noodles or tempura to satiate his hunger.
The film was spectacular and fascinating. Although it is no longer at the museum, if you ever have the chance to see it, do not miss the opportunity. Jiro talked about being on his own since the age of nine. He grew up with survival instincts and a talent he could not ignore. His palate and sense of smell are in a class of a rarefied few. Interestingly, this man who is admired and idolized for his palate and sense of smell wishes he could have Joel Robuchon's. Jiro says Joel has a sense that defies this earth; Joel's sense of smell and palate are of the heavens.
Jiro speaks of the zen of sushi and how important timing is. In fact, the filmmaker commented that when he finished photographing a piece of sushi Jiro had made and then went to eat it, Jiro took it away and explained it was no longer the same piece of sushi because time and exposure had changed its temperature and texture. Sushi is to be served, according to Jiro, one piece at a time and eaten immediately. Anything more, and you have permanently altered the sushi's integrity and the sushi master's flavor intention. I learned the importance of this at Uchi as Nobu was making sushi for me last week.
Jiro: Dreams of Sushi
After this inspirational film about perfection and seeking it in all you do, 45 members showed up at Kata Robata for a Jiro: Dreams of Sushi-inspired meal. As a newcomer to the Sushi Club, I wondered how it was possible to serve sushi to a large group and adhere to the rule of "one piece at a time, eaten immediately," especially since this meal was in homage to Jiro. The answer: It isn't possible. Sushi is not meant to be banquet food, served on a buffet or family-style.
While I appreciate the Sushi Club's mission of educating its members about the "fundamentals of sushi while uncovering the common misconceptions of this extraordinary cuisine from Japan," this dinner was anything but. I brought two novice sushi eaters with me and thought this would be a great setting for their first sushi experience. They would see a movie that showed them what true, traditional sushi should be, and then they would attend a dinner in honor of that. It was going to be great.
We arrived at Kata Robata 15 minutes early. As we were seated, I noticed that every inch of clear counter space at the sushi bar was covered with pre-plated sushi for 45 people. My heart sank. If I was 15 minutes early, how long had the plates been sitting there? Our first course was miso soup. It was clean and briny-tasting while being warm and comforting. A good, solid first course. Then plate one of sushi was served (we had now been at the restaurant 30 minutes). It consisted of Soy Sauce Marinated Tuna, Japanese Yellow Tail, Norwegian Salmon, Japanese Horse Mackerel and Japanese Snapper. Before I even get to the food description, I should tell you that it was at this point that the server turned over a dish of soy sauce on our table, and it drained into my guest's purse. The manager gave us a wet towel to clean it up. Remember, this is my guest's first sushi experience.
On to the sushi -- the tuna was sticky and plastic-tasting. The yellowtail was creamy, but it had started to dry out around the edges. The salmon was pretty decent -- fatty and creamy. The mackerel had been sitting too long and had acquired that very fishy taste, which I'd learned at Uchi doesn't occur with very fresh mackerel served immediately. The snapper had begun to form a skin because it had sat out for so long. I was so disappointed. I have eaten many times at Kata Robata and have enjoyed some truly inspired dishes. Chef Manabu Horiuchi can make some really terrific sushi, but I don't think anyone can or should make sushi for a crowd.
Plate two was a Toro Tuna and Green Onion Roll and a Daikon Pickle and Shiso Roll. The tuna roll was your standard tuna roll that you could get at Kroger. I was not moved. The daikon roll was the best sushi we had all afternoon. Vinegary, crunchy and floral, it was original and inventive. I appreciated the playful balance of textures and flavors. I should have stopped at this point. Plate three was Canadian Sweet Shrimp, Japanese Scallop, Canadian Albacore and Homemade Egg Omelet. The shrimp was sticky and bitter, and the scallop had a strong fish flavor, not subtle and velvety like a scallop should be. The albacore was lightly seared, soft and sour, and the egg was very sweet and soft, reminding me of the vanilla soufflé at Brasserie Max & Julie.
As I tasted each and every piece of sushi, I sat facing a framed picture of Jiro and his team in Japan. The Sushi Club had given it to the restaurant in honor of the movie. I wanted to hang a cloth over the picture so Jiro couldn't see his homage. Our final plate was Homemade Japanese Sea Eel, San Diego Sea Urchin and a Fried Shrimp Head. The eel was sweet and had a very soft, mealy texture. The crunchy shrimp head reminded me of sucking the head of a crawfish without the spice. The sea urchin was the saddest moment -- what should have been a real delicacy was haphazardly lopped on top of rice, and the edges were dried out. I did not eat mine.
Jiro: Dreams of Sushi
One of the lessons of the Sushi Club and an important section of the film is about sushi rice. It is at least as important as the fish, if not more so. Morimoto wants it for his dying meal, Jiro has only one rice supplier and sushi chefs guard their rice recipes like they guard their knives. The rice at this meal was cold and very starchy, with no flavor. I wish Kata Robata had said no to such a dinner, knowing that you cannot serve sushi with its integrity intact, banquet-style.
Carl Rosa is a kind, informed, highly knowledgeable man who loves sushi and wants to share that passion with others. I love the idea of a sushi club, but I don't think it can work on a large scale and stay true to such an extraordinary cuisine. I look forward to returning to Kata Robata, sitting at the sushi bar and eating sushi one piece at a time.
UPDATE: Ryan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of The Azuma Group, contacted us about this story. After the jump is his unedited response to the piece, in its entirety.