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An education in sushi with Tokyo's Michelin-starred chef

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Sublime sushi
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jiro Ono has been a sushi chef for around 70 years
  • His restaurant in Tokyo has three Michelin stars
  • Ono has worn gloves when outside for 45 years to avoid 'contaminating' food
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My father-in-law lives in Fairburn, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. When I told him that I'd be spending $350 for sushi, he burst out laughing at the outrageousness of the idea.

But he didn't get to experience what was hands down, the best sushi of my life.

I call it my re-education of sushi and the Japanese food aesthetic, for that's a more apt description of a dining experience at Sukiyabashi Jiro.

I enjoyed sushi before I went to the restaurant. I just didn't understand it like a real Japanese gourmand does.

The restaurant is named for its owner, 85-year-old Jiro Ono. He is a serious looking, bespectacled chef who wears hearing aids in both ears, a handicap he fears makes customers think he's aloof.

Rather, he's concentrating on molding the rice properly, melding it to the fish just so, and serving it at the optimum time for the customer to enjoy it. As I take my seat before Ono, who stands behind the bar through the entire meal, what strikes me is how clean everything is.

The fish must be lined up ready to go, somewhere, but it's out of clear sight of the customer. The counter is absolutely spotless; no wasabi, no utensils. You eat sushi the traditional way, with your hand, the way Ono has made it.

"Hai," says Ono, as he laid the first piece of karei, or flatfish, in front of me.

The rice, slightly warm and separating evenly on the tongue, tastes lightly of vinegar. It's aromatic, but not strong enough to detract from the fish. Cool, but not cold, and astoundingly not fishy. It softly separates.

Ono eyes me as I chew, smiling approvingly as I say "Mmm."

A universal sound -- no need for me to bust out my favorite Japanese word, ooishi (which means delicious).

As I finish that first piece of sushi, Ono is beginning to make the second, squid.

A pause, enough for me to enjoy my first bite, and then the squid is ready.

Our meal continues, with a back and forth banter of sushi chef and customer. In between, Ono explains temperature is critical, which is why he makes and serves the sushi depending on the eating pace of the customer.

He then explains why there's no wasabi or soy sauce for the customer to add.

"Done properly, this is very tasty," says Ono, talking about sushi as a collective whole. "But many sushi chefs just cut corners, so the flavor goes away."

Ono then bemoans the laziness of his fellow sushi chefs. I would take his comments seriously, except to look at how Ono lives his life, every other sushi chef must be considered lazy. Ono has been either training to be or been a sushi chef for more than 70 years, continuously studying the art of sushi.

Ono's hands are barely wrinkled or discolored, because 45 years ago, he decided to always wear gloves outside of his restaurant. He doesn't eat onion, garlic, smoke, drink alcohol or coffee.

The idea is that he must be a clean palette, because his hands touch the food that will go into his customer's mouth. Any imperfection in him is transferred to his sushi and interferes with his customer's culinary enjoyment.

Not that Ono has reached perfection, he quickly adds. "I'm always thinking of how to improve my sushi," he says.

Is that attainable, I ask.

"Not yet," he replies.

That personal dedication has won him accolades around the world, most notably from gourmet food guide, Michelin.

Sukiyabashi Jiro won the maximum three stars, the only basement restaurant to win so many stars.

Back at my re-education of sushi, I've come to my favorite piece so far: katsuo, or seared bonito. I'm truthfully not a fan of bonito, but Ono has seared the bonito, burning straw to create a smoky taste. Somehow, the fish is still cool in the center but barbequed on the fringes.

The American glutton in me wishes four more pieces would follow.

The tuna, as you'd expect, is melt-like-butter delicious. The uni, or sea urchin, something that usually ends up too fishy or bitter, is light and tasty.

But the surprise was the last piece, the tamago, or egg. Ono has baked it so it's slightly sweet, but still recognizable as egg. It's almost like an eggy-pound cake. It's an amazing finish to the meal.

"Gochisosama deshita," I say, the traditional Japanese phrase said by the customer after a delicious meal. "Arigato gozaimas," I add, for I am thankful and lucky.

Not just for experiencing Ono's delicious meal, but for understanding a little more about the beauty of Japan, found in the subtlety, diligence and patience of one of its finest chefs.