President Obama kicked off the first leg of his tour of Asia on Wednesday with some sushi diplomacy.
He dined with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a revered and tiny temple of sushi in Tokyo called Sukiyabashi Jiro. The subterranean restaurant, with just 10 seats at the counter, was made famous by the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Obama emerged with a thumbs-up review. "That's some good sushi right there," he said. "It was terrific. Thank you so much."
If you've ever seen the documentary, you know why: The sushi Obama had was carefully crafted by 89-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono.
"His sushi is the best in the world," says David Gelb, who directed the film. "For someone who has a taste for true, pure Japanese sushi, I mean it's a place you kind of have to go to."
But for the many of us who haven't been lucky enough to grab one those 10 prized seats, Gelb joined All Things Considered's Melissa Block to talk about what it's like to dine at such an iconic place.
For starters, the restaurant is hidden in the basement of an office building and offers only one item on its menu — the omakase course, which can cost between $300 and $400 per person. It consists of 20 pieces of sushi, prepared and served one at a time.
"There are no appetizers, no rolls of any kind," Gelb says. "It's purely his style of sushi, which is kind of the classic Tokyo style, which is basically just fish and rice and seasoning, maybe a soy sauce or a nikiri, which is a kind of sweetened soy sauce."
And if you're fortunate enough to be one of Ono's costumers, don't even think about ordering off the menu — even if you are the president of the United States. "The Jiro that I know would not change his sushi for anyone," Gelb says, adding that "he just gives you what he feels is the best of the day."
And Ono really means the best. Every day, for instance, he massages the octopus he's planning to serve for an hour.
"The octopuses that he gets are trolling the seafloor, eating clams and other delicious shellfish," Gelb says. "And so he's getting the octopus that has the best diet, and then he massages it — or has his apprentices massage it, because he's getting on in the years — to bring out the best flavors."
That's because to Ono, making sushi is more than just a job; it's an art form, an obsession, even. In the film, he tells Gelb that he'd wake up in the middle of the night, and in dreams would have visions of sushi.
"His philosophy of work, where it's about finding a routine and mastering that craft, it applies to any kind of art," he adds.
So you can imagine, eating in front of such a meticulous artist can get a bit intimidating.
"The first time that I ate there, I was very nervous," Gelb tells Block. "I mean the man is a living legend, and he watches, and he observes the customers very closely, and so it can be a nerve-wracking experience."
But, he says, the sushi is so good that the tension melts away.
"The restaurant is very quiet," Gelb adds. "There's no music or anything. "There's just the sound of the fountain, and you kind of got into this sushi trance, and it's quite an amazing experience."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
President Obama began his trip to Japan with some sushi diplomacy. He had dinner with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a revered and tiny temple of sushi in Tokyo: a subterranean restaurant with just 10 seats at the counter. He emerged with a thumbs-up review.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That's some good sushi right there. It was terrific. Thank you so much.
BLOCK: That terrific sushi was carefully crafted by the 89-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono. He was the subject of the recent documentary "Jiro Dream's of Sushi," from filmmaker David Gelb, who joins me now. Welcome to the program.
DAVID GELB: Hi. Thank you for having me.
BLOCK: And David, why don't you describe a meal at Sukiyabashi Jiro for those people who are lucky enough to get one of those prized 10 seats at the counter?
GELB: Well, yeah, a reservation is tough to come by because of how small, you know, the seating is. It's in the basement of an office building in Tokyo connected to a subway station so it's in the most unassuming of locations. But his sushi is the best in the world. For someone who has a taste for true, pure Japanese sushi, I mean it's a place that you kind of have to go to.
BLOCK: And when you say pure Japanese sushi, that's all he serves, right? There's nothing else. No appetizers, no other dishes, only sushi.
GELB: That's right. It's purely his style of sushi, which is classic Tokyo style, just fish and rice and seasoning, maybe a soy sauce or a nikiri, which is a kind of sweetened soy sauce that he would use to sweeten the fish.
BLOCK: It's one menu, right? So how many pieces would you be getting?
GELB: It's about 20 pieces.
BLOCK: Twenty pieces. And it costs?
Well, it can cost between $300 and $400 a person, but, you know, his margin is not huge because he's sourcing the absolute best of every ingredient.
And we hear Jiro Ono in your movie talking about his obsession with sushi.
JIRO ONO: (Speaking foreign language)
BLOCK: And he tells you, I'd wake up in the middle of the night, in dreams I would have visions of sushi, which brings you the title of your movie. What is it about it that intrigues him so much and that makes him ecstatic as he tells you?
GELB: Well, I think he's more than just a chef. He's a true artist. I believe that he's a genius. And if you see the passion that he has - for example, massaging the octopus every day for an hour just to bring out the flavor of the octopus' diet. You know, the octopus that he gets, they're trolling the seafloor eating clams and other delicious shellfish.
And so he's getting the octopus that has the best diet and then he massages it or has his apprentice massage it because he's getting, you know, on in the years to bring out the best flavor. So I think that his philosophy of work, where it's about finding a routine and that, mastering that craft, it applies to any kind of art.
BLOCK: Is it an intimidating thing to eat at his counter when he's standing very close, he's inches away watching you very intently, eat what he's prepared?
GELB: I mean, absolutely, you know. The first time that I ate there, I was very nervous because, I mean, the man is a living legend, and he watches, and he observes the customers very closely. And so it can be a nerve-wracking experience. But the sushi is so good that the tension melts away and you find yourself - you know, the restaurant is very quiet.
He has a fountain, you know. There's no music or anything. There's just the sound of a fountain, and you kind of go into this sushi trance, and it's quite an amazing experience.
BLOCK: Well, David Gelb, thanks for talking to us.
GELB: It's a pleasure. Thank you.
BLOCK: David Gelb's film about the sushi restaurant where President Obama dined in Tokyo tonight is "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.