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Obama dreams of sushi on first night in Tokyo

  • Jiro’s exacting standards and tireless work ethic have made him legendary among global foodies.

TOKYO: U.S. President Barack Obama dined at a tiny Tokyo sushi restaurant Wednesday evening – a place with three coveted Michelin stars but only a handful of seats – ruled with an iron rod by its redoubtable 88-year-old owner, Jiro.

The world’s most powerful man, who dined with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was entirely at the mercy of Jiro Ono, whose exacting standards and tireless work ethic have made him legendary among global foodies.

The commander-in-chief of one of the planet’s most fearsome armed forces, who sits at the helm of a multitrillion dollar economy, had no menu to choose from – even if he could have read it – because Jiro selected the dishes he served and did not take orders from his customers.

And for a man used to the finest presidential suites in the plushest global hotels, the setting may come as a bit of a surprise.

Sukiyabashi Jiro – the venue for Wednesday’s dinner – has 24 seats, sits in a slightly scruffy basement of an aging commercial building and is connected to a Tokyo subway station.

But that has not been enough to deter even the most discerning diners, who must book months in advance to secure a seat.

But that has not been enough to deter even the most discerning diners, who must book months in advance to secure a seat.

Obama made the pilgrimage to the restaurant just after touching down in Tokyo at the start of an Asian tour, and took along U.S. ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and his national security adviser Susan Rice.

The establishment is the proud bearer of three Michelin stars, awarded first when the Tokyo edition of the guide was launched in 2007, and renewed every year since.

“The cool and refreshing quality of the restaurant as a whole, the concern for the customer, the perfectionism in selecting the furnishings – the spirit shown here has much in common with the world of the tea ceremony,” the Michelin guide’s launch edition said.

“The ‘left-handed master craftsman,’ Jiro Ono, creates the finest sushi with swift, fluid movements,” the guide gushed in 2012.

Jiro’s rigid discipline and unending pursuit of perfection were the subject of the 2011 U.S. documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”

The film showed how Jiro buys his fish every morning at the storied Tsukiji market in Tokyo from trusted dealers who know never to supply him with anything but the best.

The restaurant offers set courses only, consisting of 20 pieces of sushi, with prices starting at 30,000 yen ($300) per person.

“The 20 or so pieces may not come cheap, but just consider the exquisite tastes,” the 2012 Michelin guide said.

Along with world-renowned chefs such as Joel Robuchon, Sukiyabashi Jiro also counts Hollywood A-listers including Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway among clients.

Dinner diplomacy comes as Tokyo and Washington are engaged in delicate trade talks, with wide disagreements remaining particularly over farm and auto products.

The evening was portrayed in local media as a chance for bonding between Obama, who is portrayed as a “dry” and “businesslike” pragmatist, and the sometimes-stilted Abe.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 24, 2014, on page 13.
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Summary

U.S. President Barack Obama dined at a tiny Tokyo sushi restaurant Wednesday evening – a place with three coveted Michelin stars but only a handful of seats – ruled with an iron rod by its redoubtable 88-year-old owner, Jiro.

Sukiyabashi Jiro – the venue for Wednesday's dinner – has 24 seats, sits in a slightly scruffy basement of an aging commercial building and is connected to a Tokyo subway station.

The establishment is the proud bearer of three Michelin stars, awarded first when the Tokyo edition of the guide was launched in 2007, and renewed every year since.

The restaurant offers set courses only, consisting of 20 pieces of sushi, with prices starting at 30,000 yen ($300) per person.


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