Mizutani et Michelin Guide

The biggest seller in Japan, the red book has opened many doors in Japan those that have been closed for decades. The red book has evolved and so has its integrity, or has it?

In the beginning Japan’s Michelin was more of a private club, it started out with European (French) chefs influencing the line up and setting up the stage. At that time, they unleashed Jiro as the hero, made him a demi-god.

Two years later the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi made him an international figure. So it all started to make sense given Michelin needed some key people in order to market themselves in Japan and voila they did it!

I’ve criticized Michelin over the years and even some bloggers were on my tail about it. They questioned my so-called “food knowledge” and took my criticism of Michelin in a way that was misunderstood. I have mixed feelings about Michelin and like any guide it has its issues. In general they do an excellent job, a difficult job and subject to human error. This edition has made some good choices to downgrade and upgrade and one that I found sad.

While it’s still a political animal and Michelin awards stars (perhaps) too quickly to new comers, its force is obvious. You cannot recon with Michelin, the supervisors are tough and can be harsh in their judgement, and sometimes miss the mark or fall right on the target.

The new edition released in early December has a new format and some chefs like it, while others dislike it. Personally I prefer photos, and I think especially for Japanese it’s helpful, although many Japanese these days (young generation) cannot read photos.

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If you think about it, Japanese are very visual and still remain visual in communicating. The “plasticized foods”, those foods you buy in Kappabashi, expensive silicon foods that are used all over Japan, like this hamburger, it still fools people.

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These foods are used in displays instead of menus to help customers make their choices. The Japanese figured it out a long time ago, “see it, is to believe it”.

The red book has made some good choices this year in promoting some underdogs but one of their choices has isolated an important sushi chef. I think the idea of taking a star away from Chef Mizutani was a grave mistake, and I wondered why until I started to search the internet.

This trip advisor client is certainly didn’t help Mizutani is keeping his 3 stars. He wrote, ‘I really felt upset to Michelin Restaurant Guide!!!!!! They have 10 seats only. They don’t have menu. I ordered a chef’s recommendation. They served 18 sliced sashimi and 17 sushi on the plate. I drank 2 glass of beer. They wrote the unhappy price– JPY 27,500–by hand writing. It was too expensive… Service was horrible. Master Chef looked very stubborn. No warm service… They did not accept any major credit cards. They accepted cash only. If they require that kind of price, they should accept CCs. If you are thinking of going to Sushi Bar in Tokyo, you should choose any other reasonable priced sushi bars. I was really disappointed about the price and hospitality service. Michelin Restaurant Guide has offered 3-stars to the worst sushi bar in Tokyo. It was less value’.

Despite this harsh commentary by this client, he/she is obviously not well suited for a high-end restaurant in Japan. Unfortunately some people just have limited high-end restaurant experience when they come to Japan. Any high quality restaurant in Japan is always limited to a small number of seats, (between 5-10) at least so the chef can control the state of affairs at his finger tips.

Sushi grade domestic caught fish is as expensive as white truffles, believe me, I will post on Oma’s tuna and it super expensive. While no credit cards is the policy of many small restaurants, it is important to understand that their business is cash only. In Japan, menus are scarce and if you go to any high-end restaurant, expect omakase, the chef’s choice and if that’s a problem then don’t go.

You cannot deviate, and for a good reason so let’s go off topic and explain: most sushi chefs buy the exact number of fish they intend to serve daily. There are exceptions to this rule as some fish are marinated in vinegar, or as in the case of tuna, it ferments and changes taste. Chef’s buy a block of tuna and it can last up to a week.

Fish is almost rationed for each client, and that means that the chef allocates (2) pieces of each fish for each customer. If he serves more of any one fish to any individual client, he would run short. The idea of omakase is a good way of managing quality and service.

There are few places on planet earth that have the level of service you’ll find in Japan. While I am not defending chef Mizutani, from my experience, and especially with Jiro, or any other top non Michelin chef, once you step into their space, they rule. This can be perceived as a good thing, or in this case, as a bad thing. If you order a la carte at any high-end sushi restaurant you could get a whopping bill and there isn’t much you can do.

Spaces are intimate and perfume, or elbows, or a watch buckle that scratches the priceless hinoki counter can be signals that upset a chef. But it could just be that a client doesn’t understand where he/she is, or what they are eating.

If you take 35 pieces of fish and you divide it by his bill (JPY 27,500), it comes out to JPY785 per fish, or $6.25/fish. That translates into a very fair price for a top-notch sushi experience, and the hand written bill, yes that’s standard. It’s a sign of quality and consideration given it is written by hand and not machine made.

Chef’s keep a diligent record of what they serve, especially with omakase as it’s easy to keep track. If you ask for seconds of o-toro, or chu-toro, or uni, you could drive the bill up significantly.

I have tried Mizutani twice and as I recall both times it was at least as good as the first time or better. He is shy, quiet and does not appreciate people talking on their phones, or snapping photos. It isn’t a matter of discomfort for the chef, but it’s distracting and can upset other clients seeking a quiet moment. Stepping into a sushi restaurant such as Mizutani is like walking into church during a sermon, you must almost tip-toe and be respectful of the environment – quiet voices are appreciated.

While I think sushi three stars is a hard-line to follow, it didn’t help Mizutani that Jiro obtained a Japanese medal with a purple ribbon this year, a medal given to Japanese for their outstanding contribution to society. This could be one reason why Mizutani was downgraded as there is no room for two chefs at the top.

The idea on Japan of having a sushi god, at 87, Jiro Sukiyabashi remains elevated onto a sacrosanct cloud of artistinal craftsmanship.His restaurant is literally a hole in the wall located in the underground. While his fish very precise, and obviously top quality, it is not better than Mizutani. They buy from the same suppliers and they get the exact same quality tuna, a fish prized at any sushi counter.

But with fish quality changing all the time, each fish will prosper depending on season. Many sushi lovers come to Japan dreaming to fulfill their tuna dreams. O-toro mesmerizes clients with its succulent fatty wet finish, or chu toro’s creamy rich texture, or akami’s deep red color that passions your soul. Thousands of visitors come each year, traveling long distances to eat Hon Maguro.

From my experience, tuna is very complex and the taste changes from fish to fish depending on the seas, season and size. There is no doubt that the clean cool fat of tuna, when it hits your tongue instantly awakens your endorphins. The idea of one single fish (tuna) can make a single food (sushi) so popular is incredible but true. But there is more to sushi than tuna and I have talked about it before in other postings: http://mesubim.com/2014/11/18/its-all-in-sushi/

In the end, sushi is the ultimate raw food, and I always come back to a French 3*** Michelin chef once telling me, “sushi isn’t food” and I know what he was trying to say; the process is limited as there is “no cooking” and that’s what makes cuisine more complex. While I do not agree with him 100%, I did get his message loud and clear, it always sticks in my mind each time I write about sushi.

I guess when judging any chef there is always room for improvement, and I just checked my old review on Mizutani and had a few mixed words to say: http://mesubim.com/2013/04/25/mizutani/

Sushi is Japan’s global identity and a chef such as Mizutani should be judged on his expertise, his exquisite craftsmanship and his choice in quality of domestic fish. Down grading him was unnecessary and I am sure he felt very bad about it. These kinds of surprises are simply too harsh for Japanese chef who stands day in and day out at a counter. I just hope Mizutani can get the support needed from friends and clients to get back on track.

If you recall, Bernard Loiseau committed suicide in 2003, shooting himself in the mouth with his shotgun after a full day of work in his kitchen. The Gault Millau guide had recently downgraded his restaurant from 19/20 to 17/20, and there were also rumors in Le Figaro that the Michelin Guide was planning to remove one of La Côte d’Or’s three stars.

I give him three stars and certainly for his dedication to serving clients quality, day in and day out, in a world that is shrinking and looking for quantity over quality. Sadly as the story goes, there is only room for one Old Iron King and it’s clear that Jiro has been crowned.

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