Everyone has one. The best, most memorable dinner of your life. It might change over time. Sometimes the significance fades. Other times it’s simply outdone. Mine happened during my honeymoon in Hawaii. But before I jump in with the story, you should know that my best dinner before that was 12 years ago. I was on holiday with my family in Italy…
My First Michelin Star Meal
We were staying at Certosa di Maggiano in Siena, a stunning luxury hotel in a converted 14th century monastery. I remember seeing mostly Ferrari’s parked outside as we pulled up in our rented Opel Zafira. Back then it was still part of Relais & Chateaux and had an incredible restaurant called Il Canto (the chant), which has since closed.
Il Canto was my first ever Michelin star dinner and tasting menu experience. I remember giggling with my sister as the straight-faced waiter wearing white gloves came by to serve us martinis and an amuse-bouche on silver spoons. We’d never dined that fancy before.
At the time, I knew the chef was someone special, but that was about it. I had to look it up to write this post and found that it was actually Chef Paolo Lopriore, the favourite protege of Master Chef Gualtiero Marchesi! In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Marchesi is only the most famous Italian chef in the world. He was the first Italian to receive 3 Michelin stars and takes credit as the inventor of modern Italian cuisine. Lopriore is well-known for his highly experimental, anti-conformist take on Italian gastronomy. Needless to say, it was an experience that 18 year old me, mostly surviving on McDonalds and chicken mayo sandwiches, was in no way prepared for.
Little wonder then that the experience would take 12 years to beat! I still remember it like it was yesterday. Edible flower and wasabi salad, oyster ice palate cleanser, dessert served in test tubes… Worlds apart from the food I was accustomed to. The most unforgettable dish was a creamy white risotto, thinly spread over a large dinner plate with three separate circles of sauce in three different colours. Orange seafood bisque, black squid ink, and one that was bright green, which could have been nettle. When the plate arrived before me, I only saw rice and sauce. But once it entered my mouth, it was transcendental. In a single bite, I was transported. I could taste an entire seafood platter in just one forkful. Prawns, lobster, crab, langoustine. A ripe green garden, the most exquisite squid…
After that vacation, where I was basically an undercover princess, I went off to university, land of pot noodles and microwave ready meals. So I did the only thing someone in my position could do. I learned how to cook. While my friends were ordering Domino’s pizza, I was learning how to roast duck and broil mushrooms. It would be many years until I’d eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant again.
$250 Sushi Breakfast Anyone?
It was my husband’s boss’s boss that recommended Ginza Onodera Honolulu. He described it as a small hole-in-the-wall type place but with the best sushi. Make sure you sit at the sushi counter, he advised. You should also know that there is no menu. It’s all omakase (chef’s choice) and they don’t speak much English. Oh, and don’t forget to buy the chef beer.
Before booking, I did a little research. For a hole-in-the-wall place, I balked at the $250 per person price tag. But decided it was justified because A) It was our honeymoon. B) It was the boss’s recommendation. C) Something about the fish in Europe being subject to different regulations than Hawaii, making it a unique and, from what I could gather, worthwhile opportunity.
But I could only get a reservation for our first night. Adjusting to jet lag is always the hardest on the first night. Especially since we were flying from London via Tokyo with a 7 hour stopover. A total transit time of 30 hours… Not only would we be feeling the worst of the jet lag, our sushi dinner would be at 6 am London time. Tough luck. I made the booking for 8 pm.
We landed in Honolulu somewhere around 7 and arrived at our hotel before 10 in the morning. I had requested an early check-in and, after traveling for 30+ hours, became rather livid when told that our room would not be ready for another 5 hours. To prevent a near nuclear explosion, the staff led us to a guest lounge where we could take a shower and keep our bags. By this point I was also starving, so after a very quick shower, we headed out to find some food and explore the area.
What happened next is another story for another time involving a Peter Lik gallery and a $14,000 photograph (which no, we did not buy.) We returned to the hotel a little after 2 in the afternoon and were finally taken to our room. Exhausted, I told George I was going down for a one hour nap and set my alarm. George, who claimed he wasn’t tired at all, said he’d probably go to the pool.
No less than 5 hours later, I woke up dazed and confused in a pitch black room. I checked my phone and started freaking out. It was 7.30 pm and George was laying there fast asleep. I woke him up yelling how did this happen? Why didn’t you set an alarm? Do you know what time it is? Our dinner reservation is in half an hour!!
There was no time to waste. We had to make a decision, do we even still go? It was hard to think straight. Is there really no way to reverse time? I honestly didn’t know what to do. A little voice in my head was pleading for me to skip it. Take it easy. Wake up slowly. Order room service. But how much would I regret that? I turned to George. What do we do? Should we skip it? Do we really want to pay $250 each for a sushi breakfast right now?!
Yes. Yes we do! So George jumped in the shower and I jumped into a little black dress. I threw my hair up in a bun, thankful I had already washed it that morning. Rubbed some foundation on my face, no time for the full routine. Applied a quick coat of mascara, strapped on my heels, and called an uber.
The Akifumi Sakagami Experience
We reached the restaurant at exactly 8.05 pm, looking deceivingly sharp for our jet-lagged-just-woken-up-where-the-hell-are-we brains. The uber ride took roughly ten minutes. Driving away from the bright lights of Waikiki and turning onto several dark roads until we reached the unassuming little restaurant.
Inside, a Japanese hostess wearing a beautiful red yukata looked relieved to see us. She hadn’t been sure we were coming after no response in the last 24 hours. If only she knew. After a short wait in one of the private rooms, where George and I exchanged silly faces as it registered that we were omg in Hawaii, we were shown to the sushi counter. Of the seven seats, a party of four was already midway through their meal.
The true Japanese way to eat sushi is omakase at the sushi counter. The idea is to eat the sushi as soon as the chef has prepared it. While the western equivalent is ‘chef’s choice’, the Japanese word actually means ‘entrust’. So this would be my first time entrusting someone with my sush (and $250!)
Entering Ginza Onodera felt like stepping into Japan. The room was decorated in contemporary Japanese style with beautiful wood-paneled walls, ceilings, and Canadian wood countertops that get sanded once a week. Behind the chef, I noticed his rack of Japanese sushi knives (called hocho), with only one unused.
Having only just woken up, George ordered a coke and I went for tea. Our hostess came by with several entrees in delicate decorative bowls and antique dishes. The chef began slicing up some courses of sashimi, served two pieces at a time.
After each serving, he would announce the name of the fish in Japanese and our hostess would translate using a fish dictionary. Pointing to a picture book with both the Japanese and English names printed in big letters. And each time, I would smile and nod in acknowledgment, pretending that names like silver pomfret, horse mackerel or golden eye snapper meant something to me.
By now, George and I were feeling a bit more awake and ordered a beer each, remembering to offer one to the chef. I guess I expected he would accept the drink and discreetly consume it as he carried on his work. I couldn’t have been more wrong. His face literally lit up with excitement at the mere suggestion, and once the beers were brought in, he comically made a toast after every sip, kanpai (cheers)!
The mood now altered, the proverbial ice broken, it was time for introductions. We started to exchange hellos and names with the other guests. They were a couple with their daughter of university age and a family friend. As we got to names, the father introduced his daughter as Hime. Hime? George asked. So does that mean you are the o-sama?
I don’t speak Japanese, but George is actually pretty good. I could only read the astonished facial expressions around the room and knew that George had made a joke, and that his Japanese had taken them by surprise. They were all laughing and talking as if to say, I can’t believe this guy knows Japanese! Finally, George explained to me that the father had made a joke by introducing his daughter as Hime, which means princess. Of course, they had never expected George to understand when he replied, princess? So does that mean you are the King?
The father then gestured towards chef Akifumi Sakagami and told us that he is the Ginza Onodera Group Executive Chef. Hontoni? Asked George, which was obviously another joke because they were all at it again. I can’t help it but when everyone is laughing it’s infectious and I often find myself laughing at the joke before I even know what’s funny. Beats laughing on your own. That’s the problem with translating jokes, you also have to explain the humour behind it. Hontoni is like saying really? Sarcastically, like, no way, you? Let’s just say that Chef Sakagami and George share the same sense of humour and from there on it was one joke after another until we were all clutching our stomachs.
The sashimi was followed by several courses prepared in the kitchen, before a course of nigiri, served one piece at a time. I have to say, the superiority of the sushi was obvious from the very first bite. Unmistakably the best I ever had.
It was such a pleasure to watch Akifumi form the perfect thumb of nigiri rice in the palm of his hand, topped with a smear of wasabi root freshly ground by his wakiita (apprentice). Like watching a ballet with knives, each piece of fish sliced with the type of precision reserved only for master craftsmen.
The fish is placed on top and finished off with nikiri (sweet soy) or soy sauce brushed over. Contrary to the maki roll, which you dip yourself, nigiri is already prepared and seasoned for you. The perfect bite. The proper way to eat it is simply to pick it up with your fingers or chopsticks and pop into your mouth.
I savoured each piece, encountering so many new flavours. Many of the fish I’d honestly never heard of, while old favourites such as otoro (fatty tuna), ikura (salmon roe) and uni (sea urchin) were as if tasting them for the first time. Nothing was chewy, dry or too fishy. He might as well have been serving it to us on the very boat it was fished from. It tasted that fresh.
All this made me so happy I felt euphoric. Not only was I eating the best sushi I’d ever had the pleasure of tasting, it was the first night of my honeymoon. We had made it, I was in Hawaii of all places, and in the best company I could ask for! It was like a dream. So we ordered another round of beers for the chef, one for his assistant too, and a bottle of cold sake that came in the most beautiful glass flask.
We were having such a good time that before we knew it we were all, how shall I put this, quite drunk! By this point, we had bought beers not only for the executive chef and his assistant, but also the kitchen staff, waitress and hostess, who had now joined us around the sushi counter as we joked and laughed like misbehaving school kids.
One of the funniest points of the night was when Akifumi was asking how we knew about Ginza Onodera. We explained it had been recommended by George’s Bosu, a regular there. After we described him and Akifumi recalled who he was, he burst out laughing and said it all made sense now. He had been scratching his head over the past hour and a half wondering how on earth we had known he liked beer?
Typical of omakase, a simple maki roll is served at the end, followed by miso soup. Apparently, the proper way is to have your soup at the very end. Lastly, a selection of desserts was brought out together with a platter that said Happy Honeymoon! As we finished it off, the hostess dressed me up in a yukata and Akifumi dressed George in his spare chef’s uniform and hat so we could take some photos!
If we’d been in Japan, we might have all headed out together for karaoke. But we were visibly tired and just drunk enough to sleep through the night even though it was daytime for our body clocks. After we paid the bill, the hostess called us a taxi and the entire restaurant staff walked us out. We felt treated no less than royalty, although we know this to be Japanese hospitality at its finest. In the taxi, George and I couldn’t stop saying how it was without a doubt the best dinner of our lives, and to think we almost missed it!
What do Sushi and Football have in common?
It’s taken me a while to write about this dinner from September 2017. Initially, I thought it would be a great restaurant review but how? It’s so much more personal than that. It’s had that same life-changing impact as my first Michelin meal in Italy. This dinner was not only the most incredible, it set me on a new course of discovery and appreciation for authentic Japanese sushi.
To say that an Itamae (head sushi chef) just slices fish is like saying a footballer just kicks a ball. I use the sports analogy because that’s exactly what football is to me. Sure, I watch football sometimes, but I really don’t know much about the sport nor does it interest me. I know of Ronaldo and Messi like most people know salmon and tuna.
A lot of people enjoy eating sushi but aren’t particularly interested to know more about it. To know the names of the world’s best sushi chef’s like they do the top footballers. To understand the terminology or etiquette. I guess it takes a certain type of person to spend thousands on VIP season tickets. I certainly never will. Likewise, many will never spend the kind of season ticket money on a sushi experience.
Like its western counterpart, Japanese sushi ranges from high-end to casual. But the price point is important because, in this world, you get what you pay for. Our sushi meal was $250 and not $25 not because we are fools paying an incredible markup. And certainly not because we are so rich that we have that kind of money to throw away. We can all scrape enough cash if we want something badly enough. I never bought a car, just think of how many times I could visit Ginza sushi for that!
But the football analogy stops here. While the average retirement age for a footballer is 35 years old, this is often the earliest that one can expect to become a distinguished Itamae. It takes about as long to become a master sushi chef in Japan as it does to become a qualified surgeon in the UK. And possibly as prestigious.
The world’s best 3-star Michelin sushi master Jiro Ono became a qualified sushi chef in 1951 at 26 years old. But it wasn’t until he was 40 that he was able to open his own sushi restaurant. Today he is 92 and still performs his daily routine of buying the fish he will serve on the day from the market.
What’s interesting too, is that the role of the Itamae is not only full responsibility for the market to mouth production of sushi, but also to entertain the guests. Akifumi Sakagami may not have his Michelin star just yet, I suppose he is still quite young, but he is by far the most entertaining Itamae I will probably ever meet.