UPDATED: A Jiro: Dreams of Sushi-Inspired Meal at Kata Robata Disappoints

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UPDATE: Ryan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of The Azuma Group, contacted us about this story. After the jump is his unedited response to the piece, in its entirety.

Jiro: Dreams of Sushi is a fascinating movie about passion and work ethic. It also happens to feature a sushi chef. It could have just as easily been about a ditch digger or glass blower.

The Sushi Club of Houston helped sponsor the film and a dinner afterward at Kata Robata. I was not familiar with the Sushi Club, and became a member so I could get a spot at the dinner and understand what the club does. There are 4,213 members, and 45 were at the dinner (which is apparently very high for an event); there was also a sold-out crowd at the film.

Carl Rosa introduced the film and spoke about founding the Sushi Club of Houston and serving as director of the Japan-America Initiative. Carl is very knowledgeable about Japanese culture and food and is more than willing to share his knowledge with Houston. He talked about the differences between real wasabi and the green horseradish we are usually served, and how the dunking of rice in a paste of soy and that horseradish is a terrible faux pas.

Carl told us about the time he was lucky enough to dine at Jiro's, but -- because Jiro is totally about quality, not quantity -- left impressed but hungry. The next part of his story stunned me -- he said he went around the corner to a McDonald's for a Big Mac so he would feel full. I appreciate Carl's knowledge and experiences; however, I cannot fathom being a foodie, in Japan and in a McDonald's. Granted, Carl had just dropped $350 at Jiro's, but I bet he could have afforded some noodles or tempura to satiate his hunger.

The film was spectacular and fascinating. Although it is no longer at the museum, if you ever have the chance to see it, do not miss the opportunity. Jiro talked about being on his own since the age of nine. He grew up with survival instincts and a talent he could not ignore. His palate and sense of smell are in a class of a rarefied few. Interestingly, this man who is admired and idolized for his palate and sense of smell wishes he could have Joel Robuchon's. Jiro says Joel has a sense that defies this earth; Joel's sense of smell and palate are of the heavens.

Jiro speaks of the zen of sushi and how important timing is. In fact, the filmmaker commented that when he finished photographing a piece of sushi Jiro had made and then went to eat it, Jiro took it away and explained it was no longer the same piece of sushi because time and exposure had changed its temperature and texture. Sushi is to be served, according to Jiro, one piece at a time and eaten immediately. Anything more, and you have permanently altered the sushi's integrity and the sushi master's flavor intention. I learned the importance of this at Uchi as Nobu was making sushi for me last week.

After this inspirational film about perfection and seeking it in all you do, 45 members showed up at Kata Robata for a Jiro: Dreams of Sushi-inspired meal. As a newcomer to the Sushi Club, I wondered how it was possible to serve sushi to a large group and adhere to the rule of "one piece at a time, eaten immediately," especially since this meal was in homage to Jiro. The answer: It isn't possible. Sushi is not meant to be banquet food, served on a buffet or family-style.

While I appreciate the Sushi Club's mission of educating its members about the "fundamentals of sushi while uncovering the common misconceptions of this extraordinary cuisine from Japan," this dinner was anything but. I brought two novice sushi eaters with me and thought this would be a great setting for their first sushi experience. They would see a movie that showed them what true, traditional sushi should be, and then they would attend a dinner in honor of that. It was going to be great.

We arrived at Kata Robata 15 minutes early. As we were seated, I noticed that every inch of clear counter space at the sushi bar was covered with pre-plated sushi for 45 people. My heart sank. If I was 15 minutes early, how long had the plates been sitting there? Our first course was miso soup. It was clean and briny-tasting while being warm and comforting. A good, solid first course. Then plate one of sushi was served (we had now been at the restaurant 30 minutes). It consisted of Soy Sauce Marinated Tuna, Japanese Yellow Tail, Norwegian Salmon, Japanese Horse Mackerel and Japanese Snapper. Before I even get to the food description, I should tell you that it was at this point that the server turned over a dish of soy sauce on our table, and it drained into my guest's purse. The manager gave us a wet towel to clean it up. Remember, this is my guest's first sushi experience.

On to the sushi -- the tuna was sticky and plastic-tasting. The yellowtail was creamy, but it had started to dry out around the edges. The salmon was pretty decent -- fatty and creamy. The mackerel had been sitting too long and had acquired that very fishy taste, which I'd learned at Uchi doesn't occur with very fresh mackerel served immediately. The snapper had begun to form a skin because it had sat out for so long. I was so disappointed. I have eaten many times at Kata Robata and have enjoyed some truly inspired dishes. Chef Manabu Horiuchi can make some really terrific sushi, but I don't think anyone can or should make sushi for a crowd.

Plate two was a Toro Tuna and Green Onion Roll and a Daikon Pickle and Shiso Roll. The tuna roll was your standard tuna roll that you could get at Kroger. I was not moved. The daikon roll was the best sushi we had all afternoon. Vinegary, crunchy and floral, it was original and inventive. I appreciated the playful balance of textures and flavors. I should have stopped at this point. Plate three was Canadian Sweet Shrimp, Japanese Scallop, Canadian Albacore and Homemade Egg Omelet. The shrimp was sticky and bitter, and the scallop had a strong fish flavor, not subtle and velvety like a scallop should be. The albacore was lightly seared, soft and sour, and the egg was very sweet and soft, reminding me of the vanilla soufflé at Brasserie Max & Julie.

As I tasted each and every piece of sushi, I sat facing a framed picture of Jiro and his team in Japan. The Sushi Club had given it to the restaurant in honor of the movie. I wanted to hang a cloth over the picture so Jiro couldn't see his homage. Our final plate was Homemade Japanese Sea Eel, San Diego Sea Urchin and a Fried Shrimp Head. The eel was sweet and had a very soft, mealy texture. The crunchy shrimp head reminded me of sucking the head of a crawfish without the spice. The sea urchin was the saddest moment -- what should have been a real delicacy was haphazardly lopped on top of rice, and the edges were dried out. I did not eat mine.

One of the lessons of the Sushi Club and an important section of the film is about sushi rice. It is at least as important as the fish, if not more so. Morimoto wants it for his dying meal, Jiro has only one rice supplier and sushi chefs guard their rice recipes like they guard their knives. The rice at this meal was cold and very starchy, with no flavor. I wish Kata Robata had said no to such a dinner, knowing that you cannot serve sushi with its integrity intact, banquet-style.

Carl Rosa is a kind, informed, highly knowledgeable man who loves sushi and wants to share that passion with others. I love the idea of a sushi club, but I don't think it can work on a large scale and stay true to such an extraordinary cuisine. I look forward to returning to Kata Robata, sitting at the sushi bar and eating sushi one piece at a time.

UPDATE: Ryan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of The Azuma Group, contacted us about this story. After the jump is his unedited response to the piece, in its entirety.

My name is Ryan Snyder and I am the C.O.O. of The Azuma Group, the parent company that owns Kata Robata. Obviously this article has been quite the conversation piece over the last few days. We have been observing all the comments and opinions from the Houston Press readers and it's good to see so much passion and interest in stories like these. We would at this time like to voice our opinion on this matter and give some direct feedback from our chef Hori-San to several of the key points in this article.

We wish to state that we respect every person's right to have an opinion and have their voice heard and in no way wish to quell Patrice Shuttlesworth right to express herself and share with her readers the experiences she has. In this instance however, the writer expressed several opinions that simply are not accurate, as well as opinions based on assumptions, and opinions that unintentionally offended. Please keep in mind that there is nothing more important than honor and reputation in Japanese culture. Hori-San has spent his entire professional career trying to build a reputation of hard work, honor and excellence. Hori has no problem with someone who does not enjoy his food and expresses their opinion. He does however have a huge problem with someone who does not understand sushi very well or Japanese culture and is critiquing his work in a negative manner based on falsehoods, assumptions, and lack of knowledge. That is what he feels was done here and he wants to set the record straight on several aspects of the piece. This is not a case of expressing an opinion like "this was over cooked or this had no flavor or this is too salty etc." We feel this is a case of a writer not knowing enough about the subject matter at hand. I would like to go over the most alarming parts of the article and give Hori-San's direct response.

1) The writer states this was an homage to Jiro. This was not an homage to Jiro. The event creator, Carl Rosa, has said as much. This is simply not true. Even the title of the very article is misleading and not accurate.

2) The writer stated the Toro and green onion roll "was your standard tuna roll that you could get at Kroger". This is 100% not true, a false statement. Stating that Kata Robata served the same grade of tuna roll as Kroger is extremely disrespectful and false. Kroger does not sell Toro rolls. If the writer would have said something like, "the Toro roll didn't taste much different to me then your standard tuna roll at Kroger" we could live with that, and would have no problem per se. That is an opinion. Stating we served a standard tuna roll you could get at Kroger, when in fact we served an expensive Toro roll, is not an opinion; it is false and not true.

3) The writer states "the mackerel has been sitting out too long and has acquired that fishy taste, which I'd learned at Uchi doesn't occur with very fresh mackerel served immediately". This is also not true. Hori did not serve Mackerel that was not fresh, we just got that delivery the day before (the event was on held on a Sunday-the fish market is closed). Mackerel has a naturally stronger taste and aroma one may call "fishy" regardless of how and when it is served. Japanese actually seek out and prefer these types of fish. If Mackerel was served too many days after delivery it would become even stronger in taste and aroma as many fish do, but we don't serve Mackerel past its prime. The Mackerel had not been sitting out too long to turn fishy, that is completely false. Almost all Mackerel has what Americans call a more "fishy" taste. Many sushi chefs will put ginger or some type of condiment on top when served in nigiri form to balance out the fishiness so to speak. The type of Mackerel served that day was, "Aji" which normally has a less "fishy" taste and aroma then the standard "Saba" one gets at most sushi bars, but it still maintains a certain level of "fishiness" so to speak. The implication that Hori served old Mackerel that sat out too long and became too "fishy" is just not true and the accusation is very inflammatory to Hori-San. Even Mackerel served immediately will have a stronger taste and aroma if not balanced out by some sort of condiment. Mackerel simply has a stronger taste and aroma naturally.

4) The Uni was described as the saddest part of the meal. This particular point of contention is what has Hori-San the most upset and where the writer erred most egregiously. I went back to review our security camera's to see how long the Uni sat out for. From the time Hori-San's assistant went into the cooler to retrieve the Uni to the time it was plated and given to the guest was about 8 min. The Uni did not sit out unnecessarily at all. Whatever color the Uni was, it was naturally occurring and in no way, shape, or form was because of sitting out too long. So Hori-San graciously offered his prized Uni to the guests he was serving, it did not sit out long, and the writer refuses to eat it, states it is the saddest part of the meal and further insults Hori-San by stating it was compromised and she didn't want to get sick (she said this in her comments below the article). Compromised? Get Sick? The writer could not be more wrong on this. There was even a comment from someone named Ed who was there that day and who was an eye witness who said the same thing I just did about the elapsed time. He commented in the section below the article. He saw the entire plating of the Uni. Carl Rosa as well tasted the Uni and found it to be great, as he also stated in his comments below the article. Now of course each piece can vary in taste but none of the pieces of Uni sat out too long like the writer seemed to think. Thus the 'dried out' comment is not accurate. If it didn't sit, it didn't dry out. So she is wrong. The Uni did not sit out like she thought, it was not compromised like she thought and it would not have made her sick like she thought. Hori served this delicacy last, as a thank you for all who came out to the event. The writer showed no understanding or appreciation of this and terribly misjudged the product before her. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but when your opinion contains elements that are simply untrue and you state those opinions about someone like Hori who takes these matters as serious as one could take, and whom stakes his whole reputation on what he serves and how he serves it, the facts have to be in order.

5) The writer states "I wanted to hang a cloth over the picture so Jiro couldn't see his homage." As previously stated, this was not an homage. Hori San feels this was certainly insulting because if Jiro's pic had to be covered up then that means Jiro was shamed or would be ashamed of what had transpired. Whatever transpired was all orchestrated by Kata Robata and Hori -San, so this implies that Hori did shame Jiro somehow. He feels the writer is not qualified at all to imply such a thing because she does not know enough about the protocols and subtleties of great sushi, or the culture of Japanese people to state such a thing. This was clearly over the line and although not stated directly, implied certainly that something bad had occurred. For a writer of such limited Japanese experience to say such a thing was very disrespectful to Hori. Hori is not alone in this thought. Many of our Japanese customers, staff and family have communicated to us the same thing, it was an insult.

Kata Robata took a financial loss on this event because we simply wanted everyone to have a great time and not just experience the same old same old so to speak. The cost of this event was $ 27 per person, when in reality it should have cost almost $55 a person. So we took a loss, but one well worth it to make sure everyone had a great time and they got to experience some of the more exotic elements of great sushi. This is also one thing that bothers Hori- San. This was basically a sushi club event, being hosted at Kata. Hori and his staff go above and beyond the call to make a great event, include much more food and value then was originally expected, showed sincere generosity and then gets unfairly ripped in several erroneous ways by the writer. He doesn't understand why the writer chose this event to come review. In the spirit of what we offered and the joyous nature of the event, it just seems strange this would be chosen for a review online, and if it was to be, that the spirit of the reviews was so negative and seemed to not understand how much extra Hori had thrown in and done when it was not asked for or expected. Had this been a real homage to Jiro, Hori would never have allowed more than a few guests at a time and would have charged several hundred dollars.

I want to thank the Houston Press for allowing us to give our perspective on the matter. I know I mentioned respect and feelings of insult several times here. As I said, these things are very important to Japanese people, much more so then Americans in my experience. Please understand that Hori felt insulted. Many people may not agree but isn't that how it is when anyone says they are offended for the most part? Most people who offend never think they are doing so, regardless of culture. We in no way, shape or form feel Patrice was intentionally malicious and insulting, not at all. We respect her as a writer and have been fans of her previous work. In this case Hori thinks she didn't do enough research or homework on the subject matter. She simply doesn't have enough experience blogging about or writing about high end sushi and Japanese food and that lack of understanding showed in her article. She is certainly still free to voice her opinion, as one does not need to be an expert to give their opinion on anything. By the same token when an opinion is given that has elements of untruths or assumptions not based on fact, then people like Hori and our company have the right to respond as we now have. Although we feel she dropped the ball on this one, and we have spoken very honestly about our feelings, it is just one article. Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. Patrice is a fine writer who writes about things that make for a good read. Her work is a strong asset to the Houston Press.

I have been in the business long enough to know that by even posting this we will probably get some negative feedback , people who will think we are too thin skinned, people who will think we are attacking Patrice as a person and not just the content of this one article etc , etc. After some internal discussion about whether we should even respond or not, we decided to leave it up to the person who felt the strongest about the article- Hori-San himself. I have worked with Hori for almost 9 years now and his respect and friendship mean more to the owner and I then just about anything. He insisted we respond publicly and express his thoughts on the matter, and so we have done so.

Thank You.

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