How to Spend a Thousand Dollars on Sushi by Me, an Idiot
"No, no, we need the bill in regular dollars," I said, assuming the number in front of me was in yen.
Still from Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Photo via Magnolia Pictures
A few years ago, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart made headlines by co-starring in two plays concurrently. Tickets were going fast, and when my friend Matt called me to ask if I wanted to go see No Man's Land or Waiting for Godot, I opted for Godot since I'd heard of it. You can't always get what you want: We got two tickets to No Man's Land. They were expensive, but at least they were very, very far from the stage.
Matt asked if I wanted to grab sushi beforehand, around 6:45. The play was at 8, but he could leave work early. The consistent assumption of people making plans with me is that, since I am a writer and work from home and they have firm adult schedules, I will be available at the times they need. I always resent this, mostly because it's true. Matt asked if I'd ever seen the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. "Of course," I lied.
Not too far from the theater, it turned out, one of Jiro's protégés had opened his own sushi restaurant. It was supposed to be transcendent. And so it was decided: We would fill our bellies with potent, nutrient-dense raw fish and then listen to Magneto and Professor X say some old words.
We walked into a nondescript office building, and the security guard told us the restaurant was on the third floor. The air was already thick with adventure. In Manhattan, a restaurant a few floors up meant either great food or the TGIF in Times Square. We walked through a red curtain into an empty dining room and were welcomed by a very friendly staff.
We were told Jiro's protégé Toma was actually there that night, and we should sit at the counter. Matt was giddy. The wizard himself would be making our sushi before our very eyes. Suddenly, I was bummed that we only had an hour to eat. I like sushi a lot and was prepared to do some damage.
We started with tuna, then fatty tuna. Then upped the stakes to toro. After each roll, the wait staff would remove our plates and bring new ones, along with a fresh set of hot towels. Chopsticks were discouraged and so were any dipping sauces. (Even soy sauce!) It was like being on Mars. Or perhaps like being in Japan.
Toma had an assistant who looked exactly like him but who was proportionally smaller, like the first insert of a Russian doll, and together they prepared us what was easily the best sushi I've ever eaten or ever will. After every dish, Toma penciled a figure into small ledger. Then he would turn with a smile and suggest another spectacular morsel.
The uni was particularly good. Uni is sea urchin, which has a disarmingly soft consistency—imagine frozen yogurt that tastes like the bottom of a sailboat. I loved the stuff. And we didn't need assurance that today's uni was fresh since Toma was literally cleaving a live one in half a few feet from us.
At a certain point, Matt leaned over to me and said, "This is gonna cost us." I agreed; the food was incredible and the service peerless. I'd never been so doted upon in a restaurant, except for one time when I thought I found a piece of metal in my calzone (it was only glass). But we were prepared to pony up at least one hundred. Maybe 150.
When the bill came, we took a deep breath. "This is going to be more expensive than the tickets," I joked. We opened it together, like shitty Golden Globe presenters.
The bill read one-one-zero-zero. Eleven hundred. One-thousand one-hundred. $1,100. Dollars.
As I mentioned, I write for a living. I didn't have $1,100. Matt didn't either.
My immediate reaction was that it was a misprint. "No, no, we need the bill in regular dollars," I said, assuming the number in front of me was in yen. The place was authentic, why stop at the bill? Alas, it was eleven hundred American dollars. The wait staff, to their credit, calmly pointed out that the bill was correct and what had really happened here was that the uni was "fresh."
I gave them a debit card that was certain to be declined—if a bank account could laugh, mine would have. It was just meant to buy us time to form a strategy. Matt was talking about the best way to argue our point, that we simply weren't prepared for a bill that high, and were given no warning that a single piece of uni might have been, conservatively, $100. I wasn't listening to him very closely, as there was a window near us, and I was thinking about how much damage a 30-foot fall would do if I landed with a well-timed roll. Could we pop up and run?
Matt had a plan. "Here's what we'll do," he said. "I'll put it all on my credit card. Then I'll call the card company, and I'll fight it. I'll fight the purchase."
As they returned with my declined debit card, which was barely real—I think I'd gotten it at Citifield in exchange for an umbrella—Matt handed over his, then turned to me and delivered another dagger: "Shit. We can't not tip them." And of course, he was right. The service was first-rate. What's 20 percent on top of $1,100? More than my last week's worth of food, easily.
The sushi was excellent, but that was beside the point, wasn't it? Sure, I felt good. Great, actually. Healthy. I felt like I could run a few miles or maybe lift the back of a car an inch or two off the ground. I don't think I got sick that year, come to think of it.
But I wasn't even full. I felt how one should feel after a quality meal—energized, alert, on balance. But I'm Italian, so I can't acknowledge that I ate well unless I'm clutching my intestines and bargaining with God. On the walk to the theater, Matt kept mumbling "... gonna fight it, that's all... fight the purchase..." I walked to an ATM right after the theater and took that very large sum out of my savings account and paid him cash.
(It turns out you can't just buy expensive things then "fight the purchase." Matt paid his card in full over time. The interest on the meal alone could've bought him lunch for a week.)
We agreed next time we'd just order a pizza and watch X-Men, because I still don't remember a word of that fucking play.