Barack Obama dines with Shinzo Abe at elite sushi restaurant in Tokyo

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2014, 10:08pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 April, 2014, 5:03pm

US President Barack Obama kicked off his trip on an informal note, joining Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a famous Tokyo sushi restaurant with hard-to-come-by reservations and a hefty price tag. Obama and Abe greeted each other warmly outside Sukiyabashi Jiro, the underground sushi restaurant run by 88-year-old Jiro Ono.

The outing was unusually casual by Japanese standards and underscored the effort by both countries to strengthen the personal relationship between Obama and Abe.

Obama was accompanied by close advisers including US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

The party was treated to Jiro's multiple-course, US$300-per-person set menu of various sushi dishes.

The spirit shown here has much in common with the world of the tea ceremony

After Obama left the restaurant, Abe told reporters he had heard that US leader liked Japanese food, especially sushi, and he wanted the president to experience traditional Japanese cuisine. He quoted Obama as praising the sushi as "the best sushi he had had in his life".

The tiny sushi restaurant, a place with three Michelin stars but only a handful of seats, is ruled by its redoubtable owner.

Ono's exacting standards and tireless work ethic have made him legendary among global foodies.

Ono's rigid discipline and unending pursuit of perfection were the subject of the 2011 US documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

The president would have had no menu to choose from because Ono selects the sushi he serves and will not take orders from his customers.

Sukiyabashi Jiro, according to Nippon TV, has only 24 seats. It sits in a slightly scruffy basement of an ageing commercial building and is connected to a Tokyo subway station.

But the sheer excellence of the sushi ensures that diners must book months in advance to secure a seat.

The establishment's three Michelin stars were awarded when the Tokyo edition of the gourmet guide was published in 2007, and have been 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.

Sukiyabashi Jiro counts Hollywood A-listers Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway among former diners.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Reuters