Tokyo: The Sushi Experience

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I thought I had reached a sushi pinnacle when I dined at Kyubey the last time I was in Tokyo, but Chef Takashi Saito—who once worked at Kyubey—has taken it to another level at his seven-seat Sushi Saito. While Kyubey has a warmer atmosphere more conducive to lengthier meals (if desired), Sushi Saito serves what could be considered a “quickie lunch,” albeit an extremely high-end one delivered with the utmost care.

A more accurate comparison might be to Sukiyabashi Jiro, and its chef Jiro Ono, who became a household name among sushi connoisseurs after the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Both restaurants carry three Michelin stars, both seek out an incredibly high quality of fish, and both are in small and modest spaces (a hidden corner of a nondescript office building for Saito and deep in a subway station for Ono). Where the two part ways—according to my brother and Japanese sister-in-law, who dined at both—is that Sukiyabashi Jiro is much more expensive (¥30,000, or $340, for omakase versus Sushi Saito’s ¥13,000, or $150) and any overture they made to ask Ono and his son about the fish (speaking in Japanese) was essentially met with silence. While Chef Saito may not be described as chatty, he is much more kind and willing to respond to questions. Service is service, and in my book it can make a break or meal, whether it’s a revered destination or not. No one’s asking for a song and dance; we understand the nature of this type of experience. But when you spend this much money, a cordial response shouldn’t be that hard to come by.

What else makes Sushi Saito unique? He told us that he “lets his fish rest” anywhere from one to 20 days, which causes the flesh to relax. Every piece was exceptionally flavorful, with just the right accent, and achingly tender. Yuko, my sister-in-law, said “it’s like drinking sushi.”

Sushi chefs are often evaluated on the way they prepare their rice (sushi literally translates as su: vinegar and shi: rice), and Saito’s was perfect—loose but just sticky enough to hold together (you could practically taste each grain) and the ratio to fish was just right. He also told us that he blends his own soy sauce.

The meal began with daikon (radish) and seaweed with sesame seeds in a citrus ponzu sauce.

Chef Saito prepares each piece one at a time and it should be eaten quickly after arriving on your plate to experience the highest integrity of the creation (a small delay was tolerated while I snapped a few photos). From left to right: halibut, yellowtail, and Japanese shad.

Tuna three ways, ranging from lean to fatty. The o toro, or fatty tuna (right), simply melted in our mouths.

Cuttlefish (often rubbery, this was instead so tender, with a touch of lime and salt), white shrimp, and Imperial shrimp

The sushi had been amazing so far, but at this point there is audible moaning due to this piece of bonito (left) enhanced with a bit of spicy ginger and fragrant shredded shiso leaf tucked beneath it. It’s all in the details, baby. Spanish mackerel, center, is topped with a purée of green onion and ginger. Right: baby scallop.

Sea urchin with wasabi and miso soup

Freshwater eel: one with sauce, one with salt; egg custard, dried gourd maki

Watching Chef Saito work was all the entertainment one needs here, and in fact patrons were respectfully hushed throughout the meal. Yuko explained that sushi chefs often shave their heads to demonstrate purity, cleanliness, and dedication to their work.

My brother Matthew had been telling me about Hotel Okura just a few blocks away and how the interior has essentially remained unchanged since the 1950’s. After lunch, we wandered over to take a look. (U.S. presidents usually stay here as it is across from the U.S. Embassy, and rumor is that they share a underground tunnel.)

Welcome to “Mad Men.”

After a circuitous walk through what turned out to be a massive hotel, Matthew led us to the Highlander bar, adorned with tartan carpeting, Scottish drum tables, and the stale smell of cigars. It was amazing. Check out the relief painting of a ship!

Cheers to Chef Saito for a delicious meal, and to à nu retrouvez-vous Chef Shohei Shimono and his wife Sachiko for arranging the reservation for us on short notice. We all definitely hope to return soon!

Other Tokyo posts:
Tokyo: The Modern Classic
Tokyo: The Michelin Stars
Tokyo: The Casual

Jan. 07 2013 |
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