Japan: Sushi [Sushi Sawada, Kyubey]

December 12, 2013 · 7 comments

in dining out, japan

After some delay, I have the final post from my excursion to Japan earlier this year. It’s fitting that the final post be on sushi, because my last meal of significance was sushi in Tokyo. I knew I wanted to have at least one serious sushi experience in Japan, but the major temples of raw fish are extremely costly. I watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi and subsequently read up on meals there, with some reports saying it would cost around $500 and the procession of nigiri (aka sushi aka fish on rice – no sashimi or cooked dishes) would last about thirty to forty minutes, then Jiro stands by the door while you eat a slice of melon for dessert, waiting for you to leave.

(Side note – muskmelon, very similar to honeydew, is an extremely favored and expensive fruit in Japan – I was told it can be $100 for an entire high quality fruit.)

I also read mention of Jiro’s grumpiness towards westerners, which apparently has subsided a bit with age and his recently acquired world wide fame, though I can’t directly report on that. As I’ve mentioned in some of these posts, I never experienced any hostility or even disagreeableness from the citizens of our host country. But we made a conscious effort to be polite, to try to understand and perform respectful customs, and to speak even just a few words of the language when possible.

Sushi is rich with tradition in Tokyo (often called Edomae sushi – Edo being the original name of Tokyo), and for an American to walk in to a serious sushi-ya and tell a sushi master he doesn’t eat gizzard shad, or to try to pick and choose the menu, and talk loudly with irreverance for the space and situation is an error, one which has likely contributed to the fact that it is sometimes harder for a non Japanese speaking westerner to get a reservation at many famous sushi restaurants in Japan.

After much research, I decided where I really wanted to go was Sushi Sawada. There is much to be found online about Sawada, though Chuck Eats has the best coverage  (Sawada (1)Sawada (2)). The semi-private nature, the personal experience, the purity, the breadth of offering (not just nigiri), and really Chuck’s writing planted a seed and I became determined that Sawada would be my treat-yo-self sushi meal of the trip.

Getting a reservation was not easy. I tried calling the restaurant in their mid-morning, which was 10PM-11PM at night here. I even wrote out Japanese pronunciations of how to ask for a reservation for a certain date and time, along with responses to what I presumed their questions may be. The phone rang but was never picked up.

From there I emailed the concierge of my hotel, asking if they could book for a certain date range. They said my request was rejected by the restaurant. After back and forth, I told them to please insist, and to tell the restaurant that I understood what style of meal this was, and the expensive cost. Finally, they offered me a lunch slot, so long as the hotel would guarantee the $350 price tag. If I no-showed, the hotel would bill me that amount.

I get it, this is a little silly, and I would scoff at such measures Stateside, being required to jump through hoops for the privilege of spending a car payment on a ninety minute meal. But hell, I was going all the way to Tokyo, I was going to see what it was all about.

But first, here are a few shots from my first sushi meal, at Kyubey, a very famous sushi restaurant which developed into a few outposts across town, this location (not the original) being in the Keio Plaza Hotel, walking distance from my hotel. I walked in and asked for their eight piece nigiri set, with a roll and salad. It was about $85, which is not in the upper echelon, but certainly not cheap either. Very inexpensive, and very mediocre sushi does exist in Japan. Just like here you, I found you get what you pay for.

The most noticeable difference all dollars being equal, was that the quality of the rice in Japan was generally excellent. Warm, and especially in Tokyo, quite sour, a nod to the history of Edomae sushi, in which the vinegared rice which surrounds the fish acts as a method of preservation.

Tokyo

It was a very good start to my sushi eating on the trip – I was pleased with everything they offered, one piece at a time. One of my favorites was the shrimp. I had much shrimp in Japan, where the quality and the price is very high. This is cooked shrimp, but I also saw the guy next to me order huge, live shrimp for $25 each, and the sushi chef brought them out, prodded them to make them wiggle a bit, then ripped their heads off, cut them in half, and placed each half on rounds of rice, to be eaten just moment later. Heady.

Tokyo

Two kinds of eel nigiri. I am really starting to love eel as “dessert” sushi, along with tamago and uni.

Tokyo

But on to the meal at Sawada. The photo recap will be brief, because I was not allowed to take photos – a sign notes that all cameras and phones are now forbidden. That ended up being fine with me, I wasn’t distracted during the experience, which I appreciate. We came in hot on the early morning bullet train from Hiroshima so I could make my noon reservation at Sawada in Ginza. Hiroshima really is a lovely city, which I’m glad we saw, as we almost nixed our plans to go there. The rebuilt city is very pretty, with street cars instead of subways, and the A-bomb memorial is both emotional and educational, with a simple message – the world needs to avoid this happening anywhere, ever again.

But back to Ginza – I would never have found Sawada without Google Maps. Man, that was a life saver.

Tokyo

I presumed this was the door to Sawada, but when I tugged to slide the door, it didn’t budge. Unsure, I walked back downstairs for a few minutes and checked my bearings. I was five minutes early. At exactly the time of the reservation, I walked back up and tried again. This time it slid open.

Tokyo

I was the first one to arrive, and Sawada-San’s wife came from the back, to greet me and take my coat. I almost didn’t bring my trusty Billy Reid suit with me to Japan, and I’m sure glad I did. Most of the time I looked like a grimy tourist compared to most of the well-dressed Japanese around town, but for our finer meals, I slapped on the never wrinkled suit and didn’t feel like such a schmoe.

These photos were taken while both of the Sawada’s were in the back, presumably finishing their prep. Sawada does not use any electricity or modern methods of cooking in food storage or preparation. This vault is filled with large slabs of ice, and is where the fish is refrigerated until service.

Tokyo

Similarly, all cooking for the six seats in the restaurant is done over binchōtan coals. There are only two services per day, six days a week. So that’s up to twelve people a day, just seventy-two guests per week.

Tokyo

I thought I nearly blew it – when Sawada-San arrived to the front, when two other guests had arrived, he told me he didn’t speak much English, and I said that I didn’t speak but a few words of Japanese, but then I called him itamae, which I thought he would see as a sign of respect. He looked at me confused. I said it again, and he had a look of concern on his face. The gentleman next to me laughed loudly, and exclaimed, “He not itame, he-a sushi mastah!” Sawada-San said something similar to me, and I became red faced and warm. I apologized profusely, “Go-men-nah-sai”. He indicated that it was ok. Anyone reading this – could you clarify the difference to me? I am really curious why he was insulted when I called him itamae. Everything I’ve read indicates that this is a respectful word for a chef.

At this point, I can only share my notes with you, as after the ninety minutes, I stumbled in a daze across the street, finding one of the most excellent Belgian beer bars I’ve ever seen. I sat down, drinking a nice sour aged beer, and wrote out everything I could remember on my phone. The meal was stunning. Probably best meal I’ve ever had, at least the experience I cherish most, and easily the best sushi I’ve ever had. I decided to cut my option to try another two or three Michelin star sushi restaurant the next day, because I simply wanted to enjoy the memory of this one incredible experience, and not turn it into a whole “let me judge Sawada vs Jiro” scenario. It felt disrespectful.

The sushi. I didn’t understand tuna until this meal, the varying cuts and textures, some brought alive by heat from the coals. I sampled luscious Hokkaido uni in the most firm and crunchy, high quality nori. Ridiculously tasty hand rolls, piled full with large chunks of pure fish, radish, and shisho. Oh and the Abalone! Abalone! How incredible it can be. Amazing. My short hand notes are below. Sorry for the nature of this, but I like posting it as I wrote it, as it came to my jumbled mind, after the best meal I wish I could have shared with all of my friends.

Sawada:

Small bowls with seasonings - lime juice

A plate of salt and one of soy sauce

Diced white radish sitting on large shiso on wood board in front of me – where most sashimi was placed

Sashimi first

 Small slivers of white/translucent fish – unsure of fish

Served with bowl of tiny uni from southern Japan. Grey and paler color. 

Chunks of dark squid – very tender

Abalone – large squares of sashimi

Abalone liver

Tuna belly seared on the robata

He took the shrimp legs off large shrimp used for future dish, provided them to us to suck out the meat of the legs, like you would do with a lobster. 

Then made a roll out of the shiso and radish. Hand roll wrapped in cylinder with another sheet of nori wrapped underneath to keep the contents from spilling out

He also made a big fat maki roll with large chunks of fish and sprouts and shiso and sesame seeds. So good

Then nigiri.

Bright red tuna, rich with blood flavor

Chutoro – crazy good the best of all the tunas

Otoro – two pieces one raw and one seared with his device

Cured shrimp with roe inside cut in half served as two pieces

Cooked huge prawns cut in half with brains still attached on one side

Shima aji – crazy good nigiri

 Handful of other nigiri pieces – none I specifically remember – all prepared in similar fashion. Draped over rice from side to side, not so much from “head to tail”. Small. Not too vinegary, but more so than what I’m used to here. 

A huge gunkan maki filled to the brim with Hokkaido uni. Very little rice balls in those.

 I insulted him by calling itame

 Just he and his wife – no assistant, no kitchen staff

 6 seats. Three people arrived after forty-five minutes and only received nigiri.

 Tomago was like pound cake. Not served on rice. Beautiful and sweet

 Couple sitting next to me said I looked like Tom Cruise.

 Took about 1:45 for whole meal. Cost $390 with 1 beer and 3 medium glasses of sake. 

 Asked if I wanted anything else. Said I was ok. Intimidated.

 Sawada said maybe it was first time I had sushi when I said it was the best ever

 He laughed and said he was also a comedian. Maybe next time a dancer

 Gave me business card and napkin.

Tokyo

  • Biskuit

    Wonder-full

  • Owl

    As a non-japanese speaker, but a sushi-lover, my understanding is that calling him an itamae would come close to calling a head chef a sous chef in western culture. It does mean that they are qualified to prepare a meal for a customer, but probably not as near as what Sawada-san has achieved.

  • http://mydarlingmydear.blogspot.com/ tamara

    Awesome post! I don’t eat fish, but this is still fascinating.

  • http://www.chuckeats.com/ ChuckEats

    i’m glad you enjoyed it – it is definitely my favorite restaurant in the world

  • Ben

    I have to ask, how far in advance did you make your reservation? I am already planning to go through my hotel concierge, as you did, but they immediately told me, “Sawada only allows bookings a month in advance.” I assume this means the 1st of the month prior to the month in which my target date resides. I just want to be sure their information is accurate because I would kick myself if I missed out. I want to go for lunch on a Sunday, but there are a few backup days I can try as well. If you tell me you reserved a spot MONTHS in advance I’ll have to contact the concierge again… Thanks.

  • http://www.eatitatlanta.com jimmy

    What you describe sounds accurate. They called on April 2 for a late May reservation. When I asked in March, they called and they were told to try again in April. Good luck. I had to be persistent. They told me no twice…after concierge finally got ahold of them.

  • http://www.eatitatlanta.com jimmy

    thanks for the insight!

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