- Price: ~$250 USD (two carafes of sake)
“2-3 years ago it used to be so easy to get into Saito. Sometimes you could just go in for lunch without any reservations.”
I heard this lament more than once from my friend, an old Saito regular. The rules have, of course, changed permanently. Saito is now canonized as one of the top 2-3 sushi places in Tokyo, if not as the very best of them all. Reservations are made 4 months out even for erstwhile regulars, and it is almost impossible to get a reservation if you are not a regular. It started perhaps with the Michelin guide’s seal of approval, and was exacerbated in the last couple of years with a weak yen luring more gastro-tourists into the country.
In the midst of this media attention, Saito seems to remain fairly normal. He plans to focus on his Tokyo branch, but will open a branch in Malaysia early next year, at the new St Regis hotel in Kuala Lumpur Sentral.
Does the sushi live up to its reputation? I can say Saito’s sushi is the best I’ve tried in Tokyo so far:
- He makes incredible rice. What will stick with me above all is Saito’s sense of balance – his rice has the perfect temperature (warm), texture (soft but distintegrates unobstrusively in the first two bites) and taste (perfect conveyance for a salty vinegar). I found it comforting to eat each piece – the rice just ever-so-warm and perfectly vinegary, providing a foil for the topping.
- He elevates not just the luxury cuts but the common cuts too – Several specimens were brought to a level of perfection I had not experienced before. The luxury cuts (tuna, nodoguro, kinmedai) were all top-class, but these are ingredients which can be bought by any chef. The test of skill is to elevate the more difficult cuts. I thought I had many eye-opening morsels. The iwashi (sardine) was one of many highlights – a cheap and common fish raised to a sublime level of melting perfection. The octopus had a magical contrast of textures. And Saito’s hand-dexterity was evident when he made an uni nigiri, which I have never seen before.
I also enjoyed that the atmosphere was relaxed and easy, without any of the tiresome hushed reverence. Reverence is suited for a pilgrimage, but a pilgrimage is a one-off. Hopefully I’ll be back at Saito before long.
Evaluating sushi. I came skeptical of high-end sushi because the possibilities for composition seem limited. I was disappointed by experiences at Mizutani and Hashiguchi because I expected more creativity and intense flavors. But I think I had the wrong critical lenses. Sushi is a parade of perfect morsels, and when you eat it a thousand times you become familiar with a thousand references and appreciate sterling examples of the craft. For me, it seems enjoying a sushi meal is about paying attention the micro-factors of balance, seasoning, preparation, and ignoring the macro-factors of dish composition where a sushi chef’s hands are tied.
Standout cuts: Octopus, Nodoguro, Tuna (akami, chutoro, otoro), Iwashi (sardine) nigiri, Anago (sea eel) nigiri, Murasaki uni nigiri
Pictures of a meal at Sushi Saito
Chiba abalone, octopus
(5/5 for octopus)
- What I found amazing was the texture of octopus – the outer “skin” was soft and jelly-like, where the inner core of the tentacle was meaty – like two different materials had come together. It takes so much ingenuity to make octopus delicious, this octopus was one of the best-examples I’ve had
Bonito-zuke (cured in soy)
- Nice balance between scallions and ginger, a good contrast of jelly and sear
- Ultra-rare, and with a dry minerality. A perfect complement to Saito’s sushi, and possibly the best pairing sake on the menu
- The meat had little resistance, the skin had a delicious seared taste.
Kinmedai (splendid alfonsino)
Kohada (Gizzard shad)
Akami (lean tuna)
Chutoro (medium-fat tuna)
Otoro (tuna belly)
- There can be no faulting perfection. From a 200kg tuna caught from the cold waters of Oma
- A squeeze of sudachi lime and salt
- Fruity and assertive (4.5/5)
- The strong taste of sardine was evident in the first bite, but how smooth the fish was! It was like silk, going down the mouth, paired with a little dab of ginger. The freshness was unparalleled. The rice, a vinegary ephemeral cloud, a kiss of love towards the star of the show, the unheralded sardine – usually so tough when canned, but here with the grace of the best cuts. The standout piece from today’s meal.
Kuruma ebi (tiger prawn)
- One thing special about Saito is that he folds the prawn-head innards just under the rice.
- Fatty and unctuous
- Sweet sauce
Murasaki uni (sea urchin)
- This marks a first – I had never seen uni used as nigiri. The tongues are soft and liable to fall apart, and testament to Saito’s dexterity. Cold, and a good contrast with the rice.
- Typically paired with sweet sauce, here Saito applied dabs of salt (and sudachi lime?) which was equally delicious.
- Made by Saito’s assistant chef –
- Soft, custardy, sweet, a nice end to the meal