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Sushi Saito in Tokyo (Aug ’15)

2 Aug
  • 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

2015-08-01 12.11.08

Shiro ebi

2015-08-01 12.18.08

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

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Bonito-zuke (cured in soy)

  • Nice balance between scallions and ginger, a good contrast of jelly and sear

2015-08-01 12.29.58

Kokuryu Daiginjo

(5/5)

  • Ultra-rare, and with a dry minerality. A perfect complement to Saito’s sushi, and possibly the best pairing sake on the menu

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Kare no engawa
2015-08-01 12.36.46

Kani (crab) miso
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Seared nodoburo

(5/5)

  • The meat had little resistance, the skin had a delicious seared taste.

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Kare (flatfish)

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Kinmedai (splendid alfonsino)

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Kohada (Gizzard shad)

2015-08-01 13.05.47

Akami (lean tuna)

2015-08-01 13.08.49

Chutoro (medium-fat tuna)

(5/5)

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Otoro (tuna belly)

(5/5)

  • There can be no faulting perfection. From a 200kg tuna caught from the cold waters of Oma

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Ika (squid)

  • A squeeze of sudachi lime and salt

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Hiroki sake

  • Fruity and assertive (4.5/5)

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Iwashi (sardine)

(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.

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Kuruma ebi (tiger prawn)

  • One thing special about Saito is that he folds the prawn-head innards just under the rice.

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Aji (horsemackerel)

(4.5/5)

  • Fatty and unctuous

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Hamaguri (clam)

(4/5)

  • Sweet sauce

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Murasaki uni (sea urchin)

(4.5/5)

  1. 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.

2015-08-01 13.40.51 2015-08-01 13.40.53 2015-08-01 13.43.29

Anago (5/5)

  • Typically paired with sweet sauce, here Saito applied dabs of salt (and sudachi lime?) which was equally delicious.

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Temaki

(4.25/5)

  • Made by Saito’s assistant chef –

2015-08-01 13.53.24

Tamago

(4.25/5)

  • Soft, custardy, sweet, a nice end to the meal
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