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Sawada

It is very difficult for us to write about the high end sushi world in Tokyo. How does one justify in words the grandeur of a meal filled with ostensible simplicity? Without much thought sushi is simply a piece of fish, shari, wasabi and soy sauce. It is in many ways the antithesis of classical French or western cuisine which adds layers upon layers of flavour, technique and ingredients. But sushi as we all know is anything but elementary. The intensity of detail, practice and perfection that painstakingly goes into a single bite makes it its very own special classification.

At the high end realm, the obsessive and detail-oriented ethos of the Japanese culture has brought these sushi restaurants to the point where sublime refinement and skill in the smallest of bites is not even a question but a given. And that is why to comprehend this world of sushi we have had to look deeper into the subtleties of the experience and the personality of the sushi chef who puts his fingerprint literally and figuratively into every item that hits your mouth.

We have been to only a few of these types of establishments in our recent two visits to Tokyo, but there is an establishment called Sawada which we have visited on a couple of occasions. We still don’t feel justified in writing a post on this restaurant. After all, there is still so much of this world we have yet to learn and explore. But we will attempt to put our thoughts about our visits to this place into writing – the first in the spring of 2014, the second at the tail end of the 2015 winter.

The experience at Sawada starts with one man, one assistant, one counter and six seats. That is all that greeted us on the two occasions we were able to secure reservations. The man at the helm is known as Koji Sawada and his assistant is his wife. Together, the duo run every aspect of this tiny six-seater restaurant on the 3rd floor of an inconspicuous building of the main shopping street of Ginza.

Pictures are not allowed at Sawada. Some might be turned off by this but to us it is comforting not to be distracted by it. It’s just us, the chef, his wife and the food. An experience amplified by the intimacy of the space. Phones too could not be placed on the counter as it could damage the single block of wood that served as both the counter and our plate.

Perhaps due to the almost similar seasons we visited this restaurant, we had a very similar menu each time we visited. Items that were in peak season on our first visit, were starting to come into season on the second visit. And as each otsumami course came into our sight, it was beautifully placed within a bed of shiso and slices of daikon created by the man and woman at the helm. Thereafter, we were instructed as to how each item was to be eaten – either with salt and wasabi, soy and wasabi or a salt and yuzu juice combination.

Strawberries by Sawada

Highlights of the otsumami on both occasions included flounder and its fin cut up masterfully into squares and each slice dipped into each condiment variation. Variations of uni (sea urchin) were so distinct in size and creaminess on its own. But when paired with abalone, the combination of the creamy layer of uni covering the meaty abalone seemed almost ethereal. A sweet taco (octopus) with enough bite to yield a succulent crunch was our favourite amongst all sushi restaurants we have visited in Tokyo. The piping hot and stringy sea cucumber ovaries made a grandiose appearance on both occasions. And to signify the end of the otsumami, the shiso leaf and sliced pickled daikon were topped off with a pouring of grilled sesame seeds and then wrapped in nori. Simple yet effective palate cleanser rolls before the influx of nigiri ahead.

Excellent quality fish in its freshest form can be very similar from one sushi restaurant to the other. Hence, it is in the nigiris that we are able to uncover the uniqueness of one sushi chef to the other. More specifically, it is through the shari (vinegared rice), a highly personal and distinct trait of each sushi chef. Comparatively, Sawada-san’s shari lacks the strong vinegar punch of three-starred chef Yoshitake-san of Sushi Yoshitake. And we a huge affinity for Yoshitake-san’s rice. However, Sawada’s is still far superior than all the other places we have tried or anything we have experienced.

What Sawada lacks in shari however is more than made up for in his breadth and depth of maguro (tuna) offerings. Classified into subsections based on its fat content, throughout the otsumami and nigiri portion of the meal we were showered in the most expansive selection we have ever encountered inducing the fear of mercury poisoning into any soul. Some of what we had on both occasions included regular maguro, maguro zuke (tuna aged for one day and marinated in soy sauce for three hours), chūtoro (medium fatty tuna belly), ōtoro (fatty tuna belly), chū-ōtoro (a combination of chūtoro and ōtoro), ōtoro aburi (ōtoro broiled using binchōtan inducing so much fat it needed to be lathered with wasabi otherwise it would have overpowered the beauty of the meat), ōtoro with radish, and last but not least the pinnacle of all the toros on the planet, the grilled kama toro. Having kama toro in Sawada was the first time we ever had it but a quick search on Google told us that because it is the part of the tuna belly closest to the collar bone, many easily throw it out as waste. But its proximity to the gills of the fish yields more blood to the muscles in this area resulting in a more concentrated taste than the other toro sections. What cannot be learned on Google however is the intensity of flavour and goodness that came from the kama toro. It is simply something that must be experienced and cannot be put into words.

Other highlights of the meal included an ode to the edo period with a mixture of rice, sesame seeds and bits of nori stuffed into sweet ika (squid). Copious amounts of bafun uni from Hokkaido literally being poured into our nori that subsequently could not fit into one bite. And a second larger, sweeter, creamier and more mineral-flavoured variety, murasaki uni, served nigiri style. A variety of clams such as mirugai (geoduck) and akagai (arc shell) exhibited exceptional texture and crunch. A massive kuruma ebi (Japanese imperial prawn) came towards the end of the meal with the option to be halved – an acknowledgement of the girth of the meal. The perfectly cooked anago (salt water eel) that came right after and prepared using the binchōtan was given the same option as well as the choice of either sauce or salt or a piece of both. The macro-sized gooseberry preceded by micro tomatoes served as both palate cleaners and dessert. And to end the meal was the serving of tamago cake. Comparatively, Sawada-san’s was drier than that of Sushi Mizutani and Yoshitake but it still could not take away from the quality of each item that lay before us on our two visits and the extensiveness of the meal which was simply remarkable.

But before all of this was served to us, one aspect not to be forgotten was the dance of the hands of the sushi chef. From the fluidity of motion as Sawada-san took the shari and joined it with the fish to the intricacy of the knife work he performed on the fish, it is a routine and style each sushi chef has developed on their own through years of repetition. The result is superb details too easily dismissed. On the kohada (gizzard shad) for example were beautiful slices of perfectly spaced diamonds allowing for the soy sauce that was brushed on top to permeate faster into the vinegared fish. The increased surface area also brought out more of the vinegar taste in our mouths. And the silver rainbow on the surface of the Kohada was extremely prominent even through the brush of soy sauce.

It would be nice to say that because of the above our two experiences here have been perfect. But not by the fault of Sawada-san or his wife, we continue to be somewhat plagued by external circumstances each time we visit. Last year, yours truly was hit hard with the stomach flu hours before our meal. An otherwise perfect meal, with affable locals as our dining companions ruined by shear happenstance. Yielding to another visit shortly thereafter.

Redemption however was short-lived as an hour and a half into our perfect meal – composed of just us, the chef and his wife – the door opened and four Brazilians entered exclaiming they were on “Brazilian time”. The disappointment in Sawada-san’s face said it all. We could not help but feel sorry for the Sawadas as there was another seating shortly after, and we could not help but feel irritated ourselves. The rhythm of our meal was severely disrupted. The late diners too had a significantly sub-par experience as their menu was considerably shorter and Sawada-san and his wife could not explain the idiosyncrasies of what was being served. In that instance, they should not have come at all, but with a cancellation policy of 100% the price of the meal, it makes it harder to do.

Nevertheless, the experiences created by the Sawadas is one we can never tire of. And we are still in awe that one man, one assistant, one counter and six seats are all it took bring our delusions of sushi grandeur to reality. Although minimalism is what greeted us each time we entered Sawada, extravagance is the memory we left with.

Winter by Sawada

Thanks for reading and happy eating,
Carla and Sonny

Some notes

  • The door to Sawada is locked right until the clock strikes opening time. This is signified by the single light above the door turning on.
  • A starched napkin imprinted with a hand drawn picture of the season is yours to keep after the meal.
  • After the meal Sawada-san asks if you would like to have any more items. Unfortunately we do not know if we are charged additionally for this as we are only given a number to pay at the end of the meal.
  • Below are the items we remember from our trips in spring 2014 and winter 2015. This list is NOT comprehensive and not in the same order as they were served.

Spring 2014 at Sawada

Otsumami
Edamame beans
Flounder
Flounder fin
Ika
Purple and black uni
Abalone
Abalone liver
Abalone egg jelly
Tako
Chūtoro
Ōtoro with radish
Grilled o-toro Kama
Smoked Spanish mackerel
Sea cucumber ovaries
Edo-style stuffed squid
Roll of radish and sesame seeds
“Spring” roll with fish, spring vegetables and shiso
Micro tomatoes

Nigiri
Needle fish
Akagai
Kohada
Maguro zuke
Maguro
Chūtoro
Ōtoro
Uni
Kuruma ebi
Anago with sweet sauce
Anago with wasabi and salt
Tamago

Dessert
Gooseberries

Winter 2015 at Sawada

Otsumami
Edamame beans
Flounder
Flounder fin
Ika
Uni with abalone
Abalone
Tako
Chūtoro
Chū-ōtoro
Ōtoro with radish
Aburi ōtoro
Long white fish
Sea cucumber ovaries
Aburi mackarel
Roll of radish and sesame seeds
“Spring” roll with fish, spring vegetables and shiso
Micro tomatoes

Nigiri
Kohada
Sayori
Mirugai
Purple uni
Maguro zuke
Chūtoro
Chū-ōtoro
Ōtoro
Aburi ōtoro
Bonito
Pickled daikon radish
Edo-style stuffed squid
Kuruma ebi
Anago with sweet sauce
Anago with wasabi and salt
Hokaido uni
Tamago

Dessert
Gooseberries