Updated: Apr 29, 2019
The Full Book
We took a short digital detour recently to Thailand's largest island, Phuket, before landing here. Continuing the Tokyo Trigger series where we visited Sushi Tsubomi, Torioka and Sushi Umi, here we are at Sushi Saito on the last day of an extremely abbreviated stay in sushi wonderland. This is the reason why I flew to Tokyo - to visit the legendary Sushi Saito which almost everyone I meet would echo the same sentiments - "It's impossible to get a seat", "I've been trying to for years and I just gave up", "Why bother when there are so many other sushi-ya's you could eat at that won't cost you a small fortune, and no need to jump through ridiculous hoops to walk through those doors?".
Well, if you've been reading my blog posts and know me personally, I'm always game to try something once. The more people around me say that it's just not worth it or don't do it, it gets my 🔥 going, and I won't give up till I've arrived at my target destination. I'm also patient and can wait for years before the right door of opportunity shows itself before turning that knob. Mystified? It seems that many chef-run restaurants in Tokyo, and perhaps all of Japan, (which may be relatively small and personal) may be wary of no-show's and cancelations ejected by tourists, so the reservation systems may favor locals and long-time loyal customers enough to ignore peeps like myself who is a first-timer to the serious art of sushi dining for "sushiheads". Also the severe lack of understanding of the Japanese language, and cultural do's and don'ts, also contribute to let's say a non-English speaking Japanese chef pushing away foreign booking requests. Previously, I asked govoyagin.com and klook.com for seats, but they too were unable to secure any.
2019 is my debut year engaging in fine dining sushi-ya's in all of my years of living (a short stint), and after that, visiting Japan as a wide-eyed commercially-provoked tourist, since the millenium. At least this restaurant is finally checked off my bucket list, thanks to the sweetest souls, and the dream took on a life of its own. Wonder what goes on in this three-Michelin-starred 8-seater sushi counter in Roppongi, that was also declared by the late most-decorated Michelin-starred restaurant group chef (32 stars in total), Joel Robuchon, "best sushi restaurant in the world"? Here's my tell-all with all the best pictures my iphone 8 could capture.
If you were expecting a sushi meal to start with, well, sushi, then here's some startling news : it never does! We were romanced with the best seasonal offerings in otsumami-style, meaning (cooked snack that goes with alcohol. I don't typically drink so ocha is my go-to beverage. How about this first starter for a shocking start? Milt. The spherical tubes one sees here as fish testicles filled with semen. There's just no other way to describe it than factually. It may look milky but it was hardly creamy to taste. Finely chopped up green onions and citrus yuzu provided the acidity to the smooth, melt-in-your-mouth gonads.
The pregnant squid from Aomori perfecture was filled with white and creamy eggs on a warm, thick citrusy sauce. The bites were so tender and sweet.
Or young (baby) tuna from Kyushu waters which are under three years and more tender in texture to the adult-sized ones. The flesh is also lighter in color. Chef served us this dish with cured onions and grated sweet ginger.
This is also referred to as hairy crab which is famous in Hokkaido. This must have been so time-consuming to pick the flesh from the crab pincers and hard-to-reach legs, one by one. Yet it was a flawless presentation of sweet meat mixed with kani miso and not a crack of shell. That has always been my pet peeve, my mouth being poked or scratched by accidental broken shards of hard crab shells. This happened many times even at reputable eating establishments.
The seared tuna (back) cheek or gill flesh as some call it can be mistaken for marbled beef! This incredibly fatty section of the fish (yet not the fattiest part) was perfectly seared to cajole the best flavors out of the cut.
The Asian foie gras of monkfish liver that was de-veined, rolled and then steamed. Apparently one liver can be over half a foot long, or at least 15cm. A surefire way to keep its softness yet firm texture so one can still break it up and pick up the pieces with chopsticks, is to serve it simply. The foie gras of the sea was dusted with some citrus zest before it was placed before us. It was creamy with no hint of bitterness in its aftertaste. This may seem like a big piece but it was uncloying to the palate, and easy to eat.
One can't resist this oily white-fleshed swordfish that's been grilled and oozing with its innate fattiness. Because fat = flavor. The grated mound of daikon and the accompanying crunchy pickled slices helped to cool down the tongue and cleanse the palate in-between the meaty bites of this fish that was cut like a steak and then served in its natural jus.
Our first sushi. What is it? Fluke, flounder or halibut, or it doesn't matter to you at all? Hirame is a flatfish and its white flesh here had pink accents. It's a fluke, flounder AND halibut. Find out more here. The subtle taste of the fish rested on the shari bed of medium-sized rice grains marinated in mild red vinegar and salt.
Now is perhaps a good time to state that all freshly - "pressed" sushi that's set in front of you is best to be eaten immediately. Sure, take 10 seconds to capture it on camera, but don't take too long.
Also known as buri, the Japanese amberjack or commonly referred to as yellowtail is best eaten during the cold winter season. Originating from Toyama perfecture, it is an oily fish that is the pride and joy of the small fishing port, Himi, in Toyama Bay.
I wrote on this before on this post. You will realize that sushi-ya's within the same region will offer very similar seasonal ingredients. Sushi is a traditional Japanese cuisine so it may not typically "wow" someone who's expecting Alinea-esque dramatic effects.
Here's a reprise :
Kohada falls under the category of hikarimono or shiny, silver fish. Sometimes it is confused with iwashi (sardine). Its unassuming look hides the menial work that's behind-the-scenes and can last for days before it is ready to be served. It's a small-sized fish (at least 4 inches but less than 10) that has many tiny bones which have to be removed, then filleted before it is preserved employing sujime technique that includes repetitive cycles of salting, washing and then pickling in vinegar. The end result is sweet and umami flavors, without any hint of fishy-ness. This sounded to me pretty stressful especially for newbie or inexperienced chefs." Chef Takashi Saito is of course in a league of his own.
Here's a cut to start the ro-ro-ro romance with the indispensable tuna in sushi. Akami is usually the reddest part of the fish, and I think we were served senaka, which is the best part of akami. These cut slices were briefly marinated in a little pot via zuke preparation that usually involves shoyu (soy sauce), mirin (rice wine) and sake (Japanese fermented rice "wine") to bring out depth of flavors and the much sought after umami taste.
Chutoro & Otoro
I bet if you asked any sushi lover what they look forward to having and can never do without at any sushi-ya, they'd say otoro. It's also usually priced a lot more than the other nigiri-zushi because of how limited the super fatty marbled flesh is that's closest to the head. However, sushi veterans would choose chutoro over otoro for the former's texture and less oily state that's composed of leaner light pink meat and thin fat layers in-between. The different parts of maguro was expertly sliced from the same fish that weighed 189kg.
The pristine squid was sliced with precision and concentration as seen by the straight and confident strokes cut by the knife. A little squeeze of sudachi lime and a sprinkle of salt completed this sushi that truly tasted of the goodness of the ocean.
A perennial favorite unless you're allergic to crustaceans. I thank God that my tummy can take in lots of raw seafood. Even when it comes to steaks, I'd much prefer to have my beef bleu. This was a big prawn, and as with most of them on sushi, they are usually cooked. I didn't mind it at all except if it was raw, I would have 💕 it.
Two days before this meal, I had something similar at Sushi Tsubomi that is "produced" by Sushi Saito. Read all about the experience here. "Also categorized as hikarimono, the shiny blue skin on this reddish flesh fish is usually marinated simply in rice vinegar and salt. Biting into this, the slice is far thicker and wider than the other sushi I had at this meal so far. The flesh was also firmer, due to the curing process. The fish is good to eat all year but ma-saba is in season from November to March. The oily, omega-3- rich fish married well with vinegared rice and the touch of sesame seeds." This was a stand-out for me because I'm not a fan of mackerel but here I was chomping away happily, and the lingering taste of the toasted sesame seeds was something I savored and remember till this day.
Or horse mackerel which is popular with Edo-mae style sushi-ya's. I love how pink the flesh was and its lighter flavor as compared to the rich and oily saba. It was best eaten with the green scallion paste and grated sweet ginger (not pictured here). More subtle-tasting seafood allows me to appreciate the rice even more.
The bright orange of the sea urchin gonads are safely netted within the gunkan maki wrapped in seaweed, or "warship roll". Bafun uni hails from Hokkaido and is highly sought after worldwide by sushi connoisseurs and uni devotees for its plumpness and tasty layers. It is briny, sweet and very creamy. Here they were brushed with soy sauce. Another thing to note is that the amazing taste of uni was amplified when served really really chilled. That really perked me up even though I knew the meal was coming to an end.
Salt water eels are usually cooked before being served as sushi, and are less fatty than unagi. Here it was brushed generously with tare sauce that's made with mirin, shoyu and the reduced anago "essence".
This was surreal. Until this moment, I didn't understand what other diners were raving about for years. It was a rather extended journey from reservation to table, not just in traveling distance but also in the preparation work that includes proving my paid and confirmed air ticket and accommodation to the restaurant, and sufficient duration of stay to partake in this meal, as well as buying a revved up mobile power charger (after ample research) for my cell phone to ensure I do not run out of battery. There was the anxiety too - what do I wear, what can't I say, how many seconds exactly do I have before the sushi must be eaten so as not to incur the wrath of the sushi master. I even booked the closest hotel to the building where the restaurant is in. And woke up extra early in the morning to rehearse the steps from hotel room to restaurant, door-to-door, and timed it. I could not afford to be late and risk being denied entry. Yup, it was serious business for me.
All pressure was somehow released when I found my seat at the counter, and settled in. The soft lights and calm setting relaxed me almost immediately. Chef Saito was friendly, approachable and in a fantastic mood. I have to say though if I had never eaten "bad" sushi before, I would not have been able to extend gratefulness for the faultless temperature of each and every sushi. In fact I realized that the rice grains here are bigger than the ones used in Singapore, The mastery of expert "pressing" and introduction of air into the rice, and flavoring it with salt and vinegar, and the just-nice warm shari every time were aptly summed up with WOW.
Chef Saito shared with Michelin guide last year, "I use a light touch to form sushi… So whether I hold it by hand or chopsticks, it doesn't fall apart. But when sushi gets into the mouth, the rice is ‘scattered’. This is the perfect form to me.”
So that wrapped up my whirlwind sushi-eating trip in Tokyo with tasty memories and captivating stills that will live on forever.
BOOK NOW : Best to tag along reservations made by long-time Sushi Saito regulars
1st Floor, Ark Hills South Tower, 1-4-5 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Nearest subway station : Roppongi-Itchome
Open daily for lunch and dinner, walk-in's are impossible while self-reservations are close to it
Cuisine : Sushi / omakase
Seating capacity : 8 (There is one other private room.)