Sawa (Sunnyvale, CA) – Transcendental

Everyone has their favorite sushi place and everyone is convinced theirs is the best. After trying most of the ‘big-time’ sushi places around the US (Masa, Kuruma, & Yasuda), I will say Sawa Sushi is the best sushi in America. Sawa is only for those who can appreciate the difference between a very good and a great piece of fish.

Sawa is very expensive and it is very exclusive. From the outside, it looks like any other sushi restaurant among the south bay sprawl. Meals can range from $150 and up, if he even lets you in. Obviously, with prices like those, he doesn’t want surprises. If he lets a stranger through the door, which is rare, he will weed out potential gourmands with “No rolls… (10 seconds of silence) No menu… (10 seconds of silence) No prices….”

If you are still brave enough to sit down, you will be rewarded.

The Occassion:
You only turn 30 once. I celebrated by going to NY and eating at Le Bernardin, WD-50, and a surprise dinner at Masa. When i returned to SF, i just had to eat at Sawa again so I made an excuse for another ‘celebrating 30′ dinner. I called up and said ‘make it special.’

The Ambiance:
I invited 3 other friends, 2 of whom were first-timers. We drove up to the strip mall, no one else is in the restaurant, just like usual. Lights dim, we walked in, Steve greets us, and asks my guests “will you eat anything?” They shake their head w/ some trepidation and off we are.

The Meal:

1. Small squid w/ sauce
The first dish was a plate of very small squid w/ some sauce (sorry, notes are fuzzy, i can’t remember sauce.) The squid were about the size of your thumb, fully formed w/ tentacles, delicate, and sweet. Something new, always welcome, 30 is looking good.

2. Toro sashimi

When I eat sushi at other places, Toro is the largest measuring stick i use to judge the restaurant. How does it compare to Sawa? The answer? It doesn’t compare.

Steve’s sashimi cuts are thicker than most, and when the toro is as buttery as this, you want them thicker. The toro literally melts in your mouth – bite off a piece, slowly close your jaw, and the weight of your teeth slices through the toro, its juiciness bursting inside your mouth.
This is where everyone’s face just stares at the plate in disbelief – contemplating food, life, and probably experience itself.

(The only other single-dish fish experience that even comes close to this one was the Le Bernardin white tuna slowley-poached in extra virgin olive oil; if you’ve ever had the pleasure of eating this dish, you know what heaven might be…)

3. Crab w/ ponzu sauce
One of my favorites, cold crab legs w/ ponzu sauce. Yum.

4. Hamachi belly sashimi
Next up was Hamachi from the belly area. i didn’t catch the exact name but the cuts & tenderness are nearly the same as the toro. Everyone has a riduculous grin on their face; however, this is just a grin, not the toro-induced can-life-be-so-special looks of disbelief.

5. “Eunuch” salmon sashimi
“This salmon is different than usual” Yes, it is, it’s bright orange. “It’s a eunuch.” Say what? Bright orange, nearly as tender as the toro, but with a more ‘vibrant’ taste than your typical salmon – almost citrus-y. Unusual, exotic, and tasty!

6. Live Lobster sashimi
“Are you sure you eat everything?” Everyone shook their heads – unsure of what contract they’ve just agreed to. My mind is racing with possibilities.

Out of nowhere, he pulls 2 *live* lobsters and slams them on the counter. In nearly the same movement, his knife falls from the sky and chops both lobsters in half horizontally (anyone recall the Ron Siegel iron chef?)

Both lobsters lay in 2 pieces, he pulled the meat out of the back, stuck the front (still very much alive it seems!) on a plate, put the meat behind it, and served us 2 plates of live lobster. The lobster fronts hadn’t realized what happened as they tried to escape from our plates :)
Wow. It doesn’t matter how it tastes, this will be something to talk about forever.

Live lobster is very chewy; it has strings running through it. The meat itself was sweet, but the texture is like a chewy gelatin. Not everyone’s favorite in terms of taste, but if for nothing else, Sawa will be forever engraved in their most memorable restaurant moments.

7. Cooked lobster, salmon, & shrimp/lobster w/ sauce
After a 15 minute break, the claws of the lobster come back placed aside a piece of cooked salmon, and a special shrimp sitting atop w/ lobster/roe concoction. The salmon was a little dry; the lobster fine. This was the only misstep of the meal.

8. Live scallops
I was distracted by my friends, but i heard the sound of scallop shells being opened. Yum. Ever since i first ate a live Sawa scallop, I’ve had a rough time eating them cooked. They lose their texture and much of their flavor in anything but the best skilled hands. “Look closely, it’s still moving” Yes, it is, but it will meet its demise in my stomach.

8. Neck toro sashimi
Last savory dish was more toro – he described it as coming from more towards the neck. Remarkable, i could just eat Toro @ Sawa for the rest of my life.

10. Pineapple
I think I first endeared myself to Steve one night 3 years ago when i ate one of his pineapples; yes, the entire thing :-) His pineapple is smaller and the flavor is intensely sweet. I think he said it was from Hawaii, not sure, but you’ve never tasted a pineapple so sweet. Often, the 1/4 wedge is not enough and i eat 1/2.

11. Muskat grapes
“Anything else?” he asks after 10 courses. “Sure” i always respond in hopes of trying something new. On this day, he had a few bunches of muskat grapes for us. A nice plop when bitten into followed by an intense concentration of flavor.

Stuffed w/ ridiculously goofy grins on our face, we thank Steve and leave.

For raw fish served in abundant portions, this is America’s best.
- chuck