Sawa (Sunnyvale, CA) – Where it All Began?
In college, my business partner and I started a consulting business in the nascent Internet industry. We were paid rather handsomely for our age so we felt justified splurging. We began celebrating each deal with a trip to one of the “fancy” restaurants that dotted our sea-side town. One in particular, Alleycat (Sarasota, FL), revealed a world of high quality ingredients – how did something so simple taste so good? (This revelation would be repeated again at my very first Chez Panisse meal in 2001.)
Alleycat tempted me – yes, you too, can eat like a king – but I was still content with the more mundane offerings that abound in most cities. Food was important but I could not justify, nor afford, what was considered the best. So I continued eating “in the middle” where the bills totaled $100 before tax and tip. In this land, the ingredients were anonymous and interchangeable – a carrot was a carrot, no matter how it was farmed or where it was from. They were building blocks for the greater good.
I was a bright-eyed 24 year old slaving away in Silicon Valley during the .com boom when my boss offered a rite of passage. In my own mind, I was an up-and-comer and he offered me a seat at the table – the power lunch at Sawa. “It’s in a strip mall.” “He only accepts clients he knows.” “The fish is flown directly from Japan.” “It’s unlike any sushi you’ve ever eaten.” “It’s insanely expensive.”
And there I was. And there I ate. And, on that first lunch, I seriously contemplated maintaining a “sushi budget” to ensure I could continue eating the most pristine fish I had ever tasted. The lunch was excellent but it consisted mostly of the standard variety of nigiri – tuna, salmon, toro, hamachi, etc. I fashioned myself more adventurous but those were the limits for this crowd. One day I built up the courage to go it alone for dinner. I walked into a room mostly filled with Japanese businessmen; immediately, everyone stared. Those first few seconds were an eternity. Steve, the chef, came out, squinted, paused, and then welcomed me in. I was in!
He asked me what I wanted to eat and I replied I wanted to be more adventurous than my previous lunches. Granted, adventurous back then meant “something more than nigiri.” I can’t remember the details but I had a feast of sashimi, sushi, and other delectable bites. I learned that ingredients matter – time matters – if you want the best. It all sounds self evident now but, unless you grow up on a farm or in a culture of food, that moment is an epiphany.
Sawa served as a gateway restaurant and I began challenging myself. If this random place in Sunnyvale could serve such incredible fish, there must be other places worth seeking
out. I tried the infamous Sushi Nozawa (LA) and it didn’t come close. I tried Sushi Yasuda (NYC) and, while the rice was impressive, the fish quality was a step below. On that same trip, I tried Kuruma Zushi and, to this day, it’s the closest to Sawa in terms of fish. But, at the time (2002), these were acknowledged as the two best places in New York City. Where to go from here? Unfortunately, I never made it to Ginza Sushiko (the precursor to Masa, in the space now occupied by Urasawa.)
However, paying $200+ per person for a meal opened up new opportunities. Suddenly, dinner at Jean Georges on a visit to NYC did not seem gluttonous nor unattainable. And then the French Laundry. The list continued to grow – Masa’s (SF), La Folie (SF), Chez Panisse, and more. It became clear to me that the higher-end of dining, ironically enough, generally had more value than cheaper restaurants that were just trying to turn tables. Why go out three nights a week when I can save and splurge once every week or two? Why not pay for quality?
It’s been a quest ever since. Some eat out indiscriminately, hoping to fill some imaginary culinary passport or resume. That’s never been my goal – I would like to find the best – however misguided that might seem. The trip has led me to France, Spain, and a touch of the UK. It’s been a non-stop journey that will hopefully include Japan this spring. But it is obviously a never-ending journey. Philosophically, one could question the idea of an absolute; particularly when you mix in the confounding variables of time, space, and people. There is no question, however, that these enclaves of food reverence must be sought after. They might be listed in guide- and reference books but they are just as likely to be sitting next door as they are at a far corner of the earth.
I’ve been going to Sawa for the past eight years. The sushi budget never materialized, thanks to the .com collapse, but I hung in there. During my first visits in 1999 and 2000, limos lined the parking lot, and Japanese executives lined the counter. There were servers and cooks in the back. Every night was a celebration. Then the collapse – Sawa became, more or less, a family operation again. Over the past four years, success stories like Google and Apple have helped the local economy for leisure goods and Sawa is busy once more.
It’s a controversial place, for its portions, expense, and exclusivity; but the ingredients are second to none.