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.

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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.

- chuck

  • http://QuintessentialCuisine.Blogspot.com/ QUINTESSENTIAL C U I S I N E©

    WOW! — Now that’s a great tale!

    I too had lots of cash during that time and had the ‘best of the best’ in Paris – Rome – Spain and Germany, etc., etc., but never had a food let down until I returned to the USA and had to eat such 4th class food as was served everywhere on the East Coast — and especially in Baltimore.

    An epiphany came for me but for another reason, not food, but fine art and my painting. When you live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland you paint f #@king ducks, duck scenes, decoys or fishing scenes to make big bucks and I refused.

    F#@K a bunch of D#@KS!

    My ABSTRACT art was the epiphany and was accepted by the powers that be. The problem was similar to yours, except that the POWERS representing my art wanted 70% of the sale. With materials costing another 15 to 20% and the cost for insurance and transportation for me and the art to the exhibition I was netting less than 10%. The art that was not sold would go missing after the exhibitions closed. They were all crooks.

    Looking back on it, I had what you are now having and look back with great delight on that wonderful European food.

    I paint here at my Eastern Shore studio for myself and eat food mostly at Baltimore restaurants that is rarely more than mediocre at best. There is no food like a French Laundry or Chez Panisse that you can eat here.

    I look foreward to Spring when I get fresh, just picked, organic Amish fruits & veggies and jumbo steamd crabs … as my SAWA.

    You have learned the most valuable lesson. There are people that know the ** price of everything … and the value of nothing! **

    ENJOY THAT GOOD LIFE!

    Wilbur

  • http://www.ForkandBottle.com Jack

    I am very psyched to go there with you sometime. (I suspect Joanne is, too.)

  • http://shizuokagurume.wordpress.com/ Robert-Gilles Martineau (ロベル。ジル)

    You could have added that the small white “specks” on the third pic is “snow saly” probaly from Okinawa!
    Great Story!
    Robert-Gilles

  • stephen

    CHUCK! You are killing me with these long gaps between reviews! One review in two months! Not enough!

  • http://www.sushifriend.com sushi

    That looks absolutely delicious
    very nice indeed

  • Steve

    Chuck,

    Thanks for the introduction to SAWA. I and my wife live in the bay area for over 20 years and we’ve never heard of this mystic japanese joint before. Can’t wait to go do the tasting. Too bad we just spent a fortune eating at French Laundry with my kids last week so we have to wait a few more weeks. What names I can use to get in there though?

    Keep up the good food blog!

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