Sawada (Tokyo) – Redux & Reloaded
There are meals where every bite is a revelation, old world views crumble, and life takes on new meaning – the pursuit is pushed forward and there are new realms to explore. It is magical when it happens, smiles everywhere, but time, and continued avocation, often cruelly reveal the legitimacy of those epiphanies – there are few – and what was once the culminate becomes the stepping stone – local maxima. Sushi was one of those first gateways for me – I thought I knew sushi – I still don’t – but nothing I’ve had1 compares to the Sawada meal below.
This is Rome before the fall – French haute cuisine in its heyday – one man in pursuit of his own perfection – an artisan only serving what he deems worthy of his absolutely high standards – priced accordingly. The Tuesday lunch was filled with many proclamations, some implied, others on proud display – the highest-bidded (200kg+) tuna of the day from Tsukiji, broken down in front of us, to the house-made bottarga – served unadorned, its genius laid bare – its intense briny concentration tremendous. A fair amount of fish available is not served – cut, inspected, re-inspected, and tossed – presumably because it did not meet some internal standard, as it should be in more restaurants across the world.
The cold bowl of uni (origin forgotten) was beyond pristine – look at the picture and its tongue-like surface intact – an extraordinary salvo near the beginning of the meal. That dish alone encapsulated the entire experience – the utmost complexity masquerading as simplicity. Rarely is uni served in a cold brine (in the US, at least) and, yet, why should it be served otherwise?
After the sashimi courses, the sushi comes, piece after piece. It is a story of the sea – to the day – as told through a master story-teller. The chuotoro was the star on this day, combining the luxurious fatty mouthfeel of toro but retaining the strong flavor of the best maguro. If you look carefully at the various nigiri, you’ll see the intricate cuts in most pieces of fish – not unique to Sawada of course – but there are many lessons in those cuts – keys to deciphering the different textures of each fish.
Aged tuna? The previous Sunday’s lunch included the object of black art2. Its taste was more intense, somewhat analogous to the difference between regular and dry-aged beef. The color correction in that post is a bit off, as the meat could be mistaken for whale, but the meat does have a darker hue to it. It would probably take many meals, throughout seasons and across species, to get a firm (no pun intended), and factual, handle on different techniques used. (I recall reading that Sushi Yasuda preferred to freeze his tuna as the ice molecules break down the fat and yield a more toro-like texture.) There is a lot of misinformation out there and, presumably, amateur practitioners – the results at a place like Sawada speak for themselves.
Is everything perfect? The rice has been criticized by a few patrons as being vinegar-charged, and overwhelming by the end of the meal. The first meal’s rice was charged but not over-bearing, and I quite liked it. The second meal’s rice was mild by comparison and I missed the vinegar. If nothing else, the rice is not consistent. The rice itself did not attain the perfect symbiosis of fish/rice texture of the magical 1-2 pieces at Mizutani (but not even he could sustain that level of perfection for the majority of the meal.)
We were the only people that day for lunch – one of the world’s top sushi chefs – ours. When was the last time Alain Passard cooked just for you?
Go – it costs as much as any restaurant in Europe but it reaches, and attains, a higher perfection.
1 – In Tokyo, this includes Harutaka, Sushiso Masa, and Sushi Mizutani. In the latter, the potential exists but it did not deliver on my single meal. I must still try the infamous Sukiyabashi Jiro and the other three-star – Sushi Saito.
2 – Black art or not, this incredible Gastroville post reveals some rare insight into aging tuna – fresh may not always be best. And another post on speared fish and ike jime. Cooking Issues also has a series of posts on ike jime on their excellent blog.