Tucked along a particularly post-modern stretch of Silicon Valley,1 Sawa sits next to a Subway with its shades drawn, lights dimmed, and a Closed sign that pauses even the most intrepid eaters. Circumstance or calculation, the anti-business practices have fed into the mythology of this most incongruous of American fine dining restaurants. All is not what it seems in Santa Clara. Sitting down, the Sapporo-branded laminated sushi menu greets you with cross-cultural irony – or test. California roll?
Its authenticity is questioned – you would never find this in Japan. 2 But it is only appropriate that a restaurant here – in the land of fast-forward-mash-everything-together-and-let’s-see-what-sticks – would not be completely traditional. Perhaps the cuts are more rustic, and detractors might argue they are hacks, but they are not careless – there is intention and purpose with regard to taste and mouth feel. Questioning, or championing, authenticity is a slippery endeavor and increasingly difficult in our pasticcio world. We live in a mash-up, getting remixed daily, where the best brand of authentic, the most precious of all, is trueness to oneself.3 This is the line Sawa walks – a promise to serve the freshest fish of the highest quality – his way.4 It is not for everyone. No menu.
A Scottish lobster, very much alive, is sliced and eaten moments later, still staring at you from the plate, antennas in motion. The sweetness, and salinity, of its flesh can never be known by cooking it. Scallops are shucked live from their shells and quiver between your chopsticks, if you take a moment to look. Biting into the hamachi unleashes a strong taste of the ocean found in only the best fish. The drizzles are more balanced and nuanced than in the past, a continuing evolution of the Sawa experience. Soy sauce is house-made and wasabi is freshly grated – spicy but nutty. This meal was shared a few weeks ago with a few out-of-town friends. We were the only guests for the night – idiosyncratic restaurant or personal chef? It is as grand as ever. No prices.
Sawa is eye-opening for the unsuspecting. Magical, unlikely, impossible, incongruous – it makes the mind race to re-consider previous reference points . The meal above could have been my 50th or 100th meal here – it’s hard to say – and this piece could be easily read as a continuing entry in an unfinished twelve-year love letter.5 And I will continue walking through those forbidding doors to feasts from promised waters.
1 – It is a prototype for William Gibson’s sprawl - a 20-mile stretch of road where cities blend into each other in complete anonymous fashion.
2 – I’m not so sure about that, although my travels are limited. I had sushi in Kyoto – the slabs of fish were very large, punctuated by very strong vinegar – I have seen it referred to as rustic. Others say the lack of balance is not Japanese; but there are restaurants in Tokyo that serve 10 courses of wagyu beef. Ultimately, I don’t care if it’s authentic Japanese or not – it is tasty.
3 – Todd Kliman’s “The Problem with Authenticity” was my favorite article in Lucky Peach – well worth the read.
4 – Even among my travels to Japan, Sawa still ranks surprisingly high in terms of fish quality. You might find more composed dishes at Masa (NYC) or Urasawa (LA) but their fish is no better.
5 – It’s a large number I don’t want to think about but there is no equal in the Bay Area. All of the elements exist – on the sea, close to Japan, a well-moneyed international demographic, and yet, there is nothing. Visitors always ask “what’s the best place for sushi?” and my answer is always the same “Go to New York, LA, or, preferably, Tokyo.”