Sushi Sawada -
Type of restaurant: Sushi shop
Date and time of the meal: 20-11-2014 12:00
Address: MC Building 3F, 5-9-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku Phone: 03-3571-4711
Michelin stars: 2
Picture taking is forbidden to normal diners as/per the house , therefore no pictures were taken. No note-taking neither as I did not know whether that would offend the house’s staff, so I made a mental note of my appreciation of some of the sushi pieces which assessment was determinant in my overall rating of this meal.
***Here are the elements that my overall rating will take into account: (1)How great the quality of the chosen rice stood against what the other sushi shops of this trip have offered (2)How harmonious or spectacularly bold the work of the seasoning of the rice is achieved while remaining complementary of its topping (3)How delicious and how perfected (temperature/precision of the knife skills/work of the textures) were the sushis compared to the other sushis of this trip (4)How far the sourcing was pushed and how far it revealed a profound understanding of the subtleties of the produce (it is one thing to have top ingredients, it is a different story to pick that precise ingredient from that specific region which on a given point in time will allow your craft to express itself at its best).
Chef Sawada Koji‘ has long established his credentials as one of Tokyo elite Sushi Chefs, his Sushi shop is a top rated restaurant on Tabelog, Japan’s most important online community for local foodies. Restaurant Magazine’s web site adding, and I’ll quote: ”’those in the know rank Sawada alongside better-known three-starred joints such as Mizutani and Sukiyabashi Jiro”. I went there to enjoy the place and despite my generally less than enthusiastic report about the food, I could see why Sawada is highly regarded (It is, at this moment, one of the toughest restaurant reservations, as hard as Sukiyabaki Jiro Honten as/per my hotel concierge — the concierge was ultimately not capable to book me a seat at Jiro, but Sawada was indeed a really tough reservation ) : it offers a relaxing journey that most of the other elite Sushi shops failed to deliver during this trip, the produce was generally of exceptional mention even by the high standards of its competition. For those reasons, and only for those, this dinner was my preferred ‘sushi experience’ in Tokyo. Had the food impressed me as much, this would have been life shattering. This meal at Sawada was one of the last meals of this trip, therefore easier to compare to the earlier performances at the other sushi places.
FOOD REPORT: Quick rundown of some of the many items that were offered (I did not take note of each of them, there were too many and I was more busy enjoying my food rather than stopping all the time to reflect on them):
The highlights of this long meal (there were far more items than at the other Elite sushi shops) have been the sea urchin, which quality was easily the best of this trip (I have long familiarized myself with all sorts of sea urchin sourced from all corners of this globe and shall observe that those from Hokkaido –which Sawada San did serve of this evening — do rank among the most spectacular examples of sea urchin you’ll get to enjoy at a Sushi shop): Bafun sea urchin (less sweet than some of the finest sea urchin of California, but rich in taste, its vivid orange color so easy on the eyes, the taste divine), Murakasi (This sea urchin of mustard yellow color is one of my preferred sea urchin, its sweet taste so fresh in mouth). 10/10
Another highlight was the trio of tuna, in part because Sawada-san thought about the right way to stand out from his direct competitors: the tuna had more concentrated flavor as he has better aged his tuna. A beautiful touch was that he did slightly grill his fattiest piece of tuna, where most of the other elite sushiyas of this trip would offer it raw, allowing for the expected spectacular mouthfeel that rarely fails to come from grilled fat. 10/10
Ark shell clam (Akagai ) was beautifully sourced (Sawada-san had, in general, the best produce of this trip with some items truly exceptional), elegantly butterflied in typical upscale Sushi shop fashion. It is in the work of items like the Ark shell clam that you can really appreciate the vast difference between the finer vs lesser Sushi shops of Tokyo as the former’s extra efforts (in refining the texture) is admirable. This was almost as skilfully crafted as at the other elite sushiya of this trip,Mizutani, the only reason I am not rating it with the ultimate score has to do with the fact that the salinity of the rice stood, for me, as clashing a bit with the clam 8/10
Salt water eel (anago) tasted great, timely simmered, and its quality I found even better than at Mizutani (I won’t stop repeating it: the sourcing, here, is, in general, second to none and we are talking about this globe’s finest Sushi shops, so imagine!! ), Sawada’s preparation putting more emphasis on the natural delicate sweetness of the specimen’s flesh, keeping it simple, whereas most of the other Sushi shops did add a bit of flavor intensity (for eg, at the other Sushi shops, the Salt water eel would taste more of the tsume sauce that generally accompanies anago sushi, but at Sawada it’s the taste of the eel that stood out). As I prefer my seafood as unaltered as possible, Sawada’s approach suited me fine. However, I found, again, the white vinegar/salt portion of the sushi rice overpowering in a way that its saline intensity distracted from fully appreciating the salt water eel in its full glory. This was certainly – on its own —a great piece of anago, but it is also a piece of nigiri, which means the interaction between the rice and its topping should have been judicious. 7/10
Cuttlefish – Piece after piece, I was floored by the quality of his produce. As if he has suppliers that even the other Sushi Masters of this trip are not aware of. The quality of the cuttlefish was stellar, this time Sawada-San letting the cuttlesfish expressing itself at its best, the texture soft, the flesh retaining a nice chew. One of the best cuttlesfish nigiris of this trip. 8/10 (could have been a 10/10 had the slicing being as impressive as, say, Mizutani...there was also the vinegar taste of the rice that clashed a bit with the cuttlefish in a way that it made the cuttlefish/rice blending tasting a tad superficial for my taste, but I’ll forgive that one…it was lovely, highly enjoyable regardless of the downsides ).
Gizzard shad – Talking about exacting sushi pieces, this is another great example of just that. Gizzard shad is a demanding piece as each step of its preparation, from the curing, its slicing, having to cope with its strong natural flavor, everything should be flawless. It’s a fish that can be as rewarding as it can cruelly let you down. The thing about Gizzard shad preparation is that most won’t notice how great it is when it is well done, but one single mistep and you realize how challenging it can be to work with this fish. As with all the seafood served during this meal, the Gizzard shad at Sawada was of superb quality, but the effect of its preparation felt unimpressive to me as it tasted just a tad better than any other average Gizzard shad I have sampled in Tokyo, and certainly less spectacular than the one I had at Mizutani (At mizutani, the vinegar flavor was so fresh and spectacular that it lifted the taste of the fish to palatable triumph, here the Gizzard shad did not taste as exciting) + the slicing of such fish should be precise, but instead, a big part of the edges was almost dented! I am not saying that it is always like that at Sawada, I would not know as it’s my sole visit here, but that was the case during this meal and there’s no excuse for that at such level. 5/10
Hamaguri clam – The consistency springy as it should as/per hamaguri classic sushi prep standards, but the nitsume sauce a tad cloying and less enjoyable than at the other Sushi shops of this trip. The texture not vivid as those I had at the other shops in Tokyo (obviously a consequence of the prep method he used, which is most likely the aging of the clam). Take hamaguri clam, which in its traditional sushi preparation needs to be boiled. Then smoke it a bit, then let it rest at room temp and you’ll get to the exact same feel of my Hamaguri clam. Again, did he smoke it? age it? I did not ask as I do not want to sound / appear impolite to my Sushi Chef. I have heard about the tendency of an increasing number of Sushi Chefs to age their seafood, and they do age some of their seafood at Sawada too. Alas, for my taste, seafood’s texture and flavor is generally —-save for some sparse relevant examples such as tuna/bonito —, better expressed raw, especially for sushi. A long time ago, they were aging food because they had no choice, nowadays we find the idea attractive because we basically just love trends. Aging beef is a trend, nowadays, but it has its known limits (is meat still enjoyable upon, let us say, 80 days ++ of aging??For me as well as for many serious Master tasters, it is not) which, fortunately, most steakhouses are aware of. Aging seafood is sadly a theme that’s applied in a nonsensical fashion at most Sushi shops (around 90% of the aged seafood I tried at Sushiyas, even here in Tokyo, epitomized the problem of trends: too much style, little substance. It is one thing to know what seafood to age, it is disrespectful to the hard work of the fishermen when you age every single seafood they have proudly ‘snatched’ from the floor of the ocean for you to appreciate the mother of all food –the seafood– in its full natural glory….. ) . 5/10
Abalone was timely steamed to ideal palatable consistency (tender enough, with a nice chew), but Mizutani did better (7/10), bonito tasted great and was timely smoked although its quality was similar to what I had at the other places and honestly, it’s hardly a challenging piece (7/10), quality mackerel but which marination and seasoning failed at lifting its powerful flavor to the heights of palatable enjoyment attained at the other sushiyas (another exacting item where the genius expected at such high level needs to make a difference – Mizutani-san nailed this, alas not Sawada-san who had not just one chance, but twice, as I had a smoked as well as a raw version of this piece of fish), a 6/10 for the mackerel (I had mackerel tasting as great at lesser Sushi shops in both the marinated as well smoked versions), salmon roe (better than at the other places 8/10).
Prawn – properly boiled and avoiding the common error to overcook the prawn –yep, I easily caught couple of sushiyas making this mistake in Tokyo—, BUT not as precisely sliced as Mizutani. Regardless, the quality of the prawn was superior at Sawada. 9/10
Omelette’s based cake (Tamago) in its ‘ sponge cake’ version – The elite sushiyas of Tokyo had in common this feature that the refinement of their tamagos is simply unmatched outside of Japan. But even better, the 2nd tier sushiyas that I did visit in Tokyo barely approached the 1st tier when it comes to perfecting the texture and taste of the tamago. Excellent texture and consistency of the cake and I can see why, some ppl, judge some Sushi Chefs by the tamago (if you go all your way to perfect such an apparently simple cake, then there is nothing more to add about your obsessive sense of perfection, lol – A 9/10 for that tamago, but I’d give it a 10/10 had I not been a tad more impressed by the delicious tamago of Mizutani an (to set the records straight, Mizutani’s tasted better but Sawada’s had finer texture).
Pros: Leisurely and incredibly intimate ambience + the fabulous sourcing of the ingredients (yeah …even by the high standards of the elite Sushi shops of this trip)!
Cons: At this level, I expect the most ‘challenging’ pieces of seafood, those that rely heavily on the best curing preparation/marination/knife skills/seasoning to express themselves authoritatively. That is exactly what Mizutani-san did. That is not what I have experienced at Sawada. Furthermore, the precision in slicing seafood items like mackerel, gizzard shad, and cuttlesfish is a matter of the uttermost importance at this level.
1)How great the quality of the chosen rice stood against what the other sushi shops of this trip have offered? – Shari (sushi rice) comprised of a mix of white rice vinegar, as well as the usual salt and sugar. The problem is that the ratio of the salt was misjudged as the white rice vinegar mixed with the salt did, for my taste, impart an ‘unatural’ kind of saline flavor to some of the seafood toppings, the anago nigiri being a perfect example of just that. This might sound nitpicking and most won’t play attention at such details, but restaurants of this level, charging those prices, do exist essentially for their patrons to be able to appreciate such subtleties (or else, just eat your sushi at any random entry level sushi shop). Another quibble is that the rice was ‘one-dimensional’ in its construction (firm consistency throughout, on my visit), compared to what the other Elite Sushi shops have crafted, in the sense that the other Sushi shops did oftently offer an appealing (to the touch as well as on the palate) elaborate firm exterior/soft interior contrast that I did not experience during this meal at Sawada. The sourcing of the rice is uniformly exemplary at those great Sushi shops of Tokyo, Sawada’s is no exception, but I’ll stand by my observation about the seasoning of the rice and lack of complexity in the sushi rice (shari)’s construction.
(2)How harmonious or spectacularly bold the work of the seasoning of the rice is achieved while remaining complementary of its topping? See previous point #1
(3)How delicious and how perfected (temperature/precision of the knife skills/work of the textures) were the sushis compared to the other sushis of this trip?
Sawada-san can is certainly talented, or else he would not be considered as one of the best in Tokyo, and there are certainly plenty of other sushi shops in Tokyo that are doing worse . That said, Sawada-san is also considered as a world class elite Sushi Master. Consequently, I’ll compare my appreciation of his craft to those standards. And at such, solely on the back of this meal, I did not find his slicing skills to be as consistently precise/impressive as his peers, and I was left with the same impression about his work of the textures (which were at times glorious, indeed, but not always). On the bright side, he was consistent in maintaining a perfect control of the temperature of his food: during my meal there, he essentially went by the book, which means almost uniformly using body temp for the rice, room temp for the seafood topping. As for the taste, the overall was not as delicious as, say, the consistently mouth watering meal I just had at Mizutani but rest assured that everything tasted good (just not as consistently delicious as what came from the kitchen of some of his direct competitors, the mackerel –in particular—should have been the perfect opportunity to storm my palate, as the others did, but it was a non -happening during my visit).
(4)How far the sourcing was pushed and how far it revealed a profound understanding of the subtleties of the produce (it is one thing to have top ingredients, it is a different story to pick that precise ingredient from that specific region which on a given point in time will allow your craft to express itself at its best)? Even by the already exemplary standards of those elite sushi Shops of Tokyo, some of his produce was exceptional. Some of the other top sushi Masters of Tokyo can envy him for his beautiful produce. But for me, during this meal, he generally failed at extracting the most out of his exceptional produce in a way that his direct competition has managed to do, during this trip.
””The sourcing is world class, but in the end, my meal at Sawada did not manage to leave an impression in the way that Mizutani did. To the contrary of many people, I do not mind Genius cooking (which is what sushi performance of this level, price tag and world class reputation, is supposed to be – Genius, in this case, meaning an overall craftmanship that’s way above the standards that already exist and NOT some surreal /out-of-context vision of what food can’t be) to follow the course of hits and misses, but it has to, ultimately, awe me with an ‘impression of the spectacular’ that is capable to wipe all the misses and dominate the hits. That is what Mizutani-san did. Alas, Sawada-San did not walk in his steps (I was obviously not floored by Sawada’s seasoning + work of the texture of the rice as well as some of his sushis). At least the finer sushis managed to convey how ingenious, often witty, the Master can be in his prime. I just wished he would express it more consistently. Still, regardless of some of my severe observations, I fully enjoyed my time here and the journey remains one to never forget as the charisma of the Chef, coupled with a sense of place and exceptional sourcing do suffice in explaining why Sawada is oftently regarded as one of world’s finest Sushi shops”’. Obviously, and hopefully, my high rating of 8/10 (see the section ‘overall food performance’) is a testament to my latest assertion.
Overall food performance: 8/10 (Category: top tier Sushi shop in Tokyo) in comparison to the other Sushi meals of this trip to Tokyo (for eg, I prefered my meal at Sawada to those I had at Daisan Harumi/Sushi Oono/Sushi Sho/Sushi Iwa, but the meal at Mizutani had the edge). The essential is already written above (the section in red), so I’ll just add that you SHOULD NOT start comparing my score of Sushi Sawada to — to take an example — the scores of my Sushi meals outside of Tokyo – we are in a completely different set of expectations and circumstances.
What do I think a week later: In Tokyo, the ‘sushi shop spectrum’ regulates itself….the best produce are for a handful of elite shops like Sawada,Mizutani, Jiro,Saito. The second tier shops and the rest will have to fight hard to get good seafood, rice, etc. The huge advantage of Sawada is that a journey under this roof does boot with spectacular produce. That, alone, explains why many have been impressed by Sawada.