I had the opportunity to have a seat at the side counter of Saito, run by chef Shunji Hashiba. The chef has been working at Saito for less than three years. Like you, I was very curious to see how good it is, given the incredible hype: Saito is ranked the best restaurant in Asia by the review-aggregator OAD.
I was happy to be at the side counter instead of the main counter. This is because I agree that the design of the main counter is not consistent with Japanese taste. I am also skeptical of the over-concentration of the chef, which reinforces the stereotype that sushi happens when it is pressed, whereas 90% of the work is done behind the scenes: "There are actually almost ten staff in the back kitchen (from interview)."
Saito's recipe for success and hype is, in my opinion, the most traditional of all: keep prices reasonable, yet never compromise on quality. With several lunch and dinner seatings, the chefs are working very hard. I like that Takashi Saito said: "When I serve sushi to my customer, I don't want them to just think that it is good, because making good food is the minimum we can expect from a restaurant. For example, I want them to tell me things like: I had a hard day today, but eating your sushi gave me power to be motivated to keep working until the next reservation. Hearing that my sushi makes people feel good is much better than hearing that it is just tasty."
The best sushi restaurant is a question of taste, but in my opinion Saito is one of the most sophisticated. The otsumami (small dishes) were impressive and the way the flavors work together was extraordinary. Each otsumami had something remarkable or out of the ordinary, a warmer taste for the crab, a sweeter squid with eggs, a perfectly balanced grilled tachiuo. The sushi was equally remarkable. However, unless you have significant experience at top sushi restaurants, you would not be able to see what these small changes are. All expensive sushi restaurants have the best fish, this is not what Saito is about. It is not the perfect sushi restaurant (because of the significant problems regarding design, the Roppongi location, and the gimmicks of over-concentration), nor is it the best (because that is a question of taste), but it is excellent and the sushi is very sophisticated.
The host of Arry was able to translate questions for me. For example, the plate in the corner was a gift from a customer, and the rice is not a blend of several varieties, but it does change over time. I truly enjoyed the attitude and hospitality of Hashiba-san, despite the language barrier. I am looking forward to, hopefully, being able to see him evolve over time and follow him in his journey.
Reservations: I got my reservation through Arry. Otherwise, the only way to go to Saito is to be invited by a regular who made a reservation at their last meal. Reserving on the phone or through a concierge is not possible. Some regular customers have their own time slot every month, making it impossible to get a reservation.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
Kyoaji, Matsukawa (revisited), Hakone, shodo, home cooking.
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Quotes from Chefs
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Kwon Sook Soo
Yau Yuen Siu Tsui