I’ve wanted to write about Sawada since my meal there in December 2012, but couldn’t find the words. No other meal has left me so speechless. How does one describe the sublime? What can be said? Even now, months later, I haven’t found a way to communicate just how different Sawada was, on every level, from all my previous experiences with sushi, fish, rice, flavor, texture, and the heart of what food is.
Still, I’d like to try and share what I can.
For the past few years, whenever I read an article on “Best Sushi In Japan,” or watched a film like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I would try to imagine what it would be like to eat sushi at the highest level. I would see close-up shots and think, “Holy eyeballs, that rice looks incredible! And that fish . . . look how it glistens!” I could almost taste it. To begin with, I was no stranger to the form– I had dined at some near-legendary sushi-ya’s in Tokyo. And after reading so much, and seeing– even studying– so many pictures of delectable-looking fish draped over rice, I thought that I could somewhat imagine what it would be like.
Yet, the reality was so much more than simply an incarnation of my imagination. It transcended and redefined all kinds of things I thought I knew about food– things like freshness and complexity. Is it fresh if it’s aged? Because it tasted “fresher” than any fish I’d ever known. How can two ingredients, simply cooked or not at all, contain such depth? Sawada was the polar opposite of uber-avante-garde Alinea, where I experienced the other best-meal-of-my-life (if such a thing can be said). It was utterly refined rusticity and simplicity; perhaps this is why it amounted to something even greater. Sushi Dai was good, and Kyubei even better, but Sawada was simply on another plane of existence, better by an order of magnitude; there was simply no comparison; it was not the same food whatsoever. I immediately felt– nay, realized– that all the others had been playing with scraps, cheap imitations (throw fish on rice and voila! Sushi!), but Sawada was the real thing, the true craft of sushi. It was tasting sushi for the first time. Both the fish and the rice at Sawada were consistently of a much higher quality than I had ever tasted, in any kind of restaurant, anywhere in the world. But I expected this. What I didn’t expect was that at Sawada, one comes to understand what it means that sushi is not only about perfect fish and perfect rice, but rather the marriage between the two, a husband and wife that become more than the sum of their parts. I finally felt the heart of sushi.
Much could be written on the physical qualities of the sushi, but perhaps an anecdote would be more telling: The morning after my meal at Sawada, I took a friend to the famed Sushi Dai, and I had to force myself to swallow their sushi. Suddenly, Sushi Dai tasted like cheap, days-old box sushi from a Chicago supermarket. Now I know how crazy that sounds, and I know what you’re probably thinking, but it had nothing to do with snobbery or attitude. It was simply that after Sawada, Sushi Dai’s fish seemed to stink from “improper” handling/seasoning, and the rice seemed sloppy. But this was because the fish actually *did* stink, and the rice *was* a mess, and there was no marriage between the two– I just didn’t realize it before.
It’s not just that Sawada is better than everywhere else I’ve been. It’s that for the first time, I tasted sushi that was being made in a way that seemed so natural– like, why doesn’t everybody do this? So much so that all the other sushi just didn’t even make sense anymore. I mean, why would you take a piece of raw fish and just slap it on rice? Sawada’s extensive prep and attention to detail toward each ingredient made all the difference, so the usual way seems incomplete, like a burger without buns or an unsalted steak– a piece of meat, but the flavor isn’t there.
Which brings me to the question of Perfection. In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the legendary sushi chef is asked whether he believed that perfection could be achieved. He answers, “No, I don’t think it’s possible.”
Yet in a way, I think it is possible. If food were static, a complete universe by itself, then it would not be possible. Yet I keep coming back to what I mentioned in my first post: that food is not simply “all by itself.” Rather, it is dynamic and interactive– with our taste buds, memories, friends, atmosphere, mood, etc. So I answer for myself:
If at a meal, one is the happiest that he has ever been, and is filled with joy, laughter, and thankfulness; if he has tasted none better and can imagine no more; if it compels him to shake his head in disbelief that he could be so blessed; if it brings tears to his eyes and wonder to his heart– This is perfection.
Such was my experience at Sawada.
*Full review here: Cautionfallingnoodles.wordpress.com