I've learned about many great sushi/Japanese places on Chowhound. While Sawa Sushi is in some ways a good one, unless you're a Japanese businessman on an expense account it's not worth the price. Not even close.
On Saturday night, I called Sawa Sushi and talked to Steve Sawa. I told him I would like to go on Wednesday but that I heard I need to go with someone who's a regular. Perhaps because I was speaking Japanese to him, he invited me to come on Wednesday. I could tell on the phone that his Japanese was not native.
I drove about an hour from SF to Sunnyvale, and spotted the sign for Sawa off El Camino. When I walked in, Mr. Sawa said, "you're the one who called, right?" in Japanese. He invited me to sit down at the counter.
He asked me what I wanted to drink. I looked at the sakes behind him and ordered Kubota, not an extra-special one but one that I like. The he said, "Omakase?" I said yes, and I left the selections up to him.
The first dish was really good. It was a square of an egg-tofu custard with mushrooms inside. The "custard" was filled with air bubbles, so it was light and savory. Then came two huge pieces of eel over a small ball of rice. Next were slices of snail with mentaiko (spicy fish roe) and sesame seeds. I like mentaiko, as it was one of the specialties of a Japanese department store in Fukuoka, where I once worked.
By this point I was talking to the Japanese couple next to me. The guy was visiting from Tokyo on a biz trip and told me this is one of the best places in the Bay Area. When he said "one of," my heart sunk, because I knew what I'd be paying at the end. I asked where Sawa was from, and the guy told me he was from Korea, which was what I thought when I met him. Now, I've had plenty of good sushi from Koreans (one of the guys at Kabuto is Korean) so "not that there's anything wrong with that." My new Japanese friends saw these cooked dishes coming one after the other and told me I'd better say something to Steve about moving on to sushi, otherwise he'd keep bringing out the cooked stuff.
When Steve brought me two crab croquettes, I said, "OK, how about we move onto sushi." Steve was happy to oblige, but it bugged me that I had to ask for that. In omakase, there's a trust implied that goes two ways. He's supposed to be thinking about how much I can eat and not bringing me so many cooked dishes.
Steve asked me if there's any fish I liked or disliked. I said nothing I dislike, and I was in the mood for saba. The progression of the sushi was maguro, kohada, kisu, salmon, tako, tai, and uni. When the uni came, I had to tell Steve that we should just go to the saba because I was getting full and that was all I could handle. Of these the kisu was extraordinary -- marinated in seaweed and made to be eaten without soy sauce. The salmon was also excellent, with a coating of dried bonito flakes (I think). The wasabi was freshly grated, not from a powder or tube.
The uni, however, was a large mass of sea urchin on top of some other fish on top of rice and wrapped in nori. The volume was so massive that I couldn't enjoy it. Again, I was upset that I had to ask him to stop throwing fish me. A pro wouldn't do that.
In general, the fish pieces were huge, which can actually be a bad thing. When the pieces are too big, they don't meld with the rice correctly, and all the subtlety is out the window. My Japanese counter-mate told met to tell Steve that next time I wanted smaller pieces. It's nice that Steve would accommodate me, but I didn't like it this time.
For dessert, Steve served me a generous slice of melon that was succulent and sweet. That was probably the hightlight for me. At least my mouth was happy during the moment I saw the $150 bill.
While I enjoyed tasting some interesting things at Sawa Sushi, the price was totally out of whack with what I got. Perhaps he wasn't giving me as good food or service because it was my first time. But I saw other folks getting some of the same things I got. Besides, omakase implies a trust both ways, and if he was going to test me with mediocre stuff he should have charged me accordingly. Still, from reading about Sawa on Chowhound I knew what I was getting into, so I paid it.
I've lived for several years in various parts of Japan and paid as much as $500 for legendary sushi -- ok, that was expensed :). I know there's sushi and service worth the price I paid tonight. Unfortunately, I didn't find it at Sawa Sushi. Next time, I'm heading to Hama-Ko. It's less of a drive, the sushi and service are better, and it's downright cheap in comparison.
Despite my experience, I still wish to thank the people that posted about Sawa Sushi on Chowhound. Though I don't agree some of the assessments here, I'm grateful for the opportunity to try such an unusual place, and that's what this is all about.
(PS as of this post, I will be posting as Cashew. I had previously been posting as Andrew R.)
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