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Sawa Sushi—My password was “Chowhound”

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Sawa Sushi—My password was “Chowhound”

Suekiyaki | May 25, 2003 05:03 AM

Firstly, let me elaborate on the ease of entrance. I had spent weeks preparing to toady with name dropping or shameless bamboozling. Finally feeling elaborately armed, I dared call--then one simple mention that I’d heard of him from Chowhound and I’d instantly earned a seat at Sawa’s bar! I’d worked so hard to secure a credible “ace” in my pocket, (an honest name to honestly drop), only to find it unnecessary! Chowhounds rejoice! This passport belongs to you all! I can’t believe I wasted so much evil machination (lest it be discovered what an ordinary schmuck I actually was) . . . when simply reading Chowhound had made me invincible for a day!

Onto the meal—omikase and OMIGOD. The progression of bounty from his long sushi-sword (not a joke):
--kisu (with the fancy royal etchings on the top of the silvery skin!)
--maguro (unreal bluefin—three pieces of buttery delight. Indescribable. I briefly went blind from pleasure.)
--radish, obviously home-pickled, perfect after the rich bluefin
--first roll—spicy maguro. Again, so creamy I was convinced he’d slipped some uni in there. I accused him. He laughed and said no, the creaminess was the maguro, and gave me a kindly education about tunas on the spot . . . turns out I know nothing about true bluefin!
--ikura with fresh quails’ eggs cracked on top. Visually stunning. And the good ikura (salmon roe), the kind that’s not too salty. You don’t find this kind of ikura just anywhere!
--huge softball of ankimo—unrecognizably large! Plus, it’s out of season, so I was shocked. I honestly did not identify it until I tasted it. He explained it was a rarity but he had specially procured it because another customer had made a special pre-order request so he had some on hand to share with me. (I think challenging pre-orders are a source of joy for him, I’m not kidding.)
--after the rich “pate course”, he decided it was time for a “wasabi-tasting” for me! He had me try the good chunky stuff on my platter, then compare it with some fresh ground goodness made on the spot. Mmmmmm, I started eating both mounds raw (I mean, without accompaniment). It was just so flavorful, yet milder than the stuff you get at other sushi bars . . . I think I was freaking him out with this, so I sort of panicked and to distract him, I name-dropped (forgive me) to repeat a Burke & Wells quote, “Peter Wells says you can tell if Steve-san loves you based on which wasabi you get . . .” The man actually threw back his head and roared. He reached down for some “bad” wasabi, and let me look at it—smooth putty that looked innocuous enough, but he really just wanted to confirm to me that I had gotten the “good n’ chunky” wasabi when I had sat down. I looked at the smooth wasabi and said, “yes, yes, that’s the one Peter described! He said it would mean “Steve-san does not love you ... just yet””. This produced more belly-laughs. (Whew, diversion successful!)
--next was amazing hotate (scallop), embued with that sweet perfume of gentle brine fragrance.
--fresh lobster roll with huge avocado chunks. A creamy narcotic that came in 6 artfully presented doses. I felt despair and loss when the last bite was finished, I’m pretty sure heroin withdrawal is identical.
--hirugai, again so perfectly fragrant of that sweet/briny essence and nothing more. He did that chef’s trick of slamming it down in front of you before he cut the clam (you watch it retract) . . .
--uni. Ah, the uni. I ended with a single dose of uni. Unluckily, someone had just brought a group in for lunch and ate two “trays” of his best uni that day, so there was precious little left to share. He consoled me by joking that his backyard “uni tree” wasn’t blossoming just now, it would be fruitful again in a day or so. Oh woe and tragedy! Uni is my very favorite thing, but I couldn’t tell him that. Back when I first started eating sushi I was taught always to order uni first, as it was the “benchmark”, the test of the expected quality of the remaining fish. That, and tamago (egg omelet/custard) would test your chef. He never offered me any tamago, and honestly, how could it have even crossed my mind to ask him for any?

So, reluctantly, I let the meal end, and he offered me some fruit (again, he winkingly claimed it was all from his yard). I let him select some, so I was offered almost half a truly stunning pineapple. Not only was it beautifully carved (he was hunched over for only 5 seconds and then emerged with a Viking ship replica! Almost unnoticeable that it was further presliced into perfect mouth-sized chunks!), but have you ever had freshly harvested pineapple? It has a unique, indescribable quality--perfectly sweet and firm and aromatic. I wholly believe this manna did indeed sprout from this magician’s enchanted “backyard”.

Now, my one minor “not-really-a-quibble”: my pieces of fish were NOT ginormous. (Previous postings made issue of this, someone even described leftovers ?) I am a woman, so it could just be a female’s omikase experience, or more likely, it could be his response to knowing I was coming with Chowhound recommendations. (His first response to my Chowhound.com reference had been a laugh and the comment, “are they still talking about me?") Previous posts were a bit harsh about the nigiri size and over-abundance of hot foods. And note how I didn’t get any hot foods? Steve also kept worrying, “enough?” and “too much?” through my meal (but NOT intrusively, not at all). So I did wonder if Chowhound.com was the source of his concern. The nigiri fish size was on the largish side of perfect for sensory balance, in my opinion. But still, not the enormity I read about, and yet this is obviously NOT A MAN WHO SKIMPS (generosity being the grand unifying theme of your meal). I have eaten at a few sushi bars where the supersized fish was indeed flopping over the sides of your plate and table, but this was well balanced fish presentation in both visual and gustatory arenas. If this is new, I can only conclude that Chowhound has changed him. If this is new. (Or an isolated charmingly sexist experience, perhaps, good omikase.)

We actually fought over the bill, it was embarrassing. He charged me some clearly nonsense number, (98.76--obviously made up to amuse us both). After I paid, he was annoyed by my tip. It wasn’t that I tipped badly--rather, something else. I think I had been stupid--stupidly not gotten the joke of the bill. Payment there is in some other realm of experience, and I'm communicating this badly . . . but I know only that I missed the real “transaction” involved. It was a transaction somehow meant to hinge centrally on his own appreciation in sharing his joy of beautiful food with me, his guest. I got the sense that I was detracting from this pleasure (?) by not getting this. He shoved money back in my hand. Still screwing up, I pointed at my empty plate and sputtered that I was sure he had LOST money from the amazing quality he’d just fed me, but eventually I did take some money back. I should have felt ashamed, but instead I felt like embracing the man. The meaning of your bill at Sawa Sushi is still on the tip of my mind in a way, I mean, I’m still fumbling to understand it.

A last note: a fellow restaurateur was seated at the bar near me, he came in with a party of wide-eyed friends, so was treated to the full Sawa performance, I believe. What a treat to watch! Each new friend was given the “formal” introduction to Steve, and each received a bow and was given the “don’t worry I will remember you for the future” deal and was charmed out of their socks. Steve gave them exclusive discourses on how mind-blowingly special or fresh something was as he was preparing to dole it out to them, he spoiled them with sakes, he conspiratorially broke out a luscious Japanese bottled water (with an elaborate story of how the Honda company manufactured special drills and collection systems in the arctic ocean to collect this water freshly melted off of special glaciers—who knows if this is true, but I loved hearing it!). He and this restaurateur chatted warmly of private schools for their kids, and Steve entertained everyone at the bar with the description of how he was coaching his son to be okay with telling teeny white lies to admissions interviewers (just to religious questions!). (Okay, sorry, you had to be there, it was a riot.) There were catholic prep school jokes flying around. I felt like I was in someone’s home, horsing around at an intimate dinner table.

Sawa Sushi. You do come away feeling you’ve just visited a best friend’s home, someone who could have served you saltines and water yet still made you feel cherished and beloved. How on earth does he DO that? If only one could keep that lovely man hidden away in a tiny golden locket around one’s neck! Forget Mamasan’s Bistro, there’s a perfectly legal establishment in Sunnyvale where you can bask in the loving “home” and warm kitchen of a great chef. A chef who cooks for you, his friends, because he is in love with what he does and you are lucky enough to glory in the passionate generosity. Go, enjoy, your password is “Chowhound”!

Sawa Sushi
1042 E. El Camino Real
Sunnyvale
408-241-7292

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