- Cost: JPY 27,000 before drinks
- Size: 8 seats at counter; private room with second sushi counter
- Style: otsumami + sushi omakase
- Reserved: 7 months in advance
At the time that I write this, on most days Saito is the highest-ranked sushi restaurant in all of Japan on tabelog. It is one of only three sushi restaurants to receive three stars from Michelin (the other two being Sukiyabashi Jiro and Sushi Yoshitake - Sushi Mizutani was dropped to two stars last year). And it is highly regarded by aficionados of authentic sushi. By extension, many consider it to be the best sushiya in the world - at least for the time being.*
If you're thinking about going there, put that dream to rest. Saito is not explicitly "invitation-only", as many restaurants in Japan are, but nearly all reservation slots are taken up by regulars who book their next meal each time they dine. Even if slots happen to be available, it is rare to get through over the phone. My own reservation was made 7 months in advance, through a friend who is acquainted with a regular, as a special favor. So discussing Saito as a restaurant is largely an academic exercise because it is impossible to go there and actually experience it for yourself. I'm writing about it here because 1) it is so iconic and 2) it provides a great barometer to compare and contrast with other sushiya, both in Japan and elsewhere.
A lot of internet firepower has been expended on writing about the sushi at Saito, so I will keep my comments on the food brief. The shari is basically perfect. It is firm, with moderate vinegar flavor, and each grain is distinctive. It does not change throughout the meal. The neta is of high quality but perhaps not the highest I have tasted for every item. More notable is the level of precision in preparing and seasoning the sushi - skill-intensive items like kuruma ebi, hamaguri and kohada were the best I have experienced.
One of a few verbs repeatedly used to describe Saito is 'consistency' and it is obvious that one of the shop's goals is to provide a similar experience each time. There are no surprises, which I assume is by design. This isn't the place where you should expect find enormous variety, or novel techniques.
'Balance' is another verb often used to describe Saito. I found all of the nigiri to be very well-balanced, but not noticeably better than other top shops. If anything, the neta was sliced thicker than I would have liked in some cases given how good the rice is.
Watching Saito-san is stunning. He has the most precise and efficient movements of any sushi chef I've ever seen (perhaps Koji Sawada is close second). The best comparison I can think of is to a virtuoso musician or painter. Watching him slice neta is mesmerizing, as each slice is basically identical; even for very skilled chefs, that is a difficult trick to pull off given that the size and shape of fish varies on a daily basis.
A final comment on my experience, which is unrelated to the food: I found it to be a bit cold. Saito-san did not engage us at all throughout the meal, except to announce what he was serving us. This was a first for me eating sushi in Japan. Of course, this is not a requirement in any way for my enjoyment, but engagement with the chef is certainly one aspect of visiting sushiya that can enhance the experience. I found this a bit surprising given that he speaks very good English and has many 'regulars' who are part of the global foodie elite who visit from Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, and elsewhere.
More noticeable was the fact that we were told our course was over and offered our check well before the other non-gaijin, despite having been more than respectful for the whole meal (in a Japanese restaurant, this is a not-so-subtle hint that it's time to go). But outright annoying were the two Japanese gentlemen who snickered and commented any time I said something in Japanese (they obviously didn't assume that I could pick up on some of the things they were saying). I don't hold any illusions about Japanese attitudes towards foreigners - they are at best ambivalent and typically straight-up xenophobic. But to experience them in an internationally-reknowned restaurant that charges several hundreds USD per person, with tacit approval from the chef? That is something else.
So anyway - is Saito the 'best' sushiya in the world? I am not in a position to judge that fact. I will say it offers straightforward sushi at a skill level that is in many ways unparalleled. There are other sushiya in Tokyo that offer a similar experience, even if the skill level is not quite as high. For my own tastes, I am not sure it is the type of place where I would choose to become a regular, assuming that was even possible (which it certainly is not). Precision and consistency are critical elements of good sushi, but I personally also value variety and the element of surprise. Saito doesn't really focus on the latter two components.
*4 or 5 years ago, the consensus of the global foodie mafia seemed to be that Sushi Mizutani held this title. That is clearly not the case any longer.
Roppongi, Minato, 1-4-5 ARK Hills South Tower 1F