“I partied at Tokyo’s sushi restaurant” is not something you hear or read about every day, but that’s what the dinner at Sushi Saisho feels like. There are two things that make this tiny place in Ginza unique: its exceptionally charismatic and uncharacteristically (for a sushi itamae) quirky chef Saisho, and the sporadic uni feasts that he hosts.
Let’s start with sea urchin because that’s what brought me here in the first place. On most nights, Sushi Saisho is a regular 10-seat sushi restaurant with regular sushi selections. However, when the uni catch is particularly good Saisho-san serves an exclusive uni-focused dinner. The chef announces it last minute on his Facebook page and takes reservations on the first-come-first-serve basis. All you have to do is follow his page and comment as soon as you see the announcement pop up (English is ok). Saisho-san will comment back with a confirmation.
Now back to partying. No, we didn’t dance to disco music with sushi in our hands. But Saisho-san does a fantastic job at demolishing every stereotype about your typical, somewhat austere, sushi-ya in Japan. He is welcoming, friendly, and chatty, and makes sure each and every one of his guests gets personalized attention. In the end, we all mingled, shared our names and cracked jokes somehow without even properly speaking each other’s languages. This alone was worth the visit. But let me not derail from food talk for too long.
The menu is served in omakase style (Saisho-san picks your food based on the best seafood that is available on the market that day). I must admit I underestimated how bountiful the dinner would be, so I warn you – come hungry! Even though the star of the night is uni, the feast started with an assortment of sashimi (katsuo and red snapper), followed by delectable grilled Pacific saury.
As we enjoyed the first round of appetizers, we watched Saisho-san assemble a gargantuan platter of uni gunkan maki. If you’re a sea urchin connoisseur, this is what heaven looks like.
It’s only fitting that my love affair with uni started here, in Japan. It is a prized seafood delicacy and, just like caviar, comes in different grades with varied taste, texture and color depending on where it was harvested. Commonly referred to as the roe, it is actually the gonads (reproductive glands) of the spiny creature. Each sea urchin contains only five of these gonads, which makes it an edible luxury. Hokkaido is considered to be the prime region for harvesting premium quality uni. Sea urchin here is rich yet not overpowering in flavor, with elegant sweetness and a nice bite, all attributed to the high-quality kombu/kelp and the clean water of the region. A small box of uni from Hokkaido can sell for hundreds of dollars at Tsukiji or Toyosu Markets in Tokyo.
There are more than 100 varieties of sea urchin in Japan, but Saisho-san shared that only eight are edible. The most popular varieties are murasaki uni, which has a dark mustard color and a sweet taste, and bafun uni, which has an orange hue and a richer taste. In addition to these, you can also enjoy kita-murasaki uni and ezo–bafun uni, both considered the very best in Japan. Kita-murasaki uni has a more delicate texture and sweet flavor than regular murasaki, while ezo-bafun has an intense jewel-like color, sweet aroma, and unrivaled creaminess. There is also a highly prized ensui uni, which is stored in salt water to approximate sea water conditions. This is the sweetest and arguably the best tasting of the lot, in terms of sweetness and texture. Lastly, aka uni is a less refined and most commonly served variety characterized by a stronger umami flavor and a hint of bitterness.
Whatever the type, uni is not for everyone and has a unique, acquired taste. It is paramount that you try a high-quality urchin for the first time. It doesn’t mean you will love it, but the first bad experience might ruin it for you forever and you’ll miss out on something truly delectable.
Once the platter was complete, each guest was served ten (!) pieces of gunkan, seven of which was murasaki uni and three were bafun uni, both harvested in Hokkaido. The urchin was buttery and sweet without a seafood aftertaste.
After that, our seasonal selection of sushi that included shrimp and taragai (scallop-like clam) was positively tame.
Up next, we each enjoyed three pieces of the highly praised ensui uni. Both the texture and taste were very good, although bafun still remains my personal favorite.
The final morsel of the omakase dinner was Saisho-san signature piece of sushi: uniku. This heavenly bite carefully layers the premium grade wagyu beef, bafun uni and a generous sprinkle of aromatic black truffle salt – all torched to perfection. I must be honest, the unctuous flavors of the wagyu and truffle overpowered the urchin a bit. Nevertheless, it was a true piece de resistance and a great way to finish off the dinner, even though at this point we could hardly breathe.
The set dinner course with drinks was around $120, a total steal for the quality and amount of food we devoured. The happy group photo we ended up taking at the end of the night was just another testament to the Saisho-san’s attempt at creating a truly enjoyable dining experience. Sushi Saisho might not be up to par with Tokyo’s upscale, Michelin-starred sushi restaurants, but it surely is a perfect alternative for a fun, uni-lisious dinner. You should definitely give it a try!
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