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Aug 21, 2001 05:01 PM

Sawa Sushi in South Bay

  • w

Has anyone heard of or being to Sawa Sushi (in Sunnyvale I think). She said it's like eating with the sushi Nazi. The sushi and food is incredible, but due to limited supplies, the owner/chef is really strict about who gets to eat there. When my friend showed up with her dinner companion they were refused entrance, until the chef realized that he let her make the reservation thinking she was someone else. Customers are usually friends or "members" of this exclusive sushi place. It sounds a lot like Tekka. Has anyone else had experience with this place?

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  1. b
    Burke and Wells

    I give up. My secret is out, so I'd better say my peace.

    I tried to protect him, I didn't want to mention Sawa before I'd asked his permission. But here is the second post in as many days about my sushi secret, so I might as well come clean. In this report (I can't call it a review) I will be using a lot of capitalizations and tossing around some strong superlatives. Forgive me. In the years I've been trying I have been unable to "overhype" Sawa Sushi--no matter how thick I lay it on, the reality of a meal there always exceeds my hyperbole. Believe me or doubt me if you wish, but nothing I can say will equal the experience.

    I have been going to Sawa Sushi for three years, almost since he opened. This is, without question, the greatest sushi available in the United States. Better than Nobu? It's a different experience, but the fish is of that quality or higher. In fact, there is no limit to the quality of the fish at Sawa Sushi, and the $200 a person (average, WITHOUT wine) shows he means business. I have spent twice as much in an evening at Sawa Sushi as at French Laundry (again, without wine) and came away with an equal, in some ways greater experience.

    Steve Sawa, owner and sole chef at Sawa Sushi, in a small, undistinguished strip mall in Sunnyvale, is the last word in Japanese cuisine in America. It is undeniably a club. He DOES NOT TAKE NEW CUSTOMERS. You either come in with a "regular" or you don't get in at all. Who dines there? I've sat at the bar with the CEO of Sony, Inc., who prefers Sawa Sushi to anything he can get IN JAPAN. Same with the CEO of Mitsubishi. Same with the high-power venture capitalists of Sand Hill Rd. The entire upper echelon at Apple Computer eats there. James Gordon, of Gordon Biersh beer, is developing a special brew for Sawa, he's such a fan. I could go on listing celebrities, but there's no point. Even a multinational company's highest ranking person couldn't get into Sawa Sushi today.

    The place is small and neat, but hardly an experience in decor. It's indistinguishable from any other sushi bar. Steve Sawa and his wife are the only employees, though their young children often occupy the back table playing games on their iMac (a gift from happy Apple execs). What artwork you do see on the walls is home made by professionals, given to Sawa by his patrons as tokens of appreciation.

    I was lucky enough to come in on the arm of a regular three years ago, when Sawa had first opened his doors, and somehow I managed to impress him enough that I became a regular myself. Within a few short months he had all the customers he'd ever need. Every time I go he turns someone away at the door. "Closed, private party!" he barks at a stranger's face in the door. "No fish, out of fish," I've heard him say, standing above a four pound slab of hamachi. It's baldfaced lying, it's outright rude rejection, but he doesn't care. He serves what he wants to whom he wants.

    There are no menus. If you sit down and he hands you a little piece of paper with the usual list of maki and nigiri selections on it, you are being tested. DO NOT CHOOSE FROM THIS MENU, he will kick you out. The proper response is to hand it back and say, "I will eat what you serve me." I have seen him spring this quiz on people and chase the failures into the parking lot. If too many people come to the door he will actually lock it, trapping you inside.

    But to his regulars, Steve Sawa is a different man. He loves you, honestly, with wit and charm and impish deviltry. He jokes with dry and even taciturn expression, translates between the Japanese speakers and the non, loves to talk business or pleasure, wants to hear about your life and your world. If he didn't feel this way, he wouldn't invite you into his home, which is precisely what this little sushi bar is, to him and his family. It's impossible not to love Sawa-san right back, especially when he takes such pains to give you the best food in the world.

    And what food. The fish you are eating was hook-and-line caught off the shores of Japan 18 hours ago and flown special cargo, never frozen, directly to his fishmonger. You won't eat anything that wasn't swimming yesterday. Perhaps you heard about that bluefin tuna that sold at a Japanese auction for $180,000. Sawa got a pound of it, and I had a slice of it. Astronomically expensive? No, he charged a reasonable rate for it, undoubtedly taking a personal loss, just because he wanted his friends to taste perhaps the greatest individual fish of the century.

    His fish is uniformly perfect. Perfect. The portions are monstrous. You cannot see the rice under the blanket of fish, when he serves nigiri. Toro, otoro, jutoro, cuts of tuna never served outside Japan are given to you in massive slabs, cold and perfect. The wasabi is fresh, often hand ground for you. He pickles his own ginger and his own vegetables. Do you want blowfish? He has a very exclusive license from the Japanese government to serve fugu, but he'll talk you out of it. "I know a cut of trout that's more tasty and less expensive," he'll explain. His uni is the best in the world. I've had fifty meals there and never once encountered a piece of raw fish that wasn't perfect (a word you'll not hear me use often in other reviews).

    The same is true of his other. Crave ama ebi, the raw sweet shrimp? How about giant clam, abalone (perhaps not now that it's endangered), squid or octopus? Or anago, the great fresh-water eel? Or how about a good old fashioned spicy tuna handroll, the summit of its kind, made with yellowtail and flying fish roe so fresh it sparkles on the tongue? And then there's the other dishes. He cooks. You can't order anything, but if he's prepared it that afternoon he serves it to you. I've had stewed eggplant in benito broth with gold leaf. I've had an entire grilled head of tuna served with fresh lemon wedges and ground daikon radish. Only on "Iron Chef" have I seen Japanese cuisine of this calibre. Sawa creates good home Japanese cooking familiar to any native as well as exquisite meals fit for an emperor.

    I say "fit for an emperor" for a reason: presentation is vital to Steve Sawa. Order sashimi from him, and watch closely: if he likes you, he'll put in the small decorative cut atop the slice of fish, reserved for honored guests and, yes, emperors. There's no reason to make this cut, it's simply a sign of his training, skill, and care.

    Presentation serves other purposes, too. I was there once when a business deal was going down. A "regular" had brought in a couple of hard-edged negotiators to close a deal over lunch, but not before he called Sawa and told him what was going down. I watched as Steve Sawa served raw lobster sashimi by breaking the live lobster in half, tableside, preparing the tail meat, and serving the whole thing with the upper torso and head, claws and antenae WAVING IN THE AIR at the negotiators. Can you imagine trying to set a price on a big computer deal while half a lobster dies in front of you, slowly, for two hours, and you eat its raw tail? I found out later the "regular" got his price and more--millions of dollars in commission were generated. This is food as a social tool, as a business advantage. That's how important a meal at Sawa can be.

    I can regale you with half a dozen other stories from my days at Sawa. A meal there is rarely less than three hours. He has specialties I've never found anywhere else. He loves a challenge: one Thanksgiving weekend we dared him to make pumpkin pie sushi, and God help us, it was delicious! He sculpts his maki into shapes to amuse children. We once had a dish he fried up for us using American Cheese Singles. Yes, the most horrible ingredient in the world, but he found a way to make it scrumptious. Just for the delight of the challenge!

    And his sake...I don't have words. It's like drinking crystal. The sake he has can only be purchased by members of a Japanese club that restricts its sales to 200 persons a year. Sawa is one of them. In this little strip mall are bottles of sake unavailable outside of Japan, anywhere, except by other club members. You'll pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle, but he's generous enough to let you purchase a smaller serving, if there's only a few of you.

    I have not touched even ten percent of what a meal at Sawa Sushi is like. The friendship, the sense of family, the explosion of new tastes and unfathomable quality, the non-stop parade of dishes (you have 10 courses a night or more, without exaggeration)--it is beyond description. If you've read my review of Guy Savoy on the Chowhounds International board, please note: that was the greatest meal of our lives EXCEPTING Sawa Sushi, to which it would be unfair to compare.

    Perhaps this essay is unfair of me--it's like describing the delights of heaven, only to say you're not allowed in. Therefore, I'd like to offer myself as a "passport" into Sawa Sushi as a member of a Chowhound's South Bay gathering, if others are interested. The only rules are: expect to pay between $150 and $200 a person, more if you want sake; also, bring your courage: whatever he puts before you, eat it. Even if you don't like it. I've had to choke down a few things I truly didn't like, even though I could tell they were of great quality. With a group, of course, this is easier--someone can step in and eat your share if there's something frightening.

    I have mixed feelings about his policy of turning new folks away. Perhaps that policy has softened with the economic downturn in Silicon Valley--who knows if the stream of Fortune 500 company execs has dried up? I love introducing people to Sawa, even urging them to become regulars, if possible. For all that Sawa Sushi echoes of Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi," I want him to thrive and continue upholding a standard of perfection that's almost unheard of in America. So if you're curious or interested, or if you're a regular to Chowhound gatherings and know people would enjoy a trip to Sawa's, let me know. In a perfect world, his doors would be open to all who appreciate the best.



    28 Replies
    1. re: Burke and Wells


      i can only say incredible! i'm so happy the two of you have de-lurked and are so freely sharing your culinary adventures with us all. as i'm only semi-employed i, unfortunatley, won't be able to join you in your generous offering of an introduction to sawa but i will be anxiously awaiting word of your next visit.


      1. re: Rochelle

        I am dying to join you, although due to a)my infant and b)lack of dough I cannot. Big heaving sigh. If only I had read your post a year ago! Maybe some time in the future?

        Just makes all other sushi seem pleb.

      2. re: Burke and Wells

        I knew it! I knew others know about this treasure. Especially you guys...I'm not surprised that you are a regular. I, too, am glad that you have "delurked", your insights into the food scene and your descriptive reviews really gets the essence of a restaurant across. My husband and would love to take you up on the Sawa Passport offer, although we are 99% sure on purchasing a property in the city. We are going to be "house poor" real soon. But with enough advance notice, we might be able to tuck some Sawa money aside...

        1. re: Burke and Wells


          Your SAWA write-up has made me day-dreaming. Please, please take me there while I am still alive...(I am fine, just kidding)

          I will have a visitor from Indonesia soon and hope you can take us there.

          I don't know if Indonesian cuisine(I'm Indonesian) is worthy in your eyes, but I will be glad to take you to the best Indonesian restaurant in SF - for a lot less than SAWA and be a guide for you & friends. I can assure you that you will have something different tasting experience (that is if you like Asian flavors).

          1. re: Han Lukito

            Please give us the rundown on Indonesian restaurants in SF and the rret of the bay!


            1. re: garçon

              If you're interested with Indonesian food, last time I offered to be a guide - one taker, Melanie Wong. Let me know if you want to join also. The more people, the more dishes to taste - and there are many, many unique dishes. It is highly recommended to go with a guide and a group of people.

              -Java at Geary - last time i ate was very good/impressed.
              -Indonesia Restaurant at Post - good
              -Borobudur at Post - good
              -Jakarta at Balboa - nice atmosphere/not as authentic
              -Bromo in Mountain View area - have not tried

              I might miss a couple but these are the main good ones that Indonesians frequent for most authentic taste (they tried and some dishes are quite authentic).

              1. re: Han Lukito

                Please tell us what the good and bad dishes are at these places that you've listed - what are the dishes that are authentic.

                1. re: Limster

                  I can mention some that i remember with good memories:

                  -JAVA (in Geary) - soto betawi, satay, pempek(fish cake like dish)

                  -BOROBUDUR - rijstaffel, rendang rice plate

                  -INDONESIA - sayur asem set (forgot the name, very authentic)

                  -JAKARTA - just does not impress me (foodwise) since I like authentic Indonesian taste

                  -JAVA (in clement) - absolutely NOT authentic at all, too much chinese american influence.

                  Why don't you join me and a couple other Chowhounds for a dinner at JAVA ? just e-mail me if you're interested, it will be fun.

                  1. re: Han Lukito

                    The dinner offer is very tempting. When are you guys going to Java?

                    1. re: Limster

                      the JAVA dinner - hopefully soon. all we need is a couple more chowhounds to make it more interesting.
                      so far: Han & Ika, Melanie, Mark. If you decided to go, then we got 5 people.

                      1. re: Han Lukito
                        Burke and Wells

                        Count Burke and me as part of your group!

                        Just tell us when and where and we'll make it. :)



                        1. re: Burke and Wells

                          Burke & Wells,

                          I will let you know the time very soon, stay tune ! The place is JAVA restaurant at Geary.
                          I will do my best to give you guys a good time and tasting of the indonesian food - i think you will enjoy it. it is another world - another tasting dimensions.


                          1. re: Han Lukito

                            Philippe, my husband, and I would love to join, too, schedule permitting. How about a weeknight early next week? Philippe (my husband) and I love a good daging rendang and satay ayam, and we look forward to having an expert introduce us to some interesting new things.

                            1. re: Pia R

                              I'd love to join you all for the indonesian dinner, if it is on a night other than Monday. Thanks for organizing!

          2. re: Burke and Wells


            What an awesome review. Truly.

            Do you realize (and I am sure you do) what a dream he is living as a restaurant owner? The indulgence to have people trust so whole heartedly (we're talking elaborate raw fish trust, here) as to not want a menu?

            If I could ever witness this, I would be satifyied. To dine in this atmosphere would seem "surreal".

            He is lucky to have you as a trusted friend via his Art. People should know of this good fortune.

            1. re: Burke and Wells

              Can this be the "Sushi Nazi"???

              1. re: Burke and Wells

                Well now, how can anyone resist? I think you may be receiving a tidal wave of interest over this one.

                If by any chance you have room for one, I will gladly sacrifice my credit card (or is it cash only?) at the altar of Sawa. I will accept the sacramental sashimi and sake without hesitation. I humbly submit my supplication to sup at the secret shrine of Sawa.

                1. re: Burke and Wells

                  confession: i'm the friend wendy referred to. i've been lurking on this message board for awhile but have been reluctant to post. i wanted to find out if anyone have had the same experience with sawa that i've had so wendy offered to post for me. peter's description of sawa has inspired me to reply.

                  to do justice to my experience at sawa would take another long post and since peter has done such an eloquent job of it, i will just say that sawa is everything that peter have said. he's not exagerating!

                  1. re: Burke and Wells
                    Burke and Wells

                    Thanks, all, for so many wonderful comments! I really uncorked the hyperbole in that essay, and I itch to supply you all with a dozen more stories, corroborating reviews, first-hand accounts, and more, to substantiate my claims.

                    But the best way to do it is to organize a party. Burke and I are two, so let's get six others together, pick a night, and c'mon down to Sunnyvale and we'll all go in together!

                    I'm still confused as to how to organize this here on Chowhounds, so if you'd like to email me perhaps that's best, and I'll keep the world posted on the board with periodic updates.

                    Thanks again, be in touch, and good chow!



                    1. re: Burke and Wells

                      this sushi bar sounds like Ginza Sushiko in Beverly Hills. i've never been to Ginza, but you don't order, the chef serves whatever he likes and you must make a reservation in advance. also, the meal costs between $300 and $500 (more with blowfish I hear). He also prepares cooked dishes too. and it's reputed to be the best sushi bar in Los Angeles if not the United States also. but his sushi bar isn't "members only" although some regulars have bought memberships so that they have their names engraved on the sushi bar seats and get periodic discounts. but overall alll you need is the the big bucks and a whole lot of C-notes. Has anyone been here and can compare it to Sawa. I've been to neither.

                      1. re: kevin

                        Is Ginza Sushiko the place Eric Asimov of the NY Times wrote about sometime last year? The column was aptly titled "Over $250."

                        1. re: Limster

                          exactly, i think it costed over $350 for one person.

                          1. re: kevin
                            Burke and Wells

                            I honestly don't know what price scale Steve Sawa uses. And there's a problem complicating his prices: gifts.

                            Sawa gives you gifts--specific gifts meant for you, not just for the next regular to walk in the door. If you're not careful, you can enter into a gift-giving cycle with him. I've given him half a dozen gifts: books, wine, gold watches, fancy chocolates, etc. He routinely charges me an absurd $40 a meal as his way of gifting back.

                            So honestly, I'm not even sure how much a meal at Sawa costs these days! I've got some lovely wine from France for him for next time, so the cycle goes on.

                            When I brought my boss and seven other coworkers there one evening (total of nine people) the bill (with saki) came to about $1200. So I imagine $150 a person is about right.

                            He will not charge you much if you don't eat much, and he will not charge you much if you don't have anything too exotic. Sometimes he just has to break out the bluefin, though...



                            1. re: Burke and Wells

                              I spoke with a friend who is a regular at Sawa about pricing. He said that Sawa usually charges him $75-$100 when he's picking up the tab. But when his non-Japanese-speaking friends (who are now regulars themselves) pay, they are charged $150-$200 per person.

                              1. re: Melanie Wong
                                Burke and Wells

                                Heh! I'm not surprised. Yeah, he often charges us $100 a person (I'm a big eater), but I also tip like a madman: usually 50% or more, unless I'm bringing a gift.

                                Who knows how he arrives at the numbers? I trust him so implicitly and always have such a great time I never question the bill.

                                Sometimes he charges me a full $200. I presume when he does that it's because I had something rare, expensive, or extremely unusual. Like that time he dished up delicate slices of red snapper sashimi...



                                1. re: Burke and Wells

                                  my god, it sounds so incredible! there is certainly nothing like that in NYC... wish I could go with you guys when I'm in SF next week! ;)

                                  I had a similar experience once (where the menu is pretty much omikase) at the sushi nazi (Sushi Nozawa) in LA which someone had mentioned in one of the posts. Sushi Nozawa is also in a non-descript strip mall near Universal Studios, but the food is so exquisite. There are no reservations so everyone waits... we were lucky enough to sit at the sushi bar, and chatted to Nozawa himself through the meal, buying him several beers as we were some of the last diners in the restaurant. We had some incredible cuts of toro and I tried ankimo (monkfish liver) there for the second time - absolutely incredible, served with 2 sauces. We paid around $65 each for the meal, and we ate till we were stuffed...

                              2. re: Burke and Wells

                                have you guys been to sawa recently? any updates?

                      2. re: Burke and Wells

                        This is just mind blowing. Or rather, I'd better move to San Francisco, so that I can take you up on your offer.