Daisuke Nakazawa was already known to many from his appearance in the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi when the restaurant emblazoned with his name opened in the West Village in 2013. It was virtually impossible to get into at first, and after, and, it seemed like it may as well have cost a million dollars at the time. (The 20-ish course omakase is presently $150 per person in the dining room and $180 at the counter, which today is hundreds less than many of its peers’ price points.) When I finally got to visit, it was like temporary entrée into a parallel universe where Spanish mackerel, fatty tuna and eel achieved nature’s ideal form; unlike anything available back in the real world. It was disarming, and still ranks high among eating and drinking experiences I’ve had before or since.
Nakazawa opened Saito with partner Hitoshi "Jin" Fujita (Sushiden, Sushi Nakazawa) and head chef Daniel Tun Win (Inakaya, Prime Grill) this past May. The tidy space seats six at tables near the entrance, with room for a few more at the open kitchen-facing counter a little farther back. A separate, narrow, brick-lined dining room to the left can accommodate about 18. Both areas are lean and crisp in warmly-lit shades of white and gray. It is an exceedingly hospitable operation executed in what appears to be effortless fashion that could be studied as an industry model. It’s also curiously easy to book at the moment, even as less impressive affairs are packed. So do that.
Half-a-dozen clear, cold sake varieties are available by the glass ($16-$21), and each pick is satisfying enough to start at the top of the list and sip your way down. There, you’ll reach one unfiltered variety ($16) and a lychee-infused pour ($15). A few small bottles start at $37 and larger ones soar from the $80s to aspirational territory.
The menu’s easy to configure into snacks, app/main format or a DIY tasting. The sculptural toro tartare with caviar is so beautiful to look at it invites first-bite hesitation; the knowledge that once enjoyment of the thing moves between senses, from sight to touch and taste, it’s all over.
Try to skip the existential pause and enjoy your $35 worth. Look: you have two halves of an elegantly pressed mochi rice biscuit about the size of the inside of a handshake. Its base is pressed to the edges with silken bluefin tuna. The generous dome of pearlescent fish eggs at the center is knighted with a glimmering fleck of gold. It seems like a sin to smother it all with the shell’s floral-imprinted top half, but the hollow sides join to marvelously envelop the smooth layer of fish and vibrant caviar and, sure, you wouldn’t “know” the flickering glimmer was in there, too, but you know the flickering glimmer is in there, too. Yes, this is a bonkers amount of money to pay for a few bites. It's also a bit of luxury for considerably less than those mid-triple-figure menus elsewhere; a culinary equivalent of the lipstick effect.
The crispy rice is also a pleasure. Deep fried, pressed sushi rice is topped with spicy tuna ($20), salmon ($20), ikura ($25) or uni ($32). The latter excellently marries the crispy, lightly chewy base with plump bits of full-bodied urchin that could, to be fair, elevate almost anything.
Bowls are less practical to share. That can be nice, and they are nice, if not among Saito’s most noteworthy options. The mini chirashi ($20) is a pleasant mix of raw sliced fish like salmon and tuna and exuberant ikura over rice. Even with the fun, bursting red roe, its smaller-than-standard surface area minimizes what's typically a kaleidoscopic effect, and makes it a little too reminiscent of a (still better than than normal) grab and go office lunch. The same category’s Wagyu don ($28) lets Wagyu do what Wagyu wants: pack more inimitable, abundantly buttery flavor and texture into a few slices than many other cuts can do at five times the size. Expensively. It isn’t shaking any notions of the spendy beef, but it will please your Wagyu devotee. The fried section’s juicy, lightly-coated karaage ($16) swings back into practical sharing, and skews closer to essential dish status.
Saito’s sashimi for two ($40) is a knockout. Selections will vary, and items like bluefin tuna, king salmon, sea bream and amberjack are, as expected, expertly sourced and unquestionably high quality. Three slices of each are served alongside brightly perfumed, wonderfully grainy wasabi. Its consistency is a small, giant, telling detail that pulls the whole place’s essence and apparent intentions into focus, all in the space of a thimble; another keyhole peek at the triumphs Nakazawa and his teams bring to NYC.
The Vibe: Exceedingly inviting in a small, but comfortable space.
The Food: Excellent sashimi, great crispy rice with uni, a good karaage and a sensational toro tartare with caviar as a splurge.
The Drinks: Terrific sake by the glass and small or large bottle, plus beer and wine.
Time Out Tip: It’s rare that a highly recommended restaurant such as this has available reservations, so take advantage fast.
Saito is located at 72 Kenmare Street. It is open Tuesday-Saturday from 5pm-10pm.