Michelin’s Insanity – Saito Sushi ***

Saito sushi, located not far from the American Embassy, is a clear favorite of Michelin director-general Jean-Luc Naret, who was quoted as saying that he ‘wanted to make this place my own’.

Someone local should support Michelin’s Jean-Luc Naret from doing the same mistakes over and over. Please Michelin stop awarding stars to restaurants that do not deserve them, apply a more critical eye, as you do in most other places.

A three star experience is not only about cuisine, if the cuisine would merit three stars, so be it. But a Michelin experience is about the experience, an all encompassing experience.

A Michelin experience is about a combination of set articles; cuisine, service, food presentation, balance, ambience, design and the overall Michelin experience.

If you visit three star restaurants in Europe, you can easily see the common denominator between a well-defined standard. In Japan, Michelin boasts more stars than anywhere else. While it is true, Japanese are meticulous, the level of detail impressive, the quality and service is flawless and warrants the attention. At the same time, a number of the restaurants in Japan have not earned their stars.

When Michelin decided to come to Japan, a search was made to establish a short list. This list was influenced by one important foreign chef, who shall remain nameless for the time being. So in effect the Michelin in Japan was born over night.

We cannot easily argue the general standards of life in Japan and in comparison to most other countries there is little to compare. So it makes sense to appoint a high number of Michelin stars, and as many as possible. But where does Michelin go wrong?

Unfortunately Michelin in Japan does not clearly understand “Japanese standards”, and so consequently, when the red book was first published a number of mistakes were made.

It all comes back to what is a three star experience. In Europe, a three star takes a tremendous effort, a great number of staff in the kitchen and on the floor. The cuisine is often classical, yet intelligent and playful, maintaining a focus on respecting the finest raw materials.

To be a three star, a restaurant must be flawless, meaning, all facets of the restaurant’s standards should all be at the same level, in balance, and mistakes are not easily tolerated, or a star can be lost.

A three star all over the globe should have the same standards, and this is not the case here in Japan. If you compare restaurants, you’ll find the most obvious discrepancies in Japan, and some of the three stars are not in check.

Understanding Michelin’s challenge in finding restaurants was not as easy as it looks. Finding restaurants that would take people off the street was one of the major obstacles for Michelin.

The Director of one of the leading five-star hotels complains to me, “they wouldn’t take my reservation at the place you took me”, and I explain; once upon a time, any restaurant worth their weight, would not take clients without an introduction. It makes sense if you think about it, you have a 6-8 seat counter, if one guest is out-of-place, all guests suffer. Even today, the finest restaurants are still closed off to the general public.

Thinking about it, I used to be a good client of Hasaguchi in Akasaka. He worked with his wife, they had a small 6 seat counter, tucked on a second floor, the sushi was superb and the experience immaculate. They are the most gentle and kind people you’ll meet.

Hasaguchi san has the most extraordinary hands for a sushi maker. The experience was always intimate, the restaurant quiet, and since he moved and entered Michelin, I went once but it felt very different. The counter doubled and the clients were no longer the same standard. Having said that, their sushi is still excellent, rice balanced, and he is a good addition to Michelin. If anyone deserves a three star, it is Hasaguchi and his elegant wife.

Perhaps one of the worst sushi experiences were last year was at Saito sushi, a three star Michelin. It amazes me, he is so popular, so many sushi lovers, I sometimes wonder why so many adore his sushi.

The atmosphere is cold, cheap, and the design in poor taste, and this is a Michelin problem. Think about it, how important it is when you enter a three star in Paris? The answer is very important, design is synonymous with haute cuisine.

In order to understand “good Japanese design”, you need to understand why it’s important to the central theme. Japanese design is not arbitrary, it is a combination, a collection of ideas, tested over time.

At Saito sushi, so many things are wrong, I cringe at the idea of clients, both foreign and Japanese thinking this is all right. The cheap Shoji look from a distance acceptable but they are out-of-place. The grey granite stone on the wall, opposite the client’s eye, is an eye sore, a distraction.

In fact, hard materials are almost taboo in any high-end sushi establishment. The materials should be soft, discrete and not obtrusive. A high-end sushi restaurant should include a simple yet elegant setting, of which Saito sushi is not.

It is relatively easy to define good design, as it encompasses both traditional design and modern thinking, a seamlessness of zen perfection. Design in Japan includes a macro and micro way of thinking. Japanese design does not incorporate materials that do not belong, they incorporate elements that draw into a single well defined definition.

The finest Japanese interiors use natural colors and domestic materials only; wood, stone and paper. Colors introduced into the design should be subdued neutral palettes, diffused lighting techniques make use of natural sources of light. Artificial light sources introduced diffuse light with materials such as paper, hence shoji are used for this.

A Tokonoma and the clients counter are both key to the central theme; an alcove used as a central focal point, a place of importance. To explain why these elements are important is the difference between explaining why a floor (in the west) is one of the most important elements, and in Japan, it’s the ceiling.

This carries one step further, a chef that has bad taste, often has bad ideas. A sushi counter is intimate, it has to be almost perfect, and a place that you relax in. The space is a setting for the experience. A Michelin chef in Europe is in his kitchen, and rarely you’ll find him prancing around in the dinning room showing off.

The Japanese Michelin sushi chefs (in general) are taught to be impressive, too much, too little too fast. Bottom-line, Michelin experience in Japan often patronizes Japanese establishments that are not up to the standards.

I use a simple comparison below of two restaurants. When you think of a three star in Japan, it should be three star, all-inclusive. This restaurant photo below is named Matsukawa, it is impeccable; the chef, his costume, counter, lighting, design, cuisine, technique, and atmosphere are all in unison.

When you think of it, it makes sense that Michelin could easily find one star and two star restaurants in Japan. But in order to achieve a three star status, the tolerance for errors should be virtually nil, the same way it is in France.

Here there are just too many strikes against Saito Sushi to be three star Michelin restaurant, and unfortunately he is not the only one. I visited Saito sushi a year ago, and vowed I would never go back. The reason is, the overall experience was below average, and this restaurant is in poor taste, not fitting of a three star, and his fish B+.

Sadly before Michelin entered Japan, the standards in general were much higher, both in types of clients, and in the quality of restaurants and overall experience. This is not to say that I am anti-Michelin, as I am not. I believe that Michelin opened up many doors, but they closed some with their hurried presence.

If Michelin wishes to maintain credibility it should be more persuasive when handing out stars. In some cases a star is born over night, and Michelin knows what I mean.

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Two illustrative photos of three star Michelin (below) Saito Sushi lends itself to what is wrong. The design is not elegant, it does not reflect the elements of good Japanese design, materials too harsh, the atmosphere too bright, and the clients counter is too narrow.

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1. There is no need to have 8+ different bowls at the chef’s workstation, and opposite the client in his/her view. The chef requires one for shoyu, one for Tsume, (sweet glaze) and that’s it. The chef’s work station should be kept to a minimum in terms of utensils and bowls, it is too cluttered.

2. The fridge and all storage should be hidden away from the clients view. There is a trend from the time ice boxes were first introduced, a symbol of luxury. I am not convinced that it symbolizes much these days, and should be eliminated and hidden.

3. The wasabi is pre-grated and the dish is full. Wasabi can be grated on an as needed basis. The chef is only serving 6-8 people. When he is not using the wasabi it should be turned upside down so it doesn’t dry out.

3. The experience is meant to be quiet, no showing off, no fancy knives, as they make no sense except to impress clients. A means of dialogue that is unnecessary and unfitting.

4. The chef’s fish box is metal, aluminum and he leaves the top off when working. Metal boxes are unsuitable, a wooden box is more appropriate.

5. His shoyu container is soiled with some stains in view of his clients.

6. His work area is in general messy.

7. The clients plate is facing the wrong direction, it should be horizontal, and not hanging over the top counter.

8. The ceramics in the alcove make no sense, they are insignificant, out of place and out of scale.

9. The wooden sushi box, holding the fish appears soiled.

10. Bettarazuke has a season and any chef that serves foods out of season is second rate.