Cafe Reviews

Best Seller

I just read a Stephen King novel, Hearts in Atlantis. It's not a typical King thriller, but a nostalgic fantasy look at the 1960s, and it made for a great distraction when I first picked it up to pass the hours in the airport. Part of what I like is that the trio of intersected stories is so complicated that I really had to pay attention to the details. The critics panned it as too difficult to unravel, but I found it a refreshing departure from King's usual blood 'n' guts haunted slasher tomes.

The only problem is this book made me a boring conversationalist. Trying to explain the 800-page plot as I waded through it was near impossible, so unless I got the feeling that someone was really, really interested, when they asked me how the story was, I mumbled, "Very good." To even get started would have taken ages to weave the wildly complex situations, and most people were just being polite by asking anyway.

Then I finished the book, and the story came together. I started encouraging my friends to take a chance and read it.

Now, the same thing has happened all over again. This time, though, the story is about a new sushi place in town called Sea Saw.

"Very good," is how I found myself answering when casual acquaintances first quizzed me about how the restaurant, before it even opened, might be. "Its concept is upscale sushi," I mumbled. "It's got a great chef." I could have recited the highly involved cuisine and its deep background, but it seemed like a lot of work as I waited for the place to open. I was quite the boring conversationalist.

That's suddenly changed. Delving into what I find exciting about a pulp novel I can take or leave. Most people will eventually see the movie, anyway. The plot of Sea Saw, though, I insist on sharing. Now, after several meals there, I've decided that, if it takes me stopping people on the street to force them to hear my story, well, so be it. I'm telling everyone I know to get over there right away.

Consider this the Cliffs Notes version. Sea Saw is offering the Valley what other cosmopolitan cities discovered years ago, thanks to celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisas: Japanese cuisine can be so much more than simple sushi, teppanyaki, teriyaki and tempura. It's brought to us by our very own Nobu, last name of Fuduka. This isn't Fuduka's first attempt at attracting diners to his concept of dazzling shapes, textures, colors, aromas, garnishes and even artistic tableware. He formerly was at the helm of Hapa Sushi, a now-closed fish bar next to Restaurant Hapa in Scottsdale (it was a great gig, he said, but he always wanted his own show).

Fuduka opened shop two months ago in a shirt pocket-size space between the city's eclectic Cowboy Ciao restaurant and Kazimierz wine bar, with backing from the same owner as its bookend bistros: Peter Kasperski. It's got the same style -- fabulously glamorous -- and the same hook as its neighbors -- highly creative one-of-kind cuisine and an Anna Nicole of wine lists (some 1,400 boutique labels; that's labels, not just bottles).

Why such drama over a restaurant? Because complicated little Sea Saw is so difficult to explain, yet so worthy of exploring. It deserves as wide an audience as, say, The Shining or Tommyknockers. Like Hearts in Atlantis, though, it's got a tough assignment. Indeed, as I sit at my roost at the shiny metal bar, relaxing in the cool, geometric ambiance of seafoam green, softly dancing candles in cobalt vases, I'm not exactly surprised that the place is so empty. Plenty of curious folks wander in, asking to see a menu and ordering a glass of wine while they browse. They ask questions, but, more often than not, slink out in embarrassment, too confused to give it a whirl.

About a decade ago, Japanese food itself was a shock to local palates, the raw fish too scary for people who had never heard of maguro, hamachi, ebi and uni. I remember spending a lot of time convincing friends to come with me and try it. Today, sushi places are everywhere, and they're packed.

Now, Fuduka is asking us to take our acceptance to a higher level, to the concept of haute global Asian. This means a blend of Japanese tapas (influenced by the Spanish dishes), with tiny plates like an omakase (Asian chef's tastings of multiple dishes), sort of like kaiseki ryori (from a royal Japanese tea ceremony), plus a smattering of European influences like flavored oils and vinegars, red-wine sauces and Italian cheeses. Plates can be paired with tastings of sake, wine and champagne.

What this means is dishes such as chilled edamame soup, arriving in a mint-hued puddle swirled with crème fraiche and sprinkled with vegetarian caviar (from a Japanese plant instead of a fish). The puréed soybean is both mild and gripping, laced with ginger and licked from stubby wooden spoons. There are exquisite successes like shinshu mushi, an intoxicating broth of ume-shiso (pickly, salty seasoning), heady chicken stock, exotic mushrooms and slightly sweet kelp, bobbing with skinny green-tea soba noodles and melt-in-the-mouth chunks of steamed sea bass. If I carried samples of these soups with me to pull out whenever someone asked me what Sea Saw is, I'd save myself a lot of talking time -- and pack the restaurant's tables overnight.

And while I'm not sure what role buffalo mozzarella ever played in the emperor's palace, I love Fuduka's treatment. He sends out a beautiful plate stacked with ripe organic tomatoes, milky firm cheese, tender sliced octopus, frizzles of red onion, a slather of wasabi aioli, plus a drizzle of citrus and vintage olive oil, centered by peppery micro arugula and robust grape tomatoes.

One simple summary of Sea Saw is: rich. It easily takes three full dinners to work though the 14 tiny tapas plates -- all shared by two, even -- each prepared before our eyes by Fuduka, working his art in a tiny kitchen in the center of the sushi bar. Heed his suggestions: When he recommends ending a meal with sushi foie gras instead of mixing it in the middle, he knows of what he speaks. This Lilliputian plate knocks us out with its sweet-salty intensity, the silky, plump nubbins of liver marinated in miso, pan-seared, and fashioned into little rolls with rice, nori and sugary-tart Japanese mountain berries served alongside.

I'm also looking forward to when Fuduka rolls out some of his starring characters from Hapa -- the exotic oyster trios; the tuna with diced Fuji apples and pine nuts; barbecued eel and avocado layered with sushi rice on a pool of port wine, honey and soy. He's hard at work creating his omakase menu, too. For the time being, he assures me, I can call 48 hours in advance and he'll have it ready.

There are new baby stumbles, certainly. In its infancy, Sea Saw isn't quite up to the level Fuduka maintained at Hapa Sushi. Quality is just as good, drama is just as delightful, but the menu is splayed too heavily toward redundant flavors -- lots of herbed oils over thinly sliced fish. Sea bream sashimi with green onion, kanzuri oil and ponzu dip competes with whitefish carpaccio in ginger, sesame seeds, yuzu juice (sour fruit) and roasted garlic oil, which isn't so dramatically different from seared tuna with heavy Pinot Noir reduction and a delectable roast beet purée. All excellent, but making for a bit of a challenge to craft a full, diverse meal from the current selections.

Several combinations come out more weird than delicious. A bowl of flash-fried whole shrimp, for example, is parched under a dry dusting of miso and potato starch, overpowered by powdered curry mixed into a salad of sweet papaya slaw. Gravlax doesn't work either, a busy, truly harsh offering of strong cured salmon topped with aggressively sharp shaved Pecorino Romano and served over a brilliant green puddle of in-your-face basil oil/balsamic vinegar reduction studded with bitter (burned) toasted almonds.

I love traditional sushi, and I enjoy a comfortable read of mainstream fiction like Pet Sematary. But there's plenty of room in the repertoire, too, for plot twists like the wild, crazy, complicated fantasia that is Sea Saw.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet