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Chef Tatsumi Toda's secret unagi recipe involves a slow-cooked, sweetened black sake and soy sauce, but that's all I can get out of him. Freshwater eel (unagi) is usually broiled in a toaster oven before it's fixed to the rice with a band of nori, but the version here at Sasaki Japanese Restaurant seems to have been cooked more slowly and hit with a couple of coats of the sweet sauce while it sizzles. The sweet and salty eel-and-rice rolls are so addictive that after inhaling four pieces between us, my daughter Julia and I consider ordering more. Toda suggests we try some of the other sushi. He's enthusiastic about the tuna, the salmon and the yellowtail today.
Houston, TX 77063
Region: Outer Loop - SW
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Tuna sushi: $4.50
Yellowtail sushi: $4.50
Salmon sushi: $3.50
Red clam sushi: $6.00
Sasaki dinner: $19.95
"I put wasabi on yours, but not on hers," he says, as he places a couple of pieces of bright red tuna in front of us on the sushi bar.
"That's cool," Julia says. "How did you know I didn't like wasabi?"
"Good guess," Toda says, smiling.
At many Houston sushi restaurants, you order from a waitperson and don't even get a nod from the sushi man. It's understandable at bargain sushi counters, where you elect to sacrifice the chitchat for a cheaper chunk of fish. But it happens even at pricey Japanese restaurants, where many sushi chefs now deem themselves too cool to have a conversation with their customers. If you can establish a rapport with a real Japanese sushi chef, he can broaden your raw fish horizons -- which is why a cozy little Japanese restaurant like Sasaki with a personable sushi chef like Toda seems such a major discovery.
For the last year or so, my favorite place for traditional Japanese sushi has been Kubo's. And chef Kubo (short for Hajime Kubokawa) was one of those sushi chefs who was easy to engage in conversation -- especially after you bought him a beer. But I think the heat got to him, because last month the chef packed up his knives and headed north.
Sushi-loving friends argue that Hori (short for Manubu Horiuchi), the new head chef at Kubo's and Kubokawa's former second-in-command, is extremely talented in his own right. They insist that the quality at Kubo's hasn't slipped at all. But I'm scouting around for other sushi restaurants just in case. Sasaki was recommended by a discerning chowhound named Dan Wallach, who spends his non-eating hours at Rice University as a computer science professor.
If you're bored with the minimalist architecture and uncluttered decor of the typical Japanese restaurant, then you'll find Sasaki refreshingly bizarre. The place goes overboard on goofy serving contraptions like the lacquered boats that come to your table loaded with raw fish. The many trays and bento boxes are stacked on the shelves behind the sushi bar, along with a collection of Japanese tchotchkes like lanterns, sake bottles and big-eyed statuettes. There are also some weirdly decorated clocks, lucky cats, family photos in loud frames, a blowfish lacquered in mid-puff and a large mounted bass. (No, Toda assures me, the bass doesn't sing "Take Me to the River" if you get too close.)
Two pieces of creamy yellowtail and two pieces of somewhat bland pale orange salmon materialize in front of us. As usual, I dunk mine in the wasabi-soy dip I've mixed up in the tiny bowl. "How can you even taste the fish with all that wasabi?" my daughter chides.
"It makes the beer taste better," I conclude, after chugging a pony glass of Sapporo.
The waitresses here don't do the muted geisha routine; in fact, they could easily work a Southern diner at breakfast time. I half expected the one who brought our beverages to call me "honey." She isn't the least bit shy about reaching into a bunch of vacation snapshots I'm showing my daughter, either. Before long, Toda and some of the other employees are looking through my photos of Scotland, too. We're the only customers at the sushi bar, so they're not ignoring anybody else.
We order two giant clam rolls and two red clam rolls, which arrive side by side. Clam is very firm at first, but then it yields to your incisors in a series of fissures, eventually melting under your molars. The giant clam is softer with a little more iodine in the flavor; the red clam is sweeter and plumper. Julia isn't fond of either one, but I love them both.
"I used to play golf every Sunday at Memorial Park," Toda says, looking at a picture of me in a bunker on the Old Course at St. Andrews. The best score he ever carded was an 84, he says. We're discussing the high cost of golf in Japan when another customer comes and sits down. He's obviously a regular, and he's wearing a golf shirt with the logo of the Shell Houston Open on the sleeve. Pretty soon, Paul Song is looking through my vacation photos, too. Then a friend of his named Roy Yamaji joins us. "This is the best golfer in the Japanese community," Song says by way of introduction. I give them a fake name, but I tell the truth about my 18 handicap. We yak for a while about golf and single-malt Scotch (two passions I share with middle-aged Japanese-American males). It's quite a homey scene.