The Eel Thing

Many sushi chefs consider themselves too cool to converse with customers, but chef Toda delights in broadening raw-fish horizons.
Troy Fields

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.

"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.

On our second visit, we decide to try the regular menu, so we ask to be seated in the dining room. We end up with the table right next to the karaoke machine. It's Friday night around eight, and I ask the waitress if the stage will be occupied by singers. "Later," she says.

I order the Sasaki dinner, which, I am told, includes two varieties of grilled fish. It arrives in an ornate rectangular black lacquered box. I guess I'm supposed to be impressed, but I can't help giggling -- it looks like a fish coffin. As the waitress lifts the lid, I visualize a trout with a flower clutched in its fins. But, in fact, the inside of the box is divided into three compartments, each occupied by an artful arrangement of goodies. There are some colorful vegetables and a slice of omelette on the left, potato salad in the middle and little fish fried in crumbs on the right. The waitress lifts this box to reveal a second box with three more compartments underneath. In these, I find a chunk of very deep red salmon.

"Is it wild salmon?" I ask.

"No, salt salmon," she says, and then asks if she can squirt some sauce on it from a squeeze bottle. I want to taste it first.

"Tastes like barbecue sauce," I conclude after licking a dot of the viscous brown liquid off my finger.

"It's tonkatsu sauce," she corrects me. Tonkatsu is Japanese for pork cutlets, and tonkatsu sauce is a sweet and sour concoction that might as well be called barbecue sauce. I saw one recipe for it on the Internet that called for ketchup, Worchestershire and sake, although the version Kikkoman sells is made of applesauce, pureed onions, tomato paste and carrot juice. I tell the waitress to go ahead and slather it on.

She says the best way to eat the salmon and sauce is over the rice, which is served on the side. But it's a very firm chunk of fish, and this being a Japanese restaurant, there aren't any knives. I poke at it with my chopsticks to little effect.

"Excuse me, but how do you cut the fish with chopsticks?" I ask the waitress. She takes my chopsticks and demonstrates the proper technique. The sticks are forced into the fish and then separated with an agile little twist of the fingers that seems to require quite a bit of skill. "Aha," I say as I watch her go at the fish, but I'm in no rush to get the sticks back. I sit back in my chair and enjoy the experience of having somebody cut up my food for me.

"And don't let the meat touch the potatoes," I add for the amusement of my dining companions. The salmon and Japanese barbecue sauce is okay over rice, but it's too salty for my taste. My dining companions prefer the crumb-fried mackerel tidbits. The sweet omelette, black seaweed and boiled pumpkin compartment is the most interesting of the rest. All in all, I'd have to recommend that non-Japanese customers stick with the sushi at Sasaki.

I should also point out that Sasaki is on the opposite end of the hipness spectrum from popular sushi restaurants like Coco's, Nara and its fashionable sister restaurant, The Fish. There aren't any wannabe models in low-cut dresses hanging around here. Nor are there any godzilla rolls, jazz rolls or crazy rolls on the menu. And the slices of fish on Sasaki's sushi rolls aren't particularly generous, so it's not a very good bargain, either.

But if you're looking for a veteran Japanese sushi chef who actually takes the time to talk to you, then Toda is your man.

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Sasaki Japanese Restaurant

8979 Westheimer
Houston, TX 77063


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