The Weekly Eater
A few weeks ago I heard from a man who raved about his experience at Sushi Sasabune, its fabulous fish and the aura of pure decadence. The next day, a friend called to complain about the disastrous evening he had -- at Sasabune. He ranted about the surly staff and his embarrassment at being there with business associates who were forbidden to order what they wanted. "Did they think I don't know sushi? I'm from Japan, I KNOW sushi!," he grumbled.
I wrote about Sasabune when it opened in '96. Back then, its claim to fame was sushi made with warm rice. Loved the fish, hated the rice, never went back.
Then Sasabune reinvented itself with a "Trust Me" omakase policy in which patrons eat whatever the chef puts in front of them or risk being told, soup-Nazi style, "No sushi for you!"
It is a great, if risky, gambit. If the restaurant didn't have the goods to back up its arrogant stance, it would become a laughingstock.
Sushi SasabuneFoodAddress: 1419 S. King St.
Hours: Lunch noon to 2 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays
Prices: Dinner for two from $80 without drinks
Luckily, Sasabune's got the goods, although some will find the experience off-putting. Newcomers are accosted by a waiter with a warning: "We only serve sushi with fish. If you came in for California rolls or anything else, this is not the place.
"If you sit at the bar, you can only have what the chef gives you. If you sit at the table you can order what you want."
Not bad. If he started sending us dolphin bait, we could run.
"Can we sit at the bar and move to a table if we hate it?
"No," he said, and led us to a table.
We tried the omakase. You are allowed to specify how many pieces -- at about $4 to $6 per two pieces -- you can eat so the chef can gauge the presentation. Ten pieces sounded reasonable. They do take personal preference into consideration, asking what we usually eat, and avoiding delicacies with an ick factor unless requested.
CHEF Seiji Kumagawa's selections were superb. He started us with Albacore tuna marinated in a light ponzu sauce and drizzled with shredded green onion. Nice.
Next up was tender baby squid stuffed with Maryland blue crabmeat. I was starting to trust this guy and this approach. Those who frequent sushi bars tend to order the familiar. Sasabune offers a chance to step out of one's comfort zone and to be surprised. How else would I have known I would like the mackerel, or amberjack, a fish rarely seen on Hawaii tables.
Of course, our visit was not without peril. Half the time we were guffawing over "The Rules." With our first piece of Tai (snapper) sushi, we were told to gulp it down in one bite. I usually take many bites to savor as much as possible.
"Please, one bite," our waiter implored with clasped hands. He said he was a nice guy and didn't want us thrown out.
We tried. But after about five pieces we started spilling rice. "What's that!!??," the more surly waiter asked, pointing to one mound of fishless rice.
Our waiter explained that the rice represents a boat carrying fish. Uneaten rice represents a tipped boat, which is unlucky.
As Americans, we like to have meals our way, but stepping out of one's own culture can be enlightening. Kumagawa only wants us to respect tradition.
I ate 14 pieces, double my usual share. Sasabune pushes you physically and monetarily, but the value is unquestionable. Like my friends, I could talk about this for days.
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Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews run on Thursdays. Reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:
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-- below average.
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