Long before the economy headed south, Yutaka and Anita Saito, owners of Saito’s Japanese Cafe & Bar, were hatching plans to blow out of Belltown.
And this week, after nearly a decade in business — a time marked by an explosion of Japanese restaurants within walking distance of their popular sushi bar — they did just that.
On July 3, in time to celebrate Independence Day, Yutaka rolled his last maki, sliced his last piece of aji and closed up shop. Tuesday, he and his wife sealed the deal on a sale, turning their keys and the contents of their restaurant over to a 25-year-old former wireless-communications guy — who plans to turn the place into V-Bar, an Asian noodle bar and lounge set to open in a few weeks. And with that, one of the Pacific Northwest’s most talented sushi chefs was put out to pasture.
Saito-san enjoys a Sapporo at home on the family farm in Eatonville (photo/Anita Saito)
If I wasn’t so thrilled for Saito, who has long harbored dreams of opening another far more intimate and elegant Japanese restaurant in Seattle (and expects to someday do so), I’d be personally devastated. After all, this is the man whose sushi bar has been my personal omakase mecca for years.
Saito, who began his apprenticeship in Japan at 15, doing the voodoo that he does so well.
(Seattle Times/Barry Wong)
When he finds the right spot for that little place, where he hopes to showcase his considerable cooking skills and offer an intimate, modified take on the ryotei restaurant experience, I promise you I’ll be the first in line when the doors open. Until then, I’ll be happy to recall that a very few weeks ago, after listening to Mario Batali and Tony Bourdain yak it up at the Paramount, I showed up late at Saito’s for a cold sake and a refreshingly cold bowl of noodles prepared by my longtime sushi-master, knowing well that it might be the last time I’d be doing so in Belltown:
What could be better after a hot night of conversation than Saito’s cold noodles? Nothing.
Despite the cries of those who might view this restaurant’s closure as yet another casualty of the failing economy, allow me to beg to differ. Saito’s has been for sale for a year and a half. The Saitos have had opportunities to sell — but have turned those offers down. They sold to Jeff Pham (who’s partnered here in Belltown with the owner of Mi La Cay Vietnamese restaurant, Trinh Le), Anita said, “because it’s the only offer that came through that didn’t want to buy Saito’s name.”
Last year they were approached by the owner of I Love Sushi, who, knowing the restaurant was up for grabs, tried to lure Yutaka to come work up the street at Seattle’s most revered sushi bar — Shiro’s. Which (deep breath here, since this is not common knowledge) was quietly sold to the owner of I Love Sushi about two years ago, though Shiro-san remains at the helm behind his eponymous sushi bar today.
Seattle’s most revered sushi chef, Shiro Kashiba (left) lifts one with Ryu Nakano of Kisaku at the official residence of the Japanese consul.
And what will Saito be doing between now and the time he finds the right place to do what he’s wanted to do since he was a teen? In addition to spending time with his daughters Elysa and Emily, wrassling doggies and horses, llamas and cattle on the family farm in Eatonville, he’ll certainly be attending Mariners games, as he did Tuesday night. (For once, he’ll be going to see the ball players instead of having them come see him.)
He’s looking forward to a trip to Japan, as well as one to Las Vegas, where he hopes to take in a boxing match. Saito’s a big fan of both boxing and the martial arts, passions he’s harbored since childhood. In an interesting twist of fate, he first studied the craft of cooking for ryotie before switching his focus to sushi, because the restaurant where he apprenticed in the art of sushi-making was closer to his gym.
Lately, he’s been putting his head together with Mistral chef William Belickis — who regularly sat at Saito’s sushi bar at lunch (while I sat, unrecognized, two or three stools away from him). And perhaps we’ll see Saito at MistralKitchen when it opens downtown this fall. “He wants to learn how to do French food from William,” his wife explains.
In the interim, the sushi-chef expects to cater some large events (interested parties can inquire via the soon-to-be-revamped Saito’s Web site). Meanwhile, fans like me and Belickis — and perhaps you, too — will wipe away a tear and seek out superior sushi chefs elsewhere (you’ll find me here, here and here), dreaming of the day when we might once again put ourselves in Saito’s hands so that we may once again be wowed with the fruits of his labor:
Just say “omakase.”