Taka by Sushi Saito
St. Regis Hotel
No. 6 Jalan Stesen Sentral 2,
Kuala Lumpur 50470, Malaysia
Tel. +603 2727 1111
Food type: Japanese – Sushi
Nearest station: KL Sentral
Website: Taka by Sushi Saito
Taka by Sushi Saito has to be one of the most hyped and eagerly awaited openings in Malaysia. After all, Takashi Saito is one of a handful of itamaes in the world who has been awarded 3 Michelin stars. It is not surprising to see sushi-yas imported out of Japan -Yoshitake-san had already successfully opened a branch in Hong Kong (Sushi Shikon), Sushi Kanesaka has outposts in Singapore and Macau, while Araki-san decided to relocate his sushi-ya to London. However, the opening of an outpost of Sushi Saito in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) did raise an eyebrow. Malaysia may have excellent street food but it is not exactly rife with high end dining options. There is also a huge question mark as to whether Malaysian people would be willing to pay the high asking price that would allow a restaurant of this caliber to utilise the same quality of produce as the original Sushi Saito.
As we would be flying through Kuala Lumpur during our honeymoon, we decided to spend a night there, staying at the newly opened St. Regis and dine at Taka. Getting a reservation was not much a problem, having booked a month in advance although they somehow manage to get my reservations mixed up and had booked me in on the wrong day! Thankfully there were a few seats spare in their 16 seater restaurant. It is important to note that Taka receives delivery of their fish 3 times a week – Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday and hence your experience and quality of fish may vary based on which day you visit. Sushi Shikon on the other hand has their fish shipped in daily from Tokyo to give you an idea of the level of ambition. There are 3 different menus of varying lengths available for dinner priced at RM800, RM1100 and RM1400. We both went for the full works with the omakase menu (5 appetisers, 1 grilled fish, 12 sushi & 1 sushi roll) which came in at a pricey £260 (based on the conversion rate at that time). I also opted to swap my grilled fish for a piece of grilled Miyazaki beef for a £25 supplement. For the entirety of our meal, we were served by Kubota-san who has worked with Saito-san for 3 years.
Our meal began with a couple of appetisers which came in quick succession. First was a plate of shiro ebi (white baby shrimp) with a small dab of soy and wasabi. For me the shrimps were served slightly too cold. We could tell the shrimps were certainly of very high quality with a lovely balance of sweet and salinity but the flavours felt a bit muted because of the temperature it was served at.
Next was a duo of Saito’s signature – slow cooked awabi (abalone) and tako (octopus). Legend has it that the abalone (from Chiba) is first massaged (much like what Jiro does with his octopus) before it is cooked for a total of 7 hours. It was served simply with a pinch of salt and was certainly very tender although I prefer Yoshitake’s version with the abalone liver sauce. For me the octopus was magical. There was a contrast between the skin which was sweet and had a gelatinous mouthfeel compared to the firm but yielding white central flesh. Best octopus by a country mile.
Moving on, we had a a seasonal hotaru ika (firefly squid) which had been skewered and grilled. The preparation of the squid was handled by one of Kubota-san’s sous chefs and had a lovely lick of charcoal. The squid themselves were tender and the innards were still pretty juicy. Think of it like a version of brown crab meat. The following dish was something we were both not familiar with and I could not quite understand Kubota-san’s description with his heavy Japanese accent. It had a bit of a soft, floury texture to it which we both found very difficult to enjoy. Both our half eaten plates were cleared without any enquiry.
The final appetiser was something we were more familiar with – kegani (hairy crab). A huge mound of picked white crab meat was dressed with the brown meat and was certainly very tasty – the crab meat had great texture and the brown meat intense with plenty of natural crab flavour.
At this point my wife had a piece of grilled nodugoro (black throat perch) served with some grated daikon radish on the side. This was a beautifully cooked just enough to set the pearly white flesh and release the natural oils from the fish whilst achieving a crunchy texture to the skin. I tried some grilled A5 Miyazaki beef served with some salt and ponzu dipping salt. The beef had superb, buttery texture and the flavour outstanding. It is important to note that traditionally in a sushi-ya, no meat would be served in an omakase menu but the restaurant owner also funds Ginza Tenkuni next door and both restaurants share the same inventory. The Miyazaki beef offered here is also served at Ginza Tenkuni as are some of the fish/ shellfish which serve dual purpose in terms of sushi and tempura.
With our appetisers done, the little hand towel ‘tents’ appeared signifying that we were about to begin our sequence of sushi. I came here with a certain amount of expectations given the reputation that Sushi Saito has. The press release for the restaurant talks about how Saito-san has the magical touch in the creation of his sushi and applies just the right pressure to ensure that the sushi is pillowy light in the mouth. Of course, the same press release refers to Saito-san himself and not the two itamaes he has trained to run Taka. First off, the preparation of the rice. I found that the temperature of the rice was greatly affected by the surrounding environment – the temperature and lack of humidity in the air conditioned room. With the initial sequence of sushis, the rice was fine, but as the meal progressed it was soon noticeable that the temperature of the rice was slightly on the cooler side and felt a lot drier on the palate. This was not the case of me spending ages trying to photograph the sushi as I spent at most 10 seconds from when the sushi was placed in front of us to when it was eaten. The dry room environment also had an effect on the nori used to make the hand-roll.
I also was not a fan with how lightly the rice was seasoned. Now I admit that I like my shari to be heavily seasoned with vinegar but for me the rice here was under seasoned to the point I struggled to detect any vinegar. My other gripe is with the making of the sushi themselves. I note that the other people around us chose to eat their sushi with their chopsticks. To each their own I suppose. But this meant that the chef would have to pack the sushi rice tighter otherwise they would run the risk of the sushi collapsing altogether when being picked up with the chopsticks. I noted that during the creation of the sushi, Kubota-san had an additional ‘grasping’ step to help compact the rice further which I had not until this point noted before when watching other itamaes work. I am not sure if this was done on purpose in response to other customers eating with their chopsticks but we certainly were using our fingers throughout and as such he should have adjusted accordingly. The resultant sushi felt too compacted and dense for our liking. It certainly did not have the ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ characteristics that I have encountered at Araki or Sushi Shikon.
That being said, the neta (fish) served to us on the night we visited were of the highest quality. The sequence of tuna – akami, chutoro and otoro – were some of the best specimens available and in particular the akami was pretty special, nicely aged and full of umami. The aori ika (bigfin reef squid) was firm, crunchy and slightly starchy. The humble kohada (gizzard shad) had a lovely balance of vinegar to match the oiliness of the fish and was my favourite for the night. Interestingly, when we were served the torigai (Japanese cockle) Kubota-san did not apply the traditional slap to induce the reflex curl on the shellfish. The meal naturally concluded with tamago which was more of the egg custard variety and was fine.
It has taken me some time to digest our meal at Taka by Sushi Saito before writing about it. First off, the experience here is not cheap here by any means – Malaysian or European standards. At the end of our meal, I had was chatting with Kubota-san who mentioned that the pricing that Araki-san charges for his restaurant in London is ridiculous. £260 for the omakase menu at Taka was by no means a bargain either and only slightly cheaper than the £300 that Araki-san charges. Then there is of course the fact that Araki-san would craft all the sushis himself whereas Saito-san is (naturally) delegating the sushi making here to his other itamaes. There in lies my problem with Taka – while the produce we encountered were excellent the execution was a bit of a let down. Good fish alone does not equate to great sushi. We just did not enjoy the overly compacted and underwhelmingly seasoned rice. At the end of our meal, my wife asked me to rank all my sushi-ya restaurants I have been to in order of preference. Taka ranks near the bottom of the list.
At its current price point, it will be interesting to see whether the business that Taka receives will be sustainable after the initial hype dies down. It is certainly the best sushi-ya in Kuala Lumpur, but that is a given seeing as there is hardly any competition in Malaysia. In that sense, Saito-san has made a great decision opening his outpost in Malaysia since he does not have to worry about any competition like he would with a business venture in Hong Kong, Macau or Singapore. But judging this experience objectively, I frankly did not think that Taka was all that great.