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August 18, 2008

Sea Saw

Soft Shell Shrimp Dominic Armato

UPDATE : Sea Saw has closed

One of these days I'll break the habit of occasionally disappearing for a month at a time. But I'll make the lame excuse that at least some of that time was spent on vacation, and a fairly tasty one at that. Chicago was the first stop, where we resisted the temptation to hit L.20 and instead crammed as many old favorites into three days as was humanly possible. Spacca Napoli was even more perfect than I remember, lunch at Tank Restaurant brought the powerful, crisp flavors I miss so much, it was great to see foie back on the menu over at Hot Doug's, and a midnight drive to Superdawg capped off a nostalgia-filled weekend. Once in Phoenix, however, we had an especially rare opportunity to sneak in a couple of upscale meals, when we left the little fella with his grandparents for a couple of days (thanks again, guys!) and ran off to Scottsdale for a short getaway. For our first night on the town, dinner was practically predetermined. Good raw fish has been a little tough to come by lately, and that's just what one of my favorite spots in Scottsdale serves.

Sea Saw's Open KitchenDominic Armato
My first visit to Sea Saw was back in the Spring of 2004 when I was in town for -- what else? -- Spring training. My compatriots and I were staying at the Ramada Inn turned hipster hangout otherwise known as the James Hotel, craving a little raw fish, and a quick bit of internet research revealed that a casual little neo-Japanese spot was just a couple of blocks away. We certainly weren't in search of one of the country's premiere creative Japanese restaurants, but that's exactly what we stumbled into. Though he's since pulled down a James Beard award and garnered himself some national press, I get the impression that chef Nobu Fukuda was flying under the radar a bit at the time, or at least living in the shadow of his tinsel town contemporary, Nobu Matsuhisa. To this day, in fact, Fukuda is frequently referred to as "the other Nobu", a moniker that I always found inappropriately dismissive. What I loved about my earlier visits was that his food was a little a little bolder and wilder than Matsuhisa's creative but restrained fare, still respecting the ingredients' natural flavors and avoiding the mayo-laden excess of the countless imitators who have given neo-Japanese a bad name. Fukuda is his own chef who deserves to be judged on his own merits, and with that in mind, I was very much looking forward to my first crack at his omakase.

HassunDominic Armato
Dinner started off with a bang, the hassun course bringing three bold but sophisticated tastes. First up was a raw oyster, topped with uni, wasabi oil and nori, sitting in a bath of tomato water. I was a little suspicious of the combination of two such delicate flavors, but these suspicions proved to be completely unfounded. This was a spectacular bite -- the kind that makes you worry you can only go downhill from there -- the tomato water playing up the cool sweetness of its briny inhabitants. The second item, an edamame soup with ginger crème fraîche and tonburi, was a cool and refreshing distillation of its main ingredient. In contrast, the third item brought the smoke and fire, pairing charred shishito (Japanese peppers) with crispy fried octopus suckers and toasted bonito flakes. Even if I hadn't had any previous experience with Fukuda, a starter like this would have had me at full attention.

SashimiDominic Armato
The sashimi course continued in similar fashion, plating four very carefully composed bites, each a creative and thoughtful combination of flavors and textures. On the bottom left was a luscious slice of hamachi, wrapped around a bit of grapefruit and avocado and dressed with ponzu and white truffle oil. Grapefruit is the underused citrus, I've been seeing it more and more lately, and I was happy to see it here, pairing with the subtle funk of the truffle and adding a slightly bitter edge to what might otherwise be a two-dimensional bite. The next item moving clockwise was sashimi by way of Italy, a thin slice of sockeye salmon gravlax wrapped around a soy glazed almond and topped with pecorino, basil oil and balsamic. If one could be called out as the weak link of the dish, this would be it, but that's mostly because of its strong company. Another very European bite was the grilled octopus with tomato, shallot, fresh mozzarella, olive oil, wasabi aioli and toasted pink peppercorn. East-West, while appropriate here, is a phrase that usually ends in disappointment. But this bite intelligently fused the octopus traditions of two different cultures to create a multilayered and attention-grabbing bite that was still mellow enough not to overshadow the delicate flavor of the central ingredient. Rounding out the plate was another more assertive item, a sour ceviche-style kanpachi with pickled onions, sesame seeds, chile oil and a trio of crispy fried taro, beet and shiso to make for a delightful textural contrast.

Soft Shell ShrimpDominic Armato
After that remarkable flurry of ingredients (it's a wonder they can assemble that dish in less than an hour), the menu took a baby step back in terms of complexity, though it was still an impressive exercise in precision. Soft-shelled shrimp were "breaded" in an almost powder fine crumb that had been seasoned with ginger, garlic and soy before being crisp-fried hot enough that the little critters were completely edible, tip to tail, shell and all. Again, working the textural and temperature contrasts, Fukuda paired this with a cool salad of shredded green papaya, very sparingly seasoned with a touch of curry to bridge the gap with the hot and crispy shrimp. Even if I weren't already a long time fan of chitin and on a total shrimp head kick at the moment, this dish would have thrilled me. It was beautifully conceived and crisply executed.

Whitefish CarpaccioDominic Armato
The ingredient list on the whitefish carpaccio belies its subtlety. Ultrathin hirame is served swimming in a sea of roasted garlic oil, sesame oil, soy sauce and sesame seeds. But despite these bold flavors, the fish -- ever so lightly cooked on the edges by the heat of the oil -- maintains its identity. And just when you finish off the last bit of fish and start asking yourself why they drown the fish in three gallons of oil when a few drops would probably do, you're presented with a steaming hot freshly baked green onion focaccia that -- moist and spongy -- is perfect for mopping up what's left on the plate.

Tuna TatakiDominic Armato
The tuna tataki is arguably Fukuda's signature dish, the one I could never forget and have tried -- with marginal success -- to riff on in my own cooking. Slices of bigeye tuna are lightly seared and seated atop a beet puree that's made with a pinor noir reduction, then accompanied by microgreens dressed with yuzu and a balsamic reduction. I can see how some might think there's something inelegant about the unabashed sweetness of the beet puree, but this is just a flat-out delicious dish and results trump all. I was really taken aback the first time I was presented with this beet and raw tuna pairing, and the fact that it still strikes me all these years later as fresh and unusual says something, I think. In any case, the pinot noir reduction adds some body, the yuzu adds brightness, and the balsamic reduction keeps the sweetness from being too one-dimensional. Like so many of Fukuda's other dishes, it demonstrates that you can bring bold flavors without overpowering the delicate fish if you do so carefully and thoughtfully.

Mushroom MélangeDominic Armato
Next up was a minimal, meditative little dish to transition from the raw to the cooked. The mushroom mélange was a simple celebration of fungus that, at this point in the meal, was a welcome little respite sandwiched between the attention grabbers. Baking in parchment is actually one of my favorite ways to prepare mushrooms, as it concentrates and intensifies the flavors while keeping them tender and moist. Here, shiitake, enoki and shimeji mushrooms are sealed up with sake, soy sauce and garlic butter and baked until the parchment puffs and scorches. It's then plated, sliced across the top, and served as-is for you to dig into.

LambDominic Armato
Despite the fishy focus, Fukuda doesn't leave carnivores out in the cold. I'm at a loss to describe what's Japanese about the lamb course, but it was good enough that I don't really care. Two ribs worth of rack are grilled with a coconut curry marinade, then plated with a roasted red pepper coulis, curry reduction and pickled cucumber -- the last of which I suppose is the answer to the "what's Japanese about this dish" question. This isn't the most sophisticated dish of the bunch. It's fairly simple and straightforward. But the bold flavors combined with an absolutely perfectly grilled chunk of crispy, juicy, just-the-right-amount-of-fatty lamb makes it a bone sucker. It's more a triumph of execution than conception, but that's absolutely no less welcome.

Foie GrasDominic Armato
And finally, a dish that pretty much negates the need for dessert. I've had some fine foie gras dishes over the years, but this was one of the best that's passed my lips. This was my first taste of miso-marinated foie, and it's a match made in heaven that takes the term umami bomb to new levels. The foie is marinated in miso, sake and mirin, seared and served with peaches that have been sautéed in foie butter. Peaches and foie are conventional enough, but the fermented miso flavor combined with the sake's subtle bite made this absolutely amazing. We're talking eyes rolling into the back of your head good. My ladylove had to talk me out of requesting seconds. And though it's a tiny little touch, the sweet-tart yamamomo sitting to the side acts as a perfect chaser, cutting through the insane levels of richness while leaving enough on your palate to linger. Sadly, it didn't linger on my tongue as long as it has lingered in my mind.

I must say, I came away from Sea Saw even more impressed than I was on previous visits. So many omakase, in my experience, have a way of becoming too precious and ethereal for their own good. But Fukuda brings the precision of Japanese fine dining to some very bold non-Japanese flavors, and the result is a menu that -- while still quite cerebral -- is more satisfying on a gut level than most. Fusion is a dirty word these days, and whenever I see the phrase "Japanese tapas" splashed across the restaurant’s promotional materials, I cringe a little. But the fact that he pulls it off in such fine fashion is testament to the man's culinary IQ, which only makes me more excited about his upcoming venture. Shell Shock, already somewhat overdue, should open before year's end, and we'll see what Fukuda devises when he moves out of the tiny space he currently inhabits. In theory, the additional restaurant will enable him to get away from some of the sacred cows that dominate the current menu and work in more of his newer creations. As long as he can maintain the quality, this can only be a good thing. The man clearly has a lot of great ideas that need to get out, and I look forward to tasting every one of them.

Sea Saw
7133 E. Stetson Dr.
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
5:30 PM - 10:00 PM


Hey Dom!
Good to see you not dead. (I was scared that you had moved to that new server you've mentioned and didn't tell us.) Anyways, great post as always, and hope to keep seeing you M-W-F... in theory.

"Anyways, great post as always, and hope to keep seeing you M-W-F... in theory."

Yeah, I should probably just remove that from the banner, huh? :-)

Good to see you back, Dom.

That tuna tataki looks to die for. I've always had trouble getting a nice flavorful sear on a dish like dish. It doesn't help that my roommates don't eat 'raw' foods so I don't get to practice much.

Great post, love the picture quality. I think this has been asked before, but what camera do you use?

Thanks, Wangus!

I use a FujiFilm Finepix F30, and Photoshop for level and color correction (basic darkroom stuff -- nothing dishonest :-). I picked the F30 because it has a strong macro focus, it's small enough to palm, and it has incredible low light quality -- the perfect restaurant camera. Though as I've told others, as much as I adore the F30, I can't recommend the Finepix line anymore. Up to the F30, Fuji was focusing on picture quality, especially in low light, rather than pushing megapixels. I think they were getting killed by casual consumers who couldn't understand why you'd pick a 6 Megapixel camera over a 10 Megapixel camera at the same price, so with the F40 I think they caved to marketing pressure and went to a new CCD that put their image size in line with the competition but killed their low light quality. As a result, used F30s, though three years and three generations old and now discountinued, are selling for up to $800 on eBay... almost triple the original list.

I'm glad these pictures turned out well, because they're beautiful dishes to photograph. But this was a particularly bad shooting situation. Very dim backlighting does not make for good photos. I had to edit a little more heavily than usual to bring them out :-)

Dom, what a way to come out of hibernation!

Scottsdale, eh? I feel like we've been living juxtaposed culinary lives. I've been reading you since Chicago (where I lived briefly, and visit often, and reminisce about always), now live int he DC/Baltimore area, and spent many years in the Tempe/Scottsdale scene previously. So its always nice to happen upon unbeknownst gems in cities I know, and also to reacquaint with spots I've now since forgotten.

Sea Saw is one of those places. The tiny space certainly belies the big flavors and bold moves a strong player like Nobu makes. I'm not sure if you had a chance to explore the trifecta of establishments that create a kind of weird new world synergy: Sea Saw, Cowboy Ciao, and Kashmir Wine Bar. They share a lot of the same inventory, and I feel like the chefs tend to riff on each other, if only inspirationally, CC is the kind of somewhat audacious carnivorous delight that Phoenix revels in, and Kashmir has a very respectable wine list and a less than respectable scenester crowd.

Heh... more than you know, Saxdrop :-)

Since my wife has family in Phoenix, there's actually a very good chance that that's where we'll end up next summer. Phoenix and Chicago are our top two picks, owing to family presence. TBD, but hopefully we'll have a pretty good idea of where we're going to be come the holidays.

No, I haven't gotten a chance to try Kasperski's other places yet. I haven't done Spring training since 2005, and my wife's folks are way out in Sun City West, so we don't generally get to Scottsdale when we visit. But I keep trying to remedy that situation and CC is definitely on the list. Along with Pizzeria Bianco, Arlecchino Gelateria, a yet to be determined rootin' tootin' steakhouse... the list is always too long :-)

As a resident of Phoenix, I was happy to see the review of See Saw, a restaurant that for one reason or another has evaded my taste buds for the 6 years that I have lived here. Your review has reminded me once again that I really need to make the trip, and has made me feel a touch guilty for not having done so already.

I second the above poster who recommends Kazimierz wine bar, and although Pizzeria Bianco doesn't need my recommendation to generate any more business, I heartily endorse it nonetheless.

Looking forward to your other Scottsdale / Phoenix reports.


BTW, if you didnt already know, the best sandwich in town is Pane Bianco on Central. In fact Chris is usually working the oven at this spot during the days. The adjoining coffee shop Luxe has gone downhill in recent times, so avoid it.

I both live and work (nearly) walking distance to Sea Saw and consider it one of two best and most surprising restaurants in the greater Phoenix area.

If you have not yet had a chance, you /must/ try Binkley's in Carefree. Yes, it's a bit of a drive outside of downtown Scottsdale, but Binkley's is an extraordinary gift in this desert.

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