SAIDO - The best Vegan Restaurant in the World?
Ranked as one of the best reviewed Vegan restaurants in the world and even the NR.1 TOP RATED Vegan Restaurant on Happycow in 2019, I was shocked never to have heard of Saido before - and excited to go and find out for myself if "the rumors were true"....
Established in 2018, Saido has taken the Vegan restaurant industry, as well as the Tokyo dining scene by storm. The restaurant may be a newcomer, but Okayama-born chef, Mr. Kusumoto, is anything but! Having moved to Tokyo at the age of 19 and trained as a chef in Japanese and French cuisine for over 15 years, he was head chef for 10 years at another Tokyo restaurant before opening Saido (菜道 'sai' vegetable, 'do' road/journey). In his 5th year of being a professional chef, he was challenged to accommodate for the growing number of Halal customers in Tokyo. This started his journey to the world of spices, flavor combinations and how to apply them to Japanese food. He found that by simply serving "washoku" (Japanese food) as is, removing the ingredients that are not suitable for a vegan/halal diet, the dish falls apart and you cannot "transfer" the same experience.
He explains that although Tokyo is the city with the most Michelin star-restaurants in the world, it ranks poorly on the vegetarian/vegan-friendly lists. "For many vegetarians and vegans, it is hard to find delicious places to eat. Their standards seem to have dropped to "as long as there is something for me to eat, I'm happy"." He therefore wanted to create a space where anyone can truly enjoy food at the same table - whether following a vegetarian, vegan, oriental vegan or halal diet. He argues that as Japanese chefs are very technical and the ingredients are largely plantbased, most of them should be able to easily offer Vegan menu's if only they were "bothered to take the risk". In charge of serving food for celebrities in private jets, as well as having served the President of the United States, Mr. Kusumoto was now determined to become "the best in the world cooking with only vegetables".
Beautiful Food, inside and out
Saido's menu is not only 100% vegan, but also does not contain MSG, alcohol, chemical seasoning, or the five pungent roots (radish, leek, onion, garlic, asafoetida).
*Side note - I knew Buddhist/oriental vegetarianism excluded the five pungent roots, but I never knew why. Buddhist theorize that when eaten raw, these root veggies will make you more easy to anger, while when cooked they will increase your libido. Additionally, they make your breath and sweat stink, suggesting our bodies don't agree with them, and animals stay away from them. Interesting!* #LearnEveryday
They are furthermore organic where possible and avoiding refined sugar. This concept slightly worried me, because no matter how much I appreciate healthy food, I most of all want my food to be delicious - especially when paying (a lot) for it. Can this "free from.." menu really impress a junkfood vegan like myself?
Where many Vegan restaurants and vegan menu's use vegan meats, vegan cheese and vegan diary-, butter- or cream alternatives to create the same level of delicious foods as their non-vegan counterparts, Mr. Kusumoto had another vision. He explains:
"When making a regular corn soup, I would fry onions, add butter and corn, and then add cream. Without the onions, butter and cream, I decided that rather than to look for alternatives to try and replicate the flavor, I started from scratch with the corn as only ingredient, and find new ingredients and techniques to create a different, but equally delicious natural, plantbased dish." Ever since he has learned about the immense diversity of vegetables and how their different flavors are impacted and enhanced by even the slightest change in preparation.
When Mr. Kusumoto is not impressing customers visiting Saido, he is teaching cooking classes and high schools, as well as striving for Japan to become more aware to the needs of vegetarian, vegan and halal locals and visitors to Japan, as he notes Japan is ridiculously behind in these industries. One of his motivations behind offering "Japanese fast foods" is that many people following these diets have to miss out on e.g. Japanese Izakaya and therefore a part of Japanese culture. He also suggests souvenirs and conbini food should be marked as "vegan" and "halal", in English, so that not only foreigners can safely buy these foods, but makers are also forced to reconsider their ingredients.
Saido has a different menu for lunch and dinner, with their Vegan unagi (eel), katsudon, Ramen noodles and Curry (Mr. Kusumoto has developed the Samurai Vegan curry roux!) options as popular favorites. As we had a special occasion, I decided to go full out with one of their courses. Whereas their own website does not display much information on their menu, Japanese review site "Tabelog" lists an overview of their available courses, and offers you to make a reservation as well.
Their courses* are (at the time of writing) as follows:
1. Four dishes for a satisfied mind and body
2. Seven Japanese style 'Washoku' dishes that will fascinate your senses
3. Nine dishes with Japanese foods, including charcoal 'roasted eel' and 'yakitori'
4. Nine brilliantly creative dishes based on the (super fancy) Matsutake** mushroom
*All courses include a 'kanpai' drink <￥1000 (alcohol- or alchol free) from the menu
** In an interview Mr. Kusumoto explained how he once used 10 different kinds of dried mushroom to experiment with and this way learned about the crazy variety and flavors of even just one vegetable. This course is the most expensive, but will definitely be a one of a kind experience, even for the more "seasoned" (hah) Vegans.
Dying to try a "fancy Vegan yakitori", we decided to go with course Nr. 3.
From the moment we entered Saido's terrain, filled with plants, flowers and herbs, it's been a true experience. We were greeted by name by the lady that serves the restaurant all by herself. Our kanpai drinks were "organic Kombucha" fresh on tap, and Saido's original answer to alcohol free Umeshu plum wine. I loved having Kombucha after many years, and the natural, fizzy flavor nicely complimented the food. The Ume drink became more intense the longer you let the ume soak, and was equally refreshing.
Saido has a large list of carefully selected wines and spirits for those in favor of something stronger. The appetizer was wheatgrass! Which I haven't had since working at a juice bar in Amsterdam... and I would've gladly gone without longer.
Veggie tempura - A thin layer of tempura, not overly salty or oily. A delicious, fresh veggie on the inside. A nice starter that told us "even something this simple can taste so different".
The explanation of the server was overpowered by our "Oooooh", so we'll never know what it was exactly, but at this stage we realized: this will not just be about flavor. It's presentation, smell, taste, texture, temperatures and EXPERIENCE.
I would never in my life have chosen this dish as edible flowers generally give me the creeps, but it was absolutely delicious, new and extremely well balanced - from the herbs on top, the well-spiced 5 types of beans at the bottom, and the broccoli puree in the center.
The famous corn soup! (although I only read about this story after the visit.) "How does corn get this sweet, this deep and this creamy?!" I have never been a huge fan of corn, other than heavily buttered and roasted at a camp fire, but even looking at this picture I instantly start to drool and I can't wait to have it again. Also, Saido's sarcastic answer to "the cherry on top" may very well be "the Edamame on the bottom" .
The moment of truth - Vegan Yakitori and Eel. Absolutely mind blown.
Both a vegan of +6 years and a mostly-vegan that still eats fish now and again, we were both gobsmacked by the flavor of both dishes. This is without a doubt the most realistic Vegan yakitori and fish I have had in my life - having tried loads of Vegan meats and visited Vegan places in several countries. There are many delicious vegan burgers and menu's out there, but these two portions came by themselves, without rice, sauces or other ingredients to "decorate" or enhance the flavor. You. must. try. this.
A group of 4 ladies at another table was having unagi- and katsu-don ("eel" and "pork" cutlet on rice). They only found out the restaurant, and therefore their meals, were 100% vegan halfway through and were shocked - they had simply chosen a nearby restaurant with all-you-can-drink menu and good reviews...
Another one for the senses - a wooden "treasure box" was placed at the table, along with a 3-minute hourglass. When opened, a rack of beautiful, fresh, steamed veggies appeared! The depth and flavor of each vegetable is exactly what Saido is based upon, and a good reminder of #Plantpower !
Satoimo - a type of 'taro' potato that used to be the main food source before rice, is wrapped in fried "Yuba" - Fried tofu skin. A surprising combination and unique flavor combination. With a creamy, saltiness in the center, and juiciness on the edges.
Humongous mushrooms with herbs, truffles, and Omnipork meat! We have experimented a lot with Omnipork so far - but of course the chef has brought it to a new level... #sasuga Also the texture and juiciness of the mushrooms was second to none.
Course Eight Delighted to have tried the eel and yakitori, we had already decided we would try the Katsudon (cutlet on rice) next time, as it looked amazing at our neighbor's table. When the lady arrived with "Katsu curry" as our final dish, we nearly lost it. Have you every teared up over a menu?
The katsuo was amazing, delicate, and reminding of a high quality 'normal' katsuo (I've had many back in the day). The curry is absolutely daring! A unique combination of many spices, and definitely not the sweet Japanese style curry that goes well with everyone. Learned a lesson: even curry can taste fancy!
At last! Dessert! No better to finish a meal than with the Instagram-famous plantpot, containing a blueberry cheesecake! Not your typical cheesecake, it was more of a creamy mouse, with actual blueberries, topped with a dreamy combination of cacao nibs and nutty elements. I requested a birthday plate, which included a coconut-based chocolate icream monaka!
Address: Meguro-ku, Jiyūgaoka, 2 Chome−15-10, Tokyo, Japan, 152-0035
Access: 4-minute walk from Tokyu Oimachi Line Jiyugaoka Station
Food: Creative, vegetable-based Japanese and fusion foods without chemical additives, alcohol, refined sugar or the 5 pungent roots.
Price: Lunch at ￥1000-1500. Our 9-meal course was ￥8000 p.p. incl. one drink
Service: Passionate, knowledgeable, humorous and personal (remembered both our first and last name when greeting and presenting the birthday plate). A fancy restaurant, without the stuck-up, fancy attitude.
Location: A bit hidden away, not on the main street. They recommend using the address in Japanese to ensure navigation accuracy.
Overall: I have always been skeptical of "fancy" restaurant with fancy course menu's with pretty, miniature-sized and unpronounceable foods. Saido proofs that a combination of high class cooking, "free-from"- purely vegetable-based dishes, and traditional Japanese fast foods like Yakitori and Katsuodon, can brilliantly marry together into foods that are not only truly delicious, but also "beautiful, inside- and out". Our dinner at Saido was a true experience, with outstanding service from the passionate staff and chef, and unique dishes that satisfied all senses!
The course was a great experience and worth every penny, and I look forward to visit again to enjoy more of their menu!