At an unassuming square building, pleasures lie within
Sushi, it’s both a magical and a terrifying word. In the past several years in Saigon sushi has risen to enormous heights where it has given birth to some bad sushi food carts and mediocre sushi chains popping up like weeds in places like malls. California rolls, chewy tasteless whitefish and fatty farm salmon dot tables like discarded ticket stubs after a movie. But in some rare cases, one can stumble upon a true gem: Sushi Rei (10E1 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, D1). It’s tucked in an unassuming side street at the end of an alley with no sign to point the way. Ayumi-san, the manager, tells me the place has only been open for a year but is already regarded as one of the best sushi places in the city.
Japanese culture is deeply rooted in respect, humility and harmony with nature and Sushi Rei seems to embody this in all aspects. The service here is impeccable and the slightest look can have someone appear at your elbow asking in a hushed tone if there’s something they can help you with.
Rei has only eight seats and one private room which I’m told is very common in Japan so guests can enjoy an authentic, intimate experience. The chef and waitstaff speak Japanese, English and Vietnamese so communication is not a problem. The intimacy of the place was offset by soothing jazz piano and modern contemporary furnishings which made me feel absolutely at peace but also seemed to heighten my sense of taste. A wall of wooden fish scales seemed to softly undulate as I heard the soft tinkle of water from a nearby pool. The design itself was created by famous Japanese architect Joe Chikamori using imported materials from Japan.
At a place like this the only way to order is “omakase,” which roughly translates to “chef ‘s choice.” This is basically a way to let the chef ’s creativity and skills shine through. It’s also a great way to test the quality of the place. In fact, if you ask for a menu, there isn’t one, only for the drinks as the food and ingredients change from day to day. For the freshest possible experience, try to book a seat on Tuesday or Friday when fresh fish is shipped directly from the Tsukiji Fish Market, the famous wholesale market in Tokyo.
Lunch sets are priced at VND650,000 with dinner “Omakase” priced at VND3 million. I was served several dishes that were separated into appetizers/small plates, soup, sashimi, nigiri and dessert. There were over a dozen different dishes so I won’t list them all but instead describe my favorites of the night.
From the sashimi, the star was definitely the fatty tuna/tuna belly. It was really creamy and melted in my mouth as soon as it hit my tongue. The fresh wasabi was also very lovely and one could easily tell the difference from the squeeze tube variety. This one was slightly sweet but still had that bite to it.
The nigiri sushi, which is usually the star of the show, was fantastic here. For my first nigiri I was given two kinds of eel: one with sea salt
and one brushed with a sweet glaze.
The former was slightly torched and the fats caramelized to create a delicious rich mix of eel, sweetness and saltiness. Nigiri squid is something I usually avoid because when the quality is bad it’s rubbery, tough and chewy with no flavor. I was very happy to find this squid nearly disintegrate on my tongue. I was hit immediately with a strong citrus flavor and then sea salt, both a welcomed surprise. The secret I was told are tiny hatch mark cuts on the squid: genius.
From the small plates, the steamed egg was creamy and soft.
Next came the Pacific Saury, a staple in the Japanese diet. It was deboned and topped with a garnish of ginkgo nuts and a slice of squid. The Saury itself was fatty and tender with a slight oily taste that was offset by the gingko nuts. It was obviously very fresh and I could easily taste the difference in this one versus store bought.
The urchin topped with salmon roe was equally fresh as well and didn’t have any of the fishiness that I’ve tasted from low quality urchin. The salmon roe were like little dewdrops of slight peppery droplets that burst in my mouth. Absolutely delightful.
For dessert I was given a small piece of sweet egg sushi which tasted like a fluffy piece of cake. I was looking forward to the real Japanese green tea ice cream I’d heard about but the regret was quickly forgotten as I was then give a dish of chilled melon, gelatinous cubes made from sake and a slice of persimmon to finish off the meal.
As my taxi splashed away through the flood waters, I looked back to see the still respectfully bowed heads of the manager and staff as they stood on the corner of the street bidding me farewell. An unforgettable experience and Sushi Rei now has one more regular customer to add to their surely growing list of admirers.
IMAGES PROVIDED BY SUSHI REI