Sato i Tanaka Japanese is a small cluster of seats around a bar.
15 of them.
And two sushi chefs: Sato and Tanaka.
A dark galley restaurant with warm yellow light pooling on the counter in front of each seat.
Glaringly absent: the large glass refrigerated cabinet used to store and display fish.
If you arrive when I do, just before 13:30, it’s hard to envisage the space as a restaurant. It looks bare.
My habit of eating early pays off. I am seated and another couple is seated but subsequent walk-ins are turned away. The restaurant is full. El Periódico has reviewed the place and Barcelona is keen to discover it.
Sato san appears. His workspace is a stack of 4 thick white cutting boards. I notice a small wooden cooler next to the boards (a Neta case). Through the glass, I see the fish. Around 10 different kinds, small portions wrapped tightly in cling film. There can’t be more than 1 kilo, 1.5 max. It looks unimpressive. The box is too small and there isn’t enough in there.
A menu del mediodia is 29€. I assume (wrongly) that it will be the inferior version sometimes offered by restaurants who have their arms twisted to comply with the local slashed price lunch tradition. I decide to order from the a la carte menu. Anchovies in escabeche (4.9€), sea snails (1€ pp), clams in sake broth (6.5€). I only order 2 maki: ikura (2.8€) and mackerel (2.4€).
Two men sit down and announce they are from the Espai Kru group (another place with outstanding seafood). On my right, a Japanese man with his Galician wife. A heavyset man on my left. They have all ordered the degustation menu.
I get through my a la carte order quickly, eating and watching mesmerized as Sato san prepares nigiri. His hands appear to be able to work independently of each other, one shaping the rice while the other reaches over to the sink to get something. (If that sounds unremarkable to you, try patting yourself on the head and rubbing your belly simultaneously.)
Sato san addresses me, his voice is strikingly deep. I feel or imagine feeling the vibrations from it in the wooden counter. “Are you finished or would you like more?” I definitely want more. I order according to what has elicited the most pleasure from my fellow diners. The heavyset man has been murmuring “hostia” after every bite.
I’ve been paying attention. I order the sea bass (2.8€), turbot (2.2€), mackerel (2€), squid (2.4€).
Perhaps because each nigiri is being served to me on its own. The flavours and textures are singular and intense. When I finish a nigiri, there is a wait of a few minutes while Sato san attends to the other customers. In that time I have time to reflect on what has taken place in my mouth.
I watch him carefully shape a couple of nigiri, topped with minced tuna belly with a single quails egg yolk nestled on top. He places them in the palm of his hand, curls his fingers a little, brings them over and gently sets them down on the black slate plate in front of us.
He has us all eating out of his hand. The trust implied in that is unusual and substantial.
Sato san asks me if I would like more. I would. I do. Some maki. The miso soup. But I am starting to worry I may have overspent. I’ve lost track of the dishes I’ve ordered. I order the fresh cheese with orange for dessert (4€) and the bill.
I needn’t have worried. It all comes to 34.10€. I am relieved and sad. With food this good and prices this low, how will I ever get a table here again?
5 more great Japanese on my Top 5 Barcelona page