I had the pleasure of spending some time with a lovely couple just days before their wedding anniversary. Pete and Carol were on the verge of celebrating 30 years and some change together (which Pete jokingly says “have been 20 of the best years of Carol’s life”), so a dinner on my dime seemed the least I could do. They have treated me to more than a few meals so I wanted to take them out for a big one.
I know they love NoJa and Mobile’s rockstar chef Chakli Diggs, so I was sure they would be happy at his other restaurant, Saisho. This is Diggs’ stab at a modern American gastropub inspired by Japanese cuisine with an aggressive menu served tapas style.
Saisho is in a building all too familiar to me. Since 1997 I have performed on the stage of what was Southside, then Soul Kitchen and later Alabama Music Box. To see the interior now is shocking. Someone had a great vision. The open-kitchen dining room is where the bar once stood while the horseshoe-shaped new bar is near where the soundboard once rested.
We snagged a table downstairs in front of what used to be the stage area and started with drinks. Pete ordered a Belgian draft known as Malheur ($8) as Carol and I agreed to split a bottle of Campuget Rosé ($32).
With drinks squared away we had but one problem: with a menu of 17 items we had to narrow it down. It’s all small plates, so we staged it out three at a time. Round one began with Tonkatsu ($13). Berkshire pork is cut to a thin fillet deep-fried with a panko crust and served over cabbage. This was a good start.
We followed that up with Lamb Spare Ribs ($13) and an order of Nagoya Style Fried Chicken ($12). The Virginia lamb was pretty amazing. Coated in a grilled scallion barbecue sauce, I thought this could be the hero of the evening. Then I tried the chicken. It’s just a single (but large) thigh, bone-in and twice-cooked with a homemade tare sauce. The sweet taste of this soy-based sauce made the dish.
We gathered ourselves and checked for any damage before we began round two.
Oysters 3 Way ($15) sounded interesting. We had six spats with three different sauces. Carol sat this one out as Pete and I put down the chopsticks and forks in favor of slurping them from the cup. Of the broiled miso, spicy yuzu and green garlic veloute, we both preferred the yuzu. Don’t get the idea there was a great deal of heat, just flavor. These are but a taste, an experience, if you will. I love oysters the size of a quarter; when you take down three you won’t feel like you’ve eaten very much, but you’ll get a glimpse of some flavor personalities.
The words “pork belly” get thrown around a lot these days. Of course I am all for this. So when we saw Belly of Local Red Wattle Pork ($14) there was no skipping it. Crispy and tender, the best part of this was dipping it in the strawberry miso and sesame puree. It was worth the sacrifice.
Wok-Fried Veal Sweetbreads ($12) were too much to pass up. It’s not every restaurant in Mobile that serves sweetbreads. These tender bits were served with Brussels sprouts, orange, soy and chilies. Nothing about it was over the top. It was simply great. If you’d like to train your kids to appreciate organ meat, I suggest not telling them what it is, but let them give this a try. Pete isn’t fond of sprouts prepared in any fashion. More for Carol and me.
Though all three of us were running out of room, there is no way to come to a place like this and not try dessert. In our case, two were in order. Lemon and Yuzu Posset ($5) came to Pete’s side of the table, but Carol and I made sure he shared. Yuzu was described to us a cross between a lemon and an orange, which was wonderful with the chilly, thickened cream. The posset was certainly not as thick as typical ice cream but sturdy enough to be eaten with a spoon. I would describe this dessert as refreshing.
We couldn’t avoid the Sata Andagi ($5). This Japanese-style donut with black sugar caramel had a creamy center, which was a surprise to me, but can best be described as decadent. Personally, I would have had trouble finishing one of these by myself. The sweetness is very pronounced, and I can see dessert fiends favoring this over their Southern grandmothers’ confections.
We waddled out of the bar and made our way home stuffed to the gills. If you are on a budget, you might not be as full as we were. It isn’t cheap, nor should it be. Think of Saisho as the place to come have a drink and try some different, amazing food and go home with a spring in your step. Go to NoJa for a rack of lamb and a good night’s sleep.
If you asked what impressed me the most, I would say the fried chicken. I never dreamed a simple twice-cooked thigh could taste so amazing. I feel I missed out on slow-cooked salmon and a scallop dish, but that only gives me more reasons to return.
Mobile has something unique in Saisho. Reservations are recommended, as they were hopping on that Thursday evening. Make your way to this jewel of a restaurant we are lucky to have. I’m sure Pete and Carol would be happy to go with you.
455 Dauphin St.
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