When we think about eating saba in Japanese restaurants, it usually means a simple, cheap meal consisting of a decently sized slab that, if we’re lucky, isn’t fishy or dry. So when we heard that a restaurant centred entirely around the saba, called rather unimaginatively, Sabar (the bar bit due to the fact that the place also serves booze like sake), had opened at cool food enclave Japan Food Town, we were both intrigued… and sceptical. First things first: the fish used in this Osaka-born restaurant chain linked to a mackerel export biz isn’t the puny variety found at lesser restaurants, which can come from Norway, Vietnam or China. Instead, the wild toro saba served here is from the cold, deep waters of the North Pacific Coast of Japan, caught during chillier months and flash-frozen. This means the fish contains more omega-3, which translates to fattier, tastier meat. The manager here claims: “The flesh of our toro saba is as fatty as belly (toro) meat from head to tail”. Also, there’s its size. The signature grilled sabar here is 38cm long, almost twice the length of a standard mackerel. And that’s why it costs quite a bit more than your food court version.
THE LOOK: Fun nautical kitsch with a ship’s steering wheel and blue walls on which a comical mural of a mackerel is painted, along with trivia about the creature.
THE FOOD: Raw mackerel, especially if it's served at a casual joint instead of a swanky sushi bar, is more often than not horribly funky. But the silvery-pink slices here are mostly free from pong. We say mostly, because out of the three times we ordered the raw Toro-Saba Zuke Bowl ($18), it was only faintly fishy once. But on the other two occasions, the sashimi was fresh and pleasantly oily. It's lightly marinated in soy sauce then served on warm, al dente Yamagata rice dotted with sesame seeds.
However, we now play it safe by just going for the always satisfying signature 38cm Grilled Mega Toro-Saba ($25 for half a fish during lunch with rice and soup; $38 whole a la carte at dinner, feeds two). It's pretty damn long and impressive looking. The fish is marinated generously with three kinds of salt, and the flesh beneath its crackly, blistered skin unctuous and smooth. Expertly grilled and just lovely with rice. Start your way from the creature's belly for the moistest flesh. Caveat: as with most products from nature, the quality of the fish is not 100 per cent consistent. The levels of fat and succulence in the saba vary slightly from time to time, but not enough to stop us from being regulars here.
Also, don't miss the lovely Sa-maki ($16, order the full portion): warm, wobbly omelette wrapped around flaked mackerel drizzled with teriyaki sauce.
VERDICT: ***1/2 Good fish. Now we can’t go back to eating plebeian mackerel.
#04-50 Japan Food Town. Open daily 11.30am-9.30pm weekdays; 11am-9.30pm weekends. Last orders at closing. Tel: 6262-3453. www.japanfoodtown.sg/stores/sabar/