A restaurant that calls itself Sugalabo, or “Suga’s lab” in Japanese, may conjure images of beakers full of rainbow-colored liquids and steaming test tubes.
And the decor of Suga’s lab – shiny metal accentuated by transparent light bulbs with glowing filaments – does set the mood for futuristic culinary experiments.
Whatever experiments may take place there, the restaurant where chef proprietor, Yosuke Suga, and his staff prepare their fare, is a tightly controlled ship. Meticulous attention to detail and careful handling of everything, from the ingredients that go into the food to the sleek furniture, are such that I was not allowed to bring my bag with its chain strap to the table for fear of damaging the leather chair where I was seated.
Sugalabo is famous for being difficult to book, not least because you need an introduction. So when we chanced on a reservation due to a sudden cancellation we seized the opportunity. Although we knew that the meal would be very expensive, we felt lucky to have secured a reservation especially after we were told that the restaurant was fully booked for the rest of the year.
But securing a table is not the only challenge facing diners, at least on their first visit. When we arrived at the designated address we discovered that Sugalabo has no sign or even a small clue to indicate where it is.
After a few minutes of searching, we finally opened a door that was the only possible entrance to a restaurant in the vicinity, which led to another hidden door. Once inside we were shown to a table in a room that felt like we were in the middle of a spaceship.
Sugalabo is not the place to take guests for a quiet or intimate meal. The ambience is pleasant enough and the seating is comfortable, but diners are expected to focus on the meal, rather than on their own conversation.
Chef Suga visits each group of diners, including those at the counter, to explain the ingredients he uses for each dish and how they are to be transformed into tasty concoctions. At one point he even implored us
to stop talking – not easy for a group of eight – and listen to what he had to say.
While this practice does not make for a totally relaxed meal, it does underscore the seriousness with which Suga takes his cooking and the seriousness with which he would like his diners to engage with his food.
Suga’s obsessive approach to his métier and his eagerness to communicate the reasons for his choice of ingredients and cooking methods may go some way towards explaining why many of his guests come back repeatedly, despite the very high cost of dining there. It elevates the dining experience at Sugalabo to something more than simply enjoying a good dinner.
The meal itself was of very high quality, with seemingly no cost spared to obtain the best ingredients, in Suga’s view. The lobster, pigeon, foie gras and truffles were all flown in fresh from France. Despite its long trip to Suga’s kitchen, the lobster presented to us before being cooked was still alive.
As a second generation chef whose father also specialized in French cuisine Suga, who worked under Joel Robuchon for almost 17 years, is steeped in the traditions of French cuisine. Our meal started with a pastry stuffed with duck from Kyoto and fukinotoh – a mountain vegetable with a distinct bitter taste – from Niigata, which looked and tasted very French.
Suga and his team also travel widely in Japan in search of their ingredients.
There were clams from Chiba, ham that was aged for 24 months by Tada-san who only sells to 15 or 16 restaurants, and scallops from Hokkaido.
The oysters, which were served with a citrus sauce and topped with nori seaweed, came from Umezu-san in Saga Prefecture, who is apparently well-regarded for his oysters, according to Chef Suga. They were small, by Japanese oyster standards, but tasty with the sauce and seaweed.
The strawberries from Nara Prefecture, which came in a wooden box, were the size of golf balls and tasted sublime.
To best enjoy Tada-san’s ham, which was extremely thinly sliced and layered over a ball of sushi rice, we were instructed to peel off a slice, place it high above our face and delicately lower it into our open mouths – a game that generated more laughter than the culinary joy it was intended to achieve.
I was particularly impressed by the succulent lobster, which was topped with organic turnips and black truffles. Most lobster served at restaurants come from Canada but the quality of French lobster is on another level, chef Suga noted.
For those who opted for the wine pairing, this dish was paired with Nikolaihof, a white wine from Austria, which received a near impossible 100 points from famed wine critic, Robert Parker.
Dining at Sugalabo is an experience that is bound to impress diners who take pleasure from the knowledge that they are being offered very high quality ingredients carefully chosen and expertly prepared by one of Tokyo’s most highly regarded chefs.
Those of a less discerning disposition may opt to have two, or even three excellent meals at equally enjoyable restaurants for the price of one exclusive meal at Sugalabo. But they certainly would not be as unique as a meal at Sugalabo is.