The restaurant is Saisho in downtown Mobile, Alabama. The concept is Japanese comfort food meets modern American cuisine. The ingredients are nearly exclusively locally sourced in South Alabama.
It was a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of winter when I showed up for dinner with what seemed like impeccable timing. With little traffic downtown today – a rarity – just a few tables were filled in the restaurant, and I’ve caught one of my favorite chefs in a virtually non-existent moment of “down time.”
I pulled up my chair at the bar, ordered a cocktail and began chatting with Saisho’s chef and owner, Alex Perry. His first restaurant, Vestige, in downtown Ocean Springs, Mississippi has been one of my favorites for the last few years. I’ve promised this visit to his newest venture for months, and I’m so glad I finally made good on that promise.
Perry’s love of chemistry and his artistic approach are a rarity to behold in both his restaurants. Vestige pays homage to his roots in Southern Mississippi. Showcasing local ingredients and elevating the dining experience were his main objectives. He believes dining out should be a fun, inviting, and full sensory experience.
At Saisho, Perry aims to bring the Japanese kitchen to the modern American plate – a concept, again, that pulls from deep roots. Perry’s wife, Kumi Omori, is originally from Japan. Perry’s co-owner, Chakli Diggs, who also owns the acclaimed Noja, just a few blocks away in the downtown area, has a reputation for playing with Asian flavors, too.
The blend of styles and flavors are phenomenal here.
Investing in Local Farms
As I visited with Perry, our conversation centered around local farms and our mutual love of Gulf fresh seafood. Perry has a love affair with artisan cheeses, which he sources from several Southern dairy farms. I’m enamored with his talk of Sequatchie Cove Creamery, located near Chattanooga. Although he’s not yet visited the farm personally, he raves about their cheeses, his favorite being the aged blue cheese that he claims has the “texture of a Parmigiano-Reggiano.”
Chef Perry appreciates the art and hard work required to farm a quality ingredient, and he believes in nurturing the local guys. He shows them his side of things in the restaurant world to help them gain necessary perspective to grow their businesses, and he invests in them – and their ingredients.
For example, Sand Ridge Farms in Agricola, Mississippi, experienced a dramatic business change after meeting Perry and having their products featured on the Vestige menu. Today, Sand Ridge Farms calls several high end Gulf coast restaurants customers as a result of his first interaction with Perry.
Just as he sources his proteins locally, Perry also sources his produce locally and regionally, mostly from Covey Rise Farms in Robert, Louisiana and Local Appetite Growers near Fairhope, Alabama. These farms produce seasonal heirloom produce delivered at the peak of freshness. Both farms have Southern restaurant distribution and CSA subscriptions available for like-minded consumers.
Local sourcing is at the heart of Perry’s culinary mission, and he executes it by buying shrimp from local vendors, vegetables from local farms and shopping at farmer’s markets as often as he can to discover new products and farmers.
The Experience at Saisho
Saisho is staged as a modern gastropub. Two levels allow for different guest experiences. Upstairs is more intimate with balcony dining; downstairs offers unobstructed views into the open kitchen and bar area. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable.
The bar offers hand crafted cocktails using fresh ingredients. I recommend the Fallout for a refreshing taste. A signature of Perry’s restaurants are his hand-crafted cocktails that will make a cocktail enthusiast out of anyone. The wine and craft beer selection are premium as well, but the cocktails are where the real magic happens at this bar.
Ordering Local Oysters
For an appetizer, don’t skip over “Oysters Three Ways.” Saisho serves Murder Point Oysters, a pristinely white-shelled oyster with a buttery bite of oyster love inside. These lovelies are raised by the fifth generation fishing family at Sandy Bay Oyster Company. Perry also serves “Bama Beauties,” a premium oyster from Bon Secour, Alabama, also plump and buttery. Trust the chef here regardless of which oysters are available – chef’s choosey.
The oysters are infused three different ways and served on the half shell. It’s your raw oyster platter kicked up a notch… or three. The array will include a scallion velouté (a light cream sauce with scallions), a yuzu-togarashi infusion (think citrus and chili pepper) and lastly a wasabi-shio kombu that gives a pungent soy sauce and wasabi flavor to the buttery bites.
Even having grown up eating oysters, every one of these are simply mind blowing and unlike any flavor I’ve had with an oyster. Even if you aren’t a raw oyster lover, don’t be afraid here. Try THESE.
Surf & Turf
For dinner I tried Saisho’s Gyudon and Seafood Ramen.
Gyudon is typically the cheaper cuts of wagyu beef, served over rice with onions. Gyu – from Wagyu – refers to an exclusive breeding of Japanese cattle. Don means simply “bowl.” In Japan, this preparation is common “poor folk food” that utilizes the fatty cuts of beef, over rice, in a bowl.
This gyudon was kicked up a notch, with caramelized onions and a poached farm egg oozing over the top of Southern grown rice and not-so-fatty Wagyu beef.
The seafood ramen was a beautiful picture of what happens when our beloved Southern ingredients meet Asian cuisine. The artisan noodles from Sun Noodle are served in a spicy broth seasoned with yuzu kosho, a traditional Japanese seasoning combination. Then the seafood is placed atop broth so gently that the delicate crab meat stays on top without sinking into the broth. Local oysters and Gulf shrimp accompany the hand picked blue crab meat, and it’s finished with a compound miso butter that melts into the broth.
Perry told me that his ramen has received its fair share of criticism from Japanese visitors. Each region in Japan has a distinctly different ramen flavor profile, and much like pasta in Italy, everyone thinks their ramen is the only way to prepare ramen. Although visitors have nudged Perry to add this or that to reflect their culinary heritage, Perry, with a courteous smile on his face stands firm. He replicates no one – his ramen is all his own. And in my opinion, perfection.
Don’t Skip Dessert
Not many words needed here. Quite simply, dessert was a Chocolate Cremeux. This ultra rich chocolate dessert was balanced with a delicate chantilly cream and walnuts – a dairy and chocolate lovers dream that put a bow on a delightful meal.
Downtown Mobile, Alabama
Downtown Mobile, Alabama is exploding with flavor. It’s a hotbed of culinary innovation that’s beginning to gain national attention for its laser sharp edge in the farm to table culinary revolution. Get in on the action early and say you knew it back when, because Mobile, Alabama – with its history, proximity to strategic seafood docks and rich produce farms along with mild seasonal weather ideal for livestock production – is primed to become America’s next culinary hotspot.