The first time I went to Sawa, I didn’t have a reservation. I don’t recommend doing that. Even though the Sunnyvale sushi restaurant was empty when I walked through the door, owner Steve Sawa stopped me in the middle of the dining room as I approached the sushi bar.

“No reservation,” he asked, pausing. “Do you know what I’m doing here?”

I told him I did. Or at least I thought I did. I knew that Sawa served a prix fixe menu of sushi. The entry level is $95 for six courses, and the bill goes up from there. The 25-course menu is $350. I had also heard that Sawa was some kind of mad sushi genius.

Once granted access to the bar, I learned a great deal more.

The tinted front windows reveal nothing; next door is a Subway restaurant. Sawa is rather unremarkable looking for a restaurant ranked No. 74 in Opinionated About’s list of America’s Top 100 restaurants. (Los Gatos’ Manresa is ranked No. 1, by the way).

Inside, the restaurant is spare, almost drab. Unlike most sushi bars, there are no fish in the display case. All Sawa’s fish comes out of reach-in coolers from behind the bar or from the kitchen. The walls bear little artwork, just a painting of turtles behind the bar. A strange mix of pop tunes (Beatles, Bob Dylan, Mariah Carey) fills the room. It’s a fitting touch for a chef who is anything but traditional. Sawa wears a T-shirt instead of the starched chef’s coat and headband favored by many itamae.

Sawa has created a highly personal, one-of-a-kind cuisine. For the most part, Sawa is the only restaurant employee you see. A woman, I’m guessing Sawa’s wife, can be seen behind the scenes darting in and out the kitchen or handing Sawa the phone when a call comes in.

There is no menu at Sawa; the service is all omakase, that’s Japanese for “the chef will decide what you eat.” There is also no drinks menu. If you want beer or sake, of which Sawa has some very good stuff, Sawa will ask how much you want to spend, and he will come around the bar and bring you something.

On my two visits, Sawa made nothing but sashimi, fat slices of startlingly fresh, obscurely procured fish adorned with a seemingly endless variety of sauces. No rice. No seaweed. Just fish. But it was some fish. 

I’m not sure if Sawa is coy or secretive, but he was reluctant to tell me what kind of fish he was serving me. It became a guessing game.

Me: “Tuna?”

Sawa: “Yes, but a very special tuna. Hard to find.”

Me: “Is this one amberjack?”

Sawa: “No.”

Me: “What’s in this sauce?”

Sawa: “Don’t ask.”

After a while I did stop asking and just enjoyed the plates of glistening fish Sawa passed me.

On my visits, I had pearlescent orbs of sea scallop draped in a ponzulike sauce; deep red salmon with a mayonnaise-ish sauce dabbed with tiny yellow fish eggs; three fat cubes of bluefin (an endangered species that should be banned; I ate it with a guilty conscience); what I’m guessing was snapper matched with a luxurious green sauce made with what I think was a puree of avocado and tomatillos; and the sweetest creamiest uni (sea urchin) I’ve ever tasted.

Sawa does not skimp. Six courses are more than enough. Each plate was a simply but carefully composed world of flavor distinct from the one that came before it. The only dish that faltered was the king crab. It was icy.

Sashimi purists will be in heaven even if the sauces are less than traditional. I enjoyed almost everything I ate but found myself wanting a little variety, maybe a vegetable dish or a few cooked items. I like raw fish as much as anyone, but by the end, the meal seemed a bit homogeneous. 

I made a reservation for my second visit, and Sawa remembered me and welcomed me to the bar, pausing to think where I should sit, as if he were expecting more diners to show up a later. A few did, but not enough to crowd me out. Halfway through my meal, two poor suckers walked in looking wide-eyed and nervous.

“Do you have a reservation,” Sawa asked.

They did not.

“Goodbye,” Sawa said.

The hapless duo looked at each other, and then Sawa told them that there was no menu, that the menu was set and that in essence they didn’t know what they were getting into. This confused them further, and they shuffled out the door. Sawa shook his head in disdain.

Sawa’s approach wasn’t the most hospitable. He could have taken the time to explain what the restaurant is all about. But given that the restaurant bears his name, I think he only wants people to eat his food who understand what he’s up to. If you’re not clear on the concept, you shouldn’t be there. But if you’re down with the program, you’ll enjoy a sushi experience unlike any other in Silicon Valley. But for God’s sake, make a reservation.

1042 E. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale