Almost 30 years after the opening of Monaco’s most iconic night venue Sass Café, Samy Sass has embraced his love of Japan to create a new restaurant, The Niwaki, a place that he says was “written in the stars”.
Located on Avenue Princess Grace, opposite Larvotto beach, on the ground floor of the beautiful new Palais de la Plage, The Niwaki is Monaco’s latest hot spot, where lovers of Japanese cuisine – and those looking to enjoy great ambiance – come together in an exclusive environment.
The restaurant, like the art of niwaki (tree shaping), is guided by serenity, patience, and attention to detail, offering Nippon contemporary Japanese cuisine with Mediterranean influences.
And after multiple travels to the land of the rising sun, Samy Sass believes he has come up with the perfect recreation right here in Monaco.
Monaco Life: You and your father are most well-known for the iconic, celebrity-filled Sass Café. When did that open and why did you decide to go in a different direction with this restaurant?
Samy Sass: Sass Café opened its doors in 1993, so next year will be the 30th anniversary. Sass Café is a family establishment – a restaurant, lounge and party all rolled into one. But me, I am passionate about food. I am a foodie.
It was always my dream to open a concept place, particularly Japanese. I’m a huge fan, I’ve been to Japan many times.
After consulting for SBM for five years, and collaborating with Jimmy’z and La Vigie Restaurant and Lounge, I decided to start my own collaboration with partners Dean Carr and Daryl Foster.
Why this location on Avenue Princess Grace?
I was actually conceived in the building next door, I was born in the nearby Estoril building (on this avenue), and I grew up in my mum’s place here on Avenue Princesse Grace. The cherry on the cake is that The Niwaki is at number 37 Avenue Princesse Grace, and 37 is the year my dad was born. So, there we go, it was written in the stars!
During Covid, I discovered that this building opportunity was coming up. I knew the owner and asked him to keep me posted, which he did. I really liked the space and we signed the agreement two days before Christmas 2020, which was the worst timing, but at some point, you just need to take a risk.
We are next to the new Mareterra district, the new Larvotto Plage, and Testimonio II. We have a great location.
Did signing a real estate deal in the middle of a global pandemic play in your favour?
Yes and no. He was happy with the project and I was happy with the conditions. It took us 15 to 16 months to open. But it was always Japan, it was my dream to open a Japanese restaurant and a very Japanese-styled space.
The design is very serene, minimalist, and calming. Is that the ambiance you were going for?
Yes, I wanted to create something that you don’t find anywhere else in Monaco or the South of France. As you can see, the design is very pure and minimalist, very Japanese. We have the wood, the marble, the onyx, and the stone going through the to upper level.
Looking at the big picture, we may want to expand the brand if all goes well here.
It is indeed understated elegance…
Exactly. If you ask me if we’re a gastronomic restaurant, we are not. If you ask me if we are a regular restaurant, we are not. I’m trying to position myself in between – fine dining, but not over the top.
The menu looks beautiful – from the Osciètre Caviar, truffle calamari, and Wagyu tartare, to lobster tempura, chicken Katsu and salmon sashimi… How do you describe the menu?
Japanese fine dining. I don’t think it’s fusion, but you can find things that at first appearance don’t seem Japanese, but they are. I wouldn’t say our menu is 100% Japanese, but its close. Its Japanese contemporary cuisine.
How much influence have you had on the menu creation?
I rely on the team, but we do work together. I have had these ideas since day one. I gave them the DNA, and we worked with that. We have Corporate Chef Shahar Dahan and Executive Sushi Chef Wagner Spadacio. The more brains behind this, the better it is.
The sushi chef is actually Brazilian, he grew up in Sao Paolo, where there is the biggest Japanese community outside of Japan.
We also have an Italian pastry chef who is very good. So, it’s a very international team.
Do you have a sushi counter?
Yes, we have a counter for six seats, so this is an experience. You can see the way the chefs work and interact; you can see the production of the restaurant. Most of the people who sit there are not eating off the menu, the chef is taking the lead. It’s like art.
We have part of the menu called the Chef’s Touch. It is the addition of the chef’s daily inspiration so if, for example, you order nigiri sushi, you will not have the same at the table as at the counter. It’s eaten just the way it comes, no need to add soya sauce or anything.
It’s a beautiful room, you really feel like you’re in Japan. It’s a different experience. People really love having the food served up in front of them.
Let talk about the bar/lounge. Can you drink there without having to eat?
Yes. I think the lounge will be discovered more in the winter though. When it gets colder, guests will want to have an apero at the bar while waiting for a table.
But we have a great wine list that matches our menu, and we have great sakis as well.
How did you decide on the name of the restaurant?
The name is important. As I always liked the trees in Japan, I found niwaki, which is the art of pruning a tree into a cloud shape. Then that led to the logo of the tree, which is now our brand.”
You are somewhat of a Monaco icon. Do you feel like you had higher expectations coming into this?
Sass is a family business, and my dad and I are above the business. We are a brand. But The Niwaki is another concept, different from the other places I’m involved in. I’m a partner, and I come and see the customers, but I don’t spend as much time here as I do at Sass. We have a great management team here, great staff.
The Niwaki is open seven days a week for dinner. Reservations are encouraged to avoid disappointment.
Click on the gallery below to see more images of The Niwaki, photos © Fabbio Galatioto…