Sushi’s new wave

Throughout the U.S., unusual additions such as pistachio, prosciutto and Parmesan are adding a fresh twist to the traditional Japanese dish

WORDS Chaney Kwak
November/December 2018
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If fresh catches were the mantra of the first wave of upscale Japanese restaurants in the U.S., the last few years saw the Edomae style heralded by master chef Masaki Saito in New York, which features aged fish. What’s next? Both of the above, plus plenty of playfulness. In San Francisco, one-year-old Robin is adding yet another twist to aged sushi by marrying it with preserved fruits and sauces. Meanwhile, Sen Sakana puts a contemporary New York spin on Nikkei cuisine, the 19th-century creation of Japanese immigrants in Peru. Drawing freely from local farmers markets as well as global palates, these restaurants are changing what it means to eat sushi in America. 

Robin, San Francisco

At the year-old Robin in San Francisco, chef Adam Tortosa serves local lingcod topped with an aguachile of pistachio and pomegranate. Elsewhere on the menu, California steelhead meets preserved kumquat. Care for some albacore? A citrus sauce made with chili peppers, yuzu kosho ponzu and wasabi furikake will accompany an unorthodox miso made with roasted walnuts on top of the sliver of fish. Over the top? Hardly. “The thought process for our toppings is always the same: We are enhancing or balancing the natural flavors of the fish, never trying to mask or cover something up,” says Tortosa. “Each piece is a story in itself. There should be a balance of acid, fat and salt with each bite.”

Ascend Prime Steak & Sushi, Bellevue, Washington

From their 31st-floor perch looking out to Mount Rainier and Seattle’s glittery skyline, chefs Yuki Ieto and James Saito add prosciutto and tomato relish into spicy tuna rolls, and truffle into a hamachi roll. At the four-month-old Ascend Prime Steak & Sushi in Bellevue, various cuts of Wagyu and dry-aged prime beef share the spotlight with the Pacific Northwest’s seafood. 
“I wanted to play with familiar rolls and elevate them,” says Ieto, who began slicing fish at 15 under his father, who was also a sushi chef. “We all learn traditional sushi. But to create your own contemporary recipe can be even more technique-intensive.” His black cod roll, for instance, features miso-mustard-braised fish with shiitake duxelleand dashi gelée that at once embodies sweetness and umami.

Sen Sakana, New York City

Peru, with its history of immigration and culinary cross-pollination, has long practiced spins on Japanese cuisine. At Sen Sakana, which opened in 2017, executive chef Mina Newman pays tribute to this mix. “Being of Peruvian heritage, pioneering Nikkei cuisine in New York has been an exhilarating experience,” says Newman. “My childhood food memories play a large role in what I like to cook and how I interpret the marriage of these two cultures.” At her Manhattan eatery, she blends traditional Japanese techniques and Latin ingredients. Dashi takes a supporting role in the leche de tigre for ceviche, while sea urchin mashes with purple Peruvian yam, and tuna tartare with pisco ponzu. And next year, expect to see a guest series featuring Japanese-Peruvian chefs.

Kata Robata, Houston

In Houston, Manabu Horiuchi serves raw scallop topped with seared foie gras, as well as bonito smoked with ... hay? “Smokiness creates a different flavor profile for the fish,” says Horiuchi, adding that hay is a classically preferred method in Japan. After marinating in sake and soy, which is a signature recipe of the Japanese-born chef, the fish gets a sear with hay at a very high heat, allowing a quick burn that preserves its character. The three-time James Beard Award nominee enjoys a relationship with vendors at Japan’s famous seafood markets: “The fish is so fresh when it arrives from Tokyo,” says Horiuchi. “So I can focus on execution—which means the restaurant keeps getting better.”

Hidden Fish, San Diego

San Diego’s first omakase-only sushi restaurant, which opened in September, wants you to try black tiger shrimp with Parmesan cheese shavings and Kewpie mayo. Scallops? Have some wasabi-sake mustard with them. Mackerel, cured then quickly seared, meets pickled kelp. John Hong, also known as Chef Kappa, works as deftly with flown-in selections from Japan as he does with local San Diego uni, noted for its enormous size and sweetness. “Although my menu is a little twisted, with different toppings and garnishes, I use very traditional methods for the fish and rice,” says Hong. “All the way from curing the fish to using Japanese red vinegar to bring natural sweetness to the rice. Some techniques just shouldn’t be modified.”

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