I have always thought that Japan harbored a secret love-hate relationship with the idea of tradition. Whilst strict adherence to ‘the old ways’ is mostly applauded, experimentalists who advance Japanese endeavors to new heights by breaking with tradition are often lauded as vanguards.
Sushi, being a uniquely Japanese cultural contribution to the food world, is no exception to this complex evolution. And within that world, perhaps no other figure illustrates this concept better than master Chef Keiji Nakazawa. Like most other shokunin of his generation, he apprenticed in the Edomae style. But at age 30, Nakazawa-san opened Sushi Sho, his original (honten) restaurant in Yotsuya, and it was there that the chef departed from the status quo and developed his unique (and often controversial) style of sushi omakase. Along the way, he has cultivated a significant cult following in Japan. Many of Chef Nakazawa’s protégés have since gone on and opened very similar (and successful) restaurants of their own, each one a temple dedicated to this style of sushi.
There are several aspects of a “Sho-style” omakase which departs from traditional sushi omakase:
The use of different shari (sushi rice) throughout the meal, depending on the strength of taste of each type of neta (seafood). Chef Nakazawa uses komezu (rice vinegar)-seasoned rice for lighter items, and akazu (red vinegar)-seasoned rice for heavier bites.
A slightly more unusual array of neta available; more than most other sushi-yas. There is no attempt to limit the seafood bounty to local waters only. Sho chefs are trained to make the best of each part of any single fish, and oftentimes a single fish (tuna, for example) can offer multiple different cuts! Expect 30+ courses during a Sho-style omakase!
Otsumami, which are cooked (or kitchen-prepared) items traditionally offered only at the start of the omakase, are interspersed throughout the meal in a Sho-style setting.
Aging of neta is emphasized in Sho-style sushi, particularly various parts of maguro (tuna). Two of the signature nigiri pieces served at any Sho-style restaurant are the ten-day aged chu-toro (medium fatty tuna) or similarly aged akami (lean tuna).
Other signature dishes made famous by Nakazawa-san, including nigiri of kinmedai skin, torched until edges are crispy, and topped with daikon oroshi, as well as ankimo (monkfish liver) paired with narazuke (pickled melon), are encountered in the course of the meal.
Optimal enjoyment of the Sho-style courses is derived when paired with sake, as Nakazawa-san is also a sommelier (and even trained as a brewer)!
It was rumored that after many years of success in Japan, Chef Nakazawa felt he needed a challenge. Thus, several years ago, he convinced his family (along with several other sous chefs) to relocate to Honolulu, where they were “challenged” to start all over again. On my past trips to Tokyo, I’ve always wanted to experience a Sho-style omakase, but for one reason or another, was never able to make it to Sushi Sho honten. So it was with great anticipation that I was able to step into SushiSho at the Ritz-Carlton Residences in Waikiki this past week for my first Sho-style omakase, with the master itamae himself present!
Logistics: Reservations were admittedly difficult to secure, but not impossible. Following instructions on the restaurant website, I attempted quite a few phone calls before finally getting through. Reservations are made about one month prior to the dining date. A credit card deposit is required at the time of the booking. Parking at the Ritz-Carlton Residences Waikiki is by valet only (fully validated by SushiSho).
Décor: The buildout at SushiSho Waikiki is a breathtakingly gorgeous den, in true high-end sushi aesthetic sense: A sleek hinoki bar surface, and elaborate blonde wooden carvings in which true artistry in woodworking craftsmanship are on full display. The main sushi bar comfortably seats ten guests. There is a back room for private dining as well. The curved ceiling evokes a gassho zukuri (old farmhouse hall). Like a symphony hall, the floodlights attract all attention front and center to the sushi bar. Also, there is no music in the background, which allows patrons to fully immerse themselves in the moment.
… and now, onto the food!!! I was served by both the itamae (Nakazawa-san) himself, and also his very able shokunin Sohei Matsukura on this fine evening.
SushiSho poke: Trio of hāpu‘u (Hawaiian grouper) belly with macadamia sauce, mebachi maguro (bigeye/ahi tuna) with mustard and Maui onion, and finally salmon smoked in banana leaf… The first of many thoughtful nods to the regional-specific ingredients of Hawai’I this evening, the balance of flavors in this starter really set the bar high for the evening.
Pickled hearts of palm, with shredded gari (sweet ginger)… A wonderful palate cleanser made from local produce!
Ika-no inrozume (squid roll, filled with rice and Hawaiian hearts of palm)… The first of Nakzawa-san’s signature dishes makes an appearance! The role reversal, where the neta now encircles the shari, makes for an intriguing bite. The nitsume here really added depth to the ika here.
Mirugai (geoduck clam, from the Pacific Northwest), with Maui onions, Chinese watercress and vinaigrette… Breathtaking. The combination of onion and the crunchy raw mirugai was sensational!
Kasugodai (baby red snapper, from Los Angeles) with egg yolk and vinegar powder yuzu)… Superb. It made me proud to be Angeleno while eating this dish!
Gangi Sparkling sake… At the recommendation of the shokunin. A fine selection.
Hāpu‘u (Hawaiian grouper)… Here, in nigiri form, the texture resembles hirame, but just a tad firmer.
Botan ebi (sweet prawn, from Alaska)… Sublime. Notice here that Nakazawa-san has now switched to akazu-seasoned shari, which best contrasts with the sweetness of the shrimp.
Mirugai no kimo (geoduck clam liver), with Maui onion… Damn! This is seriously good stuff!
Honmaguro zuke (aged bluefin lean tuna)… Classical Edomae style presentation is not forgotten by Nakazawa-san. The shari is incredible, demonstrating excellent nebari and (again) balance.
SushiSho salmon lau lau: Warm king salmon encased in opah kama (cheek of akamanbo, AKA moonfish), wrapped in luau leaf, capped with a tosazu (bonito-flavored rice vinegar) gelée, all on a bed of warm asparagus velouté… To me, perhaps this single transcendent bite encapsulates the Sho philosophy best: The respect for the region (using a local fish such as opah, in addition to taro leaves), the deft execution, contrasts in texture and temperature, and cultures, as well as its unorthodox placement, smack dab in between two nigiri servings - It’s all here.
Honmaguro senaka akami (lean dorsal muscle bluefin tuna, from Japan)… This precious and delicious signature piece will serve as contrast for another upcoming specialty of Chef Keiji’s.
“Drunken” lobster (Maine) tomalley and claw in Shaoxing wine, fermented for one month, served with a pinch of sudachi zest… This is a whole new level of chinmi, as it absolutely begs for sake to go along with it for the ride. The nodogoshi factor is important in this dish, as it slides down the gullet, smooth as silk.
Kokuryu, Ryu “Gold Dragon” Daiginjo sake… Strong choice by Chef Matsukura. The tang of the dragon meets the considerably splendid funk of the homard’s aging process head-on - Surprisingly, pleasantly dry, almost smoky finish after the battle is done.
Iwashi (sardine, from San Diego) maki, with shiso, gari, cucumber… The interplay between the oiliness of the sardine and the nori here was the true star. The pillowy rice was a luxurious background to support it all.
Moi (Pacific threadfin) narezushi… Traditional Japan meets ancient Hawai’i: The Polynesian “King’s Fish” has undergone a rigorous method of Edomae-style aging (in kojizuke for almost one week, then flash-marinated in shoyuzuke, then finally topped with aged kelp). The result: A strong yet surprisingly soft, fleshy morsel!
Pickled cherry tomato, with Hawaiian honey… Lovely.
Dungeness crab (Bay Area) topped with kani miso (crab tomalley) vinegar powder… The akazu on this piece of shari was dialed in just at the right amount to accentuate the tomalley and undeniably terrific taste of the Dungeness crab - Simply marvelous!
Goma dofu (sesame tofu) with taro and shoyu, covered with kazunoko (herring roe)… The taro was a nice twist.
Honmaguro chutoro (medium fatty bluefin tuna from Oma, Japan), aged ten days… Sho signature dish! The tuna releases more complex notes with the time spent. I can see why this is a destination-worthy bite for the Sho mafia.
Hitakami (Miyagi Prefecture) “Yasuke” Houjun Karakuchi, Junmai Ginjo sake… I’m told that Yasuke is a kabuki term for “chef”. The brewer of this sake made this one bottle just for pairing and enjoyment with sushi! And this particular sake certainly achieves its aims!
Interesting looking fruits there…
Glazed and grilled opah (moonfish) belly, topped with finger limes (from eastern Australia), served with wasabi and yuzu pepper… Nakazawa-san jocularly declares these Australian finger limes “the caviar of the fruit world”.
I am told to split this achingly tender piece of fish in two. Then, have one bite with the wasabi, and a separate bite with the yuzu pepper. Omoshiroi, and oishi!
Ankimo (monkfish liver) with narazuke (pickled baby Japanese watermelon, aged three years). Yes, that’s right: Three years. This is perhaps THE defining signature dish of Chef Nakazawa, and it is stunning. One of my fellow guests remarked that its semblance to another Hawaiian favorite, spam musubi, was perhaps not at all coincidental, and pays tribute to the culinary contributions of the original Japanese settlers on these islands.
Chawanmushi, with awabi (abalone from Kona, Hawai’i), Santa Barbara murasaki uni (roe of purple sea urchin), and Imperial white sturgeon caviar (from California)… So, so delicate.
“Ohagi” torotaku of chopped o-toro (fatty tuna belly), chutoro (medium fatty tuna), Maui onions, takuan (pickled daikon), topped by minced macadamia nut… As they say here in Honolulu, this piece of nigiri “Broke da mouth!” - Terrific in concept, preparation, and flavor!
Meanwhile, my neighbors were shown this very cool-looking bottle of sake!
Nakazawa-san, showing us diners the “cherry stone clam”…
The next courses required some “audience participation”: We were each asked to pick from a selection of neta (and one vegetable), including aji (horse mackerel), sayori (halfbeak), aoyagi (cherry stone clam adductor), hotategai (scallops), aged buri (wild yellowtail), kinmedai (golden eye snapper) skin, aged mebachi maguro (bigeye/ahi tuna) and, finally, the vegetarian iburi-gakko (smoky pickled daikon from Akita Prefecture). My answer of course, was: “All of them, please!”
Sakura masu (ocean trout)… Not the fatty tokoshirazu (white salmon), which prior lucky Sho customers had a chance to try a while back, but this piece will do just fine.
Temaki (handroll), with aged buri (wild yellowtail), kazunoko (herring roe), murasaki uni (roe from purple sea urchin), and takuan (pickled daikon). My word, I could have had seven or eight more of these precious things!
Sayori (halfbeak), with ginger… Precision knifework. The shokunin here mean business! This piece of nigiri showcased a perfect specimen of hikarimono (silver-skinned fish) at its seasonal height.
Aji (horse mackerel), with negi (scallion)… Note the return to the lighter rice vinegar seasoning on the rice here. Every detail is contemplated. Delicious.
Hakurakusei Tokubetsu Junmai sake… There is a more “baller” version of this brand, I am told. (And the rice grains are polished to only 8% remaining!) But alas, we are mere mortals on this night, and must “tolerate” swigging its lesser junmai brethren. Honestly though, this sake was quite sublime, and accompanied the following courses very nicely!
Cherry stone clam (from Cape Cod)… The nitsume, the crisp flesh of the adductor muscle, and the glorious shari all contribute to making this nigiri far more than the sum of its parts. Very, very close to the hamaguri I tried in Tokyo a while back…
Hotategai (scallops, from Hokkaido)… Possibly the best scallop nigiri I’ve ever had.
Aged buri (wild yellowtail)… Incredible. I will readily admit that I order yellowtail quite frequently, but never before have I enjoyed such depth of flavor as Nakazawa-san was able to coax out of this fish!
Iburi-gakko (smoky pickled daikon) wrapped rice “cheese”… I just realized I’ve never tried rice cheese before. It’s much akin to cream cheese, except here, the iburi-gakko makes it magical.
Ah, here comes another Sho-style signature dish!
Torched kinmedai (golden eye snapper) skin, topped with daikon oroshi… As with most sushi nigiri, the rice elevated this entire piece to the divine. The thin layer of fat underneath the skin of the snapper has imparted the shari underneath with its smoky umami… Unforgettable, and completely understandable why this has become a Sho-style signature.
Sunazuri o-toro (fatty tuna), topped with daikon oroshi… Sunazuri refers to the fattiest ventral portion of the o-toro. Decadent.
Murasaki uni (roe from purple sea urchin)… Chef Sohei has upped the akazu level in this piece, and the result is a totally different uni experience. Very interesting!
Mebachi maguro (bigeye/ahi tuna) suimono (clear broth) with negi (long onion)… A “denser” sip than I would have expected, in a very pleasant way. Few things, when consumed, offer a glimpse of the entirety of the vast ocean: Perhaps ankimo, maybe uni, and occasionally akami… Well, this deceptively simple soup joins that exclusive club.
Kanpyo maki (dried gourd roll) with fried tofu skin (inari)… A yummy signal that we are nearing the end of the Sho omakase…
Kasutera (Castella cake-style) tamagoyaki (egg-based cake) incorporating poi (taro paste, from Molokai) and shrimp, and a dashimaki tamago (traditional egg omelette) made with asari no sumashijiru (clear clam broth)… Modern and traditional, merging on one plate. Taste-wise, the poi-based tamagoyaki was pretty much the only misstep of the meal, as it was on the dry side. Its more traditional partner, on the other hand, was absolutely delectable.
Having completed our official Sho-style journey, it’s time for… Bonus rounds!!!
Iwashi (sardine)… Having enjoyed the sardine before as part of the maki, I needed to try this hikarimono in nigiri form. And it was indeed super!
O-toro (fatty belly tuna)… The knifework is just stunning. This tuna is phenomenal.
Hāpu‘u (Hawaiian grouper)… I wanted a second piece of this, but with different seasoning than the earlier bite. Nakazawa-san happily obliged! When in Waikiki…
Honmaguro senaka akami (lean dorsal muscle bluefin tuna, from Japan)… An encore performance of this Sho signature was commanded. I received a very generous last piece for the night, and it was stellar.
Agari (green tea)… Signals the possibility of… Dessert!!!
Kudzukiri (iced arrowroot starch noodles) with kuromitsu (black sugar syrup)… Dip the slippery, diaphanous sheets into the syrup, and enjoy the slurp! Very, very nice.
House-made shio milk sorbet… Sea salt milk sorbet, meant to (again) be partnered with the kuromitsu. So good together!
House-made mango sorbet… Tropically true to the essence of this, the king of fruits.
House-made pineapple sorbet… A very apropos way to close out my SushiSho Waikiki experience!
Chef Keiji Nakazawa, shokunin Sohei Matsukura, and the rest of the SushiSho team are truly working magic here in Honolulu. Service was warm and professional. In the true Japanese way, here is no tipping at SushiSho, since the gratuity is already rolled into the cost of the meal.
As you can see from my notes above, I thoroughly loved my first seating at SushiSho. Likely as other patrons before me, the take-home theme I observed this evening was that of balance: Balance in the use of local and non-local ingredients, balance between traditional and innovative culinary thinking, and balance in the progression and natural rhythms of the omakase as an artform. We truly consider ourselves fortunate to have dined here, and hope for a return trip in the near future!
SushiSho at the Ritz-Carlton Residences Waikiki Beach
383 Kalaimoku St.
Waikiki Beach, HI 96815