Sushi Specialist

Trust the chef at Sushi Sasabune

There are moments during dinner at Sushi Sasabune when you wonder if there’s wizardry at work. Behind a glass-fronted sushi counter, chef/owner and sushi master

Seiji Kumagawa takes rice from a large cooker, passes it between his fingers, molds the grains swiftly and then tops them with slices of fresh fish, all with a sleight of hand comparable to that of a seasoned illusionist. There’s a rhythm to his work that’s mesmerizing, and it’s easy to find yourself staring. As you let the first piece of perfectly prepared, unadorned sushi slide across your tongue, you realize that at Sushi Sasabune, there is culinary magic in the air.

From the moment you enter, it’s clear that Sasabune is no ordinary restaurant. Come without a reservation and you’ll be greeted by a pleasant host, who explains that with the omakase (“chef’s choice”) there is no menu. There’s also no way of knowing how much dinner might cost, although you can bank on around $80-$100 per person with a glass or two of beer or sake.

There are those who leave immediately, others who huddle outside trying to decide whether to enter or not, and then there are those for whom Sasabune is something of a pilgrimage. But one thing’s for sure – if you do venture inside this tiny restaurant, your idea of sushi will be changed forever.

When I first thought of writing about Sasabune, I contemplated not even talking to Chef Kumagawa. After all, it’s his reputation as the “Sushi Nazi” that adds to the mystique. And while it would undoubtedly be sexier to present the story of the steely eyed, handsome Japanese chef uttering monosyllabic instructions before each bite, it was obvious after just one visit that Chef Kumagawa’s opinion of his restaurant would be infinitely more intriguing than my own.

The chef with the serious reputation and the single-minded approach to sushi was born and raised in Japan, but left in the early 1980s to pursue a culinary career. First he went to study French techniques in Paris and then made his way through Spain, Greece and Italy before moving to London, all the while studying the food cultures of each city. Returning to America, he headed for one of the richest culinary environments in the U.S., ultimately making Louisiana his home. But it was on a trip to Los Angeles that Kumagawa found a sushi master, and the food that spoke to his soul.

Confident that the restaurant concept and extraordinary skills he’d learned in L.A. would be well-received by Honolulu’s discriminating diners, Seiji opened Sasabune, and from the beginning encouraged customers to eat his way.

“If you want to experience very serious steak, then you don’t go to Denny’s – you go to the best steak house you can find. The best sushi means you have to go to a specialized sushi restaurant,” Kumagawa says.

In defense of his omakase, he says, “If everyone is allowed to order what they want, then they will never order new things. People are afraid to try different things in sushi restaurants. What I want them to do is to enjoy the experience. When they taste something like raw mackerel or scallop or uni, they often realize that they like it.”

What he really means is that, if left to our own devices, we’d all be ordering California rolls or slices of unagi brushed with ponzu while thinking of ourselves as the culinary enlightened.

“This is our style,” he says, explaining the basic instructions that accompany each course and fuel rumors of his dictatorial style. “First we tell you what you’re eating and where it’s from. Then I introduce to you the correct way to eat.”

He pronounces the word “introduce” with charming deliberation, a sliver of a smile appearing at the corner of his mouth.

“In-tro-duce,” he emphasizes, “the correct way to eat.” The utterly perfect fish, with nary a stringy fiber remaining after meticulous preparation, would be ruined by a drenching in salty shoyu or a slathering of hot wasabi. The comfortingly warm rice, with its fragile air pockets, will break apart if dipped harshly into a bowl of wasabi or stabbed inexpertly with chop-sticks. Hamachi, Boston bluefin, toro tartar and squid-stuffed blue crab are impossibly soft and melt instantly on the tongue. They need little or no accompaniment.

“Some people trust me and some people don’t,” says Kumagawa, with a shrug. “That’s fine. There are a lot of sushi restaurants out there. There are many places people can go.”

That’s true, but there’s nowhere quite like this. You can expect to eat about 13 different courses when you go, beginning perhaps with tuna, followed by hamachi or snapper or Spanish mackerel or Atlantic salmon, then yellow tail or Boston bluefin, and then scallop, sea urchin or blue crab from Louisiana. You can stop the sushi coming at any time, but if you immerse yourself in the Sasabune experience, your anticipation level rises with each new plate and with each new set of instructions: “Tuna. From South Africa. With wasabi. Two bites.”

Sushi begins arriving at the table within minutes of guests being seated, and it comes almost without a word being exchanged between the chef, his assistant and the servers. “I am the only one making the sushi, so I see everything that is going on and I know every corner of the restaurant,” the chef explains. He also knows how guests are reacting to each course (usually two pieces of sushi at one time), and when they are ready for more.

“I like this restaurant,” he says, “because I want to see everything.”

The fish comes from around the world, but rarely from Hawaiian waters. On a typical day you’ll find 25 different kinds
of fish at Sasabune, all of them the best in their market. Buyers from South Africa, Boston and the Mediterranean are in daily contact with chef, reporting the quality of their catch and its price. “This is a restaurant where everything is raw,” Kumagawa says, “yet everything is of the highest quality. That means keeping the fish fresh is very important.”

And very costly. Keeping tabs on the global fish market and expediting the transportation of raw, non-frozen fish as quickly as possible to the most isolated island chain in the world is something of a minor miracle. And a major expense. “Imagine,” says Kumagawa, “you can eat raw fish from South Africa in the middle of the Pacific.” And then he pauses, as if to let to that quite incredible fact sink in.

If you want to taste some of the best sushi in the world, it would be hard to find a restaurant to beat Sasabune.

If you want to get a close up experience of this sushi master at work, then grab a seat at the sushi bar and choose the omakase. And if you’ve heard those rumors about the rules and the dictatorial dining, then go and try it anyway. It might be a small and unpretentious restaurant, but it also might be the sushi experience of your life.

As chef would say, trust me.

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