Japanese sushi seems more popular than ever before in the US. For example, 20% of New York’s Michelin-starred restaurants are sushi restaurants this year.
Along with those high-end establishments, more democratic versions of sushi restaurants are gaining popularity as well. An example is SUGARFISH by Sushi Nozawa, which originally opened in Los Angeles in 2008 and expanded to New York in 2016. Now they have 10 restaurants in Los Angeles and two in New York.
SUGARFISH was created Kazunori and Tom Nozawa and the four other founding partners of the Sushi Nozawa Group. The legendary chef Kazunori Nozawa only served traditional-style sushi (i.e. no California rolls or spicy tuna rolls) at the now closed 25-seat Sushi Nozawa in Studio City, Los Angeles for 25 years until 2012. His menu was only omakase (“leave it to the chef”).
At SUGARFISH, his philosophy continues. On the menu in New York, there are four traditional omakase courses, and even for dinner that is slightly more expensive than lunch, the price ranges from $28 to $63. (And this is the city where $200 omakase is not unusual.) 80% of their customers order omakase, although there are many a la carte options as well.
Tom Nozawa thinks that the high quality of fish is the key to SUGARFISH’s success. “Our business is about honoring my dad’s style of sushi, which is based on a commitment to only the highest quality ingredients, served in a way that highlights the flavors and textures of the fish.” Hence the traditional style of sushi is the ideal medium to express them.
Serving omakase helps to maintain consistent high quality too. “It allows us to focus on getting the absolute highest quality of each ingredient, because our omakase reduces the number of items we would need to have”, he says. Having fewer items to purchase allows higher quality per item, and less waste through managing the smaller inventory.
Their business is booming, but in the times of seafood shortage, how do they deal with sustainability? “It’s a very complicated topic. We believe our role is to contribute to the long-term sustainability of fish. So we travel the world literally to meet the people at the source including fisherman, seafood companies, and researchers.”
Omakase seems to contribute to seafood preservation as well by encouraging consumption of a diverse range of fish. Nozawa says, “After food quality, the most important goal of Sushi Nozawa is educating our guests on some of the great, traditional sushi items. Omakase allows us to expose our guests to things they might not try otherwise, and in the sushi world there are many things people might not try without a nudge.”
The same partners of SUGARFISH opened KazuNori, The Original Hand Roll Bar in 2014, which now has three locations in Los Angeles and one in New York. “At my dad’s original restaurant in Studio City, one of the many highlights was, if you were sitting at the bar, he would hand you a freshly made hand roll. The bite is just simply a wow. But the key is to eat it right away. At least that’s the key if you are using the best nori seaweed there is, which we do. It occurred to our team that experience was worth a restaurant on its own, and we created KazuNori. We didn’t know what people would make of it, and it turns out they love it! We could not be more pleased.”
Alongside the approachable SUGARFISH and KazuNori, Nozawa have a 10-seat $175 omakase-only Nozawa Bar too. It opened in 2013 with chef Osamu Fujita who is a long time friend and colleague of Kazunori Nozawa at the helm. “We wanted to offer a different experience and educate them with new items that is not available at SUGARFISH”, says Nozawa. “We have three brands simply because we are passionate about the food that each restaurant serves. It’s not driven by business reasons. That said, having all three does help with our buying power which allows us to get the best from around the world for our guests at costs other cannot do.“
Their business and the sushi industry overall seem to benefit from the strong health-orientation of American diners. Nozawa says, “We have seen an increasing interest in the healthfulness of sushi, which is high in Omega-3 fatty acids. So some guests are eating more salmon most likely due to the health benefits, despite the fact that most fish are Omega-3 rich.”
Consumer’s increasing knowledge of fish may be another reason why the sushi industry keeps growing. And restaurants like Nozawa’s have been playing important role in educating diners. Nozawa is pleasantly surprised to find the change in their preference in recent years. “They are more open to some of items that are yet-to-be popular in this country such as hirame and sea bream. Also, kampachi is a good example. It is a relative of the Japanese yellowtail, but it isn’t quite as rich as yellowtail. Years ago guests clearly preferred the yellowtail, now it’s a 50/50 split.”
Since the arrival of sushi in 1950s in the US, the industry has evolved quite dramatically. How does Nozawa predict the future of sushi in the US? “It’s hard to foresee the industry. What I can predict about us is that we will stick to our simple idea – that every day is an opportunity for us to hone our craft so we can achieve our goal to give our guests the best sushi there is.”