To become an itamae (chef) of sushi one must train for decades. After several years of apprenticing you may earn the honor of making sushi rice. Once this technique is mastered you can perform tasks such as filleting fish, slicing vegetables and grating daikon. It is a slow, steady process that produces the highest level of craftsmanship.
Although this protocol exsists in any sushi restaurant, some hold higher standards than others. Sushi Sho offers a unique approach to sushi expertly executed by individuals highly devoted to their craft. Reservations are so coveted it can take months of patience and strategy to snag one.
Master itamae Kieji Nakazawa, owner of the acclaimed Sushi Sho in Tokyo, arrived to Hawaiʻi in 2012 to island-hop and fish while Sho’s sister restaurant was being built in Waikīkī. Tucked behind a nondescript black door inside of the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Nakazawa uses 200-year-old edomae sushi techniques such as curing, pickling, aging or lightly cooking fish before serving versus serving it completely raw. In Hawaiʻi, Nakazawa steps out of Tokyo tradition to create a new custom. While he still utilizes Japanese ingredients and techniques, he places his discoveries from his new home, such as abalone from Hawai’i Island and shrimp from Molokai’i, center stage.
In a 2019 video produced by Eater, Nakazawa likens himself to a conductor and a performer, while his staff, working in unison alongside him, backs the performance. His cooks must first learn how to clean and greet guests to his high standards, only then will they start to be trained in the art of sushi making.
The various levels of training each employee must master, before becoming a conductor themselves, are demonstrated the moment one passes through the black door. A wide-eyed itamae-in-training, wearing pressed chef whites and toque, greeted us with the awkward diligence of someone trying very hard to do a job he is not yet skilled at. To keep service elevated, each party is then paired with their own server who is trained to take care of guest’s needs throughout the meal with poise.
After passing a row of elegantly wrapped takeout orders lined up for Ritz-Carlton guests, you arrive to comfortable chairs in the dimly lit dining room where you are instructed to relax until your space at the counter is ready. Across from you a glowing 10-seat sushi bar awaits, lined with golden refrigerated drawers carved to depict the father of edomae sushi fishing for moi. As you approach the counter a spotlight shines down on Nakazawa, standing center stage, who looks up at you with a timely, irasshaimase (welcome to the restaurant).
The meal begins the moment your server pushes in the chair behind you. Select a 4- or 8-course sake pairing, expertly chosen by Nakazawa to accompany your 25 plus course dinner, or opt for beverages by the glass. According to the restaurant, the Gangi – a cloudy, unfiltered sparkling Junmai sake – served first to begin the meal can only be found in Hawaiʻi at Sushi Sho. Seconds after your first sip, single-bite courses arrive one after another like a seamless succession of fireworks, offering only a brisk moment in between to reflect and settle for your next course.
A bowl of diced, crunchy hearts of palm topped with ribbons of pickled ginger appears in front of you and is refilled regularly between courses to cleanse your palate. Local aku cured in banana leaf is garnished with grated daikon and a single drop of calamansi to counterbalance its richness. A square of tofu made of taro quivers under a mound of sesame-scented herring roe. Smooth, plump Kusshi oysters from British Columbia, goldeneye snapper from Japan cured in kelp, fatty salmon from the 300-mile Copper River in Alaska revered for being some of the finest in the world. These are the types of dishes you will find at Sho.
As he hands over each course, Nakazama whispers the origin of ingredients and how they are prepared in Japanese, while your server standing behind you translates. He is not shy about sharing his techniques. For his signature ankimo (steamed monkfish liver) he divulges he prefers simmering the luxurious liver versus steaming and lets it cool completely in the poaching liquid before removing to retain optimal moisture. A pristine cube adorned with a sliver of three-year-fermented baby watermelon and dab of grated wasabi feels like firm, buttery foie gras torchon between the teeth. Before you can swallow Nakazawaʻs second in command presents a burgundy-colored, shrunken watermelon the size of a plum evoking an air of privilege.
Nakazama’s wooden rice bowl is repeatedly refilled throughout service by the tiny army behind him to ensure it remains at the perfect temperature. Using a long paintbrush like a quill Nakazawa paints a single brushstroke of nikiri (reduced and sweetened soy sauce) onto a perfectly formed piece of nigiri before placing it onto the board in front of you. The combined flavor of vinegared California Tamaki Gold Rice over nikiri swiped, lightly cured fish enhanced with a mere speck of sea salt and dab of wasabi tinier than your pinky nail tickles the back of the jaw with so much vigor one bite feels like a reawakening.
Additional savory courses and desserts are optional if you want to add scenes to the performance. Here, Nakazawa reveals especially high-priced items such as lobster tail and scallops. A typical dessert could be a bowl of slippery kuzukiri (jelly-like kudzu noodles) waiting in an ice bath for you to rescue and dunk them into a dark sugary glaze that doubles as a caramel sauce for salt milk ice cream.
The cadence of service is like catching all green traffic lights. Timing is seamless even when the kitchen is accommodating allergies. Witnessing the crew work together is like watching a master class for chefs on what a perfectly cohesive team looks like. Nakazama senses everyone’s motions whether he can see them or not, catching mistakes before they can materialize in front of the guest. There are women in the kitchen too, something not always seen in sushi restaurants. Cooks answer to chef requests with well-projected callbacks, appearing promptly from the kitchen with the next ingredients needed. All the while, Nakazawa drawing his gleaming sword of a sushi knife in front of you like a samurai conducting a show, or Sho, like no other.
Sushi Sho is located inside The Ritz-Carlton Residences, 383 Kalaimoku St, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, 96815. Closed Mondays. Call (808) 729-9717 to make a reservation 2 p.m.-10 p.m Tuesday-Sunday.