Kaz Sushi Bistro: Exceptional Food and a Chat with Chef Kaz Okochi

Jennifer Farley

A few weeks ago I visited my favorite sushi restaurant, KAZ Sushi Bistro, located in downtown DC.  I’ve been to many local sushi restaurants over the years and I can honestly say that KAZ has some of the best sushi I’ve ever tried.  One of the many things that stands out to me about this wonderful restaurant is the quality of the fish. The tastes and textures are incredible.  Chef Kaz Okochi is an artist and I was lucky enough to spend some time interviewing him after my most recent trip to the restaurant.  Before getting into the interview, here are some highlights from the meal:

We began our dinner with the Bird's Nest, a bed of thin-sliced baby calamari and sea urchin in a truffle-soy sauce with fine strands of nori and a quail egg on top. What’s not to love?  The toothsome squid and crisp nori provided a perfect texture against the creamy uni and egg yolk.  Fatty, flavorful, and an absolute must when dining at this restaurant.  If you’ve never tried sea urchin, this is a wonderful way to experience it for the first time.

Next up was the Sea Trout Napoleon, KAZ's signature dish, consisting of sea trout, cilantro, peanuts, and fried wonton skin. This dish has all of the elements you want on a plate: crunch from the wonton skin and peanuts, a bit of acidity from rice vinegar, sweetness from beet juice and a touch of sugar, and just the right amount of kick from chili sesame oil and ginger juice.

Finally we were treated to a large platter of nigiri.  If you're a fan of foie gras, you must try KAZ's version with plum wine gelée.  Creamy and rich like butter with the most delicate liver flavor you can imagine.  We called them little bites of heaven.  The salmon with mango puree is simple, yet very exciting to me.  When I was new to sushi and relying strictly on rolls, I loved finding the occasional roll with mango.  As my sushi palate has evolved, I tend to eat mostly nigiri but I miss that burst of sweetness. Chef Kaz offers the best of both worlds with this gorgeous piece of salmon topped with a tangy sweet puree.  Other standouts for me included the sea urchin (uni) and salmon caviar (ikura).  I often won't order these two items at sushi restaurants because I find them overly fishy and salty.  Not the case here.  Before traveling to Japan several years ago I always assumed these two delicacies just weren't for me.  Overseas I found them to be amazingly good: mild, full of delicate flavor and rich texture.  

After tasting them at KAZ Sushi Bistro, I inquired with the chef as to why his nigiri was so much better than many other local sushi restaurants.  Why did it remind me of Japan? This evolved into a larger interview about his background experience, Japanese food traditions a the differences between Japanese sushi versus Americanized sushi.  Here is a bit of our interview:

Where did you first learn to cook? What are some of your first memories of food?

I went to culinary school in Osaka and that built my basics.  When I was younger, my mother worked and often wasn’t home when I returned from school so I sort of learned what to do in kitchen by myself.  The first meal I cooked was “Chicken Rice” which is ketchup flavored fried rice, and flan that I found recipe on back of a school meal menu.  I cooked them for my mother’s birthday and it made her cry.  Another recipe I tried to make was a strawberry shortcake that I got from my mother’s cookbook.  Unfortunately every time the sponge turned out almost like cookies no matter how hard I tried.  We didn’t have an electric mixer at the time and it was too hard for 5th grade boy to beat the eggs to peak.

While dining at KAZ Sushi Bistro I noticed that the fish was very reminiscent of sushi I enjoyed while traveling in Tokyo and Osaka.  Can you explain some of the ways that sushi is different in Japan compared with the United States?

The United States is probably the most diverse country in terms of people but Japan is the most diverse country in terms of food.  For over one hundred years Japan has been importing and accepting food from all over the world.  You see this not only at restaurants but also at every meal at home.  I grew up eating curry, spaghetti, croquettes, bread, Chinese noodles and fried rice, etc.  So it is very natural for me to add non Japanese ingredients on my dishes. I think that makes my cooking different from many other chefs.

In general, Japanese culture including the food is very simple and pure.  Every single element has to be very precise. Japanese people prefer simple fish, sushi rice, wasabi and soy sauce.  They judge the sushi by the fine balance of those ingredients. They enjoy the small differences in similar types of fish, the difference in seasons, and the place the fish was caught.  It is almost like tasting water from different area.  On the other hand, Americans usually like bold flavors and unique combinations of ingredients.  Minimal differences are not really important. The difference is like a zen garden vs a big flower garden.  When I cook, I usually don’t mix too many ingredients but like to add some accents.  I like to add touches of spice, aroma, and sweetness in my dishes. There is a big difference between mixing and adding.

Another difference is that in Japan, nigiri is more common while in America rolls are more common.  I think the reason for this is 1) simplicity versus complexity and 2) financials reasons. In Japan, sushi has always been considered a very special gourmet meal and only recently did restaurants start offering it in a casual way.  So for many people it is special occasion meal and they expect to pay a high price.  One of the main reasons for this is the high price is labor.  If you sit down at a sushi bar it's the same as having your own private chef.  Sushi was originally a hand-made craft and not meant to be part of the mass production product. In America, sushi became very popular in a short period of time and was developed with more of a commercial mindset instead of focusing on craftsmanship, especially by non-Japanese sushi restaurants.  So because of the volume of sushi rolls and the complex flavor combinations, rolls are more popular in US.

Many sushi lovers I know tend to use quite a bit of soy sauce and wasabi. Is this how sushi is traditionally served in Japan?

Wasabi is not served on the side in Japan because sushi chefs are supposed to know the proper amount of wasabi to put between the fish and rice depending on the type of fish, season and customer.   When real wasabi is served it is best not to mix it with soy sauce because it will lose flavor. You apply real wasabi directly onto the fish and then dip the fish into the soy sauce. The most commonly used wasabi is a mixture of mustard and horseradish powder. It doesn't have same delicate flavor as real wasabi so it doesn't make much of a difference if mixed with soy sauce, in my opinion.  

Why do Americans use so much wasabi?  My assumption is that they like the unique spiciness and are trying to hide the unfamiliar flavor of raw seafood.  The same is true with soy sauce; people are not really used to tasting raw seafood and try to cover the flavor. They are also used to the way soy sauce is served with dumplings. However, dumpling skin doesn't absorb soy sauce like rice does.  Americans love the umami flavor of soy sauce.

Two other elements of sushi dining that I consider to be very important are the rice and sake. Can you elaborate on these?

The word "sushi" in fact means vinegared rice. Sushi rice is always unique to each restaurant.  The fish might be the same as next door but the rice will always be different. For instance, Osaka style and Tokyo style sushi rice are very different. In Tokyo, many restaurants use only vinegar and salt in their rice so the final product is salty. In Osaka, a bigger portion of rice is given and the rice has much more flavor and sugar added, creating a sweet and sour flavor with both salt and sugar. Today, many restaurants use store brands of rice wine vinegar are pre-seasoned. At Kaz Sushi Bistro we used a special aged red sake vinegar for homemade seasoning, serving our rice Osaka style with more sweetness and flavor. For cooking sushi rice, it should always be firmer than standard rice and use less water. Each grain should have a really good texture.

Sake has seen a huge growth over the last 20 years in the US. Many people think that sake is comparable to wine in that it’s supposed to be paired with food. This is not true. Sake is actually more of a palate cleanser and you’ll never go wrong when ordering it at a sushi restaurant. Good sake is not necessarily cold, but every sake has a specific temperature at which it is best enjoyed. In Japan there are actually people whose whole job is to test the temperature of the sake. I take a lot of pleasure in selecting new and different sakes to serve at KAZ Sushi Bistro, so I always encourage people to try something unique and exciting, as opposed to old favorites. Hopefully when you come in, you will notice these subtleties and appreciate them as I do. We welcome you to visit us!

Kaz Sushi Bistro
1915 I Street NW
Washington, DC 20006

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