For the past two decades, chef Kaz Okochi has tried to shy away from the obvious at his eponymous sushi bistro in Foggy Bottom. As Kaz Sushi Bistro rings in its 20th anniversary this month, the chef who helped pioneer the use of Western ingredients in D.C.’s sushi scene is looking back to his native Japan for another counterintuitive idea: fresh isn’t always best.
This month, Okochi’s bistro is introducing a new omakase — or “chef’s choice” — menu that focuses on fish that has been marinated, cured, or aged. The menu will be offered all year long. For $100, it includes two Japanese appetizers — think a soybean-free, green tofu made out of sesame and kale, or eggplant noodles that substitute for cold soba — and 15 pieces of nigiri.
As opposed to the bistro’s regular eight-course tasting menu, this format puts the spotlight squarely on the sushi. For the special omakase, Okochi is sourcing more fish from Japan. Although that increases the quality, he says that means some fish might still arrive a day or two after they were killed. He and his staff have to be selective with what cuts to use and how to preserve them, using salt water, pickling techniques, or curing fish with ingredients such as miso and kombu.
“I think it’s something that’s worth to try, to bring more of the technique and skills from Japan [rather] than just making the rolls,” Okochi says.
While the new omakase is meant to mimic a way of eating that’s popular in Tokyo, Okochi has an eye on Kyoto for another celebratory menu. The restaurant is selling tickets to an 11-course kaiseki tasting dinner ($150) on Tuesday, April 16, and Wednesday, April 17. Okochi can’t say what will be on the menu yet because the hyper-seasonal meal will be at the mercy of what’s fresh those days.
“You have to tweak almost last-minute because of the availability,” Okochi says.
Okochi, a certified sake adviser, is pairing the special meals with a $32 sake tasting that includes seven varieties of the rice-based spirit.
While he first discussed incorporating 20 years of greatest hits into the special menus, Okochi decided he didn’t want to look back. He’s looking to the future by playing up the skills of Satoshi Kagaya and Nao Matsui, two proteges who worked in Michelin-starred kitchens in Japan. They have been studying with Okochi for the past three years as he shifts into more of an advisory role.
“I’m more in the position of overseeing things,” Okochi says. “Of course I give them ideas. ... I don’t do like I used to do, everything from scratch.”
Okochi says he’s gradually phasing in the new talent because it takes a long time to adjust to culture shock and learn the American palate, which can be a moving target. For example, Okochi remembers a time when Americans wouldn’t touch sea urchin roe. He says some customers still cry foul when they see the bistro’s sushi rolls, which Okochi keeps small to preserve the balance between rice and fish. Super-sized rolls are a purely American invention, he says.
In 1988, Okochi left Osaka to take a job in the District at Sushiko. He says he had an agreement in place for five years while he worked in Japan and jumped through hoops to acquire his visa. He originally wanted to study French cuisine, but a counselor at cooking school told him that preparing sushi would be his best way to get to the United States.
Every sushi menu in D.C. looked the same back then, he says, because most everyone was using the same fish mongers. Differentiating himself was always his first priority.
“At that time I was just thinking about food 24/7,” he says. “The best time was when I’m driving home or taking a shower, because I was alone and there was no distraction.”
Striking up a dialogue with the chefs at the Inn at Little Washington helped influence Okochi’s career, and he saw raw fish making its way into Italian and French kitchens throughout the ‘90s and the aughts. Now crudo is everywhere.
He played with mango puree and nigiri, and eventually added crunchy and cooked elements that are now a normal part of many sushi chefs’ repertoires. Today, the sea bass Napoleon built on fried wonton skins is listed as his signature dish. Okochi grew to despise the word “fusion,” because he felt it conveyed the idea of smashing combinations together.
He grew more comfortable with experimentation, acknowledging that it was OK to cross boundaries and expand how he defines himself.
“My definition of Japanese cuisine is everything I cook as a Japanese chef is Japanese cuisine,” he says.