It’s a salt water moment—a time for sushi-lovers to shed tears. Towards the end of this month, Naked Fish as we know it will close, to re-open in December as a whole new concept headed by Chef David Hopps, with Chef Akane Nakamura, when she returns from a Michelin-starred sabbatical in San Francisco.
But it’s going out with a bang, not a whimper. Friday night we were invited to eat sushi at Naked Fish, so that Johnny Kwon could explain to us why he didn’t want to serve sushi anymore.
“Come around 5:30,” he suggested. “That’s when the rice is best.”
Funny. You hear a lot about how fresh the fish is at sushi restaurants, but very little about the rice. But our first bite of nigiri was all about the rice. About the temperature of your tongue, the grains barely held together by their surface starch, this rice was so far from the chilly, glutinous mass so often served in sushi restaurants it was almost unrecognizable. The fish was bigeye tuna—Chef Dave Hopps, who has replaced Sunny Tsogbadrakh (here is Sunny’s portrait by photographer Adam Finkle)behind the sushi bar, says he gets this fish from the only source that offers the ultra and premium grades.
Soy sauce, slightly desalinated, house-made wasabi and house-pickled ginger were the artisanal refinements of the usual sushi condiments, and we ate with the aid of some coaching from Dave. (“Dip the fish in the soy and not the rice.” “This one won’t need any soy.” Etc.) As well as some discipline: He served us; then we were distracted by a question from a server. When we turned back to our plates, the sushi had disappeared. We had let it wait too long—four, five minutes?—and Dave had trashed it.
Towards the end of the meal, to prove the freshness point, he made a couple of salmon nigiri and set them aside while we enjoyed our uni.
“Now see,” he said, handing us the reserved plates. “How much difference absolute freshness makes.” And how fragile it is. And how right he is.
This is why Naked Fish is disappearing: Owner Johnny Kwon says if he can’t do it right, he doesn’t want to do it all. “Right” would be a dedicated, 20-seat sushi bar, probably more expensive than sushi place in town. Not really a viable business plan in a town that supports all-you-can-eat and half-price sushi on every corner.
The fact is, sushi is expensive and ought to be—it depends on a disappearing resource (wild fish of incredible quality) and absolute immediacy. Both are close to unattainable in the Utah market. We are both too landlocked and too cheap.
No doubt Kwon and Hopps’ next venture (I’ll be checking out a bit of a preview tonight) will be as ambitious as Naked Fish. Both men are perfectionists—Hopps is coming to Salt Lake City from Saison, one of, if not the, most expensive restaurant inSan Francisco’s.
But I advise you to go get some sushi while it lasts.