Each chef grabbed a mallet and brought it crashing down on a decorative drum in thunderous unison, signaling the ceremonial start of a unique culinary event in Manhattan Beach. On July 8, two-year-old Sashi Sushi + Sake Lounge invited me to attend a special six-course dinner honoring executive chef Makoto Okuwa’s appearance on “Iron Chef America,” where he battled Michael Symon. At Sashi, the show played on flat screens, but the approximately 200 diners were more concerned about whose cuisine would reign cuisine in-house.
Prior to joining Sashi, Okuwa worked as Executive Sushi Chef at Morimoto New York and Philadelphia. He previously performed as a sous chef in 13 episodes of “Iron Chef America” before taking center stage on one of the Food Network’s marquee shows.
Mentor Masaharu Morimoto was in-house for the screening and to prepare a course. Other chefs preparing courses included Okuwa, Top Chef Season Six champion Michael Voltaggio (The Dining Room at The Langham), Waylynn Lucas (Patina), Noriyuki Sugie (Ironnori) and Sonny Sweetman (Executive Chef for a division of Wolfgang Puck catering). Of course Voltaggio already intended to leave The Langham to open his own restaurant, and by the end of the meal, we learned that Lucas was returning to The Bazaar.
Sashi is one of the anchor tenants of the Metlox Block, which previously housed a ceramics manufacturer and now serves as one of the community’s more prominent public spaces. In the courtyard, you’ll also find the boutique Shade Hotel, a progressive Greek restaurant called Petros and, on Tuesday afternoons in warmer months, a farmers market. Guests had plenty of time to ponder the surroundings as a leisurely two-hour hors d’oeuvres session was just the beginning of a marathon evening.
A small army of ancillary chefs (some prominent) contributed to the meal, including L’Ermitage chef Troy Thompson. He filled trays with Chilled Nasu, Unagi Roll with Shiso. In English, the roll amounted to smoky roasted eggplant and freshwater eel that were arranged in a yin-yang pattern and topped with sweet onion compote and micro shiso.
Sonny Sweetman came up with an original take on the played out combination of beet and goat cheese, sandwiching savory roasted beet macarons with tangy goat cheese.
Okuwa, the chef with the home kitchen advantage, prepared a plank of Shikai Maki Prosciutto di Parma, an atypical but texturally satisfying roll involving a fried prosciutto shell and a checkerboard core of carrot and fontina cheese.
Hatchi curator Noriyuki Sugie topped slates with bamboo leaf-wrapped bundles of onigiri that he flavored with ume, sour Japanese plum. This bite packed the night’s smallest wow factor, since it was the most familiar.
Michael Voltaggio, who appeared on the menu next to a (?) affiliation, turned McDonald’s on its head by preparing supple Sweetbread McNuggets with rhubarb ketchup dipping sauce.
To start the main event, Makoto Okuwa prepared a clever twist on bagels with cream cheese and lox. The “bagel” amounted to crisp crumbs littered with crispy bits of prosciutto. Cream cheese was just that, a generous strip topped with a thin-shaved slice of lime, a single bursting salmon roe and a crispy strip of salmon skin. The “lox” amounted to a round of silky Smoked Copper River Salmon that was accented with oil, dill, capers and a pickled baby onion. Those last two elements, and the lime, contributed balancing acidity.
Noriyuki Sugie stuck with his minimalist approach by preparing Caesar Salad, liquified. His Caesar Soup featured smoky bacon foam that overpowered the green Parmesan-infused liquid at the bottom of the unwieldy cup.
Sonny Sweetman segued into the heart of the menu with his Chilled Lobster Salad. He arrayed plump, sweet lobster meat on a rectangular spinach and fennel puree with micro greens, and tender summer vegetables like yellow carrot, artichoke and asparagus. The consensus at our table was that the yuzu dressing was too sweet. Agreed.
It was my first time tasting Masaharu Morimoto’s food, but there’s clearly a reason that he’s earned international acclaim. His Steamed Kimmedai (Japanese big eye snapper) was a master work, with tender meat that slid easily from the bones and an absolutely intoxicating XO Jan and fish sauce that received added punch and depth of flavor from the float of sesame ginger oil.
Based on previous experiences, Michael Voltaggio seems to be quite fond of sous vide Wagyu Beef. This time, he added “Thai Flavor,” with an impossibly tender square of eggplant and red curry. The beef had no sear for textural contrast, but the slice was meltingly tender. Instead, Voltaggio relied on crispy puffed rice to provide the texture.
Waylynn Lucas is the only pastry chef to factor into two four-star reviews in the LA Times in recent memory (and maybe ever?). She paired a rich S-shaped dark chocolate ganache with herbaceous eucalyptus ice cream. Crunchy peppermint meringue and chocolate crumbs both added textural contrast to a well balanced dessert.
After almost six hours in the kitchen, the chefs gathered for a triumphant group shot. It’s hard to imagine having any regrets after spending six hours in a single restaurant, but I later heard that Masaharu Morimoto stuck around the sing karaoke. Apparently that’s one of his favorite ways to unwind. It would have been fun to witness that (or even participate).