Joji Nonaka and Anna Osawa started Sushi Salon, an omakase sushi pop-up at Berkeley’s Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya, in February, but the partners have purposely kept a low profile. Pandemic restrictions pushed them to adapt the intimate, sit-down omakase (chef’s choice) dining experience for takeout service, and Nonaka and Osawa have spent the past few months ensuring they can meet the high standards for food quality that diners expect with omakase sushi.
Before starting Sushi Salon, Nonaka and Osawa last worked together at Utzutzu, an eight-seat okimari (set meal) restaurant in Alameda, opened in 2018 by Oakland chef and restaurateur Chikara Ono. Both were founding Utzutzu staffers.
Nonaka took center stage at the tiny upstairs restaurant, impressing diners who sat before him with his deft and precise fish slicing, handling and presentation. Originally from Shizuoka, Japan, Nonaka’s years of experience working with raw fish started in high school, when he took a part-time job at a restaurant at age 16. Later, he went to culinary school and worked in sushi bars in Japan, L.A. and New York. After five years in the States, Nonaka moved back to Japan, where he worked at Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market before he returned once again to the U.S., this time relocating to San Francisco for his wife’s job. (They now live in San Jose.) Nonaka worked at ICHI Sushi in San Francisco, then at Ono’s other Oakland restaurant, Delage, before becoming the sushi chef at Utzuzu.
Osawa moved from Tokyo to Oakland in 2004 to study business management. After graduating, Osawa worked as a proxy analyst in San Francisco, but she realized she was more interested in working in restaurants than finance. (Although she had no formal culinary training, Osawa learned to cook traditional Japanese food from her mother while growing up in Kiryu, in Gunma prefecture.) So when she ran into her acquaintance Chikara Ono, she told him her predicament. Ono hired her to work at his restaurants, first at B-Dama, then Delage and finally Utzutzu. At Utzutzu, Osawa worked as the sole server, but later, when chef Asuka Uchida left, she doubled her duties, preparing the non-sushi dishes while still acting as server.
But in March 2020, when the pandemic closed indoor dining rooms and Ono decided to temporarily close Utzutzu, Nonaka and Osawa were both out of jobs. While not an ideal time by any means, the two chefs saw an opportunity to set off on their own together.
Nonaka and Osawa aim to open Sushi Salon as a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Oakland in the coming days. (Osawa said they’d like to be in Oakland for its “big diversity,” and for being a place where people would likely “appreciate the quality of our food.”) Like Utzutzu and other set-meal sushi restaurants, Sushi Salon will have just a handful of seats. “That’s as much as we can do with that type of service,” Osawa explained, but adding Sushi Salon will offer “something similar, but better” than other sushi spots like it.
As the brick-and-mortar is still far off, the two started Sushi Salon as a pop-up. Diners can get a preview of what’s to come — at least menu-wise — with Nonaka as sushi chef and Osawa handling operations, as well as food prep and making desserts.
While many reputable sushi restaurants across the Bay Area source fish from Japan, Sushi Salon is currently the only restaurant in the United States to get its fish from well-regarded Japanese fish broker Hiroki Hasegawa, who practices shinkei jime, a traditional Japanese fish-killing technique that involves quickly spiking the fish’s brain and spinal cord. When done by an expert like Hasegawa, the process takes mere seconds and is said to decrease the fish’s trauma and stress, which affects its freshness and flavor.
“He spikes the fish’s nerve so it stays very fresh,” Osawa explained of Hasegawa’s technique. “He treats his fish very good; they don’t feel stressed or scared.” In addition, Hasegawa only sells what is freshest and best during the season.
According to Osawa, Hasegawa solely works with people he has met in person. Nonaka met the discerning fish broker in Japan, while he was studying the art of making sushi rice. Hasegawa ships his selections for Sushi Salon from Japan on Monday afternoon, but because of the time difference, the fish arrive in Berkeley on Monday. The timing works well for Nonaka and Osawa, who operate the takeout-only pop-up at Fish & Bird on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when the restaurant is normally closed.
Along with impeccably fresh fish from Hasegawa, Nonaka sources soy sauce and vinegar from two other Japanese food artisans that help take Sushi Salon to the next level.
Founded in 1688, Horikawaya Nomura in Wakayama Prefecture is one of the few soy sauce brewers to still cook its soybeans over wood fire, a technique that deepens and enhances the flavor of its Mitsuboshi shoyu. Nonaka said its excellent flavor also is due to Horikawaya using whole, high-quality soybeans. But in addition to preferring its taste, Nonaka appreciates Horikawaya’s dedication to the traditional craft.
Sushi Salon’s rice vinegar, used to season sushi rice and other ingredients, comes from Iio Jozo, a 128-year-old vinegar brewery in Kyoto Prefecture. As with Horikawaya Nomura, Iio Jozo employs traditional Japanese techniques to make its products, starting with brewing organic rice into sake (a base ingredient for rice vinegar) and aging the product for several months to develop its flavor. According to Nonaka, Iio Jozo is only one of two vinegar breweries in Japan that strictly follow traditional techniques.
Given these highly specialized, imported ingredients, Sushi Salon is some of the most extravagant takeout you’ll find in Berkeley. Dinner for two — which comes with two sets of 12-piece chef’s choice nigiri, miso soup and seaweed salad along with one serving of dessert to share — is $250. Nonaka only makes 20 of these sets a night. Sushi Salon also offers meals for one, including a 12-piece nigiri meal with miso soup for $118, and maybe the best deal, Bara Chirashi with miso soup for $68. Each meal comes with a small tube of Mitsuboshi shoyu, freshly grated wasabi from Half Moon Bay and gari, or house-pickled ginger, which Sushi Salon cuts into little cubes, rather than thin slices.
I tried the Bara Chirashi, which comes beautifully presented in a paper box, with slices of chef’s choice sashimi scattered amongst thin squares of Japanese omelet, fish roe, cucumber and pickled burdock root over a bed of seasoned rice. The colorful assortment dazzles, with the glistening fish and shiny red-orange and yellow fish roe sparkling like jewels. The sashimi had a pleasantly firm texture and a slightly sweet flavor. When I first opened the box, my eyes were bigger than my stomach, and I thought for sure I’d still be hungry after finishing the chirashi. However, the portion is hearty, plenty to feed one hungry person or even two with lighter appetites.
Sushi Salon’s short menu also offers a scant selection of a la carte dishes, such as blue fin tuna crudo ($25), seaweed salad ($7), miso soup ($6) and slices of Salted Sakura Basque cheesecake ($12).
Nonaka and Osawa admit that takeout service for this style of food is not the same as the sit-down experience they’ll eventually bring to a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The food is prepared and boxed just before customers arrive for pickup, but for Nonaka, especially, it’s challenging making sushi knowing that it will not be eaten as soon as it’s left his skilled hands. In addition to keeping the fish extremely fresh, Nonaka must consider how the texture and flavor of the rice will change when prepared for takeout. But, thanks to his studies in making sushi rice, he learned how altering the proportions of rice, vinegar and sugar help maintain the quality.
At the end of April, Sushi Salon got its first press, a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle, which was a boon for its founders, who haven’t spent much time or effort advertising the pop-up except for postings on Instagram. But as Osawa explained, they wanted to make sure things were just right before taking on more than they could handle. And, fortunately, popping up at Fish & Bird meant getting on the radar of the Berkeley izakaya’s regulars — diners who are already interested and knowledgeable about the type of high-quality Japanese fare that Sushi Salon offers. Fish & Bird co-owners, Yoshika Hedberg and Asuka Uchida, both worked at Utzutzu in the past and are glad to support their friends.
“I want them to be visible,” Hedberg said. “We are lucky to have a space, and we want to help get them to the next level.”
Sushi Salon pops-up every other Tuesday and Wednesday at Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya, 2451 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. The next pop-ups are May 11-12 and May 25-26.