Sushi Superstar
Ooka’s Shuji Hiyakawa and the sushi revolution
by Brian Freedman

Few cuisines have seen as impressive a rise in popularity in recent years as Japanese. Indeed, what once was considered exotic and adventurous— Raw fish! Hibachi! Miso soup!—has somehow become as American as hamburgers and pizza.

The benefit of this new status is that more people are being exposed to the typically delicious restraint of Japanese food. The drawback, or the risk, is that it will become as homogenized and generic as so much Chinese food has in this country. (There are exceptions, of course.)

Which is what makes chefs like Shuji Hiyakawa so important: The combination of his classical training, his impressive resume, and his willingness to push the envelope in terms of his preparations is exactly the kind of catalyst that will not only drive Japanese cuisine in America forward, but also will keep it from calcifying. In that regard, he is very much like Chef Masaharu Morimoto, at whose eponymous Center City restaurant Hiyakawa worked as executive sushi chef before moving to Ooka.

Ooka has become so popular, in fact, that it now has outposts in Montgomeryville (where Chef Hiyakawa is based), Doylestown, Willow Grove and Riverside, Ca. While it still offers classic hibachi and a menu that has a broad range, Chef Hiyakawa is making his biggest impact with riffs on the classics that challenge assumptions about what Japanese cuisine is capable of.

The Applejack Roll, for example, is exactly the kind of preparation that guests have likely never heard of, but that, immediately after the first bite, elicits wonderment as to why no one ever thought of it before. It’s unusual, yes, but perfectly logical: A roll of Fuji apple tempura with avocado and king crab, all of it draped with brilliant Scottish salmon, a yuzo-miso glaze, and chopped pistachios. It is the kind of bright, rich dish that works perfectly during the cooler months.

I recently spoke with Chef Hiyakawa and General Manager Skyler Strouth about the restaurant, how one gets to a point at which he’s confident enough to tinker with the standards and the ascendency of Japanese cuisine.

BF: Your background is impressive, from both your training in Japan to your work experience in the United States. Tell me a bit about it.

Chef Hiyakawa: My background is in Japanese traditional sushi training. And I’ve been here in the United State for almost 12 years. I spent five years in California, and after that I moved to Philly to work for Morimoto for five years [before joining Ooka Restaurant Group].

BF: Morimoto is one of the most prestigious Japanese restaurants in the region. How did your time there affect your approach to working as a chef?

Chef Hiyakawa: Working there, I met so many people from other countries...and I learned so many things from them.  Techniques from other countries— French, Italian and also other Asian cuisines.

Skyler Strouth: Anytime a chef like Shuji works at a place like Morimoto, and is exposed to many different cuisines, you kind of get a new slant on what your cuisine is. Having been steeped in traditional Japanese sushi, and then being exposed to all this, you’re just bringing in those different components from other people that you learn or see, and creating a whole new style of food that’s your own style... Sushi bars right now are sushi bars; they put out sushi, they put a piece of raw fish on rice. But Shuji has the ability to highlight the flavor profile of each fish and magnify it by sauces and preparation that’s essentially on a different level than just putting out a piece of sushi. The Japanese way is the proper way, so that’s the tradition, but how you treat each fish can be dubbed your own interpretation.

BF: So with all of this creativity, what has the response been among the customers?

Skyler Strouth: Essentially people are surprised and usually elated to see somebody taking this much care with sushi... When somebody takes the time to [give] this much attention to fish, I think people really notice that.

Brian Freedman is a food and wine writer from Philadelphia.

How to make: Ooka’s Spicy Miso Chicken

Chicken Marinade:

3 eggs
1.5 oz. sake
5 oz.usukuchi soy
.5 oz. sesame oil
2 oz. salt
pinch white pepper
.5 tsp. baking powder
3 oz. katakuriko (potato starch)

Whisk all ingredients in a metal mixing bowl, strain through a chinoise and set aside. Cube 5 lbs. of chicken breast and marinate it overnight.

Ooka’s Spicy Miso Sauce:
1 tsp rice vinegar
2 tsp condensed milk
Pinch salt to taste
1 oz. spicy miso (kochu-jan)
1 tsp. mirin
1 tsp. usukuchi soy
2 tsp. G.S.G. oil (vegetable oil steeped with garlic,
scallion and ginger)
pinch white pepper to taste

Whisk all ingredients in a metal mixing bowl, adding salt and pepper at the end to taste. Dust marinated chicken with flour and tempura fry. Immediately toss chicken in spicy miso sauce in a metal mixing bowl. Add white and black sesame seeds on top of the chicken to finish.