For most of my sushi eating life, I’ve thought of the the sushi roll as not much more than a wasabi delivery vehicle. Sushi was such an obvious scam when it first showed up on these shores, somehow convincing spendthrift, culinary adventure-seekers that not cooking something made it fancy. And most of the places selling it didn’t have to go to much effort to tantalize the artless palates of the fatuous masses. For those who demanded a little flavor or punch, they offered wasabi. Wasabi, soy sauce, and a piece of raw fish?
That’ll be $30.
Toshi Sato, owner-chef at Now & Zen, has me thinking differently. He puts out huge and beautiful sushi rolls stuffed with dynamic flavor combinations and sided with hot, and sweet, and salty sauces.
Sato is from Kesennuma, Japan. If that rings a bell, that’s because in 2011, his hometown was washed through by a massive tsunami. In the mid-’80s, Sato studied culinary arts at a school in Tokyo and then went to work in Tokyo restaurants. In 1987, after only a couple years on the job, he met Ken Mori, a Japanese man who had been living in the States and was looking to open a sushi restaurant in Charlottesville, Virginia. Sato decided he liked the sound of the adventure, so he and his friend Atsushi Miura lit out for The Old Dominion. At the time, Sato somehow thought Charlottesville was much closer to New York.
Upon his arrival, Sato went to work right away at the newly opened Tokyo Rose. He moved into an apartment above the space that Belmont’s tavola now occupies and has lived in Belmont since.
“Customers were very different 26 years ago in Charlottesville,” Sato said. “Not too many people were looking for sushi. And we didn’t have rolls. It was just sushi.”
As time went by, though, the taste for classic ngiri gave way as a new breed of American sushi eater grew up.
“Now the young people have been eating sushi since they were children,” Sato said. “They all know sushi.”
Now & Zen’s tarantula roll, a fat log of hefty tempura soft shell crab, avocado, cucumber, and flying fish roe wrapped in seaweed, enveloped in rice (the thing is about 2″ thick laid out) and topped with toasted almond slices, is a prime harbinger of the dawn of a new age in sushi. Alongside the tarantula, Sato adorns the plate with ample squiggles of spicy mayo, Sriracha, and eel sauce (soy sauce, sugar, and dissolved eel bone). I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but you can eat the whole thing and never once think about smearing wasabi on it.
He also does rice bowls with the fishy goods all laid in loose, donburi style, like deconstructed sushi rolls. The tuna tataki is a fabulous high-protein, low-impact fuel cell: a bowl of sushi-grade rice perfectly tacky, a small pickled seaweed salad on top, some avocado slices, tiny scallion slices, and thick slices of lightly seared tuna—and a lot of it. Then you pour on ponzu sauce (soy sauce, vinegar, and lemon juice) at your discretion. Be careful with this one though. Sato puts a ping pong ball-sized wad of wasabi in the bowl too. Once you’re mostly through the entire serving, if you’re even slightly color-perception challenged, you wanna be careful not to mistake a teaspoon of wasabi for the avocado.
There are loads of options on Sato’s menu: an array of distinctive sushi rolls and rice bowls and a page long offering of what amounts to sushi and side dish tapas servings, with edamame and eggplant-spinach dishes and small fish portions as well. What sets the restaurant apart is the freshness, care in assembly, and, to be frank, its portions. You will not leave hungry.
Sato opened Now & Zen across from McGuffey Art Center on Second Street NW in March 2011, doing mostly carry out due to space restrictions, and added a dining room a few months later. He’s finishing construction now on yet another small addition.
As for his personal bent and inspiration, Sato said he reads up on modern culinary theory voraciously. “I want to keep it contemporary,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything traditional at all.” He adamantly reiterated this several times.
“I want to be able to be adventurous,” he said. And isn’t that how we all got started eating sushi in this first place?