Japanese sushi master Yoshiharu Kakinuma tells us all about the passions of his profession.
What is it about sushi omakase that so enchants us? Perhaps it’s the unwavering devotion of sushi masters, with their brows furrowed in concentration as they artfully sculpt perfect pieces of sushi, earning our trust and confidence as they go. Or maybe it’s the incredible quality of seafood executed with precision, resulting in exceptional sushi that never fails to impress. For me, the entire experience is greater than merely the sum of its parts. To be great, the best even, you really must have it all. And this is why you should visit Sushi Shikon to taste it.
I meet chef Yoshiharu Kakinuma, or Kaki-san as he’s fondly known by regular guests and friends, at Sushi Shikon, which has just finished its second lunch service. As I enter the restaurant, the clean and calming aroma of its hinoki (Japanese cypress)-wood counter fills the air, seats are spotless and the intimate dining room is set up for its next batch of guests. We greet each other, bumping elbows and chuckling. It’s a sign of recent times, but it also reveals Kakinuma’s light-hearted nature. Unlike other stern-looking sushi chefs I’ve met before, Kakinuma is seems much less serious in demeanour, though no less serious about his craft all the same.
It’s undeniable that Sushi Shikon is one of the best restaurants serving Edomae sushi in Hong Kong. In fact, it’s the first – and currently the only – one in the city to have been awarded three Michelin stars, which it’s held since 2014. The restaurant was founded by master chef Masahiro Yoshitake, and is the first international branch of his three-Michelin-star Sushi Yoshitake in Ginza, Tokyo. Previously located in Sheung Wan, Sushi Shikon moved to the Landmark Mandarin Oriental in May last year, when it also received a more luxurious fit-out in keeping with its reputation.
An understated elegance pervades the main dining room, which seats eight, and the private dining space, which has six seats and its own counter. In both, exquisite details, artisan walls and textures enhance the overall experience without ever having to shout or declare themselves. Everything has been carefully curated and imported from Japan, including wooden screens, or edo komon, by Japan’s master craftsman Nobuo Tanihata, known for his geometric mastery of kumiko style woodwork and technique developed some 1,300 years ago. The traditional clay and mud walls, or tsuchikabe, were made by renowned renowned designer Syuhei Hasado, who was flown over to complete the project.
Indeed, at Sushi Shikon almost every element has been imported, to reflect the restaurant in Tokyo. Even the water used to boil the rice comes from Japan. “We wanted the rice to match what we have at Sushi Yoshitake, which is dependent on the water. So we tried with more than 20 different bottled waters, all imported from Japan, to get the right texture,” explains Kakinuma.
Although Japan isn’t terribly far away, going to such lengths to achieve this still seems like a lot of work. As we discuss how he got to this point, it becomes apparent that Kakinuma, and the team behind the restaurant, are all purists, looking to nail down every tiny individual element and gesture to the point of near perfection. The question is, how can they keep this up during such challenging times?
As described to me by Kakinuma, the word shikon refers to the heart and soul of determination – the resolve to see things through. “We’re from Japan and before we came here, we didn’t know much about Hong Kong,” says Kakinuma. “So it’s about how great our passion is, and how big our spirit for challenge is.”
It seems Kakinuma has always been up for the challenge. As a young boy, he dreamed of becoming a professional rugby player. “I played rugby in high school and got a scholarship to go to college. I didn’t study. I just played rugby,” he laughs as he recalls. “I like to focus on one thing. And back then, I loved playing rugby. But after graduating, I was 22, I realised a rugby player’s career span is too short. And since my grandfather and father owned a small sushi shop in Tokyo, they recommended that I take over and so, I shifted my focus to sushi.”
His philosophy for challenges was imprinted then, when his father, who wanted his own success to be truly his, told him to learn from different sushi masters outside of the household. “This is my house tradition,” he explains. “My father said that if you want to learn something from me, first you must learn from outside and then bring it back here so we can discuss … I think it’s a good thing for any student to learn this way – learn from different philosophies, techniques and experiences.”
With this intention, Kakinuma went on to train with Yoshitake in Ginza for several years. “The first half year, I just stood there watching. Watching and learning.” But it wasn’t long before he was noticed for his passion and was given the opportunity to cut fish. “He doesn’t usually let people touch the fish so quickly,” says Kakinuma, “but I was lucky and he trusted me.”
His next challenge took him to the US, where he took on the English language. “I had zero English [skills],” says Kakinuma. “And when I first arrived in America, I didn’t have any money for lessons. So in the first two years, I decided to forget about cooking – my priority was communication.” Kakinuma volunteered at a church that took care of local elderly people. In doing so, he was able to communicate and learn as he helped. “I was lucky, because one of the elderly guys was a teacher and he taught me how to speak English. I still remember him. He was good guy. He brought an elementary- school English book for me.”
Kakinuma spent a decade in the US, and went on to work behind esteemed sushi counters in Atlanta and New York before arriving in Hong Kong to launch Sushi Shikon with Yoshitake in 2012.
“He [Yoshitake] said that if you want to be a good chef, you need to reach for the top. You must climb further up the mountain … think bigger and go for the highest achievement. That’s why I came with him to Hong Kong.”
It’s thanks to all these challenges that we can now witness Kakinuma do ludicrously compelling things at Sushi Shikon. What seems simple and delicate is actually complex and layered, made possible by the accretion of all these experiences.
During my visit, a series of appetisers reels me in to an ebb and flow of the sharp, the subtle, the clean and the precise. Attention to detail is paid to every part, from the deftly sliced fish to the balance of flavour, where I fall for every course placed in front of me.
Take the Kegani, a delightfully light start with hairy crab and winter-melon jelly topped with black caviar, followed by a crispy Iwashi (sardine roll) wrapped in roasted seaweed and marked with the crunch of green onion for bite and balance. Next, the most tender piece of Tako (octopus) is sweetly braised and calibrated with freshly grated and zingy wasabi, before Awabi, the showpiece of appetisers, presents impeccably cooked slices of steamed abalone with a deep, flavourful abalone-liver sauce that must not be allowed to escape. After what’s probably the most considerate cuisine and service I’ve ever received, I’m then given a ball of rice for the the remainder of the sauce, which I devour with the utmost satisfaction.
The sushi courses reveal rice that’s warm, close to body temperature, and lightly accentuated with acidity from vinegar. Highlights include the soft and smooth flavour of Aji nigiri (horse mackerel); a crunchy Kuruma-ebi, which places a large meaty tiger prawn atop a pillow of rice; and Uni. If, like me, you’re powerless in the face of sea urchin, let alone a double layer, then you’ll understand my love for this sweet – and dizzingly good – salted caramel of the sea in sushi form.
As I watch Kakinuma at work, shimmering with brilliance, I feel lucky to be witnessing this art in motion. His kind eyes switch to focus and I realise his philosophy for taking on a challenge is something I can (and we all should) get behind. “My food is all about passing on the baton. From the fishermen and farmers, to the distributors who bring ingredients and produce here, and to the point I serve it to you. Passing on the baton, from my hand to your hand, from my heart to yours.”
Sushi Shikon is also offering takeaway Futomaki that guests can bring home.