Cafe Society

At Hana Matsuri, the chef knows his way around good fish

A friend once trained under a master sushi chef for a couple of years, and it was mesmerizing to watch her work a knife around a vegetable or piece of fish. She was slow and methodical, paring precisely to shape each element of a dish into a delicate, edible work of art: a floret, a perfect julienne strip or a slice of tuna cut to resemble a ruby.

It's a shame that I always devoured her masterpieces so quickly.

Japanese food is as much about the presentation as it is about the flavors presented. But while I'm all for aesthetics and I loved watching my friend work, as soon as she set a plate bearing some carefully designed sculpture of seafood and unfamiliar vegetables in front of me, I couldn't pretend to admire it for more than a few seconds before I'd destroy all that craftsmanship with a pair of chopsticks. The satisfaction I derive from food goes much deeper than pretty displays.

Fortunately, sushi joints have a dish for philistines like me: chirashi.

If you were served chirashi in someone's home, the presentation would be unceremonious: just bits of fish — a scrap of this, a few pieces of that — mixed into vinegared rice. The dish is fancier at sushi restaurants, but the emphasis on simplicity is preserved: Chirashi sacrifices precision and presentation for quick preparation — and an eater's quick satisfaction. Within a few minutes of ordering chirashi, you get a big bowl of sushi rice, sometimes studded with tiny bits of unidentifiable fish and always topped with pieces of whatever the chef has on hand. So there's always run-of-the-mill stuff like salmon and tuna, but you may also get some other delicious morsel — Spanish mackerel or tuna belly, say — that wasn't sliced perfectly enough to serve on its own. Ordering chirashi is a little like ordering omakase, without the price tag or time commitment of a true chef's choice. And it's always the first dish I go for after I've decided I can trust a place, that there's a good chance the kitchen will make something magical out of scraps rather than serve you slop that belongs in the trash.

It didn't take long for Hana Matsuri to gain my trust.

I made my first trip to this restaurant housed in an unassuming Westminster strip mall at lunch on a weekday. Although I hadn't noticed a lot of office space nearby, I pulled open the door to find the place jammed with business types. Beyond the suits was a high-ceilinged dining room, richly appointed with lots of stone and heavy wood and done in the gold-and-black color scheme I see in a lot of suburban kitchens; it looked more like a furniture show room than a sushi spot. And the sushi bar, tucked in a back corner, wasn't a sushi bar at all. It was an actual bar — complete with a back shelf lined with booze — with a chef cutting fish where the well would usually be.

As I grabbed a stool at that bar, I caught a snippet of conversation between the guy next to me and the chef. To my delight, they were talking fish: The chef was exhibiting the two-foot-long tuna he was working on, and the diner, who said he worked at a local fish market, was loudly praising the specimen.

That was enough for me. When a brisk, business-like server came by seconds later to take my order, I asked for chirashi without even glancing at the menu. The chef nodded at me and got to work while the man on the next stool, who was sucking down pintfuls of Kirin on what was hopefully his day off, extolled the virtues of each slice of fish going into my lunch. Finally, the chef set the bowl in front of me: fat pieces of orange, white and red fish had been cut into different sizes and shapes and arranged in layers that were less an artistic expression than a way to ensure I noticed every bit. I eagerly dug in, dragging slices of fish through wasabi-spiked soy sauce without worrying about dipping etiquette (with chirashi, anything goes).

Predictably, the bowl contained tuna and shrimp; the latter had been cooked too long, rendering it tough. But the chef had also given me some rare treats. The salmon, almost buttery in texture, was remarkably fresh, without even a hint of the overpowering fishy flavor that often plagues it. There was red snapper, light and supple. Chewy octopus and sweet snow crab added some heft; I'd gotten generous portions of both. Albacore offered me another crisp, palate-cleansing bite — especially when paired with a slice of cucumber. I loved what the chef called super-white tuna, a snowy piece of fish that had the texture and weight of its rosy counterpart. But the real score was two thick slabs of yellowtail belly, fat-laced and a good substitute for toro, that super-fatty, super-expensive tuna. I savored that, letting the yellowtail melt across my tongue.

The chef had filled in the gaps with pickled squashes, mushrooms and tamago, that slightly sweet omelet that works well as an almost-dessert. I saved that until after the fish was gone, then finally dumped the rest of my soy sauce into the bowl and ate the rest of the acidic, vinegared rice, chasing every last soy-sauce-logged grain. I paid my check and left feeling immensely satisfied — and immensely curious about the rest of the menu. If Hana Matsuri could do chirashi well, what other wonders would I find there?

Steve and Jessie Liu, who opened Land of Sushi in the southern suburbs more than a decade ago, opened Hana Matsuri two years ago because they wanted an outlet to serve their fans in the northern suburbs. For this restaurant, they partnered with Eddie Wang, a sushi chef who's been in the business since he was a teenager. While there are similarities between Hana Matsuri and Land of Sushi, they are definitely different restaurants — particularly since Wang has complete control over this menu. And he's added some dishes that you definitely wouldn't find at a sushi bar in Tokyo — including global tapas that include things like scallops with truffle mashed potatoes, and reinterpreted Japanese classics done his own way.

I returned to Hana Matsuri soon after my chirashi lunch with a group of friends, and we kicked off our meal with a round of sake and appetizers, where the best of Wang's fusion concepts — and artistic skills — are on display. For that night's new-style sashimi special, he'd lightly seared bits of the super-white tuna, then drizzled them with a tart, fresh lemongrass sauce and added daikon radish, pea shoots and thinly sliced carrots, creating a dazzling display that resembled a flower. Each bite was crisp and zippy — a good way to wake up the palate. A pinwheel of uniformly sliced red snapper in acidic yuzu had the same effect, and by the time I'd finished my share of both, I was ravenous. Fortunately, at my insistence we'd also ordered the spicy crispy tuna, which came out soon after the two starters. The plate held a pyramid made with tempura-battered and fried blocks of rice topped with spicy, mayonnaise-infused tuna and slices of avocado and jalapeño. We ate the pyramid wedge by wedge, marveling at the crunch of the rice against the soft fish, the mouth-watering combination of salty and spicy.

From there, we ordered a massive round of nigiri. The cuts at Hana Matsuri are generous, even if the pieces of fish draped over the firm pats of rice are not perfectly precise. It's clear that Wang has an eye for fresh fish; from the sweet, firm scallop to the crunchy, popping flying fish roe to the slightly herbaceous sea urchin, each example tasted cold and brand-new, as if it had just been plucked from the sea. The only disappointment was the unagi: The eel was overcooked and mushy, and there wasn't enough of the sweet-savory sauce to make the eel itself worthwhile.

We finished our dinner with mochi ice cream. Although I've yet to find a local restaurant that puts its own gummy rice mochi wrapper around the ice cream, the standard dessert is one of my favorites, a not-too-sweet way to end an evening.

As I exited, I glanced back at the bar, where Wang was standing. He gave me a little nod. My dinner at Hana Matsuri was lovely, but when I return, I'll find a seat at the bar where I can perch over my bowl, messily eating whatever he slices. Because when a chef knows his way around good fish, I don't really care what it looks like — or what I look like eating it.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk