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To get to Sushi Sho, the 10-seat food shrine in the Ritz-Carlton Residences Waikiki Beach, you have to walk through another restaurant (BLT Market), passing diners in mid-meal, to a barely marked glass door. You feel like you’re on a clandestine mission. Stepping through that door is like walking into the wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia—it is a portal to another world, one that is completely focused on stimulating your senses.

You enter a moodily lit cave—the lair of Keiji Nakazawa, one of Tokyo’s most esteemed sushi chefs. At his original Sushi Sho in Shibuya’s Yotsuya neighborhood, opened in 1993, he was known as a chef ’s chef, practicing the refined, traditional style of sushi known as edomae, developed in Tokyo (formerly known as Edo) in the 1800s and using only seafood from Edo Bay. His small place, also with only 10 seats, commands a two-month wait list. Like Jiro Ono, arguably the world’s most famous sushi chef thanks to the 2012 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Nakazawa has cultivated a crop of protégés who have gone on to open their own acclaimed sushi shops. And in 2012, he told food blogger Aun Koh (aka Chubby Hubby) that he wouldn’t consider opening a second location—he was content in his blond wood sanctuary.

But when The Ritz-Carlton approached him in 2015 about setting up shop in its new Waikiki property, the time was right. He felt he had reached a plateau, and Hawai‘i beckoned as a frontier of new ingredients. It was also a chance to create a theater of sushi to his specifications— starting with the proscenium-like dark, curved wood ceiling. Nakazawa’s intent was to recreate the feeling of a gassho zukuri, or old farmhouse where families gathered. Every aspect of the restaurant is imbued with meaning, from the two panel carvings behind the counter depicting Hanaya Yohei (the man credited with starting edomae sushi) and a moi, that most Hawaiian of fish, to the dramatic, architectural floral arrangement, done by a local ikebana master, that shoots out of a pedestal made from 1,200-year-old Japanese cedar, symbolizing Nakazawa’s new culinary inspiration emerging from traditional roots. “Let’s see what grows out of it,” he says.

Tokyo’s loss is Honolulu’s gain—Nakazawa’s brand of edomae sushi has altered the O‘ahu’s Japanese dining landscape. There is a reason Chris Kajioka, co-chef at the lauded restaurant Senia, calls him “a god.” You take your place at the spacious cypress-wood counter (no bumping elbows here), are asked if you would like something to drink (take Nakazawa-san’s recommendations—he is a sake sommelier and trained as a brewer) then the food just starts coming. There is no menu to peruse, no decisions to make. The experience is pure omakase (chef ’s choice) at its most seasonal. Simply let yourself go along for the 32-course ride.

That sounds like a lot, but these are one-bite jewels of nigiri sushi and small cooked dishes. And these bites are Tiffany jewels—they make what you’ve had at most other sushi spots look like costume jewelry.

A recent dinner started off with two perfect Shigoku oysters from Washington, lightly boiled in dashi and nestled in a bowl, as soft and comforting as poached eggs. Other cooked bites included a perfect little ring of squid filled with minutely chopped hearts of palm and grains of rice. A single strip of mirugai (aka giant clam, king clam and geoduck) rests like a small tusk atop cooked watercress from Sumida Farm in ‘Aiea, in a bonito vinaigrette.

Some of the courses—like the aji (horse mackerel) stuffed with diced ginger, cucumber and shiso—are holdovers from the original Sushi Sho. But Nakazawa is adding to the mix homages to his new home, such as his version of poke (a delicate trio of sea bass
brushed with a macadamia-nut-shoyu essence, local ‘ahi with fresh wasabi and salmon smoked in a banana leaf, all topped with tiny cubes of onion) and laulau—the little cube of opah cheek and salmon sheathed in lu‘au leaf and sitting in a chartreuse asparagus purée encapsulates the essence of the hearty Hawaiian staple.

Nakazawa’s mastery is most pronounced in his fermented fish. While the average restaurant goer has been trained to think “the freshest fish” is the hallmark of excellent sushi, when it comes to edomae, that isn’t the case. Hot spots from Ichimura in New York to Tokyo’s Sushi Saito show their skills in how they age and preserve their fish. Anyone who has bought an ‘ahi steak then never had the chance to cook it knows that’s not an easy thing to do. Nakazawa does with fish what New York’s Peter Luger’s does to its steaks to tease out the beefiest, mineral flavor. He proudly shows off a cedar box filled with rice browned by pungent red vinegar (made from the dregs of the sake-brewing process) and mixed into the rice are filets of moi that are fermenting for two weeks. The process is called izushi, and Nakazawa says it is the oldest sushi style, developed at a time when there was no refrigeration. And he is learning to recalibrate his technique to bring out the best in Hawai‘i’s fish.

At Sushi Sho, you get to do a fresh vs. fermented taste test—Nakazawa follows up a fresh chu-toro nigiri, the marbled pink meat familiarly buttery, with chu-toro aged for two weeks, and it is a revelation. A slightly sour flavor adds a new dimension to this prized finger of belly flesh.

Bluefin akami—leaner meat from the fish’s sides—is marinated in shoyu and placed atop a still-warm pod of red vinegar rice. Chewing it is a multisensory experience. You know that feeling when you wake up early on a chilly morning, and you have time to snuggle deeper under the duvet? This one-bite course is the food equivalent of that.

Dinner at Sushi Sho was filled with firsts for me—the first time I ate shira-ebi, baby pupa-like shrimp; lobster marinated for a week in Chinese shaoxing wine; and a chawanmushi dotted with abalone, uni and osetra and white caviars. I call it a seafood turducken.

Even the expected parts of a sushi dinner are special—the pickled ginger has more bite to it and is cut like shoestring potatoes, instead of the usual clumps of lily-pads, and sit atop cubes of pickled hearts of palm. Dinner-ending tamago, that rectangle of subtly sweet egg, comes two ways—made with dried clam and taro.

What really makes the Sushi Sho experience is Nakazawa and his team. As rarefied as the food is, the people that make it are not precious about it. This is no hushed temple to toro. Nakazawa is eager to answer questions and give sake tips while he assembles each nigiri, his hands as precise and practiced as those of a Balinese dancer. And then there is Nakazawa’s poetry from the many natural hues of clay and wood in the ceramic dishes and restaurant fixtures, to the dinner-ending moment of Zen, a bowl of clear ‘ahi stock. It’s like drinking the ocean—from which everything you’ve eaten has come.

Sushi Sho, The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach, 383 Kalaimoku St., (808) 729-9717