Chef Dave Bouhadana – of French-Moroccan descent, raised in Florida – came to be a chef in a rather typical way. He got a job waiting tables at a sushi restaurant and when a kitchen staff member quit, he offered his services to fill the position. But he was no instant success, and traveled to Los Angeles, New York and Japan to study with sushi masters – Iron Chef Morimoto, for one. Along the way, he grew increasingly fascinated with Japanese culture, food and language, and speaks fluent Japanese today.
Oh, and he’s only 27.
Now, I’ve been to a ton of ‘discount’ sushi restaurants where the procedure is always the same: a cold Saporro, a miso soup or salad, a few maki rolls (spicy salmon and yellowtail-scallion being personal favorites), and fried ice-cream for dessert. However, little about this standard is authentic so I had no idea what to expect from this place.
Sushi Dojo (Dojo being Japanese for education) just opened this summer but it’s already getting rave reviews. It’s located on First Avenue and seats only 36, so reservations are highly recommended – especially if you want to sit at the bar, and trust me, you do. All the staff personally greet every patron who walks through the door. When we were seated, Chef Dave warmly welcomed us as well. The first thing that caught me off-guard was how sweet and charming he was… Aren’t chefs supposed to be like, angry? He gracefully made menu suggestions and answered all the questions we had about ingredients and cooking techniques.
We started with a trio of cold appetizers – (left to right) burdock root sauteed in sesame oil, blanched mizuna greens and mushrooms in a dashi broth, and dashi-marinated eggplant – all of which the chef assured us are classic Japanese starters, “They’re everywhere in Japan.” Each item of the trio complemented the others with its unique texture, and all three were exploding with umami. Due to their acidity, they were surprisingly palate-cleansing, too.
The chef and all the staff nodded vigorously in agreement when we asked if the deep-fried squid is something we should try. And they were so right. I expected something heavy, rubbery and fried calamari-esque but this appetizer was the opposite. Lightly battered and deep-fried just so, to achieve a lightly crispy, salty outside and soft, nearly creamy inside.
Next we ordered the ten-piece sushi special. Instead of bringing out a platter with all ten pieces, he placed a bamboo leaf in front of each of us and made one piece at a time. He started with a small handful of rice, topped it with fish, gently cupped the two together between his palms, finished some with a light brushing of soy and others with various acidic concoctions. As he finished each piece, he placed it down on the mat.
Each piece was meant to be eaten in order of preparation, sans chopsticks, which furthered the sensuousness of the whole experience. Surprisingly these weren’t served with wasabi paste and when I pointed it out, the chef whipped out a whole wasabi root, shaved a bit and handed it right to me. It wasn’t nearly as pungent as the stuff we’re used to, but surprisingly mellow and floral instead. I told Chef it had a hint of vanilla in it and he agreed. “Put it on a cupcake!” we joked. He gave me a disdainful, sad look when I insisted to wait til three pieces were ready so I could take a photo and said, “But you’re supposed to eat them in order…” Sorry, Chef!
Besides teaching me what Japanese sushi really is, Chef Dave made me think. He’s 27, with an established reputation and blossoming career; I’m due to be 23 in December and what do I have going for me? I know it’s useless to compare oneself to others, and I don’t know where I’ll be in 4.5 years, but this guy is really something. Chef Dave and Sushi Dojo are both one-of-a-kind.
Although $45 for 10 pieces of sushi is way out of my personal budget, an experience like this is so worth having. Chef Dave is now a character to watch out for in the food world, and I’m excited to see where he lands in the future.