Nearly ten years may have passed, but I still recall every vivid detail from one of the most enjoyable meals of my life. Operated under the watch of the now departed Charlie Trotter, our kaiseki experience unfurled course by course, crafted by our own private chef and poured and paired by our own private sommelier. Each dish was prepared with precision and an unmistakable urgency. Eat now, talk later.
In recent years, it’s this type of magical in-the-moment quality that Naked Fish has tried to capture in small part, with their unfathomably affordable omakase meals; dining experiences created for just a small handful of guests, and enjoyed with stunning directness from chef’s knife to your plate in seconds.
On the other other hand, if you’ve sat in the larger restaurant space and ordered sushi ala carte, it’s possible you’ve had a more mercurial experience. Timing is everything when it comes to sushi, and Johnny Kwon (owner of Naked Fish) was keen to demonstrate this to me in person, to underline a dramatic change afoot for the business.
Arriving around 5.15 p.m. (because that’s when the sushi rice is just about perfect, according to Kwon) I happily dig into round after round of exquisite nigiri sushi, prepared by chef David Hopps (more on him in a moment). Buttery kanpachi, rich Scottish salmon, all plated with singular urgency, piece by piece. And it’s all perfection. When Kwon enthuses about how he believes Naked Fish’s sushi (experienced in this manner) can go toe to toe with some of the best in the country, I really don’t disagree.
And then Hopps motions towards a lingering piece of nigiri, that’s been perched on the counter for about 15 minutes, “try that now”, he suggests. And the difference is night and day. Where before the rice was soft, yielding, and light its now a heavy, dense challenge. I start to have to put purposeful effort into eating the nigiri. Comparatively speaking, it’s a gummy lackluster lump – it’s a different product.
And it’s this jarring experience that’s pushed perfectionist Kwon to one of the ballsiest restaurant switch ups I’ve encountered in a while. Sushi at Naked Fish will soon be a thing of the past. Let that settle in for a minute, no more maki, no more nigiri. Ceased to be, kicked the bucket, pushing up daisies, bereft.
The way Kwon sees it, if the restaurant can’t reliably execute the dish in its most essential form for every diner, what’s the point? Of course it is possible to deliver the experience, as ultra-boutique sushi bars across the country confirm. That stately meal I mentioned from a decade ago – that also came with a receipt that even today would put most mortgage payments to shame. In the land of fifty percent specials, sticker shock and awe would be business suicide in Utah. True story: I nearly got into a real life human fist tight defending my four figure kaiseki meal to one particularly unimpressed stranger in a bar once. Never again.
The obsession with quality is of course nothing new for Kwon, I’m reminded of a tale he told me several years ago where he recounted a spirited debate with former chef de cuisine Toshio Sekikawa. Sekikawa questioned the use of expensive, imported Koshihikari rice: ‘why bother, why not use a slightly cheaper product, would anyone even notice?’ – Kwon’s response? “I’d notice”.
And so, sushi will soon be but a faded memory at the restaurant. It’s the end of an era and I know many will mourn the loss; but this is only half the story. Enter chef David Hopps – a former alumni of Naked Fish. After starting his career at the Salt Lake City restaurant, Hopps headed West to San Francisco, “to see what the next level up was like”. Hopps ultimately ended up at Saison, one of six restaurants in the bay area to hold three Michelin stars.
And with his return to SLC, it’s Hopps that is helping Kwon spearhead the change of direction at Naked Fish, and it’s also why I’m so damned excited about the whole evolution. Talking to Hopps about the future and potential changes at the restaurant, his humble nature belies the fact he operated as an integral component of a restaurant that charges $513 per tasting menu. Without wine. Per person. You simply don’t get to play in that sand pit unless you have serious chops.
So what exactly does come next? “Izakaya inspired cuisine”, Hopps explains, “but not necessarily the Izakaya that people might have preconceived notions about”. That means taking Japanese flavors and techniques and the relaxed family style approach of an Izakaya (a Japanese pub with fancy grub if you will), but also adding lashings of New American sensibilities. Expect a changing menu driven by local producers and product – indeed Hopps is particularly keen to not be pinned down on menu specifics which in itself is intriguing. We talk excitedly about comfort food like Tonkatsu and Japanese curries being hand made from scratch, “no one else in town is doing this”. He talks about cooking whole fish and serving them family style. I sit and nod politely and professionally, but want to scream, ‘ok shut up lets get started, when do we eat’.
Kwon too lights up when running through his mind’s eye of possibilities for the restaurant revamp, “the deep fryer gets used way too much in kitchens here”, he rails, “what about smoking or other more interesting techniques?”. The comment isn’t a throwaway thought either, much of the cuisine at Saison is powered by flame and fire and smoke. Expect to see that feature on the new menu too.
Between Hopps’ experience and skill, and Kwon’s relentless focus on quality I’m genuinely giddy for what comes next in the space, heck, it won’t even be called Naked Fish anymore. Post transformation, in order to really communicate the changes to guests, a new name will head up the new menu come late November, a complete tabula rasa. Hold onto your chop sticks SLC, this one should be good.
Founder, writer and wrangler at Gastronomic SLC and The Utah Review. Former restaurant critic at the Salt Lake Tribune. Stuart is largely fueled by Uinta Cutthroat, alliteration and the use of too many big words he doesn’t understand. Ate all the pies.