Naked Fish No More

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naked fish japanese bistro uni nigiri on sushi bar counter
Naked Fish Japanese Bistro: Nigiri sushi on counter

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.

Naked Fish Japanese Bistro: don't mourn the loss of nigiri, get ready fro what's next
Naked Fish Japanese Bistro: don’t mourn the loss of nigiri, get ready fro what’s next

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.

Hi, I’m Stuart, nice to meet you!  I’m the founder, writer and wrangler at Gastronomic SLC and The Utah Review; I’m also a former restaurant critic of more than five years, working for the Salt Lake Tribune.  I’ve worked extensively with other local publications from Utah Stories through to Salt Lake Magazine and Visit Salt Lake.

I’m a multiple-award winning journalist and have covered the Utah dining scene for more than a decade.   I’m largely fueled by Uinta Cutthroat, alliteration and the use of too many big words I don’t understand.  I ate all the pies.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. The new direction sounds exciting, but there’s a (literal) gaping pit in my stomach at the prospect of a nigiri-less Naked Fish.

  2. This is one of the restaurants we disagree about…not a fan. I think the new direction could possibly help it out.

  3. Nikol – It’s that contrasting experience the update seeks to address. As I say, if you sit at the sushi bar and experience their cuisine directly as its made, it can be stunning. That goes from dishes cooking away in the kitchen too, that are usually not on the menu, you have to know to ask or be prompted to order.

    Their obsession with quality is really unmatched in town in my mind. They brew their own soy, use real wasabi, marinate their own gari in house, sous vide the tako before using in nigiri, use imported Japanese coals to grill over and on and on and on. The problem is most guests will probably never experience that seating in the general space and ordering ala carte.

    I do think the update will make a more cohesive restaurant, there won’t be two kitchens competing with each other and causing issues. I also feel it will be more accessible and completely unique for SLC. I’m really excited.

    Stephen – I hear you. There’s still a couple of great nigiri options in town to fill the loss. Not quite at this level of course: I once had Sunny hand grate fresh wasabi root for me, using a shark skin paddle, madness.

  4. Good news. Naked Fish was a favorite restaurant of ours at one time. Our most recent experience there – maybe 6 weeks ago – was very disappointing. We had not intended to return, but we will try the new format.

  5. I returned for a lovely evening of nigiri—a procession of fish personally prepared by David Hopps. He had some great new takes on nigiri, including a gorgeous seared hirame and a smoked ankimo. He said he expects at least one more special delivery from the Tsujiki Market before sushi service ends on November 20th. Let me know if you want to join me on one final fish story!

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