Clawson’s Sozai might be the best sushi bar in Michigan

Sep 29, 2021 at 1:00 am
“I like to do Japanese food using local ingredients,” says Hajime Sato, Sozai’s chef-owner. 
“I like to do Japanese food using local ingredients,” says Hajime Sato, Sozai’s chef-owner.  Se7enfifteen

"The best sushi place in Southeast Michigan, far and away." So said an adjacent diner at Sozai's sushi bar. A Toyota employee, he'd lived in Japan for more than two years. A solid rec.

But when Dr. Sushi himself, Nick George, calls Sozai "the best sushi bar in Michigan" and says, "Sozai is a triumph of sorts. There's never been a restaurant like it in Michigan" — discerning minds listen up.

George caters sushi himself and considers Hajime Sato, Sozai's chef-owner, who grew up north of Tokyo, a mentor. The two talk weekly to compare sources for sustainable seafood. He goes on: "Hajime doesn't rely on big bright exciting flavors to wow the customers. You will never find a deep-fried California roll on his menu. You will never find cream cheese, the things that Americans call sushi but are clearly not — a Las Vegas roll, a caterpillar roll."

Instead, Sato says, "I like to do Japanese food using local ingredients." He is focused on keeping his offerings close to sushi's origins, serving what's in season, local and bountiful — "something we've completely lost with the explosion of sushi and the mass industrial farming that supports it," George says.

Therefore Sato pays attention to his products' traceability, cultivating a relationship with suppliers; to the effect of fishing methods on seafood populations; and to farming practices.

This takes time, as you can imagine; it's not ordering from Sysco.

All this may make Sato and Sozai sound stuffy: purists into purity for purity's sake. The opposite is true. The atmosphere at Sozai is relaxed, welcoming. You won't be shamed if you're not familiar with monkfish liver. Although he and his colleague Brian Agacinski are working hard and continuously at the sushi bar, Sato will take the time to teach you a little about how it all works.

My companion and I had reserved an omakase meal, where the chef chooses for you a variety of stretched-out courses, and he started by asking if we were used to eating monkfish liver, say. Seeing our flustered faces, he quickly retreated to promising a meal that would be less exotic but "not just salmon and tuna."

It started with a richer than usual, more complex miso soup, thick with tofu chunks and cubes of onion. Next were East Coast scallops with blanched asparagus and a traditional sweet miso, sprinkled with black sesame seeds.

The third course Sato called poke: mackerel with crunchy strands of seaweed and chopped macadamia nuts; it was sweet and spicy but not hot, no rice.

The dishes got larger as the courses progressed. The fourth was simple and silky slices of scallop, albacore and salmon, atop sushi rice. Fifth was a roll in eight big pieces: white king salmon over sauteed green beans. And sixth was from the kitchen instead of the bar: warm halibut cheeks with a cabbage slaw. Although halibut cheeks are a delicacy, this course was the least interesting to me.

We finished with ethereal slices of eggy cheesecake atop a roasted green tea anglaise.

And we were full.

During the meal, we asked Sato about market day and the freshness of the fish, and he told us he resented Anthony Bourdain, that Bourdain had miseducated people about chefs' daily shopping. "You don't go to a steakhouse and ask 'was the cow killed yesterday?'" Sato says. "It's about how the fish is prepared."

click to enlarge A fanciful plate of sushi prepared by Sozai's chef-owner Hajime Sato. - Se7enfifteen
A fanciful plate of sushi prepared by Sozai's chef-owner Hajime Sato.

Indeed, Sato uses troll-caught wild coho salmon from Sitka, Alaska, taken while it's still in the ocean and eating as much as possible to prepare to swim upstream. This guarantees that the caught fish is hungry and has been eating a lot, and thus has more natural fish oils.

Then it's immediately gutted and frozen at sea, using a process that severs the nerves along the spine. And then when it's thawed it can stay fresh for a week. Each individual fish, from Triad Fisheries, comes with a tag that tells when, where, and by whom it was caught. This, Sato says, is what he needs to do to make sure he's not ruining the oceans or using slave labor. It's what counts when you're evaluating your seafood, not what day it arrived at the market, and it sure doesn't happen with every purveyor.

Another night, with friends, we ordered off the menu, which is extensive, including plenty of dishes you haven't heard of. Namagi is catfish marinated to resemble unagi — freshwater eel, which is endangered. Amaebi (four syllables) is trap-caught Canadian spot prawns, the largest size, with crunchy fried heads and a sprinkle of orange roe, very much their skinny-legged selves.

That night the sashimi sampler of the day was skipjack, scallops, and corvina, wild-caught in the Pacific. The daily ceviche uses Latin America's traditional lime juice but adds yuzu, the Japanese citrus.

We also went for some rolls: the Bowler Roller with salmon, scallions, and miso-roasted green beans, and the fiery Red Violin, with avocado, jalapeño, tuna, cilantro, and spicy red miso. Sato's over-sized Futomaki, a collage of beet-red, orange and green, uses Great Lakes walleye, as does Pure Michigan — which adds tempura onion! Talk about local ingredients... nothing we Michiganders like more than breaded fried onions.

The staff is prepared to suggest a sake to go with your meal, and I was shocked to be advised a $5 glass. Another night I got the vinho verde, and I don't care if Portugal's national fish is salt cod, their wine is perfect with raw.

Sozai means raw materials, or ingredients, and that's a straightforward name for what it's all about. The best ingredients, simply presented. It need hardly be said that everything at Sozai tastes as fresh as a daisy. I know you've all been to sushi restaurants where that's not the case; there's more of a manufactured feel. That food can still be enjoyable, and cheaper, but it's worth it to get back to the roots.

Sato is desperately seeking restaurant workers, no experience necessary. "If I could even get someone to wash dishes for an hour," he says, "I would cry."

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