Is Ambler ready for torched bluefin tuna cheeks, monkfish liver, and tempura-fried cod milt?
I wouldn’t underestimate this surging suburb’s appetite to support an ambitious Japanese restaurant with next-level tasting menus. The downtown strip of East Butler Avenue already thrums with a diverse menu of dining options, from Spanish (Vida and Comida) to BBQ (the Lucky Well), a modern American wine bar restaurant (Dettera) and an intriguingly tasty new Vietnamese grill (Melody’s). There are multiple breweries here! Deep-pocket dining budgets and global tastes, this Montgomery County borough has.
The better question: Is Sushi Hatsu ready?
I tried not once, but three times to experience one of the midweek omakase meals at Harrison Kim’s sleek new BYOB. Such multicourse feasts are popular in hard-to-book downtown Philly spots like Royal Sushi, Hiroki, and Sakana, which require several weeks of advanced reservation wrangling. (Not to mention time to save those sashimi dollars.)
Sushi Hatsu requires only six days of notice to procure some of the seasonal delicacies from Japan that anchor its $75 and $100 tastings, from gizzard shad to firefly squid and myriad shades of fatty tuna. But my first request through the Resy reservation app went unnoticed by the staff for days until it was too late to accommodate. My second try was canceled the morning of dinner when Kim and head sushi chef, Mitsutaka Harada, both called out sick.
I came by for a fine meal ordered off the à la carte menu. But the splurge-worthy 20-ounce Kobe strip steak listed for $89? It wasn’t up to snuff that night, Kim told our disappointed table as he declined to serve it.
So forgive my skepticism when I finally took my seat at Hatsu’s gleaming white Corian counter for omakase attempt No. 3. But the now-beamingly healthy Harada, a longtime former Zama chef, began sending aces across the counter.
A live scallop was fanned into candy-sweet ivory discs atop its shell with golden cubes of floral plum wine jelly and a salty fingerling lime. A ponzu-splashed round of creamy ankimo (monkfish liver, the coveted liverwurst of the sea) was marbleized with grated radish tinted orange with chili oil. A trio of Spanish bluefin parts — a meaty nugget of roasted cheek with yuzu-pepper, wasabi-dabbed o-toro belly, and a fat-speckled slice of pink collar lavished with shaved French truffles — delivered an emphatic primer in tuna luxury.
A steamy ceramic chawanmushi cup held a warm treasure of seafood jeweled inside a delicate, dashi-scented custard. A nigiri of pickled kohada (gizzard shad) was cut lengthwise into strands that twined into a braid of a silver-skinned fish. A deftly-scored curl of geoduck clam dusted with lime zest delivered a satisfying crunch of oceanic savor. Warm sushi rice was transformed into a riff on risotto when mixed with a creamy sauce of whipped uni, briny morsels of king crab, seared foie gras, whole urchin, and luminous beads of salmon roe tinged with a salty-sweet soy marinade.
There were more dishes, adding up to one of the heartier omakases I’ve sampled. A lemon-buttery hamachi collar sparked with pickled jalapeño. Lightly torched salmon belly. Japanese uni that was far creamier and sweeter than the Californian urchin tasted earlier. By the time our tasting rounded into a daring finale of shirako tempura, a deep-fried cloud that, cradled atop a shiso leaf chip, turned out to be the Japanese delicacy of a cod sperm sack (a.k.a. milt), it was clear Sushi Hatsu had the desire and capabilities to deliver a big league omakase experience.
It’s the kind of advanced sushi craft that Sushi Hatsu would love to do more of. But Kim, 44, a Morimoto and Nobu vet who drove Uber for a year and a half to help finance the building of this restaurant after making a break from his father’s legally troubled Osaka restaurant group, is also pragmatic and eager to please his customers.
He had initially planned only a limited selection of maki rolls, which some purists may sniff at beyond the most elemental pairings of, say, yellowtail and scallion. But suburban crowds don’t simply want more of the often overcomplicated rice roll combos, says Kim, they demand a level of customization his chef Harada was unaccustomed to at his previous downtown perch at Zama off Rittenhouse Square.
“People come in and ask for the Orgasmic Roll, whatever that is,” says Kim. “ ‘Can you make a Martha roll? My name is Martha and when I go to Bluefin the chef (Yong Kim) makes it for me.’ Then someone says, ‘I want the Janet roll!’ Another wants a dragon roll with eel but no rice, wrapped in cucumber, then layered with tuna. It’s a pain in the ass to make, 15 minutes on one roll, but people go crazy when they see it. When she comes in, it’s like, oh no....'I want my roll!' "
Kim retells the “roll call” with a laugh because he clearly cherishes his regulars, the ones with BYO trophy wines and sakes in hand who fist bump him with compliments across the counter (“Rock Star!”) at the end of their meals; the families who fill the cushy banquettes of contemporary gray, blue, and oak-toned space: “We want this community to embrace us, so we bend over backward for the guests.”
He’s got at least 20 custom off-menu rolls now to go along with a dozen signatures. Rolls like the Dragon (shrimp tempura, eel, avocado, and strawberries), or the mixed-fish Hatsu with mango wrapped in cucumber, shows his penchant for pairing fruit with fish. And they’re all perfectly good.
Diners who crave a more direct route to premium fish can opt for cold plates like the carpaccio of kanpachi (amberjack) glossed with arbequina olive oil and layered with truffles; a gorgeous ceviche of lobster and live scallops, a seasonal specials board that sometimes boasts itoyori (butterfly bream), sawara (Spanish mackerel), and aji (Japanese horse mackerel). The chirashi supreme is, for $35, a feast of high-end imported fish, from toro and madai (sea bream), to katsuo (smoked bonito), urchin and roe that tumbling in a colorful wave over rice seasoned with sweet shiitake and pickled ginger.
A hot-side menu built around small plates from the grill (try the scallops and shishitos) and a cast-iron tempura cauldron masterfully tended by sous-chef Sumie Macor (don’t miss the pumpkin, or the lobster with coconut aioli) keep a focus on good ingredients.
But there’s nonetheless an underlying tension here between the aspirations of what this restaurant would like to be and the crowd-pleasing favorites, like miso salmon and Patagonian toothfish (Chilean sea bass), it must cultivate to remain sustainable. It’s all the more palpable as Kim strives to escape the dark cloud of his family’s Osaka restaurants in Chestnut Hill and Lansdale, where his father, owner Kwang Bum Kim, agreed last year to a $1 million settlement for wage theft with the U.S. Labor Department.
Harrison, who first made his name a dozen years ago in the kitchen at Chestnut Hill, renounced his father’s “dirty” practices of skimming credit card tips and not paying overtime. They’ve not spoken in years, Harrison says: “He told me, 'Get out of my face. You’re not a good son.’ ”
The journey through jobs beyond Osaka — to Sushi Sasa in Denver for several years, then time with Garces Events catering — broadened his culinary skills with techniques and flavors that are evident in some of the menu’s fusion-style dishes. Some of them I loved, like the empanadas with shiso chimichurri and a Korean-braised short rib stuffing inspired by his grandmother. A seared Kobe tataki with truffled miso vinaigrette was a fair consolation to the M.I.A. strip steak.
But others still need work, like the duck confit shumei, which were dry. Or the chestnut soup, which was over-thickened and so generically creamy it lost any trace (or texture) of chestnut personality. Kim’s reflex to throw truffles and foie gras over everything eventually dulled the intended luxury thrills.
The chef also will undoubtedly stretch his repertoire this summer when he begins creating Spanish-themed tapas for the collaboration planned for a soon-to-be connected space next door with Stone & Key Cellars, whose locally made wines and ciders, along with Pennsylvania spirits and beers, will give bar access to this BYOB.
I suspect Ambler will be ready to embrace it. A better question: Is Sushi Hatsu ready?