A freak promotion on a Delta Airlines fare to Japan this year allowed Detroit's Dr. Sushi, aka Nick George, to travel to the birthplace of sushi recently and allowed the self-taught chef to learn about other Japanese cuisine that he hopes to introduce to Detroiters. The 26-year-old purveyor of not-quite-legal sushi pop-ups is known as the city's only maker of "sustainable" sushi, meaning he only uses fish that's been caught in an ethical manner. But given that Detroit is nowhere near an ocean, he wants to eventually get away from fish and focus on using only ingredients that can be found in the Midwest. Following his weeks-long trip to Japan, George sat down with Eater Detroit to talk about how his connections in the local music scene helped him prepare for his overseas adventure, why the Motor City may not be the best place for sushi-making, and his long term quest to open a Japanese-style pub, known as izakaya.
How did this trip come to be?
I always wanted to go to Japan and I've always kind of thought it was kind of, on some level, an unobtainable destination. Then my friend's step-sister, Erin Podolsky, featured our okonomiyaki a few months ago, and told me about this mistake fare that Delta was offering. It was round-trip from Toronto to Tokyo for around $650 and it's usually over double that. So without really thinking I just kind of booked it with Ben Christensen, who I've worked with for a long time.
You reached out to some unorthodox sources in Michigan to prepare for your trip.
My preparation always came through music or through friends, nothing culinary. We planned to go to Osaka, which is like the food capital of Japan. I remembered that this guy who runs Bulb Records (an independent Michigan record label), Pete Larson, who I've been a fan of since high school, lived in Osaka in the past. I sent him a message on Facebook, knowing he may not respond, saying, ‘Hey Pete, longtime fan of the label. I'm going to Osaka soon, do you know someone who can help me research food? And he replied, ‘Oh yeah, I have a number of friends there.' So he put me in touch with some guys in a Japanese band called Red Sneakers, who showed me around their favorite bars called izakayas.
- This is the beer garden at Aoyama Food and Flea, a wonderful farmers market in Aoyama, Tokyo.
- The proud owner Okunaga Yoshihiro of Mankai ramen in Osaka. He worked in a Fukuoka ramen shop for 20 years before opening his own place in Osaka.
- We met this cool crew at Afuri ramen in Ebisu, Tokyo. The man on the right said we were the first foreigners he's come across who ate ramen correctly.
- We traveled to Hiroshima to eat Hiroshima style okonomiyaki, a dish I've made for years but have never tried. Every place we went to was so so good.
- This is the front sign at Okariba in Kyoto, Okariba means "hunting grounds." The head chef is an avid hunter and actually serves everything he kills in his restaurant.
- This man studied Kaiseke cuisine for years before opening his own izakaya. He serves such brilliant food that people travel from around Japan to visit his tiny Osaka izakaya.
- The chef loved to joke around, Eizo and Yosei (another friend of ours in the picture) loved to joke around, Ben and I loved to joke around. We had a really good time here.
- I went to a great sushiya in Ebisu for an upscale Omakase style sushi dinner. I had to. It was worth it.
- Took a side trip to Java to eat Indonesian food. This is the window of a Masakan Padang, a type of cuisine found all over Indonesia but originating in Padang. It's the best.
- I spoke too soon. THIS is the best. This is a Sundanese restaurant in Bandung, West Java. Fried meats and veggies with Sundanese Sambal and rice. Holy moly.
- You tell 'em what you want, then they throw it in a giant pot of oil that's flavored from everything that's been cooking in it.
- Our friends in Bandung had a barbecue when we got to town. Stayed up late cooking fish, smoking cloves, talking about music. A real good time.
What is an izakaya?An izakaya is kind of like a Japanese pub that serves food and drink. Izakaya seem more focused on making sure the customer is having a good time, rather than making sure the food is like Michelin-quality. The izakaya were one of the main things I wanted to check out there. I wanted to know what they feel like, what kind of food they serve, and how each izakaya differs from one another— because in the future I would like to open one here in Detroit.
What kind of food do izakaya serve?
Izakaya food differs. One place we visited that played live jazz music served a tofu with sautéed onions and beef that had the aroma of sliders that you'd find at a burger place like Telway. It was very rich, but kind of extremely light at the same time. At the same place I tried horse sashimi, which I wouldn't really go out of my way to find again. But it was interesting to taste, because I didn't expect a place like this to serve it. We went to another place where nothing was over $3. I liked that we could all just eat off the same plates and try a little bit of everything and never get full, just satiated. Here, I eat and then I'm like, ugh. It's so much food every time.
What would be Detroit's equivalent to an izakaya?
Green Dot Stables, that's the closest thing we have. At Green Dot you can order a bunch of things, it's got a very laid back atmosphere and drinks are inexpensive.
That sounds different from what you're doing now with sushi. Why get away from that?
There's just so much good Japanese food that we just cannot eat here because no one's serving it. It's so much more than sushi. It's fish-based. It's rice, it's noodles and a lot of pickled vegetables. I try to practice sustainability in all the food I cook, so I thought, what are some ways I can promote local agriculture? One of the ways I can do that is to get away from fish.
Does this mean Detroit will see its first izakaya anytime soon?
Yeah, I'm kind of stressing about whether I open the first one. I think someone's going to beat me to it, because I don't have enough... maybe mental capacity to open one right now. I'm not ready yet. I'm 26, I want to get more experience in the field before I do something like that. I want to be able to leave town for a few weeks and I still want to be able to play in a band. So keeping my business to a catering operation and a pop-up dinner company makes sense for me right now because I can still experiment and learn and not rush into anything and not lock myself into anything that might not work out. But I do think someone will open an izakaya before me. And I think the model is so good that I think you could have an infinite number of these places.