Often the origin stories for sushi restaurants, especially the upscale Edomae-style omakase temples where chefs quietly prepare pristine cuts of fish from Japan, have their roots in the graduate apprentices of their mentors. . Think of Daisuke Nakazawa in New York, who rose to fame after striking out on his own after working at Tokyo’s Sukiyabashi Jiro. At Kogane, a new omakase establishment tucked away in a mall in Alhambra, the origin story is far less evocative.
Chefs Kwan and Fumio Azumi met after working for a year in the near-freezing prep kitchen at LAX-C Seafood, one of many wholesale seafood suppliers in downtown LA, cutting more than 6,000 pieces of tuna and other fish per day destined for grocery store sushi platters. . Both are accomplished sushi chefs, with Azumi working at Mori, Asanebo, and Sushi of Gari, and even opening the Hong Kong branch of Los Angeles-based Sushi Zo as executive chef; Kwan worked at Sasabune and Sushi d’Iroha in the valley.
But with the pandemic forcing sushi restaurants to close their bars, Kwan and Azumi found themselves working in the brutal cold, cutting up fish for the masses. Both leaders say it was this tribulation that bound the two together and paved the way for a partnership to open up Kogane. “We were breaking down fish during the pandemic. It was hard work because it was freezing cold in the room. Although other chefs came and went, only Kwan and I stayed there for over a year,” says Azumi.
Kwan, who hails from Jakarta, Indonesia, eventually found an investor to help finance the construction and opening while Azumi brought her longest history with LA sushi and specific training in the Edomae style. In late December 2021, after a year-long construction, Kogane opened in a former poke restaurant with just seven bar seats and a few tables in front of the counter.
To get to the main entrance, guests walk from the parking lot into a mall with a WingStop, Jamba Juice, and Subway. It’s not the kind of place you’d think to spend over $300 on raw fish, but this is Los Angeles, and its sushi destinations occupy unlikely contexts. Waiters welcome customers and offer a selection of sakes or beers to enjoy with the meal. In the evening, there is no menu, just a set tasting of prepared plates and mostly nigiri sushi, counting over 20 dishes in total. Azumi takes the lead on the left while Kwan takes care of the right, explaining dishes and guiding eager diners through one of LA’s most impressive new sushi experiences.
As for the timing of the opening, Azumi says Omicron’s slump in conjunction with indoor dining uninterrupted by local safety guidelines meant the assurance of more consistent service for Kogane. “We are lucky. Many people stayed at home, but the catering service was still open during this period [the first few months]. So for us, the timing was perfect,” he says.
When asked what the difference was between serving in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, Azumi said Americans tend to prefer stronger tastes. “Although there are a lot of Asians in Alhambra and South Pasadena, the difference is that in Hong Kong, customers prefer things with texture, like shellfish and clams,” says Azumi. Another feature here is the variety of soy sauces they can use: from a lighter dashi-based seasoning, to a medium-strength soy sauce mixed with sake and dashi, to their more strong, which is blended with mirin for maximum flavor.
Dinner begins with finger foods, gently cooked abalone served on a filigree plate adorned with white flowers. The small portion looks substantial against the beautiful saucer-sized dish. A sashimi trio of dry-aged bluefin tuna chutoro, king mackerel and raw clam is also presented on a textured plate, but with less decoration. Then the nigiri begins: first, with lighter sea bream and delicate needles. A sliced octopus interlude comes before aji Spanish mackerel and a slightly briny but sweet blood clam. The shari, or rice, could be considered on the more intense upper register of seasoning, although it is by no means overwhelming.
Azumi maintains this Japanese rice with a strip of cross-sliced squid and kanpachi before another interlude of candy-like sumika squid. Then the first helping of tuna nigiri arrives, followed by the leaner but still well-aged akami before the rich and greasy o-toro arrives, which uses a different and more aggressively seasoned rice. A generous cut of saba also includes more seasoned rice before two plated interludes. The first is a fresh tofu nut topped with Hokkaido uni and a piece of grated wasabi. Then there is a simple seasoned salmon roe ikura spread.
Final courses end with Kagoshima shrimp served with the richer rice, which has a distinctly darker hue, and pan-fried binchotan nodoguro, or black-throated perch. Next comes a large folded piece of seaweed stuffed with San Diego sea urchin roe followed by anago, or saltwater eel, then a chewy tamago to finish. For dessert, a scoop of black sesame ice cream with a single slice of strawberry.
The very talented Kwan says he is still learning the way of Edomae sushi from Azumi, which has more history with the style. Kwan came to the United States most recently in 2015, while Azumi arrived in the early 2000s and has over two decades of sushi-making experience. At the moment, the duo is serving a $250 dinner for just 12 or 14 people per dinner service (with one seat at 5:45 p.m. and another at 8:15 p.m.), as well as a $100 lunch special consisting mainly of of nigiri who will place people at the bar and the tables. Azumi and Kwan relish the opportunity to serve this impossibly high-end style of sushi, a far cry from the days when they cut fish in an almost freezing environment. While the sushi couldn’t be more different, the camaraderie and trust it has developed has led to the opening of the most exciting new restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley.
Make a reservation in Kogane on tack.