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A couple of years ago, I was asked to judge a sushi competition. Among the heavyweights were chef Kaz Okochi, who owns two acclaimed sushi restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Toshio Takeishi, the man who opened one of New York's first sushi counters in the 1960s. Now retired, Takeishi consults with Japanese sushi chefs on how to make sushi for Americans.
At one point, Okochi translated into English for me a heated Japanese discussion with Takeishi about whether sushi ought to be eaten in a strict order. Takeishi maintained that the meal should begin with tamago, an egg sushi that's often flavored with rice vinegar, sugar, soy, or sake. "An egg tells you everything about the skill of a chef," he told me. "You get a sense how a chef assembles and seasons by the simplest of ingredients." The night's courses should move on to clean and mild sashimi and progress to more assertive flavors, much like wine.
The younger but still experienced Okochi said he is sympathetic to the American style of eating sushi. "Americans aren't linear. They're going to dive in to a plate at the center of the table and grab a piece," he said. "It's more of a party." He laments the decline of the Japanese style of eating sushi but appreciates Americans' gravitation toward rococo rolls, stuffed and layered with multiple kinds of fish. These rolls have become the norm in the States, especially when many cities are short of skilled Japanese chefs who are properly trained in the exacting art of making sushi.
I was reminded of the discussion while at Sushi Bon, a modest Lantana restaurant owned by chef Ebi Hana. His place leans toward traditional, which I tend to prefer. It was a marked contrast to the sushi experience I'd had days before in Fort Lauderdale at Heart Rock Sushi, where four of us shared a sushi boat stuffed with sashimi, nigiri, and rolls.
There would be no sushi boat at Sushi Bon. Here, it's about the freshest fish. This is one of the few restaurants — let alone sushi joints — in which the chef can buy fish straight from fishermen, because of the restaurant's proximity to a marina.
In-between courses, Hana explained: "I'm lucky to live here to get such fresh, local fish." State law requires restaurants to buy fish from a vendor unless a boat dock is at the back of a restaurant, according to Amanda Naley of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. As a result, the catch at Sushi Bon is among the freshest you'll get in South Florida.
"Ebi always serves us hot items first," said my friend Gail, who comes with her partner, Amy, to Sushi Bon at least once a week. My friend Lisa, who also lives in Lake Worth, joined us. A bowl of purple Asian eggplant arrived in a squared bowl, braised in a soy and dashi broth and garnished with translucent bonito flakes.
"It's alive!" I said. Minuscule fingers from papery bonito shavings fluttered in the bowl. Savory, salty, and sweet marked each delicious bite, as we coveted every slice.
We abandoned the menu for the day's specials, a slapdash list on a whiteboard that reads more like a classroom to-do list. Hog or yellow snapper, black grouper, fluke, and conch sashimi are the evening's options.
A stocky man with a game-fishing shirt sat solo nearby at the bar, chatting with Hana as he worked. Burlap banners with Japanese characters aligned an overhang like streamers. Even from his work station, Hana commanded the room. "Good to see you again," he said to our table of four. "Who's the new person?"
We stuck to dishes like the braised octopus dumplings, presented like purses, filled with meat and broth. Amy popped hers into her mouth. "We get them every time we're here," she said. The doughy bites sat atop a reduced eel sauce, a kabayaki made from mirin, soy, sugar, and fish sauce. I wanted to lick the plate.
Sashimi marked the transition to the first raw course. "I get wahoo whenever I can," says Lisa. Artfully thin wahoo is arranged in a wheel, presented with a center of cucumbers, sesame, jalapeño peppers, and a garlic vinaigrette. It's incredibly clean and tastes of the sea, with a bite of heat and the mild nuttiness of seeds. I wanted to savor it longer, but our table was scarfing each course as if we had been starving.
My tablemates who brought me here said Sushi Bon is a mainstay for food nerds and chefs off work. Two dishes affirmed why. Sashimi conch was the first, a turgid, white, finger-sized sliver that evoked delight because of the unusual texture paired with the complexity of Meyer lemon. The second was the uni roll, an ingredient that gives me pause; the flavor of sea urchin is earthy and primal, with a custard-like texture. If there's too much in a roll, I second-guess eating it. Here, it's a small dollop seared with heat to half-solidify the bite. Served with scallions and citrus, it's a lively play of flavors, no soy or wasabi necessary.
"I could really keep eating!" said Lisa after our fourth course. I agree. Though next time, I want to try it as traditional as it gets here: omakase, at the bar, with Hana leading the way. Gail and company serve as excellent guides. For the next go-round, I'd like to take the lead with the master himself, just to see how traditional things can get.