Some places you go are just an instant fit. I think everyone has that feeling when they visit Umi Sushi. It’s one of Wailuku’s newest sushi hot spots. Owner/chef Jayse Sato says his journey to opening this spot wasn’t the usual trajectory.
“We opened March 1st,” says Sato. “We are open from Wednesdays through Saturdays and we also do BYOB here. It’s been good. It’s been getting busy. Friday and Saturday are definitely our busiest days.”
Umi Sushi is only open four out of seven days of the week, and they share a kitchen with the Soup to Nuts catering company, but that hasn’t stopped their fan base. They don’t take reservations, and often get a line going outside. I visited on a Wednesday evening, and it was still busy enough to have a short wait. Yet Sato didn’t grow up thinking he would be a chef.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he says. “I was even going to nursing school at one point. That is what my mom wanted me to do.”
He got his first break at Amasia, with chef and restaurant entrepreneur Alan Wong.
“When I got hired at Amasia I had no experience,” says Sato. “They took a chance on me. Alan Wong decided to take a shot. He had hired a Michelin Star sushi chef and that is who I worked with, and he taught me everything I know. He was sort of an outcast when it came to sushi. That is kind of what we are here, what we represent. We are two young guys making sushi–we have a young approach when it comes to our sushi. We have turned tradition on its head. We have a pork belly roll (the lechon roll). We call it sushi, others might not consider this sushi. We like to be creative, take local flavors and make a dish, but it might be something you haven’t seen before.”
Umi Sushi’s menu and cuisine is youthful, a reflection of Sato’s style and aesthetic, that he refined for the next few years after his experience with Amasia.
“I had another business, called Rua,” says Sato. “I had a partner. I basically ran the sushi, he did all the hot food. We changed the menu a lot. We did pop-ups. We did that for a year. The reason why we did that was we started up as a catering company. But catering was really tough. Too inconsistent. Our food was good for restaurant, but not as much for catering. It’s hard to do fancy plate-ups, but that has been my passion. After Amasia, I worked at Nuka. Then we did the catering, that changed into the pop-ups. When my partner at Rua wanted out, I knew I wasn’t done yet, I really loved doing this. So I kept looking for the right place and put together my business plan. At the time I didn’t know I was going to do sushi.”
Sato’s experience with his pop-up concept helped him create some of his most popular dishes.
“When I did the pop-up we changed the menu every month,” says Sato. “I did that so we could try many things. We did not know what was going to be popular. When I was at Nuka, the soy-wrapped roll was a top seller, but when you make that here in Wailuku, it doesn’t sell. I kinda gotta get used to the clientele. When you do the pop-up thing we would do six to 10 rolls in a month and then change it. After a year, I had a better understanding of what the best-sellers were. That is how we formulated some of the menu items.”
The Kochimon roll, a shrimp tempura roll with crab, unagi and masago, comes adorned with edible flowers and glowing lights. The soft shell crab bao bun has a crispy whole crab peeking out of a soft steamed bun, drizzled with aioli and flowers, too. I couldn’t resist ordering the salmon ochazuke, because I don’t find it on menus very often. It’s a bowl of rice with salmon and seaweed and a brothy housemade tea poured over the whole thing. It was spectacular.
Umi Sushi has a menu and a specials board on the wall. There I found the fried tako dish. Sato’s take on fried tako is so rich and interesting. They chop tako, then deep fry it until it’s crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Then it’s tossed with aioli and garnished with green onion. Most of the dishes are familiar, but Sato likes to put on his own twist, both in the taste and plating. A lot of his dishes are visually impactive as well as delicious. We were crazy about the Fruity Pebbles macaroon ice cream sandwich for dessert. He also makes a mean ramen.
“People will come in just for the ramen,” says Sato. “Before, people were complaining that Maui doesn’t have a lot of ramen, or no good ramen spots. So I worked on what my ultimate ramen would be. I make tonkotsu ramen, a pork broth, a bit on the heavier side. I serve it with black garlic and pork belly. I use sun noodle but it is not your average sun noodle. It is a tonkotsu ramen noodle which is made for this type of broth. If you use a regular noodle it will just break up in the broth. The tonkotsu noodle is made to hold up and stay dense even with this broth.”
Once you start ordering, it’s easy to get hooked. You want to see the other dishes you haven’t tried yet. It’s a fun environment, too. They don’t have a liquor license, but encourage BYOB. Sato says because of the shared kitchen situation, the Liquor Commission says they won’t be able to qualify for one. It’s disappointing for him but he’s focusing on the food for now.
“I cater to the locals in Wailuku, the price point is reasonable, but our concept is to give our customers fine dining food but at regular prices,” says Sato. “We have a family vibe here though. My mom is the cashier, my dad is washing dishes. All of us are classmates from Baldwin class of 2006. We are a young crew.”
1951 E. Vineyard St., Wailuku
Open Wednesday to Saturday, 5-9pm
@umisushimaui on Instagram
Photos: Sean M. Hower