GOod sushi is always a delight. When it’s as delectable as it is aesthetic, it’s hugely exciting. I came across this photo on Instagram, which featured carefully arranged pieces of fish, ikura, and other green vegetables, neatly pressed atop rice. The composition of the creation felt like stained glass. Thank you @stars_beards_and_diamonds, I found its creator: a Maryland-born sushi chef who trained at Waikīkī’s Sushi Sho and is bringing this oshizushi and tableside temaki sushi to Upstairs Waikīkī.
Angie Lee has a million questions. Short story: Her fascination with sushi led her to pre-pandemic Tokyo where she was offered a job at Hakkoku Ginza. After Hiroyuki Sato, Sushi Tokami’s Michelin star chef, had opened a six-seat sushi bar, the restaurant was now open. She mentioned this to Sushi Sho’s Keiji Nakazawa when she ate at his counter; according to Lee, the sushi master immediately invited her to work for him. She started there in January 2021 and when the chef who prepared Sushi Sho’s signature bara chirashi at Upstairs Waikīkī left that restaurant, Lee was tapped to take his place.
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Here is the exciting part: Lee is doing a lot more than Edomae style bara chirashi here at Upstairs. Leaning into her interest in the style of casual temaki served at places like Nami Nori in New York City, she’s debuting a tableside omakase temaki menu at Upstairs from tomorrow, April 21. The 10-course meal costs $65 until May when it will go up to $85. Also debuting is Lee’s eight-piece oshizushi—more on that later.
Lee invited me to try her temaki this Easter weekend. She brings a custom-made themeki cart to the table and assembles each open-style one with precision. My favorites include the ‘Ahi Taku Maki, lush ruby red slices atop warm sushi rice sprinkled with marinated ikura, takuan and green onion. The layers are unified by a light glaze of shoyu. The sweet ‘ahi melts in my mouth, pops of mildly sweet and briny ikura add another dimension, and crunchy takuan completes the story along with a grassy finish of green onion. Another standout is hamachi marinated in calamansi ponzu and topped with a chiffonade of shiso—sometimes shiso can be overpowering but Lee creates a balance that is eye-widening. Another memory: The creamy, sweet lobes of Hokkaido are topped with a simple sprinkle of flaky salt. As this one permeates my senses, I close my eyes.
Two more favorites are the Not So Spicy ‘Ahi, which pairs the locally caught fish with a mélange of different spices and the vegetal snap of fresh, seeded jalapeño; and the tara or cod maki. This Lee uses California wild-caught cod belly to explain its relative leanness. The flesh is firmened by the ikejime method, which paralyzes and lets blood flow. The cod is marinated at low temperatures and then removed from the marinade and torched aburi style before being served. The perfect balance of the tender flesh, umami rich sauce and smoky flavor is a marvel.
Lee tried at least 11 types of nori before choosing the one she liked best. Each sheet is lightly toasted, which puts me into a mild trance. In between temaki courses is a marinated Waimānalo TKG egg. I line up for these eggs for about an hour and a quarter every Wednesday. It is so wonderful to be able to pick one up like a precious orange jewel. The yolk is dipped in a sweet-sour soy-based sauce and accompanied by a small bundle of green onions.
Now let’s get back to the Oshizushi. It’s a technique that originated over 400 years ago in the Kansai region around Osaka. Traditional sushi rice is compressed in a box with a layer of shiso leaves and vinegar-cured mackerel. The sushi can be sliced into perfect rectangles and placed on a platter, in a bento box, or in a nori cradle.
Lee’s style of oshizushi grew out of her fascination with the idea, though she wondered if “there was a way to make it a bit prettier.”She gives us both a box of spicy salmon Oshizushi and one spicy. ‘ahi style. The toppings are similar, with slight differences. Local ‘ahi is treated zuke style—hot water is poured onto fish which is marinated in soy sauce, removed and marinated again. The result is meaty and luscious: a concentration of ‘ahi flavor, a lingering note of soft saltiness and a transformation of the fish’Its texture. Lee includes less traditional toppings like crab, jalapeño, avocado, cucumber, King salmon, marinated ikura and micro herbs. Layers of tobiko, more fish and other ingredients are added to her oshizushi. ‘ahi, and for the spicy ‘ahi version, chopped and seeded jalapeños. The vinegar in the sushi rice is more pronounced and the texture of each grain is more toothsome. After a few hours the flavors meld together and become even more enjoyable. Lee’Upstairs will have a selection of eight-piece Oshizushi.
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Sushi aficionados will tell you that Lee’s status as a female sushi protégé is impressive. And if her style of sushi is a little bit of Edomae melded with traditional fresh kaisen style and tied together with a whimsical spirit, I’m so here for it.