Zen and the Art of Sushi

Local sushi chefs discuss their affinity for fresh fish and the alluring atmospheres that make dining with them unique

By Tristan Scott
Phil's roll, with tempura shrimp, asparagus, tamago, shichimi, sesame oil and scallions wrapped in fresh ahi tuna from Wasabi Sushi Bar in Whitefish on Jan. 26, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In traditional circles, the high art of sushi isn’t taken lightly — top chefs train for decades, and good sushi restaurants have customs all unto their own. Across the U.S., examples of the Japanese culinary discipline’s pervasive Westernization abound, introducing personalized flourishes to a craft steeped in tradition.

Although one might expect to encounter a sushi desert in this far-flung corner of Montana, the Flathead Valley is home to a roster of notable exceptions, standing out as an oasis of sushi shops all with their own distinguishing characteristics, eclectic menus, skilled chefs, and deference to quality.

This roundup introduces you to some prominent local purveyors of sushi in the Flathead, their unique backgrounds, distinct styles, and signature menu items.

These experts will walk you through how your sushi is made, touch on the different types available, offer a few lessons on etiquette, and, of course, let you enjoy your sushi to the fullest.

At Wasabi Sushi Bar and Ginger Grill in Whitefish, head chef Phil Vilar labors behind the counter, smiling easily beneath a “no sushi snobs” sign, which hangs behind him on the wall, both a nod to the restaurant’s upscale-yet-accessible atmosphere and the staff’s familial friendliness and sense of humor.

Having been with Wasabi almost from the beginning, Vilar is inventive with his menu, offering daily specials, nigiri, sashimi, and sushi rolls that incorporate various types of fish, tempura, veggies, and diet-specific foods such as quinoa and gluten-free products.

When he’s not preparing the rice or constructing amazing sushi behind the counter, Vilar takes care to “product test,” a job perk that requires sampling his fish orders for freshness, color, texture, fat content, and taste.

The restaurant has become such a beloved mainstay for locals that a wall of chopsticks near the kitchen sports the custom dining utensils of dozens of longtime customers, each set clasped in a holder bearing the owner’s name.

The restaurant’s atmosphere is lively, a mood that is accentuated by the colorful walls and energetic wait staff. Owner Paula Greenstein has tried to avoid fine dining that’s overly prim and proper in favor of a high-end culinary experience accented with fun and familiarity.

The lion’s share of Wasabi’s fish is sourced with adherence to the Seafood Watch program, a Monterrey, California-based watchdog group that monitors issues such as overfishing and unsustainable fish-farming practices, which can topple oceanic ecosystems.

“Ninety percent of our fish is approved by them, and our customers appreciate that,” Vilar said. “These days, more people are asking questions about sourcing and environmentally friendly practices.”

Customers won’t be disappointed in any of the creative rolls featured as daily specials, while the “Phil’s Roll” is a signature maki roll. Guests should also sample Wasabi’s high-caliber sashimi (sliced raw fish served without rice) and nigiri (thin slices of raw fish served atop rice), which, as with many experienced sushi chefs, stand out as Vilar’s preferred methods for preparing and consuming his sushi.

More at wasabimt.com.

At Blue Samurai Bar and Grill, a recent addition to downtown Kalispell’s bustling roster of restaurants, Tuyen (Tony) Tran, executive chef and owner, shows off gleaming cuts of sashimi-grade Bluefin tuna, or “toro,” the fish’s melt-in-the-mouth underbelly, which he’s serving to display the range of fat content, from lean to fatty.

Tran moved to Kalispell from Tampa, Florida, where he ran the renowned Ocean Blue restaurant and trained under a sushi master who mentored him for years. He brings that expertise to his new restaurant and his staff, from whom he expects and demands the same deference to quality, whether they’re cutting scallions and carrots or a high-ticket piece of fish.

Guests at Blue Samurai have quickly developed a confidence in Tran, and his customers will often employ the concept of “omakase,” translating as, “I’ll leave it to you,” deferring to the judgment of the chef, or “itamae,” and inviting him to serve the best dishes at his discretion, a skill that requires independent judgment and creativity.

While Tran included a selection of fusion rolls on his menu, he prefers the purity of nigiri and sashimi, which he said better showcases the quality of the fish he procures.

For a piece of nigiri, Tran presses perfectly plump grains of short-grain rice, which are cooked using precisely measured quantities of rice vinegar, salt and sugar, into a compact pellet in his hands. It’s a simple act that couldn’t be more representative of sushi’s nuanced complexity — too much rice and it will be more than a mouthful; too little and it will be overpowered by the fish; too much pressure and it will be hard; too little and the pellet will fall apart.

For a piece of sashimi, Tran employs the deftness of a surgeon, slicing off a cut of Bluefin tuna and adding a delicate smear of wasabi — a fiery green root that is grated into a paste — and imploring a customer not to use too much soy sauce.

Tran orders his fish whole so that he can better inspect the product, and has refused fish that aren’t up to snuff. He looks for clarity in the eyes, a bolt of sanguine brightness in its gills, and a bouncy firmness in its body.

“People who know sushi appreciate this,” Tran said. “They understand what it takes to make real sushi, that it’s an art.”

More at bluesamuraimt.com.

Down in Bigfork, Drake Doepke, the owner of Saketome Sushi, strives to strike a balance that appeals to sushi novices and aficionados alike, emphasizing excellence in his food and maintaining ancient traditions no matter the menu item.

Doepke takes painstaking care to design a fusion roll with an array of exotic ingredients, like seared foie gras or mango or lemon aioli, but he finds the same dynamo of flavors in a single piece of fish, and strives for the kind of wisdom he admires in the best sushi chefs, one born of repetition, tradition and a sophisticated palate.

He opened Saketome in 2009 after stints working at a Japanese restaurant in Bozeman and a respected sushi joint in Hawaii, where he established a broad repertoire of techniques.

With Doepke preparing to open a new Asian cuisine restaurant and bar in downtown Missoula, he’s spending fewer hours in the kitchen, but he has invested plenty of time training a capable and loyal staff to build sushi with the same skill level, including Bailee Dembek, the restaurant’s “master of operations.”

Doepke spent his early 20s traveling around Asia, studying the cuisine and culture of other countries, while his culinary roots date back to his teenage years, when his father, a philosophy professor at University of Colorado in Boulder, would bring him along on sabbaticals to Asia.

To achieve success in Montana, Doepke has created a menu that caters to serious sushi eaters and newcomers alike, without diminishing the quality of the food.

More at saketomesushi.com.

Back in Whitefish, Stacey Ingham and Tiffany Newman, owners of Indah Sushi, began their venture into the culinary world of Asian fusion somewhat serendipitously, beginning with a budding friendship and a bright idea that took off when they bought a food truck.

After splitting time between the Flathead Valley and Arizona, which they described as being akin to a culinary boot camp in the food-truck market, Ingham and Newman now run a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Whitefish, where Indah has a permanent home, while still using the food truck for catering events.

Indah seeks out top-quality fish and local ingredients in its menu, and the restaurant has started offering a monthly oyster night, featuring oysters harvested by Ingham’s family, which has owned an oyster farm in Shelton, Wash. for more than a century.

“It’s been in the family forever and my cousin runs it today, so I call him up to make the orders,” Ingham said.

Newman said the menu was created by paying mindful attention to the importance of balancing flavors — incorporating the crunch of tempura with the complementary creamy constitution of avocado — while ensuring they procure the freshest fish available. To that end, they’ve been grateful for the services of the Flathead Fish and Seafood Co., where they recently received a shipment of kampachi, a varietal of Hawaiian yellowtail.

Indah also features a rotating slate of activities, with a full schedule the week of Valentine’s Day that includes several bottomless sushi nights that coincides with a production of “Anatomy” by Viscosity Theatre and Cabaret, as well as a sushi model.

More at indahmontana.com.