As is the case with most things Japanese, traditional Japanese sushi is subtle: The flavors are reliant on rice and the quality of fish. It is simple, straightforward, and balanced with rare experiments. Though some local sushi chefs are offering single pieces of one type of fish over seasoned rice as part of a Nigiri selection, no one has an entire menu devoted to simplicity.
American sushi, on the other hand, has a mix of strong flavors, bold colors, and a variety of raw fish, cooked meat, vegetables, even fruit, and many appear together in a single composition. This sensibility where both screamingly fresh seafood and creativity compete on the plate is the standard at New Orleans sushi bars. Overlay this with tendencies of many New Orleans kitchens a to add regional flare (alligator, pickled okra, crawfish, fried soft-shell crabs) to dishes with roots anywhere else and the local definition of sushi expands ever more.
New Orleans sushi is all over the place. What must it be at the very least to qualify as “sushi”? In an exasperated effort to rein this beast in I set the standard of “must include fish and rice.” This worked until vegan sushi presented itself with various mushrooms and jackfruit standing in for fish, and growing popularity.
What follows is an exploration that roves through the ever- increasing subgenres of New Orleans sushi. This list is by no means exhaustive (and is in no order.)
5236 Tchoupitoulas St.
I loved everything about Luvi the first time I set foot in the cozy, colorful space at the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Bellecastle streets in 2018. I loved the way the loud wallpaper that looks like undulating snow-capped mountains rendered in Batik contrasts with the screamingly bright floral patterns on the sleek slipper chairs.
None of these things should be in the same space but, like a shimmery fairy dust, the energy and passion that brought these disparate elements together renders them perfect. It’s the only acceptable backdrop for Chef Hao Gong’s exotic, playful Asian hybrid cuisine that draws on elements of his Shanghai upbringing, stints at restaurants around the U.S., and his decade-long career as the head sushi chef at Sake Café while breaking every rule (such as the unspoken one that raw fish and cheese have no place together.) The chef’s core belief that we feast first with our eyes is evidenced on the plate in bright pops of color, patterns and layers. The best way to experience Luvi is through Chef Hao’s three-course, all raw “Feed Me” menu, which changes daily and where you may encounter such combinations as bluefin tuna, fresh figs, feta cheese, sweet honey, Creole mustard, smoked soy and golden pea shoots one day; wispy slices of lemon fish (cobia) with golden kiwi, salmon roe, yuzu vinegar, dill oil, and black volcano sea salt on another; or small rosettes of yellowfin tuna plated with blackberries, cherry tomatoes, curls red radish, and smoked soy sauce on yet another.
Just don’t come here looking for rolls or poke.
Little Tokyo Causeway
2300 N. Causeway Blvd.
Many locals had their first sushi experience at the original Little Tokyo at 1521 N. Causeway when Yusuke Kawahara opened the small spot in 1986. Since then, local spin offs have led to a small cluster of spots under the Little Tokyo umbrella. The outpost at 2300 N. Causeway is located closest to the now-shuttered original, making it a sentimental favorite that remains consistently busy. Late night hours attract a young crowd that shows up for colorful cocktails (lychee Saketini, anyone?) and mammoth, value priced rolls that hit the spot without straining the wallet. The special crunchy roll is a standout for its filling of tender, lightly lacquered barbecued eel. Decidedly local influences turn up in the Causeway roll, which is stuffed with a fried soft-shell crab, and the Louisiana roll, featuring pickled okra and crawfish tails. The sushi bar features a changing menu of premium nigiri featuring imports like uni, kanpachi, and torched scallops with foie gras.
New Orleans native Kelseay Dukae started working in sushi restaurants when she was 14. Over the course of 15 years, she trained herself in the art of sushi via YouTube and went on to run pop-ups and catering gigs in New York and California. After returning home to New Orleans, and a stint on MasterChef, a couple of years ago she caught the vegan bug and started Kinoko (which translates to “mushroom” in Japanese) a vegan sushi concept where meaty ‘shrooms often stand in for fish or animal proteins. Dukae employs local and seasonal vegetables, fruit, and mushrooms to create sushi rolls that boggle the mind.
“Playing with the flavors and textures of all kinds of mushrooms, from shiitakes with a meaty bite to enoki and lions mane mushrooms with a crab-like flavor and texture, you really don’t miss the fish,” Dukae said. A popular fixture at the Crescent City Farmers Market, she also runs a catering company, pop-ups (specifically at the Drifter and Catahoula hotels) and offers vegan sushi platters for parties and intimate dinner parties.
634 Orange St., Ste B
What to drink with sushi? Chilled Wetlands Sake pairs perfectly and is available in filtered, unfiltered and sparkling varieties. The LSU Agriculture Center grows a specially cultivated short grain rice that looks like a tiny round pearl specifically for use in this New Orleans-based sake brewery. Owned by New Orleans natives and lifelong friends, Nan Wallis and Lindsey Brower Beard, the duo brought in experienced brewers to develop their sakes, with 2% of the profits from which are donated to Save America’s Wetlands. Try Wetlands Sake at the recently opened tap room in the Lower Garden District. It is also available in shops, markets, bars, and restaurants all over the region.
601 Poydras St., Ste. B (in the Pan American building)
Sisters Leah Simon and Michele Ezell put the cool back in downtown life, first in Lafayette in 2000, and later in Baton Rouge in 2005, when they opened their distinctive West Coast-style sushi restaurants in long-underutilized locations. In both, heavy traffic to their restaurants drove downtown resurgences. In 2017, the sisters brought their popular concept to downtown New Orleans’ Pan American Life Center. The location makes it a given for lunch with the downtown business crowd. When the day winds down, things heat up as the beautiful people head in to take advantage of the Tuesday-Friday Happy Hour specials. Some days the specials are for drinks, others for rolls, but there are always some bargains to be had.
Tsunami prides itself on “LA flare with southern care” with a diverse menu that takes sushi in inventive, globally inspired directions. Across the Tsunami brand the menu is extensive, with traditional Japanese dishes and sushi bar standards augmented by more signature flavors showing a Louisiana influence, like grilled alligator as a sushi bar mainstay. The “Ragin’ Cajun roll” features panko-crusted alligator and the “John Breaux roll,” named for the longtime U.S. senator from Acadiana, is filled with spicy crawfish. Menu standouts include the “Munchie Roll” (fresh salmon, cream cheese, avocado, crusted with Dorito’s Nacho Cheese chips) for being simply ridiculous and the “Tran’s Best Bite roll” (no rice, minced spicy tuna, tempura shrimp, kani, cream cheese, and asparagus, wrapped in soy paper, breaded in panko, and fried and served with ponzu and tsurai sauces), which is a crazy-delicious meal.
Sake Café Uptown
2830 Magazine St.
Since 2001, Sake Café has been a sure bet for those seeking to make an impression. A bustling bar, some outdoor seating and abundant off-street parking on a hoppin’ stretch of Magazine Street seal the deal for its evergreen popularity. Colorful art glass chandeliers blown by an apprentice to Dale Chihuly hang dramatically over the white-cloth dining spaces and the shimmering sushi bar. They cast a flattering glow, the side effect of which seems to be a loosening of the purse strings and an urge to party. A trophy wall featuring signed photographs of celebrities who shared the vibe undoubtedly reinforces the feeling: “Why, yes! Leonardo DiCaprio enjoyed heaps of Japanese Kumamoto oysters for $8 a pop? Me, too!”
Traditional bites of nigiri and specialty rolls galore share space on the menu with more daring presentations such as the “Yuzu Hama,” a gorgeously plated presentation of Yellowtail, orange suprémes, avocado, and yuku tobiko finished with yuzu garlic soy and think ribbons of pickled shallot. Another stunning presentation arrives with the incongruous but brilliant ahi tuna and goat cheese with fanned slices of Fuji apple finished with ponzu and olive oil.
And then there is the “Love Boat for Two.” When this arrives, the room will stare as a small wooden boat loaded with super-fresh sushi hits your table. But you will care not, as, at $55 this may be the best sushi bargain to be found anywhere. The boat floats with two pieces each of tuna, salmon, whitefish, and shrimp sushi; four pieces each of tuna, salmon, yellowtail, whitefish, and octopus sashimi; and a roll of the chef’s choice. It is far more than enough for two as an entrée; four could call it an appetizer. Other bargains include bento box lunch specials that ring in around $10, and a daily happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m., with cocktail specials and nibbles going for $3 to $5.
808 Bienville St.
Dry aging fish has been a decades-old tradition for sushi chefs in Japan, but the practice remains rare in America. So, true to his daring approach to finfish, for the past a couple of years Chef Michal Nelson of GW Fins has been using a temperature and humidity-controlled cabinet to dry age Gulf fish loins. Dry aging removes moisture from the fish, including the residual blood and slime that create the “fishy” odor most of us find so offensive. After 10 days, the result is remarkable. With regard to Yellowfin tuna, the flesh turns a deep ruby hue. It is moist, and smells fresh, which is weird because, well, it is 10-day-old fish. The connective tissues have broken down making it tender with a deep beef-like flavor and skin that crisps beautifully when cooked. With all of this in mind, Nelson’s “Poke with Dry-Aged Yellowfin Tuna” served with cucumber, radish, ponzu and vinegar chips has a regular presence on the menu, and it is one of those dishes that is not to be missed.
Kanno California Sushi Bar
3517 20th St., Metairie
Chef and owner Hidetoshi “Elvis” Suzuki, classically trained in Osaka, Japan, then layered on training in French and Italian cuisines in San Diego, before moving to Louisiana in 2002 to open a tiny “California style” sushi joint in Fat City. He knows his customer. His small spot enjoys a consistent cult following that allows him to operate only Wednesday-Saturday and to “shut down when the fish runs out.” The chef’s willingness to forgo rice altogether on a selection of rolls on the “Skinny” menu hints at the proclivities of his core clientele. They feel the love and keep coming back. The “Elvis roll” (soy paper with salmon, avocado, snow crab and blue crab) is a standout as are off-the-menu specials Chef Elvis concocts each day. Looking for a bargain? Try the “Kanno Chef Choice Special,” three dishes (chef’s choice) plus a house-made dessert for $38.
419 Carondelet St., Suite 101
In a word Yo Nashi is impeccable.
It starts with the sign. The one marking the entrance was made using “shou sugi ban,” a Japanese technique of preserving wood by charring it. The jewel box of a space was designed by Curtis Herring in shades of deep teal and vibrant orange, offset by touches of gold. Another highlight are the pear-themed wall scones designed by local artist David Rockhold.
Owner Kyle Payer, formerly the bar manager at Restaurant August, spent last spring’s COVID-19 lockdown pouring over catalogues to select the perfect plate for each of the eight to 10 courses he and Chef Mackenzie “Mack” Broquet, an alum of Commander’s Place, now serve in the Japanese dining style of omakase (chef’s choice). Payer’s extreme attention to every detail is evident in the 18-seat space.
Upon being seated, Chef Mack or another staff member will inquire about a diner’s preferences or allergies and offer a choice of two entrees. From there, the unprinted menu, which changes nightly, will commence as a surprise. It might start with a teardrop-shaped cup of dashi broth flecked with crawfish tails, chives and shitake mushrooms. Next, an appetizer or salad will arrive—perhaps one of baby kale massaged with a bright vinaigrette of ramps cradling baby vegetables, cured salmon and salmon roe. Five courses of nigiri will arrive in succession; delicacies like King Ora salmon dressed with a miniscule dice of roasted beets and chives, or yellowfin tuna topped with a sliver of seared foie gras.
Entrée choices on the night we visited were seared redfish served with two ounces of seared A5 Wagyu; and poached grouper with white asparagus, pickled ramps and green garlic. Dessert was equally thoughtful and beautifully composed.
As there was no printed menu and I kept inquiring, Jackie, a kitchen staff member, most graciously hand-drew a highly detailed version complete with artistic embellishments. She then tucked it into a hand-crafted origami envelope.
It is a beautiful keepsake from an unforgettable meal.
4430 Magazine St.
To enter Haiku on Magazine Street one must first cross a covered, raised outdoor porch to reach the entrance. The intimate, jewel-like interior pretty much lacks natural light and is, instead, subtly lit to reflect the tiny metallic flecks in the stone counter of the sushi bar, and the serene art upon the walls. The extensive menu includes hibachi options and delicious house-made ramen offered with choices of tonkatsu, kansu, shoyu and miso broths, as well as fresh unadorned slices sashimi and inventive rolls. A standout here is the “White Ninja,” combining yellowtail and transparent slices of both lemon and jalapeño with a splash of Ponzu sauce.
1325 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Metairie
With maybe 16-seats including the raw bar and a location on a nondescript corner of Veterans Boulevard near Bonnabel that once housed a dank sports bar, the now pristine Yakuza House was full at 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, and we felt lucky to score a table—an impossible feat without a reservation in the evening.
After a long run of pop-ups chef Huy Pham, formerly of Daiwa and Shogun, bet the bank on the BYOB space in April. It seems to be paying off. Hand rolls and inventive takes on fresh nigiri are the sushi specialties here, but the tempura yellowtail neck is a fine choice for those who fear the raw. Try the kanpachi (Japanese amberjack) nigiri dressed with the chef’s choice of adornments. On the day we visited, a very light hand was used to apply a daring combination of basil pesto, thin ribbons of fried shallot and bit of sea salt. Rich toro nigiri was finished with shoyo and black truffle, and the torched A5 Wagyu nigiri was finished with foie gras. The “Hangry (hand) Roll Set” features bursts of flavors wrapped in sheets of nori, then cut in bite-sized pieces. Delicate bay scallops were enhanced with whisper-thin lemon slices and thin ribbons of scallion. Toro was kissed with chili oil. Red crab was married with the ubiquitous “crunchy,” and blue crab and akami were allowed to stand alone.
We feast first with our eyes. Brilliant colors and compelling textures draw us in. Every opulent bite of Chef Loma Xayalinh’s nigiri sushi tastes as outstanding as it looks within the chef’s Jackson Pollock-like arrangements, which he typically crafts directly atop clients’ dining room tables or islands (with the benefit of a layer of clear plastic). As an affiliate of Inland Seafood, he has access to an extensive treasure trove of seafoods, both familiar and exotic, that span the globe. Seared duck breast, A5 Wagyu beef and foie gras are also on the menu. Chef Loma is available for private events and in-home classes.
203 W. Harrison Ave.
Upon its opening in February 2020, it quickly filled with the happy chatter of Lakeview neighbors. Six weeks later the pandemic forced owner Betty Pei Ching Sun to move her popular new hotspot to take out and delivery only. When she reopened her restaurant to accept guests, she did so with outside seating only in the parking lot. This summer the small but mighty restaurant was stymied by staffing shortages and Sun pivoted to catering and private events with a promise to reopen when things are more stable. It will be worth the wait. Sushi chef Rafael Alvarez’s standouts are the belt-busting deep fried “Supreme Crab Roll” made with spicy king crab, salmon, eel, cream cheese and jalapeños, and the “Chirashi Sushi Plate,” a beautifully composed work of art with tuna, salmon, snapper, surimi and whitefish carefully arranged atop pillows of rice and adorned with edible gold leaf and fresh tropical flowers.
4100 Veterans Blvd., Metairie
5033 Lapalco Blvd., Marrero
When it opened behind a strip mall in Marrero in 2011, Daiwa quickly became the go-to spot for in-the-know sushi fans who wanted something exotic. Chef Ken Wong receives weekly shipments of finfish and shellfish straight from the docks of Japan. Each chilled box might include several varieties of uni, pen shell mussels, kanpachi, sawara, Japanese sardines, aji, katsuo, engawa, tai or a tangle of octopi. In 2019, demand for Wong’s elegant treatment of these specimens led the chef and his wife/business partner to open a second, larger location in Metairie.
Both restaurants offer stand-out versions of Japanese fare (noodles, rice bowls, handrolls) as well as top-notch nigiri and rolls featuring salmon, tuna, yellowtail, and the like. But the real magic occurs on the “Specials” board behind the sushi bar, where those more unusual specimens show up midweek. The larger Metairie space has also allowed chef Wong to venture more fully into omakase (chef’s choice) menus.
No Boars at the Sushi Bar
Following his Shanghai upbringing and stints all over the U.S., Chef Hao Gong spent a decade as head sushi chef at Sake Café Uptown before opening the jewel-like Luvi on Tchoupitoulas Street in 2018, where he turns out his own exotic, playful Asian hybrid cuisine with a focus on screamingly fresh raw fish of the highest caliber he can possibly find. Figuring he has seen it all, I asked him for some tips on how one should best comport themselves when dining at a sushi or raw bar.
Q: Where should guests place their chopsticks between bites? “Usually, the chopsticks should be placed on the chopstick holder (if provided), or you can fold the chopstick wrapper into a small stand for your chopsticks.”
Q: Should guests ask first before taking pictures of your compositions? “My philosophy is that you eat with your eyes first, so it is natural in current times to take pictures after the guest has had their first visual bite.
Q: Is it acceptable for guests to ask for substitutions or should they take care to order dishes that suit their individual needs as they are composed? “We try to accommodate substitutions or allergies, but it depends on the composition. Changes alter the original idea and flavor.”
Q: Regarding sake, is it acceptable for guests to refill their own cups? “In Asian dining hospitality, it is acceptable for the guest to pour sake for each other but not for themselves. You always pour drinks for the elderly out of respect.”
Q: Your compositions are extremely well thought out. Is it offensive to a chef when a guest adds additional condiments, such as soy sauce, to a dish? “I would prefer guests to try the dishes as presented first. I would like them to experience the flavors that I have created for them. However, I understand everyone has different salt levels, so I am not offended if they ask for additional condiments.”
As for terrible guest behavior, Chef Hao had some doozies to share: “I had a guest come in and they told me to stop making dishes for other guests immediately, that now, I only work for them. This was a Saturday night so there was no stopping the flow. I had to keep going and the guest wasn’t pleased. I have also had several guests who come to the raw bar on different occasions, and they speak very loudly asking me ‘Do you know who I am? Where is my table?’ Usually, I just point to the bartender and say nothing. But we always try to accommodate all guests. New Orleans is full of different personalities and lots of fun, eccentric characters. It always keeps me entertained. This is why I love the industry!”
Q: When seated at the raw bar should a guest direct his or her requests to the server who first took their order or is it acceptable to direct requests to whomever is behind the bar and closest to them? “LUVI consists of a very small team, and we work as a team. Our goal is to satisfy all the guests’ needs so you can ask anyone who works in the restaurant to assist you. It does not need to be your server.”
You should only dip the fish in the soy sauce if it is nigiri style. You should not dip the rice. You should also pick up the nigiri with your hands versus chopsticks. This is the same for rolls with seaweed on the outside. For sashimi you need to use chopsticks. – Chef Hao Gong
8116 Hampson St.
Hana’s collection of “maneki-neko” is working. This common, often animated, Japanese figurine of a calico Japanese Bobtail cat with waving paw is believed to bring good luck to the owner. At Hana the maneki-neko cats keep time with floral oilcloths covering the tables, striped awnings hovering over pleather-clad booths, pieces of art that may be vaguely united by an aquatic theme, and, behind the sushi bar, a pair of televisions turned to different sporting events.
What chef/owner Tai San’s small Riverbend neighborhood sushi joint may lack in elegance and swank, it has in the devoted clientele and staying power every for which restaurateur yearns. Opened 33 years ago, Hana is celebrated by its clientele as having the best sushi in New Orleans. The “Escolar Special roll” pairs thin, lightly scorched pieces of the escolar atop a roll stuffed with crawfish. Due to its impressive size, every bite of the “Hana roll” (shrimp, crabstick, tuna, salmon, snow crab, tamango, cucumber, and avocado) is different from the last. The “Sushi and Sashimi Deluxe,” which is chef’s choice, is an incredible value and enough for two to share. On a recent visit $26 bought a California roll, an abundance of crab, shrimp, snapper, tuna, and salmon sushi, and escolar, salmon, smoked salmon, crab, tuna, shrimp, and yellowtail sashimi.