Who is Naoki? The name held little meaning to Chicago food enthusiasts two months ago, but now it stands for one of the best sushi spots in the city as well as its signature style of sashimi. He is Naoki Nakashima, chef at Lettuce Entertain You's hidden sushi restaurant inside Intro.
Born in Fukuoka, Japan, Naoki began working in restaurants at the age of 16, spending time at noodle shops and the local fish market. At 21, he moved to The States and began a job at a California Japanese restaurant, working his way up from dishwasher to the sushi counter. His Chicago culinary career began as NoMI, where he pioneered their elegant sushi program. From there, he did the same at Lettuce's Shaw's Crab House.
It wasn't until earlier this year that Naoki's sushi stopped playing second fiddle, when Lettuce turned over the reigns at its clandestine sushi spot in Lincoln Park. Here, not only does he serve the standbys of spicy tuna maki and hamachi nigiri, but also a modern-style of sashimi dubbed Naoki-style. This takes traditional sashimi, which is simply sliced, raw fish, and throws tradition to the wind with a smattering of sauces and seasonings.
Naoki admits that he might be one of the first to serve this composed-style of sashimi in Chicago, but his inspiration comes from another sushi great: Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa. Nobu's new-style sashimi became his signature after a customer sent back a plate of fresh flounder, claiming it was too raw. A drizzling of hot olive oil solved that problem. Since then, he's given salmon and fluke similar treatments with additional flavors — including sesame oil, ginger, and citrus — at his dozens of restaurants.
At Naoki, thin slices of madai, or sea bream that was swimming in the waters of South Korea 24-hours ago, act as a base for this edible artwork. They are drizzled with pumped-up ponzu sauce that is combined with sautéed shimeji mushroom broth. Ume, or pickled plum sauce, acts as the final component in this mosaic. Naoki explains that each ingredient compliments the delicate white fish, and when put together, the flavors enhance each bite.
"Most of my sushi still follows the Japanese ingredients — soy sauce, yuzu juice, poznu sauce — that stuff is a base," Naoki says. "Then I twist it."
- Naoki Nakashima slices madai, or sea bream, from South Korea.
- Each piece of madai is carefully arranged on a plate.
- Garnishes include a shiso leaf as well as shimeji mushrooms.
- The artful arrangement makes a strong case for tweezer food.
- The sashimi is finished with ponzu and mushroom broth as well as pickled plum sauce.