One of Niseko’s newest additions to the gastronomy scene, Sushi Kato, pays homage to the globally recognised Japanese dish; sushi. Spearheaded by owner-operator Kato-san and his partner in crime, Chef JJ, together, they have created an equally delicious and memorable experience alike. No strangers to the seafood industry, Kato-san has been a crab specialist with over 55 years of experience. After the immense success of his crab markets and initial restaurant in Sapporo, he now brings that practice to Niseko’s Grand Hirafu for all to enjoy. Chef JJ on the other hand, has been practicing his art for over 45 years. He learnt his trade in the infamous crab town of Kasumi, known nationwide for its high-quality seafood. He returned to Niseko for his love of the area and the immense amount of fresh, local seafood at his disposal. He has been locally based now for the past 10 years where he has been the Head Chef at high-class restaurants. The pair envision attracting and teaching young chefs who can then venture out and open new Sushi Kato, evolving it on a global scale.
Sushi Kato isn’t somewhere you come to simply enjoy a meal; it is a place of history and culture showcasing Hokkaido’s finest ingredients. Each meal is introduced in both Japanese and English by your host, adding an extra element of familiarity with the area from which the dish is derived. As a gaijin who in truth, is not the biggest fan of seafood, I was both interested and sceptical about the experience I was about to partake.
Upon entering, we found ourselves in the rustic Bar Kato, a whiskey and sake bar that serves as both the waiting room for the restaurant as well as a perfect spot to unwind over a quality drink. The knowledgeable bar staff can walk you through the vast assortment of top-shelf liquor available, many of which can be challenging to find throughout the village. We were ushered through a rippled brass door that uncovered a tunnel lined with a stoned pathway leading you to the restaurant, a unique entrance in its own outright sparking excitement for what awaits at the end of the path. The majority of the seating lined Chef JJ’s workbench, giving every customer a unique insight into his process. Two booths are also available for extra seating.
Sushi Kato offers three different set menus, Matsu (pine), Take (bamboo) and Ume (plum). The restaurant solely practices Kaiseki style of dining, meaning it is a prescribed set course dependent on the seasonal produce. Kato-san highlighted the importance of this style of dining; “When customers come to a new restaurant, they might not be familiar with the area or local food, with Kaiseki, you allow the professional chef to choose and prepare you the best dish possible”. We were treated to the Ume course, which consisted of ten separate dishes, and after perusing the menu, nervous anticipation soon turned to excitement.
Before our first dish arrived, we were greeted with a warm, fragrant dashi broth that is used throughout the set menu, giving us a sense of familiarity with the meal we were about to enjoy. The opening dish was appropriately the restaurant’s staple ingredient; hairy crab served in its shell accompanied by cod roe and ponzu jelly garnished with citrus flowers. Each component complimented the crab beautifully; JJ had already begun to curve my scepticism surrounding sea-dwelling animals. An exquisite array of sashimi including Otoro (fatty Tuna), Russian prawn, Salmon and Hirame (flounder) followed. When looking up the word ‘fresh’ in the dictionary, a picture of this plate should lay beside it. My taste buds danced as this new wave of flavours I’d never quite witnessed before ran across them. I may be a fish lover, after all. Chawan-Mushi was next, a light and creamy egg-custard with a hidden piece of crab submerged beneath a yellow sea. Delectable.
Every dish thus far had exceeded my wildest expectations and left me wanting more. However, the next dish I was admittedly very excited for; Shiraoi Beef grilled on a hot stone. The selected beef is Japanese Black beef, raised locally in the nearby town of Shiraoi which provides the perfect combination of weather, food and an abundance of water allowing the farmers to craft their prize cattle into some of the best produce on the globe. This beef was selected as the key produce to be used at the G8 Hokkaido Tokyo Summit by the Prime Minister himself. In front of me lay four succulent pieces of arguably the world’s best beef. Kato-san recommended you try the first three pieces each with a different condiment, with you choosing which way was your favourite and how the final piece would be consumed. After composing myself from the tsunami of flavour I had just encountered, my eyes widened as a plate of golden, battered perfection was placed in front of me — an array of tempura including prawn, asparagus, corn with both round and flat mushrooms. The round mushroom was that of Maitake also known throughout Japan as “Dancing Mushroom”. According to Japanese legend, a group of Buddhists hiking on a mountain trail discovered a fruiting of Maitake mushrooms and rejoicing at their discovery of this delicious treat, began to dance in celebration. A name that aptly suits the mushrooms and would be appropriate for the entirety of this course, what I had eaten so far could bring me to a boogie!
But the food doesn’t stop there! Next was a simmered Kichiji rockfish placed eloquently in a bed of a sweet soy broth supplemented by seasonal vegetables. A delicate dish where everything unified perfectly. It was now time for the main dish, hard to comprehend that given the amount of deliciousness I have encountered thus far. Can all restaurants supply appetizers of this calibre, please? Chef JJ was delivered a large pot of rice which he then tested by kneading and rolling it, much like a baker would with dough. The master chef now began to showcase why he is, in fact; a master. A momentarily empty long white plate was placed in front of me and JJ went to work. Egg, Otoro, Hirame, hairy crab and shellfish. All prepared in Nigiri fashion and now dispersed in front of me as if it were a piece of art. A plate that usually would daunt me but from what I had tasted so far, I couldn’t wait to dig in. Again, the freshness was dumbfounding. Chewing was almost unnecessary as the flesh melted in my mouth. With our stomachs nearing full capacity on an unusually cold night, the last of the savoury dishes was something special. Miso with crab soup that was warm and rich in flavour. The perfect cap to an extraordinary meal. Utilizing fresh pieces of crab rather than the frozen you would find in most crab soups; it delivers a rich and robust flavour without the overtone of a fishy odour.
Rounding out the evening as my glass of sake dwindled was two separate desserts of strawberry and mikan (Japanese mandarin) followed by a macha tea and wagashi (Japanese confectionery). The fruit stayed true to its predecessors; fresh. As if they’d been plucked from their respective trees in the kitchen and delivered to my plate. Paired with a balsamic glaze and Japanese yoghurt, it proved the perfect treat to please my sweet tooth. Finally, a staple dessert to close out an indescribable Japanese cuisine; Macha tea with wagashi. Kato-san added the element of whisking your own tea before indulging, adding a layer of theatrics to the dish which is sure to bring a smile to the entire table. Further bolstering the point that Sushi Kato is designed to be an experience.
Kato-san, Chef JJ and their impeccable team, have brought true authentic Japanese sushi to Niseko. With the added bonus of having some of the world’s finest and freshest produce easily within reach, they have conjured this into a memorable experience providing those fortunate enough to visit; a culinary expedition around Japan. Arigato gozaimasu Kato-san and JJ-san for transforming this once fish sceptic, into a full-blown fan. OISHI KATTA!