Posted by johngl
At the tender age of twenty-four, Nanami’s freshly-minted cocky, impatient, and highly opinionated Executive Chef Jason Liao wants to be on TV, wants to be famous in the vein of Austin’s other top sushi chefs Tyson Cole and Paul Qui, and wants to compete against Iron Chef Masaharu Moritmoto. He’s also developing concepts for a couple of new restaurants; there’s no lack of ambition, that is for certain.
Given the opportunity, he’ll even levitate a plate. His creative spirit is quite magical.
Yeah, well JohnGL, that’s all well and good, but how does his food measure up?
Chef Liao had the good sense to want to run some of his new creations by me. I, after all, knew both Tyson Cole and Paul Qui before they were famous. I’m sure they’d never admit it, but I’m their lucky charm. Their skills have absolutely nothing to do with their rise to fame and fortune.
Getting back to reality for a minute or two, most glorious spousal unit and I sidled up to the Nanami Sushi Bar (located in the enviable SoBro district) and plunked our butts down directly in front of Chef Liao. I could tell he was thrilled. Nonetheless, he put on his happy face and got to work.
I’ll walk you through a plate:
He got started working his magic by making his hands translucent, carefully placing each of these spoons into a dollop of wasabi.
With hands moving wicked-fast, Chef Liao deftly developed the plate.
Carefully, yet quickly, Chef Liao topped the Golden Snapper with some fried shiso.
Most glorious spousal unit commented that the fried shiso looked like Easter basket grass which earned her a straight face from the Chef. I’d hoped that she hadn’t blown the experience for us. Jason took things in stride and simply moved on to the next plate.
We, on the other hand, got to savor these spoonsful of flavor: A hint of sweetness, light acidity from the citrus, exquisitely textured fish, and a hint of crunch from the Easter Basket Grass, all combined to make this succinctly-named opening salvo, Golden Snapper Crudo, a magnificent wake-up call. This kid’s got something.
This one’s called “Pachi Berry”. The fish is Almaco Jack, farmed near Hawaii’s Big Island and marketed under the brand name Kona Kampachi. Very tuna-like in texture, the fish is firm, fleshy, and fatty enough to stand up to the crunchiness of ultra-thin slice of jalapeno. Where the jalapeno adds a bit of zest, the genius of this plate comes from a sweet slice of dehydrated strawberry (visible just beneath the jalapeno).
As Chef Liao finished up the next plate, he told of a fairly rare fish, the Ivory King Salmon. Roughly one in every hundred King salmon has white flesh. Some think it is genetics and others think it is diet. The geneticists are winning. The main thing is the two fish look identical until you cut them open. Chef got his hands on 50 pounds of the stuff and we’ve vowed to eat our share (as did the two lovely ladies that were sitting immediately to our left). I’ve eaten Ivory King only once in my life.
Okay, so twice at this point.
We argued about whether or not I should even post about this dish, so pay attention. The fish is presented over top of a layer of blueberry gastrique. I think there’s some icewine in here somewhere (that’s what my notes say anyway). Obviously, there are some halved blueberries and shallot greens, too. Chef calls this dish Blue Ivory and it is, without a doubt, stellar. Stellar!
My inner plumber comes to life every time I hear a blowtorch ignite. These are slices of diver scallops getting a quick sear for the upcoming dish.
This is the completed dish: Silk Ceviche. According to Chef, the components of this dish came together after reading Morimoto. Besides the scallops, we’ve got small chunks of tuna and “snapper chips” that not only look cool, but double as scoops. Load up one of these crispy-fried fish crisps with a scallop and a dollop of tuna ceviche and you’ve got yourself a mouthful of joy.
Four courses in, and Chef decided to present us with some traditional nigiri sushi: amberjack, Big Eye tuna, and escolar.
I watched Chef with envy at the ease in which he not only slices the fish, but also in the way he assembles these “simple” nigiri. With just a few years of constant practice, anyone can do it.
This toro, or fatty tuna, is combined with roasted almonds and candied lemon rind to make up a dish called Maggie Toro, ostensibly named for Chef’s “sometimes” significant other. The scent of amazingly powerful mint leaves hits you full in the face, and if care is not taken with the amount you ingest with each bite of tuna, it may overpower the flavor of the fish. The toro combined with the almonds somehow make things taste meatier and the candied rinds adds just a hint of sweetness making this a great dish upon which to end the seafood extravaganza.
Speaking (vaguely) of sweetness, throughout the evening we were sipping Momokawa Pearl, a nigori (white, unfiltered) sake while we were devouring Chef Liao’s offerings with gusto. Mucho gusto! Consumed in moderation, it wonderfully compliments sushi plates of all kinds, from spicy to fatty.
Do you ever stop talking? What about Chef?
Yeah. I get that a lot. It’s my blog and I’ll type whatever the heck I want. But thanks for reeling me back in.
And while I’m (sorta) on the subject of attitude, Executive Chef Jason Liao has it in spades, though if you read his blog, you’ll also find that he also cares very deeply about his work, his adopted family, as well as many others in his industry. He’s become well-grounded. Focused. He’s matured in a way that only grows from love of craft, hard work, ambition, and just a little bit of magic.