There are countless sushi restaurants scattered across the Westside, but according to Chef Masa Shimakawa there is only one restaurant serving authentic Tokyo-style sushi, and that is his new pop-up Soko.
Centered around an eight seat counter, Soko is an intimate sushi bar tucked inside the main-floor lobby of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows in Santa Monica. The restaurant embodies Japanese ideals of harmony and attention to detail, with a simple nigiri and roll based menu serving the highest quality cuts of fish.
“Sushi is a lifelong passion of mine, and Soko is especially personal for me as I have the opportunity to continue to perfect my craft by curating deeply personal and memorable experiences for our guests in a one-on-one type of atmosphere,” said Shimakawa.
Shimakawa comes from humble origins and propelled himself to success through sheer sushi talent. Raised in the coastal Japanese town of Hakodate, Shimakawa took his first job as a cafeteria dishwasher with no intention of launching a culinary career.
“I started to work in the sushi restaurant back of house and I didn’t have any ideas or detailed knowledge,” said Shimakawa. “I started studying cooking rice and cutting vegetables, day-by-day month-by-month they (sushi chefs) taught me sushi techniques. This was my starting point.”
Shimakawa discovered he had a natural aptitude and went on to train under top Japanese sushi chefs, making his way to the sushi capital of Tokyo before taking an overseas job opportunity in Montreal.
A highly successful ten year stint in Canada opened doors to opportunities in the US at renowned hotels including the Park Hyatt in Chicago and the Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake, where he designed the modern Japanese and Asian inspired restaurant Onyx.
Soko is bringing master sushi chef Shimakawa back to the basics, but the food is anything but simple. The menu is priced per piece with each individual nigiri and roll being prepared and plated with care.
Nigiri offerings include horse mackerel, scallop, ora king salmon, red snapper, and kanpachi, while a limited menu of rolls features tuna, Japanese cucumber, and yellowtail with scallion and toro. There are also a small range of starters, sake and beer on offer.
Shimakawa carefully oversees the sourcing of each ingredient, drawing around 70 percent of his fish from Japan and the rest from prime coastal regions such as king salmon from New Zealand and tuna from Spain.
“Soko focuses on traditional Japanese Tokyo-style sushi and totally forgets about American-style western-style techniques and ingredients,” said Shimakawa. “I want to emphasize to the clients that we want them to flavor and see traditional dishes, traditional items, traditional experiences. That is what I want to deliver.”
Although the restaurant is billed as a pop-up, there is no end date in sight and there are some expansion plans in the works.
While the intimate eight seat bar will remain at the center of Soko, seating is slated to expand throughout the lobby and into the nearby sidewalk area. Shimakawa already has plans for new menu items and experiences including a shareable nine-piece bento box.
Although the fish might be high-end, the dining experience is intended to be cosy and casual, with a no reservations policy and paper and pencil ordering system.
The name Soko means storeroom in Japanese and is a tribute to the spaces where, prior to the days of refrigeration, Japanese fisherfolk would preserve their catch wrapped in fermented rice and salt. This 2,000 year old dish became known as narezushi and is the precursor to the modern art of sushi.
Soko the restaurant strives to pay tribute to this long legacy and is, intentionally, housed in a glass-paneled converted storeroom at the Fairmont. Soko is open on a first come first serve basis Wednesday through Sunday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. at 101 Wilshire Blvd.