Feature

Den Masters

How brothers Toshi and Yasu Kizaki made Sushi Den into one of Denver’s most storied restaurants.

May 2012

5280.com Exclusive: Images from May's Den Masters.

The sun has risen, but it’s still early enough that the city is cast in shadows when I meet Toshihiro and Yasuhiro Kizaki, of Sushi Den and Izakaya Den, in the parking lot of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Yasu, the older of the two brothers, rolls down his car window and instructs me to follow. Our destination is True World Foods, a national fish distributor with a warehouse in Commerce City. The brothers have invited me along to one of Toshi’s early-morning rituals: Five or six days a week he drives to True World to select seafood for the restaurants.

Inside the warehouse, it takes my mind a minute to register the briny scent of the ocean while standing more than 1,000 miles from the Pacific. Toshi and Yasu greet the staff in Japanese and quickly turn to business. We slip into freezer jackets and duck between plastic panels into the “tuna room,” an enormous refrigerator dedicated to the mammoth fish. A typical bigeye weighs 95 pounds after being gutted and tailed (this weight is then whittled down by another 30 pounds when the bones, skin, and head are removed). This morning, True World is sitting on 1,000 pounds of bigeye.

Toshi, who is 56 and has smooth skin and close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, surveys a large corkboard where long, straight pins pierce knobs of skin-on flesh. Each notch corresponds to a different fish. Carved from the tail region, the half-moons reveal the color of the meat, the fat content, and the bloodline—the all-important indicator of freshness. “You want it bright red because blood cells oxidize,” says Seattle Fish Company COO Derek Figueroa. “The bloodline is one of the best indicators of a fish’s age—its freshness.”

Toshi chooses his fish, an unusually large 160-pound bigeye that’s a week out of the water. Yasu hands me a shimmery scale off the floor. It’s roughly the size of a nickel, opalescent and flexible, even flimsy. Even though Yasu is two years older than Toshi, his soft, youthful features make him look two years younger. Yasu speaks in measured phrases and sentences, as if translating thoughts from Japanese to English before he articulates. He explains in a hushed voice that this is one of the reasons tuna are so difficult to farm: The boundary nets damage their skin.

A few feet away, Toshi cuts through the bigeye’s thick flesh. He is a slight man, but it takes him just minutes to quarter the massive animal. The fish outweighs him by a good 10 pounds, yet he doesn’t strain against the weight. Each cut is a minimalist dance that combines the precision of a surgeon with the grace of an artist. He works silently. When he peels back a panel of muscle, the rib cage is revealed. Yasu steps closer and runs the back of his thumbnail against the meat near the pearly spine. He gathers a ribbon of light pink, translucent flesh and puts it in his mouth to taste.

Toshi doesn’t need to make these pilgrimages to True World. He has enough purchasing power to ensure that the company funnels him its top selections. But control is in his makeup. “Toshi and I have a long way of doing things,” Yasu says, and it’s difficult to argue his point: In December, Sushi Den will celebrate its 28th birthday. Longevity is a feat for any business, but it’s an anomaly in an industry where only 60 percent of restaurants succeed beyond three years. Laserlike focus on the minutia of ingredients, sourcing, technique, and the experience of dining at Sushi Den have made the restaurant a Denver legend.

Meanwhile, the Kizaki brothers themselves have remained enigmas, very much by choice. Shy by nature, Toshi retreats to the background using his strained English as an excuse to disengage. Even with Yasu as the restaurant’s front man—the liaison between the staff and Toshi, and between the restaurant and the rest of the world—there’s a distance. “The Kizakis don’t trust many people who aren’t Japanese or within their small community,” says Eric Dutton, a seven-year veteran of Sushi Den who’s now in charge of the bar program at Vesta Dipping Grill. “It took Toshi more than three years to know my name. You can approach success one of two ways: You can create a culture of family and trust. Or you can keep everyone at an arm’s length.”

 

Pull up to the intersection of South Pearl Street and East Florida Avenue on any Saturday night, and you’ll be lucky to get within four cars of Sushi Den’s valet stand. On the busiest evenings, the wait for a table can stretch to more than an hour—by 6 p.m. The restaurant only accepts reservations for large parties, but never during the weekend’s prime dinner hours. (The full reservation policy, a paragraph and five bullet points, is outlined at sushiden.net; the restaurant doesn’t have an open-table.com account.) But this hardly matters: The swarms of people on the sidewalk and inside at the two bars, where just about everyone can be seen sipping cucumber-garnished sake martinis, prove that waiting is not a deterrent. Quite the opposite: At Sushi Den, the wait means you’re part of the club.

“The best thing the Kizakis did for themselves was to become the best sushi restaurant in Denver,” says John Imbergamo, a local restaurant consultant who works with Rioja, Elway’s, and Panzano. “That goes a long way in making the ambience work. Busy restaurants feel better. There’s an energy level that can’t be created through music, menu, the coolest servers, the best mixologist shaking drinks behind the bar.”

Yasu estimates that Sushi Den serves 182,000 diners annually and Izakaya Den sees 88,400 visitors each year. While the Kizakis won’t reveal exactly how much the restaurants pull in each year, it’s not unrealistic to assume it’s close to $11 million. Not bad for two independently owned restaurants; in fact, that total compares with many of the big steak houses in town.

And yet, despite conventional wisdom that a packed waitlist is a good thing, this part of the Sushi Den experience has long made the Kizakis uncomfortable. “In Japan, people don’t wait,” Yasu says. “We never planned to make Sushi Den this big.”

To lessen the burden, the brothers opened Izakaya Den across the street in 2007. Designed to mimic the tavernlike establishments of Japan, but with the addition of a sushi bar, the restaurant helped gobble up overflow—and potential diners who might have otherwise wandered down the block and found another place for dinner. Izakaya Den landed on our Best New Restaurants list in 2007 (and on our 2011 Top 25 Restaurants). Even so, Sushi Den remains the main draw. “Izakaya isn’t nearly as busy, and I don’t get the same feeling as I do at Sushi Den,” Imbergamo says. “And yet, it’s the same guys, it’s right across the street, and 60 percent of the food is the same.” Local chef/restaurateur Frank Bonanno, who owns eight restaurants including Mizuna, Luca D’Italia, and Osteria Marco, puts it more simply: “You see the money being printed at Sushi Den, but I don’t think that’s the case at Izakaya Den.”

In 2009, when a costume store on the southwest corner of South Pearl and Florida (across from both Izakaya Den and Sushi Den) became available, the Kizakis jumped on the space. It was supposed to be their trifecta. The new restaurant, called Den Deli, was unprecedented: a casual (but not inexpensive) Japanese-style deli for takeout, dining in, and shopping (seafood was for sale in a back case, and Asian salads and sandwiches lined the front cases). But what the brothers didn’t account for was neighborhood fatigue. A restaurateur like Bonanno can pull off three locations virtually under one roof (Mizuna, Luca D’Italia, and Bones all occupy one block near Governor’s Park) because each restaurant is a distinct entity with a distinct cuisine and a distinct price range. Sushi Den, Izakaya Den, and Den Deli were all variations on a theme—and the market (especially in a small neighborhood like Platt Park) reached its saturation point. Den Deli lasted less than a year.

The restaurant’s replacement—Ototo, which was a wine bar with global cuisine that ranged from Japan to Spain—lasted no longer. “Ototo was a great concept, but the destination is always going to be Sushi Den,” Dutton says. Along with Ototo’s closure came the news that Izakaya Den will move into the space vacated by Pearl Street Grill next door to Sushi Den. The shuffle allows the restaurants to share facilities (though each will have its own kitchen) and some staff. It also gives Toshi a new project to focus on. “Toshi gets bored easily,” Yasu says. “It’s always, ‘What’s next for us?’ ” The new Izakaya Den will open spring 2013. (The former Izakaya Den space has been acquired by the Wynkoop and Breckenridge breweries’ parent company, BW Holdings LLC, and there’s talk of a restaurant opening there next year.)

In addition to the Izakaya move, the brothers have yet another project in the works: a 6.7-acre farm in Brighton that the Kizakis purchased in 2010. Roughly two and a quarter acres (plus a greenhouse) yield pesticide-free vegetables, most of them Japanese in origin, for the restaurants.

That leaves the space that housed Den Deli and Ototo unaccounted for—at least for now. Yasu says there are several proposals for the location, but he is clear that he and Toshi will retain at least some ownership. “We have to have a financial stake in that space,” he says, “because it’ll take diners away.”

 

Seven miles from the rarified atmosphere of Sushi Den, Makoto Kawafune, the owner of Sonoda’s Sushi & Seafood in southeast Aurora, takes his knife to a ruby slab of tuna. He slices deftly and with reverence before arranging three domino-size pieces of fish onto a platter already kaleidoscoped with striped bass and salmon and clouds of shaved daikon root. The 24-year-old restaurant—like Sushi Den, a seminal sushi establishment in metro Denver—sits in its original location off Parker Road and Dartmouth Avenue. On the afternoon I visit, two of Sonoda’s very first customers from 1988 are seated at a corner table enjoying a late lunch. “We are pretty traditional and authentic,” says Masaaki Kawafune, the son of Makoto. “Our base is the Japanese-Americans and first generation. It’s a community—we have customers who have been here since the war.” Behind Kawafune, a window looks west, and I can almost see the green expanse of Kennedy Golf Course roughly a mile away. The golf course sits across the street from the former home of Zen Restaurant, where Toshi Kizaki got his Denver start in 1983.

Toshi landed in Colorado by way of Los Angeles, where he manned the sushi bar at Shogun Restaurant in Pasadena. There, his predawn visits to the local fish market earned him respect among his peers and a loyal clientele. Even so, he was considering returning to Japan when, by chance, he came across an advertisement for a sushi chef position at Zen in Denver, a market largely untouched by the nascent sushi phenomenon. He answered the ad, the owner of the restaurant flew to Los Angeles, and, ultimately, offered him the job. It was a risky, ambitious move, but Toshi packed up and headed east.

Toshi’s stint at Zen was short-lived; he was fired for telling customers he intended to open a place of his own. He moved on to Sushi Koi downtown and a handful of other local spots but continued to hone the strategy for opening what would eventually become Sushi Den. He and his business partner (a Japanese friend who had moved from L.A. with him) found a space on South Pearl Street. Toshi used $100,000 in seed money from his father, Taketo Kizaki—ironically from a real estate deal involving a golf course in Japan—to secure the lease and begin operations. His partner, whom Toshi later bought out, set about getting the building ready to become a sushi bar, but they kept the business—Luigi’s Pizza—open to help pay the rent. On Toshi’s days off, he delivered the pizza. “He had customers complain and ask for their money back because the pizza was so bad,” Yasu says with a laugh.

One day, Yasu spoke with his father, who demanded Yasu check on the status of the restaurant. Yasu, who was living in London while working in the mental-health field and chefing at a sushi restaurant on the side, flew to Denver and stayed through the opening. Sushi Den, located three doors down from its current location (in what was most recently India’s Pearl), opened on Christmas Eve in 1984. Toshi was 28 years old.

Afterward, Yasu flew to Japan to give his father a full report. “My father told me, ‘Brothers shouldn’t be separated,’ ” Yasu says. “I put my brother’s needs first. If Toshi decides something, I do it.” As a gesture of good faith, the chef he worked under in London gifted Yasu one of his very best sushi knives. Yasu arrived in Denver a year later with the knife packed deep inside a box.

 

The timing of Sushi Den’s opening was auspicious. “Have you read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell?” asks Wayne Conwell, who spent several years working at Sushi Den and today owns the highly successful Sushi Sasa on 15th Street. “He’s very passionate about what he does, but Toshi was the right age and got here at the right time. It was incredible. You put all those things together and you have an Apple, a Sony, a Sushi Den.” The sushi trend was moving inland, steadily finding a market beyond the coasts. And Denver, with its oil-rich expense accounts, was ready for the exotic cuisine. “The 1980s in Denver were a time of excess and overspending,” John Imbergamo says. “It was all oil men and penny stockbrokers, and there was such a thing as the three-martini lunch—if not the five-martini lunch.” Chopsticks and California rolls (and nigiri for the bold) became a status symbol. Consider the iconic scene in The Breakfast Club, where sophisticated Claire, played by Molly Ringwald, plucks sushi from a bento box. The year was 1985.

At the time, the only seafood readily available in Colorado was tuna, yellowtail, smoked salmon, octopus, and preprepared freshwater eel. Even with the limited ingredients, Toshi knew his technique was superior. One evening shortly after Sushi Den had opened, three women sat at the sushi bar. One didn’t eat a single bite; when Toshi asked her why, she replied that she ate sushi, but not in Denver. Those words became Toshi’s inspiration: He would serve sushi that was equal to or better than what was available in Los Angeles or New York. He would educate the customer. Toshi began buying fish from his contacts at a Los Angeles fish distributor. Not only was the quality of Sushi Den’s fish better as a result, but there was also a variety—jumbo clam, abalone, sea urchin, halibut—previously unseen in Denver restaurants. “There wasn’t anything like Sushi Den when it opened,” Dutton says. “The Kizaki brothers essentially started the sushi scene in Colorado. They really developed it in the central United States. They did it better.”

Years before the Kizakis stepped foot in the United States, however, a small, close-knit Japanese community honored its rich culinary heritage. At the center of it all was the Granada Fish Market at Larimer and 19th streets, near what is now Sakura Square and Pacific Mercantile. The market was a link to past and present, to old country and new. Owner Frank Torizawa took pride in stocking the market with the best seafood he could source. “I remember his knife; he would bring it wrapped in newspaper,” says Seattle Fish Company’s Derek Figueroa. “He would go through the tuna—the whole fish—evaluate them, and pick one out. Then he would take half. He would do this once or twice a week.” For many, Torizawa was a familiar face with a shared history: The fish market’s roots extended back to Camp Amache, the Japanese internment camp outside of Granada on Colorado’s Eastern Plains.

At its peak, the Amache “War Relocation Center” housed 7,318 Japanese-Americans—and counted as Colorado’s 10th largest city. In 1945, when Amache was ordered to close, many of the internees did not have the means to return home to the West Coast. Thousands migrated to Denver and built new lives downtown and north of the city. The local Japanese population grew exponentially, and its cultural and culinary traditions took hold in the Mile High City. But it took another 40 or so years—and the Kizaki brothers—before the finely tuned, fish-centric cuisine found a broad audience outside of the Japanese community.

Frank Bonanno remembers Sushi Den’s early days in the former pizzeria. Long before the New Jersey native was a chef, Bonanno was a student at the University of Denver and a regular at the tiny restaurant. “I think there were 12 spots at the bar and four tables,” Bonanno says. “It was guys from my fraternity—we all knew about sushi because we were from the East Coast.” Bonanno wasn’t the only one with a fondness for Sushi Den; the restaurant was so popular that Toshi added another location in Boulder inside a seafood restaurant named Pelican Pete’s (it shuttered a short time later). After the Boulder space closed, Toshi opened a spot in Cherry Creek. He closed that location after realizing he couldn’t maintain his exacting standards in two places at once. Instead, the Kizakis bought the corner lot on South Pearl and Florida streets and built the window-encased space that became today’s Sushi Den. It opened in August 1990.

Some years later, Yasu was at a coffee shop in Cherry Creek, where he overheard three women having a conversation about where they liked to go for sushi. The answers: Sushi Tazu, Japon, and Sushi Den. That Sushi Den wasn’t the first choice of all three diners was unacceptable—even disparaging—to Yasu. He carried the message back to Toshi, who called upon their youngest brother, Koichi, to change careers (he worked for a glass company installing large windows in hotels and cruise ships) and find a way into Nagahama Fish Market in southern Japan. Toshi wanted to handpick his product—much like he had in Los Angeles. The three brothers work in tandem, but they each fill a specific role: Toshi is the visionary, Yasu is the practical businessman, and Koichi is the worker bee.

Since 1996, Koichi, now 52 years old, has risen at 3:30 a.m., walked a short distance to the market, and purchased iced-down pallets stacked with fresh catch. The routine is the same year-round: Twice a week, he takes his seasonal selections—such as needlefish or wild yellowtail—and packs them to be flown via Korean Air to San Francisco, and then by United Airlines to Denver International Airport.

The shipments, vacuum-sealed and packed with dry ice and sheets of Japanese newsprint, usually arrive on Tuesdays and Fridays. In the back of Sushi Den’s kitchen, Toshi and Yasu pore over the contents. There’s no time to waste; everything, from the tangle of freshwater eels to the tiny, spiderlike baby octopuses, is perishable. These specialty items, some of which will find their way onto VIP diners’ plates each night, round out the fish and seafood procured from distributors such as True World and Seattle Fish Company.

Selecting seafood at Nagahama requires more than a purchaser’s badge—it demands buying power. The Kizakis took a two-pronged approach to gain as much leverage as possible: They opened Sushi Den Japan in Fukuoka, across from the fish market (fish and seafood restaurants get top pick of the day’s catch). The brothers also founded a distributorship called Sushi Den Express in Los Angeles to funnel seafood to Sushi Den and a few exclusive California Japanese restaurants, such as Takao and Mori Sushi. (Yasu says that celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa also used to purchase fish from them.) Locating the distribution center in L.A. instead of Denver made sense geographically, and it also ensured that Sushi Den’s competitors weren’t the beneficiaries of the brothers’ ingenuity. “One of the reasons we wanted to bring fish into the United States was because we were competing with others. We had to do something dramatic,” Yasu says. “The profit margin has shrunk and the exchange rate is outrageous, but we do this because it separates us from the rest.”

 

Yasu’s burnt orange Volkswagen Beetle kicks up a curl of dust as he eases onto Den Farm’s dirt driveway. He parks near a cluster of pickup trucks, gets out, and pushes up his glasses to survey the scene.

It’s not yet spring, and despite hints of green peeking through fertile dirt, the fields lie dormant. Two goats—Lamb Chop and Pork Belly—mill about as a crew busies itself fine-tuning the newly constructed 3,000-square-foot greenhouse. This is not just any greenhouse—it’s a passive-solar structure that, once completed, will keep the temperature and humidity constant so that pesticide-free herbs, produce, and flowers will grow year-round. The bounty’s final destination: The kitchens of Sushi Den and Izakaya Den. “If you can get great ingredients—that’s the difference between a good chef and a so-so chef,” Yasu says. “We like to have that control.”

Inside, the temperature is a warm 70 degrees. I find myself squinting against the light reflecting off the white walls. That’s the point, of course; this structure is designed to capture and use as much sunlight as possible. Already, flats of seedlings labeled shiso, Thai basil, lemon basil, sweet basil, and Japanese parsley are pushing through the rich soil. Local sushi-chef-turned-farmer Sukenobu “Nobi” Sakai oversees the planning, planting, and harvesting of each crop. Tomato, cucumber, and Japanese eggplant starters are next. The greenhouse is high-tech—it even employs an energy-efficient hydroponic system—but outside in the fields, things are pared down. “We farm with our hands,” Sakai says. “If there was a weed there one day and it wasn’t there the next, that’s because we pulled it. That’s how farming has been done for the longest time.”

Of course, the Kizakis aren’t the first, nor the only, local chefs and restaurateurs to turn to farming as a means of supplying a restaurant. Alex Seidel from Fruition Restaurant co-owns Fruition Farms in Larkspur. In the city, Bittersweet’s grounds are planted with vegetables and edible flowers that are often harvested during dinner service. And this spring, Keith Arnold and Stephanie Bonin, the owners of Duo Restaurant, are planting a first-year garden designed around the restaurant’s seasonal menus.

But Den Farm is a means of further introducing Denver to elements of Japanese culture via specific herbs and produce that are difficult, if not impossible, to find locally. “The whole reason for the farm was to put more passion into the restaurant,” Yasu says. “Toshi’s ultimate passion is his restaurant, and the greenhouse and farm show his commitment to his customers.” The added benefit of the hyperlocal produce is that it’s a good marketing tool, helping to offset Sushi Den’s tremendous carbon footprint: Flying seafood 6,000 miles twice a week is not exactly an environmentally friendly practice.

There’s also a human element to the endeavor. Yasu reflects on the cohesion of Sushi Den’s original staff of five. When the restaurant closed each evening, they would sit down, share a meal, and drink and talk. Now, with a staff of 150 (with a half-dozen countries represented, including the United States, Japan, Korea, Mexico, and Myanmar), the easy flow of communication has become more difficult. The brothers hope Den Farm will be used by staff as a place to bring their families—and that it will become a place that has value beyond the ingredients it will provide. “We always try to understand the mentality of chefs versus servers and why there is friction,” Yasu says. “Chefs are technicians and have to do it exactly the same each time; servers are more fluid. This project will bring servers and chefs together; it brings a sense of community.” While it may be naive to think that time on the farm will smooth workplace grievances, it’s an outward sign that the Kizakis—and Yasu in particular—are aware of divisions among the staff.

But perhaps most important to the brothers is that Den Farm is an ode to their roots. On Japan’s Kyushu Island, the Kizaki brothers—there are four in total—grew up watching their parents work long hours in the field. “That’s why we started cooking,” Yasu says. “My parents came home at 9:30 or 10 at night; we were so hungry, we started cooking.” The brothers would forage in the family garden for fresh vegetables—Japanese cucumber and Japanese eggplants were staples—and mix them with leftover miso soup and cold rice. Eventually, they taught themselves to sauté.

 

A few days before this story was supposed to go to press, Yasu called me and told me that Toshi would like to meet to tell me the secret behind Sushi Den.

During the three years I’ve reported this piece, any interaction with Sushi Den and Izakaya Den, and anyone or anything associated with the two restaurants, has been tightly choreographed by Yasu. He first invited me to True World; next, he took me into Sushi Den’s kitchen; and, finally, this spring, he met me at the farm. He’s sat for interviews and fielded my many questions, by phone and email, and talked at length about how Sushi Den came to be. But, without exception, he has spoken on behalf of Toshi. In fact, aside from three brief introductions, I have had no interaction with Toshi. Until now.

And so, on a warm March day, we sit in the tucked away Denchu room at Sushi Den. For the first time, I notice that Toshi and Yasu share the same hands. They’re nimble, strong, and ageless with squared-off fingers that have a fluency of movement. They are chefs’ hands. Though both brothers are married (Toshi to a Japanese woman and Yasu to an American), neither wears a wedding ring. The starched sleeves of their chef whites graze their elbows, so as not to encumber their work. As we talk, Toshi traces circles on the table with his fingertips, sometimes opening his palms to emphasize a point. Yasu leans back in his chair, his arms crossed and a finger tucked under his chin. The room’s name, “Denchu,” translates to “inside of Sushi Den,” so it seems only appropriate that Toshi is now speaking. When English fails him, he switches to Japanese. Yasu adds context when necessary, but Toshi’s words are plain, and his meaning is clear enough that no translation is needed.

“I like to serve best quality food,” he says. “Best quality ingredients. We make it all. That is the way,” he says. This, I realize, is the secret of Sushi Den. I’m not sure what I was expecting to hear, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t this: The words themselves are neither momentous, nor even particularly surprising. But as we continue to talk, I learn that this credo is much more complex than the simple words convey. There’s a code embedded in the language, and it reaches back hundreds of years to feudal Japan. Seven generations ago, the Kizakis were Samurai, a royal, ruling class in which the defining characteristics were discipline, respect, honor, and humility. (In America especially, these traits can be construed as aloof or distant.) The symbol of the Samurai is the sword. Taketo Kizaki, Toshi and Yasu’s father, was tremendously proud of his ancestry. He was also strict. The brothers were terrified of him—Yasu says he didn’t have a real, two-way conversation with his father until Yasu was 37 years old—but the sons took Taketo’s teachings seriously. They live by the code, “the way.” Toshi has 30 knives in total, two of which are engraved with the Japanese characters for “Kizaki.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that instead of ruling by the sword, the Kizaki brothers today reign with their sushi knives.

Adhering to an order, however, does not a business make. Without Toshi’s vision and skills, there would be no Sushi Den. But without Yasu’s perspective and understanding—mastery may not be too strong a word—of business, plus his role as protector, Sushi Den would not be the institution it is today. The brothers recognize the impact they’ve made on Denver, and they feel a responsibility to honor their food culture in the only way they know how: with precision and respect.

This sense of duty could, eventually, mean the empire’s demise. Yasu explains that in Japan, when someone starts a business they don’t do it with intention of selling it—it’s passed down to a protégé or the next generation. Since neither Toshi nor Yasu have children, I ask who will inherit the Sushi Den empire. Yasu is stoic: “If the right person comes along, it will go to that person. However, if we do not find the one, we would close. Our name is attached to something that we created, and we do not wish our brand to be tarnished.”

This brings us back to the room—Denchu—which was named by Takashi Nakazato, a famous Japanese ceramic artist, in recognition of Toshi’s gift to Denver. “I moved here to pass on Japanese culture and serve best quality food,” Toshi says. “This is my place, this is my home. This is my root.” Early in our conversation, I asked Toshi to write the Japanese characters for “Sushi Den.” He did and explained that the third and last character embodies the concept of passing on tradition. I can’t help but notice that it looks a bit like a fancy house—perhaps even a restaurant.