Michio Kushi regrets only one thing in his 37 years as sushi chef and owner of the beloved hidden gem Japanese Market/Sushi Deli in North Bay Village, which he will close next month.
“I wish I could chose the customers. Each of them,” he said, laughing.
Kushi, 68, will retire and shutter the sushi bar and grocery store he ran with his wife and daughter on March 19. Although he said he may help his daughter, Ericka, 28, open a standalone sushi restaurant in North Bay Village within the next year, he won’t be the one in the kitchen every day.
In a way, hand-picking his customers is exactly what Kushi did.
Kushi gave his customers exactly what he thought they deserved: delicately prepared fresh fish in an environment devoid of distractions at a reasonable price. It’s how he was brought up in Japan, and he imported his culture to South Florida in his own little fiefdom as he created a coveted chef’s selection of fresh sushi and sashimi.
He got the idea to prepare fresh sushi in 2001 after watching his sister’s success at her Su-Shin Izakaya in Coral Gables, which sprouted two other restaurant offshoots, Yuga Restaurant, also in the Gables, and Lan Pan Asian Cafe on South Dixie Highway. His daily chef’s selection, omakase, drew long lines.
He ran his own sushi bar the way he had learned in Japan. That meant although his space appeared informal, he had expectations about what it meant to sit down for a meal there. Mainly, the focus should be on the food, without interruptions.
In case you needed reminding, there are a host of hand-written signs on florescent poster board:
Wait your turn. Turn off your cell phone. No snapping pictures of your food, each other, the place. No reservations. No outside food and drink. No snacking in the store. No opening the drinks before you pay. Need to take a call? Take it outside. Oh, and no leaning on the counter.
Some bristled at the rigidity. (There are scattershot Yelp posts to prove it.) But the overwhelming majority of customers appreciated what Kushi brought to mealtime: serenity.
“It’s not a lot of rules. It’s common sense,” he said. “If someone has etiquette, they never complain.”
Few other Miami sushi restaurants offered what Kushi did: fresh, expertly prepared sushi that was affordable enough to eat every day in an understated atmosphere. It’s why legions visited, although he never advertised, in print or social media, and occasionally told his well-meaning customers to, please, not tell all their friends. He had all the business he wanted.
Now, he says he looks forward to retirement, going back and forth between the family’s second home in Japan. He says he will have a hand in his daughter’s business, should she decide to pursue it.
“If she has the heart for it, we will help her,” he said.
After all, it’s the customers he’ll miss — in his own way.
“We got to meet many customers,” he said, “and had something special.”