Often, origin stories for sushi restaurants, especially the high-end Edomae-style omakase temples where master chefs quietly prepare pristine cuts of fish flown in from Japan, have their root in apprentices graduating from their mentors. Think Daisuke Nakazawa in New York City, who gained fame striking out on his own after working at Tokyo’s Sukiyabashi Jiro. At Kogane, a new omakase establishment tucked into a strip mall in Alhambra, the origin story is a lot less folkloric.
Chefs Kwan and Fumio Azumi met after working for a year inside the near-freezing prep kitchen of Luxe Seafood, one of Downtown LA’s many wholesale seafood purveyors, slicing upwards of 6,000 pieces of tuna and other fish a day destined for grocery store sushi platters. Both are accomplished sushi chefs, with Azumi working at Mori, Asanebo, and Sushi of Gari, and even opening the Hong Kong branch of LA-based Sushi Zo as executive chef; Kwan worked at Sasabune and Sushi of Iroha in the Valley.
But with the pandemic forcing sushi restaurants to close their bars, Kwan and Azumi found themselves working in a brutally cold room, cutting fish for the masses. Both chefs say it was this period that connected the two and made way for a partnership to open Kogane. “We were breaking down fish during the pandemic. It was crazy hard work because it was crazy cold in the room. Though other chefs were coming and going, only me and Kwan stayed there for more than a year,” says Azumi.
Kwan, who comes from Jakarta, Indonesia, eventually found an investor to help fund the build-out and opening while Azumi brought his long history with LA sushi and specific training in the Edomae style. In late December 2021, after a year-long construction, Kogane opened in a former poke restaurant with just seven bar seats and a few tables opposite the counter.
To get to the front entrance, customers walk from the parking lot into a strip mall with a WingStop, Jamba Juice, and Subway. It’s not the kind of setting one would normally think of to drop $300-plus on raw fish, but this is Los Angeles, and its sushi destinations occupy unlikely contexts. Servers greet customers and offer a selection of sake or beer to enjoy with the meal. In the evening, there’s no menu, just a fixed tasting of prepared plates and mostly nigiri sushi, numbering more than 20 courses overall. Azumi takes the lead on the left while Kwan handles the right, explaining dishes and leading eager diners through one of the city’s most impressive new sushi experiences.
As for the timing of the opening, Azumi says the subsiding of Omicron in conjunction with indoor dining uninterrupted by local safety guidelines meant the assurance of more consistent service for Kogane. “We are lucky. A lot of people stayed home, but dining service was still open during that time [the first few months]. So for us, the timing was perfect,” he says.
When asked what the difference was between serving in Hong Kong versus Los Angeles, Azumi said Americans tend to prefer stronger tastes. “Though there are lots of Asians in Alhambra and South Pasadena, the difference is that, in Hong Kong, customers prefer things with texture, like shellfish and clams,” says Azumi. Another feature here is the variety of soy sauces they can use: from a lighter seasoning made with dashi, to medium-strength soy sauce mixed with sake and dashi, to their stronger soy sauce, which is mixed with mirin for maximum flavor.
The dinner starts with appetizers, a gently cooked abalone served on an ornate filigree plate with white flowers. The small portion looks substantial against the beautiful saucer-sized dish. A trio of sashimi featuring dry-aged bluefin chutoro, king mackerel, and raw clam also come on a textured plate, though with less decoration. Then, the nigiri commences: first, with lighter sea bream and delicate needlefish. An interlude of sliced octopus comes before aji Spanish mackerel and a slightly briny but sweet blood clam. The shari, or the rice, might be considered on the more intense upper register of seasoning, though not overwhelming in any way.
Azumi keeps this Japanese rice going with a cross-sliced strip of squid and kanpachi before another interlude of candy-like sumika baby squid. Then, the first portion of tuna nigiri arrives, followed by the leaner but still well-aged akami and the rich, fatty o-toro, which uses a different, more aggressively seasoned rice. A generous cut of saba also features the more seasoned rice before two plated interludes. The first is a knob of fresh tofu topped with Hokkaido uni and a blip of grated wasabi. Then there’s a simple spread of seasoned salmon roe ikura.
The final courses round out with a shrimp from Kagoshima served with the richer rice, which has a clearly darker tint, and a binchotan-seared nodoguro, or blackthroat seaperch. Then comes a hefty, folded piece of seaweed stuffed with San Diego sea urchin roe followed by anago, or saltwater eel, and a pillowy tamago to finish. For dessert, a black sesame ice cream scoop with a single sliced strawberry.
The very talented Kwan says he’s still learning the way of Edomae sushi from Azumi, who has more history with the style. Kwan came to the U.S. more recently in 2015, while Azumi came in the early 2000s and has more than two decades of sushi-making experience. At the moment, the duo serves a $250 dinner for just 12 or 14 people per dinner service (with one seating at 5:45 and another at 8:15), as well as a $100 lunch special featuring mostly nigiri that will place people at the bar and the tables. Azumi and Kwan relish the opportunity to serve an incredibly refined meal, a far cry from their time cutting fish in a near-freezing environment. While the experiences are polar opposites, the camaraderie and trust they developed led to the opening of the San Gabriel Valley’s most exciting new restaurant.
Book a reservation at Kogane on Tock.