There may be no more adored dish than a perfect slice of fresh fish set upon a small mound of hand-formed rice. For chef Daniel Son, whose restaurant Sonagi opens in early May in Gardena, the path to making that piece of nigiri and the story it tells could be the most delightful thing in his professional career. His first-ever standalone omakase counter fulfills decades of dreams, and for many South Bay residents, the space ushers in a new kind of upscale Japanese experience.
At Sonagi, Son will serve close to twenty courses at an intimate counter, with room for under a dozen diners at a time. Son lined the walls of the former Kanpachi space with pleasant wood panels, adding sconces and new sage-colored leather chairs. Otherwise, the attention focuses squarely on the chef.
Every meal at Sonagi starts with a slew of appetizers (or tsumami), small amuse bouches that help to quell hunger. “Because nigiri is so nuanced, the tsumami is more straightforward,” says Son. “When I sit down I want to relax, drink some sake or tea. I don’t want to feel rushed.” As a second-generation Korean American raised in the South Bay, Son is quick to converse with diners over these early bites, a big difference between himself and a lot of older, often quieter Japanese chefs. “Edomae chefs are more focused on nigiri as the main purpose,” says Son, “but I’m not trying to be traditional.”
Son was significantly influenced by his mentors, including Akira Yoshizumi of the celebrated one-Michelin-star Yoshizumi in San Mateo, and Seiji Yamamoto of Tokyo’s Nihonryori RyuGin. “My mentors are really nice, really kind,” says Son, who hopes to come off the same way. “Why not share what you like?” Talk to Son about anything food-related, be it Korean food or even sandwiches, and he’ll likely go on a long discussion about it. It’s part of why he started Katsu Sando, where he serves upscale takes on Japanese convenience store sandwiches in Chinatown and the San Gabriel Valley.
Take for example a seemingly simple discussion of dry-aged fish. “With dry-aging, you can go longer and get more funk [than a traditional sushi wrapping technique for storing fish],” says Son, “but you also get a cleaner taste because you’re drawing out the blood more consistently.”
With just a few seats directly in front of him, Son hopes this venue will be the ideal place to share his own passion for sushi and Japanese cooking, capping a long series of stints at some of the world’s finest restaurants. At Sonagi, he might start with a sashimi plate of dry-aged wild madai, or Japanese sea bream aged for seven days. He gets cherry tomatoes from the Torrance farmers market and makes a pesto of mizuna, shiso, knaenip (Korean sesame leaf), with accents of shiso flower and Korean perilla oil. Son’s usage of aged wild fish gives it a pleasant, lingering finish that a fresh, farmed fish just couldn’t provide.
Furthur courses may include a piped ankimo, or monkfish liver made into a foie gras-like mousse and served over a smear of umeboshi jam set atop Katsu Sando’s honey milk shokupan (milk bread). That may be followed by a Korean jeon-like fritter of hotaru ika, English peas, mizuna, and chrysanthemum with a side of white vinegar miso sauce, while hotaru ika, or firefly squid, tends to mark the arrival of the spring season.
Another course is likely to feature megai, or disk abalone, that’s been scored and then poached in order to sit and reabsorb its juices. Son also grills a whole filet of katsuo, or bonito, over binchotan, with a bit of grated ginger and pesto.
The next courses may come from the fryer, such Dungeness crab croquette fried with panko bread crumbs and topped with uni and caviar. Son uses the tomalley and crab fat roux to fill in the croquette, saying the dish expresses his deep love for crab. He also fries 18-day-aged nodoguro, Japanese blackthroat sea perch, with a crust of rice cracker balls then finishes it on the grill. The crackers help absorb tare that he sprays on. Both this and the abalone dishes were inspired by his time at Ryugin, says Son.
Moving into nigiri, Son starts with wild madai topped with a little ponzu. He then moves to shioko, or baby amberjack, and then kinmedai, or golden eye snapper popular in a lot of higher-end omakase restaurants.
A meal at Sonagi is likely to crescendo with bigeye tuna, straying purposefully away from the conversations about overfishing that often surround bluefin tuna. The bigeye is aged and no less luxurious, showing all of the complexity of great, hefty slices of tuna nigiri, which Son serves with an all-vinegar rice.
Son finishes the nigiri with iwashi sardine, kohada (gizzard shad), and Hokkaido ensui uni, which is sea urchin roe without any preservatives. Of course, Son will have more tricks up his sleeve that should impress diners who venture to Gardena. But just given this sampling of dishes, it’s clear Son has a lot of ambition — and plenty of passion — fueled by incredible seafood and a space he can finally call his own.
Sonagi opens in early May at 1425 Artesia Boulevard, Gardena, CA 90248. Reservations will eventually be available on Tock (at a later date), so check Instagram for more details.