"...sushi is an art, and experience is everything." - Nobu Matsuhisa
I'm fortunate to live in a small tucked away oasis of winding, towering tree-lined lanes, dotted with modest elegant homes with generous front and back yards; encircled by fields, protected tall-grasslands, and several huge retention ponds. But surrounding us, on all sides, is concrete suburban sprawl: wide asphalt streets lined with strip malls, a mostly deserted shopping mall, big box stores and nearly two dozen depressingly unimaginative fast food drive-thrus and restaurant chains. But there's one little gem. Nestled between a mattress store and a vape shop, sits Abashiri Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar...
An orange neon 'Open' sign, a fish window decal, Shabby chic wood-slat benches,
Geraniums, and a cigarette receptacle - add a quirky undeniable charm to Abashiri's facade.
Abashiri is named for Mr. Kaga's (the original Itamae's) home town: Abasihri, Hokkaido (Japan).
Hardwood floors with simple matching tables and chairs, comprise the main part of the restaurant. In one back corner sits a small multi-purpose counter: a bar with all the essential accouterments (behind which sits a well stocked cooler), a Jasmine tea station, a cash register, a stack of take-out menus and requisite hard candy and toothpicks - two ceramic kittens stand guard.
In the adjacent corner...
a sushi bar - shrimp, crab meat, octopus, steamed rice, seaweed carefully encased in glass.
Behind it all, the Itamae (sushi chef), in all his glory, weaves his yummy magic.
On a tiny corner of the sushi bar, a 'finishing service station.'
Miso, ginger, soup spoons and bowls, Bento boxes, soy sauce and chop sticks.
"Big things come in small packages." - Unknown
Abashiri is small, very small: seats about 50. It's in a 'bad' location: set far off of the main road, at the very back end of a nondescript strip mall, in a sleepy suburb, 37 miles from Chicago. They do absolutely no advertising of any kind. They keep 'European hours' (Monday-Saturday; Lunch 11:30-2; Dinner 5-10). Their menu never changes. Yet they have a large, diverse and fiercely loyal clientele that encompasses the gamete (every occupation, age, gender and ethnicity). So how do they do it? What's their secret? A few weeks ago, while I was there for lunch, I asked the owner - SooMi - if she'd allow me to photograph and interview her for Postcards to Paris. She said yes...
She had me at Sushi...
Abashiri opened their doors 13 years ago. SooMi, with a staff of 5, has been Majordomo from that first day to this. We sat down at the tail-end of their bustling lunch rush hour. But before we did, I got to sit, watch and marvel at SooMi in action. This lovely diminutive lady is a literal whirlwind - welcoming each patron with a true uncontrived sunny smile; she remembers her frequent customers' usual/favorite dishes (since most of us are frequent repeats, an impressive feat indeed!). While renowned for their delicious reasonably priced Sushi, Abashiri also offers equally yummy Udon and Bento Boxes. Yeah, you know I asked SooMi how she does it, what her secret of success is. Her answer is what inspired this postcard's opening quote: "...sushi is art, and experience is everything."
Sushi is art... SooMi told me that the secret to their delicious food is actually a quite simple two step process: employ a most excellent Itamae and provide him/her with the highest quality, most fresh food possible. SooMi accomplishes this by daily sojourns to a local Japanese wholesale fish market, farmer's markets (in season) and local year-round grocers that supply the freshest produce possible.
"My customers are family. I know [them] and they know me. I want them to be happy, always." - SooMi
Experience is everything... Abashiri deliberately ignores trends; proudly serves traditional Shirley Temple's, garnished with maraschino cherries and tiny Chinese paper parasols - thank you very much. SooMi's only concessions to modernity are child friendly chop-sticks, the occasional special on the menu and to provide free wi-fi to her patrons. Every other moment and mouthful is steeped in old fashioned comfort and quality.
Abashiri. Little, lovely, simple, traditional, yummy, luxurious. It's a good thing.
Vivre! Rire! Aimer!
|with Soomi, proprietress of Abashiri.|