Suzukis Sushi Bar
EAT-November + December 2009
Written + Photographed by Jonathan Levitt
Fishing for mackerel from a sailboat!
Drinking rum out of coffee cups!
Suzuki’s Sushi Bar in Rockland is not like other sushi restaurants. First of all, the sushi chefs are women.
Second, there is no fried food and no grilled food. In fact, there are no stoves, no ovens, and no deep fryers. The cooks steam dumplings and simmer soups on electric induction burners using standard pots and an innovative homemade system of wooden and glass boxes.
Third, the fish are more likely to come from the Gulf of Maine than from Tokyo Bay, and the meat and vegetables come from local farms instead of big distributors. The omakase (chef’s selection) is often made up entirely of local fish.
On a typical week chef/owner Keiko Suzuki Steinberger serves surf clams, sweet shrimp, scallops, grey sole and its en-gawa (the muscle that controls the fin on flat fish), monkfish, lobster, uni, toro, oysters from Cushing, and linecaught mackerel from the Rockland breakwater. The women giggle and flash their fancy Japanese knives. Yuki Goseki, teensy and beautiful and meticulous, makes the salads and hot food. Her avocado salad with seaweed, cucumbers, and miso dressing is as refined and elegant as a sliver of sashimi.
Keiko Suzuki Steinberger and Yuki Goseki sit down to eat at Bresca in Portland. It’s another tiny restaurant with a tiny kitchen where the food is cooked entirely by women.
Keiko drinks Riesling. Yuki drinks water.
French breakfast radishes with goat’s milk butter
Yuki “The butter is so white.”
Toc with smoked ricotta, creamy polenta, royal trumpet mushrooms, radicchio, and lardo
Keiko “It looks like scrambled egg and, tastes like bacon.”
Yuki “I love mushrooms. I find them right outside my door. Mostly chanterelles. The first one I ever found, I just looked at it. I was so excited, I couldn’t bear to eat it.”
Sea urchin linguini with uni, olive oil, basil, mint, and lemon zest
Yuki “The basil smells really nice. I can smell it from here. I like this really flaky sea salt. It melts in your mouth like rock candy.”
Keiko “In Japan, people love uni with pasta, but they eat it with way more uni and also soy sauce and scallions.”
Shaved brussel sprouts with toasted walnuts, parmesan, pecorino, and olive oil
Yuki “This reminds me of the dried noodles that I used to snack on when I was a kid in Japan.”
Keiko, 31, owns Suzuki’s Sushi Bar with her husband, Joe Steinberger, 64. They met when Keiko came to Rockland from Sendai in northern Japan to work at Oh! Bento, her second cousin’s sushi restaurant, and to learn English at the Penobscot School. Joe is a Columbia University–educated public defender and the son of Jack Steinberger— winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1988 for his discovery of the muon neutrino. Keiko and Joe married in 2003 and now have a big, strong 2-year-old son named Takuma, who loves pickles, umeboshi plum, and nato—a stringy fermented soybean paste that smells sort of like blue cheese. Before the couple opened the restaurant, they traveled together to the fishing port of Shiogama, north of Tokyo. “It’s a famous place for sushi,” says Joe. “We found some small out-of-the-way places that were elegant without being fancy and served so many obscure local things.”
The Steinbergers live in Rockland, just a short walk from the restaurant in an itsybitsy house with an overgrown lawn. Joe handles the business side of Suzuki’s and goes to a lot of trouble to keep the space cool and quiet. His system of fans and ducts and shades is more effective than air conditioning. Suzuki’s is zen peaceful even by sushi bar standards. It is hushed and breezy, decorated simply with an antique eel spear, wooden tools, and Keiko’s calligraphy. “We could have had a fryer and a grill and built a hood,” says Joe, “but we wanted to do something different. In Japan, there’s a whole tradition of mushi-mono-things that are steamed fresh and healthy. Cooking this way changes the whole feeling of the restaurant.”
White asparagus with brown butter, capers, herbs, olive oil, and a fried farm egg
Yuki “White asparagus! In Japan most people only eat white asparagus from cans. Fresh white asparagus would be so strange to them.”
Keiko “Runny eggs!” “For a snack I like raw egg, cracked on rice with soy sauce.”
Cod with saffron, sun gold tomatoes, and buerre blanc
Yuki “My father is obsessed with fish. From Tokyo he goes on a boat, out to the far away islands. It’s a three-day trip. He brings the fish home, usually it’s like sixty fish. He eats as many as he can and then gives some to neighbors, but there are always so many left over and then he goes again. He goes every week of the year. My poor mother cleans the fish, she calls restaurants and tries to give them away. Still, the house smells like fish, there are fish in the freezer, actually the freezer is full of fish, the refrigerator is full too, they cure fish and they dry fish, they love fish—aji, tai, ika, unagi, umazura, hagi—that one has a really tasty liver.”
Smoked quail with corn puree, hakurei turnips, and cape gooseberry
Yuki “I’m too full to eat another bite.”
Raspberry financier with crème fraîche gelato
Yuki “In Japan they would love this.”
Two Days Later
Joe keeps his sailboat on a mooring in Rockland Harbor. It’s a 29-foot sloop designed by Bill Tripp and built in 1962 at a famous yard in Amsterdam. We sail out of the harbor, past the Rockland breakwater, and out toward Hurricane Island. It’s sunny. Joe pours Mt. Gay Rum into coffee cups. We drink. Yuki catches eight mackerel.
Back at the restaurant, Yuki filets and salts the mackerel. Then she makes us a snack. Onigiri—sushi rice seasoned with salt and stuffed with cucumber pickle and umeboshi plum.“Every mom in Japan makes them,” Yuki says. “It’s like our version of peanut butter and jelly.”
The Day after Dinner Yuki lives in a cottage on the shore in South Thomaston. Sliding glass doors open to a back porch. She says that at high tide she feels like she’s standing on the bow of a boat. At low tide, it’s like looking at the surface of another planet.
Yuki stocks jars of umeboshi plums in her refrigerator. We sit down on the porch to eat some. The best of them come from a neighbor in Japan. The plums are simply cured in salt—so tart, so salty, so sweet, and so meaty.
Yuki’s landlord is a cardiologist by trade, but hauls lobster traps on the side. Before work, the tiny chef walks down to the wharf and fills her bucket with lobsters.
Keiko works behind the sushi bar with Maho Hisakawa, 28, who is from Tokyo but grew up in Wales, and Ritsuko Kato, 59, from Northern Hokkaido. The women go about their work with a cheerful grace, dotting plates with edible flowers and fresh herbs. They chat about love and listen to real jazz— Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon. All afternoon, they fill the case with beautiful fish and shellfish.
Keiko stands over a tuna belly. The meat closer to tail is very fibrous. She scrapes it for nigiri rolls or the donburi bowl. Closer to the head is the good stuff. “In Japan, this toro would be so expensive, she says. “Like one piece for thirteen dollars, here we give people two pieces for nine dollars.”
For the staff meal, Keiko makes toro donburi—sushi rice, toro, uni, scallions, dried nori, and a raw quail egg on top.
The women eat with chopsticks, and when they taste the uni they jump up and down and they squeal because it’s the first uni of the season, and that is a very exciting thing.
Suzuki’s Sushi Bar | 419 Main St. | Rockland | suzukisushi.com