"One of the advantages of being a sushi chef is that you have that direct relationship with the consumer," says Seizi Imura, chef and owner of Cafe Sushi in Cambridge. Most nights you’ll find Imura behind the counter, slicing and plating creative nigiri and sashimi under the blue light of a neon sign above the bar. Tucked into a strip mall on Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard Square and Central Square, Cafe Sushi is easy to miss, but it quietly serves one of the best omakases in the area, complete with amazing hospitality, under Imura's watchful eye.
Sushi experiences in Boston tend to fall into one of two camps: There are casual, family-run businesses that are great for take-out and have regular guests who live nearby. And there are uber-expensive, special occasion sushi restaurants where the bill makes you question your judgment. Cafe Sushi falls in between the two with a menu that has exceptional nigiri combining worldly influences and fresh fish next to the maki and bento boxes that you'd expect to find at a neighborhood sushi restaurant. The omakase at the sushi bar is a multi-course meal that gives diners a front-row seat to watch the chefs delicately slice fish and top it with accompaniments. Nothing is flashy, everything is simple, highlighting the quality of the fish and produce. "We really try to focus on the roots of sushi," Imura explains.
Imura’s dad opened Cafe Sushi in 1984 and ran a wholesale sushi business catering events. When Imura became old enough, he started working in the restaurant but didn’t stay long. He moved to California and worked at Sushi Ran, a Michelin-starred sushi restaurant in Sausalito. There he learned how to craft sushi and nigiri under acclaimed sushi chef Yoshi Tome. "I had a good situation in Berkeley, but things were just too comfortable there," Imura says. After a few years he moved back to Boston to take on an ownership role at Cafe Sushi.
Few cuisines are viewed as rigidly as the cuisine of Japan. One of the biggest challenges that Imura faced when he returned was changing people’s perception of Cafe Sushi and of the sushi experience in general. Cafe Sushi had already been open for more than 20 years when he returned, so changing the menu to what it is today was a fight.
"It was difficult at first, and it took five or six years to get some good traction," he remembers. Imura sold $1 sushi and low-priced nigiri just to get people to try something beyond a spicy tuna roll. When people sat at the sushi bar, he would try to impress them. "I would pretty much hold them hostage," he laughs. "I was like, ‘This is my chance to show them what I can do.’"
Today, seats at the sushi bar are hard to come by. Locals come in, say hello, take their seats at the bar, and ask Imura what he thinks they should eat that night. "I want people to feel comfortable," he says. "You could come in a suit, you could come in sweats, and we’ll give you the same quality of food and service."
A black chalkboard behind the sushi counter lists fish that was flown in that day and the available preparations. It’s a very casual sushi experience, but the food is serious in technique and approach. "We’re doing something that has its own voice with influences from all over," Imura says. The most popular nigiri is the salmon aburi, with torched salmon belly releasing its fat, served with ponzu and negi. One of the most unique sushi options is the oshizushi, traditional pressed maki that originated in the area of Japan where Imura's dad comes from.
"I’ve always been the kind of person that just does what they want to do," Imura says. The experience of coming back home to Cafe Sushi has forced him into "a new skin," he says, and he’s always looking for new ways to grow. But he doesn’t take it too seriously. "Maybe I like Joseph Campbell too much," he laughs. Campbell, the late mythologist, encouraged readers to follow their passions and pursue what excites them.
Cafe Sushi has become a place where diners can go to get innovative sushi as well as Japanese favorites in a comfortable environment, and for Imura, that’s just fine. "I want to keep true to that," he says of the future.
Boston Mainstays logo by Emily Phares