People always say you can’t find good sushi in Kansas City. They sneer and shake their heads under the mistaken impression that San Francisco sushi chefs serve fish caught off the Bay. In truth, American sushi exists because of air cargo, and elite stateside sushi restaurants serve Japanese fish because American fish markets lack the infrastructure to process it. You can go to New York City and hand your Benjamins to Nobu, where fish is flown in from Tokyo. Or you can go to Sayachi Sushi in Brookside, where fish is flown in from Tokyo.
When we talk about the best sushi in the Midwest, we are not talking about the freshness of the fish. Even if you’re at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, the maguro that ends up on your nigiri is often aged for several days in Japanese salt and kelp, sake, soy or miso to develop richer flavors and new textures.
So let’s focus on what good sushi really is — a balancing act between the cut of the fish, the preparation of the rice and the temperature both are served at.
At three-month-old Sayachi, I’ve had good sushi and, occasionally, great sushi: nigiri that inspired rapturous texts to friends and freshly shaved wasabi root that made me see stars (or maybe that was just my tears — it was potent). But it wasn’t love at first taste. It took three visits for me to figure out how to get that experience. Now, I’m a believer.
In early September, Jarocho owners Carlos Falcon and Sayaka Gushi Falcon opened Sayachi in the former Domo space in Brookside. It’s a big, open space, with an eight-seat sushi counter, a bar, a shady patio and an orderly dining room. There are pretty cherry blossom murals and colorful splashes of fish painted on the walls. The restaurant had been a long time coming, and much was made about the presence of chef Miyoshi “Yama” Yamada.
Chef Yama boasted an impressive resume — he spent seven years at Kyubey, one of Tokyo’s most famous sushi institutions — and he was presented alongside Falcon as the face of the restaurant. But within a month of opening, Yama left. (“I don’t think he and chef Carlos saw eye to eye on some things,” my server admitted one night, looking uncomfortable.)
In the months since Yama’s departure, Sayachi’s menu has changed, but the sushi is more or less the same. Yama was a proponent of Edomae sushi, a historical process that sees fish marinated in soy to preserve its freshness. The variety of fish available for sashimi and nigiri is formidable. There is a long list of maki — petite rolls with one or two ingredients and rice wrapped in nori — and a handful of specialty rolls. In Yama’s wake, chef Ziro Ortega has taken the reigns as executive chef. He opened Sayachi with Yama after spending seventeen years as the executive chef at Kona Grill on the Plaza.
Mari Matsumoto, Sayachi’s beverage director and general manager, can be credited with the other half of Sayachi’s menu, which focuses on traditional Japanese kitchen dishes. Born in Japan, Matsumoto emigrated with her family in 1999 and has been a behind-the-scenes player in the Kansas City restaurant scene for over a decade (most recently, Matsumoto opened Black Dirt and Waldo Thai). Some of Sayachi’s hot dishes, like the panko-breaded korokke (Japanese croquettes) filled with seasoned mashed potatoes, are derived from Matsumoto’s mother’s and
“It’s been a dream of mine to open an authentic Japanese restaurant,” Matsumoto says. “And to show people that it’s not just sushi — it’s so much more
At Sayachi, sushi is in the name, and it’s what most guests order. It’s reassuring to know that the seafood-averse can find options here, but I couldn’t enjoy the yamagata soba bowl, with its close-textured buckwheat noodles and flavorless dashi broth. (On a fact-checking call, Matsumoto said it’s coming off the menu.) And I found the pork gyoza — usually a reliable appetizer — to be bland and small and the vinegar-soy sauce so thin it washed over the papery shells like water over smooth stones.
Better options are the dishes that Matsumoto helped craft. The gyudon is a hefty bowl of sushi rice piled with scallions, pickled ginger and thin slices of ribeye treated in a twenty-four-hour marinade of sake, soy and mirin sauce — perfectly sweet and salty — and topped with a pretty egg yolk just waiting to be punctured by a chopstick.
There were just four specialty rolls on the menu at press time, but Matsumoto promised more to come. This is good news: The Ensenada roll was a dreamy marriage of just-ripe avocado, bright jalapeño slices, crunchy shrimp tempura and whitefish, and the attractive Issey roll was topped with torched salmon and served with a side of guacamole — unusual, but it worked. The Kansas City roll is for heavier appetites: Smoked salmon and oozy cream cheese are rolled up, tempura battered and served hot. If you’ve ever wanted lox in a sushi roll, this is for you.
Most of the maki rolls run six or seven dollars each and are earnestly simple. They’re supporting acts, not headliners, but still worth exploring. The negitoro matched a gorgeous fatty tuna with fresh scallions, and the fragrant ume shiso with pickled plum and shiso leaf effectively tasted like the color purple, but in a fun way.
Really, though, you go to Sayachi for the nigiri and sashimi, and this is where the restaurant shines. Zuke (bluefin tuna) is prepared in the traditional Edomae style (soy-cured), which brings out elegant umami notes. Also exceptional: the slippery unagi with a rich smoked flavor, hotate (scallop) so buttery it could have been eaten on toast, juicy and mild kampachi (amberjack), masago (capelin fish roe) that felt like Pop Rocks as I swallowed, and tako (octopus) that was tender and delicately chewy.
The most surprising and impressive part of Sayachi’s offerings may be found on the pages of its cocktail menu. Here, Matsumoto shows off her considerable talent: The violet-hued Miyazaki, named for her hometown and inspired by the plums grown in her grandparents’ garden, is a dramatic and delicate gin martini. The Hirosaki Castle — with its floating cherry blossoms and blush-colored vermouth — feels like drinking a fairytale.
There are also omakase dinners, where guests may enjoy seven small courses and twelve pieces of nigiri for just under a hundred bucks. These were suspended when Yama left and picked back up on the day we went to press, so I have yet to enjoy Ortega’s version.
Sayachi is, it seems, still finding itself three months in. The restaurant bills itself as a place to experience Edomae sushi, but aside from the zuke and akami, you’ll need to sign up for an omakase dinner to taste it. And servers, though always ebullient, offered little guidance on navigating the quirks of Sayachi’s extensive menu. For example, freshly shaved wasabi root is available upon request, but outside of the omakase, a taste will run you eight dollars.
Thanks to his two Veracruz-style seafood restaurants, Falcon has built a reputation as a local seafood king. For Sayachi, he sources everything directly through a Japanese broker who buys daily from Tokyo. Falcon picks up shipments at KCI Airport every other day and brings them to the restaurant, where they are unpacked and placed in a cooler kept at 35 degrees.
When you finally taste that silky tuna belly as sashimi, where the fat rests on your tongue like a pearl, or as nigiri, where bright, vinegary, slightly warm Hokkaido rice gives it a jolt of electricity, you will understand that great sushi can be found anywhere there is a chef who knows how to serve it.
Any combination of the Ensenada roll ($16), the ume shiso maki roll ($6), the chutoro nigiri ($9 for two pieces), A4 Kagoshima Wagyu nigiri ($12 for two pieces), unagi (as nigiri or sashimi, $6 for two pieces), hotate (as nigiri or sashimi, $6 for two pieces) and zuke (as nigiri or sashimi, $8 for two pieces), plus the gyudon ($12).
Pro tip: You can get a half order of the juicy tori karaage (fried chicken) for $6. It comes with a squeeze of lemon and will take the edge off your hunger while you await your sushi feast.
GO: 6322 Brookside Plaza, KCMO. Open 11 am-10 pm Monday-Saturday and 11 am-3 pm Sunday.