Larry Chi has been working with fish in raw form since his early 20s. His restaurant, Akashi, which opened in 1993 near Sunset Place, was among the first sushi bars in South Miami. Twenty-one years later, it is a landmark of the local culinary scene.
Two decades, two Akashi locations, and one renovation later, Chi has mastered his craft and has now opened the doors to Hannya, bringing sushi, along with some new dishes and Vietnamese brunch, to Brickell.
Chi has always been in the restaurant industry. When he was growing up, his parents owned Chinese restaurants. Don't be fooled by the Japanese façade that is Akashi -- Chi is Chinese.
His love for Japanese cuisine began when met his wife, Barbara, who was working at a Japanese restaurant. He dumped his original plans of going to med school to open Akashi with her.
"It's funny because everyone thinks that sushi is so Japanese, but the reality is it originated in China," Chi explains. "The art of raw fish anyway. It then carried over to Japan, where it became a practice to eat rice with the fish itself."
A man devoted to his craft, Chi is at Hannya all day every day -- decapitating tuna and slicing fish into thin pieces to match the signature Akashi-size rolls. Chi slices them thinner than those at other sushi bars so the whole slice can fit in your mouth. "A big part of Japanese food, and sushi especially, is texture. Fish is very subtle, so when you have an overwhelming piece of sushi, you can't fully taste everything," Chi says. "The way we started slicing ours over a decade ago allows you to really taste the texture."
Chi gets his fish from all over the world. Tuna flies in whole (120-pounders) every day from Ecuador, while hamachi comes from the Pacific Coast. Chi also sources local fish and gets farm-raised salmon from Nova Scotia. "This is a special salmon that they don't raise in one lot but in channels and locks that get moved as they grow." Chi never buys Chilean salmon because it isn't farmed in such a way, plus it isn't as fatty.
If you visit Hannya, sit at the sushi bar, where you can watch lionfish swimming in a tank that's the focal point of the restaurant. You can also catch Chi cupping rice into balls and topping them with nigiri. Hannya, which means "wisdom" in Japanese, is exactly what he might share with you. "There's a style and form to what Japanese customers expect," he divulges. "For Western culture, I squeeze the rice balls tighter because guests like to use soy sauce or sauce in their food, and if not, it falls apart."
The secret is to actually turn the nigiri or sushi upside down and then dip it into the soy sauce. "The rice is never meant to touch the soy. This is the Japanese traditional way, so the style is to squeeze the rice lightly."
At Hannya, you can have your pick of sushi, nigiri, or sashimi platters. Just don't ask for your soup before your meal; order it at the end. "In Japan, soup actually comes after your meal, but here everyone automatically assumes you have to start with a soup or salad."
Somewhat different from Akashi's look, Hannya's decor features exposed brick, low industrial ceilings with funky lighting, gold walls with koi etched into them, and a communal table perfect for imbibing many sake bombs (probably also not the Japanese way, but it's fun).
Takeout is available, as is delivery within a two-mile radius. Chi hopes to capitalize on the young professionals in the Brickell area who don't cook but want to eat great-tasting and inexpensive food on a daily basis. Prices here are just a bit higher than those at the affordable Akashi, with a dollar or two difference.
Besides adding a few new dishes to the menu, Hannya differentiates itself from Akashi in the Vietnamese brunch, which features the noodle soup pho, Korean seafood pancakes, and Vietnamese char-grilled lemongrass pork or chicken with rice and a fried egg.
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If you don't know what something is, simply ask. "The best way to tell a good sushi bar from a bad one is to ask the sushi chef every question you can think of," Chi says. "If they are knowledgeable, chances are they know their stuff."
Follow Carla on Twitter @ohcarlucha