"This is a time of refocus and redirection for Sushi Maki," explained Ng during a recent phone interview. "We've had so much growth in the last several years that our anniversary was a time for us to think about what does Sushi Maki look like in the next 15 years."
To help usher in the new chapter for his brand, Ng partnered with James Beard Award-nominated chef Phillip Speer. The men were introduced by a mutual friend while Speer was the director of culinary operations for the Uchi Restaurant Group in Austin, Texas. Ng says he was a huge fan of the type of innovative Japanese food served at Uchi and wanted to introduce some of those concepts at Sushi Maki. His chance to work with Speer came after the chef was arrested for a DWI in October of last year and in turn resigned from the Uchi Restaurant Group.
With Speer's guidance in the kitchen, the team unveiled first a summer menu, and now a fall menu that's "lighter and brighter" says Ng, and also features more local and sustainable seafood options. The fall menu officially launched October 5 at all the full-service restaurants, and includes the addition of Florida lobster and yellowtail snapper, along with cobia from Central America — items that aren't often seen on sushi menus in town.
A graduate of the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, Miami-born Ng also wanted to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into his dishes. And so with Speer's help, there's now a menu item consisting of cobia proffered with lychees, grapes, sunflower seeds and mint. Sushi Maki also offers a sweet potato with shiitake "bacon" dish, whereby the accompanying mushrooms and dashi broth mirror the taste of bacon but without any of the actual fat. There's also a dish of grilled corn accented with a chili-lime mayo and bonito flakes for that umami flavor. What's more, eight months out of the year Sushi Maki plans on using Homestead avocados versus the ubiquitous Haas variety.
In the year since his arrest, Chef Speer says he's been striving to live a healthier lifestyle, and that his contributions to Sushi Maki's menu reflect his own dietary choices, as well as a general trend toward eating better. Indeed, the toque's lost a whopping 95 pounds recently.
Speer says his goal was to get the Sushi Maki team to look at food in a different way, and that part of that included going around to various local markets and restaurants and then returning to the kitchen to experiment with the ingredients they bought. "We had a good foundation, but we were able to streamline the menu and re-imagine an identity that’s lighter, fresher and more seasonal — the way food should be eaten, served and shared," says Speer. "We didn’t go in with a plan, but we just started making food and got inspired."
By spring 2016, the Coral-Gables-based chain plans to unveil the new menu items at all of its locations, including those within Whole Foods Markets. When asked how he's able to maintain quality on such a scale, Ng said the key
Additional changes at Sushi Maki include the offering of local brews from Daughters Brewing Co., Islamorada Beer Company, and Gravity Brew Labs. Abe says he's always keeping his eyes peeled for new full-service restaurant locations as well as market stations, but that no new opening plans can be revealed just yet. As for the partnership between the South Florida chain and Speer? It will continue indefinitely, even though Speer's home base is in Austin and he has many projects in the works. Happy 15th birthday, Sushi Maki!
Follow Valeria Nekhim on Twitter and Instagram.