Ninth sushi bar opens in Columbia

October 21, 2009

Anchor Intro: Columbia sits thousands of miles from either coast, but the demand for fresh fish runs high. The newly opened Geisha on Broadway is just the latest competitor in the mid-Missouri sushi market. KBIA's Elle Moxley reports on how local chefs are selling quintessentially Japanese cuisine to decidely Midwestern palates.


At Geisha, a sushi chef’s expert hands layer cucumber, avocado and crab on a bed of seaweed and rice. With a flick of the wrist, Chef Shin rolls this concoction using a bamboo mat, then he cuts it into bite-sized pieces with exacting strokes of a long, sharp knife.

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The California roll is the most popular offering at Columbia’s newest sushi bar, a Japanese/Korean fusion restaurant that celebrated its grand opening this month.

Owner Kwang Yoo — known to friends and customers as “Kory” — has transformed the old Quizno’s at Broadway and Eighth into a dark lounge of sushi, sports and skimpy robes. Hip-hop music blares as the lunch crowd finishes up... the game is on, and waitresses in kimonos serve sushi and clear tables.

It’s an aesthetic Kory hopes will help distinguish Geisha from other sushi restaurants in Columbia.

“Most sushi restaurants, they’re an original style but we’re a fusion style… and the interior, too, we make it more for college people.”

Kory, who has worked in the restaurant business for two years, faces stiff competition as he enters the market — Columbia boasts eight other sushi bars.

Just a few blocks away from Geisha, the lunch rush is ending at the student center on the University of Missouri campus, where chefs at Sunshine Sushi make four to five hundred rolls every day.

Aung Oo opened his sushi bar at the old Brady Commons in 2003 after working for a number of years at the sushi franchise inside of Schnuck’s.

“When we first started at old Brady, I had a few customers who were a little skeptical about eating sushi here in the Midwest area, but I guess they are happy now.”

Oo says there are a lot of misconceptions about sushi… and people who don’t like seafood are often reluctant to try it.

But sushi doesn’t necessarily mean raw fish. Oo pinches off a bit of white rice and holds it up for inspection.

“The meaning of sushi is this… this is the sushi.”
“Ah, the rice is sushi?”
“‘Su’ is rice and ‘shi’ is vinegar… so that is what sushi really is. The rest is your creation, my creation. As long as I have vinegar rice, that is sushi.”

Most prized among sushi toppings is tuna... a single bluefin can fetch thousands at auction, making it the backbone of the multi-billion dollar sushi economy. At the world’s largest fish market in Tokyo, Japan, more than six billion dollars of seafood are sold each year. Tsukiji is the hub of the global fish trade.

In America, sushi first landed in costal cities like Los Angeles. Now it’s moving inward... thanks to globalization, even Midwestern sushi chefs can have the best ingredients delivered to their doors.

Sunshine Sushi uses fresh-frozen fish, which is flash-frozen after being caught to kill any bacteria. Oo and his chefs then thaw the fish and prepare it as pre-packaged meals… he says his sushi never sits in the cooler for more than a couple of hours.

But across town at Columbia’s oldest sushi bar — Osaka on Nifong — fresh fish is flown in daily, and rolls are made to order.

Zhil Rong, who opened his restaurant 14 years ago, says he has built up such a loyal customer base that he no longer has to advertise. He says he’s not worried about competition… he’ll keep doing what he always has, serving fresh, traditional Japanese food — the way he learned to make it in Japan.

“I know a lot of people now, especially here in the United States, learn sushi in three months, five months… in Japan, if you haven’t worked in a sushi restaurant for five, ten… at least five years, you won’t be able to touch the fish.”

It’s a distinction Rong’s customers can appreciate, but not the only recipe for sushi success in Columbia.

Elle Moxley, KBIA.

Listen as Sasha Issenberg, author of The Sushi Economy, talks about the global fish trade, the authenticity of the California roll and the spread of Japanese cuisine to the Midwest.


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