To watch Hoon Chang prepare a plate of fresh sushi is to watch an artist at work.
He focuses hard, rarely pausing, rarely looking up as he rolls and slices several specialty rolls, arranges them on a platter, tops with sauce and adds a live flower garnish.
Presentation is important, he says. So are first impressions at a restaurant.
That’s one reason Hoon, son Robin Chang and kitchen manager Kyle Ross decided to renovate the former Honey & Locust restaurant location at 180 Front St. and open Sarnia’s newest Japanese restaurant.
Customers entering Kitano Japanese Cuisine walk by an open kitchen to the 41-seat dining area. The décor is new, the kitchen equipment is so shiny it gleams, and there’s Hoon in his red chef’s cap and coat, smiling from behind the sushi counter. It’s a great first impression.
Hoon, 56, is from South Korea, where he trained under a Japanese chef to become a cook at a five-star restaurant.
He left Korea in 1988 to escape what he calls “a small country and a lot of people.”
“So many told me Canada was the best place to come to,” he said. He arrived in Ontario the same year his eldest son Robin was born.
The family opened a succession of restaurants and variety stores in numerous cities including Barrie, Toronto, London and Sudbury, where Robin grew up.
At one time, Hoon owned two restaurants in Missouri, one in Branson, the other in Springfield. They were successful, but 30 years in the kitchen took a toll and Hoon said he decided to leave the restaurant business and give his back a rest.
He and his wife opened a food market in St. Williams that she continues to operate. Meanwhile, Robin, 26, was ready to open his own restaurant and began scouting locations in southwestern Ontario.
Kitano opened Aug. 1 during a First Friday downtown event.
It was a great start, said Hoon. He has agreed to teach all he knows about Japanese cuisine to Ross, who is both Robin’s business partner and chef’s apprentice at Kitano.
Fresh ingredients cooked with sauces and spices to enhance the natural flavour of the food, not mask it, is at the heart of Japanese cooking, Hoon said. He laughs when he explains he took a culinary course at Niagara College to learn about Canadian cooking and found himself doing the teaching.
“What I see is all the kinds of cuisine are fusing,” Hoon said. “The lines between foods are blurring, even Japanese.”
For instance, some sauces at Kitano are a little sweeter than the original recipes. A little less vinegar appeals to more palates, said Hoon.
“He’s doing this for me,” said Robin. “He’s making all the sushi and everyone loves it.”
Kitano Japanese Cuisine is open seven days a week. Lunch specials cost $10 and come with complimentary tea, salad and soup.
Dinner entrees are $20 on average, $30 with specialty rolls like the Awesome Lobster with crab, avocado, cucumber, lettuce and baked lobster.
Call 491-2588 for more information.
Kitano cucumber salad
1 cucumber, julienned
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp granulated sugar
1/4 white onion, julienned
1 green onion stalk, finely diced
1/4 cup of white vinegar
Marinate cucumber in salt until it starts to sweat. (About an hour)
Add rest of ingredients, mix well. Place in fridge to pickle overnight.
Ready the next day.
Makes about 4 small servings