Although some might not know his last name, many serious sushi enthusiasts in Utah and beyond know the name Sunny. He’s a longtime, beloved sushi chef in these parts – Sunny Tsogbadrakh. You might know Sunny from his tenure at Mikado restaurant or perhaps from Naked Fish, when those Asian eateries were downtown hot spots and served some of the best sushi and ramen around. Wherever you might know him from, you know that the name Sunny is a perfect fit: his outgoing, upbeat, friendly disposition is nothing if not sunny.
Following the closing of Naked Fish, Sunny had sort of fallen off my radar screen for a while, and I was wondering where he’d gone. Then recently, while having a drink with a chum – wine expert, former chef/restaurateur, and proprietor of Libation, Inc., Francis Fecteau – Sunny’s name came up and Francis told me he’d opened a sushi restaurant in Davis County. Specifically, in Kaysville. Francis has known and respected Sunny’s skills for as long as I have and said of him: “Sunny is dazzling. He’s the best fish and knife man I’ve ever seen. It’s like watching Bernstein conduct Beethoven – a master at work.” Takashi Gibo – owner/chef at his namesake Takashi restaurant, concurs, saying simply of Sunny, “I tried his sushi when he was at Naked Fish and he was great.”
That high praise is justified. And I, for one, am thrilled that Sunny has resurfaced with a restaurant that he and business partner Ken Ulziibayar opened: what is now Kaysville’s best restaurant, Nikko Sushi & Ramen. Granted, it doesn’t take that much to be Kayville’s best. But, put Nikko up against virtually any Utah sushi restaurant and it will more than hold its own. Davis County denizens are lucky to have Nikko Sushi & Ramen to turn to for authentic Japanese fare in a landscape dominated by mediocre all-you-can-eat and 2-for-1 sushi joints.
Nikko is located in a strip mall with plenty of free parking in the space formerly occupied by a fast service Chinese eatery called the Mandarin (not to be confused with Bountiful’s Mandarin). Sunny and Ken virtually gutted the place and made it their own. There’s not a trace of the Mandarin left and Nikko is a very appealing restaurant with beautiful, soothing decor and lighting.
Service at Nikko Sushi & Ramen is excellent and you’d be very happy at one of the dining room tables or booths. However, if you want the full-on Sunny sushi experience, I recommend bellying up to the sushi bar.
Sunny might start guests off with a scrumptious cucumber salad (and I don’t normally even care for cucumbers) called Sunomono ($3). He slices English cucumber into paper thin discs and bathes them in a slightly sweet and sour amazu dressing that I think is made with rice vinegar, sugar and ponzu. The Sunomono salad can also be had with the addition of shrimp or delicious baby octopus (extra $3).
I’ve eaten poke salads in a lot of different places, but I’ve never enjoyed Poke Tuna ($9) any more than at Nikko. Fresh tuna is cut into fairly large cubes and tossed with pink salt, sesame oil, chili peppers, avocado, seaweed and diced mango. It’s perfect poke.
And, speaking of perfect, so is the Hamachi Jalapeño appetizer ($9). This was generous pieces of delicate, almost ethereal, hamachi sashimi served with julienned daikon, thin slices of fresh jalapeño, and drizzled with a heavenly yuzu-miso sauce. I could live on this dish.
Nikko is one of those places with a supremely talented sushi chef where your best bet is to dine omakase. Simply put yourself into Sunny’s helpful hands and let him feed you. Had we not done that, my son and I might not have gotten to enjoy uni, the edible part of sea urchin. It’s delicate and packed with flavor – the ultimate umami bomb, served by Sunny in a nori casing with ikura (salmon roe) and a smidgen of fresh wasabi.
And speaking of wasabi, at quality sushi restaurants items such as nigiri are already seasoned with wasabi. The chef typically smears wasabi on the underside of the fish in nigiri, when appropriate. Although of course you can do anything you want with your wasabi, it’s considered tacky to stir and disintegrate it into your soy sauce, as so many American sushi eaters do. Just a heads-up …
Sunny also showed me the proper way to eat sushi. It’s perfectly acceptable to eat sushi rolls with your fingers, lightly dipping one of the cut ends into your soy sauce. As for nigiri, he taught my son and me to first (with chopsticks) turn the nigiri onto its side. Then, picking the nigiri up while sideways, turn it another 90 degrees so it is upside-down. Then you very gently and lightly dip it into the soy sauce so you’re actually putting soy sauce onto the top of the nigiri – onto the fish. Whenever dipping sushi into soy sauce, resist the urge to shake off the excess sauce, which is considered rude.
One of the best dishes we had at Nikko was what I think of as two-way tuna. There were thin slices of ever-so-slightly-seared maguro tuna and avocado slices, along with pieces of toro from the tuna belly. It was absolutely delicious.
The most straightforward way for fish lovers to enjoy sushi is, of course, sashimi. Sashimi is raw fish (and sometimes meat), unaccompanied by rice – usually eaten simply with a tiny bit of soy sauce. At Nikko, there’s a small sashimi platter with nine pieces of sashimi (chef’s choice) for $18 and a large, fifteen piece platter for $27. Nikko doesn’t have quite the sashimi and nigiri selection that, say, a restaurant like Takashi does. But keep in mind that Davis County isn’t Salt Lake County and it may take a little time and training for locals in Kaysville, Layton and the like to get their sushi game up to snuff. I suspect that as the word about Nikko gets around, more and more sushi lovers will flock to Sunny’s restaurant and sushi options there will expand. For now, there’s plenty to keep any sushi lover happy.
I’ve written a lot about sushi so far, but let’s not forget the name of this place: Nikko Sushi & Ramen. Don’t overlook the ramen here, because it’s anything but an afterthought. In fact, the ramen at Nikko is as good as any I’ve tasted in Utah. There are three ramens at Nikko: miso, shoyu and tonkotsu ($11). All of them come with pork chashu (sorry, vegetarians), fish cake, seasoned egg, scallions, nori, and medium-size ramen noodles. I tried the tonkotsu ramen and the broth, in particular, was wonderful. It’s almost creamy, made from slow-cooked pork bones and black garlic oil. The two pieces of pork chashu (belly) were generous, if a little challenging to eat with chopsticks.
Kids aren’t overlooked at Nikko, with items like teriyaki chicken and beef, or beef/chicken with noodles, but I think most kids would like entrees such as Tonkatsu (not to be confused with tonkotsu), which is Japanese-style breaded pork loin, fried until crispy, with Japanese steak sauce and sauteed vegetables ($12). There is also a curried version called Katsucurry ($13) with medium spicy Japanese curry and pickles.
Nikko also has a small, but serviceable selection of wine, beer and sake, including both hot and cold sake and a trio of Japanese beers: Kirin, Sapporo and Asahi. If you’re serious about wine, however, you might want to BYOB, since the wine list is pretty limited.
And then, of course, there are sushi rolls and two sushi roll menus. The “Comfort” rolls include standards like Spider, California, Spicy Tuna, Philly, Unagi Maki, Shrimp Tempura and such, and range from 4 to 6 bucks each. The “Special Rolls” menu has some classics on it that you’re probably familiar with, such as Rainbow, Vegas, Playboy, Caterpillar and Funky rolls. But there are also some less familiar … to me, anyway. I had to laugh at the name of the Xanax roll ($12), which is shrimp tempura with cream cheese, topped with smoked salmon and avocado.
The two rolls with the most appeal to me sit side-by-side on the menu: the Sweet Jalapeño and Summer Fling rolls. The Summer Fling is an escolar and mango roll topped with salmon, kiwi, and amazu sauce ($11). But it’s the Sweet Jalapeño roll ($12) that really grabbed my attention. It’s a luscious maki roll made with salmon and cucumber, topped with yellowtail, jalapeño slices, a lovely yuzu-miso sauce, and citrus tobiko. I’ve eaten a lot of sushi rolls in my day, in a lot of places. I’ve never tasted one I liked any more than this. By the way, Nikko does feature a sushi roll Happy Hour, Monday through Thursday during dinner (dine-in only). Buy one roll and get a second for half price.
Simply put, Nikko Sushi & Ramen is the best restaurant you’ve (probably) never tried. There’s a part of me that would like to keep Sunny and Nikko all to myself. But then, I also want this place to survive and thrive. So, I encourage you to take a side trip to Kaysville and Nikko Sushi & Ramen before it blows up and you have to wait in line for a table. Get in there and enjoy some of Utah’s finest sushi and ramen while you still can.
Culinary quote of the week:
A good rule to remember for life is that when it comes to plastic surgery and sushi, never be attracted by a bargain. — Graham Norton
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Originally trained as an anthropologist, Ted Scheffler is a seasoned food, wine & travel writer based in Utah. He loves cooking, skiing, and spends an inordinate amount of time tending to his ever-growing herd of guitars and amplifiers.
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