The summer before Hoon Kim opened Fukuda in Bloomfield in October 2012, the restaurateur set up a sushi bar on balmy nights outside the restaurant.
Newspapered windows hid the space as it transformed from what had been Stagioni (now on the South Side) to an izakaya, a Japanese pub. Behind the pop-up bar, self-taught sushi chef Matt Kemp made nigiri and assembled rolls, while Mr. Kim took orders and poured sake from a clear restaurant squirt bottle into little plastic glasses.
Seven customers could dine at a time, sitting on folding chairs with their backs to the street. It was among my first sushi experiences in the city, a quirky experience that I remember fondly.
When the restaurant opened, the dining room felt like a still from a hand-drawn anime film. It's part colorful graphics -- with images by Lawrenceville-based artist Ron Copeland -- and part old-school Japanese sushi bar. Diners were greeted by Mr. Kemp while Mr. Kim tended to the dining room.
Eventually, Caito Nagelson joined Mr. Kemp in making sushi, an anomaly in this city and many others where there are few to no female sushi chefs. The pair had a rhythm between hot and cold menu items, from simple oysters on the half shell to beautiful sashimi from fish flown in from the Tsukiji fish market in Japan. Mr. Kemp also made his own ramen noodles and a broth that at times seemed inspired. He left recently to work at the famed Morimoto restaurant in Philadelphia. Ms. Nagelson left Fukuda, too, but stayed in town.
- Hours: 6-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday.
- Basics: Fukuda is a quirky neighborhood restaurant with an interesting sushi menu, dining room and cast of characters among staff and in the dining room.
- Prices: Omakase, $45 for four courses, $65 for seven courses; cold dishes, $8-$17; hot dishes $4-$14; nigiri $6.50-$8 per piece; gunkan maki $5-$7.50; su maki/temaki $6-$10.
- Summary: Credit cards, street parking, handicapped accessible, corkage $2 per person; reservations accepted.
- Noise level: Quiet to Moderate.
It's difficult to locate skilled sushi chefs in Pittsburgh so Mr. Kim launched a national search to find Trace Jerome Barney, a Utah native who goes by T.J. He did not learn his knife skills in his hometown as executive chef of Naked Fish in Salt Lake City. He learned in Japan: first as an apprentice at restaurants in Osaka and Tokyo, then as a chef in training in coastal Sakata. Between overseas stints, he worked as a sushi chef in San Diego.
Mr. Barney's experience translates to the plate. For now, skip the hot food, if there is any on the menu that changes daily. Instead, order omakase, the multi-course chef's tasting that's a journey of flavor and tradition. It is as engaging as it is delicious, especially with Mr. Barney's guidance.
But first, a warning: This experience isn't for everyone, as a Tuesday night soundtrack of LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It" and Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" suggests. Rather than wear the traditional Japanese sushi chef attire, Mr. Barney was clad in chef whites pinned with one of a dozen of his name tags. He may have been drinking a beer. At the delivery of an order, he peeled a radish with a knife like a magic trick.
The tasting menu starts with seductive flavors. "It's nice to put your full trust in someone to have a lovely meal of things you would never choose yourself," said a diner. "Especially when you have no idea what half of them are."
A trio of dishes arrives on a slate board. The first bite is shima aji tataki (striped jack) with cod roe and daikon. The second is a refreshing sliced cucumber salad in rice vinegar and soy sauce. Next to the bowl, a trio of hirame (fluke) slices is drizzled with yuzu sumiso sauce. Eat from left to right slowly, for it's a medley to remember.
Course two is richer, more restrained and less acidic. Sake (salmon), maguro (tuna) and aji (striped jack) sashimi are served with a hint of real wasabi -- not the neon powdered stuff that's ubiquitous in Japanese restaurants.
The third salad course is a respite, less interesting, though beautifully executed. Arugula is evenly dressed, layered with sashimi. Served on a plate dressed with a flourish of balsamic, it's a fine dressing, though it's so common it cheapens the plate.
Between courses, a server explains tea selections or pours wine that customers have brought; Fukuda is still BYOB. Mr. Kim hopes to land a liquor license to fulfill the restaurant's ambition to become a Japanese pub specializing in Japanese beer and sake. He hopes to have it by summer, when he finishes building an outdoor deck.
Forgettable miso with enoki mushrooms followed the salad, but it was erased by the dramatic last course, a drawn out moment that's a crescendo of flavor and anticipation.
Rather than preparing plates with an array of maki and temaki, Mr. Barney prepares a piece at a time and sends them to diners. First it's a mild piece, then a fatty piece, then a spicy piece. Watch as he expertly carves fish or applies flame to caramelize a sauce.
Mr. Barney announced the arrival of the last bite so diners would not mindlessly scarf it down. "This piece will blow your mind," he said. It's bigeye tuna marinated with soy, mirin, sake and ginger, and it is fabulous.
"I like to start with a big flavor and end with a big flavor," he said.
Dining at a sushi bar, or at a restaurant as small as Fukuda, often becomes a communal conversation.
As she watched Mr. Barney prepare orders, a diner asked him about his knives because she hasn't been able to find a place in town to sharpen her own Japanese knife.
Like most chefs, he sharpens his own, and in this case, on clay. The diner was pleased. "Being able to talk to a professional about his tools affects the experience," she said. "As if you can taste the craft."
With its eccentric soundtrack, cast of characters and captivating flavors, Fukuda lures diners who arrive with an open mind.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.