Ogawa isn’t a Japanese restaurant exactly. It’s a chunk of Japanese soil, an embassy, a slice of culture. That’s true with the vibe, in that it can be somewhat awkward yet humbling, and of course with the food, a long evening of sushi and hot dishes that all display a downright obsession with being authentically Japanese.
It flows through every inch of the place, which occupies a sign-free building near Rosie’s in Little River. The entranceway feels like a Shinto shrine and there's a zen garden out back with water features to drown out the hum of the city. The dining room is starkly simple, a low wooden counter dividing a pair of sushi chefs from the 11 seats facing them.
Jazz plays at a low volume and you may find yourself whispering throughout the evening, as though you're a part of a contemplative cultural exchange. If you get there early, when it’s really quiet, there will be lots of moments you’ll wonder if you’re breaking some rule of etiquette (like, is it polite to discuss the bathroom, with its auto-open toilets?).
If you go, it’s impossible to say what you’ll eat or even how much you’ll pay. In advance they’ll give you only a range: $175 to $300. The owner, Alvaro Perez Miranda, says they tailor each night’s menu to who’s coming, changing it up based on preferences or allergies or even special requests.
Our night spanned 18 courses over two plus hours, alternating between sushi and hot dishes. Some are familiar: tuna belly nigiri, seared wagyu with egg yolk, the tenderest of baby sea bream, caviar on freshwater eel.
Most of it is a provocation of textures and ingredients. That began with the first courses, a salad with an oozy yam and a fish custard soup dotted with salmon roe. There’s also a whole fish the size of a stick of butter, lightly fried and with instructions to eat it whole, tail to head. It took a moment, I’ll admit, wondering if it would be as strong as a sardine and require molars to get through the bones. But it was delicate and tender, just a slight taste of the sea, and most of the crunch came from the slightest bit of batter.
Through it all, sushi chef Masayuki Komatsu quietly keeps an eye on things, noticing how I devoured the uni my wife didn’t eat from the second course, then swapping it out in her hand roll for the tuna he knew she liked. He’s got a sense of humor too, laughing when the women at the end asked if he was single and letting out a giggle as he delivered a slice of nigiri, using the Japanese word for channel rockfish: “kinki.”
As we worked our way toward the miso soup and then the earthy flan that finished the night, the vibe got decidedly more fun. The place filled with regulars from Ogawa’s sister restaurants and those who’ve followed Komatsu since his days at Hiyakawa and Morimoto’s before that. It felt less like a study in Japanese courtesy and politeness, and instead like a continual parade of dishes, so pretty and yet often so self-challenging.
Not everyone can get on an overnight to Tokyo. But at least there’s Ogawa, a meticulous rendition of what makes Japan so fascinating and its food such an exploration into something new.