Sushi Chef John Hon emerges from behind the curtain dividing the dining area from the kitchen and stops at our table. With his hands folded politely behind his back, he greets us with a gentle smile and slight bow of his head. His soft-spoken manner and obvious humility when we compliment his creations are balanced by the way his eyes light up when he speaks about his cuisine and new trends in sushi that are emerging and can be found in many parts of the menu he created.
Hon came to San Diego sixteen years ago from South Korea to attend university. While in school he was given the opportunity to study the art of sushi making through a friend. Working under an established sushi chef, he learned to create sushi in the traditional Japanese style. Although typical Japanese training for a sushi chef can take up to ten years, Hon mastered the skill in just three. He had his humble beginnings working in the back of a small sushi restaurant, before deciding to move on with one of his friends and coworkers to open their own establishment and thus, Ikiru Japanese Restaurant was born.
While there are conventional items like a variety of sashimi and nigiri (raw fish over rice) and rolls like the Spicy Tuna and California, Hon decided to take his menu in a different direction than many other establishments. Instead of concentrating on Americanized elements like mayonnaise and cream cheese, Hon focuses on going back to more Japanese and traditional flavors and finding ways to make rolls healthier (like using less rice), both of which he predicts are upcoming trends in the sushi scene.
Hon is responsible for creating each of the specialty rolls on the menu and has incorporated an interesting element to each one to maintain his unique style. Instead of the more typical method of searing fish by turning it over a flame using chopsticks, Hon blasts the Salmon that sits on top his NTC Roll with a blow torch, creating a smoky flavor that permeates the entire roll and subtly enhances the individual flavors of each ingredient. His personal favorite creation is the Ultimate Crab Roll, a creamy crab roll topped with heaps of crab salad. Even of the nigiri have a special touch; each piece is topped with a tiny mound of fresh wasabi, which is different than the green paste most sushi lovers are accustomed to. Hon explains that the reason so few people know about fresh wasabi is because of how expensive it is, but that it is important to the flavor of the nigiri and that is why he chooses to use it.
Aside from the unique sushi rolls, Hon wanted to bring something more to Ikiru. Taking from the typical American happy hour in which beer and cocktails are served alongside appetizer portions of food, he crafted various small plates to be enjoyed with the extensive selection of sake and Japanese beers. In keeping with the healthy side of Japanese cuisine, each dish is served in a perfect portion that tastes and feels light but does not skimp on flavor.
With a traditional Japanese take on the conventional sushi and American bar dining scenes, it is easy to see what is so mesmerizing about the specialties on Chef Hon’s menu. As new trends in sushi emerge, Hon will surely find new ways to bring them to life for the sushi goers of San Diego.