I had just begun eating a meal at Onyx, a restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village, California, eagerly catching up with a couple of friends, when all conversation stopped.
So delicious was this cuisine, touted as “modern Japanese,” with unexpected flavors and textures that seemed to speak to us in an elemental way, that my friends and I just looked at each other with smiles growing on our faces.
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Each plate of sushi and sashimi that arrived at the table was an artistic arrangement of food, so striking and beautiful that it looked like a mini sculpture. As we ate these glistening pieces of fish, we were transported by the lightness and diversity of tastes.
Then there was the main dish — blackened miso cod. It was so juicy and flavorful that I really needed to know: Who created this fabulous food?
His name is Masa Shimakawa, and I soon learned why he understands fish better than most.
All things fish
Masa not only cooks with fish, but he scuba dives, is a fly fisherman and he was born and raised in Hakodate, Japan, a port city almost entirely surrounded by ocean and known for its fresh seafood dishes.
“Everyone cooks with fish in my hometown,” Masa said when I interviewed him a few weeks later. People there eat fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “Most people in Japan cook fish on a charcoal grill,” he added. “It’s very simple.”
Masa likes to see fish in their own element. “On vacation, I go deep sea diving around the Channel Islands and I also go scuba diving to Hawaii and Caribbean,” he says.
And he’s an experienced fisherman. “I like fly fishing — tying my own fly — in the Channel Islands. Or I go into small creeks in the mountains, the Eastern Sierra — there are beautiful streams there — to fish golden trout. It’s a four-hour drive for middle-of-nowhere fishing,” he said.
He has traveled to countries in Asia and South America, seeking out street food and local markets. “I want to see what people are eating on a daily basis.” He says he has been most inspired by Vietnam and Singapore.
From Japan to California
His career began as a dishwasher in a small cafe when he was a teenager. He attended the Hakodate Professional Cooking School and later became a sushi chef in Tokyo. He got a job at a sushi restaurant in Montreal, then Chicago and then New York, before arriving at the Four Seasons in Westlake Village in 2006.
The resort includes the California Health and Longevity Institute, which offers health, fitness and nutrition consultations as well as spa services. The light and fresh food at Onyx makes it the perfect place for Longevity Institute clients to come for dinner.
For his Onyx creations, Masa buys fish from local Southern California sources as well as from Japan. One of his favorites is Hawaiian sea bass. “I marinate it with Yuzu, Japanese soy sauce, overnight.” As for what is meant by “modern Japanese,” Masa explains: “It’s not too traditional. I use outside accents — Western and Southeast Asia seasonings, all mashed up.”
One part of the secret to the flavorful fish is the sauces he creates for marinating. For the black cod? “I marinate it in miso paste with sake, and a little bit of sugar, overnight. Next day, I rinse off the miso,” then he oven-roasts the fish.
No need to be intimidated about buying or cooking fish, Masa says. Here are some of his tips:
• Buy at a fish market whenever possible.
• Look for bright, clear eyes.
• Look for vivid red gills.
• No matter how you cook fish, use your finger to judge when it’s done. “I push the fish gently to see how deep my finger goes. It should be soft, but the skin should spring back. If it’s too hard, the fish has been overcooked.”
• As for sauces? “It’s all about simplicity,” Masa says. Just use butter, salt, pepper and lemon juice, he suggests. The idea, he says, is to create a light sauce that allows you to “enjoy the character of the fish.”
What about the old rule of cooking fish 5 minutes for every inch of thickness? Masa shrugs. Knowing when fish is done cooking has to “come with experience,” he says.
The success of Onyx may be that Masa enjoys experimenting with new recipes, which he tries out on his staff. He is intuitive, and he has had years of experience cooking fish. But how does it all taste just so … perfect? There are some secrets he’s not sharing. “I have some tricks,” he says with a smile.
Main photo: Black cod wrapped in a bamboo leaf sits in sweet soy sauce. Credit: Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts