New Japanese restaurant to open soon in North Liberty
NORTH LIBERTY– Li Chiou and Vincent Chia don’t just want people to like Japanese food.
They want people to understand it.
That’s why their new North Liberty restaurant, Sushiya, includes a special bar where customers can sit less than two feet away from the head chef Vincent as he prepares fresh sushi and other dishes especially for them.
The couple has been working with other family members in the Sushi House in Cedar Rapids, a well-established restaurant with a menu that is half Japanese food, and half Chinese. It has been a dream of theirs for two years to open their own restaurant closer to their home in Iowa City, but finding a location there proved difficult.
When the former Quiznos location off Community Drive in North Liberty became available for purchase, Vincent found his opportunity at last.
“My friends like my food, and I like to cook,” he said.
“We will still make the Chinese dishes that are popular in the Cedar Rapids location, but we will focus more on Japanese food,” Li said. “But here, we won’t make it as fast because we want people to stay longer and enjoy their meal, not hurry.”
In a traditional Japanese kitchen, sushi is just part of the larger meal, and to learn to be proficient in all the required steps of food preparation and cooking, it can take a person 10 years or more to become head chef.
Vincent spent years in an apprenticeship with a master chef in Taipei City. “In my country, we learn to cook by following a good chef, not going to a good school. I’m very lucky to have followed a good chef.
“Most Americans have the wrong impression of Japanese food,” said Li. “They think it’s just raw fish. Even though that does play a big part, we want to teach people that Japanese is more healthy food and offers more variety than just raw fish.
To that end, Li and Vincent have begun posting educational FAQs about sushi and other Japanese items on their Sushiya Facebook page.
“We are going to print them out as a book here, too, so people can learn what we offer and what exactly is Japanese food,” she said. Japanese food is prepared with less salt and oil. For the uninitiated, sushi is actually vinegar-infused rice combined with other ingredients; some raw, and some grilled, steamed, stir-fried or deep-fried. Ingredients besides raw seafood include meat, poultry or vegetables.
Originally from Taiwan, the family came here so Li could study audiology at the University of Iowa. After their daughter, Claudia, was born, it became more difficult to leave as she entered school.
“We love it here,” said Li. “We love Iowa, so we decided to stay.”
Vincent has been a member of the Quail Creek Golf Course in North Liberty for four years, so the family has already made friends and acquaintances in the community.
“The only problem we have is the space is small,” said Li. “And Vincent doesn’t like people to rush in and out. He likes to cook for small groups so he can talk to them.”
That’s why Vincent went out of his way to work with his contractor, helping him to understand Vincent’s culinary priorities. The contractor, in turn, worked hard to find a way to build the bar and satisfy Department of Public Health guidelines to allow customers so close to the food preparation area. It is typical for restaurants in Japan to seat customers near the chef, and it is becoming more of a trend in higher-end establishments in places like New York and Los Angeles, but it’s a new concept for sushi restaurants around here.
“That way the customer can have direct interaction, and see how the chef is performing,” said Li. There will be two or three chefs in the kitchen and a couple more chefs working with Vincent at the sushi bar.
Daughter Claudia recommends the salmon sushi. A slice of fish placed on a bowl of vinegared rice, nigiri-zushi, is hand pressed and served with a little wasabi in between.
“I love nigiri-zushi,” said the seventh grader.
“That’s the high level sushi made with the best quality,” said Vincent. The temperature of the rice, the chef’s knifing techniques and the amount of pressure in the chef’s hand can affect sushi’s flavor and texture. Chefs who do not train long enough won’t be able to measure up to such standards. “Taking time to learn. That’s very important for a chef.”
Another popular favorite, for those who prefer their seafood cooked, is barbecued eel, and also an egg dish prepared Japanese-style. There will be some fried options, and a vegetarian menu as well. Beer, wine, sake and tea are on the beverage menu. Claudia will be helpful in the business by being in charge of packing the to-go orders.
The new ambiance is also something the Chiou family is proud of. They have worked hard to create a well-organized kitchen and a beautiful, comfortable dining space that includes a room for private parties. Much of the artwork on the walls and the restaurant logo was designed by Li’s brother, Yusheng Chiou, from Taiwan. Outdoors, the patio– which will eventually be covered by a custom-designed pergola– overlooks Liberty Centre Park and Pond.
“I like the pond. Water is good for me,” said Vincent. “In the Chinese culture, water means money.”
Until the restaurant opens in early August, Li hopes people will check out their Facebook page and learning a little more about the food and restaurant that is her family’s dream-come-true.
“Japanese food is good, and Vincent can make it tasty,” Li said. “This will be a good place for family and friends to come.”