Sushi by Scratch is a $165, 17-course omakase experience that’s hosted in the historic Stirrup House in Coconut Grove, and it’s the closest you’ll ever get to feeling like you’re in a murder mystery.
With its white picket fence, bright yellow trim, and wrap-around porch, The Stirrup House belongs in Key West during Hemingway’s era. It’s idyllic and reminiscent of a more romantic South Florida. However, once you walk past the white picket fence and ring the doorbell, you feel more like you’re in an episode of HBO’s “White Lotus,” than an omakase.
A man peers out from the door and asks your name. After he confirms your reservation, he ushers you and your dining companion into a small waiting room with eight other people. 1920s Japanese jazz plays in the background. Everyone speaks in hushed tones and tries to avoid inevitable eye contact. Awkward laughs and small talk are shared as everyone awaits what’s to come. The atmosphere is somewhere between the opening scene in “Clue” and an uber-exclusive dinner party where endangered animals are served.
Who did it?
Are we actually eating panda?
Eventually, it’s time. The entire dinner party moves to the living room which has been transformed into an upscale omakase. For any foodie, this is paradise, the ultimate food fantasy you’ve always dreamed of.
Wasabi rests on the chefs’ cutting boards, real wasabi, not the horseradish substitute that you’re used to at your neighborhood sushi joint. You actually get to see the chefs grate the wasabi plant into a paste. This in itself is an experience because real wasabi is hard to come by; it’s outrageously expensive—$160 per kilogram; and it must be consumed 15 minutes after it’s been grated. Otherwise, it’ll lose its flavor.
Behind the chefs lies the menu of the night, the 17 courses of nigiri, a roadmap to one of the most memorable meals you’ll ever have.
Omakase in Japanese means “I’ll leave it up to you.” The beauty of omakase is that the chef decides everything. Aside from allergies, there are no substitutions. You have the privilege of enjoying the meal as its culinary masterminds intended it. Each piece of nigiri complements or contrasts the next one. Every course in the meal is meant to create gustatory harmony, hitting every note of your palate to create a full melody.
And while Sushi by Scratch follows the concept of a traditional omakase, it’s anything but. The unique preparation of each course draws from local ingredients and the curiosity of its founders, chefs Phillip Frankland Lee and Margarita Kallas-Lee. The husband and wife team is known for their unconventional approach to omakase. And apparently, the Michelin gods approve. Sushi by Scratch’s Montecito outpost has one Michelin star.
Upon arriving at your seat, you can choose to have a drink pairing with your meal, $85-110. I recommend the house pairing which consists of sake, a couple cocktails, and a Japanese beer served in a wooden box. However, all of the drink pairings are designed to add another dimension of complexity and enjoyment to the experience. Plus, alcohol always lightens the mood.
Fair warning: you’ll probably get a little drunk off the drink pairings, but don’t worry, everyone’s too busy enjoying their meal to notice you keep talking about the one time you studied abroad in Barcelona.
As you get further into the meal, the atmosphere warms up about twenty degrees—another great reason to get a drink pairing. The strangers who you once suspiciously eyed in the waiting room are now friends, and with each new course, you all share a sense of excitement and regret that you’re one course closer to the end.
With the first bite of nigiri, everything about this dining experience makes sense. The mystery, the anticipation leading before it, the preparation. It’s the details that make it all worth it, the small melodies that work together to create a wonderful symphony of a single bite.
Imagine hamachi brushed with sweet corn pudding, dusted with sourdough bread crumbs, and topped with a touch of wasabi. It creates a flavor that you never knew sushi could have: warm and comforting. It evokes memories of your grandma’s cornbread on Thanksgiving, slathered in butter, a delicate combination of fat, salt, and sweet corn kernels.
Spanish bluefin tuna with little bits of pineapple and torched brown sugar, brushed with soy sauce, and topped with a dollop of wasabi. The light fruity notes of the pineapple and the deeper, more robust sweetness of the brown sugar complete the fatty tuna. It’s a very different rendition of sugar and fat from your favorite dessert, but it’s arguably much better.
A single bite of scallop with soy sauce, ponzu, lemon juice, sea salt, and poblano kosho. The scallop isn’t like any scallop you’ve ever had. It’s light. It melts away in your mouth, and then you taste the poblano kosho. It’s the heart of Mexico intertwined with the best of Japanese cuisine. It’s not the cheap fusion where both cuisines had a sloppy, drunken one-night stand but rather a slow burn where two cuisines meld into one.
A5 Waygu, brushed with soy sauce and topped with sea salt and wasabi. The first bite is the feeling you get when you step out of the shade on a winter’s day into the sun, and then you slowly feel heat seep into your bones.
Uni— so creamy that you spread it like butter—with nori, ponzu, matcha green tea salt, and wasabi. The sweet and briny notes of the uni are matched by earthy green tea salt, pulled together with a crunchy nori wrap, and grounded by a subtle dollop of spicy wasabi that lingers in your nose. It’s a multi-sensory experience. It’s not just nigiri, it’s an ode to the word, disfrutar, and everything that comes with it.
Japanese eel brushed with soy sauce and ponzu, torched, topped with poblano kosho, and drizzled with melted bone marrow. It’s the second love affair of Mexico and Japan, but it’s a menage a trois. Melted bone marrow brings out even more of the umami in the eel, and after you’ve finished it, you’re probably going to order another one a la carte.
After you’ve made your way through the dinner, you have the option to relive your favorite courses and try some of the chef’s experimental nigiri options a la carte. If you’ve already done the drink pairing, this is going to be hard to resist as you most likely have a decent buzz, and the haze of food-induced dopamine prompts you to enjoy more. My advice is, “Fuck it if you’ve already gone this far, may as well enjoy a little more.”
Sushi by Scratch may not be something that everyone enjoys equally. Some will not appreciate the intricacies and details that make the experience what it is—i.e. the slightly ominous yet beautiful Stirrup House and intimate murder mystery dinner party vibes. However, if you’re someone who enjoys food, good conversation, and a decent drink, you should make a reservation.