By STEVEN NALLEY
Sukie Mollendor’s late father was the owner of the Tokyo Inn, the second Japanese restaurant ever established in Washington, D.C.
Back when Tokyo Inn opened in the 1960s, Mollendor said, few were familiar with current standbys of Japanese cuisine, including the idea of serving fish raw.
“Sometimes customers would have a reaction to it, (such as) ‘This is not what I ordered; I had ordered sushi; why are you serving raw fish?’” Mollendor said. “It was a fun time.”
Japanese restaurants were also more traditional back then, Mollendor said, including the Tokyo Inn. Chefs not only deviated little from traditional preparation methods and flavors but also wore kimonos, she said.
“We were able to do that,” Mollendor said. “We were a novelty back then.”
Now, Mollendor has brought a Japanese novelty to Starkville, and it’s not so traditional.
Mollendor has revamped the Hotel Chester restaurant formerly known as Sushi on Main into Sugoi, featuring Japanese cuisine served with a unique Southern flavor.
Mollendor said Sugoi only uses “sustainable seafood,” following guidelines from Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to keep from cooking species which are overfished. For instance, she said, eels are overfished but are also commonly featured at Japanese restaurants. For Sugoi, Mollendor said she found a more than suitable substitute in the form of farm-raised Mississippi catfish.
“It’s broiled and seasoned the same way and it actually tastes better,” Mollendor said. “The catfish may not sound as appealing, but I can really guarantee it is awesome. I used to be an eel lover. No more. I love catfish. I’ve never ever ever in my life tried catfish until now, and I love it.”
Mollendor said several traditional elements remain, including the same short-grain rice more traditional Japanese restaurants use for their sushi. She said she sees Sugoi not as a break from tradition, but a modernization of it.
“I’m changing it, but I’m respecting it and still using the same quality,” Mollendor said.
Sarah Johnston, a member of Sugoi’s kitchen staff, said she had worked at the Hotel Chester as a catering waitress six years ago, back when it featured a bar and grill called Big Daddy’s. She said she enjoyed and wanted to return to the family business environment of the Hotel Chester, where Mollendor is the manager of both the restaurant and the hotel, and her husband, David, is the owner.
“I was treated well and paid well, and the work environment is very low-stress,” Johnston said. “Everyone works well together as a team. I moved back into town, and it was the first place I came. It was a great time, because they had just shut down for renovations and decided to reopen as Sugoi. When that happened, all of these amazing changes started to happen.”
Johnston said she was proud of Sugoi not only for its sustainable seafood initiative, but also for taking all fried food off the children’s menu to fight childhood obesity. Sugoi is also selective about which suppliers it gets its seafood from, not only for the sake of endangered species, but also for the health of its customers.
“That’s one of the reasons we don’t serve eel, because you just can’t be sure where it’s coming from,” Johnston said. I think it’s incredibly important to be responsible about not eating animals that are already having a hard time, that are already struggling to survive, to not use fish that will not already be cooked that may or may not have good farming processes.”
Johnston said she eats at Sugoi every day, and her favorite experimental dish on the menu is the Spam musubi. Spam and sushi are both popular in Hawaii, Johnston said, and combining the two makes more sense than one would expect.
“That’s something a lot of people have been afraid to try, but it’s fantastic,” Johnston said. “I love it. I had never tried Spam in my life, but I was really surprised.”
Johnston said Sugoi offers dishes not only from Japan, but also Korea, China and other areas of Asia. Nelle Cohen, wife of Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen, said while she enjoys Sugoi’s sushi, one of her two favorites is the coconut shrimp, served with rice and fresh cucumbers.
“The other dish is called dolsot bibimbap,” Cohen said. “It is a Korean dish served in a stone bowl: rice with vegetables and meat topped with a fried egg. I get it with chicken. Delicious!”
Mollendor said her son came up with the name for the restaurant. The Japanese term “Sugoi” can mean “incredible” or “wow,” among other exclamations, but the one she usually has in mind is “awesome,” because that evokes a breadth of selection stretching beyond sushi.
“I am focusing on introducing to customers the healthiest, the most delicious food from Pacific Rim countries,” Mollendor said. “I’d like for the local customers to stop by and try and see what we’re all about.”