Jesse Ito has known some of his regulars his entire life. This 28-year-old sushi chef essentially grew up at Fuji, the Japanese restaurant his parents owned in the South Jersey suburbs: When his parents couldn’t find a babysitter, they brought him along. He started working there as a dishwasher and prep cook at 14 and, three years later, moved behind the sushi bar to learn from his father Masaharu, a respected chef. The diners who pulled up stools every week watched him grow up.
Now they’re watching him change the way Philadelphia does sushi from the sleek, eight-seat counter in the back of his acclaimed new restaurant, Royal Sushi & Izakaya. The restaurant is a hip and cozy gastropub in Queen Village, marked only by a red lantern hanging outside. In a city that never had a proper traditional omakase option, Ito has created one filled with rare and diverse selections of wild-caught fish flown in fresh from Japan. He’s introducing diners to the likes of scorpionfish and Japanese grouper — which later appeared on the menus of other restaurants in the city. “We’re lifting the whole sushi scene in Philadelphia,” he says.
Locals had waited years for Royal Sushi & Izakaya to arrive. In 2011, restaurateurs David Frank and Stephen Simons announced their intentions to add a Japanese gastropub to their collection of low-key bars across the city. It would have been Philadelphia’s first restaurant serving ramen, but instead it languished without the right opening chef.
Then one night about three and a half years ago, Ito was manning the sushi bar at Fuji when one of his regulars asked if he wanted to hang out in the city sometime. Ito only knew that regular as “Dave,” but in fact it was David Frank. Over a late-night meal at Vernick Food & Drink, Frank asked if Jesse had ever thought about opening his own restaurant.
In fact, Ito had been waiting for the opportunity. Even in his mid-twenties he knew he didn’t want to take Fuji over from his father since, as he says, “I’m a big believer in not trying to fill shoes you can’t fill.” But he had entertained offers. He had earned his own sterling reputation apprenticing under his demanding father, learning knife skills and even perfecting his posture by holding an egg under his armpit while slicing fish to ensure his arm wasn’t too close or too far from his side. As his general manager Cristina Tessaro wrote in his nomination, Ito’s skilled knifework made dining at his sushi bar “an almost show-like experience.”
The new partners began to sketch out plans. Though Philadelphia had gone on to have its ramen boom along with a rush of contemporary Japanese food, they perceived a couple of gaps. There wasn’t a traditional izakaya serving Japanese comfort food and good drinks late into the night — and there wasn’t a high-end omakase sushi bar offering a set menu exploring the bounty of Japan’s sea. “We were trying to fill two voids in the market in one place,” Ito says.
Ito’s plans for the sushi bar took an ambitious leap as it inched closer to opening. The young chef recognized the inefficiencies of sushi restaurants: diners might have to wait an hour or more for their fish when a sushi bar serves an entire restaurant; chefs have had to throw away some of their high-end fish if it was so obscure that no one ordered it.
Ultimately, Ito decided, a sushi bar needs to have rules. It needs to serve a small number of customers a night with reservations required for the omakase. And even just offering omakase — a chef’s choice set menu — gave Ito necessary control over what people eat. “You realize it has to be this way just to make it financially viable to get that super expensive fish,” he says. Ito also lists the price of every piece of fish on the menu to help Philly diners understand the value of these rarities.
But the design of Ito’s sushi bar is also a revelation in itself. Upon entering Royal Sushi & Izakaya, you must pass through the happening izakaya and through a curtain into a quiet back room outfitted simply with the eight-seat bar and its low counter that allows diners to watch Ito’s every move with a knife or a blowtorch. It feels exclusive, like you’ve been let in on a secret, a feeling that’s catnip to people who love finding new restaurants. With all this in place, Ito is able to order a variety of those insanely expensive fish — and sell them.
Ito and his father are on even footing now as partners at Royal Sushi & Izakaya. Last year, Masaharu and his ex-wife and partner Yeonghui Ito sold Fuji to one of their sushi chefs. Yeonghui retired, but Masaharu leads in the izakaya’s kitchen. No longer an apprentice, Ito feels the weight of the financial responsibility he carries for his partners and his parents — not to mention his own ambitions. He’s just getting started, but he’s determined to keep excelling. “I grew up kind of an underdog,” he says. “My father was a celebrated chef, but we were in South Jersey and kind of hidden. It lit a fire under me. I just wanted to make the best sushi bar ever.”