Here in South Florida, sushi spots are as familiar as burger bars and taco food trucks -- and a lot of them have the same myriad interpretations of the spider and California roll at varying price points.
First-time restaurateur Scott Kennedy hopes to stand out in the crowded sushi marketplace. He revamped Delray Beach's former Caliente Kitchen space to become Asian gastro-lounge Union, a place where you can find Chinese- and Thai-inspired comfort food and a stellar cocktail lineup.
Now, he is presenting "gourmet" sushi with Candyfish, a sushi den inside the restaurant proper that officially opens tomorrow, October 13 (although the menu has been available to patrons a few weeks now).
Union has a cavernous interior, with worn wood tables replaced by a chic cement-cast bar and high-top tables, and white-washed wood plank walls offset by chic black leather seating. Palm Beach County's largest pro-panel TV screen, 16 feet of screen that swallows the back wall, is often set to a default fish-tank screenscape, helping create the "lounge" part of the gastro-lounge concept, made complete with throbbing beats and pulsing LED lighting to attract the late-night crowd.
The gastronomes may be more interested in the menus, however, one for Union and one for Candyfish -- as well as one for the drinks and happy hour. Here, hipsters and snowbirds commingle, sipping three-for-one happy-hour cocktails and perusing a list of specialty Asian-oriented dishes.
Kennedy talked to Clean Plate Charlie about how he went from working as an accountant at a private equity firm to becoming co-owner of Delray Beach's first "gourmet sushi bar."
Clean Plate Charlie: So, you're originally from Canada, came to the U.S. on a grant playing golf for Florida Atlantic University, and have your bachelor's degree in accounting. What brought you to Florida?
Scott Kennedy: I was an accountant for a private equity firm traveling all over the world -- cities like Dubai and Johannesburg, South Africa. I was never home more than 20 nights out of the year. But it was a great experience, and I had the chance to [dine out] at a lot of high-end restaurants. It opened the door.
How did Union come about?
Union wouldn't be possible without my partner [and Union co-owner] Stephen Chin. We went to grad school together, and he's my best friend. We originally wanted to open a restaurant in 2006, a different concept we had prepared for Southern California with three locations. We ended up here in Florida, though, and decided to go for the Asian theme. For me, having spent a lot of time in New York City and Los Angeles, where there are a lot of Asian-fusion-type places, this concept seemed natural. When we first opened, we had a lot of Asian-style comfort foods -- steamed buns and noodle dishes.
You and your partner are both first-time restaurant owners?
Yes. When you get two people together who've never created a menu or opened a restaurant, some pretty amazing things can happen. I'd like to think we offer something out of the ordinary -- something you won't find anywhere else in Delray.
You've been open just under one year now. How has the menu changed since that time?
We recently brought on board a new executive chef, Daruth Bank, to rework the menu to offer more authentic Chinese and Thai dishes.
I think my favorite part of the Union experience is the awesome three-for-one happy hour...
Yes, it's what I'd like to think of as the best happy-hour deal on the avenue. We serve all top-shelf liquor, and that includes any three of our margaritas, mojitos, or martinis. And if you can't finish it, we give you a ticket to redeem the next time you come in.
In addition to revamping the Union menu, you also recently added a totally new concept -- a gourmet sushi bar -- inside Union. How did the Candyfish concept come about?
We're very proud of what we're doing here at Union, but even more so with Candyfish. We have a topnotch chef, a creative menu, and what I believe to be the best-quality sushi you can find in the area. We want to show you the difference between good sushi and amazing, five-star-quality sushi.
You have a few rolls pairing some unusual ingredients, as well as some pretty creative dishes. What are some of your favorite picks off the Candyfish menu?
Right now, our bestseller, by far, is the Uber Sexy Steve Roll, named after our sushi chef [formerly of Nobu Miami], "Steve" Zhang. It's a great representation of what Candyfish sushi is all about [salmon, tuna, masago, cucumber, and cilantro topped with spicy tuna, yellowtail, avocado, jalapeño, and house-made yuzu soy sauce].
Your rolls are priced fairly reasonably for the level of quality you're talking about [$11 to $25]. How is that?
Really excellent sushi doesn't have to be expensive, and it doesn't have to be mind-blowing. It's simply a matter of providing the best-quality fish and preparing it properly. That's why we have a former Nobu sushi chef.
What makes Candyfish sushi fish different than what you'll find in other establishments?
For one, Chef Zhang uses a special distributor to buy superior sushi-grade fish that's a cut above what you'll find at other places.
He also preps and cuts his own fish. How does that affect quality?
There's a reason the fish at high-end sushi bars like Katsuya [of California] and Nobu taste better. Lucky for us, Zhang knows the best methods for how to cut, prep, and store each cut of fish properly. [Zhang] rewraps our fish every two hours and stores it at a very precise 33-34 degrees -- just a touch above freezing. [Zhang explains that different fish produce natural "juices" at different rates, and it's important to keep each cut of fish wrapped to avoid a "fishy" taste or smell.]
How did you score such a high-profile sushi chef?
Luck. Because Union was already serving our standard menu, we wanted to take our time finding the right person to help us create the Candyfish concept, and Zhang came along eight months after we started advertising for the position. He was interested in leaving Nobu and shaping a menu with us. It also helped that he has family north of Palm Beach County, and the trip back and forth from South Beach was getting to him.
You've decided to open the first Candyfish sushi bar inside Union. Any plans to expand?
Our intention is to expand Candyfish to include several more 1,500- to 1,800-square-foot locations across Broward and Palm Beach County. Right now, we're taking it one step at a time and using this as an opportunity to perfect the concept.