A Bala Cynwyd-Based Chef Runs Philadelphia’s Most Exclusive Omakase

Photo credit SimpleVenue courtesy Kory Aversa PR

Chef Mitsutaka Harada doesn’t have the background you’d expect to run Philadelphia’s most exclusive omakase, but Sushi Suite more than lives up to the hype.

Located inside the already distinguished sushi bar Izakaya in Fishtown, Sushi Suite takes guests on a culinary adventure through traditional Japanese cuisine and its fusion with western flavors. Upon arrival at the more energetic and prominent Izakaya, guests are directed through the restaurant to a back room, a speakeasy that exudes a certain exclusivity as if the $185 price tag didn’t radiate enough gravitas.

Beneath soft lighting, seated with fellow guests eagerly anticipating the unique meal to come, you’re introduced to Chef Mitsutaka Harada, the genius behind Sushi Suite’s omakase experience. Behind his eyes is a shimmer that would lead you to believe food is in his blood, and his arrival here was predicated by a childhood spent around fine restaurants and years dedicated to his craft at culinary school. But Chef Harada has a story that makes his presence here all the more surprising, and none the less deserved.

Sushi Suie interior
The interior of Fishtown’s Sushi Suite. Photo credit Cody Aldrich

A Temple University graduate as a communications and science major, Harada hurried to find a career after receiving his degree in 2005. So soon after 9/11, it was difficult for immigrants to retain green cards; thus Harada spent his initial years out of college toiling away in Verizon’s marketing department.

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“At that time, it was so difficult to get a working visa,” Harada recalls. “As an international student I applied for a visa but couldn’t get it.”

Harada waited months for his working visa as a student and was denied. 

No longer a student, and his stay in America no longer guaranteed, Harada went to eat at Morimoto, where head chef Masaharu Morimoto has served some of Philadelphia’s top sushi for decades. So far from his homeland, he might have found that the fine sushi restaurant felt somewhat closer to home.

 

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“I was sitting at the sushi counter and I was talking to the chef, and I met the head chef over there,” Harada remembers. “He was interested in me…because I had a bit of experience working [in restaurants] in Japan.”

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Before emigrating to the United States, Harada had spent his teenage years working in Chinese restaurants and conveyor belt sushi joints around the Tokyo metro area, eateries common in Japan, but whose food makes American imitations seem feeble by comparison.

“If I [could] become a chef, I could find a different way to apply for a working visa,” Harada says.

Hired soon after, Harada began making his way up the ranks at Morimoto. He was constantly shocked to learn about American interpretations of his culture’s food, especially the Philadelphia cream cheese roll.

“Come on, this is not sushi!” Harada remembers exclaiming.

Soon, Harada came to appreciate how Chef Morimoto would use western flavors to bring a different life to Japanese cuisine.

@mainlinetoday Sushi Suite in Fishtown is Philadelphia’s most exclusive omakase. Despite the $185 price point, the experience is worth every penny! #sushi #foodie #fyp #fypシ ♬ Hanging Lanterns – Kalaido
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“When I saw what [Chef] Morimoto was doing, my eyes were opened a little bit,” Harada notes. “‘Wow, they’re using this kind of sauce, they’re doing this kind of presentation. It’s nice.’”

For years, Harada would simply watch the more experienced, more talented chefs at Morimoto, observing the techniques they used to craft an elegant dining experience for their patrons and immerse them in a unique culinary experience.

After years of hard work, discipline and online study, Harada became a prominent enough figure that he began attracting attention around the Philadelphia food scene. By 2014, Harada was hired to become the new head sushi chef at Zama, located on Rittenhouse Square, and a direct competitor to Morimoto.

Under Chef Zama, a.k.a. Hiroyuki “Zama” Tanaka, Harada continued his culinary education.

“Still I learned from him, like how to take care of the fish and his sauces,” Harada says. “So those kinds of old experiences [really] helped me.”

Chef Harada's Mikan Madai, glazed in sauce.
Chef Harada’s Mikan Madai, glazed in sauce.

By then Chef Harada was a staple sushi chef in the Philadelphia food scene and living comfortably in Bala Cynwyd with his family.

From Zama, Harada moved to Sushi Hatsu BYOB in Ambler and also spent brief stints at places like Ginza, Makiman, Mizu Sushi and others. Then, in perhaps the most unlikely of circumstances, the business behind Fishtown’s Sushi Suite (and several other Sushi Suites across the United States), a New York-based conglomerate called SimpleVenue, noticed his résumé on Indeed. Harada’s nearly two decades of hard work were to pay off in a remarkable fashion.

“All of our sushi chefs at Sushi Suite came from other high-end omakase restaurants and apprenticed under master sushi chefs that were given this same chance at some point in their career to run their own counter,” says SimpleVenue founder Michael Sinensky. “Chef Mitsutaka Harada learned under Chef Morimoto, but now it’s his turn to shine.”

After spending so much time observing Chefs Morimoto and Zama and understanding their preparations and their sauces, Chef Harada was ready to innovate at the highest level.

Like any chef, he loves to eat and try new recipes. Chef Harada imagines he’d get yelled at if he tried to replicate a French or Italian sauce in a western restaurant, but by fusing French or Italian or any other cuisine’s flavors with those from Japan, Harada aims to create something special and entirely unique. After all, why pay $185 for something you’ve experienced before?

Chef Harada blowtorches nigiri.
Chef Harada blowtorches nigiri.

“If I only made traditional [recipes] then perhaps people would feel a little bit bored,” Harada says.

Though he serves different fish and flavors every night at Sushi Suite, the breadth of Harada’s skills are immediately apparent. One dish may be an A5 Miyazaki with foie gras truffle nigiri, followed by more traditional Japanese Amberjack nigiri. The next dish could be made with a smoke infuser gun that spreads a warm barbecue smell and a haze around the establishment, or you could be served spotted prawn cooked under a blowtorch.

Smoked Sawara
Sawara cooked using a smoke infuser.

Chef Harada’s omakase experience is entirely unique each night. The upscale intimate dining room will have guests relaxed and comfortable for all 17 courses as Chef Harada, in delicate detail, describes each dish placed in front of them for the 90-minute serving.

Open for 17 different seatings per week (three per evening Tuesday through Thursday and four per evening Friday and Saturday), with capacity for only eight diners, reservations at Sushi Suite are difficult to come by but worth every penny.

Related: Nipotina Is a Sandwich Hotspot by a Main Line Mother in Philly

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