Rollin’ into downtown

Sustainable sushi spot relocates to city center

Aonami chef/owner Jimmy Lee.

Aonami chef/owner Jimmy Lee.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Aonami Sustainable Sushi
128 W. Second St.
Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Closed daily 2:30-4:30 p.m. and all day Sunday.

On a recent weekday afternoon at Aonami Sustainable Sushi’s new downtown location, it was clear that the owner, Jimmy Lee, knows many of his patrons personally. His interview with the CN&R was repeatedly interrupted as customers stopped to say hello or goodbye; one even kissed him on the top of the head.

“That’s the thing about a sushi bar—you really get to know your customers,” Lee said. “I love the interaction between the sushi chefs and the guests. There’s this instant gratification when the guests are smiling and thanking us.”

Born in Thailand as the oldest of seven children, Lee grew up cooking soups, stir fries and barbecue dishes for his siblings. In 2008, he started making sushi in Sacramento, first for Susumu Japanese Steakhouse and later for Mikuni Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar. They were life-changing experiences. Previously, he’d been working toward a master’s degree in counseling from Sacramento State.

“I just fell in love with it,” he said. “I dropped out of school and decided to become the best sushi chef I could be.”

For Lee, that included being environmentally responsible. After reading reports about bluefin tuna selling for six figures in Japan, he researched further and learned that “the bluefin tuna population had become 5 percent of its original stock—almost extinct by any standard, right? So I started learning about sustainable sushi,” he said.

He began communicating with Monterey Bay Aquarium, which releases a guide to help consumers and businesses make ocean-friendly seafood choices. His eyes were opened to the detrimental effects of overfishing and the negative consequences of some fish farming—i.e., the spread of disease among fish populations, food chain disruption, water contamination and other environmental damages.

He decided to take the next leap and become a restaurateur in Chico, where he’d gone to school in the early 2000s. When Aonami opened on Nord Avenue in May 2012, it was one of 10 sustainable sushi restaurants in the country, Lee said.

Now there are many more as the movement gains popularity and more consumers become aware of what they are eating. Still, some sushi lovers have been put off because Aonami does not offer some standards such as bluefin tuna and unagi, a type of freshwater eel that has been decimated by overfishing.

“That’s OK if people aren’t into trying anything new and they just want to stick with what they’re used to,” Lee said. “On the other side, I know people who have stopped eating all sushi because they have learned about what’s happening to our oceans.”

Lee says many longtime customers have followed the restaurant to its new location on Second Street, and there are plenty of new ones thanks to the heavier foot traffic downtown. Its new spot is in the narrow, hallway-like space formerly occupied by Monks Wine Lounge and Bistro. Inside, the décor mixes modern and rustic elements, such as the Japanese-style paper lanterns hanging over the tables and an original red brick wall. Overall, it looks like a restaurant you’d find in some affluent neighborhood in the Bay Area, serving as a reminder that downtown Chico is gradually changing into something sleeker.

Just as before, Aonami’s menu has a variety of vegan options, a large selection of sake and Asian beers, and both raw and cooked sushi. It also has a local theme: All of the raw rolls are named after streets in Chico such as Ivy (kampachi, cucumber and shisho); Skyway (spicy albacore with cucumber); and Vallombrosa (kampachi, mango and avocado).

Of course, the menu pledges “to only use sustainably sourced seafood, whether it is farmed or wild caught.” Lee makes sure of that by choosing vendors carefully and asking questions, he said.

“One of my distributors always calls me up and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got a new fish for you.’ I always ask, ‘Is it sustainable?’”