Head chef Chris Wolf, left, general manager Brittney O’Brien, cook Alex Cho and chef/owner Engin Onural are backed by a wall of fine whiskeys at Sandfish Sushi and Whiskey in the Melrose District (photo by Darryl Webb, special for North Central News).

Don’t call it “fusion” – Chef/Owner Engin Onural hates the term – but his Sandfish Sushi and Whiskey, with its subdued décor evoking shells, waves and sea-washed woods, blends two very different, yet complementary regions: Scandinavian and Japanese.

“They have similar cultures,” he said. “They’re both very clean-cut, minimalist, uncluttered.”

While born in the United States, Onural grew up in Turkey. He began cooking, learning from his mother. “I decided on this journey when I was 10,” he said. “That’s 30 years now.” He expanded his culinary education after getting a business degree, an education that included extensive travel and jobs in a variety of Southern California hotels and restaurants.

At one point, Onural decided to learn sushi-making, and studied under chef Andy Matsuda at the Sushi Chef Institute in Torrance, California. He went on to participate in the 2017 World Sushi Cup, where he came in 27th. “I want to go back in 2024, just for fun,” he said.

He brings influences from those culinary journeys – especially in Scandinavia and Japan – to his restaurant’s décor and menu, collaborating with Head Chef Chris Wolf.

That combination – Onural grimaces at the term “fusion” – is evident in the restaurant’s spare design. The building has been stripped back to its bones, with sand-blasted and stained original roof rafters, clean-lined furnishings, and a long counter backed by a wall of whiskeys, including what Onural believes is the Valley’s largest assortment of limited-availability Japanese labels.

“We carry a lot of allocated Japanese whiskey,” Onural said. “I think our idea, our concept, our collection is unique in the Valley.”

While many traditional whiskey drinkers take their drinks neat, or with a splash of water, cocktail menus these days have become playgrounds for “mixologists” (another trendy word Onural eschews), who concoct amalgams of spirits, seasonings, juices, fruit, pickles – you name it – to tempt imbibers.

Sandfish customers enjoy the rare whiskeys as well as more exotic creations blended by bar manager, Josh Martinez. “He has very good knowledge,” Onural said. “I have a hard time following him.”

Sandfish Sushi and Whiskey’s Spicy tuna tostada is a customer favorite (photo by Darryl Webb, special for North Central News).

Martinez and other Sandfish staff can guide guests who want to experiment with a sushi/whiskey pairing, Onural said, offering an example: the spicy tuna tostada with Nikka Whisky from the Barrell, a spicy whisky (they leave off the “e”) that stands up to the pronounced flavors of the appetizer.

Those tostadas are his customers’ favorite, Onural said. “We’ve probably made millions of those already.” They’re a gyoza (Japanese dumpling) wrap that’s fried flat, like a crispy a little tortilla, then topped with spicy aioli, teriyaki sauce and micro greens.

Another menu standout is the octopus. Wolf cooks it in oil and its own juice, confit-style, until tender, then chars it on a grill and serves it with edamame hummus, bubu arare (rice pearls), nori paste and micro greens. The result is incredibly tender, with a crusty, smoky exterior.

The menu offers traditional sushi, sashimi and a variety of rolls, but the signature dishes are the standouts.

“Yes, we do traditional sushi, but the way we do our food is really unique to us,” Onural said. “It is hard to explain.”

Some examples: Desserts including matcha creampuffs with chocolate and pistachio; and a coconut panna cotta with blood orange jell, coconut streusel, mango coulis and hibiscus powder; the Sandfish roll, with imitation crab, spicy tuna, avocado, spicy aioli, teriyaki sauce, green onions, micro greens and lightly fried potato threads (“That potato/truffle combination has a lot of umami behind it,” said Wolf.); and the Sandfish scallop signature dish, which is raw scallops tossed with yuzu vinaigrette, lime and shallot, topped with walnuts and sea beans to add some crunch and saltiness.

“We also offer an omakase, with nine courses, and our matched whiskey flights are in the works,” said General Manager Brittney O’Brien.

On this visit, the Sandfish team were celebrating their one-year anniversary in the Melrose location. The restaurant is Onural’s second with the Sandfish name. His first opened in Palm Springs in 2018.

“In late 2018 I wanted to have a second Sandfish,” Onural said. “I looked around to see if I wanted to go the L.A. route or the Phoenix route.” He chose Phoenix because, “I really liked the people in Phoenix. The people here are comfortable and real.”

He chose the Melrose neighborhood for its laid-back vibe.

“I really like this district,” he said. “I think it has huge potential. The people are very supportive.”

That merges perfectly with Onural’s ambitions for his restaurant, another happy “fusion.”

“When you walk into Sandfish, you feel warm, welcome,” he said. “It’s a place you just want to be – where you come to eat good food, not to be seen. We have a beautiful patio in the back with a nice fireplace. And we’re dog friendly.

“I would love people to come visit us and give us a shot.”

Sandfish Sushi and Whiskey, at 4232 N. 7th Ave., is open from 4:30 to 10 p.m., Sunday to Thursday, and 4:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday. For information, call 602-675-4020 or visit www.sandfishsushiwhiskey.com.


  • Marjorie Rice

    Marjorie Rice is an award-winning journalist, newspaper food editor, travel editor and cookbook editor with more than three decades' experience writing about the culinary industry.

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