Montclair Was Mourning a Beloved Sushi Spot. Then a Miracle Happened.

The lost chef from Montclair's shuttered Daikichi—and his customers—are elated about his new home in an unlikely place: an Italian-influenced bistro.

Sushi sensei Kenny Mar with De Novo Montclair owner Demetri Malki

Sushi sensei Kenny Mar with De Novo Montclair owner Demetri Malki. Photo: Courtesy of De Novo European Pub Montclair

Among many charms, Montclair is known for its delicious and diverse dining scene—not for seemingly supernatural events. But John Zagami, a Montclair foodie, describes what happened in his hometown earlier this winter as a miracle.

The unlikely story that unfolded centers around a beloved sushi chef, Kenny Mar. Since 2003, Hong Kong-born Mar had been the top sushi chef at Montclair’s beloved Daikichi, opened by Aki Kaneda in 1989. Mar’s creativity and skill “were the gold standard,” says Zagami. “Daikichi was the go-to sushi place for my wife and me and a lot of people we know. Kenny’s rolls were the best, and his fish was the freshest,” he says. “My grandfather was a fisherman in Italy and then a seafood retailer in Brooklyn, and I know what ultra-fresh fish is like. And that was what you got, consistently, from Kenny.”

And then suddenly, with only three days’ notice, Daikichi shuttered in mid-September of last year. Owner Aki had suffered a serious accident, and moved back to Tokyo for treatment along with his wife, Mutsumi, and son, Benji. Their Montclair/Cedar Grove house ended up being sold to Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

As for Kenny, he packed his knives and disappeared. Daikichi’s closure was “a shock,” reports Zagami. “Everyone was talking about it. We started going to other sushi places, and they didn’t compare.”

But then something wondrous began to take shape. Enter: Demetri Malki. He’s the owner of De Novo European Pub, which he describes as “a seasonal Italian-influenced bistro,” in Montclair and Edgewater. “It was hard to accept Daikichi’s closing,” Malki recalls. “Montclair was in mourning.”

Fate soon intervened further. “I was catching up with my friend who owns a sushi bar in Cranford,” Malki says. “I told him that no one in Montclair knew where Kenny was. And he told me that Kenny had just asked him if he’d needed a new sushi chef.” (The Cranford chef hadn’t.)

At that moment, Malki knew he had to act. “I managed to get ahold of Kenny,” he says. “I told him I’d build him a sushi bar right in De Novo Montclair. He almost couldn’t believe it.” As word got around town, “my De Novo customers were overjoyed,” Malki says. “A lot of them had been Daikichi regulars too…and now Kenny was coming back.”

Just three months later, in December, the new sushi bar inside De Novo was ready, with Kenny and his sous-chef, Mauricio, behind the bar donning their hachimaki headbands. “At first we had a handful of sushi items on the menu,” says Malki, “with a lot more available for takeout. Now we have a dozen sushi appetizers and two dozen rolls, like Kenny’s best-selling sushi sandwich.” (It combines red and white tuna, avocado, masago caviar, panko crunch and spicy mayo, and resembles a sandwich cut on the diagonal.) “We brought in sake and Japanese whiskey and beer,” he adds. You can eat an entirely Japanese meal at De Novo, or order sushi as an appetizer for your black fettuccine arrabbiata, lamb ossobuco or filet mignon.”

“Everyone’s thrilled,” Malki says. “Daikichi’s old customers, De Novo customers, people who were regulars at both—not to mention new diners coming in for an Asian-European meal.” He pauses. “Did I just say people are thrilled?” he muses. “No. People are ecstatic.”

Perhaps no one is happier about Kenny’s Montclair return than the chef himself. “I’m a very happy sensei, because my Montclair customers really love my sushi,” he says. “De Novo is an excellent place, so friendly and relaxed. I am back home.”

And that, foodie friends, is the sushi miracle of Montclair.

De Novo European Pub, 275 Belleville Avenue, Upper Montclair; 973-893-5008
1257 River Road, Edgewater, 201-496-6161

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