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A la Carte: For the love of fish

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Paul Naugle, chef and owner of Izakaya Three Fish, is better known as "Sushi Paul" to patrons. PHOTO BY RACHEL HERGETT

By Rachel Hergett EBS COLUMNIST

I found the chef/owner of Izakaya Three Fish in his restaurant on Thursday afternoon, tucked behind a huge frosted glass door in the midst of the bars and restaurants on the main floor of the Old Bozeman hotel. There’s a beauty in subtlety for Paul Naugle, who most people just call “Sushi Paul.” He’s drawn to sushi because of the simplicity. Rice, fish and a little bit of salt can create magic on the palate. 

“Sushi makes you feel something…” he said. “I’ve seen more people take a bite of sushi and close their eyes and enjoy it than I have with any other type of food.”

Paul recalls his first visit to The Naked Fish in Lake Tahoe, where he worked under Chef Tamotsu Suzuki, with a kind of wonder. Suzuki had developed a huge Japanese following who would fill up the bar on Thursdays, when the chef offered his friends and customers dishes that weren’t on the menu. Paul got a taste when he became a weekly regular.

“I’d never experienced anything like that before that,” he said.

I understand when Paul tells me how he had eaten sushi before, but Suzuki made it entirely new. I felt a similar wonder the first time Paul served me. Sitting at the Montana Fish Co. sushi bar, which he helped expand from four to 10 seats, I told him I grew up eating Japanese food with my grandmother, Keiko, and was not afraid to try new foods. He served me a fish skeleton — the remains of a small mackerel after its filets became a variety of complementary nigiri, the type of sushi with fish pressed on top of tiny loaves of rice. Usually, I’ve found, it’s best to trust the chef. 

But people don’t. At Fish Co., Paul would spend extra time crafting a sushi case with unique ingredients only to have customers ordering tuna and salmon off the menu. And when he said he was going to stop offering the rolls people know and love, one friend told him it would be the death of his restaurant. It wasn’t.

“Sushi Paul” works on a fish at Izakaya Three Fish on Thursday, Feb. 2. PHOTO BY RACHEL HERGETT

There is no menu offered at Izakaya, with all seatings (booked through text at 406-219-1259) served a chef’s choice “omakase” meal that allows for change with the seasons—or with delays in shipping from vendors on the coasts or around the world. Every day starts as a mystery for Paul, who has menu ideas based off what he has ordered from suppliers but doesn’t know which will speak to him as a chef when he receives the ingredients. 

The restaurant may offer more warmer dishes in the winter, adding pork cutlets (tonkatsu) or savory custards (chawanmushi) to his tasting menu. But Paul doesn’t like to be tied to any rules, wiping the number of courses he usually offers in the menu off the website, Maybe he’s best without rules. Sushi Paul was nominated for a James Beard Award for the second year in a row, an honor he found out well after the fact because he was busy fishing in Belize (a favorite pastime). 

Perhaps he loves fish because he’s a pisces, Paul jokes. Or maybe it’s because of his mother’s love for shellfish. Or his uncle Stevie’s influence. Paul, who grew up in Pennsylvania, remembers trips to the Chesapeake with Stevie, a man dialed into the commercial fishing scene. Stevie liked to “collect” types of fish. Paul rattles off their names, along with those he is slicing into strips so thin you can see through them as he talks — flounder, speckled trout, shima aji, kinmidai. He doesn’t have a favorite.

“I like the meal as a whole more than anything,” he said. 

Sushi Paul said he is happier than he has ever been, manning his own sushi bar alongside girlfriend and mixologist, Maddi Honnold, and Ben Bugnon, who makes the hot foods. If he could change anything right now, it would be to find the right team of people to open Izakaya more than four nights a week. He has high hopes for a new hire who starts next week. 

“I love sharing in food,” he said.

Rachel Hergett is a foodie and cook from Montana. She is arts editor emeritus at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and has written for publications such as Food Network Magazine and Montana Quarterly. Rachel is also the host of the Magic Monday Show on KGLT-FM and teaches at Montana State University. 

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