chef nick bognar works at the nippon tei sushi bar photo by greg rannells

Nippon Tei's Nick Bognar is changing what St. Louis expects from sushi

Nick Bognar changed the St. Louis dining landscape last year when he came back to helm his mother Anne Bognar’s restaurant, Nippon Tei in Ballwin. His combination of classic Japanese techniques and flights of culinary fancy have changed what we dare to expect from sushi. 

Growing up at Nippon Tei, Bognar learned to appreciate tradition and the value of repeatedly doing things just so. But eventually, his natural creative bent wasn’t satisfied, so he hit the road, doing stints in some top-tier kitchens around the country.

The year or so he spent at Uchiko in Austin, Texas, was particularly enlightening for the up-and-coming chef. “My standards completely changed after Uchiko,” Bognar said. “I learned that you don’t just have to make a dish and sell it. You can throw it out and start again – you can grind on it a while.”

When he took over Nippon Tei, Bognar envisioned a restaurant where he could combine superior ingredients, time-honored preparations and his penchant for pushing boundaries. He’s brought new life to the family business, satisfying traditionalists and progressive foodie types in equal measure.

Diners at Nippon Tei can indulge in classically inspired dishes like itoyoridai, a snapper-type fish hung and aged for four days then served sashimi-style. Like anything he considers a culinary success, Bognar called the dish “kick-ass.”

nippon tei chef nick bognar // photo by greg rannells

Conversely, “I think I do some stuff that’s barely Japanese,” Bognar said. Take his crudo-like Isaan Hamachi. The fatty fish is prepped with Japanese techniques, but served with a sauce full of northern Thai flavors like palm sugar, kaffir lime, coconut and peanut – definitely not a dish for the Japanese purist.

The more challenging dishes aren’t always best-sellers, Bognar said, but they push him and the cooks on the line to greater heights. He started his intimate omakase (chef’s choice) dinner series for the same reason, collaborating with local chefs like Chris Bork (co-owner of the now-closed Vista) and out-of-town talent like Yoni Lang (one of Bognar’s mentors from Uchiko). Events have ranged from 13 to 20 courses and typically feature a mix of nigiri plates and more composed dishes, like a ceviche-style sea bream sashimi with leche de tigre topped with trout roe and radish.

“We’ve created our own kind of place,” Bognar said. It’s not only a sushi bar or even a Japanese restaurant. It’s probably safer just to refer to it as kick-ass.

Matt Sorrell is a staff writer at Sauce Magazine.