Flavors: Treasures Inspired from the Land of the Rising Sun at Izakaya Three Fish
Ensconced in the back of the old Bozeman Hotel is Izakaya Three Fish, the sushi restaurant owned by Chef Paul Naugle, this year’s James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Best Chef: Mountain. There is no sign to the restaurant that has two seatings from Thursday to Sunday nights. At 5:30 and 8:00 p.m. eight people at each time receive the honor of being served an omakase, chef’s choice, style meal. The counter dining allows for watching Chef Paul craft his sushi and sashimi, and mixologist Maddi Honnold assemble her cocktails.
Izakaya Three Fish refers to Paul Naugle as fish number one while Honnold is the second fish. In September, the team lost Travis Lang who helped open the restaurant in 2018. Earlier during the COVID pandemic, business partner Lance DeSilva who had worked with Naugle at the Montana Fish Company parted ways.
These days instead of 10 people per seating, Naugle and Honnold take only eight diners. The multi course menu serves about a dozen different offerings of food. With two people per seating less, Naugle shares, “That’s a pretty big hand full for one sushi chef to take care of prep and fish breakdown.”
When Izakaya Three Fish opened, Naugle had a cook to order menu, he says, “When I wrote the menu I would have rolls, and I would also do some exotic types of bites and textures, but no one would order that stuff, and I was just making all the same rolls.” “We couldn’t keep up with the way the tickets would come in.”
These days, “We order the fish with things in mind, so then, what really happens is the day I get the fish is really when the menu starts coming together because I will have things in my mind. Not until I see the fish do I start working with it, when I can really figure out what I’m going to do.”
Fresh fish is shipped in from all over the world. For Naugle, the eating of good quality fish is ethereal. As he slices up a filet of blue fin tuna, he speaks of his experience tasting sushi made by his teacher Tamotsu Suzuki. “I’m just thinking about the raw fish I tried for the first time and that feeling it put me in. It still does.” This is what he wants to share with his diners.
Before Honnold started working with Naugle she ate his food at Montana Fish Company when he operated a four-seater sushi bar in the back of the store. Once friends introduced her to his sushi she confesses, “It’s almost like an addiction in some ways.” “I could taste the emotion and the love that he was putting into the food which totally changed the way that I thought and felt about food and what food could do for people.”
Naugle’s sushi journey began in 2003 when he started working for Suzuki. Naugle and some friends decided they wanted to make the move from where he was living in Tempe, Arizona to a place where they could snowboard. He worked for a short time at Heavenly Valley to end up at Kirkwood Mountain Ski Resort as a housekeeper. Upon returning to South Lake Tahoe, he ate at the Naked Fish and became so enamored with Suzuki’s food, he finally built up enough courage to ask for a job.
Over the years, Naugle traveled back and forth between South Tahoe, Port Townsend and Bozeman. He questioned why he was staying away when “There’s more rivers and mountains here and wide-open spaces.” While snowboarding was one of Naugle’s favorite past times, he became even more passionate about fly fishing.
Before opening up Izakaya Three Fish and during COVID, Naugle and Honnold did pop up dinners. Naugle is humble in his demeanor with his dress reflecting more of his outdoor pursuits. He wears a stocking cap with locks of his curly hair peeking through, and a long sleeve forest green t-shirt under his black apron. On the surface, one could believe he was not serious about his craft.
On this night, the seasoned rice ball batons Naugle shapes are identical, appearing as though he had counted each rice kernel. He shares how Suzuki cut shapes out of newspaper as a pattern for the size and shape the sushi rice and fish had to be. “I actually, truth be told, I never even got there with him.” This was Naugle’s way of saying he worked diligently to successfully craft and cut the correct sushi shapes.
Twenty years later, he has mastered his sushi making and the James Beard Foundation has validated his talents two years in a row, voting him as a semifinalist for Best Chef: Mountain for Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah.
Maddi Honnold moved to Bozeman to attend MSUB. Starting out as a cell biology and neuroscience she soon realized she was on the wrong path and quickly changed her major to crop production and plant science. After working at three farms near Bozeman and one in Minnesota, she started growing microgreens for Naugle’s pop up dinners.
These days she makes her spirited drinks with foraged treasures and canning local bounty such as sour cherries. Her concoctions include Shiso Smash – Botanist Gin, Lime, Honey, Plum, Bitters, Soda and Kinome Martini – Nikka Coffey Gin, Noilly Prat Extra Dry Vermouth, Baby Sansho Leaf. She makes me a Shiso Smash – Botanist Gin, Shiso, Cucumber, Lime, Honey, Soda. The cocktail refreshes me with cooling essences from cucumber and peppery notes with flavors of basil and mint from the shiso.
On this Thursday night the culinary journey begins with Eggplant Roasted with Sweet Miso Glaze followed with Spinach with Dungeness Crab and Sesame Paste. Hirame Flounder Nigiri leads to Miso Black Cod, Shimaaji Striped Bass, Ninigret Nectar Oysters, Spanish Blue Fin Tuna and Unago. Although I am pretty full the Sous Vide Waygu brings an irresistible savoriness and umami. The next offering of Hot Miso Soup with Dungeness Crab which brings the perfect ending to the savory courses. Coffee Ice Cream made for this night’s sweet ending.
Izakaya Three Fish is a place of discovery for meeting new people to dine with and for tasting and experiencing new flavors and sensations.