Chef Engin Onural Takes Us Through His Sake and Soju

Written By: Sara Hyland The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge
Photographed By: Joseph Nardello The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge

When I first sat down to interview Chef Engin Onural of The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Would he be open to questions? Hospitable? Kind? He was all of these things and more. Even with all of his success at a young age compared to most of his peers, he continues to see his guests as VIPs. They are VIPs to him – each and every one. “I enjoy people, ” he admits, “and this is my home.” Chef Engin and I discussed the success of his sake lounge, as well as his methods for creating the ingenious dishes of his sushi bar. The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge

“Sake is a different world, ” says Chef Engin. The drink is solely served in a bottle at The Venue, fermented and made of polished rice. The higher grade of the sake depends on how much the rice is polished. Soju, on the other hand, is distilled, and like a lighter version of vodka – about 20-25 percent alcohol. It’s great on the rocks or in cocktails. I was fortunate enough to enjoy a delightfully smooth shot of soju courtesy of Chef Engin and The Venue, as well as a tasty Tokyo Mule – a soju cocktail with mint. The Venue doesn’t employ a bartender; the servers are responsible for making drinks and are trained to know what sakes and sojus go well with certain dishes. “They know what to offer, ” says Chef Engin. “They know how to listen.”

There are different types of sake, and Chef Engin pairs them accordingly with his dishes. He serves his favorite, junmai ginjo – with more earthy roots – and junmai daiginjo. Of course, he is well versed in all types of sake as a sake sommelier. He received the title from Japan some years ago and holds the first level of three degrees available. “Since sake is part of my passion, ” he says, “it has a positive impact on my business.” When it comes to looking for what type of sake to pair with your meal, he says it depends on “spicy versus sweet, ” and his staff is more than happy to help. When glancing over the drinks list at The Venue, sakes are the first listed, so it is plain to see what is the house favorite. The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge

What makes Chef Engin’s sake lounge stand out is the extensive list and their eagerness to introduce patrons to the world of sake. The list is constantly changing, evolving depending on his tastes. “Sometimes I’ll take in two cases and then it’s gone, ” he says, “and I’ll ask to bring in two more of a different one.” And even if a sake doesn’t sell, it doesn’t mean he will take it off the list. When introducing sake to newcomers, he encourages them to step out of the norm of a beer and hot sake. “A beer and hot sake is like the house wine here, ” he says. “It’s not special. But nine out of ten times when I take 15 minutes to explain everything from A to Z, they end up liking the drink I choose for them. I take the time because I know that I would appreciate it.” The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge

Chef Engin added, “People don’t experience sake every day of their lives. I want to give them the best sake for their experience.” As for his favorite pairing to recommend, he prefers their signature Venue roll – spicy tuna inside topped with salmon and seared with spicy aioli, teriyaki sauce, tobiko and micro greens – with a junmai ginjo called Treasure Ship or a junmai daiginjo called Pure Dusk. Because the flavor profile of the Venue roll is spicy, sweet and smoky, these sakes pair well with this particular roll. Even if patrons do not like his choice, he doesn’t take offense to it. “A lot of chefs would be offended by negative criticism – not me, ” he says. “We are open to criticism. I’ve taught my crew criticism is golden.”

Chef Engin could not be more grateful for the level of his success. He still works every day, always in the back kitchen. “I’m very fortunate because people pay me to do what I love. Food is everything. Life revolves around it anywhere you go. It’s important. Don’t just grab a slice of pizza and eat in your car. Spend time at the table, even alone. You’re feeding your soul.” The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge

The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge
73-111 El Paseo Ste 103
Palm Desert, CA 92260
760-346 1500 The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge
Get to Know the Man Behind the Bar: Chef Engin Onural of The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge