There are collectors....and then there are collectors. The latter are the people who take the art/act of collecting 'something' to greater lengths than is normal. Like a delightful fellow I met today named David SK Lee, a Chinese-American businessman who collects so many diverse things obsessively that I'm stunned and intrigued by him. He turned collecting exotic watches into a huge business, the largest independent seller of expensive watches in the nation, a Disneyland of a watch store. He loves Ferrari motor cars, so he has collected a handful of the rarest, most expensive such vehicles in the world, a complete Ferrari Supercar collection, including a a perfect 1967 330 GTS convertible, a 275 GTB short nose 6c, an outrageously rare, stunning 288 GTO Evoluzione, one of only five in the world and one of only 2 with 650 HP, and an Enzo. Five of the rarest have been invited to exhibit at Quail Lodge at the Pebble Beach car event in August, a great honor. Once a month he hosts a Ferrari and car collector event at the Rose Bowl, and some 400 car owners usually attend.
He collects rare guitars. He (or his wife, Katherine, actually) collects much-desired Hermes Birkin handbags; they have over a dozen (including the incredibly rare Himalayan one); he collects those incredible Ducati Italian motorcycles, with one of only four Ducati/Tudor's in the world. And because he loves rare vintage wines, he collects and drinks them from his 3,000 bottle wine cellar. Then he created one of the best sushi restaurants in California to match exotic Japanese seafood with these boutique wines and equally-rare sakes. I sipped a sake called "Fourteen Generations" which sells for $1,000 a bottle if it were available...but it's really not, only to him.
In the several decades that sushi became popular in the U.S., starting in the mid-sixties, I have eaten in Japanese sushi restaurants all over the world. Yes, even in Japan, although the best sushi has actually been experienced in New York and L.A. You may remember that I wrote the very first review of Matsuhisa after going there on its opening day in 1987. Larry Gelbart and I sat at the counter and had 16 dishes prepared by Nobu-san that first afternoon over the course of four hours, then we returned the next day to finish tasting the menu. I then wrote a special bulletin to my thousands of food-loving newsletter readers, and within two weeks the place was a spectacular success....which continues to this day, with Nobu now having 27 restaurants and several hotels around the world. Nobu acknowledges my efforts on his behalf, calling me a 'brother' and giving me magnificent custom-made Matsuhisa leather jackets as mementos. (One night in those early days I captured Barbra Streisand from the line in front and spirited her into the restaurant through the kitchen.) So yes, I do know my sushi. And I know that my luncheon experience yesterday with David Lee at his OO TORO SUSHI (1569 Fairway Drive, #126 B&C, Walnut, Ca. 91789, 909-598-8299) was so extraordinary that I am still stunned, one of the most unique sushi meals of my long life. This is a 'pure' sushi restaurant, not indulging in the current practice of offering many, many cooked dishes. (Master Chef Kurt Chen does use a blowtorch to quickly sear a few dishes, but that's it.) No, it is the pristine fish and beef which stars here, and when I say that I had some cuts of tuna which were new even to me. Kamatoro is several inches of fatty tuna from the collar, incredibly expensive. OOtoro is about 5% of the tuna, also rare and precious. They garner their tuna from fish caught the previosu day in Boston or Spain and flown here overnight.
David said that when he sought out Chef Chen and made him a partner in the new restaurant, his only guidance was that they must get the very best ingredients in the world, regardless of cost. And that still holds true. Chef is at the downtown seafood market at 4:00 a.m. and his purveyors know he will only accept the world's finest fish and beef. See the photos here for the startling sides of Bluefin tuna and real Kobe beef from Miyazaki prefecture in Japan. His Toro Tartare Hand Roll was chopped toro with fresh wasabe served with a truffle sauce. The sushi and sashimi offerings included Golden Eye Snapper, Halibut, Red Snapper. And Spanish Mackeral imported from northern Japan. The way to go here is to have the Omakase meal, Chef's selection, and be prepared to spend a few good bucks for what will be an astonishing lunch or dinner.
I asked David what drives him to such extraordinary efforts to succeed at these various ventures, and he said: "It was my father that set my goals," and then he told me the incredible story about his dad. It was in 1960 that the 13-year old Hing Wa Lee (his father) traveled to Hong Kong from Tai Shan, mainland China. The story, which he smilingly confirmed, was his father swam across the bay using two volleyballs and a net to keep him afloat. David said that his dad apprenticed there to a master gemstone-carver for five years. In 1965, the 18-year old Lee graduated and started his own gem-carving factory, exporting carved gemstones worldwide to great success. . This jade workshop was located in Wan Chai, Hong Kong. He became famous as a master gemstone/jade carver and taught apprentices. In America, the Smithsonian Institute was having a problem with its priceless Chinese antique carvings, which had been mishandled. They reached across the world to Hing Wa Lee for help in restoring them, and he responded by going to the Washington/Baltimore area. In the 70s he recognized an untapped opportunity for Chinese Arts in America and began a wholesale business called Hing Wa Lee Gallery in Bethesda, Md., importing carved gemstones and selling them to retailers throughout the country. In 1980 he moved with his family to California, opening his first retail store at Hill Street in downtown L.A., offering imperial jade to other retailers.
David then told me that it was in 1992 that he graduated from USC's Marshall School of Business (where he is now on the Board) and joined his faher's business. He persuaded his father to change the nature of the business to cater to the ever-increasing Chinese population in Southern California and especially the San Gabriel Valley. In '93 they opened their first luxury retail jewelry store in San Gabriel, and David brought in the first reputable Swiss-made timepieces. Two years later Hing Wa Lee became the official Rolex Jeweler for the Chinese market in the San Gabriel market...and the fun began. The company thrived under David's leadership and expanded into a full-service retail jewelry operation which captured much of the Chinese market.
Davd walked me through the Hing Wa Lee Plaza, which was built in 2003 in Walnut. It has expanded hugely and today is the biggest retailer of timepiece jewelry and accessories in the United States! At the 15,000 sq.ft. San Gabriel store, he noted that the magnificent Geneva-style building was built like a fortress, so that they did not have to remove all of the merchandise each night to a vault. He modestly mentioned that they had a celebratory event when they expanded last year and famed pianist Lang Lang gave a concert for 150 of their best customers, followed by a 10course Chinese feast. David said he only regrets that his father, who died of cancer in 2011, did not live to see the new expanded 20,000 sq. ft. retail operation. David then took me down to his Ferrari garage and showed me a covered vehicle. "My father always dreamed of owning a classic Rolls Royce, but never could bring himself to buy one. Before he died, I bought this," and he removed the cover off a Phantom Rolls Royce limousine. "He had the pleasure of being driven in this car before he died, which made me, his son, so proud." So now we know what drives an inveterate collector....pride of family.
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