The proprietor of Mrs. Fish loves three things — sushi, whiskey and art. Well, it's four things if you count architecture. Which you should, because Mrs. Fish occupies a stunning and surprising basement space in the historic Pershing Square Building downtown. Opened in 1924, its architects were Curlett & Beelman, who took their inspiration from the 1910 redesign of the whole park's footprint in a lavish Beaux Arts style. Hence the speakeasy-esque entrance, which opens onto a grand staircase leading down to a lofty space of parquet flooring, gilded decorative details, glass-encased industrial retrofitting and a structurally integrated overhead fish tank. It's impressive, but it's nothing compared to the big three. Again, that's sushi, whiskey and art.
Mrs. Fish's owner, who eccentrically forgoes identification of either himself or his all-star kitchen staff, nevertheless pours a lot of himself into the project. Perhaps most intriguingly, is how much time and personal effort went into the vast assortment of contemporary Japanese art that's installed throughout the restaurant's many chambers.
"I was very intentional in the selection process of the art at Mrs. Fish," the owner says, "with the final deciding factor being the same as what built my personal art collection — the art pieces needed to speak to me. Additionally, I wanted each of the pieces to be from a Japanese artist and that the pieces should, collectively, make a unique art experience for the observer."
With scores of paintings, drawings, photographs and textile-based works by dozens of artists, the juxtaposition of the architecture's golden-age aesthetic with striking, bold, colorful and often surreal works of Japanese visual art is an adventure in its own right. From a row of psychedelic, anime-inspired character portraits by Ai Kato, to a doe-eyed blonde by Final Fantasy creator Yoshitaka Amano, and the owner's personal current favorite — a mixed-media work depicting Darger-like young geishas by Ai Yamaguchi — a certain tone of pop culture is set.
However, majestic large-scale works — such as the stunning and exuberant tableau Lucky Dragon by Nanami Ishihara, a photograph of a geisha attacking a watermelon with gusto in a private moment by famed artist Nobuyoshi Araki, and a regal work of surrealist landscape by painter Daisuke Fukunaga — set a more spectacular, art historical scene.
"My appreciation for art goes back to my college and graduate days in New York," the owner tells us, "where I spent time enjoying the local art galleries and museums. The Mrs. Fish art collection started about three years ago and spans multiple trips to Tokyo, where I visited individual art collections, galleries and museums to learn about the local, up-and-coming Japanese artists of Tokyo."
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Many of the artists are established within the Tokyo art scene but the collection also includes young and emerging talents. Indeed, besides the more theatrical works, hidden gems abound, among them the witty, poignant painting Speech by Hideaki Kawashima of a young man in tighty-whiteys, who clearly has something to say. Of special note is the small-scale but finely detailed drawing of a tattooed woman by Shohei Otomo (the son of the director of Akira), as well as the deceptively traditional, modernism- and surrealism-inflected Old Story by Yujiro Miyazaki, in which a geisha (there are a lot of geishas) confronts a fawn with a crystal skull while she paints a scroll of a mushroom cloud in a pastoral forest.
Each work on display comes with a story, of course, of the owner crossing the globe, chasing down works that captured his imagination, sometimes pursuing artists for years in search of the perfect piece. But all you have to do is order an artisanal Japanese whiskey and perhaps the barracuda, and take it all in.
Mrs. Fish, 448 S. Hill St., downtown; mrsfish.com.