[…]Meanwhile downtown, Michael Sponagle is slightly out of breath when he answers his phone. “There’s a lot of running up and down stairs preparing to open a restaurant,” he says.
Situated on the corner of Biltmore and Hilliard avenues, Ukiah Japanese Smokehouse is slated to open Tuesday, June 29. Despite the location’s previous run of short-lived endeavors, including Bartaco and Futo Buta, Sponagle is pleased with the space. “I don’t bet my success on what came before,” he says. “This place just spoke to me.”
Ukiah’s opening, he continues, will be the culmination of a 10-year plan largely discussed over beers with Asheville business partners Kevin Wojtowicz and Derek Allen. When COVID-19 hit, the partners decided it was now or never and began a serious search for locations, rejecting multiple possibilities before saying yes to the space at 121 Biltmore.
“At first it felt too big; it’s about 250 seats inside and out,” Sponagle says. “But when we talked about all the things we wanted — a smoker outside, a raw bar inside, sashimi, ramen noodles and a four-sided bar — we realized we needed a big space.” Once the lease was signed, they brought on chef/partner Michael Lewis.
Sponagle has a passion for introducing people to Japanese street food, which he describes as less formal and precise than what many Americans are accustomed to finding in sushi restaurants. “It’s kind of the soul food side of Asian cuisine,” he explains. “It has a humility and honesty to it.”