The best single bite of anything I’ve tasted all year was probably the crab sushi at Sushi Tenn, over on the Japanese-restaurant strip of Sawtelle. Crab sushi tends to be fairly circumscribed in Los Angeles, usually served as part of a roll with avocado, plumped out with mayonnaise, or tricked out with baroque embellishments. Sasabune, a restaurant just up the street from Tenn, takes the opposite tack with its minimalist crab rolls, each a handful of unadorned meat folded into a well-toasted seaweed cheroot the size of a $20 spliff. Less reputable sushi bars eschew pricey crabs for extruded logs of pollack protein tinted with mysterious red pigments.
The Sushi Tenn crab sushi was a more straightforward thing, a single, uninterrupted slab of meat laid across a faintly sweetened lozenge of warm sushi rice, no soy sauce, no yuzu, no wasabi, garnished only with a single lentil-sized glob of pea-green crab innards — possibly a sweet bit of liver, possibly the esteemed kanimiso, or crab brain, which is a taste I’ve been trying to experience again since I first encountered it at the original Shibucho 15 years ago.
The crabmeat, prized from the back fin of a specimen imported from the cold waters surrounding Hokkaido, in northern Japan, was smooth and cool, with a hint of the vanilla flavor you find in really fresh crabs; but there was another quality to it, not quite briny and not quite resiny but sharp, almost as if it had absorbed some calciferous high note from its shell. The gooey bit of crab organ provided its own sharpness, of course, slightly bitter at first taste but mellowing into a sort of richness that seemed to double the crab’s richness in octaves, if you know what I mean, the way that certain French chefs these days combine puréed apples, dried apples, roasted apples and apple granita in a single dish. It was a spectacular piece of work. And all the more so because in previous trips to the restaurant, I had hardly been overwhelmed.
Tatsumi Hanzawa, the executive chef at Sushi Tenn, comes to Los Angeles from Hokkaido, where he was the chef at Sushizen, a restaurant that is usually counted among the best in the Olympic city of Sapporo. Hokkaido is famous for its cuisine in the rest of Japan, for its fat salmon, its rich herring, its tasty sardines and its squid. Hokkaido is home to some of Japan’s biggest breweries and food-processing plants. Hokkaido, it is generally acknowledged, is where Japan finds its best crab.
At Sushi Tenn, pickled ginger is served in crisp, bracingly vinegared coins rather than in the usual pink curls — it is strictly a palate cleanser. The pale-blue soy sauce dish is sluiced with barely a few drops of brown liquid: It is understood that Hanzawa seasons the sushi as he sees fit. You will not be served a separate mound of wasabi at Sushi Tenn, or tangles of shredded daikon as garnish, or even a spare shiso leaf.
It can take a while to get to know a sushi chef, his moods, the languorous rhythms of his service, the unspoken but inevitable relationship with the seasons. It also takes a while for a sushi chef to get to know you. A first meal at a sushi bar can be a little like a first date, the chef and the customer checking each other out, exposing some of their best moves: the chef’s dexterity in crosshatching halibut, the customer’s deep appreciation of beltfish. And until you get to know each other better, both of you are likely to play it safe.
The basic sushi platters at Sushi Tenn are pretty good, and a decent value. The first pass at an omakase menu is also good (though quite expensive), a run through the selection of fish, including Hanzawa’s extraordinarily mellow yellowtail, aged like a fine steak, his very decent chu-toro, tuna belly, and his crunchy, briny wedge of pale-yellow herring roe.
But by my third visit, the mastery starts to show through, less in what was added to the sushi than in what wasn’t. First, toro and yellowtail. There was wonderful beltfish from Hokkaido seasoned with chopped scallions, a burst of clean, oniony flavor cutting right through the oily taste of the flesh, a dash of kosho on a piece of halibut. Squid was flayed into a frilly surface that resembled lamb-chop booties, a preparation that retained all the succulence of the squid while lending it a semblance of tenderness. That crab. A minced-toro roll. Broiled sea eel, soft as porridge, that almost required a spoon to be eaten. And then lunch is over.
Although you will hear none of the stern admonitions common at more rigid sushi bars in Los Angeles, it is understood that you are fed what chef Hanzawa wants to feed you. He does not want to feed you spicy tuna rolls.
Sushi Tenn, 2004 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 473-2388. Lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m., dinner Mon.–Sat. 6–9:30 p.m. Beer, wine and sake. No takeout. Lot parking. AE, MC, V. Lunch for two, food only, $30–$70; dinner for two, food only, $50–$150 and up.