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Kiyokawa: So Sorry, So Good 

Satoshi Kiyokawa may be the best unknown sushi chef in L.A.

Wednesday, Nov 18 2009
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View more photos in Anne Fishbein's Kiyokawa photo gallery.

Kiyokawa is a small sushi bar on the southern edge of Beverly Hills, a couple of blocks south of Wilshire and almost invisible among modest boutiques and storefront offices. If you’re passing it by car, the restaurant could be mistaken for one of the sandwich shops that speckle the neighborhood, the kind of place whose culinary ambitions don’t rise much beyond using two kinds of mustard in its tuna salad. The menu scrawled on a sidewalk chalkboard, with specials running toward the crunch roll and the teriyaki plate, seems to indicate a Japanese restaurant of the most basic sort. It is only when you settle into one of the stools along the sushi bar itself that you begin to notice the tiny details — the graceful curve of the handmade dishes, the marbled Spanish toro glowing like the rarest silk, the silvery glint of sunlight off an exquisitely fresh sardine — hinting that you may be in for something good.

Fresh Japanese wasabi grated on sharkskin. Microscopically serrated cucumber. Chef-pickled ginger. Fan-cooled rice. Great sushi is in the details as much as it is in the fish.

click to enlarge ANNE FISHBEIN - Chef’s omakase, six kinds of appetizers (clockwise from upper left): foie gras, sea urchin, - wonton with snow crab, cucumber with bottarga, halibut carpaccio, abalone
  • Anne Fishbein
  • Chef’s omakase, six kinds of appetizers (clockwise from upper left): foie gras, sea urchin, wonton with snow crab, cucumber with bottarga, halibut carpaccio, abalone

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Kiyokawa bills itself as an organic sushi restaurant, meaning that the rice, the shiso, the ginger, the soy sauce are all sourced from chemical-free farms. (The fish, unfortunately, is not as sustainable as it could be — as delicious as bluefin may be, the species is unfortunately close to extinction.) Its clientele includes more than the usual concentration of the crunchy and the yoga-toned; men who never remove their Yankees caps; and young couples who look as if they’re tasting uni for the very first time. But it is also the home of Satoshi Kiyokawa, possibly the best unknown sushi chef in Los Angeles at the moment. His multicourse omakase dinners are epic, kaiseki-style feasts; seasonal, imaginative meals that, while not cheap, rival their equivalents at places charging two and three times as much. In my decades of reviewing restaurants, Kiyokawa may be the first place I was tempted to keep for myself.

A thick menu is presented to you when you sit down at Satoshi’s sushi bar, the usual roster of fish, nonfish and combination meals. Ignore it. Order a bottle of cold sake. Relax.

An omakase meal begins with a composition of small dishes on a woven tray — perhaps a tiny pottery bowl of sesame-enriched boiled spinach, cucumber seasoned with herring eggs; and a dish of grilled sanma, a long, strong-tasting fish in the pike family, whose delicately crisped skin, sprinkled with grated salt, is garnished with its crisply fried skeleton. In late summer, there were thick, fragrant slices of matsutake mushroom; in early fall, razor-thin slices of marinated lotus root propped on an orange tangle of pumpkin.

Satoshi apologizes for his slowness. This is not a meal to be consumed in the 45 minutes before a movie. Sashimi appears, arranged carefully as a rock garden, in a crystal bowl of ice: thinly sliced halibut, dotted with orange roe, folded into a delicate white rose; slabs of beefy maguro; tiny lozenges of spectacular Spanish mackerel from Japan; kanpachi; abalone; perhaps a sliver of Canadian wild salmon, each nestled into a vividly green leaf. Satoshi purees Japanese wasabi, so much subtler and more fragrant than the stuff from the tube, on a special implement faced with sharkskin instead of metal, and then serves it on a tiny version of the tool. If you are not squeamish, there may be a Santa Barbara prawn, recently separated from its all-too-living head, whose sweet flesh pops in your mouth like ripe grapefruit.

After the sashimi, Satoshi presents a wooden, compartmented box that holds six tiny dishes. The last time I visited, the box included grilled foie gras sprinkled with truffle salt, served over a thick, homemade miso sauce; marinated San Diego uni served under a tiny glass dome; langoustine on a square of fried wonton skin; wild scallop dusted with yuzu zest; and a luscious version of Matsuhisa’s new-wave sashimi with hot olive oil.

Next came a soup, astonishing in its simplicity, a strong dashi bathing a single, luscious round of daikon; some carrot; half a taro root with its hairy outside but not its potatolike inner skin removed; and a couple of snow peas. It takes 15 minutes to remove the outer skin of taro, rubbing each tuber with a crumpled piece of aluminum foil instead of swiping it with a knife. Each vegetable needs to be simmered separately, and combined only at the end, so that the flavors do not muddy one another. It is a dish worthy of a three-star French chef.

There is a course of griddled, miso-marinated cod, so delicate that it barely makes it to mouth without collapsing, and another course that recalls a New York deli by way of Japan: a kind of treyf matzoh ball fashioned from scallops and tofu, fried, and served in a thickened broth.

The last course is merely spectacular: five pieces of sushi, perhaps Spanish mackerel from Japan, uni, yellowtail, salmon and the highest grade of delicious but endangered toro.

Satoshi apologizes once again. His cadence is slow and deliberate; he approaches each scrap of seaweed, each piece of fish as if he were a sculptor confronting a $5,000 column of raw marble.

Kiyokawa: 265 S. Robertson Ave., Beverly Hills. (310) 358-1900, kiyokawa-restaurant.com. Mon.-Fri., noon-3 p.m.; daily, 6-10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Beer, wine and sake. Easy street parking. Omakase, $50-$80.

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