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Jiro might dream of sushi, but we Angelenos seem to spend our waking hours obsessing over it. From the too-numerous-to-count sushi bars dotting the San Fernando Valley to the strip-mall gems embedded in the South Bay, sushi is ingrained in the Southland’s DNA.
Beyond the world of crispy rice and dynamite rolls, however, there exists an upper-echelon of sushi in Los Angeles that competes with the best in the world — outside of Japan, of course. The term omakase has slowly worked its way into our common vernacular over the past few years, and the idea of asking whether your uni hails from Hokkaido or Santa Barbara no longer seems obnoxious. There has never been a better time to turn over your tastebuds (and your wallet) to the whims of a skilled itamea.
As you already might have guessed, eating L.A.'s best sushi is a pricey endeavor, but for those looking for the most exciting sushi available without a passport, here are 10 of our top contenders.
Omakase meals at Kiyokawa often involve a gorgeous six-section plate, roughly the size of the cafeteria tray, filled with intricate appetizers: steamed lobster on a square of fried wonton, uni soaked in white miso or maybe a foie gras torchon studded with grains of truffle salt. Even though his undecorated storefront might not suggest it, Chef Satoshi Kiyokawa is something of a one-man orchestra. He hangs over his plates with intense focus and arranges them with the kind of intricacy and creativity you'd see in the kitchen of Thomas Keller or Grant Achatz— all taking place no more than a few feet away from your chair. He might serve a rudimentary matzo ball of sorts, made from bits of scallop and tofu, swimming in bottarga broth, or maybe a simple vegetable soup scented with braised daikon and taro. Both reflect the ethos of Kiyokawa perfectly: layers of flavor and texture woven together to produce a single, symphonic result. 265 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 358-1900
9. Nozawa Bar
Before Kazunori Nozawa became the patriarch of the Sugarfish empire and of the fast-casual handroll spot Kazunori, he was a badass chef in the late '80s holding court at his small sushi bar in Studio City, a place where ordering a California roll or asking for spicy mayo could get you tossed to the curb. He was the original “Sushi Nazi,” and his uncompromising style defined how Angelenos experienced proper sushi for years. Nozawa officially retired in 2012, but the best place to experience his legacy is inside a 10-seat, cedar-lined dining room in the back of Beverly Hills’ swank Sugarfish location. It’s here you’ll find Nozawa Bar, where head chef and Nozawa acolyte Osamu Fujita serves a 20-course barrage of omakase dishes, which might include halibut fin sashimi or seared Japanese squid. The hallmark of Nozawa Bar is its lush simplicity — the dinner will cost you $150 per person and will feature seafood that Fujita hand-picked at that morning’s fish market. Of course, the famous house rules are still in place: reservations require a non-refundable deposit, cancellations must be made 72 hours in advance and latecomers are not tolerated. That’s just the Nozawa way. 212 N. Canon Dr., Beverly Hills; (424) 216-6158; nozawabar.com
8. Go's Mart
You've probably heard the "hole-in-the-wall with amazing food" refrain applied liberally in this city, but few, if any, can claim to match up with the sheer absurdity that is Go's Mart in Canoga Park. In a converted Japanese grocery store (check out the VHS rental selection), a small bar is stocked with a dizzying array of Japanese seafood delivered via weekly air shipments from the famed Tsukiji fish market. Reserve a seat and explain to Go your desire to enjoy the best he has to offer, and you'll be introduced to a decadent world filled with gold flake-dusted chu-toro, uni-stuffed king crab and caviar-sprinkled Kumamoto oysters. If you can convince your skeptical friends that a meal of this caliber can be found in the upper reaches of the Valley, they may even brave the drive with you. 22330 Sherman Way, Canoga Park; (818) 704-1459
7. Sushi Zo
Even its most devoted regulars will agree: Sushi Zo is far from the most hospitable environment. Your greeting by the hostess will be followed by an unapologetic warning that this is omakase only. Photos are strictly verboten at the sushi bar, and heaven help you if owner Keizo Seki spots you pull out your iPhone for a mid-meal tweet. But in spite of all these rules — or more likely because of them — Sushi Zo, which now has two sleek locations, in Cheviot Hills and downtown, excels at its craft. The strict menu of minimalist nigiri is designed to highlight the extreme freshness and quality of the star ingredient. There are buttery coins of raw Hokkaido scallop, sweet shrimp the color of pink pearls and types of fish you didn't even know existed until they leapt from the edge of Seki's exacting blade. You will be bluntly instructed on how to best enjoy all of them — we recommend you listen. 9824 National Blvd., Cheviot Hills; (310) 842-3977 and 334 S. Main St., Ste. 1106, downtown; (424) 201-5576; sushizo.us.
6. Mori Sushi
When chef Morihiro Onodera sold his namesake restaurant to an assistant chef in 2011, the reaction among sushi gurus was something akin to the response to armageddon. Could a Michelin-starred restaurant whose excellence relied on meticulous quality control — Onodera had a reputation for creating almost everything in-house including soy sauce, tofu, rice and flatware — continue its ways once its founder had retired? Years later, the answer is still an unequivocal yes. The charred giant prawns continue to arrive looking a prop from a Japanese sci-fi flick, the strips of scale-on baby barracuda are still marked with a gentle sear, and your meal will, as always, end with a dainty bowl of green tea ice cream churned, naturally, from scratch. 11500 W. Pico Blvd., Sawtelle; (310) 479-3939
5. Kiriko Sushi
Few itamae balance the stylings of modern and classic sushi with the flair of Kiriko's Ken Namba. Some nights there will be plump tomato geleé or squares of bright orange king salmon that Namba smokes himself in the back kitchen. Other times it's pale lozenges of skipjack topped with yuzu rind and shaved pink sea salt. He might even surprise you with a bowl of cooked tuna mashed with bits of okra, green onion and grated yamaimo, a dish that would be well received at any PTA potluck. Kiriko is a place where it pays to be a regular — that albacore sashimi with ponzu jelly from one night might transform into a seared filet dusted with fried garlic the next. Of course, sitting at the gorgeous, rough-hewn sushi bar, all dark and mahogany, with Namba calmly doting overhead is reason enough to inspire regular visits. 11301 W. Olympic Blvd., Sawtelle; (310) 478-7769; kirikosushi.com
There are always surprises when it comes to chef Shunji Nakao’s tasting menus, which showcase the bounty at the local farmer’s market as much as they do exotic seafood. There might be rock shrimp and mountain yam stuffed into zucchini blossoms and fried tempura-style, then served with a pinch of sea salt mixed with finely ground green tea powder, or a ceramic bowl of chilled seaweed mixed with slippery baby sardines. The specials board right above the sushi bar can be dizzying most days, but the genial presence of Shunji and his staff soothes any F.O.M.O. concerns you might have. Housed in an odd, circular-shaped building that started its existence as part of the now-extinct Chili Bowl franchise, the restaurant marries creative Japanese small plates with immaculate fish and warm rice better than anywhere else in town. Whether it’s a brief but indulgent omakase lunch (a bargain at $40) or a blowout dinner stocked with monkfish liver and live lobster, the perfect meal for the occasion can be found at Shunji. 12244 W. Pico Blvd., Sawtelle; (310) 826-4737; shunji-ns.com.
3. Sushi Tsujita
If you were one of the skeptics who thought Tsujita’s prowess in producing kick-ass bowls of ramen couldn’t possibly translate into an ultra-traditional, edomae-style sushi restaurant, you wouldn’t be alone. But with veteran Tokyo sushi chef Shigeru Kato at the helm, there arose a new heavy-hitter for Japanese cuisine along the crowded Sawtelle corridor. Arrive at dinner time and you’ll encounter an ambitious and occasionally outlandish omakase menu that spans from braised abalone decorated with tofu skin to homemade squid cake paired with a stalk of puffed rice. A meal here can be far more expensive than the noodle house down the street, but with elegant geodesic patterns and glowing chandeliers adorning the space, Sushi Tsujita is as transportive as any of L.A.’s serious sushi bars. The greatest perk is the lunch menu, where an epic chirashi bowl will cost you as little as $15. You’ll receive the same fish as those who opt for the higher-priced omakase, just slightly less cosmetic cuts. It’s like the Nordstrom Rack of sashimi, and it’s one of the city's most enticing sushi deals. Sushi Tsujita, 2006 Sawtelle Blvd., Sawtelle; (310) 231-1177, sushitsujita.com.
Hiroyuki Naruke, head chef at Q, is a stranger in a strange land. He was wooed to the U.S. by three L.A. lawyers who frequented his six-seat sushi bar in Tokyo’s Roppongi District and who promptly helped him relocate to a quiet, cathedral-esque sushi bar downtown near 7th and Grand. In that small space he’s been doing things that should excite even the most well-traveled of sushi aficionados: intricate preparations and subtle flavors that point to a mastery of centuries-old techniques from Japan’s Edo era. A $185, 22-course meal with the quiet and studious Naruke might include lobes of uni marinated in miso so they explode like umami bombs on the tongue, or a thick slice of Spanish tuna topped with rustic sansho peppercorn paste. There are no flashy gimmicks or avant-garde spins at Q, only a laser-like focus on the essence of what you’re eating. If Naruke serves eel, it will taste more like eel than you thought possible. His piece de resistance arrives at the meal’s end: a square of tamago (sweet egg omelette) as dense as pound cake and made with minced sweet shrimp and scallops. It’s a humble gesture, but one that packs so much flavor per square inch, it’s essentially a culinary diamond. 521 W. 7th St., downtown; (213) 261-3479; qsushila.com.
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When discussing Urasawa, it's probably best to first address the elephant in the room. This is unequivocally the most expensive restaurant in the city. It's the kind of commodity, along with courtside Lakers tickets, that most people spend years squirreling away for. The real question: Is it worth it? Chef Hiro Urasawa trained under Masa Takayama, a man who is almost unanimously agreed upon to be best sushi chef in the country (Takayama left Los Angeles a few years ago to open Masa in New York, where dinners often command even more astronomical prices). Urasawa speaks the delicate language of kaiseki with a level of fluidity most chefs can only dream of, teasing out the nuances of Japan's most prized delicacies: Kobe beef sashimi, foie gras shabu shabu and — if the season is right — sweet filaments of hairy crab imbued with layers of creamy shirako. The bill might become more bearable if you think of it as a first-class Japanese vacation that lasts only a few hours. Imagine the money you saved on airfare. 218 N. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 247-8939