A New Katsu
How many sushi bars can fit on the head of a pin? Or even on the stretch of Ventura Boulevard from Laurel Canyon to Vineland? Standing in front of Masaru Katsu Michite‘s new sushi-driven restaurant, I can count three others without squinting: Asanebo, Teru Sushi, Matsuda Sushi. And this new Restaurant Katsu is not to be confused with Sushi Katsu, which is just to the east of Carpenter, or Sushi Kazu, a few blocks beyond that. So why all the sushi bars in Studio City? Katsu’s theory is this: There are a lot of sushi eaters. Wasn‘t he daunted by the competition? Not a bit. Katsu is completely confident that his restaurant has its own distinct style and that it will attract and generate a very different scene from the neighbors’.
Katsu‘s style is distinctive. A sushi chef for 40 years, with 10 years in Tokyo and the last 30 in California, he and Nobu Matsuhisa have been the major style setters in the sushi world. Katsu began in a dazzling, cool, minimal, quasi-industrial room on Hillhurst, a setting that allowed the sushi and the ceramics of local artist Mineo Mizuno to shine like jewels. In the ’80s boom, Katsu, like so many other chef-owners, branched out. He opened the very cool Katsu on Third; its signage consists of a single sculpted fish hung over the door of an otherwise blank building. His former employees have dispersed throughout the Southland in upscale, stylish sushi houses, including R23 downtown, Sushi Roku in West L.A. and Santa Monica, and the Hump at the Santa Monica Airport. Joe Miller, chef-owner of the sublime Joe‘s in Venice, rose to prominence at Katsu’s other boom-time venture, the clever little Cal-Japanese-French Cafe Katsu on Sawtelle.
As Katsu on Third became more established, the original Katsu on Hillhurst quietly continued, with a certain loss of torque, until it was sold in 1998. Katsu, meanwhile, was looking for another location. He settled on the former Peking Pavilion in Studio City‘s Sushi Row.
The new Katsu is another pleasing, spare, Zen-like room designed by Koichi Hara. The main attraction is the partition dividing entryway from dining room: This partial wall is a steel frame holding roughly cut cross sections of logs, bark attached, like a woodpile artfully arranged, or a diagram of an enormous, vertical campfire. It’s rugged and stunning and beautiful. Otherwise, the white room is set off by pale basketry, a perfect, fat green bamboo pole leaned up against one wall, and a sparkling view onto, well, Ventura Boulevard: the Wine Bistro, four lanes of traffic.
All four of the sushi chefs have owned their own restaurants; they‘re apparently pleased to hand over the logistical headaches to Katsu Michite and simply practice their art for Studio Citizens. I’m especially fond of Kimo, a friendly chef with a long braid, whose sushi bar was Masa in La Cañada. When we give him a free hand to feed us what he likes, the results are endlessly varied and always interesting. I remember toro that literally melted like buttery foam on the tongue. A julienned squid -- crunchy, cartilaginous and slightly gummy -- is topped with cold, sweet, soft uni and sprinkled, I believe, with a bit of ponzu. A mouthful is transporting, to someplace deep under, and marine. Or he‘ll line up a textural sample in off-white: a fat, fresh butterflied scallop sushi, beside a thin coin of giant clam, beside a dreamy translucent hamachi. The only dish that failed to charm was a cooked octopus in a fresh tomato sauce -- a minor glitch.
Those who don’t want to make a meal of sushi can consult a large and varied menu. The food in general is light and, if anything, can err on the bland side -- the cooks here are more restrained than those at Ita Cho, for example. The quality of ingredients redeems a hesitant approach to flavor. Miso soup is hearty, and especially good with tiny clams or fresh mushrooms. Asparagus goma-ae is lightly steamed -- it crunches like a knuckle -- and served in a rich sesame sauce. Eggplant in the special Katsu sauce is a big, slippery mouthful. Beef tataki, a kind of seared carpaccio, is delicious. I have yet to taste the buta kakuni, slow-cooked pork -- the kitchen was always out of it.
Under the seafood dishes, the shrimp won ton is a happy surprise: A crunchy stuffed noodle topped with fresh chopped tomatoes and onions, it has a hint of the Mexican pico de gallo. The yellowtail collar is grilled until the skin is crackly and the rich meat puffed and buttery. It‘s a grand dish to share -- and too rich to eat alone. Finally, there are special bento boxes, with 10 separate little items, including three kinds of sashimi, shrimp and vegetable tempura, grilled fresh fish, chicken yakitori and Japanese vegetables; these provide a quick introductory course in the pleasures of Katsu’s individual style.#
11920 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 760-4585. Open for lunch Mon.--Fri. and for dinner every night. Entrees $7--$25. Beer, wine and sake served. Food available to go. Valet parking on premises. AE, MC, V. Recommended dishes: sushi and sashimi, miso soup, beef tataki, shrimp won ton, bento boxes.
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