If you're planning to see David Gelb's brilliant documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi this weekend when it premieres at Santa Monica's Nuart Theater you might be well advised to pass on the popcorn and soda. The film clocks in at just under an hour and a half -- a good portion of which is dedicated to sweeping shots of immaculately cut slabs of fish, buttery lozenges of uni and plump, wriggling shrimp plucked from the ocean that morning. If your appetite is anything like ours, you'll be leaving the theater with an intense craving for proper sushi. Call it the "Jiro Effect."
After seeing the inner workings of what is perhaps the world's greatest sushi restaurant, it might be difficult to settle for a plate of crunchy rolls and dynamite shrimp. In that case, your best option is probably omakase, a pseudo-tasting menu that entails hanging up any vestiges of skepticism and entrusting a sushi chef to tailor a menu using the highest quality ingredients available that day. If you find yourself sitting at the sushi bar, watching your chef construct a meal in front of you -- highly recommended -- a great omakase meal can evoke a feeling of exclusiveness that will put any Hollywood nightclub to shame. That level of intimacy doesn't always come cheap: A single dinner can induce a level of sticker shock reserved for hospital bills and car repairs (Jiro's omakase runs about $400 per person, a tad more than Urasawa's price of $375).
The good new is that a reasonably priced omakase experience is entirely possible -- in fact, many sushi chefs are more than content to customize a meal based around your optimal budget and tastes. It might not be as inexpensive as sushi that comes off a conveyor belt, but you won't be dropping entire paychecks, either. Here are our preferred "entry-level" spots for when we crave a traditional Edo-style sushi experience, sans the second mortgage. Turn the page for a list of the town's 4 best bargain omakase. (In alphabetical order.)
The meal begins with a small, flavor-intensive dish, which can range from a shaved mountain yam salad to yuzu-marinated wakama kelp. The next 15 courses are equally intoxicating: miso broiled cod, fried shrimp heads, seared chu-toro, tamago intertwined with broiled octopus, just to name a few. You can end with a bowl of delicate clam miso or toasted green tea ice cream, or both, if that's your kind of thing. 359 E. First St., Little Tokyo, (213) 680-4166; $45pp omakase
Tucked neatly between a 7-Eleven and a pot clinic in the Valley, this location is a surprising candidate for such intricate sushi. The standard omakase will get you classics like albacore drizzled with ponzu, stuffed squid with soy glaze, blue crab rolls and a solid rendition of spicy tuna slathered on rice cakes. But if you can convince the chef as to your open-minded palate, he might slide you something truly remarkable -- say a natto roll stuffed with tuna, or black snapper nigiri dotted with jalapeno oil. 19658 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, (818) 345-8651; $35pp omakase
Could anything be more fascinating than the mini-chirashi box filled with a vibrant bouquet of scallop, shrimp, and octopus? Maybe an entire Pacific sole that arrives mid-meal splayed onto a plate, surrounded by transparent wafers of sashimi. When you've finished eating the delicate bits, the carcass is whisked back into the kitchen and fried to a delightful crisp to serve as your next course. Expect a wait on weekends. 1542 W. Carson St., Torrance, (310) 320-0200; $40pp omakase
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Expect a parade of gorgeously simple nigiri: salmon roe, Spanish mackerel, yellowtail, orange clam, ruby red slices of fresh tuna. This is purist sushi, about 14 to 15 pieces in total, served on a wavy sheet of banana leaf and sparsely garnished with a bit of shaved rock salt. There's miso soup, steamed egg custard too, and, if you happen to arrive on the right day, a tray of housemade pickles. 1425 W. Artesia Blvd., Gardena, (310) 515-1391; $33pp omakase