Simi Valley probably isn't the first place you think of when you're craving sushi.
But Sushi Tanaka, which opened quietly in a suburban strip mall more than two years ago and has since built a devoted local following, could soon change that.
The unpretentious sushi bar, sandwiched between a fish & chips joint and a dentist's office, barely holds seven counter seats plus a few token tables — you'd be lucky to snag one.
The restaurant's namesake, chef Sai Tanaka, holds court behind the bar, meticulously cutting each morsel of fish to order. He works without an assistant and personally visits various fish markets in the early hours of the morning to hand-pick the choicest fish for his customers. Which explains why the restaurant is open only for dinner service and closed two nights of the week.
Over the last two decades, Tanaka has put in time at esteemed sushi restaurants including Nobu and Shunji. But his own restaurant is a family-run operation: Tanaka's wife doubles as both host and server. She explains each dish in extensive detail, setting newbies at ease. Chef Tanaka is more reticent, and somewhat diffident, yet still approachable. He pipes in if there's a question his wife can't answer.
After the server inquires about allergies and other food preferences, the procession of small dishes commences. Order Tanaka's multicourse omakase (chef's choice), and perhaps you will receive a single Kumamoto oyster resting in a yuzu citrus broth. The dish comes topped with a dollop of Russian osetra caviar paired with julienned jellyfish swimming in a sprightly vinegar broth. The oyster pops with the briny flavor of the sea while the jellyfish has the vibrant, toothsome chewiness unique to this fish. You'll want to sip every last drop of the vinegar-infused broth.
Likely to come next is a sashimi plate of yagara (trumpet fish, which in fact bears a striking resemblance to the brass instrument of the same name) dotted with red chili paste, sauced with a citrus charcoal water, and paired with an arugula salad laced with minced hearts of palm. The delicate white fish is a perfect foil for the light dab of chili, and the arugula salad will leave you hungry for more.
If you're lucky, you might have ama ebi (live sweet shrimp) next. The shrimp wiggle and twitch their legs on the counter mere moments before becoming part of your dinner. Soon enough, Tanaka prepares a sweet shrimp tartare bound with white truffle oil, placing the tartare on top of a pickled Japanese radish, showering it with shaved summer truffles and a hefty dollop of caviar. The shrimp tartare is deliciously infused with the sweetness of the sea; the truffles add a pungent earthiness and the caviar's brininess brings it to life.
At this point, the procession of sushi will begin in the classic, traditional Edo-mae style: one piece, one bite. Tanaka will serve roughly a dozen pieces of sushi, one at a time, from lighter fish to heavier fish to end the meal. Highlights include the seared toro (fatty tuna belly) sushi topped with an ochre-hued lobe of creamy sea urchin roe, which plays richness against richness to felicitous effect. The toro is blowtorched with a slab of bincho charcoal to impart some smokiness to the richly marbled tuna.
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The octopus is not the rubbery mess you might find elsewhere. Rather, Tanaka has slow-cooked the octopus in red bean and houjicha (roasted green tea) broth to tenderize the pesky cephalopod to the consistency of fresh whitefish. His sayori (needlefish) sushi is simple and tastes of the sea, cut with little more than mere drops of yuzu juice.
But all good things must come to an end, and so too will this deeply satisfying series of plates. There is no green tea ice cream nor any other desserts on the menu. Instead, the coda to each and every meal here is a piece of tamagoyaki (egg omelette) that is made in the style of the sponge cake made famous in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The tamagoyaki here is crisply crusted on the outside with a spongy interior that’s ever so lightly sweet — it's one of the best we've tasted.
When the bill comes, it will serve as yet another reminder that you're not in Los Angeles — these aren't Nobu prices. The realization will hit even harder once you step outside the door and into the drab, cookie-cutter strip mall. Simi Valley may not be a dining destination just yet, but this place is well worth the drive.
Sushi Tanaka, 3977 Cochran St., Simi Valley; (805) 306-1374, sushitanaka.com