Recently, we published our 99 Essential Restaurants in Los Angeles issue for 2017, along with its new sister list, the Freshmen 15 (for the newbie restaurants too young to be "essential" but that we love nonetheless). Hidden within that massive list is a guide to what we consider the best Japanese restaurants in the city. Here are six essential Japanese restaurants, as well as one bonus spot from the Freshmen 15 list.
For years Naruki Matsumoto was the head chef of Hirozen, the unassuming, strip-mall sushi spot near the Beverly Center; now he runs the joint. Like a conductor, Matsumoto bows slightly, cracks a coy smile, then the performance begins. He scoops rice with his right hand, hugs it in his palm and rolls it between his fingers. After a swift horizontal knife slice through sea bream, he lays the flesh on the pillow of rice over a tuft of watercress. He snows a flake or two of coarse salt, then plates his creations. He pauses, then, like winding a watch, turns the sculptural sushi to exactly the 1:35 clock position on the circular plate. The omakase puts your night in his control, as he delivers dish after dish; perhaps a pile of tiny salmon roe, which pop like briny flavor grenades; or maybe some bright orange uni that melts with richness; or the kamasu seared barracuda, which balances the textures of its cool center with the blowtorched exterior. —Drew Tewksbury
Read Matsumoto's full 99 Essentials blurb here.
When you’re in the realm of ultra-expensive meals, the ones that hit well over three figures before you’ve even considered a glass of wine let alone tax and tip, it can be hard to discern true value. Of course, it depends what’s important to you: Luxurious surroundings? Obsequious service? If your main interest is in food, in particular gorgeously plated, highly fussed over, brightly seasonal, modern Japanese cuisine, we recommend n/naka, the quiet Palms kaiseki restaurant run by Niki Nakayama. Nakayama may be the only female kaiseki chef in the world — kaiseki being the formal, multicourse, seasonal style of Japanese dining. Regardless of whether she is unique in that regard, her restaurant and food (much of it grown in the restaurant’s garden) are certainly singular in Los Angeles. The 13 courses will take you through different aspects of the season, be it a “modern interpretation of sashimi” composed of kanpachi with bell pepper gelee, jalapeño gelee and avocado sauce, or her “chef’s choice dish,” which is usually a stunning spaghettini with shaved black abalone, pickled cod roe and Burgundian truffles. —Besha Rodell
Read n/naka's full 99 Essentials blurb here.
Q's Hiroyuki Naruke has introduced diners to an intricate style of Edo-era omakase dining, which prizes the delicate curing of halibut wrapped in kelp, briny translucent shrimp from Toyama Bay swaddled in nori or a gentle brush of miso over a pat of uni. Each meal ends with a simple square of tamago presented on a ceramic plate. Humble in appearance, the sweet egg omelet bursts with the deep oceanic flavors of scallop and shrimp it’s made with — at Q, nothing is quite as humble as it appears. —Garrett Snyder
Read Q's full 99 Essentials blurb here.
Once you’ve entered Shunji’s odd, round building on Pico Boulevard and made your way to your seat inside the sparse, circular room, turn your attention to the blackboard on the wall. You’ll need some time to ponder — the daily specials list can be a tad overwhelming. A waiter will bring you a menu board and prop it on a chair so you can peruse the tiny handwriting that crams every corner of the board’s surface. Your mind will swim, trying to take in all the sushi and sashimi options, as well as numerous creative Japanese small plates. Don’t sweat it — instead, go ahead and order the omakase, which is the clearest expression of chef Shunji Nakao’s vision, and which will include much of the best of what’s on the board anyway. —B.R.
There are many reasons to stand outside Sushi Gen in Little Tokyo to wait your turn for a table or a spot at the sushi bar. In a city full of sushi — rarefied sushi, expensive sushi, crappy sushi — Sushi Gen bridges the gap between quality and affordability. And it’s a pretty cool experience, to boot. Request a seat at the sushi bar and marvel as the line of sushi chefs doles out some of the highest-quality, lowest-cost raw fish in America. The lunch specials and dinner plates (not available at the sushi bar) deliver the best bang for your buck, but we prefer to sit and talk to the chefs, seek out the best of the day and order à la carte. —B.R.
With a ramen annex across the street from the original Sawtelle location and a sushi restaurant down the block, there’s a whole lot of ways to give these folks your money, and Tsujita Sushi’s lunchtime offerings are outstanding in terms of raw-fish value. Perhaps once in a while we’ll make that detour, but for the most part, you can find us up the street waiting outside for a prized spot at that original bar, where we’ll slurp on ramen while being intensely thankful for our ever-expanding noodle riches. —B.R.
Read Tsujita's full 99 Essentials blurb here.
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Shibumi (bonus from the Freshmen 15!)
Chef David Schlosser is presenting a singular vision at Shibumi, and if you get on his wavelength, this place can seem like entering an alternate dimension. If there's a defining element to Schlosser's cooking, and Shibumi in general, it is simplicity, informed by the tradition of Japanese kappo-style cooking. The chef wants you to taste the ingredients — really taste them — so much so that eating here can be like discovering the elemental truth of foods you thought you knew well. There's a focus on texture rarely seen in Western cooking, which can be revelatory or disconcerting, depending on the dish and on your personal tolerance for viscosity. Cold seafood dishes are designed to highlight the fish above all else, but Schlosser adds elements that reinforce the silkiness and freshness of a Japanese sea bream, for instance, by contrasting it with the barely-there crunch of a ginger bud, its delicate floral flavor shimmering at the edge of your consciousness. —B.R.