Behold Sushi Bar Golf, at the historic intersection of Third and Vermont, a Japanese restaurant at the heart of a neighborhood that can't decide whether it is Filipino, Salvadoran or Korean. Although Sushi Bar Golf is in plain view, it seems a little like a secret restaurant, with its valet parking and entrance hidden at the rear of a busy Union Oil station. When you wheel around the Datsuns and battered Mavericks at the gas station's pumps, you'll find Golf's small parking lot filled with Lexuses, Infinitis and a smattering of 740Is.
Somebody at Golf must play a round every so often, and there are the photographs, autographed scorecards and course souvenirs to prove it. The deep, wooden booths are decorated with pictures of Augusta fairways rendered in glowing tones that suggest black-velvet Elvis paintings. Back in the corner, a poster of the golf world's most famous Cablinasian occupies a favored niche. On video monitors hanging from the ceiling, golf tournaments silently play themselves out, except on the one screen that usually seems to be broadcasting sushi-making instructional tapes. If you look carefully, you will even find an autographed glossy of the golf-mad Korean comedian Johnny Yune.
Golf occupies a former coffee shop that for most of the '70s and '80s was a Japanese place called Alps, famous for its passable yakisoba, hamburger patties spiked with minced onion, and beautiful waitresses in very short skirts. The '90s saw Alps' transformation into Hassho, an izaka-ya (Japanese pub) whose seared albacore and simmered cod were positioned almost exactly between the simple food at the popular pub chain Yoro No Taki and the exquisite nibbles at expensive joints like Yuu and Ita-Cho.
Now comes Sushi Bar Golf. Where classic Japanese sushi is a delicate medium, this is more in the style of Korean sushi: Technicolor-bright, pungently seasoned, and served in meaty, Flintstonesian slabs. Golf brings to this venerable space the Korean paradigm of sushi as a great bar snack, and indeed, most of the men sitting around the sushi bar itself seem to sluice down their tuna rolls and live-shrimp sashimi with vast amounts of Dewars and Johnny Walker Red. The traditional Korean liquor soju, a sort of low proof sweet-potato vodka, seems almost too feeble for the cuisine.
First, there is a little bowl of boiled soybeans to nibble on while you scan the menu, and then a small assortment of the Korean appetizers called panchon, which may include the usual kimchi; sweet, thinly sliced turnips; a black sea vegetable; maybe something marine and slithery that you suspect to have once been a sea creature's unmentionables.
Tempura – a few vegetables, a couple of shrimp, a slice of lotus root – comes in an attractive iron basket and has the distinct oily-sweet smack of fresh crullers. Once, the waitress brought over, as casually generous as a taco-shop waitress with a bowl of chips, a whole, deep-fried scorpion fish for each person at the table, and the nightmarishly ugly scorpion fish, poison spikes and all, tasted a little like a freshly fried cruller too.
The menu at Golf, printed in English and Hangul but not Japanese, is rich in teriyaki plates and mackerel dinners and such, but seems to emphasize the sashimi assortments known as Par, Birdy and Eagle, sort of glacial moraines sculpted out of shredded daikon, then salted with fish-marketfuls of fresh sliced fish: salmon striped with pale fat; rich red tuna, various halibuts and yellowtails; shrimp fished from the tanks behind the sushi bar; bits of abalone and clam. The Birdy plate, though listed as an appetizer, is dinner enough for two.
The sushi here is fine, hand rolls stuffed with strips of grilled salmon skin, rather overvinegared mackerel sushi, beefy tuna, piers of grilled sea eel, house-special rolls that resemble vegetable-rich tuna rolls paved with curved scallops of thinly sliced avocado.
But nothing may go better with a brimming glass of soju than Golf's hwe dup bap, a superb version of Korea's great contribution to sushi, bits of impeccably fresh sashimi topped with vinegared slivers of cucumber, strips of toasted seaweed, black sesame seeds and a raw quail egg, which you toss at table with sweet bean sauce and a bowl of hot rice. Fore!
239 S. Vermont Ave.; (213) 387-1233. Open for lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$50. Full bar. Valet parking in rear. AE, MC,V. Recommended dishes: sushi; hwe dup bap.