“These aren’t even as good as the ones you get at Ralphs,” says my friend, rolling an inari sushi across her plastic plate. We’re sitting in Todai, an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant below the Beverly Center, ruing the fact that, like tourists in Las Vegas, we’ve been blinded by size and bright lights and what sounded like impossibly good odds: all-you-can-eat sushi, for $12.95! And just look at that steam table, it must be a mile long! Even if half of it’s bad, we’ll be making out like bandits. It is not until we’re seated that we register the death-by-a-thousand-sax-solos Muzak, notice the chit on the table asking if we’ve heard about Todai through direct mail, see that the labyrinthine buffet is crammed not with authentic, fresh Japanese foods but facsimiles: machine-cut slices of fluorescent mauve tuna askew not-sticky-enough, wasabi-free mounds of rice; droopy noodles in a metallic-tasting sukiyaki; the inexplicable platter of corn kernels. Like Las Vegas on a budget, Todai quickly becomes a depressing experience, from the miniature desserts whose flavors all seem to be “sugar,” to the dogged diners making sure they get their money’s worth.
It’s a sucker’s game, this all-you-can-eat business. Yet the threat of imminent starvation hard-wired into our ancestral psyches and the giddy notion of getting something for nothing often make the proposition irresistible. In the case of sushi, it’s almost oxymoronic, as part of sushi’s allure is its preciousness: big bucks for tiny morsels that, when properly prepared, look like jewels and are accorded commensurate respect, their beauty and flavors savored individually.
Despite my understanding this, there are times I want to eat, not admire, what’s on my plate, and the more the better.
Small and clean, with a tiny sushi bar and smiling Japanese chefs (albeit wearing tennis shirts — hey, it’s on Larchmont), Kiku inspires confidence, as does its slightly higher all-you-can-eat prices ($18.95 at lunch, $24.95 at dinner). It’s a Thursday evening, and the restaurant, which has been open just over a year, is empty save for several young guys wearing baseball caps dining alone, working their way through what looks like credible sushi. My boyfriend and I are quietly discussing the many menu offerings when the chefs, who must have supersonic hearing, hand over plates of thimble-size shrimp sumai, crunchy on the outside, tender within. Very good, as are unagi, broiled eel sushi drizzled with sweet soy. “Here are your ice-cream cones,” jokes one chef, handing over gigantic hand-rolls of nori stuffed with crisped salmon skin, rice and matchsticks of cucumber. Next comes an assortment of rolls — California, Larchmont, albacore tuna. All are tasty, though we’d have been wiser to order them as sushi, as many of the rolls at Kiku are lightly fried, so that the exterior rice has a tempura flake, making for a filling repast.
Picking out the yellowtail from my 18th slice of roll, I notice the sign above the sushi bar: “DEAR ALL YOU CAN EATERS: PLEASE DON’T REMOVE RICE FROM SUSHI.” So this is how they ensure we don’t eat them out of business! When the sea urchin (one per customer) arrives, looking like orange velour and tasting like a mouthful of seawater, my boyfriend whispers, “Baby, let’s stop ordering.” We offer what we cannot finish to our fellow diners, who shake their heads sympathetically and tell us they were about to offer us the rest of theirs, proving, I suppose, that you can have too much of a good thing.
Walking back to the car, we muse on the fact that one feels obliged to overeat at places like Kiku (though not at Todai, or Hometown Buffet, or any other chain feeding troughs). Will I eat at Kiku again? Yes. Will I order all I can eat again? I tell myself no, that in the future I will exercise restraint, that I have learned to prize quality over quantity. Then again, for only $18.95 . . .
Todai, Beverly Center (and seven other locations in Los Angeles), 8612 Beverly Blvd.; (310) 659-1375. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch $12.95–$14.95; dinner $21.95–$22.95. Beer, wine and sake. AE, MC, V.
Kiku, 246 N. Larchmont Blvd.; (323) 464-1200. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch, all-you-can-eat, $18.95; dinner, all-
you-can-eat, $24.95; à la carte items, $2.50–$19.95. Beer, wine and sake. AE, D, MC, V.