Photo by Anne FishbeinFRENCH CHEFS HERE, MOST OF THEM ANYWAY, ARE resigned to nourishing their best customers on custom-ordered egg-white omelets, sauceless chicken and swordfish broiled dry. The Zone Diet has forced the city's Italian chefs to devise carpaccios instead of pastas; New American chefs have had to redefine home cooking as spa cuisine. But for a sushi chef, Los Angeles is the Promised Land, a city of unlimited appetite and infinite malleability, of open minds and good cheer, that has long served as a crucible of sushi experimentation on a scale unknown anywhere else on Earth. Build it and they shall come, even if you fling your sushi onto conveyer belts, season it with garlic or pepper it with loud reggae.
Sizzling olive oil over sashimi? Sure. Cream cheese on a salmon roll? Why not? Salsa with oysters? Fried uni with scallops? Avocado with crabmeat? Hey. Go right ahead. The same people who think nothing of lecturing Michelin-starred chefs on exactly what might go into an acceptable plate of coquilles St. Jacques are the same people who enjoy visiting sushi bars with signs on the wall that say: “Special of the Day: Chef's Choice.” They accept — embrace even — sushi bars whose chefs will toss them out on their ear if they dare to ask for the yellowtail before they have finished eating their halibut.
In the middle of the Studio City sushi district, a bit past the Coldwater Curve, Asanebo occupies a small storefront tucked into a mini-mall, lighted with neon and surrounded by double-parked BMWs. Hairy music-industry guys sit at the sushi bar, trading quips in Japanese with Tetsuya, the primary chef. A big Japanese guy at the bar, a local high school football coach who practically lives in this restaurant, holds an impromptu seminar on the Purdue secondary. Visiting tourists from Osaka clutch packs of Silk Cuts in sweating fists, not quite able to believe that the state of California will not allow them to smoke in restaurants.
For a while, Asanebo was famous as the No-Sushi Bar, an establishment that served only sashimi and tiny portions of proto-Japanese cooked foods — grilled salmon with mashed potatoes and salmon eggs, fried squid with asparagus, steamed catfish with miso and ginger — and all Hollywood seemed to flock to the place, eager to visit a restaurant that had come up with an entirely new way to deny satisfaction to its customers. “California roll?” Sorry, can't help you. “Spicy tuna roll?” Never heard of it. “Maguro sushi?” Sorry, no rice today. Asanebo achieved a small reputation as the poor man's Matsuhisa, although its food is actually a little closer to classic Japanese pub cooking than to Matsuhisa's Latinate takes on the genre, and the cost, which can reach well upward of $75 a person with tax, tip and a bamboo split of chilled sake, is not precisely a bargain.
Still, it is a pleasure to pull up a stool to the bar, to utter the magic word omakase — “Feed me until I burst!” — and to sit back and wait for the food to arrive.
Perhaps there will be albacore sashimi, seared at the sides just until the flesh tightens up a little, served with a drizzle of citrus and the thinnest shavings of raw garlic, and funky slivers of Spanish mackerel sprinkled with salt and minced scallions, and fresh halibut walloped with spice. Soft, oily salmon, mounded in a bowl, is garnished with caviar; fillets of kanpache, a tiny cold-water tuna imported from Japan, are arranged into a little fishy Stonehenge. The ankimo, cylinders of molded monkfish liver in a sharp ponzu sauce, is fine.
Then come the cooked dishes, perhaps some steamed baby abalone in a thin, pungent broth made with wild mushrooms; almost certainly a nicely crisp version of the grilled, miso-marinated cod that has become as ubiquitous as tuna rolls in local Japanese restaurants. The bouncy spring roll stuffed with overemulsified fish cake does little for me, and I wasn't crazy about the steak, but the fried, shiso-wrapped uni, a crunchy little bundle of brine, can be mind-bending.
You may not even miss the sushi. And if you do, Tetsuya may just condescend to make you the salmon-skin hand roll that you crave. Asanebo's more relaxed about that stuff these days.
11941 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 760-3348. Open for lunch Tues.Fri., for dinner Tues.Sun. Dinner for two, food only, $25$90. Beer and wine. Lot parking. AE, CB, DC, Disc., MC, V. Recommended dishes: omakase. Otherwise: monkfish liver; sea urchin tempura with shiso; grilled black cod with miso.