O-Dae San is the grandest fish restaurant in Koreatown, a high-ceilinged modern space with acres of glass and marble, and a sushi bar running the length of the dining room. The list of sojus and sakes is long. The private dining rooms are sumptuous. The guarded valet parking lot teems with $150,000 Mercedes sedans as well as top-of-the-line Hyundais. There are a lot of places in Koreatown where serious money may be spent on dinner, but O-Dae San, although it is possible to get out of the restaurant fairly cheaply, exemplifies a special kind of luxury, a gilded brand of conspicuous consumption that extends far beyond giant lobsters and bottles of Crown Royal. A Russian industrialist would feel right at home.
The ritual of a Korean sushi bar doesn’t necessarily differ much from that of a Japanese sushi bar, and O-Dae San’s cuisine is much closer to traditional sushi than, say, the food at the Koreatown sushi stalwart Bu San, where you are encouraged to wrap your sashimi in lettuce leaves with stinky bean paste, sliced chiles and whole cloves of raw garlic. O-Dae San’s sashimi is actually pretty orthodox, beautifully sliced slabs of halibut or yellowtail perched against vast razor-wire coils of shredded daikon — the only detail distinguishing it from a Japanese plate (other than, of course, the array of panchan served before the course) is probably a low heap of pickled scallions artfully positioned in front of a shiso leaf. If you raise an eyebrow in the proper manner, one of the sushi guys will slip you a shallow dish of chile sauce. O-Dae San is good that way.
For $150, they’ll pull a 5-pound halibut out of the live tank, fillet it, and bring it to the table so fresh that it’s still quivering. It’s enough delicious halibut to power six hungry men through an oceanic tide of soju. For a bit less, they’ll dispatch a big lobster and bring its translucent, still-quivering corpse to the table, then boil its head in a seething pot of fresh tofu. Twitching crab your thing? They’ve got that too.
If you really want to get your Korean on, you can try a dish of bokkum, sliced fish or octopus stir-fried in a hot, sweet sauce with scallions and onions, a dish of seafood that bites back. There are lovely oysters sluiced with ponzu sauce and dotted with chile, and fire-red soups thick with fish and miscellaneous invertebrates.
But peasant that I am, I can never tear myself away from the ever-fascinating al bap, a big bowl of sushi rice frosted — frosted! — with a half-dozen different kinds of fish eggs, laid out in contrasting streaks radiating from a plop of creamy sea-urchin roe at the center of the bowl like rays from the sun. Plus, you get to say: al bap. But still, we know nothing goes better with a brimming glass of soju than something like O-Dae San’s hwe do bap, which is to say bits of impeccably fresh sashimi topped with vinegared slivers of cucumber, strips of toasted seaweed, black sesame seeds, tossed at the table with sweet bean sauce and a raw egg. I may be a peasant, but I’m not crazy.
The last time I was there, I ordered a few live Santa Barbara spot prawns, at $10 a pop. Some restaurants in Koreatown serve the prawns intact and wriggling, stripped of their shells but still attached to their heads — you kill the prawn when you bite into it, feel the life drain from its body into your mouth. At O-Dae San, only the bodies of the peeled live prawns are served, but the severed heads are arranged neatly around a mound of ice, very much still alive, legs shuddering, black eyes swiveling, watching you as you pick up their bodies with your chopsticks and put them into your mouth. A prawn may not be capable of consciousness as you or even Peter Singer knows it, but it knows when it is being eaten. It doesn’t like it much. But it is delicious, plumped out with briny juices, each individual cell popping under your teeth.
As soon as you are done, the plate is snatched away and the heads are plunged into hot oil. When I was eating the second tempura-fried prawn head, a long, serrated appendage somehow escaped the crunch of my teeth and found its way into the back of my throat, where it clung like a many-barbed fishhook and stubbornly refused to budge. A swig of water did nothing to dislodge the leg. Neither did a bout of rather violent coughing. I wiggled my fingers down my throat like a junior bulimic, but the barbs lay just beyond the reach of my fingers, and my face had begun to assume a startling shade of green. In a last, desperate attempt — does the Heimlich maneuver even work on an object as slender as a shrimp leg? — I snatched a fistful of rice from my toddler son’s bowl. On the second swallow, the clump of rice swept the barbed object down my esophagus and I gulped the smoky, fishy air as if it were sweet, sweet beer.
There are certain people who would claim that I had this coming to me — that the moments of suffocation were karmic justice for the thousands of crustaceans I have eaten in my life. They may have a point.?
O-Dae San, 2889 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 383-9800. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $30–$80, considerably more with special sushi. Recommended dishes: al bap; hwe do bap; octopus bokkum.