“Have you been here before?” the waiter at Hiko Sushi asked as I hovered near the back door. “Because if you haven’t, I need to explain some rules.”
He furtively glanced over his shoulder.
“First — are you dining alone? Because you can’t sit down until everyone in your party is here. You have to order at least four things. If you want to sit at the sushi bar, you have to do omakase, chef’s choice. You will eat what you are served. No sashimi except for baby tuna, and we don’t have that today. And when you are served sushi, you have to eat the rice. We serve traditional sushi only; no tempura, no teriyaki, no California rolls.”
He looked at me expectantly, as if he were counting the seconds before I mumbled an excuse and left. My phone rang. He cringed, and pointed to one of the several signs in the restaurant saying “No Cellphones.” I hadn’t even laid eyes on the chef yet, but already I could feel his glower. I turned off the phone and slipped it back into my pocket.
Other local Japanese restaurants have rules — in fact, the existence of arbitrary regulations is almost a defining characteristic of Los Angeles sushi. But the dictates are both more numerous and more strictly enforced at Hiko, which may be the sushi bar equivalent of Shopsin’s, the late, beloved Greenwich Village diner whose owner often spent more time ferreting out customers who defied his commandments — one of which was a prohibition against ordering the same thing as the guy at the next table — than he actually did in the kitchen.
If you sit at the sushi bar, you will almost certainly be served a big cereal bowl full of chopped tuna drenched in tart ponzu sauce. Then come yellowtail sushi, red-snapper sushi dressed with citrus and a bit of numbing pepper, albacore sushi, and a crab roll.
Obey and you will be served: Hiko chef Shinji Murata hands over the goods.
If you ask sushi chef/owner Shinji Murata whether the snapper is Japanese tai, his eyes will narrow, he will look quickly down at his hamper of rice, and he will mutter that the Japanese fish is farmed and he serves only wild. If you look at the plump, snow-white pillow of albacore, you may note that it is raw instead of seared tataki-style to firm its flesh like almost everywhere else in town. You will notice that the rice is not just warm, but hot, and that the soft fish melts into it in your mouth, enveloping the sweet grains almost like a sauce. Nothing at Hiko’s sushi bar prepares you for a transcendent experience — the precut fish, the limited selection, the cheap plastic plates, the dining room that, while handsomely decorated with abstract paintings, is as basic as you’d expect a mini-mall restaurant to be — but the aesthetic of soft fish and hot rice is absolute, and nearly every piece, excepting a rather dull scallop, is what it is intended to be.
The sake list, by the way, is short but spectacular. If you can get past the usual Kurosawas and Otokoyamas and such, try the shimmeringly fragrant Jozen.
If you continue beyond the natural caesura, there will be two pieces of sea bass identical but for the transparent rectangle of seaweed covering one — the bare tartness of the one lets you taste the fish as if it were a holographic representation of itself, sensed from all sides and somehow hyperreal. There will be toro sushi that tastes like aged prime beef, a bit of marinated halibut on a snip of fried won ton skin, and a hand roll stuffed with rice and Maine lobster. If you are lucky, Murata may serve you salmon eggs that have been semi-cured until they pop like hard water balloons in your mouth, smears of sea-urchin roe, writhing Kumamoto oysters, or pickled mackerel. You will see at least one person kicked out of the restaurant — the last night I went, the ejection happened because one of a foursome had shown up a few minutes later than his girlfriend.
It is not an accident that the chef worked for a while at Sushi Nozawa, the local pioneer in Los Angeles of both hot rice and ice-cold customer relations.
Hiko Sushi, 11275 National Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 473-7688. Open Mon.–Fri., noon–1:45 p.m. and 6–9:30 p.m. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Sake and beer. Lot parking in rear. Dinner for two, food only, $60–$160.