When he was a kid, chef Phillip Frankland Lee wanted to go to “sushi school” before any other kind of cooking school. He tells this to the eight diners seated before him in his new private sushi bar, called Sushi|Bar. It seems to be a sort of explanation for why he has added this to his collection of strip mall, American-fare restaurants. His excitement is palpable, like a kid who has finally gotten the shiny new toy he's always wanted.
Though the room is easily accessible through sliding oak doors that open inside of the bar Lee runs, Woodley Proper, guests are guided seemingly unnecessarily through hallways, back-of-house pantries, kitchen storage rooms and in through another side of the small room. The awkward route attempts to give the feeling that this is an actual speakeasy. And maybe with enough pre-dinner sake, it could work.
The eight-seat counter offers three seatings per night (5, 7 and 9 p.m.). Reservations are not an option, so in order to snag a seat, hopeful guests must arrive in person as early as 3 p.m. If seats are still available, a deposit of $50 for the $110 16-sushi-course meal is required. Wood tokens are given as currency for a “welcome cocktail” that comes with the meal, but the drink is only available 30 minutes before the scheduled seating. And if this doesn’t sound complicated enough, there’s more. Once you’ve scored a reservation, don’t be late for your seating. Lee won’t accept guests after five minutes, as it would disrupt the flow of the meal experience, and the $50 would be forfeited.
Once inside, the meal, which in many ways feels like a performance, begins with fresh oysters topped with sturgeon caviar and sake foam. Lee and his small team hand over bite after bite of seafood combinations such as Japanese yellowtail with wasabi root, sourdough breadcrumbs, corn pudding, soy and sushi rice. Before each piece is placed in front of diners, Lee announces what it is, how it was made and, often, what inspired him. (A strange, slimy gruel of lobster innards, ikura, yam and mushroom dashi stemmed from a dish Lee loved at Aburiya Raku in Las Vegas.) For this reason, it's not the best environment for socializing or catching up with friends over dinner. The meal is more about Lee and the food than about having a relaxed, jovial time. But there's plenty of that outside those sliding oak doors at Woodley Proper.
After seafood comes tastes of bone marrow, aged sirloin and cured foie gras. Beverage pairings are available for an additional $55. Though the meal comes with an unlimited supply of house-made pickled ginger and cucumbers, don't expect any soy sauce or wasabi for dipping or chopsticks for eating. Each creation is meant to be consumed by hand, including the final course, Lee's wife and pastry chef Margarita Kallas-Lee's addition to the menu: charcoal mochi with toasted rice tea ice cream.
16101 Ventura Blvd., Encino; (818) 906-9775, woodleyproper.com.