Photos by Anne FishbeinI remember the moment I stopped eating sushi as if it were yesterday, a chilly, sunny March afternoon back in 1992, in a mini-mall near Wilshire and Wilton. I had just visited Ginza Sushiko for the first time, a glowing 10-seat restaurant where my wife and I had been the only two people in the room, and Masa Takayama, the chef and proprietor, had just prepared a meal that included membrane-thin slices of fugu, the famous poison-bearing Japanese blowfish, arranged like the petals of a treacherous, iridescent flower, and a delicate salad of halibut dressed with a white miso sauce that had been emulsified to order in the kind of ridged bowl usually used to grind taro. Takayama’s hands flashed and his fingers flew, and piece by piece, as if he were building a philosophical argument out of fish and vinegar and rice, he served us tiny lozenges of sushi that were so much better than what we’d had before that they were almost in a different language, fish that he’d somehow spirited from the great fish market in Osaka, fish with nuances of flavor that echoed like revealed truth. We had eaten in three-star restaurants in France, and in the best dining rooms in the United States. We had been eating sushi for years. We had never tasted anything like Takayama’s sushi. But this was a $600 lunch. And suddenly, knowing that we could never afford to eat at Sushiko on a regular basis (Takayama’s new restaurant in New York is even more expensive), and knowing that the experience could never be duplicated anywhere else, we basically put an end to regular meals at Shibucho and Katsu. In this sushi-saturated era, it may be hard to recall what the state of Los Angeles sushi was even just a few years ago. I once went to Little Tokyo with La Toque’s Ken Frank, the first Western chef in Los Angeles to introduce Japanese flavors into his cooking (now at his Napa Valley restaurant of the same name), and his favorite sushi chef surprised us with 13 different courses, 12 of which involved mayonnaise. (I much preferred Frank’s own take on the cuisine, especially his tuna sashimi garnished with enoki mushrooms and his raw-seafood salad with daikon sprouts and slivered mountain yams.) In a menu I saved from 1983, Horikawa, possibly the most serious sushi restaurant in the United States at the time, lists sushi only glancingly in the middle of its roster of sukiyaki and shabu shabu. The first sushi bar I ever frequented was a peculiar, signless establishment, closed during the daytime, marked only by the three tiny cones of salt outside its front door. But now even Spago, whose chefs’ expertise across the range of French, Austrian and Italian cuisines have never been questioned, offers a full selection of sushi on its catering menu and several sashimi dishes in the main dining room: a version of the toasted salmon-skin salad that Katsu Michiki, now of Tama Sushi, made famous in his restaurant Katsu in the mid-’80s; tuna and yellowtail sashimi tricked out with a little of the violently green pumpkinseed oil from Puck’s native Austria; sashimi served in little pastry cones; and a dish of raw tuna, lightly seared on the edges, like Japanese tataki, to tighten the flesh, given a Tuscan spin with crushed beans and olive oil. At the brand-new Providence, a brilliant fish restaurant, Michael Cimarusti, who is a veteran of some of the best restaurants in France, may owe more to Nobu Matsuhisa than to Escoffier. Post-Matsuhisa cuisine is the lingua franca of new Los Angeles cooking. Sushi is a cuisine almost perfectly suited to our times. The best sushi chef, unlike his French equivalent, may be incapable of rendering thymus glands, butterfat and flour into something delicious, but he is a masterful curator, or a DJ if you prefer, assembling sensations from all over the world and presenting them in a coherent fashion on a series of elegantly designed plates; it’s a cuisine that is as much about shopping as it is about technique — and there is an awful lot of technique. Like DJs faced with the same stores, mailing lists and record stacks, all sushi chefs wake up in the morning to essentially the same pool of fish. If you went to a club this June, you were going to hear 50 Cent and Jay-Z. If you went to a high-end sushi bar, you were going to come up against wild baby yellowtail from Japan, beefy bluefin tuna from Italy, giant octopus tentacles and Japanese scallops — normally rare but totally of the season. At most — almost all — sushi bars, the experience is a little like slapping a quarter into a slot and hoping the jukebox plays your favorite songs. Sometimes you get lucky, and the machine spits out the sushi equivalent of Hank Williams and Al Green. Some days it’s all Juice Newton. Such are choices made. In 2005, sushi is not only in the mainstream of Los Angeles cooking, it is the mainstream. There may be chefs here, even good ones, who don’t jostle with the sushi chefs in the downtown fish markets, but in 2005 a dinner without raw fish is like a major-league infield without a Dominican, a morning without a soy latte or a ride unpimped. And the sushi chefs themselves, led by Matsuhisa, are cooking as if they live in Los Angeles instead of Meiji-era Japan. I’m eating sushi again — how could I not? But only the good stuff, I swear.
Live and Raw A fish is offered, a flashing, vivid Spanish mackerel, bright as steel. The chef eases off the flesh, trimming, slashing, until the beast is reduced to its essence: six slivers, incandescent as marble, powdered with salt, garnished with its own curling frame. Live Santa Barbara spot prawns are denuded, brushed with ponzu, served before they quite know what has happened to them. (Later, we will eat their deep-fried heads.) Slabs of kanpachi, a tiny coldwater tuna imported from Japan, are laid into a small marine Stonehenge. Most of an expensive brick of tuna belly will be discarded while the chef looks for, and finds, the sweet spot on the fillet. For a while, Asanebo was famous as the No-Sushi Bar, the Valley’s answer to Matsuhisa, an establishment that served only sashimi and small portions of Japanese pub food, and all of Hollywood rushed to its Studio City mini-mall, eager to visit a restaurant that had come up with an entirely new way to deny satisfaction to its customers. These days, there is plenty of sushi at Asanebo (though I’m not sure I usually order that much of it). Because the only displeasure to be found at Asanebo (unless you happen to be a prawn) comes with the check, which will be high. 11941 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 760-3348. Lunch Tues.–Fri. noon–2 p.m. Dinner Tues.–Thurs. 6–10:30 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 6–11:30 p.m., Sun. 6–10 p.m.Sushi Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich Kazuto Matsusaka may be Japanese, but his restaurant Beacon is no sushi bar. He spent many years working for Wolfgang Puck, most notably as the chef at Chinois, and his own cooking leans toward Puck’s big-flavor/bold-accent end of the California spectrum. The most famous dish at Beacon is probably the grilled hanger steak. Still, meals at Beacon tend to start out with steamed edamame, run through a perfectly Japanese salad of avocado sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, and include miso soup and grilled shisito peppers. The Beacon roll, which includes crab and a ponzu gelée similar to what French chefs use to garnish their terrines, is an honorable contribution to the sushi-bar repertoire. And one of the most profound sushi experiences of the summer was Matsusaka’s BLT, a focaccia sandwich of Nueske’s bacon, ripe tomatoes, farmers-market lettuces, and slices of raw albacore that had been seared around the edges in classic tataki style, dressed with a sharp, wasabi-spiked mayonnaise: sensational. Come to think of it, that grilled hanger steak is served with a wasabi relish too. 3280 Helms Ave., Culver City, (310) 838-7500.
Attention-Deficit Sashimi A few years back, there was a restaurant in Studio City manned by tap-dancing sushi chefs, who would interrupt service every few minutes to heel-kick their way through a syrupy Beatles arrangement or a Cole Porter song. I was thinking about that place the other night as I was eating dinner at Blowfish, a loud, hyperkinetic restaurant encrusted with flat-screen television monitors, each of them soundlessly flashing anime DVDs. The sushi was on the acceptable side of the high-end Koi-style spectrum, all the fancy Japanese sea breams and tuna belly and halibut, some served traditionally and others in a fancy, spicy post-Matsuhisa groove, but the chef in front of us, a young, muscly guy with frosted hair who somehow made his chef’s jacket resemble a superheroes outfit, couldn’t have seemed more bored. Until my friend asked him a question about the movie showing behind the bar, at which time he revealed himself as a grade-A otaku, discussing individual scenes with Talmudic subtlety, tracing the animator’s influences, remembering favorite moments from old Astroboy cartoons. He wasn’t just a sushi chef — he was a professional otaku, an anime geek, who happened to be working at a sushi bar. At the tap-dancing restaurant, it was apparent that it was easier to train tap dancers to make sushi than it was to train accomplished sushi chefs to dance. At Blowfish, otaku-chef may be a hyphenate. 9229 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 887-3848. Lunch Mon.–Fri. noon–2:30 p.m. Dinner Mon.–Thurs. 6–11 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 6–mid., Sun. 6–10 p.m.Omakase for the People Westside sushi nuts often tout Echigo as the best value on their side of town, a restaurant whose omakase dinners cost a small fraction of what they might at local omakase-intensiverestaurants like Nishimura or Mori. The entire sushi-bar area is reserved for omakase meals. And the lunch course does include about a million courses of sushi for a fixed $25, from the obligatory introductory zuke, marinated tuna, to the obligatory crab roll at the end. Does the chef flip out the sushi with the monotonous regularity of a blackjack dealer in Reno? Is all of the seafood refrigerator-cold? Does the restaurant feel marooned on the second floor of an obscure mini-mall? If you wanted to eat at Urasawa, you’d be paying Urasawa prices. 12217 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 820-9787. Daily noon–2 p.m. and 5:30–10 p.m. Pleasingly Plump Sometimes the evenings call for Meiji-era rigor. And sometimes, apparently, they call for “Zentinis,” Korean-style tuna with Asian pears and raw quail-egg yolks, and spicy seafood tartare. “Do you like cream cheese?” the waiter asked. “Because if you do, you’re going to love-love-love this soy-paper tempura roll.” Fat Fish is not the worst place to contemplate the end of the world over a crunch roll and bottle of Otokoyama. 616 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 659-3882. Dinner Sun.–Thurs. 5–11 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 5–mid. Geisha House: Shake it like a Polaroid mixologist.
Have you seen this menu before? Of course you have, at Koi: tuna tartare troweled onto crispy-rice sushi; hamachi with jalapeño; seared albacore with ponzu; cowboy rolls stuffed with grilled steak; soft-shell crab tempura. But it’s a happiness explosion, dude — you’re right in the middle of it. And the food is awfully tasty too. 6633 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 460-6300. Dinner nightly 6 p.m.–2 a.m.Roll Model Striking distance from offices in both Century City and Westwood, convenient to much of the entertainment industry, Hamasaku, partly owned by former mogul Mike Ovitz, is the expense-account answer to the rock & roll sushi phenomenon, an entrepôt of Judy Rolls and Sands Rolls, rolls customized for Atkins diets and rolls that are all carbs and virtuous vegetable rolls, all of which are named for regular clients as if they were sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli. I swear, you have not seen so many squeeze bottles in use since you stood in line at the Spin Art concession at your junior high school carnival.
But Hamasaku is also a serious sushi restaurant underneath it all, and if you sit at the sushi bar, perhaps tended by Hisao Tsuzuranuki, the lead sushi chef, you’re apt to end up with fairly sober sashimi of Spanish mackerel, chu-toro and kanpachi, even as you marvel at the rainbow-colored, avocado-laminated creations that go whizzing by your ear. It’s easy enough to sit at a table and order something called a Burrito Roll; it’s another to ask the guy who has been patiently filleting your albacore to make you one — even if he’s the guy who invented the damned thing. (A friend compared it to the embarrassment he feels when he buys a DVD at an adult bookstore, even though he knows that the woman behind the counter sells them for a living.) Is it solace enough to order a spicy yellowtail hand roll served standing up in its holder like an ice cream cone? Perhaps. But if not, there’s always the notorious $20 Hamburger Roll, which sounds like something from a future drive-thru menu at Jack in the Box. 11043 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 479-7636. Lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Dinner Mon.–Thurs. 5:30–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 5:30–10:30 p.m. Hide and Seek Driving down Sawtelle, you may have noticed the long lines outside Hide Sushi, which serves neither the most famous sushi in the neighborhood nor the best. The portions tend to be on the smallish side, and the fish is sometimes a little raggedly cut. You will not find obscure herrings, giant squid or delicious shima-aji rushed straight from Narita to your plate. But Hide is renowned, even among sushi professionals, for its cash-only policy, its incredible turnover and its extremely fresh fish: all the regular stuff — tuna, shrimp, salmon, mackerel, yellowtail. And Hide serves among the cheapest sushi assortments in town — incredibly cheap, change-for-a-ten-spot cheap — in a dining room that seems closer to an old-line New York deli than it does to a serene temple of fish. The last time I was in, the waitress chased me out to the sidewalk because she was afraid that I’d over-tipped. That sort of thing would never happen at Sushi Roku. 2040 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-7242. Lunch and dinner Tues.–Sat. 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m., Sun. 11:30 a.m.–8 p.m.Sushi Among the Skewers B-list movie actresses. House music of dental-drill intensity. A crowded patio. Hustlers in torn $650 jeans, dead meat grilled on sticks, and sushi, commodity-grade sushi, issuing from the sushi bar off to the side like swarms of killer bees — Katana may be at heart a robata-yaki specializing in the baser sorts of chicken innards, but not much goes in this part of Hollywood without the requisite consort of raw fish. 8439 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 650-8585. Dinner Sun.–Mon. 6–11 p.m., Tues.–Wed. 6–11:30 p.m., Thurs.–Sat. 6 p.m.–12:30 a.m.
Kiriko: Serious fish.
You may never have heard cat owners talk about their pets with half the affection Namba uses to describe the Copper River king salmon he has just brought in, beautiful, shiny beasts whose flesh is so luxuriously heavy with oil that it tastes almost surreally alive.
“I was just watching a Japanese television show about the most famous smoked-salmon shop in Japan,” he says, “a shop in Kobe whose smoked fish is reserved for presidents and dignitaries. I had always thought that their salmon came from Hokkaido, but no: They use Copper River salmon too, the best in the world.”
He pats his side of fish. Namba smokes his salmon over smoldering cherrywood, slices it thick, and wraps it around spears of ripe mango: The sashimi is soft and luscious, salty and sweet, penetratingly smoky yet delicate — one of the most magnificent mouthfuls of food imaginable. There was baby yellowtail presented simply, Spanish mackerel dressed with grated ginger and ponzu, mackerel as rich as ripe Brie. The sea bream pulled out of Japan’s Inland Sea was almost gooey in its extreme freshness, arranged into a blocky monument of fish on a handmade plate, dusted with the zest of a tiny yuzu, served with a tiny dish of salt grated to order from a pink, quartzlike stone, and garnished with baby Japanese mint. One of the gifts of a great sushi chef is the ability to appear casual, unhurried, processing the food for an entire restaurant while looking as serene and unbothered as a flirting Fred Astaire. Of the 40 sushi bars I went to for this piece, Kiriko is the one I can’t wait to get back to. 11301 Olympic Blvd., No. 102, West Los Angeles, (310) 478-7769. Lunch Tues.–Fri. noon–2:15 p.m. Dinner Tues.–Sun. 6–10 p.m.?Hookups and Hamachi Koi kind of is what it is: a warren of intimate patios and bonsai-thick nooks, a hookup nirvana, a dining room whose seating chart seems ripped straight from the pages of Us Weekly. Many of the customers are impossibly beautiful, the kind of toned, tanned, possibly surgically enhanced beauty for which Los Angeles is envied by the world, but the lighting, a grid of dim spotlights more intricate than anything Robert Wilson ever devised for an opera production, makes even modestly attractive people look like extras on The O.C. Everybody loves Koi: Its matrix of sushi, celebrity and sex bumped the Roku paradigm up a few levels, and at the moment, it may be one of the most imitated restaurants in the world.
It is widely believed, however, that the post-Matsuhisa-style cuisine at Koi is an afterthought, that the avocado-laden tuna tartare on crispy won tons, the tuna sashimi with jalapeño, and the infamous albacore Italiano are secondary to the rush, the scene, even the steak. But somebody has been paying attention behind the sushi bar lately. Out of the five restaurants in town where I’ve eaten wild baby yellowtail sashimi within the last month, Koi’s was the best, surpassing even Kiriko and Urasawa. The seared albacore with garlic dissolved in the mouth like butter. And if you’re going to eat something like a baked crab hand roll (the sake made me do it), you might as well have a good one. It’ll give you something to do while you eavesdrop on the conversation of Lindsay Lohan or the Roots. 730 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 659-9449. Dinner Mon.–Wed. 6–11 p.m., Thurs. 6–11:30 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 6–mid., Sun. 6–10 p.m. Nobu Matsuhisa: The jet-setting chef at work.
The Man If Nobu Matsuhisa were nothing more than a gifted sushi master, running his successful restaurant Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills and training a couple of apprentices a year, he would still be exalted in the refrigerated fish warehouses downtown. But he is not. He is the one who changed the game. And as the baron of a sushi empire that stretches from London to Peru and the inventor of a strange, new cuisine, he is perhaps the only Japanese chef in Los Angeles whose influence is felt as strongly in Japan as it is California. And it couldn’t be felt more strongly here. Whenever you taste chopped chiles on sashimi or warmed oil on a sliver of fluke, that’s Matsuhisa’s influence at work. When you notice that one new restaurant out of three gilds its yellowtail with black truffles or its albacore with crushed garlic, that’s Matsuhisa, too. His restaurant is the most influential in California since Spago. And if, when you visit, reserving far in advance and rubbing shoulders with both Robert De Niro and busloads of Japanese tourists, you notice that the famous omakase menu hasn’t changed in years, that you are still going to get new-style shrimp sashimi, sashimi salad, miso-marinated cod and (if you rate it) toro tartare with caviar, you will remember to sit at the sushi bar next time and pull the best out of the chefs. 129 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 659-9639. Lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:45 a.m.–2:15 p.m. Dinner Mon.–Sun. 5:45–10:15 p.m. Mori: Wasabi, uncut.