Raw Power

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-intensive restaurants 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.

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