It's a few minutes before 6 p.m. on a Saturday evening, and the long, wrap-around sushi bar at Okumura is already crowded. The most prized seats — the section of the restaurant that seems perpetually quarantined, with small "reserved" signs — are directly in front of Ryota Okumura, a young, lanky chef who's busy crowning ceramic cups of steamed egg custard with bright red salmon roe and lobes of Santa Barbara sea urchin for a couple and their cooing toddler. Having walked in without a reservation on one of the busiest nights of the week, I am not sitting in that section. Yet by the time my parade of nigiri finishes with a plump, blue-crab hand roll accented with crunchy fried onions and slivers of avocado, I wouldn't mind if I was seated in Siberia — or, for that matter, in the crowded Encino strip mall where Okumura is located.
Since opening in 2012, Okumura has slowly developed a cult following among aficionados of the San Fernando Valley sushi scene, a loose stretch of restaurants mostly confined to Ventura Boulevard where it cuts across the hillside from Studio City to Tarzana. One of Okumura's most visible fans is Jonathan Broida, owner of Japanese Knife Imports in Beverly Hills. The store is known as a chef hangout of sorts, both because of its first-rate collection of prized Gyuto knives and its handwritten whiteboard that's regularly updated with open kitchen jobs at many of the better restaurants in town — sort of a proto-Craigslist for chefs. Follow Broida on Instagram, and you'll see photos of raw fish splayed out like precious jewelry, many of them from Okumura. You'll also find general praise for the restaurant's quality sushi at a reasonable price.
World-class sushi is not uncommon in Los Angeles — there's Sushi Zo, Urasawa, Mori, Q and Sushi Tsujita, to name a few — but for many of us, the cost of a full-blown dinner at one of these places can be equivalent to a week's salary. On the other hand, anyone who appreciates sushi will acknowledge that good sushi shouldn't be cheap. So what do we talk about when we talk about quality, affordable sushi? Compromise, to some extent, but not too much compromise.
At Okumura — whose sparse, white-walled dining room is decorated with abstract artwork by a Japanese painter — it's possible to order spicy tuna atop crispy rice, a few rolls filled with shrimp tempura and soft-shell crab and a bottle of Sapporo or two, and be completely content. The real excitement, however, can be found on the list of daily specials handed out with the menu. It details a dozen or so fish, ranging from salmon and halibut to stuff you've never heard of, flown in from Japan.
At some sushi counters, requesting an omakase meal can feel intimidating, like setting yourself up for a shocking bill once you sip the last of your green tea. But at Okumura it's possible to work your way through most, if not all, of the daily special nigiri and not spend more than $60 per person. That might include a silky strip of black snapper sprinkled with truffle salt and a dab of tart yuzu kosho; plump Hokkaido scallops gently brushed with soy; and amberjack laid atop a bit of shiso leaf, decorated with crunchy brown flecks that your chef explains are dehydrated flakes of soy sauce. I also had one of the more memorable bites of sushi I've ever eaten: a firm slice of triggerfish that arrived topped with a dollop of its own raw liver, a creamy, fatty counterpoint to the lean flavor of the fish. It cost $4.
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Ryota Okumura, the head chef and owner, trained at Hattori culinary academy in Japan (best known for supplying culinary students as assistants to the cooking show Iron Chef) and later worked at Sushi Zo in Culver City. At his eponymous restaurant, he's able to coax a deeper savoriness out of fish you might not otherwise find exciting. Salmon belly has the richness of good Nova lox, while miniature firefly squid are marinated just long enough to make their briny flavor pop on the tongue.
If you opt for the full-scale omakase assault — which usually ends up running around $100 per person, before alcohol — your meal will start with a trio of carpaccio: ruby-red slabs of tuna showered with soy vinaigrette and gold flakes, albacore with crispy onions and micro greens and, most interesting, sliced amberjack topped with pico de gallo, the ingredients finely minced into the smallest dimensions imaginable. The carpaccio trio is solid, though the nigiri — say, Santa Barbara uni or seared toro — is where Okumura-san shines most.
It's unlikely that Okumura will find its way to the top of any best-sushi lists, but that's OK. The restaurant boasts quality fish, properly seasoned rice, skillful knifework and an omakase that's affordable enough to be a once-a-month indulgence rather than a once-a-year one. And you'll still leave with a reminder of why you became so obsessed with sushi in the first place.
OKUMURA | Two stars | 17302 Ventura Blvd., Encino | (818) 986-9712 | okumurarestaurant.com | Daily, 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; Mon.-Thu., 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10 p.m.; Sun., 5:30-9 p.m. | Beer, wine and sake