In 1960s-era Los Angeles, sushi was still an esoteric, completely unfamiliar food. It took Tokyo Kaikan in downtown L.A.'s Little Tokyo in the early 1970s to put the city officially on the map when it comes to sushi, though Kaikan also gave us the infamous California roll, which involved the now more than commonplace mixture of shredded crab, julienned cucumber and ripe California avocado.
Out of this nascent environment came the two divergent styles that came to dominate Los Angeles sushi restaurants: the Sushi Nozawa style, which focused on traditional sushi lightly sauced as part of a set, prix fixe progression of sushi; and the Matsuhisa style, which incorporated garlic, olive oil and chili puree in his groundbreaking vision of fusion sushi.
Los Angeles has been the U.S. epicenter for great sushi for the ensuing decades and a few esteemed L.A. sushi chefs took on the New York dining scene by opening restaurants there, including Masa, Sasabune and the Nozawa-inspired Sugarfish/Kazunori chain.
Sushi can be as simple as a quick grab-and-go lunch from the supermarket, but great sushi still can verge on the ultimately, serenely transcendental. The following is a list of my favorite sushi restaurants in our city.
This nondescript corner sushi bar no longer can tout chef Mori-san (it's now owned and operated by his former sous chef) at the helm. Yet the starkly minimalist temple to sushi still serves some of the best around. You'd be wise to take a seat at the bar, order omakase (multicourse chef's choice tasting menu) and watch the chefs in action. Each pristine, bite-size piece has the appropriate textural component, whether soft or al dente or somewhere in between, as befits the integrity of the fish. Your meal likely will begin with the iconic house-made tofu topped with freshly grated wasabi and light house-made soy sauce. You will have heavily marbled o-toro (the fattiest part of the tuna), which will melt in your mouth like pure butter, followed by sawara (horse mackerel) and king mackerel sushi that splits the difference between strident oiliness and persistent unctuousness. Some fish varietals are aged to perfection, because not all sushi is meant to be soft and yielding. The well-orchestrated progression may continue with a piece of barracuda kissed by the tender touch of bincho charcoal. Piece by piece the meal proceeds, along an almost improvised theme, based on the chef's nod to the season and his creative whims. Even the lightly vinegared ball of rice in each sushi piece perfectly works in harmony with the fish more than any other recent place you have visited. You pay the hefty bill and exit the bucolic sushi bar, only wishing you could repeat the meal every night of the week.
11500 W. Pico Blvd., Sawtelle; (310) 479-3939, morisushila.com
An exceptional sushi bar has quietly gone about its business since the late 1990s in sleepy Canoga Park, of all places, a couple miles from the heavy traffic and constant hubbub of sushi-intensive Ventura Boulevard. The curious name is a playful spin on "Go Smart," as Chef Go likes to mention with a mischievous grin. Go's Mart is locally famous and the type of sushi bar where the owner asks about your rambunctious children or perhaps how you enjoyed your latest trip to Tokyo. Eight high-backed chairs overlook the pedestrian, Formica sushi counter in a sushi bar that looks more like a fish market than a gem of a sushi spot. Chef Go likes to use an abundance of 24-karat gold leaf and generous shavings of white truffles, and his sushi is simply wonderful. Smooth ankimo (monkfish liver) with sweet miso may remind you of foie gras due to its extreme richness and buttery mouthfeel. Kawagishi toro (fatty tuna scraped meticulously from the bone) is sometimes offered on special. He serves a wide variety of fish from the yellowtail family, including exotic kanpachi (amberjack) and the rarely available buri (wild Japanese yellowtail). He might even serve Hokkaido uni (sea urchin), which has a deeper orange color, usually, and milder flavor than local sea urchin. The sushi tastes just as beautiful as it looks, which is no small feat. The bill will be more than dear but it's surely a small price to pay for exceptional quality, artisanal creativity and warm service.
22330 Sherman Way, Canoga Park; (818) 704-1459.
Owner-chef Shige Kudo has been making sushi for more than four decades in a miniature sushi shop that would not feel out of place in Tokyo's bustling, moneyed Ginza district. Regardless of its unorthodox location, halfway between the eastern fringes of Koreatown and downtown L.A., adventurous sushi connoisseurs continue to flock here. Kudo serves deceptively simple yet transcendental cuts of fish and shellfish in the traditional Edo-mae manner, which also means he sculpts two pieces of nigiri-zushi per order. The deeply curmudgeonly, some would say overly cantankerous Kudo may not be the friendliest of chefs. But he more than makes up for it by doling out vibrant, ruby-hued maguro (tuna) sushi, toothsome hamachi (yellowtail) and toro sushi that melts in your mouth. His buttery kanpachi and kinmedai (golden eye snapper) striped with skin are the purest essence of the sea. Sometimes in a nod to contemporary cuisine, he dresses his singular seared albacore salad with olive oil and a fine balsamic vinaigrette instead of the usual ponzu. Additionally, Kudo espouses a curious penchant for egregiously expensive Bordeaux and Burgundy, bought at auction, from the 1950s to 1960s, so be cautious: If you decide to order a bottle, sticker shock may well ensue. Even though red wine can be a perfect complement to sushi, you will do just as well with a Sapporo or cold house sake. And he offers a superbly ethereal tiramisu and poached pear in a pool of creme anglaise for dessert — in a Japanese restaurant no less.
3114 W. Beverly Blvd., Westlake; (213) 387-8498, shibucho.com.
Yes, it's located within the old, themed chili bowl building and its recent predecessor was a casual rib joint. Despite the façade, Shunji does wonders on the inside, and that's where it counts. Shunji celebrated its fifth anniversary last March and recently revamped its sushi bar. Shunji Nakao is one of the hippest, coolest and most gregarious chefs around — he singlehandedly puts to rest the stereotype of the overly autocratic, taciturn sushi chef. Yuko, his wife and manager of the bar, extends that natural friendliness and helpfulness by treating first-timers and regulars alike with the utmost care and seamless hospitality. One of Shunji's talents is that he is as adept at cooked dishes as he is with sushi. He leans toward thicker, heartier slices of fish methodically draped over balls of rice. His variety is second to none, with myriad fish species, from superb silver-streaked sayori (halfbeak) to kinki (channel rockfish) to even the humble hamachi (yellowtail) and steamed hanasaki crab. In season, he does wonders with local spiny lobster (from the Pacific) done three ways: finely chopped tartare embedded with black truffles, simply unadorned lobster sashimi, and fried tempura style. You can devote yourself to a sushi-only omakase here or perhaps a mixture of cooked dishes and sushi. His agedashi tomato is a witty and luscious take on the original tofu version. Ultimately, Shunji will take your breath away even with a suave, dark chocolate mousse reminiscent of what you might stumble upon in a fine Parisian patisserie.
12244 W. Pico Blvd, Sawtelle; (310) 826-4737, shun-ns.com.
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You might be shaking your head over why Matsuhisa, the progenitor of more than two dozen Nobu restaurants circling the globe, is on our list. Furthermore, you'd be somewhat correct in your estimation that the chef's signature omakase composed of "new style" sushi, broiled black cod marinated in sake lees, and Peruvian chili-sauce-dotted halibut tiradito is seemingly prosaic and downright mundane these days. However, no one does these unique dishes better than he, especially if you happen to be dining at the sushi bar at the modest, original Matsuhisa (open since 1987) in Beverly Hills. In fact, the traditional (read: non-Peruvian fusion) sushi here is better than the majority of top-tier sushi bars due to the consistently exceptional seafood sourcing from a loyal stable of long-standing suppliers. Additionally, skilled chefs trained under Matsuhisa's careful mentorship know exactly how to cut a prime morsel of fish. And who can forget that his superlative, blissfully perfect toro tartare sitting in miso sauce and topped with a prodigious amount of Beluga caviar was the dish that set the paradigm. Even his molten chocolate cake bento box will put a smile on your face. Ultimately, who can quibble with a chef who declares, "Cooking is my entire life"?
129 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 659-9639, matsuhisabeverlyhills.com