An omakase meal at Shunji Japanese Restaurant begins with a dainty wooden spoon and a tiny bowl of chawanmushi, a smooth and savory egg custard. Most sushi chefs, itamae, stock their custards with bits of crab, shrimp or poached octopus, but chef Shunji Nakao lines his bowl with a layer of sweet summer corn, resulting in a kind of cold chowder that jiggles on the spoon as you scoop it up. Nakao, one of the founding chefs at the legendary Matsuhisa back in the '90s, and later Asanebo in Studio City, pays close attention to his vegetables.
That's not to say the seafood at Shunji isn't immaculate — live sweet shrimp the size of toy submarines split lengthwise and stuffed with truffled mushrooms; roasted fillets of fresh anago drizzled with a dark sticky sauce; or tender grilled kanpachi marinated in sake, soy and yuzu — but there's a certain flourish involved when a multicolored dish of crisp summer squash, purple beans, okra, pumpkin and bell peppers arrives swimming in a broth of dashi geleé.
About six months ago, Nakao left the post at his restaurant on Melrose, which seemed to specialize in fat globs of marinated uni and seared toro, to open another self-titled restaurant on Pico Boulevard not far from a Santa Monica freeway on-ramp. This one found its home in a former BBQ joint that had suffered a fire a while back, an odd circular-shaped building that had started its existence as part of the now-extinct Chili Bowl franchise and was most recently refurbished with dark mahogany and a few chairs surrounding a small sushi bar.
A seat at Shunji's bar is probably one of the most intimate spots in town — it feels closer in spirit to many of the tiny pop-up restaurants currently in vogue than most sushi spots. No towering fish coolers or heightened counters separate diners from the chefs, meaning you'll get to watch a ceramic bowl of chilled seaweed mixed with slippery baby sardines assembled right before your eyes.
There are many surprises in the course of Shunji's $80 tasting menu, which consists of 10 to 12 courses (at times the dishes feel too composed to be called omakase, but too informal and unstructured to be labeled kaiseki). There might be rock shrimp and mountain yam stuffed into zucchini blossoms and fried tempura-style, then served with a pinch of sea salt mixed with finely ground green tea powder. There will most likely be balls — delicate things made from cooked purple yam, blue cheese and dried persimmon; or one made from ankimo, buttery monkfish liver that might be the current top contender for a foie gras replacement, topped with a spoonful of caviar and shaved chives.
But the taste that lingers on your tongue, long after you've finished the final course of plump Japanese fruits and roasted barley tea, probably will be something you won't have expected. This time it was a large cube of tomato agedashi, made from the gelatinous innards of a ripe tomato compressed and steeped until it develops the firm texture of fresh tofu. It resembled a massive ruby, crisped brown at the edges, then covered in a delicate broth and capped with a fire-roasted shishito pepper. The server was sure to emphasize that the cube was made only from tomato, in case the skeptical eater might think otherwise, and added that when Nakao first introduced the dish in Tokyo some years back, his customers fell over their chairs to order it.
The same feeling seems to come over the hushed diners at that night's dinner — you might think you know a tomato, after all, but Shunji is quick to remind you that even a humble vegetable can be elevated to bewildering heights.
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