The faded red awning still says Katsu Sushi, but inside the building at the corner of Highland and Rosencrans in Manhattan Beach, the scene has changed considerably. What once was Katsu Sushi, a beleaguered neighborhood sushi joint, is now Sushi Akatora, a trendy izakaya/sushi restaurant from restaurateur Michael Cardenas.
Cardenas, of course, has an important place in the history of trendy L.A. sushi spots, being a founder of Sushi Roku, the hyper-trendy restaurant that has grown into a swank chain since its inception in 1997. Cardenas grew up in Japan, trained as a teppan chef and worked in many of L.A.'s sushi restaurants, including a stint as general manager at Matsuhisa. Now he's just as well-known for being the owner of the Lazy Ox and other L.A. restaurants.
Akatora bills itself as a purveyor of “Kappo cuisine,” a style of Japanese fine dining in which the chef and customer face each other. In reality, the three-tiered, raw wood–lined restaurant has only a small amount of seating in which customers face chefs. The rest is a jumble of seating in a dining room that gets raucous pretty early in the evening.
Most of the menu is dedicated to fusion-y izakaya fare: popcorn shrimp, Kobe beef corn dogs, crispy rice topped with spicy tuna. There's a strong European element, too — lamb meatballs, which were juicy and addicting, come in a Marsala soy sauce. Among the seafood dishes, such as miso cod, you can also find moules marinières, cooked with sun-dried tomatoes and white wine.
There's a whole section of carpaccio iterations, showcasing a heavy dose of Nobu influence. Seared albacore comes with salsa and pink peppercorns, and “new-style salmon” comes with jalapeño ponzu.
The actual sushi offerings are fairly standard, though the couple sitting next to me declared that it was a vast improvement in quality over the previous tenant. The packed room early on a Tuesday evening leads me to believe than much of Manhattan Beach agrees with this assessment. The signage may not yet have changed, but everything else about this corner location a few blocks from the beach is strikingly different.