Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Sushi Without Adjectives

We all know by now that sea urchin is "unctuous" and squid is "clean-tasting with a hint of sweet," don't we? Well, for those who don't, it's time to catch up on the classics. For the rest--or for all of you who laugh like hyenas when you read about an oyster tasting "like my summer fling on the Cape" or wine having "hints of tar and burnt animal fur"--here you go.

The Best of Little Little Tokyo: Sushi Sasabune. 11300 Nebraska Ave, West LA.

Usually when I hear people describe Sasabune, they lead with something like "it's a total dump" or "it has zero atmosphere." Granted it's unlovely, but does it really have zero atmosphere? I don't think so, and I don't think so for the same reason I disagree with the 11-for-decor that Zagat gives the Apple Pan: both places are pretty much platonic ideals of what they are. The Apple Pan is a perfect rendition of LA Burger Stand. How else should it be decorated? With muted tones and indirect lighting? Ditto Sasabune's "decor"--it really captures a certain kind of LA-specific phenomenon: the stripped down (and usually strip-mall), all-omakase, phenomenal sushi joint. Think about the best sushi you've had in LA. It's not at Blowfish, or Koi, or Matsuhisa or any other place with shiny minimalist decor and electronic music. It's always at a place that looks to some degree like Sasabune--some tables and chairs, a bar that accomodates only a lucky few every night, maybe some faded poster-art on the walls. Sasabune actually beats most of the others in the category of swank, with its outdoor "patio"--a plastic table and a few plastic chairs in what must have been some family's paved front yard in a past life. I've sat there drinking sake while waiting to sit, and I never mind. The scene at Sasabune is familiar, but it's not a Scene. You're there for the fish.

And the fish at Sasabune is excellent. I have received varying stories about the relationship of Sasabune-san to Nozawa-san, master sushi chef at his eponymous place in the Valley (to be discussed shortly), but one thing that's clear is that Sasabune gets a good spot at the fish markets. Everything is fresh, no end cuts, top quality. What they do with that excellent fish, though, is worth discussing. Sasabune, like most places of its ilk, shun the california roll, spicy tuna, and other mixtures that can now be found in supermarkets in Kansas. BUT, well, they do this thing with ponzu, and the thing is that they put it all over everything. Like, really almost everything. Skipjack? Ponzu. Halibut? Ponzu. Salmon? Ponzu. Albacore? You get the picture. And it's not just a little ponzu, either--whatever they put it on, you know it (these are also the fishes they tell you not to use soy on). Someone needs to explain this to me. You're a sushi chef. You get a monster of a spot at the fish market. You get truly excellent fish. And you drown it in tart sauce. As some folks I email with would say: WTF?

I will return to Sasabune. I will return there a lot, in fact. I really like the place. The fish is great, the staff is super-friendly, but someone should snatch that bottle of ponzu from behind the counter and hide it. I mean, they don't pour ponzu on their signature blue-crab roll that finishes every omakase dinner, and look how great that is.

World-famous in the Valley: Sushi Nozawa. 11288 Ventura Blvd., Sushi Row, Studio City.

Everyone I know knows Nozawa. My friends from LA who have expatriated sometimes drive there for lunch straight from LAX on return, or stop there on their way down from San Francisco and make me come meet them. Great sushi is, of course, more important than unpacking, or that shower you crave after a flight, or really than almost anything. And Nozawa does serve great sushi.

I won't bore you with the fish itself. It's impeccable. If Sasabune has a great spot at the market, Nozawa has one better. Not that most of us can tell that kind of difference of course, but it is there. This is some of the best fish you will ever get a chance to eat, if you get a chance to eat it. You see, Nozawa has a following, and that means no reservations and a snaky line outside in the parking lot. Do not come here hungry and in a hurry--you will not last until you're seated, and will likely dash off to another spot on "Sushi Row," where Nozawa is located (and you may not even do badly if you do this--the proliferation of good and even great sushi places in this area is singular and amazing). One good thing: you're allowed to start drinking while you wait in line. One time I drank three bottles of sake before I got to the door. That was fun.

So you're inside, and you sit wherever they tell you, and this is another omakase-only joint, so you don't bother, you know ordering or anything. You sit in the fluorescent lighting, either at cheap tables on the cheap linoleum or at the short bar, and wait for what you're offered. And what you're offered is damned good. Everything is good. But you know I'm going to focus on what's not perfect, and here it is: the fish at Nozawa is served too cold. I'm not completely sold on Sasabune's warm-rice-cool-fish thing (although I didn't mention this above because, unlike some, I don't really care about it), but the overall too-coolness of Nozawa's fish (and I've been there enough to be satisfied that I'm not imagining things) detracts from the flavor of what (I'll say it again) is really excellent stuff. I suppose better too cool than too warm (although I've been to places where the fish is frozen, and I might prefer being poisoned to that) but when you're shelling out a hundred ducks a person for omakase, we shouldn't be dealing in the realms of the too-anythings, right? Relax, Nozawa-san--nothing's going to spoil. You sell everything you have every night you're open. Un-chill.

It may be the temperature thing, or maybe just the kind of over-reverence with which people treat Nozawa, but the whole experience just leaves me cold and I really don't mean the pun--it lacks a certain something, like soul. Maybe the too-cool spartan thing appeals to the same folks who wield a lot of power during the day so feel like they deserve to be spanked, but man, that's not why I go out to eat, I don't know about you. Nozawa? I'll go there again, too, and won't complain about it at all--it's damned good sushi. But there's always room for improvement, although Nozawa-sensei would likely flay me for saying so. I just hope that when he does, he serves me room temp.

Nozawa-Adjacent, and my pick of the litter: Asanebo. 11941 Ventura Blvd., Sushi Row, Studio City.

When looking for Asanebo's address, I came across a review that called this place "a poor man's Matsuhisa." Now, it's one thing to write about a restaurant in terms that some may disagree with on an educated basis. I think I do it pretty much all the time. But this--this--man, I just got apoplectic when I read this. Matsuhisa serves the same tired few dishes to 90% of its crowd, and I'm sure trots out good stuff for Ben and Bobby and the guy at my firm who buys all the waitresses massages for Christmas, but since I'm in the 90%, Matsuhisa bores me to death and charges a lot to do it. Not so Asanebo.

First of all, it looks a little nicer than Sasabune and Nozawa. Kind of even looks like a Japanese restaurant, when you get down to it. There's some wood present, and the tables don't look like they were snatched from the Mel's Diner set when "Alice" went off the air. So immediately you're suspicious--can this be? If they spend more than $10 on the decor, do they really get the incomparable sushi I have grown to imagine I am entitled to? Yes. Yes, man, it does. Asanebo's is the best sushi in Los Angeles.

Scandale?! Not really. Asanebo is on the sushi-ratii's short list, and has been for years, but it doesn't get the same attention as the above two. Why? I can't tell you. Maybe it's that they treat you nicer, and those-who-want-spanking-with-dinner just can't abide by that. Somewhere along the line, being mal-treated at dinner has translated into the food actually being better. Asanebo does not fill that bill. In fact, when my wife went to Tokyo for the weekend, I went to Asanebo for consolation, and I got it.

Here's something else: the menu changes. So when you order omakase, you will not receive the pat "chef's special" items that you admittedly do at Sasabune and Nozawa. If you had a great set of dishes last time you came here, you will get a different set the next time, sometimes with no overlap at all (although toro will probably make an appearance). I know this should go without saying, but what comes with your omakase is what is the best available that day. My first visit there was for lunch, and I had three fishes--japanese mackerel, snapper, and fresh ikura (they marinate their own) that made me feel like I had never had those particular fishes before, ever, anywhere. THAT is what top-shelf sushi is supposed to be like. When I returned a few weeks later for dinner, only one of these three items appeared (a goblet of the singular ikura, served this time with a side of amazing slithery pickled seaweed), and I was treated instead to kotaru (whole, raw baby squid that I still dream about), mirugai (giant clam, served with orange essence and a wasabi jolt) and a bunch of other new things I didn't think to write down. With the exception of the seared toro (talk about gilding the lily) everything was perfect.

Asanebo isn't all omakase to begin with (Mon Dieu! I can order what I want?) although omakase is definitely the way to go. Check this out: you can also discuss what's coming next for you if you sit at the bar--ask for things you want, nix things you don't. I know: it's incredible. In addition, you can order an omakase that mixes raw and cooked, sushi and sashimi, pretty much whatever you want. It's like the chefs at Asanebo are there to please you, which may take some getting used to, but--and to use the words of the other two places: TRUST ME--it is worth whatever adjustment period you may have to weather. It is also worth the price, which is as high or higher than Sasabune's and Nozawa's. And worth the trip. Just go. Go and thank me later. This is the sushi you've been waiting for. In fact, it's the sushi you've been telling everyone you've been getting elsewhere, except that you haven't because it's here.

There are other places I really like, and way more that warrant discussion, but I want to get this piece out, and the "big three" are really what I wanted to talk about. And here goes a rare, softening disclaimer: please don't think I'm running down Sasabune or Nozawa. I mean, I am, but that doesn't mean that they're not still some of the best purveyors of raw fish I've encountered. They're just not quite Asanebo. Now don't everybody run there at once--I still call the corner seat at the bar.

Let the comments begin.


Anonymous c said...

I prefer a sushi chef who can talk. Sometimes at omakase I need the know what the hell I am eating. So, for me, in the chatter department, Sasabune's (his name is Nobi Kusuhara) got the Sushi Nazi beat.

He's (Nobi) really a great guy - learned his sushi from Nozawa here in L.A. (he was originally a fish dealer who once picked up otoro in New York wholesale for $1/lb. back in the dark 70s). Sensei needed a Green Card sponsor, so L.A. ended up with two great suchi chefs.

But only later on. They are the ones who invented the "dynamite" post-Shogun, and admit to doing such scurrilous things as serving scallops with mayonnaise. Then they found religion and went omakase to repent for their sushi sins.

Dunno if that was when Nozawa-san stopped talking to up his Minimalist bit.

1:52 PM  
Blogger MEalCentric said...

"the guy at my firm who buys all the waitresses massages for Christmas"--I know who this is !!

Great review/rant.

2:16 PM  
Blogger Daily Gluttony said...

awesome review. i have been dying to try asanebo, and after reading this, i'm moving it up to the top of my restaurant queue.

4:50 PM  
Anonymous blackbookali said...

i love asanebo too - Dice(the chef rules)

a friend of mine went to asanebo but didn't like it - i was trying to figure out why . . . i think b/c he is a sushi(nigire guy) and i like the sashimi appetizer stuff. Do you think that asanebo is better if you go for the more experimental stuff or do you think have good regualr sushi as well?

11:51 AM  
Blogger dwg said...

asanebo's straight-up sushi/sashimi is the best i've had. i'm assuming by "experimental" you mean combinations of ingredients, not outside-the-norm single ingredients (kotaru, house-marinated ikura, etc.). everything i've had there has been truly exceptional, with two exceptions: (1) seared toro; and (2) shellfish "cocktail." with the first, i just didn't see the need to sear great toro, and in fact, the searing added a degree of cooked oiliness to the fish that detracted. number two was just kind of pedestrian, and especially given the celestialness of everything else i've had there.

12:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Asanebo used to be an all-sashimi restaurant for a long time, but they finally got tired of having to explain what they were to people, so they added nigiri. But they really don't care about it, and the nigiri I've had here has been only ok and quite expensive. Their sashimi, on the other hand, has always blown me away. (It's not cheap either, but is a great value.)

Go for the omakase, the sashimi, and the cooked specials.

12:35 PM  
Blogger dwg said...

you're not the first one i've heard this from, anon, but i can't agree. i think the sashimi is outstanding, but i think the same about the sushi. it's not as flash as the sashimi, but it's still great. as far as cooked, i have to make a return for that.

1:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I'll have to give it another try then. I've only had sushi there once (three visits total), so it's probably not fair to count them out on nigiri.

Great blog, by the way.

1:43 PM  
Blogger dwg said...

thanks, my friend. great comments on your end. keep them coming.

4:20 PM  

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