And everything encompasses quite a lot: the fish and its handling; the rice and its preparation; the quality of the nori (seaweed), the wasabi (a hot, horseradish-like accompaniment), and the murasaki (a special soy sauce for sushi); the harmony between the food and the dishes it’s served on; the decor and ambiance of the dining room; and, most critically, the skill and demeanor of the itamae–literally, the "board man," or sushi chef. Dedicated sushi buffs have favorite places, usually shared only with their closest friends. To be recommended by a regular is to be accepted as a tsu–a maven, or expert, passionate about raw fish and rice expertly crafted into morsels as pristine as they are seductive, typically with a casually elegant look that belies their careful construction.
Recently my husband and I spent a week exploring highly touted new restaurants and revisiting old favorites in Los Angeles, source of what I consider to be the best sushi in the United States. This phenomenon probably has to do with the accessibility of fish from Japanese waters; the city’s large and long-established Japanese population; and an extravagant, trend-conscious contingent seeking minimalist fare that fits in with the laid-back California lifestyle.
Given Americans’ traditional reluctance to try foods that seem strange and our general coolness toward fish other than shellfish, it did not seem likely 25 years ago that sushi would ever go mainstream. Even allowing that it has done so mostly in relatively sophisticated circles, the rising popularity of this delicacy has been surprising. Among the many contributing factors–including wide exposure by the press–is sushi’s perfect consonance with dietary concerns favoring foods low in cholesterol and calories. (Soy sauce, high in salt, can be used sparingly to suit individual preference, and there are now low-sodium versions.)
But as with many other classics that go mainstream, sushi has often been modified (read: compromised) to attract a wider audience that might not like raw fish but wants to eat fashionably. Inventions like the California roll, with artificial surimi crab and avocado, are typical of the inside-out rolls: rice on the outside instead of the nori. You’ll also find rolls that are fried, tempura style, or made with cooked ingredients, which may even include chicken, while gigantic "monster sushi" are now taking hold in New York. Worst of all is the cheap, prepackaged sushi made with inferior ingredients.
So complex is the subject that I find new questions arising even after years of reading up on sushi and talking to many an itamae. To establish benchmarks, I intermittently check in with Kazuko Masui, a longtime friend and my sushi guru. A petite dynamo of a Japanese writer who lives in Paris, she reports on fashion and food for some of Japan’s most prestigious magazines and is at work on, Sushi, to be published in French and English within a year or two. An unrelenting traditionalist who shuns even the customary starter, sashimi (plain slices of raw fish), Kazuko considers sushi the perfect fast food. "You sit at the counter and watch your food being prepared by the itamae, who is a performer," she says. "You can talk to a friend between bites, have complete freedom to choose what you eat when you want it, and stop the second you are full."
The proper assortment, Kazuko says, should include 20 to 25 varieties and represent an underwater garden of colors: white (fluke, yellowtail or hamachi, squid), blue (mackerel, eel, sardines), yellow (sea urchin roe and tamago, a slightly sweet layered omelet), and red (octopus, ark shell clams, salmon roe, and tuna, the most important fish at a sushi bar). Kazuko never orders omakase, the chef’s choice, usually the most expensive way to order. The least expensive is moriawase, a set assortment that usually includes fresh seasonal fish but no exotic luxury items. Okonomi, the customer’s choice, varies in price depending on what is chosen.
Sushi in Los Angeles begins at International Marine Products, a small, bustling wholesale fish market in a down-and-out section of East L.A. "By Japanese for Japanese" might well be the motto, for that is what this market is about, making it a meeting place for almost every itamae in the city. My guide was Masa Takayama, a legendary name in L.A. sushi circles because of his tiny, impeccable restaurant, Ginza Sushi-Ko, that’s as famous for high quality as it is for high prices.
A devotee of food markets, I am accustomed to rising in the wee small hours to witness peak action–most memorably the operatic 5 a.m. tuna auction at Tsukiji, Tokyo’s gigantic sprawl of a fish market, where I saw a 500-pound Atlantic bluefin from Montauk fetch $45,000 from a wholesaler. And so I was surprised when Masa, graciously agreeing to talk sushi with me while he made his rounds, said that we would meet at eight. "A lot of my fish comes from Japan," he explained, "and I like to be sure it has arrived from the airport."
Inside the market building, buying and selling is punctuated with quick nodding bows and whispers of arigato ("thanks") and so deska ("okay?"). Amid the sea-breeze scent and splashy dampness, flapping rockfish and eels are pulled from tanks where abalone rest in their rocky shells. Masa pointed out the best catches of the day as he selected from crates of tiny green-black periwinkles, grassy-globed sea urchins (he prefers those from the waters off Santa Barbara), prehistoric-looking hairy crabs, silver-blue mackerel, brick-red akagai (ark shell clams), ominous coils of purplish octopus tentacles, and huge fish with wide heads and polychrome scales of golden red and silvery black. With Masa at my side I was permitted to enter the refrigerated room where huge sides of tuna are butchered much as beef would be, each body part providing meat of a different texture for different uses. The sinewy meat from the shoulder, Masa explained, would be scraped with the heel of the sushi chef’s knife to become a fluffy mousse–something I especially like when it is heaped onto seaweed-bound ovals of rice and dabbed with finely minced scallions or caviar or the raw yolk of a quail egg. Other cuts yielded the highly prized toro, fat and creamy like pink butter; the beefier, rose-red tuna you get when you order maguro; as well as the in-between, least interesting chutoro.
After loading his purchases and me into the van, Masa stopped at the vegetable market for the aromatic green shisu leaves and tender, gently bitter radish sprouts that adorn some sushi, and for fresh wasabi. This pale- green Japanese root–a strongly flavored member of the mustard family that grows in pure running water–is farmed only in Japan and, lately, in Oregon. Such scarcity makes for high prices–about $300 for 15 small roots. As we drove he told me that most of his customers are non-Japanese and 80 percent are regulars who have a real understanding of sushi. "The preparation of rice for sushi is most important," Masa explained. "It must be the glutinous rice, which is cooked and marinated with salt, sugar, and mild rice-wine vinegar. It must be kept in a wooden bowl, tossed with wood or bamboo utensils, and fanned until cool." Although Masa uses new rice, some sushi chefs prefer rice that is aged for a year after harvesting, to let the moisture evaporate and the flavor intensify. Asked about the virtual nonexistence of women sushi chefs, Masa said, "Everything having to do with fish is man’s work: catching, cutting, cooking, making sushi. It is very hard work, and women do not have the stamina to stand behind the sushi counter." All the sushi chefs I spoke with, and even Kazuko, one of the most self-reliant women I know, agreed. It reminded me of the old canard that women couldn’t be chefs because they are incapable of lifting 15-gallon stockpots.
Masa’s astuteness at the market and the variety and freshness of the fish help to explain why I was bowled over the night before by his perfect and intriguing sushi and small cooked dishes, just as I had been at the original location ten years earlier, when it was in a seedy strip mall and cost a mere $100 a head. Fortunately, the 1993 move to fashionable Beverly Hills did not signal a modification of style at Ginza Sushi-Ko, but certainly prices have been modified skyward. When making the reservation, I was informed that there’s a $300 minimum per person and that my $100 deposit would be returned only if I canceled at least 48 hours in advance.
Apparently agreeing with Shakespeare that a good wine needs no bush, Masa Takayama has no sign outside the building he occupies in a dark pocket of Rodeo Drive. Only those who have reservations may enter through the small doorway, ducking under what looks like blue-and-white dish towels drying overhead. (I wondered what the Japanese would be for "Joe sent me.") The simple, woody interior is graced with seasonal floral displays, such as a spring arrangement of young bamboo branches behind glass. In addition to a counter that seats nine, there are three tables for four (two of them in a private room favored by filmland celebrities). That’s 21 seats in all, though Ginza Sushi-Ko averages 15 customers a night. The low capacity, high rent, costly ingredients, and time needed to prepare them partly explain the astronomical prices. It may also be that the wealthy clientele is not only willing to bear such prices but finds that they add to the mystique of the experience.
What you get for your money here is a floor show with the athletic-looking 47-year-old sushi master, clad in a formal blue kimono-tunic, slicing and arranging as he pivots his body and swings his arms precisely, as if his passion for golf has informed his movements. A waitress pours sake from a bottle kept warm in a tub of hot water and generally anticipates needs without being intrusive–in other words, perfect service.
Omakase translated to bliss as Masa led us through our first course: lacy spring vegetables, including sweet green bamboo buds, silken slices of flukelike hirame gentled in hot oil, a salad of cucumber and crabmeat, mackerel with minced scallions and radish sprouts, and salty slices of abalone and bluefin maguro. Then came tantalizing fried fish skin, with scales brushed up to become glassily crisp, and shabu-shabu, here a hot rice-wine broth, mirin, in which we cooked, for just a second, transparently thin slices of fat-marbled Kobe beef and foie gras, sipping a little of the broth at the end but leaving room for the nigiri to come. In Masa’s versions of these finger-shaped sushi, gently warm rice was topped with a layer of fish–maguro, perhaps, or Japanese mackerel with a shiso leaf, silky wisps of squid, a cushion of sea urchin, a heap of heavenly osetra caviar. Julienned slivers of grilled toro went into an inspired tekka maki (rolled tuna sushi), after which I kept eating but blanked out. I was restored by a tiny glassful of exquisitely icy grapefruit sorbet spiked with Grand Marnier.
Maybe the sake had gone to our heads, but at that moment the $700 tab seemed like a steal. Worth it? Until I find a place where I can get a Japanese meal of this caliber for less, I say yes, but then one has to care about Japanese food a lot to feel this way. It’s like asking sports fanatics who pay $2,000 for a courtside ticket to a basketball playoff or wine connoisseurs who spring for a $1,000 bottle if they got their money’s worth.
After the triumph at Masa’s, I was confident that my two other L.A. sushi haunts would live up to my memories as well. Alas, I was in for disappointment. Celebrated for his fusion riffs on Japanese classics with accents inspired by a stay in Peru, Nobu Matsuhisa offers a huge menu of just about everything and then some. When he opened Matsuhisa on La Cienega Boulevard in Beverly Hills in 1987 (and for a good five years after that), just about everything on the menu was superb, because Nobu was on hand to perform and oversee. Now that he splinters his time between the spin-off Nobu in New York and a dozen other locations, including London, the quality at the original has declined. Although in no way magical, sushi at the lively counter was decently above average. Noteworthy, however, were succulent raw sweet shrimp, followed by their crisply fried heads and a slathering of monkfish liver that is Neptune’s answer to foie gras.
Katsu, at its original location in the Los Feliz neighborhood, first turned me on to the kaleidoscopic delights of Los Angeles sushi about 12 years ago. And so it was with eager anticipation that I made reservations for a dinner prepared by Katsu Michite himself at the new location on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, which is rapidly becoming Sushi Row. Unfortunately, his private omakase room, done up in stark white with a metal-paneled wall, suggests a stifling, airless operating room–one reeking of fish. Several small dishes seemed overpowering forerunners to sushi: a palate-numbing herring escabeche with sharp onion and radish, bits of beautifully fried mackerel insensitively compromised by a banal curry sauce, and salmon muffled under what seemed like Russian dressing. Not even the home-pickled ginger and raw scallop slice with a crunch of Hawaiian sea salt erased the memories of underwhelming sushi, many indifferently crafted with overly thick cuts of fish. Nevertheless, I appreciated the chance to compare freshwater and sea eel, the latter being firmer, cleaner-tasting, and more elegant.
Results were far more satisfying at two sushi outposts that were new to me, and most especially at Sushi Sasabune, set within two unprepossessing small houses close to the San Diego Freeway. Except for sashimi, nothing but sushi is served here, not even soup, and to ask for a California roll or spicy tuna is to risk being shown the door. TRUST ME, says a sign behind the counter, and luckily we did. At lunchtime, sunlight washes into the two cheerful, airy white rooms, with a long sushi counter at center stage and many tables that fill up quickly from waiting lines outside. The 40-something itamae-proprietor, Nobi Kusuhara, likes first-timers to sit at the counter so he can learn what pleases them. Short and compact, with a rakish charm, he moves his arms in arabesque unison with his assistant’s, creating a sort of ballet, as they deftly form and present sushi. Rice here was voluptuously warm, flavorful, and very loosely formed, making the sushi hell to handle but heaven to eat. Properly crafted nigiri, Nobi explains, are made in the palm, pressing fish over a small oval of rice, in a rice-to-fish proportion of about three to one by weight. Pieces must be gently pressed but not squeezed, emerging firm enough to handle yet with rice loose enough to crumble as soon as it is in the mouth.
Although I find it easier to negotiate these soft and supple pieces with fingers, Kusuhara recommends using chopsticks held parallel just under the base of the sushi, because that way the pieces will not be squeezed; never mind that those less deft may find theirs falling apart. Sushi experts often advise that each piece be inverted so that a corner of the fish, not the rice, dips into the soy sauce. Sushi goes whole into the mouth rice side up so that the maximum fish flavor is experienced on the tongue. It is considered bad manners and an aesthetic travesty to bite sushi into pieces.
Despite the rush of customers, Kusuhara and his assistant rewrap every piece of fish as they cut from it, because, he says, it is the water in the fish that keeps it sweet; once dry, it acquires what we think of as a "fishy" flavor. Among the delicacies kept cool over the refrigerator coils here are satiny abalone, pearly halibut, rich yellowtail, filaments of squid, and luscious crab rolls. Kusuhara or his assistant instructs as to which combinations should go into soy sauce, which into the soy-and-citrus sauce called ponzu, and which get nothing at all.
Kusuhara described for me the process that goes into making nori: First, seaweed is gathered and ground. The powder is then put into tanks of water, where the lightest and best rises to the top and is skimmed off, pressed, and dried to become the crackly, gold-green top grade. Low-grade nori can be had for 15 to 20 cents a sheet; Kusuhara’s costs 80 to 90 cents.
It was with some trepidation that we approached Sushi Nozawa. The owner, Kazunori Nozawa, is said to be a curmudgeon (he’s been known to evict customers who dared to indicate a preference). Set in a mall on Ventura Boulevard, this is no-frills–and how. Clean but cramped, it holds six tables with glass tops over white cloths and a counter that seats nine. But Nozawa is the master who taught Kusuhara (and many other L.A. sushi chefs), and he offers much the same style of sushi, with rice perhaps a tad cooler and more firmly packed but not much easier to handle. He too invites TRUST ME with a sign, and again we did. As he asked us what we liked and would we like more of anything, I began to detect a smile behind every scowl.
After a sparkling array of sushi distinguished by sublime whipped monkfish with a touch of ponzu and a succulent crab handroll, I arranged to return the next morning to ask questions and to watch Nozawa prepare fish just in from the market. As he sectioned slabs of ruby-red tuna, he explained that a sushi knife shaped on natural stone now costs $600, while $300 buys one shaped on something "not real." His own, for $150, seemed to be doing a good enough job. Nozawa prefers smaller tunas to the giant bluefin, which he says can have an unpleasantly strong flavor. As he worked he slipped us delectable morsels: raw tuna better than the best filet mignon; slivers of top-grade nori that melted on the tongue, exuding the flavors of roasted tea and ocean breezes. Miso soup is the only thing he offers besides sushi and sashimi. He doesn’t even serve tamago. "It takes a lot of time to make it right," he says, "and that is not what they come here for. They come for fish."
Our adventure ended with a meal that was memorable less for sushi than for other dishes. Asanebo is a tiny, atmospheric spot decorated with bamboo blinds, white paper lanterns, and candles flickering in tiny glasses, making for uncharacteristically dim lighting at the tables. Although obviously inspired by Matsuhisa, Asanebo turns out far more delectable renderings, probably because they are meticulously executed under the sharp eye of the chef-owner, Tetsuya Nakao. Among the extraordinary dishes are pearly grilled black codfish marinated in miso, steamed red snapper on soba noodles, a supple salmon sashimi salad of mountain potato offset by salmon caviar with cucumber and onion, pickled purple and white Japanese eggplant with a mellow ground-chicken sauce, and a magnificent spring roll of shrimp and whitefish garnished with crunchy whole crabs so tiny they looked like deep-fried asterisks. Red-bean and green-tea ice creams and a crackly frozen rice cake with whipped cream brought a coolly refreshing finish to a week of L.A. sushi dreaming.
All prices are approximate, for dinner for two, including sake and tip: Ginza Sushi-Ko ($850), 218 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills; 310-247-8939; fax 310-247-9689 Matsuhisa ($160), 129 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; 310-659-9639; fax 310-659-0492 Katsu ($150), 11920 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; 818-760-4585; fax 310-472-5913 Sushi Sasabune ($120), 11300 Nebraska Ave., Los Angeles; 310-268-8380; fax 310-477-4010 Sushi Nozawa ($120), 11288 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; 818-508-7017 Asanebo ($150), 11941 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; 818-760-3348.