Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dreamy, Creamy Dungeness Crab Hand Rolls

One Crab, Two Crabs, Red Crab, Blue Crab...

You must have seen them all…softshell crab, king crab, snow crab, blue crab, even imitation crab stick…but have you seen the Dungeness crab in a sushi roll?

I have seen it one other time.

I was overjoyed to happen upon the first of its kind, years ago, in Ari-Ya Sushi Café (now called Tani) in Pasadena. The item was listed on a “Specials” dry-erase board menu on the wall behind the sushi bar, novel and tantalizing: “Dungeness Crab Hand Roll.”

I gorged myself with one, then another, then another…until I could eat no more of the soft, delicate flakes of white and brown swirled with Japanese mayonnaise and avocado on sushi rice, then wrapped in conical folds of crisp, blackish-green nori.

I returned another day and the item disappeared.

“No more,” barked the grumpy no-nonsense sushi master, as if anything else they offered at the time could have replaced the One I had been dreaming of. I asked if it was gone for good, and he said “Next time, maybe we have.”

When another trip and a couple of “stock-check” phone calls were also made in vain, I had just about given up. Desperately, I thought perhaps I could figure out how to cook a Dungeness crab myself, then hollow out the meat and bring it with me into a sushi restaurant, whereupon I would order avocado hand rolls and stuff them in myself, a sort of bring-your-own-crab feast (BYOC?). Once, I had hidden some chili powder in my purse and taken it out in a restaurant, and the staff stared in amusement as I seasoned the food with my own smuggled-in spices.

The elusive Dungeness, perhaps a personal favorite of mine because it is nearly impossible to find (at least in sushi restaurants), has finally reared its pretty claws. The sighting: Yabu, a small Japanese restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood. But even on the menu, it’s slickly tucked away at the bottom of the Special Items sheet; you won’t even find it listed in their regular sushi or online menus. There it was, the Creamy Crab Hand Roll, available with Dungeness or King Crab, Seaweed or Soy Paper. The price for my long-awaited Dungeness was a steal at only $7.50, even though the rolls are super slim, and the crab meat meager, dabbed with a little bit of Japanese mayo for the flavoring and creaminess.

The King version of this roll is golden and rich, but just doesn’t have the same texture and isn’t as satisfying as its counterpart. King crab is meaty and chewy; the Dungeness is flaky mincemeat that breaks apart easily and has its own rare, exquisite taste. And unlike Ari-Ya's long-lost original, this one doesn't come with avocado (though it can be added upon request); in my opinion, it is perfect the way it is.

Just the other day (perhaps because they knew I was taking photos of everything), the chef made them especially presentable, serving the rolls in soy paper of various hues. I recommend the soy paper wrap over the seaweed; the mamenori here is unusually soft and buttery (perhaps because their crab—Dungeness, to be sure—is out of this world).

Ah...Tuna...Oh, Toro!

Toro! Toro! Toro!

If you must order anything else, ask for the Crispy Rice Roll or the “Toro! Toro! Toro!” Roll. (Just don’t say “Tora! Tora! Tora!”).

With cooked spicy tuna and asparagus inside and a colorful rice cracker coating on the outside, the Crispy Rice Roll is edible art sitting in a red pool of spicy sauce (looks and tastes like chili oil mixed with ponzu sauce to me). The Toro (fatty tuna) specialty, on the other hand, is not so much spicy and saucy as it is oily and filling. Its toppings of onion slivers and freeze-dried chives offset the otherwise Totally Tuna experience—the filler is raw toro, the roof seared toro. So if you love fatty tuna, this is The One.

Yabu is located at 521 N. La Cienega Boulevard and can be reached at 310-854-0400.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The REAL Seafood Cocktails...

Drink Your Fish

I am not much of a drinker…but that doesn’t mean I won’t have a glass of fish once in a while.


Of course I have seen it before: a fancy martini glass literally brimming with chunks of raw fish and garnishes like slices of cucumber and sprigs of sprout. (And if you read last week’s blog, you’ll know I have at least been a fan of spring rolls served in elegant glassware.)

Kanpai Sushi in Los Angeles may not have invented this form of food presentation, but they have certainly perfected it in their “Kanpai Cocktail” by adding unheard-of toppings like tosazu jello, a brown gelatinous substance made of vinegar and bonito (a type of baby tuna), and by throwing in the more expensive items such as king crab and caviar, which most restaurants are far too stingy to add to seafood medleys.

And at only $9 per dish (or rather, glass), how can you beat it? You hardly notice the base of filler items consisting of seaweed salad and cucumber, which help add size to the portion without robbing them of too much of the meatier stuff they put in there, such as tuna and yellowtail. Besides, you need your kelp.

You don’t really drink it—not right away, anyway. The idea is to pick all the meat off the top with chopsticks, then eat the roughage, and then finally, quaff the residual jellylike mass (about the size of a shot) in a big gulp.

You do this and your body reminds you, after you swallow, that it is not really a liquid you’re imbibing, nor is it sweet like dessert or seductive like alcohol. It is salty, and pungent and sour and strong, like doing a soy-sauce-and-vinegar chaser that is tinged with the taste of fish. You do this only if you want to polish off the gelatin-sauce-thing, no one will force you. You do this…and you have completed your daring fish-cocktail undertaking. You are proud.

The sushi chef stares at you and for a moment you think he is disgusted that you have actually sucked down all the fish-jello, or maybe he’s astonished that you have not gagged; but then you realize he is merely curious what you think of his creation as he asks, “You like it?”

Of course…you will love it.

Zen Sushi in Hollywood calls their version the “Poki Martini,” a bit pricier at $13 but the fish cups runneth over. The chunks seem bigger here, and maybe crab is absent but the salmon surface. Toppings on this one: smelt fish eggs instead of caviar, and burdock root (yamagobo) in place of sprouts. Sorry, no brown gooey jelly stuff to inhale on this one, but ordinary fish-followers may love that about it.

Find Kanpai Sushi at 8325 Lincoln Blvd in Los Angeles, and Zen Sushi at 8163 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood.

Monday, August 18, 2008

NOBU: Spicy Creamy Crab

Must Eat at Nobu

It should be on The List of things you need to do at least once in this life: You must eat at Nobu. The famous restaurant name is often heard in sushi circles—“Oh, Nobu makes a better version of that…” “Nobu has the freshest fish…” “The best presentation is at Nobu…” “Nobu should be called ‘No Food’.”

The statements are all true, the latter perhaps for the trendy restaurant’s propensity to serve diminutive portions of their tasty creations. But is that because they’re snooty? Yes, but with good reason. Here, the lofty prices are not justified by the portions, but by the high-end quality and art form of their servings.

Nobu is also famous for being frequented by the famous (I am not yet a tabloid journalist, so I will not go into the names of celebrities who have been seen dining there, but you get the idea) and by the well-heeled wannabes who followed suit, making it the seen-and-be-seen sushi spot that it is today. Its Malibu location certainly didn’t hurt, nor do the other big-city links of this restaurant chain: London, New York, and the latest addition in West L.A. on La Cienega Boulevard.

Behind it all is the one and only chef Nobu Matsuhisa, master chef and restauranteur who not only has written four cookbooks and runs the ultra-posh Matushisa sushi restaurant on La Cienega, but has trained proteges like Miki Izumisawa, who opened 242 Café Sushi Fusion in Laguna Beach. A giant portrait of him, smiling, hangs from the wall next to the sushi bar—and why wouldn’t he be smiling? The man’s exuberant creations certainly reflect his love of modern, inventive Japanese cuisine.

Some might argue that his fusion style caters too much to American taste buds—take the Spicy Creamy Crab, for example, a casserole-looking dish that is nothing more than a hodgepodge of dungeness crab chunks slathered in a super-salty mayonnaise-and-smelt-eggs sauce and then baked on a clay plate. But the taste is utterly crabulous, unexpected considering the melted-cheese appearance. Its only downside—it’s extremely oily and fills you up quickly in the bad way, with lots of the fluffy pure fat known as mayo, so for $19 you can acquire the “stomach swimming in grease” sensation. Well worth the experience nevertheless….

Salmon Kelp Roll, Yellowtail Sashimi

With your stomach well-lubed, it’s now time to satisfy both the eyes and the palate, and that can be accomplished with the Salmon Kelp Roll. From its decorative purple blossom garnish (edible?) to the orange marbled salmon wrapped with the rare clear kelp known as kombu, this roll is ablaze with both color and flavor. The taste assaults your senses: it is at once crisp garden and citrusy ponzu sauce and top-grade fish, with the clear kelp lending just the right finish to it all.

Another signature house favorite: the Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeno. No imitator has ever done this dish justice; Nobu is the master and everyone must obey. The $20 price for this dish? Cheap! Considering the extreme freshness and aesthetically perfect presentation. Oh…and a flower petal, of course, but hold the cilantro, in my opinion. Brush those aside and get to the good greens: jalapenos.

Seafood Spring Roll with Caviar

Sunday, August 17, 2008

But back to the Americanized stuff: it’s deep-fried spring roll time with your choice of either softshell crab or seafood with caviar. Any economical genius will tell you to order the four-piece for $19 instead of the single Seafood Spring Roll with Caviar for $18, but the choice may not be the wisest. Less is best with this selection, for the solitary piece served in a martini glass is not just prettier, but tastier as well. Daubed with a smidgeon of glossy sturgeon eggs and surrounded by well-arranged filler veggies, this scant fried thing will tease and make you want more…but it won’t leave you drowning in oil.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Dono Sushi: The Lobster as Art

Do You Know Dono?

It's no surprise that sushi rolls, like just about everything else, have gone up in price. In this economy, one wonders if it'd really be worth it to try a six-piece lobster roll that costs $26.99. I say, split your meal with a friend and treat yourself to the real stuff.

Dono Sushi, unlike most Japanese restaurants, feeds you real lobster as opposed to langostino (a.k.a. baby lobster) or crawfish, which at certain places are served in lieu of their more expensive crustacean cousin. Dono also uses the whole lobster--complete with shell for presentation--with any leftover meat stuffed in the tail with green onions, smelt fish eggs and a sweet mayonnaise sauce, all baked to a blackened, creamy confection. Depending upon the chef and individual request, eel sauce may be drizzled across the dish as a finishing touch. I recommend asking for this sweet glaze on the side, as some chefs tend to overdo it, overpowering all the other tastes in the roll: avocado, cucumber, asparagus spears, burdock root known as yamagobo....

Although it may be a bit pricey, the Lobster Roll is a real piece of work--literally. This labor-intensive entree takes a while to make and bake, and the chef hones his craft behind the sushi bar as though he will be judged for it in a contest. This is also the only roll I have ever seen wrapped in both seaweed and soy paper, for double the fun and twice the taste. To ensure more lobster per bite, load the stuffing from the tail onto each sushi roll piece before chomping away.

Mess with the "Tarantula Roll"

Dono's reputation also comes from their famous Tarantula Roll, a spooky-looking monstrosity that is actually as fun as its Halloweenish name. Decorated with a side splattering of sauces that is streaked to resemble a spider web, this roll consists of deep-fried softshell crab, imitation crab meat, avocado and cucumber, all topped with hairy "shaved bonito" (dried fish flakes) and creepy-crawly slivers of black seaweed. Not since the Black Widow Roll from the now-defunct Maki Maki in Glendale had I seen a spider roll that was actually named after a spider....Long live the Tarantula!

Fall in Love with Autumn...

Finally, I recommend the Autumn Roll, so named perhaps because of the Fall shades of the roll--oranges, reds and browns. The spicy tuna roll base blends well with spicy seared albacore, seared peppered salmon and yellowtail, then it's the tangy ponzu sauce that adds pizazz.

Dono Sushi has two locations to serve you: 1230 Lakes Drive in West Covina and 10720 Foothill Blvd. in Rancho Cucamonga.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


Kushiyu, read the sign in a ritzy strip mall on Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana. I didn’t know what the word meant. Driving past the plaza, I caught that word in a flash and thought of passing it up. There were other restaurants up ahead I hadn’t yet tried…why turn around? Kushiyu…

Something made me turn around. It was a pain to do so, considering it was rush hour, but I decided to be spontaneous, and curiosity got the best of me. Besides, I thought, the goal is to finish sampling every darn sushi bar on my favorite thoroughfare (known also as Sushi Row), and if this turns out to be one I haven’t yet tried, why not?

From the outside, the restaurant looked deserted—dark windows, with no neon-lit OPEN signs. I parked and walked up to press my face to the window, feeling like a desperate shopaholic waiting for a store to open. Sure enough, from what it looked like on the inside, chefs and waiters were milling about, preparing to start the night shift. One of the workers sat slumped against the sushi bar, his face buried in his arms as he gathered his bearings to begin the work night. I sympathized; the anticipation of long work hours ahead was always taxing, no matter how enjoyable the job tended to be. Getting into work mode requires some emotional transitioning.

Another sign indicated they would not be open for another half hour: it was presently 5 o’clock, and I was not patient. But I had established it contained a sushi bar, and from the trendy, upbeat design of the place, I had a feeling the menu would not disappoint. I could lurk nearby, kill time, stalk my sushi....

At 5:25 I walked into Kushiyu to use their bathroom, just to get in there that much sooner—now the anticipation was unbearable! Finally, I sat down for the long-awaited feast.

As soon as the chef handed over the standard wasabi and ginger on a not-so-standard leaf (I asked if it was banana leaf and he said “no, it’s tea leaf”), I knew I had chosen right when I chose to turn the car around and then wait, however impatiently, for this little sushi gem to open up. I love details. Whether it’s a little rock upon which to rest your chopsticks, or a real flower floating in a glass cup at the sushi counter, fancy flourishes always add a touch of class….

Then there were the menus: not one or two, but five in all if you include the drink list! There was the narrow-slip-of-paper menu (your standard sushi bar checklist); the daily menu that read "Today's Specials," complete with a date in the corner so that you knew they printed a new one everyday; the kushiyaki menu, also on a narrow sheet, featuring all their a la carte skewered meats and veggies; and a formal-looking menu book, which named countless kitchen specials.

With so many choices, I wasn't sure whether to be impressed or a bit confused. But it was hard to keep from going crazy by ordering everything that sounded good.

I decided right away on the “Half-and-Half.” Not only did the item sound interesting: half crab, half spicy tuna with jalapeno-marinated tobiko (flying fish eggs) on crispy rice; but it was reasonably priced at only $4.80 for two pieces.

This unique concoction turned out to be amazing. The chef had added a few ingredients which were not listed in the description, as they tend to sometimes do: resting upon each bite-sized piece were a shiso-leaf (mint leaf), a white bulbous baby onion (pronounced “lakio” in Japanese, according to the chef), and a sliver of red chili pepper. I plucked off the shiso--I loathe mint--but everything else was perfectly palatable, as evidenced by my moaning at the sushi bar (my habit whenever a heavenly morsel meets my tongue). Fortunately, most restaurants are loud enough so that my moans are usually drowned out.

Unlike most sushi restaurants, Kushiyu features a barbecue grill front and center, located smack dab in the middle of their wrap-around sushi bar so that patrons can see and smell the smoke and flames. Skewers of seafood, chicken, mushrooms and vegetables may be ordered from the “Kushiyaki” menu. I consulted the chef, who I imagine by now is secretly growing tired of my endless questions, and he explained that the word "kushi" means “barbecued” in Japanese. I decided to try the double-skewer dish of shiitake mushrooms, which were served with a wedge of lemon that wonderfully enhanced the dish’s grilled taste. I moaned again, this time a little louder.

But a gastrogasm didn't occur until a rendezvous with The Lime Roll, which might as well have been called The Mother of All Sushi Rolls. Salmon and lime lovers watch out: this ingenious combination might have been discovered long ago, but never has it been served like this! Inside the roll sit deep-fried tempura salmon. Wrapped around the top of the roll: layers of avocado, raw salmon slices and pieces of lime (rind included! This is the part that really brings out the lime flavor), all capped off with asparagus bits and salmon eggs. The presentation alone blew me away...the taste made history in my book. At $13.50, this roll seems a bit pricey, but the eight-piece roll is filling and a must-try.

Lastly, I opted for the odd-sounding Seafood Tempura Combination Roll, a dish that involved deep fried shrimp, scallop, salmon and Chilean sea bass rolled in soy paper with spicy mayonnaise and…fruit soy sauce?! That last part of the description confounded me…perhaps it was a misprint. The chef admonished me ahead of time of the extremely fruity taste of this sauce, which only intrigued me further. But I figured at $8.50, the roll wasn’t an expensive experiment, so it was worth a shot. I told the chef I was going for it, explaining I like dishes that are “different,” and he nodded. Fair warning.

Sure enough, the goopy brown sauce which surrounded the roll in a smile-shaped streak was banana-sweet and…something else…I asked my umpteenth question for the ingredients to this “fruit soy sauce” and was informed it was a medley of bananas and something like peaches (the chef was either unsure or reluctant to impart his secret). I assured him I liked the roll, and he smiled accordingly.

I think he knew he’d hooked me: I’d definitely be coming back for more.

Kushiyu is located at 18713 Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana, between the cross streets of Crebs and Yolanda. Their phone number is 818-609-9050.