Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Matter of Trust at Sasabune

It’s another “Trust Me” menu.

By now I’ve figured out that in a sushi bar, these two words are code for omakase, which means chef’s choice. No choice by you, in other words, as far as what you eat. Sushi Nozawa of Studio City employs this command of faith, this motto; Nozawa’s menu alone bears nothing but the two words Trust Me.

Sasabune of Los Angeles is a bit more lenient: only the sushi bar is strictly reserved for omakase-style, but you can order what you want if you sit at a table—as long as it’s a minimum of four orders per person.

Right as you walk in, you see a sign at the register that forbids the Americanized staples. “NO California Roll, NO Spicy Tuna Roll, NO Teriyaki/Tempura…Seriously!” Consider yourself forewarned.

At the bar, there are two types of omakase to choose from: regular, at $65 per person, with 13 different types of sushi, maki and sashimi served; or Japanese style, $95 per person, with 17 types. Some of the sushi served between the two types of omakase overlap (for example, both styles serve tuna, yellowtail, halibut, salmon and butterfish); but the Japanese style offers rarities such as sweet shrimp, jumbo clam, sea urchin and abalone.

Normally I don’t handle restrictions in any restaurant very well; after all, I am the patron, and isn’t the customer always right? Or is that the Americanized way of thinking? Although I usually rack up more than $15 or $20 total on my sushi bill, I still hesitate when I see the occasional sign behind the sushi bar that dictates “$15 minimum per person at sushi bar.” What if it’s my first time there and I don’t know if the rice is seasoned to perfection? Once in a while, I simply request the check after a single order if something is not up to par. This may just cause discord among the staff should my order at that point be less than the predetermined minimum.

But fair is fair, and I give every restaurant a chance to impress me—Chef Nozawa, after all, did do just that, with his freshness of fish and integrity of sushi rice, heavy restrictions notwithstanding. And so I sat at a table and ordered my four minimum, happy to do the choosing and grateful that the sushi and maki dishes I wanted ranged from $5 to $6. (The most expensive sushi items appeared to be the chilled toro, which costs $10, and sea urchin, $12. At the bottom of the menu, various sashimi are labeled “Market Price.” In the mood for baby tuna sashimi? It’s $18).

Sasabune, which means bamboo leaf boat in Japanese and is pronounced sa-sa-boon-nay, may claim to only serve “traditional style sushi,” but I must say there are modern twists which surprised me. Most of the sushi I ordered, for example, were unexpectedly but pleasantly cooked. Butterfish, which I have only seen served raw, came browned and eel-sauced, unagi-like and served gunkan-style (sitting on seaweed-wrapped battleships of sushi rice), with sesame seeds sprinkled on top.

The monk fish liver was warm and soft, as opposed to the usual cold, pate-like variety. According to the owner, his restaurant doesn’t serve it out of the refrigerator like most sushi bars do; at Sasabune, the ankimo is boiled, baked, and then brushed with miso sauce.

Very few sushi bars carry these: clear strips of kombu, a type of kelp, often draped across the top of a piece of fish for taste and decoration. At Sasabune, the salmon nigiri comes with kombu, which enhances the flavor of the fish. The scallop was extremely fresh, and was probably the only thing I ended up with that wasn’t cooked. But the most exquisite signature item has got to be the blue crab roll. Served as a perfectly cylindrical (as opposed to cone-shaped) hand roll, the blue crab is pure seafood essence—it just doesn’t get fresher or creamier than this.

It’s no surprise that Sasabune has its legions of devout followers—those who discovered it after this location opened four and a half years ago, and those who have been avid fans since the very beginning, back when the restaurant was on Sawtelle Boulevard (the old location has been taken over by Bar Hayama).

Sasabune reminds me of Hiko Sushi of Los Angeles and Sushi Park of West Hollywood, with similarities in menus, policies and presentation styles. Both of them are traditional Japanese restaurants, with omakase-only sushi bars and arbitrary table orders—as long as it’s (you guessed it) a four-dish minimum.

You will love Sasabune…Trust Me.

12400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

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