Friday, December 21, 2012

Beyond Midori Sushi, There is Izakaya M

The Ultimate Spicy Challenge
Tuna Truffle Oil Pizza
Beef Tataki
E.T. Dippers

Izakaya M Mixes it Up

It may have been a cold winter evening, but at a certain Japanese pub called Izakaya M in Sherman Oaks, what may possibly be the hottest sushi roll in the world was served last night, rubber glove and waiver included.

I found it oddly amusing that what appeared to be a rather upscale izakaya would serve the irreverently yet humorously titled El Fuego En El Culo Roll. The warning on the menu said it all: “Only attempt if you are able to handle extreme pain and heat!” Izakaya M calls it their spicy challenge, and those who actually complete this two-part dish consisting of a spicy yellowtail hand roll and a spicy tuna cut roll—both marinated in their “insanely hot” sauce—are rewarded with a free glass of Sapporo, along with the $15 cost of the dish being on the house.

According to one of the waiters, only about three out of 10 people ever make it to the finish line; the majority just can’t handle the fuego. One chef claimed he was miserable for three days after eating it.

Certainly, it must have been my hubris and daring nature that drove me to try it. After all, I rationalized, unlike most people, I was rather liberal with my use of hot sauces; I had a generally higher tolerance of spiciness than most. How bad could it be?

Upon ordering the ultimate challenge at the sushi bar, the chef handed me a waiver that I had to actually sign—agreeing to relinquish the restaurant of any injury, pain or burning sensations this dish may cause. Despite the admonishment that even breathing problems may occur as a result of the combination of the habanero, Thai chili peppers and ghost peppers mixed into the sauce (ghost peppers are currently the hottest chili peppers that are commercially available), I remained undaunted—and still curious enough to go for it. I did ask the chef, however, if the waiver was drawn up for effect, or if it was so that I actually couldn’t sue the restaurant afterwards for bodily harm.

“Yes,” he replied curtly to the latter. And then I signed away.

It didn’t appear that insidious: the chopped yellowtail inside the hand roll looked marinated, for sure, in a bloody-looking sauce, but looks can be deceiving, as they say. While onlookers sitting next to me at the sushi bar anticipated my reaction (one man claimed he’s been contemplating that challenge himself for several months, so he couldn’t wait to see the expression on my face), I donned the rubber glove that was served with the roll and proceeded to take a bite…a small one. (I’ve learned, over time, that while risk-taking can still be fun, it’s smarter to take calculated risks. So for a moment, I brushed aside my ego, but I bit just enough of that roll to enjoy the entertainment value of what I was doing, knowing it would burn me on some level.)

If my audience had been seeking that same level of entertainment in my reaction, they weren’t disappointed: I took one bite of that hand roll, chewed it a few times, made a face, shook my head and then spat it right back out on the plate, ever the dramatic diva. The burn had started numbing my entire mouth, and I was thankful I didn’t swallow the stuff; for the next 10 minutes or so, I was quaffing ice water to relieve the pain, which had made its way to my eyes, and I cried tears that smeared my eye makeup. The chef handed me a ball of mochi ice cream to quell the fire, the burn, the burn…and that icy cream puff somewhat helped; it certainly was more effective than the water. My body began to shudder after the burn finally faded, and I realized it was a natural reaction to too much ice water being taken in at once.

The man who had once contemplated taking on El Fuego thanked me for convincing him not to ever try this dish, although he did commend me for my shot at it. “You are the bravest woman I’ve ever met in my entire life…I take my hat off to you,” he said between peals of laughter at my antics.

For those not brazen (nor masochistic) enough to set their mouths ablaze, Izakaya M also has normal dishes that are still worth trying. Although…is a Tuna Truffle Oil Pizza served on a tortilla base normal?

And then there is also the beef tataki with ponzu sauce and yuzu kosho, which is outstanding. On weekend nights, you will most likely find the live stuff—fresh sea urchin, oysters, giant clams, even conch.

But for those not into sushi at an izakaya, the ones who just want casual snack food to accompany their alcohol after work, there is a robata grill from which items like skewered chicken livers and hearts emerge. Or how about cow tongue on a stick for $4? For a most unusual crispy treat, how about the deep-fried miniature octopi appetizer called E.T. Dippers? The chef explained that this dish was named after extraterrestrials because that’s what the little creatures resemble. I thought it was aptly titled. The fun part is dipping them in the martian-hued wasabi mayo.

Clearly, the owner (who also owns the restaurant chain called Midori Sushi, hence the M in the name of this establishment) has a sense of humor.

Izakaya M
13573 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

B.A.D. Sushi is Good

"Bite me! Pls" Roll
Eel Garlic Roll
Tuna Tower
Octopus Carpaccio

How B.A.D. Do You Want Sushi?

Don’t let the name fool you.

B.A.D. Sushi actually stands for “Best And Delicious” Sushi, and now, with a third restaurant that recently opened in Pasadena, boasting a menu just as delightful as those of its sister locations in West L.A. and El Segundo, B.A.D. clearly represents a chain of sushi that is good.

Although the name “Bite Me! Pls” for a sushi roll sounds quirky, this spicy seafood roll can easily become your new favorite maki, with its mounds of garlic and creamy goma sauce mixed with ponzu sauce. Black flying fish eggs and fried onion bits cover this tempura-fried creation, combining brilliant presentation with aromatic flavor. Get bitten for $11.95.

Another roll that uses a lot of garlic is the “Eel Garlic Roll” for $11.95. With unagi and shrimp tempura rolled inside and avocado covering the outside, what makes this one special is its mixture of ponzu sauce with chunky garlic butter sauce.

Perhaps to some food snobs, a Tuna Tower may sound trite, but it is available here, and much like the Salmon Tower at Kushiyu of Tarzana, it stems from the same concept: alternately stacking deep-fried squares of wonton skin with chunks of raw fish mixed with tomatoes, green onion and avocado.

In my opinion, its namesake roll doesn’t do the restaurant justice—a bit too heavy and syrupy, and rather conventional as far as sushi rolls at casual joints go; so instead take a chance, perhaps, on the exotic-sounding and unusual Octopus Carpaccio, which melds flavors to the max with slices of jalapeno, cilantro, garlic and a special yuzu sauce.

With a smart logo and clever gimmick to match, B.A.D. Sushi locations may appear innocuous enough for even non-sushi lovers to brave; the menu certainly is fun and newbie-friendly, and the prices are reasonable for the most part.

To celebrate its grand opening, the Pasadena location is offering diners a discount of 25 percent off their dinner bill from 4:30 to 10 p.m. on weekdays, and all day on weekends, until the end of the year. At the Pasadena and El Segundo locations, a $9.95 lunch special menu is currently offered: choose from a Spicy Tuna Bowl to a Salmon Donburi, or even a Hand Roll Set (choice of three hand rolls).

How B.A.D. do you want sushi? Now you can indulge yourself at three locations:

B.A.D. Sushi
29 E. Holly Street, Pasadena

B.A.D. Sushi
357 Main Street, El Segundo

B.A.D. Sushi
11617 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles

Friday, October 26, 2012

Starring Sushi of West Hollywood at Ari-Ya, UMAI

Albacore Jungle with Sauteed Onion, Jalapeno, Garlic
Baby Lobster Special Roll
Baked Crab Hand Roll
Rock Shrimp and Eggplant Appetizer

Featuring Two of West Hollywood's Best Sushi Bars

In the heart of West Hollywood, two particularly fabulous sushi bars known as Ari-Ya and UMAI practically host their own Halloween parties every year. And each year, as all the fun-loving freaks and colorful characters come out of the woodwork in droves for the spooky season’s festivities, these two establishments—located on Santa Monica Boulevard, which gets shut down for the annual Halloween street party—overflow with such convivial carousing and creative costumes, you feel for a second as though it’s almost too crazy…even by West Hollywood standards.

Although their menus may be altered on this specific holiday night for the sake of efficiency, on regular days, the sashimi plate known as the “Albacore Jungle”—piled high with sautéed onion, jalapeno and garlic—can be requested at Ari-Ya for $16. A chef tells me another popular dish is their $16 Baby Lobster Special, which is a spicy tuna roll covered with langostino and then drizzled with sweet eel sauce and laden with green onions on top.

Ari-Ya offers a baked crab hand roll for $7 that’s simply to die for: one bite and you are suddenly able to come to terms with all that’s wrong with L.A.—the traffic, the congestion, the cost of living—because at this very moment, as the spicy creamy mayonnaise, avocado and fresh real crab melt in your mouth, the perfectly seasoned sushi rice harmoniously coalescing with the soy paper, it dawns on you that this is one of the things that is just right about living in the Southland: being close to food like this.

Just for fun (and when is it not for fun in WeHo?), you have a choice between the Superman Burrito and the Tempura Burrito, both wrapped with soy paper and containing a base of sushi rice and avocado. (I am informed by the chef that the Superman version is more popular, as it contains spicy tuna and baby lobster, whereas the Tempura Burrito has shrimp tempura, asparagus and imitation crab).

If you happen to stop by during lunch, the “kitchen special” menu may catch your eye—appetite-satiating portions are served at reasonable prices starting at $9.99, and the choices range from black cod misoyaki to grilled albacore steak, all served with miso soup and salad. For $4 more, you even have the option to add mixed tempura or a sushi roll (the standard spicy tuna, California, or Shrimp Tempura roll; or perhaps the mysterious-sounding one called the Crunch Ari-Ya).

For those curious to try an unusual appetizer at Ari-Ya (and don’t mind a hot dish and an inundation of spicy mayo—which I don’t), I recommend the Rock Shrimp and Eggplant special, which is as tasty as it is unprecedented (at least I’ve never stumbled upon such an unusual marrying of ingredients thus far in my Japanese restaurant journeys).

8730 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood

Note: As of 2014, Ari-Ya has been replaced by a sushi restaurant called NORI

In the Spirit of Halloween: UMAI of WeHo

UMAI of West Hollywood
Picasso Roll
Inazuma Roll
Albacore Extreme Sashimi
Seared Salmon Sushi with Salmon Eggs and Shiso

UMAI Sushi of West Hollywood

Less than half a mile away, UMAI features even funkier creations such as the Picasso Roll, a deep-fried roll without rice, meaning the spicy tuna, salmon, snow crab and grilled asparagus inside are wrapped directly with seaweed and then lightly tempura-fried. For years, the entire concoction was presented on top of vividly colorful sauces made of citrus, bell pepper and jalapeno; I heard that these days, eel sauce and ponzu sauce have at times been the substitute (and yes I wholeheartedly support that we Picasso Roll fans clamor to get our tricolored sauces back).

The Inazuma Roll, for $16.50, is another one of my old favorites at this joint, frankly because I’m a huge fan of the toppings: slivers of multicolored bell peppers mixed with red onions and a thick, zesty ginger sauce. The roll itself is a seared tuna-topped monstrosity, with spicy shrimp and avocado tucked inside. It’s headily indulgent as well as healthy: a rare combination.

If you dig albacore served sashimi-style, why not go for the Albacore Extreme for $17? For a seared fish dish can seldom go wrong when it’s smothered with crispy fried onions, roasted garlic and sesame ponzu sauce.

Another winner (I special-requested this off-the-menu version): the seared salmon sushi with sesame sauce, garlic ponzu and eel sauce, upon which glistening ikura sit, adhered by sticky dollops of Japanese mayonnaise. At first glance, the green bits sprinkled on top may appear to be chopped green onion, but they’re actually minced shiso, which lends a refreshing contrast to the rest of the roll’s flavors.

With extensive outdoor seating and holiday-appropriate décor already set up at UMAI, it’s easy to see this haunt is getting well-prepared for one of its busiest party nightsas it is, after all, a WeHo Halloween tradition.

8935 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood

Friday, September 7, 2012

Cheers at Kanpai Japanese Sushi Bar & Grill

Fruity Albacore Sashimi
Seared Sorbet Tuna Sushi
Japanese Glass Shrimp Sushi
Japanese Scallop Sashimi with Truffle Citrus Sauce
White Fish Sushi with Black Summer Truffle
Sweet Shrimp Sushi

Kanpai!!! at Kanpai on Lincoln Boulevard

I love sushi bars. But particularly, I am fond of sushi bars that offer daily menus on sheets of paper marked with the date along with the title “Today’s Specials.” Restaurants like these give an impression of freshness, of ever-changing variety. Restaurants like these tend to cater to discerning tastes and are, therefore, a bit on the high end in price, but well worth the splurge.

Kanpai Japanese Sushi Bar and Grill of Los Angeles is such a restaurant. Even though it’s been two years since my last visit there and six years since my first tasting, Kanpai’s mercurial menu continues to amaze me. Although many of the same fancy ingredients recur, such as truffles, kombu, caviar, yuzu, and that dark brown dressing that the chef calls their “special soy sauce,” it is their seafood selection that I find really impressive.

From spotted sardine to baby yellowtail, orange clam to pike and Japanese glass shrimp, Kanpai carries breeds of fish that in most sushi restaurants are practically unheard of.

Yet for an upscale dining locale, Kanpai shows that it also has a casual and fun side, with menu items like the Sushi Pizza, and the LMU Roll (named after the nearby Loyola Marymount College) which has deep-fried sweet potato inside and is topped with eel and avocado.

Kanpai, which means Cheers in Japanese, is certainly cheerful on most nights, perhaps because the place serves more than 20 premium sakes from Japan, which most likely contributes to its incredibly boisterous atmosphere. In addition, the joint is open everyday until 1 a.m. 

Although memories of my favorite sushi at Kanpai had not yet faded—halibut with yuzu pepper, snow crab with sesame mayo, salmon with basil sauce—I was more than willing to try some of the new items I had never before seen on their Specials menu: the Fruity Albacore Sashimi for $23 (I learned this dish is fruity because it incorporates figs) and the Seared Sorbet Tuna Sushi for $8 (sweetly seasoned and oddly meaty in appearance). Even the menu dictates that both of these are a Must Try!!!

The menu also declares the Japanese Glass Shrimp sushi is a “rare item in the U.S.A.” With its dubious appearance, this delicacy may taste like shrimp, but its squiggly and soft texture has a strange melt-in-your-mouth effect that suggests something not quite shrimplike.

The Japan Scallop Sashimi with Truffle Citrus Sauce for $18 was some of the freshest scallop I’ve ever had, while the white fish with black summer truffle was inspiring. But nothing could have completed the meal better than good old-fashioned sweet shrimp, whose beheaded state was visible right on the sushi bar—rows of twitching heads and antennules, displayed as a display and as a dare (Do you dare try me?).

For the uninitiated, sweet shrimp is normally served as both sushi and as a crunchy afterthought, with the shrimp bodies laid raw on top of rice nigiri-style, followed by the heads which are deep-fried and presented with ponzu sauce for dipping. At Kanpai, the heads are plated with the sushi in their pre-fried condition as adornment as much as for effect, and then later the server asks, “Did you want to eat the heads?” To this I understandingly nod, knowing he would take them to the fryer.

Personally, it’s my style to masticate as much of the prickly fried heads as I can, but leave the unchewable parts and hardest-to-digest spiky bits behind. Kanpai!

8325 Lincoln Blvd., Los Angeles

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Grand Welcome to Sushi World

Located in Cypress, CA
Anaheim Chili Tempura Roll 
Hand Roll with Chopped Tuna and Yellowtail
Albacore Sushi
Baked Blue Crab Hand Roll

It's a Sushi World

It’s sushi nirvana at Sushi World of Cypress, which is celebrating its grand opening with chef Jason Levine introducing the house specials and spicy sauces galore. Rare is the opportunity of finding great food and friendly service in one location, but here you can discover both, along with an entertaining and upbeat energy.

Some of Sushi World’s unique dishes include the Anaheim Chili Tempura Roll for $14, a brilliant creation using hollowed-out Anaheim chilis to wrap around sushi rice, avocado, and marinated and smoked salmon. The entire roll is then tempura-fried and treated with “Sushi World Sweet Sauce.” There is also the Seared Hamachi Carpaccio, which is dressed in a yuzu ponzu sauce, for $12.

Inside the Anaheim chili shell, the salmon definitely tastes fresh and smoked, and contrasts wonderfully with the fried batter exterior. The sweet brown sauce marries well with the piquancy of the chilis.

According to Chef Jason, all sauces and desserts at Sushi World are made from scratch. Displaying containers of sauces ranging in spiciness level from hot to torturously hot, he explained that each habanero-and-tomatillo-based sauce has a playful name: “Please Don’t Sue Me,” “Hot Molten Lava,” and “Devil’s Vomit,” the last of which is mostly orange in hue because it contains the most habanero, and therefore is the most hellaciously hot.

Rather than starting slow, I jumped straight to the extreme end of the spice spectrum by ordering a yellowtail and tuna hand roll with the sauce that would burn the brightest, and as my tongue felt the excruciating pain, I wondered why I hadn’t heeded the chef’s admonishment to begin with the milder one, questioned whether I was a glutton for punishment. I cried; I laughed; and then to quell the fire, I chased the hand roll with a delightful, melt-in-your-mouth piece of albacore sushi, followed by a delectable baked blue crab hand roll with garlic aioli enveloped in soy paper.

Sated, I left Sushi World to go back to Real World, and I am left with the feeling one has when exiting a movie theater in which the feature film had been so engrossing that reality seems a bit harsh to return to afterward—and that is how you know when beyond food and service, a restaurant has also delivered transport.

Sushi World
10953 Meridian Drive, Cypress

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Taste of Yanagi Japanese Bistro

Furikake Popcorn Shrimp
Salmon Sushi with Avocado, Red Onions, Shaved Bonito
Spicy Garlic Tuna Tataki Sushi
Warm Springs Roll with Rice Paper

Yanagi Japanese Bistro of Redondo Beach

Named after the Japanese word for willow tree, Yanagi Japanese Bistro is a quaint, casual affair situated on the main thoroughfare of Artesia in Redondo Beach.

Although not exactly a formal dining establishment, Yanagi is certainly a more upscale alternative to the fast food-style “Rice Things” Japanese dive just across the street, where one can pick up simple rolls of pickled radish or gourd for just $2.99, or sushi combinations served with miso soup that start at $7.99.

The menu at Yanagi is fancier than that, and while its wall menu boasts traditional sushi fare such as toro, blue fin and uni, there are also a few surprises, such as furikake popcorn shrimp for $11 (six curly pieces of shrimp tempura slathered with a sweet mayonnaise sauce and dusted with seasoned seaweed bits known as furikake), and albacore sashimi with crispy onions for $14.

I notice the chef preparing salmon sushi laden with avocado and shaved bonito, and my mind flashes back to something similar I once saw at Koi Restaurant in Seal Beach. It was exactly that, salmon sushi with avocado and shaved bonito, only Koi had added white onions to it as well. (I’ve met picky sushi snobs who will only eat salmon sushi with chopped raw white onions.) I ask Yanagi's chef if he has white onions in his sushi station and am told he only has red onions. “Even better,” I say (I personally prefer red onions anyway). Then I request that ponzu sauce be added to all of this and suddenly feel very much like a picky snob myself.

Other types of sushi may be ordered: “spicy garlic tuna tataki” or “spicy garlic albacore” ($4.50 to $5 for two pieces), although in my opinion there was no spiciness at all, only a garlicky essence mixed with ponzu sauce.

The owner suggests I try the “Warm Springs” roll, an unconventional six-piece hunger-squelcher for $12.50, which features the uncommon yet delightful rice paper as a wrap, the gooey, slippery alternative to soy paper and seaweed. “Warm Springs” encases spicy tuna, imitation crab, soft shell crab, avocado, and shrimp tempura in its translucent folds, and after it is placed on puddles of spicy mayonnaise and eel sauce, it gets sprinkled with furikake as well. And why not? It’s a medley of color and flavor as it is, although after this saccharine, syrupy overload, you’re bound to want to skip dessert. Yet the desserts here, too, sound tempting: you can choose from green tea cheesecake or the ever-unusual fried plum wine ice cream.

Yanagi Japanese Bistro
2400 Artesia Blvd., Redondo Beach

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Selections Abound at Sakura Ichi of Pomona

Sayori (Half Beak)
Spicy Tuna on Crispy Rice
Shima Aji
Orange Served with Plum Powder

Showcasing Sakura Ichi of Pomona

It’s always a pleasant surprise to stumble across a new sushi bar, especially in an unlikely area, and especially one with such great personality behind its service.

With its funky little name and spacious, sophisticated dining room, Sakura Ichi, tucked nearly out of sight in a plaza in Pomona, is a local’s delight, and there is a certain chef named Eddie whose sunny disposition and zeal for all things sushi will brighten anyone’s day.

Chef Eddie informs me that this sushi bar offers rare fish such as Sayori, known as Half Beak; as well as Shima Aji, which is also called White Trevally. On the wall menu, even Ankimo (monkfish liver) is offered as an appetizer.

For the first time, I learned why the silvery-gray fish is called Half Beak; quite literally, the fish boasts a prominent, beak-like projection from its jaws, in which the lower jaws are remarkably longer than the upper ones. And I had learned this only because Chef Eddie chose to serve Sayori sashimi-style, with the hacked-up pieces of this raw fish flanked by its head and tail as decoration, upon a bed of lettuce, and with masago topping and a stem of yamagobo to boot. Ponzu sauce comes on the side, for those who like to add zest to their sashimi with this citrus-based dip.

I caught sight of a grooved glass platter upon which one of the chefs was arranging blocks of spicy tuna on crispy rice, topped with slivers of avocado, slices of jalapeno, chopped green onions, ponzu sauce and Togarashi powder (I asked for the omission of eel sauce, which it normally comes with, because in my opinion it would have oversweetened the dish), and I ordered the plate immediately.

This six-piece version of Spicy Tuna on Crispy Rice is a twist of my traditional favorite dish of the same name at Katsu-Ya in Studio City, which comes topped with slices of Serrano chili. To my relief, not only was Sakura Ichi’s rendition tasty, but the crispy rice base was not overly crunchy and hard as it tends to be at some restaurants; rather, it had a toasty, buttery crisp to it, about what you’d expect out of the version at Katsu-Ya.

I ordered the Spider Roll because unlike most sushi bars, Sakura Ichi uses minced crabstick, rather than the standard imitation snow crab mix, as a filler next to the softshell crab in its roll, and I was curious as to how this would result in the texture. Although I ultimately prefer a Spider Roll to be served sans any imitation crab-filler, and I still think Nobu’s Soft Shell Crab Roll holds the standard, the Spider Roll at Sakura Ichi adequately satisfies the need for something fried and filling. The soft and stringy crabstick offered a nice contrast alongside the crunchiness, although it didn’t seem to make a significant difference than if it had been served with imitation snow crab mix.

I also tried the Shima Aji sushi and not only was it fresh, but the texture and flavor was just right, slightly reminiscent of yellowtail sushi.

Other noteworthy details that make this restaurant stand out: the edamame comes smothered with toasted garlic bits; and the half-orange that is served for dessert is sprinkled with plum powder, which, as Chef Eddie imparts, enhances almost any fruit.

Sakura Ichi
101 W. Mission Blvd., Pomona

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Tuna Sashimi, Amberjack, Spanish Mackerel, Orange Clam with Truffle Salt, Blue Crab Hand Roll at Sushi Zo of Culver City

Tuna Sashimi
Spanish Mackerel
Orange Clam
Blue Crab Hand Roll

For the Die-Hard Sushi Fans: Sushi Zo

It’s obvious that Sushi Zo caters to die-hard sushi aficionados, and ranks up there with Urasawa, Mori Sushi, Sasabune, Sugarfish by Nozawa, and countless other high-quality restaurants all over the world that serve sushi the traditional way.

The moment you walk through the door, the hostess will inquire if you know how it works there: it’s chef’s choice only. If you still act like a newbie, then she may forewarn you that the course costs $100 to $150 per person, depending on what is served that day. The timid may balk; the inexperienced might question the lack of a menu. The sign on the wall further daunts the neophytes: “OMAKASE ONLY. NO CUT ROLLS.” The cheap masses rationalize: “But I can eat so much more at the bargain sushi joint for that price….”

The truth is, if you’re going to try real sushi but you’re on a budget, you are probably better off eating fast food (or plain bread, for that matter) for a whole month just to save enough dough for one life-changing dining experience at Sushi Zo, rather than frequenting a discounted sushi hut once a week. Be prepared, however, to be forever ruined for most other mediocre sushi restaurants thereafter.

Each dish at Sushi Zo (served mostly nigiri style, although sashimi and a hand roll do occasion) is prepared with such meticulous precision that it borders on obsessive. To be fair, the server does ask you beforehand what you don’t like—if you’re opposed to exotic sea urchin, or anything chewy such as clam, this is your only chance to speak up and exert any influence over your meal; after this it’s literally up to the chef.

The small plates are presented one after another, usually with a single miniscule piece of sushi that is no bigger than a finger, and a line of instruction uttered by the server: “This is albacore sushi…already ponzu sauce, no soy sauce, please….” “This is scallop, add a little soy sauce.” The lines become somewhat repetitious until you hear slight variations, such as “This is amberjack, with lemon and Japanese jalapeno…” and then the kicker: “…no soy sauce.”

Out of the entire course which consists of slightly more than 20 items, only about three items are actually suggested to be paired with the soy sauce that’s contained in the little kettle on the table. Other than that, the bite-size masterpieces already come seasoned as the chef intended, such as with sea salt, ponzu sauce or the ever-pungent truffle salt. Some of the fish Sushi Zo offers is flown in from Japan, and even rare breeds like needlefish and perch are served.

Although I have observed differences in the seafood served during my four visits to Sushi Zo over the last two years, the meal generally begins and ends with the same items: to start the feast, a single perfectly prepared Kumamoto oyster, followed by four pieces of melt-in-your-mouth tuna sashimi, which is then followed by a tiny saucer filled with uni noodles; to end the party, a single hand roll is served (usually filled with blue crab, but during my last visit it was toro), with a shot of yuzu juice for dessert. The rest of the course may showcase crispy sea eel, sweet shrimp, Spanish mackerel, golden eye snapper, yellow striped jack, seared black cod with miso sauce, pompano, black snapper, and red snapper.

And then there are the standard sushi staples: yellowtail, albacore, halibut and scallop (although as common as these may sound, somehow at Sushi Zo they are anything but ordinary). Perhaps it has to do with the old adage “You get what you pay for,” because the fish quality here is so high you’ll swear it’s served straight out of the sea, for it certainly can’t be just a matter of seasonings, no matter how good the chef. Each piece dissolves in your mouth; the rice is sweet; attention to detail can be seen down to the very fact that the monkfish liver is served warm, rather than cold (this is reminiscent of the way Sasabune serves its ankimo).

At the end of the repast, the waitress will explain that dinner is now complete, unless you have special requests—this is the point at which you’ve earned the right to order whatever you desire from the kitchen, if your appetite permits it. If you’ve been here multiple times, at this moment you may want to order that one thing you liked last time, which perhaps the chef didn’t incorporate into his repertoire tonight (but keep in mind this compounds to the final bill, which you know is already high). In one of my visits, I special-ordered the orange clam with truffle salt; another time, I requested the blue crab hand roll (the chef had served a toro hand roll in its place and I, as is my wont, had a hankering for the crustacean).

Sushi Zo
9824 National Blvd., Los Angeles

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Making My Own Sushi, Part Two

Homemade Sushi

My friends found it hard to believe, but it’s actually been almost four years since I made sushi at home.

Four long years filled with many restaurant-going experiences, during which time I grew and learned even more about the fascinating food and art that is sushi. It is an ongoing pursuit, a continuous exploration; even after all the Japanese eateries I’ve visited, there is still more to discover, so much about which I remain ignorant.

I creak open my kitchen cabinet to survey its contents, and I see that the bamboo sushi rolling mat needs to be rewrapped in brand-new plastic wrap (the better to make those inside-out rolls); the old sauces need to be tossed; the plastic squeeze-bottles need to be replaced. Ditching the old plastic bowl I once used, I go out and purchase an official hangiri (a round, flat-bottom wooden tub used to hold the cooked sushi rice), which of course came with a spatula and mini fan (used for cooling the rice).

At the Japanese supermarket, I buy a few blocks of tuna and salmon sashimi, along with a small tray of minced tuna (instant spicy tuna: just add spicy mayonnaise, smelt fish eggs, green onions and voila!).

It helps when you love it spicy and so do all of those in the party of 10 you’re catering. Knowing ahead of time that not a single person is averse to the hot stuff, I load up on the jalapenos, chili powder, freeze-dried chopped chilis, chili oil, Sri Racha hot sauce, and chili garlic hot sauce.

Sushi purists may argue: true sushi doesn’t consist of spicy mayonnaise, shrimp tempura, or imitation crab sticks; the real thing isn’t about Sushi Pizza (an old favorite among my posse, and rather easy and fun to make, or shall I say bake), or rolls that have gone tropical with mango slices paired with salmon and avocado. These Americanized, fusion creations that are relatively inexpensive to make at home, however, are in fact inspired by dishes I’ve experienced at various sushi bars all around, and I’m aware it’s not something as authentic as say, sweet shrimp nigiri or halibut fin served gunkan-style. (Although perhaps with more researching, I can eventually find my own personal fish dealer so I can attempt the more traditional stuff at home.)

Later, with the help of a designated fry-cook, I cranked out rolls filled with spicy tuna, salmon and mango, and even a shrimp tempura roll laden with spicy scallops and then baked. And of course, the toasted-to-a-crisp, seaweed-and-rice-based sushi pizza, smothered with the ever-popular spicy mayonnaise that I suppose visually represents the cheese on an actual pizza. Substitute the pepperoni slices and sausage with shrimp and crab sticks, and add some jalapeno slices in place of what would normally be green bell peppers and you’ve got some serious Sushi Pizza.