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.