Tuesday, October 28, 2014

MoonCat Japanese Sushi Bistro in Monrovia

MoonCat in Monrovia
Chef's Special: Spicy Tuna Roll with Shrimp Tempura,
Eel Sauce, Spicy Mayo and Fried Onions on Top
Lime Albacore Roll with Pink Soy Paper, Mango and Apple Puree
Shabu Shabu Beef Sushi
Scallop Hand Roll with Tobiko

By the Light of the Moon...

MoonCat Japanese Sushi Bistro is one of those quirky, rinky-dink places with a whole lot of personality: not quite a sushi dive, but not exactly a fancy restaurant either. As you part the blue Noren curtains and enter this tiny space—and I mean tiny, as in five-seat sushi bar tiny—you are greeted by Lucky Cat figurines, colorful decanters, and the obligatory outbursts from those who work here as they try to out-bellow one another in welcoming their guests.

But what MoonCat (formerly Moondog’s, a hot dog joint) lacks in space, it makes up for in great taste and enthusiastic service, so even on a weeknight it can get packed, as patrons linger on inside (socializing and watching the flat screen TV mounted in the corner) or enjoy sushi al fresco, dining by moonlight at tables on the sidewalk.

If you’re lucky, you happen to be there on a day when the ever-rare (at least on the west coast) conch sushi is available ($4 for the two-piece nigiri), and if you’re really lucky, Chef Naoya may just be there, whipping up a random, off-the-menu special—such as a spicy tuna roll covered with chopped-up shrimp tempura smothered in creamy spicy mayonnaise, eel sauce and dark, aromatic, fried-to-a-crisp onions.

This sushi bar’s homespun charm can be noted even in its miniature notebook-like menus with covers of idyllic images; these menus suggest starters like Popcorn Lobster for $7.50, or “specialty sashimi” such as Ceviche for $13 or Yellowtail Jalapeno for $17.

To tantalize you, Chef Naoya presents a little appetizer comprised of vegetables and fried lotus chip in a roasted sesame sauce. And if you want more exotic sauces, try ordering the “Lime Albacore” roll ($12), which features a unique mango and apple puree on a roll with spicy tuna, imitation crab, pink soy paper, slices of lime and bits of colorful fried noodles.

For something else that’s unusual, try the "Shabu Shabu Beef" sushi for $6. It’s unusually tender and sweet, and embellished with toppings such as green onions, momiji oroshi and ponzu sauce. And if you want something authentic, how about the Aji Fry (fried Spanish Mackerel), panko-crusted and served with Tonkatsu sauce?

For such a small place, MoonCat’s possibilities seem boundless.

MoonCat Japanese Sushi Bistro
108 E. Lime Ave., Monrovia

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Kudos to Sushi Karen of Culver City

Crunchy Roll
Lobster Roll
Kanpachi Jalapeno Citrus Sauce
Freshwater Eel Sushi
Jumbo Scallop Sushi with Yuzu

Sushi Karen: A Love Affair

Culver City urbanites love Sushi Karen.

For a little over a decade, locals have turned this sushi haven—named after the daughter of owner and chef Toshi—into a regular hangout, and you can hear the patter as they confer at their tables about everything from the trifles of daily life to the tenets of sushi dining.

Ever the self-appointed arbiter elegantiae, I immediately mind the menus and assess the ambience here: What type of sushi bar is this? Is it traditional, Americanized, fusion? Is it trendy and pretentious, or serviceable and quaint?

Sushi Karen, as it turns out, offers both traditional and Americanized sushi, and while there seems to be a slightly snooty air about some of its patrons, the restaurant feels generally welcoming to newcomers to this corner of the world. Neither flashy nor pretentious as Westside establishments can sometimes be, Sushi Karen is where highbrow meets casual in a comfortable setting. The prices are also fairly reasonable considering the location, and it’s a rather small place with a 12-seat sushi bar.

Chef Toshi lightly banters with the regulars as he serves the favorites with fervor: the Crunchy Roll, with shrimp tempura, avocado, colorful rice cracker bits, garlic mayo and eel sauce for $13; the baked Lobster Roll, with avocado, yamagobo, mayonnaise and masago, wrapped with both seaweed and soy paper (a great way to combine contrasting flavors but a rarely used technique) for $17; and the Kanpachi (Amberjack) Sashimi with Jalapeno Citrus Sauce for $15.

The food here is fresh and simple, and the sauces, although not fancy, make the sashimi and the sushi rolls resonate with sufficient flavor without being overpowering. Try the monkfish liver sushi, which comes with the standard toppings—ponzu sauce, green onions and momiji oroshi, otherwise known as spicy grated daikon radish. Indulge in the yellowtail belly sushi, which, albeit served plain, is buttery and clean. The freshwater eel is perfect, baked crispy and lightly brushed with sweetness; and the jumbo scallop sushi is plump and flavorful with its sea salt, lemon juice and yuzu seasonings.

From Sushi Karen’s kitchen menus, you can choose from appetizers such as Glazed Marinated Black Cod or Asari Clam Soup; for dessert, there’s Mochi and tempura ice cream. And for those who thrive on that potent potation made from fermented rice, there’s quite a myriad of Japanese sake here as well.

Amid the burgeoning new age eateries and noisy bustle of the Culver City dining scene, Sushi Karen seems to serve as a refugefor those busy urbanites who are simply looking for a modest sushi joint they can call their own.

Sushi Karen
10762 Washington Blvd., Culver City