Ventura Boulevard is lined with sushi bars the way some pockets are with rayon, a development that puzzles a number of local Japanese no end. "Why do people in the Valley eat so much sushi," a Japanese friend asked me recently, "and so little of the foods we eat every day?"
Beats me. Studio City's Asanebo, possibly the best Japanese restaurant north of Mulholland Drive and south of San Francisco, is also one of the easiest places in town to get a table right now. Could it be coincidence that sushi is nowhere to be found on its menu?
True, the restaurant is relatively new, but consider this: One evening a stunning young couple came in, scanned the bilingual white paper menu and walked out, even after staring at the 12 or so sumptuous dishes that were conspicuously crowding my table. Another evening, my friends, their young son and I had the place entirely to ourselves until two smartly dressed Japanese women appeared as we were finishing dessert. Shikata ga nai, or whatchagonnado, as the Japanese say with a shrug.
In keeping with the strictest Shinto traditions, Asanebo is spare, minimalist and spotlessly clean. It's a square, well-lit dining room where you eat at jet black tables or black banquettes, and there is the requisite amount of blond wood paneling on the walls. The back area is a stage, for the laser karaoke singing that supposedly goes on after 10 p.m. I wouldn't know. I've never been there after 9:30.
The chefs here are two guys from Yokohama, brothers Shunji and Tetsu Nakao, and believe me, they are talented. The 35 or so dishes that make up their menu have been transcribed in the Roman alphabet with a parenthetical explanation alongside.
This is, for me at least, the enlightened way of presenting authentic Asian dishes. (Butahire kushikatsu, for example, is described as "deep-fried skewered pork, quail egg and onion" and mozuku su as "fresh kelp in vinegar sauce.") It's a pity that most Asian places lack the linguistic wherewithal to bring this off.
But it is the cooking that really does the talking here, sensational dishes simply presented. Many of these dishes fall into the category of kappo ryori --little dishes to accompany beer, wine and sake. Then there are heartier rustic dishes, porridges and bowls full of fresh noodles. They are all terrific.
A good dashi, or broth, is the basis for most good Japanese cooking, and this is where Asanebo really shines. Dishes such as nikujaga (thinly sliced beef and boiled potatoes with yam noodles) and the sake-steamed clams called asari no sakamushi swim in incredibly delicious broths, ones you will want to drink heartily from their ceramic bowls when the foodstuffs in them have been exhausted.
Those wonderful buckwheat noodles called soba get the royal treatment in a dashi made from shiitake mushrooms and shaved bonito ( katsuobushi ). There are good soups, too, such as a full-flavored miso porridge ( miso zosui ) and nayakko no tamagotogi, a crock steaming with a pudding made from coddled egg, tofu and udon (thick wheat noodles), both based on a home-style dashi that any Japanese housewife would envy.
The chefs hope, of course, that people will come here to drink beer and sake, so this menu favors salty dishes too. Shishiamo (smelts), available in any Little Toyko bar, come salt-broiled with the roe still in them. The Japanese eat them whole, head and all. "Onion slice" is a delectable pile of paper-thin onion slices topped with shaved bonito. It's wonderful with the dry beer that Japanese are crazy about these days.
Fried foods are also served here in abundance, foods which Japanese connoisseurs will tell you literally demand beer. (Never drink sake with them, so they say.) Tatsuya age is possibly the world's lightest fried chicken, served in little chunks with crisped bits of skin hanging on for dear life. Agedashi dofu is my favorite way to eat tofu, cubed and deep fried until the outside is golden brown, then drowned in a ginger and vinegar sauce.
There is much more. The seaweed-wrapped onigiri , for example: rice triangles stuffed with salted salmon, plum paste or dried bonito. They're as good as you'll find anywhere. Yamaimo sengiri are julienned mountain yams with a slippery, addictive texture. And you won't want to miss occasional specials like kabocha fume-ni , a flavorful stewed pumpkin dish, or hirame usuzukuri, where wafer-thin slices of halibut are fanned out on your plate like a flower.
Hey, wait a minute, isn't that last one like something you'd get at a sushi bar? OK, I'll confess. Even the Japanese eat the odd bit of raw fish, I guess.
Suggested dishes: onigiri, $1.50; niyakko no tamagotogi, $4; soba, $5; kabocha fume-ni, $3.50; hirame usuzukuri, $7.
Asanebo, 11941 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 760-3348. Dinner 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. nightly. Beer and wine. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, $25-$50.