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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Sushi Takes a Back Seat : Kushiyu in Tarzana employs a grill and skewers to produce its best dishes, a la Japan's yakitori bars.

April 23, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

These are lean times in Tarzana, calorically speaking. Thin's In, a diet restaurant, rules the south side of the boulevard, and Japanese food continues to flourish directly across the street at a place called Kushiyu.

The irony is that Kushiyu isn't a sushi bar. It's better described as a nomiya , or drinking pub, where the specialty is kushiyaki , a dazzling array of skewered grilled meats and vegetables.

Tokyo and Osaka are full of these places, otherwise known in Japanese as yakitori bars ( yakitori , literally "grilled chicken," is the generic term for anything grilled). Over there, people flock to madly popular pubs with names like Ton Ton and Torigin after a long day at the office, to get soy-glazed balls of minced chicken ( tsukune ) or an order of three tiny quail eggs ( uzura ), ideal foods for chasing with cold drafts of Ichiban Shibori, Kirin's premier brew.

But the diners here at Kushiyu, dressed in anything from Spandex jumpsuits to electric hair rollers, mostly crowd in at the long counter--which does double duty as a sushi and kushiyaki bar--with their sushi-nibbler's thimbles of sake, dabs of wasabi horseradish and spicy tuna hand rolls close at hand. Behind the sushi makers, two grill men in sweatbands are slaving over a hot hibachi, deftly turning skewers of eggplant, chile peppers and gizzards, the sort of thing true kushiyaki believers order. (One of the grill men looked forlorn when he told me that 90% of the clientele order sushi. In Japan, no yakitori bar even serves sushi.)

This is a nice-looking place, all clean lines, snazzy lighting and late 20th-Century Pacific Rim style. Most of the kushiyaki connoisseurs can be found at little tables off to one side of the restaurant, but those who wish to enjoy the company of strangers can be seated at a hexagonal ceramic table intended for a maximum of 12, much better for impromptu conversation than any counter could ever be.

You'll be handed three menus in here: a paper sushi checklist, a paper kushiyaki checklist and a broader menu for ordering complete dinners and one-pot items. Step One is to hand the sushi list back to the waitress. You can find sushi anywhere on this street.

Now take the kushiyaki list and mark off around five dishes per person. Orders consist of two skewers, three or four pieces per stick, and portions are bite-sized, so don't expect to be filled up quickly. Balance the kushiyaki with a few dishes from the big menu, such as the tempting yaki onigiri , which is triangles of grilled rice stuffed with salted salmon, or the delicate yukari age , being a mixture of minced halibut, chicken and black mushroom wrapped in shiso leaves and deep-fried. Then the fun begins.

The kushiyaki will come in waves here, pretty much in the order in which they appear on the list. Chicken skewers are usually the first course, seafood in the middle, with vegetables and organ meats last. For example, one might begin a meal here with negima , little pieces of chicken grilled with pieces of blackened green onion, or renkon tsukune , minced chicken paste clinging to rounds of lotus root, before progressing to unbelievably tender chunks of swordfish or squid and finishing up with eggplant or liver.

One of my favorite dishes here is shishiamo , three smoky whole smelts that happen to have been spared the skewer treatment. I'm also a big fan of kawa , a fatty food you find on every Tokyo street corner come winter; it's simply grilled chicken skin.

The best of the vegetables is probably grilled Japanese chiles ( shishito ), although the chewy, slightly charred green onions are a close second.

If you wish to combat the relative blandness of these dishes, reach for that shaker of shichimi ("seven spices"). This is a blend of peppers, ginger, orange and lemon peel, and the mixture wakens the senses with a bang.

I lost control and finished up with something from the sushi bar called a cheese roll, mostly because of curiosity. In the Japanese aesthetic, cheese is considered to have an unpleasant odor, so I can only surmise that it is on the menu by popular demand. The Japanese are right in this case--it's awful.

Where and When Location: Kushiyu, 18713 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana. Suggested Dishes: Yaki onigiri , $3.50; yukari age , $4.50; tsukune , $3; shishiamo , $3.50; shishito , $2.20; ishikare nabe , $7.50. Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Price: Dinner for two, $25 to $40. Beer and wine only. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Call: (818) 609-9050.

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