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SUSHI DREAMS : L.A.'s Most Expensive Restaurant Is a Storefront With Perfect Fish and a Perfect Chef

August 15, 1993|Ruth Reichl

Every great chef has a dream: to own a restaurant where he can feed perfect food made with the best ingredients money can buy to a few discerning diners. It's usually just a dream, because making a living with such a restaurant is almost impossible. In Southern California, only one chef has made this dream come true.

At lunch, Masa Takayama often serves just two customers. Some nights at dinner he has only three. This means that, despite an out-of-the-way location in a mid-Wilshire shopping mall, Sushiko is the single most expensive restaurant in Southern California. It also means that those lucky enough to be seated at Masa's counter are in for a truly extraordinary experience; if you love sushi and are intrigued by the quest for perfection, do not pass up a meal at Sushiko.

If you are going to treat yourself to the Sushiko experience, now is the time to do it. Masa plans to move his restaurant to a chichi Beverly Hills location at the end of the year. There is no question that this will bring him more customers, which is nice for him. It is not clear that this will be a good thing for the rest of us.

For Masa is not just an extraordinary chef who goes to great lengths to get the finest fish. He is also, in the world of egomaniacal cooks and gruff sushi masters, a man with his own interpretation of what it means to be a chef.

No matter how long it's been since you last sat at his counter, he will remember you. "Four years ago," he says to me. "You sat over there." He also remembers what I'd eaten. "Well," he admits, "I write it down. I don't want to serve my customers the same thing twice." Then he turns to my guest. "You've been here before, too." He points to a different seat. "You sat there. Your husband is interested in wine."

Above all, Masa wants to make you happy. And since this is a restaurant where you do not order, this is not always easy. "Once," he confesses, "some customers brought an important guest to the restaurant. But she didn't eat anything. When I asked why, she admitted that she didn't like fish. So I boiled some water, I sent someone to the store for a can of tomatoes, and I made pasta out of soba noodles. She said it was the best spaghetti she'd ever eaten; she asked for seconds."

Watching Masa grate fresh wasabi root to top poached abalone, I can't help thinking how much the spaghetti woman missed. Abalone, in my opinion, is overrated. Only twice have I not been disappointed in the world's most expensive shellfish; both times were at Sushiko.

Now a tiny tureen is being set before us. It's a rustic oval, and when I lift the lid, fragrant steam comes rushing up. Inside, green spinach leaves shine through a clear, subtle broth topped with the largest sea urchins I've ever seen. Can he possibly know, I wonder, that spinach and sea urchins are two of my favorite foods? It's unlikely--but with Masa you can't be sure.

As we sip the soup, Masa showers ice onto plates that shimmer with all the turquoise brilliance of a swimming pool. He sets a leaf on top of the ice and tops this with rosy slivers of Spanish mackerel and white slices of squid. He adds some more ice, then grates Japanese ginger onto the composition. He slides it over the counter and sets a little dish of ginger and soy sauce on the side.

Against the faint crunchiness of the squid, the flesh of the fish is soft, almost buttery. And the austerely clean taste of the mollusk emphasizes the baroque, almost perfumed flavor of the fish. Suddenly these familiar fish seem new, more interesting.

I know that Masa brings almost everything--special herbs, fish, antique dishes, even seaweed--from his native country. So I ask where he got these beautiful leaves. He grins mischievously. "They're grape leaves," he says, "from my back yard."

He takes a couple of heavy, six-sided brown plates and covers each with generous slices of grilled freshwater eel. "This is eel day in Japan," he says. "It's a tradition that goes back 1,000 years. Everybody in Japan eats eel today." Masa launches into a story about a philosopher and a fishmonger in the Edo period. Is the story true? There is an eel day, but is this it? It's hard to know; like a good bartender, Masa always has a tale to tell. As he regales us with stories of eel, Masa is fileting the ugliest creature you've ever seen, something that seems to be half eel, half fish. "Hamo fish," he says proudly. "This is very special. This is the best time of year to eat it." He takes his knife and begins making thin cuts in the filet, then scores it in the opposite direction. He arranges the sliced fish on beautiful green-glazed plates.

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