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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Shad Row

February 22, 1996|JONATHAN GOLD

As it takes a hard left into Torrance, Sepulveda Boulevard runs through one of the major Japanese neighborhoods in the United States. Near the low-rise industrial parks that house U.S. operations of the great Japanese companies, near the condo villages where their employees reside, the streets are lined with cafes and bookstores and supermarkets catering to the specific homesicknesses of expatriate Japanese. Torrance--some people refer to it as "the Torrance prefecture"--may be the only place in the Los Angeles basin where a transplanted Osaka manufacturing executive can lead a reasonable life without the necessity of translation.

For a while, the Japanese areas of Torrance formed a boom town within the aerospace-depressed South Bay. When the recession hit Japan a couple of years ago, however, most of the local expats were sent home, leaving noodle shops half-empty and karaoke joints subdued. A lot of businesses, unable to cope with the lack of customers, closed. Others manage to scrape by on what remains of the Japanese tourist trade.

But in one of the many remaining mini-malls of Torrance, flanked by a mah-jongg parlor and hard by an Arby's drive-through lane, the sushi restaurant Hakone is packed to the gills. Uniformed oil-field workers from the local refineries sit cheek-by-jowl with tuna-snarfing Korean shop owners. Well-off good-ol'-boys gobble spicy scallop rolls as if they were French fries, and thrifty Japanese students make lunch out of a $4.50 fried sweet-shrimp plate. Even the odd Japanese executive is still around, addressing the sushi chef in formal, polite Japanese, composing meals of traditional sushi and sashimi while the firecracker-roll fressers whoop it up around them. A sign near the door admonishes customers not to bring outside food into the restaurant, as if somebody were afraid of seeing Taco Bell sacks on the tables.

In the relentless economic Darwinism of late-'90s America, Hakone has survived by adapting. It makes very fine Melrose-hip salmon-skin hand rolls. The "spider rolls"--deep-fried soft-shell crabs tightly wrapped with rice, crunchy Japanese vegetables and a healthy slug of dried bonito shavings in a sheet of dried seaweed--are actually sensational, small essays in saltiness and crunch.

If you can ignore all the trendy specials, the loud wall posters, and the fry cook ready and waiting in the back of the restaurant, the traditional stuff is still probably what to get at Hakone. The fish is sparkling fresh; the chef's technique close to impeccable.

A sashimi plate shines: tuna as red as a glass of Burgundy; tai (though perhaps really local snapper instead of the prized bream from Japan's Inland Sea) dense, impossibly rich; ultra-fresh salmon ribboned with white; mild slabs of yellowtail; tender, sea-sweet blanched octopus.

There is ankimo, the ultra-rich monkfish liver some people call the foie gras of the sea, sliced thin, fanned out on a small plate and simply dressed with a splash of citrusy ponzu. Red clam sushi is almost ethereal; wisps of halibut taste only of the sea.

Kohada (sometimes translated, unappetizingly, as "gizzard shad") is one of the most beautiful fish on a sushi chef's palette, its perlescent silver skin stippled with regular black spots; its sharp astringency contrasts with the hundred delicate subtleties of really fresh fish. But kohada, which needs to be steeped in rice vinegar to soften its flesh, is a notoriously difficult fish to serve. Overmarinated kohada can be stringy, tough, almost woody; the undermarinated fish is overwhelmingly strong, and shot through with dozens of annoying pin bones.

Japanese connoisseurs often judge a sushi chef by his skill in preparing kohada--it is infrequently served in U.S. sushi bars--and the chef here passes with high honors. Hakone's kohada is close to perfect: full-flavored, luxuriously soft, with a strong-fish pungency that comes through almost as a nuance.

But though Hakone is an extremely good sushi bar, you don't always feel as if you are in the hands of a great sushi master. Once I found a shiso leaf garnishing a plate of sashimi to be slightly wilted; another time, a piece of salmon was a little dried out at the edges, as if it had been too loosely wrapped.

These are small faults, perhaps, but in sushi, as in watercolor painting, the genius is often in the accumulation of details. Still, somebody here has obviously mastered the more important job: that of choosing the fish.

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Where to Go

Hakone Sushi, 1555 W. Sepulveda Blvd., Torrance, (310) 539-9602. Open for lunch and dinner Tues.-Sun. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $20-$36.

What to Get

Sushi, sashimi.

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