Each time I eat at Ginza Sushiko, I have one of the best meals I've ever had in Los Angeles--or anywhere else. It's also one of the most expensive, but only worth it if, like me, you eat anything and everything and you're willing to put yourself in the hands of sushi master Masa Takayama. This is sushi as good as Tokyo's best. Because of the intimacy of the setting, never more than a dozen guests and often only a handful, eating at Ginza Sushiko is like having a three-star chef prepare a private meal. The seafood is flown in from Japan three times a week, and the quality of familiar toro and uni is astounding. The same is true for delicacies you may have never encountered before--silvery needle fish, fugu (blowfish) and its liver, toro scraped with a spoon to make a kind of tartare. With Takayama across the counter--wielding his knife, rubbing fresh wasabi root across a shark skin grater, preparing everything right in front of me--I always learn a great deal about ingredients, aesthetics, my own tastes. From the first shock of cold sake to the last sip of frothy grass-green tea, dinner here is a completely absorbing experience.
218 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills; (310) 247-8939. By reservation only, $185 to $250 or more per person.
What a difference a chef makes. Now that 28-year-old Lee Hefter has taken over the kitchen at Granita, Wolfgang Puck's sleepy Malibu restaurant has come raucously alive. There's standing room only in the bar, both dining rooms are packed and Hefter is coolly in charge. The young chef, who did a stint with two-star chef Michel Bras in Laguiole, France, is not only technically skilled. He's also whimsical enough to put his own spin on California cuisine. Appetizers, such as the gorgeous asparagus soup with Dungeness crab or lobster cakes with shaved fennel salad and a piquant mango vinaigrette, tend to be more compelling than main courses. Quick--before Hefter changes the menu--try the heavenly artichoke and goat cheese tortelloni in a white truffle oil. Slow-roasted wild striped bass with pearl pasta in a porcini and red wine broth shows he also has a way with fish. Not every dish works, but here is someone bursting with ideas and the talent to pull them off.
23725 W. Malibu Road, Malibu Colony Plaza, Malibu; (310) 456-0488. Entrees, $19.50 to $32; five-course prix fixe menu Monday through Thursday, $35.
The Grill on the Alley
The Grill on the Alley is such a soothing, civilized place. The martinis are very dry; the oysters, fabulously fresh; the frilly onion rings, as delicate as they come. And, oh, slipping into one of those inviting, high-sided booths gives such a sense of well-being. The Grill's white-jacketed waiters are some of the best in town, tending to your every need. The Cobb salad and the Caesar are also among L.A.'s finest. And I always know that the shrimp cocktail will be perfect, the green bean and onion salad nicely chilled, the crab cake fried to a golden crisp, the steaks serious, the burgers juicy and delicious, and the double-cut lamb chops as tender as butter. And on Sunday nights in the spring and summer, the Grill holds a New England-style clambake ($35) for homesick East Coasters.
9560 Dayton Way, Beverly Hills; (310) 276-0615. Entrees, $13.75 to $29.50.
With Chet Baker's horn playing in the background, an austerely elegant black-and-white decor brightened with vases of startling gold lilies and stark birch branches propped against the walls, Gustaf Anders is the epitome of cool. So is Ulf Anders Strandberg's understated Swedish-inflected cooking. Every meal starts with an array of his wonderful breads: crisp flatbread, orange-scented limpa, soft yeasted dinner rolls flavored with anise or caraway. Strandberg is a masterful fish chef, never overcooking or over-saucing. He cures Icelandic herring three different ways and makes his own superb gravad lax. Even better is his salt- and sugar-cured salmon with creamed dill potatoes. In summer, you can feast on bright red crayfish boiled with handfuls of fresh dill. During the Christmas season, try the splendid Swedish smorgasbord. And don't forget about Back Pocket, Gustaf Anders' new casual offshoot next door.
1651 W. Sunflower Ave., South Coast Plaza Village (on Bear Street), Santa Ana; (714) 668-1737.Entrees, $18 to $30. Back Pocket: entrees, $9 to $17.