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A Great Raw Deal

September 21, 1997

Before Michael Hide Cardenas opened Sushi Roku on 3rd Street a few months ago, he sought out advice from a slew of Los Angeles' most successful chefs. Make it look good, they all told him, but keep your focus on the food. The former manager of Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills must have listened. Because Sushi Roku is not only one of the best-looking restaurants to open in L.A. in a while, the food is right on target, too.

The funky beach shack that housed the short-lived Antartica next to the Beverly Connection has been transformed into a studiously stylish sushi bar and restaurant. Open till midnight all week, Sushi Roku has become the latest place where people in black flock for sushi. Maybe it's because the interior's grays, blacks and pale bamboo make everyone look as if they're vamping for a fashion shoot. Or maybe it's the two little piles of salt set discreetly on the steps outside to bring good luck. Personally, I think it's the food, a shrewd combination of straightforward sushi and appealing California-Asian cuisine.

Larger and more comfortable than most sushi restaurants, Sushi Roku uses concrete, wood, rock, bamboo and rice paper to great effect. In the middle of the bar, a boulder's deep hollow becomes a pool where orange and white koi swim restlessly beneath a bronze sculpture of a fish. Behind the sleek sushi bar, where Hiro Nishimura (who comes from R-23 downtown) wields a flashing knife, is a wall of black granite relieved only by a graceful ikebana arrangement in a plaited-bamboo vase.

Rectangular flagstones form the long wall opposite; another is inset with dove-gray rocks the size of ostrich eggs. And in the private dining room, where eight Japanese businessmen are dining one night, boulders are dramatically piled up on the floor. The restaurant's sober colors are offset by saffron beams and tabletops of pale bamboo veneer. Despite the frenetic table-hopping, the effect is serene.

While executive chef Kenji Terashi worked with Nobu Matsuhisa at Matsuhisa for six years, Cardenas managed Matsuhisa for five years--and helped open Nobu in New York and London. To Terashi and Cardenas' credit, Sushi Roku is not a dish-by-dish knockoff of the wildly popular La Cienega Boulevard restaurant, though Terashi does occasional riffs on Nobu's eccentric palette of chiles, olive oil, caviar and garlic. What Sushi Roku does offer is something for everyone from sushi novices to serious aficionados, plus an array of interesting California-Asian dishes. For anyone who likes to graze, this is the place.

On one visit, I concentrate mostly on nigiri-zushi: the hand-shaped ovals of rice topped with ochre-colored uni, milky squid, shiny blue-skinned mackerel and crunchy red clam. I like an umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum) and shiso roll jacketed in pearly grains of rice, but I'm too much of a purist to ever enjoy the rich grilled eel with sweet barbecue sauce--and avocado. While I tease strands of seaweed from a terrific salad composed of four different types of seaweed, two hipsters at the table behind me discuss spinning (not what Rapunzel did, but what you do at the gym) and where to buy Cristal and "Dom" on the cheap. They natter on, complaining about prices at Matsuhisa and what a bargain this place seems in comparison, too busy to notice their friend quietly snatching up every piece of beautiful toro with her chopsticks like a sea gull diving for fish.

Another time, I order enough appetizers to cover the table. Twice. Yet I barely make a dent in the menu. Fried baby calamari, usually pretty dull, is fabulous here, sheathed in a lacy tempura-like batter that's delicately crisp, flavored with bits of olive paste and a light drizzle of ponzu sauce. Seafood sashimi is scooped into mussel shells, in a lively avocado sauce spiked with shiso and capers. Yellowtail sashimi strewn with chopped red and green chiles would be fine if the sizzling truffle oil didn't taste a little old, always a problem with a flavored oil. I like the Japanese mushroom salad, too--a mix of frisee, tender lettuce, purple basil, sumptuous julienned shiitake mushrooms garnished with a flurry of white radish tipped with red. The addition of shrunken regular brown mushrooms and flavorless diced tomatoes, however, takes the salad down a notch.

Mixed vegetable or seafood tempura, cloaked in a gossamer batter and fried in clean oil at the right temperature, is terrific. Every piece of whole shrimp, spears of asparagus, bright orange kabocha squash, whitefish, shiitake mushroom and more is just what you hope to get when you order tempura.

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