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The Shakespeare of Sushi

September 03, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA

"GOOD EVENING!" SAYS SUSHI CHEF KATSU MICHITE as a companion and I slip into seats at the bar of the new Restaurant Katsu in Studio City. We had called ahead, asking to be seated in the room where Katsu would serve his best of the night. Opting for omakase is like signing up for the prix fixe menu at a French restaurant without knowing the menu. What I do know is that we will have astonishingly fresh raw seafood.

Across from us, Katsu takes a broad, silvery fish from a shallow basket and sets it on the counter with a soft slap. "Hamachi," he says, smiling, and begins dissecting yellowtail into strips of filet. Cut on the diagonal, it has a satiny gloss, washed with just the faintest traces of color.

Next comes the swooshing sound of Katsu rubbing gnarly, fresh wasabi root against the fine metal teeth of a grater from Kyoto. He snatches a little fragrant pearly rice, deftly works it into an oval, adds a dab of pale green wasabi and gently drapes the slice of fish over it. He makes two for each of the four young men at the other end of the counter, arranging the morsels carefully next to a pile of sweet young ginger on a porcelain pedestal the color of fresh cream.

By now my mouth is watering. Katsu sets a bowl in front of me. It's filled with a dark dice of fish, which he tells me is tuna cooked in its blood and soy sauce. "Fishy," he says with a giggle. That it is, but salty and delicious, nevertheless. Next comes a bowl of curious stuff, ivory in color, ruffled like a brain. "Cod egg," he says. It is exquisitely subtle in taste, with a creamy texture offset by a blast of red pepper.

Then comes the real feast. Sushi, sushi and more sushi each time he opens his strongbox of super-fresh fish. I can't help but ask if it is the same as what's served in the main sushi bar of this minimalist restaurant. "The same, but different," is his reply. Same fish, but the equivalent of the filet mignon, the best parts. Every morning, starting at 6, he spends four hours shopping at the fish market. For him, it's the thrill of the chase, coming home laden with the best the market has to offer.

He unwraps a gorgeous piece of toro, so marbled with fat that it's more pink than red, and cuts four slices. "Boston," he announces. Wherever it's from, this is beautiful fish. Next comes a trio of oily, flavorful fish: Spanish mackerel, fresh sardine and shad, each with a special garnish of transparent seaweed, scallions, or a squeeze of yuzu.

Then he disappears and comes back with live shrimp that keep jumping right out of the basket. He rips off the heads, splits open the tails and serves the crystal-clear, slightly crunchy, deliciously slippery flesh on a raft of rice. For the Japanese, live is synonymous with fresh.

The sushi keeps coming until we cry uncle. We finish with a rustic soup of miso and clams in the shell, followed by one last round of the gorgeous kampachi he has on hand that night. He'll never let you leave without serving fruit. Tonight it's a bowl of miniature green grapes, sweet, tannic purple grapes and a slice of juicy, honeyed melon.

If you happened to sit down in the front room at Katsu without knowing anything about it or the sushi chef, your experience wouldn't be much different from what it would be at any high-quality sushi restaurant--and there are many--in Los Angeles. And, just as at most of those, you'd find that the cooked dishes, with the exception

of the edamame, aren't as compelling as the straight sushi. Japanese chefs specialize, and a chef who is well versed in sushi isn't necessarily able to produce, say, top-notch tempura.

Eating at Katsu is a splurge, admittedly, but no more so than eating at any other good restaurant. After all, along with Nobu Matsuhisa, this is the chef who introduced a coterie of fans to sushi at the original Katsu in Los Feliz, which he sold a couple years ago. He still has Katsu on Third in Los Angeles, but he's looking for a fine-dining audience for Restaurant Katsu. Although he's been making sushi for almost 40 years, he says, shaking his head, "Now my customers are trying to teach me how to make sushi--California hand rolls, spicy tuna rolls . . ." He trails off. "I'm more of a traditionalist."

There is much to be said for traditional sushi, and he's saying it at Restaurant Katsu.

Restaurant Katsu

11920 Ventura Blvd.,

Studio City,

(818) 760-4585

cuisine: Japanese

rating: **


AMBIENCE: Stark contemporary setting decorated with rough-cut wood, lengths of green bamboo and bamboo vases, with a main sushi bar, table area and a smaller eight-seat sushi bar where Katsu serves his omakase. SERVICE: Genial and efficient. BEST DISHES: Clam miso, assorted seaweed salad, sushi, sashimi, assorted fruit. Appetizers, $2 to $9. Assorted sushi, $9 to $30 per person. Omakase (chef's choice), $70 and up. Corkage, $10. WINE PICKS: Veuve Clicquot Brut Champagne; Kirin Ichiban beer. FACTS: Dinner nightly. Lunch weekdays. Valet parking.


Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

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