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The Restaurant Guide 2003

Beyond Sushi

Angelenos Are Certainly Blessed When It Comes to This Asian Cuisine. But in Southern California There's a Lot More to Japanese Food Than Fish.

June 22, 2003|S. Irene Virbila

At The Hump, a sushi chef with a glossy Elvis-like pompadour filets a silvery Japanese mackerel, slicing the flesh into sashimi that tastes as if it were just plucked from the ocean. Next comes pearly-fleshed snapper decorated with slender rings of serrano pepper and tiny saffron-colored flower petals. Later there's a mackerel fried to a golden crunch, followed by a slew of exceptional sushi-nigiri arranged on a huge ceramic slab splashed with black-and-white glazes. Outside the windows, a small plane taxis down the runway and takes off into the night.

This outpost at the Santa Monica Airport is but one of thousands of sushi bars in Southern California. Angelenos have to be the most avid sushi eaters outside Japan, flocking to obscure traditional spots where you won't hear much English and California rolls are verboten to all-you-can-eat sushi houses to the hyper-fashionable restaurants where the scene far outshines the fish.

The phenomenal Masa Takayama, who presided over the 12-seat Ginza Sushi-ko, L.A.'s most expensive and exclusive sushi restaurant, has just departed for Manhattan. It's like losing a great home-grown superstar to the New York Yankees. And while nobody else is attempting to do what he did, L.A. still has an extraordinary array of top-notch sushi restaurants. They would, of course, include Matsuhisa, the eccentric Beverly Hills seafood restaurant where Nobu Matsuhisa caught the attention of an A-list clientele with his inventive dishes that fuse a Japanese aesthetic with touches of chile, garlic, caviar and even butter. With the help of celebrity investors such as Robert De Niro, he's branched out from his seminal L.A. restaurant into a brand name and now has stylish Nobus in Malibu, New York, London, Tokyo and Paris.

Morihiro Onodera is such a fanatic about his rice at Mori Sushi that he buys it unhulled to retain its moisture and then just puts what he needs for the day through a rice huller. His omakase, or tasting menu, may be the most refined and interesting around.

Downtown's R-23 is a marriage of contemporary design, including Frank Gehry's cardboard chairs, with the interior of an old brick warehouse. What really shines here are the cooked dishes, such as grilled yellowtail collar. The San Fernando Valley's Sushi Nozawa is reliable, but more of an acquired taste in terms of chef Kazunori Nozawa's eccentricities and the garish strip mall setting. You can't argue with the quality of his seafood, although you might have some issues with his personality. Tsukiji in Gardena, named for the famous Tokyo fish market, is a purist's choice and virtually flawless.

But there's more to Japanese cuisine than sushi, from simple ramen houses and robata-yaki grills to shabu-shabu and French-Japanese bistros. At last count there were some 500 Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles, and 12,000 in all of Southern California. They're tucked in odd locations, not just in Little Tokyo or the famed stretch of Sawtelle Boulevard in West L.A. One reason Japanese cuisine is a standout is the quality of the ingredients available, many of them flown in daily from Japan. The fish market downtown draws chefs of every ilk for its array of exquisitely fresh seafood.

Now that Japan's renowned Kobe beef has been successfully bred in this country, the tender, highly marbled meat appears on many chic menus. At Kagaya in Little Tokyo, choose from three grades of beef for your shabu-shabu, including two kinds of Wagyu--Kobe beef raised outside of Japan. As you cook the thinly sliced meat and vegetables in the boiling broth, it takes on an amazing flavor. When you're done, the waiter whisks it away and returns it as either an udon-laced soup or a rich rice dish as sublime as risotto.

If it's soba you crave, seek out tiny Otafuku in Gardena, where master noodle maker Seiji Akutsu serves his extraordinary soba made from the white heart of buckwheat. Nearby is Chikara Mochi, a bakery that makes lovely little rice cakes stuffed with bean paste. Shisen Ramen, a modest Sichuan-style Japanese noodle shop in Torrance, is great for a fast meal. Ubon, Nobu Matsuhisa's noodle restaurant in the Beverly Center, features udon with free-range chicken, Peruvian anticucho and ceviche, plus terrific iced green tea.

One of my favorite haunts for a quick bite is Yakitori-ya at Sawtelle and Olympic, on West L.A.'s Japanese restaurant row. A tiny place, it feels like a neighborhood dive in Tokyo. Behind the bar, cooks in baseball caps grill skewers of chicken and all its various parts over Japanese hardwood charcoal. It's funky and lively, and the price is just $2 a stick. Kokekokko is another great address in Little Tokyo with much the same menu.

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