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Restaurants | THE REVIEW

Just off Melrose, a hidden jewel

Tucked behind a serene garden, Nishimura is quietly turning out exquisite sushi in a stylish, contemporary setting.

September 03, 2003|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

We listened closely as the waiter at Nishimura recited that night's specials: steamed razor clams, Kumamoto oysters with caviar, freshwater eel grilled on skewers, halibut sashimi. We took them all.

The razor clams, two to an order and the size of a Bic lighter, arrived on a gorgeous handmade ceramic plate. We ate them plain, savoring the marvelous briny taste of the regal clams. Each made two neat bites.

Glancing at the sushi bar, I could see an assistant sushi chef with blond-tipped hair busy doing something, but I couldn't quite see what. Next to him, a deep ceramic bowl glazed the color of buttermilk caught my eye. But before I could decide whether it held miniature palm trees, or some kind of sprouting ginger, I was distracted by more guests arriving at the sushi bar. One man looked as if he could have come straight from his bespoke tailor. Another wore neat dreadlocks. Musician or antiquarian? Artist or architect? In this neighborhood, he could have been any of the above.

Nishimura is the stylish contemporary sushi bar in a little building just across from the Pacific Design Center. The entrance is off to the side, at the end of a serene pocket garden planted with tufted grass. Beside the door, a startling turquoise basin holds water and a bamboo ladle, a gesture of welcome. In the doorway, a stiffened linen curtain flaps in the breeze.

Nishimura is not at all a boisterous sushi bar. Discreetly elegant and small in scale, its white walls and high ceilings give it the feeling of a loft. Instead of the typical wood, the counter has an abstract pattern of wide black brushstrokes on a cream background. The only spot of color in the place is the intense red of a small colorfield painting. Actually, Nishimura can be a romantic spot, if you sit at one of the darker tables in the corner lighted only by small oil lamps.

Behind the sushi bar, the wall is covered with a series of bold ceramic pieces. Glazed half in cream, half in black, some look like biscotti dipped in chocolate. Others are in the shape of airplane wings inscribed with numbers. But they're not the sculptures they seem to be. When a table orders a lot of sushi, a chef will suddenly snatch one off the wall and use it to present nigiri-zushi or sushi rolls. The pieces of sushi lined up two-by-two along its length make for a dramatic presentation.

If the platters seem familiar, it's because the owner and sushi master, Hiro Nishimura, has a long history in L.A., going all the way back to Katsu in Los Feliz. That's where I first saw the remarkable work of potter Mineo Mizuno. When Nishimura moved out on his own to open R-23 downtown, he commissioned Mizuno to make ceramics for that restaurant too. And when Nishimura sold R-23, he brought the potter's work to the Hump in Santa Monica, where he was the opening chef. And now, of course, the oversized platters are very much a part of his new restaurant too.

Ice, oysters and caviar

Just as a lanky T-shirted kid left the sushi bar, calling out "See you," and flashing Nishimura the peace sign, that cream bowl I'd noticed before was heading straight for our table in the arms of a waitress wrapped in a long white apron. Tall and incredibly slender, she had hair that stuck out every which way, giving her the daffy look of a character in a Japanese animated film.

The bowl was filled to the brim with ice and riding the floes were a dozen exquisite Kumamoto oysters, each topped with a spoonful of charcoal gray caviar. The oysters are quite small and crisp; the caviar, Beluga from Iran, rich and salty. What had looked like palm trees garnishing the bowl turned out to be sprigs of bamboo from the plants that frame the courtyard garden.

Unagi, or freshwater eel, threaded onto a bamboo skewer and lightly grilled is delicious with just a dab of intensely salty-sweet miso and a few lightly charred green peppers. Without the thick, sweet glaze some sushi chefs favor, the eel has a lovely delicacy and lightness. Halibut sashimi arrives as a Jackson Pollock composition scattered with tiny yellow flower petals and minced scallions, and splashed with a light ponzu sauce that may be too much of a good thing. I want to be able to taste the fish through the sauce.

You can hear the swish, swish, swish as Nishimura, wearing a low white cap, grates a knob of fresh wasabi root. It's paler than the usual powdered kind, sets up moister and has more of a nuanced flavor. Taste it once, and you'll crave its particular kind of hotness. He dabs it under milky transparent slices of raw squid, squeezes a little yuzu citrus over and adds a pinch of sea salt. It sits, a miniature mountain of pale green, next to servings of sushi and slices of sharp pickled ginger.

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