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Sit. Eat. Pay.

That's the drill at Sushi Nozawa, the little place famous for its imperious chef, high-speed dining and stratospheric prices.

August 18, 2004|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

"Trust me." The words are so associated with Kazunori Nozawa, Sushi Nozawa's owner and chef, that he has them framed in gilt and displayed prominently behind the counter of his minuscule Studio City sushi restaurant.

And he's not kidding: To achieve one of the nine seats at the counter, you have to agree to eat whatever Nozawa-san deigns to give you. Don't suggest or inquire. Don't ask. For anything. "You no choose," the waiter reiterates, making sure you thoroughly understand the rules before allowing you a coveted chair.

Nozawa and his restaurant have an enormous reputation in this town. If you need proof, just pick up the latest Zagat. The restaurant has a 27 rating for food, the second highest in the entire guide, which puts Sushi Nozawa on the level with restaurants such as Campanile or Sona. To a certain type of L.A. foodie, being a regular at Sushi Nozawa is sure status, and Nozawa's fans are fanatical, willing to ferret out an obscure mini-mall, contend with a sushi chef who barely speaks, nervously try not to offend him (or risk being eighty-sixed) and pay dearly for the experience.

Eating here is an exercise in patience. Unless you happen to catch it just right, you wait. You examine the A posted in the window, note the hours (Monday through Friday only). You peer through the slats in the vinyl blinds, observing the sushi hounds inside sprawled on the uncomfortable chairs, holding forth on this week's box office totals or the latest Bushism, wondering how this shabby, nondescript little place could hold the appeal that it does.

Cars pull into the mini-mall parking lot, most of them high-end vehicles, silent as cats. The line outside lengthens. They come in Juicy Couture sweats, in Gucci and Miu Miu, in baggy shorts and baseball caps. New arrivals squeeze past the line inside to suss out the situation. Any seats free at the sushi bar? What are the chances for one of the half a dozen tables? Anybody about to leave?

Standing in front of a faded, backlighted photo mural of fish swimming through a blue sea, Nozawa looks straight ahead, impassive. As the two guys in front of us move forward in the line, one cautions the other in an urgent whisper not to order, under any circumstances, a California roll or sushi dynamite. "I don't want to get eighty-sixed from this place," he tells his friend.

In a world where bagels are flavored with blueberries, and martinis are made with chocolate liqueur, Nozawa is a purist. Trained in Tokyo, he doesn't believe in sushi for people who don't eat raw fish -- or rice. It's not about disguising the flavors with spicy sauces. It's about the texture of the rice, the way it's seasoned and shaped, the quality of the fish. It's his restaurant, and he has run it the way he sees fit for 17 years. Omakase, letting the chef decide, is nothing new. But usually there's some interaction between sushi chef and sushi eater. Sushi Nozawa's "trust me" version has none. Nozawa decides what you'll eat and how fast you'll eat it. Other sushi chefs may slip in something astonishing, remember what you had last time, and give you something new. At Nozawa, you get virtually the same meal every time, give or take a fish or two.

The art of simplicity

First, a plate of sashimi, sometimes just one type of fish, other times several, but almost always including some toro (fatty tuna belly). The slices of raw fish are strewn with Japanese scallions and drenched in a light ponzu sauce -- unremarkable, except for the quality of the fish. In the past, that was always high; lately, there may be a couple of excellent bites, but much of the rest seems dull.

The chef or his assistant sets each dish in front of you, usually without explanation. And when there is one, it is mumbled, so you have to ask again and get another mumble. It feels terribly ungracious, almost passive-aggressive. Sushi is often limited to some toro, some yellowtail, albacore strewn with scallions, etc. The fish is thickly sliced, the rice still warm. It's all pretty tame and unchallenging stuff, not what you'd find at a sushi bar in Little Tokyo, or at the Hump or Sushi Mori. Uni is about as exotic as it gets.

Nozawa prides himself on mastering the difficult art of simplicity. But why his fans have picked him to anoint as king is beyond me.

Maybe it's reverse chic. But while that explains Matsuhisa, at least there the quality is something to rave about. Or maybe the fact that you have to tread so carefully around Nozawa's notorious grumpiness to keep your seat at the sushi bar makes it all the more prized.

He commands. You eat. For people used to being in charge, being dominated by a sushi chef may have some kind of perverse appeal.

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