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[Chef Change] Modest master of the nuance

Whether for omakase or sushi from the menu, Morihiro Onodera delivers a singular experience at Mori Sushi.

February 25, 2004|By S. Irene Virbila | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • STRIKING: At Mori Sushi, pristine slices of sashimi are placed on a platter as precisely as stones in a Zen garden. One of a kind ceramic dishes are handmade by Chef Morihiro Onodera.
STRIKING: At Mori Sushi, pristine slices of sashimi are placed on a platter… (Ken Hively, Los Angeles…)

At the unprepossessing Mori Sushi in West Los Angeles, the waiter sets down a broad oval plate stippled in the browns and golds of autumn leaves, its texture rough as burlap. On it are four rows of nigiri-zushi, four pieces each, one for each of us. The composition is as flawless as an Agnes Martin painting. My architect friend is looking at the fish as if he has never seen sushi before. And in a sense he hasn't, not this kind of quality. It's evident even before you taste it -- in the pearlescent pink and white gleam of halibut fin, cross-hatched with the knife; in the subtle marbling of wild yellowtail belly, my new sushi passion; in the silvery blue pinstripe running down a sliver of half beak, or Japanese silver fish; and in the alabaster translucence of Japanese squid.

Sushi chef Morihiro Onodera has slipped a touch of freshly grated wasabi between each slice of fish and the rice beneath. Each grain is distinct and perfectly seasoned. This sushi master cares so much about the product, he buys his rice unhulled to retain its moisture and flavor for as long as possible. Using a special machine, he polishes only as much as he'll need for that day's sushi. As a result, his rice has a personality all its own.

That plate of sushi actually comes halfway through our meal. We'd asked Mori-san for an omakase menu, his choice of what's best that night. It begins with three slabs of steamed abalone, their mild sea-salt taste sparked by a zingy dab of yuzu (a Japanese citrus) and green chile paste that brings our palates to full attention. Next comes a handmade ceramic bowl with latticework sides holding a few intriguing bites, the equivalent of a western chef's amuse-gueule. The mosaic of flavors includes sticks of salted gingko nuts and a dainty roll of pickled daikon with fine threads of raw carrot and burdock. A porcelain thimble holds glistening coral salmon eggs, and the slender spine of a sea eel is tied into a knot and fried to a noisy crunch.

A lidded lacquered bowl decorated with plum blossoms is set before us. Inside is a clear broth with a marvelous smoky taste and a single shrimp ball tucked into a hollowed-out daikon. Japanese greens sway like seaweed. The shrimp ball is as delicate in flavor as the finest quenelle. (I remember another soup, another season, when the broth tasted of precious matsutake mushrooms.)

Perfectly placed and paced

THEN comes sashimi, each slice of pristine raw fish placed on the plate as precisely as a stone in a Zen garden. The flavors are perfectly paced, too, from left to right: buttery bigeye toro, octopus, sweet Santa Barbara shrimp, richly nuanced buri (wild yellowtail) and a dark-fleshed band of Japanese mackerel.

He introduces another note with mirogai, or clam, cloaked in a salty rich miso followed by two types of toro sushi: bluefin and bigeye tuna. And later, that oval platter of sushi previously described. We easily could have stopped there, but he sends out two more little tastes: silvery speckled shad and seared albacore with scallions in a rust-colored bowl.

Sensing our mood, he makes an abrupt and delicious switch to dessert. Nothing heavy, a swatch of pink grapefruit gelatin inset with segments of pink grapefruit.

In Los Angeles you can trace the history of sushi back to Katsu on Hillhurst, the seminal sushi restaurant that captured everyone's attention in the late '80s, and to Matsuhisa, Nobu Matsuhisa's first modest but not modestly priced Beverly Hills restaurant. Onodera worked at both. I remember him at Matsuhisa, shouting out a greeting, playing up to the famous faces and the flocks of AMWs (actress-model-whatevers).

But at Sushi Mori, he follows his own muse, not Nobu's. And in the three years since it opened, his restaurant has gone from very good to one of the best in a city full of good sushi restaurants. It works. It's his.

Always behind the bar

There's nothing slick about the place. Ken Tanaka designed it with plywood floors and tables and a flotilla of round white paper lanterns bobbing overhead. Onodera doesn't cultivate any kind of a scene. Individuals in the crowd are identifiable only as sushi lovers quietly enjoying Mori-san's work or friends meeting for a quick bite. He doesn't want to be photographed. He even goes so far as to dispense with a sign outside. Well, not entirely, it just doesn't have the name. Look for the outline of a fish and a rectangle of yuzu-green glass stuck high on a pole at the southwest corner of Pico Boulevard and Gateway.

Unlike the peripatetic Matsuhisa, Mori-san is always there behind the counter, ready with a smile, but with none of the hyperactive shouting some sushi chefs are prone to exhibit. He chats with the regulars. Or not. It's all very comfortable.

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