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Sushi, illuminated

Philippe Starck designed it. Katsuya Uechi opened it. And now it seems everyone in Brentwood wants to eat here.

September 06, 2006|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

AT 7 on a weeknight, Katsuya, the new sushi restaurant on San Vicente in Brentwood, is rocking. And, if you're seated at a table up front, the people-watching is definitely sushi grade. A big fish throws a hissy fit when he can't get the table he has in mind.

Brentwood couples arrive, children in tow, for an expensive night of noshing. Watch a quartet of blonds with identical haircuts slyly check out each others' outfits and shoes before sitting down for a good gossip and some of the chef's famous spicy tuna on crispy rice.

Weeknight, weekend, Brentwood is lining up for the privilege of spending close to $100 a head at this glamorous new venue. Maybe not everybody spends that amount, but I certainly did each time I went to Katsuya.

Half a block up from Whole Foods and an international newsstand, two fire-breathing stones stand sentinel at either side of Katsuya's entrance. The restaurant is named for Katsuya Uechi, the sushi chef behind the popular Katsu-ya in Studio City who has been tapped by SBE Entertainment Group to headline this and a proposed series of Katsuyas around the country.

Every spot at the sushi bar, beneath a giant illuminated photo of a geisha's seductive eyes, is taken. Owners and investors crowd the white leather booth beside the small drinks bar, and across the room at another booth, a junior agent puts the moves on a bored fashionista. She's heard better.

Around the corner in the mirrored lounge, it's a sake and martini fest replete with extravagant sushi rolls. The unsettling photo on the lounge wall is the tattoo worn by the same deconstructed Japanese woman whose lips and eyes decorate the restaurant to bold and brilliant effect.

It's a scene, all right. And to ensure that nobody driving by misses it, French designer fantastique Philippe Starck has opened the front of the restaurant to the sidewalk so that the beautiful young women playing footsie with their dates or indolently dipping sushi into their soy sauce telegraph Katsuya's sex appeal.

Drive by slowly enough, and you can take in the groups seated on dainty white chairs gathered around the white two-seater sofas, center stage. But good luck securing one. Call up and ask to reserve a sofa, and they'll say you can't, and when you arrive and ask for that empty one, they'll say it's reserved.

Starck has more than delivered with an eye-catching design based on the clean, simple lines of a bento box. He has his bits of fantasy in those giant blown-up photos and other touches like the primitive-looking gold objects/artifacts in rows on shelves beside the sushi bar, which turn out to be water guns sprayed gold. He likes the shape.

Sharing is best

YOUR server will explain that Katsuya has three kitchens -- the sushi bar, the robata kitchen where chefs in black kerchiefs grill over Japanese charcoal at an alarming 1,600 degrees, and the hot kitchen in back. And that it's best to share dishes because everything comes out as soon as it's ready, in no particular order. OK, got that.

And that if you have trouble figuring out how much to order, he or she will help you. And the server does, enthusiastically recommending the most popular dishes, those that fans of the original Katsu-ya in Studio City can recite by heart.

Sushi dressed up with hot chiles, crispy onions and splashes of ponzu is a phenomenon launched by Nobu Matsuhisa at Matsuhisa way back in the '80s. His style has influenced almost every sushi chef in L.A., certainly the ones intent on capturing the trendy crowd that dines often and expensively. Katsuya is no exception.

One of Katsuya's best-known dishes is seared albacore covered with wiry, fried onion threads and sunk in a lake of ponzu. For me, though, the charred sweetness of the onions and the oversaucing interfere with the delicate taste of the albacore. And I'm not really a fan of the spicy tuna on crispy rice, in which the raw tuna is reduced to a paste.

Seared tuna with Japanese salsa has a nice blast of heat, but it too is drowned in soy. In general, these sorts of dishes are overseasoned and salty.

Seaweed salad makes a pretty plate with several kinds of seaweed scattered with sesame seeds and marigold petals -- and doused in soy sauce. Stuffed eggplant is filled with cubed eggplant mixed with a miso so sweet, the result is almost eggplant candy.

Scallops with kiwi slices is an inspired match. The pale green fruit lends a cool, refreshing note.

Curiously, the cooked food is far better than the straight-ahead sushi. Japanese-style bouillabaisse is a cast iron pot of spicy, red-tinged broth with shrimp, clams, chunks of fish and half-moons of pink-edged fish cake along with fat, slithery udon noodles.

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