Shibucho (Los Angeles, CA)

Shibucho
3114 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90057
Dining date: 7/24/13

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My friend and I decided to get dinner together with two particular stipulations: that it be sushi-centric and that it be a place neither of us had been to. Finding it difficult to find the ideal restaurant that fit these needs, we turned to Yelp for help. Shibucho ended up being the choice due to its 4-star rating and proximity to downtown. While we should’ve been suspicious of the only 52 Yelp reviews at the time of dinner, Shibucho sounded like a pioneering hidden gem. It’s been serving traditional sushi (no California rolls) in a very unexpected location (Westlake) for 37 frickin’ years (pre-dating Matsuhisa by over a decade). We figured it had to be doing something right. Wrong.

After the meal, my friend said it was the worst meal of the century. I’m not ready to make that claim, but I haven’t yet thought of a worse combination of experience and cost in the past 12.5 years. It was that bad.

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Nozawa Bar at SUGARFISH (Beverly Hills, CA)

Nozawa Bar
SUGARFISH Beverly Hills
212 North Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Dining date: 5/18/13

nozawa bar menu

SUGARFISH, the streamlined sushi concept from Nozawa, has been rapidly expanding across LA since opening its first location in Marina Del Rey five years ago. This Beverly Hills location is the 6th in the chain (a 7th in Calabasas is already planned with rumors of a NYC project next year), though this one’s not quite like the others. This location is home to something called the Nozawa Bar, a reservation-only 10-seat sushi bar in the back of the restaurant serving an omakase-only menu of various sushi/sashimi. Whereas SUGARFISH focuses on more of the “typical” cuts of fish, the Nozawa Bar promises a more adventurous foray into sushi with its ~20 course meal. Another big difference is that the sushi is prepared right in front of the diner (like a typical sushi bar) rather than in the back (something all SUGARFISH locations share).

sugarfish exterior

Lunch and dinner reservations are taken online only (here), at $130 and $150 per meal, respectively. Having never been to Nozawa I was excited to dine here, which seems like the closest thing still in existence (though, a completely different concept). This would also be my first true omakase sushi experience since returning from Japan late last year.

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Sushi Dai (Tokyo, Japan)

Sushi Dai
Tsukiji Fish Market
5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0045
Dining date: 11/21/12

outside sushi dai

I’d heard much about Sushi Dai well before coming to Japan, the super-popular sushi shop at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market. The stories are almost legendary, talking about the early mornings, long lines and exceptionally fresh fish mere yards away from the fish auction itself. I attempted to eat at Sushi Dai in each of my first two days of the trip; on the first we opted for Sushi Daiwa’s much shorter wait and on the second, I gave up on waiting the estimated four hours for a seat. The third time was a charm – I had the opportunity to dine here on my last day in Japan.

Three of us woke up at 5am on a Wednesday for a short cab ride through the still-dark Tokyo streets to Tsukiji. We were still met with a line, albeit a relatively short one, and braved the cold.

Now, there’s two parts to the line at Sushi Dai. The first 20-25 people wait outside the restaurant, herded like sheep into about 4 neat rows (SO uncomfortable…especially in the frigid weather). The line then breaks (to make room for traffic through the market), and re-forms at the end of the street, where the rest of the line can stretch dozens deep. With our early-morning timing, we found ourselves at the front of the ‘second’ line. The total wait ended up being about 80 minutes. Continue reading

Sushi Yoshitake (Tokyo, Japan)

Sushi Yoshitake
Suzuryu Building 3F
8-7-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Dining date: 11/12/12

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One of my food goals in Japan has been to find the best sushi I could possibly get my hands on. Sukiyabashi Jiro was initially what I had my sights on to satisfy this quest, but that didn’t work out; in hindsight, I think I would’ve been disappointed in that meal. I’ve had some great sushi at Sushi Kanesaka, Umi and the Roppongi branch of Sukiyabashi Jiro, but Sushi Yoshitake was the best of them all.

Chef Masahiro Yoshitake is the man behind the restaurant, a new entrant (and three-star awardee) to the 2012 Michelin Guide. His success has spawned another branch in Hong Kong, but this remains the flagship. Like all the rest of the sushiyas I’ve been to, the decor is spartan but intimate. The bar seats seven and the chef does much of the work including finishing all of the dishes and making the sushi. Of course, the view is a part of the experience and I was lucky enough to get a seat front and center!

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There is no menu; food is omakase-only at ¥21,000. As is typical for other sushiyas, the first few courses are small plates/sashimi with the rest all sushi.

crab with roe, dashi jelly

crab with roe, dashi jelly

Cool, sweet crab was complemented with additional umami from the dashi. I liked having the roe which added a little bit of texture and depth of crabby flavor.

hirame/fluke sashimi

hirame sashimi

The hirame was served slightly warm, which I found kind of odd. The texture was tender and silky, and I thought the sudachi-soy dipping sauce was an ideal accompaniment.

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octopus sashimi

octopus sashimi

I think this was braised for a long time since it was extremely tender. Or maybe it was just very good octopus? I loved the texture though I found the molasses-like sweet sauce to be a little too sweet.

abalone with liver sauce

abalone with liver sauce

abalone with liver sauce

A couple of tender, sweet chunks of abalone arrived next. A separate dish contained a mysterious green sauce; turns out, it was made from the abalone liver. Awesome! The sauce lended an extra richness and depth of flavor that really set this dish apart.

sushi rice with liver sauce

sushi rice with liver sauce

A refill of the abalone liver sauce came next with a dollop of sushi rice. I was excited to have another helping of the unique sauce and really liked how it coated the lightly seasoned rice.

monkfish liver with yuzu

monkfish liver with yuzu

This was an exceptionally creamy example of monkfish with a hint of soy and citrusy yuzu. The flavor was clean and bright; I thought this was one of the best monkfish livers I’ve ever tasted.

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smoked bonito sashimi

smoked bonito sashimi

The last course before sushi was this one. I’ve been seeing smoked bonito sashimi/sushi quite a bit in Tokyo and wonder why I don’t see it that much in the US. The smoky perfume goes so well with the rich tuna that it’s hard to go wrong. In this example, the skin was seared gently, giving each bite a little bit of an added smoky charred flavor. Delish.

The sashimi courses were very strong, so I was excited for the next stage: sushi!

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Why do sushi bars seem to have the best green tea?

squid

ika

madai/red sea bream

madai/red seabream snapper

rockfish

rockfish

akami

akami

chutoro

chutoro

otoro

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otoro

kohada

kohada

barracuda roll

barracuda roll

mirugai/geoduck

mirugai

uni

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uni

kurumaebi/shrimp

kurumaebi

miso soup

miso

anago/sea eel

anago

tamago

tamago

This was some of the best sushi I’ve ever had. There was a fine balance of fish to rice, and I found the rice seasoning to be present but not overbearing. Highlights for me included a squid with a very nice texture, as well as a trio of excellent tuna preparations. I really enjoyed the rich flavor of the kohada, as well as amazing uni and anago. While Sushi Yoshitake didn’t quite offer the impressive variety of Umi, this was bite-for-bite my best sushi experience of the trip (and one of the best overall).

Service was top-notch. Just as I got up to leave, the sushi chef walked out the back. I hesitated a moment since I wanted to say thank you one more time. Silly me – I should know by now. The chef ran out the back to get the elevator for me and say thank you one last time. Incredible.

Christmas-time in Japan starts in early November.

ginza christmas

ginza christmas

ginza christmas

ginza christmas

ginza night

Other Tokyo sushi:
Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi | Sushi Dai | Sushi Daiwa | Sushi Kanesaka | Umi

 

Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi (Tokyo, Japan)

Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi
6-12-2 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032
Dining date: 11/4/12

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Jiro Ono and his restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro have achieved a sort of legendary status. The documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi added to the attention and seemed to really put him onto the radar of Westerners (particularly Americans). Having seen the film, I can see why; Ono’s relentless pursuit of the perfect sushi (and countless shots of food porn) sounds like any sushi lover’s dream destination. I was sold; Sukiyabashi Jiro became my #1 restaurant destination in Tokyo.

My perception of the restaurant has changed dramatically during my stay here. First, the restaurant is not nearly as well-known as I thought it would be. Sure it’s known among the ‘foodie’ culture, but I’ve gotten countless blank stares from others. Second, from what I’ve gathered from those who have heard of it, my general impression is that it’s known to have good sushi but not the best; if anything, it’s more well-known for being one of the most expensive sushiyas around. On Yelp-like restaurant rating site Tabelog, the main Sukiyabashi Jiro scores a very pedestrian 3.54 stars out of 5. His son’s outpost in Roppongi rates an even lower 3.14. Having said all that, Sukiyabashi Jiro remained my #1 destination to try (albeit less enthused); I was not able to score a seat at the Ginza location, but did manage a seat at the son’s outpost in Roppongi.

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Located in the foreigner-friendly Roppongi Hills complex, Ono’s younger son Takashi opened this location since his elder brother is in-line to take over the main branch. It’s supposed to have the same flavors and techniques as the main (since Takashi did train under his father for decades), so I guess this is the closest to dining at the Ginza Sukiyabashi Jiro without actually doing so.

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ginkgo nuts

ginkgo nuts

Lightly salted, warm ginkgo nuts were the first thing served before a number of sashimi courses.

flounder fin sashimi

flounder fin sashimi

aji/horse mackerel sashimi

aji/horse mackerel sashimi

kurumaebi sashimi

kurumaebi sashimi

akagai/ark shell clam sashimi

akagai/ark shell clam sashimi

shrimp head

shrimp head

My favorite of the sashimi courses was probably the horse mackerel. Tender, yet fatty and rich in flavor, I really savored these bites. The sweet shrimp is usually one of my favorites too and this was no exception.

18 courses of sushi came next in quick succession.

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hirame/flounder

hirame

ika/squid

ika

akami

akami

chutoro

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chutoro

otoro

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otoro

kohada/gizzard shad

kohada

steamed abalone

abalone

ikura

ikura

kurumaebi

kurumaebi

uni

uni

smoked bonito

smoked bonito

hamaguri/clam

clam

saba/mackerel

saba

mirugai/geoduck

mirugai

shako/mantis shrimp

shako

scallops

scallops

anago/sea eel

anago

tamago

tamago

The fish quality was, as expected, excellent. I loved the progression of tuna from akami to otoro and I thought they were all some of the best examples I’d had on the trip. The uni sushi was fantastic too, overflowing with cool, sweet sea urchin. The smoked bonito had a great balance of smokiness and rich meatiness, while the anago was amazingly creamy with just the right amount of sweet eel sauce. There was only one that I didn’t like which was probably more of a personal preference – the shako shrimp had a sort of dense and mealy texture I wasn’t expecting…nor acquired.

In terms of the overall sushi, the rice was seasoned with more vinegar than I would’ve liked. I think this is another personal preference thing, but it really got in the way on some pieces (kohada, abalone, mirugai). The meal lasted about 50 minutes from start-to-finish, which seems a bit longer than the main branch. Service was good but not in a noteworthy way.

With one beer, this meal came out to ¥35,700, by far the most expensive of the trip. From everything else I’ve heard/read, I expected the meal to be around ¥26-27,000 without the beer so I think there was a big mistake or I was simply ripped off (sushi at the main branch is ¥31,500). The diner next to me ordered a bunch of extras so it’s possible it was the former. There was no menu or bill itemization, just a number written on a piece of paper at the end of the meal. Needless to say, this left a bitter impression and I still regret not inquiring deeper about it.

Aside from the billing issue I think I’d have to side with a lot of what I’ve heard here. It was a good sushi meal, sure, but far from the best (this was borderline top 3 sushi of the trip) and definitely overpriced.  And even if it was at the mid-¥20,000 price level, it’s still more expensive than most sushiyas.

Other Tokyo sushi:
Sushi Dai | Sushi Daiwa | Sushi Kanesaka | Sushi YoshitakeUmi

Umi (Tokyo, Japan)

Umi
3-2-8 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-0062
Dining date: 10/29/12

umi exterior

While I’ve had a fairly smooth experience dining by myself at various sushiyas around town, I’ve largely been missing out on a lot of the interaction and dialogue. It’s a key part of the experience, so I was excited to finally go to one with a Japanese-speaker (granted, I still didn’t understand most but at least got some translated).

My friend Tomo was in town for part of my stay and picked out a restaurant for us to try – Umi, a non-descript small Michelin two-star sushi spot in Aoyama. What separated Umi from other restaurants in the guide was the fact that it scored well on Tabelog, Japan’s Yelp-like user review site (which is supposedly more reliable).

The sushi chef hails from Hokkaido so, naturally, much of the fish he chooses comes from this seafood-centric region. Even in Los Angeles, the area is well-known for its shellfish, so there were no complaints here. Impressively, the chef recalled the exact weight and locale for many of the fish prepared on this evening. There were no stated prices or a menu, but the omakase was ¥21,000.

Real wasabi is much easier to come by in Japan.

wasabi

marinated ginger

marinated ginger

beltfish

beltfish

Cooked but served cold, this was a denser fish with an onion and dashi (I think?) complement.

chutoro

chutoro

Often one of my favorite cuts, this was expectantly very tender with a nice fatty content.

raw cod roe

cod roe

Soft and almost mushy in texture, I thought the roe had an interesting naturally subtle smoky flavor.

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sardine

sardine

aoyagi clam

aoyagi clam

This was the first of a bunch of shellfish on this night (particularly clams). Two different parts of the clam were served, one with sea salt and one dipped into soy. The first was very chewy while the second was much sweeter and tender.

kawahagi/filefish

kawahagi

liver with ponzu

This was an interesting one, served with a dip of its own liver and ponzu. The sauce was mixed together and the fish dipped in, yielding some very delicious bites.

tsubugai/whelk sea snail

tsubugai

Slightly chewy with a clean flavor, complemented by a choice of soy or sea salt.

I’m a sucker for green tea, especially when it’s iced. When I saw some some neighboring diners consuming it, I had to have it. Only…this was matcha green tea and shochu. Apparently, tea and shochu is a common thing here (oolong tea works SO well). Green tea and shochu? Not quite as well…the green tea wasn’t strong enough to balance out the alcohol.

matcha shochu

abalone

abalone

Just a little bit of a crunch, though still tender, with a nice sea flavor.

oyster with sudachi

oyster

This was a huge oyster – talk about a mouthful. From Hokkaido, it was cool, creamy and delicious. A little bit of citrusy sudachi made a perfect duo.

shiokara/squid in its internal organs

shiokara

Salty with just a little bit of heat – loved the texture.

ikura

ikura

Something else from Hokkaido, I thought this was excellent. Cool, refreshing and not at all salty, it was served atop some warm rice.

smoked bonito

bonito

This was one of the best bites of the night, a gently smoked bonito dipped in a sauce made of soy, ginger and onion. The fish was rich and fatty; the imbued smoke flavor just went so well with it.

shishamo/smelt (pregnant female)

shishamo

daikon with miso

daikon

Crisp and fresh with a bit of a bite; I thought the miso was a welcome savory accompaniment.

yellowtail heart

yellowtail heart

This was a unique one. Chewy and soft, it had a texture very similar to beef heart without as much of a meaty flavor. I liked it.

karei/flatfish

karei

Soft and tender with just a little bit of citrusy yuzu zest.

squid

squid

octopus

octopus

kisu/sillago

kisu

kohada/gizzard shad

kohada

Rich and full of fishy flavor, this was a nice kohada.

saba/mackerel

saba

Another one that was really flavorful and kind of fatty in a good way.

uni/sea urchin

uni

As expected, this uni was from Hokkaido and also excellent.

akagai/ark clam

akagai

This was another clam – not sure I’ve had it before. It was definitely chewy and less sweet than the previous ones, but with a richer sea flavor.

hokkigai/surf clam

hokkigai

Another variety of clam – less of a chew but sweeter.

botan ebi

botan ebi

ebi roe

Sweet and kind of spongy, I really enjoyed this. Loved that the roe was served too, displaying a nice texture and additional flavor dimension.

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otoro

otoro

Soft, silky and fatty – an excellent example.

akami

akami

We went leaner here and this was still excellent. It still had very tender flesh with good flavor.

anago

anago

Some yuzu zest was sprinkled to offset the richness and sweetness of the eel and sauce, respectively. Melt-in-mouth texture…another excellent one.

cucumber maki

cucumber maki

Beautifully cut, the cucumber was sliced so thinly to get a very nice crisp texture.

fried shrimp head

ebi head

The shrimp returned, fried. Crunchy.

miso soup

miso

This was supposed to be our last dish of the evening. However, while chatting the chef revealed he’d been curing some bottarga and showed it off. When the patrons inquired about it, he let us all have a piece of the rare treat!

bottarga

bottarga

bottarga full

I don’t think I’ve ever had bottarga in this way. It had a soft, yielding texture that was almost gelatinous. There was a lingering salinity and a subtle sea flavor, washed down with a bit of sake (the chef said bottarga had to be consumed with sake).

The atmosphere at Umi was lively and pretty chatty. It was probably the most easygoing of any of the sushiyas I’ve been to so far; I just wish I knew more Japanese. Food-wise I thought Umi had some of the best fish quality I’ve tasted on this trip, but what really separated this experience was the variety of fish, particularly shellfish. I counted about 30 different fish/cuts on this night, by far the most varied on this trip. Highlights for me were the filefish dipped in its own liver and ponzu, oyster, smoked bonito, uni, botan ebi, anago, and bottarga. This won’t be a meal I’ll soon forget.

Other sushi in Japan:
Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi | Sushi Dai | Sushi Daiwa | Sushi Kanesaka | Sushi Yoshitake