My dining goal has always been to eat at Urasawa, basically the holy grail of the sushi scene in L.A. (and arguably all that’s west of New York). Given that it’s $350/person, that goal is pretty unreachable. However, I have made it a mission to go there for my birthday next March. I feel that I cannot call myself a true sushi connoisseur without having what the city’s best has to offer. But that’s all the way in March, nine months from now. Reading and planning this monumental trek had made me desperate and needy for good-quality sushi. So on the way to the promised land, I decided that I needed to warm up my sushi palate. But what’s next best in L.A.? This is a very debatable issue, from asking friends/coworkers and reading various restaurant reviews/blogs. According to the Michelin Guide (updated as of 2009 – they temporarily discontinued their annual reviews/ratings until next year), Urasawa is at the head of the class with two stars. There are three other sushi restaurants with one star each. And this is where I begin my journey…
Sushi Zo is located on National Blvd (slightly north of where it crosses Venice Blvd) in this really shady strip mall that contains Rite-Aid and Vons. You would never expect a $$$$ Michelin-rated sushi restaurant to be located in this plaza (and I live less than a mile away!). We had a reservation last night at 8pm for 5 people (I was the 5th wheel – not a joke). For these types of places, I prefer to sit at the sushi bar to get the full experience, but because of the size of our party we got a table. Not to worry though, because the whole restaurant is omakase-only (shouldn’t be any other way anyways at high-quality sushi restaurants)! First time I had omakase at the table. It’s a very small restaurant, probably less than 10 seats at the bar and a few tables for two, along with two bigger tables (one of which we occupied). The ambiance and decor was as expected, minimal. Definitely not a place you would bring a first date to. Because of the size of the place (and slight mix-up of reservations), we we seated at around 8:15.
First of all, I would like to say that the service was excellent. I usually try to not have decor and service factor into my opinions of restaurants (unless something blew me away), but I was impressed by the attentiveness of the servers. From what I had been reading online, they sounded as if they would be pretentious and sneering. But what I personally experienced was warmth and care. There were three servers who worked the rounds in the whole restaurant – one was very talkative (she took my reservation days before and was basically chatting with me for minutes), one was very sweet (but unfortunately I couldn’t understand some of what she said), and one perky male who reminded me of Jo Kwon (of the Korean boy band 2AM, femininity-included). The pace of each item delivered was fairly quick (we spent a little more than two hours there, but we were among the last people in the restaurant who stayed after it was closed), and none of the empty plates sat for more than 10 seconds before it was cleared.
Now to the part of the review where people will actually care/read about: the food itself. I had originally wanted to take pictures of each item (a la KevinEats), but I was so hungry I devoured the first few things I got in mere seconds, and didn’t realize that I had wanted to take pictures until a third of the meal was completed. And because of my ineptitude, I am unfortunately unable to remember every single thing I ate and had wanted to describe each one in detail. So here’s the general consensus on my meal: the omakase was around 20 items. I thought that all the dishes were excellent. The standouts to me were the Kumamoto oysters (with ponzu, momiji oroshi and scallions), the scallop (sweet and meaty), the monkfish liver (also with ponzu, momiji oroshi and scallions, and first time I had it with seaweed), the blue crab handroll (creamy deliciousness), and this other one I don’t remember (it made my friend squirm with joy). If there was any negatives to the food, I have to say that the sweet shrimp and salmon would be it. The amaebi tasted mushy and slimy. The texture was kind of like marinated shrimp that had been sitting around. I usually don’t order/receive amaebi at sushi restaurants, so I can’t say I’m the foremost expert on sweet shrimp (although KevinEats actually shares my sentiments). The salmon was good, but salmon at a high-quality place like this was… not befitting I suppose. Small notes about the food: the servers told you whether to use soy sauce or not for each item (since some were already dressed), and the sushi rice was probably the best I ever had. It was warm and moist, full of vinegar-y goodness. I know some people don’t like it that warm, but it’s the way to go. And I didn’t think of it at first, but the ginger must have been awesome for me to eat four containers of. After the omakase was complete, the servers asked if we wanted anything else. I asked them to give us something we didn’t have, which turned out to be sea eel. I also wanted another serving of uni, but by that time they ran out of everything. Jo Kwon kept apologizing and said that we should come early so we can get better/more stuff.
In all, it was a great soft opening to my Elite Diners’ Club (not a club event technically, but enough members were there for me to call it such). The bill came out to be around $115/person without alcohol (and around $135 with). I had an Asahi (I believe it’s on tap – a plus) and we split a bottle of Senchu sake per recommendation (I like dry sake more, so our server said that this would be the one – good call). Despite the good vibrations, I felt like I didn’t get the full-on Sushi Zo experience (we didn’t get the yuzu juice I had been reading about!). I need to come back at an earlier time on my next visit, seated at the bar. But don’t let my snobby opinion deter people from giving this quality place at least one try. And congrats to my roommate Greg on leaving his job next week (and going back to law school)!
Chris Hei grade: A-
9824 National Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90034