Shunji Japanese Cuisine – darling of the Chowhound boards. I read so many glowing reports, I just had to find out for myself. Shunji-san, chef/owner, was one of the opening chefs at Matsuhisa (along with his brother), and the two of them branched out to open Asanebo after many years. After that, he went solo at a couple of stops, where he won the following of a group of loyal fans (many of whom are the same people as the Chowhound hype men). Those ventures ultimately didn’t work out, but Shunji-san is back – and in West LA this time.
Of course, young Chris Hei had no clue about Shunji-san’s decorated past. I had no idea who he was, despite being a self-proclaimed sushi snob. And the restaurant’s March opening barely registered a blip on my radar. However, testimonials of visits started to blow up on Chowhound, and even TonyC had name-dropped the restaurant to me as a place of interest. So one gloomy Wednesday afternoon at work last month, I made a reservation for myself for that same night.
Upon walking in, you see the brightly-lit counter with eight-or-so available seats, all reserved or occupied by eager diners. There is a great contrast between the perky atmosphere there and the rest of the dining room, dark and full of empty wooden tables. The counter is where it’s at, no doubt. There was some smooth jazz bumpin’ as well. I took my seat on the left side of the L-shaped counter, where Shunji-san himself operates all facets of the restaurant. With a glass of Sapporo (on draft!) in my slightly shivering hand, I was ready to be led by Shunji-san into the night’s omakase.
Despite just the eight patrons at the bar and maybe three to four small tables that night, service was at a crawl (which I had no problem with). It’s understandable, seeing how it’s basically Shunji-san, another chef who’s mostly in the kitchen, and one server. And Shunji-san appeared to be very methodical, careful with each plating while deliberating the next course. And when they say omakase here, it is truly the chef’s choice. Everyone got pretty much the same things, but no one got them in the exact same way. It really seemed like he was trying to tailor the course to each diner.
Jellyfish, cucumber, radish “sunomono”
Started with this amuse of sorts. Not really a sunomono, but had all the vinegary, refreshing essences. Nice start.
Golden squash, pea, lotus root, purple carrot, okra, radish, kabocha, haricot vert, celery
A plate of boiled vegetables? Are you fucking serious? Well, Shunji-san don’t play that shit. Obviously not an exciting plate, but it really shows how confident he is in the quality of his veggies. And they were top-quality indeed.
Potato w/ feta & truffle, marinated cherry tomato, homemade soy milk tofu & yuba, “whipped” ankimo w/ caviar, purple yam w/ bleu cheese & candied persimmon
A fun zensai plate of little balls. The potato and the purple yam “balls” had similar consistencies, like mashed potatoes rolled up into little balls. Not bad, but nothing amazing. The tomato was clean and simple like the preceding veggie plate. The homemade tofu tasted like soy milk in paste form – quite interesting. But the real winner on the plate, by furloughs, was the “whipped” ankimo. So airy, so smooth, so creamy. The caviar and the sauce added a nice contrast of salty and sweet. I tried to get Shunji-san to tell me how he made the ankimo, but he wouldn’t budge.
Taro & winter melon “soup” w/ yam, shaved frozen foie gras & yuzu zest
More like a porridge, this “soup” of blended taro and winter melon was served cold. On top of that were a dollop of yam, some shavings of frozen foie, and yuzu zest. As you eat the soup, the shavings begin to melt, giving the soup a hint of creaminess. I thought that this was very refreshing.
Two fairly large oysters, with a ponzu sauce and some scallions. The right one had a black truffle shaving. Very nice, but simple enough.
Squid “pasta” w/ squid ink, uni & quail egg yolk, kanpachi w/ miso & arugula flowers, tako w/ pickled bell pepper
Another fun zensai plate. The kanpachi and octopus were simple enough, although the former had these edible arugula flowers which had a subtle bitter herb-y taste (which Shunji-san picked from potted plants on the counter!). The squid “pasta” though, was amazing. The “pasta” was squid cut up in strips, then tossed with squid ink and uni, and topped with a quail egg yolk. Shunji-san said to eat some of it without the yolk first, and it had a very briny flavor. After cutting the yolk into it, the flavor profile transformed into a more rich, creamy flavor.
Zucchini flower tempura stuffed w/ white shrimp
The zucchini flowers were stuffed with shiro ebi, tiny white shrimp. I really liked this, and received a generous portion too.
Kinki fish marinated in sake, soy & yuzu
Very Matsuhisa miso black cod-esque, so nothing amazing here. But the fish was cooked well (a bit under even), and had a nice mountain peach “chaser” on the side.
Bamboo shoot w/ kombu sauce
It was still bamboo season, and there were these big shoots that Shunji-san baked, then topped with a kombu sauce of sorts. The bamboo was great, although the sauce was a bit salty in my opinion.
Black cod soup w/ vegetable
So deceiving. This looks like a plain soup with black cod and some veggies. But sure enough, the broth tasted so…sophisticated. I can’t put it into words really, but let’s just say that a lot of love went into the dashi. When I asked Shunji-san about it, he said that he made three different types of dashi in constructing this soup. No wonder. Oh, and the black cod was a perfect complement.
Pompano (forgot to take photo)
Saba (forgot to take photo)
Kanpyo hand roll (forgot to take photo)
Now to the sushi. Nine nigiri, one hand roll, and one hotaru ika by itself. The sushi is pretty solid. There were a couple seared, a couple of white ones dressed with truffle salt, but overall nothing spectacular. But the hotaru ika (firefly squid) – WOW. My first time having it. Shunji-san called them spring squid, because they’re fished in spring, and said that these were adult-sized. Eating them whole, you taste their “gut,” which had a really creamy texture that was accented by the dollop of miso. Just a great one-bite wonder.
Ten courses, plus eleven sushi items, came out to around $93. Very generous, as the omakase is $80, and I basically added extra sushi + firefly squid. I would say to skip the sushi if you can – it’s solid, but much better can be had nearby (like at Kiriko). But the true beauty of the omakase is in the cooked and zensai dishes (same with Matsuhisa and Asanebo). Shunji-san manages to be both bold and gentle, serving a wonderful combination of in-your-face items and light and refreshing ones. Shunji Japanese Cuisine – a real gem of a place in West LA.
Chris Hei grade: A-
Shunji Japanese Cuisine
12244 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90064