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LOS ANGELES - "Kinki from Hokkaido," says Yohei Matsuki, somewhat muffled by his mask, as he entrusts you with a piece of grilled redfish nigiri. He won't bore you with the details that would take longer to share than this bite to chew.
But he knows that this particular stonefish was taken from a long line in the waters of northeastern Hokkaido. That his coral skin is flawless because he cut it with a terrifyingly sharp blade, yes, but also because it was never crushed in the coils of a bulging net.
He knows because he knows who caught the redfish and when and the method by which he was killed and the route by which he arrived in Los Angeles and then on the doorstep of his West Hollywood diner,Sushi Ginza Onodera.
And he knows - this is getting a little personal - that the husky creature hadn't spawned yet. He sliced the fish, seasoned the meat with sake yeast to intensify the sweetness, and saw how much fat was left in it—a fatal sentence. Then he knows how to cut it, his knife slips invisibly along his body, tearing off the pulp into dense, almost translucent petals.
I'd say Mr. Matsuki knows a lot about fish, but you can't really know much about a fish when your job is to prepare it for sushi. On a small pad of rice, shaped as it falls gently from her hands, flavored with a dark vinegar that colors the grains, the fish is sweet and sumptuous, extraordinarily delicate, almost fragile, a biting wonder.
Recent dinners at Ginza Onodera and so many other outlets around the city have confirmed that, despite the lingering effects of the pandemic, Los Angeles remains this country's glorious sushi capital. It has one of the most robust sushi scenes outside of Japan, with an exciting diversity of styles to suit every taste, budget and neighborhood.
These five restaurants are currently serving some of the best sushi in Los Angeles.
In part, this is due to his deep lineage. Los Angeles had a small sushi-ya scene in the early 1900s, but the first wave of restaurants closed in the 1940s when Japanese Americans were interned and forced to close their businesses.
In 1966, Noritoshi Kanai opened the city's first modern sushi bar.Dentro de Kawafuku, a restaurant in Little Tokyo. Along with the fish from Japan, Kanai sold Boston tuna belly (still considered the cut-off junk by fishermen) and sea urchin (an ingredient then prized by Italian immigrants but few others) from Santa Barbara. For those who don't like tuna, there's a new local invention: the California roll, made with avocado, at Ichiro Mashita's counter not far away.
Osho followed in 1970, strategically close to the 20th Century Fox movie studios, attracting producers and actors, expanding the food's audience beyond the Japanese-American community and drawing more aspiring sushi chefs to the city.
Sushi quickly rose from immigrant status to novelty—the culinary accessory for a certain kind of 1980s Hollywood lifestyle—and then, slowly but surely, an inseparable part of the city's dining scene.
Now we have supermarket sushi, pharmacy sushi, vegan sushi, fusion sushi. We have great omakase with specialties of caviar and dragon rolls that are so thick and heavily garnished that they need steak knives.
We have glamorous mini sushi chains and sushi counters attached to diners. We've sliced cream cheese buns in anonymous haunted kitchens and chirashi pop-ups in people's own homes. We have D.I.Y. sushi set made with really good seafood.
We all have it, and while most of the raw fish eaten across the country are still salmon and tuna fillets, the best sushi chefs express seasonality through a shifting and changing diversity of seafood, never focusing on just one species or just one. fetishize cutout. They know what you want and sometimes even what you don't know you want.
Year-round, a great sushi chef in Los Angeles can enjoy many varieties of squid, clams, shrimp, crabs, scallops, and abalone, as well as mackerel, trout, snapper, gizzards, halibut, abalone, eel, and snail. , squid tentacles, sea urchins, liver, eggs and milk.
Even among chefs known for their signature sushi—be it photogenic, Nobu-inspired sashimi or lidless custard—the real specialty is their variety.
It's the way they fluidly adapt to ingredients that change from week to week and customers that change from night to night. It's the way they constantly divert our attention from the intensity of one pleasure to another, and another, until the meal ends suddenly and sadly - an overflow of deliciousness, a blur.
A host of extraordinary and stylish local chefs have popped up in the restaurants of Nobu Matsuhisa, who broke with Japanese sushi tradition by incorporating citrus juices, oils, spices and vegetables, as well as techniques he honed while cooking in Peru.
Brothers Tetsuya and Shunji Nakao, who co-founded Matsuhisa in 1982, each opened their own restaurant -AsaneboeShunji— local institutions that in turn became training grounds for several Los Angeles sushi chefs.
Taketoshi Azumi, who runs the terribly minimalist counterShin Sushi, in a mall in Encino, first worked in Asanebo. Like Morihiro Onodera, who is now directingMorihiro, a sushi bar in the Atwater Village neighborhood. Every day he polishes the rice he imports from a small mill in the dining room and starts his meals with a small block of homemade tofu, as luscious and rich as egg yolk custard, served in ceramic bowls he made himself. Now he has your attention, your trust.
From there, he can move on to a whole rainbow of gelatinous concoctions and deep-tasting gloops: okra, salmon roe in dashi, tomatoes in jam. At the counter you will see Mr. Onodera - the way he skewers the fish until the skin glistens with fat and bubbles with char. The way pale rice turns brown with vinegar as it moves through your hands.
But tables hidden behind the counter serve plates of family-style sushi, with the nigiri coming out in a few kaleidoscopic clumps. This isn't a complaint - some customers can get impatient as they wait for each bite to be handed to them one by one like baby birds.
I like the wait though. My first meal at a sushi counter after many months away was atIs therein the Sawtelle neighborhood of the city. I put my hands on a cup of tea and watched Ken Namba shape my first piece of nigiri - lightly golden brown brought into focus with a squeeze of lime juice, yuzu zest and sea salt.
He gave it to me silently and I ate it. It was the most common interaction, but also a form of intimacy I almost forgot during the pandemic. A piece of hot rice kneaded with your own hands? A badly pressed piece of fish? I felt so taken care of at that moment, so part of the world, so lucky to have lunch here, in this restaurant, with this friend. Good sushi can do that.
“No soy sauce!” Sir. Namba shouted happily to two men in suits and I wanted to cry for joy.
Like most restaurants, high-end sushi counters survived the early part of the pandemic by stripping away all the magic and focusing on takeout. They had to do it, and if a new variant spreads, they might have to do it again.
There's no substitute for sitting across from the chef, in part because of the close interaction even when you're not talking. And partly because the less time that passes between preparing the sushi and eating the sushi, the better.
That said, many chefs have adapted their work to takeout. Yoshiyuki Inoue deSushi Kaneoshiit packs the most luxurious of boxes, even if you have to navigate an office building maze to get there.
Downstairs, attacked by a guard, across the parking lot, into an elevator, down a corridor. In another elevator, in the basement. If you see a shiny hotel bell and a vase of flowers, you're in the right place and someone will eventually show up with what looks like a wrapped gift.
The foil-lined boxes of Mr. Inoue's are amazing - each piece of rice is carefully placed so it doesn't move or topple over, each piece of fish is perfectly sliced and seasoned differently. Spear squid, aged and sliced into a delicate fringe, monkfish liver cooked to the consistency of butter, six small lobules of uni in one bite, washed down with a drizzle of fresh mustard-scented wasabi. Some days there are baby snappers; others, salmon roe in dashi, bandfish and herring, halibut and eel.
The variation itself is part of the excitement - although I admit I really wanted one piece in particular.Sushi Takedato repeat: a thin slice of hot, seared Japanese mackerel, skin peeled and glistening with melted fat, tucked into an envelope of crispy, smoky nori. I was tempted to order another one but as soon as it ran out something else appeared.
What came was one of my favorite flavors all year round: Hide Takeda's miso soup, the hot broth enriched and sweetened with an infusion of crushed shrimp shells, each bite intertwined with soft, elusive strands of seaweed, the smell of it all so intoxicatingly filling, so pleasant.
Seiichi Yokota, a seventh-generation fisherman in Gardena, California, sells local seafood such as rockfish, black cod and halibut to restaurants including Niki Nakayama's magnificent kaiseki restaurantn/D. "Consumers want cheap fish," he said. "But fish is expensive because it's valuable."
A handful of boats team up with Yokota, towing his catch back to port in seawater tanks so he can practice ikejime, a method of killing the fish for sushi that requires a few cuts at the base of the head. He then bleeds and guts the fish so that it is ready for sale.
Seafood quality is excellent, but for many sushi chefs in Los Angeles, local seafood is still not as valued as imported from Japan. Yokota's customers, he said, mostly run Italian restaurants. And selling wild-caught fish caught in the US has only gotten harder — before the pandemic, Yokota was selling about 150 pounds of fish a week. Now he weighs only 50 or 60 pounds.
He does not waste any part of the catch. Because he can't always sell the livers fresh, he often cooks them himself at home, steaming and mashing them into a pâté or forming a buttery fish terrine.
I think of Mr. Kanai, who sold sushi for 10 cents a piece in Little Tokyo in the 1960s, bought tuna belly because no one else wanted it. And I wonder if these fresh livers could find their way into more local menus.
Back at Ginza Onodera, Lauren Watanabe treated customers at the counter to a monstrous hairy crab—a seasonal treat in Asia, but often considered a pest here.
It had come from Hokkaido alive, eager and feathered, and boiled in salt water late in the afternoon. I expected Mrs. Watanabe ran back to the kitchen after showing it and reappeared with a bowl of meat she had prepared earlier. But not.
As I ate that chunk of rockfish on my side of the sneeze guard—standard at most sushi counters that have reopened—she separated the crab into a series of elegant slashes and juicy crunches from the exoskeleton, twisting each leg and peeling the meat off the claws scraped. , researches to make shells and eventually boils the bundle of nerves between the crab's eyes to make kani miso, which Mr. Matsuki wanted to use it to season crab nigiri.
A single bite. Sweet and rich, with the buttery, almost toasted quality of freshly popped popcorn.
It wasn't just the taste that moved me, but what it indicated, the amazing level of skill, care, resources and manpower that went into that bite. It was also selfish to know that this could be my last indoor restaurant meal for a while. That another chaotic new wave of the pandemic would hit, affecting everyone in the supply chain, from fishermen to chefs and everyone in between.
For now, the counter seemed undisturbed - just the sound of bubbling sake in a glass, a woman laughing at her friend's joke, kitchen clogs falling to the floor, the hiss of hand sanitizer. The crab was gone in seconds, but I held onto it as long as I could.
Tejal Rao is a Los Angeles-based restaurant critic for The Times and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine. She has won two James Beard Foundation Awards for her restaurant reviews. @tejalrao
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The phrase omakase, literally 'I leave it up to you', is most commonly used when dining at Japanese restaurants where the customer leaves it up to the chef to select and serve seasonal specialties.What is the difference between sushi and sashimi? ›
Sushi vs sashimi
No, sashimi is thinly sliced raw fish or meat, served without rice, while sushi is focused on the rice, with raw or cooked ingredients added. As sashimi is raw fish or meat with no rice, it has to be eaten using chopsticks. Whereas sushi can be easily picked up and eaten with your fingers.
It is not customary to tip in Japan, and if you do, you will probably find the restaurant staff chasing you down in order to give back any money left behind. Instead, it is polite to say "gochisosama deshita" ("thank you for the meal") when leaving.What do sushi chefs yell out? ›
"Irasshaimase!" the chefs are all yelling in unison the moment you enter their restaurant. It's a surprise the first time it happens but get used to it, it's standard practice throughout Japan.