Location: 11640 W. San Vicente Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90049. Phone: 310 820-4477
Date: August 13, 2012
Rating: Fish is good, format is annoying
My relationship with sushi goes way back. My parents first took me to Washington DC’s (then) single Japanese restaurant, Mikado, in the 70s and I started on sushi by eight years old. In the 80s I constantly evangelized sushi. To people’s unanimous response of “yuck, raw fish?” I’d respond, “but it’s SO good.”
Fast forward to 1994 and my move to California. Sushi was just going mainstream and I was an experienced devotee. I’d been to Japan, I knew the names of most fish in Japanese, I’d had a sushi poster over my bed since high school. Still, Sushi Nozawa, conveniently located just 5-10 minutes from Universal Studios (where we were then making Crash Bandicoot), was hands down the best I’d ever had. There were a couple funny things about it:
1. The rice was warm and fell apart easily
2. There was often vinegar like sauce on the fish (which was really good)
3. The seafood itself was incredibly fresh and not fishy at all
4. Chef Nozawa, who made everything personally at the tiny sushi bar, enforced all sorts of rules in a Seinfeld “soup nazi” like manner. No cel phones. No mentioning California or Spicy Tuna roll, no asking for anything. Just “trust me” he said.
All and all an amazing experience.
Fast forward again 10+ years and I’d long been dining happily at what Nozawa spawn restaurants: Echigo, Sasabune, Sushi Zo, and the like. These chefs trained with the master, and deliver fantastic sushi in his format (sometimes including cel phone and roll rules — although at Sasabune I have twice seen Brett Ratner pacing back and forth between customers with his iphone/blackberry glued to his ear).
Then we have Sugarfish, Nozawa’s direct progeny. It’s a problem child for me, mostly because of the format: It’s a chain (albeit a small one) and the chef is missing. Any chef. There is still a vestigial sushi bar, but there are no knife-wielding Japanese guys in white hats behind calling out as you enter or leave. Instead you order packages of “trust me” off a short men and caucasians bring it to you. This seems… unclean… improper.
The Sugarfish menu (see here: Lunch Menu) feels like a packaged corporate imitation of the whole experience. Converting what is essentially a handmade and human relationship (diner and chef) into a by the numbers formula. And besides, even “The Nozawa,” the largest package, is like a snack for someone like me used to gigantic omakases (sample some on my sushi page)!
But here it is:
I’ve never been a huge edaname fan. These are fine, but the oil gets all over your hands.
“Tuna sashimi.” The fish is good, but the whole thing is dominated by the sweet vinegar sauce. Not that I mind, as I love sweet vinegar sauce.
“Albacore sushi.” Tasty enough, and melt in your mouth.
“Salmon sushi.” Good enough fish, but blander than some.
“Yellowtail sushi.” Also nice pieces of Hamachi. Nothing wrong with it, but like almost everything else on this menu, a bit boring.
“Halibut sushi.” Also nice fish.
“Toro hand roll.” Felt a tad bland for some reason.
“Blue crab hand roll.” This was tasty, and the crab hand roll was always a highlight at Nozawa, but this felt like an 80% imitation, perhaps not sweet and crabby enough.
“Halibut fin sashimi.” Bizarrely served at the end. By normal Japanese standards this should have come before any rice. Still, it was a fine dish, again amped up by the vinegar sauce.
Overall, Sugarfish has good fish. Not great fish, but the typical good fish that is now widely available in LA. But the whole thing is so watered down, a packaged imitation of the real sushi experience aimed at dabblers. The room was filled with women catching lunch. They like sushi, may even recognize that better places are tastier, but they aren’t committed to the experience. Unless I’m in a real hurry, I’ll take a human chef who can recommend what is fresh or make me something I haven’t tried before. Nozawa once said to me, “today I have seven types of fish and every day, I ask myself, can I do seven fish well? Should I perhaps do only six?” This espouses the very Japanese sentiment that any small thing can be done exceedingly well with enough focus and concentration. That doesn’t seem to dive with corporate packaging.
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