That said, there is very good sushi to be had back in the States. Despite the proliferation of the Tokyo Delve's of the world, which seem to focus more on entertainment and cater to the sake-bombing set, than foodies who revere the cuisine as an art form - there are many restaurants that take their sushi seriously. On the extreme end of that spectrum is Sushi Nozawa.
In fact, Sushi Nozawa became known as "that place with the sushi nazi" because of chef Kazunori Nozawa's alleged propensity to throw out patrons who dare to place an order versus trusting his expertise. According to legend, when you enter Sushi Nozawa, you surrender all that you know about how and what sushi should be served and eaten, and put yourself in the hands of Chef Nozawa, who knows best what you should be eating that day. They call this "Trust Me" style service - which in other Japanese restaurants would be known as "Omakase" but with less draconian overtones: you pay a fixed price, and the master chef brings you the best on offer within that limit.
Though I've heard from many friends and acquaintances about Sushi Nozawa over the years, and was curious about the concept, for one reason or another I have never ventured out there. This weekend, I finally made my first trip with my brother and his wife - and couldn't wait to see if the fish merited the hype (and the 'trust me' style service).
Located in the Valley, away from more high profile and alluring neighborhoods like Robertson or Malibu, where one might expect to find great seafood / sushi - Sushi Nozawa has a singular focus unusual for a successful and highly frequented dining venue in Los Angeles - it only cares about its food, not about image. Tucked away in a non-descript strip mall on Ventura Blvd., Sushi Nozawa's decor is bare bones - with an entrance adorned simply with constantly closed venetian blinds that seems to say 'keep out', the requisite glass counter at the bar, and a handful of tables strewn around a confined space, surrounded by metal chairs with stuffed vinyl seats (the kind you would find in a cheap Chinese hole in the wall in Alhambra). Behind the counter is Nozawa himself, along with a sous chef - practicing their art in front of various signs that convey essentially the same message: "Trust Me".
As the hostess was busy, one of the servers came by and told us we actually have one decision to make - we can either wait for a table, where we can place orders, or we can sit at the sushi bar, where we would have "no choice". Wanting to have the full experience, we asked to be seated at the bar.
Chef Nozawa took a quick glance at us, we assume to assess what our wallets and palates could handle. As expected, we were never offered menus or asked what we would like - after being offered our second and final choice of the evening - drinks - plates of fish started arriving over the counter immediately.
Worried about any actions that could possibly be interpreted as disrespect, we restrained from the usual frenzy of photography (in fact, we exhibited monumental levels of self-restraint and did not snap a single photo). Without this preferred method of documenting my meals, it's a little difficult to remember every single dish that came out - but will try my best to recount the highlights here.
Each sushi / roll came on its own separate plate, the better to avoid flavor cross contamination. The fish was always brushed with a liquid before being served - which we think is rice vinegar - making the fish glisten and adding a little tartness to the fish itself (versus just on its usual medium, in the rice roll). We had several rounds of plates including yellowtail, toro, red snapper and scallop rolls, followed by a blue crab handroll. All were prepared traditionally and simply to let the quality of the fish shine through. There are no modern/ fusion rolls with gimmicky names like baked 'lobster dynamite' or even 'rainbow' rolls here. Just a simple slice of fish a top a rice roll, or fish with rice inside a seaweed wrap in the case of handrolls.
However, we noted that each rice roll was served warm - which was highly unusual. In a sushi class I took years ago, it was mentioned that you typically would not see any female sushi chefs - because women have higher body temperatures (I know, weird because we always feel cold while men always feel too hot), so they have warmer hands, which would in turn warm the fish that they would be preparing. So temperature is a highly sensitive area of concern - makes sense (temperature control, not the gender discrimination) for fish that is being handled and served raw - which made Sushi Nozawa's decision to serve fish on warm rice rolls interesting. We were told by other frequent Nozawa diners that this is his style. The warm rice does serve as a nice contrast to, and enhance the coldness of the fish - and seems to help it release its flavors. It's also worth noting that the nori (seaweed) used for the handroll wraps - unlike other restaurants, where the seaweed could sometimes be tough and hard to chew through (often causing semi-violent explosions of rice to fly through the other end of your roll onto your plate) - the nori used at Nozawa is 'crisp' and separates cleanly and easily with each bite.
Aside from the red snapper, scallops and blue crab roll, which were very good, the crowning piece of our meal came after when a 'regular' diner might perhaps be done - at a certain point, I think it was maybe 6 or 7 plates in, Chef Nozawa asked if we wanted any more sushi? We gave an immediate, unanimous and resounding "YES!!!". We had been eyeing the gorgeous tongues of uni in the glass counter all night, but of course knew enough not to ask for it. Once we responded that we did indeed want more sushi, it seemed we had passed some test proving our worth to Nozawa - and we felt like all the fish we had consumed up to that point had just been to show that we are indeed not culinary 'tourists', but worthy of Nozawa's backroom specials - we gathered all this when he finally reached for the golden ticket - the sea urchin we had been coveting all night.
The sea urchin was simply - amazing. Aside from the live sea urchin we had at Sushi Iki in Tarzana, where a live sea urchin was cracked open in front of our eyes, and the golden 'tongues' are served on top of the newly cracked shell - this was the freshest I'd had in the U.S. It had the perfect, for lack of other adjectives - girth, and you can tell its freshness partly from its firm structure - uni tends to get 'relaxed' and to leak liquids over time. It was buttery and smooth, and melted in our mouths on contact. I was literally in pain about the fact that we could not capture its perfection in a photo for the blog.
After the uni, we felt our meal was complete. Time for the tab - and to see the damage. Unlike other Omakase - where you get at least advance notice of the price you would be working with, if not the specifics of your meal, Sushi Nozawa does not offer any idea of pricing - it's something you have to 'trust' Chef Nozawa with, along with your food. For about 8 plates of sushi (18 pieces) each, our bill came out to about $75 per person. With tip, this came out to about $90 each. Ouch! I liked the sushi, but not for $90 - at which price I could get a conservative two course, or nice prix fixe meal at a fine-dining restaurant in an upscale setting for a nice evening out (e.g. TWO meals at Osteria Mozza's Amaro Bar, or a two-courser at Providence). Or you could have Michelin-starred sushi at Asanebo down the street, also on Ventura in Studio City, served in a much more comfortable setting and with friendlier service. And while skill with the cuts of fish can be a sort of art form, I personally value the creativity in combining unusual textures and flavors in a beautiful presentation over this - at least at venues outside of Tsukiji (and Tsukiji by the way is much cheaper than this - you can get the same meal with much fresher fish at about $30 prix fixe).
Also - as I am a sucker for the full experience when dining out - ambience, service (love an informative server that makes me learn something new about the chef, ingredients used or inspiration for a dish) in addition to quality food and creative preparations - Sushi Nozawa only fulfills one of many requirements for a great night out for me. While I am a fan in concept of authentic food and unpretentious settings / service - it's nice when these converge with a thoughtfully designed space and great hospitality.
While the chefs at Sushi Nozawa were cordial - and nicer than I thought they would be given the carefully crafted reputation of the place - they are definitely not poster boys of hospitality. This I fully knew before I set foot in the place, that is part of the mystique of the restaurant, and Nozawa's philosophy that it should be all about the food - but to play devil's advocate for a second - the austerity and 'advertised lack of hospitality' in itself could be seen as a gimmick - and given a choice I would much prefer to dine where I feel at least comfortable, and even better to be invited inside the circle of knowledge about what is involved in getting the food that I see on my plate in front of me. Also, to those who say Sushi Nozawa serves "the freshest (fish) from the world’s waters" - I have to question whether they have been to Tsukiji market. (Ok, bracing myself to be flamed)
All in all, an interesting experience and something I am glad to have checked off my list - but definitely not one I would feel compelled to / crave to repeat anytime soon.
Nozawa's son does have the more modern and accessible SUGARFISH chain Downtown, Brentwood and Marina del Rey (and coming soon to Santa Monica) for those who want experience dining combined with traditional omakase - I would perhaps try those next.
Update April 2012: Sushi Nozawa has closed, to be reincarnated as Sugarfish at a date TBD.
On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5 bites
Presentation - 4.5 bites
Originality - 5 bites
Ambience - 3.5 stars
Service - 5 stars
Overall experience - 5 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 60%
11288 Ventura Blvd Ste C, Studio City, CA 91604
Ph: 818.508.7017 Website: sushinozawa.com