Saturday, November 12, 2011

Asanebo - Michelin-Starred Sushi in Studio City

I recently rewatched Jiro Dreams of Sushi thanks to a free screening at AFI Fest, and predictably it has filled my mind with nothing but sushi since. I must be sado-masochistic to torture myself with reliving the visual feast of food at a quality and price I can't have.  I couldn't just hop on the next flight to Japan to taste the artistry at Sukiyabashi Jiro (restaurant featured in the movie), and in LA the sushi master lauded as best in the city/state and maybe even country - two Michelin-starred Urasawa - is nearly as inaccessible to foodies on a budget, with prices starting at $350 per person.  But I'm a dreamer, and it was uplifting to even have feasted just my eyes.

Thinking about Michelin-starred sushi though did trigger lovely memories of my last major splurge - I did have amazing meals at the one-Michelin starred Asanebo in Studio City.  I had somehow never gotten around to doing a post about them - and now seems like a good time to relive the last meal there by writing about it.

Michelin stars are hard to come by in LA, period, and no one really expected one to be awarded to a spot in the Valley, no less.  But Asanebo was amazing, and the best Japanese fine dining experience I've had in the city so far within my price range (barely within my budget - and with the previously stated disclaimer that I haven't been able to afford meals at the super high end places like Urasawa or Nobu so can't speak to how they are).

What I love about Asanebo: incredible quality, and creativity, without cheesy gimmicks or pretentiousness.  A tiny venue with just a handful of tables and counter seating, located in an unassuming strip mall on Ventura Blvd., Asanebo radiates the cozy vibe of a neighborhood gem - while serving up world class cuisine.

My first encounter with Asanebo was generously 'sponsored' by an ex's parents, who loved that I had the same taste as them  (he didn't eat most seafood, much less raw - hm, perhaps that should have raised red flags much earlier).  The feeding frenzy was a blur but I remembered spectacular uni dishes, and scallop sashimi rolled in grey smoked sea salt (which I'd never seen done before).  So last December, when my brother and his wife were in town, I had taken her (a fellow sushi lover) to Asanebo as her last meal before returning to Montreal.  I got off work late and it was nearly closing time, so we took the quick and 'easy' route of omakase, which excited us anyway as it meant some of the best and freshest the chefs have to offer, plus I like to be surprised when it comes to food. 

Our choice was simple: Omakase A ($75-$100, no sushi), B ($100-$125),  or C ($125+).  We went with B as it was only $25 more and included sushi, and we didn't have trust funds to fuel the open-ended C.

So it's been a while, and the meal went too fast to take extensive notes, so hoping this is not completely inaccurate (let me know if you see something that needs to be corrected!)

First dish: Housemade tofu with sea urchin with bonito sauce, fresh seaweed and fresh wasabi the tofu was a little too dense for me, but you can really taste the difference in fresh made vs packaged tofu - flavors are richer and cleaner, the texture much smoother.  Same with the fresh seaweed and wasabi.  Top this with incredibly fresh tongues of uni and we were off to a fantastic start.

Next up was Grilled Golden Eye Snapper (so I have had it before!) with Japanese Spring Vegetables, Shimeji Mushrooms, Tofu Curd and Bonito Flakes - loved this dish for the salty char on the freshest piece of fish, balanced by earthiness of mushrooms and veggies, elevated by bonito flakes and tofu curd for textural contrast.
Then came an unexpected meat dish - Seared Kobe Beef - the lush texture was amazing and it was served as beef sashimi (with a dab of wasabi on the side!).  The bite-sized pieces were perfectly seared for crisp, salty edges yielding to a rare to medium-rare center so tender it almost made us cry.  I still remember the taste of this one almost a year later.

Hamachi (yellowtail) was next, with crispy shreds of shallot on top, sitting in a lake of dashi (broth).  A rustic dish that was lovely in its simplicity and beautiful in the careful balance of textures and flavors.
Halibut with Black Truffle was a creative combination that of course had me salivating on sight.  I didn't think I had ever seen truffle used with sashimi before, but the earth+sea combo of lightly crunchy truffle with thinly sliced, tender fish - though not mind-blowing - worked nicely together.  On the side was a marinated cherry tomato for some acidity to cut through the rich flavors and act as palate cleanser.
This was followed by a veggie dish - Stewed Daikon (radish) with Black Soybeans in dashi (broth) served warm. 

The daikon was stewed carefully so that it was almost translucent, and so tender it fell away with a light swipe of the spoon, but yet retained its structure, holding back just before the brink of mush.  The consistency reminded me of Chinese winter melon (冬瓜) when it's been stewed and made into soup. The mild flavors of the daikon were enhanced by the hearty, fragrant black soybean on top.

Next up was a Alaskan King Crab Leg, lightly grilled so that there is a lovely saltiness that carries over from the shell before you reach the sweet meat inside. Not the most incredible crab leg I've ever had, but a nice addition to the meal.

Our second to last dish was Miso Soup - we were surprised to see it came with a lobster head, the first time we'd seen that used with miso soup.  The soup tasted made from scratch, and hit us to our core on that cold winter night.  The hearty lobster head may be unsettling for diners who don't like to meet their food face-to-face (my brother's wife didn't love that it was 'staring' at her) but I felt it was a nice and unusual touch and thought I could taste tomalley flavors infused into the soup

Where a meal would traditionally end with some sort of sweet dish, Asanebo ends theirs with a small plate of nigiri sushi - Toro, Uni and Hamachi.  I really loved this plate as the fish  tasted like it was plucked from the ocean minutes ago, and were great last bites to leave with and remember Asanebo by.

All in all, a lovely time at Asanebo - where most sushi joints would offer all fish/seafood rolls in their omakase, Asanebo mixes it up with small plates and even kobe beef, and it all works together.  I loved the ambiance of thoughtful and cozy decor, and warm, friendly service (they treat everyone like they're an old friend).  I know I won't likely be able to repeat the experience anytime soon, but...sort of like how NFL stars, after winning the Superbowl, would sometimes give their by now famously familiar answer when asked what they're gonna do now - if I ever had another occasion to celebrate, at this point, if I was paying my first thought would very well be "I'm going to Asanebo!"

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6.5 bites
Presentation - 6.5 bites
Originality - 6.5 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6.5 stars
Overall experience - 6.5 bites
Price - $$$$ (4 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%

11941 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, CA 91604
Ph: 818.760.3348

Asanebo on Urbanspoon

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