Monday, April 16, 2012

Shunji: Matsuhisa for Mortals?

It was a semi-dark and stormy evening.  I was dreading the long haul home from West LA back to the Valley.  Then a memory beckoned to me like a beacon in the night - of a chain of posts on Chowhound talking about the reincarnation of a utopic place that I had been sad I didn't get around to visiting before it shuttered - Shunji's.
Exec chef/owner Shunji Nakao was one of the original three chefs at Matsuhisa in the late 80's (along with his brother and Nobu Matsuhisa).  Shunji and his brother went on to run the highly successful (and one of the few Michelin-starred restaurants in LA) Asanebo in Studio City - before Shunji had moved on to his own spot on Melrose.  And after splitting from the owner of Shunji's, chef Shuji took his namesake with luck would have it for me, to West LA very close to my new office. 

The new Shunji is in a most unexpected venue - the spot previously occupied by Mr. Cecil's Ribs, on Pico.  It's a distinctively shaped (round) standalone building - and because they have only just soft opened March 1st, the sign currently just says "Japanese Cuisine".  The 'disguised' location works out perfectly for me - all the better to be able to experience Chef Shunji's creations in peace, before word spreads and the place starts getting packed.

So, I pulled over that night on my way home, right when the restaurant opened at 6:15.  I was the only person for a good hour or so - and considered myself lucky to get to see Chef Shunji at work at the sushi bar, and had a blast chatting with super friendly server Yuko. 
Right now they are only serving dinner - the staff is lean and Chef Shunji is pretty much handling all the food on his own.  The dinner menu looked exciting (you can get oysters on the half shell with uni!! oyster/uni tempura!), with fairly reasonable prices ($10 and under for a lot of items), but I knew that with access to such a talented chef, omakase was really the way to go.  Chowhound told me it would be $80 for omakase, which is actually not too bad at all for quality sushi.  Little did I know I was to have a mind-blowing meal full of new discoveries, of the caliber of LudoBites or Le Comptoir

Course 1: Jellyfish, cucumber, radish, red onion in sake sauce - though jellyfish is common in Chinese cuisine, I don't recall ever encountering it in Japanese cooking.  Chef Shunji serves it cold, with slices of cucumber, daikon and red onion in a sake sauce.  The texture of the jellyfish was incredible - soft and flowing yet with a crisp crunch.  This paired well with the 'like' crunch of the veggie accompaniments, and all in a shallow bath of sake sauce, served in a glass.  A very lovely start.

As Shunji carefully crafted the next course I could see that it would become one of my favorites. The care with which he arranged the pieces, reminded me of an artist or sculptor at work.

Course 2: Veggie platter with happy ends (not official name, I made this up) - the artistry of this course reminded me of a recent plate by Chef Gary Menes, but with a much more playful aesthetic (pop-art to Chef Menes' fine art), and seafood as bookends to the freshest cuts of fun looking veggies.  From left to right: ankimo (monkfish liver) and caviar, squash, lotus root, daikon, peas, purple daikon, okra, turnip, string bean, kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), celery, burdock root, sweet potato ball with truffle and feta cheese, purple potato ball with blue cheese and dried persimmon, Costa Rican 'sparkle squid'.  Every piece of veggie was beautifully fresh and all set off fireworks on my taste buds!  But I was glad that the chef advised to eat all the veggies first, then end with the pieces of seafood - I wanted to keep the taste of both in my mouth forever.  The ankimo was gorgeously light and airy, with the brine from caviar cutting nicely through the rich buttery flavor. 

The delicate little  'sparkle squid' (not entirely sure if that's the proper name), a rare find from Costa Rica, was something I'd never had before - and absolutely ethereal - like it just got plucked from the ocean minutes before, still glistening with sea water. Chef Shunji put a little dab of something that tasted very slightly spicy on its head, and the light bit of heat went perfectly with the flavors of the squid! 

The only things on the plate that I wasn't a big fan of were the potato-cheese-balls.  They were a little too dry, dense and pungent, and to me didn't seem to go with the other objects of almost other-worldly-levity on the plate.

In any case - I loved this course.
Course 3: Steamed Bamboo, Uni, Bamboo, Seaweed in Chorizo & Ramps Dashi.  I don't know how Chef Shunji even thought to put these things together.  But the steamed bamboo was one of the best preparations I've ever had - I never thought that bamboo could be its own main attraction like that - usually it's embellishment in some other dish like ramen (or in Chinese cuisine, part of different soups or stir fry).  The steamed bamboo was served carved up into triangular sections - and were tender, but with a clean crunch that reminded me of beets or hearts of palm, lovely sprinkled with fleur de sel.  To counterbalance the mild flavors of the bamboo, there was a roasted tomato that had been marinated with vinegar.  Then there was a bowl filled with sea urchin, more bamboo pieces, fresh seaweed - all in a clear and slightly starchy broth made with chorizo and ramps.  A truly lovely and unique dish - creatures and plants of land and sea came together in one bowl.  Mind-blown.
Course 4: Squid in Squid Ink and Uni with Quail Egg + Seared Kanpachi with Miso Sauce + Allegra Flowers - just when I was still mulling over the new and unusual flavors of the previous dishes, the Best Dish of the Night arrived, catching me completely off guard.  It seems like Italians have mixed squid ink with sea urchin already (love the squid ink pasta with uni and jalapeno at Osteria Mozza!), but I've never had squid sashimi in squid ink mixed with uni and topped by a quail egg.  This one at first triggered memories of the squid ink rice pudding I had at LudoBites 8.0 - which I didn't like - but Chef Shunji's invention was very different in that the freshest squid was used (where Ludo's was rice pudding shaped and textured to resemble squid), and the squid ink was tempered and made smooth and not so clotted by mixed in sea urchin - which also gave it an unbelievable umami that was transcendent.  I was advised to eat first a bit of the squid on its own, then to mix in the quail egg for even greater lusciousness.  I loved every bit of this and would come back in just for a taste - possibly every night before I go home.  And this all balanced perfectly with the gorgeously seared, smokey-tasting kanpachi, dabbed with sesame sauce for more umami, and finished off with a lovely sprig of edible Allegra flower (plucked from a potted plant at the end of the bar, so super fresh). 

Then, as we were talking about meals and dishes elsewhere I've been recently impressed with, I mentioned Ludo's foie gras soup - and Yuko said: "Oh, Chef Shunji used to do a Japanese foie gras soup he invented a long time ago.  Maybe he will make it again for you - not sure if he has the ingredients but let's ask".  And with a delighted grin, as if someone had just awarded him the $656 million lottery jackpot, Chef Shunji pulled out his 'secret stash' of foie and went to work on Course 5: to recreate his soup - which turned out to be a taro potato gazpacho with winter melon, yams, yuzu zest and shaved foie gras torchon on top.  The foie was almost brittle looking, or looked from a distance like it could be chicken or pulled pork.  I didn't love the large chunks of softened orange yam in the soup - but adored the creative fusion of Japanese/French flavors in the foie, yuzu and sweet potato.  I almost licked the bowl clean.
Course 6: Roasted Eggplant, Miso, Fried Shrimp, Shitake Mushroom, Fresh Seaweed - resuming the 'regular' omakase, next up was another innovative roll that I've never seen anywhere else before: roasted eggplant was topped by a miso paste, then pieces of pan-fried shrimp and shitake mushroom.  This was a delicious combination of the 'fruits' of ocean and earth again that really brought the umami.
Course 7: Black Cod with Enoki and Shitake Mushrooms in Mushroom Dashi - the last hot course of the meal, this was simple and clean, with a lovely piece of black cod (skin on!) in a clear mushroom broth, beautifully arranged with enoki and shitake mushrooms. 
At this point other patrons started to arrive, and I was getting full - Yuko asked if I had room for anything else.  At the beginning of the meal it had been mentioned that they have very nice cuts of bluefin tuna and toro in today - so I coudn't leave without trying those.  The bluefin tuna was a breathtaking rich almost burgundy color, and was lush and delicious.  I also loved that Chef Shunji grates a wasabi root right in front of you to make the freshest wasabi possible for the sushi.   
The Toro was so tender and fatty and fresh, I had to close my eyes for a moment to truly savor the bites.  Chef Shunji puts salt crystals on one of the pieces too for texturing and flavor, but both pieces were amazing.

All in all, I was glad the storm and need to delay my journey home - brought me to this new home away from home.  The hospitality was world class, and I loved my mind-blowing dinner at not too much wallet-damage ($80 omakase plus a glass of wine ($9) plus extra course of foie gazpacho ($12) and extra pieces of sushi ($10 for toro).  Affordable for mere mortals.  I can't wait to go back.  And the only reason I'm telling you about this instead of keeping it to myself, is that everyone should get to experience Chef Shunji's amazing creations at least once - and I'm really rooting for this venture to succeed, as they deserve to be around for a long, long time. 

On a 7 point scale:Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 5 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 5 stars
Service - 5 stars
Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 100%


12244 W Pico Blvd., Los Angeles,CA 90064
Ph: 310.826.4737

Parking: Free lot attached to restaurant


Shunji Japanese Cuisine on Urbanspoon


  1. Great post - beat me to the punch on Urbanspoon! The "sparkle squid" is hotaru ika, firefly squid. Arguably the best thing I had there, and there were plenty. Went to Kiriko last week and they had it too, but Shunji's was actually better. Glad you enjoyed your dinner!

  2. Hei there Chris :P Thanks for reading and for the info on the squid! I was trying to look it up but couldn't find anything under 'sparkle squid' - good to know its real name! And yes def one of the best bites in that omakase meal - and there were many to choose from!

    I think we'll need to grab Japanese together one of these days! :)



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