Wednesday, July 4, 2012

SUGARFISH by Nozawa Studio City: 'Trust Me', Not Really Omakase But Fine By Me

The 'Sushi Nazi' - Chef Kazunori Nozawa - a purist sushi artisan, who as legend had it, would toss guests out if they dare to order a California Roll at his counter - ceded in February this year, his culinary landmark restaurant in an indescript strip mall in Studio City, to his son who has been successful with a more modern 'new school' sushi chain: SUGARFISH.
With popular locations already in Santa Monica, Marina del Rey, Brentwood and Downtown LA, this location brings SUGARFISH back to where it all started.  As regular readers know, I am a sucker for that perfect storm of good food + great ambience + great service, and so to me SUGARFISH is in many ways a very welcome shift from old school to new school.  Replacing that austere, no frills, venetian-blinded, spottily lit library-quiet hole in the wall, is an airy, well-designed yet unpretentious, relaxed space. 

Paying homage to the previous 'Trust-Me' decor behind the old counter, is a new wall of chic colorful artwork emblazoned with that same slogan. Replacing the ubiquitous sushi counter where the in concept intimidating Nozawa-san is an open and inviting dining room, with the kitchen moved to the back, out of sight, for "maximum efficiency" that allows for delivery of "good sushi at a fair price". 

The new concept is also said to take inspiration from Nozawa-san's Trust Me style of service - where there is no set menu, but diners rather give themselves over to the chef to deliver the freshest cuts of fish for the day, adjusted for the diner's tastes.  However, in reality what SUGARFISH offers isn't 'omakase' at all - the concept has more similarities to In N Out Burger than traditional omakase.  There are basically 3 preset 'Trust Me' menus, with only 1 of the 3 offering a 'Daily Special'. 
Pricing looked great for sushi lovers on a budget, at $19.75, $29.50 and $39 each, with 6, 7 and 9 different types of rolls respectively.  You can also order various other types of rolls and sashimi from the a la carte menu, also not exorbitantly priced at quick glance.  But the proof is in the quality of the fish, right?  I 'splurged' and went for The Nozawa menu ($39) to see how it works and to sample the widest variety of fish, within the three preset menus.  First came the Organic Edamame, a staple served with any of the three menus. 
Next up: Tuna Sashimi: Right off the bat, this was non-traditional - instead of clean slices of fish, the meat was sort of diced up and served in a shallow bath of ponzu.  Freshness was there, but on the whole this dish not mindblowing and I didn't really love the amount of sauce which slightly overpowered the fish.
The trio of nigiri won me over with lush textures and incredibly fresh, clean with minimal yet beautiful garnish.  There were two pieces each of Albacore, Salmon and Snapper Sushi.  Gently brushed with fresh made ponzu and/or with hints of yuzu.  I was so excited that you can get this quality of fish for the price ($39 for essentially 9 servings of fish!).  My only note is that the rice (on pretty much all the sushi actually) could be a little more cohesive and soft - right now it's a little hard where some of the grains stand out.  But, they did just open when I went so hopefully that is something that will be worked out in time.  I do like that the rice is not served as warm as Nozawa's, but not entirely cold either - somewhere in between.
The Yellowtail Sushi were not photogenic at all, but possibly the best bites I've ever had of this fish in LA.  Yep, I just said it. It was the incredibly fresh, lovely texture that glides into your mouth and *doesn't* melt but gives you the tenderest, smoothest chew.
The Halibut Sushi smooth, perfectly sliced flecked with yuzu kosho and cut through nicely with the acidity of house made ponzu.
Toro Hand Roll loved that they serve this with a perfectly crisp sheet of nori.  Have I used the word 'fresh' for their fish yet? 
Blue Crab Hand Roll same as the Toro Hand Roll: crisp nori, fresh (shell)fish.  Enough said.
Lastly from The Nozawa menu: the eagerly anticipated Daily Special: on this day, it was Halibut Sashimi.  Like the tuna at the start of the meal, it's not the typically sliced presentation, but chopped up and served in ponzu.  Presentation in food is pretty important to me - there is a threshold that good food should meet in terms of looking minimally appetizing.  If it's the most luxurious ingredients in the world - let's say all my favorites, foie, black truffle and uni - mashed up in a blender to look like puke and slopped onto a plate, I'm not really going to want to eat it - and the visuals may involuntarily alter my experience of taste.  And that's sort of what happened with this one. I didn't finish the bowl.
Though I was fairly full after the prix fixe, there were items on the a la carte menu that were either more exciting or so baffling to me that meant I had to try them.  Like Oyster Sashimi ($5.75).  With oysters usually served raw, doesn't that already make it 'sashimi'?  Do they simply mean oysters taken out of their shell and sliced? 

What arrived was a plump oyster, split down the middle almost all the way, and spread open so that it sort of looks like...a pair of lungs.  Which for some reason DID appeal to me - I don't think I've ever seen oyster served like this before, kind of like a really clean, beautiful 'anatomy of an oyster' presentation: breath-taking! And the ponzu cut smartly through the creamy, mild and naturally slightly sweet oyster flavors perfectly, with a bit of chopped scallions adding crunch.  LOVED this dish - it may be one of my favorites at SUGARFISH.  You may say, this is a bit pricey for a single oyster, but it's a substantial size, probably equal to three or four kumamotos. And trust me, the taste and texture?  Worth it.

Sweet Shrimp Sushi ($6.75) so the a la carte items were quite a bit more expensive.  Amaebi or raw shrimp is one of my favorites, when fresh out of the ocean and prepared just right.  Plus you feel like you got a 'bonus' when they either fry up the shrimp heads or serve them up in miso soup for you.  At SUGARFISH, the shrimp was fresh, but not translucent, tailess, and headless.  They didn't serve the heads on the side.  While it was tasty, I didn't think this one was worth the price.

Uni ($9.75) the uni is amazing here, plump, fresh, tasting of the sea, with rice wrapped neatly in crisp nori.  But is worth almost $10 for 2 pieces?  It's a splurge.  I think you can get this quality at other places, some even in the Valley.   
Halibut Fin Sashimi ($6.50) engawa has become one of my favorites since I first tried it at Sushi Gen - this cut of fish takes its name from the exterior hallways of a traditional Japanese house, and references the halibut's side dorsal fin. 

It's a thin slice of muscle that is fatty and concentrated in flavor, with a texture unlike any other sushi fish I've had - sort of 'panelled' or 'striped'.  You don't see it offered at every sushi spot in town, so I was excited to see it on the SUGARFISH menu.  But, again for some bizarre reason SUGARFISH likes to mangle their sashimi (I should have saved my puke reference up above, in halibut sashimi section, for this plate).  Not only is it not appetizing in appearance - this preparation completely kills the main thing that makes the cut of fish unique - its texture.  And again drowned in the ponzu.  I would not order this plate again.
 I have to say that the service was friendly and attentive.  My server came by to ask how everything was, and when I mentioned the fish that I liked, he mentioned that they have an off-menu item that is his favorite, and asked if I wanted to try it.  I was stuffed at that point, but he said the magic words, "off menu" - so of course I had to go for it!  

The off menu item was Albacore Belly - a nice, smooth, fatty cut:  if ankimo (monkfish liver) is the foie gras of the sea, then I would say this fish is the pork belly of the sea.  Loved it.

All in all, though there were massive hits and epic misses, overall SUGARFISH is a fantastic and welcome shift and addition to the neighborhood. 

It's great to be able to make a quick meal of high quality sushi at affordable prices - even if you have to stick to more common types of fish in the prix fixe menus.  Plus that oyster sashimi which will be a 'must eat' for me - I've already been back again and can forsee many more visits.

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

SUGARFISH by sushi nozawa

11288 Ventura Blvd # C, Studio City, CA 91604
Ph: 818.762.2322


Sugarfish By Sushi Nozawa on Urbanspoon     

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