By Larry Levine –
Ask someone in California to recommend a sushi restaurant and the reaction is likely to be akin to asking for a barbecue recommendation in Texas.
Virtually everyone has a favorite. For some people it’s serial favorites.
I remember a time many years ago, when a friend recommended that I try a sushi restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, not far from where I live. A couple of weeks later, I tried the place. Not long after, I ran into that friend and thanked him for the recommendation. He told me he and his wife aren’t going there anymore because they tried some new place that just opened. Through the years I learned that couple tends to chase every new place that opens, while abandoning last month’s favorite.
That’s so far from how I approach life. I’m a loyalist in my personal and my professional lives. I’ve been using the same printer for my political clients since 1978. Nobody does that. And then there’s Todd Murakami. He’s been cutting fish for me at various sushi bars that he has owned or at which he has worked for some 29 years.
A lot of sushi restaurants have come and gone in that time. Friends and casual acquaintances have recommended many of them. I’ve tried some of them. But in the end, if I find a place I like, I stick with it.
There was a time, believe it or not, when sushi in Los Angeles meant tuna and only tuna. I tasted sushi for the first time at Yamashiro in the Hollywood Hills in the early 1970s. Jennifer and I were there with our late friend Duane Rubin, a travel agent who specialized in travel to Japan. Duane ordered sushi and asked if I wanted to taste some. It was tuna, not even toro, just tuna, and I liked it. San Francisco wasn’t any better back then. In the mid to late 1970s I was there often on business. I would stay at the very Japanese Hilton Hotel in the Tenderloin District. The restaurant at the hotel was named Kyoto, or something similar. First time in I ordered sushi there I got nothing but tuna. It was years later before Japanese restaurants started to expand beyond tuna.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing – a very good thing. Because you can find me at a sushi bar at least once a week, often more frequently.
The whole world of sushi has changed since that long-ago time. An industry website says there are 16,000 sushi restaurants in the U.S. and some 4,000 in California. Sometimes it seems there are 4,000 just in Los Angeles County. They are so prevalent along Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley that I’ve been tempted to count them. I’ve seen as many as five on two sides of the same block, and I wasn’t even looking for them.
As the sushi world has burgeoned, so have my tastes and knowledge. There are very few things I avoid at a sushi restaurant and those are because I just prefer other things. I prefer Dungeness crab and don’t care for king crab. I recently tried something for the first time – Hairy Crab. Delicious and very expensive. I’ve tried different preparations of conch and haven’t been wowed. Never had the opportunity to try blow fish and not sure I would if I could.
There was a time when I didn’t like uni – sea urchin. Then there came a night when Todd reached across the sushi bar and handed a teaspoon with some uni on it. “Try this,” he said. I’ve been an uni fan ever since. It was about that time that Santa Barbara uni first burst onto the scene. Now Santa Barbara uni can be found on menus across the U.S. and in Japan. Todd also taught me about the wonderful crunch and flavor of halibut fin.
For a long time, a trip to the sushi bar meant only nigiri sushi for me – the traditional kind set atop an oval of rice. I’ll share some kinds of cut rolls with a table mate on occasion, but I never order one for myself. Todd makes a white fish hand roll special to my taste.
As time passed, I learned to enjoy the individual creations of various sushi chefs. Now, if it’s a restaurant I know and a chef I trust I’ll order omakase – chef’s choice – which usually means a mixture of sashimi (no rice), cooked dishes, and nigiri. At one sushi bar in Los Angeles several months ago I ordered omakase. At that place, omakase meant a parade of individual pieces of nigiri served three at a time and balanced for complimentary taste and texture. By the end of the evening I had sampled 42 different kinds of fish – one piece of each. I don’t think I’ve ever left a sushi restaurant and said, “I’m full.” Sons Lloyd and John are that way too.
The four restaurants below are by no means the only good sushi restaurants at which I’ve eaten. They just happen to be my current favorites for a variety of reasons. Here they are in alphabetical order.
Asanebo is in Studio City in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. There’s a full menu worthy of the two Michelin Stars on the wall, but I go to Asanebo for omakase sushi and sashimi. The chefs are artists and certified geniuses when it comes to composition and flavors. There are better known Japanese/sushi restaurants and I’ve been to many of them. But for me Asanebo stands above all others. I get great food in a “neighborhood spot” atmosphere from friendly and helpful chefs and staff, without any of the uppity snobbishness of other better known places.
Kru in Sacramento may be as good as Asanebo. If I lived in Sacramento I would be as much a regular at Kru as I am at Asanebo. When SacTown Magazine polled chefs at the top restaurants in town and asked where they go when they go out for dinner, Kru received more mentions than any other place. It’s an after-hours favorite of many of the biggest names in Sacramento’s outstanding restaurant world. I was introduced to Kru by my son, Lloyd, who lives in Sacramento and is fortunate to be at Kru frequently.
Murakami in Hollywood is owned and operated by the aforementioned Todd Murakami. Most of what I know about sushi and most of my sushi tastes rest on a foundation of knowledge built by Todd. He was a young chef at his first sushi station when we met at another restaurant in Studio City nearly 30 years ago. Later, he opened his own place in West Hollywood. For some nine years it was one of L.A.’s busiest secret gems. Now, he owns and operate this spot in Hollywood. Todd served my two sons’ their first sushi when they were in high school. He knows my tastes and I know everything in his restaurant will be of the highest quality.
Sushi-Gen in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles is revered by sushi lovers from throughout the city. If you want fancy rolls and modern style sushi, this is not the place for you. If you want incredibly fresh fish from a traditional Japanese sushi bar you cannot go to a better place. And, by all means, try to sit at the bar, even if it means a wait. There’s nothing wrong with the table seating, but the feel of this sushi bar adds much to the experience. Sometimes it seems that all of downtown L.A. heads for Sushi-Gen for weekday lunches.
As for the rest: I’ve eaten at Iron Chef Morimoto’s restaurants in New York and Philadelphia. Two very memorable experiences. I prefer the one in New York; Lloyd prefers the original in Philly. Neither of us has been to Morimoto in Napa. Yet. There are probably a couple dozen other places in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, and New York at which I’ve enjoyed sushi with friends. There used to be a gang of 14 to 16 of us – legislators, lobbyists, political consultants, legislative staffers – who formed an informal sushi caucus. We would descend on various places near the State Capitol a couple of times each month.
What I won’t tolerate are restaurants that put a time limit on the dining experience, have strict rules that keep chefs from preparing off-the-menu dishes I might want, get famous for their attitude, and in other ways tell me they don’t care if I go elsewhere. There are many elsewheres to go and I know a bunch of them.
Anyway, I’m absolutely certain there are any number of other wonderful Japanese and sushi restaurants across the vast geography of California and beyond. And I’m equally certain I will hear about some of them from readers who will inform me of their own personal favorites after reading this feature. I would love to hear about them. Just make sure the fish is fresh, the ambiance relaxing, and the sushi chefs at the top of their games. Those are the factors that distinguish the four restaurants named above and define places that will compete for my loyalty in the future.