Food

Tracing a Los Angeles Treasure: Its Glorious Sprawl of Sushi

LOS ANGELES — “Kinki from Hokkaido,” says Yohei Matsuki, a little muffled through his mask, entrusting you with a piece of seared rockfish nigiri. He won’t bore you with the details, which would take longer to share than this mouthful takes to chew.

But he knows that this particular rockfish was pulled from a long line in the waters off northeastern Hokkaido. That its coral skin is flawless because he sliced it with a scary-sharp knife, yes, but also because it was never crushed in the squirms of a bulging net.

He knows this because he knows who caught the rockfish, and when, and the method by which it was killed, and the route by which it arrived in Los Angeles, and then to the door of his West Hollywood restaurant, Sushi Ginza Onodera.

And he knows — this is getting a bit personal — that the husky creature hadn’t spawned yet. He butchered the fish, seasoning its meat with sake lees to intensify the sweetness, and he saw how much fat it still carried — a dead giveaway. So he knows how to carve it, his knife sliding on an invisible course through its body, pulling away the meat in flush, almost transparent petals.

I’d say Mr. Matsuki knows too much about the fish, but it’s not actually possible to know too much about a fish when your job is to prepare it for sushi. On a wee cushion of rice, shaped as it tumbled gently through his hands, seasoned with a dark, grain-staining vinegar, the fish is sweet and sumptuous, unreasonably delicate, verging on fragile, a marvel of a bite.

Recent meals at Ginza Onodera, and at so many other counters across the city, affirmed that despite the continuing effects of the pandemic, Los Angeles remains this country’s glorious sushi capital. It has one of the most robust sushi scenes outside of Japan, with a thrilling diversity of styles for every taste, budget and neighborhood.

These five restaurants are serving some of the best sushi in Los Angeles right now.

At Onodera, the broad array of winter seafood includes rockfish, needlefish and hairy crab.Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

In part, that’s because of its deep lineage. Los Angeles had a small sushi-ya scene in the early 1900s, but that first wave of restaurants shuttered in the 1940s when Japanese Americans were interned and forced to close their businesses.

In 1966, Noritoshi Kanai opened the city’s first çağdaş sushi bar inside Kawafuku, a restaurant in Little Tokyo. Alongside fish from Japan, Mr. Kanai sold tuna belly from Boston (fishermen still considered the cut to be utter trash) and sea urchin (an ingredient then valued by Italian immigrants, but few others) from Santa Barbara. For those put off by tuna, there was a new local invention: the California roll, made with avocado, at Ichiro Mashita’s counter not too far away.

Osho followed in 1970, strategically close to the 20th Century Fox movie studios, attracting producers and actors, expanding the food’s audience beyond the Japanese American community, enticing more ambitious sushi chefs to town.

Sushi quickly wriggled out of its immigrant status to become a novelty — the culinary accessory to a particular kind of 1980s Hollywood lifestyle — and then, slowly but surely, an inextricable part of the city’s food culture.

Now we have grocery-store sushi, pharmacy sushi, vegan sushi, fusion sushi. We have impressive caviar-punctuated omakases and dragon-roll specials so corpulent and substantially garnished that they require steak knives.

We have glamorous sushi mini-chains, and sushi counters attached to burger joints. We have cream cheese-buffered hand rolls sliced in anonymous ghost kitchens, and chirashi pop-ups inside people’s own homes. We have D.I.Y. sushi kits made with truly good seafood.

We have it all, and though most of the raw fish eaten across the country is still salmon and tuna fillets, the best sushi chefs express seasonality through a mind-boggling, shifting diversity of seafood, never fetishizing just one kind or just one cut. They know what you want, and sometimes even what you don’t yet know you want.

Throughout the year, a great sushi chef in Los Angeles might draw out the deliciousness from many kinds of squid, clams, shrimp, crabs, scallops and abalone, as well as mackerel, trout, golden-eye snapper, gizzard shad, flounder, abalone, eel, conch, octopus tentacles, sea urchin, livers, eggs and milt.

Even among chefs known for signature sushi — whether photogenic, Nobu-inspired sashimi, or uni-capped custards — the real specialty is their range.

It’s the way they fluently adapt to ingredients that change from week to week, and to customers who change from night to night. It’s the way they continuously redirect our attention away from the intensity of one pleasure, to another, and another, until the meal is suddenly and sadly over — a supercut of deliciousness, a blur.

The chef Morihiro Onadera polishes rice in-house each day, and seasons it with a dark and delicious vinegar.Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

A long line of extraordinary and stylish local chefs came up through Nobu Matsuhisa’s restaurants, which broke from Japanese sushi tradition by integrating citrus juices, oils, herbs and vegetables, as well as techniques he fine-tuned while cooking in Peru.

The brothers Tetsuya and Shunji Nakao, who helped to open Matsuhisa in 1982, each went on to open their own restaurants — Asanebo and Shunji — local institutions which in turn became training grounds for more Los Angeles sushi chefs.

Taketoshi Azumi, who runs the terrifically minimalist counter Shin Sushi, in a strip mall in Encino, first worked at Asanebo. So did Morihiro Onodera, who now runs Morihiro, a sushi bar in the Atwater Village neighborhood. He polishes the rice he imports in a small mill in the dining room each day, and starts meals with a jiggly little cube of homemade tofu, as lush and rich as an egg-yolk custard, plated in ceramic bowls he made himself. Now he has your attention, your trust.

He might move from there to a whole rainbow of gelatinous quivers and deeply flavored gloops: okra, salmon eggs in dashi, tomatoes set in jelly. At the counter, you’ll witness Mr. Onodera’s stylish cooking — the way he torches fish held on skewers until the skin releases a glimmer of fat and bubbles with char. The way the pale rice tinges brown with vinegar as it moves through his hands.

Mr. Onodera blisters skipjack tuna skin on a flame for a sashimi course.Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times
Tuna sashimi at Morihiro, in the Atwater Village neighborhood.Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

But tables set behind the counter are served their sushi courses family-style, the nigiri coming out in a couple of kaleidoscopic clusters. This isn’t a complaint — some diners can get antsy waiting for each bite to be delivered to them one by one, like baby birds.

I enjoy the waiting, though. My first meal back at a sushi counter after many months away was at Kiriko in the city’s Sawtelle neighborhood. I rested my hands on a cup of tea and watched as Ken Namba shaped my first piece of nigiri — glossy sea bream brought into focus with a flick of lemon juice, yuzu zest and sea salt.

He handed it to me without a fuss, and I ate it. It was the most ordinary interaction, but also a form of intimacy I’d almost forgotten during the pandemic. A piece of warm rice shaped in someone’s bare hands? A piece of fish barely pressed to it? I felt so cared for in that moment, so part of the world, so lucky to be at lunch here, at this restaurant, with this friend. Good sushi can do this.

“No soy sauce!” Mr. Namba called out cheerfully to two men in suits, and I wanted to cry with joy.

Like most restaurants, high-end sushi counters survived the earliest part of the pandemic by cutting all that magic away and focusing on takeout. They had to, and as a new variant spreads, they may have to again.

At Kiriko, the chef Ken Namba prepares fast-paced omakases at lunch and dinner. Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times
Steamed abalone, monkfish liver and smoked salmon with mango and caviar at Kiriko.Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

There’s no replacement for sitting across from the chef, in part because of the closeness of the interaction, even if you don’t chat. And in part because the less time between the sushi being prepared and the sushi being eaten, the better.

That said, many chefs adapted their work for takeout. Yoshiyuki Inoue of Sushi Kaneyoshi packs the most luxurious boxes, though you do have to navigate a maze inside an office building to get to them.

Up the backstairs, buzzed in by a security guard, through the parking lot, into an elevator, through a hallway. Into a different elevator, down into the basement. When you see a shiny hotel bell and a vase of flowers, you’re in the right place, and someone will eventually appear with what looks like a wrapped gift.

Mr. Inoue’s leaf-lined boxes are stunning — each piece of rice carefully nestled so it doesn’t shift or topple, each piece of fish cut perfectly and seasoned differently. Spear squid, aged and carved into a delicate frill, monkfish liver simmered to the texture of butter, six tiny lobes of uni to a single bite, dabbed with a mustard-scented dot of fresh wasabi. Some days there is baby sea bream; others, salmon roe in dashi, beltfish and herring, halibut and eel.

A deluxe nigiri box from Sushi Kaneyoshi, prepared to go, includes a wide variety of seafood.Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

The variety itself is part of the thrill — though I admit that I desperately wanted one particular piece at Sushi Takeda on repeat: a slim piece of warm, torched Japanese mackerel, its skin hatched and shimmering with rendered fat, tucked inside an envelope of crisp, smoky nori. I was tempted to ask for another, but the second it was gone, something else appeared.

What arrived happened to be one of my favorite tastes all year: Hide Takeda’s miso soup, the hot broth made rich and sweet with an infusion of crushed spot prawn shells, each sip woven through with soft, evasive threads of seaweed, the smell of it all so head-filling, so cozy.

Seiichi Yokota, a seventh-generation fisherman in Gardena, Calif., sells local seafood like rockfish, black cod and halibut to restaurants including Niki Nakayama’s magnificent kaiseki restaurant n/naka. “Consumers want cheap fish,” he said. “But fish is expensive because it’s valuable.”

A handful of boats work with Mr. Yokota, transporting their catch back to the docks in seawater tanks so he can practice ikejime, a method of killing the fish for sushi that involves one or two cuts at the base of the head. He then bleeds and guts the fish, so it’s ready to sell.

The quality of the seafood is outstanding, but for many sushi chefs in Los Angeles, local fish still isn’t valued as much as what’s imported from Japan. Mr. Yokota’s clients, he said, tend to run Italian restaurants. And selling American-caught wild seafood has only gotten harder — before the pandemic, Mr. Yokota sold about 150 pounds of fish each week. Now he’s down to 50 or 60 pounds.

He wastes no part of the catch. Since he can’t always sell the fresh livers, he often cooks them himself at home, steaming and mashing them into a pâté, or forming a fishy, buttery terrine.

The chef Hide Takeda prepares gizzard shad nigiri, in season. Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times
A particularly stunning sardine roll, or iwashi maki, at Sushi Takeda.Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

I think of Mr. Kanai, slinging sushi at 10 cents a piece in Little Tokyo in the 1960s, buying up tuna belly because no one else wanted it. And I wonder if these fresh livers could find their way onto more local menus.

Back at Ginza Onodera, Lauren Watanabe presented diners at the counter with a monster of a hairy crab — a seasonal treat in Asia, but often considered a pest here.

It had arrived live from Hokkaido, feisty and feathery-legged, and it had been simmered late this afternoon in salt water. I expected Ms. Watanabe to run it back to the kitchen after showing it off, reappearing with a bowl of meat she’d prepared earlier. But no.

As I ate that bite of rockfish on my side of the sneeze guard — standard at most sushi counters that reopened — she pulled the crab apart in a series of elegant blows and juicy crunches of exoskeleton, twisting each leg, scraping meat from claws, examining it for shell and, finally, simmering the cluster of nerves between the crab’s eyes to make kani miso, which Mr. Matsuki would use to season the crab nigiri.

A single bite. Sweet and rich, with the buttery, almost toasty tenor of just-made popcorn.

It wasn’t just the taste that moved me, but what it indicated, the startling level of skill, deva, resources and labor that went into that bite. It was also, selfishly, knowing that this could be my last restaurant meal indoors for some time. That another new and chaotic wave of the pandemic was about to hit, affecting every person along the supply chain, from the fishermen to the cooks, and everyone in between.

For now the counter seemed undisturbed — just the sound of sake burbling into a glass, a woman laughing at her boyfriend’s joke, kitchen clogs thumping the floor, the hissing spritz of hand sanitizer. The crab was gone in seconds, but I held on to the taste of it as long as I could.

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