Shunji (Los Angeles, July/August 2014)

kamatoroShunji has been making some waves in the Los Angeles sushi scene for the last couple of years. It has a highly unlikely location: in the refurbished Chili Bowl/Mr. Cecil’s on Pico/Wellesley in West L.a, in the shadow of the Santa Monica freeway, right next to a hardware store and across from an adult bookstore. It’s quite nice on the redone inside though, and the owner/head chef, Shunji Nakao has some serious cred: he was one of the original chefs at Matsuhisa in its heyday and previously helmed Asanebo. His eponymous Shunji is an altogether more modest affair: a two-chef counter with not much room to spare, some tables and a very distinctly non-Temple of Sushi vibe.

They are known for their more elaborate omakase dinners, which involve more elaborate cooked dishes along with sushi and sashimi, but as of last fall have opened for lunch as well with only sushi on offer. This sushi can be ordered a la carte, as one of two lunch special sets (a smaller one for $23 and a larger one for $40) and as market price omakase. As this was our first trip there we decided to stick with the “premium” lunch special at $40. This lunch special, by the way, takes dead aim at Kiriko’s crazy lunch special omakase (also $40) and offers even more: where Kiriko gives you miso soup and salad, nine pieces of nigiri and a hand roll, Shunji’s special offers miso soup, 12 pieces of nigiri and a hand roll.

So it seems like an even better deal on paper, but as it happens, we ended up deciding that Kiriko’s is the better deal. This because while the sushi at Shunji is indeed of a very high quality, what’s on offer for the lunch special is fairly basic, both in terms of the fish (for the most part) and the approach to it. Also, when they open (at noon) the sushi chefs (Chef Nakao and a younger chef) come out and pre-slice large amounts of sushi for almost the entire lunch service. I doubt this affects the quality of the fish too much, given the speed of service, but it makes the omakase experience feel more mechanical than I’d like. But the fish, as I say, was very good. You can also get the lunch specials at the tables, by the way, but then it comes all at once. And if you want to sit at the counter you should call ahead, even for weekday lunch—we called an hour before the restaurant opened and got the last two seats.

This is what we were given (late July), with Japanese names when I know them:

    1. Halibut/Hirame
    2. Red Snapper/Tai
    3. Black Sea Bream/Kurodai
    4. White Snapper
    5. Bluefin Tuna/Maguro
    6. Rainbow Yellowtail/Hiramasa
    7. Albacore
    8. Opaleye
    9. Scottish Salmon/Sake
    10. Chutoro (Medium Fatty Tuna Belly)
    11. Japanese Scallop/Hotate
    12. Salmon Roe/Ikura
    13. Tuna Handroll

To this we added (on account of greed and envy sparked by seeing some being served to our neighbours at the counter):

  1. Otoro/Ultra Fatty Tuna Belly
  2. Kama “Toro” (not belly at all but the flesh from the collar area)

The bonus otoro and the kama “toro” were both great. Standouts from the prix fixe omakase included the scallop (perfectly sweet), the chutoro, the Scottish salmon, the albacore (with a lovely topping of a ponzu-based sauce over shredded daikon) and the opaleye (a fish I don’t believe I’ve eaten before). As you can see, the first half of the omakase did not have anything that we thought was particularly out of the ordinary. And, unlike at Kiriko, nothing included in this lunch special had any kind of extra flourish added to it. This is not to say that we were disappointed with the meal; far from it. It is only to say that if you compare the two lunch specials you should look not only at the number of pieces you get for $40 (three more at Shunji) but also at the fish itself (both our lunch omakases at Kiriko last year included both chutoro and otoro) and at the preparations of the fish. Kiriko’s lunch special feels like a real omakase, at Shunji we felt very much like we were getting a good deal.

But, as I keep saying, the fish itself was very good and we would certainly recommend it. And the full-on omakase (starting around $75/head at lunch) is probably a very different experience, as certainly dinner must be (see here for a description of a full-on dinner omakase from someone with a better camera and deeper bank balance than mine). But if you’re looking for a good lunch experience, Kiriko should probably still be your first option.

Here are some pictures—as some of them were rather blurry not everything we ate is pictured.

Along with our double toro add-on this came to about $160 with tax and tip. (Yes, the two pieces of toro at the end were half as expensive as the rest of the meal.) So, $80/head all-in for 14 pieces of nigiri (with a few super/premium pieces among them) plus a hand roll and miso soup. Not bad at all for the quality.

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