Kiyokawa (Los Angeles, July/August 2014)

bigeyetuna1We’ve been going to Kiyokawa to celebrate our wedding anniversary for a few years now. It’s true that we already ate an excellent celebratory dinner this year at Piccolo (in Minneapolis) but tradition is not something to be messed with. Therefore after a pretty good but not particularly exciting lunch at Shunji earlier this trip we repaired to Kiyokawa last week for what turned out to be a pretty epic sushi omakase.

There are a number of things that distinguish Kiyokawa from their peers in the upper echelons of the Los Angeles sushi scene. There’s the whimsical approach to platings (seen most clearly in their kaiseki omakase meals); their live sea urchin; being open on Mondays; the ageless Satoshi Kiyokawa’s friendly and relaxed demeanour etc.. The one that I want to note here though is that their menu clearly lists the price of their omakase and what you are going to get for it. This summer the price for the sushi omakase at lunch is $120 and you are told that you will get 18 pieces of nigiri plus a handroll plus two desserts. This is in stark contrast to pretty much every other place where to opt for the “market price” omakase is to not really know how much you will get till the meal is done, or how much you will pay till the check arrives—which is fine for very wealthy people to whom money is no object, but a little intimidating for middle class people making the occasional splurge. So I appreciate it.

I also appreciate very much what Kiyokawa’s menu does not tell you but which we have come to expect: that you will receive fish of the highest quality, that none of it will be pedestrian and that great attention will be lavished on every cut—from seasonings to presentation to pairings of fish. And this last point is an important one for people like us who’ve had a decent amount of sushi in our time but are still learning about it. No piece of nigiri comes out by itself: you might get some that are part of a serving of similar or related fish—which allows you to mark distinctions/progressions between them; or you might get the same fish seasoned in two different ways bringing out different qualities. It’s a wonderful gastronomic experience, a wonderful aesthetic/visual experience and a very educational experience.

Kiyokawa is not very busy at lunch (they must be packing it in at dinner given rent in Beverly Hills) and if sushi is what you want, I think lunch is the time to go. Be aware though that you need to plan for a long lunch; ours ran almost two hours. If you sit at the bar you will have Chef Kiyokawa to yourself for the most part and he’s a pleasure to talk to—about fish and other things too. Watching him in action, as I mentioned in my review last year, is quite entertaining too—he has a very mannered, ritualized approach to making nigiri.

And so, on to the fish! (Click on an image below to launch a slideshow with larger pictures and complete captions.)

A wonderful meal all around and taken from beginning to end, the best overall sushi experience I’ve had. I should add that the live uni is not part of the omakase; he subbed it in for us as he knows we look forward to eating it each year (and when the bill came we learned that they’d not charged us a supplement for the substitution). Other than the live uni I thought the following were standouts: kurodai, hotate, both iterations of the Spanish mackerel, the bigeye tuna, the albacore, the kanpachi, the king salmon, the ocean trout and the chu-toro. But there wasn’t a single piece of fish that wasn’t at least very good. And the desserts were great too. Frankly, for the price I don’t think you can do better in this city. We’ll be back again next year.

A quick note before I go: while Jonathan Gold consistently rates Kiyokawa highly, L.A foodies, at least as represented on Chowhound and the blogs I’ve seen, don’t seem to hold it in equal esteem. Now, I’ve not eaten at all of the top L.A places but I suspect, based on some of the things I’ve read, that Chef Kiyokawa is held in some suspicion because of his aforementioned playful platings (see some of the pictures from our last full-on omakase meal) and some of his non-traditional flourishes/garnishes*. I have a suspicion that some subset of American sushi enthusiasts have an image in mind of a type of austere sushi chef who serves high quality fish in a simple, no-nonsense, even gruff manner. Both in his personal presentation (see the picture in which he is melting the truffle butter) and in the way he presents his fish Chef Kiyokawa doesn’t fit that description. But the fish itself is serious as is his attention to detail (as I said, he even grates fresh wasabi specifically for each piece of nigiri he serves). And whatever your expectations of a Japanese sushi chef might be, the exquisite, whimsical, (almost Rococo at times) miniaturist aesthetic he deploys is very Japanese as well. The food is a pleasure to look at as well as to eat, and if you feel the first pleasure detracts from the second, well then, that’s just too bad.

*To be fair, I’ve seen some references to complaints about the rice at Kiyokawa; my own sushi pleasure is so fish-focused I don’t quite care so much about the rice (it’s certainly not bad).

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