Sushi Tsujita (Los Angeles, July 2015)

Sushi Tsujita: Tamagoyaki
Tsujita, the famous Los Angeles ramen and noodle specialists, opened four years or so ago, taking the city by storm just as the ramen craze was beginning to crest in the US. A branch of an apparently well-respected Tokyo restaurant, it has set the standard for ramen in Los Angeles (and its own branch, Tsujita Annex, opened down the street on Sawtelle not too long after). And it’s not just American ramen enthusiasts who raved about it: a few years ago when we asked Satoshi Kiyokawa (of the eponymous Kiyokawa) where he likes to eat Japanese food when he’s not in his own restaurant, he said unhesitatingly that Tsujita was the place for him.

Accordingly, there was some excitement last year when news emerged of the opening of Sushi Tsujita, a sushi-only restaurant, and strictly Edomae sushi at that, with chefs and a lot of fish imported from Japan. The enthusiasm of regular punters like myself waned a little on discovery that their omakase pricing began at $120—a slightly high price for discovering whether a restaurant lives up to its billing. On our last trip, accordingly, we stuck with Kiriko’s crazy lunch deal up the street and hit up Shunji (not too far away) for dinner omakase.

I learned since that after those early days, however, they’d begun to offer more reasonably priced lunch options with multiple inexpensive chirashi tiers as well as two lunch sushi combinations at $38 and $50 that seemed to be worthy competitors for Kiriko and Shunji’s lunch special offerings (if not served piece by piece at the bar as at those two worthies). Accordingly, we decided to try them at lunch on this trip. I was slightly deflated to be told when I called for a reservation that they’d very recently overhauled their lunch offerings and that the two sushi special options were gone. Now there were only the chirashi, nigiri a la carte and a lunch omakase at $80. When I asked what was on the omakase I was told that it included soup, 12 pieces of nigiri and some sashimi. After a little contemplation of likely value for the dollar we decided to give it a go.

Well, on the whole, it was a very good meal, with some very high highlights and no lows (or anything approaching them). But I’m not sure, finally, if I would call it good value. More on this below—first, however, here is what we were served at their lunch omakase in mid-July and a slideshow of some crappy pictures of it.

It’s a very beautiful restaurant, by the way (with free parking in the lot behind) with bamboo everywhere. Some of the publicity pictures I’d seen had made it look a little flashy but it’s actually quite elegant. The one thing I was not crazy about is how high the bar is—it’s hard to see the chefs at work (which is something we really enjoy) and the nigiri is also placed on a platter at the very top, which makes for slightly awkward retrieval in some cases with chopsticks (though I was using my fingers) and also makes it harder for assholes like me with crappy cameras and shaky hands to take decent pictures.

But to the fish!

Our chef informed us before we began that all our nigiri would be seasoned appropriately by him and that we should not think of doing anything to it before it eating it (I assume this has been an issue).

  1. Soup. A clear clam broth with seaweed. This was bloody good; far better than the usual miso soup that starts off the lunch deals at Kiriko or Shunji.
  2. Suzuki or seabass, from Nagasaki. Quite nice.
  3. Onaga or long tailed snapper, flown in from Tokyo. A new fish for me and very nice.
  4. Ishida or stone snapper, from Kageshima. Another new fish for me and also very nice.
  5. Kinmedai or golden eye snapper, from Shizuoaka. All the skin was removed and it was not seared, as it has been in all other iterations I’ve had; this was a particular highlight.
  6. Hon maguro or Spanish bluefin tuna. Quite good.
  7. Kanpachi or amberjack, also from Kageshima, I believe. The fish was great but there was just a touch too much wasabi below it.
  8. Chutoro, or medium fatty belly of bigeye tuna. Excellent (and I really wish I’d remembered to say “no bluefin”).
  9. Saba or mackerel. This was also of Japanese origin, I think, but my horrible scrawl fails me here. It was very nicely cured and very buttery.
  10. A little bowl of uni (sea urchin roe) and ikura (salmon roe) over rice. The sea urchin was from California and the roe was from Alaskan king salmon and marinated in bonito broth, soy sauce and sake. This was just decadently good and I ate it very, very slowly.
  11. A sort of open handroll featuring two strips of bluefin otoro (see mea culpa above) with scallions. A wonderful interplay of textures between the fatty fish, the crunchy scallions and the nori which was a featured player in its own right.
  12. Kohada or gizzard shad, from Chiba. This was perfectly cured and intricately presented (the only piece in the meal that was fussed over).
  13. Unagi or freshwater eel. I’m not a huge fan of unagi, having eaten one too many overly-cloying versions, but this was really quite nice.
  14. Tamagoyaki. Denser and more cake-like than any tamago I’ve had but very, very good. A very nice, sweet end to the meal.

So, as I said, a very good meal on the whole. In keeping with the Edomae style the focus was always on the fish, with no garnishes, seasonings or sauces that might distract. The uni/ikura bowl, the kinmedai and the kohada were particular highlights and everything was at least very good. I will say that at our level of sushi experience it would have been nice to have the chef draw our attention to particular distinctions between the first three white fish, and in particular between the onaga and ishida; while we liked both pieces we were hard-pressed to tell between them. The chef did warm up as we went (in a first, he presented each of us with his card at the end of the meal) and his knife work was superb throughout. There was, also, clearly a lot of Japanese fish included (and two that were completely new to us).

All of this was good and I have no doubt that the price in the abstract is justified. But while it was far better than the lunch special we had at Shunji last summer we were not sure that it was $34 better than our last lunch special at Kiriko (which also included hon maguro, chutoro, otoro and kinmedai along with Japanese scallop and aji). In fact, we added on little plates of ankimo (monkfish liver) to that lunch and still came out having paid far less than we did for this meal. And it’s not just a matter of having paid more; in fact, I would say our last $120/head splurge at Kiyokawa also felt like better “value”.

It is entirely possible that this is a matter of our having less educated/refined palates for sushi and so missing nuances of quality. It’s also true, however, that of the ten pieces of nigiri three were somewhat run of the mill fish (suzuki, saba and unagi); I fully concede that the quality of each was high but I’d be happier getting them in a 20 rather than a 10 piece omakase. Maybe that’s shallow. I was also disappointed to learn later that the uni/ikura bowl used to be included in the now defunct $38 lunch special. Knowing that doesn’t alter my enjoyment of it but does make me iffier about the value. It would hard for me to consider coming back for the cheapest $120 omakase at dinner, even as a splurge, if I wasn’t confident that it would involve a lot more fish (and somehow I doubt it does). And in case you’re wondering their lunch omakase isn’t priced any cheaper than Shunji and Kiriko’s base lunch omakases (which surely are even better than their lunch specials to which I’ve compared this meal).

In the meantime, from a distance in Minnesota, I will be curious to see how this limited lunch menu plays out. The menu is very minimalist: if I’m remembering correctly, all they have for lunch is three chirashis, nigiri by the piece (specifics not listed on the menu) and the omakase. A number of people showed up to eat the combinations, were shocked by the change and opted to go elsewhere. I can’t imagine that people who were eating those $38 and $50 combos will be happier than us with the value of the $80 lunch omakase (which was, by the way, not the 12 pieces of nigiri plus sashimi I was told it would be on the phone either—but I’d guess the menu change is so new that the staff didn’t quite have the details down).

All in all then this is one of those situations where despite having enjoyed the meal, I can’t really recommend the experience to people on our budget. Your mileage may vary.

A couple more sushi meals coming up on this trip before we return to the Minnesota wilderness.

2 thoughts on “Sushi Tsujita (Los Angeles, July 2015)

  1. responding in reference to your Chow post on Mori and your hesitating, and why I’d default to Mori, even in terms of “value”:
    first, a NB: I don’t eat maguro of any kind, so I never get any “premium” fatty pieces, which typically cuts my costs down.

    Mori dished out nigiri omakase, mostly of white fin and silver skin, at < $100 last time. I got ~14 pieces + some wee apps. At $100, for the level of the fish, and variety — seasonal cherry trout, hobo, etc.– there is literally no need for me to eat sushi anywhere else if I want a semi-middling nigiri dinner. All I did was communicate with the sushi chef and explained what I wanted.

    While I ate delicate kibinago, a white Hollywood couple/regulars sat at the bar and got California rolls. Everyone was happy, chefs were nonplussed either way. Shunji is/was darling, but this was a whole 'nother level.

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    • Hi Tony: thanks for that—it’s very good to know. So much of the chatter (at least on Chowhound) around high-end sushi seems almost designed to make it seem inaccessible to people not comfortable dropping several hundred dollars/head once or twice a week: even if you drop the money you won’t get good/interesting fish unless you’re known or can communicate a secret code etc.. I think we probably will try out Mori on our next trip (maybe in December) and will follow your example.

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