It’s been a bit of a tradition for us to eat lunch at Kiyokawa on our summer trips to L.A. Our first meal there was on our anniversary and even though we’ve always been back a month or so past our anniversary on subsequent trips we’ve always considered it our anniversary meal. Imagine our disappointment then on rolling up to their door three weeks ago and being told that they’re now dinner-only. There was also a sign on the window marking the transfer of their liquor license to a new owner. As the door was open I asked the staff member behind the bar if Satoshi Kiyokawa was still in charge of the food; he assured me he is and that the ownership change hasn’t changed anything else. (I assume this is why they may have left the door open when not in fact open: to reassure people who may ask that Kiyokawa is still Kiyokawa.) A big disappointment for us as it was not possible to eat dinner on this trip (I left the next day and had plans to meet Michael K. for dinner elsewhere that night). Still, if anyone has eaten at Kiyokawa since the change and can reassure me further please write in below.
I have begun with this mini-saga of Kiyokawa to explain why we ended up at the Beverly Hills outpost of Sasabune. We’d left home for sushi and being thwarted by Kiyokawa needed to eat sushi somewhere else in the relative vicinity. We didn’t want to go back so soon to Sushi Sushi and we certainly didn’t want to go to Crazy Fish. The options were to go to two standbys from back when we lived in the neighbourhood and hadn’t yet leveled up sushi-wise (Minori and Hirozen) or to try some place new that was likely to be better. And so we ended up at Sasabune, Beverly Hills. It seemed like a safe enough bet given the reputation of the original/mothership Sasabune (which started out on Sawtelle and is now on Wilshire) for old-style rigour: surely the guy who was begat by Nozawa wouldn’t open a branch that wasn’t rock solid.
And…on the whole, we’d probably have been better off at Minori, where we could at least have fed our nostalgia as well. It’s not that it was a bad meal; it’s that it was a blah meal—the fish was all acceptable but none of it was very much better than acceptable—and the experience had all the charm of eating in a cafeteria. This is not because it’s an ugly restaurant; far from it. It’s bright (with lots of sunlight streaming in from skylights), and stylish enough. No, the cafeteria feel comes from the frenzied nature of the activity behind the sushi bar where there was an endless bustle, between the chefs and their assistants and people going in and out of the hot kitchen which opens directly into it.
This bustle is due to the fact that their lunch specials are clearly very popular with people from nearby businesses. And there is quite literally an assembly line going at full speed to give it to them. All the fish to be served for lunch seemed to be already sliced—I am pretty sure I did not see any of the chefs slice a single piece of fish in the hour we were there. Each chef was working with an assistant. The assistant would shape the rice, the chef would place the fish on it and then pass it back to the assistant who would season it further, put it on a plate and pass it back to the chef who would then give it to us. There wasn’t a single piece that the chef serving us put together completely for us. In between courses the assistants were preparing vast quantities of one of the lightly broiled pieces that arrived towards the end of the meal. It was all more than a little soulless and antiseptic.
Now I’m not faulting them for running a very efficient operation and I don’t mean to fault them for not being something they may not mean to be. They get a lot of business at lunch (they were completely full) and they feed it very fast. The problem from a service standpoint is that the experience at the bar is anything but personal (the chefs were barely interacting with anyone) and it all felt very hectic. (Of course, it may be a different story at dinner. If you know that to be so, please write in below.)
The other problem is that the fish was, as I said, all just okay. While Sasabune, Beverly Hills may not be the place to go to for the best fish, I was still expecting better given the reputation of the name (even if the reputation is a little worn these days and no one would put even the mothership anywhere near the top tier of L.A’s sushi scene—unless you trust to Thrillist, that is). Given what we ate, and the overall experience, their famous slogan, “Trust me” and the insistent “No California Roll, No Spicy Tuna Roll” etc. feel even more like shtick. Our experience was not one that even the satellite location of one of the notorious OG sushi-nazis should be giving anyone; and if it is giving people that experience it should be fine giving them California rolls as well.
What did we eat? They have three tiers of omakase at lunch: “matsu” ($75), “take” ($65″) and “ume” ($40). We got the “ume” which features albacore sashimi and miso soup to start, followed by seven pieces of nigiri, a handroll and a dessert. The next level adds on a “oyster and mussel trio” to start and three extra pieces of nigiri (or two if you get the live shrimp) and the highest level adds on to that the guarantee of uni and live shrimp among the 10 pieces of nigiri.
This is what the “ume” omakase comprised in late July (a slideshow of images follows):
- Completely unremarkable miso soup to start.
- Albacore sashimi: quite nice and gave us hope that we’d made a good choice.
- Katsuo (Bonito/Skipjack): also quite nice.
- Tai (Snapper): Served with the katsuo and cold and completely pedestrian. By the way, I’d said “no bluefin” and the chef misunderstood and thought that request was only for me: he served the missus bluefin at this point; snapper didn’t seem like fair value as a trade-off.
- “Skipjack”: I put it in quotes because while that’s what he said it was, it looked nothing like the previous piece or any other bonito/skipjack I’ve had before. “Bonito?”, I asked, and he nodded; “Like the other one?”, I followed and he nodded again and walked away. Is there such a thing as white meat bonito? I look to the sushi-gurus here for guidance (see the picture in the slideshow).
- Hirame (Halibut): Served with the “skipjack”. The fish was as cold as the rice was warm and it was generally as free of character as I am.
- Hamachi (Yellowtail): Decent but no better than you’d get at most neighbourhood sushi places in L.A.
- Sake (Salmon): Served with the yellowtail. Absolutely dead: no flavour whatsoever (at least, no off-flavours).
- Gindara (Black Cod): This was broiled and done in the way that unagi usually is and was pretty good. Probably the best piece in the meal.
- Hotate (Scallop): With a bit of yuzu over the top; far from the best I’ve had but not bad at all.
- Ikura (Salmon Roe): Fine.
- Uni (Sea Urchin Roe): Unobjectionable.
- Blue Crab Hand Roll: There were a number of options for the handroll and we both chose the crab. It was decent.
- Lychee Sorbet: This was very nice indeed.
Pieces 10-12 (the hotate, ikura and uni) were not part of the set omakase; I asked for them to be added on before we got to the hand roll and dessert.
More comments after the slideshow (the meal may have been blah but thanks to the ample natural light inside the restaurant my camera did far better than it usually does at sushi meals).
All of this came to $120 for the two of us with tax and tip. Keep in mind that the three added on pieces were just for me (the missus was unimpressed enough by what had gone before that she didn’t want to take a chance). Based on what we ate, I think it was a good decision to not get one of the higher price omakases: maybe there’d be more interesting fish, but I saw no evidence that the quality of that fish would be high.
And so I would suggest that if you’re in the neighbourhood you should go to Sushi Sushi and get one of their sushi combinations. It won’t be served piece by piece at the bar but it’ll be a nicer experience than sitting at the bar at Sasabune, Beverly Hills. Or go sit at the bar at Minori (Robertson, right at Pico) and let me know what it’s like now (it’s been a few years for us). The sad thing, however, is that Sasabune, Beverly Hills would be the best sushi restaurant in the Twin Cities metro area by a vast distance. I feel comfortable saying this because right after coming back I ate dinners at Sushi Fix and Kyatchi, both of which show up at the top of most people’s lists these days. More on those meals very soon.