My first restaurant review of 2015 was of a dinner omakase at Shunji and so it seems fitting that my last restaurant review of the year is of an omakase meal at Mori. Shunji, Mori and perhaps Zo are the three sushi bars that are likely to be near the top of most Los Angeles sushi aficionados’ lists—though some make the case as well for the recently opened Q, and some for the far less classical Kiriko . (I’m not counting Urasawa here both because the base experience there costs several hundred percent more and because it’s known as much, if not more, for its kaiseki dishes as for its sushi per se.)
I’ve wanted to try Mori and Zo for some time now but balked for a number of reasons: the likely cost seemed very high (though it’s very hard to figure out from most reports of meals at L.A.’s sushi places what the cost might be); the atmosphere was always made out to seem intimidating, if not outright forbidding; true appreciation of what they do seemed to require much greater experience than we have. Well, it may well be the case that all of this is true at Zo but I am here to tell you that a) Mori is no more expensive than Shunji, Kiyokawa, Kiriko or Sushi Tsujita; b) it’s a wonderfully welcoming place; and c) even relative novices such as ourselves were able to tell the nuances that, in our opinion, lifted what we were served above all the other sushi meals we’ve had so far in Los Angeles.
Before I get to what we ate, and what it was about it that put it at the top of our own list, let me first further clarify my first clarification above: I am in no way suggesting that Mori is cheap or even affordable (for middle-class diners like us). It is expensive. At dinner, the omakase experience begins at $100/head before tax and tip and before you have anything to drink. All I mean to say is that this does not make it more expensive than its peers: this is more or less the same price as at Shunji, Sushi Tsujita, Kiriko and Kiyokawa; and nor is it the case that you pay $100 or more for not very much fish: as you will see below, we were given quite a lot of fish, almost all of it Japanese in origin. The cheapest omakase at dinner (the $100 version) we were told serves up 15-17 pieces of nigiri; the lunch omakase is $80 and serves 15 pieces of nigiri (compare to our lunch at Sushi Tsujita). It’s the “market price” omakases that make those on less carefree budgets nervous. We got the “premium” nigiri omakase and asked for it to be kept at $130/head or below. As it happens, what we ate came in at $140/head before tax and tip and we did not have anything to drink. So not cheap at all (it was a meal celebrating a promotion for my wife) but there were also two cheaper options we passed on; at any rate (ha ha!), price is not the reason to go to any of the aforementioned over Mori.
Nor is the sushi. The fish was uniformly excellent, some of it was revelatory (more on this below and in the slideshow). Also revelatory was the quality of the rice. Now, I must admit that in the past I have been somewhat skeptical when some of the sushi cognoscenti have gone on about the rice at Mori: all I want from my rice at sushi, I said to myself, is that it not detract from the fish, which is what I’m there for. But man, at Mori the rice doesn’t just not detract from the fish, it announces its own quality. My wife, who has minimal interest in foodie goings-on (and has never, not once, looked at my blog) turned to me after the third piece of nigiri and said, “the rice here is really good”. Our chef informed us that they get special brown rice that they polish themselves and that they’re very particular about the temperature at which it is served (above room temperature). As for the source of the brown rice, it comes to them from Uruguay, where it is grown by a concern owned by the original owner-chef of Mori, the man whose name adorns the restaurant (he sold it to current head chef, Masanori Nagano in 2011). Mori himself has apparently retired to focus on his pottery—all the ceramic pieces in the restaurant, I believe, are made by him.
This classicist attention to detail and craft is echoed in the approach to the fish. In most cases nothing went into the preparation other than a bit of freshly grated wasabi and a slight smear of nikiri. A few pieces had lemon juice or grated yuzu peel or sea salt drizzled on, a few pieces had been marinated, a few pieces were lightly charred, but that was pretty much it: no spectacular garnishes or accompaniments, no baroque scoring of fish, no blow torches. To that last point: all the charring, we were told, was done with a very light hand via a heated steel mesh—this we were told after we asked our chef how it is they got the char on their fish to be so much more delicate and refined than we’d had anywhere else. (By the way, he also told us that in his opinion sushi is 60% about the rice, 25% about the fish and 15% about the skill of the chef.)
Okay, on to what we were served! Where not specified the fish is Japanese. You will not see any bluefin tuna mentioned because we asked that it not be included—appearances would suggest that this is still an unusual request in L.A.: both our chef and the head chef seemed a little surprised by the request and I had to explain that it wasn’t because we don’t like bluefin tuna and that we would happily eat bigeye if they had it (which they did).
(More details on the fish and preparations are in the captions to the slideshow below.)
- A small cube of house-made tofu with wasabi and seasoned soy sauce.
- Kurodai or black sea bream.
- Sayori or needlefish.
- Hotate or scallop.
- Wild tai/red snapper prepared kobujime (see the slideshow for details).
- Sawara or king mackerel.
- Tasmanian ocean trout.
- Buri or wild yellowtail.
- Mirugai or giant clam.
- Chutoro of bigeye tuna.
- Kohada or gizzard shad.
- Kamasu or barracuda.
- Saba or mackerel.
- Cuttlefish—this, the most intricately worked-on piece we got, is the only one I tragically forgot to photograph before popping in my mouth.
- Kinmedai or goldeneye snapper.
- Santa Barbara murasaki uni or sea urchin roe
- Bafun uni from Hokkaido.
- Kuruma ebi or Japanese imperial/tiger prawn
- Nodoguro or black throat perch.
- Ikura or salmon roe.
- Anago or sea eel.
- Handroll of marinated bigeye tuna.
- Handroll of lightly spiced cod roe.
- Tamago or “omlette”, two ways.
- Dessert: warm sweet red bean soup with house-made mochi, and house-made tofu mousse.
What remains to be said? Ah yes, a note on the atmosphere.
Reports I had gotten about Mori over the years had suggested that the rigour with which they approach the sushi carried over into the general demeanour of the sushi chefs and their interaction with customers, especially those not known to the house. Now, I have no way of knowing if our being regulars would have led to more esoteric fish being served to us but I have a tough time imagining how they could have been any friendlier to people who not only were there for the first time but who, living as we do in a different state (which was established in the first minute of introductions) are never going to be regulars. Our chef, Yoshi Inoue, was friendly, chatty, funny. He practiced his Korean on my wife; we chatted about the state of Japanese, Korean and Indian food in the US and about cooking in general; he was very patient with my photography (though he did take evil pleasure in my forgetting to photograph the cuttlefish; he waited till I put it in my mouth to tell me gleefully that I’d forgotten); and he gave us the desserts—which he’d made himself—on the house. And it wasn’t just him: the head chef and the other sushi chef came out to the bar a number of times (it was a very slow night) and chatted with us too. Maybe under the original ownership this was a forbidding temple of sushi; it’s anything but now.
Still, I’m not sure that we would have fully appreciated Mori even a year ago. As I’ve suggested above, some of what made them stand out is nuances and subtle distinctions from the ways in which the other top-tier places we’ve eaten at do some things; and I think it’s taken eating a decent amount of high-quality fish to appreciate what outstanding rice does for that fish (though I’m still not convinced by Chef Yoshi’s 65/25/15 ratio of importance). Your mileage may well vary. I think we will likely be back in the summer but next time we’ll probably try the lunch omakase at about half the price.