On our last two trips to Los Angeles we’ve done a big, expensive sushi omakase at Mori. On this trip we decided not to spend most of our sushi money on one meal and instead spread it around a bit more. Accordingly, we hit up Osawa a couple of days after we arrived; the plan after that was to go back for Kiriko’s lunch omakase and then see if we could find an acceptable budget place somewhere between Koreatown and downtown. The latter plan came to a bad end—more on this in a couple of weeks—and as it happens, we didn’t end up going to Kiriko either. Instead, we ended up at Shiki in Beverly Hills. I’d read accounts of their lunch omakase that sounded quite appealing and we decided we’d give a new place a go. And we were very glad we did. In the process I also ended up with my first and probably last ever bit of restaurant breaking news: the return of one of Los Angeles’ sushi legends to the sushi bar.
Let me get the breaking news (already old hat) out of the way first. As we were chatting with our personable sushi chef, Jun-san, our meals at Mori came up. He perked up and said, oh Mori-san is here now. This was a shocker. Chef Mori Onodera made waves some 6-7 years ago when he sold his eponymous restaurant to his protege Chef Masu and retired to grow rice and make pottery. Despite his departure, Mori remained in the minds of most of Los Angeles’ sushi mavens the top pure sushi bar in town. To find him suddenly behind the bar of another restaurant was a surprise, putting it mildly. Jun-san noted that Mori-san had been there for a few months and that he was a great teacher. He then asked if we wanted to say hi. Now, we’d never eaten at Mori when Mori-san was there but we couldn’t pass up the chance. He came over and we chatted for a bit. He said he’d thought he was done with making sushi forever but eventually felt the call and decided to come back.
His role at Shiki didn’t seem entirely clear. Jun-san indicated that he was a great teacher and that he was also in charge of their rice—though it’s not yet rice entirely of his choosing. He seemed to be making some of the grilled fish while we were there. I mentioned this encounter on Food Talk Central’s Los Angeles forum right after the meal and within a day a member had made a reservation to do an omakase with Mori-san! A day later so had someone else. From both these reports it emerged that Mori-san had been lured out of retirement by an old friend who is now working at Shiki via the appeal of working together again now that they’re older. Mori-san encouraged us while we were there to come back for an omakase with him and on our next trip we’ll probably take him up on it.
Alas, Mori-san’s return does not seem to have been good news for Shiki’s existing head chef, Shigenori Fujimoto. He was still there at our meal but as of this month he’s gone. I assume Mori-san, who seemed to be playing more of a roving role at the end of December, is now in charge of the higher-end omakases (for which Shiki has a separate bar).
But with this now-stale news out of the way, on to the restaurant itself and our meal.
Shiki is located on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills (and are unrelated to Shiki Sushi who have locations in Glendale and Studio City). The neighbourhood is as Beverly Hills as you could not want. Luckily, there’s a parking lot pretty much opposite that has free two hour parking and so we did not have to pay extortionate valet fees. We were there for lunch on a Thursday and the restaurant was not very busy. It’s an attractive space—though not very bright on the inside—and rather large. There are two sushi counters—one seems, as I noted, reserved for bigger ticket omakases—and a very large kitchen beyond. At lunch they offer a number of small omakase options: one at $40 that features a few cooked dishes, 5 pieces of nigiri, miso soup and dessert; one at $60 that adds five more pieces of nigiri; and another at $60 that subs wagyu for the raw fish. We opted for the $60 sushi version.
We first had a quick chat with the sushi chef to establish the parameters of the meal. No bluefin, we said. Oh, he said, because of concerns about mercury? No, we said, on account of not wanting to eat very endangered fish. As at Mori, this seemed like something they don’t hear everyday but he was not put out. The meal did not begin with sushi, however. The first course was a little fried “spring roll” of rockfish and shrimp on a tomato salad with ponzu dressing. Served in a cocktail glass this was a nice start. Next up was a bowl with simmered winter vegetables in dashi, topped with seared albacore. Very good as well. Then a piece of black cod marinated in saikyo miso, grilled and served on a lettuce cup. Then began the mini-parade of fish, with a pause after the third piece for miso soup (the missus opted for the version with clams, I opted for the version with nameko mushrooms). As we were nearing the end the chef asked if we wanted to add anything on—we did and so he held the hand roll and tamago from the set omakase for the end. At the very end came what they call a “one-bite dessert”, though it took more than two to eat it.
Details on the nigiri portion of the meal (asterisked pieces were added on by us):
- Tai: Sea bream.
- Buri: Wild yellowtail (Japanese amberjack).
- Salmon: From New Zealand.
- Kanpachi: Also in the amberjack family.
- Kinmedai: Alfonsino/Goldeneye Snapper. This was very lightly seared.
- Aji: Japanese horse mackerel.
- Ika: Squid, intricately scored.
- Hotate: Japanese scallop with a light dusting of yuzu peel.
- Uni: Sea urchin roe/gonads from Santa Barbara.
- Kohada*: Gizzard shad.
- Nodoguro*: Blackthroat perch.
- Ikura*: Salmon roe (I was the only one who got this). Alaskan, I think he said.
- Blue crab handroll: Just excellent.
- Tamago: Also excellent.
Apart from the salmon, the ikura and the uni, all the fish was Japanese.
For pictures of the restaurant and the food, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on price and the rest of the experience.
The fish was all of very high quality and the knife work—to the extent I am able to judge these things—was very adroit as well. It was the rice that was not at the level of a place like Mori—though this may change with Mori-san now firmly ensconced there. Our favourite pieces were the buri, the hotate, the uni, the kohada and the nodoguro. The handroll was very good too—and a world away from Osawa’s version, which was tasty but much heavier on the mayo.
So, value. If we’d stuck with just the $60 omakase we would have ended up at roughly $155 with tax and tip and that would have been a very good value for the quantity and quality of the meal. The add-ons took us to a grand total of about $205. If that seems a lot for five more pieces of fish, consider that the nodoguro turned out to be $20 for two pieces—more expensive than toro! I guess I should have looked more closely at the menu. Speaking of which, you can choose to go completely a la carte and I think you can also do a more elaborate omakase at lunch if you so choose. Considering the nodoguro was not part of the set omakase I’m not sure what was subbed in for bluefin. I expect there would normally have been a piece of chutoro and possibly another piece of akami. If you’re still not opposed to eating bluefin I guess the meal might be an even better value for the money.
Well, I think we’ll be back on our next trip and if Mori-san hasn’t retired again before then we’ll try to sit with him and see if we can do a nigiri-only omakase with him in the $100-120 range (their full-on omakase with cooked dishes is even more expensive than the analogues at Mori or Shunji). But we will not be disappointed if we end up with Jun-san again. He was friendly and talkative and informative.
I do wonder what Mori-san’s return means for the high-end sushi market in Los Angeles. I have to think that Mori will lose some business to Shiki now that the man whose name is on their restaurant is slicing fish there. Will they still be able to feature his rice if he’s at a competing restaurant? And where will Shige-san end up? I’ll look to those who actually live in Los Angeles for news on all this as it develops.
I love that a chef can come on board to be ‘in charge of their rice’ – obviously of crucial importance in a sushi restaurant but indicative of the compartmentalised, kai-zen approach of Japan in general. Do you think Western cuisine could ever match such elevation of a humble component? Taking 20 years to master French fries? Or an intensive five-year apprenticeship in burger bun toasting?
It is slightly surprising that Jun-san doesn’t hear concerns around Bluefin more often; it’s a shame that mercury contamination should be more of a concern to the wider public than removing an apex predator from the ocean. Anyone interested in this cuisine-driven ecological catastrophe should read the relevant sections in Dan Barber’s ‘The Third Plate’ or ‘Four Fish’ by Paul Greenberg.
At all the serious sushi places we’ve eaten at we’ve been told by the chefs that sushi is 60-70% about the rice. The most revelatory thing about our first meal at Mori was indeed the quality of their rice.
The bluefin thing is difficult. You’d think that in Los Angeles of all places the clientele would be motivated by this concern. Certainly, high profile American seafood chefs like Michael Cimarusti have tried to raise awareness. I’ve raised the issue in a couple of food forums. On both people have said, more or less exactly, “if I don’t eat it someone else will”. I’ve also heard the more complicated argument that in reality the situation is dire for almost all wild fisheries and that rather than singling out bluefin tuna, concerned people should just stop eating sushi altogether. I’m not sure how accurate this argument’s description of things is. At any rate, tuna was never one of our favourite fish for sushi—we much prefer silvery and white fish and shellfish in general, and for sensual pleasure I’ll take uni over toro every day of the week; and so it’s not been much of a sacrifice for us.
Watching sushi chefs in Tokyo preparing nigiri and the lightness of touch was something else – and the rice was sublime! It’s the supreme attention required to move rice from being merely good to extraordinary, though: so much experience and care for something that is gone in a mouthful.
I would think that in Pacific coast California conservation would be slightly more top of mind. When I was in Japan I visited the Tsukiji Fish Market, where the bluefin auctions take place each morning for restaurants in the Tokyo Bay area. The tonnage of tuna was baffling but you’re right to point to all the other edible fish being pulled from the sea. Merely promoting other fish over bluefin shifts the threat of depletion to different species rather than tackling the over-fishing problem directly.
I think it’s Greenberg’s book that discusses how the taste for tuna in Japan is in fact very recent: tuna was always considered too fatty and heavy for sushi until roughly the 1960s. Hitherto it was the ‘silvery and white’ that held sway.
Wow, great to see your request of no bluefin both made explicit in your review and received in stride! I wish more bloggers would do the same – it is very helpful to know if a sushi chef will be offended or understand any special requests like that. Props