Here finally is my last meal report from our trip to Southern California in late-December. Somewhat improbably, I have wrapped up all these reports in less than two months from the end of the trip (you can find all the others here). We had a lot of good restaurant food on this trip but this dinner, eaten on our penultimate night, may have been the true highlight. In this I suppose it follows the pattern of most of our recent trips to Los Angeles: we typically eat one expensive sushi meal as the splurge on the trip. After this trip, however, I’m not sure that this will always be the norm for us going forward. This is not because our dinner at Sushi Takeda was bad; far from it—it was in fact excellent. But the rapidly intensifying price race in the high end of the sushi market in Los Angeles makes it unlikely we’ll be able to continue to partake of it.
I had already been musing about all of this when a New York Times article on sushi in Los Angeles came out on January 4, almost exactly a week after our dinner at Sushi Takeda (which is featured prominently in that article). Tejal Rao’s survey of LA sushi—in terms of both history and geography—is a good read even though it has some odd gaps: for example, one of LA’s most influential and important (and still essential) sushi restaurants, Mori Sushi, is not even mentioned despite several of its alumni—including its namesake original chef—being featured elsewhere in the essay; the entire Nozawa school—a very LA institution—is also left out of the story.
The bigger gap though in the story—and one that I am myself also implicated in as a small time sushi connoisseur—is that even though it purports to be a story about Los Angeles “glorious sprawl of sushi”, it focuses almost entirely on the high end, on temples of sushi. One might in fact argue that in this part of the market Los Angeles is still far behind New York, San Francisco or even the best in Honolulu (I have not eaten at the high end in those cities so cannot offer a personal assessment). I suspect that the true significance of Los Angeles’s sushi scene lies in the middle of the market where quality is very high relative to price, especially at lunch—and which is accessible to a far greater number of Angelenos. See, for example, places like Nozomi where you can get out for a fraction of the price you’d pay at the very high end while still eating very good fish. Places like this abound in Los Angeles. But they don’t seem to get talked about in the serious sushi conversation which is all centered on places that are increasingly out of reach of all but the very rich.
Now, of course, high-end sushi has always been very expensive. But it was not too long ago that many of the high-end places represented very good value for the fish lover compared to high-end European/New American restaurants. This is why we always picked a meal at Kiyokawa or Mori or Shunji over going to a place like Providence (for example). Now it’s a very different story. In December 2018 we paid $110/head for an excellent nigiri omakase at Shin Sushi. A Michelin star later, you’d now pay 1.5-2x as much. At Mori in 2016 the nigiri omakase was priced at $160/head for 27 courses. At Takeda in 2022 you’ll pay $140 for 12 pieces of nigiri and 2-3 small plates. At Kaneyoshi—the newest sensation, featuring Chef Yoshi who made our first dinner at Mori so memorable—the baseline tariff for the omakase (featuring cooked dishes as well) is $300; Takeda’s analogous signature omakase is at $280. Sushi I-Naba in Manhattan Beach, which was once a reasonably priced alternative to the big names in LA proper, is reopening in Torrance with an omakase starting at $280 per head. Compared to all this Providence’s $250/head tasting menu is looking like a better and better value for a splurge meal.
Meanwhile, as I say, very good fish can still be found at non-nose bleed prices in Los Angeles and on our next trip it’s likely we’ll eat far more of that for as much or less than we’d spend on a single meal at the high-end (and that’s without even eating the more expensive omakase options) and save our splurge money for a different category. If that does end up being the case we’ll at least have exited on a high note with this dinner at Takeda.
We booked dinner for a Tuesday night just a few days earlier and all that was available was the nigiri omakase at the 8 pm seating (we paid ahead of time for the omakase for two plus service charge and tax). Coming from Seal Beach there’s no way we would have made the 6 pm seating for the signature omakase anyway, even if we’d wanted to pay that much higher price. We learned when we sat down that Chef Hide Takeda only runs the signature omakase seating at 6 pm. The 8 pm nigiri omakase is run by the younger chef. This was a bit disappointing both because it’s always good to sit in front of the master and because we’d eaten with Chef Takeda at our lunch at Sushi Tsujita many years ago (which is where he’d worked before opening Sushi Takeda in 2021) and were curious to see if he’d remember us (the memories of sushi chefs are quite amazing). But as things got going we very much enjoyed sitting with the younger chef and chatting more and more with him as fewer and fewer people remained.
The restaurant was not easy to find, by the way. It’s on the the third floor of Weller Court in Little Tokyo but as of late-December had no signage of any kind. If that’s still the case, do what we did: walk around looking for a space without a sign that looks like it might house an austere sushi bar. Using this method we found it easily enough. It’s a small space. The main room has a bar that seats eight and two four-top tables. Another room off to the side has a few more small tables. Most of the action this evening was at the bar. Only one table was occupied while we were there.
What did the nigiri omakase comprise on this occasion? It began with a couple of exquisite small plates. The first was a sunomono featuring a hama hama oyster. This was followed by a wonderful abalone, clam and octopus shabu shabu. And then began the parade of nigiri:
- Kuromutsu or Japanese bluefish. A nice snap to it and a very good start with a little bright kick of yuzu.
- Japanese king salmon, “Aka-Fuji”, so named because its rosy hue recalls the face of Mt. Fuji at sunrise (or did he say sunset?). Very nice indeed.
- Aji or Japanese horse mackerel. Topped with ginger, green onion and young seaweed, this was a great piece of one of my favourite sushi fish.
- Sword squid (I forget the Japanese name). Exquisite knife work and the texture and clean flavour of the squid was set off perfectly by the little bit of fermented tuna stomach that topped it.
- Ji-Kinmedai. This is another of our favourite fish and this iteration, cured with kelp, did not disappoint.
- Sawara or king mackerel. There was a lot going in the little topping which included ginger, garlic, green onion, sweet onion, Japanese ginger (myoga), shiso and daikon. All of it came together really well.
- Shima aji or striped jack. A simpler presentation of another very good piece of fish.
- Botan ebi, Santa Barbara spot prawn. Cured with kelp and topped with ebi miso, this was very good as well. The only disappointment was that the heads did not appear later in the meal.
- Hotate or Japanese scallop (from Hokkaido), served simply with yuzu kosho in a sort of diy roll of nori. Just excellent.
- Iwashi-maki. This exquisite roll of sardine with ginger, shiso and sesame seeds wrapped in parchment-thin pickled daikon is one of Chef Takeda’s specialties and was one of the highlights of the meal.
- Kamasu or barracuda. This was also served simply, lightly seared with just a coating of nikiri.
We were asked at this point if we were interested in adding any extras to the meal before the scheduled omakase resumed. Of the three things he recommended we picked the kegani or hairy crab and the Russian uni. The third was saba (mackerel) which we normally like but decided to pass on, having already enjoyed a number of oily fish over the course of the meal so far. But then we were tantalized by his preparation of the saba for two other parties that got it and ended up asking for some well. And then he realized that there wasn’t enough of the fish left after all to make a perfect piece for everyone and very generously gave us a piece each on the house from what was left after making the other orders.
12. Saba or mackerel served as “bowl sushi”—see the pics to see why it has this name. This was very good even with the non-optimal fish.
13. Kegani or hairy crab. I seem to have taken no notes on what it was topped with but the stars alongside my scrawled notes remind me that this was another highlight.
14. Russian uni. Though on the supplemental check this is listed as Japanese uni, the chef informed us that it was in fact from Russian waters. Whatever its passport, it was excellent.
The omakase then closed with the two remaining scheduled courses:
15. Uni-ikura bowl. This exquisite bowl of marinated salmon roe and Santa Barbara uni marinated in soy dashi had been a highlight of our lunch at Sushi Tsujita with Chef Takeda years ago and we were very happy to encounter it again. Even happier to eat it.
16. Tamago. We also remembered Chef Takeda’s cakey take on Tamago from that previous meal and enjoyed it even more on this occasion. It is made with shrimp, scallop, sea bream and mountain yam. Just a lovely end to the meal.
Well, the real end of the meal was a little shooter of yuzu soda that freshened us up again.
In case you’re wondering, the nigiri omakase would normally include at least two pieces of bluefin tuna. That’s what everyone else eating alongside us were served. But we’d asked when making the reservation for a non-bluefin meal which they’d been only too happy to accommodate. I can’t remember which pieces we got instead.
For a look at the restaurant and the food please launch the slideshow below. Scroll down to see how much it all cost and to see what’s coming next.
How much did all this cost? We’d paid $306 for two omakases plus tax and service charge when making the reservation. By adding on a glass each of sake ($10 per glass) and a piece each of the kegani ($15 a pop) and the uni ($20 a pop) we managed to add another $116 on to the bill with tax and additional tip. So a total of $422 or $211/head. You’d pay more for it now, however, just a month and half later. Prices for 2022 went up by $20/head for the nigiri omakase—you’d now pay $357 up front for two nigiri omakases before adding drinks or additional pieces. A very good meal but I think this might be as much as we’re comfortable spending on a single sushi meal. The signature omakase in 2022, by the way, would set you back $714 with tax and service charge for two people—and that’s if you don’t drink anything and can resist adding anything on. At that point you’re probably well past thinking very much about the price of the meal anyway.
Well, that might be it for sushi for us until we get back to Los Angeles—which might be as early as June. And the plan then is to resist mightily the siren call of the even more expensive omakases and level down instead. Let’s see how it goes.
Up next on the restaurant front is an account of an altogether more reasonably priced meal in the Twin Cities and our first dine-in meal as a family in Minnesota since the pandemic began. No prize for regular readers for guessing where we went. That’ll be on Tuesday.