Thursday, November 27, 2008

Excellent Omakase (at a Premium) - Dinner with the Venerable Sushi Master of West L.A. - Mori Sushi

On my first visit to Mori Sushi (in 2007), I had just come to appreciate the wonders of Sushi Zo, and came away from Mori Sushi impressed, but put off by the cost. Still, I felt that Chef Morihiro Onodera delivered some great Sushi and a great dining experience overall. But this was before my culinary journey to Japan, and my visit to Urasawa in L.A., so I was curious how Mori Sushi would fare given the new perspective.

While Mori Sushi occupies a corner retail space, trying to find it may cause some confusion for first-timers since it has no visible sign outside of a picture of a stick figure fish. :)

Even its entrance is rather humble and understated, like its Chef-Owner, with a single light, shining upon a simple wooden door.

As with my first visit, I appreciated Mori Sushi's interior design, which features some of the nicest, understated decor for a traditional Sushi restaurant in Los Angeles (outside of Urasawa): Simple white walls, clean lines, wood panel floor and nice lighting.

I was seated in front of Chef Mori, and he greeted me warmly. He remembered me from my visit last year (impressive memory :), and I placed my dinner experience in his hands, "Omakase kudasai." Perusing the Sake menu, we began to converse about various Sake and some of my favorites, etc., and he told me to wait a minute. He disappeared into his kitchen, and soon returned with a bottle of Tokusen Koshino Kanbai Ginjo Sake from Niigata, Japan! This Sake isn't on the menu, and Mori-san says that he stocks a limited quantity (when he can get his hands on it), for true Sake lovers. :) This is a pretty rare Sake (even in Japan), and regarded by many in Japan as one of the best Sake in the world. I had no idea he was going to bring this out, but I was happy to try it. :)

I gladly offered him some throughout the night, and taking my first sip: The Koshino Kanbai was lightly sweet, fragrant and with a very clean finish. This was outstanding! (But I would have to say that I prefer my beloved Takeno Tsuyu by just a touch.)

Mori-san started off with Tezukuri Tofu (Handmade Tofu) with freshly-grated Wasabi and a house-made triple blend of Shoyu (Soy Sauce).

There are few things as wonderful as freshly-made Tofu, and Mori-san's Handmade Tofu was almost zen-like perfection. It was so fresh, you could really taste the essence of the Soy Beans. With a small dab of the fresh Wasabi and the housemade Soy Sauce (which was nowhere near as salty and heavy as normal Shoyu), this was a great celebration of Tofu at its best.

Next up was a celebration of the Autumn season: Ankimo Kaki (Monk Fish Liver, Persimmon Fruit). Mori-san brought in this Ankimo from the East Coast. I love Ankimo, and couldn't wait to try it. This was presented on another beautiful handmade plate (FYI: Chef Mori believes that the Utsuwa (Serving Plates) add to the dining experience. All of the Utsuwa at Mori Sushi are handmade by Chef Mori and his assistant, Chef Hiroyuki Taniguchi(!)).

The Monkfish Liver tasted very clean and smooth, and paired nicely with the Persimmon Fruit, both visually and taste-wise. It was all brought together with a Persimmon Sauce. Excellent.

The next course was something Mori-san called Zensai, roughly meaning All Vegetables. It was a celebration of the season, something Kaiseki chefs focus on a great deal. For this dish, it was about Autumn.

The dish was beautifully plated, featuring a variety of vegetables in interesting preparations. I started with Mori-san's dual celebration of Eggplant: Nasu Shiromiso Yaki (Roasted Eggplant with White Miso) and Nasu Akamiso Yaki (Roasted Eggplant with Red Miso). The Nasu Shiromiso Yaki was my favorite: A deep, light sweetness that pervaded the entire piece of the Eggplant, it was excellent! The Akamiso Yaki version was less flavorful, tasting mainly of the Nasu, with only subtle notes of Akamiso sporadically.

Continuing on to the right, I tried the Sakana no Zeri, Maitake to Enoki (Fish Jelly, Maitake and Enoki Mushrooms). This was a celebration of two of Japan's famous fungi, with the Maitake Mushroom and Enoki Mushroom both lightly stewed, very soft and supple, and nicely supported by the Fish Jelly. Mori-san finished it off with fresh Yuzu zest, which gave it an irresistible edge.

To the left, I moved on to a fun grouping: Awabi Kimo (Abalone Liver) from San Luis Obispo, Mizuna (Spider Mustard) from Japan, Awabi Ni (Steamed Abalone) from San Luis Obispo, Shiitake Mushroom and Kuri (Chestnut).

The only other time I've had Awabi Kimo was at the legendary Sushi Mizutani in Tokyo, so I was happy to find it again back home. :) The Awabi Kimo was beautifully cooked, stewed to a soft consistency while still firm, a good earthy quality but a touch too much of the liver characteristic that I'm not too fond of (Mizutani's version was much more mild and enjoyable for me).

The Shiitake was stewed beautifully, lightly sweet, and worked nicely with the Awabi Kimo. The Mizuna (Spider Mustard) was rather muted, but very fresh. It had a little bit of a peppery taste, and complemented the milder Awabi Ni (Steamed Abalone). Finally, the Kuri (Chestnut) was a great finale in celebrating the season in this dish.

The next course arrived on another one of the beautiful, handmade plates by Mori-san, this time, in the shape of a giant leaf: Yaki Saba (Roasted Mackerel) from Tokyo, Maui Onions, Grapes, Olive Oil.

Saba isn't one of my favorite fish, but this was a great interpretation: A perfect sear, leading to a good textural contrast between the slight crispiness and tender, raw interior, which really brought out the inherent fishiness and oiliness in the Saba. The Olive Oil, Grapes and Maui Onions helped make this Saba dish standout from the traditional preparations I've had.

Continuing on was one course I was looking forward to (and another reason to visit Mori-san before the end of the year): Matsutake Dobinmushi (Matsutake Mushroom Seafood Soup Cooked in Clay Teapot).

Matsutake season is almost over, so I wanted to try Mori-san's Matsutake Dobinmushi at least once before the end of the season (with special thanks to Porthos for reminding me about this dish :). The Matsutake used in this dish were from Oregon; Mori-san lamented that the Japanese Matsutake season was already over by this point.

This was a very clean soup, with essence of the White Fish, Shrimp Dashi Broth serving to help highlight the Matsutake Mushrooms. It was good, but sadly, these Matsutake weren't very fragrant at all, a far cry from the luscious Matsutake I'd had in Japan.

Next up, Mori-san displayed his Tempura skills: Awabi Tempura (Abalone Tempura), Ginnan Yaki (Roasted Ginko Nuts), with 2 types of Salt to enjoy the Tempura (Pure Salt from Wales, and a house-made Smoked Salt).

The outer batter was sufficiently light, never overshadowing the Awabi itself, which was a good thing. The Awabi (Abalone) had a good toothsome quality, with a nice chew without being tough. Both Salts worked with the Awabi, but the in-house Smoked Salt was my favorite of the two, giving a very light smokey, roasted note to each bite of the Awabi.

At this point, we began the Nigiri portion of the meal, with Mori-san laying down another beautiful, hand-made Utsuwa for the Sushi.

The first fish was Tai (Red Snapper) from Izu, Japan. This was a nice change from all the other types of Tai I've had. The Tai from Izu had a noticeable increase in the saltiness of the meat. It wasn't artificial, but something inherent in the Tai itself. This cut of Tai was also noteworthy in its texture / structure, being far more toothsome and compact than other versions of Tai I've had across Japan. Overall, while I enjoyed it, I prefer Sakamoto-san's Tai better at Maki Zushi.

It should be noted that Mori-san has a special grain of rice that's made exclusively for his Sushi, and the results are outstanding: A really distinct, full-bodied rice grain with a great texture to support the fish.

The next piece of Sushi was Sayori (Needlefish / Halfbeak) from Chiba, Japan. I was impressed with Mori-san's Sayori on my first visit last year, and this time was just as delicious: It was a tender piece of fish, with a texture so supple and light, that it could be described as "feathery" in its lightness. It wasn't as good as the Sayori at Sushi Mizutani, but for L.A. it was the best I've had so far.

Mori-san's Mebachi Maguro (Big Eye Tuna) from Hawaii arrived next. A classic Sushi item, this was probably the one fish tonight that could be described as truly meaty. It was very fresh, tender and soft, but still retaining a good texture.

Continuing on, Hon Maguro Akami (Bluefin Tuna Special Portion next to Chutoro) from Boston arrived soon after. This was a pleasant surprise as not many Sushi restaurants locally serve Akami. As I learned from Mizutani-sensei in Tokyo, Akami is the portion of the Tuna right next to the Chutoro cut. I prefer this cut to the regular Maguro cut since it contains a touch more fattiness with its proximity to Chutoro. Mori-san's Akami was excellent, with a bit more tenderness and creaminess over regular Maguro, but Mizutani was better (still this was very good).

One of things that I noticed from my very first visit was the knifework by Mori-san. Watching Mori-san work and prepare each cut of fish for your dinner is truly an engaging experience. He's a true master, and it's unfortunate that many visitors don't get to see his knife skills.

In classic progression, Mori-san presented the succession from Maguro to Akami and now to Hon Maguro Ohtoro (Bluefin Tuna Belly, Fattiest Portion) from Boston. This was simply amazing! So buttery and creamy, it was like air at times. :) My favorite of the evening.

After the wonderful Ohtoro, I was worried that the next fish wouldn't compare (but it's always tough to follow a good Ohtoro (^_~)). Fortunately the Kohada (Gizzard Shad) from Kyushu, Japan more than held up. Besides the gorgeous silver skin, it had a good pungency, slightly salty and meaty as well. This was better than Urasawa's, but not as good as Mizutani's.

The next fish was a surprise: Mameyashi (Baby Japanese Jack Mackerel) from Chiba, Japan! I've never had Mameyashi before, which is the tiny (young) version of Aji. Mori-san explained that the size of the piece of Mameyashi (in the photo below) is the entire size of the body of the Mameyashi(!).

Taking a bite... and it was almost gelatinous, like a gelee (in a good way). So supple and clean.

The next fish marked another excellent progression from Mori-san, with the strongest of the oily fish this evening: Saba (Mackerel) from Chiba, Japan. It was everything a good Saba should be: Meaty, pungent and with a good oiliness inherent in the fish. The cut Mori-san presented had a great textural contrast with the rice, conveying a good bite without being chewy.

Continuing on, Mori-san surprised me again with Aori Ika (Broad Mantle Squid) from Miyeke, Japan. This was only the second time I've seen it in So Cal, and I was happy to try it. :) After I plopped this in my mouth, a wave of creaminess hit me first, before a slight chew set in. This was better than Sakamoto-san's version, but after being spoiled by Mizutani's utter, ridiculous creamy Ika (with practically no chew at all), Mori-san's was enjoyable but not as good as Mizutani's, but still outstanding and a testament to Mori-san's knifework. :)

Another interesting surprise awaited soon after: Mizudako (Great Octopus) from Aomori, Japan! While the kanji literally means "Water Octopus," Mori-san explained that this was the largest type of octopus in the world(!). Most Tako that I've had locally has been usually very rubbery and unpleasant, but this Mizudako was very juicy(!) and tender, but still with a good chew. It's still a bit too chewy for my tastes, but of all the Octopus Sushi I've had, this is probably the best.

Mori-san ended this segment with Mirugai (Geoduck) from Seattle, Washington. This was very fresh, with a good crunchiness but still retaining a tender characteristic with each bite. I felt Urasawa's was just a touch better, with Mizutani's above that.

Continuing on, Mori-san presented Ikura (Salmon Roe) from Alaska. Good Ikura isn't as common as one would expect at the local shops, but Mori-san's was very good: Nice, salty bursts of fresh Salmon Roe goodness. The Nori (Dried Seaweed), though, was the real standout here.

Following up the Salmon Roe was the always challenging Uni (Sea Urchin) from Santa Barbara. Absolute creaminess and sweetness washed over me with this offering. On the freshness scale, I would rate it a 99% (there was just a tiny, tiny, after-taste of brininess, but this is being picky. Most average Uni offerings hover at the ~50% rating (being really gross and briny)). This Uni was definitely top-notch, accentuated by the wonderful Nori.

At this point, the next Sushi was ready (having just finished roasting): Anago (Conger Eel) from Matsushima, Japan. The fragrance of the fresh-roasted Anago was mesmerizing and there was a beautiful lush texture to the Matsushima Anago. I enjoyed this Anago more than Urasawa's because it didn't have the bold sauce that Urasawa-san used.

At this point Mori-san prepared a Negi Toro (Green Onion with Fattiest Portion Bluefin Tuna Belly) Handroll. Using the Boston Toro, and wrapping it up with the same beautiful Nori I experienced from before, this was simply the best Negi Tori Handroll I've ever had. The Toro was the same as before, so creamy and buttery, but when combined with the Nori (Dried Seaweed), it was just ridiculous! :) I complimented Mori-san on the Nori at this point and he smiled and proudly proclaimed that this was the best Nori in the world. He imports it in from Saga, Japan, and it truly has a wonderful crispness, and a light, supple flavor that is far beyond the normal Nori used in most local restaurants.

Finally, I wanted to try Mori-san's Tamagoyaki (Cooked Egg) to see more into the skills of this great Sushi chef. Mori-san uses Free-Range Chicken Eggs, and the result is a soft, lightly-sweet Tamagoyaki that has some good layering and texture. It falls short of the legendary Tamago from Mizutani, but it's very good.

The final course of the evening was a nice dessert that Mori-san named Kakikan, with Fresh Japanese Pears, Persimmon Fruit Jelly, and Fresh Persimmon Fruit.

The Japanese Pears were perfect: A nice crisp bite, lightly sweet, and a great foil to the Persimmon Jelly, which was a smooth, supple Jelly with Persimmon Fruit flavors emanating with each bite.

I was finally presented with some Hojicha (Roasted Green Tea) to finish off the meal. Unfortunately, this Hojicha was lukewarm and tasted like a basic, straightforward version.

Service throughout the evening was good, with the plates being cleared out quickly after finishing, although I had to refill my own Sake (not a big deal at most Japanese restaurants, but more on this in a second). And here's the one aspect of Mori Sushi that needs to be mentioned: The total was $310 per person (including tax and tip). On my first visit, we were charged $263 per person (including tax and tip) and we drank far more Sake.

When it reaches this price range, Mori Sushi becomes the second most expensive Sushi restaurant I've been to in L.A., behind Urasawa. I'm not quite sure how the bill would total that much (perhaps it's a price increase to reflect his Michelin Star status?), but with two visits and both being in the same price range, it doesn't seem to be a fluke (and for full disclosure, I've had great dealings with Mori-san on both visits, and we even had a great discussion on some of the rarer fish of Japan, so there weren't any "hard feelings" that might be the cause of strange pricing).

But in looking at this further, seeing the care that Chef Mori puts into the custom plating, the quality of his dishes, and the presentation order (with the celebration of the season, etc.), I've come to realize that the Omakase at Mori Sushi is akin to the "hybrid Kaiseki" experience of Urasawa: Presenting a mixture of traditional Kaiseki courses with a heavy slant toward the fresh Seafood /Sushi offerings, there definitely are some similarities. So if one takes it as a "hybrid Kaiseki" experience, it makes it somewhat more understandable, but there are still some problems: At over $300 per person, Mori Sushi is more expensive than many of the top Kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto and Tokyo(!). And it's more expensive than Sushi Mizutani, one of the top Sushi restaurants in Tokyo (and, in my humble opinion, superior in every way to Mori). And lastly, in terms of service, at this price point, it falls far short of the wonderful service I had at Hyotei in Kyoto, or Ryugin and Mizutani in Tokyo, or Urasawa: Those places had staff on hand to make sure everything was taken care of to the customer's needs. They made sure the Sake was refilled every single time, along with Tea and any other needs. Not so here.

Mori Sushi serves some truly excellent, top-notch Sushi in Los Angeles. With the impressive knifework and cuts that Chef Morihiro Onodera delivers, along with an affable, humble demeanor, Mori Sushi is probably the second best Sushi restaurant in L.A., behind Urasawa. But the cost of this excellence is at a true premium. Whether it's "worth it" or not, is ultimately up to the individual, but in these economic times, it makes it even harder to recommend Mori Sushi than usual. I enjoyed the experience, but at this price point, I feel that I'd rather save a little more and go to Urasawa. If you have the means, Mori Sushi is definitely worth a visit, but in considering price-to-quality, there might be better alternatives out there.

Rating: 9.0 (out of 10.0)

Mori Sushi
11500 West Pico Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90064
Tel: (310) 479-3939

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:45 a.m. - 2:15 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon - Sat, 6:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Closed Sundays.


Right Way to Eat said...

Whoa! $310. Yeah, their price went up like crazy. I have never tried their omakase yet, but after reading your review, I might need to pony up and try it out myself. Thanks for the tip about this place.

BTW, I might go to Izakaya Bincho next month. Your review convinced me to go. Great job!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pepsi Monster,

Thanks. :) Yah, at that price it just feels exorbitant, but Mori-san's knifework is excellent.

Let me know how your visit to Izakaya Bincho goes. :)

kevinEats said...

I've always thought that Mori was number two in LA, behind Urasawa of course.

I'd went a while ago, when the tab for omakase was around $180pp all-in (including Champagne), but was put off by the fact that photos were banned. I'm glad to see that that policy has been lifted.

I'd like to give it another shot, but as you mentioned, Urasawa's not that much more.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kevin,

Thanks for the info - $180 total seems a lot more fair / in-line than my last two visits.

Definitely Mori-san has the skills but yah, I just feel that getting into this range, I'd rather go to Urasawa.

Anonymous said...

I love this place. If I ever get a job, I'll be very happy to go back.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

Yah, I love Mori as well. Great food and quality, and Mori-san is truly a master worth celebrating.

It's just his prices are a bit challenging at times. :)

Epicuryan said...

Glad to see some pictures from Mori. I went with Kevin a while back and I felt a bit disappointed, maybe I had overly high expectations. Your pictures do look extremely appetizing though especially the toro and the kohada.

All things considered even at the price we paid I would have rather gone to Sushi Zo.

Still I think I need to try Mori again if nothing else to get some photos

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Tangbro1,

Thanks. I had no idea about the original "no photo" policy, but Mori-san had no issues when I went.

I think you hit the nail on the head: Like you, I had high expectations on my first visit, and nothing exceeded those expectations. It was "very good / high quality" but nothing like one's first experience with, say, Urasawa or when I went to Ryugin, etc.

But after this most recent visit, I think I can really appreciate what Mori-san does. He's really good, but at the price he exceeds Zo by a lot, and is mostly there to the cost of Urasawa.

Anonymous said...

how much is Tokusen Koshino Kanbai Ginjo Sake?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Sorry, I don't remember. Thank you.

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