Sunday, May 24, 2009

Isolationist Sushi (or, Good Sushi For When You Don't Feel Like Having An Itamae) - Sushi Zo

Sushi is probably one of my all-time, favorite types of food. And after having "graduated" from Nobu / Matsuhisa to Sasabune, Nozawa and Shibucho, and then to Sushi Zo, Mori Sushi, Urasawa and Sushi Mizutani, I was surprised when I realized that I hadn't been back to Sushi Zo since my last Japan Trip in 2008. Before I left for Japan, Sushi Zo was easily one of my favorite Sushi restaurants in L.A., so it was with great anticipation that I returned to Sushi Zo to see how it compared to my last visit and my experiences in Japan.

Located on a low-key, mini-mall stretch of National Boulevard, Sushi Zo is the result of Chef-Owner Keizo Seki (formerly of Hide Sushi). The interior is a rather intimate space, with only a few sparse tables with the Sushi Bar being front-and-center when you enter.

On this visit (Wednesday), I enlisted one of my long-time Sushi Hounds to join me in this excursion. :) We were seated in front of Keizo-san, and when we tried to greet Keizo-san or make eye-contact, we noticed a palpable tension and uneasiness in the air. I knew of his gruffness and aloof attitude, but it was never as apparent as it was this evening (on my previous visit we ended up having a brief, fun conversation and his attitude had subsided (towards the end of the meal)). But it was about ~70% capacity at dinner time, and I decided it might be that he was too busy.

After the waitress took our drink order - we asked the waitress to have Keizo-san recommend a Sake for our fish tonight, which turned out to be Yukishibare Sake from Hokkaido, Japan - Chef Keizo briefly looked up after a few minutes and gruffly asked us if we had any fish that we didn't want (no greeting other than an angry facial expression). I spoke in Japanese to Keizo-san and greeted him, and at that point, he seemed to calm down a bit and returned a greeting to us. (The Yukishibare Sake was an excellent choice: Lightly sweet, with a sharp initial bite, ending with a very clean finish. Excellent.)

After that point, we sat back and watched Chef Keizo work. Keizo-san now has *2* assistants working with him at the Sushi Bar (versus the 1 assistant from my last visit), and even at only 70% capacity, we noticed he was furiously cutting and working away. He looked pensive and made eye contact with no one at the Sushi Bar and never looked around the restaurant, either.

Our first course arrived after about five minutes of waiting: Kumamoto Oyster. After having mixed results with Oysters in the month of May, I was pleasantly surprised by the stunningly fresh Kumamoto here. It was so sweet and exuded a clean, pure ocean breeze flavor. Excellent!

One more note on Chef Seki's attitude: Over the past year, I've encountered many wonderful itamae (Sushi Chefs) that I've been able to have good conversations with about the fish, where it's from, and interesting points about certain types of fish, etc., but at Zo, when I asked the waitress in Japanese about talking to Keizo-san about the fish, she looked *scared*, and then quietly told me that it would be really bad to talk to him about anything, and that he was too busy. (Hence why I don't have any of the origins listed like I normally do.)

As we finished the Kumamoto Oyster, our next course arrived almost immediately after, setting a tone for the rest of the evening: Maguro Sashimi (Tuna Sashimi). The Maguro was extremely tender and meaty, with a good structure (without being too soft). The dab of Wasabi with his Tare Sauce were the perfect complement.

The next course arrived at lightning speed after we just finished the Maguro: Uni Ika Somen (Sea Urchin Roe with Squid "Noodles"). The Uni was *so* sweet and fresh, and mixed with the thin strips of fresh Squid cut into noodle-like shapes to make a creamy, slippery, silky dish.

Our nigiri portion of the course began at this point, starting with: Hirame Sushi (Flounder). Seasoned with a touch of Sea Salt and Lemon, the Hirame itself was a nice cut, with no gristle / connective tissue (as expected), and a good freshness, but one shocking failure came shining through at this point: Gristly, mealy Sushi Rice.

While the fish / neta is usually the star and highlight of every piece of Sushi, the grains of Rice beneath each piece of fish is equally important in its own way. Perhaps I've just gotten spoiled with the legendary Sushi Mizutani and the amazing, custom-grown Rice at Mori Sushi, but the Sushi Rice for every single piece of Nigiri we had this evening exhibited the same disappointing qualities: Mealy, unappetizing Sushi Rice that undermined each piece of fish that we ate. It was really distracting. :( (This has never been a problem before, with Keizo-san's Rice being decent, but never this gristly.)

Next up was Aji (Horse Mackerel) served with Keizo-san's housemade Shoyu (Soy Sauce), a bit of Negi (Green Onions) and Yuzu Citrus Juice. This naturally oily fish was masterfully prepared with the Yuzu, Negi and Shoyu really minimizing any fishiness. The Ajji was meaty with an inherent (good) pungent quality. But it should be noted that the Rice once again distracted from the fish.

Continuing on, the Hotategai (Scallop) was another excellent preparation, beautifully tender and very fresh. It was very good, but fell short of the surprisingly bright purity of Chef Cimarusti's Scallop Sashimi I had at Providence, and Mori Sushi's Hotategai (which better exhibited the inherent meatiness without sacrificing tenderness - all thanks to Mori-san's great knifework).

Sushi Zo's Bincho Maguro (Albacore Tuna) was one of the biggest surprises of the evening: Normally it can be rather plain, but Keizo-san presents an absolutely *buttery*, shockingly delicious version of Bincho Maguro. Outstanding! :)

One of my favorite fish arrived next: Hamachi (Yellowtail). Like the Albacore that we just had, the Hamachi was extremely buttery and creamy and very fresh. It was much better than the Hamachi we were served on our last visit.

Toro (Fatty Tuna Belly) was the next to arrive.

I remember Sushi Zo's Ohtoro (Fattiest Portion of Tuna Belly) as being my favorite Ohtoro in L.A., but sadly, Keizo-san said he was out of both Ohtoro and Chutoro. While nowhere nearly as good as the Ohtoro from my last visit, the regular Toro was very tender and buttery. Unfortunately there was some gristle/connective tissue in each piece of my Toro (my guest also had a piece of gristle in each of their pieces).

Our next dish was a nice surprise, and a rarer fish around town: Ebodai (Pacific Pompano). Essentially a type of Butterfish, the Pompano had a gorgeous visual layering of its meat, and was surprisingly sweet and buttery despite of how lean it looked. The housemade Yuzu Sauce provided the final, perfect accent. It was excellent (except for the terrible Rice).

The Kanpachi (Greater Amberjack) was a disappointment. It was noticeably dull and flat-tasting, and the very potent and pungent Yuzu Kosho (spicy Yuzu Fruit and Pepper Paste) seemed more like an attempt to hide the lack of freshness than support the Kanpachi's inherent qualities. The Kanpachi from my last visit to Zo was much better, and Urasawa's Kanpachi was also far more enjoyable.

Thankfully, Chef Keizo bounced back with another rare dish: Hagatsuo (Skipjack Tuna). Normally, the Toro Nigiri would signal the end of the buttery fish and the itamae would move on to another facet of fish to celebrate for the evening, so I was curious as to why there were more buttery / fatty dishes after the regular Toro. Now I know why:

The Hagatsuo was insanely good! It was beyond buttery and creamy, and easily surpassed the regular Toro we had earlier (it was more like something inbetween Chutoro and Ohtoro)! There was just a touch of some finely grated Ginger and Green Onions to play off the silky, fatty qualities of the Hagatsuo to perfection. My favorite of the evening. :)

After that stunning success, the next dish continued that trend: Ankimo (Monkfish Liver). Served very warm(!) (they had just finished steaming it), it was like Foie Gras but even cleaner and purer: Tender chunks of Monkfish Liver. The Nori (Dried Seaweed) and Rice, however, fell short.

Continuing on, Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp) was another excellent dish with purity and freshness that only comes from a freshly dispatched Live Shrimp. Beyond the vibrancy of the Sweet Shrimpt was the great muscular texture and the preparation by Keizo-san: Highlighting the seductive silky qualities along with a great firm, yet supple, texture in each bite.

Keizo-san's Kinmedai (Alfonsino) was a bit flat, with a good toothsome quality to the meat and a nice chew, but tasting rather dull.

The Mirugai (Geoduck Clam) bounced back nicely, with a great pairing with Sea Salt, Yuzu Citrus Juice and Shiso Leaf. The Mirugai was very meaty and firm, but still gave way easily with each bite. While this was good, I felt the cut and preparation from Mori, Urasawa and Sushi Mizutani were ahead of this.

The Shima-Aji (Yellow Jack) was my guest's previous #2 favorite fish from our previous visit, so I was really looking forward to it again when Keizo-san presented it to us. It was lightly creamy and had a very clear and clean-tasting flesh, but didn't seem as vibrant as our last visit (again, the Rice didn't help at all).

The next dish was another rarity: Tara (Cod) just barely cooked through, served with a sweet Miso Ginger Mayo Sauce. The Tara was beautifully moist and tender (perfectly cooked), but the Miso Ginger Mayo Sauce overpowered the fish, lending an off-putting, cloyingly sweet quality to the whole dish.

It was also nice to try the Sumi Ika (Squid), which has a good creamy quality, with the meat disintegrating after each bite(!). I was expecting more chew, but the Sumi Ika actually broke down extremely fast.

Another previous favorite of mine at Sushi Zo was the Kurodai (Black Snapper), and generally this was a good cut of fish. There was a distinctive textural highlight here, with a good chew with each bite of this fish. The flavors were really well-balanced, not too oily, fatty nor lean.

The Madai (Red Snapper) was sauced with Keizo-san's housemade Shoyu, and tasted a bit too mellow and flat. It didn't taste overly fishy (old), but it lacked the brightness that you've come to expect at top Sushi restaurants.

The Meji Maguro (Young Tuna) was another favorite of mine from before, and I was hoping Keizo-san would have it in stock today, and thankfully he did. :) Served with his housemade Ponzu Sauce, the Meji Maguro was far more compelling than standard Maguro (Tuna) and the even, well-balanced Ponzu really helped to brighten up the Meji Maguro.

Next up was the Sake (Salmon), which proved to be really disappointing. It was overly sweet and a bit too mushy.

At this point, Keizo-san brought out a classic pairing of Uni (Sea Urchin Roe) and Ikura (Salmon Roe). It feels like I hardly run into good Ikura these days, but Keizo-san's Ikura was very vibrant and fresh, with little, lightly salty flavor explosions as I bit down onto each sphere.

The Uni was about ~85% pure. There was a noticeable briny aftertaste (bad), which was far worse than my previous visit to Zo. It could just be an off-night / bad timing, as Uni's shelf life is extremely short. It was good, but nowhere near the 99%+ of Urasawa or the perfect 100% Uni at Mizutani.

Next was Anago (Conger Eel), beautifully baked, clean-tasting and only lightly sweet from the homemade Tare Sauce.

Finishing up the regular course, Keizo-san ended with a Toro Roll (Fatty Tuna Belly Handroll). The regular Toro itself was nice and creamy, and thankfully without any of the gristle / connective tissue found in the regular Toro Sushi that Keizo-san served earlier. The Nori (Dried Seaweed) was decent, but nowhere near the sublime Nori from Saga, Japan used at Mori Sushi.

At this point, Keizo-san stopped his mad cutting, and asked us if we wanted anything else, as this was the end of the Omakase course. We requested one more round of the Ankimo and ended with his Tamagoyaki (Cooked Egg) to see how Keizo-san's skills were with this classic dish. The Tamagoyaki turned out to be extremely moist and light, with some nice layering.

And as is customary at Sushi Zo, when we asked for the check, our waitress brought out their signature Yuzu Drink, made with the gorgeous Yuzu Citrus Juice, lightly sweet, but never cloying and so full of the sense of Spring. While the Yuzu was precious, today's portion was very meager, with less than a normal shot of the delicious liquid (far less than our previous visit).

Service was really perfunctory and workmanlike: There were two waitresses covering the entire restaurant, so plates were haphazardly cleared, and drink requests were stalled a few times as we waited for one of the servers to make eye contact our way. With Keizo-san never making eye contact with us and just too busy to notice anything, that wasn't a route either (to have him get the attention of the servers to get more Sake or refills on Tea for us). In addition, one of the waitresses seemed to have adopted Keizo-san's gruff attitude, having a really poor attitude when we finally got her attention to ask for more Sake or refilles on Tea (she had an angry demeanor and made us feel like we were troubling her unnecessarily).

The Omakase course this evening (with the Sake) turned out to be $175 per person (including tax and tip), slightly more than our previous visits.

At this point in time, Sushi Zo has some significant problems depending on the type of Sushi experience you're looking for. They still serve a nice variety of fish, with some rarer offerings, but have failed in 2 key areas: The Sushi Rice and the Itamae (Sushi Chef)-Customer relationship. The Sushi Rice was so bad this evening, so mealy and gritty, that it distracted from every single piece of Sushi that we had (no hyperbole). :( There's simply no comparison with the rice from Mori Sushi, Urasawa and Sushi Mizutani.

Furthermore, the overall ambiance has become completely unwelcoming and uncomfortable. For example, the breakneck speed that Keizo-san was working at and presenting each piece of Sushi was really absurd, as we had almost no time to savor the current piece of Sushi before the next piece was put down in front of us. I didn't time it, but looking at the time-stamps for each of my photographs, we averaged *2 minutes* from the time a new piece of Sushi was put down to the time the next piece of Sushi came out. There were many times during the night that literally as either my guest or I had just barely put the current piece of Sushi in our mouths, Keizo-san was putting down the next piece. From the first piece to the final piece, we finished up the course in 59 minutes(!). Sushi Zo feels like a Sushi Factory at this point, with Keizo-san and his two assistants constantly prepping, cutting and serving dishes throughout the night, and rushing to shove the next piece of Sushi in front of the customer as if in the hopes to get them out the door as soon as possible.

To make matters worse - and maybe it's because I've met so many *nice* itamae over the past year or so - but Keizo-san's brooding, taciturn, borderline angry demeanor has really gotten worse over time. As a good Sushi Chef, how can you gauge how your customers - your patrons who keep you in business - are doing and what they enjoy or not, if you don't even make eye contact with them, and refuse to talk to them?

Now of course, not every Sushi Chef has to be "best friends" with every single customer that walks in, but to not have the decency to welcome in customers as they enter, nor when they sit down in front of you (he maintained the same gruff, silent attitude to all the other Sushi Bar customers that sat down that evening), is not something I look forward to for my Sushi experience anymore. We saw it with Nozawa and Sasabune, and after the warm, genial attitude by Mori-san, after having insightful and down-to-earth conversations with Urasawa-san, and really interesting discussions about different types of Fish and funny life stories with Mizutani-sensei (who many consider to make some of the best Sushi in Tokyo), Chef Keizo's isolationist, muted attitude is no longer worth it. I'd rather save my money and experience far more exceptional Sushi (and a far better dining experience) at Mori Sushi, Urasawa and Sushi Mizutani.

Rating: 7.9 (out of 10.0)

Sushi Zo
9824 National Boulevard, Unit C
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Tel: (310) 842-3977

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 12:00 p.m. Noon - 2:00 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.


Charlie Fu said...

At what point to Sushi Chefs stop being A-holes? Sometimes you get a nice one sometimes you don't. Considering the money you pay, it's hardly right to be sitting in trepidation as your food is served. *sigh* guess we're suckers for pain?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Charlie,

Yah, it's definitely unfortunate when you get certain itamae that take on the "Sushi Nazi" persona and some that even go beyond that.

It was sort of thrilling and interesting when I first encountered them, but nowadays I've grown tired of the arrogant, haughty attitudes.

Anonymous said...

I love sushi and I live 2 blks from Zo but I stopped going more than a year ago because if his terrible "nazi" attitude. There are better places around town.

Rob said...

Exile - Thanks, as usual, for the nice write-up. Your main complaint about lack of hospitality hits at the core of what I have come to love about the very best Japanese dining experiences I've had. At this point for me, if you don't get a feeling there like you're walking into the warmth of their home, the experience will always fall short no matter how great their food might be. I don't know if you addressed this before and I just missed it in your posts somewhere but what's your thoughts about the very long cuts of fish such as found here? Personally, I find this to be a major distraction. Visually, it's aesthetically pretty but functionally, I think the two-bite experience is highly awkward to manage versus the shorter, tighter, and more streamlined style that can be eaten in just one complete bite. Any thoughts? Thanks

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Sorry to hear that you experienced the same attitude from Chef Keizo. It's really unfortunate.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Rob,

Thank you. :) Yes, I totally agree with you: For me, I've come to really enjoy and love the hospitality aspect in most Japanese restaurants that I've visited recently. While we're not in Japan, every single eatery I ate at made my guests and I feel extremely welcome. From the hole-in-the-walls to Michelin 3 Star.

Even here in LA there are better Sushi Restaurants with nicer itamae and staff than what's found at Zo.

For the longer cut, it's interesting: It's reminiscent of Sakamoto-san's Kansai philosophy (the chef-owner of Maki Zushi), where he uses a longer draped cut as well.

It's a little distracting, but the rice was so bad this evening that I was happy just to focus on the fish as much as I could. During my previous visits, it didn't bother me too much, though. Thanks.

Tangbro1 said...

Hey Exile,

Sorry to hear about the poor rice, sounds like Keizo has lost a step or he is trading quality for quantity.

Also disappointing to hear about his worsening demeanor. My last visit was very much like your past trip, with Keizo becoming a little more friendly towards the end of the meal.

Aside from Urasawa and Mori where else would you go for a good omakase these days?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Tangbro1,

It's definitely unfortunate. Even if Keizo-san was busy, the fact that he passed off that (low) quality of Rice as acceptable is shocking.

I'm still searching for something else besides Mori and Urasawa around here. I'll keep you posted (or if you have any recommendations feel free to let me know - thanks! :).

pink said...

What a great review! And great pics.

Zo is one of those places that I have been meaning to try for a really long time now. I've been waiting for a special occasion to go, but now that I've got the chance, I don't think I want to try it anymore. The attitude and unwelcoming environment are such turnoffs.

And the sushi rice? That's no excuse.

So unfortunate that this has become of Zo.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi pink,

It's definitely unfortunate. :( But if you're in the mood for some high-end Sushi, you might want to consider Mori Sushi or Urasawa, which I think are much better overall anyways. :)

glutster said...

"for every GREAT meal, there are at least 10 (or 15, I think?) bad ones"

--Jonathan Gold (in an email he sent me a long time ago)

Anyways, I say we forget all about this and go for some underground mutton. wuddya say?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Teenage Glutster,


I would be honored. Send me an e-mail. :)

Kung Food Panda said...

Great write up. I've been wanting to visit Sushi Zo and Mori for awhile now as a comparison to Urasawa. Honestly though, I'd rather save up the money and visit Urasawa again as I'm almost assured of a great meal made by a friendly sushi chef in Hiro-san.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kung Food Panda,

Thanks. :) Yah, of course I'd go to Urasawa, too, over Mori and Zo if it was possible every time I had an inkling for Sushi and a good dinner experience. (^_~) If you do find yourself craving some good Sushi, though, Mori Sushi is a good alternative (albeit pricey), but not in the same price-range as Urasawa.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin