Sunday, May 25, 2008

Sushi Sasabune (L.A.): The Greatest High-Volume Sushi Restaurant in So Cal

In Los Angeles, no other (truly) high-quality Sushi restaurant has received as much vitriol and praise as Sushi Sasabune. I'm not sure what has caused this division: Perhaps its the loss of intimacy and charm when Sasabune moved and expanded to its current cavernous location; perhaps its the counter-reaction by purists (who decry the loss of intimacy between the itamae and customer) to Sasabune's lavish praise by people who don't know or care about that relationship; or perhaps it's the complaints that Sasabune "oversauces" all their Sushi and uses warm rice. Having visited Chef-Owner Nobi Kusuhara and Sushi Sasabune over the last four years, and now having just returned from my two week gourmet tour of Japan (sampling some of the greatest Sushi in Tokyo,) I returned to Sushi Sasabune last night to see how it stood up against the world's best.

Sasabune currently offers two types of Omakase (Chef's Choice) options: "American" and "Japanese." The Japanese Omakase is the full course, including various fish roe (e.g., Uni, Ikura, etc.) and more exotic options that the American Omakase doesn't include. We opted for the Japanese Omakase (as usual) and waited for our first dish.

The first thing that struck me as we sat down this time, was truly how gigantic and spacious Sushi Sasabune was. And to keep up with the demand of such a large location and with so many customers, Chef Nobi was 100% occupied, furiously preparing and cutting with the help of six(!) assistants, and a small army of waitresses and busboys. I had been to the current Wilshire Blvd. location many times before, but after having spent some time with Mori-san, Urasawa-san and Mizutani-sensei, today was the first time I sensed just how distant things had become at Sushi Sasabune, and how I missed the more intimate itamae-customer relationship. I still had the company of my guests, though, so conversation and good times were still abundant, but it was something that I felt was truly missing now.

Of course one of the consistently great things about Sasabune is the fresh-grated Wasabi from the root:

We also ordered a bottle of Fukukomachi Daiginjo Sake from Akita, Japan. It was slightly floral, with hints of vanilla and flowers, but still very dry. Excellent.

(All English Fish Names listed are what was provided by the staff.)

We started off with Nobi-san's Aji (Spanish Mackerel) Sashimi, presented topped with Green Onions and Ginger on the side. There was also a special Ponzu-based sauce for dipping if one wanted.

The Aji was extremely tender and there wasn't a single piece of tendon/gristle. The Negi and Ginger both paired well with the Aji.

Next came Tairagai (Pen-Shell Clam), which was the first time I was served this dish in all my years at Sasabune:

It was beautifully presented in its shell, and served with an optional Yuzu-infused Salt, and Yuzu Kosho (a spicy Yuzu fruit and Pepper paste). The Tairagai was very fresh and had a nice bite to it. It's softer than Mirugai or Awabi, for example, but still has enough firmness, yet is still supple. Both the Yuzu Shio and Yuzu Kosho nicely augmented the Tairagai. It was great, but the Tairagai I had at Sushi Mizutani was even better!

Next up, we were served Awabi (Abalone): Fresh and very crisp. It had a nice firm, crisp texture (it's always consistently been good). It was better than the vast majority of places in LA, but fell short of Urasawa's, and especially Sushi Mizutani's amazing preparation!

Continuing on, arguably Nobi-san's strongest dish: Maguro (Tuna) (sauced) and Ohtoro (Fattiest Portion of Tuna Belly). The Maguro was lightly sauced, and is still *the* most tender Maguro I've ever had anywhere. Sushi Mizutani's Akami was wonderful and a different cut of fish, but as the closest excellent comparison, I'd have to say there's something wonderful about Nobi-san's Maguro Sushi. The utter ridiculousness of the melt-in-your-mouth texture of the Maguro is something that still brings me bliss. :)

Next up was the Ohtoro which was wonderfully buttery and tender. It was melt-in-your-mouth goodness as well, and still excellent. However, it was just a touch short of Sushi Zo's great Ohtoro, and Urasawa's Ohtoro.

Next, we had Tai (Red Snapper) with Shiso Leaf, and Hirame (Halibut) (sauced). The Tai was simply wonderful! Even with the piece of skin, Nobi-san has cut and prepared the Tai perfectly so that there was no chewiness or tendon/gristle. It was also wonderfully tender. Sasabune's Tai is the best Tai I've had anywhere, exceeding Urasawa's.

The Hirame (Halibut) was served with a Ponzu sauce applied already (lightly). It was fresh and had some nice toothsome texture to it, inherent to the fish. It was good, but Mizutani's Hirame was better.

Another new dish that I had never been served before at Sasabune was the Lobster Misoshiru (Lobster Miso Soup). From the moment the lid came off, the aroma of fresh-cooked Lobster hit the senses, and then a sip of the delicious Miso Soup, nicely saturated with the taste of Lobster and the ocean, made this a nice change from the standard Miso Soup one finds most of the time. The Lobster Tail pieces were also nice and fresh, and not overcooked either, tender, yet still with firmness.

Sasabune's Sake (Salmon) and Hamachi (Yellowtail) came next. The Salmon was absolutely, "out-of-control" great! (^_^) It was so fresh and the texture was so creamy, tender and rich that it felt almost like eating Sake Ohtoro. :) Nobi-san's Sake is still the best Salmon I've had anywhere.

Hamachi is my personal favorite fish, and Nobi-san's Hamachi was still as fresh and delicious as I remembered it being. It was better than Sushi Zo's Hamachi (easily), and still the best I've had.

The next fish were a pair of cooked dishes: Anago (Saltwater Eel) and Ankimo (Monkfish Liver), Seared.

The Anago was just a touch overcooked, but still moist. It was mildly sweet, and I preferred it to Urasawa's Anago (which ironically was oversauced), but it fell short of Sushi Mizutani's preparation. It was still very good, though.

The Seared Ankimo showed off a perfect searing technique: A nice, almost crisp texture on the outside from the searing, and wonderfully, rich, unctuous Monkfish Liver on the inside. It was consistently moist as well, with no overcooking. Fabulous!

Sushi Sasabune's Kumamoto Kaki (Kumamoto Oysters) have always been a wonderful, citrusy break in the Omakase course, and last night was no different. Fresh, oceany, and silky smooth, the Kumamoto Oysters were great.

Next up came Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp) and Mirugai (Geoduck). The Amaebi was wonderfully buttery and creamy, and very tender. It was very fresh, but it was almost too tender in a way. Having just had a live Giant Shrimp beheaded and served to me within *seconds* (at Urasawa), that experience of freshness and texture just can't be beat. Urasawa's Amaebi was interesting in that the firmness of the texture and quivering meat of the Shrimp combined in a strange, but soothing way with the inherent creaminess of the dish, whereas here at Sasabune, it's still very fresh (you can taste it), but it lacked the firmness / musculature quality that was at Urasawa. I actually appreciate both ways, but would have to give the edge to Urasawa. It's still very good here, though. (^_~)

The Mirugai (Geoduck) was fresh and competantly cut and prepared. However, after having Urasawa's and Mizutani's Mirugai, this fell short, with the best Mirugai I've had being at Sushi Mizutani.

Continuing on, Aji (Spanish Mackerel) and Saba (Mackerel) came next.

The Aji was just as wonderful as before (in the Sashimi presentation), but I think I preferred the cut and preparation here more. The Saba (Mackerel) was also fresh, and had a great texture to it, and while it stands up well against the competition in L.A., against Sushi Mizutani, there was no comparison: The knifework and cut of fish was just superior.

Next came the Ikura (Salmon Roe). This is another dish that Nobi-san consistently gets right: The Ikura is SO fresh and each bite has the Ikura bursting and releasing a wonderfully oceany, yet delicious liquid that is unlike most Sushi restaurants around town (where Ikura can be really salty and gross).

Nobi-san always ends his Omakase course with his signature Kani Maki (Fresh Crab Roll).

Unfortunately tonight it fell a little short of his usual greatness (which has always been better than Nozawa's). The Crab tasted a little bit average (not as fresh and sweet as it has been over the last four years), but it might've just been an off-night.

Last night's Omakase course was actually a few dishes less than Nobi-san's usual course length (although we were absolutely stuffed!). Nobi-san mentioned that he wasn't happy with the quality of the Uni (Sea Urchin) and a few other fish, so he didn't offer them. As a result, our bill came out to be about ~$83 per person for the Omakase (actually less than the $90 per person price). With the excellent Sake we had, plus tax and tip, it came out to be ~$125 per person.

In closing, Sushi Sasabune continues to deliver some great Sushi in Los Angeles, yet also falls short in some areas. Throughout the night, I couldn't help but feel that Sasabune had really become a "top-class Sushi Factory" if such a thing existed: Chef Nobi was truly so busy cutting, preparing, and directing his six assistants, and seeing the swarm of waitresses and busboys zipping around, all in a huge, vaulted-ceiling "warehouse" of a space... I felt a sense of loss and sadness in a way. Now having experienced the level of personal service of an Urasawa-san or Mizutani-sensei, (and many other wonderful places in Tokyo and Kyoto), it's unfortunate that you can almost never have that itamae relationship in an intimate setting again with Nobi-san.

Yet, is that truly an unforgivable fault, and reason to skip his restaurant? I suppose that depends on what one is looking for when going out for Sushi on any particular night. It should also be noted that besides that complaint (a valid one that I sympathize with now), grumblings about how Sasabune is "just oversauced, fall-apart, warm rice sushi" are *grossly* over-exaggerated. Out of the 19 dishes I had tonight in the Omakase course, only *2* (TWO) Sushi had any noticeable sauce on them, and they were both lightly touched, never drowning in any pool of liquid. In addition, not one piece of Sushi that I had tonight "fell apart" or crumbled, and my rice was at room temperature. Over the numerous visits over the last four years to Sasabune, only once did I ever have an experience where I had a few pieces of the Sushi fall apart, and only once did I have some dishes oversauced (perhaps it was a phase?). For the vast majority of the time it's always been consistently enjoyable.

However, having gained a greater appreciation for a Sushi Master's knifework, his choice of cuts of fish, and the many varieties of fish out there, it is worth noting that Sushi Sasabune has fallen short in some ways: While it's nice to have each piece of Sushi be really tender (and it is amazingly so), you begin to lose the appreciation for the idiosyncratic textures for various fish. For some cuts of fish, the choice of cuts and preparation to present the fish in pure buttery, "melt-in-your-mouth" goodness is pure heavenly bliss (e.g., Maguro and Sake), but for other cuts, I started to miss the individuality of texture. On the other hand, every dish I had (and consistently this way for the last four years) was fresh (except the Kani Maki tonight), and I never have had a piece of "tendon / gristle" at Sasabune, which is pretty impressive, especially now with his factory-like setup.

Overall, I'd still go back to Sushi Sasabune for Nobi-san's wonderful Maguro, Sake, Tai, Hamachi, Ikura and Amaebi preparations; or when I want to take people for good Sushi when we'd rather have private conversations amongst ourselves. However, for sheer variety and some amazing Ohtoro, Kurodai, and the Yuzu Drink, I'd go back to Sushi Zo. And of course Urasawa for top-class, freshest fish available in L.A. (^_^) Sushi Mizutani still stands above all of those, but that's some of the best Sushi in the world. And for the intimacy and wonderful traditional itamae-customer relationship, I'd go back to Mori, Zo, Urasawa or Mizutani before Sasabune.

Sushi Sasabune has entered into an interesting, tenuous place: Good-quality Sushi with some excellent individual cuts, yet in a very mainstream, high-volume "Sushi Factory" ambiance. With six assistants helping Chef Nobi Kusuhara now, how much of the fish prepared is truly by Nobi-san? If Sasabune is not careful, it could eventually lose a grasp on the "quality of fish" aspect, and completely lose Nobi-san's knifework, which at that point, it would be a hard fall from grace. In the meantime, Sushi Sasabune is still serving some quality fish at a reasonable price, and remains one of the better Sushi restaurants in Southern California.

Rating: 8.1 (out of 10.0)

Sushi Sasabune
12400 Wilshire Blvd. #150
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Tel: 310-820-3596


Unknown said...

This is quite a sushi feast (for the eyes too... thanks for the wonderful pictures)!

I am particularly interested in the seared ankimo sushi. Ankimo is my favorite sushi for some reason. I don't think I've ever had it seared though. Would love to try it.

For $83, I think it's a good value for the amount and quality of the food. Hmmm... I'm wondering what is in the American omakase? Maybe I'll go with bf and order 1 Japanese and 1 American to try them out.

Again, thanks for the great post! ^^

Exile Kiss said...

Hi eileen,

You're welcome. (^_^) Yes, despite some lukewarm comments in my review, generally, Sushi Sasabune is a great value for the quality of the Sushi. It still has some amazing moments where it rivals the best in LA.

For the American course, you can ask the waitress or itamae for a clarification; you just get fewer courses of fish and some of the more exotic pieces are left off (like Uni, Ikura, etc.).

Note that Ankimo isn't always in season, and Chef Nobi will not stock it, if he feels the quality is not good enough, so if you want to try it, make a reservation, and call a day ahead of time (or the same day earlier) to make sure he has Ankimo. (^_~)

As I said before, though, it's not like the rest of his courses are bad: Wait till you try his Maguro, Sake (Salmon), and Hamachi amongst others. Subarashii desu~ (^_^)/

Keizo Shimamoto said...

Great review! And once again I am drooling all over my keyboard from your pics. You've definitely got me in the mood for sushi now!

Exile Kiss said...

Thanks Keizo. :) *You* still have me jealous and drooling for all those nice brands of Instant/Fresh Ramen you've gotten from Japan! :)

Yah, if you've never tried Sasabune, it's worth a visit at least once.

Unknown said...

Great review as always. Sasabune was my first foray into the upper echelon of sushi in LA, and I still will defend her even as others trend toward the Sushi Zo's and Mori's of the world.

By the way, I finally got around to posting a review of that izakaya in Portland:

Exile Kiss said...

Hi SauceSupreme,

Thank you! (^_^) Yah, Sasabune is still a great restaurant with some great quality. :)

Thanks for the link to your Tanuki review. Amazing photos and a great review! :)

Unknown said...

We went! OMG the sushi was so good. Thank you so much for introducing us to Sasabune!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Eileen,

Glad you enjoyed your dinner! (^_^)/ Now you've stepped into the realm of "good sushi in L.A." :) Next up, you need to continue climbing and try Sushi Zo, and then Urasawa. (^_~)

Anonymous said...

A question - have you tried Echigo - on Santa Monica Blvd, in West LA? I may be prejudiced, because Echigo is walking distance from my house(so is Monte Alban!) but I've found the fish to be fresher and the presentation superior to Sasabune.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anonymous,

Yes, I've been to Echigo (the Itamae was Kusuhara-san's pupil and studied under him). I went a few times and thought it was a great lunch time deal (they had some Omakase Lunch Set for something like ~$25-30 IIRC). Overall it was a good value, but I still enjoyed Sasabune more. Thanks for the report on your favorite place! :)

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