Saturday, September 26, 2009

Is It Fusion? Is It Modern? The Japanese Gourmet Sushi of Asanebo

Years ago in the culinary world, the hot new buzz word was "fusion." I heard it at school, I read about it in magazines, with restaurants serving "fusion cuisine" with a mix between 2 or 3 different styles. While the term itself wasn't offensive at the time, over the years "fusion" + any cuisine has come to take on subtle undertones of disdain (probably a backlash from foodie purism and the off-putting attitudes that exuded from some of the higher profile fusion restaurants), especially with "Fusion Sushi." Nowadays, it seems if something is different than the traditional it's labeled as "New" or "Modern," as in "New American" or "Modern American" cuisine.

So when you run across a Japanese restaurant serving Sushi that's beyond the traditional, when does it cross the line from "Fusion Sushi" to "Modern Sushi"? Is it that extra dash of Sriracha Sauce or smear of Philadelphia Cream Cheese or a piece of Black Truffle that moves it from one moniker to another? Polling my beloved Sushi Hound group, they generally concede that places focusing on Crazy Rolls are "Fusion Sushi" to them, while a more refined execution of Sushi and Sashimi with gourmet ingredients feels more appropriate to be called "Modern Sushi". For Asanebo, they've settled on the term "Japanese Gourmet" Sushi for their creations, according to Chef Shige Fujimoto.

I have heard about Asanebo for a while now, but never got a chance to eat there. I had forgotten about it, but with the always lively discussions on which restaurants in L.A. received Michelin Stars (Asanebo has received 1 Michelin Star for 2008 and 2009), I was reminded of Asanebo and was finally able to try this popular eatery. Going into my first visit, I had purposely not read anything about it, hoping to just sit back and enjoy whatever the chefs would create. Bringing part of my longtime Sushi Hound group, we had all thought Asanebo to be some kind of traditional Japanese Sushi restaurant, but through the course of our Omakase (entrusting the chef) meal, it became apparent that Asanebo's style was something far beyond traditional.

From the exterior, Asanebo looks completely unassuming; it could easily be mistaken for a generic California-Japanese mom-and-pop shop found in many mini-malls around So Cal. Stepping into the restaurant teleports you to a cozy, charming, energetic establishment with a Sushi Bar as the centerpiece. From the choice of wood to the mood lighting, Asanebo gives off a warm, inviting feeling.

Asanebo (roughly "sleeping in (through the morning)") is the result of Chef-Owner Tetsuya Nakao, who has trained to be a Sushi Chef since his teen years in Japan, and was part of the original opening staff at Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills. He studied under Chef Nobu Matsuhisa for years before finally leaving to open his own restaurant. When asked why the restaurant is named Asanebo, Chef Shige Fujimoto (the second main Sushi Chef) jokes, "Because Tetsuya is Mister Asanebo! He loves to sleep in." (^_^)

I like the subtle, discreet touch that Asanebo provides customers for controlling their budget, with 3 choices for their Omakase dinners: "Omakase A" runs $75 - $100, "Omakase B" is $100 - $125, and "Omakase C" is $125+. This was a reunion of sorts for some of our Sushi Hounds and we had a birthday to celebrate, so we went with their Omakase C course.

Tetsuya-san starts us off with Japanese Seared Scallop, Momotaro Tomatoes and Grape Seed Oil.

The Scallop from Hokkaido, Japan is wonderful, a nice cooked exterior contrasting nicely with the moist, tender, fleshy interior. There's a fresh subtle brininess, and the Momotaro Tomatoes are bursting with natural sweetness. The Grape Seed Oil dressing and slivers of fragrant Shiso Leaf round out the experience. Lovely. :)

Asanebo features a short, but interesting list of Japanese Sake, with two that catch my eye: A Sake from Fukuoka named Asanebo(!) and the Myouka Rangyoku Junmai Dai Ginjo Sake from Fukushima, Japan that sells for $600 a bottle. Asking Tetsuya-san, the quiet, friendly chef recommends the Asanebo Daiginjo Sake, which turns out to be a premium Sake (with Rice that's polished 50% or lower than its original weight) that he developed with a brewmaster in Tsukushino, Fukuoka, Japan just for this restaurant (hence the exact same name).

The Asanebo Daiginjo Sake turns out to be surprisingly good: A very floral nose, with notes of Vanilla sweetness, and a long, smooth finish.

The second course is Shiitake Chasoba Chawanmushi (Japanese Egg Custard with Green Tea-infused Soba Noodles and Shiitake Mushrooms).

I love Shiitake Mushrooms and Chawanmushi , so I was really looking forward to this dish: Disappointing. The Shiitake Mushrooms have a beautiful fragrance and add a delicate, silky facet to the dish. However the Chasoba Noodles taste pretty average, slightly chalky and when combined with the Chawanmushi Custard and Mushrooms, it just doesn't work well together. Nothing bad, but nothing great, either.

The third course is a dual presentation of Hirame (Halibut) Sashimi with Black Summer Truffles and Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp) with Black Summer Truffles.

The Hirame from Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan has a tender, bright taste, and a nibble of the Black Summer Truffle reveals a great pairing, even with the less pungent qualities of a Summer Truffle. But then I chew on the rest of the piece of Hirame that is coated in a sauce mixed with artificial tasting Truffle Oil. It just completely overpowers the initial brilliance of this dish.

Continuing on to the Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp) from Santa Barbara, California results in the same experience: Overpowering Truffle Oil ruining a very fresh-tasting Amaebi with great musculature; the texture is what you hope all Amaebi would be like.

The fourth course arrives soon after: Kinmedai Nibitashi (Lightly Simmered Alfonsino) from Kochi, Japan.

Kinmedai is a beautiful fish, and Chef Tetsuya's preparation does it justice: While the dish is described as a Nibitashi (Lightly Stewed/Simmered), in this case, it's referring to the Aburaage (Thin, Deep-Fried Tofu Pockets/Slices) and vegetables that have been cooked in this method, while the Kinmedai fish is quickly blowtorched to crisp up the gorgeous crimson-orange skin, keeping the inside fresh and raw. This creates a beautifully tender, lush dish with the creaminess of the Kinmedai combined with a nice textural play with the crisped up skin from the quick torching. Simple excellence.

The next course is a Seafood Egg Roll of Shrimp, White Fish, Yuzu Pepper, Shiitake Mushrooms with Endive in Shiso Salsa.

The Shrimp, White Fish, Shiitake Mushrooms and Yuzu Pepper filling is lightly sweet, fragrant and not briny at all, with the Shiso Salsa providing a tart, spicy and fiery accent to each bite. But the highlight of this dish is how piping hot and crispy the Egg Roll is, generating a satisfying crispy crunch.

Next up: Katsuo Sashimi (Slices of Skipjack Tuna) from Kochi, Japan.

The Katsuo is so tender it practically melts in your mouth. Exhibiting a powerful oceanic flavor (in a good way), it's strong enough to stand up to the fresh-grated Ginger and Garlic that are served on the side.

Yuzu Shoyu Buri Sashimi (Mature Yellowtail with Yuzu Citrus Soy Sauce) continues the streak of good dishes.

The mature Yellowtail brilliantly shows off Tetsuya-san's knife skills: He's presented a cut of the Buri that highlights multiple layers and textures, ranging from a satisfying firm suppleness to a section that almost turns completely melting. The Buri is fresh and a great cut overall, but is slightly marred by too much Shoyu (Soy Sauce) in the Yuzu Shoyu mixture, causing it to be a touch too salty.

The next course is a brilliant concept: A triple tasting of 3 potentially buttery, sultry foods - Kurobuta Kakuni (Long-Stewed Berkshire Pork Belly from Japan), Grade A5(!) Kagoshima Wagyu (Grade A5 Wagyu Beef from Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan), and Chilean Sea Bass with Saikyo Miso Sauce.

Sadly, it's a monumental failure: The Chilean Sea Bass is served with a Japanese White Peach Compote, and is completely overcooked and dry. The White Peach accompaniment is extremely sweet and overpowers the Chilean Sea Bass completely.

The Kurobuta Kakuni (Stewed Berkshire Pork Belly) with Cranberry Gelee is even worse: Cold, chunky and dried out Pork Belly with the savory aspect killed by a surprisingly bitter Cranberry Gelee.

At this point, I'm still holding out hope that the Grade A5 Kagoshima Wagyu Beef with Plum Compote would save this dish, but it doesn't: While the Plum Compote's sweetness doesn't border on the cloying like the White Peach Compote earlier, its sugary edge still dominates this dish. But worse, is that this highest grade quality of Japanese Wagyu Beef - the amazing Grade A5 Wagyu that commands the highest prices in Japan - has been overcooked to a ~medium-well doneness. :( Thankfully, there's still some good buttery, creamy goodness at the very center of this piece of Kagoshima Wagyu, a testament to the A5 marbling, but it's a small consolation after considering what could have been.

Asanebo really needs to reconsider who they have in the back kitchen responsible for all the cooked dishes. While it's not the direct fault of Chef-Owner Nakao (who's busy in the front preparing Sushi / Sashimi), it's his restaurant and hopefully he comes to notice the problems from the cooked items soon. It's just really sad when considering the near guaranteed success of this dish - Buttery Chilean Seabass, Tender Long-Stewed Berkshire Pork Belly, and the maximum Grade A5 Kagoshima Wagyu Beef - and how badly the kitchen screwed this up.

The next course highlights more of the problems aforementioned: Grade A5 Kagoshima Wagyu, Shuto to Burata (Grade A5 Wagyu Beef from Kagoshima, Japan, Pickled Katsuo (Skipjack) Stomach and Italian Burrata Cheese).

I'm delighted to hear that Shuto (Pickled Katsuo Stomach) is being used for a dish - it's such a great drinking food :) - and I'm praying this 2nd dish featuring Grade A5 Wagyu can redeem the mess of the last course. Taking a bite, the Shuto imparts a nice, intense salty briny quality, and the Burrata Cheese's mildness helps to dilute some of the salt, but then it gives way to another piece of overcooked Kagoshima Wagyu. :( Cooked to medium-well (almost bordering on well-done in some parts), it's lost much of its fabled Grade A5 marbling in the process and to add insult to injury, there's a piece of gristle in each of the 3 pieces. I turn and quietly ask 2 of my Sushi Hounds how their pieces were and they confirmed that they also got a piece of gristle in a couple of their pieces (but not all). Sigh.

Continuing on, Shiso Bata- Tarabagani (Fresh Alaskan King Crab with Shiso Butter Sauce) arrives minutes after our last course.

King Crab and Butter are a great combination, so adding Shiso Leaves to the Butter only elevates the flavors. :) And while the texture of the Alaskan King Crab is spot-on, there's a surprisingly sharp brininess and pungency to each bite, which rendered this dish a bit disappointing.

Chef Tetsuya starts us on the Nigiri (Sushi) portion of the Omakase meal, curiously beginning with one of the fattiest pieces first: Chutoro (Medium-Fatty Bluefin Tuna Belly) from the East Coast.

It's an excellent piece and cut, rich and buttery, bringing a smile to my face. :)

Tai (Red Snapper) from Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan is presented next, simply dressed with Sea Salt and Sudachi Citrus Zest. There's a slightly chewy, creamy aspect to the Tai and the Sea Salt and citrus notes are great accents. The Shari (Rice) is a bit too moist for my tastes, bordering on slightly gooey.

The kitchen brings out an Asari Dobinmushi (Littleneck Clam Soup Cooked in Clay Teapot).

The Broth reflects the most well-executed versions of Dobinmushi, a fragile, delicate, heart-warming soup, like an ocean breeze (with the Asari Clams) and Shimeji Mushrooms granting an added earthy aroma. The Clams themselves are fine, with much of their flavor cooked into the Soup at this point.

The next piece of Sushi is relatively rare in So Cal: Tokishirazu / Sakura Masu (Cherry Salmon) from Hokkaido, Japan. One look at this piece of Salmon and it's clearly unlike any of the wild or farm-raised standard Sake (Salmon) that you find around town. It has a gorgeous hue, and the texture is that of a slightly creamy, fatty fish with a more intense flavor than regular Salmon.

Next up is Aoyagi (Orange Clam) from Seattle, with Hawaiian Black Sea Salt. It's quite soft, and surprisingly a bit too juicy, tasting water-logged, a far cry from the brighter, textural brilliance of the Aoyagi at Urasawa.

Tetsuya-san continues on with Aji (Horse Mackerel) from Kyushu, Japan, served with Ponzo Gelee. This piece shows off more of Tetsuya-san's knife skills, with a great texture showcase with the skin left on. Sadly, the Ponzo Gelee is a bit too acidic and tart and manages to even overpower the inherently strong-flavored Aji. But the exploration of firm muscle, softer portions and the skin with this cut is excellent.

We finish the savory portion of the meal with Aburi Uni (Partially Torched Sea Urchin) from Santa Barbara, California. I'm normally just happy with a great piece of raw Sea Urchin, but Tetsuya-san comes through with a perfectly executed dish: The very light blowtorching cooks just enough of the Uni that it transforms the top layer into melted briny goodness, which gives way to the majority of the Uni still in fresh, raw form which is near perfectly sweet and bright. Excellent! :)

For dessert, we decide to try their Tezukuri (Handmade) Cacao and Black Truffle Ice Cream. It's thankfully not too sweet, with a great cocoa flavor, but the Black Truffles feel like a waste (you can't taste them buried in the Ice Cream). A decent dessert, but not something we'd order again.

Wanting to see what the variety and Omakase course differences would be like, I wait 1.5 months and return to try their Omakase B course, their mid-level tier.

Chef-Owner Tetsuya Nakao was on vacation, so I left myself in the care of the 2nd head Sushi Chef, Shige Fujimoto, a native of Gifu, Japan. Fujimoto-san moved to Wakayama to train for 11 years in traditional Washoku cuisine and Sushi, and then to Nagoya to train under his Shishou (Master) for the highly-regarded Kaga Ryori, "Samurai Cuisine" as Fujimoto-san explains to me. He then moved to the U.S. and worked at Matsuhisa for 4 years before joining Tetsuya-san at Asanebo.

We begin with Homemade Sesame Tofu, Uni (Sea Urchin) and Aonori Seaweed.

The Homemade Sesame Tofu is simply delicious with a light nuttiness that provides a great backdrop for the Santa Barbara Uni and Aonori Seaweed. The Katsuo Dashi (Bonito Broth) with Sudachi Citrus Zest also work very well with the ingredients. The Uni, however, is only about ~90% fresh with a subtle, but noticeable dark, briny quality that's not enticing. It's a good idea overall, just limited by tonight's quality of Uni.

The second course is the same as our first visit: Hotategai (Scallop), Momotaro Tomato and Grape Seed Oil.

As before, the Hotategai from Hokkaido, Japan is stellar, lightly sweet and juicy and perfectly matching the succulent Momotaro Tomato, which is *so* naturally sweet and fresh and cheery that the only thing that crossed my mind while eating this dish was one word: Outstanding.

The third course tonight is the same as our last visit as well: Kinmedai Nibitashi (Lightly Simmered Alfonsino). As before the Kinmedai fish (from Kyushu, Japan) is lightly blowtorched to give a good crisped skin while retaining the moistness of the meat within. The inclusion of the rare Komatsuna (Japanese Mustard Spinach) vegetable is a nice touch, having a nice crunch and fibrous quality, but still having a bit of the Spinach quality as well.

The fourth course is also a repeat with Hirame (Halibut) Sashimi with Black Summer Truffles (but no Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp) in the B course).

Tonight's Hirame is sourced from Korea. And sadly, like before, a great concept that's marred by too much Truffle Oil. There's also a piece of gristle/connective tissue in one of the slices of Hirame.

The next course rebounds nicely: Sanma (Mackerel Pike) Sashimi from Hokkaido, Japan.

Served with a Homemade Soy Sauce, Fresh-Grated Ginger, Wasabi and Myoga, I notice the reserved, quiet Shige-san almost beaming while waiting for my reaction to the Sanma. After I take a bite, I understand why: The Sanma from Hokkaido is like Toro, so sultry, sexy and buttery, nothing like the other fish with the "Mackerel" name. :)

It's so nice to have Myoga - this really herbaceous, dried ginger-like condiment - which adds a pine-y forest-like quality to a dish. With the Sanma, it's a good pairing, but so are the Fresh-Grated Ginger and Wasabi. Shige-san confides that they just had it flown in that morning from Hokkaido and it shows. Outstanding! (^_^)

Continuing on, I partially shudder but really hope that the last visit was a fluke with this dish: Grade A5 Kagoshima Wagyu Beef with Plum Compote.

Sadly, 1.5 months later, same results: Overcooked, medium-well Wagyu Beef from Kagoshima, Japan. There's still a buttery core, but so much of the precious Grade A5 Beef is just wasted. :(

The King Crab makes a return with Grilled Alaskan King Crab with Lemon.

The Alaskan King Crab is extremely oversalted and very briny, really diminishing the potential greatness of this simple dish.

The following dish is a nice follow-up and much more successful: Tarabagani Kansetsu Sate- (Sauteed Alaskan King Crab Joints).

Asanebo takes the meat from around the King Crab joints and sautees them with Asparagus, Shiitake Mushrooms, Butter and Togarashi Shichimi Pepper blend. There's a great quality butter flavor coming through along with the King Crab meat that's seasoned just right (not too salty).

The Nigiri (Sushi) portion starts at this point, and Shige-san starts off with Tai (Red Snapper) from Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan, and Tokishirazu (Cherry Salmon) from Hokkaido, Japan. As before, the Tai is garnished with a touch of Sea Salt and Lemon, but Shige-san also adds a touch of Yuzukosho (Yuzu Citrus and Chili Pepper Sauce). The Shari (Sushi Rice) is still a touch too moist / overcooked for my tastes, but it seems like that's Asanebo's style.

The Tokishirazu (Cherry Salmon) reflects the same pliable, slightly creamy quality and texture that stands out from the usual Salmon.

Instead of an Asari Dobinmushi that's served with the C course, they serve an Asari Miso Shiru (Littleneck Clam Miso Soup), which is just fine, a simple, refreshing Miso Soup but it lacks the delicate, airy quality of their fantastic Dobinmushi.

Next comes the Yaki Toro (Torched Fatty Tuna Belly) from Boston, and Bincho Maguro (Albacore Tuna) from Oregon.

I'm a little saddened to see Toro cooked at all, but taking a bite, I understand the reasoning on this evening: They are only able to get in fresh regular Toro (not the higher grade Chutoro or Ohtoro), and while the light torching gives the regular Toro a smoky, creamy quality, I hit a piece of gristle, and the overall taste lacks the brilliance of higher quality Toro I've had in the past.

The Bincho Maguro (Albacore Tuna) from Oregon fares better: Very soft, almost melting, creamy and mild. It's nice to get a piece like this once in a while as a contrast to the other pieces.

The next item is something I haven't had since the transcendent version at Kaito Sushi a few months ago: Anago (Saltwater Eel) from Korea. This version is prepared with a little Hawaiian Sea Salt, Yuzu Zest and Wasabi. It's lightly fragrant, but is rife with the little bones from the Anago. It's completely off-putting and I could barely finish it; a far cry from the hand-filleted version from Kaito and the legendary version at Sushi Mizutani.

Next up is a rare treat: Kensaki Ika (Kensaki Squid) and Engawa (Dorsal Fin of Flounder).

This is the first time I've had Kensaki Ika, from Nagasaki, Japan. As you begin to chew this rare Squid, there's a wave of creaminess that hits, followed by this thick, viscous quality as the Kensaki Ika is breaking down. It then maintains this thick, viscous chew for quite some time before it finally breaks down enough to swallow. It's like a big wad of squid-flavored chewing gum, but honestly, in a good way. It's a chewing challenge of sorts and something totally different than the usual varieties of Ika (Squid) found around town.

The Engawa (Dorsal Fin of Flounder) from Korea is something I was really looking forward to. I haven't had Engawa since my last visit to Tokyo. While this Engawa was extremely soft, it was also extremely fishy and tasted muddy (like uncleaned Catfish or Tilapia). Disappointing.

Shige-san finishes off with the classic ender, Tamago-yaki (Cooked Egg).

The Tamago is one way Sushi customers like to assess the skill of the Itamae (Sushi Chef) and in this case, I think Asanebo's Tamago is a microcosm of what Asanebo is all about: A light, moist, fluffy and very fresh layering of Cooked Egg, with a touch of Umeboshi (Japanese Plum) and Katsuobushi (Bonito Fish Shavings). It's a fancier enhancement of the traditional Egg and nicely executed.

In So Cal, it's harder and harder to find truly outstanding service while eating out these days. But Asanebo's service needs to be mentioned: Simply outstanding service during each of my visits. The waiters and waitresses would clear plates away immediately, never letting anything clutter your enjoyment of the meal. Hot Tea and Sake are refilled promptly, many times without us noticing as we were busy talking amongst ourselves and with the Sushi Chef. A turn of the head (away from the Sushi Bar) and a server would appear to see what one of our Sushi Hounds needed. It's really impressive.

Asanebo offers a la carte dishes, but their Omakase (Chef's Choice) meals are set up in 3 types (again, a nice touch to let the diners discreetly manage their spending under the free-flowing Omakase setting): "Omakase A" runs $75 - $100, "Omakase B" is $100 - $125, and "Omakase C" is $125+. For our first visit with the Omakase C course and only 1 bottle of premium Sake, we averaged $238 per person (including tax and tip). For the second visit with the Omakase B course (with 2 cups of Sake only), we averaged $200 per person (including tax and tip). At these prices Asanebo falls squarely into the Mori Sushi neighborhood, more expensive than Sushi Zo or Sasabune for that matter.

In looking at all that Asanebo has to offer, and now knowing the history of their 2 head chefs, it's clear that Asanebo isn't really "Fusion Sushi" or "Modern Sushi" but more "Matsuhisa-style Sushi." It provides some creative and interesting dishes not normally found in a traditional Omakase Sushi experience, as well as some rarer traditional offerings like Kensaki Ika (Kensaki Squid) and Tokishirazu (Cherry Salmon). While Chef Nobu Matsuhisa has garnered his share of grief and praise over the years, his influence is impressive. In So Cal, we've already seen his influence with chefs like Takashi Abe (of Abe and Bluefin fame), and now with Asanebo as well.

But in offering a variety of cooked dishes to go along with the traditional Sushi and Sashimi offerings, the restaurant is only as strong as its weakest link, and in this case, the chefs in the back kitchen (responsible for the cooked dishes) are really bringing down the potential that Asanebo has to offer. The fact that a kitchen can ruin a dish that's practically guaranteed to be a runaway hit (Grade A5 Wagyu Beef from Kagoshima, Chilean Sea Bass and Kurobuta Pork Belly) is shockingly disappointing. Maximum Grade A5 Wagyu Beef is a treasured item, and while it's almost expected to be flawless at the world-class Urasawa (and it is), even humbler establishments like The Steak House have been able to expertly cook Grade A5 Wagyu Filet Mignon with no problems. I don't mean to sound negative, but it's just frustrating to see great food ruined. There are some standouts like their Torched Scallops and Momotaro Tomatoes, and the fresh Sanma (Mackerel Pike) Sashimi from Hokkaido, but there are too many dishes that just miss the mark (slightly). If Asanebo can get better sourcing at times, and improve the chefs in their back kitchen, this could be another true destination in L.A.

Rating: 7.9 (out of 10.0)

11941 Ventura Blvd.
Studio City, CA 91604
Tel: (818) 760-3348

Hours: [Lunch] Tue - Fri, 12:00 p.m. (Noon) - 2:00 p.m.
[Dinner] Tues - Fri, 6:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Sat, 6:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Sun, 6:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Closed Mondays.


weezermonkey said...

Oh, man. This looks amazing, and made even better with great service!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

There are definitely some good dishes here, and the *great* service and cute, cozy ambiance goes a long way to make things better.

Ken said...

How does Asanebo compared with Kiyokawa or Mori on west LA?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Ken,

Overall, I've enjoyed my experiences with Mori far more than Asanebo. There are some gems at Asanebo, but for the price and quality and knifework, I find Mori Sushi to be my preference. I haven't gone to Kiyokawa yet. Thanks.

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