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Say it Ain't So, Zo...

Right after I had made my umpteeth post raving about Sushi Zo and how reasonably-priced it is, I had my first somewhat disappointing experience there on Saturday night. I went with a friend who had never been there before. Turns out that Keizo and my friend are on a first name basis, from when Keizo was at Hide. My friend had been asking for him after he left but not surprisingly, nobody at Hide would fill him in.

We both ordered the omakase. They didn’t ask what size and we didn’t specify, although we should have, because the bill for Saturday night’s “regular” omakase was about $70 each (pretax and tip, omakase only, drinks not included… I think it was $69, to be exact), compared to the $45.50 “small” omakase I had a few weeks ago. This is how they compared, and all are one piece unless noted differently:

Both omakases had the following: hamachi, albacore, red snapper, black snapper, toro, salmon, yellow-striped jack, sweet shrimp, scallop and a blue crab hand roll.

The “small” omakase had a kumamoto oyster, five pieces of steamed monkfish liver, pompano, butterfish, anago, shirako and skipjack.

The “regular” omakase had 3 pieces of amber jack sashimi, 2 pieces of bluefin tuna nigiri, mackerel, halibut (I don't remember if it was one or two), giant clam, another bluefin tuna and a big-eye tuna.

After recovering from the sticker shock, paying the bill (an even $100 per person after the drink, tax and generous tip) and leaving, my friend and I talked about how it was a great dinner but so much more expensive than either one of us thought. It was about 40% more than the small omakase and over three times more than my first visit to Sushi Zo, when I went a la carte but left feeling full. Saturday night neither one of us was exactly stuffed, either. It was a shame to leave there anything but elated, as I’ve done after every previous visit.

In comparing the two I would have to say that the small omakase was about the same size, I was more full after the small omakase, the small omakase had slightly better pieces (esp. considering the relatively rare shirako). I’m trying to figure out why Saturday’s tab was so much higher for about the same size and not-as-great selection omakase. I’ve concluded that the bill on the small omakase was a mistake. Or that if you indicate that you don’t want and/or can’t afford the “regular” one they’ll charge you less for basically the same dinner. Or maybe the bluefin is much more expensive. Or they'll cut you breaks until you become a regular. Or if you’re a woman dining alone. Or maybe he figured my friend could afford more (though we ended up going dutch.) I have no idea, it could be anything.

Regardless, I’m still a Zo fan, but from now on I’m either going to order a la carte or specify the small omakase and readily admit that I can’t afford the “regular” one. Hopefully Saturday was the last time I drop three digits there.

Input please?

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  1. I never know how much the omakase is until after I receive the bill. Unlike other places, there isn't a set price for omakase - Keizo makes a note of everything you're served and tallies it up at the end. Naturally, the "better" the pieces are, the more your bill will be. Whenever I go, I just assume I'll be paying at least $70-90 (at the least).........

    Having gone enough times, my sister and I designed our own "menu" and order a la carte. The bill came out to about $40pp. Of course, we didn't eat as much as we normally would have if we did omakase, but at least we didn't have to pay $4.40 or something for an item we particularly didn't care for (the needlefish or ikura, for instance. I can totally do without and would rather have another order of shimaji or uni).

    2 Replies
    1. re: MeowMixx

      this is correct, the omakase is not a set menu nor price. the items are tabulated on the sushi menu sheet, probably at the end and not as the meal progresses along.

      i was just there last fri night for dinner and there was an error on the bill for 2 of the items, 3 crab rolls instead of 1 and 4 kanpachi sashimi pieces instead of 6.

      i do think that zo is pricey however. charging $2.8 per piece (same as nigiri price) of kampachi sashimi comes out to $8.4 per dish of 3 slices. also, the size and cut of the fish over nigiri could be more generous. i was not full at the end of meal but it was getting late and i had been there over 2 hrs. i'm usually full when the bill totals $150 for 2, no sake (nozawa, azami, tama).

      1. re: zack

        Funny that you bring up the error in the billing -- I've encountered that a few times. A friend was overcharged $20 awhile back. Staff has always been really gracious about it; they seem pretty overwhelmed when it gets packed. I've noticed that they experiment with different ways of taking orders from tables -- sometimes they have people order in "bulk" (4 orders of scallop, 2 blue crab rolls, etc), and sometimes they go around and get each person's order. The accumulation of so many little slips of paper probably adds to the inadvertent errors!

    2. the thing is if you order off the menu, you can control how much the price is going to be, but then again, 35-40 per person, will not get you much sushi.

      sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it sounds like the 45 per, you paid for the previous small omakase, was definitely an outlier, mistake, or he just really liked you and wanted to give you a deal for being a great customer or new customer or whatever.

      lastly, when you listed al the those items previously for the "small omakase" my first reaction was that doesn't really sound small to me.

      1. I'm inclined to agree that your previous "small" omakase price was a mistake because the number of items on that list seemed to be the same or more than we've had on our two visits to Zo where we had omakase at around $75 or so. In fact I was kind of incredulous when I read your other post, and I thought maybe it had been a mistake.

        I remembered Keizo from Hide and I hadn't eaten at Hide for many years, and he remembered me as evidenced by him greeting me by first name on our first visit to Zo, and I don't think that we got any special treatment other than superb food, nor would I have expected any special treatment (not that you did), thus strengthening my conclusion that your "small" omakase price was a mistake.

        I didn't even know until reading your other post that there was a "small" omakase option because I didn't think it was a set price. At least we had some input on how much we wanted to eat. On our second visit I specified I didn't want the ikura because I didn't really like the way he prepared the ikura even though I like ikura in general. I think I requested double uni instead since his uni was so freakin' delicious.

        I think the fish quality at Zo is fabulous but sadly it's too expensive not to mention too far away from home to eat there as often as we would like which would otherwise be once a week because it's so good.

        1. My first time to Zo I was surprised by an $80 tab for omakase. I still go once in a while, but I've learned not to stuff myself silly, and that usually gets me back to around the $50 level.

          It's expensive, but still... it's a good place to tide me over until I can get to Shibucho in Costa Mesa. :)

          1. Yeah the bill for the "small" probably was a mistake. Actually, they apparently made mistakes my first two visits. The first time I ordered a la carte and I added it up in my head and it came out to about $5 more than what they actually charged me. Then the "small" omakase must have been a really big mistake. The third time I went I wasn't that hungry so I ordered a la carte from a table. Was charged the correct amount to the penny. Then I guess we were billed the correct (high) amount for the regular omakase.

            The other thing that was a little off putting was that when they asked, I specifically said I didn't want mackerel or the red or black snappers. Mackerel because I had hated it at another place eons ago, and the snappers not because I hate, but because they didn't seem to be anything special. But he served us all three. The snappers he may have forgotten that I had specifically said no, but the mackerel he intentionally made me try. He kept saying, "close your eyes, you'll like it." I did like it, but I didn't really like that my request was disregarded.

            Oh, later today I remembered that he also served us tamago on Saturday, but that shouldn't have added much of anything to the bill.

            I get the feeling they are rubbed the wrong way when people don't go omakase, which I think is a little unfair. For instance, that night I ordered the "small" I sat next to a guy that goes in alone and sits at the bar a couple times a week. Not only has he never gotten the omakase but he orders the same three things every time (yellowtail, albacore and mackerel, I think.) Keizo wouldn't speak to him and the guy laughed about how Keizo hates him because he doesn't venture to try anything new. He was good natured about Keizo's chilliness but I think it's odd to treat a regular loyal customer that way. Even though he may not drop $100 every visit, he ends up spending that much per week by going in there so often.

            I'll probably come up with my own a la carte menu that will be less fish but at least it will be priced right and I'll get exactly what I want (I think I've tried everything now.) They might not like it but that's too bad!

            Thanks everyone for your input.

            4 Replies
            1. re: chowmominLA

              If a chef served me something I'd specifically told him I didn't want, I'd never go back.

              Did he charge you for it?

              1. re: Alimentary My Dear Watson

                Because it was an omakase and the bill isn't itemized, I have no way of knowing for sure, but because it was $70, I'm guessing, yeah, I was charged for all three things I specifically said I didn't want.

                The other thing is, the time before that when I went a la carte, I ordered salmon but the waitress brought me mackerel, thinking I had said "saba". I said I was sorry but I ordered salmon, and that I actually really don't like mackerel. Anything else I probably would have just eaten. So she took it back and they didn't charge me for it (and brought me salmon instead.) Maybe Keizo forcefeeding the mackerel to me stems from that misunderstanding, maybe I offended him. Who knows....

                At least I discovered I really like mackerel, I'll give him that.

                1. re: chowmominLA

                  With the proliferation of more clones in the vein of Nozawa, with the tuna sashimi at the beginning and the blue crab hand rolls at the very end, most of the new joints that are opening should really do something more to set themselves apart, or else why not go to Nozawa or maybe Sasabune (which when you think about it are really not pricier than Sushi Zo if you take a look at the median bills for Zo). But anyways, one thing Zo did at the beginning that was pretty darn great was the fact that you could actually order by the piece off the menu at the actual Sushi Bar, you weren't constricted to the omakase route at the bar. At other sushi joints in the Chef's Choice:Trust me vein you have to order the Omakase at the bar, and only the tables are reserved for your own personal a la carte.

                  I applaud Zo for at least allowing you to order by the piece, which is a good idea. Not to mention the fact that on a different note they served a couple Japanese beers on tap, something you don't see very often at other sushi bars that only have bottled beers. Oh, and Zo does have a decent sake collection (compared to the token one or two sakes served at Nozawa).

                  But if Zo's prices are creeping up, and he's not be as accomodating as before what sets him apart? Nozawa still has some of the best fish in town (on a mostly consistent basis, there is the occasional blimp where it's just ok, which in my opinion still beats the heck out of most sushi joints around town). On my three or so visits to Zo the fish was good (better than Echigo) but nothing truly special. Granted he does offer more variety than Nozawa since he serves by the piece so you can try a great number of different species (trying getting some black cod or pink scallops or kanpachi or the highly praise shirako at nozawa) but still Nozawa/the newSasabune on Wilshire is better quality wise (recent bill at Sasabune was a little over 60 with tip, so not cheap, but in the same ballpark as Zo). I enjoyed the fact that you could order on your own at Zo's bar, but now that they are truly frowning on that, what sets it apart?

              2. re: chowmominLA

                the times that i've been there he's NEVER given me anything that i had asked him to avoid. i'm surprised and sort of saddened to hear this news.

              3. i think it all depends. though i'm fairly friendly with keizo by now (even interviewed him for a local paper once) i don't think he's one to give breaks just to people he knows. i've had omakase in the $60 range and, the last time i went, i could have sworn it was $100+ for me alone (no alcohol). i usually go with XX chromosomes who basically eat half the amount of food i eat, so they tend to tell him once they get full and he stops. i just keep right on cranking though. one of the cues you can go with is that he will usually say something like "how are you doing" or "are you alright?" at which point you can tell him to stop or say you want to keep on eating. usually i wind up barrelling right on ahead and my credit card gets mad at me.

                1. One of the Problems with High-end Omakase are the components. Blue-fin can be 16- a lb or 65- per lb wholesale depending on quality and oil content. Because of the variance of available fish and quality levels the costs can be all over the place which can end up on your check by the end of the night.
                  Even thought I like Sushi Zo it's not one of our normal pit-stops for Omakase when were in WLA.
                  We much prefer Sasabune (wilshire) and have a better insight to what were having for dinner , no surprises? Just had lunch at Sasabune in Honolulu last week, very good! 75-ea. Best Sushi in Honolulu, period!

                  1. I didn't even know they had another location! Are you sure it wasn't Todai?

                    just kidding...

                    13 Replies
                    1. re: chowmominLA

                      chowmom, i was there w/ my gf on saturday night as well. were you sitting at the corner w/ another gentleman at about 8:30? we were by the right wall, right in front of his new sous chef, Kazu who was very nice. If so, i was in sticker shock as well. my very first time eating at sushi zo right when they opened, our total came to $150 w/ full omakase AND ordered at least 6-7 extra pieces of fish total. that was a lot. the 2nd time i went, the bill came out to $220 with 4 beers ($20) - but we got full omakase AND again, 6-7 extra pieces. we got screwed on the blue crab hand roll which is good but not worth $10 per roll. there was also another fish that was nearly $13/piece. we were a bit shocked. this last saturday, we did about 13-14 pieces of fish... did not get the blue crab hand roll - but got the super o-toro he kept trying to sell us every few minutes. total with 2 beers $170. we could've eaten more but knew the bill was going to be exorbitant. you mention that there's a cheaper vs. full omakase - this i am unaware of. but everytime i go to zo, he's getting more and more expensive. i think the next time i go, i may just do what meowmix does - customizes her own menu... that way i can avoid sticker shock. overall, the meal was great... he made a new dish that i hope to have again - uni with squid noodles... awesome.

                      1. re: eatdrinknbmerry

                        Hi, yep that was me and my friend :0) You know, every time I go there I glance around the restaurant and wonder who the Chowhounders are. I think I saw you and your GF and wondered if you were CHers as well!

                        1. re: chowmominLA

                          i am poor now and eating cup o' noodles. i do the same when i'm there - not like people are going to be holding up a sign that says CH or sporting a CH sweater.

                        2. re: eatdrinknbmerry

                          Oh my gawwwwd I love the uni with squid noodles. Had that my first time there - maybe that's why I'm so hooked....

                          1. re: MeowMixx

                            Meowmixx, i'm still thinking about it right now. telling my coworker about it. mmm.

                            1. re: eatdrinknbmerry

                              I just sent out a mass email to my friends to see who could go with me....I need my Zo fix NOW.

                              1. re: MeowMixx

                                Funny. I just emailed DH and said I'm craving the toro roll. We go to Zo a lot since it's in our neighborhood and we really really like it. It is expensive and can really add up though. I keep telling myself that we'll save a lot of money when we decide to have a baby and sushi goes off my radar.

                                1. re: Snoopy

                                  Take it from a relatively new mom CHer: sushi NEVER goes off your radar.

                                  1. re: chowmominLA

                                    LOL ... Yes it does ...

                                    Take it from a CHer with two sons with massive appetites (though they are both so thin).

                                    Sushi goes off the radar when you're paying for four meals every time out ... at least it did for us ...

                                    1. re: PaulF

                                      It's a bit different as a single parent, I think. I'll just have sushi for lunch or when my son is with his dad (that's what I do now.) If my son is a sushi fiend like his mom, we'll have to go to a lot of kaitens and places like Hide and Sushi Don or supermarket sushi. But sushi WILL always be on my radar.

                        3. re: chowmominLA

                          are you talking aboutt sasabune?

                          it took over the old todai location on wilshire, and the sawtelle mexican deli locale is now shuttered.

                          to date there are now three locations of Sasabune in the country, one in Honolulu, the other on Wilshire in West LA, and the newest member of the now-trio on NY's UES.

                          1. re: kevin

                            Yeah Sasabune has always been one of my favorite spots, both the old and new location. I just never knew that it had any other locations (other than my beloved Sushi Don, a take-out spot in Valley Village.) Did the Honolulu one just open up??? I was just there in December and on a chowhunt for some great sushi, and I'm surprised no one pointed me there. I ended up eating at Mitch's Sushi Bar on a CH recommendation that was very good, although I would have preferred a Sasabune.

                        4. when i had the omakase dinner at sushi zo i too found it insufficient for the price.
                          similar experience at sushi dokoro ki ra la in the old cafe blanc space on little sm.

                          this is why i continue to rate sasabune, hiko, even kiriko as a notch better than zo.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: jcwla

                            My experience at Sasabune was fantastic. Omakase with beer tax and tip came out to ~$75pp and everyone feeling completely satisfied.

                          2. It crushes me to come to this realization, but I'm in agreement with the people who are tending back to Sasabune. My first reaction to Zo was that it was reminiscent of and as good as Sasabune, but much less expensive so it was clearly the better alternative. Now I see the prices are actually about the same. With sushi being about the same, and prices being about the same, I might tend toward Sasabune simply because I won't have to roll the dice before getting hit with the bill. Maybe the omakase at Sasabune and a la carte at Zo is the way to go.

                            The last time we went to Sasabune was for my birthday. All six of us had STUFFED ourselved on the omakases and couldn't move. When I asked for a box to take my blue crab roll home so I could eat it later that night, they refused to give me one, on the principle that sushi is not meant to be taken home. That really turned me off. If I paid for a crab roll, I should be allowed to eat it there, take it home, eat it that night or in a week or wear it as a hat or whatever. I think I ended up hiding it in my purse, eating it later that night and it was fine. Ridiculous.

                            That being said, the fact that I was stuffed beyond belief after a $70 omakase speaks volumes. I might go back there but bring a little piece of saran wrap to smuggle home leftovers just in case.

                            1. Yes but I think there's a huge difference between actively selling sushi to go, and accommodating the simple request of a customer by giving them something (that's already been paid for) to wrap it in, along with a strong admonition against waiting more than 10 minutes or so before refrigerating it or eating it.

                              1. So I finally satisfied my Zo cravings last night. Had a great time. It's so nice how Keizo remembers us and greets us by name when we walk in. He's a really nice guy and checked in on us from time to time to make sure we were happy :)

                                My sis and I each had an order of: kanpachi, hamachi, shimaji, aji, anago, butterfish, ankimo, blue crab hand roll and two orders of uni. Came out to $66 before tax n tip. Definitely better than going the omakase route. The people next to us were served shirako - after reading about it on this board, I just couldn't bring myself to try it. Maybe one day.......

                                2 Replies
                                  1. re: wilafur

                                    ok, mister i-eat-at-opus-all-the-time ;)

                                1. Zo is an easy 80 pp, period. keizo couldn't be friendlier. i can't imagine him giving
                                  someone something he didn't want. we all make errors. i saw him accomodate a kosher diner. it isn't the place for someone that is thinking money with each piece and one definitely gets better fish at the bar for omakase. i do think it is a fabulous, clean place. if one doesn't want to pay a lot then order a la carte.

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: epop

                                    "it isn't the place for someone that is thinking money with each piece"

                                    epop hit the nail on the head i think. it is customary to not ask about the price if you sit down for an omakase in japan... in fact it is considered rude to do so. zo is such a traditional style sushi-ya that if you go there and put your faith in the chef's hands, you should really expect a premium experience, expect to pay a premium price, and not take it for granted.

                                    also look at it this way. nobody is ever forced or pressured into omakase (unless you go to nozawa, at which it's part of the whole sushi nazi gimmick), but if you do opt for it, it's all about that trust. imho, zo is definitely worth it, even if he has "raised the prices," and even if that means i can't afford to eat there too often. nozawa is worth it too, if i'm knowingly and willingly going there and willing to fork out the dosh.

                                    that said, when places have omakase with listed prices and "levels" like Tama in the valley and even Kiriko (which I do love in its own right) it's really an accomodation for non-japanese diners. if you go somewhere, order omakase, and are disappointed, then by all means, stick to a la carte.

                                    i guess my point is, don't judge a place by its omakase alone, if at all. and don't think about the price too much, just be prepared to put a hole in your wallet if you order it. good omakase is really something of a privilege, and traditionally, the more you build up a relationship with a sushi chef, the better the fish you'll get. by then, you should be loving your favorite sushi-ya so much that it should be bulletproof to criticism. the LA times even had a big food feature on how that all works, maybe a year or so ago. everyone has their favorites anyway; this must be why the sushi shop debate is neverending on these boards!

                                    1. re: rameniac

                                      but the problem is (and i agree that the way omakase should work is what the chef truly believes is freshest that day rather than a prix-fixe set beginning with an olbligatory tuna sashimi (usu. ice cold) and ending with a blue crab handroll) most people do want to have an idea of what they'll be paying.

                                      so i walk in a sushi bar, sit down, nod my head, when the chef asks "omakase?", and when the bill arrives get hit with a bill for $350. so i'm not supposed to know what i'm getting into. that seems wrong to me. Granted you can ask a friend who's been there before what the price range is so they don't get shell-shocked when visiting.

                                      and i highly agree with omakase = whatever the chef recommends that day rather than the ubiquitous omakase = set prixe fixe.

                                      for what it's worth sasabune lists a japanese omakase and the american omakase at the front desk near the door with a beginning price range for each.

                                      now, on to the yuzu lemonade juice thing-y, can one get it without ordering omakase? thanks.

                                      once again when most are spending 75 to 80 per (not including drinks, tax, or tip), then don't want just a good sushi meal but an excellent sushi meal.

                                      1. re: kevin

                                        My point exactly. It's not the high prices I mind, it's the uncertain, and sometimes arbitrary high prices. If and when I can afford a dinner at Urusawa, I'm not going to bitch about the bill, because I'll know full well I could be spending $500. I prefer the way Sasabune handles the pricing with two general price levels. And a lot of places like Matsuhisa and Nobu have a "small", 'medium" and "large" omakases. Each one would be different based on what's fresh and what's special, but at the the price is somewhat set beforehand.

                                        So from now on I'll either go a la carte or specify what I can pay from the beginning. And if I do the regular omakase (e.g., if I'm there with someone wanting to do a regular one), I won't "think about money with every piece" but just assume it's going to be about $100 when all is said and done. And anything less will be a pleasant surprise.

                                        1. re: chowmominLA

                                          i stopped into the hump alone one day and i said i had 45 minutes, allowed the chef to choose. he did a horrid job of serving me though the place was empty. he shaved a huge plate of red snapper sashimi for me then the same with halibut and that would've been fine for a long meal and a big table but it was awful and i left hungry and down 175 dollars. i was so angry and haven't been back.

                                          but Zo is respectful and accomodating, thx to Keizo, in charge of it all. i can't imagine writing the posts above, where sasabune is still praised. to me that is money down the sink, for what it is.

                                          people go to bars and order a bottle of champagne and don't ask the price but when it comes to fabulous food they suddenly become stingy. i don't get it. yes, it ought to be an issue but at one of the best sushi places in the country with a guy offering a tremendous culinary experience, i think that is the important part of it, instead of all the wasted time one can have with money at most places...

                                  2. I've already digested the fact that if i do omakase at Sushi zo, it'll be $100. But i'm going there this friday and ordering a la carte: butterfish, ANKIMO, bluefin toro, the uni/squid spaghetti (if he has it). we'll see how it is a la carte style.... i could back out last minute and just go with zo's way.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: eatdrinknbmerry

                                      Don't forget the kanpachi. Or the hamachi. Or the oyster. I could go on.......

                                    2. Had Sushi Zo Friday night with my sister. The place was completely packed! Keizo was so busy that the timing of our sushi came out all wacky - sometimes one RIGHT after another, at other times we were waiting 5 minutes. Had a great bottle of live sake - apparently only available in the spring. Hamachi, aji, toro, salmon (eh), ankimo (sooo guuuuud), two orders of uni (it's THAT good), and a blue crab hand roll. Came out to $60 (excluding tax, tip and sake).

                                      1. I was at Zo on Thursday night and ate my biggest meal there to date: 13 pieces of sushi and 3 hand rolls, one beer and 1/3 bottle of sake. Hey, I was hungry! : ) After tax and tip, the meal came to $80/person. I have yet to do the omakase, and always have the intention, but it still hasn't happened yet. I also feel like I ate 3/4 of what was on the menu, so aside from the famed yuzu juice and a few of the specialty dishes Keizo puts together, I'm not sure how different it would be from my a la carte experience. $80 is the most I've spent at Zo and I thought it was good value for the quality, and this included alcohol!
                                        One day I'll do the omakase, one day ......

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: Skorgirl

                                          my guess is that if you had omakase of the same size along with the same amount of drink you'd probably come out spending a little over $100 out the door (including tax and tip).