Sushi Zo - Another Perspective
This little sushi bar has been getting a lot of attention. We have seen numerous references to it being one of the top sushi bars in the area, with the notable exception of Urasawa. However, many fans complain of ill-treatment by Keizo, the Sushi Chef and owner. We decided to investigate and draw our own conclusions.
We made a reservation on a Friday for the same night and had no problems getting two nice seats at the bar in front of Keizo. The Omakase arrangement was explained to us both on the phone as well as when we were seated. We then then proceeded to feast on (I counted) 32 separate varieties of fish - mostly in sushi form. I have listed them below with our brief assessments of each. All in all, I find people's complaints about Keizo to be unfounded. He is obviously a little on the shy side, but more significantly, he is intensely focused on what he is doing. He is not rude, he is efficient.
We go to top sushi bars all over and frequently opt for the Omakase option. What we typically get is far less variety. Often there are two pieces of sushi (and larger pieces at that) per order, and a lot more rolls and filler dishes may be incorporated. I don't even think we had this much fish variety at Urasawa. 32 is A LOT. What others call "rude" I call "efficient." My husband used the term "assembly line." I think this is not wrong. Almost every piece is individually served on a small dish. Keizo does not even save time by putting multiple pieces on the same dish. As soon as you lifted the piece off the plate, a waitress would come by and whisk the plate away. No going after any stray rice kernels here...
I completely understand his need for focus. My husband often teases me as when I make shrimp at home I go into a similar mode - no one is allowed to talk to me as I have to put all my attention into each individual shrimp to make sure they are cooked exactly perfect, not under- nor over-cooked. I watched Keizo put the same passion into slicing and seasoning each of the 32 pieces for a room filled with people all at different stages of the 32 step process.
So the dish comes out, either by Keizo or a waitress, and you are given instruction: "No Soy Sauce" or "Little Soy Sauce." Yes, to me it was obvious without them telling me which was the appropriate option. But I have been eating this stuff for decades. Also, if Keizo would have to stop and think about whether or not the customer in front of him needed instruction, that would certainly make him less efficient and he risks making mistakes. And it would be even harder for him to train the waitresses to sort out the pros from the newbies. I am not offended when the Italian restaurant "demonstrates" the mixing of the olive oil and balsamic for bread dipping. Or when the Korean place tells me to add the red sauce to the Bibim bap. So why is this any different?
In regards to price, it was not cheap. We had ordered about $50 worth of Sake. Inclusive of that, the bill was $300. I am not clear if we could have stopped him sooner than we did; I know by the end I was slipping my husband most of my toro hand roll. At one point, he asked us if we wanted more, and we quickly declined. For the quality and quantity of fish we received, I have no quarrel with the price.
So far, I declare the venue, the chef, the quality of the fish, and even the price all well-above par.
However, I do have a criticism about some of the food itself. And this is where it gets really subjective. I really used to enjoy Sushi Sushi in BH. But then I made the mistake of going there too frequently. I quickly became attuned to the monotony of the same seasoning (kind of a soy/dashi thing) that they put on almost every fish. The original Sasabune and Nozawa clones use(d) a similar sauce. I like this sauce. But not on everything. It just kinda gets boring and actually has a stronger flavor profile than just plain soy sauce. We felt the fish, as good as it was, was losing its subtlety of flavor. So we eventually stopped going to Sushi Sushi.
Keizo does something a bit similar. He favors a sauce that he uses with some frequency that is also a soy/ponzu/dashi kind of flavor profile. But he adds a bit of ginger to it. After having it on a number of pieces, I finally decided I just didn't like it. I have never been one for gari (ginger) so this was just not my thing.
Another problem I had was his soy sauce. Clearly homemade, it possessed a wonderful smokiness and had a high degree of complexity. So high, in fact, that while it was a brilliant pairing with bigger flavored fishes like tuna and yellow tail, it all but overwhelmed the more delicate white fishes.
Finally, my last criticism was of the rice. As any true sushi aficionado knows, the rice is at least as important as the fish, and it requires a significant amount of expertise to prepare correctly. The flavor was spot on. And even the texture of the individual kernels was ideal. But something happened with the assembly of the rice base for the sushi pieces. When eating a piece of sushi meant to be dipped in soy sauce, it is expected that you should be able to invert the piece of sushi so that you are only dipping the fish gently into the soy (you only want a few drops) as to avoid contact with the rice. Well, any attempt at picking up the sushi and inverting it resulted in the rice ball breaking apart. This happened repeatedly. It was messy and awkward, especially considering the waitresses were in a hurry to grab the plates away.
All in all, Sushi Zo was quite good. I prefer it to Mori, Kiriko, Sushi Sushi, Nozawa and others. (I don't do the Nobu places at all.) My criticisms of Zo are subjective and relate to my personal palate. For me, Shibucho on Beverly is far better. The quality is comparable, the adornments used on the fish simpler and subtler. And yes, I do love his wine list of old Bordeaux and Burgundy to pair with the fish. It is still my favorite non-Urawasa option. I have not yet been to the Hump, Hiko, Sushi Gen, or Nishimura, which others have cited as better. I hope to try them soon.
The 32: (Miso to start)
1. Hama Hama oyster sashimi in the shell with ponzu
2. Amberjack sashimi - 2 pieces
3. Maguro Sashimi - 2 pieces
4. Halibut sushi - salt. quite nice
5. Hotate sushi - one of my favorites
6. Albacore sushi - too much ginger
7. Toro - This was weird; unevenly sliced thin pieces.
8. Aji - too much ginger
9. Mara (sp?) miso sauce overpowered
10. Yellow Tail
11. Ama Ebi - Huge Succulent Piece on warm rice. Spectacular. No heads.
12. Ankimo - served as sushi
13. Snapper- unclear on the variety, I think Black
14. Bonito - too much ginger
15. Striped Bass - Smoky soy overpowered
16. Salmon + Marinated kelp
17. red snapper
20. Ikura - it was kept marinated in a dashi based-broth that made the eggs quite smoky and very soft.
21. Uni - Spot on.
22. SkipJack - overpowered by garlic topping
23. Marugai (Giant Clam) - Great texture
24. Tako - Yuzu too strong
25. Crab Handroll - I thought it had too much mayo. Husband thought it was perfect
26. Sea Eel
27. Halibut Fin - too much shiso but great texture
29. Another variety of snapper
30. Toro Roll - Quality of Toro was not very good on this one. Clearly scraps. Needed scallion or something, it was flat-tasting
33. Yuzu Cocktail - This was sweetened juice from the bottle. I regularly buy this stuff from the asian markets and was not impressed by it.
9824 National Blvd Unit C
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Phone: (310) 842-3977
This is also posted on my blog:
The last time I had went to Sushi Zo I had a pretty mixed experience; we had a few dirty looks from Keizo because I had brought my son (or so I had imagined.) Left with the biggest tab ever at $130 pp and wasn't sure when i'd go back or if I'd be welcome. But having just returned from Mexico and craving sushi I decided to give it another try, so I went on Tuesday night.
I was alone and after I reassured them I have eaten there before and would get the omakase I was seated me on the far right of the sushi bar. As a result I didn't make eye contact with Keizo almost the whole time. The young Japanese man (should have gotten his name) who was my chef was very friendly, he said "Nice to see you again."
Here's what I had, and the (*) were my favorites:
1. Kumamoto (sp) oyster
2./3. Tuna/wasabi and amberjack/jalipeno sashimi (2 pieces each)
5. Live scallop
7./8. Toro (2 pieces nigiri) - felt the sauce overpowered the wonderful fish
10. * Salmon
11. * Hamachi
12. ** Seared Butterfish - with the miso glaze... my favorite...
14. Sweet shrimp
15. Golden eye snapper
16. Yellow stripe jack - all the snappers and jacks seem to taste the same by now.
17. **Spanish mackerel - As with the toro wish they'd go easier on that sauce
18. * Red snapper - the best of the jacks or snappers
19. Giant Clam - Not a big fan but I appreciated the different texture to break up the monotony of the jacks and the snappers.
20. Salmon roe - this was my least favorite, yet I found myself quickly eating every last little ball before the plate was whisked away.
21. *Toro hand roll - Wonderful but it pushed me over the edge and I had to tell them to stop at that point, so they didn't make me a blue crab roll, which was fine.
22. Yuzu drink - always the crowning touch to a wonderful dinner.
The bill came to $100 and change for all the sushi plus one Kirin on tap. I debated whether to check the bill.. on the one hand I don't want to offend them but on the other hand they make mistakes all the time... I decided to check it-- I'm glad I did, because I noticed two extra toros on there (they charged me for 4 toros plus a toro handroll) so they apologized, quickly redid the bill subtracting over $10. So with tax and 20% tip the new total was $105. Even though this was on the high end of what I've paid in the past (in some cases, $40 more), I was still very happy with the amount and quality of sushi I had for the price.
As I was leaving and saying goodbye Keizo and I finally made eye contact and he gave me a very warm hearty smile and said goodbye with my first name, which made me feel even better.
My feelings of the place have probably had more twists and turns than any other, but for now anyway, I'm back on the Sushi Zo bandwagon.
Dirty looks? I'm surprised. I've gone with my child and Keizo loves that. My friend also brings her son. I'm guessing Keizo was concerned about whether your child would want california rolls. All day long they're dealing with people who want fusion sushi, turning people away, basically.
I'm glad you're on the bandwagon after all.
Shibutani moved to LA in 1972 and opened Shibucho on Beverly. His friend Shige moved from Tokyo the next year and began working in Little Tokyo downtown. Several years later (I never asked how many) Shibutani moved to OC and opened Shibucho OC while Shige moved in to Shibutani's old spot on Beverly. It's been that way ever since, although Shige added a bit of red wine to the experience...
Well, Shibutani has only been in OC since about 2002 or 2003, and he had a hold of Shibucho on Yahoan Plaza, 333 S. Alameda until at least about 1998.
And yeah, Shige at Shibucho on Beverly does have quite a heavy hitter list of older Bordeaux an Burgundy on a reserve list that he purchases from a myriad of wine auctions. Most wines on the reserve list run in the hundreds of dollars.
Yep more or less the same experience for me a year ago http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/437185
Where I also commented then that 85% of what K-Zo san crafted for me in the nigiri Zomakase, the shari felt apart whenever I picked it up with my fingers. With chopsticks this is not really an issue. This is where warm rice and saucing fish where excess drips over gets into the rice and breaks it apart (also warm rice doesn't compact as tightly).
Based on the places you've been and the ones you haven't yet it seems like Zo is therefore the best sushi in LA (and therefore possibly the country).
I'm sure Keizo would love to stop saying what requires soy sauce and what doesn't but to most people it isn't always clear, especially on items such as scallops, where each sushi chef does it his own way.
Discounting Urasawa, for me Shibucho on Beverly is better. The quality is comparable to Zo but I prefer Shige's simpler preparation of the fish. Secondary to this but not unimportant is that Shibucho does have a more intimate and friendly environment as well as a very wine-friendly approach. (Although I dread parking in that neighborhood) But I think Zo is really up there, especially if you like ginger.
It seems cheaper to me, but I have seen posts that are inconsistent with that statement. When I go, the omakase tends to fall between $80-$100 pp. But you really have to dissect what is included. I always have more toro with Shige versus my one visit to Zo. Shige has bigger pieces, but there are other non-fish only items like sashimi salads. Shige also always includes two special bonus items. He is french trained as well as japanese so there is always one japanese-franco/italian dish mixed into the omakase. I have fond memories of a delightful and surprisingly light eggplant parm made from japanese eggplant. Also, there is always french pastry for dessert. I once had an amazing pear poached in 20-year old burgundy. He used to include a small cheese course but I haven't had that in a number of years.
Curious if you were eating with your hands and rice still fell apart. I can eat at Nozawa (quickly) with my hands and the rice doesn't fall apart.
Do you mean soy/mirin sauce? That sounds closer to Nozawa and Sasabune, I don't know how you could taste dashi too much over soy and fish.
Lastly, judging by your post, you appreciate a "good sushi man" as my Japanese friends say. Sushi Gen is good, the Hump a bit "upscale" for my tastes but you might be disappointed. Nishimura (who used to work at R23 and then the Hump) is more of what it sounds like you would appreciate, however, a reservation at Nishimura as an unknown might be a letdown as well. You may want to check out Shibucho, I would be interested in your comparison.
Yes, we do eat sushi with our hands, and we do not have a problem at Nozawa or any of the places I listed. I really tried to be quick and was ok with some pieces, not with others. As long as I did not have to flip the piece into the soy I was fine. I eventually gave up the flip and kinda went for a semi-vertical approach which was kind of a compromise.
I am not sure if there was mirin in there, I did not get sweetness. The reason I said dashi was because of the hint of bonito/kelp flavor. I guess there could be mirin in dashi too, come to think of it. Not sure if you caught my comment about Shibucho, it was towards the bottom, but that was exactly what I was comparing it too, and I much prefer Shigo's style. I have not been to the one in OC yet...was that what you meant?
BTW, Keizo treated us well, I did not feel penalized as an unknown. Sushi Gen is probably my next experiment as posts from others on Nishimura and Hump sound like there is a certain pretentiousness and excessive cost associated with them. I do want to eventually see for myself, tho.
Missed the Shibucho line. I think for the cognoscenti, Shige may have the best "affordable" sushi bar in town. He also may have the best wine list I have ever seen, considering wines on his list are less than retail, and given an omakase approach to wines, it can be even better. Last time I was there, a comped vintage Barolo appeared simply because we had a talk about Italian wines.
Good luck with Sushi Gen, I like it for a straightforward Nigiri along the lines of the places near Tsukiji. I gave up on Nishimura and the Hump.