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In Photos: We Eat Everything at Sushi Zo, or, Probably Second Best After Urasawa

When asked about the best sushi in Los Angeles, most serious eaters (me included) will respond with Urasawa. In fact, I'm fairly confident that those who don't, simply haven't been. Now, given that Urasawa is at the top of the hierarchy, the question then of who's number two becomes more interesting. A lot of people would say Mori Sushi, some the infamous Sushi Nozawa, or perhaps Sushi Sasabune, maybe even Go's Mart, but the most common answer I hear is the topic of this post: Sushi Zo.

Chef/owner Keizo Seki (most just call him "Keizo") opened Sushi Zo in the middle of 2006, around the time when his daughter was born (a sign of good luck according to Seki-san). Keizo was a student in Osaka when he decided to become a sushi chef, and soon thereafter began an apprenticeship at a sushi restaurant in the Meguro ward of Tokyo. He later immigrated to the US, and spent several years at the dependable but unassuming Hide Sushi before branching out on his own.

Like many sushi greats, Keizo makes his own special shoyu, or soy sauce, and gets much of his raw ingredients shipped from Japan. He also subscribes to the somewhat controversial "warm rice" school, and indeed, on cursory glance, his style does bear a resemblance to the Nozawa/Sasabune way of doing things. No matter, Keizo must be doing something right, as he has drawn legions of followers from amongst the SoCal foodie crowd. It was time for me to see what all the warm fuss was about.

I was seated in the corner of the L-shaped bar, nearly right in front of Keizo. Once seated, our waitress warned us that the place served traditional sushi only and, once we agreed to that, asked about any food restrictions we might have ("I'll eat anything" is the correct answer here). There were three people behind the counter, and interestingly, though Keizo was right in front of us, he didn't actually place the individual pieces of sushi before us, instead, leaving that task to the waitresses (who also instructed us on the use of soy, e.g. "no soy" or "little soy"). Keizo is a man of few words, as he remained silent throughout most of the night, only gradually opening up towards the end of the experience.

Given the limited selection of booze, we decided to kick things off with sake: a bottle of Tsukasabotan Tokubetsu Junmai "Senchu Hassaku" ("Eight Point Plan") [$60.00]. Founded in 1603, the producer, Tsukasa Botan, is one of the oldest breweries in Kochi prefecture, on Shikoku island. The sake here is their mid-end selection, and is made from Yamada Nishiki rice polished to roughly 57%, resulting in an alcohol content in the 15.5% range. I noted a light airiness to the drink, with a mildly sweet and creamy aroma leading to a dry, yet fruity palate. Not overly complex, but effective, with a smooth, straightforward finish.

Now the food:

1: Kumamoto Kaki/Oyster [$2.80]
I've always been fond of Kumamotos, and this dish reaffirmed their status as my oyster of choice. The example here, heightened by the application of ponzu, momiji oroshi and scallion, was clean, light, crisp, and tangy, with a pleasant, lingering brininess on the finish.

2: Maguro/Tuna Sashimi [$12.00]
Next, a simple sashimi course of bluefin tuna. This could've turned out very boring (as tuna tends to), but was actually a pleasant surprise. The maguro had a very pleasing texture to it--tender, yet with a bit of chew to it, and was suitably oily. The light sauce added complexity upon first taste, while the dollops of wasabi gave the sashimi a biting, spicy finish.

3: Ika/Squid Noodle with Uni/Sea Urchin [$6.00]
Now this was an interesting dish. What we have is squid "noodles" smothered in a creamy sea urchin roe "sauce." The uni really came to the fore here, with the squid taking a backseat. In fact, had I not been told of the squid, I could've easily mistaken the "noodles" for actual noodles, as they were very soft and not chewy at all.

4: Awabi/Baby Abalone [$25.00]
The abalone itself was rather mild, with just a hint of brininess, and had a crunchy, slightly rubbery consistency. It wasn't particularly exciting on its own, but really opened up with the use of yuzu kosho ("yuzu and pepper"), a condiment made from yuzu zest, chili peppers, and salt. It added an absolutely fascinating spicy yet salty yet sour kick to the abalone that really took the dish to another level.

5: Hirame/Halibut [$2.60]
No soy. The hirame was a nice way to start off the nigiri portion of the meal. Halibut isn't particularly strong tasting, and initially, all I got was a sort of general fishiness spruced up by a very slight citrus-y twang, followed up by a wasabi kick. Gorgeous texture on this one.

6: Hotate/Scallop [$2.70]
Little soy. A fantastic soft, yet firm texture along with a wonderfully delicate, sweet scallop flavor combined here to form one of the best preparations of scallop sushi I've had.

7: Aji/Spanish Mackerel [$2.70]
No soy. Aji is quickly becoming one of my favorite fishes, and this example shows why. There was just enough of that signature mackerel fishiness to make this interesting, but it didn't overpower like it sometimes does. Instead, the flavor was complemented perfectly by the tart sauce and strong ginger-y finish.

8: Ha-Gatsuo/Skipjack Tuna [$2.80]
No soy. Skipjack is a relatively rare fish to find; I've only had it before at Echigo and Urasawa. I wish it were more common, as it turned out to be one of the highlights of the evening. Much more fascinating than regular tuna, the fish had a somewhat softer, richer texture. The taste initially was dominated by ponzu and ginger, but gradually gave way to reveal the true nature of the fish.

9: Hamachi/Yellowtail [$2.60]
Soy. This was actually a very creamy version of hamachi, but fortunately it wasn't overly unctuous as farmed yellowtail tends to be. Most yellowtail one eats is farm-raised, meaning that the fish don't get as much exercise as their wild counterparts; this results in a fattier, softer, heavier fish. I used to love hamachi when I was a sushi neophyte, but am really beginning to move away from it, especially after experiencing wild yellowtail (i.e. buri).

10: Toro/Fatty Tuna [$10.00]
No soy. Every other course of nigiri was served singly, so I'm not sure why two pieces of toro were provided here. In any case, I appreciated the tuna's soft, yielding, no-gristle texture here, but the lack of marbling and oil left me wanting. The sauce was perhaps used a bit too liberally as well. I know this is solid toro, but I just keep comparing it to the simply transcendent toro I had at Kyubey. That piece of toro has "ruined me" so to speak; only Urasawa's comes close.

11: Shima Aji/Striped Jack [$3.50]
Soy. What really worked well for me here was the fish's slight crunch coupled with a light oiliness and subtle flavor, accented by wasabi. About the name here, we were told by the waitress that this was "yellowtail skipjack," which struck me as quite odd. Upon researching the nomenclature for a bit, I found that the fish is also known as "yellowjack," which explains the confusion.

12: Amaebi/Sweet Shrimp [$3.50]
Soy. Sadly, this was disappointing. The shrimp were super creamy, almost mushy, and lacked the crisp snappiness that I like in my amaebi. The flavor was also muted, not sharp or briny enough. One of my dining companions likened this to "shrimp cocktail." The problem, I think, stems from the use of the smaller hokkoku akaebi (Alaskan Pink Shrimp) instead of my preferred botanebi.

13: Kinmedai/Golden Eye Snapper [$4.50]
No soy. Easily one of the standouts for me. As refreshing as sushi can be, with an ethereal body and silky texture, and very little fat, along with a wasabi finish. I really appreciated the bit of skin left on. Another rarity, I'd had this previously only at Shibucho and Sasabune.

14: Meji Maguro/Baby Tuna [$4.00]
No soy. Now here's something that I don't think I've ever had anywhere else. This was basically young tuna, and was markedly different from its adult brethren. Compared to regular maguro, it was heavier, denser, and chewier (and obviously lighter in color), with a more subtle flavor, highlighted by the soy and citrus. I'd like to see more places offer this.

At this time, our sake had run out, so it was time to order a round of Yebisu beer [$6.00]. Though currently owned by Sapporo, Yebisu is one of Japan's oldest brands, and serves as the company's "luxury" beer. Yebisu isn't that common in the States, so I tend to order it whenever available. It's about what you'd expect from a Japanese lager--subtly sweet on the nose, light, a bit hoppy, mildly spicy, and quite bitter. It goes well with sushi.

15: Kanpachi/Amberjack [$2.80]
No soy. Like yellowtail, the fish known as amberjack is one whose name changes with its age, in a process termed shusse uo, which roughly means "fish of advancement." Kanpachi is actually the amberjack's most mature stage. In any case, the spiciness of the yuzu kosho really came to the fore here, adding a bit of heat to an otherwise mild-tasting fish. I could see how some might find it distracting though.

16: Ankimo/Monkfish Liver [$2.50]
This was notable for being the first gunkan-style preparation of ankimo I've seen. The liver was served warm, and topped with momiji oroshi and scallion. These accoutrements served their role deftly, and the whole amalgam was lovely. One of my dining companions, though, felt that the nori was perhaps a bit too dominant in the flavor profile. I, however, quite liked the smokiness of the seaweed.

17: Ono/Wahoo [$2.50]
No soy. A fast-swimming game fish popular in Hawaii, ono is a fairly rare selection to find at sushi restaurants. The fish had an interesting texture--soft, gritty, and a bit flaky. The fish was also one of the oiler and richer ones of the night, and had a citrus-tinged, tangy finish thanks to the accompanying sauce. Quite nice.

18: Sayori/Needlefish [$3.90]
No soy. The sayori had a great, pleasing crunch to it, along with a mild flavor that really allowed the ginger to take center stage. With its sliver of silver skin, this was arguably the prettiest fish of the night, though the version here didn't have the beauty of the coiled presentation at Urasawa.

19: Binnaga/Albacore [$2.40]
No soy. This was quite unlike other versions of albacore I'd had before. The fish is generally somewhat firmer and flaky in consistency, while this was soft and creamy. It was almost like a cross between skipjack and yellowtail, with a somewhat middle-of-the-road taste.

20: Sake/Salmon [$2.40]
Soy. Very tender for salmon, I actually would've preferred this a bit firmer. The fish was tasty by itself, but I found the marinated seaweed topping (the name escapes me) far too sweet. It distracted from the natural flavor of the salmon.

21: Aoyagi/Orange Clam [$2.60]
No soy. This had a perfect crunch to it. Interestingly, the initial flavor was extremely mild for aoyagi, but the clam finished with a strong dose of its signature brininess ("tastes like the ocean"). I would've liked to have seen more of a citrus accompaniment to counterbalance that intensity.

22: Uni/Sea Urchin + Ikura/Salmon Eggs [$7.00]
As with Sushi Sasabune, here we have egg with egg; I'm not sure where the tradition of serving uni and ikura simultaneously comes from. In any case, I first tried the uni, which was a bit cold, though I really enjoyed its mild, creamy flavor and interaction with its nori wrapper. The ikura, meanwhile, was also quite delicious, with the large-ish globules bursting delightfully upon mastication, coating my mouth with their briny, smoky juice.

23: Engawa/Halibut Fin [$2.80]
Engawa, or halibut dorsal fin muscle, is another hard to find item. Previously, I'd had it only at Sasabune, where I found it a bit too chewy (not surprising given that it comes from a very active part of the fish). This preparation was quite rich and juicy, but not chewy at all surprisingly; in fact, its consistency was almost like that of cooked fish. Impressive.

24: Madai/Red Snapper [$2.80]
No soy. Very good, as expected from one of my favorite sushi fish. The flesh here had a somewhat tough, crunchy body to it that was quite pleasing. I noted dominant flavors of wasabi on the attack, which then yielded to a soy-balanced fishiness.

25: Anago/Sea Eel [$4.00]
No soy. A very creamy, yet lean presentation of eel, this was oilier than I expected from anago. It would've preferred a tad less tsume sauce, but nevertheless, I quite like it. This was reminiscent of the anago at Kyubey.

26: Toro Temaki/Fatty Tuna Hand Roll [$8.00]
Soy. I felt that the fish was a bit too soft and mushy here, which resulted in the rice becoming very apparent texture-wise. The wasabi was also very strong here, and tended to overpower the toro in terms of taste. The end result was that the toro seemed a bit wasted here.

After we'd finished the Yebisus, we ordered a round of Kirin Ichiban Draft [$5.00]. I usually find Kirin to be merely acceptable for a beer, but for some reason, the version here tasted especially good. Perhaps it was because the beer was on draft, or maybe it was the food I paired with it, but this was a pleasant surprise--crisp, hoppy, with a bitter, tangy finish.

27: Kurodai/Black Snapper [$2.80]
Soy. This was easily one of the best bites of the night. This was my first time having this type of sea bream, a "black snapper" basically. It had a snappy, very slight crunch that was superb. The flesh was lean, clean, and fresh.

28: Tako/Octopus [$2.20]
No soy. At this point, the omakase was just about over. Keizo asked us if we wanted anything else, and we responded that we wanted any items that we'd not already tried--the octopus and the blue crab hand roll. This was actually a very nice presentation of tako. I liked the fact that it was sliced extra thin, giving it a delightful crunch while preserving tenderness. The octopus' mild flavor was further complemented by a bit of salt sprinkled on top.

29: Kani Temaki/Blue Crab Hand Roll [$5.00]
The second hand roll of the night, I actually preferred this to the toro temaki. The crab's sweet flavor was obvious here, and was accentuated by the wasabi. This compares quite favorably to the versions I've tried at Echigo, Sushi Sasabune, and Sushi Wasabi.

30: Tamago/Egg Omelet [$2.20]
Tamago typically signals the end of a meal. There are many varieties of egg omelet, with this one being cool, sweet, and fluffy, with "hammy" undertones of flavor. It was similar to the tamago at Sushi Wave. Tasty, but nothing special.

31: Ha-Gatsuo/Skipjack Tuna #2 [$2.80]
After the tamago, Keizo inquired if we wanted any repeats. We decided to go with the skipjack and aji. The skipjack here was very similar to the first piece I had, though this version was a bit more citrus-y, with more dominant ginger notes.

32: Aji/Spanish Mackerel #2 [$2.70]
Unfortunately, the aji wasn't quite as good as before. It was chewier, and definitely fisher, which resulted in a rather metallic taste when paired with the Kirin.

33: Yuzu Juice
Sushi Zo doesn't offer dessert, so meals here are capped off by a shot of yuzu juice. I expected something very tart, but the juice was surprisingly sweet, and delicious. The juice's origin is "secret," and our server wouldn't reveal the source when we inquired about it.

For a party of four, the end result was about $160 per person (or $125 sans booze), quite reasonable I think given the quality (and quantity) of the food. Sushi Zo has garnered its share of praise, and perhaps some would say hype. But after eating here, I do feel that such commendation is, for the most part, deserved. Second best? Yeah, I can believe it. What about you?

Full review with photos: http://www.kevineats.com/2009/01/sush...

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  1. Nice writeup. Agreed that Zo is #2 currently. We had about 32 courses on our last visit in November. How many times have you visited Zo before this review? That Yuzu juice is great, isn't it? The bar is the way to go at Zo (as is with most sushi places) - the table experience just doesn't quite match.

    1 Reply
    1. re: J.L.

      J.L., amazingly, this was my first time with Sushi Zo. I've know about it for years, but for some reason just never went. I've been missing out!

    2. Kevin. Have you tried Mori? It should be noted that Mori tries to use only wild fish and thus has a selection of 15-20 types of fish/night and that Keizo has to use farmed fish to maintain his vast selection.

      In terms of quality of fish, both are very close for me. In terms of knifework/skill and rice, it's handsdown Mori.

      It comes down to what you value more in sushi: fish or rice. Personally, I probably put 45-50% weight on rice, about 40% weight on fish and fish selection, and the rest on knifework, wasabi, fresh yuzu, fresh sudachi, etc.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Porthos

        Yep, I've been to Mori, but it was a long time ago. I remember having a good meal there food-wise, but the experience was tainted by a surly staff member that prohibited me from photographing the food. That debacle has prevented me from going back.

        I could see Mori being better than Sushi Zo, but the place has faded in my memory enough so that I can't make that determination. I have, however, seen recent photo blogs of the place, which means that I do need to pay Mori another visit in the near future.

      2. wow, I can't wait to check this place out! sounds like the tiny, 9 seat place in north san diego I used to love (where I had to convince the chef, in Japanese, that just because I had blonde hair and blue eyes, I wouldn't try to order rolls! "no rolls ever!" he used to shout at every couple through the door)
        forgive an LA newcomer, but is there any relation between Zo and K-zo? is one cheaper/better than the other?

        3 Replies
        1. re: jdwdeville

          They're different establishments. Sushi is is strict Edo style, almost to the point o austerity. K-Zo is more of fun, relaxed casual vibe.

          1. re: jdwdeville

            what's the name of the joint in san diego?

            1. re: kevin

              Can't be Sushi Ota, since that place is medium-sized...

          2. Great report. I prefer the Kirin Draft to accompany the omakase, as I think the Yebisu is a little too much. I like the fact that he brines the Ikura in some sort of ponzu. I take all of my out of town people here, when they want the good stuff. I like Mori too, but I believe this is better.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Schweinhaxen

              You know, I think I actually liked the Kirin better with the food as well, which is completely not what I expected going in.

              It's interesting what you said about the ikura. The ponzu-brining wasn't mentioned during the meal, but the taste certainly would point to something like that.

            2. Hey Kevin-
              "3: Kinmedai/Golden Eye Snapper [$4.50]"

              FYI I had this @Maki Zushi in Tustin.

              2 Replies
              1. re: ns1

                That reminds me, I need to give that place a try.

                I've heard it can be quite amazing if you stay away from the crazy rolls and such.

                1. re: kevin h

                  Yup, not much of a problem there. Yoshi-san does all the crazy "authentic" sushi while his sous chef equivalent handles all the rolls :)

                  And his live uni is ridiculous good.