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Apr 2, 2009 02:48 AM

R23: Not Bad Sushi, But You Can Do Better

Opened in 1991, R23 has been somewhat of a fixture in the LA sushi scene, never being truly high-end, but consistently solid--I'd always been curious about the place.

Perhaps the thing that R23's most known for is its "ghetto" location. The restaurant sits in the Arts (formerly Warehouse) District on the east side of Downtown Los Angeles (not far from Little Tokyo). Though commonly believe to stand for "Restaurant 23," R23's name actually originates from its position adjacent to railroad tracks, between 2nd and 3rd streets. While not a particularly dangerous neighborhood itself, it is less than a mile from the real "ghetto," a.k.a. Skid Row, home to one of the largest homeless populations in the country.

Decor is industrial-chic, replete with exposed brick, stark white walls, modern art (the handiwork of a former employee), and those oh-so-famous Frank Gehry-designed cardboard chairs. In addition, R23's newest owners (April 2007) purchased the adjacent space next door and converted it into a private dining room.

R23 is arguably known more for its cooked food than its sushi, and though there were a number of enticing items on the menu, we decided to focus more on the sushi. The sushi menu lists all your typical cuts, as well as some more exotic varieties of fish (e.g. sayori, engawa); I was glad to see that they didn't have any crazy rolls.

Maguro / Bigeye Tuna [$6.00]
The ruby red color of the tuna was rather beautiful; the taste, though, wasn't quite as vibrant. It certainly wasn't bad however--a clean, mild flavor backed up by a nice wasabi kick. The texture of the tuna was more interesting, with a a thick, dry, mouth-filling, almost chewy consistency.

Hirame / Halibut [$6.00]
Halibut is usually a pretty simple, straightforward fish, so the use of ponzu sauce did spice things up a bit, as did the tangy scallion. Pretty good.

Sake / Salmon [$6.00]
Salmon is typically fairly ho-hum, but this was actually one of the surprises of the night. The fish was uncharacteristically meaty and chewy, requiring quite a bit of mastication. The flavor, meanwhile, was far stronger that I expected, with a distinct oiliness not usually found in salmon.

Tai / Red Snapper [$8.00]
We were instructed to eat this one with no soy (Sushi Zo style), as the fish had already been doused with yuzu and sea salt. The pairings worked, with the yuzu providing a great sourness that really brought out the flavor of the fish, while the salt gave the sushi a long, lingering finish. Great snappy texture on this one too.

Aji / Spanish Mackerel [$8.00]
The ginger and scallion provided a tart flavor component that really balanced out the natural intensity of the mackerel; actually they may have been too effective, as I would've preferred more fishiness. The texture of the aji was also quite nice--oily, creamy, buttery.

Mirugai / Jumbo Clam [$10.00]
Geoduck often has a consistency that's too hard, too crunchy, but the example here was actually quite nice in that regard--meaty and snappy, yet yielding. Flavor-wise, I noted a mild brininess that was deftly set off by the nori, leading to a pleasant wasabi-tinged finish.

Sayori / Needlefish [$8.00]
Now needlefish is a fairly uncommon sushi ingredient here in the States; I've had it only at Go's Mart, Sushi Zo, and Urasawa. This wasn't a particularly distinctive version, though I did like contrast provided by the ginger--nicely balanced. I appreciated the attempt at artistry, the twisting of the fish into a particular shape, though it didn't match the beauty of the sayori on my first Urasawa trip.

Hotate / Scallop [$4.00]
The scallops were served far too cold here. This coldness jarred my taste buds, and really eliminated whatever little flavor the scallops had; instead, the nori wrapper really came to the foreground taste-wise. Perhaps we should've sprung for the pricier "whole scallop," at double the price.

Ikura / Salmon Egg [$8.00]
Really good ikura has a certain distinctive "pop" to it, a sharp burst of brininess that explodes in the mouth; this did not. Jane noted that the roe came out of a not-too-fresh looking plastic canister, while Ryan complained that it wasn't salty enough.

Uni / Sea Urchin [$10.00]
The uni here had a nice looking "cat's tongue" texture--usually a good sign. The flavor confirmed this, with the roe having a creamy body, along with a mild sweet-briny interplay, all balanced by the smokiness of its nori wrapper. Surprisingly good.

Fresh Kumamoto Oysters [$12.00]
One of the things I love about Kumamotos is their bold crispness, but that was sorely lacking here. Rather, the oysters were somewhat milky, heavy, and creamy, and quite small to boot. The cocktail sauce and lemon didn't do much to help. A disappointment.

Ankimo [$10.50]
Steamed Monk Fish Liver with Spicy Ponzu Sauce. The ankimo had a pleasing, firm texture to it and a mild, subtle flavor. This flavor was expertly contrasted by the spicy finish of the momiji oroshi (grated daikon with chili), the tang of the scallion, and the sweetness of the ponzu. It reminded me of the ankimo at Shibucho. Quite good, though Ryan thought that the liver was too lean.

Unagi / Fresh Water Eel [$6.00]
It seems like I've been moving away from unagi to anago as of late. This made me remember why I liked unagi in the first place--its fatty, oily, luxurious texture necessitated the use of a sweet, syrupy sauce for balance. It was actually reminiscent of the unagi at my first sushi haunt: Sushi Wave.

Beef Sashimi [$15.00]
Though advertised as "sashimi," this was definitely more like a tataki, or even a sliced steak. Although Jane loathed this dish, I thought that it was at least passable. There was certainly nothing offensive (the beef was pretty flavorless), though I do think that it would've been better had it been cooked rarer and seasoned more strongly. For a true beef sashimi, take a gander at the beautiful beef throat at Totoraku.

Japanese-Style Ceviche [$14.00]
This was basically a mishmash of various cuts of fish, dressed up with a tart, acidic citrus sauce. The end result was actually quite delicious (can't go wrong with cilantro), albeit lacking a bit in finesse. The ceviche was served in a shrimp rice paper wrapper (as found in Chinese cuisine), which I likened to the tortilla bowl used in Taco Bell's Taco Salad!

Tamago / Egg Cake [$4.00]
Patrick always likes to order tamago, so we decided to end the meal with it. Unfortunately, I suspect that the example here was purchased, and not made in-house. It had a very "generic" taste to it--too sweet, and not eggy enough.

Overall, R23 served up solid, though not outstanding fare. Clearly, it's not at the level of the top sushi players such as Sushi Zo or Mori Sushi, not to mention Urasawa. I'd place it below the level of an Echigo or Sushi Sasabune as well. You can do better, but this isn't a bad place. I mean, it's been around for nearly 20 years, so they must be doing something right, right?

Full review with photos:

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  1. As usual, Kevin - a great, comprehensive and entertaining review. We have not been to R23 in years but I still recall the vibrant flavor of their crab salad. One other thing I want to complement you on. Your photography is always first rate, but the other thing you do, and which I really appreciate, is your clear labeling of each photo with the name of the dish/fish. Too many times I am trying to figure out which blog photo goes with what I am reading on someone's review. Kudos. Finally I think that despite your so so experience the cost of your food without the alcohol ($55 pp) makes R23 quite a decent bargain. if someone is looking to try a lot of different things without spending a small fortune.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Servorg

      Thanks Servorg. I'm pretty anal about photographing, labeling, and describing everything I have during a particular meal. This attention to detail is one of the distinguishing factors of my blog I think.

      In any case, in hindsight I should've ordered the crab salad, as I've heard a lot of people praise that particular dish. Oh well. Overall, it wasn't bad, especially for the price as you mentioned.

    2. Go there whenever in Los Angeles for their unagi don, have for 15 years.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Delucacheesemonger

        Amazingly, I still haven't had an unagi don yet. Didn't see it on the menu at R23 though.

      2. Kevin - you say sold in April 2007, it's been a long time since I've been there. Guess that means that Jake is no longer there? I remember the space next door, Jake had opened a art gallery to show friends art, but nothing (at that time) was for sale.


        2 Replies
        1. re: toitoi

          Who's Jake? I believe the space next door is a private dining room filled with art.

          1. re: kevin h

            Jake was always there at lunch or dinner roaming the room. He didn't seat guests, another man did that.

            If I'm correct, Jake was one of the owners, at least, he led me to believe he did. He showed me the space that had the art. (But old owner's are now gone.)

            Guess I'll need to go and see for myself what's up.

        2. Great review kevin h, and I think you're spot on with your conclusion about R23.

          That said, I think it's best days were before the remodel/expansion. I was there late last year and the place just felt like it was on auto pilot -- no verve, ambition or energy from the kitchen or staff.

          1 Reply
          1. re: ipsedixit

            I've heard the same thing about the place doing downhill somewhat after the ownership change.

          2. Nice review...I'm hungry for sushi now!