Shunji Japanese Cuisine (Pico & Bundy, West L.A.), Our First Omakase (A Review)
(First post; be gentle.)
My wife and I ate at Shunji's last night, and it was the best meal we've ever had.
We were sans kids for once, and I really wanted to surprise my wife with an amazing-but-affordable (oxymoron?) omakase. I considered Sasabune, Kiriko, Zo, and Mori for sushi, and n/naka for kaiseki, but I was pretty sure that we couldn't get out of any of those places for less than $100-$150/pp (or more) for dinner. I also felt a bit intimidated about going into those places, having never had omakase before.
Fortuitously, I came across a few mentions of this new place opening where Mr. Cecil's used to be, and read up on the owner/chef, Shunji Nakao. The place seemed like the perfect choice for us: relatively affordable omakase ($80/pp) in a casual, unintimidating atmosphere. When I made our reservation, the man who took the call (who I later found out was Shunji-san himself) was quite amiable, putting me further at ease on having our first omakase here.
We arrived at 7 PM and were seated at the sushi bar by our hostess/waitress (who was incredibly gracious the entire evening--wish I had asked her name). Shunji-san greeted us as well, and then began us on an amazing two-hour experience. I wish we had written down each dish as they came out, but we were too busy savoring them!
In rough order for the evening:
* Sunomono-like starter, except the cucumbers were fresh, not pickled. A gelatinous kind of seaweed was mixed in, along with some radish and shallot. It had an interesting texture and a mild flavor.
* Boiled vegetables, including celery, burdock, radish, okra, and purple carrot, delicately flavored and quite good.
* A plate with four spheres of goodness: a mix of purple potatoes and blue cheese; a skinless, marinated cherry tomato; finely chopped ankimo (monkfish liver) topped with caviar; and a mix of yams, feta, and black truffle. All four were incredibly delicious, the infused tomato unexpectedly so.
* Oyster tempura, two pieces, served in its shell. The tempura batter was really light, and one piece was wrapped in prosciutto, which surprisingly helps cut the stronger flavor of the oyster "guts".
* A plate with three different tastes: a tako salad with yellow and orange bell peppers (octopus was sweet and tender), two slices of kanpachi (amberjack) sashimi (soft and savory), and a small cup with thinly-sliced ika (squid) mixed with squid ink and a quail-egg yolk (creamy from the ink and yolk, with a slight crunch from the squid).
* Black cod in dashi with mushrooms: the broth flavorful yet light, the fish delicate and sweet.
* Slices of fresh bamboo, boiled or steamed, with a light sprinkle of seasoning on top. It was incredibly tender but still had a slight crispness to it. Served with a mountain peach, which I'd never had but reminded me a little of umezuke (pickled ume "plums"), and roasted gingko nuts, which were very much like roasted chestnuts.
* Salad with arugula-like (I can’t recall the name) greens, blue-crab meat, tofu, and anchovies. The latter three ingredients were mixed together and then tossed with the greens. The crab added sweetness, and the anchovies imparted an almost-nuttiness, to this refreshing salad.
* Slices of Japanese eggplant, fried or roasted, topped with a dollop of sauce, a small tempura shrimp, and a slice of delicately-fried shiitake mushroom. It was savory, sweet, creamy warmness.
* A cold soup that was amazingly refreshing. I wish I could remember the main ingredient in it, but it almost looked like congee, with a kind of egg-shell color, but much more uniform in texture. It had chunks of yam in it and was topped with thinly-sliced fois gras. Never had anything like it; one of my favorites of the evening.
* Nigiri: grouper (really mild and delicate; chewy, but in a good way), marinated salmon (my wife's favorite sushi of the night), pompano (never had it before, the preparation--scored and scorched--was really nice), mackerel (strong, but not overpowering), orange clam (sweet and delicate), ikura (salmon roe-- marinated, with a refreshingly light flavor).
* A cut roll with a Japanese root, the name of which escapes me; a simple way to end the omakase.
(I know I am forgetting some dishes right now; if I remember, I will update the review.)
Shunji-san asked if we’d like anything else, and I opted for two more nigiri: uni (a single plump piece of sea urchin that was creamy and coconut-y), hotate (scallop, delicate and sweet, served aburi--lightly scorched), while my wife had one more piece of kanpachi.
We wrapped things up with a cup of tea, and then the bill: $170 for the omakase ($80/pp, plus additional pieces), $18 for the three bottles of San Pellegrino, before tax and tip. It was one of the most expensive per-person meal we've ever had, but worth every penny. I just hope we have the opportunity to go back again--better start saving up now!
Shunji Japanese Cuisine
12244 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90064
Okay, last night I had an hour to kill and no dinner plans, so I went back solo yesterday evening, and got another seat at the bar. My goal was to try some of the fish that I did not have the night before in the omakase, and to have at least one new thing that I’ve never tried before.
I started with three hama hama oysters, raw, already sauced with ponzu or ponzu-shoyu. They were good, but not nearly as good as the items that followed.
I moved onto baby abalone. Shunji (I’m leaving off the “-san” because Yuko referred to him as just Shunji, and I’m not confident I’m using the honorific properly anyway) recommended I have it as sashimi rather than sushi, and I yielded to his expertise. I watched him prepare the abalone, cleaning and slicing the meat into half a dozen slices. I've had abalone before, but this was just so fresh and crisp-yet-tender.
I saved the one lumpy piece of abalone to the end, and I was glad I did. I must have missed him doing this, but apparently Shunji had toasted it, so it was a surprising contrast to the chill of the slices. It was also more unctuous and had a much different texture and flavor of the other pieces. I’m pretty sure it was awabi kimo (abalone liver), which I don’t think I’ve had before, and it was delicious.
Next, I had a piece of hirame (halibut). It was very simple: just rice, wasabi, and fish, topped with a pinch of salt with black flecks in it (wish I knew what it was called and what was in it). Shunji cautioned “no soy sauce”, and I heeded. I was caught completely off-guard by the fish--it was so tender and had a delicate flavor that I never tasted in any hirame I’ve had before. Definitely no soy sauce needed.
Having already confessed that I haven’t frequented the higher-end sushi establishments, I had generally viewed halibut as "filler" that comes in a sushi combo plate and never ordered it on its own. But I won’t look down on hirame again, at least not at Shunji, or restaurants in its class.
I then had a piece of tai (red snapper). I had, in the past, also viewed red snapper as “filler” much like I had with halibut, but I knew from reading various reviews of sushi places that high quality tai can be sublime (I guess I never noticed any reviews that talked about hirame that way), so I was prepared for Shunji’s tai to be really good. I was not disappointed. Again, the preparation was simple: rice, wasabi, fish, but this time the seasoning was a few drops of redness. And again, the flavor was more complex than any red snapper I had before, the seasoning having a capsaicin-y kick that contrasted well with the sinus-y heat of the wasabi.
Next, I was accidentally served two pieces of maguro. I had only ordered single pieces of nigiri up to then, but I had asked for a two-piece order of aji, one of my favorites. Shunji had misread the order and made me two pieces of maguro instead. I knew I didn't order tuna, and even I wouldn't mistake maguro for anything else I ordered. However, I'd been to sushi places, sat at the bar, and had the sushi chef put pieces down for me that I hadn't ordered just to try. I thought maybe that was the case here so I ate them.
Once again, I must confess that I didn’t respect tuna sushi in the past (excluding chutoro and otoro, of course). But I was wrong about maguro too. Again, simple fish, wasabi, rice, with a light sauce brushed over the neta. Shunji didn’t even have to tell me to skip the soy sauce. The fish just melted in my mouth. No gristle or anything unpleasant in the taste or texture. The best maguro I had ever had.
(Sensing a trend? I hope I’m not coming off as too exuberantly sycophantic. I’m just excited to [re]discover all these fish I’d previously just popped in my mouth and promptly forgotten.)
Shunji was very apologetic about the mix-up with the maguro, and promptly started preparing the aji. I apologized too, telling him that I should have asked before eating the maguro, and asked Yuko to please put it on my bill.
The two pieces of aji came out, one topped with the usual ginger and scallion, and the other topped with something else I unfortunately can’t remember but different than what I’ve had on aji in the past. Both pieces were of course fantastic, complex and flavorful, not overly fishy like aji can get sometimes. No soy sauce, of course.
I had the hotategai the night before, which was sweet and tender, but Yuko and Shunji asked if I wanted to try tairagai (they just called it “Japanese scallop”, but I’ve heard of it referred as half-moon scallop or even Japanese razor clam). Since scallops are one of my favorites (I have lots), I said yes. Shunji slightly scalloped the scallop (pun intended) and laid it over the rice. I ate it without soy sauce, and it was damned good. The texture was the intersection of scallop, clam, and conch. The flavor was, pardon the cliché, like the ocean.
I had ordered a piece of albacore nigiri as well, but I thought the tairagai was the perfect way to end the meal, so I asked Shunji to not make the albacore. Luckily, he hadn’t started. As I wait for my stomach to settle, I see Shunji bring out what look like cantaloupe rinds, except both sides had what looked like the bumpy, cream-colored rind, with a layer of green in the middle. I ask Shunji what it is, and he says it’s herring eggs.
I told Shunji I had herring eggs before, but it didn’t look like this; instead it was bright yellow. His mildly confusing response was “Oh, you had herring eggs. This [gesturing to the “cantaloupe rinds”] is herring eggs… on kelp.” Curious, I ordered a piece as the last one of my meal. It was quite delicious, not as salty as kazunoko, and the kelp adds umami. (When I got home, I looked this up, and I guess what I had was komochi kombu, a.k.a. herring egg/roe on kelp, just like Shunji said.
Needing to leave to pick up my wife, and having met my goals of trying some fish I hadn’t had the night before, like awabi and tai (and rediscovering staples like hirame and maguro), and of having something I’ve never had before, like awabi kimo, tairagai, and komochi kombu, I happily ask for the check. While waiting to pay, I overhear Shunji tell some customers who wanted otoro (which was unavailable) that he had albacore toro. Oh, if I had only known. Oh well, something to look forward to trying next time.
Oh, when I got the bill, Yuko said the maguro was on the house, Shunji’s treat, and asked me to come back again soon. I thanked them both profusely, and left a little extra on the tip.
(BTW, the restaurant had posted a picture of firefly squid on their Facebook page earlier this week. I had asked about it, and Yuko said that they should get some in on Friday and it may be available on the menu Friday or Saturday. I may have to do what Yuko said and go back again soon.)
re: Norm Man
I can't remember exactly right now, but it was under $40 including tax and tip. Note that the maguro was comp'd, so I ate a little better than it might seem at that price. Also, I ordered a lot of single pieces, so despite my lengthy description of my second meal, it wasn't a ton of food, though I was definitely sated when I left.
For me, a positive "side effect" of going to a high-quality sushi place like Shunji is that I don't overeat. At the places I frequented in the past, I'd order a combo and several orders of nigiri for variety. I'd end up eating 16 to 20 pieces of sushi, thinking I got a great value, but feeling overstuffed and not really enjoying the experience.
Now I can go to a place like Shunji, take my time and really savor the 8 to 10 pieces of sushi that I really wanted to have, leave happy, and be no worse in my wallet than I would have been after eating at one of those other places.
re: Ciao Bob
Thanks! I agree with your sentiment from your "Shhhhhh......Shhhhhunji....." thread, that the thin-sliced squid, squid ink, quail egg, and I can't remember if ours had black truffle or if it had uni, or maybe both, was one of the best things I've had this year. Of course the other best things that I've had this year also came from this same meal. :-) Can't wait to go back!
Aha! I saw him unwrap a fish from kombu before he sliced it the second time I was there. Have you been to the new place? I've seen your comments on some of the other threads on Shunji's previous restaurants, so I know you've been a fan.
[Edit: Nevermind, you just posted your mini-review below. Thanks!]
You describe the tairagai perfectly! That was a brand-new experience for me last night and so good. It really made me marvel at his knife work - so many little cross hatches on the top which lead to the wonderful texture that you describe.
My version of the cold soup was a puree of mountain yam, a sweet gourd, burdock root, and guava.
He did 3 different preparations of the orange clam for us last night - the nigiri part, the scallop served on its own, but my favorite was the outside abductor ring that he served in a cut roll. It was so crunchy and tasty and really showed off the quality of his nori.
And no, I wouldn't describe you as too "exuberantly sycophantic." :) After returning to Shunji's last night I feel just as strongly as you do about the wonderful food he's producing here. He is a master of dashi, and the salt level on each dish is achingly perfect, especially for his cold vegetable preparations.
Surprise of the night for me - the middle of the meal featured a cheese course! A little ball of yellow potato with one type of cheese, purple potato ball with blue cheese, and a dollop of pureed ankimo in the middle. I don't know if he recently went to France or Peru to inspire such a choice, but it was very creative.
He ended our meal with a cut roll of freshly chopped wasabi. I had never had wasabi in that form before - the first bite made my head feel like it was on fire for about 4 seconds but after that dissipated I was left with a crunchy, sweet, refreshing end to the meal.
Our meal was $228 for 2 omakase, 2 300ml bottles of sake, 1 beer, and a bottle of sparkling water.
Thanks, and great mini review! Your cold soup sounds really good too. I love guava. And your orange clam preparations sound amazing! Shellfish-derived sushi are my favorite! And roe-based! And... :-)
I absolutely agree on his mastery of dashi. The black cod in broth was so comforting. That's what I want when I'm sick or had a bad day.
I wasn't surprised by the appearance of the tuber-and-cheese "truffles" (just sounds better than "balls") as I had read about them and even saw a picture of the purple potato and blue cheese one on the restaurant's Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fb...), but I was surprised by their deliciousness. The yellow potato one might be the yams one we had, which had feta and (white?) truffles.
One thing I was "disappointed" in, and by "disappointed" I just mean I made note of it but it didn't actually negatively affect my opinion of his food, was that I thought he would use fresh wasabi in his sushi, as I had thought (maybe mistakenly) that sushi places at this level generally used fresh rather than powdered wasabi. I think I've had fresh wasabi once a long time ago before I cared enough to notice it, so I look forward to trying it again and see how it compares.
Great first review! When we went the boiled vegetables also had konnyaku too.
Compared to Mori Sushi and Sushi Zo, I thought Shunji held up well nigiri-wise, the bonus was the wider range of items. Our favorite omakase of the two restaurants was at Sushi Zo, although when we go for sushi it is now much easier for us to get to Mori Sushi.
I don't think we had konnyaku last night. I confess I actually went back again tonight, and just ordered individual items, but I watched Shunji-san prepare the boiled vegetables for other omakase customers, and it was already different. A petite yellow pattypan squash was included, and one other vege I can't recall.
I'm glad to hear that the nigiri is comparable in quality to Mori and Zo. Mori is the next place I want to try. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy Shunji; the a la carte was surprisingly affordable tonight. I dunno if they do this for everyone (maybe it was because I sat at the bar, and maybe because I just had the omakase last night), but Yuko (the hostess/waitress--I asked her name) said if I just wanted single pieces of nigiri, I didn't have to do regular two-piece order, so I was able to try all different fish tonight without breaking the bank.
Update: My wife says she believes the cold soup mentioned above was made from winter melon.
Update: I forgot, when we were served the orange clam nigiri, Shunji-san also plopped down a marble-sized piece of the clam's adductor muscle that was saltier and chewier than the thinly sliced part he used as neta. It reminded me of a raw cherrystone in its brininess.
Thanks! I'm a little embarrassed to say, but our regular go-to sushi spots (Ninjin, Sushi House, Irori) are definitely on the lower-end, but that's what we can afford. So naturally, our experience here has topped our personal list.
I'm very interested in reading your review and those of other seasoned posters, who've been to Mori, Zo, or other places considered to be the top restaurants for sushi in L.A., to see how this compares. I know Shunji-san has been around for a while, so expectations are likely already high. Did he do kaiseki-style omakase at his previous restaurants, or is this kind of new for him too, as an offering?
(Pardon my ignorance on the last question. I've read up on omakase vs. kaiseki, and I've looked at the kaiseki menu at n/naka, but I'm still not sure how to distinguish between omakase that includes non-sushi/sashimi dishes and kaiseki, which traditionally include sushi and sashimi courses. At the restaurant, what we had last night was called omakase.)
Welcome to Chowhound's LA board. The term, "omakase," is typically associated with sushi vernacular over here, but the phrase's general meaning in contemporary Japanese is something akin to, "I'll leave it to you," entrusting one's meal to the chef - chef's choice, table, etc. It could pertain to just about any type of restaurant (we've done it a couple of times at tempura houses), but most associated with sushi. Here's a thread from the "Not About Food" board:
Kaiseki is pretty much a set course of food items, usually highlighting various dishes (usually small in portions but numerous in courses) of various ingredients that are in season or some other theme. Normally there's a strong emphasis on aesthetics, form and presentation - the dishes, bowls, etc. are usually very stylized/unique relative to the place/season/theme.
I know the line is somewhat blurry between omakase and kaiseki. Itamae who offer omakase perform their omakase with many elements of what is attributed to kaiseki. Likewise, kaiseki and omakase seem to blur into one another when it comes to seasonal ingredients and sourcing special/unique/luxe quality ingredients, as well as similar served items. But with omakase over here, the emphasis is on foods related to sushi houses, where with places serving kaiseki, the offerings can be quite broad, and the amount of attention, detail and presentation is usually at a very high level.
Don't know if any of this helps, but... look forward to more of your adventures...
Thanks bulavinaka! That helps a lot. I guess I would say that Shunji is strongly on the sushi side of the force, but with a good distribution of interesting non-sushi items, like the "plate o' balls" (as my wife jokingly called the course with the purple potatoes and the marinated cherry tomato). But that's just my opinion as an amateur. Any resemblance to the opinions of real sushi experts is purely coincidental.
bulavinaka, I found this other thread with a nice simple explanation of the difference(s) between omakase and (traditional) kaiseki, in case you come across another newbie who asks the difference and want another handy link to give out in addition to the link you provided and excellent explanation you personally gave: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/356331.
Read your review on the former Shunji's on Melrose (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/774122), so that answers my question about whether he was serving non-sushi/sashimi dishes in his omakase. And answers some other questions, like:
* The seaweed was in our starter dish was likely mozuku, which was also the starter in your review.
*The cold soup we had seems very similar to the purée of winter melon and yams that you had last year.
* Or the maki made with what I thought was a root vegetable was likely made with kanpyō.