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The man can cook! Shunji Japanese Cuisine [REVIEW + PHOTOS]

J.L. Apr 5, 2012 12:40 AM

I think that Chef Shunji Nakao must be the unofficial “journeyman” of the Los Angeles Japanese dining scene. He’s worked at The Hump, Asanebo, and more recently at his eponymous restaurant, Shunji’s on Melrose Avenue. When it was announced that he had departed from Shunji’s on Melrose, I almost knew that Chef Shunji had something new planned.

Therefore, I wasn’t too surprised when I heard about Shunji’s re-opening, but instead of Melrose Avenue, this incarnation was located squarely in the Westside. He has taken the space previously occupied by Cecil’s Ribs (a BBQ joint), and transformed it into a warm, kaiseki-friendly dining room, complete with a patron-friendly L-shaped bar. I was pleasantly surprised when Chef Shunji recognized me from my visits to Shunji’s on Melrose and Asanebo, and greeted me warmly. The restaurant is now called Shunji Japanese Cuisine.

Without hesitation, let’s talk food (*** denotes a highlight of the meal), and please forgive my crappy photography:

Chef Shunji’s strong suit is his kaiseki (set meal). In fact, that’s all he’s serving for now. And, with the L-shaped open bar at Shunji’s, it’s a lot of fun to watch the chef at work, cooking away.

Course #1 - Amuse Bouche: Jellyfish, turnip, cucumber... Served cold, this was extremely refreshing!

***Course #2 – Appetizer: Medley of seasonal vegetables: Okra, baby golden squash, beet, kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), baby turnip, haricot vert, marinated celery hearts... Chef Shunji really takes pride in his vegetables! This was great! One would expect a meat dish as a first course in a meal such as this, but Chef Shunji throws us a curve ball, and it works.

***Course #3 - Trio of appetizers: Whipped ankimo (monkfish liver) with caviar & ponzu, yuba (tofu skin) with chilled homemade tofu & soy milk, and purple yam & bleu cheese ball with dried persimmon... The whipped ankimo (monkfish liver) with transmontanus caviar & ponzu was superb! Chef Shunji says he has has a secret technique for making these so fluffy and airy, yet so flavorful! Perfectly paired, the yuba naturally complemented the tofu. Last but not least, the purple yam & bleu cheese ball with dried persimmon was so good! It's like having the entire cheese tray in one gorgeous bite!

Course #4 - Mango & carrot gazpacho, kani (crab), with shaved foie gras, garnished with black pepper... Utterly fantastic, with huge chunks of crab meat in this gazpacho!

Course #5 - Marinated tako (octopus) with bell peppers, heirloom tomatoes & zucchini... So simple, so good!

***Course #6 – Steamed takenoko (young bamboo shoot) sprinkled with furikake (Japanese rice condiment), with fava beans, salted ginnan (ginkgo nuts)... The bamboo was so tender! Note that this is the first warm dish to be served. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by this man's proficiency with vegetables, but I am amazed by the delicacy and umami of Chef Shunji's non-meat dishes so far.

Course #7 - Marinated akami (lean tuna) carpaccio, with daikon... The quality of the tuna was outstanding.

Course #8 - Black cod soup, with shiitake mushroom, enoki mushroom, and shiso leaf in light dashi broth... Perfect for a cool night.

***Course #9 - "Squid ink pasta" with seared kanpachi (amberjack) & peanut miso... “Squid ink pasta" is actually thinly cut strips of ika (squid), sepia (ink), black truffle, and uni (sea urchin roe), all topped by an uzura no tamago (quail egg)... Luscious. Meanwhile, the seared kanpachi (amberjack) with peanut miso was out of this world!

***Course #10 – Tempura of zucchini blossoms stuffed with ebi (shrimp) paste and yamaimo (Japanese mountain yam), served with tempura sauce... Phenomenal. The ebi (shrimp) paste was delicate and cooked to perfection! This brought back fond memories of Raku, the now-defunct Japanese-Korean izakaya located not too far from Shunji’s.

Course #11 - Nasu soboro, (stewed Japanese eggplant, with ground chicken & cilantro chicken sauce)... Terrific!

And now, we begin with the sushi portion of the meal…

Course #12 - Seared aji (horse mackerel)... Nice!

***Course #13 - Teba saki (grilled pre-marinated chicken wings)... OK, so this isn't sushi, BUT it went really, really well with my cold draft beer!

Course #14 - Akami (lean tuna, bluefin)...

***Course #15 - Chu-toro (medium fatty tuna, bluefin)...

Course #16 - Marinated sake (salmon)... Wow, marinating the salmon beforehand DOES make it taste even better!

Course #17 - Ikura (salmon roe)... Excellent.

Course #18 - Seared saba (mackerel)... Super oishi!

***Course #19 - Uni (sea urchin roe) & kanpyo (pickled gourd) maki (cut roll) sushi... This combination of tastes is unbelievable!

At this point I was completely full & satisfied. What a wonderful kaiseki! I asked the chef why he chose to relocate, and he explained that Melrose was a rather awkward commute for many of his regular clients. Accordingly, the Westside location may allow for more frequent and repeat customers.

With his emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients and especially his skills with vegetables, I hope that Chef Shunji is at the end of his wanderings, and with the opening of Shunji Japanese Cuisine, that he is here to stay!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  1. Tripeler Apr 13, 2012 02:01 AM

    J.L. -- Your writeups AND your photos are always superb. Thank you for such a great report.

    (Have you stopped stuttering?)

    7 Replies
    1. re: Tripeler
      J.L. Apr 13, 2012 02:19 AM

      Th... Thanks for your k... kind words, Tripeler... :-) Yeah, I tend to overuse the ...

      1. re: J.L.
        Tripeler Apr 13, 2012 03:32 AM

        吃! Yes, I thought that was you.
        Also, your descriptions of Japanese food, in particular, betray a deep understanding and knowledge of the subject. You are one of my favorite posters on the subject. I am not Japanese, but have lived in Japan for 35 years, so...

        Anyway, keep up the good work!

        1. re: Tripeler
          J.L. Apr 13, 2012 03:39 AM

          Very kind of you, Tripeler-san.

        2. re: J.L.
          k
          kevin Apr 13, 2012 08:09 AM

          Stopped the stuttering ??? I don't get it.

          1. re: kevin
            J.L. Apr 13, 2012 08:11 AM

            "..." is sometimes noted to be stuttering, like ALL CAPS means screaming. I use "..." a lot...

            1. re: J.L.
              k
              kevin Apr 13, 2012 10:15 AM

              Thanks I had no clue.

              1. re: kevin
                Servorg Apr 13, 2012 10:21 AM

                I knew he hadn't stopped shuttering so it couldn't have been that... ;-D>

      2. t
        taiwanesesmalleats Apr 12, 2012 10:05 AM

        With all these great reviews, I do have a question. My girlfriend and I are interested in trying an omakase dinner for the first time but with some kaiseki touches. I originally was thinking Kiriko but with all this talk about Shunji, I'd be interested in a comparison between the two.

        6 Replies
        1. re: taiwanesesmalleats
          Porthos Apr 12, 2012 10:33 AM

          I'd recommend Shunji over Kiriko. While I'm a fan of Kiriko, I think the sushi at Shunji is just a touch better (fresh wasabi, better rice). He can do as much or as little sushi as you like. You just have to tell him more or less sushi, more or less cooked dishes.

          1. re: Porthos
            t
            taiwanesesmalleats Apr 12, 2012 11:51 AM

            Is that something best asked for when I make reservations or at the start of the meal? Thanks for the recommendation!

            1. re: taiwanesesmalleats
              Porthos Apr 12, 2012 12:32 PM

              Probably something you request at the beginning.

              To JL, after our meal, Shunji asked if next time I preferred more sushi or more cooked items. I presume he can increase the number of sushi courses and decrease the number of cooked dishes. The same party that received the delicious looking braised oxtail also got a large plate of sashimi so he does a true omakase/omakase kaiseki and can tailor it to his customer's tastes and preferences. Matsutake dobinmushi aside, I personally prefer the cooked dishes and sushi at Shunji more than the cooked dishes and sushi at Kiriko. But then again you've been to Kiriko much more than I have so maybe you get a different level of omakase.

              1. re: Porthos
                k
                kevin Apr 12, 2012 02:08 PM

                Thanks for all the tips.

                1. re: Porthos
                  J.L. Apr 12, 2012 05:50 PM

                  Thanks for the nice reply, Porthos. I will return to Shunji one of these days and go for a sushi-intensive kaiseki, just to test that theory out.

                  At Kiriko, Ken-san and I are old friends by now. So yes, my meal there may be a bit more extravagant now than when I first started going. Come to think of it, my last omakase there was $170pp.

              2. re: Porthos
                J.L. Apr 12, 2012 12:13 PM

                I politely disagree with Porthos on this one. Shunji and Kiriko are different types of dining. The kaiseki at Shunji is more intensive on cooked dishes (especially vegetables, which Chef Shunji does very well), whereas Kiriko is more sushi intensive.

                The distinction between the 2 restaurants can appear subtle, but it is there.

            2. c
              chrishei Apr 11, 2012 09:41 PM

              Wow, so glad I saw these posts on Shunji. Just finished dinner there, and boy, what a gem of a place.

              1. Porthos Apr 7, 2012 09:41 AM

                Great photos and they convinced me to go last night.

                It's kaiseki but he definitely tailors it to the individual customer. I saw a couple of regulars get some pretty amazing dishes...one of which was braised oxtail with roasted potatoes.

                My favorites were:

                -squid ink "pasta" with truffle paste and quail egg. The intense truffle flavor was out of this world.
                -young bamboo and fava beans (wrapped in foil and roasted in toaster oven). The bamboo was served 2 ways, simply with salt and with a seaweed sauce. With fava beans this was a wonderful expression of spring. Maybe my favorite dish of the night if forced to choose.
                -grilled chicken wings. Awesome. Perfect since originally I had planned on going to Torihei.
                -ikura marinated in dashi. Outstanding. As good at what Hiro-san is serving at Urasawa. No joke.

                The sushi rice was well seasoned, the perfect temperature and texture.

                This man is immensely talented. At the end of the meal, he asked me if I liked more cooked items, more sushi...I said both.

                I'll be back. A lot.

                8 Replies
                1. re: Porthos
                  Servorg Apr 7, 2012 09:50 AM

                  How much was it?

                  1. re: Servorg
                    Porthos Apr 7, 2012 10:00 AM

                    $80pp. Bamboo order was extra $15.

                    Consistent since JL got a couple of extra dishes.

                  2. re: Porthos
                    Porthos Apr 7, 2012 03:59 PM

                    Forgot to add to my faovrites:

                    -hotaru ika (thanks to PeterCC below). Eaten in 1 bite. The fat/egg on the inside tasted like custard. Excellent.

                    1. re: Porthos
                      PeterCC Apr 7, 2012 04:05 PM

                      It's firefly squid, hotaru ika. Was it part of the omakase?

                      I asked about it earlier this week but Shunji said he was out and wouldn't have any in until yesterday, which apparently he did. I'm trying to see if I can get there again tonight and hope he still has some.

                      1. re: PeterCC
                        Porthos Apr 7, 2012 04:50 PM

                        Hotaru ika. Thanks! He had another row left as of midnight last night.

                        1. re: Porthos
                          PeterCC Apr 7, 2012 06:27 PM

                          Midnight? Must have started your omakase late! :-) I might end up doing the same tonight (not omakase, but eating there late) as I probably won't be able to get there until at least 9:30 PM. How crowded was it on a Friday night?

                          If he runs out of the firefly squid, I'll be a bit disappointed, but I'll console myself somehow, maybe with an order of bamboo...

                          Did he serve a cold soup during your omakase? Just wondering what your version was. Mine was wintermelon-based with yams and fois gras; maiweezy had a yam-based one with guava, gobo, and kanpyo.

                          1. re: PeterCC
                            Porthos Apr 7, 2012 09:06 PM

                            We started around 9-930 since the bar was full.

                            Our cold soup was the same as yours. The frozen shaved foie was perfect with the yam and the burgundy that we brought.

                            Hope you get the firefly squid. Ask for that delicious looking braised oxtail with potatoes!

                            1. re: Porthos
                              J.L. Apr 7, 2012 10:20 PM

                              Full bar?! Whoa. I'm glad I went 2+ weeks ago...

                  3. Porthos Apr 5, 2012 04:15 PM

                    Very impressive knife-work on the aji!

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Porthos
                      Ciao Bob Apr 5, 2012 04:38 PM

                      He can cook....AND CUT!

                      1. re: Porthos
                        PeterCC Apr 6, 2012 12:40 AM

                        In our omakase, the pompano was prepared in the exact same way. Really nice presentation.

                      2. TonyC Apr 5, 2012 10:50 AM

                        $ ?

                        7 Replies
                        1. re: TonyC
                          Servorg Apr 5, 2012 12:39 PM

                          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/842498

                          1. re: Servorg
                            TonyC Apr 5, 2012 01:43 PM

                            *nod* saw that, but I wanna know if JL paid the same, as what they ate were relatively different.

                            1. re: TonyC
                              J.L. Apr 5, 2012 05:56 PM

                              Fair question. It was $110 per person for the meal I had, not counting drinks or tip.

                              1. re: J.L.
                                PeterCC Apr 5, 2012 11:39 PM

                                One of the first reviews at Yelp mentioned the $80/pp price point for omakase at Shunji. That's how I originally decided that it was within my price range. When I went in and asked for the omakase, I wasn't given the price, and I just assumed my $170 for two was the the sum of $80/pp + $10 for the single pieces of uni, hotategai, and kanpachi that we asked for at the end.

                                I'm just curious if your $110/pp was the result of any add-ons to the standard omakase, or if you had set a price range for the omakase with him ahead of time, or if he knew you'd like something more than the standard based on your previous visits to his other restaurants. I noticed that you were served some items that might have pushed the omakase price up a little, like the chu-toro and the uni with the kanpyo, but I also know that omakase can change from day-to-day or even person-to-person, so having more expensive ingredients in one dish wouldn't necessarily mean the overall price would increase. Another dish's ingredients could be modified to balance out the cost.

                                I guess I just wouldn't think that someone would get a more expensive version of omakase, if the price is apparently set at $80/pp, without some previous discussion or understanding. Perhaps he offers different tiers of omakase (I didn't see it, or any mention of omakase, on the menus I saw), and as a first time customer he gave me the standard tier, which was of course still outstanding, but I'm just speculating.

                                1. re: PeterCC
                                  J.L. Apr 6, 2012 01:04 AM

                                  I didn't know of a set price point before going in. Chef Shunji recalls serving me from my visits to him before (and my mammoth appetite), so he knew he could go "all out" with my meal. Maybe that's why it was a bit more.

                                  But I assure you, each of these dishes are ones he would have served any of his patrons - just not so many dishes in one sitting, I suppose.

                                2. re: J.L.
                                  k
                                  kevin Apr 8, 2012 09:39 PM

                                  Dang that's not bad for the number of dishes you had. I really want to try the whipped ankimo and the shaven frozen foie gras and that crazy sounding bleu cheese bit and that tuna sashimi.

                                  Hmmmn? I'm wondering if I can only order up those dishes ?

                            2. re: TonyC
                              m
                              maiweezy Apr 7, 2012 07:05 PM

                              My meal was $75 pp omakase. $50 for the "omakase" portion, $25 for the sushi portion.

                            3. PeterCC Apr 5, 2012 10:00 AM

                              Great review and fantastic photos. I need to take pictures next time I go. My wife was just saying that Shunji has ruined us for our regular sushi spots. I couldn't resist and went back again last night just by myself, and ordered a la carte. It was quite affordable, with Shunji allowing single piece orders rather than the standard two pieces. So we can definitely see making Shunji our new regular spot without going broke.

                              (If you want to read about my second visit, check my original thread--I don't want to post a link out of your review. The highlights were the awabi kimo [abalone liver--part of the baby abalone I had], the tairagai [Japanese scallop], and the komochi kombu [herring eggs on kelp]. Oh, and everything else.)

                              1. ipsedixit Apr 5, 2012 07:26 AM

                                Crappy photography?

                                I'd hate to be the photographer who competes against your "good photography".

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: ipsedixit
                                  b
                                  bulavinaka Apr 5, 2012 07:44 AM

                                  Ditto - nice review...

                                  1. re: ipsedixit
                                    J.L. Apr 5, 2012 05:52 PM

                                    Thanks for the kind words. For most of my reviews, I use my trusty Canon pocket-sized point-&-shoot camera, and not the "big gun" DSLR, so I'm always afraid the point-&-shoot photos would be lacking.

                                  2. choctastic Apr 5, 2012 06:51 AM

                                    Very nice writeup, thanks. Japanese food is one of the only areas where I am tempted to waver in my veganism.

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