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Apr 5, 2012 12:40 AM

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

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!

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

    1. Crappy photography?

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

      2 Replies
        1. re: ipsedixit

          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. 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. re: Servorg

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

                1. re: TonyC

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

                  1. re: J.L.

                    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

                      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.

                      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

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

                3. Very impressive knife-work on the aji!

                  2 Replies
                    1. re: Porthos

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