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Apr 19, 2012 04:40 PM

Shunji is quite the genious, a great chef/cook

You park in the old ricketey lot with maybe space for a half dozen cars and enter the old Mr. Cecil's space, which amounts to a circular structure that used to house one of the Chili Bowl themed restaurant chains. It's a little jarring, but once inside it's serene and calm. And Shunji definitely has made it his own.

In fact, the sushi bar is an L-shaped bar with two cuttting boards for the preparation of dishes. There's no refrigerator case that is ubiquitous at the majority of sushi bars around town. Better to take a look at the conception and preparation of your dishes with an unobstructed view. That's a good sign in my book.

There is a double side printed menu and a separate list of fine sakes and a token Sapporo beer on draft. (Well, perhaps it's not a token since you rarely see Sapporo on tap).

After looking at the menu, I ordered the Omakase meal with a few requests such as the much heralded ankimo ball topped with caviar, the bleu cheese ball, and the soup with shaved foie gras.

According to my memory, the dishes are listed as follows:

Jellyfish amuse-guele.

Vegetable medley including lotus root and various types of squash.

Ankimo mouse ball topped with caviar, bleu cheese ball topped with dried persimmon, and sweet potato ball laced with black truffle.

Winter melon and sweet potato soup (more like a congee or rice porridge consistency) topped with shredded slivers of frozen, chilled foie gras.

Sashimi plate of kanpachi, blue fin tuna, and albacore.

Scallops in vinegar broth with arugula flowers.

Tempura-fried oyster.

An extra order of the ankimo ball with caviar

Soup with black cod and shittake mushrooms.

Bamboo and bamboo with sea urchin and cherrystone clam sauce. And squid "noodles" with sea urchin and black squid ink sauce and topped with a pristine quail egg.

Sushi course:

Seared pompano sushi.

Red snapper sushi.

Marinated salmon sushi

Mackerel sushi

Ikura (salmon eggs) sushi.

And a tiny plate of fresh fruit.

The ankimo mousse molded into a ball and topped with caviar is one of the best bites of monkfish liver I can ever seem to remember. The preparation and fluffy, smooth consistency was incomparable.

The bleu cheese ball was incredibly interesting and delicious and usually I'm not even a fan of bleu cheese. A mild bleu cheese flavor was there and the dried persimmon with it's appropriate sweetness cut the richness down to size.

You can probably see why I had to order an encore of the ankimo mousse ball.

The scallops were unlike others I have had and there was a bit of chewiness that I always seem to expect from scallops. An exceptional scallop dish.

The bamboo was redolent to me (who may never have had bamboo before) of a musky, earthy and delicious corn, fresh from the stalk.

I loved the refreshing chewy consistency of the jellyfish and the sauce and pickles fit it too a tee.

The vegetable medley was unique and delicious, especially those lotus roots, which I have only usually had at Chinese banquet restaurants.

The service was appropriately solicitous and the waitress described each dish succinctly and effectively after each was placed before me.

And chef Shunji was preparing all the dishes from the sushi to sashimi to the cooked dishes himself with the aide of almost no assistance, save for perhaps an assistant in the back who tends over the soups and desserts.

A great, delicious evening. An amazing cooking show. And an exceptional joint all around.

I do have to say that this is not the restaurant for someone who dabbles in sushi and raw seafood dishes.

And the price is sadly quite high. But most have already probably guessed that without me telling you. Yet, I have to say compared to sushi restaurants around town such as Mori or Zo, this is a far better deal, though it may not be a felicitous point of reference.

For others who were wondering, the omakase here has nothing to do with the set, prixe-fixe courses you would see at a Nozawa or his doting acolytes (who have taken his approach to sushi and ran with it over the years).

In sum, I would also say that the sushi at Shunji, while great, may not compete with other top sushi bars in town. That's not a problem though because the real goods here are the omakase meals here. And next time I will definitely go the path of an omakase that does not include any sushi.

Definitely check this place out before it gets too busy.

Thanks guys. And now sadly I'll have to go bankrupt again.

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  1. "And the price is sadly quite high."

    I feel like Ed McMahon to Johnny Carson "How high was it?"

    3 Replies
    1. re: Servorg

      "Thanks guys. And now sadly I'll have to go bankrupt again."

      obviously, too damn high.

      1. re: ns1

        Like a Carson routine I think Kevin was putting his tongue firmly in his cheek...

      2. re: Servorg

        Looks like from what kevin received, it should be just ~$80, comparing this to Kiyokawa, I feel it's a tad higher, but almost justified. Will explain why, later.

      3. Finally got around to going back. No ankimo on the prior visit, but had the ankimo "mousse" this time since we almost always will order it when available! Three balls of ankimo but sans caviar on top, topped with a chive instead - still a very elegant presentation. We did not do omakase, instead picking out what we wanted from the menu and the sushi/sashimi list. If a chef is going to do anything to ankimo, this is the way to do it. It was delicious.

        6 Replies
        1. re: thranduil

          It's even more delicious with the caviar in top.

          Did you have the omakase on previous visits?

          And how much did those three balls of ankimo mousse cost (without the caviar) but the chives on top?

          Glad you enjoyed it.

          1. re: kevin

            So, kevin...was this meal more than you spend at Mori (for instance) or less?

            1. re: Servorg

              More than Mori. But here it's a different type of meal that you are getting.

              It's like apples and oranges, but over all I still prefer Shunjis.

              1. re: kevin

                Kevin, I'm curious about this being more than Mori. My understanding, from reading all the reviews on Mori, is that their omakase easily breaks into triple-digits, whereas Shunji's seems set at $80/pp. I always though Mori was going to be a "saving up" kind of meal, but I suppose I could just ask to have my omakase at Mori be limited to a certain price range?

            2. re: kevin

              We have not done omakase yet, although a lot of the items we get are probably part of it. I think the ankimo was $6 or $7.

            3. re: thranduil

              Last I was there, Shunji made an ankimo handroll for a regular patron, which I had not seen done before.

            4. I had a great meal there several weeks ago. We had mostly similar items but I was slightly surprised by the bill. My omakase consisted of 9 courses of cooked dishes for $80, plus $40 supplement for 6 orders (2 pieces) of sushi. Had to try some nigiri after the positive reviews here, and this was after the waitress abruptly told me after the final cooked dish that this was the end of the omakase. I was expecting sashimi/sushi included based on other reports but I guess it's variable by day/customer?

              27 Replies
              1. re: zack

                I think the earlier omakase reviews did mention sushi courses. For ours, we got six single pieces (grouper, marinated salmon, pompano, mackerel, orange clam, and salmon roe). If we counted that as one course, then we received 11 courses (see my review here for the other courses: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/842498).

                J.L. received 11 courses, according to his review (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/842586), before sushi, and received a few more pieces than we did. But it's not a competition. :-) I do think it will be variable based on the chef's mood for what he wants to serve. I guess it's part of the omakase experience, though I'm sure you can also request your preferred ratio of cooked-to-raw dishes for your omakase before the meal starts.

                A new review for Shunji's omakase was posted a few days ago on Grub Street (http://losangeles.grubstreet.com/2012...), and it looked like they got 10 courses apparently without sushi, though their boiled vegetables course also included baby abalone and a cooked red snapper dish (see picture 2 in their slideshow). So to control for keeping the omakase at $80, I would think more or less (or no) sushi is provided to compensate for more expensive ingredients during the other courses...?

                1. re: PeterCC

                  Yea. That makes sense too. They asked me if I wanted a sushi course with the meal to cut back in another dish and I said yes to that.

                  Having said that, I belief Shunji's artistic expertise lies significantly more in his cooked dishes as well as the vegetable medley and mousse ball dishes.

                2. re: zack

                  Shoot I forgot to Mention. That the waitress said that they were phasing out the sushi part of the omakase. Because they were going more in the direction of cooked dishes and a sashimi course.

                  1. re: kevin

                    I did not know that. So his omakase will basically become kaiseki then.

                    1. re: kevin

                      I was going to make a reservation for my first omakase dinner at Shunji but with this tidbit, I think I'll go to Kiriko instead to get a more sushi emphasis.

                      1. re: taiwanesesmalleats

                        That's exactly my thoughts as well. I much prefer sushi omakase. Kiriko or Zo or Mori will remain my "Holy Trinity" it looks like.

                        1. re: Servorg

                          Not having been to those three revered sushi-ya (yet), but knowing of their reputation for serving the best sushi around, it is highly likely that they'd provide a better sushi omakase than Shunji, but I can't personally give an opinion on that.

                          I don't think the issue with sushi at Shunji is the quality. That is, others on CH who have been to your "Holy Trinity" have said his sushi is comparable. Rather, I don't know that Shunji has the variety on hand that the other places may have, though I have had sushi there I had not had previously, like sayori (needlefish) and tairagai (he called it "Japanese scallop", but I see it also called razor clam), when they were available. I'm sure it's the same way at other sushi-ya, based on the seasonality and day-to-day availability of certain kinds of fish.

                          However, staples would often not be available (e.g., I only saw hamachi available once in my five visits--Shunji would steer patrons toward kanpachi as an alternative), but whatever he does have on-hand seems to hold up to other high-end sushi-ya (again, not my personal opinion since I haven't been to those establishments yet).

                          I still think he would do a (nearly) all-sushi omakase upon request, but it may not be as varied as the other places.

                          1. re: PeterCC

                            I actually think the sushi portion of Chef Shunji's meals aren't exactly as structured or thought out as some of us might think. I get more the impression that he'll serve whatever is good or fresh on whatever particular day you happen to be there, and that's it. He's not gonna stock up on every fish/shellfish in sight, since it doesn't represent the majority of his offerings anyways. Now keep in mind, what he does have in stock is undoubtedly great that day; it's just that he doesn't have an entire array of sushi bar seafood stocked behind that counter of his at all times.

                            Having said all that, it doesn't make Chef Shunji's meals any less enjoyable. In fact, I really like the vegetable dishes in his repertoire.

                            I find the sushi-based kaiseki/omakase (e.g. Kiriko or Mori) to be a lot coordinated and methodical in its approach and order - The ultimate example being, of course, Urasawa.

                            1. re: J.L.

                              Speaking totally as an omakase amateur, I imagine that every piece of sushi served at these high-end sushi-focused (or sushi-only) places to be of the highest quality, so to be able to do that with every fish available, how do they stock for both quantity and quality?

                              I've heard of the warning not to go on Mondays because fish deliveries are often on Tuesdays and Fridays. Is this true (or if you don't know, do you think it's likely) at places like Mori, Zo, and Kiriko? Is my notion of the itamae perusing the fish markets every morning and picking out the best for each day overly romantic?

                              I've asked about omakase before, and I know there are differing opinions, with some going the Nozawa way, where itamae knows best, and others treating it like a give-and-take with the patron. Would you say the "coordinated and methodical" is more the former than the latter, or is it more of a matter of priority and organization than a service philosophy?

                              (Sorry if what I'm writing doesn't make any sense. 2 AM and sleepy. Will respond more tomorrow. Really enjoy talking about this and learning.)

                              [Re: Urasawa - from all the reviews I've read, while the sushi course seems amazing, the cooked courses seem equally amazing. Would that still be considered sushi-based kaiseki/omakase or simply kaiseki? The picture in my head (based on reviews I've read) of what Kiriko or Mori serves for their omakase is nearly all sushi as opposed to the number of non-sushi courses at Shunji and Urasawa. I really haven't come across much on the cooked dishes at Mori, for example.]

                              1. re: J.L.

                                I agree - when we've ordered off the sushi/sashimi a la carte menu, the waitress would tell us if what we wanted was not available or what would be really good.

                              2. re: PeterCC

                                I only saw hamachi available once in my five visits--Shunji would steer patrons toward kanpachi as an alternative
                                I actually like that about Shunji. Hamachi is farmed and too soft and fatty for my taste these days. It's a bit like salmon for me.

                                In all my visits to Mori I have never been served salmon or hamachi. In place of hamachi, I'm given buri or inada, the wild versions of yellowtail.

                                I really haven't come across much on the cooked dishes at Mori, for example.
                                Back when Mori was around there were some pretty good cooked dishes, especially his soups. In particular the matsutake dobinmushi and when matsutake was not available a beautiful clean fish broth with tai, ginko, some Japanese vegetables. He also did a mean cooked clam dish with white wine and tomatoes and a stellar grilled prawn dish. As elegant and complex as what you'd find at Providence or Le Bernardin.

                                1. re: Porthos

                                  To be fair, Shunji's a la carte sushi menu is printed in English and the one time I was there when yellowtail sushi was available, he just said "yellowtail", so I'm the one calling it "hamachi" here. I don't really know if it was hamachi, buri, or inada. Since hamachi is readily available at most sushi restaurants but not at Shunji, perhaps the yellowtail he served that time was buri. I haven't had enough buri to know for sure, but it was firmer and not as fatty as hamachi from other restaurants, if I remember correctly.

                                  I find it interesting that Shunji only serves salmon marinated. Flavor-wise, it's almost like lox (not smoked salmon). Texture-wise it's definitely different than normal sake sushi. Not exactly sure how to describe it, still soft and fatty (so probably not your preference) but with a little more hold in the flesh. Perhaps the marinate is acidic and denatures the protein a bit, a la ceviche but not to that extreme.

                                  The soup at Mori sounds amazing, as does the clam dish. Do you know if Maru-san has continued serving cooked dishes of that quality? Also, I thought I read, albeit a while ago, that Mori-san still works two days a week there. I'm hoping whenever we do get to go to Mori that he'll still be around and we can go when he's working.

                                  1. re: PeterCC

                                    It's essentially brining which firms up the meat a little. Same reason why at places that do tai or hirame no konbu jime (snapper or halibut cured between dried kelp) you can taste that that the flesh is more firm.

                                    I don't know what kind of cooked dishes Masu is doing these days. I heard that Mori is no longer working there 2 days a week. JL would know better.

                                    1. re: Porthos

                                      Thanks Porthos. Well, whether the cooked dishes are still served (or still good) at Mori, it's still definitely on our list to try. My wife loves salmon sushi, though, so I'm counting on the quality of the other fish to make up for the lack of salmon. I'm pretty sure based on its reputation that it will have no problem doing so.

                                      (Shunji definitely serves hirame kobujime, and he keeps it wrapped in the case, but he does not do the same with the salmon. And he doesn't call his hirame "marinated halibut" so I'm assuming he does something else to the marinated salmon. *shrug* I'll ask next time.)

                                      1. re: PeterCC

                                        The salmon is in a wet soy brine so it's "sake no shoyu zuke". I prefer it with maguro.

                                    2. re: PeterCC

                                      FYI, it has always been traditional in Japan to cure salmon, reason being that wild salmon often have parasites (note that when you eat salmon sushi/sashimi, it's almost always farm raised). So back in the day, the curing process essentially "cooked" the meat while allowing it to be eaten as if it were "raw."
                                      quite a few japanese restaurants still do it that traditional way, even no-frills type places like hide and noshi sushi.
                                      And i only know this because i finally asked a sushi chef what the deal was....

                                      1. re: Bert

                                        Thanks Bert. I looked into it too and found out that when salmon sushi began to become more popular, the Japanese discovered the Ainu population had been eating salmon raw for centuries, and they killed the parasite by freezing the fish first for several days. Since all fish meant for raw consumption in the U.S. must be frozen to kill parasites, even wild salmon is safe to eat without curing. Shunji must just be a traditionalist in his salmon sushi preparation.

                                    3. re: Porthos

                                      Just saw on Shunji's Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Shunji...) that he has wild yellowtail, so that's gotta be buri (for it to be inada, my understanding is that the fish is young and only about a foot in length, and the picture seems to show a fish longer than that).

                                      1. re: PeterCC

                                        Maybe it was warasa ;)

                                        See below link to a 2007 discussion. Look for Silverjay's reply halfway down regarding the different sizes and corresponding names for yellowtail.


                                          1. re: Porthos

                                            Went this evening to check it out for myself and for my wife to get the bamboo dish one more time before it went out of season (Shunji says he'll likely only have it for one more week).

                                            Ordered the wild yellowtail and asked if it was buri. Shunji says it's past buri season and that it was inada. So I either guessed wrong on the scale of the fish (no pun intended) in the picture, or the range is a little wider than what I was reading.

                                2. re: kevin

                                  We went in tonight, and I discussed with Shunji the omakase's lack of a sushi course, and he said the sushi was part of it only when the restaurant first opened, kind of as a grand opening promotion. He might have continued with it as part of the omakase, but I guess people were requesting more expensive items for the sushi courses--his words were that some patrons wanted "toro, toro, uni, uni, toro"--and I guess expecting it to be part of the omakase, so it was getting too costly for him.

                                  (I may be misunderstanding his point, as I would fully expect, as a customer, to be charged for additional pieces or for more expensive kinds of sushi, beyond what was considered reasonable at the omakase's price).

                                  So the normal $80 omakase that he's serving now is for about 10 to 12 courses of cooked dishes, some of which has sashimi elements of course, but no formal sushi course. He did say that some newer people coming into the restaurant was not aware it even served sushi, so he does still want people to know that he can make sushi.

                                  (I found this amusing since I think many people who know of him knew him more as a sushi chef--from Matsuhisa, Asanebo, etc.--as opposed to the direction he's headed now, and for some time apparently--reviews I've read going back to the former Shunji's on Melrose, and at Tengu in SM before that, already highlighted his non-sushi dishes.)

                                  He also discussed the possibility of formally offering sushi omakase in the future, so he's certainly not trying to leave that world completely.

                                  1. re: PeterCC

                                    Mori is already doing a bang-up job with sushi omakase right up the street. Shunji's forte are his non-sushi dishes, in my opinion - That's his niche.

                                    It's not reasonable to demand sushi over and over when the Chef is already hinting (in a very subtle-yet-firm Japanese way) that he's trying to steer away from it. I don't blame him - Seafood prices have shot up dramatically in only the past year, and containing overhead is a huge part making any business work.

                                    1. re: J.L.

                                      More than half the sushi we ordered were market price, since they (wild yellowtail, Japanese barracuda, shirako, kohada) were not on the regular sushi menu, so I hope he's setting those prices to be sustainable for his business.

                                      I was just confused why people requesting expensive pieces of sushi during their omakase would be too costly for him, unless he wasn't charging people for adding-on to the normal sushi courses. Based on the various reviews I've read here that have gone into pricing, most of us who've done the omakase did order more pieces of sushi and were charged accordingly, and appropriately so.

                                      It sounded to me like these issues happened earlier on and so he's been tweaking his omakase to get the right balance, and right now it's completely sans sushi. But, as I said above (Disclosure: I did make some edits to my last comment since you replied to it, just for clarification), it definitely did not seem like he wanted to move completely away from sushi at all.

                                      BTW, I was actually going to ask tonight if he ever serves chawanmushi, as I'm curious what he would do with that dish, and lo and behold, I saw him serve a mini ramekin of chawanmushi with the boiled vegetable course in his omakase tonight.

                                      1. re: PeterCC

                                        Maybe it's economics: To make a go of it, I suspect you'd need to sell a "critical mass" of any given sushi item (whether it's toro, uni, buri) to make your money back as a restauranteur.

                                        Selling the occasional piece of o-toro, for example, even with the markup passed onto the customer, may not allow Shunji to recoup his up-front investment that large chunk of o-toro (minimum purchase at the fish market).

                                        Sushi-intensive eateries can sustain this economy of scale, but to just "dabble" in some sushi is probably going to result a financially losing proposition for Shunji-san overall.

                                        Having said this - It is, of course, impossible to divorce Japanese cuisine from seafood components, as Japan is an island nation rich in seafood traditions. Also, Shunji is a smart businessman - I expect that he will listen to the customer's demands and adjust accordingly.

                                        That veggie chawanmushi sounds pretty good - I'm glad your found the means to enjoy Shunji's cuisine more often, PeterCC. :-)

                                        1. re: J.L.

                                          Love the info you two provide.
                                          Love Shunji's creativity, dedication and evolution.
                                          I have had many occasions to dine with him at the Humo, then Asenebo and at the Melrose shop -- back then he was just getting going in the direction he has taken (anyone ever have his Agadashi Tomato????? Heaven.). Both of those places cater to a sushi-loving crowd that also appreciates non-raw/non-Roku dishes...but it was clearly "sushi-first." Thus, his ability to do what he is doing now was limited. I hope he can succeed in this locale with this concept.

                                          1. re: Ciao Bob

                                            I had the agadashi tomato and it was delicious!

                              3. Just went tonight and the Omakase no longer includes any sushi pieces.

                                There was kanpachi sashimi and scallops during the meal, both slightly torched.

                                As for sushi, they had barracuda, sayori, marinated salmon, hirame, tai, aji, saba, maguro, toro as well as uni and ikura tonight that I could see him making.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: jysh

                                  How was your omakase meal ?

                                  1. re: kevin

                                    I would say it was neat and clean? Not sure if that comes across correctly though.
                                    It was most of the same dishes that you had. Good clean flavors on the vegetables, good chew on most of the proteins. The sushi pieces I had were also nice. I especially enjoyed his Aji and Tai.

                                    Overall compared with n/naka I would say Shunji is more about good clean flavors especially on his vegetables and less about fusion/westernized Japanese food. Except for the balls of ankimo/potato/cheese et al, I'd say he's purely Japanese.

                                    Hard to compare with Urasawa, certainly you get more and diverse food with Hiro san with more luxurious components as befits the price he charges.

                                    Sushi pieces were better at Urasawa for sure also.

                                    For a saturday it seemed slow, it was our party of 5, another party of 4 and 2 other parties of 2 from 6 pm til 9 pm when we left.