A “Short” Omakase Lunch at Mori Sushi
[Warning, this may have been a “short” omakase, but it’s kind of a long review. Apologies for the verbosity in advance.]
I was all set to go to Kiriko today to try their $50 sashimi/sushi omakase when I decided to try Mori instead. I wanted to see how accommodating they were to a shorter and hopefully cheaper omakase during lunch. They were able to get the “short” part down (1 hour from start to finish), but the “cheap” part, not so much.
I’ll give you the punchline now, it was $120 (before tax and tip) for my omakase. Not that it wasn’t worth the money, but it was a lot more than I was hoping to spend (in the $60-$80 range with the expectation that I wouldn’t have the full omakase experience). I was offered and accepted a few special items, which was likely what pushed me into triple-digits. Otherwise, I could see it coming in at under $100.
I arrived around noon and was pleasantly surprised by how open and bright the space was. Both Kiriko and Shunji are quite dark compared to Mori in daylight. Of course Shunji is only open in the evening but Kiriko seems to have the shades permanently drawn. Only one table was occupied, by a large group, with no one at the bar. The waitress greeted me with a pleasant warning that they do not serve cooked dishes, which of course I was fine with.
I requested to sit at the bar and was given the farthest left seat. I was only given a drink menu, so I assume I cannot get the lunch specials at the bar. Maru-san came out and greeted me. I asked if he could do a short omakase, as I had only an hour to eat, with fewer dishes so that it didn’t get too expensive. He was very agreeable to that, asking what time I had to leave, and stating that the omakase will be mostly sushi, but he’ll also have the kitchen prepare two or three special dishes, starting with...
1. Homemade tofu, with fresh wasabi and a diminutive dish of shoyu. The tofu was very fresh (I saw Maru-san skim the bubbles off a batch in the process of being made behind the bar), with the flavor of soybeans gently coming through. The potency of the fresh wasabi and the mildness of the shoyu accompanied it quite well.
2. A small, beautiful, bowl of sashimi, consisting of hon maguro akami and nodoguro:
Maru-san said the bluefin tuna was “from around India”, which he said gives it a different quality than bluefin from other areas. Having recently had bluefin tuna at Shunji and Kiriko, I can say that this “Southern Bluefin” (as Maru-san called it) is different. The flesh was not exactly firmer, but rather more dense, and tasted slightly different, more iron-y perhaps.
The nodoguro, which Maru-san did not know the name of in English--he encouraged me to look it up, which I did on my phone, and it came back with “blackthroat seaperch”--was a fish that I hadn’t had it before, but it reminded me of tai. Maru-san said it’s a very rare fish and very expensive in Japan. He said it was not a fish he specifically stocked, but the Japanese fish market he used sent over a few fish that they thought he would like (like omakase in wholesale), and this was one of them. He seemed very proud to be serving it.
3. A traditional soup (I didn’t catch the Japanese name) of dashi, with a slice of daikon on top of a piece of kinmedai, and a small pink flower on top. I could taste the bonito in the dashi, and the daikon and kinmedai were light and delicate. The flower added just a touch of perfume to the flavor.
Maru-san then moved to the sushi portion of my omakase, starting with...
4. Isaki, which sounds much better than its English name, “grunt”. It was another rare fish, according to Maru-san. Like the nodoguro, I hadn’t had it before, and like nodoguro, I found it to be tai-like, but that’s more of an indication of my unrefined palate for different kinds shiromi sushi.
5. Inada, which had a very nice consistency, not at all melt-in-your-mouth like hamachi. Interestingly, I could taste a little bit of the blood line in the piece I was served. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing as far as proper preparation goes, but it added an interesting flavor that I enjoyed (then again, I like Taiwanese pig-blood cakes), that others may not.
6. Aji, with the traditional kizami negi and grated shoga topping. The fish was very flavorful in and of itself and made for one of the better pieces of aji nigiri I’ve had.
7. Kurodai, black sea bream, with a shiso leaf under the neta and a splash of citrus on top (did not taste like lemon, so maybe yuzu or sudachi). I’m not sure if I’ve had this fish before. It’s similar to the other shiromi I’d already been served earlier, nodoguro and isaki, but the shiso and citrus brought out a different flavor that was quite enjoyable.
8. & 9 Toro, two pieces: one from a bigeye tuna, one from the aforementioned bluefin from the Indian Ocean. Self-admitted amateur here, but I’m not sure if they were otoro or chutoro, and I didn’t ask as Maru-san had gone into the kitchen briefly. My (probably incorrect) assessment was that they were otoro, as the otoro I’ve had in the past have all had the lines separating the muscles across the pieces whereas the chutoro I’ve had have generally been more uniform and marbled. Regardless, they were quite amazing pieces of toro. The bigeye toro had a subtle tartness and less of a fatty taste, whereas the fattiness of the bluefin toro really came through.
9. Aori ika, bigfin reef squid, which Maru-san explained was the best quality of the various ika. It was soft and creamy in texture. I think I might have preferred it to have a little more snap in the flesh (without the rubberiness of course), but it was excellent.
While we were talking about squid, I mentioned having hotaru ika (firefly squid) recently, and Maru-san asked if I wanted to have some today. I nodded enthusiastically. He said with a smile he will have the kitchen make one last special dish for me. Meanwhile...
10. Amaebi nigiri. I recently had live amaebi at Shunji, dispatched in front of me, shrimp heads lightly fried to a crisp. This wasn’t that, no fried head, and the shrimp was not as sweet as I’m used to with amaebi, but it was still very good.
11. Kamasu, baby barracuda, which was first seared (tataki, on a grill, not aburi, with a torch). The skin was very smoky, in a good way, while the flesh was soft and still raw/rare. A nice contrast and delicious piece of fish.
12. & 13. Uni gunkanmaki, from Santa Barbara. Extremely fresh, sweet and creamy. I asked Maru-san if it was from Santa Barbara, and he said yes. He then paused and asked me if I really like uni. I answered in the affirmative. He then offered me uni from Hokkaido, saying he didn’t have much left. Of course, I accepted. It was the first time I’ve had it, and I could taste some subtle differences, with the Hokkaido uni being both milder and yet more briny, somehow.
14. Anago, simmered or steamed, lightly sauced. It was a perfect piece of fish, cooked to just done. I remarked that I’ve rarely had anago, mostly unagi, and Maru-san opined that unagi is not usually very good, that it’s farmed and mass produced, that people just like it for the sauce. I agreed but mentioned having some fresh unagi down the street at Shunji about a month ago. He said he got his live fresh water eel from the same source as Shunji at the same time (I could picture them bumping into each other at the fish market holding live eels).
Maru-san mischievously informed me that the anago would be the last piece of the *initial* selection of fish that I would have. I was definitely getting full, so I was glad it was just a joke, plus I was starting to worry about what my bill would look like, but before I could think of it too much, out came the...
15. Hotaru ika, firefly squid, in a bowl with cucumber, different varieties of seaweed as garnish, and a whole-grain mustard-based “dressing”. The individual squid were even smaller than they were at Shunji, each no more than one inch long, not counting the tentacles. They were delightful. While the potency of the mustard was a bit overpowering, the flavor paired amazingly well with the squid.
16. & 17. Homemade black sesame ice cream and a small cup of hojicha. The ice cream was delicious, though I wonder if they used milk rather than cream, as the consistency was more icy and less creamy than the chai ice cream I had at Kiriko. The hojicha was very mild and comforting. A nice way to end the meal.
The bill, as I said at the beginning, was $120, before tax and tip. In total, I spent just over $150 for this meal. It has surpassed my omakase at Shunji as the most expensive (per-person) meal I’ve ever had.
[I’m going to end the post here, and give some thoughts in comments below, as this is already getting too long.]
Thanks J.L. That's really nice of you to say. However, if you were to engage me in live conversation about the topic, you'd find me having to Google many of the terms I used, as I don't have them all committed to memory. Not that I'm trying to pass myself off as something I'm not, but I figure the best way to learn is to ask questions and do research and use the proper terms (hopefully correctly) in the proper context and build on my knowledge that way.
I've been a lifelong sushi eater, so I'm not afraid to try anything that might be behind a sushi bar. I just haven't let myself go to sushi restaurants of this caliber before, and this is only the third omakase I've done, so in that sense, I am still very much an amateur in this rarefied world.
Any opinion on whether the toro pieces I had were otoro or chutoro?
Think of it as a color palate. The dark red of an akamai cut is the lean portion. White with some marbling of light pink to light pink is considered o-toro. Anything in between could be considered chu toro (sometimes marked up as otoro). It has less to do with the lines separating the muscle.
Below is a pristine piece of chu toro from Kasen in OC:
When I was walking up to the front door, I saw an exterminator truck pull up, and an exterminator walk into the restaurant. I walked in right behind him. Luckily, he was just handing out flyers to local business. Whew.
I found Maru-san to be very open to being asked questions throughout the meal, and he would expound on the topics at hand, be it on the rarity of the nodoguro and isaki, or the seasonality of uni and hotaru ika. For instance, while discussing where the bluefin he was serving today came from, he explained that the best bluefin outside of Japan came off the coast of Boston.
We also had a nice conversation about rice. I had asked if he was still using the rice that Mori-san grew up in Sacramento. He said he was still using that but was also blending it with other rice from Japan and elsewhere. He said the volume of rice from Sacramento was not enough and he wanted to be able to produce consistent high-quality sushi rice, so he’s experimenting with other sources and blends. He talked about how carefully he’s monitoring everything, from ambient temperature to humidity, which affects how he polishes and cooks the rice.
(I have to say though, while I appreciate the passion and care that Maru-san puts into his shari, I think I may prefer Kiriko's. Just a personal preference. Also, the portion of the sushi, both neta and shari, were noticeably smaller than at Kiriko and Shunji. That's not a bad thing, but it was interesting in light of conversations in other threads about how small the pieces are at Zo are compared to other high-end places. I'm wondering if Mori and Zo are comparable in that regard.)
Maru-san also said that Mori-san was moving to South America to experiment with growing better rice in different climates. The way he said it, it sounded like Mori-san was already down there, but I had just read in another thread that someone saw him at the restaurant on Saturday.
Nice report. That's why I go to Mori. So I get to try fish that is wild, in season, and occasionally, fish I've never tried before.
1. Not sure I've had nodoguro before. Ever. Now I wish I had gone today.
2. "Inada, which had a very nice consistency, not at all melt-in-your-mouth like hamachi".
Melt in your mouth mushy is not necessarily the hallmark of good sushi. In fact, as you've noticed, this wild yellowtail is firmer in texture and has a completely different flavor than your ordinary bland hamachi.
3. Love the aori ika there. I like how it's creamy and sweet and you don't have to chew and chew and chew like other ika.
4. It's kamasu, not hamasu and yes, it's delicous :)
I know $120 is more than you wanted to spend, but that's what you're going to pay for Kiriko's omakse when you end up going and it's still cheaper than the omakase at Zo. Not to mention half your omakase is rare fish and stuff you've never tried before. The cost of those items are going to be much higher than hamachi, salmon, albacore, canned blue crab backfin meat, etc.
That's why for the highest quality sushi that truly reflects the seasons, Mori has always been #1 for me in LA. Even if you do pay $500pp at Urasawa tonight you're not going to get the rare items that you got today at Mori. I'm talking strictly sushi. Urasawa regulars can correct me if they've had nodoguro, or even inada or isaki in all the years Urasawa has been open. I think I saw 1 person mention they had hokkaido uni once at Urasawa while it is a regular item here at Mori. Go back to Mori around December so you can try buri, then buri belly side by side. I prefer it to toro.
Thanks for the correction, Porthos. I changed "hamasu" to "kamasu" in the OP. Any opinion on whether the toro pieces I had were otoro or chutoro?
Baby steps, indeed. I'm definitely starting to appreciate the nuances of the sushi I may have taken for granted in the past at mediocre restaurants. In my write-up of my second visit to Shunji, where I ordered a few pieces of what I had previously considered "filler" sushi (maguro, hirame, tai), my eyes were really opened to how great even "regular" sushi could be.
(I admit I do still like the taste of hamachi, but at least I'll treat it differently than inada or buri and not lump them all together as "yellowtail sushi" in my mind. Buri belly sounds amazing. I regret the one time I heard Shunji mention having albacore toro and not ordering it.)
I fear the nodoguro and isaki may have been somewhat wasted on me. They were both excellent, but while my palate can probably distinguish between them and from kurodai and tai (and other shiromi) if served to me in succession, I probably can't truly appreciate the differences in each fish at this point.
That segues nicely into the topic of cost and value. I absolutely have no doubt my meal was worth the price I paid, and the experience of being able to pick the brain of the owner/itamae of a revered sushi-ya on a variety of topics was incredible. I just can't, at this point in my life and career, afford to do this even on occasion. And if I can't yet truly appreciate some of the rarer items, then it's almost like it's money wasted.
So, I am glad I tried Mori, but I am going to back off a bit. I'm not going to run off to try the other contenders for best sushi in L.A. any time soon, not that anyone has cause to believe me, based on the pattern I've established (Shunji several times in the past 1.5 months, Kiriko twice last week, Mori today). So no Zo fo mo--uh, me.
(Also, deservedly or not, Keizo-san's reputation of Nozawa-like gruffness is not something I want to experience. I already feel like a babe in the very expensive woods, so when I have the option of interacting with known-to-be friendlier itamae, e.g., Shunji, Ken/Tomo, Maru, I'll go with them for the time being.)
For now, I can do Kiriko's lunch sushi omakase, or go into Shunji and order 10 to 12 pieces of nigiri a la carte, and leave completely satisfied but only $40 to $50 poorer each time. And I can do this probably two or three times a month, and that will scratch my newly found high-end-sushi itch without breaking the bank.
(I know, Kiriko's full omakase can definitely compete in price with Mori, but I'm not going to do that. I also know that I could go into Mori and order a la carte, but going back to the comment I made about portions above, I'm pretty sure I will be more physically satiated after spending $40 at Kiriko than $40 at Mori.)
To be clear, I am not casting Kiriko or Shunji as second fiddle to Mori, though I understand that some would, as Mori is considered the epitome of sushi in L.A. by many (yourself included, I believe). I just think Kiriko and Shunji are at the appropriate level of both quality and price for me personally at this point.
The analogy I come up with is that, while a top-of-the-line luxury car can be "better" in all objective (and heck, even subjective) measures than a high-end yet affordable, reliable family sedan, I cannot justify spending the additional money I shouldn't be spending on the former when the latter meets all of my needs.
I'm pretty sure I will be more physically satiated after spending $40 at Kiriko than $40 at Mori.
That's why the blue crab handroll is served. It's cheap, filling, and you walk away feeling sated even though the actual nigiri you had wasn't that remarkable. Voila! Crowd pleaser.
At Mori, ask for a toro scallion handroll to finish (note the crunchiness and flavor of the nori) and finish with a miso soup or asari clam miso soup if you prefer. It helps fill those with ravenous appetites and helps limit the damage to the wallet.
Since Kiriko appeared on both of your top 4 sushi restaurant (with and without cooked items) lists that you posted on the "Birthday Sushi" list, I assume you're not specifically talking about Kiriko when you say that restaurants serve the blue crab hand roll to essentially mask unremarkable sushi.
I've had negi toro at various places, including Kiriko, and for whatever reason I never like it as much as I think I should. Whenever I go to Mori again, probably not for a long time, I will give it a try there, though. Thanks for the suggestion.
The blue crab hand roll appears to be the final item in the two fixed-price lunch omakase--the 10th piece of the "10 pieces of sushi" in the $40 sushi omakase and the 5th piece of the "5pc of sushi" in the $50 sashimi and sushi omakase. It was very good and did serve the purpose you stated for it, which was to fill me up.
<<Keizo-san's reputation of Nozawa-like gruffness is not something I want to experience>>
I think you ought to re-think that PeterCC. Keizo is a master with fish selection, flavors, textures, and sauces. Not to go, given your new found joy, is unthinkable (to my way of thinking). You can tell the waitress how much you want to spend on your meal or tell Keizo when to stop. He has always been very, very nice to me. He is not garrulous by any means, but he is quite willing to speak when not busy. He is occasionally sly and humorous! He or one of his associates always describes the fish, its provenance (when queried) and the sauce/preparation. I only go for dinner but I imagine it is slower at lunch so you may get even more conversation/information at that time. Save the money for it...I doubt you will be disappointed.
As for Nozawa, FWIW, I always thought his demeanor was misinterpreted as gruff and/or nasty when it was mostly a combination of perfectionism, Japanese formality/politeness and language barriers. There is an unfortunate characteristic of many American diners to behave "like they own the place" in restaurants. Nozawa clearly made it clear to many an impolite jerk who was the guest and who was the host. You may enjoy my previous description of the Sushi Nazi in action:
re: Ciao Bob
Sorry, I didn't mean that I've sworn off Sushi Zo completely. I guess I should have appended the sentence you quoted with "at this point in time". I still feel slightly intimidated going to restaurants where the itamae already has a reputation of being nice, so no need to challenge myself at this point, even if Keizo's reputation is undeserved.
Also, if you read my reply to JudiAU below, I've come to the conclusion that I don't need to go to a place like Mori or order the full Kiriko omakase to have sushi that sushi that blows me away. I can order a la carte at Shunji or order the cheaper lunch omakase at Kiriko (wish they offered them for dinner) and still be impressed. So if I have't "leveled up" (to use gamer parlance) to the really high-end stuff yet, there's no reason for me to spend the money at Zo or Mori for the time being, as it would just be wasted on me.
FWIW, I am now apparently discriminating enough that I won't get anything at Kiriko other than their the lunch omakase (again, no need for me to go with the full eponymous omakase yet). Kiriko's lunch moriwase left me cold: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8485....
Thanks for the link, that's quite a story about the would-be patron having Nozawa gesticulating with his knife in the guy's general direction. Yikes. But I understand, be polite and respectful to the itamae and I'll get the same back.
Two things. You can set a limit of how much you want to spend at Mori's. Just tell them that you have X amount of money to spend. Not that I've tried that - but I'm pretty sure they would accomodate you. (I thought I remember a menu with an $85 omakase, but I could be wrong, or that could be a dated memory. I generally go in, get the omakase and when the bill comes - it's always a surprise!
Also - Mori isn't moving to South America. He will have a place there and here. But he will have a farm down in Uruguay. He is coming up with a new kind of rice.
When I was first negotiating with Maru-san the shorter omakase, I did try to mention that I wanted to keep the price to around $60, but I think I didn't convey it clearly enough. At first, he wasn't sure what I was asking, and then he got that I wanted to have an abbreviated version of his omakase, but by that point I didn't want to press the price point again. And like you, I was a bit surprised when the bill came. :-)
Thanks for the clarification on Mori's plans.
I thought I should mention that is also possible to order a non-pre fix omakase lunch at Kiriko with different fish and a different price point.
They will ask you very carefully to make sure you are asking for it, rather than the regular pre-fix version. Much more expensive of course. Let's not compare apples to oranges.
Thanks, I know they have their eponymous "Kiriko omakase" that their menu says range from $80 to $120. Even their fixed-price lunch omakase (either the $40 sushi-only or the $50 sashimi and sushi) would (I think) vary with whatever the itamae considers is best that day at those price points (maybe not if you went on consecutive days, as the freshest fish are probably consistent for the week from the fish market, but I would think there would be some change from week to week).
Also, not sure what your last sentence was referring to. Usually, an apples-to-oranges comparison would be to say the cheaper thing was not as good as the more expensive thing, which is of course an unfair comparison.
What I was trying to convey in my comments above was that while I've apparently grown out of cheap, lower quality sushi, I'm not at the point where I'll only be satisfied going to Mori or only doing the "real" omakase at Kiriko. The $40/$50 lunch omakase is sufficient for me at my level of sushi appreciation.