Zo: The Sushi Balance of Power Shifts in Downtown L.A. [LONG Review w/Photos]
To many on this Chowboard, Sushi Zo has become somewhat of a polarizing establishment in the L.A. sushi scene over the past few years. While there are diehard followers of Chef Keizo Seki’s strict omakase style, other diners simply could not overlook the perceived austerity which accompanied the traditional Sushi Zo experience, as well as the pre-cut fish.
Admittedly, I was in the latter category, having had suboptimal meals on my last two visits to Sushi Zo in West L.A. Therefore, it was with a certain degree of trepidation that I approached Chef Keizo’s brand new second location in Downtown L.A., simply named Zo. On one hand, I did not want to incur the ire of Chef Keizo, but on the other hand, dying of curiosity, I just had to see what his new place was like.
RESERVATIONS: An easy phone call. The staff are very cordial on the phone, and a seat at the bar was not a problem.
LOCATION: Zo occupies a space on the corner of 4th & Main. As such, it is very Metro friendly - There is a Metro Rail underground entrance right in front of the restaurant entrance! Parking is available either in the street or in the pay lot next door ($6 flat fee).
DÉCOR: Clean sharp lines, with grey and white tones throughout the spacious dining room. There are tables which can seat 18-20 patrons total, while the sushi bar can seat 10 more. Unlike many sushi-yas, there are no wooden fixtures, and the sushi bar itself is stone, not wood.
BEVERAGES: High-end sakes predominate the alcohol menu, with some Champagne selections as well. Beer is either Asahi draft (which was my choice that night) or Orion.
As I approached the bar, Chef Keizo warmly welcomed me with a smile(!). This immediately put me at ease. This is a different location, and I suppose the itamae is also off to a fresh (and friendly) new start in his demeanor!
FOOD: I sat at the bar and ordered the Zo omakase ($150). Chef Keizo himself was my itamae that night. For those unfamiliar with Sushi Zo, Chef Keizo’s style is to pre-sauce/pre-season almost all of his offerings. Each piece of sushi is a touch smaller than most other sushi-yas in L.A. (Highlights of my meal will be indicated by ***** )
1. Miso soup/tofu: Excellent. One of the best miso soups I’ve had in L.A. Sushi Zo has always served great miso in the past, as I recall.
2. Kumamoto oyster, with ponzu & momiji oroshi (grated radish and chiles): Another strength of Sushi Zo has been the freshness of the shellfish. This was no exception at Zo. I also detected a hint of yuzu in the ponzu.
3. Akami (bluefin tuna) sashimi from Canada, with freshly grated wasabi: Great stuff.
4. Ika (squid) “noodles”, with uni (sea urchin roe) & sea salt truffle: Another signature from Sushi Zo, the knifework on the ika, yielding such thin strands, is simply astounding.*****
5. Kurage (jellyfish), with sweet miso, cucumber, seaweed: Another winner. The sweet miso matches so nicely with all the different textures on this plate.
Gari (ginger) is presented. Time for the nigiri! The shari at Zo is truly enjoyable on this visit (probably better than any shari I’ve had at Sushi Zo). The shari temperature is not overly warm, is well-packed, and the grains of rice taste wonderfully “pearly”, for lack of a better description.
6. Hirame (halibut) with sea salt: Splendid.*****
7. O-toro (fatty tuna): Marvelous. It’s hard to screw up o-toro.
8. Aji (horse mackerel): Good.
9. Hotate-gai (giant scallop) from the East Coast: Fluffy, fresh. The muscles of the scallop were still twitching!*****
10. Hamachi (yellowtail) from Japan: Outstanding stuff.
11. Chu-toro (medium fatty tuna): Superb.*****
12. Ibodai (Japanese butterfish), with pickled shishito pepper: Another signature offering from the other location.
13. Kanpachi (amberjack): Very good.
14. Kinmedai (golden eye snapper): Very good.
15. Katsuo (skipjack): Good.
16. Mirugai (giant clam): Good.
17. Sawara (Spanish mackerel): Really tasty.
18. Ankimo (monkfish liver): Served warm, this was light yet rich. Terrific.
19. Tara (black cod), with vinegared miso: Very gentle, and the miso (again) is the star of the dish, pairing so well with the cod.
20. Kurodai (black snapper) with truffle salt: How can you not like anything with truffle salt on it?!
21. Sake (salmon): Good.
22. Tako (octopus): Without doubt the highlight of this meal! Achingly tender , this is the best tako nigiri I’ve yet had in the U,S.! Kimagure Ike in Pasadena comes in at a close second place, but the version at Zo is a real winner.*****
23. Kobashira (short-necked clam adductors): An unusual offering in the States. Very, very good!
24. Madai (red seabream) with shishito pepper: This was absolutely delicious.*****
25. Ikura (salmon roe) & Santa Barbara uni (sea urchin roe) with wasabi: As expected, an in credible combination!
26. Shima aji (striped jack): Very good.
27. Anago (sea eel) with truffle salt: Wow! Perfectly steamed to warm and fluffy goodness, with just the right amount of ponzu. I could eat a dozen of these. Dangerously tempting.*****
28. Blue crab temaki (handroll): One of the few things you dip in shoyu (soy sauce) at Zo, Amazing taste. The nori (seaweed) wrapping is perceptibly of superior quality.*****
Hot green tea was served. This marked the end of the nigiri portion of the night. But I wanted some more!
BONUS NIGIRI: Tako, chu-toro & anago. Beautiful.
And of course, no meal with Chef Keizo would be complete without the famous…
29. Yuzu juice. What more needs to be said? This is heaven in a glass. So utterly refreshing!
SERVICE: Spot-on. Attentive, polite.
COST: Omakase, 3 bonus pieces of nigiri, 1 Asahi draft beer, and tip: $200 out the door (all-inclusive).
VERDICT: My dinner at Zo was probably better than any meal I’ve ever had at Sushi Zo in West L.A. Chef Keizo’s demeanor is now friendly and welcoming, which put me at ease throughout the courses. This experience has changed my perception of Chef Keizo. Sure, there will be criticism of his use of sauce, the pre-cutting of the fish, and the smaller-than-usual nigiri pieces by various detractors, but the overall feeling I came away with from this dinner was overwhelmingly positive. I asked the Chef on how he was planning to divide his time, now that he operates two restaurants. He replied (preliminarily) for now it will be 50/50.
334 S. Main St.
Los Angeles, CA 90013
Good to hear your about positive experience. My last visit at their original location was subpar, too many new minions.
Q next on your list?
Thanks for the thorough review. Miss these as you've veered more toward "pictorial essay" format posts with minimal text.
Any issues with photo taking? I seem to remember reading that it was a big no-no with Keizo-san at the mothership, at least at the bar.
Do you know how Keizo-san will be splitting his time between the two locations?
Sounds great. Thanks for the fab report. Some of my best, and not-so-best, sushi meals have been sitting in front of Keizo - the former when he first started on National, and the latter, well, later.
One question and one reply:
Q: Isn't Spanish Mackerel called Aji in Japanese?
You say Sawara.
A: How can you not like anything with truffle salt on it?!
I hate it. Ruins me for that dish, and a few dishes after. One of the things I politely ask Keizo not to use when I am with him.
re: Ciao Bob
アジ【鯵】aji - jack (horse) mackerel
サワラ【鰆】sawara - Spanish mackerel
There's always been a confusion and irresponsible interchange between the two (simply because "horse mackerel" sounds too (f)ugly to non Japanese so some restaurants loosely call aji as Spanish mackerel which is incorrect...but these are the proper definitions. So J.L. is using the correct terminology and English name.
Also from one of Reverend Moon's empire
re: K K
It is great that the Japanese names for the fish are quite pleasing to the ear, particularly Sawara. Also, the character for it (鰆）is particularly lovely. I mean, who would ever want to order a "horse mackerel"?)
To be fair, horse-meat sashimi (馬刺), a specialty of Kumamoto prefecture is quite delicious and is colloquially called "sakura", likely because of its deep pink color.
Well, you know. Basashi is the proper name, and "sakura" is a more casual name. The stuff is the same, though places calling it "sakura" may charge more (wink).
I am still impressed not only by the quality of your photos, but the way they are taken tells me you are quite familiar with the food. ご苦労さまでした。