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
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
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。
Thanks very much for the excellent review! I'm glad to hear the rice was strong. I think Sushi Zo in west LA has potential to be great, but the rice let me down too many times. I stopped going after about 6 dinners there, because although the fish was pristine, the rice fell apart on too many occasions (and the pacing was insane...it felt like a factory). Chef Keizo-san himself has never a problem, and in fact he was quite cordial at times.
Looking forward to trying Zo in Downtown the next chance I get. And i'm glad Downtown has some serious sushi now - as I never really liked r23 or anything in Little Tokyo (and never made it to Shibucho). For now, I've been splitting my time between Shunji (had an incredible meal there weeks ago), Mori, and Kiriko (and 4 on 6 in Encino when i'm in the Valley, and Sushi Nozomi when i'm in the South Bay), but it's good to have another option!
I'm curious if a meal at Zo is pretty much the same or changes a bit throughout different visits. I found most of my meals at Sushi Zo to be quite "formulaic," the same kumamoto oyster w/ ponzu, magurozuke, ika somen with uni, etc. to start (all of which are very, very good), and usually a very similar parade of fish to follow (though which such a vast selection, they'll serve pretty much everything). At Kiriko, on the other hand, you can go three times a week and have a very different omakase, and at Shunji, the experience seems very much tailored to the individual customer. I really enjoy how at Kiriko or Shunji one can have very different meals with different types of appetizers, varying proportions of otsumame vs. nigiri on request, etc.. But it seems like with the improved rice and friendlier service, maybe Zo is aware of some of the criticisms of the past? I don't mean to imply that he needs absolutely needs to change, but the market is quite competitive since there's so many excellent sushiyas (especially in West LA). And I don't expect him to change his menu or business model per se, but if Zo was indeed making some changes and began to offer a little more flexibility like Kiriko or Shunji (they are consistently excellent without compromise), that would be a big plus in my book!
Completely agree. Zo doesn't really change scripts - just a longer play from time to time. But some people probably like that consistency - they go expecting to get certain things, etc (I mean, that's probably why people are still going to Sasabune, no?). Meanwhile, I've never had more than a few things repeated from one meal to the next at both Kiriko and Shunji.
Glad to hear that the experience isn't so...stale anymore (though they were more talkative on my last visit).
Fucking a, JL,
You are quick.
A little too quick.
Btw, is Keizo taking up his chefly duties here or at the old branch ?
Just read your review.
'so he was precutting the fish ?
Also, you mentioned a $150 omakase is there also a $125 one or a $200 one ?
The litany and plethora of dishes and sushi pieces you had sounds exceedingly reminiscent of his location on National.
Would you say it's better than Nozawa Bar or Bar Nozawa in Beverly Hills ? Not too mention Mori or Shunji ?????
Thanks man. You have gone above and beyond the call of your proverbial duties, not that we would ever expect anything less of you. :)
Thanks for such a detailed and brilliant in depth report!
Keizo sounds like he's in a very good mood, perhaps a change of environment and expanding his business. One can only hope he keeps his positive demeanor, and not just have a happy face during a full moon with a blue tint... and when he's not feeling stressed.
One thing I remember from my and only visit to Sushi Zo in 2007 was that Keizo always uncovered the rice cooker/holder lid, took what he needed to make one piece of nigiri, then closed the lid until he needed rice for another piece of nigiri. Granted these steps are repeated but the opening and closing of the lid frequently caught my attention. Obviously this was to keep the rice warm, but couldn't help and wonder if that step was even necessary (particularly when his hands come into contact with an additional surface). Is he still doing that?
As far as the pre-saucing, that's not too big of a deal. The only problem is when he sauced the white fish back then too heavily (which looks like he took a turn and replaced it with truffle salt on the kurodai). Konbu dashi shoyu works better on akami, chutoro, or otoro, (or a little on kohada) but on white fish it overwhelms, particularly when the sauce is very concentrated. From the photos he eased up on that.
Does he use red vinegar (aka su) to season his sushi rice now?
Thanks for the report...I will say, however, for $150,pp, I've only had two bad "omakase" meals my entire life. One at Matsuhisa, which while capable of creating great food for , tends to mail it in far too often. The other was at Nishimura - the owner pawned us off to his underling, who proceeded to give us some of the worst seafood I've ever had. And I had really looked forward to this meal, as I enjoyed Nishimura at The Hump (no whale when I ate there!).
Fortunately, both times at these restaurants were paid by people on expense accounts.
thanks for the report JL. :>
i have to wonder if Keizo's new "friendlier" demeanor is merely a false front since he's opening a brand-new restaurant and could lose it if he actually kept his jerk-arrogant attitude he's infamous for at his original location?
i still won't be going here.
There actually isn't a Metro Rail entrance right in front of Zo. You visited during a time when there was a NY metro prop up on the sidewalk. They film LA-for-NY all the time on that block. Just last week it was covered in fake snow.
There IS a Red/Purple line station (Pershing Square) nearby, but the entrance for that is on 4th & Hill, two blocks away. So it's still true that it's an easy part of DTLA to get to, though.
I'm a bit late to the game for reading this review, but as a Downtowner I just needed to submit a correction there.
Went to Zo last night. Keizo san was there manning the sushi bar and I was greeted very warmly by both the hostess and Keizo himself. Pretty much a complete different experience than my time at the Palms location, where he barely even made eye contact throughout the dinner service.
Almost everything I had was good to really good, with the exception of the salmon (was way too sweet and over sauced) and a red snapper that was over salted.
The meal ended with a toro handroll instead of the blue crab handroll, so when Keizo asked if we would like anything else, we ordered the blue crab handroll. That was as good as I remembered it.
Now here's the bad. The cuts of fish are so very small that it leaves you unsatisfied after each piece. I appreciate the variety of fish that keizo serves, but I would like a slightly bigger portion for each piece at the cost of less courses if need be. And then there's the price. Dinner for 2 + 2 extra handrolls minus one course (I skipped on the salmon roe while my friend received every piece) + 1 hot sake + 2 beers + tip and tax was $435. That a steep price to pay for a dinner that didn't even leave me full at the end of the meal.
The restaurant was completely empty when I arrived at 7pm except a table of 4. By about 8pm, the sushi bar filled up but the tables remained mostly empty. I just don't see the downtown crowd paying these types of prices for a sushi meal for Keizo to be able to sustain this place, but who knows, his Palms location seems to still be doing well.
While it was a good meal, I don't see myself returning here.