Friday, October 24, 2008

Go's Mart - 05/13/2007

22330 Sherman Way
Canoga Park, CA 91303
(818) 704-1459

This last stellar trip to Urasawa got me thinking back on other sushi experiences.

With a name like Go's Mart I had a hard time believing I would be heading into a top-notch sushi restaurant. If anything the name conjures images of a neighborhood market; however, this Canoga Park gem is an incredible find. We came here at the end of a dining trip that included Cyrus and French Laundry, two and three Michelin stars respectively. To close we go to a restaurant in a small strip mall. Darkened windows and a wooden wall near the entrance with a sign that reads SUSHI in green block lettering.

Once you go inside things don't get much better. Immediately to the right there is a shelf filled with videos, great they have a booming rental business. And yes two people came to return and rent tapes while we were eating. Keep going and you see fridges filled with drinks. This is looking more and more like a dingy neighborhood market. There is an old checkout counter and 4 tables for two. Some orange colored walls and a sad looking freezer round out what you can see upon entry.

But take a look inside the freezer and you will be impressed, fatty toro and kobe beef to the left; some of the largest sweet shrimp I ever laid eyes on to the right; some king crab legs, clams, and assorted fish round out the mix.

When we walked in we were politely greeted by Go-san who welcomed us but seemed content to let us take our time getting to the bar. No surprise really it was 5:30 and we were the first ones in there. We sort of meandered around as if to say can this place really be any good? Behind the counter was Go-san and two assistants Oscar and Lino. I found this odd, not to be racist but usually the assistants are Japanese. Behind them was a board with the days specials. There were a few items that immediately attracted our attention: the Stupid Roll, the Holy Cow, and my favorite Ganja. I'm sure its not that ganja... at least I think so.

When we sat down we promptly ordered some beers. After two days and many many glasses of wine I think all of us needed a beer. I went with my favored Asahi. When we called to make reservations (which they don't take) we also noted that we wanted the omakase. So when Go-san asked what we wanted I pointed to the wall and reiterated omakase, at a restaurant of this caliber that is the only way to go. Remember, if you ask for it "No Whining!" Upon noticing the cameras and notepads Go-san asked if we were reviewers prompting us to grin wryly and shake our heads

Chinese Broccoli
Our first course was a small dish filled with Chinese broccoli topped with bonito flakes and sesame. Go-san recommended adding some soy. I was surprised since I did not anticipate using soy at all this evening. Foolisly I ignored his advice and got a mouthful of bitter vegetables. The smoky bonito flakes ameliorated the taste somewhat but still I quickly added soy to what was left of the dish. This would prove to be the night's worst course but through no fault of the chef, I hate Chinese Broccoli.

The ankimo came in a beautiful presentation topped with gold flakes, scallion, goji berries, and a sweet sauce (plum?). Monkfish liver is something that I grew to like and even then I am very particular. The liver must be sweet and creamy smooth for me to enjoy it and this had it. Even though I thought it odd the pieces didn't have a uniform color that didn't stop me from savoring every last bite.

At this point the first other customer of the night walked in. I believe her name was Debbie, and Go-san greeted her by name. The two shared some light banter and she sat down at the bar as if right at home.

Flounder Sashimi
Ah this plate looked like one of my all time favorite dishes Halibut Carpaccio with Truffle Oil served at Abe and Bluefin. The fish here looked more delicate and was still raw but I could see the oil glistening on its surface. The fish itself was cold and firm the meat kind of snapping or popping when bitten. The flavors were also impressive, citrus zest, rock salt, and a hit of short-lived heat all with the rich luxurious flavor of truffle oil.

I think at this point we first noticed Go-san cooking with his blowtorch. He would use this many times throughout the evening to quickly sear food before serving. This lead me to notice the restaurant didn't seem to have a kitchen in the back. At one point Lino was frying a soft shell crab in a rice cooker filled with oil. I think it all the more impressive Go-san can make due without a kitchen, impressive and more than a little ghetto.

Red Snapper Shirako
When Go-san brought this to the table and told us what it was and we asked for clarification. With a knowing smirk, he said he'd tell us after. Down at the other end of the bar, Debbie laughed and prompted us to eat. What could prompt such a reaction, I suddenly realized we must have sperm sac in front of us. I asked and they confirmed it. Not sure if its the first time I had it, I don't think so. I know I have had it at home oddly enough. The shirako is grilled and served warm. The texture is not quite as soft as the ankimo nor is the flavor as rich, but it is smooth salty and slightly fishy a very nice combination.

Debbie asked with a laugh if we enjoyed our repast and we responded affirmatively. I then asked her what was good she recommended the selection of white fish, abalone, and Holy Cow. When I asked for clarification on the Holy Cow she said it was Kobe Beef sashimi... yes we will definitely be having that.

Live Sweet Shrimp and King Crab with Uni
The next dish was incredible. The sweet shrimp came grilled with its tail cut down the middle and a piece of uni resting in between. The uni covered a big patch of shrimp roe. The sweet shrimp had the taste of fresh shellfish and a tender lobster-like texture. I normally prefer raw sweet shrimp but this one was can hold its own against any of those. The eggs were very small and were hard to pop, but once they did they released their tart briney juices in a flavorful explosion. Go-san reminded us not to forget the shrimp head. Normally the heads are deep fried but these were a touch too big and the shell would have been too tough even fried. The brains and internal organs had a bitter flavor that I enjoyed very much. Beside the shrimp were two small pieces of king crab leg sliced in half with more golden uni sandwiched between the halves. One piece of crab came topped with gold the other with caviar both looking very cute and luxurious. The sweet meat of the crab had a hint of ocean flavor and very meaty texture.

As the meal progressed, Go-san talked more with us. He asked how we found this place and we told him. He said he saw a review on the Internet. He actually seemed dismayed that the news was getting out almost as if he wanted to keep things low-key. I asked if most of his clientele was from the neighborhood, and he said no. What I had meant to ask was if most customers were regulars and I would find out this was most certainly the case.

Somewhere around here a lady and her son came in to rent some tapes. The boy walked into the closed off area by the doorway. Kevin mentioned seeing a boy in there on the computer or playing games. Turns out the boy inside is Yoshida, Go-san's son.

Grilled Bluefin Toro Collar
I also prefer raw toro to cooked but this was quite good. Last time I had toro collar I wasn't impressed but this sure impressed me. The collar tends to be leaner and tender but this had a good fat to lean mix while keeping the tender texture. As with many previous dishes this was topped with gold flakes and caviar.

Feeling a bit more at ease, I asked Go-san what the stupid roll was. He said spicy tuna and salmon skin. I asked why its called that and he responded adamantly, "Because I'm STUPID!" Go-san's quirky sense of humor came up many times during the course of the evening. You really have to experience it to understand it. Kind of flaky and awkward but it clearly part of his charm, maybe something you appreciate more when you are an insider.

Sakura Ebi Tempura
I have never really been a big fan of the mini-shrimp. Previously I preferred the texture of larger ami ebi. With the tempura the problem is the shrimp lose all their flavor. The only flavor that comes out is the flavor of the tempura batter. Same with the texture, the crunch of the batter is the obvious flavor.

At this point another couple walked into the restaurant. I believe Go-san called the man Walter. Walter was bringing his wife/girlfriend to try the place. They sat down next to us and eventually ordered the much talked about Stupid Hand Roll. They also asked after Go-san's wife who was in the back and runs the register. There is something quaint about having the whole family in the restaurant, just an old-fashioned charm that really gets to me.

White Fish Sampler
This was one of the dishes recommended to us by Debbie. Four different types of white fish (clockwise from the left) Kelp Halibut, Kue, Snapper, and Butterfish. They were all flavored the same with freshly grated wasabi, rock salt, truffle oil and a piece of shiso between the rice and fish. The main difference between the fishes was the texture and even that was pretty subtle, from most firm to softest Kue, Halibut, Butterfish, Snapper. This was my first experience with the very rare and prized Kue or deep sea bass which tasted very dry and clean to me but apparently is actually an oily fish. I probably need more experience with Kue to truly value it. The butterfish was slightly fishy with a hint of sweetness and onion flavor.

The last two seats at the bar were taken by another couple at this point, again Go-san greeted one member by name. So around 7 the place fills up, no I don't count the tables.

Live Scallop with Uni and Abalone
Go-san joked if given a chance, Debbie would eat all the abalone but he promised to save us a piece. We each received a piece of the abalone foot, with a ring of black around the inner white meat. This differed from the normal nicely cleaned and trimmed abalone we get at most sushi placed. Despite its appearance, the abalone was delicious; buttery salty with a hard crunchy texture and a whisper of toasted sesame. The scallop texture was the opposite end of the spectrum soft to the point of being jello-like. It had a bit of bitter ocean flavor and a finish of sweetness from the uni. Both of these were delicious.

Debbie took her leave of us at this point, but left us with a restaurant recommendation since I mentioned we were from Orange County. Go-san's wife took care of her bill and Go-san said warmly, "See you tomorrow." My eyebrow slid up at that, I didn't know what our meal cost so far but I knew it wasn't cheap. To come here every day must cost a pretty penny.

Silver Fish Sampler
Another selection of fish this time (from left to right) Seki Aji, Sayuri, and Kohada. Again common accouterments include truffle oil, shiso, rock salt, and freshly grated wasabi. The aji came topped with a goji berry, ginger, and scallion. The taste was mild for aji and the shiso came out strongest. The Sayuri was smooth and slick again with a shiso undertone, very mild and a bit crunchy. The Kohada was defintely the strongest of the three with a sour, spicy, ginger flavor and increased sourness and fishiness upon mastication.

Blue Crab Handroll
This is the second time I have had one of these cigar shaped hand rolls stuffed with crab, mayo, and warm rice. I first tried something like this at Sushi Wasabi in Tustin. The cold crab and sweet mayo contrast nicely with the warm rice. I really wish this roll had Wasabi's spiciness.

Holy Cow
After the previous night's letdown with Kobe beef, I was wary about trying again. I am glad to say that fear was totally unfounded. Using a torch, Go-san seared for thin slices of Kobe beef till they fairly glistened with fat then topped it with truffle oil, wasabi, and onion. The color was still reddish and raw. The texture was soft and chewy without being rubbery and super oily. Now this is Kobe beef!

At this point Go-san asked us if there was anything else we wanted or if we were getting full. I was personally full but there were two things I still needed to try. I ordered O-toro and John Dory for the four of us eliciting a "Good Choice" from the chef.

The O-Toro came with daikon gold and sauce. Putting the morsel in my mouth I could already taste the fishy oils. Chewing liquefies the oils and the sweet sauce somewhat balances the fattiness but still this is a very heavy course.

John Dory
I have had John Dory many times in American restaurants but this was my first John Dory at a Japanese place. Again it was served with rock salt, shiso, wasabi, and truffle oil. The texture is heavy but the flavor is clean and mild.

Fruit and Condensed Milk
Actually for a Sushi restaurant I thought the dessert was quite advanced. Fruit and condensed milk arranged in a nice pattern. I enjoyed the dessert since it was a change from all the heavy creamy desserts of the past two days.

The meal ended at just the right point I wasn't too full and after the last two days that is a blessing in and of itself.

I must say the meal lived up to every expectation I had. The decor is truly horrendous, but the food is incredible. I still have a bit of a hard time combining the two, even though I know decor and service don't actually affect the flavor of the food. At any rate this place is defintely worth a try. One member of my party said he would rather pay the extra cash and go to Urasawa. I can understand that but I think this place can certainly hold its own against Urasawa or any of the other top sushi restaurants. I suppose my only complaint would be the excessive use of truffle oil. Although that isn't a problem for me, it might be if you hate truffles.

For all the flippant airs and easy smiles Go-san puts on, I believe he is a traditionalist at heart, When I thanked him in Japanese he bowed and gave a very polite response. I certainly admire him for being friendly and warm to his regulars. My companions and I would certainly be regulars if the restaurant were closer to home. Then again if the rumors are true and he serves fugu, we may become regulars during the winter anyway.

As I expected, the damage was quite severe. The total came to $225 a person. Although that was the cheapest dinner I had that weekend (shudder).


Anonymous said...

This was a great write-up! My husband took me here for dinner just this past weekend as a "surprise"...and boy was it. Everything you described is exactly what we experienced as well. Truffle oil, rock salt, gold flakes, the regulars...and of course quirky Go-san. Just one more quirk to add...he closes at 7:30 pm. Gwahh?

Tangbro1 said...

Fantastic, that is an excellent surprise and it sounds like a great experience.

I recall an early closing time but I didn't realize it was at 7:30. What time was your reservation and what time did you get out?

Anonymous said...

he told me his wife gets up everyday at 4am to drive to the fishmarket. woah. i also think it is somewhat similar to urasawa - at half the cost. albeit the interiors are as different as night and day.

Tangbro1 said...

The quality of the food is quite impressive especially given the inevitable assumptions people draw from seeing the decor. I it doesn't surprise me that his wife is at the fish market every morning at 4.

Go's technique is not quite as refined as Urasawa's although as you pointed out neither is the price.