Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sushi Nozawa - 02/20/2012

11288 Ventura Blvd, Ste C
Studio City, CA 91604
(818) 508-7017

It's hard to believe, but after nearly 25 years, Sushi Nozawa, one of LA's most renowned sushi restaurants will be closing. Opened in 1987, Sushi Nozawa is rightfully lauded for helping to bring traditional sushi to Los Angeles, but the restaurant might be even more famous for something else: ejecting patrons. It is this behavior that makes Nozomi the most polarizing sushi chef in LA.

Fans say he is a purist who provides some of the best sushi in the area while simultaneously raising Angelino's collective understanding of sushi. Meanwhile, detractors claim that the quality doesn't warrant the attitude and that the chef has become a caricature of himself, taking his "Trust Me" philosophy far too seriously.

Chef Kazunori Nozawa got his moniker "The Sushi Nazi" for banning customers whose sushi etiquette isn't up to par. Some sushi faux pas include: ordering at the sushi bar (it's omakase only), eating too slowly, using your cell phone, asking for a California roll or spicy tuna, or even using excess soy or wasabi. Nozawa-san says he boots about one diner a month and at this point, I have to believe some people visit the restaurant fully cognizant of the rules, but come looking to get kicked out out.

I've heard Nozawa's behavior explained as a cultural thing; the chef has a sincere reverence for his art and he demands the same from his patrons. This video by David Gelb, paints a more sympathetic picture of Nozawa-san humble but passionate practitioner of his craft. While I respect that and know of other itamae who feel the same way, Keizo of Sushi Zo observes similar rules and even the affable Hiroyuki Urasawa has been known to boot overly picky diners, only Nozawa-san is so upfront about it; almost as if he is daring patrons to challenge him.

I have been meaning to try Nozawa since 2005, and I did stop in for an impromptu dinner in 2009, but with the restaurant closing on 2/29, I felt a more thorough sampling was in order. While I would have preferred to sit at the bar, we wanted to run the gamut which was easier to do at a table.

Baby Tuna Sashimi - 8:59
The baby tuna with ponzu and scallions is the traditional opener to the omakase at Nozawa. Frankly I don't see what all the hype is about. The classic combination is tasty but the fish itself isn't particularly noteworthy, perhaps a touch oilier than the subsequent tuna nigiri.

Tuna - 9:06
Like the preceding sashimi, the tuna here was clean and soft with no gristle or tendon. A very well executed classic.

Yellowtail - 09:06
Another staple fish, the yellowtail was immensely tender with a jellied consistency and fairly robust oiliness.

Oyster - 09:07
Not sure what kind of oyster this was but the bivalve had a creamy mouth feel and and ankimo-esque richness. Great use of the ponzu to cut right through the richness of the oyster.

Salmon - 09:08
Again an immaculately cut immensely tender piece of fish. The salmon had a pronounced sweetness that paired nicely with the light toastiness of the sesame.

Albacore - 09:08
The albacore was so soft that it felt less like meat and more like a dense jelly. The fish came topped with classic accompaniments of ponzu and scallion.

Sweet Shrimp - 09:10
This might be my first experience with cooked sweet shrimp. Thankfully the shrimp retained its characteristic snap though the flavor was markedly more savory than the raw preparation.

Red Snapper - 09:10
I've been appreciating good snapper more lately. Though this particular example lacked the typical firm flesh, I enjoyed the way the pickled kelp added a touch of sweetness on the palate.

Creamy Scallop - 09:12
For someone who abhors spicy tuna, I was surprised to see Nozawa do scallops covered in mayo. The intrinsic sweetness of the scallops is heightened by the mayo while the embedded bits of tobiko adds fishy counterweight.

Halibut - 09:12
This was one of the standouts from my first trip. The halibut comes with a coating of yuzu kocho, its citrus bite perfect for enlivening an otherwise mild fish.

Tuna Roll - 09:16
Next we transitioned to hand rolls. First up a tuna hand roll supposedly made with toro bits. The macerated tuna was remarkably tender but I didn't notice any added richness from the fatty tuna.

Crab Hand Roll - 09:18
This was one of the better rolls the light coating of creamy mayo augmenting both the crabs sweetness and salinity. I also quite enjoyed the contrast between the warm rice and cool shredded crab meat.

Yellow Tail Roll - 09:19
This was probably my favorite of the rolls. The yellowtail was one of the oilier fishes available and the flavor worked extremely well with the fresh contrast of the scallions.

Scallop Roll - 09:24
This was basically a redux of the creamy scallop sushi in a bigger hand roll form. Same creamy sweet goodness tinged with salty flying fish roe.

Monk Fish Liver Roll - 09:28
This was my first time having ankimo in a roll and the flavors just never worked for me. The liver is slathered with some kind of sweet sauce but the flavor profile progressed from sweet to eggy to bitter, reminded me a bit of Ludo's ankimo actually. Personally I suspect the restaurant doesn't sell too much of this so the freshness might not have been up to par.

Sea Eel - 09:34
Prototypical anago, the lighter more restrained cousin to unagi. The sea eel has a noticeably leaner almost mealy texture and more apparent fishiness.

Fresh Water Eel - 09:34
Compared to the sea eel, the freshwater variety is softer, fattier, and sweeter definitely easy to see why this is the more popular of the duo.

Salmon Skin Roll - 09:37
Perhaps the most interesting item of the night. Biting down on the fried skin releases a rush of heady fish oils augmented by the smoky essence of the bonito. Pickled carrot and fresh scallion provide some balance to the skin's heft.

Salmon Egg - 09:47
One of the better examples of ikura that I've had in awhile. Popping the globules releases a cool salty brine juxtaposed nicely with the warm rice.

Special Scallop - 09:51
Another of the night's stronger dishes. The scallops come pre-seasoned with yuzo kocho and I loved the byplay between the scallops natural sweetness and the bracing heat of the condiment.

Cod - 09:55
An off menu item, the couple at the bar recommended we try this and I'm glad that we did. Denser and richer than the earlier fishes, the cod had a pronounced tang to it.

Lobster Roll - 10:03
They actually forgot to bring this earlier or we might have finished eating in under an hour. Flavor-wise this felt very similar to the crab roll but slightly sweeter, not bad but I prefer the saltier flavor of the crab roll.

Our meal at Nozawa was just what we expected, traditional no-frills sushi. I didn't notice any gristle or tendon which speaks well of the quality, but most of the fishes had similar textures and flavor profiles. The fish selection is relatively narrow by modern standards so don't expect to see Sayuri or Shima Aji on the menu. What did throw me off was the rapid fire service; our entire 22 course meal took 64 minutes or just under 3 minutes a course. I put timestamps next to each course to provide some idea of the pacing. At times it felt like we were just chewing and swallowing without really savoring the flavors, hence the brief descriptions with each course. Considering how much effort the chef puts into the food, you'd think he would want the diners to spend more time enjoying it.

While the food was quite good, the speed coupled with the ever present fear of offending Nozawa makes for one of the most stressful dining experiences in recent memory. With more traditional sushi restaurants available today, there are plenty of places that have comparable food sans the oppressive atmosphere. Still, love him or hate him, nobody can deny Nozawa-san's impact on the LA sushi scene and its hard not to feel a bit melancholic at his iconic restaurant's impending closure.


David said...

"Ever present fear" - that's funny!

Sam C. said...

Sounds to me it's more swallowing and less savoring. At least you can say you've had it. :-)

Epicuryan said...


Haha well he can be a bit mercurial. It was good seeing you again, hope you enjoyed your meal.


I went before and the meal was equally fast 13 items in 25 minutes.