Sunday, March 17, 2013

Shunji - 03/16/2013

12244 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(310) 826-4737

Opened by Chef Shunji Nakao of Asanebo fame, Shunji Japanese Cuisine offers a modern take on kaiseki that has made it the darling of the LA Sushi world. Housed in what was originally an outpost of the Chili Bowl. The restaurant is actually shaped like a chili bowl leaving just enough space for an 8-seat bar and a handful of tables.

Chef Nakao cut his teeth at Matsuhisa back in 1989 where he was one of the three original chefs; along with his brother and Nobu himself. Nakao struck out on his own in 1991, opening Asanebo in Studio City which remains in business today and is considered one of the top spots on a street littered with sushi restaurants. Nakao's subsequent ventures haven't met with as much success, working at The Hump and Tengu both of which subsequently shuttered. Then in 2011 he opened the first incarnation of Shunji but left abruptly after falling out with partner Cecil Hsu. Following his departure, the restaurant was subsequently renamed 7015 Melrose Sushi & Sake and closed earlier this month.

Baby Sea Eel - Vinegar, Ginger
The meal got off to a fantastic start with a unique take on anago. The slivers of raw eel look similar to squid and have a similar texture but without the creamy finish which paired beautifully with the lightly astringent tang of the vinegar.

Hotaru Ika - Firefly Squid and Peas
Unlike the more common squid used for nigiri, the Hotaru Ika packs a surprisingly complex flavor that combines delicate salinity with a nuanced earthy bitterness. The bed of peas provides a slight nutty accent to the squid.

Potato Soup - Hama Hama Oyster, Scallion, Lily Bulb, Napa Cabbage
Part of Shunji's allure is its unconventional mixture of European techniques and flavors into the kaiseki framework. This soup deftly demonstrates Nakao's creativity, the cool creamy potato soup has a smoky chowder like essence.

Shirako Tofu - Ponzu Jelly
The handful of times I've had shirako it was always served pristine, but Nakao pureed the milt into a thick paste. The "tofu" has a texture that is creamy with the slightest hint of grit and an earthy salinity that would have been less disconcerting if it wasn't made from sperm. The sharp tang of the ponzu jelly gives the dish a sense of levity to counter the weighty feel of the shirako.

Sashimi - Sayuri, Shiokko, Maguro
First up was the Sayuri, lean, snappy, and mild the Needlefish went very nicely with the fresh wasabi and potent soy. The Shiokko or baby Amberjack was my favorite of the trio offering a jellied texture and oily flavor that left a slightly meaty finish on the palate. The Maguro was fairly prototypical with an even tender texture and lingering oily twang

Bonito - Chives, Ginger, Onion, Special Ponzu
The bonito was on the leaner side and the raw preparation lacked the savory depth that I'm used to from seared bonito. The mild flavor was further overwhelmed by the herbaceousness zest of the ginger and onions.

Arugula Salad - Lobster, Blue Cheese
This might be my first time having blue cheese at a Japanese restaurant. The arugula astringent nuttiness of the salad is tempered by a subtle funk from the cheese. The lobster, arguably the star of the dish, was a touch overcooked and bland for my tastes.

Zensai - Ankimo with Caviar, Purple Potatoes with Blue Cheese and Dried Persimmon, Ginko Nuts, Okara, Ika Somen with Uni, Truffle, and Quail Egg
I started off with the ankimo and caviar, the creamy liver melted in my mouth while the caviar provided the right touch of saltiness. The potato was surprisingly effective, pairing a ripe sweetness from the persimmon with the pungent heft of the blue cheese. The nuts were fairly simple, serving as a break between the more complex courses. The only miss of the plate was the Okara, the sweetness of blue crab takes on a fishy character when combined with the prosciutto. We were told to save the squid for the end and with good reason, the dish is one of Shunji's signatures and brimming with heady aromas of truffle and a silky expansive richness from the sauce of egg and uni.

Bamboo Shoot Salad - Uni, Seaweed Dressing
The bamboo shoot had a crisp texture similar to hearts of palm with a flavor reminiscent of corn. The urchin roe augmented the natural sweetness of the bamboo while the seaweed added a subtle umami contrast.

Agedashi Tomato Tofu
This was probably one of my favorite courses of the night. In terms of flavor I find actual agedashi tofu tastes better but the creativity and technique made the tomato incredibly satisfying. The tomato has a saturated dense texture akin to dense tofu with a touch of glutinous rice-like starchiness. In terms of flavor, the dashi provides the lion's share with an acidic verve from the tomato.

Grilled Yellowtail - Yuzu-Soy Marinade, Yamamomo
The grilled yellowtail felt a bit rudimentary for a meal of this caliber but to the kitchen's credit the fish was cooked perfectly. The yuzu helped temper the smoky heft and oiliness of the fish, though it could have been a bit more apparent. The yamamomo was a nice touch cleansing the palate with a ripe fruity sweetness.

Steamed Black Cod - Porcini Mushroom, Nappa Cabage, Mountain Potato in Dashi Broth
Our second cooked fish consisted of black cod in a dashi thickend with yama imo. The mucilaginous texture of the broth was a touch disconcerting as was the musty nose of the porcini, but the black cod itself was fatty, flaky, and quite delicious infused with the flavor of dashi.

Akaisaki - Kelp Marinated Red Grouper
This was my second time having grouper served nigiri style. Wrapped in kelp, the fish has a noticeably drier texture than your typical nigiri as well as an intrinsic salinity augmented by the sprinkle of salt and pepper on the top

Hata - Grouper
The regular grouper had a similarly dense texture though with a touch more moisture to it. Seasoned with a brush of soy the fish started out mild but finished with a potent pop of flavor.

Muro Aji - Jack Mackerel
Yet another rare fish, the Jack Mackerel had a color more like Amberjack than Mackerel but with the unmistakable oily smack that only comes from the Aji family.

Shiro Ebi - White Shrimp
Despite its expense, I've always been fairly indifferent towards Shiro Ebi. The tiny shrimp lack the firm crunch of raw amaebi in favor of a creamy texture reminiscent of raw squid after mastication.

Ikura - Salmon Egg
The one thing I always look for with ikura is pop, that moment when the egg bursts coating the tastebuds in sweet salty goodness. Nakao sets his ikura apart by soaking them in chilled dashi giving them a more nuanced flavor.

Tobiuo - Flying Fish
Flying fish is more commonly known for its eggs when it comes to sushi. Fairly lean with a nice gellied consistency this would have been satisfying but the grated ginger was far too intense for the mild flavor of the fish.

Kanpachi - Amberjack
Classic Kanpachi, the fish is doused with a bit of citrus in addition to the soy giving it a light acidic counterweight.

Kinmedai - Golden Eye Snapper
Kinmedai is always a treat a quick kiss from the blowtorch gives the fish a seductive aroma of char to compliment the salinty of the kelp curing.

Toro - Fatty Tuna
Like the maguro, the toro is perfectly uniform with an utterly soft tenderness and plenty of fatty goodness.

Ebi - Blue Shrimp
I've also never been a fan of cooked shrimp but these prawns from Papua New Guinea had an intense sweetness to them as well as retaining a bit of crunch.

Uni - Sea Urchin
Though most of the party was getting quite full by this point everybody answered yes when Shunji asked if we wanted uni. Creamy and sweet on the palate but with an unfortunate trace of bitterness on the finish.

Kaiwari - Whitefin Trevally
This was my first time having Kaiwari, the fish reminds me a of Shima Aji tender and jellied with a hint of oil to compliment the soy.

Sake - Marinated Salmon
We tried the salmon on Nakao-san's recommendation. Very similar to smoked salmon in terms of texture and flavor, but a touch to much salt and smoke for my tastes.

Fried Shrimp Head
These were some of the best shrimp heads that I've had in a while. Fried just to the point of dissolving on the palate the savory batter is complimented by the offaly richness of the brains.

Awabi - Abalone
Nakao-san doesn't tenderize his abalone by making shallow cuts along the surface making it possible to appreciate the mollusk's dense muscularity in all its glory.

Ika - Squid
Our last nigiri was presented just like our first with a dusting of salt and pepper. The squid takes on a creamy consistency as it warms up that fits nicely with the floral aroma of shiso.

Dessert - Lemon Ice Cream, Grapefruit Sorbet, Chocolate Mousse
All three desserts were exceedingly well done and effective in their zen-like simplicity. The lemon ice cream is on the sweeter side but with the fragrance of the fruit thanks to a healthy dose of lemon zest mixed into the ice cream. The grapefruit sorbet was more intense with an almost bitter acidity, perfect after 28 courses of savory. The chocolate mousse was my favorite of the trio, rich and silky the chocolate dissolves leaving behind the essence of sweet cocoa.

Shunji is everything a modern kaiseki restaurant should be, an intimate exchange between itamae and diner rooted tradition but not bound by it. It goes without saying that the fish is impeccable, but the technique and creativity are really what make Shunji worth a visit.

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