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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Code Is Strict at the Graduate School of Sushi

You walk into a brand-new sushi bar that is bright and neon-lit like every other mini-mall sushi bar on Ventura Boulevard. The man behind the counter barks at you to sit down.

“And, if you want California roll or spicy tuna roll, go down the street, please.”

You refresh yourself with a hot towel brought by a waiter and, before you can break your chopsticks apart, you are flat-out told that rubbing them together to get rid of splinters (which, in any case, do not exist) is extremely impolite. You are instructed not to smoke, not to order tempura and not to mix too much of the fiery Japanese horseradish called wasabi into your soy sauce. Welcome to Sushi Nozawa, the graduate school of fish.

Before you can open your mouth to ask for an order of maguro , Nozawa-san has already cut pieces of lean, hot-pink tuna and slapped them onto machine-perfect piers of vinegared rice. “ Maguro ,” he grunts, pointing at the chalkboard that reads, “Special of the Day: Trust Me.” The fish is sweet, silken-smooth, smelling faintly of the sea. “Go ahead,” you say. “Feed me.”

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“Thank you very much,” he says, and drizzles a thin fluid over sushi of soft, white halibut that are topped with tiny mounds of chopped herbs. “No soy sauce, please.” You manage to lift a piece nearly to your mouth before he adds, loudly, “One bite only, please.”

Taken in one bite, the musk, salt and tartness of the topping explode in your mouth, detonated by the slight unctuousness of the halibut. Nozawa stands motionless, waiting for a response to his food. “Good,” you say. “Ayyyyyyy,” he says, sounding just a little like a pleased Japanese Fonzie. “Thank you very much.”

In the next few minutes, you are fed a hand roll of mayonnaised scallops, wrapped with rice and smelt roe in crisp nori seaweed and eaten like a seafood ice cream cone; silver-skinned pompano, rich and meltingly tender; broiled eel brushed with a sticky soy-stock reduction; yellowtail that is mild, not oily and marinated as it usually is; beefy-tasting bonito sushi--all wonderful, all plain: Nozawa’s is a genius of simplicity.

You request mackerel, and he breaks into a broad grin and thrusts a thumb into the air. “Ahhhhh! Saba is No. 1!” he says, and cuts blue-skinned filets from another slab of unmarinated fish. You ask for some ankimo , monkfish liver that, at its best, tastes like perfect foie gras (and is only marginally less expensive), and are served thick slices of the stuff, some dressed with a sweet miso sauce and the rest with soy, citrus and scallion. Both are subtle and luxurious, with no scintilla of a fishy aftertaste.

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“Five ways sushi goes bad,” sings Nozawa:

“1. Too stringy.

“2. Too tough.

“3. Too fishy. . . .”

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You swallow a slippery sushi of raw Santa Barbara shrimp and involuntarily sigh, missing the rest of the list.

”. . . and I have spent 25 years learning about fish. Now 90% of what I buy is maybe good: salmon fresh from Norway, pompano fresh from New York, yellowtail frozen from Japan. . . .”

The waiter hands you the crisply deep-fried heads--beady, black eyes, antennae and all--of the shrimp you’ve just eaten, and you crunch your way through a bowl of the things as if they were nothing more than oddly shaped potato chips, attracting strange glances from others seated at the bar.

“You use frozen fish?” you ask.

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“Most sushi bars use almost half-frozen; I have only two or three things. Here. Try a New Zealand mussel.”

“I don’t like New Zealand mussels,” you say, “because they’re too rubbery and don’t taste like anything. How about uni ?”

“Sea urchin is no good today; all the best goes to Japan. Have giant clam,” Nozawa says, and takes his knife to a geoduck, which is a large, worm-shaped clam that juts obscenely from its undersize shell. He slams the sushi hard on his work surface and quickly squeezes a couple of drops of lemon juice on each filet. The sushi writhes, expiring in your mouth as you chew it. “Fresh is best,” Nozawa says.

Sushi Nozawa, 11288 Ventura Blvd., Unit C, Studio City, (818) 508-7017. Lunch Monday through Friday 12-2 p.m., dinner Monday through Saturday 5-10 p.m. Beer, wine and sake only. Parking in lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $30-$40.

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