When I ate my first sushi some 15 years ago, I went through a series of small, triumphant victories in overcoming built-in cultural aversions to raw aquatic life. I started out in awe of and then grew relaxed with the refined, somewhat noble ritual, and had no trouble adapting to drinking hot sake from a pine box. My Japanese brother-in-law took me to sushi bars in Little Tokyo where nobody spoke English, and we’d eat centipedes and sea worm and once, I hate to say it, some black-market whale. It was all terribly exotic and compelling.
Since my first adventures, however, sushi bars have proliferated at roughly the rate of convenience stores, and the menus are so standard they’re produced by Japanese beer companies. In short, most of us have memorized the generic sushi experience. A foodie friend of mine recently went so far as to inform me that sushi is out, in case I didn’t know it, and has been out for a long time, possibly since it played the role of the teen-age party food in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
While I try not to be brainwashed by fashion, I must admit that my fascination with sushi has diminished with familiarity. I rarely want to make an entire meal of it. But thanks to this vague disillusionment, I’ve discovered all over again that Japanese restaurants can offer a variety of pleasing, unusual dining experiences.
I was reminded of this fact recently during several visits to the Sushi Gardens in North Hollywood. First of all, Sushi Gardens is a particularly attractive, comfortable restaurant, with clean, pleasing woodwork, deep red upholstered booths, a gleaming sushi bar and two of the best-looking sushi chefs around. (One, with a glossy shaved pate, looks like a somewhat underweight sumo wrestler; the other has more conventional heartthrob good looks. It’s no wonder that the free postcards available at the door show a pretty girl planting a big kiss on a sushi chef’s cheek.) Judging from the warm greetings exchanged with the staff, most of the customers, from the two secretaries at the sushi bar to the table of Japanese businessmen, appear to be regulars. Overall, there’s a palpably happy edge to this little restaurant.
On our first visit, we start with sushi appetizers and attempt some table-side cooking. The sushi is fresh and pretty, if a tad on the expensive side; the yellowtail is especially buttery and delicious. Then the portable burner, the clay pot of boiling broth, the plates of shabu shabu meat and vegetables appear. It’s been years since we’ve had sukiyaki or shabu shabu in a restaurant; we feel as awkward as when we confronted our first maguro. But our particularly kindly waitress instructs us in the process with the air of a bemused, patient mother. “I’ll do it this time,” she tells us. “Next time . . .” She gives us a stern, meaningful look, and loads the broth with noodles and vegetables, mixes our pons sauce with horseradish and scallions, and shows us how to wag the thin strips of meat in the soup until they’re cooked.
As a meal, shabu shabu is fresh and light; as a social activity, it’s especially calming and convivial; there’s something primally pleasing about cooking and conversing side by side with a friend. We’re quite content with this meal . . . that is, until, upon leaving the restaurant, we see this enormous boat of food sail past. It is such a sight, that it takes an act of will not to sit back down and order one for ourselves.
We are not alone in this reaction. A few nights later, shortly after the waitress delivers our Garden Boat dinner, a fellow customer materializes at our table. “I’m so sorry,” he says, “I don’t mean to disturb you, but I had to come take a closer look.” We all gaze on the small lacquered boat heaped with food. There’s tuna roll, kappa maki (cucumber roll), chicken and beef teriyaki, inari, stick cutlets of chicken and fish balls, wedges of watermelon and pineapple, cabbage and lettuce salads, and a generous amount of shrimp and vegetable tempura. “It’s just so . . . sumptuous,” our visitor says. “And there’s so much of it.”
We brandish our chopsticks. He retreats. It’s only when we are left alone with this huge heap of food that we realize it’s basically a sampler of the more ordinary components of Japanese cuisine, a perfect meal for those who have never developed much of a taste for sushi. Even the tuna rolls on the boat are optional. We’re glad we opted for them, however; rolled in sesame seeds, well-spiked with pepper, they turn out to be some of the tastiest tuna rolls we’ve ever had. In fact, unloading the boat proves a most pleasurable way to have dinner; less involved than shabu shabu, it feels festive, or rather feast-like, and our dinner becomes a very leisurely affair.
We end with tempura ice cream, scoops of green tea ice cream battered and fried and topped with whipped cream. Now as familiar as California Roll or miso soup, this not-sweet, not-hot, not-crispy dessert continues to strike me as fundamentally peculiar, a well-meaning invention of a dessert that doesn’t quite work.
Sushi Garden, 6221 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 760-1087. Open for lunch from 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; for dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-10:30 p.m. Friday, 5-10:30 p.m. Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Sunday. Beer and wine. Parking in lot. All major credit cards accepted. Recommended dishes: sushi ($3 and up), shabu shabu ($15.95 a la carte, $17.20 dinner), shrimp and vegetable tempura ($6.55 a la carte).