The Raw and the Uncooked : Is this the best sushi bar in town?
I have just come back from the most expensive meal I have ever eaten in Los Angeles.
There was not much to warn me that it would be. The restaurant was hidden away in an unprepossessing strip-mall in the mid-Wilshire district. In fact, there was nothing to indicate I was stepping into a restaurant, not even a name on the door. Even after I slid the door open and found myself in one of those cool, clean quiet rooms whose overall impression is simply blonde wood, there was still no visible food. The two clues that this might be a restaurant were the man in white standing behind the wooden counter and the faint perfume of ginger and vinegar that is common to all good sushi bars.
There were no customers. I sat down at the counter. Chopsticks were placed before me. The chef asked what I would like to drink, and his assistant brought a bottle of beer in a little holder, along with a tiny icy glass. I began to get the feeling that this was no ordinary restaurant.
And then, without any words, the chef began to serve food. There was no menu, not even the usual glass case of the sushi bar for me to point at. The chef simply followed his own whims, taking fish out of a hidden refrigerated case, slicing it and reverently placing it before me, one piece at a time.
At the first bite I began to worry. How much was this going to cost? For that first nibble was unlike anything I had ever tasted before. Sitting on a little square ceramic plate were three tiny pieces of pink abalone. Abalone has never thrilled me; I have always considered it the world’s most overrated food. But I took one bite, and then I took back everything I have ever said about abalone. This was delicate, tender, with a subtle but haunting flavor all its own. What did it taste like? A little like lobster, maybe, but a lobster wearing pearls.
I ate it slowly, dreamily, savoring each morsel. Just as I finished the chef’s assistant appeared bearing a small, perfect plate of pickles--if anything that delicate can actually be said to be a pickle. This was a little still life of turnips, cucumbers and white radish, each still crunchy, each only slightly pungent. They were placed precisely on the plate, giving the distinct sense that somebody had spent hours arranging them just so.
Now the chef began slicing toro, the filet mignon of the fish world. As anybody who has ever eaten a steak can attest, most steaks are very disappointing. So is most toro. This was not. The fish was deep red, streaked with fat, and glistened as chef Masa Takayama placed the sushi on the plate. He watched as I ate it, nodded knowingly at my pleasure, then put out the other piece of the pair. This ritual was to continue; during the course of the meal the chef never put out more than a single piece of sushi at a time. Again I began to worry: How much could this possibly be costing?
“Kampachi, " said the chef, placing the next morsel of sushi within reach of my chopsticks. What was it? I don’t know. It was delicious. Then came stone sole, impeccably fresh, but less exciting than the first fish. It was followed by ika-- opaque white squid--beneath which the chef had placed a bit of dark green seaweed. On top a tiny patch of salt glistened faintly. Just before serving it the chef squeezed a lemon over the squid, so that this was the flavor impression: salt, squid, salt of the seaweed and then the lingering astringency of lemon. It was like a solid Margarita.
It now began to occur to me that I had eaten quite a lot of food, and the chef showed no signs of slowing down. Would it be polite to ask how much it cost? Probably not. Could I just ask him to please stop? That didn’t seem like it was part of the program either. Besides, I was very curious about the exotic-looking clam the chef was now removing from his case. It looked like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting--all oranges and purples. It tasted like no clam I’ve ever had before, with a delicacy of flavor and texture all its own. The chef followed that with slices of crunchy yellow abalone, a decided comedown from the first pink morsels.
And still he showed no inclination to stop. His assistant came out of the kitchen and handed him a plate. The chef trimmed the food sitting on it, placed it on a bit of rice and placed it before me. It was sushi made of cooked tuna--and it was quite incredible. Next there was a single little piece of cooked shiitake mushroom. And then Spanish mackerel--a robust little fish with the haunting flavor of rosewater. The chef put the food out. I ate. It all seemed like an unending loop. What if the restaurant didn’t take credit cards?
Now the chef was putting anago-- sea eel--before me. It was rich, soft, buttery, and the chef had not painted it with that sweet thick paste that obliterates the flavor of most of the eel you eat in sushi bars.
Then the chef reached into his little case and pulled out a wooden carton of sea urchin. But these were giant urchins--huge orange pieces that he piled so high on the rice that the seaweed could barely contain it all. And then, without a pause, he began constructing sushi made of salmon eggs, once again piled as high as possible.
It seemed that I would have to go on eating all afternoon. I was not unhappy. Now the chef was serving okara-- a dish rarely found in restaurants. Made of the whey left from making tofu, it was a a sort of warm Japanese cottage cheese. Perhaps, I thought, this signals the end of the meal.
It did not. The chef was impassively chopping up toro and wrapping it in seaweed. Who could possibly resist this? Who would even try? On its heels came a pungent soup-- akidashi-- with the rich full flavor of the sea bass that was simmered in it.
The chef made a motion. Clearly he wanted to know if I was full. I must have been crazy, I shook my head no. And so he made a sort of portable salad, wrapping rice, salted plum paste, pickles and toasted sesame seeds into a twist of seaweed and handing the whole thing across the counter. He smiled. I smiled.
Then his assistant appeared bearing a plate. At last, I thought, the end had come. It was a beautiful plate: the two largest strawberries I have ever seen were flanking a strange substance that tasted like nothing more than frozen condensed milk. It was an oddly delicious way to end the meal.
I asked for the check. Did I see a flicker of worry cross the chef’s face? I thought so. He motioned to his assistant. The assistant brought the little folder, and I took a deep breath before opening it up.
As I said--the most expensive meal I’ve ever eaten in Los Angeles. Lunch for one, with beer and tax and tip, was almost $100.
“Oh yes,” said a Japanese friend when I called to tell her about it. “It’s a branch of a Tokyo sushi bar that is famous for its high quality and its high prices.” I asked her to find out how much dinner cost. “It’s a larger meal,” she reported. “It begins with appetizers, then goes on to sushi. Prices start at $100 per person for the food, without drinks or tax or tip.” She paused. “And then go up. But if you’re planning on going, be sure to reserve. Apparently the restaurant is so popular with Japanese businessmen that every seat is taken every night.”
Ginza Sushi-Ko, 3959 Wilshire Boulevard, A-11, Los Angeles. (213) 487-2251. Open for lunch Monday-Friday; for dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Parking in lot. Visa, American Express, MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $200 plus.