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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Sushi Imai a More Mellow Experience

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sushi Imai used to be one of those terrific and terrifying sushi bars where you were only truly welcome if you knew your sushi and your sushi etiquette--starting with sashimi, dunking only the fish side of your sushi in your soy- wasabi mix, never plunking half-eaten sushi back down on the plate, etc. Requesting a California or spicy tuna roll could get you a blank stare from the chef and/or an invitation to dine elsewhere.

Sushi Imai closed for three years for quake-proofing, and who knows what happened? Perhaps it was the recession, which down-scaled many a menu and made many a restaurateur grateful for any and all business. When Sushi Imai reopened last year with the same skilled chef, prices were lower and there, on the menu, was California roll. I ordered it recently (for a friend, of course) and the chef made it with nary a twitch of disapproval.

His humor and tolerance are, in fact, now so entrenched that when a woman near us at the sushi bar produced her own bottle of soy sauce, he expressed only mild curiosity: “A special soy sauce?”

“It’s low sodium,” she said, “But I use it because it contains no wheat. I’m very sensitive to wheat.”

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“Ahhh. . . .” Nary a twitch.

Sushi Imai is small; a dozen or so seats at the sushi bar, a handful of pale wood tables. White walls display one smiling red mask and one small but ferocious stuffed and mounted salmon. Further flourish and color is found on the plate.

*

The chef’s cutting is adept, trim, often beautiful. His rice is nicely sticky, not too sweet, rather loosely packed for nigirizushi (sushi pressed and formed in the hand). The selection isn’t as vast as in some of the larger sushi bars, but there’s always some special and/or seasonal item; one day it’s ama ebi , live shrimp, whose legs dance in the chef’s hands one minute and whose tail arrives soon afterward on rice, the flesh translucent, exquisitely mild, still--you swear it--quivering: It’s a mouthful of beauty and qualms.

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Another visit, the special item is matsutake , or pine mushrooms, white-fleshed with caramel-colored caps, broiled in the toaster oven and lightly sauced before becoming an earthy, slippery sushi.

Sushi from house-cured fish is particularly good: sake , or salmon has a distantly sweet flavor, and a hint of smokiness. Pickled saba, or mackerel, with its two-tone flesh is deliciously pungent either as sushi or a small, juicy salad.

Maguro , or tuna, won’t be at its peak of firmness and flavor until November; still, Imai’s square-cut maguro sashimi is meaty and satisfying. Toro , or fatty tuna sushi, is milder than butter and just as rich.

An eel order produces one slice each of broiled unagi (the silky, rich freshwater eel), and anago (not quite so rich, but flavorful marine eel). Kohada , a Japanese shad, has a strong herring-like flavor, and metallic silver skin banded in black dots. Scored by the knife, it looks like the vented hood of a tiny, custom sports car.

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Salad made from salmon nose resembles pewter-colored cucumbers. The dressing tastes something like lemon Popsicles, but the cartilaginous crunch is memorable.

When we came for dinner and ordered items from the menu, the kitchen, clearly disorganized, sent out food sporadically: We were served one at a time, which meant one person ate while the rest of us looked on hungrily. Our harried waitress, who dodged through the small, half-full dining room as if pursued by large playful dogs, could only apologize.

Tempura, with only the lightest filigree of batter, was just OK; plump chunks of chicken teriyaki, while certainly tender, had an odd, waterlogged quality.

Salmon ochazuke , a small bowl of rice in excellent broth, is a lovely, subtle dish whose pleasures come from the faint smokiness of the salmon, the chicken soup comfort of rice-in-broth, the broad tone of that green horseradish.

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Nothing subtle, however, about the “Dynamite,” an abalone shell stuffed with giant clam and scallops suspended in gobs of mayonnaise made bright orange with tobiko (flying fish roe) and broiled. The waitress warned us it was rich; she didn’t say it’s like eating Best Foods straight from the bottle.

So, sushi is the thing. And by the way, spicy tuna rolls are excellent.

* Sushi Imai, 359 East 1st St., Los Angeles. (213) 680-4166. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Beer and sake served. Major cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $15 to $65.


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