STYLE / RESTAURANTS : Sushi & Beyond


Address in hand, my lunch companion and I set off with confidence, only to lose our way in the maze of one-way streets in and around Little Tokyo. We circle past brick warehouses, abandoned lots, quirky cafes and galleries, looking for R23. Until finally, at the end of an alley, we spy the edge of a smoky-blue neon sign marking our destination.

The 4-year-old Japanese restaurant (R stands for the restaurant, in a former railroad warehouse; 23, for the location between 2nd and 3rd streets) looks more like something you’d find in downtown New York than in this odd corner of L.A. During the day, the handsome high-ceilinged room, with broad wood beams and exposed brick walls, is an oasis of calm, flooded with light. Tablecloths are precisely arranged with fold running diagonally. Whimsical cardboard chairs are surprisingly comfortable. Deep bowls, striped or speckled black and white like guinea-hen feathers, are stacked in a corner behind the sushi bar, the work of L.A. artist Mineo Mizuno. Two sushi chefs work quietly behind the granite counter at the back of the room.

As soon as you sit down, good green tea arrives in hand-thrown tumblers, pale green swathed in darker stripes and a pleasure to hold. In addition to sushi, lunchtime offers a number of one-plate meals. Eel salad, for instance, is a casual composition of greens and Belgian endive, accented with radicchio and pungent shiso leaves, garnished with slices of rich, sweet glazed eel. Several other plates mix and match similar elements. One, beautifully presented chirashi-zushi, comes in a bowl brimming with raw tuna, octopus, yellow squares of omelet and other ingredients scattered over a bed of vinegared rice.


The best lunch bargain is the assorted sashimi, at $10, an appealing arrangement of sliced maguro, whitefish and silvery mackerel accompanied by a little tuna tartare garnished with scallions, steamed shrimp, a seaweed and octopus salad and a tangle of violet squid tentacles.

When I return, this time at night, a Japanese video crew is shooting out front, and R23 is packed. Luckily, we’ve got a reservation. At the sushi bar, we pour thimbles of warm, faintly sweet sake from a small porcelain bottle and admire the flashing knife work of the sushi chefs. I’m studying the brushwork on decorative ceramic panels behind the duo when one of the panels is snatched off the wall to serve as a platter. One chef lines up the nigiri-zushi--ochre-colored uni, glistening salmon eggs, rosy shrimp, yellowtail--adding a wad of wasabi and pickled ginger at either end. And off the creation goes, ferried out to a table of six.

We study the fish in the case, exquisitely displayed on shiny green ti leaves: coiled octopus, mackerel, opalescent squid, monkfish liver, blood-red toro, geoduck clam ... A little sashimi is always a good way to start, so we begin with toro, or fatty tuna belly, its dark, plush flesh cut in domino-sized rectangles. Then we order sushi of pale yellowtail flushed with rose laid atop an oval of fragrant, lightly vinegared rice. Live Japanese clam sushi, firm and tan and edged with mauve, is particularly good this visit. When we ask the chef what he suggests next, he slides a bowl of green, sludgy-looking stuff across the counter. “Abalone liver,” he announces. Fuzzy in texture, with the peculiar though not unpleasant taste of algae, it is what I imagine eating moss must be like--interesting, but I don’t know that I would ever actually ask for it.

Overall, the quality of the fish here is quite high, but not everything is of equal freshness on any given day. The mackerel may be dry; the yellowtail, a bit dull. R23 doesn’t rank up there with Matsuhisa or Sushi Nozawa--at least not yet.

I’ve come to appreciate the cooked dishes, too. And I like how they come out of the kitchen one by one. A single Japanese shiitake cap, a hand’s spanwide, is lightly grilled, crunchy on top, creamy at the center and just about the most delicious mushroom I’ve tasted (right up there with grilled porcini in Tuscany). One night, when the special of a half-dozen sawa crabs no larger than a quarter, all posed on a springy mattress of rice noodles, arrives, we giggle, delighted by its whimsy. The tiny crustaceans are completely satisfying because they are so intensely flavorful. But the truly irresistible dish of the evening, is another special, grilled yellowtail cheek, about the size and shape of a bicycle seat, its skin blistered a crisp brown. We attack it with chopsticks; underneath is the rich, custardy flesh, even better with a squeeze of lemon to cut its richness.

Next to us, a lone diner wrestles with the special lobster tempura, bright red lobster claws and tail fried in an eccentric shaggy coat of pale rice noodles. When we try it, the dish is as awkward to eat as it is startling. Sharp, hard noodles make it difficult to taste the lobster; batter on the vegetable tempura is heavy with oil. And this night, what resembles matzo-ball soup turns out to be a ball of sticky steamed potato with salmon morsels tucked inside. Served in a salty salmon broth, this dish is definitely an acquired taste.


The kitchen excels at simple, artful dishes with clearly focused flavors. Beef sashimi, seared but rare in the middle, is delicious dipped in a dark, potent ponzu, doused with grated radish and slivered scallion. It’s better than all the lackluster versions of carpaccio served around town. There’s also a good chawan mushi, a delicate savory custard studded with mushrooms, shrimp and fish cake, as well as a fine plate of grilled green chiles and duck breast in a fiery teriyaki sauce.

Come dessert time, pass on the rather ordinary green-tea ice cream and order the mixed-fruit plate. You will see the waiter approach, bearing a tall, black-glazed ceramic slab. On it is a striking still life of papaya, kiwi, Asian pear and pale green melon--a refreshing end to this kind of meal.

As we sip our tea, the sweet, soaring sound of Stan Getz’s tenor saxophone fills the room. The sushi chefs work on, heads down, turning now and then toward the laughter at the counter. From a window, downtown’s skyscrapers loom like some lost city. And we’re glad we ventured out to this sleekly sophisticated Japanese restaurant.



CUISINE: Japanese. AMBIENCE: Stark, elegant room with brick walls, high ceiling and cardboard chairs, plus sushi bar. BEST DISHES: Sushi and sashimi, Japanese shiitake mushroom cap, beef sashimi, broiled yellowtail cheek. WINE PICKS: The top-of-the-line sake. FACTS: 923 E. 3rd St., #109, Los Angeles; (213) 687-7178. Closed Sundays and Saturday lunch. Dinner for two, food only, $35 to $75. Parking in front or on the street.