“Trust me.” The words are so associated with Kazunori Nozawa, Sushi Nozawa’s owner and chef, that he has them framed in gilt and displayed prominently behind the counter of his minuscule Studio City sushi restaurant.
And he’s not kidding: To achieve one of the nine seats at the counter, you have to agree to eat whatever Nozawa-san deigns to give you. Don’t suggest or inquire. Don’t ask. For anything. “You no choose,” the waiter reiterates, making sure you thoroughly understand the rules before allowing you a coveted chair.
Nozawa and his restaurant have an enormous reputation in this town. If you need proof, just pick up the latest Zagat. The restaurant has a 27 rating for food, the second highest in the entire guide, which puts Sushi Nozawa on the level with restaurants such as Campanile or Sona. To a certain type of L.A. foodie, being a regular at Sushi Nozawa is sure status, and Nozawa’s fans are fanatical, willing to ferret out an obscure mini-mall, contend with a sushi chef who barely speaks, nervously try not to offend him (or risk being eighty-sixed) and pay dearly for the experience.
Eating here is an exercise in patience. Unless you happen to catch it just right, you wait. You examine the A posted in the window, note the hours (Monday through Friday only). You peer through the slats in the vinyl blinds, observing the sushi hounds inside sprawled on the uncomfortable chairs, holding forth on this week’s box office totals or the latest Bushism, wondering how this shabby, nondescript little place could hold the appeal that it does.
Cars pull into the mini-mall parking lot, most of them high-end vehicles, silent as cats. The line outside lengthens. They come in Juicy Couture sweats, in Gucci and Miu Miu, in baggy shorts and baseball caps. New arrivals squeeze past the line inside to suss out the situation. Any seats free at the sushi bar? What are the chances for one of the half a dozen tables? Anybody about to leave?
Standing in front of a faded, backlighted photo mural of fish swimming through a blue sea, Nozawa looks straight ahead, impassive. As the two guys in front of us move forward in the line, one cautions the other in an urgent whisper not to order, under any circumstances, a California roll or sushi dynamite. “I don’t want to get eighty-sixed from this place,” he tells his friend.
In a world where bagels are flavored with blueberries, and martinis are made with chocolate liqueur, Nozawa is a purist. Trained in Tokyo, he doesn’t believe in sushi for people who don’t eat raw fish -- or rice. It’s not about disguising the flavors with spicy sauces. It’s about the texture of the rice, the way it’s seasoned and shaped, the quality of the fish. It’s his restaurant, and he has run it the way he sees fit for 17 years. Omakase, letting the chef decide, is nothing new. But usually there’s some interaction between sushi chef and sushi eater. Sushi Nozawa’s “trust me” version has none. Nozawa decides what you’ll eat and how fast you’ll eat it. Other sushi chefs may slip in something astonishing, remember what you had last time, and give you something new. At Nozawa, you get virtually the same meal every time, give or take a fish or two.
The art of simplicity
First, a plate of sashimi, sometimes just one type of fish, other times several, but almost always including some toro (fatty tuna belly). The slices of raw fish are strewn with Japanese scallions and drenched in a light ponzu sauce -- unremarkable, except for the quality of the fish. In the past, that was always high; lately, there may be a couple of excellent bites, but much of the rest seems dull.
The chef or his assistant sets each dish in front of you, usually without explanation. And when there is one, it is mumbled, so you have to ask again and get another mumble. It feels terribly ungracious, almost passive-aggressive. Sushi is often limited to some toro, some yellowtail, albacore strewn with scallions, etc. The fish is thickly sliced, the rice still warm. It’s all pretty tame and unchallenging stuff, not what you’d find at a sushi bar in Little Tokyo, or at the Hump or Sushi Mori. Uni is about as exotic as it gets.
Nozawa prides himself on mastering the difficult art of simplicity. But why his fans have picked him to anoint as king is beyond me.
Maybe it’s reverse chic. But while that explains Matsuhisa, at least there the quality is something to rave about. Or maybe the fact that you have to tread so carefully around Nozawa’s notorious grumpiness to keep your seat at the sushi bar makes it all the more prized.
He commands. You eat. For people used to being in charge, being dominated by a sushi chef may have some kind of perverse appeal.
Normally, one of the pleasures of eating at a sushi bar is the indulgent pacing. A few bites here, a sip of beer, a lull. Then two more pieces of sushi to devote your attention to. You watch the way the chef cuts the fish away from the bone, or the deft way he shapes the sushi rice. Here, the food comes at you like a Mack truck. At one point the two guys next to me abjectly beg the chef, could we have five minutes?
I did encounter a kinder, gentler Nozawa on one recent visit. To my surprise, he actually smiled at me. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure he wasn’t directing that smile at someone else; no, it was for me. He asked how long I’d been eating sushi. And whether it was here or in Japan.
Both, I answered. He nodded and went back to cutting toro.
At some point, he’ll hand you a fat roll of nori stuffed with crabmeat and a little mayonnaise. I’ve always found it hard to finish, it’s so monumental and heavy. I suspect it’s there to fill you up. Then comes more sushi, maybe some Spanish mackerel or some sweet shrimp scattered with sesame seeds, usually one of the best things here.
More? Enough? asks the waiter, who obviously has been to the Nozawa charm school too.
When we indicate that we’re done, Mrs. Nozawa doesn’t miss a beat. The bill is ready. Boom. In and out in half an hour. We’ve spent $120.
A rush to the table
Recently, when I couldn’t get a seat at the bar, we ordered omakase at a table. Bad idea. The sashimi came out so fast, it must have been already plated, sitting behind the counter sloshed with ponzu. We couldn’t actually see whether Nozawa was preparing our sushi himself. But it came out all in a rush.
At the table, the crab roll this time has a soggy nori wrapper, very different from the bar, where Nozawa presents it himself with a flourish and you can hear the crackle of the crisp seaweed across the counter.
You can, at the tables, forget about omakase and just order from the printed sushi menu. We try that one night too. When my dining companion asks, quite nicely, if there are any specials, the waiter is curt: either what’s on the menu or “trust me.” Those are the only options. Okey-dokey....
We order the sweet, meaty shrimp with sesame seeds. This is good. But when my friend asks if we could have the heads fried, which is standard in most sushi bars, the answer is no. Violet-edged octopus tentacles made into sushi are pleasant too.
So is the red snapper, the fish here that seems consistently to have the most flavor. Salmon skin roll -- fatty salmon broiled crisp and tucked in, while still warm, with burdock root and rice -- is rich and satisfying. So is the eel and cucumber roll.
But nothing is amazing enough to warrant the fanatical following, which has been fueled through the years by the local studio crowd and by the Zagat guide’s absurdly high marks. Sushi Nozawa is not even among the best sushi restaurants in town. It’s one of the most overrated restaurants in Southern California.
In the past, I remember Sushi Nozawa as being eccentric, of course, but the basic sushi was always fine, if you favor the Tokyo style. Personally, I don’t like the way the warm rice falls apart and sticks to your fingers. The fish is sometimes cut to the size of a credit card, and the whole package isn’t easy to get down in one bite. I don’t appreciate the commercial-grade soy sauce, the cheap melamine plates -- not at these prices. And I don’t like feeling I’m being given the bum’s rush.
One night, I’m waiting with friends outside when a couple in a flashy car pulls into a space in front and dashes in the door. Minutes later, they’re out again. Got tired of waiting, I figured.
But no, they ate. Twelve minutes, the woman says, consulting a diamond-framed wristwatch. Twelve minutes, $100, her consort adds with a half-embarrassed shrug. Our record is 10 minutes, he volunteers.
I did a quick calculation.
That’s $600 an hour.
But not on my dime.
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Location: 11288 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 508-7017
Ambience: Bare-bones storefront with small sushi counter and a few tables, decorated by a backlighted photograph of fish swimming in a blue sea, and a collection of signs and cartoons emblazoned with the chef’s motto, “Trust me.”
Service: Curt and ungracious
Price: Sushi, $30 to $50 per person; omakase starts at about $60, depending on what’s on offer that day.
Best dishes: Hamachi (yellowtail), toro, albacore, sweet shrimp, uni, octopus sushi, salmon skin roll, eel roll with cucumber
Wine list: Unexceptional selection of Japanese beer and soft drinks from a refrigerator case that hums in the corner.
Best table: One on the inside corner. The worst? Right by the door.
Details: Open Monday through Friday from noon to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday. Beer and sake. Lot parking.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.