A chef comes into his own

Times Staff Writer

I dip my head under the indigo curtains that screen the doorway and take a seat at the white-blond maple counter. Sanded every night, its touch is familiar and reassuring, seductively smooth. A server hands me a steaming hot towel. I slip the paper wrapper off the chopsticks and place them on a pretty chopstick rest. Sliding my hands over the counter, I remember all the times I’ve sat here before -- not that many, really, but every one of them etched in my memory.

My guest and I are the only two people at the sushi bar. We begin with crunchy summer vegetables bathed in sweet vinegar with a touch of wasabi that we down like an oyster shooter. All senses on alert.

Supple green eggplant marinated in dashi is slathered in a richly pungent miso and topped with uni that tastes sharply of the sea. The killer, though, is a dish of goma dofu, an elegant pleated dumpling of steamed white sesame tofu passed through a sieve so many times the texture is like fresh mozzarella, the taste impossibly subtle and absolutely riveting. It’s something that comes from the tradition of Buddhist temple cuisine.


The place is tiny, just 10 seats and a couple of tables that never seem to be occupied. We’re at Urasawa, the restaurant that replaced the four-star Ginza Sushiko when its chef-owner Masa Takayama moved to New York to open Masa, his stunning new restaurant in the Time Warner Center.

For Takayama, who is known as Masa, leaving Los Angeles meant closing Ginza Sushiko. His style of cooking is so personal and so hands-on that it couldn’t possibly be the same without him.

Or could it?

When Masa left, his former assistant, Hiro Urasawa, took over the space on the second floor of the Rodeo Collection. He hardly changed a thing. He didn’t lower the prices either: A meal at Urasawa runs $250 per person before drinks, tax and tip, making it easily the most expensive restaurant in Los Angeles, if not in California -- more than Bastide, more than French Laundry in Napa Valley.

Masa devotees knew what to expect and saved up for the chance to sit at the sushi bar and watch a master at work. But Urasawa is not Masa. Few people know his name. Yet.

He doesn’t have the same commanding presence and charisma. Or the impeccable aesthetic that informed everything from the flowers and the museum-quality ceramics to the art with which each dish was garnished. But in his own way, Urasawa is equally fascinating and still growing.

It can’t be easy stepping into Masa’s clogs. He’s left his imprint all over the restaurant, so much so, that on my first visit, months before, it felt odd to find Urasawa behind the counter instead of Masa. The slender chef, dressed in a haori with the sleeves tied back, has a gentle presence and a more delicate, sometimes muted, touch with the food.

Whatever Urasawa did that night, I saw Masa pacing the same small space. I couldn’t quite get Urasawa’s style. I knew he did much of his training in Kyoto in kaiseki, the refined cuisine of the tea ceremony, and that his style is kaiseki combined with sushi, which is unusual.

But I missed the precision and the sheer audacity of Masa’s cooking, if you can call what you get at a sushi restaurant cooking. Urasawa is a more traditional chef, Masa definitely more cutting edge.

Taking his rightful place

But Urasawa fully inhabits the space now. And he’s presenting a series of intricate seasonal dishes and traditional sushi that are utterly beguiling.

Sashimi arrives on a carved ice pedestal, slivers of exquisite shima aji (amberjack) with a tangle of pink pickled turnip and shiso leaf. A smoking hot stone is set in front of us, along with a plate of sliced toro we’re meant to barely sear on the stone. It literally melts on the tongue, its rich, fatty taste hanging on like a great Sauternes.

Later we have the beef equivalent: Kobe beef from Japan that looks like the inverse of meat marbled with fat. This is more ivory fat marbled with rosy lean. And every bit a match for that superb toro.

The sushi, as always, is exceptional. How can it not be? The quality of the fish he lays in, from the same sources Masa used, guarantees it.

It may not reach the heights it could under Masa, when a single bite could elicit a groan of pleasure. Still, I don’t think you’ll find better sushi anywhere in Los Angeles, except perhaps at Mori Sushi.

Urasawa takes a long set of chopsticks and teases a narrow strip of needlefish into a gorgeous, loose spiral ribboned with silvery skin, a few grains of rice tucked underneath. Each piece of sushi is a delicate, incredibly refined bite.

I watch as he sets a live shrimp on the cutting board. It kicks mightily, threatening to leap off the board, until he places a hand over it to calm it. Moments later, he sets a piece of sushi made with that same sweet shrimp in front of me. It’s then when you realize fresh is not the same as live: This is sticky and so potently rich, a bite or two is enough. It’s about intensity.

As fine as the sushi is, it’s Urasawa’s kaiseki dishes that linger. Enough that I’m eager to go back a few weeks later. When we sit down, he tells me Masa was in town a couple of weeks ago and they went to Lawry’s on La Cienega together. The image of the two of them sitting down before a spinning salad and a chef in white gloves carving a hunk of prime rib from that gleaming cart makes me smile.

“Masa likes meat,” he chortles.

This time, another couple is already there, halfway through their meal, savoring each piece of sushi he sets before them. Laughter leaks from the private room too: a party of Japanese tourists. One of the other guests grins happily when the chef takes out a wooden box filled with ocher sea urchin.

“I can’t eat anybody else’s uni now,” he complains. “Nobody else’s melts in the mouth like yours does,” he says.

True. The dangerous thing about sushi at this high level is that there is absolutely no going back once you have experienced the difference. And unless you own a baseball team or something similar, you’re not going to be able to afford it very often.

Sublime dishes all

Urasawa starts us off this time with a sky blue bowl filled with some sliced giant clam, a fan of crinkly cucumbers, ribbons of velvety seaweed and a rose-tipped shoot of pickled young ginger. A perfect dish.

Then comes a little terra-cotta bowl slashed with gold. It’s yuba, he says as he sets it in front of me. What is it? Like the most divine pasta, the finest sheets of soy milk skin stacked up and bathed in an ethereal dashi with a dab of pale green wasabi on top. It’s breathtaking in its purity of taste and form.

I also loved a dish of steamed abalone and okra mixed with a thick sesame paste and a tiny, black crunchy vegetable. It looks a lot like potato salad, but whoa, baby, we are not in Kansas anymore.

Urasawa is on a roll. Here comes chawan mushi, which features that exquisite sea urchin roe buried in the ethereal, savory custard. It’s marvelous. This time, we cook squid that’s been marinated in squid guts and soy on the hot stone, and it’s a revelation -- funky, but delicious.

But the best may be a square of pork belly braised for eight or nine hours until it’s falling-apart tender, with a jelly-like consistency and a haunting, sweet flavor. It’s that intensity again in a small package that delivers a one-two punch.

I’m impressed. I can’t wait to see what he’ll be doing by this time next year. And this time, when Urasawa rushes out from behind the counter to say goodbye to his guests, the sound of his wooden clogs on the floor is his, not the ghost of Masa’s.



Rating: ***

Location: 218 N. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 247-8939, fax (310) 247-9689

Ambience: Small, elegant Japanese and sushi restaurant where Hiro Urasawa presents an exquisite kaiseki-style menu followed by equally superb sushi

Service: Amiable and amazingly fast

Price: $250 per person, not including tax, tip or beverages

Best dishes: The kaiseki dishes that change with the season: goma dofu (sesame tofu), yuba (soy milk skin), seared toro or Kobe beef, sushi, hot pots

Wine list: A small selection of handcrafted sakes. Corkage complimentary.

Best table: Corner seats at the sushi bar

Special features: Private room

Details: Open daily by reservation only. Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Beer and wine only. Valet parking, $5 with validation.

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.