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Sushi sensei: Kazunori Nozawa talks hand rolls and Apple Pan

Sushi chef Kazunori Nozawa, who retired from his Ventural Boulevard sushi bar, launched Sugarfish and KazuNori.
Sushi chef Kazunori Nozawa, who retired from his Ventural Boulevard sushi bar, launched Sugarfish and KazuNori.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

In 2005, during the first vacation that Kazunori Nozawa had taken in decades, Sugarfish was just an inkling, a conversation between the veteran sushi chef and technology entrepreneur Jerry Greenberg. Nearly 10 years later Sugarfish is a budding chain with nine locations and a new offshoot -- Nozawa’s latest concept, KazuNori, which serves only hand rolls and cut rolls.

Greenberg, Sugarfish’s co-founder, was a longtime patron of Sushi Nozawa (the erstwhile Ventura Boulevard sushi bar where Nozawa drew a celebrity clientele and built a reputation as a sushi tyrant (with a sign hanging on the wall that read “Today’s Special: Trust Me”). Greenberg had invited Nozawa and his wife, Yumiko, to Italy.

It was on that trip that “Nozawa said, ‘I think my food could be brought in a different way,’” and Greenberg’s response was, “Let’s figure out what that could be.”

The idea: “Sushi Nozawa for less than half the price by changing the way it was executed, and on the Westside instead of the Valley,” said Greenberg, who also was a founder of consulting company Sapient. It’s the Sushi Nozawa omakase experience boiled down to set menus that cost $20, $30 and $40 (the “Trust Me Lite,” “Trust Me” and “Nozawa Trust Me,” respectively). Sushi Nozawa went from an elite dining event to sushi for the people.

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“I wanted to make sushi available to as many people as I could with the cost remaining affordable,” Nozawa said in a recent rare interview at Nozawa Bar, the 12-seat omakase-only sushi bar tucked into the back of the Beverly Hills location of Sugarfish.

When asked what the inspiration for Sugarfish was, Nozawa said, “The hamburger place Apple Pan. You didn’t have to use too many people. The functionality was great. It was simple and consistent.”

Translating the sushi bar experience into a $30 set menu executed by line cooks and served in a fast-turnaround environment that accommodates a business crowd for lunch and millennial raw-fish fans for dinner came with its challenges.

“Sugarfish wasn’t what we thought it was going to be,” Greenberg said, noting changes that occurred as he and the Sugarfish partners, including Nozawa’s son, Tom Nozawa, fine-tuned the concept after opening the first location in Marina Del Rey in 2008.

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One of the first challenges were, in fact, the hand rolls -- crisp nori (seaweed) wrapped into a cone shape around raw fish and Nozawa’s signature warm sushi rice. They weren’t even served because Nozawa and Greenberg thought the hurdle of getting hand rolls to guests fast enough so that the seaweed didn’t become soggy was too great.

“People don’t realize how important nori is,” Nozawa said. “It’s very fragile, it has terroir. You have to have quality nori.” And it should be eaten while still crisp.

“To get the experience of the hand roll [directly from a sushi chef], oh my god, that’s the best,” Greenberg said. Nozawa “would make a hand roll and hand it to you and it was a special part of the experience. But a hand roll can’t sit for a couple of minutes.”

They figured out how to make it work. It meant that no hand roll would ever sit at the pass in the kitchen, waiting to be picked up by the server assigned to the table that ordered it. Hand rolls became a priority dish. Servers – no matter which table is theirs – see a hand roll, they take it immediately to the diner.

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“It was a big deal for us,” Greenberg said. “Nozawa came in and was rolling out the hand rolls and that first day we served them was the busiest day we ever had.”

Nozawa, who is still rosy-cheeked at 68 and shops regularly at the fish market but rarely makes appearances at the restaurants, may very well have been the first in Los Angeles to serve the now-ubiquitous blue crab hand roll. He says he was. Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold said Sushi Nozawa’s blue crab hand roll, served as a finale, was the first he’d ever noticed.

“I refused to make California rolls,” Nozawa said. “But I wanted something to overpower that trend. King, snow crab, Dungeness crab – not a good fit for sushi. So I used small blue crabs, but not for nigiri.” So he decided to use cooked shredded blue crab in a hand roll.

That hand roll has come full circle with the opening of KazuNori at its first location, in downtown Los Angeles. Greenberg said if the debut KazuNori does well, others will follow.

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“We’ve been working on this for a long time, maybe it was a more circuitous path than Sugarfish,” Greenberg said. “But it’s so simple, so direct. It was just staring at us.”

KazuNori, 421 S. Main St., Los Angeles, (213) 493-6956, www.kazunorisushi.com.


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