[Chef Change] Modest master of the nuance

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

At the unprepossessing Mori Sushi in West Los Angeles, the waiter sets down a broad oval plate stippled in the browns and golds of autumn leaves, its texture rough as burlap. On it are four rows of nigiri-zushi, four pieces each, one for each of us. The composition is as flawless as an Agnes Martin painting. My architect friend is looking at the fish as if he has never seen sushi before. And in a sense he hasn’t, not this kind of quality. It’s evident even before you taste it -- in the pearlescent pink and white gleam of halibut fin, cross-hatched with the knife; in the subtle marbling of wild yellowtail belly, my new sushi passion; in the silvery blue pinstripe running down a sliver of half beak, or Japanese silver fish; and in the alabaster translucence of Japanese squid.

Sushi chef Morihiro Onodera has slipped a touch of freshly grated wasabi between each slice of fish and the rice beneath. Each grain is distinct and perfectly seasoned. This sushi master cares so much about the product, he buys his rice unhulled to retain its moisture and flavor for as long as possible. Using a special machine, he polishes only as much as he’ll need for that day’s sushi. As a result, his rice has a personality all its own.

That plate of sushi actually comes halfway through our meal. We’d asked Mori-san for an omakase menu, his choice of what’s best that night. It begins with three slabs of steamed abalone, their mild sea-salt taste sparked by a zingy dab of yuzu (a Japanese citrus) and green chile paste that brings our palates to full attention. Next comes a handmade ceramic bowl with latticework sides holding a few intriguing bites, the equivalent of a western chef’s amuse-gueule. The mosaic of flavors includes sticks of salted gingko nuts and a dainty roll of pickled daikon with fine threads of raw carrot and burdock. A porcelain thimble holds glistening coral salmon eggs, and the slender spine of a sea eel is tied into a knot and fried to a noisy crunch.

A lidded lacquered bowl decorated with plum blossoms is set before us. Inside is a clear broth with a marvelous smoky taste and a single shrimp ball tucked into a hollowed-out daikon. Japanese greens sway like seaweed. The shrimp ball is as delicate in flavor as the finest quenelle. (I remember another soup, another season, when the broth tasted of precious matsutake mushrooms.)

Perfectly placed and paced


THEN comes sashimi, each slice of pristine raw fish placed on the plate as precisely as a stone in a Zen garden. The flavors are perfectly paced, too, from left to right: buttery bigeye toro, octopus, sweet Santa Barbara shrimp, richly nuanced buri (wild yellowtail) and a dark-fleshed band of Japanese mackerel.

He introduces another note with mirogai, or clam, cloaked in a salty rich miso followed by two types of toro sushi: bluefin and bigeye tuna. And later, that oval platter of sushi previously described. We easily could have stopped there, but he sends out two more little tastes: silvery speckled shad and seared albacore with scallions in a rust-colored bowl.

Sensing our mood, he makes an abrupt and delicious switch to dessert. Nothing heavy, a swatch of pink grapefruit gelatin inset with segments of pink grapefruit.

In Los Angeles you can trace the history of sushi back to Katsu on Hillhurst, the seminal sushi restaurant that captured everyone’s attention in the late ‘80s, and to Matsuhisa, Nobu Matsuhisa’s first modest but not modestly priced Beverly Hills restaurant. Onodera worked at both. I remember him at Matsuhisa, shouting out a greeting, playing up to the famous faces and the flocks of AMWs (actress-model-whatevers).

But at Sushi Mori, he follows his own muse, not Nobu’s. And in the three years since it opened, his restaurant has gone from very good to one of the best in a city full of good sushi restaurants. It works. It’s his.

Always behind the bar

There’s nothing slick about the place. Ken Tanaka designed it with plywood floors and tables and a flotilla of round white paper lanterns bobbing overhead. Onodera doesn’t cultivate any kind of a scene. Individuals in the crowd are identifiable only as sushi lovers quietly enjoying Mori-san’s work or friends meeting for a quick bite. He doesn’t want to be photographed. He even goes so far as to dispense with a sign outside. Well, not entirely, it just doesn’t have the name. Look for the outline of a fish and a rectangle of yuzu-green glass stuck high on a pole at the southwest corner of Pico Boulevard and Gateway.

Unlike the peripatetic Matsuhisa, Mori-san is always there behind the counter, ready with a smile, but with none of the hyperactive shouting some sushi chefs are prone to exhibit. He chats with the regulars. Or not. It’s all very comfortable.

The servers are unfailingly courteous and more than that, actually helpful, announcing the dishes with the skill of a waiter at Patina or Spago -- even going so far as to consult a dictionary or the chef, for the exact translation of an unfamiliar fish or ingredient.

Just because the decor is simple doesn’t mean the place has anything in common with inexpensive strip mall sushi joints. The best and freshest fish can never be inexpensive. And when sushi is this good, it’s hard to resist ordering more and more.

Sometimes I order sashimi and some sushi, checking off what I want from a conventional sushi menu. Or I’ll just tell the waiter I’d like a plate of sashimi that includes some buri, if it’s available. And then some toro, Spanish mackerel, squid, maybe some uni, or sea urchin. And let him choose the rest.

But most of the time I’ll ask for omakase, or chef’s choice. I know it’s going to be expensive, usually about $100 a person, depending on how much you eat or what’s on offer. It can be as high as $150 -- like on a night when no one thought to tell the chef we were getting full and two more courses of sushi came out, too irresistible not to eat, but more than we really wanted.

Even without ordering omakase, it’s all too easy to spend close to $100 a person with sake and drinks.

But you’re getting the real thing. Onodera is not a chef who condescends to popular tastes by cranking up the heat, though he does offer some California-Japanese salads. He’s not a sushi nazi either, who throws you out if you ask for anything not on offer. Lately, I’ve been enjoying his homemade tofu, tender ivory curds rather than the usual white squares. He serves it with dab of fresh wasabi on top and beside it, a dish of fine dark soy sauce. You eat it with a beautiful bamboo spoon.

It’s always a pleasure to see which dishes Onodera will use. He first started making ceramics when he worked near a pottery workshop in New York’s Greenwich Village. Now it’s a passion and he’s set up an outdoor studio on one side of the building. As I leave each time, I can’t help noticing the growing stacks of dishes and plates behind the counter. And as Onodera nods goodbye, he smiles the smile of someone who is completely at home in his own restaurant doing exactly what he wants to do.

Mori Sushi

Rating: ***

Location: 11500 Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles (at Gateway); (310) 479-3939.

Ambience: Inviting small sushi restaurant with simple but tasteful decor. The sushi bar seats eight or so, and there also are a few tables beneath gently swaying Japanese paper lanterns.

Service: Warm and accommodating, neither too serious nor too intrusive.

Price: Sashimi, $14 to $40; sushi (two pieces), $4 to $16; other dishes $15 to $24; omakase (chef’s choice), $80 to $150 per person.

Best dishes: Homemade tofu, wild yellowtail sashimi and sushi, toro, grilled Santa Barbara spot prawns, Kumamoto oysters with dried peach, baby sea eel tempura.

Wine list: A small list of sakes and Japanese beer. Corkage $15.

Best table: A seat at the sushi bar or a corner table at the back.

Details: Open Monday through Friday for lunch 11:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m., dinner 5:45 p.m. to 9:45 p.m., Saturday 5:45 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. Wine and beer. Parking in lot in back, or on the street.

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.