Chef-owner Taketoshi Azumi doesn’t pad his omakase with farmers market treasures, vegan derivations, truffle salt or A5 wagyu. His Shin Sushi in Encino is a sushi bar experience stripped to its essence. Azumi directs his energies almost solely into nigiri. His focus is a reminder that unions of fish and rice can be riveting — particularly in their subtle gradations of texture — with minimal embellishment.
Shin opened quietly in July 2018, occupying a corner space in a beige stucco mini-mall on Ventura Boulevard. He’s kept a relatively low profile thus far, though he certainly has the attention of sushi devotees. After spending a few nights across the counter from him, I’m convinced that Azumi is a vital player in the Los Angeles sushi arena. He’s a head-down kind of chef who runs a tiny operation; his strengths lie more in scouring downtown fish markets for seasonal finds than in building his brand on Instagram.
His résumé includes three big local names — Asanebo, Mori and the now-closed Sushi of Gari — and he grew up in the business. His father ran a sushi bar of the same name in Tokyo.
Azumi prepares only omakase for Shin’s dinner service, and the restaurant is reservation-only: Would-be customers regularly stroll through the door, only to be turned away with a gentle request to call ahead next time. The cost falls in the upper midpoint of L.A. sushi dining: $100 to $120 per person for a starter, a mid-course of miso soup and 12 to 14 pieces of nigiri.
Diners rarely occupy tables at night. Everyone gathers along the eight-seat counter, in staggered seatings. Azumi works alone. He begins meals by shuffling off to the kitchen to finish assembling the night’s appetizer. In cooler months, it’s recently been sazae no tsuboyaki, a preparation of Japanese conch in which the chopped meat is splashed with dashi and grilled in its shell. Another night, a trio of small bites: maitake grilled and then simmered in dashi, soy and mirin; a deep-cupped Shigoku oyster spangled with salmon roe; velvety steamed ankimo.
Then, Azumi launches into the progression of nigiri. Tai, or sea bream, is often the first piece, peachy pale and silvery around its edges. The fish droops over its ingot of rice, the grains huddled tight to retain their fleeting warmth. Vinegar murmurs through the rice; a dab of wasabi barks more than it bites. A pleasure-filled silence follows while the taste buds register traces of soy and reconcile textural contrasts.
The tai’s medium-firmness calibrates the palate for the softer and denser fish to come, and the ways the rice will interact as harmony or counterpoint. Iwashi (sardine) yields into melting submission; salmon from Japan’s Aomori Prefecture and kurodai (often identified as black porgy or sea bream) offer more resistance. Some fish sparkle with yuzu or ginger; others turn smoky under the flame of a blowtorch.
Azumi is a jolly figure behind the bar. He stands in its stage-right corner, always focused on the next task but bantering easily in English or Japanese. His wrist snaps twice, fast as a jolt on the chiropractor’s table, as he presses vinegared rice in his palm. He explains that, like his father, he practices Edomae sushi: He slightly ages much of the seafood, using dashi- or soy-based marinades. Little of his handiwork requires additional seasoning.
He might ask where you live, and where else you like to eat sushi. I mention West L.A.’s Shunji and its chef, Shunji Nakao. “Ah, Shunji!” Azumi says. “We play golf and drink together.”
Sweet shrimp nigiri appears alongside miso soup simmered with shrimp shells; one spindly, beady-eyed head bobs in the bowl. A marinade of dashi, soy, mirin and katsuobushi confers complexity on glossy orbs of salmon roe. Baja uni is seared and melted to pudding.
Pray that Azumi receives his shipment of menegi — mild Japanese chives: He binds a bundle of their stems to rice with a band of nori and sprinkles the nigiri with bonito flakes. Miso subs for wasabi as the flavor kick smudged on the rice. This is often a final piece, and its pleasant sharpness doesn’t dim until after a few spoonfuls of tofu mousse with brown rice syrup for dessert.
A suggestion: Book the first reservation at 5 p.m. on a weekday when, likely, Azumi is all yours. The meal lasts between an hour and 90 minutes but the rhythm becomes trancelike for both chef and diner.
Lunch doesn’t thrum with the same specialness. A daytime menu trots out a lackluster sashimi platter, pleasant enough crab handrolls and pretty sculptures of spicy tuna over crisped rice. Azumi’s heart isn’t in it. He serves omakase during lunch as well, but his magic is most potent come nightfall.
I leave dinner at Shin overstimulated and moony. Fellow sushi zealots might know the feeling: Your senses stay on red alert for the duration of the nigiri sequence; you sit tall in your chair, back straight, waiting for the next sensation. You don’t slouch until the stomach cries, “Enough,” and then you finally slump, spent. In his austere surroundings, Azumi excels at this kind of guided culinary meditation. Even in an already crowded land of sushi shrines, his level of dedication makes Shin a destination.
Location: 16573 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 616-4148, facebook.com/Shinsushicorp.
Prices: Omakase $100-$120.
Details: Credit cards accepted. Beer and sake. Lot parking. Wheelchair accessible.
Recommended dishes: Chef-owner Taketoshi Azumi serves a beautiful sequence of nigiri, augmented with a couple of cooked dishes.