Chirashi in the time of COVID-19: 4 new options for excellent takeout sushi
Before the pandemic, a visit to one of L.A.’s upscale sushi restaurants might have gone something like this: You sit shoulder to shoulder at a narrow counter while a chef skillfully assembles pieces of nigiri and gently hands them to you one at a time, patiently explaining where the fish was caught and how it was prepared.
Oh, how times have changed. Like so many other aspects of life, the pandemic has turned the intimacy and immediacy of the omakase experience into a liability rather than a luxury.
And yet, forced to adapt, L.A.’s most serious sushi chefs have elevated takeout sushi to new heights. Most frequently that has meant chirashizushi, a colorful layering of sliced fish over vinegar-seasoned rice that in some circles has become the official takeout splurge of 2020.
At its pinnacle, a chirashi bowl is both practical and indulgent, a mosaic of tastes and textures packed as neatly as a box of See’s Candies and equally thrilling to dive into. Befitting these times, culinary historians believe the dish originated in Japan as a special-occasion meal during a period of relative austerity in the 17th century. Commoners would arrange pieces of fish and other toppings beneath a layer of rice to hide their extravagance, flipping the dish over to reveal their gem-like beauty once it was time to celebrate.
But not all chirashi are created equal. Much like nigiri sushi, the best versions require a rigorous attention to detail that belies its simple presentation.
“Takeout sushi is something that I think is hard to do really well, because traditionally sushi is at its best when you eat it right away,” said Tomoko Imade Dyen, an L.A.-based consultant and marketing director for Japanese restaurants in the U.S.
“With great chirashi, there are so many little differences that the average customer might not notice — from the type of rice that is used to how the fish is cut. It’s not as easy as putting raw fish on top of rice.”
Among the multitude of outstanding sushi restaurants in L.A., here are four newcomers offering their compelling take on takeout.
Before his eponymous sushi restaurant opened in February, Susumu Ii was best known as the proprietor of Kasen, a spartan strip-mall sushi spot in Fountain Valley considered among the crème de la crème of Orange County sushi. At his ritzy new digs off Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach — a second-story space inside an upscale shopping plaza — you’ll find a robust takeout menu, including two varieties of chirashi, thick futomaki rolls stuffed with shrimp and sea eel and a compelling take on hako-zushi, an old-school style of sushi from Osaka made with preserved fish and shaped using a wooden mold.
The bestseller is Ii’s deluxe chirashi, a stunning $35 assemblage that shows off the veteran chef’s knack for sourcing and precision: wedges of soft-sweet tamago, gently cured Spanish mackerel and slips of squid scored and massaged into tender submission. Each order comes with a note suggesting the chirashi be eaten within the hour to preserve its optimal temperature — a good excuse to head to nearby John Wayne Park and eat your sushi picnic-style with a panoramic view of Newport Harbor’s million-dollar yachts.
100 West Coast Highway, #202, Newport Beach, (949) 287-6268, sushi-ii.com
Beverly Grove’s Sushi Tama opened in August under the umbrella of Shōwa Hospitality, the restaurant group behind La Jolla’s Himitsu as well as Japanese spots in New York and Mexico City. For its inaugural L.A. restaurant, Shōwa tapped chef Hideyuki “Yoshi” Yoshimoto, a Tokyo native who spent the last decade training at the city’s famed Tsukiji fish market.
The restaurant offers a chirashi bowl on its dine-in menu but not for takeout; instead there’s a 10-piece nigiri set for $45, packaged in a handsome black box that comes with a tiny squeeze bottle of soy sauce and a tuft of sliced pickled ginger. Tama’s selection of fish is simple and satisfying: tuna, hamachi, scallop, ikura and uni, each impeccably fresh with a clean oceanic sweetness. Look closely and you’ll see dashes of flair: broiled anago (sea eel) is prepared from scratch each day, while scored halibut fin and a braided kohada (marinated gizzard shad) show off Yoshimoto’s tricky knife techniques.
116 N. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles, (424) 249-3009, sushitama-la.com
A supremely underrated destination for Japanese drinking food, Arcadia’s Izakaya Tonchinkan opened in 2018 but only recently transitioned to sushi during the pandemic. The pivot made sense: Owner and chef Yamato Miura spent his early career at Sushi Gen and recently enlisted old friend Hiro Yamada, a veteran sushi chef who last worked at Shiki in Beverly Hills, to help him expand the restaurant’s takeout menu. Among daily options such as salmon rice bowls and temaki hand-roll sets, Tonchinkan offers a $38 premium bara chirashi, a traditional Edomae-style preparation that involves a mixture of raw and cooked ingredients diced into cubes and layered over seasoned rice. The assortment of seafood shifts each day but generally veers rich and luxurious — uni, ikura, chopped toro with scallions, Hokkaido scallops and plump shrimp. Sweet shredded egg, pickles and crisp bright green snow peas add pop and contrast. According to Miura, chirashi sales have been so brisk he plans to keep it on the menu after the pandemic subsides.
713 W. Duarte Road, #H, Arcadia, (626) 461-5078, tonchinkan.izakaya.la
The chef behind the recently debuted Sushi Kaneyoshi is Yoshiyuki Inoue, a veteran itamae (sushi master) who developed a cult following among nigiri heads during his time at Michelin-starred spots Mori Sushi and Sushi Ginza Onodera. Over the past several months, Inoue has been building out his dream sushi counter in the basement of a Little Tokyo office building, occupying what was previously a karaoke party room for Izakaya Fu-Ga next door. Once indoor dining is permitted, Inoue plans to offer only a $200 omakase meal. But for now he’s been putting his skills to use on a tight selection of sushi to-go that can be ordered via Tock.
Chief among them is his nama chirashi, delicate slices of fish — Japanese beltfish, barracuda, kelp-marinated snapper, sea trout, fatty and lean tuna, blue shrimp, uni and caviar-topped scallop — neatly arranged like marble tiles over warm, immaculately cooked rice. At $85, it’s spendier than most chirashi but also more labor-intensive. Inoue weaves in traditional Edo-era sushi techniques with his personal style, highlighting the intricate flavor of each fish by aging it for days or curing it in shoyu or seaweed. The result is a box that manages to capture the thrill of dining at a sushi bar without the seat. Each bite builds in savory intensity until the last mouthful of rice has disappeared.
250 E. 1st St., #B1, Los Angeles, (213) 277-2388, kaneyoshi.us
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