There is a place in the borderlands between Burbank and Glendale, in the seam that's neither city, though some map surely has decided, where food and life intersect.
Not here nor there, it's tucked in the corner of a strip mall, defying limits, definition and time, in the way old friendships should.
And it's here, at Sushi Nishi-Ya while on a “man date” with an old friend, that I discovered a new word for friendship and for food: Omakase.
“Just tell me what you don't like,” the signs on the window and wall above the bar exclaim. “I will only serve you the freshest fish of the day. We do not serve California Roll or any specialty rolls. So please trust me and enjoy your dining experience.”
He goes by many names, my friend. The Hawk, Chief, and a few poker-table epithets unfit for this publication. But I'll just call him Nick, mostly because that's what he called himself when, in our early 20s, he had visions of acting and I of directing.
In our near 30-year friendship, Nick and I have eaten more raw fish than the population of a small coastal Japanese prefecture. It's a friendship that needs no tending, that picks up where it leaves off, no matter the interlude. It has its own pace, direction and will; unblemished by unwanted contrivances, nagging personal annoyances and the predictability of California Rolls.
And Nishi-Ya's posted warning was a shiny lure beckoning us.
It's a minuscule diner, the kind of eatery that forces familiarity: with others at the bar, with the joyfully screaming baby in the booth, with Chef and his wife. With each other.
To open, Chef set before us was a simple ahi tuna sashimi; luscious, deep pink, a few sprigs of delicate green garnish, lightly drizzled with a salty/sweet sauce I'm sure has a name but, since I'm not a food critic, I'll just call yummy. This choice, perfectly-sized cut sets the tone for this meal. It's going to be memorable.
The first time I met Nick he rode up on his motorcycle — pretty cool for a high schooler — trying hard to look like a dangerous rebel in black boots, Levi's rolled up at the cuff and a white T-shirt. I didn't have the heart to tell him the pack of smokes rolled up in his sleeve made him look like John Travolta in Grease.
Next came salmon, one smoked, one not, from Scandinavia and the Northwest. “No soy sauce, please,” we're advised.
To dip such simple, natural beauty into soy sauce would be an insult to the chef, and to the fish that give their lives for this moment. Tender, rich and savory.
I remember Nick's wedding day. We were still young, and it was an intimate backyard affair surrounded by friends and family — like so many other moments we'd all shared together. A daughter would soon follow to melt away that tough exterior that those of us who know Nick never really bought anyway.
Then yellowtail, so rich it feels like the back of your throat is coated with butter; a plain, succulent New England crab roll so sweet it should be served for dessert; Kumamoto oysters, not too big, not too small, delicate, briny ocean candy.
And when his marriage reached that unfortunate point that no one ever wants or foresees, we drove up the coast to avoid life and decisions for a few days. On a cliff overlooking the ocean we sat, not talking. Sometimes being good company means not filling the air with trivia, painful memories and regret.
Deep into the night we baited hooks and cast fishing lines into waves we couldn't see, but knew were out there somewhere, occasionally pulling out blue-gilled demons from the deep, delights from the darkness. And we ate sushi.
That's how the night progressed. The sushi kept coming at its own pace, Chef's choice, driven by the will of a knife-wielding artist, a creator watching over his subjects, the beer and sake flowing. Until we realized we were the only ones left at the bar. Again.
We spend so much of our time making decisions for ourselves and for others. Sometimes it's nice to let the master do what he does best and serve you. With no choices to make, no decisions and menus to contemplate, it gives you more time for each other. To talk. Or not.
Omakase. A meal, a friendship that needs no ordering, no maintenance. None of the things you dislike, everything you do like, and an ever-flowing stream of new delights to marvel at. And never disappointing.
Sushi Nishi-Ya isn't fancy. But neither are old friendships.
Arigato, Chef. Thank you, Nick.