Sushi-lover’s find: BiMi in Los Angeles

Sushi chef Sabu Hoshino serves diners at BiMi's sushi bar, the new sushi and izakaya restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica.
Sushi chef Sabu Hoshino serves diners at BiMi’s sushi bar, the new sushi and izakaya restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / For the Times)
Restaurant Critic

In the current economic climate, all of us are feeling the pain and we’re looking, hard-eyed, at the way we spend our money. Those $100 sushi meals at Mori Sushi or the breathtaking blowout at Urasawa may have to wait until the market gets its act together. But once you’ve acquired the taste for high-grade sushi, it’s hard to go back to eating the mediocre stuff served up at countless sushi bars across the city.

That’s why avid sushi fanciers are always on the lookout for someplace with a high quality-price ratio, where you can get superior raw fish for a reasonable price. And when these folks make such a find, they’re often not so generous in sharing it -- especially with a restaurant critic. So when a reader wrote to tell me about 4-month-old BiMi, I listened up, mainly because she’d spent time in Japan and her take on other places matched up with mine.

Located in the Wilshire corridor between Barrington Avenue and Bundy Drive, BiMi is right across the street from a KFC and that lighting store ablaze with chandeliers as you whiz by at night. A sandwich board out front announces sushi and Asian tapas by “experienced” and, on the line below that, “Japanese chefs.” For the timid, the menu is posted out front and prices are astonishingly low.

Though a few people were waiting for a table when we arrived, we had called ahead for a reservation and sailed right in to a spot along the chocolate-colored vinyl banquette, next to a long table of Japanese kids in hip-hop attire. There, the sake flowed, along with much laughter and comings and goings, creating a buoyant mood in the restaurant. At one point, a chef came over with a big bowl and sat down, chatting as he tossed the salad. His wife mothered that table and all the others, taking orders, bringing fresh plates, making sure everything was fine.

Cool surprises

BiMi is quite cool and contemporary. Some thought has gone into the design to break up the rectangular box of a room. A band of brick-shaped glass tiles in yellow and orange floats above the banquette and the chairs are stylish chrome and chocolate vinyl numbers. Lighting is soft and pleasant and the staff remarkably attentive and friendly.

First stop on the menu: the two-page list of handwritten specials. Well, we have to order corn tempura, which turns out to be hunks of fresh corn cut off the cob, dipped in a gauzy batter and expertly fried. It’s a whole new, and delicious, way of experiencing corn. Delicate gyoza (pan-fried dumplings) filled with finely minced pork, scallions and cabbage come five to an order. Another stellar dish is seared tuna carpaccio arranged in blood-red slices garnished with thinly sliced red onion, cilantro and jalapeño and sauced with a little olive oil and ponzu.

But what’s fantastic are the French fries cooked in an extremely light batter, a different one than the other tempura, the owner’s wife tells us when we ask. That gossamer crunch makes these some of the best fries I’ve ever had. They come wrapped in a white lace doily set in a tall glass, and with three dipping sauces: ketchup doctored with chile, a ranch-style dressing and sweetish housemade mustard mayonnaise. Go with the ketchup.

Fried “ethnic” chicken turns out to be bite-sized pieces of chicken, deep-fried and coated in a spicy sweet-sour sauce. Not bad, but not great either. I’d say the same about the finger-sized strips of ginger chicken.

Sushi chef Sabu Hoshino has put in time at Matsuhisa but you can see Nobu Matsuhisa’s influence in only a few dishes. He’s not trying to do the high-end Japanese fusion thing here. His specials are more earthy and direct. But he does make a mean white fish carpaccio lavished with hot olive oil. At Matsuhisa, that dish is made with yellowtail and called new-style sashimi. Hoshino’s version is equally delicious and a generous order is just $12.

In fact, every time I went to BiMi, my friends and I ate and ate, ordering really far too much food, and our bill always seemed to come to only about $40 per person, before drinks and tip. Of course, you could eat there for less if you stayed away from the pricier fish and elaborate sushi rolls.

Hoshino is not such a purist that he’ll refuse to make a “dynamite crab roll” or any of the other baroque sushi rolls. He wants customers, after all. But you’ll eat better if you keep an eye out for what’s special on the menu.

May we suggest . . .

The waiter helps by suggesting best dishes from kitchen chef and owner Hiroshi Kanimoto. That would include those killer fries and the roast duck -- a small plate of sliced duck breast with dabs of mustard and chile-yuzu paste on the side. I love the fresh jellyfish sunomono too, the pearly translucent jellyfish simply sliced and dressed with rice vinegar and sesame seeds as a refreshing salad. The slightly crunchy texture is entirely different from that of the more common dried jellyfish.

One time our server suggests the housemade tofu, which is served warm in a small, lidded bowl. The taste is pure and delicate. The chawan mushi (savory egg custard) is excellent too, custard studded with shrimp, chicken, mushrooms and gingko nut. And if you love fried rice, order the one here with sea urchin topping the fluffy mound.

When we ask for a plate of assorted sushi another night, we’re served a terrific selection: silvery Spanish mackerel, beautiful toro, chewy and delicious giant clam, barely seared salmon, and yellowtail, of course, all made with nicely seasoned rice. But my favorites are the tai snapper with shiso leaf between the fish and the rice, and the sweet shrimp garnished with a dab of tuna liver. With it, we get bowls of miso soup with shrimp heads to give it a richer taste. It’s to sip between bites of the shrimp sushi.

BiMi offers more than green tea ice cream or mochi for dessert. Well, as you might guess, they have tiramisu and it’s not bad, just pretty standard. They also make their own strawberry sorbet, which is really more like a granita and just a bit too sweet, but refreshing nevertheless.

The restaurant manages to hit that sweet spot between quality and price. The staff is incredibly friendly, the menu is varied enough that you can go back often to eat sushi or izakaya dishes, or a combination thereof, depending on your mood. I appreciate too the fact that the kitchen comes up with a long list of specials each day, depending on what Hoshino has found at the market. Not many moderately priced sushi restaurants take the trouble.

BiMi is someplace that, even in these difficult economic times, you want to go back to again and again.

BiMi RATING **LOCATION 11917 Wilshire Blvd. (between Barrington and Bundy), Los Angeles, (310) 479-2464; Contemporary sushi restaurant that seats 40 or so at the sushi bar or at tables in the pleasant dining room decorated with glass tiles and chocolate- colored vinyl banquettes and chairs. The crowd is mostly Asian, the vibe lively and fun. The menu also includes izakaya-style dishes and some of L.A.'s best French fries.SERVICE Engaging and helpful.PRICE Lunch items, $6.50 to $15; dinner salads and cold plates, $4 to $12; hot dishes, $3.50 to $16; sushi, $5 to $14, most around $6; sushi rolls, $5 to $18; dessert, $2.50 to $8.50.BEST DISHES White fish carpaccio, seared tuna carpaccio, fresh jellyfish sunomono, corn tempura, sea urchin fried rice, roast duck, French fries, chawan mushi, housemade tofu, sushi.WINE LIST Very modest wine list of mostly California wines. Also some good sakes. Corkage fee, $10.BEST TABLE One along the banquettes or, of course, a seat at the sushi bar.DETAILS Open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday and for dinner from 5:30 to 11 p.m. daily. Wine and beer. Valet and street parking.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 a photo gallery of scenes and dishes at BiMi.