Sushi is one of my greatest food passions. People often ask me if I make sushi or plan to learn; my answer is always a resounding “no.” Sushi is an art form best left to the masters. Trying my hand at it would only be making a mockery of a revered practice (and it would be a waste of time and money on my part. There’s no way my amateur sushi would satisfy me, and I’m sure I would end up drowning my sorrows in nigiri at the nearest sushi bar, reeking of defeat). My austere reverence for sushi could be interpreted as snobbery; call it what you will, but I have an intense love and respect for sushi. Over the years, my visits to LA have set the stage for some astoundingly good sushi meals which have played a key roll in solidifying this love. I will always carry a torch for a well executed spicy tuna roll, yet I have become partial to more traditional preparations of sushi due to my experiences eating it in LA.
I have been living in LA for about three months, and I have not consumed nearly enough sushi. I have been trying to figure out the best places to go, as there is a sushi bar on every corner, and they are not all created equal. Conducting an informal survey, I have some version of the following conversation with 7 to 10 people:
Elitist psycho sushi snob says, “Where is a great place to go for traditional sushi? I’m more interested in sashimi and nigiri than rolls.”
“Sugarfish! It’s amazing.”
Sushi snob retorts with disdain, “Isn’t that a chain? I’m looking for a more authentic experience.”
“Yeah, but it’s a local chain, and it’s unbelievable.”
I decided to succumb, and give it a try. With so many people raving about it, I figured eating there was inevitable. Sugarfish is a local chain with nine locations, created by sushi chef Kazunori Nozawa. He is known for his “Trust Me” style of sushi, which moves away from American-style rolls, and towards more traditional preparations. This appeals to me, but after combing through the website, I knew Sugarfish wasn’t quite what I was looking for; I was also able to infer that the fish would be of the highest quality, so it would be worth trying, despite my philosophical objections. Ultimately, my assessment of the website and the meal were the same: Sugarfish is a tasty gimmick. They serve fresh and delicious sushi under the guise of it being traditional, but it is actually a diluted version.
In Japanese cuisine, there is a dining tradition known as “omakase,” which translates as “leave it to me.” In a restaurant setting, this translates as chef’s selection, in which the chef provides patrons with a meal of sushi (and potentially other styles of Japanese cooking), typically starting with the lightest fish, and building up to richer, darker fish. The reason I call Sugarfish a gimmick is that they are riffing on omakase, but not truly going for it. While you have the option to order a la carte, they recommend that you order one of 3 prix fixe menus: Trust Me, Trust Me Lite, and Nozawa Trust Me. You can see exactly what you are receiving on the menu, and it comes out in the order stipulated. Traditionally, the beauty of omakase is that it allows the chef to serve the best and freshest fish of the day, so a fixed menu defeats that purpose. The sushi chef is the expert, and ideally, I’d like to capitalize on that expertise.
So, armed with my skepticism, but also excited for sushi, I ordered the “Trust Me,” which is eight courses, starting with perfectly salted edamame. The first course of fish was tuna sashimi, ruby cubes of tuna, lightly embellished in soy-based dressing and scallions. The fish was mild and tender, but I am accustomed to sashimi being served in thin slices, as opposed to diced, so Sugarfish‘s sashimi resembled something closer to a poke. It was lovely, but I have a hard time classifying it as “sashimi.”
Next, came a plate with albacore and salmon nigiri. The textures of both fishes were buttery, and uniformly tender. The albacore was already lightly sauced, and I appreciated the server’s request that I apply no additional sauce, in order to taste it as the chef intended. As you can see from the photo, the fish was pristine. Mild in flavor, and it barely required chewing. The salmon was adorned with a few toasted sesame seeds. It was almost too pretty to eat, but I soldiered on. I do not typically order salmon, but this was perfect (and I do not use that word lightly). The tender fish, faintly oceanic, atop rice, still warm and loosely packed, each grain intact. The light vinegar flavor on the rice gave it a clean finish.
I was then served a piece of halibut and yellowtail. Again, the halibut was sauced, so there was nothing left to do but plop it in my mouth. The chef had applied a good amount of wasabi, which I love. I love wasabi, and I love it even more when chefs apply it for me with their exacting specifications. The yellowtail was sauce-free, so I dressed it as I pleased with soy and wasabi.
I was then introduced to the sleeper hit of the meal: the handrolls. I never order handrolls; I don’t understand how to eat them, and I don’t like the aesthetic of all that nori (dried seaweed). My handroll experience at Sugarfish enlightened me as to how delightful this preparation can be. The first one I had was toro, or fatty tuna. My friend that had accompanied me to Sugarfish showed me how to pinch the roll from the bottom with my ring finger and thumb so I wouldn’t lose any of the precious fish. The toro was rich and soft, and the rice was warm, but what I liked the most was the texture of the nori. Still warm and slightly chewy, it showed me a whole new side of sushi that I want more of. Luckily, I had one more handroll on the way. The blue crab roll is the last item on the “Trust Me” menu. The crab was creamy; my guess is that it’s tossed lightly in Japanese mayonnaise, and it stood up perfectly to the toothsome nori. The sweet crab was arguably the strongest flavor of the meal, and thus the perfect finish.
Despite my initial griping, I appreciate that Sugarfish is making traditional sushi accessible to a wider audience. I also have to give Sugarfish credit for introducing me to few items that I don’t typically order (handrolls: it’s a new world of wonder for Psycho to wade in). If I can be so bold, my suggestion is that Sugarfish include a fourth option on the menu: a traditional, market-priced omakase. This would allow the establishment to further educate their patrons, and give the chefs increased freedom and license for creativity. While this is the concept at another of Nozawa’s restaurants, it would be a welcome addition to the Sugarfish menu as well.
November 15, 2014