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Fresh Fish

Southern Californians who love omakase are swimming in the good stuff.

sushi-opened-roku-akatora
Sushi Akatora – opened last year by the creator of Sushi Roku.

For anyone who loves sushi, as I do, we’ve got it good here. Nowhere else in the United States – not New York, not San Francisco, nowhere – comes even remotely close to the quality of sushi widely available in Southern California.

And while Los Angeles has always been the sushi capital of America, Orange County is right up there. To be clear: I’m not talking about sushi rolls, which are largely a California invention and can be enjoyable. I’m talking about authentic Japanese nigiri sushi and sashimi. But more important, I’m talking about omakase.

And I have never heard of an omakase that includes rolls. Most chefs make rolls because they have to in order to survive, but when you ask for omakase they get to do what they really want to do, which is not make rolls.

Omakase is that Japanese tradition of putting yourself in the hands of the chef, letting him (sushi remains a male-dominated industry) prepare whatever he desires. Omakase is a simple word with deep cultural meaning that translates to, “I trust and respect you. I am in your hands.”

For the past two and a half years, I have dined at dozens of sushi restaurants from one end of the county to the other, searching for the best omakase. One by one my old favorites in LA dropped off my Top 10 list to make way for even better – and usually far more affordable – sushi bars in OC

The most important consideration for me is uncompromising freshness. Raw fish tastes dramatically different 12 hours out of the sea than it does at 24 hours, or 48, or heaven forbid longer. With each passing minute the flavors change, especially in a fish with high oil content like mackerel or shad. That’s why most omakase is served one piece at a time, and you should eat it within 30 seconds of being served. It’s a matter of taste – but also respect.

And that brings me to the second most important consideration: timing. The pace of the meal can make or break the experience. The pace should be leisurely, neither rushed nor slow. Respect is a two-way street, after all.

To sit and watch the finest itamae (chefs) at work is at once relaxing and exciting. The focus. The attention to detail. The nuance of each cut. The way one fish is sliced a certain way, yet another is carved in an entirely different direction. The way warm rice is caressed and formed into an elongated disk with the palm of one hand and the index finger of the other. The order in which the fish are served, making sense of varying textures, pungencies and delicacies. How some fish are brushed with soy sauce while others are sprinkled with salt or lemon… I trust you, I am in your hands.

As someone who eats a lot of sushi, I always appreciate a restaurant that serves more than the usual salmon, tuna, halibut, shrimp, scallop and sea urchin. I want to discover something new each time. Bring on the striped jack, the opal eye, the thread fin, the gizzard shad, the belt fish, the idiot fish…

With all this in mind, here are my top 10 favorite places in Southern California for omakase. The numerical scores are based on a scale of 1 to 10.

 

1. Sushi Tsujita
2006 Sawtelle Ave., Los Angeles, 310.231.1177, sushitsujita.com

Overview: Sushi Tsujita opened last year in the heart of LA’s Little Osaka district on Sawtelle, offering Edomae, or Tokyo-style, omakase sushi. The hospitality is refined to a level far beyond what most diners might expect unless they’ve eaten at the most highly acclaimed sushi restaurants in Japan, where service and grace are considered as important as the quality of the fish. They offer a choice of omakase menus, but no à la carte.

Freshness and quality: 10

Variety: 10

Timing and grace: 10

Cost: Omakase starts at $120; add Japanese beef, from $180

Bottom line: This is destination sushi. Extraordinary in every detail.

2. Shunka
369 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, 949.631.9854

Overview: This fast-paced sushi bar caters to both nigiri purists and fans of California rolls and tempura. Far more people come here for the poke rolls and tempura lobster rolls than for the omakase, but the balance seems to be shifting.

Freshness and quality: 10

Variety: 10

Timing and grace: 4

Cost: Omakase starts at $35

Bottom line: What this place lacks in grace, it more than makes up for with variety and quality – the omakase is an incredible bargain.

3. Q
521 W. 7th St., Los Angeles, 213.261.3479, qsushila.com

Overview: Open less than a year, Q was the first restaurant in Southern California to bring true Japanese fine-dining hospitality and grace to the sushi scene. The menu focuses exclusively on omakase. No rolls. No à la carte.

Freshness and quality: 10

Variety: 7

Timing and grace: 10

Cost: Omakase starts at $75 for lunch; from $165 for dinner

Bottom line: Q provides the most graceful, elegant, and utterly lovely sushi experience in California. If only the variety here matched that of Shunka, Tsujita or Ohshima.

 

4. Ikko
735 Baker St., Costa Mesa, 714.556.7822

Overview: Somewhat hidden and intimate, Ikko posts a sign outside its door warning customers that the chefs do not serve American-style rolls. But they do offer a variety of authentic Japanese cooked dishes and raw fish.

Freshness and quality: 10

Variety: 8

Timing and grace: 6

Cost: Omakase starts at $80

Bottom line: Ikka offers outstanding quality and variety. Although pricey, the intimacy and attention to detail are hard to beat. 

 

5. Sushi Noguchi
18507 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda, 714.777.6789, sushinoguchi.com

Overview: The decor at Noguchi is beautifully understated and minimal. The menu ranges from spicy tuna rolls to fried calamari and chicken kara-age and includes several choices for omakase based on which chef is preparing it; you pay more if the head chef makes it.

Freshness and quality: 10

Variety: 7

Timing and grace: 6

Cost: Omakase starts at $45

Bottom line: Excellent, and huge portions for the price. The first course of sashimi is almost a full meal in itself. 

 

6. Sushi Murasaki
2901 W. MacArthur Blvd. #108, Santa Ana, 714.241.1000, sushi-murasaki.com

Overview: The sushi counter is reserved exclusively for omakase. Tables in the dining room are offered a broader menu that includes a variety of cooked fare and California-style rolls. Soy sauce is discouraged at the counter. The staff is friendly and doting but nowhere near the level of grace as Q or Tsujita.

Freshness and quality: 10

Variety: 6

Timing and grace: 7

Cost: Omakase starts at $45

Bottom line: High quality and a great bargain.
A nicely balanced experience.

 

7. Ohshima Japanese Cuisine
1956 N. Tustin St., Orange, 714.998.0098

Overview: The sushi counter is reserved exclusively for omakase. The dining room offers à la carte ordering but the selection of California-style rolls is extremely limited. The kitchen also offers a few cooked dishes such as braised Japanese pork belly or spaghetti with uni.

Freshness and quality: 10

Variety: 9

Timing and grace: 5

Cost: Omakase starts at $35

Bottom line: Bargain price is almost too good to be true. The place is always   jammed, thus service can get bumpy.

 

8. Kasen
9039 Garfield Ave., Fountain Valley, 714.968.9860, kasen-sushi.com


Overview: Reservations here are extremely difficult to come by, and the counter is strictly omakase. The hostess keeps a very tight rein on the dining room and is not shy about giving preferential treatment to regulars. “Have you been here before,” she asks over the phone, to which I say, “No.” “I’m sorry, then, we’re full tonight,” she says. Once in, however, service is doting and quite charming. Regular guests even bring gifts for the chef.

Freshness and quality: 10

Variety: 8

Timing and grace: 7

Cost: Omakase starts at $85

Bottom line: Pricey but outstanding all around, except for the raw octopus, which was so chewy I had to decide whether to swallow it whole or spit it out. I chose to swallow, choked and almost caused a scene. My bad. I fear I won’t be allowed back in.

9. Hamamori Restaurant & Sushi Bar
 3333 Bear St., Costa Mesa, 714.850.0880

Overview: Located upstairs in South Coast Plaza, this is easily the most upscale sushi restaurant in Orange County. Sushi here takes a decidedly modern turn. Don’t be surprised to see tuna topped with blue cheese and balsamic.

Freshness and quality: 9

Variety: 5

Timing and grace: 7

Cost: Omakase starts at $69

Bottom line: The fish selection is very basic, but the omakase always involves little extras like black truffle or ossetra caviar to make it special.

10. Sushi Akatora
302 Rosecrans Ave., Manhattan Beach, 310-802-1131, akatorala.com

Overview: What this place – opened last year by the creator of Sushi Roku – does better than anyone else is phenomenal “new-style carpaccio,” such as snapper with chili sauce and leeks, or halibut with pink peppercorn and yuzu, so ask for this in the omakase.

Freshness and quality: 9

Variety: 6

Timing and grace: 5

Cost: Omakase starts at $50

Bottom line: The fish selection is extremely basic, but when you add the new-style carpaccio/sashimi to the mix, the omakase here is utterly enjoyable.


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