Having grown up and come of age in southern California, I have had the opportunity to experience some of the best “sushi” and Japanese cuisine in the country. During the 1990s when I was a graduate student at U.C.L.A. (and when the sushi craze was rippling through the U.S.A., with its epicenter in Los Angeles), I was fortunate enough to dine at the now legendary Katsu (first in Los Feliz and then in Beverly Hills), opened by Katsu Michite who now works in Studio City at my fav LA sushi place, Tama Sushi (no website, unfortunately, see info below).* Then came Hirozen (in an unassuming strip-mall, still fantastic, a must), R23 (downtown, disappointing the last two times I visited), and one of the most beautiful restaurants I’ve ever eaten in, Thousand Cranes, which is supposedly returning to its former glory (the traditional Japanese breakfast there is worth a visit if you’re staying downtown).
Down in San Diego, where I grew up, Zenbu can be a lot of fun. So crowded and popular (and expensive) these days, it has its ups and downs but I still love their “aggressive” dishes like live prawns and giant clams (and by live, I mean literally). I also like the colorful cocktail menu inspired by local surf spots and surf lore. The lounge is very hip there and one of my best friends, Irwin, performs electronica there on some nights. The restaurant’s owned by another of my high-school friends, Matt Rimel, a huntsman and fisherman, whose fishing crew provides nearly all of the fish, working with eco-friendly and dolphin-safe fishing techniques.
Above: I felt like I was a tourist in my own city when I asked our sushi chef Mano, at Sushi Ann, NYC, to pose for a picture (with a beer we bought him in gratitude).
I had always found NYC sushi disappointing, even though I’d been treated to some of the finer and pricier venues in town. But now I have seen a new dawn on my NYC sushi horizon at the wonderful and very reasonably priced Sushi Ann.
The Odd Couple — that’s me (Felix) and Greg (Oscar) — dined there last night on the recommendation of friend and colleague, top NYC Italian restaurateur and wine maven, Nicola Marzovilla (who owns I Trulli and Centovini). We asked our chef to prepare whatever he liked — really, the way to go at the sushi bar — and we were delighted with each serving. The fish was fresh and he avoided the sushi stereotypes. One sashimi dish was tuna belly cubed (not sliced) and drowned in a miso reduction sauce (sinfully good). Mano, our chef, also liked to counterpose bitter and sweet, as he did in some rolls, which he served together, the one made with Japanese basil and pickled radish, the other with scallion.
Above: Mano offered me a leaf of Japanese basil, sweeter than the western variety.
Most of the fish seemed to be flown in from Japan (Japanese Red Snapper, Japanese Mackerel, etc.) and tasted fresh (didn’t have that freeze-dried taste that find in so many of the Lower East Side sushi joints). The restaurant was very clean (important for sushi restaurants, in my opinion) and the waitstaff polite and attentive.
Above: skewered octopus tentacles, raw but seared with a torch.
One of my favorite dishes was the seared octopus tentacles, dressed with just a little bit of lemon juice.
Greg drank a cold, unfiltered sake (which was a little too sweet for my taste, although our waiter said it’s very popular in Japan) and I stuck to beer. I’m sure we could have spent a lot more had we indulged in a bottle of fine sake — the list was alluring but it wasn’t the night for that. Our bill was very reasonable for an excellent experience in a high-end midtown neighborhood (51st between Park and Madison).
After ten years in this town (I got here in 1997), I finally found a great sushi restaurant. Who knows? After the recent crazy changes in my life, maybe I should stick around after all.**
**So all you newsy people, spread the news around,
You c’n listen to m’ story, listen to m’ song.
You c’n step on my name, you c’n try ‘n’ get me beat,
When I leave New York, I’ll be standin’ on my feet.
And it’s hard times in the city,
Livin’ down in New York town.
– Bob Dylan