By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
By all the standards we knew, the sushi restaurant looked dubious. The crowd was fashionably dressed and almost completely non-Japanese, and no knife-wielding chefs performed their wizardry behind the long, bare counter. It might have been an upscale coffee shop or burger bar.
We stayed because this was Sugarfish, a project of sushi master Kazunori Nozawa, famous for his insistence on traditional ideas. His previous restaurant served a style of sushi 50 years out of date – no fancy rolls, no avocado, no hot sauces, just very fresh fish. That tradition continues at his Sugarfish chain in Marina del Rey – this restaurant looks contemporary but serves an almost quaint menu.
Though individual items are offered, most people order one of three “Trust Me” menus – in the tradition of “Omakase” prix fixe dinners. The ones here are unusual in that most items remain rather than changing based on what the chef could find at the market. Even the most expensive option has only one seasonal daily special.
We ordered two different set menus, the $29 “Trust Me” and the $39 “Nozawa,” and sat back to watch the beautiful people and await our meals. Plates of organic edamame arrived, warm and lightly salty, to start things off.
The first fish course was a disappointment – tuna sashimi in mild ponzu sauce with sweet onion. It’s a tasty combination, but was served so cold that the flavors were muted. When our server, Sung-Min, noticed that I was unenthusiastic, he hurried back to the kitchen to advise them of the problem and get me one that wasn’t as cold. He gave excellent service throughout the meal despite the fact that the restaurant was packed.
The next course was nigiri sushi – iconic squares of fish atop rice. I received albacore, salmon and snapper, while my companion ordered the same minus the snapper – the only difference between our meals was that I got two extra items.
The sushi here is made differently than most places, using warm, loosely packed rice that has very light vinegar. Warm rice gives an interesting textural contrast, while indicating that the sushi has been freshly made, and both fish and rice are more aromatic. The loose pack makes it difficult to eat the sushi as finger food because it falls apart, but the warmth is a plus when very high quality fish is used.
I was surprised that Sugarfish uses Scottish farm-raised salmon in the season when you can get fresh wild Pacific Northwest fish, but I can’t complain about the flavor, as it was delicious. Chef Nozawa has been a mainstay in the L.A. sushi scene for so long that the markets reserve some of their best for him, and it shows.
The nigiri was made with no wasabi or seasonings save for a dusting of white sesame seeds on the salmon and a sprig of herbs and particles of green onion on the albacore – as much decoration as flavorings. When he delivered it, Sung-Min cautioned, “No soy sauce on these.” He did the same thing when he brought the next set of nigiri; this time halibut, yellowtail and scallop. I asked what would be improved with soy or wasabi, and he replied, “Nothing. We serve excellent fish, so why mask the flavor with something strong?” The condiments are provided for those who insist on them, not because they’re needed.
The halibut and scallop weren’t entirely unadorned – both had a dash of citrusy yuzu ponzu to lend a sweet and tart overtone. This went well with the “super dry” sake I had ordered at our server’s recommendation. It was slightly sharp and astringent when paired with the natural fish, so I’ll pick something else next time.
The final two items were hand rolls – blue crab for both of us, toro for me. The toro arrived first, and Sung-Min advised us to eat while the seaweed wrapper was still crisp. It was a good suggestion, adding to the interest of the roll full of unctuous fatty tuna. The blue crab roll was even better – the generous portion of sweet meat was designed as a delicious end to the meal.
Except that it wasn’t, because Sung-Min mentioned that particularly good Santa Barbara uni was available, and asked if we would we like some. Sea urchin is fantastic when fresh and of high-quality, inedible if even slightly past its prime, and I rarely order it because I have been disappointed so many times. The sea urchin here was like eating a sea breeze, brisk and fresh. It was the best I have ever had, and I was glad it was offered.
Our dinner for two ran $114.72 including tax and service – they add 16 percent gratuity automatically and make that clear by not leaving the tip line open on the credit card slip. We were happy to pay it for a unique sushi experience. Nozawa-san has a vision of sushi perfection that is quite different from the usual California experience, and when simple things are done this well that’s fine with me.
Sugarfish is at 4722 ¼ Admiralty Way in Marina del Rey. Moderately loud environment. Opens daily at 3:30 p.m., closing varies. Beer and sake served, wheelchair access OK. Menu at sugarfishsushi.com. 310-306-6300.