Sushi|Bar at Scratch – Los Angeles, CA
Y'all already know the Maestro's first item on his to-do list when visiting Los Angeles––eat sushi. Because of LA's proximity to the Pacific and LAX's status as a major hub for air traffic from Japan (all of Asia, really), the absolute best Pacific fish adorns the tables of countless omakase restaurants, a recipe for the greatest sushi city in the country, and possibly the worldwide pinnacle of the cuisine outside of Japan.
I shacked up at the super cool hostel/hotel hybrid Freehand in downtown LA, and knowing there were a handful of killer omakase joints in DTLA, I planned to take a little stroll to an early dinner. Silly (and typical) me trying to get a coveted spot at a sushi counter last minute––there was not a sushi bar stool to be found in walking distance. Briefly flirting with the idea of revisiting Sushi Note, but then deciding I needed to try something new, I ended up finding a miraculous seat at a place that wasn't just new, but also pretty damn exotic for an omakase joint, and I jumped in the rental car and trekked out the Valley a mere 45 minutes before my reservation.
Sushi|Bar is a concept from Iron Chef alum Phillip Frankland Lee, chef and proprietor of Scratch|Bar just on the periphery of Ventura Boulevard's "sushi row" which houses several mini-concept dining venues. An avid lover of the city's bustling sushi scene, he decided to try his hand at launching a sushi bar, but with a distinctly over-the-top Los Angeles twist featuring atypical ingredients and lavish preparations of pristine seafood. Sushi purists might turn up their noses at the approach but the place has been attracting hip denizens of the City of Angels en masse. Moreover, the omakase is priced quite fairly for this type of dining at a manageable $145.
They requested my arrival fifteen minutes before the reservation to enjoy a "welcome cocktail," but the ever-messy traffic on the 101 from DTLA kept me in my rental car until 4:45. Moreover, I had a hard time finding the place––it's in a half-abandoned shopping center building and up an escalator without any immediately noticeable signage. Speakeasy style, I guess.
Turns out I was not late after all, since LA traffic affects every Angeleno––I was the second party to arrive of six, and had plenty of time to enjoy a scrumptious welcome tipple, the contents of which, given my poor memory and lack of notes on the item, have since escaped me, though I'm pretty sure yuzu and ume (Japanese plum) were part of the mix. The wild thing was that I was sat in this tiny booth in a microscopic bar sans sushi counter, and after being rather confused for a hot second, learned that once the entire squad had arrived we'd be escorted through a series of winding corridors and outdoor walkways to the tiny dining room, adorned in soft white and blonde tones and decidedly artsy accents.
The omakase menu, 16 bites, was scrawled a series of small blackboards behind the sushi chefs, none of whom was remotely Japanese. We were welcomed, introduced to the concept, and quizzed on our beverage preferences by the wine/spirits director. One cool thing about this place is their dual position as a bar and series of restaurants gives them a great breadth of pairings from which to choose, including sake, cocktails, Japanese whiskeys, or a combo. Sake was a fairly easy choice for me, and just as quickly as I'd made my selection, it was off to the races.
They started me out with a clean, elegant junmai daiginjo, and despite tasting hundreds of sakes in my lifetime and blogging about many of them, I never remember to take a photo of the back of the bottle, which is the label that is in English. As you might imagine, my Japanese reading skills are pretty meager (i.e., I have none whatsoever).
The first three courses were among the most unconventional of the night:
"Tessin," which is apparently the tail cut of the bluefin tuna, was the first course, ground into a paste and combined with ponzu, matcha green tea salt, wasabi, lemon, and rice, and topped with ikura (salmon roe) and avocado. A tasty thing but nothing much more interesting than a tuna temaki despite all the extra stuff inside.
Hamachi with a sweet corn cream, sourdough crumbs, and wasabi atop. I gotta be honest that I really didn't care for this bite, and I was getting a little concerned the meal wouldn't be my cup of tea, but...
Chutoro glazed with pineapple and brown sugar was a wildly successful bite in a way I never expected. Surprisingly, the fat of the chutoro worked brilliantly with the sweetness of the accompaniments. First knockout bite of the meal.
For the next set of nigiri, a second sake was brought out apparently distilled from a type of rice hybridized in the Yamagata prefecture that has less "extra" to the grain meaning it doesn't have to be milled as much to get the purity of a daiginjo. The native yeast gave the otherwise clean sake a fruity finish, indicating a tiered step up from purity to complexity with each pairing.
Lighter white fish and shellfish were next up:
Hotategai (scallop) was a particularly delicious piece, with an impossibly tasty vegetal kosho made with green Anaheim peppers. Absolutely outstanding, and inspired me to try my hand at making my own kosho!
More kosho, this time Fresno chili, followed the scallop atop a lovely shima aji nigiri. The Fresno kosho was smokier and significantly spicier than its bright Anaheim counterpart, but equally delicious, and atop one of my favorite fish!
Snapper, or madai, was prepared in an atypical cured style, marinated in sake and kombu (kelp) and brushed with a sesame and chili ponzu and topped with negi. Nothing too remarkable.
Amaebi is one of my favorite shellfish. Sweet spot prawn was prepared with a sauce made from the heads (and consequent head "guts") of the prawn as well as some matcha tea salt. The sweet flesh of the spot prawn gained a funky savory quality with the head sauce that was beguiling, but was spoiled just a bit by an aggressive dusting of salt.
More sake for the next courses, of course(s)! This was a cool selection with a rather modern style, consistent with the particular DNA of the sushi. Koji is fungus that is a fermentation component in sake, and to add layers of umami and texture to this sake, called "Shiro Yamabuki" from Akita Prefecture, the master brewer uses triple the amount of koji that would normally be used for similar sakes. This made it a particularly excellent pairing with some of the stronger flavors forthcoming.
This sake paired with three bites:
Masu, or sea trout, very similar to salmon but with a bit more texture, and torched to render the fat with matcha, ponzu, and olive oil. Pickled wasabi stem, one of my favorite sushi condiments, finished off the fantastic bite.
The only really "traditional" preparation of the night was granted to bluefin tuna loin, akami, simply prepared with wasabi and shoyu. While I'd normally appreciate a classic, clean style of nigiri, in this meal, given how esoteric everything else was, it seemed a bit out of place. Delicious nonetheless.
Snow crab was the vehicle for the next course's accompaniments of roasted red beet mustard and puffed quinoa, brushed with citrus for acidity. I say "vehicle" because the toppings guided the show here, giving little room for the crab to shine and not really complementing the crab as much as dominating it. A forgettable course.
The next sake was a terrific example of junmai taru, a type of sake aged in cedar casks, which was in the past the primary method of aging and storing sake. Still a junmai, so with a clean purity, but giving way to a thicker mouthfeel with notes of cedar and apple, almost like a very delicate calvados. I love sakes like this, exploring older methods of sake production and not tied to the caché of Niigata "junmai" or "junmai daiginjo" premiums.
Just two bites paired with the Ichinokura––the first was a tataki-style (raw and briefly seared on all sides and then thinly sliced) preparation of otoro, the fatty belly of the bluefin, crusted with black pepper and absolutely melting with tuna fat. The second was among my favorite bites of the night––escolar, or what they called "white tuna," is a mild but fatty member of the mackerel family, which was torched to render some of the fat and topped with ikura. Really delicious.
Cowboy Yamahai is a famous/infamous sake that has been described as "saucy" and "beefy." The 19% alcohol content is indicative of a full bodied, complex, and lactic-driven sake, making it a solid but somewhat heavy-handed pairing with the beefy bites to follow. By no means unpleasant but not my favorite style of sake, though I suppose consistent with the general over-the-top nature of the place and certainly at least conceptually consistent with beef ("cowboy").
Two beefy bites were on deck––the first an Australian A4 wagyu torched and topped (again) with matcha tea salt, which was, as such beef always is, gloriously decadent. But the real star was nigiri of bone marrow, prepared just on its own––given how good this was, I'm pretty damn surprised I've never had just straight up slightly rendered bone marrow nigiri at a sushi restaurant before. I liked it better than the wagyu.
Nigori, unfiltered sake that is traditionally sweet, closed the sake procession and accompanied unagi (eel) that was drenched in the remaining bone marrow torched out of the bone and dripped onto the sushi (omg) and topped with (guess what?) matcha sea salt. Hokkaido uni was the last savory course, and the addition of matcha tea salt again was not only an "it's enough already" moment but also sorta offended me as a lover of the purity of uni. I ordered another piece of uni sans matcha when the courses were over so I could get an unadulterated bite, and it was fantastic.
I had a bit of FOMO watching the people who got whiskey pairings enjoying their sips and so wanted to snag a pour from their really impressive collection of Japanese whiskey as a digestif. This single malt was exceptional––aged in very rare Mizunara oak and cask strength yet approachable, it was a perfect way to close the meal, along with the little makrut lime, matcha, and white chocolate bon bon with a shortbread cookie. Rounding it all out was a baby cocktail made with nigori, umeshu (plum wine), and yuzu, for a final refreshing palate cleanse.
Sushi|Bar isn't for everyone––sushi purists would be wildly offended by the lavish preparations and there are some things about the decadence and excesses of ingredients applied to otherwise pristine fish that end up being a bit rough-around-the-edges or outright misguided, but there's something so quintessentially Los Angeles about that sort of "extra." While I definitely found misfires, overall I really enjoyed this meal, and at the price it's one of the best high-end omakase deals in LA County for folks looking for something more than a little different.