If I'm in LA, I'm in the best sushi city in the United States. And that means I am almost certainly seeking out a new omakase to sample. This time around, on a little whirlwind tour all over the country, seeking an omakase that wouldn't break the bank but still gave me a ton of bag for my buck, I went with a spot in the Valley I'd been circling for a while, with a distinctly musical bent––Sushi Note.
Sushi Note regularly appears on lists commemorating the best sushi in greater Los Angeles, not just because of the exceptional quality of the sushi, but also because of its unique position as a combo of a sushi restaurant and wine bar. Their wine list routinely receives high accolades, and the beverage directors pride themselves on pairing wine with sushi. Moreover, for a high-end sushi joint, it's incredibly reasonably priced, sitting at just $115 for their full omakase and $75 for wine pairings (or $95 for "reserve" pairings). It fit the itinerary perfectly––I would land inbound from Miami at 7pm, and just a few minutes off the 405 en route to my hotel in Calabasas, which would be a launch point for some hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains the next day, would be waiting my omakase dinner at Note.
Sushi Note was buzzing on this Saturday night, easily noticeable among the storefronts dotting Ventura shuttered for the night. What struck me when I arrived was the neighborhood feel––close-knit tables outside under heating lamps, and a buzzy atmosphere inside. No austere, wood-paneled, reverent omakase here. Instead, the vibe is incredibly jovial, welcoming, and friendly. A delight.
I was about ten minutes late owing to an insane wait for my bag at LAX and the line was out the door to get a table. Once I cleared the line and claimed my reservation, by now twenty minutes tardy, I was seated at the end of the sushi bar and brought a complimentary little glass of “welcome sparkling rosé.” A really nice touch which made me feel at home right away.
An omakase at Note starts with some traditional Japanese starters as well as some novelties. All are brought out in tandem. Edamame was first, cooked in order to impart a spectacular umami that I couldn’t get enough of, particularly after a nearly six-hour flight from Miami with mere snacks. One of the best permutations of miso soup I’ve had was also on the docket, along with Note’s cult-favorite sesame and miso agedashi tofu, which was sensational.
I opted for the reserve pairing, and given anticipated developments in my life (more on that in the coming weeks) was particularly interested to discuss these pairings with the sommelier. Dry Riesling was first on the books, meant to pair with the appetizers as well as the ceviche course that followed. Kabinett Riesling is among the driest classifications, and apparently relatively uncommon in the Rheingau in Germany. Producer J. B. Becker was among the first to attempt to convince European and American palates that dry Riesling was just as good as, if not better than, its candied comrades. The result is a 2015 dry Riesling with food-friendly acidity and fruit profile, still carrying that steely “petrol” that screams “Riesling” on the nose. A killer choice for both the appetizer bites and the ceviche.
The ceviche was a tiny bite atop a fried lotus root chip, an ingredient that still triggers mild PTSD after I nearly cut half my finger off trying to slice it one fateful evening (the ensuing Novocain shot in my finger is, to this day, easily the most painful thing I have ever experienced). Scallop ceviche with the traditional Peruvian aji amarillo chili was on order, and with the acidity of the Riesling, the flavors absolutely soared.
After a delectable palate cleanser of yuzu sorbet (seriously, Americans need to learn to love yuzu), it was time for sushi, at a strictly observed twelve pieces. Shiro-San is an unassuming, gregarious man, born with a stature incongruent with his personality, and working at the opposite end of the sushi bar and shuttling pieces to me, which made me feel guilty despite the fact that it was entirely not my fault. I let him take his own pace and enjoyed the series of fantastic cuts brought by hand to my seat over the two-hour experience, many of which were “dry aged,” a cool but unusual manifestation of the Edomae philosophy.
Every three pieces of sushi were paired with a wine curated by the super cool sommelier. This Chablis was particularly awesome––Chablis is a very clean-and-lean style of chardonnay from the northern regions of Burgundy, grown in seashell-rich soils and almost always unoaked, so minerality and brightness is the name of the game. Consistent with the aims of the reserve pairing––stuff that’s not just more obscure, but also more interesting––this Chablis sees aging on the lees, granting it an uncharacteristic depth. Stellar choice for the early bites.
Whitefish started the procession. Japanese red snapper was a specialty tonight, garnished with a bright citrus and firm to the teeth. Second was a naked lungfish, a (je croie?) new thing for me, with much more tender flesh and a neutrality that let the rice and shoyu shine. Finally, Japanese halibut was topped with a pale red condiment I have had multiple times at sushi restaurants but have never known its constitution. I think it is some kind of bright chili base. In any event, all three pieces were outstanding.
With tuna, the somm settled on red wine, and my favorite of the strictly-Old-World reds, nebbiolo. Before Barolo and Barbaresco claimed the bulk of the caché surrounding this grape, nebbiolo called "Boca" dominated upper Piedmont wine production. Carlone Davide makes non-village nebbiolo, today called by Piedmontese producers the “best kept secret” of Italian wine, with aplomb. Brick red and surprisingly mellow in tannins, this 2017 kept the cherry red, acidity, and weighty earth of a much pricier Barbaresco, all to pair with the fattier, dry aged cuts of fish.
The lean tuna loin, or akami, was likely the best I’d had. From Spain, the lean bluefin cut was dry-aged by Shiro-San, imparting a spectacular umami the likes of which might be reserved for much fattier cuts. But speaking of fattier cuts, the bluefin otoro, also dry-aged like a good ribeye, may have been not just the bite of the night, but also the most transcendental piece of otoro I’ve ever eaten. The nebbiolo-paired cuts concluded with another dry-aged fish, this time a yellowtail belly that would make you reevaluate every piece of hamachi you’ve sampled. Three pieces of fish that raised the bar not just on the meal, but on sushi restaurants as a whole, and at some of the lowest prices I've seen for fish of this caliber.
Chardonnay continued the wine pairings, also from Burgundy, but this time from an oft under-recognized appellation, Beaune, in the south where many of the Burgundian wineries house perfunctory corporate offices. This was my favorite wine of the night owing not just to the brilliance of the fruit, but also a complex oxidative quality that’s rare in traditional, Old-World wines.
This was particularly effective with the richer cuts to follow, which included scallop with (too much) truffle salt, dry-aged Ora King salmon (omfg), and a pungent “blue” fish in a yellowback mackerel, a new selection for me.
“This is a wine nobody’s heard of––Champagne” jokes the somm as he pours a highly curated glass of the bubbles from Camille Savès, a producer in the region of Champagne which grows the cult wines to which I find myself most drawn, Bouzy. Seventy percent pinot noir and thirty chardonnay, it’s my ideal Champagne––full-bodied and toasty with pinot, but lifted with chard. Brilliant with the last three bites of fish, each of which is challenging to pair.
Needlefish is sort of like an accessible version of kohada––toothsome, but decidedly oily and oceanic, and demanding a clean, effervescent wine to pair (and posing for my favorite photo of the night). A vehicle for osetra caviar in creamy baby white shimp nigiri was second, ideally paired with Champagne. And finally, Hokkaido uni, this time served without seaweed, finished off the nigiri, but didn’t need any Champagne to be transcendent.
Last but not least, Shiro-San handed me a temaki of toro and pickled daikon, which was amazing and a very creative twist on a classic.
Though I could have stayed another hour consuming any and every cut of fish imaginable, it was well past 11pm (2am Eastern!) and I was pooped, not to mention conscientiously observing the sushi bar staff closing down for the night and not wanting to bother them further. A post on Instagram would earn the admiration of the incomparable Abe of Scholium Project wines, who vowed a return with me as a companion. Yuzu gelato (as opposed to sorbet) closed the meal in a refreshing, but surprisingly repeated, flavor profile. A surprise, then, to receive a little cup of umeshu, or Japanese plum wine, for dessert, which was at once earthy, sweet, and acidic, for dessert, and only a component of the reserve pairing.
If I lived in Los Angeles, I’d be at Note frequently. The quality of the omakase for the price is unparalleled in the city, and though I am blogging about it now and hence alerting both of my loyal followers, Abe of Scholium Wines told me it's “top secret.”
Los Angeles is a place of fond memories, dear friends, and excellent food that I love to visit from time to time. And this time, I stumbled on a protest of the war in Ukraine in downtown Santa Monica, which I was lucky enough to join (and with a serendipitous blue and yellow shirt on!). Looking forward to my next sojourn so sunny SoCal, where I am certain I will eat yet more sushi!