2006 Sawtelle Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Sushi has never been more ubiquitous in Los Angeles. A quick Yelp search, limiting the query just to sushi bars in the “Sawtelle” neighborhood (defined generously as the area bounded by Wilshire/National to the north and south, and Sepulveda/Centinela to the east and west), produces 26 results! It is in this crowded field that Sushi Tsujita debuts.
Reservations at the 10-seat bar are already difficult to come by, so buzz is certainly on the side of the two-week old restaurant. With the success of the two noodle shops just down the block, can Tsujita pull off a hat trick with their entry into high-end sushi?
From the moment you arrive, Sushi Tsujita gives you something to talk about, even before stepping into the restaurant proper. The chandelier in the “enclosed patio” (as the website calls it) imbues the space with a hip, lounge-y vibe. Indeed, I witnessed members of a large reservation of 10, mingling there with pre-dinner drinks while waiting for their entire party to arrive, and it was very much a party!
The interior design is a polarizing topic, at least on Chowhound; some have gone as far as to swear off the restaurant because of it. The truth is that the walls, which I described as “geometric and geodesic” in my Eater LA piece, is not nearly as distracting in person as it might appear from the wide shots of the interior. If you’re sitting at the bar, you will be focused on your itamae, or, more specifically, on the food he is serving.
Even at a banquette, while interviewing Tsujita’s general manager Kenta Ikehata, I did not find the designs to be a distraction. However, if you’re truly put off by the walls, just close your eyes while eating. Even if you like the decor, many of the dishes you will taste may cause you to do so anyway, as you pause to savor them.
The kuromaguro akami zuke, lean Atlantic bluefin tuna (from Boston), marinated for 4 hours in soy sauce, is one such dish. The incredibly deep, concentrated flavor of the fish, along with its unfortunate ecological baggage, is the definition of “guilty pleasure”. Even if you’re accustomed to dropping a few Benjamins per meal on sushi, it may be the best tuna you shouldn’t be eating.
A momotaro tomato dish will likely trigger comparisons to Shunji Nakao’s signature Agedashi Tomato Tofu dish, but they could not be more different for having the same main ingredient. Nakao’s “tofu”—as molecular-gastronomic as he gets with his creative, non-sushi dishes—is an exercise in contrasts: soft yet crisp, sweet yet savory.
Sushi Tsujita, however, takes the natural sweetness of the vegetable (fruit!) and amplifies it. The result is a glistening orb, sitting in its own juices, bereft of its skin and tender enough to be eaten just with a spoon, topped with a wine-soaked blueberry in place of the proverbial cherry on top.
The momotaro tomato may turn out to be the most decadent course in your meal, perhaps moreso than the melon compote dessert. But, it also serves as a palate cleanser, before sashimi is delicately placed on the dark, wide “stage” of a platform that sits at eye-level in front of you instead of the traditional wooden geta.
Two pieces each of chutoro, medium-fatty tuna, and hata, grouper, take the stage, the latter sandwiching a translucent, perfectly circular slice of sudachi, a Japanese citrus similar to yuzu. The fresh wasabi is ground so fine, it looks like lime paint on the stage-cum-paint palette. The server presents a dish of “sashimi soy sauce” for the fish, which is as marvelous as you’d expect, the sudachi seasoning the hata just so, but equally marvelous is how well each course is composed, and how effortlessly itamae and servers move you along from course to course.
Service is essentially impeccable, no prior soft-open period or friends & family nights required. It’s funny to see some of the same t-shirted waitstaff from Tsujita’s two ramen-ya dressed smartly in black button-down shirts with sharp platinum ties, but if they have any issues switching gears between the disparate dining environments, they do not show it. Early reports did indicate that free tap water was not offered or served, only expensive bottled water. However, that initial misstep had already corrected itself by the second week.
Bottled-Watergate aside, Sushi Tsujita is not without its misses. The shari, or sushi rice, can be a little inconsistent, in temperature and texture. It starts warmer than room temperature earlier in the nigiri service, but is noticeably, though not significantly, cooler with the later pieces. The hangiri, wooden bucket that holds the shari, I saw behind the bar seemed rather small, and I did not notice it being replenished during meal, which might have contributed to the temperature issue. Also, while most of the fish were superb, I had a piece of kohada, gizzard shad, that was quite a bit saltier than it should have been.
Is Tsujita three-for-three on Sawtelle? I’m going to say, “Yes.” I was cautiously optimistic leading up to my visit. I have to say I am pleasantly surprised, both by the quality of the food was and also by how well run the restaurant was for being in operation less than two weeks. A part of it, I think, was going with proven waitstaff from their other restaurants, but a bigger part is likely the decision to hire seasoned itamae from the L.A. area. If you’ve frequented Shunji Japanese Cuisine, or Katsuya (or is it Katsu-Ya?), you might just recognize one or two of the faces behind the bar.
So, you may be wondering, what is chef Shigeru Kato‘s role in the restaurant? Since his English is not as strong as the other itamae, he seems to mostly interact with Japanese-speaking clientele. However, his role appears more to be as executive chef, directing the meals the other itamae are preparing. He is also wholly responsible for selecting and procuring the fish that the restaurant uses.
Last, but not least, Kato-san makes the traditional closing dish for a sushi meal, the tamagoyaki, or egg omelet. As made famous in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, tamagoyaki is said to be the showcase of a sushi’s chef’s skill. I don’t know about that, but I do know that tamagoyaki preparations can vary greatly, from Kiriko’s spongy soufflé, to Q’s pound cake, to of course the ubiquitous layered omelets served everywhere. Kato-san’s is unlike any tamagoyaki I’ve had. It is dense, not as moist, and has an almost bread-like consistency. It is hardy enough to be hand-torn when served. It is also pretty darn good.
Additional photos below.
Dinner: Omakase only, currently, available in three levels: $120, $150, $180. A variety of dishes, from an opener of steamed awabi (abalone), a trio of amuse-bouche, and an anago shinjo (fish cake made with sea eels) soup, are served before moving onto sashimi, nigiri, and dessert. Expect dishes to change regularly based on available ingredients.
Lunch: Service starts on Tuesday, August 26. A variety of price points are available, including a $15 chirashi bowl that’s limited to only 15 servings per day.
Disclosure: This was a hosted meal; drinks and gratuity not included.