Sakura Japanese Restaurant – Del Rey, CA

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

One of the best parts of living in LA is that there are just so many dining options it would be nearly impossible to eat at them all. In an effort to explore our immediate surrounding neighborhood (yes, we have lived here for over two years and still haven’t tried everything), we decided to have an impromptu date night at a local favorite – Sakura Japanese Restaurant.

A bit stunned by AP (analysis paralysis), we asked our sushi chef if he could arrange an omakase for us with a modest budget of $60. He said sure and put on his number-crunching thinking cap. Martin pointed out that he seemed relieved to see a change of pace from the many veggie rolls we had seen him assemble in just the short time we had been sitting at the counter. This is the progression he created:

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Yellowtail (hamachi) – A sushi staple, this piece of hamachi spoke volumes of the quality of the meal ahead. The neta (the slice of fish atop nigiri) was a generous portion in all its dimensions.

Blue fin tuna (maguro) – Far from the generic dull-red fish we find at cheap sushi places, the blue fin tuna here was gorgeous, tender, and just wonderful.

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Monkfish Liver (ankimo) – I love ankimo but every other time we have had it, it was served gunkanmaki-style (mashed into a paste and scooped atop a mound of rice that had been wrapped in seaweed to form an oval-shaped vessel, like uni or ikura nigiri). This was the first time we’ve ever tried it in its most pure form — large fatty morsels simply garnished with scallions and ponzu and served with a sunomono-style salad of cucumbers, seaweed, and strings of daikon. Decadent and a steal at $8!

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Albacore (shiro maguro) – Definitely not to be missed, this albacore was served in its typical style with ponzu, scallions, and a hint of garlic. The fish melted in our mouths!

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Halibut (hirame) – A mild white fish that has a firmer, slightly chewy texture, it is always interesting to have sashimi-grade versions of fish that are more frequently served cooked.

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Spanish Mackerel (aji) – The most mild mackerel I’ve ever had, not a single hint of oily fishiness that usually comes with aji or saba. Beautiful!

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Sea Urchin (uni) – Super creamy and smooth, this Santa Barbara delicacy was among the best we’ve had at any sushi restaurant.

As many others have mentioned before us, Sakura Japanese Restaurant is a hidden gem on the mini restaurant row of Centinela Avenue of our humble piece of the Westside and we’re happy to have finally tried it for ourselves.

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Check out Sakura Japanese Restaurant:

4545 South Centinela Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90066

See their Yelp reviews here!

Food Pic Friday: Sushi Central (Re-visited)

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

First, a personal update for NomNomCat Readers (if you’re just looking for drool-worthy photos on this Food Porn Friday, scroll past this paragraph): WE’RE BACK! Our deepest apologies for our three month long hiatus. For those who are interested, here’s the reason for it — as you may well know, life offline can get in the way of blogging. And boy has 2014 already been a crazy adventure… With this food blog about to celebrate its third birthday, it should come as no surprise that food is a huge passion in our lives. So much so, in fact, that I decided to change my career trajectory to the culinary arts; I currently work in a professional kitchen as a line cook, having jumped head-first into Kitchen Life. Working sixty hours a week in a physically strenuous, mentally challenging, and emotionally stressful environment leaves little time to sit down and write about the latest LA hot spots three times a week like we did before. But I still love to write, and I sincerely missed this forum for communicating my (and our) love for celebrating life through eating and cooking. And so I make this promise to come back with new content once a week. The format will likely be different though; gone are the days of 1,000-word entries. Instead, the focus will likely shift to local food news and events, photos from new and new-to-us dining experiences, and, if we can manage it, make-at-home recipes now and then. Thank you all for your understanding and support these past (almost) three years! We’ll definitely have to do something fun for our blogiversary!

And now for the food.

Back in 2012, my bff S and I celebrated her birthday with affordable but delicious omakase at a tiny hole-in-the-wall in Palms (West Los Angeles): Sushi Central. The sheer variety and quality of the fish and the expertise of Chef Phillip Yi behind the counter blew away all of my preconceived notions about strip mall sushi. Recently, Martin had a sudden and insatiable sushi craving and we decided to pay a visit to this neighborhood gem.

Maguro (Tuna) Sashimi

Maguro (Tuna) Sashimi

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IMG_0705Forgive me, I generally pride myself on being able to remember details about my dishes, but this dinner took place back in March and I have since forgotten which fish above is which. I believe they were halibut, snapper, and sea bream (not necessarily in that order) but please let me know if YOU happen to know and I will happily edit this entry.

Ono (Escolar)

Ono (Escolar), super juicy with a smoky char from being oh-so-briefly torched.

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Liver(?) from the Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp)

Liver(?) from the Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp)

Amaebi (Live Sweet Shrimp)

Amaebi (Live Sweet Shrimp)

Broth made from the shells of the amaebi

Broth made from the shells of the amaebi

Crispy Fried Amaebi Heads

Crispy Fried Amaebi Heads

Sushi Central offers my all-time favorite amaebi preparation and I say that with full confidence. Where else could you get a tasty shooter, an umami-rich broth, a well-seasoned piece of nigiri, and a crispy fried head all from one little shrimp? Chef Phillip puts forth a great deal of effort to showcase the beauty that is amaebi and it is certainly appreciated.

Salmon Belly

Salmon Belly

Live Scallop (and the crew - Chef Phillip on the right and Seiji on the left)

Live Scallop (and the crew – Chef Phillip on the right and Seiji on the left)

Live Scallop Nigiri Sushi and Sashimi

Live Scallop Nigiri Sushi and Sashimi

An Artist at Work

An Artist at Work

"Dirty Rice" made from the hinge muscle and innards of the scallop

“Dirty Rice” made from the hinge muscle and innards of the scallop

Ankimo (Monkfish Liver) - my personal favorite

Ankimo (Monkfish Liver) – my personal favorite

Spanish Mackerel - a fishy, oily bite to end our meal

Spanish Mackerel – a wonderfully fishy, oily bite to end our meal

At $100 a head (we originally aimed closer to $50 but added on the live amaebi, live scallop, AND ankimo), it was a splurge for a weeknight meal but definitely well worth the expense. Chef Phillip had even stayed overtime by a full hour just to show off more of his freshest and most interesting fish. Don’t dismiss this place if you’re deterred by the online menu full of California Rolls and Dragon Rolls. Bypass all of those run-of-the-mill offerings, pull up a seat at the counter, and let Chef Phillip do what he does best. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Hide Sushi – West Los Angeles

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

Yet another adventure in Little Osaka lies in this hole-in-the-wall joint Hide (pronounced hee-day) Sushi. I must have driven by it hundreds of times since moving to the Westside. It’s in an unassuming little corner near Tsujita Annex and gr/eats, immediately across the street from the Giant Robot Store. The perfect little meeting place for me and S to rendezvous for her belated birthday dinner.

Ankimo at Hide Sushi

Ankimo at Hide Sushi

Hide Sushi has a sizable a la carte menu, but S and I love going out for omakase when we can get it. Luckily, the chefs behind the counter were happy to oblige. Omakase here is generally $40, very affordable for the amount and quality of fish we would receive. Since we were celebrating, I requested a $50 per person “budget” instead (boy – that turned out to be a TON of food!). There were 3 or 4 sushi chefs behind the counter, but our chef was very excited and S even commented at the end of the night that he seemed to like me and my use of Japanese. (Funny, just when I think my Japanese has all but disappeared, I manage to carry on a coherent conversation without even thinking about the sentences — what’s that saying about riding a bike?)

Before we started, he asked me just one question, Nan de mo ii? (Is anything okay?) Hai, iin desu, I replied in response. With a knowing smile, he focused on his craft.

Hamachi (Yellowtail)

Hamachi (Yellowtail)

First up, maguro (tuna; not pictured — we were too excited… a theme throughout the evening, actually) and hamachi (yellowtail). Generous cuts of familiar fish — a simple, delicious start.

Tai (Red Snapper)

Tai (Red Snapper)

Tai (red snapper): Dipped in a citrus-y ponzu sauce, the red snapper tasted slightly fishy (in a very, very good way).

Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp)

Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp)

Amaebi (sweet shrimp): The shrimp were HUGE, probably the largest amaebi I’d ever had, but oh so sweet and succulent. Our chef made a hilarious gesture to inform us that the fried shrimp heads were forthcoming. I can’t even begin to describe it — the next time you see me, remind me of this story and I’ll have to demonstrate for you. :)

Amaebi no Tama (Fried Shrimp Heads)

Amaebi no Tama (Fried Shrimp Heads)

Amaebi no atama (fried shrimp heads): Just as promised, one of the servers brought out a magnificent plate of crispy fried shrimp heads. Some places prepare them tempura-style, but these were au naturale and ever so simply salted. Every single part is edible, even the “skull” and eyeballs – and check out the marvelous height on those antennae! Don’t be shy.

Aji (Spanish Mackerel)

Aji (Spanish Mackerel)

Aji (Spanish mackerel): One of S’ favorites, this fishy, oily cut was excellent and dressed with just a touch of ponzu.

Uni (Sea Urchin)

Uni (Sea Urchin)

Uni (sea urchin): Sweet and creamy, the sea urchin was silky smooth with just the right touch of briny, rich flavor.

Ankimo (Monkfish Liver)

Ankimo (Monkfish Liver)

Ankimo (monkfish liver): This has to be one of my absolute favorite pieces of sushi – the must-have any time I see it on the menu or specials board at a sushi restaurant. I had asked our chef specifically if he had fresh ankimo today, and his eyes lit up as he answered with a definitive YES! The nigiri was PILED HIGH and it was so good. The foie gras of the sea…

Ikura (salmon roe)

Ikura (salmon roe)

Ikura (salmon roe): Pop pop pop! I thought we were near the end when we were served those rich pieces of sushi, but we were just getting started! These salmon roe were briny and bright. great to wash down the creamy uni and ankimo that preceded it.

Ebi (Shrimp) and Tobiko & Uzura (Flying Fish Roe with Quail Egg)

Ebi (Shrimp) and Tobiko & Uzura (Flying Fish Roe with Quail Egg)

Ebi (shrimp) and Tobiko & Uzura (flying fish roe with quail egg): The steamed shrimp nigiri was not particularly special, but fresh nonetheless. But the “double egg”… this was the most unique presentation of nigiri we had today, And it was utterly delicious and thoughtful. The tobiko were crunchy and briny, while the creaminess of the quail egg yolk mellowed out the flavors nicely. Loved it.

Hokkigai (Surf Clam) and Sake (Salmon)

Hokkigai (Surf Clam) and Sake (Salmon)

Hokkigai (surf clam) and Sake (salmon): The surf clam was huge, enveloping the rice as if it were a sleeve of inari. Crazy! The salmon was sweet and glistening with its natural fattiness, a very reliable standby.

— Not pictured because we were too excited and dug in right away —

Tako (octopus): A thick and generous slice that was tender in the center but a bit chewy on the edges. Sadly, not our favorite.

Unagi (freshwater eel): Drenched in its sweet caramelized sauce and toasted just a tad, this was a delectable morsel and one of my favorites of the evening.

Tamago (sweet egg): Like “sushi dessert,” this was our final piece of the night. Funny story — just before it, the chef looked over at me inquisitively and I responded “onaka ippasugi!” (we’re too full!). He chuckled and then said, just one more! This was the one he presented to us to end the night, and boy were we pleased.

By the end of the experience, we were so full! The total came out to just over $92, and it’s cash only so be sure to visit your local bank beforehand (but in case you forget or spontaneously decided to visit, they do have an ATM right when you walk in). Also, when ordering omakase for two, the chef will ask if you would like one piece each type of fish or a full pair per person (nigiri sushi, I’ve learned, is always made in pairs). We were glad we opted for one piece per; this way, we get to try a large variety of fish without getting too full off duplicate pieces.

Two more things. One – when you first enter, hug the right wall as you walk toward the side of the restaurant where the whiteboard is. Most places have a clipboard for waiting lists, but Hide Sushi has a whole whiteboard. Add your name, party size, and seating preference (S for sushi bar, T for table). Easy peasy. And two – unlike other places on Sawtelle, Hide Sushi has its own (free!) parking lot.

So if you’re wandering around in Little Osaka and craving sushi, definitely make a stop at Sawtelle’s best kept secret and let the Chef choose your adventure. Whatever it is, it will be hontou ni oishii (really delicious)!

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Check out Hide Sushi: hidesushi.com

2040 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025

See their Yelp reviews here!

Crazy Sushi Fever – Atascadero, CA

Central Coast, Food Adventures

What had initially started out as a joke turned out to be an awesome dinner date. To celebrate our three-year anniversary, Martin and I took a few days off work and drove up to the Central Coast. Searching our Yelp! app for a place to eat near our hotel in Atascadero, we noticed a distinctly odd and kitschy name – Crazy Sushi Fever. You’ve got to be kidding me. But the reviews were great, the photos looked appetizing, and it was a mere half mile away. We looked at each other and decided, let’s go for it!

Crazy Sushi Fever - Pismo Boat

Crazy Sushi Fever – Pismo Boat

After an abysmally long walk (GPS, you lied to me), we arrived at this humble sushi joint exhausted. Fortunately, our spirits were immediately lifted by the welcoming smiles of the chefs behind the counter. We grabbed seats right in front of the main counter and ordered a pair of Asahi Kuronama to quench our thirst.

Asahi Kuronama (Asahi Black)

Asahi Kuronama (Asahi Black)

We typically enjoy Asahi Kuronama with yakitori, but it paired surprising well with our sushi as well. Noticing the prices of the a la carte nigiri sushi ($4+ per pair), we decided to share a boat – the Pismo Boat, an omakase creation of 10 pieces of nigiri sushi and 20 pieces of sashimi. All for $60. Meanwhile, we admired the gleaming slabs of salmon and maguro sitting in the refrigerated case. I couldn’t wait.

Ginger, Wasabi, and... Banchan?

Ginger, Wasabi, and… Banchan?

Okay, so it turned out that the chefs behind the counter were actually Korean. On the bright side, that meant that our customary dish of wasabi and gari (pickled ginger) was served alongside generous mountains of cucumber sunomono and wakame (seaweed salad)… suspiciously reminiscent of the variety of banchan at the start of any Korean meal. No complaints from me!

The Pismo Boat

The Pismo Boat

At last, the glorious boat was proudly presented to us. From left to right: maguro (tuna), hamachi (yellowtail), sake (salmon), shiro maguro (albacore), and ono (escolar). All of which looked stunning and tasted wonderful. We dug in, nigiri first. After just one or two pieces, the chef who made our boat caught my attention by waving a mysterious white packet.

Fresh Wasabi

Fresh Wasabi

“Would you like to try some fresh wasabi?” he offered. Of course I said yes! I think I remembered to say please… In any case, he hooked us up with a dollop of chopped wasabi root marinated in a bit of salt. OMG SO GOOD. It’s infinitely better than the pale green paste from the tube or can, and though some may say it’s not the same as fresh grated wasabi root, I think the salt really makes a difference in this prepared version. It pulled out some of the liquid and made this saucy, spicy glaze that tasted amazing on the fresh fish. I’m now on a mission to track down this elusive pouch of kizami wasabi.

Back to the Boat

Back to the Boat

I’m usually not a huge fan of maguro, but the one here was a gorgeous bright red. The hamachi was buttery and shimmered with fat. Salmon is always our favorite, and theirs was sweet and melt-in-your-mouth good. We were thankful for the ridiculously thick sashimi slices of all of the varieties, but especially the salmon! Finally we moved on to the sauced pieces – shiro maguro and ono. Typical preparation on the shiro maguro, with a drizzle of ponzu and sprinkling of negi (green onions). The ono, which I had only seen served at Sushi Central here in West LA, was drizzled in a ponzu and chili oil dressing and topped with a mound of masago (Capelin roe). By the time we polished off the last bite, we were both completely satiated… although, they say there’s always room for dessert…

Tempura Green Tea Ice Cream

Tempura Green Tea Ice Cream

Tempura green tea ice cream is my guilty pleasure. A perfect sphere of matcha ice cream dipped in tempura batter and rolled in panko bread crumbs, then deep fried to a golden hue. The artsy swirls of chocolate syrup really brought the dessert together and we enjoyed each decadent bite. They also have a tempura cheesecake on their menu… talk about avoiding temptation!

If you ever find yourself in the Central Coast / Paso Robles area with a craving for sushi, we suggest stopping by Crazy Sushi Fever. Peculiar name aside, they are a great place with prompt, friendly service and delicious sushi. And if you ask nicely, maybe they’ll share a bit of their fresh wasabi stash.

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Check out Crazy Sushi Fever:

8050 El Camino Real
Atascadero, CA 93422

See their Yelp reviews here!

Sushi Central – Palms, CA

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

Perhaps the best hole-in-the-wall discoveries are the ones that are right under your nose. Sometimes you acknowledge its existence and brush it off, most days you go on with your life without giving it a second glance or thought. ‘Twas the case with Sushi Central, a quaint little sushi place situated in the corner of a strip mall that includes a great doughnut shop (DH Doughnut House) and other businesses. Located at the corner of Overland and Palms, I literally pass by this strip mall every morning on my way to the 10 fwy to get to work. But fate finally brought me and my dear friend S here one unassuming Monday night.

Stumbling into the quiet restaurant, we requested seats at the counter and were the only pair occupying the limited bar seating. The best seats in the house when it comes to sushi, if you ask me. A quick glance at the menu full of rolls and I proposed to S that we do omakase for dinner. Omakase is frequently translated on sushi bar menus as “Chef’s Choice”. I think the subtleties go beyond that a bit. Omakase means to “entrust” the chef, to put yourself (and your dinner) in his capable hands. Lucky for us, that night those hands belonged to the renowned chef-owner Phillip.

Kurodai (left) and Halibut (right)

Round 1: Kurodai (black sea bream) from Greece and halibut. The kurodai was really tender and the halibut, which I had never tried raw before, was deliciously sweet.

Surprise shooter – amaebi brain and liver

Round 2: The brain and liver of amaebi (sweet shrimp), served as a shooter with some masago (?). All in one go, it was really creamy and fishy (in a good way).

Amaebi

Round 3: Amaebi (sweet shrimp). The amaebi was sweet, of course, and also HUGE in size – much larger than other sweet shrimp I’ve had. This one was about the size of my thumb whereas other places have ones barely the size of my pinky.

Amaebi Broth

Round 4: A miso broth made with amaebi body/shell – flavorful and so fragrant, and I really appreciated the use of the whole shrimp.

Kohada

Round 5: Kohada, whose very un-sexy English name is the gizzard shad. It’s a small fishy fish, similar to mackerel, with a great slightly firm texture that was served at the perfect warm temperature.

Amaebi Heads

Round 6: Amaebi heads, fried tempura-style. Crispy crispy! It’s always my favorite part of eating amaebi. I can’t even begin to describe to you how disappointed I get at places that serve only the amaebi itself and discard the heads.

Aji

Round 7: Aji (Spanish mackerel). As expected, it was tender and fishy and just so good.

Sake Hara

Round 8: Sake hara, also known as salmon toro (belly). Easily my favorite cut of any fish, the salmon belly is succulent, sweet, and so buttery that you can see the fat glistening as the fish warms up to room temperature. Awesome.

Seared Ono

Round 9: Ono (escolar) – seared. I had heard that Sushi Central was known for sourcing some great ono and it was SO GOOD. A bit of char flavor from the sear and a very interesting texture. Note: escolar (a whitefish) is not to be confused with escarole (the leafy green). This made for some interesting conversation between me and S.

Uni and Blue Crab

Round 10: Uni (sea urchin) and blue crab. We followed Chef Phillip’s advice to “always finish with uni,” so we started with the blue crab first. The blue crab was warm and delicious, a pleasant surprise over other blue crab sushi I’ve had where the crab is ice cold from having been sitting in the refrigerator all night. The uni was brushed with house soy sauce (which, to me, tasted like a sweet ponzu with yuzu) which had a bit of acidity to help to cut the creaminess. Yum!

Tempura ice cream

Having overheard that we were celebrating S’s birthday, Chef Phillip offered us an order of green tea tempura ice cream. He and our friendly server Mika even sang and presented the ice cream with a lit candle. So good! My guilty pleasure is deep-fried ice cream but the one here was superb. Instead of panko, they used tempura crumbles to make it extra crispy. I also discovered my new favorite thing: tempura crumbles with chocolate syrup. Do it.

While we were enjoying the unexpected dessert, Chef Phillip apparently had another scheme up his sleeve. We were about to bid our adieu when he told us we couldn’t leave. He had just sent a regular patron over to the 7-Eleven to pick up Asahi to celebrate! I seriously thought he was kidding but in walked someone with 2 giant cans of Asahi. Kanpai!

Ankimo

Last Round: Ankimo (monkfish liver). I was just telling S about this earlier during the meal, and he surprised us with a complimentary order! Mm.. I love monkfish liver. It’s so buttery and livery and fishy. I’ve heard people call it the “foie gras of the sea”, so I found it especially amusing that he rolls it into a torchon-like roll when preparing it. Yum!

We set our budget for omakase at $40/person. Despite breaking my personal rule of not eating sushi on Mondays, Chef Phillip reassured me that they still get shipments of fresh fish from Japan but they get better selections later in the week. Perhaps what made me enjoy the experience even more is that he serves what he likes and what he himself would enjoy, rather than catering to audiences.

S was amazed and proclaimed this to be the best birthday dinner ever! She told me that she counted literally 3 items that she had eaten before and everything else was new and absolutely delicious. Now that’s a pretty great endorsement!

Also, they’re BYOB. Chef Phillip made some awesome recommendations for an affordable, floral sake (kikusui) and suggested that we bring in some junmai ginjo sake next time as nigori is a little too sweet for sushi.

It truly was an amazing dinner experience. Chef Phillip really went above and beyond to make sure we had a great time. He is so passionate about sushi and it really showed in the way his eyes gleamed as he talked to us. On multiple occasions I overheard him greeting regular patrons by name, and I noticed during the meal that he was genuinely interested in getting to know us. This is definitely the kind of place I want to frequent. My only regret is having waited so long to stop by (I’ve lived less than 2 blocks away for over 2 years now!). Don’t make the same mistake I did — check them out the next time you’re in Palms!

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Check out Sushi Central: sushi-central.net

3500 Overland Ave #100
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Neighborhood: Palms

See their Yelp reviews here!