I've had a couple bad experiences with downtown sushi. The first was Hamakawa. Easily the worst sushi I have ever had in terms of quality and freshness. Literally inedible. Second was Zip Fusion Sushi. A couple bad pieces of uni and I couldn't order anything from there ever again. So I was somewhat reluctant to check out Sushi Gen, thinking it might just be another mediocre downtown sushi joint. Fortunately, I was wrong!
Sushi Gen is now a strong contender in my list of favorite LA sushi spots. No one will ever replace Nozawa (in my heart at least), so second place is a now a tie between Sushi Gen and Sasabune. The thing I like about Sushi Gen is that it's an incredibly friendly and festive environment. While Nozawa is a bit like going to your psychiatrist (with a bill to match), Sushi Gen is like going to hang out with old friends. Old friends who make you wait 45 minutes for a table. Hey, it's a great spot, the wait is worth it!
We arrived at Sushi Gen at about on Friday. The place was packed, with about 2 dozen people waiting for a table when we arrived. You have the choice of sitting at a table or at the sushi bar. The sushi bar is sushi only, no cooked dishes... fine with me!
After about 45 minutes of a wait, we were finally seated at the sushi bar in front of Kazu, who warmly welcomed us. A waitress brought by hot towels and took our drink order.
We started with a cold unfiltered sake called Sayuri. It's the prettiest pink bottle I have ever seen, and for people who know where I work, they know I LOVE PINK!! Sayuri means "a little lily," and in sake form, it is delicate and delicious. That's Kazu working his magic in the background.
Sushi time! We had A LOT of sushi, and everything was stellar.
I kinda forgot to take pictures until about halfway through the meal.
Some things I missed at the very beginning include:
Maguro (Tuna): bright red, buttery soft
Toro (fatty Tuna): like a tuna-flavored stick of butter in your mouth... fantastic
Hamachi (Yellowtail): buttery soft and a tiny bit sweet... so yummy
Albacore: topped with a bunch of green onion and raddish swag, which added a nice fresh crunch. The fish also stood up well alone, without the garnish. So good, we got a second order.
Aji (Spanish Mackerel), one of my favorite sushi dishes for it's bold, assertive fish flavor, also done up with the garnish. Very fresh, very tender - absolutely wonderful.
Ama ebi (raw sweet shrimp): so sweet and a great fresh, almost-crunchy texture.
OH-MY EYES!! Ama ebi head and tentacles, deep fried. Brian refuses to eat these, I LOVE THEM. They taste like sweet chicken fingers, only with more layers and crunch (oh yeah, and shrimp eyeballs). A squeeze of lemon and they make my list for favorite fried crustacean.
Hotate (raw scallop). Oh my goodness. Kazu squeezes lemon juice and a little salt on these. They are TO DIE FOR. A must order. So sweet and fresh, it seems a shame that these precious creatures might ever touch a grill. So good we got a second order.
With the basics out of the way, we decided to get a little more adventurous. I asked Kazu if he had anything special or interesting that day. He replied: Sai-YO-ri (spelled sayori). Pointing to our sake, "NOT Sai-YU-ri, Sai-YO-ri." OK, we'll try that!
Sayori is a spring season fish called Halfbeak in English. Here's what it looks like in sushi form (on the left) and fish form (on the right). It's a crisp fish, with an assertive, but relatively mild taste. It reminded me a little bit of aji. Actually, I am just making up my tasting notes... I had a lot of Sai-YU-ri by this point and I don't remember. But it sure was shiny and pretty!
We seemed to have started a chain reaction down the bar, because for the remainder of our meal, I heard guests going back and forth with the sushi chef, "Sai-YU-ri... Sai-YO-ri"
Finally, my all-time favorite sushi dish, which I always save for "dessert:"
Uni (sea urchin roe). This is not a dish for the faint hearted, and it's definitely an acquired taste, similar to how oysters are an acquired taste. The flavour is interesting and very complex - sweet, with an almost peanut-butter taste, followed by an explosion of ocean goodness (but somehow not salty). But the texture is what makes uni really spectactular. People have compared it to "kissing a mermaid," and that sounds just about right. Good uni is at once firm, and able to dissolve on the tongue. It's a party in your mouth.
Here's what uni looks like in sushi form (on the left) and how it looks when you extract it in nature. Isn't it beautiful? Kazu's uni was so fresh and good, I got a second order.
At this point we were pretty stuffed. Oh, and down two bottles of sake and two beers, so buzzed too.
Here's a photo of Kazu, our wonderful sushi chef, who gladly hammed it up when asked if we could take his picture. Could you imagine Nozawa like this? I think not...
The sushi is pretty reasonably priced. Our bill (which included 12 orders of sushi, half of it market price, 2 bottles of sake and 2 beers) came to $122. We ate and drank a lot more than we usually do at Nozawa, for less. A bargain in my eyes. Plus, sushi really is like therapy, and if you're there for an hour and a half, it's cheaper than a psychiatrist.
I loved Sushi Gen... I had so much fun and it was a great atmosphere. I can't wait to go back!