SUSHI MORI: $330 WORTH OF SUSHI BLISS ON PICO
My love affair with sushi has been a long and slow process in the making.
I think the very first time I tried sushi in all its glory must have been in my early twenties at a restaurant called Ajimura, close to London's Covent Garden. I recall not liking it terribly much, gagging slightly at both the thought and taste of raw fish and then getting a dose of the heeby jeebys when presented with a bill for the meal which approached £100 (bear in mind this was 1986).
After that, Sushi and I left each other pretty much to our own devices for the next decade or so and it was not until frequent business trips to New York became a part of my life in the late 1990’s, that we bumped into each other again on a regular basis. There was still no way that I would have described sushi as my “go to” meal at this stage, but I at least began to be aware of the finer points of its preparation and to look forward to rather than dread the suggestions of my NYC based friends that we go and prop up a counter somewhere and utter the words "omakase”.
Move on another decade and regular exposure to good sushi in The Big Apple at places like Yasuda and Jewel Bakko, meant that I was now pretty much besotted, an expensive, but unlikely scenario given my first rather ghastly experience.
Back in London, it did and still does prove extraordinarily hard to assuage my all too common cravings. It is not that there are no good sushi restaurants at all in town. There certainly are, but even the best bear little or no comparison to those I have tried in the US, both in the variety and the quality of the fish they serve. They certainly fill a gap, but you can’t help but get the same feeling when eating Sushi in London that you might get watching Brentford vs Rotherham after having just been to The Bernabeu to see Real face off with Barca.
Then came the Japan stage of the EAT MY GLOBE journey and all bets were off. Japanese cuisine, of course, is so much more than sushi, as I found when I went to seven cities and ate as well as I have done anywhere on earth. But, it was a visit to see the auctions at the legendary Tsukiji market and the opportunity to eat a simple meal of glistening tuna on top of a bowl of rice that convinced me that, if I were presented with the opportunity to choose my last meal, sushi, Melton Mowbray pork pies, Fish & Chips and a 20oz 45 day dry aged steak would have t battle it out for the honour of seeing me on my way.
Now I am based in LA, sushi is everywhere. There’s cheap sushi for a quick lunchtime snack, smarter places for the evenings when only raw fish will do and, at the top of the tree there is Urasawa, with only ten seats and where a meal for two costs the same as a small European sports car. Everyone in LA has their favourite sushi spot and arguments about the merits of the fish and rice preparation can rage for hours at a time and bring lifelong friendships to a shouty conclusion.
Last week as I enjoyed a rather good Soul Food meal with my chum, Aaron Tell, who runs the excellent Savory Hunter blog, our conversations turned to sushi. We agreed on a couple of places and disagreed on a couple more. Then Aaron, a resident of Los Angeles for many years, mentioned Sushi Mori. I had never heard of it, but he assured me it was excellent and then we quickly moved on to the more important task of dividing up some freshly fried chicken.
Today, after I had pushed myself through a long run in the gym and Sybil had done enough work from home to justify a break, we both agreed that we had earned a decent lunch. My mind turned back to Aaron’s recommendation and I suggested Sushi Mori as a suitable reward for our hard work. Sybil had never been either and quickly agreed.
Sushi Mori is situated in an unassuming one storey building at an intersection of Pico Boulevard. The large pole bearing a line sketch of a fish is the only clue to the purpose of the small space and inside there are just a handful of tables as well as the obligatory counter.
Once we had taken our seats and ordered the Omakase, Chef Fumi presented us with a small dish of home made tofu topped with freshly grated wasabi and served with a small bowl of house blend soy sauce. It was a stunning start. The tofu dissolved on the tongue and told us enough about Sushi Mori to know that this was going to be both an excellent and a costly meal. We decided that we could put up with the latter because of the former.
Our appetizers continued with the arrival of a slate bearing Japanese eggplant topped with two types of miso and a small dish containing thin slices of rich monkfish liver. The monkfish liver was still a little cold and lacked the unctuous quality it would have taken on had it been allowed to sit a little, but the two cylinders of aubergine were spectacular with a light smoky touch from the torch with which they had been seared.
As if to confirm our positive opinions, the next dish proved to be one of my favourite of the whole meal. A small earthenware bowl, produced by Mori as all the tableware is we were informed, contained an inch of light fish broth flecked out with thin dices of peppers. Poaching in the liquid were slivers of monkfish, tiny clams and the sweetest small shrimps I can recall tasting. The broth had a strong hit of Japanese black pepper, which Fumi told us was because it was a dish usually served in winter.
We were still two dishes away from seeing any sushi at this point and I would have become a little angsty had the next arrival not been quite as special as it turned out to be. Another seasonal dish this time in the form of meat from a Japanese hairy crab, along with its leg, the cholesterol meat and a light, sweet vinegar dipping sauce.
What followed was equally as good. A fresh Abolone and strips of Shishito peppers in a light coating of tempura batter needed no more than simple accompaniments of a few grains of sea salt and a handful of drops of lemon juice to set them off. So often, when I have encountered abalone on my travels, it has been little more than exorbitantly priced tyre rubber. Here, a deft hand with the fryer meant that, while it still required a bite, it will not still be putting up a fight come supper time.
Starters over and done with, it was sushi time. This is the point in the Omakase where we would be presented with bite sized pieces of fish until either Chef Fumi caved or we did. With Sybil in tow and just warming up, I didn’t like his odds, but after eleven (yes folks, count ‘em, eleven) pieces of achingly fresh fish, we had to wave him away.
While none of it was less than excellent, we both had different favourites. Sybil loved the small sweet shrimp caught, we were told, off the east coast. They were also seasonal Chef Fumi explained, going on to say they would only be around for another week. We both “oohed” and “aahed” over two types of tuna and two different types of Yellowtail, but it was the Japanese “Needle” fish, which made my raise an eyebrow. It was a new one on me and brought with it a stronger taste that made me sure to look out for again.
Each piece of sushi came lightly dressed with the house soy sauce and we would have possibly stopped earlier had Chef Fumi not informed us that he had two types of Uni (sea urchin) available. Well, of course, such a boast demanded that we try them both. As our last hurrah, we were presented with two cylinders of Maki Sushi where the rice had been topped by thin discs of both Uni from Japan and from up the coast in Santa Barbara. While the domestic was good, it paled in comparison to its Japanese cousin which melted on the tongue like fishy Space Dust.
And that was it. Well, not quite. Hermano Primero would have been proud to see me polish off both dishes of a subtle ginger ice cream before we called for the bill. When it arrived, we both sucked in a considerable amount of breath. Good sushi never comes cheap, that much I learned during my first meal at Ajimura two and a half decades ago, but the bill at a Japanese restaurant still has the capacity to knock the wind from your sails.
Here, with tip for friendly and efficient service, it came to a whopping $330. That’s about $300 more than we would normally plan to spend on a Friday lunch in case you were wondering how often we splurge like this. But, after a quick readjustment in our seats and after the quick mimed “how F**king much?” gesture to each other, we shrugged our shoulders and handed over a credit card.
We laughed about it on the way home and by the time we pulled into our driveway, we had decided that it was just about worth the cost for a meal of such obvious quality in both ingredients and execution. It’s just as well because Sybil is now only too aware that there are, as Princess Diana put it so well, three of us in this marriage.
The other is my mistress of some twenty years, Lady Sushi and I ain’t letting her go any time soon.