Friday, April 3, 2009

Surviving the Stare Down @ Sushi Zo (West L.A.)

One of my friend have told me that I need to visit Sushi Zo before I make a visit to Urasawa. He had told me stories about unfair comparisons being made afterward for any place that have to follow Urasawa. So my friend had kindly made the suggestions that I need to visit Sushi Zo before Urasawa so that I won't give unfair and unrealistic expectations for Sushi Zo. In case the Big U lives up to the awesome expectations, it would be easy for every other sushi joints to pale in comparisons.

A little history and some footnotes about Sushi Zo before you decide to come here. On a last minute lunch meeting cancellation, I have decided to come here on a lazy Friday afternoon. Supposedly, if you are rolling in on by yourself and needed to be seated at a counter, you will be obligated to dine at an Omakase pricing set by the chef where dishes are ordered by the chef and you will not be allow to order anything from the a la carte menu. According to kevinEats, he heard that only Friday and Saturday will be accessed with Omakase (as in Chef's choosing the dishes in the terms of "trust us") for every diner.

Omakase can be a crap shoot because A) you don't know what the Chef have in store for you when he presents the dishes. B)The Chef will ask you ahead of time on what dishes you won't eat, however you cannot turn down a dish if you don't like the look of it. C)The cost is undetermined ahead of time. You can tell the chef when you want to stop eating, but there is no indication in that the price is strictly based on the numbers of dishes. The price is variable in either the amount of dishes you had or the type of the dishes you had, but the algorithm for any omakase is based on the price set by the restaurant with no real equations.

The man of the hour (or 30 minutes for my case) is chef Keizo. He is either often referred as the Sushi Nazi in the form of the famed chef Nozawa or the "Iron Chef" because of his uncanny resemblance to a younger version of Masaharu Morimoto.

There are some rules you will need to abide by before you they will even begin to service you. One is that the hostess/server will give you a long lecture about this place being a true sushi place where they don't do handrolls, California Rolls, or any absurd special request rolls. Once I agreed, I noticed a few more rules will need to adhere before hand. The two most important rules are that I can't used the soy sauce liberally as I have in the past. In fact, chef Keizo Seki will briefly tell me on how to eat the sushi either in "no soy sauce" or "little soy sauce".

The other rule is that you cannot mixed wasbi on to the soy sauce as they would not provide you with one. The chef will place the wasabi underneath the raw fish himself before serving to you. You cannot remove the wasabi and will have eat the fish as it was intended. There is also an unwritten rule where you have to eat the sushi within 5 seconds after he served it to you. The intention was that you are suppose to savor the fish as it was freshly serve to you and not let it sit too long. As Oshii Eats (no relation to kevinEats) found out, chef Keizo will admonished you about letting the sushi lingered on too long without being eaten.

Let me first off by saying that I was a bit intimidated by chef Keizo Seki at first because he does not look straight in my eyes and the stare down can be a little bit off putting. I was a little bit buzzed by the hot sake and the picture was snapped right away without much focusing. So bare with me on those pictures.

Here are the run downs of the items I have ordered before quitting the Omakase after #17.

  1. Kumamoto Kaki/Oyster (picture not taken) - I have heard it's the standard for him to serve us this fresh oyster first as he wants to test how willing your palate is. It's delicious and I wish took a pic of it. Don't worry, I got braver after this.
  2. Baby Squid - I like the chewy little squid as it was beautifully presented in this nice little dish
  3. Awabi/Baby Abalone - This one was a danger to me before it ends because the abalone is a tougher chew and was the biggest piece in the whole repartee. If you can finish this big cut of abalone, you are on your way to a fantastic meal rest of the way. I have a good feeling that this will be an appetite killer or speed bump.
  4. Ika/Squid Noodle with Uni/Sea Urchin - It was very subtle and an easy dish to eat with a touch of sea urchin with the squid noodle. Try to imagine eating slices of oyster and you get the same feeling of what's it like in eating this dish.
  5. Hirame/Halibut - One of my favorite dish of the night. Love the freshness that was served as my blurry pic can attest on how excited I was in wanting to eat the halibut.
  6. Tai/Red Snapper - another well cut standard bearer I come to enjoy. The red snapper and yellowtail are favorites in any sushi lineup. The red snappers are very fresh today.
  7. Yellowtail - This was a solid standard bearer of all sushi. Never really can disappoint unless it's a bad cut of fish.
  8. Hotate/Scallop - I thought I would like the scallop, but it didn't agreed with me as much. Honestly, I think the sake didn't go very well with it. This is one time I wish someone was with me to tell me to slow down with the drinks.
  9. Aji/Spanish Mackerel - Luckily the next few dishes are spot on and this Aji melted in my mouth.
  10. Toro/Fatty Tuna -Oh wow, the fatty toro explodes in my mouth. I loved the fattiness of the tuna which the toro is now winning me over besides being the part of the most expensive cut of the fish. Now I can see why. Very delicious.
  11. Uni/Sea Urchin -Big chunk of uni will always test me out, but I think I'm getting to appreciate this popular item.
  12. Madai/Red Snapper -No Soy sauce on this bad boy as it already put some sauce on top. Another standard bearer that passed the test.
  13. Aoyagi/Orange Clam - This one will be a tough chew. I think most people would have ended right here because of the toughness of this item. Luckily I found the strength to move forward
  14. Ha-Gatsuo/Skipjack Tuna - I attempted to put soy sauce before the Chef quickly told me "no soy sauce" on this one. Frankly I don't think it needed that either, but it was funny watching him in horror when I tried to dipped in the soy sauce.
  15. Kanpachi/Amberjack - Just like the yellowtail, it's another standard bearer for sushi. The sauce on the fish was plentiful as chef Keizo sternly asked me not to put soy sauce.
  16. Butterfish with Miso - My FAVORITE dish of the day. I think the sauce played beautifully on this tender raw fish. If I can this fish everyday, I would be very happy.
  17. Engawa/Halibut Fin - This is the dish where I needed to end the journey. I think Aoyagi was still sitting rough in my belly, but at least I got to taste the butterfish and kanpachi.

Overall, my service was stellar. Yes, it's coming from the same server who probably lectured to every patrons about sushi. It can be considered rude, but I think she is going through the same mechanism to remind everyone about the place (and I also think she is taking the hit for the chef as he might not want to lecture about sushi).

Chef Keizo was really a nice guy even with the rough posture and the stare-down without looking at you at any time. Frankly, a man with so little words that would rather concentrate on providing beautifully crafted dishes that not only looked good, but tasted delicious as well, should be commended rather than misunderstood. He is always slicing and preparing the dishes as he is not in the mood for idle chit chat. Shy man perhaps? That's the theory that is floating out there about Chef Keizo.

For my lunch, it was about $72 for the Omakase and $15 for a hot sake that really put me on tailspin. I'm glad I came here before my big expenditure on Urasawa because I don't know if I really can appreciate this place on its own. I actually started formulating a review before the big U and found it surprisingly that this place still withstood in face of the formidable Urasawa as a top sushi place in Los Angeles.

Go here on a lazy after noon at lunch before 1:30pm and you will get an undivided attention like no others. Make sure you sit on the counter in front of chef Keizo as that is the best seat in the house.

Sushi Zo
9824 National Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(310) 842-3977


Sushi Zo on Urbanspoon


Kung Food Panda said...

Great post bro! I need to make it out to Zo sometime down the road. Jackie and David are taking me to a sushi place in San Diego this weekend, so I'll see how that place compares to the U. (No, I won't make that comparison, it's just not fair...)

Let me know when you want to make a return visit to Zo!

Anonymous said...

This sounds like my kinda place - minus the five second photo policy ;-)

KirkK said...

That's funny...two items I love, Engawa and Aoyagi, were items you didn't like! ;o)

Kat said...

hahah this is evidence that KFP is admitting "bromance" lol O=9

Great review. Reminds me of my visit to Sushi Zo. I actually really enjoyed the place. It is much better than K-zo and Mori Sushi. Your post makes me motivated to work on mine O=9 Chef Keizo lectured me about pictures too, so I took the chance while he was serving everyone else to snap pics as if my life depended on it! hahah

Right Way to Eat said...

Hey Kung Food Panda,

We might need to hit up sushi joint soon! How's SD trip?

Hey Gastronomy,

Five seconds is an eternity if you can take the photos right away and anticipate when the chef is going to hand you the dish. I think some people get carried away with the needs to position the dish too long.

Hi Kirk,

Don't worry. I do love those two dish. However, it's with Urasawa more so than Zo.

Hey Kat,

I don't think chef Keizo mind people taking photos. I think he was more put off by people taking too long. There were quite a few people I know that got scolded by him for not eating the sushi he place in a quick fashion. I heard that a certain sushi place like sushi Sesabane didn't like people linger on more than a few seconds and Urasawa was nice about it with a 10 second rule. I know Sushi Zo and a few other place insist on you eating in less than 5 seconds, which is a fair amount of time for you to snap two photos.

EatTravelEat said...

Great detailed post! It's nice to see all these very different options like abalone and butterfish.

It is also very interesting on how strict they are on their food and what they want you to do. If I took photos during omakase, I probably would get the sushi chef very mad :( as I take several shots of one item before eating.

Kat said...

yah he wasn't saying no photos but eat it fast.... hence i took the pics while he was serving the rest of the party so that I could get the pics in... believe me.. I got way more than 2 in O=9

You can take pics in Sasabune... don't know if that is the same one you are talking about... it's now in an office building done by an assembly line of chefs.. so they don't really care. Actually most places I've been to in LA all let you take pics. The only thing they might say is fast... which won't be a problem b/c I want that sushi in my tummy just as much as they do =9

Epicuryan said...

Glad you made it out to Zo. I agree you should try it before going to the U... speaking of which I am looking forward to that review.

I agree Keizo-san seems intimidating probably the fact he doesn't speak and he looks pretty menacing. Still glad you enjoyed your time at Zo.

Right Way to Eat said...

Hi EatTravelEat,

Thank you very much for the compliment. As in for the rules of eating the sushi, this rule is actually not really enforced like in some of the more notorious places for kicking customer out. 5 seconds is a long time to take 2 pictures. Some people just like to be obsessive to take tons of photos, but once you set it up, it should be no problem.

Hey Kat,

You're absolutely right about taking the photos in more appropriate fast manner for sushi outing. According to kevinEats, he told me that Mori Sushi prohibited him from taking photos. I have also heard that Ainsette in Santa Monica won't let you take dinner photos either. The Bazaar is just bizarre with their constant photo rules.

Other than that, most place will welcome it as long as you don't interfere with other diner's dining experience.

Hi Tangbro1,

Thanks! I definitely needed to come here before the big U. I don't think I will be going to another sushi place for a long time. LOL

Food, she thought. said...

Thanks for the review, Pepsi. Nice to meet you last night. I am thinking of taking the DH there...and I just needed a little push.

Right Way to Eat said...

Hi Food, She Thought,

*push push push*. You need to go here when you can. I think you'll be pleasantly surprise or mortify by the chef. It was great meeting you last night! Catch you later!

Aaron said...

It's funny, I can tell how nervously rushed you were by some of your pictures. I got that feeling at the U too because of the 5 second rule.

Unfortunately, I don't think I will go to Zo for awhile. I believe sushi will hence be closed off for me in LA for the next few years

Right Way to Eat said...

Hi Aaron,

Yeah, it was rushed and the focus on these photos showed it. Chef Keizo was really staring down at me and I tried to get the focusing as fast as I can. I wished I came in at night where it was a lot more busier, but I think I would have a hard time getting a seat in front of him.