It seems like just yesterday that Shunji Nakao opened his latest sushi restaurant out of the “Chili Bowl,” an historic Depression-era building on Pico that has played host to Mexican, BBQ, and (of course) chili restaurants over the years. And yet, two years after opening its doors and immediately claiming a spot on Bon Appetit’s Top 10 new sushi restaurants and LA Mag’s Top 10 new restaurants, Shunji is going stronger than ever, with an extensive list of frequently-rotating offerings and a loyal clientele that includes both culinary heavyweights and respected critics, and deservedly so.
Nakao is no stranger to Los Angeles and its sushi history – in fact, he helped create it. Upon moving to the US in 1984, the Yokohama native immediately met the now-legendary Nobu Matsuhisa, working with him for a number of years before launching the premiere location of Matsuhisa together. Eventually Nakao went on to begin another sushi restaurant, Asanebo, which took off quickly and is still wistfully recalled as one of the best sushi spots to ever grace the San Fernando Valley. Shunji is only the latest venture of the seasoned chef who seems more than happy to pave his name into Japanese cuisine history in Los Angeles.
While the sushi preparation and presentation here may not be the fanciest or most unique in Los Angeles – you likely won’t find truffle salt on your nigiri – there’s something to be said for the simplicity of a well-marinated cut of fish, laid atop a vinegary rice and brushed with quality soy. The inherent flavor of the fish is the star, as it should be, since Shunji-san imports in-season species multiple times a week. From classic cuts of toro to rarer white shrimp to treats like Hokkaido crab and spiny lobster that may only grace the dry-erase menu for a couple weeks at a time, one gets the feeling from the reverence paid by the sushi chef that each fish is his personal favorite and one that he hates to share with patrons who may not understand unique textures and flavors it offers.
Throughout the meal, he’ll set the knife or blowtorch down, look you in the eye, and ask with anticipation what you thought of the latest piece. That’s a man of humility.
And while the sushi is good, what truly sets Shunji apart are the cooked dishes, which make up an $80 tasting menu of their own. During bamboo season, the shoot is steamed and then grilled into an uncommonly crunchy state, set into a broth of spicy chorizo and ramps, then laden with creamy uni and a deep seaweed sauce. The vegetable is the star rather than a typical embellishment, and yet its light vegetal flavors contrast perfectly against the tangy and salty components that support it.
There’s a dish of “squid noodles,” which is not noodles at all but rather a finely-julienned squid marinated in its own ink. The small dish is rich of its own accord, as high-quality squid always is, but when mixed with fresh truffle flakes, uni, and a delicate quail egg yolk perched atop the nest of noodles, the result is a luxurious tartare of sorts.
Shunji’s most famous cooked dish is one he developed during a brief post-Asanebo tenure in Tokyo: agedashi tomato, a play off of the classic tofu dish. It’s a labor to love requiring the reduction of a basket of tomatoes into three cubic inches of silky innards, which is solidified with a pinch of kuzuko and lightly fried. The result is a sweet but undeniably acidic tomato bomb that very surprisingly has the gelatinous texture of tofu. The suave dashi broth it soaks up may be most fragrant and umami version for miles and by itself makes this course worth getting.
Of course there are appetizers featuring a number of small bites. Perhaps you’ll receive a slice of Japanese pumpkin or a ball of bleu cheese and minced purple potato. If you’re lucky or a regular patron, an ethereally light dollop of ankimo mousse will be set before you and finished with Russian sturgeon caviar. It’s an otherworldly amuse bouche and one that brings diners back for more.
Dinner is an intimate experience - no glass separating diners at the L-shaped bar from the chef and his staff – and interaction seems to be almost encouraged. While it would be an expensive destination for sushi novices, it’s otherwise an ideal setting since Shunji-san and his wife, Yuko, are gracious hosts and willing to answer any and all questions regarding the cuisine or its related customs.