I have a running joke with myself about my Japanese friends, that you need an instruction booklet to be friends with them—and the same thinking applies to Japanese cuisine. I suppose one can enjoy Japanese food even without such a manual. For years I lived a life of sushi where I considered eel rolls and yellow tail adventurous choices. And I was happy. But after my friend, Hiroshi, took me to sushi for the first time, my eyes were opened to a new way of sushi being, and my sushi eating self would, could, never be the same. [For a guide to eating sushi the Japanese way, see this article that I wrote for The Los Angeles Times.]
That night, Hiroshi and I went to a little dive on Sunset Boulevard, his regular joint, where we sat at the sushi bar for three or four hours while the sushi chef plied us with one gorgeous creation after another—from the unusual (eel made in-house, not cryovacced and sent, MSG and all, from Japan); to the exotic (tiny crabs drowning in a glass of sake one moment and back, fried, moments later); to the simply sublime: versions of familiar favorites such as hand-grated wasabi, baby shrimp, live shrimp, and what is widely acknowledged to be the world’s best sea urchin pulled off the coast of Santa Barbara.
This plying by the sushi chef is what’s called omakase, but it isn’t the mean sort of Sushi Nazi experience that have made places on Sawtelle and Ventura Boulevard cult favorites. According to a story written last fall in the WSJ, people tolerate, even relish, this treatment because they think that what they’re getting is an “authentic” Japanese experience. Anyone who knows the utter graciousness and generosity inherent in Japanese cultural ways should know better–that a mean man making you eat what he wants you to eat is not authentic anything—only authentic mean.
Nobu—that’s his name—(but I’m not talking about that Nobu; this is a better Nobu), on the other hand, is the real deal: a true artist who obviously loves what he does, both with regards to his mastery of the art of sushi, and also to pleasing his customers, most of whom are such regulars they consider his bar to be an extension of their kitchens. “I don’t understand why Americans think that omakase means the chef tells you what to eat?” Hiroshi sort of asked and sort of yelled at me early on in what became a years-long Friday night sushi ritual. “Omakase means the chef give you what he think YOU want to eat!”
From that first visit on, that little dive on Sunset was my sushi place, and Nobu my sushi chef. That is, until the dive closed down. Nobu moved to Gonpachi, a fancy place on La Cienega famous for their multimillion dollar space, designed to look like Japanese tea gardens. I went once, on a date, but the bill was so high I think I remember saying, “I’m sorry,” instead of, “Thank you.” And I never went back.
But now Nobu’s back to feed the hoi poloi like myself. Until he opens his own place—also on La Cienega—he can be found (and I cannot believe I am telling you this!) at a place called Hachi on Wilshire west of Barrington. Hiroshi and I went last Friday night. We sat for three hours. I hadn’t seen Nobu for almost two years, nevertheless he greeted me like a member of the family, and remembered that sea urchin is my “dessert” sushi—the one I always want to finish with. This is omakase, the Japanese way, and it is a revelation. Just don’t tell him you like the tea cups or he might wrap them up and send them home with you.