Thursday, July 23, 2009

West L.A. Sushi Smackdown

I was in a manic sushi-craving mood, and was jonesing to try some of the many places in L.A. that I had not yet experienced.

So I came up with this crazy idea to gather a posse of close friends together for the first-ever Rawfishionado L.A. Sushi Crawl.

Yes, it was the antithesis of leisurely traditional sushi: I wanted to try stopping at several (2 to 3) sushi places in one night, tasting a bit at each stop and providing a good Rawfishionado comparison guide.
I had a few places in mind that are fairly close to each other, in West L.A.

I figured with a group of us, we could each order something different at each place and get a good variety, and I thought we could keep it affordable by spending only about $20-25 a person at each place (2-4 orders of nigiri sushi, or one dish) - especially if we were to hit up as many as three places.

So I picked 3-4 places, planned a logical itinerary based on geography, and our merry band started our Crawl at 5 p.m. on a recent Saturday.

Of course, most of my ideals were unrealistic: ultimately, we only got to two places, and we each spent way more than intended at each place because we didn't follow the "everyone order something different" rule.

So it wasn't the Crawl I envisioned. I was truly crazy thinking we could cram so much into one night.

But I DID end up with a very good Sushi Smackdown, pitting two comparable places against each other.

And producing a very clear winner.

Photo slide shows and a full report follow.

Here's the (unrealistic) itinerary I started with:

First stop: Hiko Sushi
Neighborhood: Palms
11275 National Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 9064
(310) 473-7688
Yelp reviews described it as a smaller place serving up simple, affordable but quality nigiri sushi and sashimi. Sounded like Rawfishionado's kind of place.

2. Echigo
12217 Santa Monica Blvd., Ste. 201
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 820-9787
Rawfishy Erika had raved about this place, saying the fish was exceptional AND could be had for $30-$40 omakase. Clearly a Rawfishionado kind of place.
And Yelpers confirmed the quality - though I found some Yelpers preferred Sushi Zo. So that became my candidate for ...

3. Sushi Zo
Neighborhood: Palms
9824 National Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(310) 842-3977

Finally, if time, stomachs and wallets allowed, I put a fourth option on the itinerary:
4. Lucky Fish
Neighborhood: Beverly Hills
338 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90212
(310) 274-9800
This is the intriguting, modern kaiten sushi place in Beverly Hills that got me curious because of the oxymoron: conveyor-belt (aka "affordable") sushi in Beverly Hills?
To be honest, I put this option at the end because I really didn't want to spend my money at Lucky Fish. The prices on the web site sounded outrageous for kaiten sushi, and I figured you pay for the novelty and atmosphere, not the quality of the fish.
Needless to say, we didn't make it here anyway.

Meanwhile, No. 1 Hiko was knocked off the list as we were literally driving over to it! I had failed to check on hours of operation before hitting the road, so I called to make sure they opened at 5 p.m.
A recording informed me Hiko is CLOSED on Saturday and Sunday!

WTF? How do they survive not serving on the weekends?
It was baffling and disappointing.

So we started our night at Echigo, located on the second floor of a rather ugly shopping center.
Our party of five walked in at 5:30 and the place was sadly EMPTY. But that meant we would get great service, even if we sat at a table to comfortably accommodate all of us.
And sure enough, everyone from the waitresses to the sushi chefs treated us VERY well.

Every piece of fish here was sublime, the quality so fresh and supreme that you can SEE it in my photos that follow.
And of course, the sushi chef(s) know the fish so well that each piece came out either unadorned to allow the fish to shine, or with a very subtle, perfect touch of ponzu or other condiment to enhance, not overwhelm or cover, the taste.

Echigo went beyond my expectation and knocked me out with its quality.
And if that wasn't enough, the pricing was incredible: all five of us ordered omakase, and the wait staff was very smart and practical - they asked if we wanted one-piece-each omakase, or a full order of two pieces for each of us.
Clearly in our situation, one piece each was plenty, and allowed us to enjoy more variety; we each ended up having about a dozen different pieces.
And the bill (including beers and tip) came out to about $40 each for the incredible meal.

I was so satisfied with Echigo that I almost called off the crawl right there. In fact, some of our party had other plans and did call it a sushi night.
But my curiosity about Sushi Zo was still strong, so Erika and I forged on.

Sushi Zo is a smaller place and it was pretty filled up, but a waitress/hostess said we could take a table for 2 for about an hour, before a party that had reserved the table came in.

Definitely sensed a snobby vibe immediately, confirmed by this sign:
I got a little excited, thinking: With all that snobbery could come some amazing cuts of fish!

Well, let me cut to the chase and say Sushi Zo disappointed me completely, and made me really see the value of comparing two places back to back in one night.

The fish was high quality at Zo, but not as sublime and out-of-this-world as at Echigo, as you'll see from the photos and descriptors that follow.
PLUS, there were the ATTITUDE and RULES that seemed misplaced here, having just had incredible sushi without snobbery at Echigo.

As noted on the sign, Zo is entirely omakase, even when you're sitting at a table, which is fine.
But there's a minimum charge - you must consume at least 8 orders. So we could only have the table for an hour, and we were full from our Echigo meal, but we weren't allowed to cut off the omakase when we were satisfied.

If the fish was as sublime as Echigo, I would have excitedly anticipated each new plate.
But as you'll see, the fish was mostly bland, and there was a very unfortunate honey-dijon situation that appalled me.

So we ended up paying $50 for about 12 orders that really were "meh" in quality - better than average sushi places, to be sure, but not as good when compared to its premium peers. I feel compelled to only give Zo a rating of 3 stars because the overall experience, while impressive for some diners, did not make me personally want to return.

This was similar to the experience I had at Ikko in Costa Mesa recently: high quality in general and a modern willingness to experiment, which I admire, but not always on the mark. And when you have to pay a lot more for the food - including the experimentation that doesn't work - it can leave a bad taste in both the mouth and mind.

Needless to say, the clear winner in the Rawfishionado West L.A. Sushi Smackdown was Echigo, rating 5 stars for unforgettable food quality/chef expertise, conscientious service and surprising affordability.

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