“We’re just watching you; this is better than Survivor.”
The two men and single woman sitting at the end of the bar to my right had a point, I thought. After all, I had eaten many strange things in my line of travel work – semi-poisonous blowfish, octopus with mayonnaise and fried batter, the smelly durian of Thailand – but had yet to encounter one of the true tests for the seafood connoisseur: the eyeballs. Morishita-san looked at me with anticipation, standing beside the somewhat ignorant trio and probably half expecting me to act like the foreigners she must have read about in Manga, who gag on tako, avoid sushi bars like the plague, and never try to expand their palette when it comes to ordering omakase from a seasoned chef.
Not wanting to disappoint my audience, I raised the chopsticks with my right hand, the small grey dish with my left, and popped in the fish eye without a second to lose.
I didn’t really frequent sushi shops during my years in Japan. For some newbies to the land of the rising sun, this may hardly be surprising. After all, the average “foreigner out of water” tends to stick to comfortable foods, and thinks of raw fish on rice as something exotic reserved for the natives.
When I was living in New Zealand and running on fumes as far as my Japanese experience was concerned, I poured over texts on expats teaching English with the JET Program, which eventually led me to a reference to Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi and quite the authority when it came to obtaining that most coveted of experiences (for sushi connoisseurs, anyway): an authentic Japanese omakase (“please decide for me”) meal from a Japanese sushi chef, with the nigiri packed loosely and the soy sauce tucked away, completely unnecessary for this direction in dining.
So what would you do if you learned of an author whose book you liked? Naturally, you’d Google him, discover his Twitter account, and send him a message letting him know your appreciation of his fine research, and how it has affected your life for the better. This I did. And also, I started eating sushi. Lots of sushi. From Blue Fish in Dallas to Tanuki’s Cave in Auckland, I learned to see the different styles of sushi chefs, notice the quality of the fish they brought in, and determine who could provide the best dining experience for me as a quasi-Japanese eater. Corson was spot on about the most important thing: you can spot a good sushi chef by how clean he keeps his station (no other bits of food getting mixed in with the fish or rice).
But despite everywhere I ate, no place could live up to the promise of what Corson said was available to the average American willing to shell out a few bucks: good Japanese sushi as the chef decides. Enter Little Tokyo, a district in Los Angeles that is probably the closest one can get to Japan without flying into Narita: sushi bars, grocery stores… I understand they even have a few decent hostess bars, though it’s perfectly understandable them not wanting to advertise to the general public (what layman would believe beautiful Japanese girls are only available for conversation?) Combine that with a business trip out west, and I had my solution to the penultimate sushi problem; I would contact Corson for recommendations on the best, most authentic, sushi restaurant run by Japanese in Little Tokyo, have my omakase night, and leave with my stomach swimming with sake (酒) and sake (鮭).
Sushi Go 55 is owned and operated by the Morishita family, who have been running sushi establishments in LA since the 1950’s. Amazing; only ten years after Japanese-Americans were being held in work camps following World War II, some Morishita in Japan was planning to move to the states to start a business. The chef I spoke with at Sushi Go 55 has been in the US for thirty years.
But I digress: THE OMAKASE. I navigated my way through downtown LA to arrive… in what appeared to be a regular shopping mall at the outskirts of Little Tokyo. No mistake; Sushi Go 55 was just two short escalator rides and one noren curtain away. Having never been there or met anyone in person, I responded with my best Japanese to the hostess:
“Morishita-san ga imas ka?”
“Ohhh, she may have gone home for the night. Please wait a moment.”
Ohhh, I sure hope she didn’t. I had had to contact Corson to put me in touch with Eji Morishita, son of the owners, and arrange a time to meet this Tuesday night. If she didn’t show, I would have to explain to the chef exactly what kind of omakase I wanted, and I certainly didn’t trust my fading Japanese skills to that level. Not to mention apologizing to Eji for failing to meet his mother and enjoy the sushi she was offering to arrange. No siree.
No worries, though, as she appeared from the kitchen after only a minute or so. Going through the formal introductions (giving her one of my few remaining genuine meishi), we made small talk about why I wanted such good sushi, and how I was willing to try whatever she would throw my way. Here it is, my experience, dish by dish:
Your standard-issue salmon sashimi, although, even in my excited state, I swear this fish was more delicious than any other salmon I had eaten. Merely an appetizer.
Cooked Uni and Mussels
I’ve had uni (sea urchin). I really don’t care for it. It’s still not my favorite, but cooking or searing it makes it far more desirable in my book.
Sashimi Platter: Toro, Maguro, Tai
Ahhh…. toro. The fatty bluefin tuna. The most expensive and delicious fish of them all. Toro is usually listed in sushi restaurants next to the letters “MP”, meaning “market price”. If you have to ask, you won’t want to spend it. Even an order of two toro nigiri can be over $20.
An egg dish filled with vegetables. I seldom ate chawanmushi in Japan (or eggs, for that matter), but found this little dish to be surprisingly tasty.
Eggs are usually a good test of a sushi chef’s cooking ability; sure, many can cut fish properly, but prepare tamago to the epitome of sweetness and filling? That takes skill.
My first stage of nigiri after nigiri began with yellowtail with a dash of salt and seasoned with lemon juice; both accentuated the flavor perfectly
I wasn’t exactly sure of the proper etiquette between dishes in an omakase order: should I ask for the next dish, or would that make me appear rushed and greedy? Any sushi bar worth its weight will present you with a geta, the wooden platform on which to place ginger and wasabi to use with the piece of sushi. Thereupon the chef will lower dish after dish until you declare “ippai!”
Ahhh, the mackerel. I didn’t know what this was at first, and my stomach was already bulging from the 15+ pieces of delectable fish.
Red snapper with hot mustard.
I think that brings us back to the eyeballs. Appropriately after such a large serving, I declared I was too full to continue, requested the okanjou, and devoured the palette-cleansing pickled plum. The end of meals in American-based Japanese-run sushi restaurants has always been confusing for me: should I tip? These are Japanese people, therefore tipping is annoying and insulting. But…. these are Japanese people working on American wages, which require tips, so therefore tipping must be welcome. Well, the latter is correct, but I didn’t discover that until Morishita-san “reminded” me with a friendly verbal nudge.
And overall? A great Japanese experience in the heart of Los Angeles. Sushi Go 55 is the way to go. Check out Sai’s review too.
Total Price Tag: $70 + tip