Sasabune: Los Angeles -- Strictly Sushi

I don't remember where I heard the first whispers of a secret sushi restaurant, tucked away on Sawtelle Boulevard in West Los Angeles. No one even knew its name; but the chef's reputation for being the Sushi Nazi was spreading through the town, fast. A friend just told me to look for a tiny neon Open sign in a window, then brace myself and enter the world of Sasabune. Trust me.


It doesn't take much to get Los Angelenos to try a new place. Just tell them it's a secret and impossible to get into, or dangerous. I am shocked that no one has opened Crips and Bloods: Fine Dining Fine Streetfighting Fusion. We kill the chickens and each other, live every night. They'd have a three-year wait list.


I had to experience the Sasabune sensation. As I turned off Santa Monica Boulevard onto Sawtelle, I noticed that the long, dark street was like Japan itself, craggy and mysterious.  Bonsai nurseries next to import shops mixed with noodle houses that had no signs. I drove slowly, found the sign, parked, looked over my shoulder, and parted the half-curtains over the doorway as I entered. I expected to see a cockfight, or interrupt a deadly round of Japanese Russian Roulette.

As my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit room, I think I startled the waitress. The sushi counter had a chunk missing, possibly bitten off by an angry Godzilla. A handwritten sign was taped to the hostess stand: No California Roll, No Spicy Tuna Roll, Don't Ask.  

I took my cheap, metal seat at the small, un-clothed table. The buildup smashed with the slum decor made me expect weird stuff, illegal sushi -- possibly endangered species, or at least something that might kill me as my tongue touched a gill or an eyeball. I glanced around and saw another sign over the sushi counter: Do you want a menu, or do you trust him?

Sasabune was my first omakase, where the chef makes what he feels is right.  I wasn't about to trust this knife-wielding man, chef Nobi Kushuhara -- he looked like a shifty murderer. I popped the menu open as a defense barrier. I could feel the ridicule from the old Japanese waitress, her silent scorn sliding from her slitted eyes, emphasized by her thick eyeliner, and accented by her thick accent. I panicked and pointed at toro, my favorite raw fish of all -- the fatty underbelly of the tuna, softer than a stolen kiss.

When the spartan melamine plate arrived, I quickly picked up the sushi deftly with my chopsticks, but some of the rice fell away, loose. As I ate it, the rice was warm. WTF?! I shot a look over at the fraud of a chef -- he was outed as an amateur, unable to accomplish the simplest trick of compact, congealed rice. I wanted to storm out, but I flinched as he screamed something in Japanese, and slammed his knife down, barely missing a diner. He indicated another sign near the entrance.

I read his printed and posted explanation that his sushi rice was warm and loose, like your friend in high school's slutty grandmother who poured you real scotch and winked, begging you to dance. This was authentic sushi -- the hard pressed rice was adopted in Japan when sushi became a fast street food, mass-produced and sold on carts. He made the decision to bring it to LA, but on his strict, old school terms.
  
Omakase style sushi can seem cruel - you eat what he makes for you and you're grateful. One time I had just hit my dining stride, enjoying the flow of plate after plate after plate -- when suddenly the next course was my check! I felt like a frustrated wife, whose husband climaxed first. I wasn't finished. You're done if I'm done, chef Nobi said as he rolled over and went to sleep
 
Smash cut to 2012: Sasabune has now moved to a slick, modern space on busy Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. I feared they would lose what made them special, Chef Nobi's bossa-nazi style.
But as soon as I walked in the new location, this message told that he was even more cruel. I was delighted.


Sasabune does it right. The dishes are served in a logical flow. First sashimi, plain, sliced rice-less fish eases you into the experience. The tender fish, courteously lubricated in a tart sauce, slides down easily.


General/Chef Nobi dispatches your next course with instructions with his waiter, his soldier, who leans down and whispers all you need to know, Skipjack in ponzu. No soy.


I credit Sasabune for my sushi education. It's a dance -- never dip your food rice side down -- it upsets the intent. Your food is fresh from the sea, and you have a responsibility. Confidently grab your partner, turn it over, and just touch the soft, fishy head gently in the sauce. Chef dictates the tradition that demands you must place the entire piece in your mouth. Take it bitch, chef Nobi mutters.

Soon you're ready for the more advanced moves. Clam, mussel, baked oyster.


I decide to bravely ask my waiter a question. Sea salt on scallop? I ask. He smiles, whispers, Pink, and leaves, possibly pleased.


If the chef wants you to know something, the waiter translates. Ask, and they will tell you the method behind the butterfish and mackerel madness -- even why you are eating what you are in this particular month, even which sea the fish came from. Oils, sauces, seeds all make sense. If the waiter tells you to lick his goddamn foot, do it -- they are your master now.


You won't feel full or want to stop. You must finish everything on the premises -- Chef Nobi doesn't allow take out (yes, there's a sign). He wants the dish eaten here and now, exactly as he desires. He is horrified that you might devour it later, standing naked in your kitchen. You disgust me, he sneers, peeking from behind your fridge.

A friend once sneaked a tuna hand-roll in his jacket pocket. When he got it safely home, he extracted it carefully, as if he were removing the funny bone from a game of Operation. I felt too guilty to enjoy it. 


This plate arrives as the chef's last command. His warm, tuna hand-roll is a snowflake work of art, hand-raised, hand-crafted, individual. If I found out what was in it, I would be killed publicly as an example, and my picture laminated on a sign and hung in example effigy.

The waiter gives me a little time to catch my breath and bask in the after-glow from this intense sushi session. The check appears, the $75 fee for each person at lunch shattering any fantastic illusion that I had mid-meal that Sasabune would be anything but an expensive hooker.
 
LA diners are fickle -- always wanting a different experience. A new crop of chefs and themes are always appearing, promising tricks never seen before in this glitzy town.

I was eating at Sasabune last week with a friend, and we were marveling at how long the reign of terror Sasabune has enjoyed. Although both us are loyalists to Chef Nobi, she leaned in close to tell me of a new place, Sushi Zo, currently being mobbed by even the literally jaded chefs at Sasabune. She jerked her pretty blonde head toward the sushi bar. The chefs here, she whispered, all go there. And the chefs there...are monsters.

Arigato. I can't wait. 
  
 Sasabune. 11917 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA  (310) 478-3596 

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for the enlightenment. I have now progressed to a new level of sushi appreciation. I think i told you about how i rolled a fresh live coho from the frigid waters of the Kenai and fell upon it with my knife to consume the worlds' freshest sushi, if not remind me and i will repeat.
    In the meanwhile, can you tell me where i can get a decent California roll?
    Love you,
    JC

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  2. LA cuisine sounds dangerous. Far from the allergen-free, locally and humanely raised fare (which we hope is also raised, prepared, and served by humanely treated workers) we favor in my fluffy bunny town. How does "you are what you eat" come into play when you eat sushi rolled by monsters?

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