12400 Wilshire Blvd. | West Los Angeles, CA 90025 | 310-820-7240 | marusantamonica.com | Prices: $$$
Story and Photos by MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer
Forget that Steve Martin comedy, Maru is the true LA story. After all, only in Los Angeles does a local chef of Korean descent excel at Japanese and French cuisine under one roof.
Indeed, Chef Jeff Park’s kitchen is a dynamo, equally adept at delivering high-end sushi or Parisian cuisine that is aesthetically pleasing to the eye and palate. Make that “and” not “or” as the nigiri and the French entrées here go very well together.
Located on a busy stretch of Wilshire Boulevard in West Los Angeles at the Santa Monica border, Maru was originally located in Valencia before relocating to LA’s Westside, occupying the ground-floor office building space that was previously home to renowned sushi house Sasabune (parent restaurant of local eatery Sushi Don on Monument Street).
After a false start in 2013, Maru went black for a stretch while being refurbished, then resurfaced a half-year ago to rave reviews, topping many “best new restaurant” lists.
The acclaim is not unwarranted.
On the sushi side, Maru offers handsome cut rolls such as Negi Toro Cut Roll ($15), a very hospitable spread of bluefin tuna belly morsels with scallions that tastes fresh and bright and generously accommodates a few sips of sake.
Other cut rolls include the Snow Crab ($13), Salmon Avocado ($9.50) and Spicy Tuna and Yellowtail (each $9.50)—all familiar to Angeleno foodies. But there is also the inventive Spicy Tuna Meatball Cut Roll ($16) and Anago Avocado Cut Roll ($9) made of Conger eel.
To transition between bites, I ordered a carafe of tasty Takatenjin (“soul of the sensei”) ($28), one of the many cold sake available here (this restaurant does not serve hot sake).
An array of single-piece delicacies here delivers: Wild Hirame ($6) is a scrumptious bite of fluke. I also tried two varieties of premium Spanish mackerel nigiri: Shima Aji ($5) comprised of trevally and Seki Saba ($6.50), both imported from Japan. The former appears seared but has a nice broad taste. The latter, a salted, lightly marinated mackerel, tastes tighter, with its fish hailing from Japan’s Kyushu island. The silver-backed Toro Aji ($6.50) is fishier, more tender and absolutely amazing.
In another direction, try Wild Shake Toro ($5), a Canadian salmon belly morsel that is oilier (in the good sense, not as in greasy) and more faintly salmon-tasting than most salmon sushi.
Surume Ika ($3) packs a wasabe-coated punch to the chewy East Coast-imported squid proceedings.
Personally, it wouldn’t be a complete sushi experience for me without eel. The Ike Anago ($6.50), a piece of Japanese Conger, melts in your mouth.
While a few bites of sushi and sashimi may make for great appetizers, not to be overlooked are what Maru calls “The First Steps:” Chef Park’s delicious menu of salads. Sword Lettuce Salad ($13) spotlights a prosciutto de parma-stuffed fertile runny egg atop a bed of Romaine-related lettuce. Admittedly, it is not something that I would have ordered without some coaxing.
As it is a favorite of Chef Park’s, however, I took the risk and the gamble paid off. The combination is a winning alchemy of savory tastes.
Another triumphant amalgam is the oven-roasted Broccoli & Cauliflower ($12), a colorful and compatible combination of textures bathed in a pungent Japanese curry vinaigrette that is not overly spicy. If you’re not in the mood for greens, order Leek & Potato Soup ($10).
Maru considers its entrées “The Journey” and there is indeed much adventure to experience. On the Japanese side, consider Udon ($14), a thick heap of wheat noodles with Japanese mountain vegetables and dashi.
Steak connoisseurs may crave the two sizes of New York Prime ($45; $75), Skirt Steak ($23) or sake-soy braised Short Ribs ($22) with Yukon gold fries, baby carrots and parsley.
Seafood lovers will not be adrift here either, given two varieties of Alaskan Black Cod (each $25) and Scallop Risotto ($22), the fish seared medium over oven-roasted tomato risotto in a verjus-olive broth.
However, consider boldly plunging into the outstanding Pork in Puff Pastry ($21). While the name might sound clumsy, this dish is anything but: a large, flaky, buttery pastry shell stuffed with braised shoulder that has a shredded, pulled-pork texture, covered in gooey melted Gruyere.
This whole affair, topped with roasted local asparagus and doused with jus, handily encapsulates Maru’s French side.
Dessert (a.k.a. “Complete the Circle”) is also an area where Maru expresses its European flair with a good range of Tarts ($6)—from strawberry mixed berry to almond and caramel chocolate to lemon meringue. There is also Ice Cream (prices vary) and Cheesecake ($9).
Trust me, though, the way to go is Chef Park’s Chocolate Bread Pudding ($9), a rich volcano of Valrhona semi-sweet (a French chocolate made near Lyon since 1922) and Tahitian vanilla ice cream that demands to be paired with a cup of espresso ($4; from the “And Finally…” section). It takes 15 minutes to be baked to order, but you’ll be decadently rewarded for the wait.
Stately and expansive, Maru offers a vast space where diners can’t really complain, because whether you choose to sit at the handsome booths, the sushi bar, the alcohol bar or at a table, there is plenty of elbow space.
This is not one of those confining, crowded environments. The ambiance is nice and the service is top-notch.
And while Maru’s menu divisions might come off as a pretentious move, what Chef Park has constructed here is indeed a worthy culinary adventure. So take the journey and complete the circle.