1345 2nd St.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer
Revered and ever-popular, the iconic SUGARFISH by sushi nozawa is easy to take for granted.
In fact, if these classical, regional Japanese restaurants feel like they’ve been around much longer than their 12 years, it may be because it’s coat-tailing on the years-long reputation of legendary Los Angeles chef Kazunori Nozawa.
SUGARFISH embodies the sushi chef’s philosophy, as the Japanese native earned an outstanding reputation and loyal devotion for his meticulous quality standards at Sushi Nozawa, the independent sushi bar he operated in Studio City from 1987 through 2012.
With 50-plus years of experience and early training with master chefs in Tokyo and throughout Japan, Nozawa, upon arriving to Los Angeles, redefined the sushi experience by utilizing the best fish sourced from around the world atop and within warm, loosely packed rice and crisp nori.
Arguably Nozawa’s biggest fan was former technology executive Jerry Greenberg, who became so smitten with Nozawa’s Studio City raw-fish hive, he entered the restaurant business solely because of him.
After he and the esteemed Nozawa became fast friends, Greenberg—with four partners and Nozawa—launched the first SUGARFISH in Marina del Rey in 2008. Four years later, by the time Sushi Nozawa shuttered, several more SUGARFISH locations had popped up and another one went into the former Sushi Nozawa space in Studio City (and is still thriving).
Today, there are 11 SUGARFISH restaurants in Los Angeles, plus two in Manhattan.
The menu offers several packages with featured sushi groupings, such as the “Trust Me” and “Trust Me Lite.”
However, I opted for the “Don’t Think. Just Eat.” menu, which I am told most closely resembles the omakase stylings (in which the chef serves you his choices) at Nozawa’s original Studio City location.
The details of this menu also change from week to week, depending on what’s fresh and in season, so in a way, it’s like a prix fixe omakase menu.
Starting out with the obligatory bowl of edamame and a scrumptious Tuna Sashimi, my first plate of nigiri (fish on rice; two pieces each) on my journey featured Albacore Tuna, Bluefin Toro and Salmon Kombu (salmon from Northern Europe, served with kombucha-type seaweed).
This foundational plate proved a solid launch to what turned out to be a fresh, consistent and delectable lunch experience. All tasted high end, but I was particularly taken by the subtle savory excellence of the bluefin belly meat.
Next arrived a familiar favorite—the Toro Hand Roll. Tube-like in a seaweed scroll and layered with palate-pleasing delight, this handroll resembled the amazing ones I had at sister restaurant and handroll specialist, KazuNori (owned by the same parent restaurant group).
Nigiri plate number two (two pieces each) on my menu featured Kampachi, a sea bream with shiso (New Zealand sea bream served over a mint leaf, which gives the seafood a terrific counterpoint), and the Pink Lobster, which eponymous crustacean meat also comes from New Zealand.
If it’s another handroll you crave, don’t worry—Don’t Think. Just Eat. has got your back, because out arrived another one—Lobster Hand Roll, which went very well dipped in my small mix of soy sauce and wasabi.
As part of my menu package, I also got the Anago Nigiri, a pair of saltwater eel morsels sourced from the China Sea and served here with a leisurely eel sauce. As a lover of eel, this offering proved the perfect Don’t Think. Just Eat. climax. Translation: If you’re an eel lover like me, it’s not going to taste any better than the bites offered here.
Outside of the Don’t Think. Just Eat. construct, I ordered the Ankimo, a monkfish liver served Nozawa Bar-style (the company’s Michelin-star Beverly Hills destination) as sashimi with miso sauce and chives.
I also asked for Uni (sea urchin), which is culled from the Santa Barbara coast. Normally, I probably would not opt for some uni, but I’m so glad I went outside of my comfort zone, as you will taste a next-level freshness and flavor here.
All of this seafood and seaweed paired very well with a small bottle of house-brand cold sake.
If the quality food is your only concern, SUGARFISH passes with flying colors. However, the restaurant does not stop there: It also matches its menu with very competent and informed service people and a relaxing atmosphere, courtesy of Studio DEX, which created the architectural and interior flourishes.
The 42-seat Santa Monica eatery, for example, sports a minimalist, serene decor that echoes the cinematic scope of an authentic sushi house in Japan.
Whether you’re discovering it for the first time or, like me, are re-discovering its ample charms all over again (several years ago, I dined at the Calabasas location), SUGARFISH by sushi nozawa will not disappoint. So don’t take it for granted any longer.
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